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A Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 20, September 22, 2019

A Sermon preached by the Reverend Beth Lind Foote, Interim Rector, on the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 20, September 22, 2019

What WAS that passage that we just heard? The Parable of the Dishonest Steward is a very strange Parable.  You may wonder, is it even a Parable? Why does Jesus make this crooked guy the hero of the story?

When Jesus tells us a story, we expect certain things to happen.  But this is one of those Parables where Jesus, the master storyteller, does something different.  He confuses us.

Confusion makes us stop in our tracks. Confusion can shift us out of auto-pilot and open our eyes to reality. So let’s look for a moment at the confusing Parable before us today. 

In Luke’s Gospel, The Parable of the Dishonest Steward comes shortly after the Prodigal Son, and I think the two stories play off of each other.  The Manager and the Prodigal Son are both untrustworthy. They have both been given wealth to manage and they both squander it. The Prodigal Son blows his inheritance on dissolute living.  The Dishonest Steward gets caught mismanaging the Rich man’s wealth.  And once they both  “hit bottom,” both of them are forced to pivot in some new direction to survive. 

The Prodigal Son has an internal dialogue saying he will work as a hired hand on his father’s farm, and turns towards home.  We hear the Dishonest Steward’s internal dialogue as well, “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me?  I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.  I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.”  Both of them have the realization that life is deeply relational. 

They act upon that in different ways.  The Prodigal Son throws himself on his father’s mercy, and the story becomes all about reconciliation and forgiveness, and unconditional love.

The Dishonest Steward is more worldly, and the Parable reveals an uncomfortable truth about the way the world works. The economic system we live in has an enormous hold on all of us.  The Dishonest Steward knows that if he cuts the debts of the rich man’s debtors, they will take him in. He becomes a sort of Robin Hood rather than a bill collector.  The social contract is suddenly changed in his favor even though, to our eyes, it seems to make him even more dishonest.  The rich man applauds what he does.  Jesus’ listeners probably did, too.

In Jesus’ time there was enormous income inequality.  A few people were rich, like the steward’s boss, and it was way less than 1%, and most of the populace lived in desperate poverty.

That was the reality that Jesus’ listeners lived in.  It’s important for us to remember that as we hear the Gospel read in a 21st century context. They lived in a broken system and they knew it. People felt their own brokenness on a daily basis.

Ironically, in the Bay Area of 2019, with income equality becoming more extreme, we may understand the broken world of the Dishonest Steward more than we did in the past.

For most of my life, there was a belief in the American Dream and the promise of the middle class.  If you worked hard you could go to college, maybe own a home, and you certainly could rent somewhere to live. Our 20th Century economic assumptions gave us a sense of safety that has wasted away for many of us. As we’ve seen this week with the massive climate strikes around the world, people are concerned that the earth itself will survive.  This is the source of enormous unspoken anxiety in our lives.

I don’t want to depress you this morning, but our world is a broken world. We are broken human beings in a broken world.  Are you depressed yet?

Jake Owensby, the Bishop of Western Louisiana, writes a blog called, “Looking for God in messy places” on the lectionary readings. His approach to scripture is always illuminating and close to the bone.

Bishop Owensby writes about our passage today:

For centuries others have been shaping the world’s economies, political systems, social structures, and climate. Apparently, those people never considered consulting us, but we’re left to muddle through the world that they’ve left for us. It is what it is. What remains for us is, “So what are you willing to do?”

Observing the success, prestige, and comfort achieved by the world’s most cunning people, it can be tempting to be what some call realistic. To play the world’s game by the rules of the shadiest and most ruthless among us.

And yet, Jesus urges a different course. Don’t be naive, he says. Acknowledge how this world so often works. But don’t merely accept it. On the contrary, resist it. Resist it with love.

“It is what it is.”  There’s brokenness all around us, and within us. In our disposable society, we reject and throw away anything that is broken. We’ve forgotten that brokenness is an invitation to for mending, healing, and renewal. 

I like what Bishop Owensby says, “It is what it is.  What remains for us is, “So what are we willing to do about it?”

In this Parable Jesus acknowledges “It is what it is” and says God is even in that messy and anxiety ridden place that we inhabit on a daily basis.

Last Sunday we had our first history day of our interim time together.  We put ourselves on the timeline of All Saints’ history, and we had some good conversations at our tables.  We asked how you came to All Saints’ and what at All Saints’ has brought you joy.

Today we gather again after the 10:00 Mass for another history day.  If you weren’t here last Sunday I’d like you to put yourself on the timeline and address that question about what has brought you joy at All Saints’ with your table mates.

In the email newsletter I asked you all to bring a photo from the past to share.  If you brought a photo, I’d like you to share write down what it means to you and who was in the photo.  Then share it with your table mates and share what it means to you.  I’m going to come around and snap a digital photo of your photos and get prints made so we can put them on the timeline.

We have a rich history together here at All Saints’.  There’s joy, and also I’m aware that our history includes deep loss and brokenness. I wonder if some of you today feel safe enough in our loving community to share what that was like here at All Saints’? 

I’ve been wondering how that sense of loss has affected our parish?  Today I will prayerfully invite you to share some of that history of our brokenness. 

The Good News is that Christ has been here with us through all of it. Christ knows our deepest hurts and longings for healing. As we will here in our hymn today, there is a Balm in Gilead.  Amen.

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Sermons

A Sermon for the 4th Sunday after Pentecost, July 7, 2019

A Sermon preached by The Reverend Christopher L. Webber for the 4th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 9, July 7, 2019

I woke up last Sunday to pictures of the President stepping across a raised line in Korea and I’ve been trying all week to understand why the same man would want to ignore a border in Korea and build one up in Texas. I’ve been wondering whether today’s Old Testament reading can help us understand. It’s all about borders: the walls we build and the walls we tear down.

Naaman was a Syrian: commander of the armies of Aram Aram or Syria – same thing – a major power in those days stretching from the Mediterranean to the Euphrates It took in modern Syria and most of Iraq. Some borders mattered to Naaman and some didn’t. He ignored borders when he wanted to plunder his Hebrew neighbors. He was raiding south of the border one day and captured a young Hebrew woman and brought her north as a slave to serve his wife. Borders couldn’t stand in the way of personal gain.

Naaman’s behavior is similar, I think, to the way American corporations have plundered Central America for generations, exploited resources, overthrown governments, enriched a few and impoverished many. The American novelist, O Henry, invented the term “Banana Republic” to describe the governments created by the United Fruit Company and others to enrich American investors and impoverish Hondurans and Guatemalans. Borders don’t matter when we’re looking for plunder.

Israel had been a plunderer in the time of David and Solomon but now Israel was the plunderee, now it was a banana republic, ravaged by Egypt to the south and Syria to the north. Naaman would have understood our politics today. You might bring a few Central Americans north as servants and to work in the fields, you would certainly plunder the wealth, but you would build walls to keep most of the people you impoverished from coming north themselves. You build borders to protect yourself from that.

But the situation was complicated because Naaman was a leper. Well, it looked like leprosy. They couldn’t much tell different skin diseases apart in those days, but it looked like leprosy and that was scary. Leprosy ate away at your body and slowly destroyed you, and it was contagious so you exiled lepers, you made them stay outside the towns and cities, wander the countryside, but not get close. Lepers had to stay outside an invisible border ringing a bell to warn you and calling out “Unclean, unclean.”

But Naaman was the commanding general of the Syrian armies, so he wouldn’t be exiled quickly, but if that patch on his arm began to spread and he couldn’t hide it that was the end: no more palace, no more servants, no more luxuries, but a slow, painful, miserable death away from everything he valued and everything he cared about. But the Hebrew servant girl knew something, and she told Naaman’s wife and Naaman’s wife told him. The servant girl said, “There’s a prophet in Israel who does healings. Some say he even raised the dead. Maybe he can solve your problem.” So Naaman told the king and the king gave consent and Naaman headed south with a small army of servants and soldiers and went straight to the king’s palace in Israel.

The king of Israel at the time was probably King Jehoram, son of Ahaz, but this minor king was so unimportant we’re never told his name. So Naaman showed up at the door with a small army and said, “Cure my leprosy.” Well, the maid never said the king could do it, but Naaman just started at the top and scared Jehoram to death. “Me cure leprosy? Is he looking for another war?” But they got things straightened out and General Naaman went to see Elisha. And Elisha couldn’t be bothered even to go to the door. “Leprosy? No problem. Tell him to go wash in the Jordan and he’ll be fine.”

But Naaman was outraged. “Wash in the Jordan? That muddy creek?” We’ve got better rivers in Syria. Well, they did. Yjey had the Euphrates. He could have washed in the mighty Euphrates. Why bother to come all the way down south to wash in some muddy brook in Israel? Naaman flew into a rage and it took a while for his servants to calm him down. “Look,” they said, “if he’d asked you to do a hundred pushups or wash all over with Chanel #5 – wouldn’t you have done it? So why not the simple thing? What’s to lose?” So, grudgingly, he did. And it worked. And he was thrilled And that’s the end of today’s reading. It’s supposed to parallel or connect with the Gospel reading about Jesus sending the disciples out on a healing mission, but I’d rather make the connection to the headlines and borders.

So let me just finish off the story that the reading left hanging, unfinished. Here’s what we didn’t hear. Naaman was thrilled. He went back to Elisha and offered to pay him. But Elisha waved him off. “No problem. Go on home. Don’t worry. Forget about it.” So then – here’s the part I like – Naaman said, “Well, OK, but at least let me take back to Syria two mule loads of earth.”

Why? What’s that about? Naaman wants the dirt because now he knows there’s a God in Israel who answers prayer and he wants a chunk of Israel to stand on from now on when he prays so the God of Israel will hear him.

Do you see what’s happening? We’re at a stage of human development, religious development, when different people had different gods and the gods were connected with certain areas, certain lands. When in Israel, pray to Jehovah. When in Syria, pray to Baal. Gods have borders too. But Baal didn’t help my leprosy and Yahweh did. So if I have to go back to Syria maybe I can take some of Israel with me and stand on it when I pray and this powerful Israelite God will still hear my prayers

Here’s the point: this is a story of events that took place almost 3000 years ago and they were at a very early stage in the story of the human understanding of God. Move down a few centuries and you find Isaiah, another prophet for another time, and Isaiah knew something Naaman didn’t know and maybe Elishah didn’t either. Isaiah knew that God is a God who rules all nations. Isaiah knew that God could take King Cyrus of Babylon and use him as a tool in God’s hand. Isaiah knew that the God of Israel is the only God and there is no other. Isaiah knew that from the rising of the sun to it’s setting there is no other God. “I am the Lord,”“ says the God of Isaiah, “and there is no other.”

Think again about borders. We have a president who can step across one border and build walls on another. But what’s the big picture here? Where is God in all this? What does God care about borders? Here we are on the weekend celebrating American Independence and I learned something about that last week that I hadn’t known before. We have a prayer in the Prayer Book for Independence Day and we have assigned readings from the Bible, and I thought we always had. But No. No, the committee that created the first American Prayer Book in 1789 wrote a prayer for Independence Day and chose readings from the Bible, but the Bishop of Pennsylvania said, “Wait a minute. A lot of the clergy were not on board with this business. They had been loyal to their ordination oath to the King of England and some have gone back to England and some to Canada and we don’t want to embarrass the ones who remain by making them give thanks for something they aren’t thankful for.” So there was no prayer for Independence Day in the Episcopal Prayer Book until 1928 when most people had gotten over it. So in 1928 they put back the readings that are more relevant today than ever. They called on Episcopalians down to our own day to read these verses: Deuteronomy 10:17-21:

“The Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”If that’s not clear enough, there’s a newer translation, almost ten years old, but more relevant than ever, that puts it this way: “The Lord your God is the God of all gods and the Lord of all lords . . . He enacts justice for orphans and widows, and he loves immigrants giving them food and clothing. That means that you must also love immigrants because you were immigrants in Egypt.” (Common English Bible)

Argue the politics however you want and do what you want about walls and borders but our instructions

are clear. I took a certain pride in the presence of the one openly Episcopalian candidate on stage lastweek and the fact that he alone acknowledged that Christians are under orders. He said: “we should call out hypocrisy when we see it. . . a party that associates itself with Christianity . . . (and) suggests that. . . God would condone putting children in cages has lost all claim to ever use religious language again.”

And, yes, is it really so good a thing that there’s another set of borders in the world, another division between human beings? Is it a good thing that Korea is divided North and South? Is it a good thing that North America is divided three ways? Is it a good thing that Central American terrorists can control tiny countries and that we respect their right to rape and pillage as they like because, hey, there’s a border we have to respect?

What is it about borders? How is it that capitalists can ravage tiny countries with no one to hinder them, but when their victims flee for their lives we turn them away? What’s wrong with this picture? The wall is not the whole picture. The picture includes small countries destroyed by our corporations, but we’re not responsible and I don’t understand why.

Now I’m a priest, not a politician. I get to ask questions, not give answers. Except this: our God is the God of Isaiah, who knows no borders. Except this: we have a vision given us and a mandate to fulfill and the same God who loves us and calls us will also be our judge.

We will end the service today with the singing of that great hymn, “America the beautiful,” that puts into words and music something of what I’ve been trying to say:

“O beautiful for patriot dream
that sees beyond the years
thine alabaster cities gleam
undimmed by human tears . . .”

Few things, I think, cause more tears than borders, but we are given a vision that sees beyond the politics, beyond the borders, beyond the years; a vision that calls us and questions us: Must it indeed be always “beyond the years”?
Why not in our own day?
Why not now?

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Sermons

Sermon for The Last Sunday after the Epiphany, March 3, 2019

The Rev. Thomas W. Traylor

When I was a boy growing up in a Baptist Sunday School, the mountains of the Bible lands came to seem almost as familiar to me as the Appalachian foothills of my Georgia home.   Week by week, my teachers used pictures and maps and vivid storytelling to teach the great mountain stories of the Bible: the story of Noah’s ark coming to rest atop Mount Ararat after the Great Flood; Abraham taking his son Isaac up Mount Moriah to offer sacrifice; Moses going up Mount Sinai to meet with God and coming down with the Ten Commandments; the prophet Elijah in his great showdown with the false prophets of Baal atop Mount Carmel. 

Then there were the Gospel stories of Jesus going up to the Temple Mount as a boy; the account of his temptation on the top of the mountain where the Devil took him to show him all the kingdoms of the world.  Stories of how he called disciples and traveled with them among the hill towns of Galilee.  His great Sermon on the Mount.  His final journey up to Jerusalem, where he prayed in the garden at the foot of the Mount of Olives on the night he was betrayed.  And, finally, the story of how he carried his cross through the narrow streets of Jerusalem to a hilltop outside the city wall and was crucified there.

Many of the Bible’s great stories are set on hills and mountain peaks, especially mountain peaks.  It is as if the contours of the holy land mirror the territory of the spirit. Today’s gospel story takes us with Jesus and three of his disciples up yet another mountain.  To be a follower of Jesus must have required strong legs and sturdy shoes.  Of all the mountaintop stories in Holy Scripture, this story of the Transfiguration counts as one of the strangest.  What are we to make of it?   Why do we have this unexpected story heavenly light on a mountaintop breaking into the ordinary cycle of daylight and darkness?

In Luke’s gospel, this moment of light comes just as shadows have begun to fall across Jesus’ path.  Until now in the gospel story, things have been sunny.  The blind see, the lame walk, the hungry are fed. Demons are cast out.   The disciples themselves are sent out to preach and heal and return with reports of success. Popular enthusiasm for Jesus is running high. The road ahead looks promising.  Then Jesus begins to tell his disciples that he is going up to Jerusalem. Not to be hailed as the Messiah, but to die.

With that announcement, the lay of the land stretching out before Jesus and his followers changes. Immediately before Luke gives us the story of the Transfiguration, Jesus had put it to his disciples starkly: “If any would be my disciples, let them deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.”   You can hear the disciples asking themselves, “Could this be right?”  Could this really be the road ahead for Jesus, and, more alarmingly, was this the road they were meant to be on as well?  Had they followed the wrong man down a dark path? 

In our lives as Christians, we sometimes retreat to a mountaintop—an actual mountain or an interior one—when we are troubled or afraid.  Sometimes we go up a mountain to think and pray. Sometimes we go up a mountain to get our bearings, to see the great panorama, and to catch a glimpse of where we’re headed. On this day, on that mount of Transfiguration, Jesus and his disciples do all of those things. In the face of this dawning realization that what lies ahead is the way of the cross, Jesus and those closest to him climb a mountain. There, the gospel writer tells us, as Jesus prays, his face and clothing begin to shine with heavenly light and the disciples see Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah, surrounded in the light of glory. 

Moses and Elijah were mountain men, too, you’ll remember.  They had known deep valleys, but they had also stood upon the spiritual high places in the history of God’s dealings with the people of Israel.  Moses had led the people through deep waters and empty deserts.  On Sinai he met with God and received the Law.  Through him God called the people into a way of life rooted in covenant with God and neighbor.  Great Elijah stood alone with God on Mount Carmel against an army of false prophets.  He and all the prophets who came after him called the people to return whenever they turned away from God or dealt unjustly with their neighbor.  

Now on this mountaintop the disciples catch sight of Jesus standing in their glorious company, and they in his. Whatever darkness may lie ahead for Jesus, and for them, this transfigured moment comes as a shining confirmation that they were not following the wrong man down the wrong path.  Christ glimpsed in unveiled glory was an affirmation that all that God had led his people through across the landscape of biblical history had come to radiant focus in Jesus.   Seen through the eyes of their dawning faith, the disciples up on that mountain top began to understand that Jesus was no misguided holy man who would die a senseless death, but the Holy One of whom Moses and the Prophets had spoken. 

You have to love how Simon Peter responds to what they see.  “Wow, this is great!  The three of you, the three of us, let’s stay right here!”  That is a rather free translation, but you get the idea.  Peter, for all his impulsiveness, says what timid folks may only have thought.  Who does not want to hang onto life’s high moments when they come along?  Who does not wish they could stop time in those rare moments when life seems “just right”?  We call such moments “mountaintop experiences,” after all.  When you reach the summit and see the world below bathed in sunlight, it is hard to turn your feet down toward the valley.  We know what Peter must have meant when he said, “Let us stay here.”   Up here is safety; down there is danger.  Up here is solace; down there is challenge.  Up here is glory.  Down there is a cross.  Don’t ask us to go back down.  Let us stay up here. 

No sooner has Peter spoken these words than a thick cloud shrouds the mountain. Peter and James and John, who for one brief moment had seen so clearly, suddenly see nothing. They are afraid, as a novice pilot might be when she flies into a cloudbank, or as sailor in a small boat out in the Pacific might be afraid when he is suddenly engulfed in heavy fog:  No bearings, no landmarks, no guide. Don’t we all know what that feels like?  When suddenly the fog rolls in, and what seemed so clear a moment ago suddenly doesn’t seem clear at all?  Then, up on that mountaintop, out of the cloud, comes a voice: “This is my son, my Chosen.  Listen to him!”  Then the cloud lifts, Moses and Elijah are gone, and there stands Jesus, alone. 

“Listen to him!” says the heavenly voice.  This is the real climax of the Transfiguration story.  Not the unearthly light, not the heavenly visitors or the shining glory. Beautiful as all of that may have been, this command is what the Transfiguration story has been driving toward: Listen to him. The heavenly vision will fade. The light of glory will dim to ordinary day.  They will have to return to the valley below.  Still, the heavenly voice commands, “Listen to him.”

It may seem to many of us that we have spent the past year in the life of this parish not on a mountaintop but walking a valley. This congregation has faced unusually difficult challenges which have tested the strength of the fellowship and stirred anxiety about the future.  It has been a long year.  You may have been in the valley, but you’ve started on the upward climb now. And nothing will matter more to this parish fellowship in the days ahead than to obey the same command that came to those first disciples up on the mountaintop: “Listen to him.”

Listen to him.  Listen to Jesus.  When you are tired of keeping on keeping on, listen to Jesus, who says: “Come unto me, all who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.”  When you’re worried that you are facing too many challenges and have too few resources to meet them, listen to Jesus: “Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all that you need will be given to you.” 

When you wonder what difference a small parish church can make in the world and where your power to make a difference will come from, listen to Jesus: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them.” 

When you need reminding what the ministry of this parish in this neighborhood is, listen to Jesus, who said: “As much as you have done it unto one of the least of  my brothers and sisters, you have done it unto me.”  When you’re afraid that you’re walking the path alone, listen to Jesus: “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”  Listen to Jesus.

When you’re tempted to settle for a watered-down faith and a half-committed Christian life, listen to Jesus: “If any would be my disciples, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  But also remember the joy that comes from following Jesus.  He said, “I have come that you might have life, and have it more abundantly.” Nothing matters more for the people of All Saints now than this, that you listen to Jesus. 

Today in the church’s calendar is the last Sunday after the Epiphany.   Come Wednesday Christ will call us to go with him down into the valley and along the way to the cross.  “Let us stay up here,” we may think to ourselves.  But the voice comes also to us: “This is my Chosen One.  Listen to him.”   It is, I think, the first commandment of Lent, that we listen to Jesus. How might we go about that?  Let me suggest some ways. 

Start your day with prayer.  Take out your Prayer Book and pray Morning Prayer.  If that seems like too much, read the gospel passage for the day.  You can find it in the table in the back of the Prayer Book.  Or you can easily pull the Daily Office up on your computer or phone.   Take your time, read it through again, listen to it.  Then let it rattle around in your head through the day. 

Let it echo in your mind as you move through your daily tasks at work or home.  Ask yourself, what does the part of the gospel story—the Jesus story—I read today have to do with the choices I make today?  In the evening, when you spend time with friends or loved ones, or simply have time for yourself, ask, what does the gospel say to me about my life with the people closest to me?   When you look back over your day before you turn out the light for the night, ask yourself, how did what I heard in the gospel story affect the way I lived this day?  And when your thoughts turn to this parish church and this beloved community and you wonder what lies ahead, listen to Jesus.

Listen to Jesus when you come here during the forty days of Lent that lie ahead. Be faithful in coming here, keep showing up.  And when you come, come listening for Jesus.  Listen for his voice in the hymns, the readings, the preaching.  Listen for his voice in the voices of your fellow parishioners. Listen to Jesus in the beautiful movement of liturgy, in the wordless language of gesture and ritual.  Above all, listen for the welcoming voice of Jesus as you come to meet him at this altar. 

Listening to Jesus is an act of faith, faith that when we listen, he will speak. Listening to Jesus is an act of hope, hope in God’s sure promises.  Listening to Jesus is an act of love, for to really listen to Jesus is to open not just our ears but our hearts.  Up on the mountain and down in the valley and every place in between, the heavenly voice still rings: “This is my Son, my Chosen.  Listen to him.” 

The Rev. Thomas W. Traylor

All Saints’ Episcopal Church, San Francisco      

3 March 2019