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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.

July 15, 2018, 8th Sunday after Pentecost, PR 10 YR B

Year B, 8th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 10
July 15, 2018
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was

 

“See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel…”

Last week we talked about evangelism.  I think I was gentle enough.  I didn’t get any irate emails.  We talked about how to do it, how to spread the Word, namely subtly, Episcopalian-y, showing the love of Christ with a pinch of the Jesus-ness in your own life.  Do I hear an AMEN?  And we touched on the why, why we need to spread the word.  With a world where our closest ally greets our president with a three-story tall inflated and diapered effigy, we all, that includes the cultured despisers here in South Eugene, we all could use as much of the light and love of Jesus Christ as we can get.  Today I want to talk a little more in detail about what it actually is that we, that the church, that faith in our Lord Jesus Christ can bring to the world.  We need to spread the word.  We agreed on that last week.  What is it that we have to offer that is so desperately needed… that is our topic for today.  Because I get that question all the time.  Why should someone come to church?  What do I tell people?  What do I say that we have to offer that is different than, say, ecstatic dance at the WOW hall?

We really have only one thing to offer… a direct path to the love of God in Christ with the Holy Spirit.  Not the only path, but a path, our path, which is as fine and direct a path to right relationship with the ground of being as there is.  That relationship is what we traffic in; nothing more, nothing less.  What you experience when you receive that bread and wine, when you are carried with your neighbor in the hymn or the anthem or the silence, when your heart breaks open, even just a teeny-tiny bit when we pray or kneel in the confession…  that is the transcendent God breaking immanently into your life.  But how to explain that to your friends over latte’s at the Hideaway???

Our stock answer is: Great is the mystery of faith!  That really is the answer because the nature of a relationship with God is generally indescribable besides perhaps with the word Love, and try to define that.  A relationship with God means as many things as there are people in relationship with God.  And some of us have multiple relationships, or multiple variations of relationships with That Which Is.  Who you are, what you need, what you have to offer, that is the foundation of your relationship with God, and much of that changes with the changing seasons of our lives.  That is just to say that the heart of our faith, our relationship with God in God’s self, is mysterious, ineffable.  It is often not explicable or reasonable or logical (nor does it need to be), and it is certainly not reducible to utilitarian terms.

But that kind of open ended abstraction is soup so thick that to many of the uninitiated, the unchurched or the damaged by church or led by church in directions that didn’t resonate or ring true, those kind of descriptions can seem impenetrable or inaccessible, or just unimportant or irrelevant.  “I have no idea what are you talking about.  (Nor do I care).”  Is a common reaction.  So are blank stares, or eye rolls of “you idiot.”

So what do we have to offer to someone who doesn’t recognize the need for a relationship with the divine, and maybe has a fine network of relationships, is immersed in community, or isn’t interested in (or is even disdainful of) the sweet opiate of the masses?  You know, most of our neighbors, 78% of whom, third lowest in the nation, do not have religious homes.  What do we have for them?

Here is a short list that I came up with:

  • Singing together. Where else do you get a chance to do that?
  • Intentional silence, and more powerfully, intentional silence together, regularly.
  • Truly intergenerational community, life-span community, cradle to grave community
  • Continuity with an ancient heritage, the heritage of most of our ancestors
  • A wholesome, positive place for children to receive their cultural inheritance as well as a moral grounding.
  • Karen’s Cookies.
  • A time to face the same direction together, ritually acting together much like folks have done for as long as there have been people, and not just for entertainment’s sake.
  • Learning about ourselves, the inner life, the world in different contexts
  • A place for comfort and refuge. Solace and strength.  Pardon and renewal.
  • It makes your mom happy.
  • It is good for you. Like the gym or kale, might not be you favorite thing at first, but it is good for you and once you get used to the good stuff, it is hard to go back.
  • Church goers live longer. (That’s actually true).

What did I miss?  What are other good reasons to go to church?  ___ That is all good stuff.  And again, as there are infinite ways relationships with God manifest, there are infinite reasons to go to church, many of them good.

Today, this season in history, there is an even more pressing reason than usual for going to church.  O, don’t get me wrong, it has been bad for a long time.  Yes, the sky is falling right now: that is true.  It is also true that the sky has been falling for a very, very long time, maybe even continuously, perpetually falling.  But you read the news: immigrant children in detention, decrying the WHO over breastfeeding????  That baby balloon over London sums it up: the sky is falling faster and harder right now than it has in at least a generation.  Our readings today, from the Prophet Amos and from St. Mark the Evangelist illustrate a key, and not often enough exercised reason for or benefit of going to church: the religious capacity and imperative to speak truth to power.  That alone is a reason to go to church, to acquire the grounding, the religiously informed moral and ethical grounding to speak truth to power.

Think Dr. King.  Archbishops Tutu and Romero.  Gandhi.  Dorothy Day.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  St. Paul.  They did what they did, endured what they endured because their witness was grounded in the truth of Jesus Christ.  It was not just their opinion, their will, but a witness of the Truth conditioned by an historical faith in the context of an intentional, loving community.  That is powerful medicine, maybe as powerful a medicine there is for a sin sick world such as ours.

Let’s take a look at Amos.  He was a prophet.   He was not a professional prophet or son of a professional prophet, not clergy (i.e. not beholden to a class identity or a career path). God plucked him out of Judah and plopped him in the court of Jeroboam to speak the truth.  His presence was disagreeable to Amaziah, the king’s priest (who was very much beholden to the powers that be and that be the ones who wrote his paycheck and allowed his head to remain attached to his body).  But Amos didn’t care, he was sent by God, “See,” God said to him, “I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel.”

This is a plumb line.  A plumb line provides a reference point.  What does it refer to?  A known point, in the case of an actual plumb line, the absolute center of the earth.  It draws a straight line from wherever you hold it to the center of our planet. Inerrantly.  Always.  Everywhere.  (Except maybe the Mystery Spot near Santa Cruz, but that is a different sermon).

This alone is a reason to go to church.  A reference point.  That is what having a religious life can provide.  A reference point.  That is what sharing a universe of faith with your brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, strangers, intimates, friends in Christ all of them, the dead, the now living, and the ones who will follow us.  A reference point.  A known point from which you can locate yourself in relation to everything else.

Our foundational reference point is Jesus Christ.  He is the Cornerstone.  The Word, God became flesh and dwelt among us.  In that act, the transcendent became immanent, the ineffable became effable, the abstract became actual.  The Christ event placed a reference point to the eternal and actual in the temporal soup of time and space.  In that particular time and place, God intersected with this realm and from that point, that reference point, we can locate ourselves in the universe.  Once you know that “He is there”, then you can begin to discern “I am here.”  You can begin to determine where you are in relation to God via Christ in the Holy Spirit, not temporally so much, but spiritually, morally.  Religiously, knowing where you are means knowing where you are in relation to God, more specifically, with the will of God.  That is knowing where you are in relation to what is right and what is wrong.  Not what is acceptable at this point in time, but what is right and wrong, good and evil.  Original sin means we have a choice between doing right or wrong.  (Maddeningly, we can intentionally choose wrong).   Timshel, we may choose one path instead of another.  Thanks be to God, original sin is tempered by the God given ability to discern right from wrong.  Again, thanks be to God because we have a lot of choices to make, constantly.  Who to vote for. Or whether you need that thing you want to buy or just want to buy it.  Or if you should take to the streets, or boycott a corporate evil-doer, or work to resist an evil government or at least evil governmental policies.  Or the other important things like remembering to be kind to the jerks in your life, be patient with the frustrating, forgiving of the trespassers.  Those are fruits of a reference point.

A reference point is something outside of, not subject to the power of the object at hand.  It points true like a compass.  Polaris, the North Star.  Amos the plumb line.  It is not up to you to interpret, or you, or me.  That is north.  That is straight down.  There is an objective nature to a plumb line.

Jesus Christ is our plumb line.  He dwelt among us.  We have an agreed upon memory recorded in the Gospels.  We have our own experience of grace in and by and through Him.  But from there… it can get pretty subjective.  We are human.  But what we have in Jesus Christ, in the two thousand years of Christian revelation and experience of Him, in a shared gospel in the context of a larger shared narrative trajectory and shared traditions, that absolute reference point of God entering this world becomes accessible to us, usable to us, becomes a reference point outside of ourselves.  You and you and you and me and all the folks at church downtown this morning, and in Portland and Texas and New England and St. Petersburg and Rome and Damascus and Lagos, in every flavor and language and key, coming from all those different angels… we intersect at that central reference point which helps us find our place, our center; it is the plumb line that points to the heart of God.

So when we read Romans, we can cross reference with St. Augustine who read and wrote about Romans 1600 years ago.  Or when we read the Law in Deuteronomy, we read the same words Solomon did, and St. Thomas Aquinas, and Luther and Jesus.  That is some continuity.  We might not all agree with what x means, but at least we are all talking about x.  (That is one of the great utilities of the Creeds.  The fact that Christians around the world refer to those same words week in, week out, regardless of what you, we, they believe it means, that we are talking about, engaging the same thing, that is part of what makes us us)!

OK, a reference point: how does this allow us to speak truth to power?   It is very simple.  We can authentically, responsibly speak truth to power only and precisely because we have access to truth. It is not our truth, but it is Truth with a capital “T.”  Religion, religious faith, shared religious practice in historical continuity and the shared reference point outside of ourselves allows us access to Truth.  That reference point is the cornerstone of a firm foundation that allows us to speak actual Truth to power.  Be it the principalities and powers of this world, or the power of our own precious if not pig-headed opinions, our own propensity to take the easy path, or our own tendency to serve our own interests over those of the commonwealth God has blessed us with.  If you have a spot in the cosmos that you can get footing, you can bend your knees slightly, feet shoulder-width apart, balanced…  You are grounded in truth.  You are imperishable.

Now this is not the only way to Truth, but it is a way, and gathered here on a Sunday morning, as God’s people, citizens of the divine Commonwealth, it is our way.  Everyone needs a way.

St. John the Baptist found his footing in the waters of the Jordan, god touched him and filled him with the Word in no uncertain terms.  From that, in the community that gathered around him, Jesus came.  The heavens opened up over them and the spirit descended and God spoke. As muddy and slow (not mighty and cold as the hymn says) the Jordan was, John the Baptizer knew for certain where he was in relation to everything and everyone else, including God and Christ and the Holy Spirit. And located, he told it like it is.  He told Herod that marrying his brother’s wife was wrong.  He told everyone to repent, to change the directions of their lives because He was coming, the Word made flesh, and an accounting was due.  And he knew he was angering the powers that be, but knowing the truth as he did, as you can, what choice did he have?

And it was so clear that he had the truth.  A sure sign was that even though Herod had imprisoned him, “…Herod feared him, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him.” (From the wicked Herodius, that is). But the power of John’s truth is made clearest in the next sentence.  “When he (Herod) heard him, he was perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.”  Even evil kings know the genuine article when they see it.

Going to church, surrendering to spiritual forces beyond yourself, facing, trying to face it the same direction as your neighbors in this place and in similarly east facing places all over the world over the course of the past two thousand years, you have access to Truth.  Your feet can be placed as firmly as John’s in the Jordan, as Amos’ in Jeroboam’s court, as Day’s in the Bowery or Romero’s at the altar or Gandhi’s at the spinning wheel.  Because in church, in Christ, it is not about us, not about me or you, but it is about all the Is in the world in relationship with Thou, with you, O Lord.  And the matrix of all of those relationships here, between all those Is in relation to that Thou, in there is the truth that will set us and the whole world free.  That is what we have to offer here at Church.  That is why you should spread the word.   That sort of thing, sells itself, you just need to tell people about it.  Do I hear an AMEN?  AMEN

 

July 8, 2018, 7th Sunday after Pentecost YR B

Year B, 7th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 9
July 8, 2018
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was

 

“So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent.”

What is the church?  It is a relationship.  It all flows from the Trinity, that swirling cloud of begetting and becoming, of pure and perfect love shared in the persons of the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer of life and love itself.  The church exists between that God and each one of us, individually as each of us individually knows God.  It exists between each other, you to me, you to you, us to ya’ll.  And then collectively, this ecclesia, this beloved community has its own particular relationship with God, guided by our tradition, our affiliation with a larger church, our Bishop, our ancestors, that great cloud of witnesses from ages past, and of course by the particular if not peculiar collection of souls gathered here in this very moment.  All of that knits together as the Body of Christ, the Church with the big “C”.  We are the church.  You are the church.

Our selection from St. Mark’s Gospel today is about a lot of things; one of those things is about being the church in the world, we, disciples of Jesus Christ being empowered by Him to take the Good News straight from His heart and spread it wide and far.  It is right there in the text.  After Jesus’ less than satisfactory experience in His hometown, He went out teaching in the nearby villages.  Right away, He called the 12 and began sending them out “…two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits.”  And then He gave some basic instructions on how to do that, what to wear, what to bring, how to accept hospitality (and what to do when it runs out).  “So,” St. Mark writes, “they went out and proclaimed that all should repent.”  (They also cast out some demons and healed some folks).

Well now, that is some pretty early precedence for you all, the people of the church, to get out there and do God’s work in the world in the name of God: by exorcising and healing, (which can be taken for good works in the name of Christ), and by spreading the word.  Do you know the church word for that?  Evangelizing.

What does the word “evangelism” mean?  _______   Succinctly, it means telling the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  (Gospel is Greek for Good News). Evangelism doesn’t mean recruiting, or converting, or convincing or selling anything, it means telling the Good News of Jesus Christ, telling others about the God that you know, and how your life has been (and theirs could maybe be) made better by that relationship.

Some folks will flat out say “I don’t believe in evangelism.”  Well, you just need to get over that, because what most thing is evangelism isn’t the full story.  Remember, each of us is here because at some point, someone evangelized us or an ancestor, and not always at the point of a spear.  We are products of evangelism.  Yes of course, evangelism has earned a very bad rap, and not undeservedly.  We’ve all been accosted by folks in sandwich boards at the farmer’s market, or earnest people knocking on our door at inopportune times.  But just because other people do it wrong or at least not how we would ever consider doing it, doesn’t mean that the whole concept is corrupted.  Evangelism is our word, and practice, too.  We must not cede it.  What is next, do we become ashamed of the word Christian?  No.  It is something we promise to do in our baptismal covenant and more importantly, I truly believe that the fate of the world rests in part in the good and loving news of Jesus Christ getting out there, changing people, helping them.  Helping them to see that their individual interests are not more important that our collective interests.  Helping them to see that love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, you know, the fruits of the spirit, are important, are the most important qualities to have and practice. Look round, collectively, our moral compass is off.  We need, NEED to join together around beautiful, good, love-filled things.  Like God in Christ with the Holy Spirit and God’s people joined together to discern and do God’s will in the world.  Evangelism is about helping people come into relationship with that loving God, that gracious Christ, that all embracing Holy Spirit, and into relationship with others who also seek a relationship with the ground of being itself.  That is all very good news.  Evangelism is sharing that good news.  If you believe that that is what we are up to here, seriously, how could you hide it under a bushel?  How could you not share it?

Okay.  Most of my friends live in South Eugene.  I know lots of reasons why we don’t share it.  But we need to reframe that.  (Maybe this is like the thorn in the side that Paul is talking about.  The discomfort we feel in sharing our faith is maybe good for us).  We need to evangelize not because the big “C” Church will die if we don’t spread the word (though it will).  We need to evangelize, but not because this church will wither slowly away and die, or not make budget and have to cut staff if we don’t grow even more than we are growing (though that is true, we’re closing a 10% gap with savings that will run out).  The church is not the end.  It is a sloppy means to an end.  We need to evangelize, to spread the Good News, because our world in this unstable, acrimonious moment, can go a lot of ways.  Some possible futures are good, some are distinctly not.  We need more people immersed in, or at least exposed to the Love of Jesus Christ and the moral heart that enlivens and guides your life so that 1. They can better weather the storms that are coming; and 2. Can maybe get out in front those storms, can be loving, compassionate solvers of problems, resolvers of conflict, lovers of souls.   There are not many places in the world that you hear that kind o message.  Don’t you wish more of our public officials heard these sermons every Sunday?  Tasted the redeeming body and blood of Jesus Christ around this table in this community?  Saw the children joyously marching into the sanctuary into God’s and our loving arms?  Wouldn’t that help the world be better? And if you think so, don’t you think you should tell people about it?  I’ve got sandwich boards out front, be sure to take one when you leave.

We have something really good here that is worth sharing.  No, it is not right for everyone, but it’s kind of presumptuous to decide for someone else what is good for them or not, isn’t it?  Can we agree that it is good to spread the love of God in the world, and even to invite others into that love.  OK?  The question is how.  This is South Eugene after all.

The Rev. Canon Steve Bonsey was one of my priests at the cathedral in Boston.  He wrote a wonderful little pamphlet called “A Shy Person’s Guide to the Practice of Evangelism.”  I borrow from it liberally in this sermon.  He really hits Episcopal reluctance to evangelize on the head.  Challenging us to thing evangelically, he writes, “Let’s pretend that you are someone who might be willing, in theory, at some point, possibly, to consider maybe doing something that, while not “evangelism” –type evangelism, still could be in some way construed as a sort of sharing of hope.  Kind of.” Can you see yourself in there at all?  According to Fr. Steve, it is estimated that the average Episcopalian invites someone to church once ever 27 years!  And he pleads with us, “Friends, with the grace of God and a little self-confidence, we can cut this figure in half!”  Twenty-seven years is tongue and cheek, but you get the point.  And when was the last time you invited someone?

The starting point in that pamphlet for doubling the invitation rate to once every 13 ½ years is a three-step process.  Step 1.  Love God.  Step 2.  Love your neighbor.  Step 3. Think about getting the two of them together.  That’s it.  That is evangelism.  That is spreading the good news.  Nothing more.  Nothing less.

But how do you do that?  It can feel hard, invasive, even.  The gospel, that’s about faith.  My faith is personal, thank you very much.  It is private.  We get along here precisely because we don’t talk about such things; that’s Fr. Brent’s job.  I don’t know, that doesn’t ring true.

As I said above, the church is relationship, loving relationship.  That is what we have to offer and that is what we are inviting people into.  The doctrine, the teachings, the Bible and Mass and all of that, like Archbishop Rowan Williams tells us, that comes later, that’s the form, not the content.  The content is the relational universe revealed in Jesus Christ.  And that really does sell itself. The form, no, its not for everyone, but you would be amazed what people acclimate to when what is at the end of the rainbow is so very, very good like what we have here.  But you still need to say something, and a lot of us are very uncomfortable talking about our faith, we might not even know what we believe.  But that is ok.  You don’t need to know what you believe to be a good and honest Christian, or to invite someone to come and see what the good news is all about.  So here are a few gentle steps suggested by Fr Steve to begin to spread the good news.

So you know someone, or you meet someone that maybe you’d like to go to church with, or you sense could use some of the medicine the church has to offer.  The first thing you need to do is establish a relationship that has the first inklings of Jesus in it.  So how about asking how someone is, how they are right now.   Maybe say, “How are you doing?” (And want to know).   You may already know them very well, family level of knowing, and know that they have things going on, or maybe they are a co-worker that you don’t know, or someone at the gym, or a parent at school.  Whomever.  The point is, evangelism starts by making a caring connection.  Make it clear that you know them and love them for their own sake.  That’s how God loves us, right?  That is very, very good news that everyone wants to feel.  And if it goes no further than that, that is totally fine.  The Gospel has been spread!

That’s it, opening relationship.  As a relationship develops, do as relationships do, go a little deeper.  Tell them that you’ll pray for them.  (If you will).  Don’t do it in some pious or self-righteous way, but just tell people you will hold their joys and concerns and bring them to the God you know and love.  I say that all the time to the most unlikely characters, unchurched, seemingly unchurchable, and the reaction is uniformly positive.  Don’t you like it when someone say that to you?

Another passive or gentle evangelism technique is to follow Bruce Sedgwick’s lead and make proper and frequent use of the word “AMEN.”  Anything can become a prayer when capped with a heartfelt Amen, a wish, a hope, a concern a belief.  Churching it up a bit makes helps to demonstrate that God’s attention is everywhere.  It contextualizes it and you in relation to your faith and your practice of your faith.

Another minor linguistic move Fr. Steve suggests is to substitute the idiom “Thank God!” with the slightly more formal “Thanks be to God!”  That tiny change can really bring attention to what is actually being said, “God is revealed and praised as the One who has acted.”

That’s it.  That is the practice of evangelism.  Initiating relationships in the context of your faith.  Now in my experience, you start putting subtle church stuff out there (and don’t worry, what we Episcopalians have to offer is pretty subtle), people are curious.  “Hey, I like this person.  Never would have pegged them as a Christian.  Hmm…”  or “Wow, what a nice guy.  He’s gonna pray for me?  Hmm…”  Or “Resurrection?  The church with the tiny houses?  They put their money where their mouths are.  Hmm…”  It’ that “Hmmm…” that you’re looking for.  Hmmm…  It all starts there.  My journey into Christ was very much “Hmm…” led as I first encountered the Eucharist.  “I don’t know what is going on here, but hmmmm…”  That doesn’t sound so bad, does it?

Now there are some do’s and don’ts that Fr Steve suggests that I think are helpful.

On the Don’t side, you might not want to say

  • You are a sinner condemned to hell – unless you take advantage of this limited time offer.
  • You look wayward and lost. I bet you could use a church community.
  • Our church is tolerant of all kinds. Even people like you!
  • They told me to invite someone to church and you are the only person I could think of who isn’t busy on Sundays.
  • Church would be less boring if you were there. (That is actually not bad).
  • And if someone does come and check us out, you might not want to accost them in the coffee line with a “vampire” statement: “Are you new?    The vestry could use some new blood.  Are you a money person?”

On the do side, here are some suggestions:

  • Wow, you are a tenor! Our choir would love you.
  • You do so much for others. Do you have a place you go to be fed?
  • You always ask the tough questions. You’d be great at our adult ed classes.
  • That’s a lovely iguana. Have you ever been to a blessing of the animals?
  • Or one quite relevant right now. The Bishop Michael Curry, you know, from the wedding, the Episcopal church – been in the news a lot recently.  What do you think?

None of those things sound too hard to say, do they?  There is no  creepy-Christian vibe there, is there?  They seem to me to be about what we do here and what folks need, even if they haven’t considered that they need it.

Fr. Steve sums it up with the very simple statement, “Evangelism is the sharing of a precious gift.”  I believe that the Church of the Resurrection, this constellation of relationships is precious gift.  You are here for some reason, and likely it is a very good one.  Others have reasons too.  And I don’t know about you, but I didn’t know that Resurrection existed until someone told me about it.  Most don’t know that churches like this exist anywhere, where hearts and minds not only can be open, but are basically required to be for admittance.

So I encourage you to begin to sort of consider that maybe you possibly could perhaps say something to someone some day about church.  Maybe.  You never know, it could save someone’s life.  It saved mine.  Maybe it saved yours.  And maybe all of our lives depend on the light of Christ shining more brightly and more frequently in this beautiful and fragile world.  Thanks be to God.  AMEN.

July 1, 2018, 6th Sunday after Pentecost YR B

July 1, 2018, 6th Sunday after Pentecost YR B, Proper 8
Diane Beuerman

Reaching Out

And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She heard about Jesus and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak. Immediately her hemorrhages stopped and she felt in her body that she was healed. Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace and be healed of your disease.”
Our bold woman reaches out and touches Jesus.
Without words, she asks for a healing.

She immediately admits to reaching out, she does not say, as some have in the past, that the snake told her to do it or the woman did it. She blames no one.
She tells Jesus the whole truth.

She comes with no worldly goods, only a sense, a belief that Jesus can help her, Something within her tells her to go where she has never gone before.
She doesn’t wait until she is well groomed. She comes in an open and weakened state. She may be afraid but moves nearer to Jesus and touches his cloak
I will try to imagine what being in the presence of Jesus was like. Being in the presence of the Word made Flesh. The presence of the Divine and Human united as one. The air must have been full of God’s Love and Spirit and power. It was also filled with noise, smells, pushing movement.
She tells Jesus the whole truth. She seems self-aware and honestly reveals herself to him.

Julian of Norwich, our 15th century Christian mystic, writes in her book titled Revelations of Divine Love, that knowledge of self and humility (understanding our failures) allow the Holy Spirit to fill us with his presence without the interference of the false self. She continues to say that, we must come to know ourselves truly and clearly in order to know the Lord more truly and clearly. Our bold woman does just that.

Julian goes on to say, the more we understand our failures, the more grace will prompt us to long for and be filled with joy. Filled with a transformation. The Holy Spirit dwells in our soul, protects us, gives us peace through grace and reconciles us to God. This is Gods mercy. Mercy protects, gives life, and provides healing in all the tenderness of love.

Can this same Spirit be alive in today’s world, in our community, in our families. in our own individual lives? Can we recognize it? Is it possible? Are we capable of this same honesty, boldness and reaching out?
We are.

We are, as you all know, created in the image of God. That is certainly a miracle in itself. Many years ago a Quaker friend of mine, a Friend, mentioned the “Spark of Jesus”, a Spark of the Divine which exists in all of us. I believed it immediately. Maybe I recognized the Spark within Myself. Maybe I knew that this was my connection to God. Maybe because of this Spark we still walk in the same crowd as our bold woman walked. We can learn to reach out for that cloak. The power to transform us is right there waiting to be connected to our very own Divine Spark.

Our Christian teachings, writings, tradition and practices speak strongly to the belief that we do hold the divine within our being..

Our very own Bishop Michael Hanley, when he last visited us, talked about the Spirit of God being given to all. This spark never dies. After the service I confessed to him that I found it difficult to imagine the Divine in some folks. He replied that he too found it difficult at times. Difficult yes, but true nonetheless.
Our woman was unconventional. She knew that she was seen as unclean. Woman’s blood was thought of as especially unclean. She may have also seen and heard that Jesus was also unconventional. He did not turn away from those seen as outside of acceptable society. I picture him with a motely group. This makes me smile and this gives me and our woman courage to move forward. Her divine spark certainly connected with his Divine Self. This led to her transformation.
Many years ago when I was in my early forties, I returned to University to study religion and philosophy. For many years I did not attend church and at school I avoided Classes in Christianity. I instead studied eastern religions, Judaism, the history of Christianity. After a while my family and I did attend Quaker Meeting where I taught first day school. Much happened during this time.

It was a late afternoon on a Friday after a long week of tests, writings reports and studying. I wanted to go home to my family and relax, I had Friday afternoon impatience My last class was the History of Religion. I usually sat next to a young man who seemed quite shy and we would exchange greetings of , “Hello, how are you.” On this day, for some unknown reason I was sitting back a ways. He entered and looked my way with what I thought was discomfort at my being in an unusual place. This of course could have been my imagination. I didn’t want to move. The desks were the ones where the arm comes down in the front to hold books and notebooks. I felt quite jammed in and slightly irritated. I did though decide to move next to my nameless young man. The fifty minutes passed slowly but finally books were put in backpacks and I said my usual, “Good byes, enjoy your weekend”. In a moment, an indescribable moment, I saw the Christ in him, the spark of the divine in him.

I didn’t tell him. I couldn’t. I just said, “goodbye”. And went home.
This was pure gift. I had not been in a prayerful mood nor a patient and caring mood. I had been hungry and tired and wanted to go home. This was a sacred moment and I held it close.

While sitting at my computer wondering where this sermon was going next, this experience came to mind. Then I realized that you, all of you, were and are included in that moment of revelation. You are part of that moment. We worship God together, pray together, share joys and worries, laughter and tears, cookies and watermelon and are truly the Body of Christ together. We bring all of our past experiences, our histories with us as we gather. Without explanation we allow who we are to create One Body. We are like our Bold Lady because we come to God in our vulnerable, imperfect condition and are transformed. Our past and present are shared usually without words.

Thinking beyond this, I knew that Our very own church’s Body of Christ, included it’s 50+ years. It contained all who worked , played and prayed before us. All who walked through our doors and stayed for a moment of prayer and those who stayed longer. All those “sparks of Jesus” were still with us in our present life.
Then I realized that we stay united to each other, in and through Christ, as we go out into the world. And then that portion of life also becomes the Body, and on it goes.

Evelyn Underhill ,our Anglican 20th century writer known for her works on religion and spiritual practice, was the first woman to lecture to the clergy in the Church of England and the first woman to officially conduct spiritual retreats for the church. She believed that all of life is sacred, as that is what the “incarnation” is all about. In her book, The Spiritual Life, she writes that the church is in the world to save the world. It is a tool of God for that purpose. Our contemplation and our action, our humble self- opening to God and our fellow creatures is the way to the kingdom on earth. It isn’t conversion to dogma but to recognizing the spark of the divine within all. Our actions must be peaceful, gentle and strong. This is what our being within the Body of Christ supports.
In ou post communion prayer we say that the God of abundance has united us with Christ and one another and made us one with all people in heaven and on earth. Here we recognize our part, our being united with the seen and unseen, all that has gone before and all that is now.
The reality of the world and engaging with all those “sparks of the divine” can seem complicated.. We enter our everyday life with the intention of being fair, gentle and strong. What do I say to the person standing on the corner asking for food or how do I react to another’s anger and disillusionment? How do I stay honest in my interactions? How do I bring God into my reality? There is a lot for me to learn. How do I stay bold and see life through God’s eyes? A sense of humor is essential when looking at our attempts at living and moving towards God. How healthy to laugh at our failures. Teilhard de Chardin tells us that all life is evolving towards God. We can try to be included in that evolution.

I end with a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, 1875 – 1926

God speaks to each of us as he makes us, then walks with us out of the night
These are the words we dimly hear:
You are sent out beyond your recall, go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me’
Flare up like flame and make big shadows I can move in.
let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life. You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.

Bless the Lord my soul and bless God’s holy name
Bless the Lord my soul who leads me into life.

Amen

June 24, 2018, 5th Sunday after Pentecost YR B

Year B, 5th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 7
June 24, 2018
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was

 

“The Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: ‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?’”

Our Gospel reading for today and the ones for the next two weeks have traditionally been seen as illustrations of the Kingship or Lordship of Jesus.  This week with the stilling of the storm His Lordship over the natural order is demonstrated.  Next week, with the hemorrhaging woman and Jairus’ dying daughter, He is the Lord of life and law.  And the week after, Jesus gives spiritual power to the twelve and sends them into the world.  He is the Lord of the Spirit Realm.

A quick language note.  “Lord” and “King” are both problematic, highly patriarchal terms for a God who is as beyond or as all-encompassing of gender as ours is.  I think “Lord” is probably better.  We certainly use “Lord” more in our liturgical practice, it is “The Lord’s Prayer” after all, and in the Hebrew Bible, Lord, when written in those weird small caps means the proper noun YHWH.  “The Lord” in Job would more appropriately be written “YHWH.”  (It was a shorthand introduced by the KJV that has kept on in biblical translation).

But thinking of Jesus, of our Triune God in terms of Lord or King, most Episcopalians do that only in a very nuanced way.  We generally use those titles in abstract, mystery laden ritual ways.  “The Lord be with you.”  The royalty of God is not being emphasized.  It is not a title so much as a name, which, like in Job or the psalms, it is.  But that, I fear, can leave us hanging sometimes, in particular in the times when we need God the most.  We need almightiness sometimes.  Sometimes we need a Lord.  Freedom does have its cost.

Our Gospel today is amongst the most familiar stories in the Bible, Jesus stilling the storm.  You know how it goes, they board boats and quickly encounter a great storm and they were in danger of being swamped.  Jesus slept through the excitement until they woke Him up, crying “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”  He rebuked the wind and told the sea, “Peace!  Be still!”  Then He turned to them and asked, “Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?”  In return, the disciples, still “fearing a great fear”, translated as “filled with great awe,” they wondered “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”  If they only had faith…

That is the object lesson here, it is precisely what Jesus says:  if they, if you, if we had faith, have faith that Jesus is in fact Lord (in small caps, as in God), then we’d have no reason to be afraid.  Especially with Him lying right there on the cushion in the stern of the ship or residing right here in our minds, on our lips and in our hearts.  If Jesus was really there, if we had faith, shouldn’t we know that every little thing is going to be alright?

Well, that’s complicated, because it’s not.  Everything is not going to be alright.  Not all the time.  Not for everyone.  We are all going to die some day.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say that “Life is suffering” like our Buddhist friends do, but it is sure full of it.  For some a lot more than others.  Look at St. Paul, he suffered afflictions, hardships and calamities.  His list there in 2nd Corinthians includes beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger.  This is Paul!  He is in the bosom of God and he and his companions are suffering like this?  This is the anti-prosperity Gospel; that’s the modern American theology that says that wealth and ease of life, the absence of suffering is a sign of God’s favor.  (Which of course implies that suffering, that calamity indicates God’s displeasure.  Which is false.  Which is the worst possible theology to ever preach or believe because it is heresy.  That is not what Jesus said, it is precisely opposite of the Word.  It is un-Christian on every level).

This is the whole point of the Book of Job.  For 36 Chapters, Job argued back and forth with his friends.  He insisted that he did nothing wrong, nothing deserving the punishment he received (and he didn’t, he didn’t do anything wrong).  His “friends” insisted right back that he must have, because God rewards the righteous and punished the wicked.  No.  False. God says that from the whirlwind.  God said,  “Just shh.  You, none of you know what the heck you are talking about.”  God does not afflict suffering.  God does not punish.  But obviously that does not mean that bad things don’t happen.  Tragedy, suffering, death happen.  To all of us.

If Jesus is Lord, Lord of the natural order, Lord of life and law, Lord of the spirit world why doesn’t He just stop it, the afflictions, the hardships, the calamities?  Why doesn’t He just cure all the cancer in the world, or end all poverty or make war to cease with a “Peace!  Be still!”?  Though there are occasional reports of miracles, that is not the general experience of almost all of us.  Every breath, every baby, every sunrise is a miracle, for sure, but stilling the raging sea, spontaneous healings, raising of the dead?  Where are you King of Kings, Lord of Lords?

So the story here is clear that the wind ceases and the waves calm for real, not metaphorically.  Whatever happened was experienced and remembered as a miracle.  We’ll leave that as that.  But there might be more subtly there.  What could also be miraculous is the miraculous expectation that Jesus had while sleeping away on the cushion. He has the expectation that the disciples should not have been afraid.  But there was a lot to be afraid of.  I’ve been in a canoe being swamped by rapids, that’s scary.  An almost brother-in-law of mine is a Gloucester fisherman who had more than one boat sink under him, that is terrifying.  His brother died at sea, he was played by Mark Wahlberg in “The Perfect Storm.”  Horrifying.  So to rely on faith and not be scared even in the midst of a gale?  That could be a less than minor miracle.

Or the woman who was shunned because a bleeding woman was ritually unclean.  When she touched the hem of Jesus’ cloak she was cleansed less of the blood than of the shame others tried to impose on her.  Certainly a miracle from her perspective.

Or the ordination, the empowering and sending of the 12.  They were sent to teach, to cure, to cast out demons.  We’ve seen how bumbling the disciples could be, but Jesus ordained them with the power of God?  I’ve been involved in ordination processes.  That is a profound miracle!

Jesus Christ, Son of God makes Himself known to us.  People.  Human beings in our infinite variety.  We are His domain, our hearts and minds and bodies are His inner kingdom, His homeland.  He is Lord of our action and reaction to the world around us, if we let Him be.  If we have faith.  If we give our fealty, if we give our faith to Jesus Christ, if we not only let Him in, but if we follow Him where He leads, then, everything little thing will be alright.  Maybe not out there, that is just not how usually it seems to work, but in here.  Most of the time, Jesus is not going to stop the boat from rocking.  But with faith, in faith, we can learn to live with the rocking, or learn to not be so scared of the rocking.  Or maybe even, with Jesus Christ, following Jesus Christ, we can be scared, we can feel discomfort, pain, we can suffer, and get through it. We can know that suffering is not the end of the story.  No, it is part of it.  Christ with us, we can endure the suffering of injustice so we can turn around right the wrongs of the world.  Christ with us, we can endure the suffering that has no “why,” no meaning, that we may live another day, give comfort to those around us, or even to go into the dust in more peace than could otherwise be possible.

Sometimes it is as dramatic as dying.  Or dealing with that diagnosis.  Or your child being in real trouble.  Or the boot of empire, of the man, on your throat.  Or poverty nipping at your heels.  Or forgiving that spouse or parent, or whoever it is that wronged you that badly.  Or much more commonly, just simply resisting your special temptation, your special weakness: the craving for intoxication, for sex, food, risk, whatever your poison.  Resisting it, suffering through and knowing “This is not the end of the story.  Like Gloria Gaynor teaches, “I will survive.”

I’m game!  I need that in my life.  I’ve got my struggles, ones I can’t handle on my own, we all do.  So how do we have faith in Jesus Christ and allow His loving presence to enter into our lives to do all these marvelous things, to still the storm(s) in our hearts and minds?

One of the monks we lived with had the answer to that question and he preached it every time he took the pulpit.  “Say the Jesus Prayer,” he preached, for years.  “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  It is as ancient a prayer as we have and if you say it faithfully 10,000 times, I have little doubt that it wouldn’t work.  But that type of mystical, apophatic practice isn’t for everyone (and who has the time)?

St. Paul didn’t.  He had places to be, things to do.  The Corinthians were a cosmopolitan crew.  I bet they were very busy, too.  So Paul offered a very practical teaching to them.  In his second letter to them, he tells them what to do.  He tells them that he did all the things he did, endured all he had to endure “by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God.”  That is how he did it, by being, doing, consenting to those things.

When things are terrible, be kind, try to be kind.  When it seems it can’t get any worse, be patient or try to be patient.  When the lies of the world are drowning you, use, try to use truthful speech.  When you just don’t think you can hang on for one more second, be open to the power of God, stop saying no to it.  In all things, have genuine love and a holiness of spirit.  Sometimes it is that simple.  When you do these things, God is with you, if you pay attention, you can feel it, and when you do start noticing that, ahhh… now there is something to have faith in.

It really is that simple.  NOTHING easy here, but simple.  It is one of those great double helix religious teachings.  When you do these things, when you are kind, patient, loving, truth speaking, when you do those things, that is a sign that God is with you.  That is a revelation that Jesus’ Lordship is in full effect, or even that you are consenting to it, you are following Him.  When you do these things, it is a sign of true holiness.

But sometimes, much of the time even, our less than godly nature has the helm of our storm-tossed ship.  Our sinful nature has the tiller.  In those moments (or decades), God’s presence usually isn’t too noticeable, those signs above, aren’t readily apparent.  So there comes to opportunity for practice.  This is the second half of the helix.  When you act kindly, you invite God in.  When you are patient, an opening for God is made.  When you are truthful in your speech and honest in your knowledge and genuinely loving, when you act that way, poof, you are being that way.  And being that way, that is the presence of God, in Christ, with the Holy Spirit happening in you in that very moment.  That is you, hat swept off in a low bow or a deep curtsy to the Lord of heaven and earth.  Now that sounds pretty good.

Don’t dismiss the power of that, the power of changing everything by changing your perspective. In so many ways, that is what accepting the Lordship of Jesus is about, a profound, even ontological change of perspective. Paul testified that, “We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see– we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”  That is not hyperbole.  Like in Franco Zefferilli’s movie “Brother Son, Sister Moon”, a monument to St. Francis (and the 1970s… Donovan does the soundtrack).  Francis and his brothers, the poverellos, tramp through Assisi begging, singing “For sister poverty, we give thanks.  For brother chastity, we give thanks.”  (and they mean it).  That is what having a King of Kings, Lord of Lords in your life can mean.

Miracles happen.  Daily.  Minute after minute.  Right here.  In the hearts and minds of the followers of Our Lord Jesus Christ.  And you can have them, too.  Miracles.  A Lord.  And a first step, a first step in a journey of 10,000 miles is to try to live “…By purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God.”  Notice it.  Invite it in.  Let salvation begin.  AMEN

June 17, 2018, 4th Sunday after Pentecost YR B

Year B, Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 6
June 17, 2018
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was

 

“I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree; I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish.”

The world doesn’t always make sense if you can’t see it as God sees it.  Good morning, everyone.  We have a couple of parables this morning.  The parables of the growing seed and the parable of the mustard seed are not about seeds or plants or farmers, but are about the Commonwealth of God.  Commonwealth is a much nicer way of saying what God’s Kingdom actually implies.  There is a whole series of parables describing the Commonwealth in this part of St. Mark’s Gospel.  What does that mean, to be about the Commonwealth of God?  In some instances, the parables are about how God intends the world to be.  They are aspirational.  This is how it should be, it is God’s will for it to be like x.  In other instances, it is about how the world actually is, it is descriptive.  This is the true nature of things.  In either case, whether is it how God wants it to be and it isn’t or how God made it to be, though we might not see it that way, the parables demand that we see the world through divine eyes, through eyes of faith.  The Commonwealth of God is not apparent through earthly eyes, the eyes of the flesh, in Greek sarx.  It is visible through spiritual eyes, nous eyes.  That’s why Jesus used koan-like parables, because the deepest of wisdom, the paradoxically ultimate reality of God is poetry, not prose.  Knowledge of God and God’s will cannot be transmitted digitally, it is a smooth analog curve.  Nothing about God is black and white, rather God is a billion shades of magenta in a great fanning smear across the universe.  So Jesus teaches in parables, not in outlined lectures or theological tracts (or lengthy sermons, for that matter).

Today’s parables are about the Commonwealth of God.  What about it?  So the first one likens the Commonwealth to someone who scatters seed.  Days and nights come and go, and the seed sprouts.  “…he does not know how.  The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head then the full grain in the head.  But when it comes time to harvest, he knows exactly what to do.

Likely what Jesus was doing here was reassuring the disciples.  “Have faith,” He is saying.  He was scattering the seeds, in His work, in their work together, the kernels of divine love and truth were being scattered.  Through that processes, a process that we cannot see, cannot understand, something will happen, something will sprout, and grow and come to full realization and fear not, you will know exactly what to do when the time comes, just like that farmer at harvest.  Most of us have very little idea about how to care for an apple tree, but come October, a five year-old can fill a bushel basket with at least mostly edible fruit.  Don’t worry, He is saying, it is happening, it will come.

It is understandable why Jesus would offer this lesson.  They’d had some bigger gatherings by then in their Galilean ministry.  Twelve of them were really dedicated, that’s pretty good.  But it was the backwater of a mighty empire and at St. Mark’s writing, that Empire’s boot was firmly on the neck of Palestine.  Its heel had just ground the Temple and Judaic civilization into the dust.  And 12 is pretty good, but what are you going to do with 12?  I can just imagine them conjecturing, “We’re just sitting around here, talking about seeds, preaching to a few folks, healing one at a time… but we are not doing anything.  And what could we do, anyway?  The problems of the Empire, the Empire itself is a behemoth.  Those Zealots, at least they are training…”  Can you hear that?  I think I heard the same exact sentence at a meeting at the Homeless Action Coalition last year.  Or maybe it was 350.org.

I think this parable is describing the world as it actually is.  You’ve heard Margaret Meade’s great quote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”  I like Fr. Daniel Berrigan’s complimentary quote, “A good peace movement starts small and get smaller.”  I think that is how it is, the world.  Judaism is the story of one family!  Abraham and Sarah’s family.  From that one little miraculous coupling and the descendants number like the stars.  From that little cluster of disciples in the Galilean countryside being taught about seeds, from them, because of them and their faith that Jesus Christ sowed in them, we have The Confessions of St. Augustine, St. Peter’s Bassilica, Bach’s Mass in b minor, non-violent resistance to evil, Narnia, coffee hour.  That has got to be a Christian invention.  Our coffee hour, Karen’s cookies are a head of grain for us to harvest that was sown in the Palestinian countryside 2000 years ago.

Do you believe that can actually happen? That that project you are working on, that that committee you are helping with, that what we are doing here, maybe out in our parking lot, maybe down in our classrooms, maybe here as we pray together, that it will have some impact 2000 years from now?  I’d sometimes settle for someone remembering what last week’s sermon was about.  Gotta have faith.  I struggle with that, knowing that what we are doing is worthwhile.  I wish I could believe more of the time that what we are doing, I am doing, will add up to more than a molehill.  Because we are so small and the world is so big, and the problems of the world?  They loom large.

We’ve been continuously at war for 16 years, with no sign of anything changing.  I don’t know if there is a small or even smaller peace movement at this point.  A couple of weeks ago a nuclear disarmament group came to speak to Church Women United, WAND.  They are still at it.  Them’s some principalities and powers to align yourself against.  And the climate!  Nothing is more urgently pressing or more unfathomably enormous a problem than our climate.  But really, what little thing could any of us possibly do that could have any consequence?  Any affect?  I look at our government and I feel paralyzed by the scope and grandeur of the problems.  Is there anything we can do that could possibly matter in something besides a self-soothing, symbolic action?  Can I, can you, can we do something that matters?

Yes.  Or maybe more precisely, we can do something that might matter.  And when it comes down to it, there is nothing more that we can do than that.  Maybe that is one of the points of this parable.  Everything we do has an affect.  From chaos theory we have Edwards Lorenz’s proposition to this affect, summed up in the title of his famous article, “Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?”  It is unpredictable, the results of our action, we can’t know how what is done now will take root in the future, but the future, if by the grace of God it comes, is shaped by countless actions, from small to large, happening right now leading, unpredictably perhaps, to the future.  We, as people of faith, need to put in our bit, even though we are unsure how what we do will shape the future.  We need to have faith that the future is shaped by what someone is doing now, and it could be us.  And those little bits, those little seeds scattered to and fro, maybe those little seeds carry the fruit of Empire’s destruction, or carry the salvation of humankind from ourselves and our hubris, or the earth from ourselves and our hubris.

Nothing is insurmountable or unconquerable if looked at on a long enough time-line.  Having Christian faith takes eschatological patience, which really is the definition of hope, patience over the long-haul.  In hope, with the faith that sustains hope, there is consolation, there is salvation, even, or especially when the adversary is so mighty, so seemingly insurmountable.  The will of God will prevail, the Commonwealth of God is at hand, it just might take a while to see it.  It means that no matter how bad it, how little it seems that you can do, do it.  Some of it will set roots.  You might not see it to harvest yourself, but night and day, it grows.  Or like Wendell Berry tells us, “Plant Sequoias.”

This message of hope is not just for those of us with “Resist” stickers on our bumpers.  It can fall a lot closer to home.  Do you have anything in your life seems insurmountable?  Is there anything that you don’t even bother to think about because the problem is so huge, so all encompassing? Like your drinking, or some other addiction?  Something entwined in every aspect of your life and you can’t imagine untangling it so you don’t.  (Maybe you don’t even imagine untangling it let alone actually untangling it).   A troubled marriage can be like that.  Your whole world is implicated: kids, work, daily living, friends, family, colleagues, church, property, expense, future, your head, heart and body, everything is all tied up in it and you can’t even imagine…   Some health issues can be like that, paralyzing for their scope.

But there are the little seeds we can sow.  Like imagining what different could look like.  What you could look like, your life, if it were different.  The first of the 12 steps is admitting that there is a problem to begin with!  Now that is a good start.  Reading a book on it.  Talking to a friend, a therapist, your priest.  No commitments, just a toe in the water.  It is amazing what a little grazing touch on that boulder on the top of the hill can lead to.

One of the best bits of instruction on writing I ever received was about sowing little seeds like this.  I was taught to sit down in front of a black screen or page and just start writing about the topic you need to address.  This can’t be the night before it is due!  Just write for 10 minutes.  Then put it aside and go about your business.  When you go back to the next day, or a few days later, it is amazing what has been going on inside.  Somehow the act of writing, even unstructured like that, even just 10 minutes like that, the act of writing sows seeds in the subconscious that start churning away, day and night, I know not how, but when I go back to it, things are so much clearer, ideas, connections, language flows in such a different way.

Another example.  Do you know why I invite the children to gather around the altar?  It is not just so they have the best seat, or because it proves that we care about them, or that they are so cute, no, it is because we are sowing seeds, tiny seeds of faith in them.  Like most of us, most of them will leave the church.  I left at 12; no conformation for me, thank you very much.  But maybe, 12 (hopefully 18) years of regularly being this close to such a holy thing, sandwiched between the altar of God and the love of you, God’s people, maybe when their time of trial comes they will remember what it feels like to be in Christian community, they will know that they are not alone and that they need not feel alone.  Maybe they will even come to church again.  Those are just a couple of examples of sowing seeds and letting God take over.

That parable of the growing seed is about how the world is.  It describes the world seen through the eyes of the Commonwealth.  Those little things turn and move in the darkness and then one day the 30, 60, 100 fold harvest comes.  The parable of the mustard seed, on the other hand, is about how the world should be.  We will know the Commonwealth of God has arrived when this happens, or it will come sooner if we do this, but it takes some activity on our part.  And what is it we are being taught that we should do?  Part of it is about faith, like the first parable, it is a story of the tiny seed that can.  From the littlest thing can come the mightiest, like the little action we take now, the tiny seed sown can have great consequences.  That is a surface message of the mustard seed, but below the surface, like an iceberg, a lot more resides.

The mustard of this parable is not the mustard of your garden, it is a giant shrub.  In one of the commentaries there is a picture of one and it must be 20 feet high.  That is pretty great for a shrub.  But the thing is, this is not something you would ever plant.  There are uses for it, parts of it are edible for humans and livestock, and as we are re-learning, having habitat for wildlife within agricultural systems is desirable.  That is fine.  But in a few places, I read that this mustard was a noxious weed.  The picture I saw was not something compatible with a garden.  It would be like saying, the “Himalayan Blackberry, or the English Ivy, or Kudzu has the tiniest seed, but when planted it grows into the mightiest bush.”  True that, but who needs that kind of bush in their lives?  Well…

Maybe this is the point.  Not only does the tiny seed grow into something unexpected, but the conventionally undesirable might, too.  Like being meek.  Not a conventionally desirable quality, but whom does Jesus says shall inherit the earth?  Pray for those who persecute you?  That is logically counterintuitive.  Admitting where you are wrong and putting yourself at the wronged party’s mercy?  Resist not an evil-doer?  What in American culture tells us that that is the thing we are supposed to do?  But this is the essence of seeing the world through divine, spiritual eyes and not fleshy eyes of earthly convention.

Jesus repeatedly chose the misfits to share His time and table with.  He chose the road to Jerusalem and a certain and terrible end.  An end that taught that in His weakness, His power and glory would be fully realized and the world would change.  Now I am not suggesting that we use such criteria in hiring our new nursery person, but if we allow human conventional wisdom to steer our ship, we might be missing out on the vast expanse of divine wisdom that God has embedded in the creation, in us and in our neighbors.  Is that like saying just because it seems like a bad idea doesn’t mean that it is?  Maybe Jesus should have taken a left at Bethany?  Or maybe Paul shouldn’t have been the one blinded by the light?  Or maybe Francis should have left the lepers alone, or Dorothy Day the destitute of the Bowery?  The world doesn’t always makes sense if you can’t see it as God sees it.

These parables open things up for us.  They push us to consider what the world would be like if God not only was in charge, but made all the decisions.  Consider that well.  AMEN

June 10, 2018, 3rd Sunday after Pentecost YR B

Year B, 3rd Sunday after the Pentecost, Proper 5
June 10, 2018
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was

 

“For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God…”

Good morning everyone.  Jesus is fired up!  Binding the strong man!  That’s Jesus Himself bodily struggling with evil.  “And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.”  That is as short and clear a parable as Jesus ever tells.  Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is unforgivable?  He’s all fired up. The righteous anger of Jesus Christ in the face of foolishness and injustice always gets me going.

Today’s Gospel pericope (pericope just means a short, coherent passage) is organized as a sandwich story.  It starts with Jesus family.  They heard that He had “gone out of his mind,” so they tried to restrain Him.  It was a family intervention.  That’s one slice of bread.  Then the peanut butter and jelly is the scribes, their accusations that it is by demonic power that Jesus does the things he does, and Jesus’ harsh response, so harsh as to imply that the scribes had committed an unforgivable sin in doubting the source of His power.  Then it finishes back with His family, that’s the second piece of bread.  Jesus is harsh with them, too.  “Who are my mother and my brothers?  Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” A little sandwich story (with a bit of a bitter aftertaste).

It was bitter.  Here are two fundamental pillars of that society: family and religion, and both are very upset with Him because He is challenging some very basic assumptions.  His family was worried for Him. They wanted to bring Him home before He got Himself thrown over a cliff or crucified or something. And what does Jesus do?  Deny them.  They aren’t my family, those who bore me, raised me, have and will love me forever; you, whom I choose, you here now are my family.  Sort of cuts off family at the roots.  That would be very upsetting to hear from a son.

The scribes, the religious authorities, were also upset with Him.  He was doing acts of great power that didn’t jive with how they understood the world to be, or at least didn’t jive with how they understood how world was structured, which just so happens to have them in the driver’s seat.  (It is almost that Jesus Christ is implying that challenges to the status quo are considered offensive and threatening in direct proportion to how comfortable one is in that status quo.  Hmmmm).   In any case, those scribes felt threatened, so they acted threatened.  “He has Beelzabul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.”  That is a statement of a threatened power-holder.  Why do they feel so threatened?  Because Jesus is threatening them, like His family.  He is threatening basic assumptions of two foundational categories of His society by changing them, by defining them in new ways.

Throughout His short life, in every conceivable way, from His immaculate conception to everything that happened in the wake of His Passion and death, Jesus turned everything upside down.   Everything.  The first will be last the last will be first.  The mightiest will be the servant of all.  God (Jesus) prefers the company of the universally rejected: sinners, shepherds, tax collectors, Samaritans, prostitutes, lepers, women!  Truly, confronting as directly as He does here the idea of family and of religious authority, He threatened the stability of the whole society, because the basis of many societies, certainly Jesus’, started with family, followed closely by communal religious life.  He questions and threatens both in this tidy little sandwich.

Now stable doesn’t necessarily mean good.  I think that is at the heart of the lesson here.  We crave the constant.  The stable.  The immutable.  We crave stability.  We want, we think we need things to be predictable, constant, static, regular.  That is certainly the easiest.  You get up each morning (well, I do) and the tea pot is where it is supposed to be, and the tea is in the cupboard where it belongs, and your favorite cup is where you put it away yesterday morning, and the morning before, and the one before that. I think we have the desire for much the same regularity in more parts of our lives than some of us might want to admit.  We want it to be predictable.  We want to be able to assume that things are as they seem, are as we are accustomed to, as we know them.  Most of us, most of the time, want things to be ordinary.

I’ve never really understood why LGBTQ stuff gets everyone so upset, the marriage stuff in particular.  If you are a man and you do not feel attracted to men, you probably shouldn’t marry one.  That’s totally fine.  But of you are, and you do, then maybe you should, that’s totally fine, too.  I’ve known all sorts of gay, lesbian, and bisexual folks in all sorts of relationships, and for the longest time I really didn’t understand why everyone got so upset.  How does that affect your marriage?  I don’t know.  Then some years ago awareness, my awareness anyhow, of gender stuff started growing.  Trans and intersex, all the variety of non-binary, non-conforming gender identities.  That was new to me.  I am rather prideful of my liberal non-judgmentalism, and I must say, that sometimes I felt uncomfortable.  Not threatened, but just didn’t know what to do, what to think.  Like when I couldn’t readily identify the gender of someone because they didn’t conform to our society’s gender norms.  It is a basic reference point we have, that I have, that I have relied on.  It is the first question at a birth, “boy or girl?” Right?  In the best sort of way, it doesn’t matter in the least what gender someone is or identifies as.  How could that possibly be anyone’s business but that persons?  But when something like that is different, when a basic category of society is changed, is foreign or new to us; if we are asked to look at the world in a way we never have or never considered we’d have to, heavens can we get thrown off.  Everything can seem like it is falling apart.  “If that is a marriage what does it say about my marriage?”  (As I said, nothing, but we can’t underestimate the power of the fear, the irrational fear that can be there).

Or in church, think of the language we use for God.  He… Him… Father…  Lord… Besides praying in Spanish to an English speaking congregation, there is no surer way to get an inbox full of liturgical complaints that to refer to God as She.  You can (usually) get away with non-male language, but “She” will bring some people’s houses down.  I struggle with that mightily.  In my own prayer and conversation, in my own words while preaching, I never use masculine pronouns or the word “Father” for God.  But I have all sorts of reasonable, learned and defensible justifications for saying the Mass exactly as written in the BCP.  “Because that is how it is.  That is how we say it.  That is how I was taught.  St. Swithen once said…”  If that is in question, EVERYTHING is in question.  Where does it end?  Heaven forbid.

Oh we cloak that discomfort, that fear with all sorts of justifications.  Be it words of the Mass or the rights of people to express their affections, or be of African descent, we have all sorts of ways to justify our discomfort and disapproval.  We use words like sin, perversion, pathology, primitive, feminine, Beelzebub, out of his mind.  But at the root, I think a lot of the hate of our LGBTQ neighbors, the opposition to marriage rights, the rejection of gender non-conformity, any difference in race, appearance, culture, language, custom, all the identity stuff is about our misplaced desire for everything to be static, nothing to be changing or challenging.  You queer, so to speak, what a family looks like, you change it, or you allow God to manifest in the world in new way, both things Jesus does here, for some people it is like a foundation block being kicked out from under them.  That is what is feels like to some.  So many recoil from the existential confusion and resulting discomfort from when things seem unpredictable, not as we expect or can readily identify.  That is terrifying for far too many of us, and too often it leads us down the long and often violent xenophobic paths of homophobia, racism, misogyny, anti-semitism, anything that is other or seems other.  It is that need, that perceived need for immutability, predictability, that is what I think Jesus is challenging here.

Now there are so many threads that we could follow here.  Talking like this can set off a maelstrom.  The point I want to stick with, that I think Jesus is teaching us here, is that we too often grasp at stasis, rigid predictability, at what we are familiar with and are comfortable with.  We desperately, sinfully, violently cling to what we know and understand, what we know by just knowing it, the way it has always been, how we were raised, and just as desperately, sinfully and violently reject that which challenges that expectation.  But here, Jesus differentiates.  Someone doesn’t get same sex marriage, it is foreign to them, that is a sin of ignorance.  Jesus family, on good faith, wanted to stop His ministry.  It was for his own good.  The scribes, though, not only rejected difference, rejected that God could act in ways they were not used to, but they also obsessed about it, theologized on it, consciously fought against Him… that is a sin of a different order. The same one the scribes unforgivably committed.  I don’t know if Jesus needed them to all become His followers, but when they actively clung to their old way of thinking, failed to consider that it might be different than they were used to, expected, approved of, and in that dissonance disparaged, discounted, dismissed the Holy Spirit behind His power and glory, they immediately and unforgivably tread on unholy ground.  That would not, and will not do.

And at the same time, we need stability.  We need things to hold on to.  Like the Collect in Compline, “so that we who are wearied by the changes and chances of this life may rest in your eternal changelessness.”  We need reference points for what is ok, what is right and what is not.  We need a rock on which to put our faith.  That is a challenge for us liberals.  We sometimes take so seriously the validity of other paths that we don’t take the path we are on ourselves seriously enough.  That is a real moral hazard, the reticence to have faith, and is one of the biggest ones here among us at Resurrection.  I know a lot of your struggles, and for many of you, the inability to claim your faith as yours because it might offend someone else’s, is real.  That what you believe and what someone else believes differ doesn’t matter.  It’s apples and skydiving; different categories, no comparison to be made, no conflict to have. But you need to believe, to have faith.  Maybe not this morning you don’t need it.  Maybe not this month or year, or this season of your life, but we will all face troubles that we can’t, shouldn’t, needn’t face on our own.

But at the same time we can’t be so unsteady that everything rides on the world conforming to our way of thinking, of confirming everything we want it to confirm.  That just isn’t how it works. We need faith, but we need to hold our faith, our approach to the world, what we understand to be right and good and true firmly, confidently, but not grasp it with white-knuckles.  We need a solid foundation, a tree to cling to in the hurricanes that will pass over us, but every day is not a hurricane.  We can’t need to have something unmoving, unquestioned in life. That goes for most anything.  Faith in God as we imagine God to be.  (The unmoved mover changes and moves throughout our lives, or so it appears).  Faith in the people we share this life with (I and most everyone you know will disappoint you.  If we haven’t yet, just give us time).  In the New York Times.  In the virtues of education.  Even in the understanding that you, any individual on their own, is ultimately the best judge of everything, which is the beating heart of liberalism.

We’ve got chainsaws going out in the front, working on those bushes, and soon enough in back working on the blackberries.  I am decent with one, haven’t cut off anything important yet, and I think it is a good metaphor for how we need to hold our faith, not too tightly, but not too loosely, either.  When you use a tool like a chainsaw, you need to hold it with some authority.  If you are ginger with it, don’t have a good grip, it will not work out well for you.  At the same time, you can’t have a death grip on it.  Your hands will go numb.  You’ll get tired too fast.  You won’t be able to pay attention to the million other things going on around you like where the tree is falling.  You need to hold the saw confidently, but not arrogantly.  Be sure of yourself, but not blinded by certainty.  Be secure in your faith, not a faith built on a foundation of fundamentalist formulas, but on the swaying branches of truth and the knowledge (and fear!) of God.  Hold it all lightly. Don’t take yourself too seriously, and always remember that your opinion, any opinion, adds up to just about nothing in the eyes of God.

Because it might not always go well.  Our primordial parents met Temptation in the form of a serpent and were thrown out of Eden!  (That was a big change of trajectory. Remember God’s original plan was for us to be vegetarian nudists).  But even with that most egregious loss, it was not all lost, not the love of God, not the love of each other. The story, our story does not end on the wrong side of the gates of Eden.  Life persisted, good life even.

It is not always going to go well.  Rare as a unicorn is the person, the family that tragedy does not visit.  But it doesn’t have to all come crumbling down AND we don’t need to bring anyone one down, with us.  As St. Paul writes to the folks in Corinth, “For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God…”  Our faith is a tent, and it is fully human. God is the rock upon which it is pitched.  There is a difference.  AMEN