A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, March 29, 2020

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Beth Lind Foote, Interim Rector, on the Fifth Sunday of Lent, March 29, 2020

Hello everyone.  I’m recording my sermon and posting to YouTube from my home in Alameda. We are doing well.  My 90 year old Dad remains in the nursing home at St. Paul’s Towers in Oakland after breaking his hip, and we can’t visit.

But yesterday we had a Zoom call with him. It was really good to see him on the screen and talk face to face. 

Seeing people’s faces on Zoom is a powerful thing.  On Wednesday night we had our first All Saints’ zoom meeting. About 12 people came, and it warmed my heart to see everyone’s faces.  It made me realize how much I miss you all and celebrating the Eucharist with you on Sunday morning.  Later this morning we’ll try our first Sunday morning zoom service.

The Coronavirus is changing life as we know it, and as a priest it’s challenging me to learn technology that I’ve never used before, like YouTube, and Zoom. 

Before now, the Episcopal Church has not really embraced the broadcasting of services.  The National Cathedral and other cathedrals have done it, but not many churches.  Why is that?

I think that overall, we are traditionalists at heart.

We also have an incarnational theology of worship that invites us to actively participate in the liturgy.  We stand for the Gospel, and for the prayers; we greet each other with the Peace.  And then, of course, we participate in the Great Thanksgiving, and we come forth to receive the blessed bread and wine.

All Saints’ Anglo-Catholicism heightens this incarnational approach.  We cross ourselves, we bow, we kneel. We sprinkle the people with holy water, we take in the sweet scent of incense. We chant, and our voices respond with hymns. We create the liturgy together as the gathered people. 

We do it all to create the beauty of holiness, and if you go to YouTube and watch the Mass we recorded on March 15, you can see most of the familiar aspects of our worship.

I know that you all miss our Anglo-Catholic liturgy, and our beautiful church. I do, too.

I realized this week that what I’m feeling is grief. I am grieving for the loss of our face-to-face community, and I am grieving for the familiar way we have always done things at church, and I’m grieving for many other things, too. 

Accepting the uncomfortable feelings of grief (because there are many aspects to grief) has helped me find new footing this week. It’s important to be realistic about where we are in the midst of this strange situation. 

At the same time, I am thankful for technology. It brings us closer in such a stressful time when we cannot be together.  With zoom, especially, we can be face-to-face in real time.  And for that I’m thankful.

I’m also thankful for the many conversations I’ve had on the phone with parishioners.  I spoke with Rod Dugliss early in the week and he said, “we have a larger story that encompasses hope.”  And that has stuck with me through all the bad news this week.

We have a larger story that encompasses hope.  Certainly, our readings today speak to that larger story, that larger hope.

Our reading from Ezekiel is known as The Valley of the Dry Bones, and is one of the traditional readings for the Great Vigil of Easter.  God shows the prophet Ezekiel a valley strewn with dry bones, which represent the people of Israel. When Ezekiel prophesies to the bones, God causes them to rattle up from the ground, coming together into skeletons, and flesh and skin covers them. God breathes upon the bones and they live, a great multitude are brought back to life.

In the midst of this Lent, when we have given up so much; in the midst of this serious pandemic, I find hope in this story of the dry bones. It reminds us we have a larger story.

The Dry Bones story also speaks to the resurrection of the body. The ancient gnostic Christians valued spirit above the body, and argued that the separation of the spirit from the body after death was a triumph. Early Orthodox Christians disagreed.  They affirmed that the spirit and the body were one, and they argued that the body good and holy, and that a body was needed for resurrection to happen. The argument between the two camps came to a head during the Christian persecutions when the Romans deliberately destroyed the bodies of Christian martyrs to prove the Christians wrong about resurrection.   

Ultimately, the orthodox Church Fathers went back to the story of the dry bones, and the creation story when God breathes life into Adam to affirm that God doesn’t need a complete body to bring us to resurrection. Our resurrection is totally up to God. This also gives me hope. We have a larger story, a story that encompasses hope.

In our reading from the Gospel of John we see Jesus raise Lazarus’ body from the dead. The text makes it clear that Lazarus is truly dead.  When Jesus says, “Take away the stone,” Mary says, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”

So we have a pretty stark scene of death, in our Gospel passage and in our world today. Yesterday I saw that in Madrid they’re using an ice rink as a makeshift morgue for victims of COVID-19.

I’m lingering here in front of the tomb for a moment because I feel like that’s where we are right now in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. 

The scene in Bethany when Jesus arrives and everyone is in mourning feels strangely familiar right now.  If we look at Italy, and Spain, and now New York City, and other parts of the U.S., we see people in shock at what’s happening, we see people mourning the dead, and other things, too. 

I’ve been mourning the poor response by our government, and the way our health care system is set up.  Why aren’t we better prepared?

I think we are mourning the disruption of our regular lives.  Our freedom. We take so much for granted.  The pandemic has thrown all of us into a place of uncertainty about the future. 

In terms of us at All Saints’, I am mourning the loss of momentum in our interim time.

I acknowledge that at this moment in Lent we are Lazarus in the tomb, we are Mary and Martha in mourning, and we are Jesus, who weeps for his friend, and who is deeply disturbed by death. We are human, we are mortal.  We may be contemplating our own mortality in a new way.

And yet we have Jesus out in front of us.  He says “I am the resurrection and the life.  Those who believe in me, even though they die, wil live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”  Like Martha and Mary, we can affirm our faith in Jesus, the Christ.  That gives me hope.  We have a larger story, a story that encompasses hope.

Jesus says “take away the stone,” and cries out, “Lazarus, come out!” When Lazarus emerges from the tomb, Jesus told the people, “Unbind him, and let him go.”  What do we need unbound in us?  How can we help unbind each other?

In the last couple of days I’m starting to see this shelter-in-place as an interim time within an interim time, like a play within the play in Shakespeare. 

Where is God in this time of quarantine?  What is God calling to us to learn at All Saints’ that we’ve not learned so far in the interim time?

As we mark the last Sunday in Lent, let’s remember that God is with us through this difficult time, and Jesus is calling us out of the tomb into newness of life.  As Rod Dugliss said, “we have a larger story, a story that encompasses hope.”  Amen.

A Sermon for the Second Sunday of Lent, March 8, 2020

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Beth Lind Foote, Interim Rector, on the Second Sunday of Lent, March 8, 2020

Last week the Gospel of Matthew led us out into the wilderness with Jesus for Lent, and this week it feels like we really are in the wilderness. What a Lent it’s turning out to be! With the concern over the coronavirus, the tumbling stock market, the stress of the 2020 election cycle—all these things come together to mark this Lent as a strange time. Maybe, given the level of uncertainty we’re living with, it’s fortuitous that the rest of our Gospel readings for Lent all come from the Gospel of John, which is known for its mysticism and its beauty. We could use both right now.

Today we hear the story of Nicodemus, next week we meet the woman at the well, the fourth Sunday is the healing of the Blind Man, and the last Sunday of Lent we hear the raising of Lazarus. All of these stories are unique to the Gospel of John, and each one shows us an intimate encounter healing encounter with Jesus.

Compared to the other people Jesus encounters Nicodemus seems to have has his life together.  He’s a Pharisee after all, and Pharisees were upstanding religious leaders. 

But in today’s reading John presents us with another side of Nicodemus. What can we learn from this story today in the midst of our strange and anxious Lenten season?

Nicodemus seems to have a yearning for a deeper spirituality than what his tradition has taught him, and he seeks out Jesus.  The fact that John says he came “by night,” symbolizes the mystical quality of Nicodemus’ spiritual yearning.

Jesus immediately sizes up Nicodemus and initiates a conversation about being “born.”

He says, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above…no one can enter the kingdom of god without being born of water and the Spirit.  The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it but you do not know where it come from or where it goes.  So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Poor Nicodemus is flummoxed by this talk about being “born” of the spirit. He takes Jesus literally and asks,  “How can these things be?”

We don’t know what happened to Nicodemus after his dialogue by night with Jesus. Maybe he supported his movement financially. Maybe he followed Jesus’ ministry from the safety of his position as a Pharisee. And maybe something new was being born in him.

Because the story of Nicodemus continues. He reappears another two times in John’s Gospel.  In both instances, John identifies Nicodemus as “Nicodemus who came to Jesus by night,” which reminds us of who Nicodemus is, and he came to Jesus.

About midway through John’s Gospel, Nicodemus, uses his influence as a member of the Sanhedrin to defend Jesus when the temple police want to arrest Jesus for teaching in the Temple. And after the crucifixion, Nicodemus comes out of the shadows to bring 75 pounds of myrrh and aloes to prepare Jesus’ body for burial, which makes it a burial on the scale of a king.  Nicodemus along with Joseph of Arimethia break all sorts of religious and social traditions by personally attending to Jesus’ body.  It was something never done by men, and it made them ritually unclean. 

If we look at the whole arc of the story of Nicodemus, we see someone whose faith grows over time, and whose faith required a degree of sacrifice.  We see someone who is being born of the Spirit.

It’s ironic that the story of Nicodemus, which shows us the process of spiritual growth over time, has become associated with the term “born again”.  In evangelical American Christianity, “born again,” means that you’ve had a definitive one-time conversion experience. Nicodemus did not have a one time experience of being “born again”, his faith grew as a process.

What do I hear in this story as we travel through Lent in 2020? In this time of uncertainty, I recognize in myself a desire for more clarity and control, a very human sign of stress.  But as I sat with this passage, I found new meaning in Jesus words about the wind.  “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”  I wonder what is being born in me by the Spirit this Lent?  What is being born here at All Saints?  What is being born in all of you?

Personally, I feel a new appreciation for the movement of the spirit. Sometimes we don’t understand where it’s blowing, and we need to trust, have faith, and listen for it. I hear Jesus saying God is still active in the world. The winds of the Spirit are still blowing. We need to raise our sails to catch the wind of the Spirit as we mature in faith, as we move forward in our time of transition, as we move forward as a society.

Last Wednesday we had our first Wednesday evening Lenten program, “Signs of Life,” and we talked about the meaning of “Light” to our faith. One of the monks in our video talked about the comfort he felt seeing the light of the sanctuary lamp in the chapel.  We also have a sanctuary lamp that is lit 24 hours a day, and it is comforting to see it when I come into the dark church.

The video talked about the play of light and dark in John’s Gospel, and how light was there before God created the earth, and how Jesus calls himself the light of the world.  In the story of Nicodemus we see the interplay of the darkness of night and the light of the world, and Jesus draws him towards the light of new life.

In 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr. used the Nicodemus story as a metaphor for the United States’ need to be “born again” to address social and economic inequality.  Half a century later, we need that kind of rebirth more than ever.  In his language about being “born” again, Jesus challenges us to let the new be born within us, as a society, as a church, and as individual followers of Jesus.  Birth is hard work, and it leads to new beginnings, a new life.

In these challenging times, I also find comfort in the familiar verse from John that I’d like to reclaim as a touchstone for us this morning, “For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only begotten son that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”  May new faith be born again in you this Lenten Season.  Amen

A Sermon for the First Sunday of Lent, March 1, 2020

A Sermon preached by The Reverend Christopher L. Webber on the First Sunday of Lent, March 1, 2020. Well over three thousand years ago the Hebrews were a nomadic tribe wandering in the deserts of the middle east. All around them were people who were learning to be farmers: Egyptians, Babylonians, Canaanites who raised wheat and barley and melons and other good things to eat. And because they depended on the sun and the rain and the rivers, the soil and the seasons, and because these were not always favorable, these agricultural people prayed to the powers that they thought determined success or failure, abundance or hunger, and they made statues and images as a focus for their prayers.

The Hebrews, however, were nomads. They had no crops to raise, so they had no need for gods of that sort. For them there was one God, invisible, all-powerful, known in the uncontrollable volcano at Sinai and the desert storms.  So when the Hebrews came into the promised land and tried to learn farming themselves they looked to the Canaanites for advice and they were told, “Well, here’s what you do: you set up a pillar or carve some statues of wood or stone and you make offerings, and you cry out to Baal or Astarte or whichever god you need at the moment for rain or sun or whatever crop it is.”

Some of the Hebrews tried it out and sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t, but they thought it was better to do it than not do it. Hey, you never know. But others resisted and said, “No, the God of our ancestors commanded us to make no statues because our God is beyond all possibility of representation. And our God also cannot be influenced by the size of our offerings or anything like that. We can try to line up with God but no way we can get God to line up with us.”

That was a conflict that went on for centuries. The Hebrews were divided by it with prophets and their visions on one side and the practical people on the other. The prophets said, “It doesn’t matter where you are or what the agenda is; there is one God, no other. You can serve God, but God can’t be bribed to serve you.” But the practical people said, “Look, the Canaanites have the experience and the smart thing is to hedge your bets, not put all your eggs in one basket, always backup your computer, don’t take chances.”

But the prophets didn’t give up; always there were prophets who insisted God is beyond all this and if this becomes an idol God can and will destroy it and God can even destroy you, the chosen people, if you turn to your own ways, because God is always beyond, always greater than we can imagine and God asks us to respond in a freedom that lacks the apparent security of walls and borders and images and festivals and buildings and laws. God is not limited by our constructions. God is free. And God calls us to respond in freedom giving ourselves without limit to the God who loves us without limit.

Well, that’s what Lent is about: it’s a reminder that we are by origin a wandering, wilderness people with an unconfined God, a God who is free and calls us to freedom. Lent summons us to remember who we are and respond to that challenge. For forty days every year we are challenged to follow Jesus back out into the wilderness of our nomadic ancestors where there is none of the security of plowed land and settlements and walls and well-traveled roads. The Prayer Book speaks of Lent as a time of “special acts of discipline and self-denial.” It asks us to find out whether we can get along without the images and the idols – the things, the possessions, that give us a feeling of security. Can we put them aside and learn to live with God alone?

All the old traditional disciplines of Lent,  giving up candy and movies and television – the images of Canaan and Babylon – are basically about that: how addicted are you to the local idols? how dependent on material things? what is it that takes the time you might have used for prayer or the energy that might have been used to help someone in need or to work to change a society that seems indifferent to the needs of others? It’s probably not something as simple as candy or computer games. It’s things that have become part of the very fabric of our lives and it will hurt to tear them out. The idols are where they are because we’ve learned to love them and depend on them and believe we need them. Lent asks us to focus on the question: who is your God?

One of the old mystics used to say, “This, too, is not God.” It’s a good line to remember. “This too is not God.” I think some of the most divisive arguments in our public life, church and state, are about idols – not God. We still want our images, things to hold onto; we are still afraid of the desert.

The church today is being torn apart by those who insist on this reading of the Bible rather than that one, my way of reading the law and the security it gives me rather than your way which makes me nervous. And not enough of us are prepared to stop and say “Let’s really listen to each other; let’s admit that my way and your way both are inadequate images, neither one is an absolute and final and complete picture of God and never can be. So let me hear how what you have to say honors God and let me try to explain why I believe my views honor God and one way or another let’s recognize that we both are seeking to honor God and God is not honored by our anger or by a narrow clinging to images. Let’s confess our limitations and try still to love each other even if we no more understand each other than we truly and fully understand God.”

The church I served for twenty-two years, like this church and many others, follows the old English custom in Lent which wasn’t purple but monks cloth. You come into church on Ash Wednesday and the crosses and pictures are draped in simple sack cloth and it always feels to me like spring cleaning – the visual distractions are covered and there’s a sense of simplicity and cleanness.

The Russian Orthodox have a custom called pustina, which has to do with going into a bare cell, a room with four walls and no more, to spend a day or two days or more – with nothing to see, nothing to hold on to – “sensory deprivation,” I think might be the modern phrase, removal of distractions. And who needs some such practice more than 21st century Americans whose lives are so full and whose souls are so empty? Lent is a time to clean house, to be rid of idols and images and preconceived notions and start afresh.

Now, let me ask you to look at it another way:  we speak loosely of the desert or wilderness, but years ago, when I was in Israel, we had a guide who took us down from Jerusalem to Jericho – down through the barren land where Jesus spent those forty days – and along the way he showed us a bright splash of green down the side of a steep cliff and he said it came from a break in a conduit taking water to an ancient monastery and he said it shows you that this is not truly desert but wilderness. There is a difference. Desert, true desert, he said, is where nothing can grow. Wilderness is where growth can take place if only it has water. When the spring rains come it bursts into bloom. When the aqueduct springs a leak, the barren land turns green.

Think about that this Lent. Yes, go back out into the desert, get rid of the idols, but then ask yourself this: where I am, can anything grow? Am I in the desert or the wilderness? Go out onto the paved street outside the church and pour some water on it and watch for awhile. Probably that’s desert, not wilderness. Probably nothing can grow there. Try it in your office or place of work. Pour some water in a corner near your desk or work place and watch for a week or so and see what happens. Try it at home. Pour some water on the television set, maybe a quart or so every day for a week. Does anything grow? Does any life emerge? Did it ever? But it might do good things for you anyway if you water it well. I will guarantee that if you do that you will have a better social life, your thinking will clarify, and you will lose weight. But seriously, Lent is a time to ask whether I’m in a place where life can come or not: desert or wilderness: which is it?

For all the visual richness of our society a lot of it is desert: dead as it can be and deadening to those who come there. But we are not like the wilderness plants; we can move; we can pick ourselves up and put ourselves in a place where life can emerge and develop – real life, the life of the spirit, life that can transcend even death itself. And we can carry that life with us and make things bloom where we are. I trust this church is such a place. I trust your home and place of work can be such a place. But it depends on what you bring to it from here, from the sacraments ministered here, from the Word of God read and proclaimed and taught here. I suspect that this community, the places you work in, the places you live in are wilderness, needing what you can absorb here and take there and capable of real life.

But it’s not automatic and it won’t happen unless you want it to happen. God twists very few arms. God wants us to respond in freedom. But God does want us to grow. God does want us to focus on life. God does want us to turn away from all that which is not God to come to the One who is.

A Sermon for Ash Wednesday, February 26, 2020

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Beth Lind Foote, Interim Rector, for Ash Wednesday, February 26, 2020.

On Ash Wednesday we step over a threshold into Lent, the season of self-examination, reflection, and preparation for Easter, the great Christian Mystery.  Every year we encounter God’s generous love story with humanity in which Jesus lives, dies and is raised for us. If we take the opportunity to enter into this reflective season, our hearts can be opened more fully to God’s love.

As we make our way through the Ash Wednesday liturgy we will encounter language that focuses on our sinfulness. Since I firmly believe many of us are already overly critical of ourselves I always say that Ash Wednesday is not a day to pile on the guilt. However, sin is not something to be swept under the rug.  On Ash Wednesday we acknowledge our individual human sinfulness and our corporate participation in the systemic sins of our society.  And the later seems very real to me this particular Ash Wednesday.

Lent is a time when we can de-clutter our spiritual house, shift our daily habits, maybe let go of something that doesn’t work for us anymore. Lent is a time to exfoliate our souls, to let fall some of the armor that we’ve constructed around ourselves.  Lent is also a time we can grow closer with others in our faith community. In this Interim period, it’s a time we can consider who we are now as a community of faith. Lent is a time when we can intentionally spend more time with God.

Years ago I was introduced to the idea of “horizontal” vs. “vertical” time.  Horizontal time is what we are all compulsively aware of, what clocks and calendars are for.  In horizontal time our lives unfold day by day on a continuum.  The past is behind us, and we’re looking ahead to the future. And our perspective of horizontal time changes as we move through life. The point is, we’re riding along on the river of time.

In Vertical Time we momentarily step out of the river of time. We can experience Vertical time through prayer and meditation in all its forms.  In Vertical Time we live INTO this moment and accept the NOW as a gift from God. There’s another term for vertical time called “Kairos”, which means God’s time.

Pausing to step into Vertical Time or Kairos opens space within our selves. It displaces our constant time-keeping, so that we can simply BE with God.   

I think that Jesus invites us into Kairos time in the Gospel we heard today when he denounces the practices of the conspicuously religious elite, and dismisses a spirituality ruled by the ego.

Instead, Jesus models through his teaching and his life an intimate way of BEING with God that becomes second nature, an on-going dialogue, something that becomes an integral part of who you are; it beats in your heart. Jesus says, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

As we sit together in this beautiful space, let us take a moment of Vertical time and consider, “where is our treasure?  Where is our heart?” 

What can we leave behind this Lent that is cluttering up our inner space?  What needs to go so there’s more room for God?  Resentments, wounds, expectations, grudges, habits of being, what gets in our way of being our true selves?  What troublesome aspect of our lives can we ask Jesus to surround with love and dissolve, to heal?

The intersection of the horizontal and the vertical creates the shape of the Cross.  In Franciscan theology, the Cross is seen as the intersection of the human and the divine, the instrument through which we are reconciled to God.  This is part of the mystery that we contemplate in the Season of Lent.

In a few minutes we will come forward and receive the imposition of ashes as the sign of the cross on our foreheads with the words, “You are dust, and to dust you will return.”  At our baptism we are sealed as Christ’s own forever and anointed on our forehead with the sign of the cross.  Today these ashes will trace that same cross. 

Ashes are a powerful reminder of both the horizontal and vertical relationship we have with time. They remind us of our death, and they remind us of our eternal life.

These ashes are made of the very dust of creation, the soil of the sacred earth. God brought us to life out of the dust.  As part of our Lenten discipline, please imagine what God can do with the dust of our lives this Lent?  Imagine. 

May each one of you be blessed by a holy Lenten journey.  Amen.