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A Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 16, 2020

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Christopher L. Webber on the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 16, 2020.

Why do we do what we do?

The New York Times bestseller list has two kinds of nonfiction: a general category, mostly history and biography, and a second category called “Advice, How to, and Miscellaneous.” “How to” books make up most of the list.  Usually they offer a couple on love, there’s probably one on diet, and maybe one on dealing with alcoholism. This week there are three on leadership and that might be appropriate reading for a parish seeking a new Rector, but one title I noticed LEADERSHIP STRATEGY AND TACTICS BY A FORMER NAVY SEAL  might not be a good fit.

The “how-to” book is is an old, familiar, American phenomenon. We are a nation of doers. If things aren’t right, we want to change them. And we have this pervasive idea that if we just knew how to do it, we could solve any problem. Through the years, religious books have often been at the top of the “how to” list. I remember one called “the power of positive thinking,” and more recently one called “the Be Happy attitudes.” Currently there’s one co-authored by the Dalai Lama and Bishop Tutu called “The Book of Joy.” Joy, happiness, God on your side. It’s an age-old search. And all too many of us, even if we’ve outgrown it ourselves, try to push it on our children. I’ve heard it 100 times: “I want little Suzy to be in the Sunday school because I think it’s good for children to learn about God and how to behave and get some ethics.”

Christianity is often cheapened into a self-help program, a self-improvement program. But Christianity is not primarily an ethical system and you can’t just simply teach behavior. Children are not dogs to be trained; they are people to be loved. And, anyway, behavior is not the point of Christian faith. It’s a byproduct at best. The church is here not so much to teach children as to love them.

Do you know that Sunday schools were only invented about 100 years ago, and only then to serve children whose families were unchurched? It’s only very recently, two generations, maybe three, that the idea took hold that churches should teach Christianity to children in separate classes. And it happened, I think, because so many families had a feeling that they were failing to do the job but it could somehow be taught.

But it’s interesting to notice that in the Episcopal Church, about 50 to 75 years ago, a counter movement began with the growth of the “family Eucharist” or “Parish Eucharist.” We still bought in to the general belief in Sunday school, though we tended to call it church school, but we began to combine church school with Eucharist. Somehow we knew that there was more to learning than teaching; that Christian faith could not be reduced to a classroom experience.

And especially Christian education can’t be reduced to a matter of good instruction

Why do we do what we do?

I remember a story told by the Bishop of Long Island back when I was in that diocese. It happened during the height of the Cold War. A Russian bishop somehow had gotten permission to travel and had made his way to Long Island and had met with the Episcopal bishop. And the conversation was very stiff at first, and Bishop DeWolfe gradually realized that the Russian bishop was concerned about being overheard. So Bishop DeWolfe got his guest into a car and went for a drive and finally the visitor felt free to talk about the problem of being a church that was forbidden to teach. So what can you do? asked Bishop DeWolfe, and his guest said, “We have the liturgy.”

In this morning’s Gospel, we have a part of the sermon on the Mount which we have been reading for several weeks now, in which Jesus seems to be teaching his disciples how to behave;

“You have heard that it was said to the men of old, you shall not kill; and however kills shall be liable to judgment. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment. . . “

“You have heard it said,” Jesus says again and again, and then he goes on, “but I say. . . .” and what he says is beyond any possibility of doing: “Do not be angry – – do not desire – – do not be limited by law not be unlimited in love.”

Down through the centuries scholars have argued, “Did he mean it? Did he have in mind an impossible utopia? Did he expect the kingdom to come in his lifetime and was he condemning us all to hopelessness? If it weren’t that Lent is coming, we would come back next week and hear the end of this section and Jesus saying “You must be perfect, as your father in heaven is perfect.”

Is that the gospel? Is that the bottom line? “Be perfect.” Is that Good News? Are we really to teach our children a way of life we haven’t even tried and can’t follow ourselves? Or is Christian behavior like the 55 mile an hour speed limit: a swell idea as long as nobody really expects me to accept it?

But I think we miss the point when we look at Christianity as primarily a way to behave, a system of ethics. There was a fundamentalist college in Upstate New York, near where I grew up, where girls were required to wear long sleeved dresses. Smoking, drinking, card playing were all no-noes. That trivializes something intended to be far more revolutionary than just being nicer to others. These commands of Jesus are serious and, yes, they are meant for us. But if we are called to be like Christ, called to perfection, then we have only two alternatives: to fail in a futile effort to do it ourselves, or to give up, admit who we are, and die to self – and let Christ remake us in his image. I think that’s the goal: Christ in us. I think that is what baptism is all about. I think that’s what the Eucharist is all about.  I think that’s  what prayer is all about. It’s about dying to self and letting Christ live in us. It’s about being born again. And as that happens, behavior will take care of itself. We will become a new person and act like that new person.

I happened to have a talk show on the car radio one day years ago and the subject was alcoholism. A woman called in and told how she was living with a man she loved a lot, but he was alcoholic and would get depressed over something, and get drunk, and beat her and her child. “Get out!” said the talk show host. “Go to Alanon. Hear about it from people who have been there. But you can’t change him. He has to change himself.” There was dialogue back and forth and finally the woman said, “well, all right, but what about him? Should he go to a meeting?” And the talk show host, a psychiatrist, said, “of course he should go to a meeting. He should stop drinking. But should is a meaningless word. You do what you have to do.”

“Should is a meaningless word. You do what you have to do.”

Well, how often have you and I said, “I know what I should do, but – – –“ haven’t you said that? What controls your life: “should” or something stronger? “You do what you have to do.” Exactly right. And what we have to do is what we are, what’s in us, our inner nature. Which doesn’t mean we are simply helpless victims of our genetic inheritance and environment, that we “can’t help ourselves” – – a kind of “no-fault” ethics.  No, it means that we need to concern ourselves not so much with the rules we learn as with the relationships we form, and with the environment we choose to live in, not so much with what guides us from the outside as with what shapes us from the inside, what in-forms us, not so much with what relationships we create as with what relationships re-create us.

Why do we do what we do? “A bad tree,” Jesus said, “cannot produce good fruit.” You can say “should” to it all you want; it won’t happen. What matters is the soil and the rain and inherited genetic traits that form that tree over the years from within. So too we may hear sermons that tell us “should” but they will have no affect on us unless we have found a source of life in the Eucharistic community that enables us to grow into the life to which we are called.

Jesus said, “do this,” and he took bread and said, “this is my body.” That’s what we need. His life transforming ours. Why do we do what we do? Because Christ in us so shapes our hearts and minds that we love what he is and do what he does and become who he is. When that happens “should” becomes a meaningless word.

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A Sermon for The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 9, 2020

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Beth Lind Foote, Interim Rector, on The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 9, 2020

Today we heard the famous gospel passage, “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how can saltiness be restored?” from the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew. 

I had some hands on experience with salt this week. I’ve been doing some Spring Cleaning at home, and I found a box dated 2008 that my parents left in our garage when they downsized to senior living.  It was filled with bottles of spices wrapped carefully in newspaper. 

My Mom collected a lot of spices over the years but she really didn’t use them much in her meat and potatoes style of cooking, so there was a lot left in each bottle. All the herbs had lost their flavor, so I emptied out them out.

There was also a carton of Morton’s salt in the box. Of all the seasonings wrapped up the garage for ten years, the salt was the only one that still had flavor. 

It made me think as I studied today’s text, can salt lose its flavor?  What does it mean to be the “salt of the earth?”

It helps to examine salt for a few moments.

“Salt, A World History” by Mark Kurlansky, is one of my favorite non-fiction books. It looks at the history of civilization through the lens of salt.

Among many things, salt is a natural preservative.  Salting fish, meat, and preserving vegetables by pickling them with salt was one of the only ways to preserve food before refrigeration or the canning process.  The Latin word for salt is sal, and so common English words like salad and salary have their origins in salt.  The Romans salted their vegetables, which gave us the word Salad.  Roman soldiers were paid partly in salt, which brought us the word salary.

Salt is elemental to life.  A human body contains about 250 grams of salt, which would fill about three or four salt shakers, but we are constantly losing it through bodily functions, so everyday we need to replace this lost salt in the right balance.

Salt shows up time and again in the Bible.  Remember how Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt when she looked back at the destruction of Sodom; Sodom was near the Dead Sea, famous for its black salt.

Salt is a symbol of the eternal nature of God’s covenant with Israel.  In the Book of Numbers, it’s written, “It is a covenant of salt forever, before the Lord.”  As a preservative, salt symbolizes the eternal agreement between God and God’s people.  On Shabbat, Jews dip the bread in salt, which symbolizes the keeping of the covenant. We can see how Jesus’ uses salt as a symbol of constancy and covenant to teach faithful discipleship in our passage today.

Salt is constant, and at the same time, it’s capable of change. It can move from crystal to brine and back to crystal; and when it’s used to preserve food, it transforms the food into a self-stable product. Perhaps Jesus also sees salt as a transformational agent as well as a symbol of constancy.

Jesus pairs the image of salt with the image of light to talk about discipleship and how to share the knowledge and love of God.

Like salt, light also changes.  It shines, it dims, it reveals. Like salt, light has an eternal quality. 

Kurlansky writes in “Salt, A World History, that “from the beginning of civilization until about one hundred years ago, salt was one of the most sought after commodities in human history.”  I think this is important to remember as we consider what Jesus says to us today.

In a world where we salt is just another kitchen staple we occasionally buy at Safeway, we can easily miss Jesus’ point that salt is valuable.  If we are salt, and salt is precious, we are precious, we are valuable.  We do not need to become a better person to be salt, to prove ourselves in some way.  We ARE the salt of the earth. 

Think of the people Jesus spoke to originally.  They were downtrodden, they were poor, they were people who needed hope.  And Jesus says that they are the salt of the earth, that God loves them. He sends them out as bearers of the Gospel, and bearers of God’s light in the world.  He.’s speaking to us, too.

As I mentioned earlier, the carton of salt in the box of faded spices earlier this week was still salty after ten years.  I ended up putting it on my kitchen shelf with my collection of spices because salt is salt, and doesn’t go bad.  And I expect we’ll sprinkle it on food as we cook, and it will enhance and bring out the good flavor of whatever we make. 

The old-fashioned label on Morton’s salt has the motto, “When it rains it pours,” which reminded me that salt needs to be poured out, it needs to be used to do its flavorful work.

By calling us salt, Jesus tells us that our saltiness is meant to be poured out in the world.  Here’s our passage in the modern translation called “The Message”:

 “Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavor of this earth.  If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness…You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world.  God is not a secret to be kept. 

Today’s passage also made me think about who we are as a parish in transition, and it made me thankful that we at All Saints’ are a salty, well-seasoned! We’re really flavorful, even spicy.  That’s going to bode well for us as we move into the next faze of our interim period. That is Good News!

This morning I want to acknowledge that this has been a difficult week for those of us invested in the health and wholeness of our country.  It is tempting to retreat and hide from the news; it’s understandably tempting to be weary and jaded, and to check out.  But I think our passage about salt is timely in several ways.

For me this week, remembering my own God-given saltiness gives me courage to stay engaged, to mourn, and also to hope. With God’s help I will continue to live into my saltiness, my values as a liberal Christian.  Our saltiness, our Gospel values and standards of behavior and ethics are needed more than ever. Please do not despair.

It’s Good News that our ancient story that we tell over and over is one of brokenness and healing, death and resurrection.  In our passage from the Isaiah this morning we heard God calling God’s people to listen to the Lord, and promise that when they do, “they will be like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.  You shall be called the repairer of the breach.”  And in the reading from First Corinthians, we hear Paul speak of God’s wisdom which we have and the rulers of this world do not have.  Paul ends profoundly with, “We have the mind of Christ.”

We’re called to be the salt, the light, the mind of Christ.  The world needs us. Amen.

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A Sermon for The Presentation of our Lord & Candlemas

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Beth Lind Foote, Interim Rector, on The Presentation of our Lord & Candlemas, February 2, 2020

My kids grew up in a tight group of neighborhood friends who were all about the same age. Now they’re all in their late 20’s, early 30’s. The girl who grew up across the street from us just had the first baby of the group. She lives in Denver, and when we were in Colorado a couple of weeks ago, we got together to meet their new son, Finn.  Finn was a month old, very tiny, and in just a few minutes he wrapped us of us in the Foote family around his tiny little finger.

One thing I noticed that day was: when baby Finn came into the room, he rearranged the generations.  Suddenly, our kids were no longer the kids.  Finn was now the child, the 25-30 year olds were the adults, and Hale and I became…elders! 

It made me remember how babies are change agents. They’re change agents in their families and their communities; the world is always being renewed because human life is continually being renewed with new little humans like Finn.

One of the mysteries of the Christian faith known as the Incarnation, is that God became one of us by being born as a baby into the human family.

In our gospel passage today we see the baby Jesus already making waves in the world.  Mary and Joseph take him to be presented in the Temple. It was probably a perfunctory thing to do—buy your turtledoves and move on—but that day it turns out differently.

Simeon, an aged holy man, was guided by the Holy Spirit to come to the temple that day to meet the baby Jesus.  He recognized the baby Jesus and took him into his arms. Simeon blessed the holy family and spoke to Mary,  “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed –and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” 

Then Anna, a female prophet of great age, came up to them.  “and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” 

Today on the Presentation of our Lord, we witness an Epiphany.  Simeon and Anna recognize the Christ child for who he is, the Christ child who is destined to reveal truth, and God’s love in the world.

Whenever people encountered Jesus, they recognized him, and truth was revealed. We see this over and over in the Gospels. Last week we saw Jesus meet four fishermen, ordinary people, whom, like Simeon, recognized Jesus’ truth and power and they immediately follow Jesus.

Jesus emerges in the midst of Judaism of his time, and he comes to change the wider world by revealing truth, and love.  He is a great teacher, and he is something more.  He embodies the holy, as an infant, a youth, a man who gave his life for the love of all. As Christians, we believe that Christ lives in each one of us, the mystical body of God.

Here at All Saints’, we’ve been blessed to have two baptisms recently. At the end of the baptismal liturgy we give each person a baptismal candle and say, “Receive the light of Christ.” 

Today with our tradition of Candlemas, we celebrate the light of Christ coming into the world, by blessing candles and holding them aloft during our procession.  These candles remind us of our baptism, and of the light of Christ that we hold within us.  Please take them home with you as a reminder of the light that you carry into the world.

The tradition of Candlemas began in medieval times, when candles were the only source of light, especially in the dark days of winter.  Medieval symbolism saw in the Candle wax, wick and flame an analogy to Christ’s body, soul, and divinity.

February 2 is 40 days after Christmas and the winter solstice. Candlemas was the final feast of the Christmas season. By February 2, nature was stirring.  It was the day bears were supposed to come out of hibernation.  And by February 2, we recognize, like our ancestors, that the sun is setting a little later each day.  In folk tradition, Candlemas was the day when people made predictions on the weather similar to our Groundhog day. “If Candlemas Day is clear and bright, / winter will have another bite. / If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain, / winter is gone and will not come again.

Candlemas celebrates the kindling of the light, and the renewal of life come into the world. 

Each one of us was once a baby, like Jesus, like tiny baby Finn I held in Colorado. And like Jesus, each of us is a kind of change agent, because God created us unique individuals called into the world to embody truth and love. Through our birth we brought renewal to our families and to humanity; through our baptism we are lit with the light of Christ, and we are called to rekindle it throughout our lives.

As a parish, we are a constellation of people and light that comes together on Sunday morning, and today our light was made visible in the light of the candles held high. One of our tasks in the coming months is “how can we shine our constellation of light more effectively as a parish, in our neighborhood?”

We know that the truth needs to be revealed in our world right now.  Our country is in the midst of a great struggle for truth. We are thirsty for truth and for those who will stand up for it.  As followers of Jesus, we are invited to embody what Jesus stands for:  truth, and the power of love. 

How can we embody the light of Christ? How do we open ourselves to renewal and new life? How do we shine our light of Christ in the wider world? 

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Sermons

A Sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, January 26, 2020

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Beth Lind Foote, Interim Rector on the Third Sunday after the Epiphany. I finished my pilgrimage walking the Camino de Santiago on a rainy October day. When I reached the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, I paid my respect to the bones of St. James in a crypt beneath the altar. Like so many pilgrims before me, I was moved to be so close to the relics of St. James, who was so close to Jesus’ in his earthly life. 

Who was St. James?  Once he was simply James, the fisherman, one of the first people to follow Jesus.

In our Gospel today we hear the calling of James along with his brother John, and another set of brothers Peter and Andrew. What can we learn from this passage in the season of Epiphany, and in our season of Interim time? 

In the Episcopal Church we call these weeks between Christmas and Lent the Season of Epiphany. Today, we heard a few lines of Isaiah read both in our Old Testament lesson and in the Gospel:

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.”

These lines from Isaiah, also quoted in Matthew, give us our themes for Epiphany Season.  A great light has come and illuminated our world.  Christ has come in the person of Jesus and made everything new.  We see Christ’s light manifest in the world around us, and we are called to share it.

The Roman Catholics call this season, “ordinary time,” rather than give it another name.  And there’s something attractive about that, too.  If Epiphany focuses on the light of Christ, ordinary time reminds us that we are ordinary people who Christ calls in love to share that light with the world around us in our time.

And ordinary people can do extraordinary things out of love. 

These days, I admire Greta Thunberg, a teenager who speaks truth to power about climate change.  She is not intimidated by the condemnation of certain world leaders. She’s an ordinary person doing extraordinary things out of love for the earth.

This past week we celebrated Martin Luther King Day. By mobilizing ordinary people to uphold the dignity of every human being, MLK did extraordinary things out of love for justice and human rights.

In our Gospel passage today we see Jesus call four ordinary people to be his first disciples:  Peter and Andrew, James and John.  We may be so used to the story that we don’t see how unusual it is.  The Son of God does not call the powerful people of his day, rather, he calls ordinary people:  fishermen. 

Somehow in the middle of their workday by the Sea of Galilee those fishermen responded to Jesus’ powerful authentic love. They leave everything they know and follow him in faith.  They end up traveling far outside their comfort zone; they go from Galilee to Golgotha with Jesus, and after Pentecost they receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, which transforms them into apostles and martyrs.  You never know where love will take you.  It always causes us to stretch and go deeper, to give of ourselves, to receive joy, and to share it.

As I experienced on my Camino, James traveled to Spain to preach the gospel, went back to Jerusalem where he was martyred, and his body was returned to Spain. Peter became the first bishop of Rome, was martyred there, and his bones reside beneath the Vatican.  Andrew went to the eastern part of the empire, founded the church in Constantinople, and was martyred in Greece. Only John, the beloved disciple, and the youngest, lived into old age. Tradition says he wrote the Gospel of John.

Not bad for fishermen casting their nets in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire.  They said yes to Jesus’ invitation, and spread the Gospel of love throughout the Mediterranean world.  Ordinary people can do extraordinary things out of love.

I wonder what this means for us here in our Interim time? 

We, too, are ordinary people. And we are living in extraordinary times.  Christ invites us to share the gospel of love where we are in 2020.

We live in extraordinary times of economic change here in San Francisco, and the larger Bay Area.  The tech boom has rewritten the economic landscape, and that affects each one of us, our neighborhood and our parish. This is our context for ministry now.

As we know, All Saints’ has met extraordinary times before.  Father Harris opened our parish to a diverse population living in the Haight in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and ministered to the hippies of the late 1960’s and 1970’s.  We were a haven of God’s love during the AIDS Crisis in the late 80’s and 90’s.  We continue to feed hungry people every Saturday morning.  We have a legacy of love that can offer us direction into the future.  In the coming months, we’ll meet to talk about who we are as a parish today, and where we see Jesus calling us.

The good news is we have a jewel of a rectory next door that is a great investment in the future of our parish. Our Jr. Warden, Larry Rosenfeld has carefully stewarded the front end of the project with a lot of love.  Please offer Larry your thanks for all he has done so far, and for what he will continue to do as the project unfolds in the next few months. 

With the housing crisis, the renovation of our rectory has become more than a nice thing to do; it is essential to the health of our parish going forward.  It’s difficult for Episcopal priests to live in San Francisco or most of the Bay Area on their salary and given the probable age of our new priest to come, someone in their 30’s-40’s, they will probably have debt from college and seminary to pay off. With our rectory in good working order, we can attract a wider pool of applicants to be our next priest.

At the end of the service, we will process directly out the front door to the rectory steps.  Please follow the altar party and gather there with us. We will bless the beginning of the renovation project and our contractors.

In our Gospel today, Jesus invites the fishermen by saying, “follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”  

Notice he’s not inviting them to become better, more prosperous fishermen.  The invitation to “fish for people” is ambiguous and intriguing.  It’s outward-facing. 

Jesus uses what they know—fishing—to characterize the work of ministry that he will teach them over time.

He’s inviting them onto a path of change and growth in love.  He invites us onto a path of change and growth, too. 

What does it mean to “fish for people” in 2020, in San Francisco?  You never know where love will lead you, usually places you would never imagine.  But we know that Jesus will be there with us in love.  Amen.