A Sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 15, August 18, 2019

A Sermon preached by The Reverend Christopher L. Webber on the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 15, August 18, 2019.

I meet every week with a small Bible study group where I live and we’ve been making our way through the so-called history books: 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings. And the Bible is unlike the sacred scriptures of any other faith because of books like those, books of history. Much of the Bible is history, history, not teaching, or, rather, teaching with history. If you’re into comparative religion you can look at the Muslim Koran and the Hindu Bhagavadgita or the Buddhist Pali Canon and Agama and you will find wisdom but you will not find anything like the history books of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. Even the Old Testament this morning provides history indirectly as a parable.

Today we have to look at the first New Testament reading to get the Old Testament history summarized. It has to be summarized here, the author says,

For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets– who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight… Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; . . . (They were) destitute, persecuted, tormented– of whom the world was not worthy.

The passage ends by saying:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us . . .looking to Jesus the author and perfecter of our faith

One modern translation puts it: Jesus “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” I like that: “pioneer and perfecter.” I like that because Americans know about pioneers: people who range out ahead, exploring new land, settling, finally, even places like California and maybe the moon and Mars. Human beings are pioneers by nature. Think of the very first Americans crossing the Bering Strait – long before Jamestown or Plymouth – and moving down the west coast of the continent and spreading out across America first from west to east: first California, then New York, – that’s not the sequence they taught me in school but that’s what those first Americans did and not stopping in California either but moving also further south, crossing the border into Mexico without a wall to stop them. And all of that is part of the larger chronicle of which the Bible gives us only snippets, bits and pieces, but significant bits and pieces in which we can see more clearly the things we need to know about human society and human nature, things God wants us to learn and knows that we can learn by experience better than books. Our sacred book, our Bible, does have teaching, yes, of course, but grounded always in human experience, in history. We know because we’ve been there, we’ve done that, we’ve learned from events.

We’ve had some history lessons in recent weeks, haven’t we? Not for the first time. How many times do we need to be taught the same lesson before we act? Take chapter 4 of the Bible, for example: the story of Cain and Abel? In the larger picture – this is a personalized summary of what happens when shepherds and farmers, ranchers and farmers, have their eyes on the same land. But Abel was a keeper of sheep And Cain was a tiller of the soil. It’s condensed history: the Jews come on the scene as keepers of sheep moving into farm land in Canaan and fighting with the native farmers for that land. You can’t grow lettuce if the cattle aren’t fenced out and you can’t raise cattle if somebody fenced off the grazing land. So Cain and Abel happened, and it happened again as the west was settled, first by ranchers until human beings recognize that God made human beings for a purpose, that God made them to live together in peace and they need to learn the art of compromise and find ways to settle disputes before it comes to blows.

There came a time, long ago, when human beings understood that well enough to sum it up in four words: Thou shalt not kill. And later they learned an even better way to say it: love your neighbor as yourself. We learned that out of history by sad experience – or started to learn it because we’re not there yet, are we? Columbine, Parkland, Sandy Hook, Gilroy, Dayton, El Paso – the list gets longer and longer. How long, O Lord, how long?

Martin Luther King, Jr. confronted that question again and again. If you are black in America, you’re bound to ask. In one of his greatest sermons, King said,

I know you are asking today, “How long will it take?” Somebody’s asking, “How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, . . . Somebody’s asking, “When will wounded justice, lying prostrate on the streets of Selma and Birmingham and communities all over the South, be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men?” Somebody’s asking, . .. . How long will justice be crucified, and truth bear it?” I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because “truth crushed to earth will rise again.”
How long? Not long, because “no lie can live forever.” How long? Not long, because “you shall reap what you sow.” How long? Not long: How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. How long? Not long, because: Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord . . .

And our eyes have seen the glory in the battles raging now in the streets of Charlottesville and El Paso and still in Ferguson, Missouri, where American citizens are still stopped for driving while black as a good friends of mine have been even on Long Island and in northwestern Connecticut just a few years ago. It happens. It’s happening right now. But what we see when these dreadful things take place – what we’ve seen when people come together in a common grief – what we’ve seen is always a renewed determination to work and pray for something better. Not thoughts and prayers, Not hope and pray. No, but work and pray. Make a commitment to change, make a commitment to work and give to the city that has foundations. a commitment to the kingdom of God. A commitment to work together in faith remembering, remembering what God’s people have accomplished in faith, what we read about this morning:

By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, By faith the walls of Jericho fell . . .

By faith we will move on. And we read last week in this same passage from Hebrews about those others:

who confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way (we read) make it clear that they are seeking a homeland, that they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.

Yes, and some people are willing to wait, but I think God gives us the vision of that heavenly city to make us less patient with this one. I think we wouldn’t mind so much what’s happening if we didn’t have a vision of a different world, a better community. But we do and that’s why we’re not willing to settle for things as they are.

Dorothy L Sayers once said, “The best kept inns are on the through roads.” That was a hundred years ago. The best kept inns today are likelier to be at the airports than the train stations. We’re people in a hurry and now we know what’s possible and we’re not willing to wait. It’s because we have that vision that the patterns of life are being challenged and that’s frightening to some people who don’t share the vision, who think they can turn the clock back and build walls and deny travel documents to stop change from happening. It can’t be done. God is at work. Mine eyes have seen the glory – the glory of the vision of a nation where color no longer matters and ethnicity no longer matters but love matters and justice matters and peace matters and the faith that we can get there is the faith proclaimed in the readings last week and this: the faith that is shaking the foundations to tear down the city of human pride and build up the city of God

A Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 14, August 11, 2019

A Sermon preached by The Reverend Beth Lind Foote, Interim Rector, on the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 14, August 11, 2019

I recently had a few days outside the Bay Area bubble, in Cincinnati OH, where our oldest daughter ran the Episcopal Camp in the Diocese of Southern OH. She asked us to come to her last Family Camp session. We had a fun time at camp and met about 100 fellow Episcopalians. We also tie-dyed t-shirts in the cornfields, confirming that Haight-Ashbury has had a long-lasting cultural effect.

While we were at camp, President Trump held a rally in Cincinnati.  It was troubling to me being that close to it.  I was able to focus on my novel as I relaxed in a hammock for a few hours, but it was difficult for me to let go of all the trouble in the world. On our way home, we flew out of Columbus, OH. The interstate took us by the city of Dayton, and we know what happened there late last Saturday night, right after the shooting in El Paso.

These are troubling times, and it’s times like these when I find that I need my faith. I don’t take it for granted anymore.

What does faith mean to you?  What do our readings teach us about faith this morning?  How can we support each other’s faith during this Interim time, and time of great upheaval in our world?

According to classic Christian orthodoxy, faith is a gift initiated by God.  Later, the theologian, Martin Luther had a spiritual awakening as he read the Letter to the Romans, and led the Reformation with his assertion that we are justified with God by faith alone rather than by good works. 

When I served in Menlo Park, I learned to introduce the Nicene Creed with the words, “Let us affirm our faith in the words of the Nicene Creed,” which I think frames it well. The Creed affirms what the church came to believe in the 4th century, and when we say it together, we enter into a centuries long tradition of naming ancient articles of faith. As an Episcopal priest, I feel compelled to say, you don’t have to believe all of it all the time to be an Episcopalian.  But saying it together brings us into a common experience where we hear the faith of the church proclaimed yet again, and it always brings me to a place of wonder.

This week I was struck by the words near the beginning that say, “We believe in one God…maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.”

Faith rests on there on  “all that is, seen and unseen.”  We are familiar with the things we can see, and understand; and our faith leads us to look below the surface and over time our faith leads us to trust in things unseen.

At camp we had something called FOB, or “Flat on Back” time during the middle of the day, (basically nap time) and that’s when I read my novel in the hammock. The novel was a bestseller called, “The Overstory” by Richard Powers.  It’s a novel about the wisdom of trees, how people’s lives are intertwined with trees, how we’re destroying trees, and creation. The plot weaves together a cast of characters who become environmental advocates, some of them extremists, for the cause of defending trees.

The “Overstory” in the title refers to the unseen intelligence of trees, and the natural world.  Where humans see nature as something to be exploited, and used up, the novel shows us nature as valuable for its own sake, a very Anglican view of creation.

As I finished the book on the flight home, I found a redemptive message in the “unseen” intelligence of creation that is beyond our understanding. Things unseen are moving below the surface, beyond our control, and that gave me hope.

A growing Faith is hopeful like that, too.  Our faith consists of those “articles of faith” in the Creed, and also the unseen becoming ever more real to us. Faith is an ever-growing trust in God’s unseen action and love in the world.

In today’s reading from the Letter to the Hebrews, we hear the classic verse, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. “ which fits with the opening words of the Creed.  Paul uses the words “assurance,” and “conviction” to describe faith.

Paul also uses the story of Abraham following God’s call to explain what faith is.  Paul writes, “By faith, Abraham OBEYED when he was called to set out.” Faith is an invitation by God  to step out beyond our comfort zone, like Abraham did.  Faith is ever-changing; God continually calls us out into a deeper faith, and to face the unknown without fear.  Or at least to understand that fear is part of life, and to trust God and move ahead anyway, with courage.

James Fowler’s classic work on the different stages of faith talks about a spiral upward movement of disintegration and reintegration as our faith matures.  I believe that in an interim time there’s a similar process going on.  There’s a process of disintegration and reintegration as we move farther along the Interim journey.  It can feel uncomfortable. We can feel anxiety and fear.  But through that process of spiritual growth we grow stronger as a community.

In our Gospel passage, Jesus offers his disciples and us, an alternative view of living a life of faith, beyond fear.  He offers a life of faith based on the God’s pleasure to give us the kingdom. It affirms God’s faith in us as God’s beloved.  When I experience that aspect of faith, the world becomes lighter. It’s not all up to us to hold it all together.  God is holding us in a relationship of faith.  God is unseen, yet God is there.  God is the “Overstory” if you will, behind the scenes. 

Jesus says, “Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

This is Good News for us as Christians, because when we remember that it is God’s pleasure to give us the kingdom, we can see all that we have as God’s gift.  We become stewards of what God has given us, rather than hoarders.  We can loosen our grip on life a bit and notice our faith is carrying us along, something like the mystery of riding a bike.

There is so much that we are holding onto right now.  We legitimately have a lot to worry about in our country. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, something else bad happens.  As I mentioned, it was hard for me to relax on my vacation.

But perhaps the world is going through one of those spirals of disintegration and reintegration, too.  Maybe society is spiraling up towards a new consciousness, and we have to go through this period of disintegration and we can’t see the big picture because we are too close to it.  Maybe confronting white nationalism, racism, and the NRA out in the open is what needs to happen to bring us to a new day.  I pray that we may all work towards a more equitable and moral society.

Jesus also says, “do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”  In this Interim time we may have fears about how we are doing at All Saints’ and what our future will be, along with our concerns about the world around us.  Let’s surround those concerns with intentional prayer.  Let’s ask God for what we need specifically on our journey of faith.  God is listening, it is God’s pleasure to give us the kingdom.  But we must we must ask for it, we must participate in the work of bringing it about.

Take courage, little flock.  Christ is with us, and he asks us to trust and to be ready for action, be ready to grow in faith, be ready to receive joy.  Amen.