A Reflection by The Rev. Christopher L. Webber on Easter, April 12, 2020
When my wife and I returned from Japan almost forty years ago and moved to a suburban parish in Westchester County, New York, we began looking for some land where we could have a home of our own and a garden. Before long, we found an abandoned farm eighty miles away in northwestern Connecticut and bought thirty acres. The land had once been a farm, but it had been long abandoned and the woods had reclaimed most of the territory. But immediately after buying it, I began clearing it and planting seeds and bulbs and bushes. Forgetting what Adam and Eve had learned, I also planted apple trees. Eventually we built a house there and eventually we retired there, and for twenty years I combined a rural ministry with the work of a gardener. Last week the new owner sent me a picture of daffodils that I had planted and he had picked.
The Bible is full of surprises. There’s always something more to see and understand. On Good Friday I took part in or watched several zoom and You Tube services and heard or read the story of Jesus’ death at least four times and St. John finally got me to pay attention to a small point that he had embedded in his gospel for me to notice: they buried Jesus in a garden.
Now, John is always asking us to notice the relationship between his gospel and the story of Creation. John’s Gospel, like the Book of Genesis. is all about beginnings. The first verse of the Book of Genesis tells us, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” John’s Gospel begins, “In the beginning, was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”
In the same way, the Book of Genesis tells us that God spent six days in creation, and John’s Gospel tells us about six signs that Jesus did, and he even numbers them so we’ll notice. “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee,” for example, or “Now this was the second sign that Jesus did.” After that, John doesn’t flag them for us but lets us figure it out for ourselves.
What I hadn’t noticed until this year was what John shows us about gardening. Genesis tells us that God planted the first garden and placed the man in it to care for it. But the man and his wife messed up and got driven out and the man was sentenced to life as a gardener. Hey, it could have been worse! Suppose he had condemned the man to live in a city! But we did that to ourselves.
What John tells us (none of the other gospels notices) is that they buried Jesus in a garden. Yes, and when Mary Magdalene stayed weeping at the empty tomb on Easter Day, John tells us she failed to recognize Jesus because she thought he was the gardener! Well, he was – and is! He had planted the first garden East of Eden and he continues to challenge us to make the soil fruitful because our lives depend on it.
The great nineteenth century English poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, wrote a sonnet on the subject:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings
Sometimes we despair of getting it right. We destroy the soil with chemicals and wash it into the sea. We pave it with concrete. We burn down the forests. We may well wonder whether Hopkins is overly optimistic in saying that “nature is never spent.” But St. John has left us an Easter message of hope: God is the gardener and is able to bring new life even out of the sealed tomb.
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 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.
A Sermon preached by The Reverend Christopher L. Webber on the Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 28, November 17, 2019
Aren’t you glad it’s Sunday and you don’t have to think about Washington?
And isn’t it wonderful to have Isaiah in today’s Old Testament reading holding up a vision of a different world?
There will be new heavens
and a new earth;
(where) the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
And notice that it’s a free gift with no “quid pro quo;”
a free gift and a new beginning. In Isaiah’s vision, God says:
I am about to create new heavens and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind
. , They shall not labor in vain or bear children for
calamity , . . The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox…They shall not
hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.
That’s the vision.
Hold onto it.
Ask God for grace to hang on to it even while we watch the hearings or try to hear the President above the roar of the waiting helicopter.
Hold onto the vision.
I like to quote Dorothy L Sayers, who said “the best kept inns are on the through roads.”
It’s people who are going somewhere who care about what they find along the way; not going backwards to an imagined past but forward to God’s future.
On the one hand the hearings; on the other hand the democratic debates. And where is the candidate with a vision? A plan is good, a program might help;
but I want to see the vision. I wish I would hear someone talk about real moral values. I wish I would hear someone talk about a really transformed society, about beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks;
about learning war no more. I am very tired of hearing politicians avoiding the real issues, offering no real solution to the real needs of the real world,
slandering each other and treating us like self-centered, simple-minded children who can’t be trusted to make intelligent, informed decisions.
This is a democracy. We the people are in charge. But how can we make wise choices unless we are offered wise choices and candidates who appeal
to the best that is in us, not the worst. Why doesn’t somebody nominate Isaiah?
Let me ask you now, with still eleven months and a few days to work on it
to begin to take Isaiah seriously, take the Bible seriously, take the vision seriously. The Bible holds up a better world for us to envision.
So why don’t we take it seriously? Why don’t we take the vision seriously?
Well, the first reason is that we’ve been taught to consider visions as, well, visionary. A visionary is somebody unrealistic, am I right? Would you hire a visionary to work for you? Do you want a visionary doing your investments? Do you want somebody looking far ahead to be driving your bus or your taxi? Do you want a visionary as your doctor or teaching your children?
Do we? I don’t think so. It’s not practical. It won’t work in the real world.
But think about that for a minute. We say, “A vision won’t work in the real world.” But are you really sure that the real world is the best standard to set? ls the real world, the world you see on the evening news the world you really want to preserve? Given a choice between the world of the evening news and the world of Isaiah’s vision, would you really opt for the world we have? Do we really have no choice? Is there really no way to get from here to there?
Well, no, there isn’t.Not if we accept the conventional wisdom. The President’s representative told us already: “That’s how it is. It happens all the time; get over it.”
But as Christians, we have in theory at least committed ourselves to change,
change in ourselves, change in the world.
Two weeks ago we held up another vision: we celebrated the festival of All Saints. We gave thanks for the lives of men and women who did not accept the world as it was. A hundred years from now no one will know the name Mick Mulvaney, but they will still know names like Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Take her for just one example. She grew up in a world in which white people could own black people and black people had no vote, no rights. She held up a vision of another world, or actually, she showed people the world as it was
and said, lsn’t that dreadful? Isn’t it time we changed?
And the world did change. It took one of the bloodiest wars in history and a hundred years of suffering after that to get somewhere even close to the vision of a world of equal rights for all but the point is, she didn’t say
“That’s unrealistic; nothing can be done.” She had a vision, and in spite of ferocious and tenacious resistance the world was changed. And that’s the point: it’s the visionaries who change the world, not the realists.
We’ve got too many realists out there.
Where are the visionaries?
This country still has a higher percentage of active Christians than any other in the world. But why are the people who claim to be Christians not holding up a better vision then an appeal to the past: “Make America great again.”
Seriously, can you think of any four years in the past you would want to repeat? Why is it that people claim to be reading their Bibles and find nothing more to inspire us with than a condemnation of abortion and same sex unions and higher taxes?
I have a vision of a world without abortion too, but anger and condemnation won’t get us there, and I want to preserve families also, but what’s the vision that will get us there? It’s here. lt’s in the Bible. It’s in lsaiah and the Sermon on the Mount and the Revelation of John: a new heaven and a new earth
where there are no tears and no mourning, where no one thinks first of self,
where love of God and love of neighbor is primary, and motivates and transforms.
They say it’s discouraging that so few people vote in an off-year election,
I think it’s wonderful that so many people voted at all two weeks ago when no one held up a transforming vision or challenged us to change the world.
What was it that brought out those who did vote? Was it anger or fear or self-interest or a narrow agenda without a vision? Or was it a sense of duty,
that I ought to vote even if there’s no one who seems to hold up the values and vision I find in the Bible and the lives of the saints?
What I know is this: if there is no vision, we will not make any progress toward it. lf there’s no one with ideals, we will continue to be immersed
in the same “real world” we have always known, and we will continue to dismiss Isaiah’s vision as impractical dreams.
So let me not be a visionary; let me suggest some very practical steps
that you and I can take now that will make a difference.
First – first and always, know the vision. Read the Bible, pay attention when it’s read in church. Ask yourself, “What does this say to me? What is God showing me about my life on the one hand and God’s purposes on the other?
Second, pray for the vision, pray for guidance in reaching it, pray for a transformed world, a new heaven and a new earth
“where suffering and pain are no more” where “they will not hurt or destroy” any more.
And third, remember that the vision is real and the evening news is not. What they show you there is not God’s purpose, not what we are called to work for, not what we hope at last to experience. Because it’s the vision that is the real future. God shows us through the prophet what will be, what will be, and we build our lives on sand if we commit ourselves to anything else.
God has not promised this will be easy. Read the gospel today for that.
“they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.” Nor are we promised that everyone will ever
see it our way. Jesus used the analogy of a mustard seed and yeast –
something small but powerful, a tiny thing that can transform the whole.
It’s the yeast that makes the bread. It’s the invisible yeast that is lost in the dough, but without which there is no bread. It’s the small packet of yeast
that transforms the whole.
So I challenge you to become part of a new moral minority that really understands, really sees the vision, and is willing to work slowly and patiently in a sometimes hostile, often indifferent world, to serve God’s purpose and make the vision real.
“Behold I make new heavens and a new earth…”
That’s the vision.
That’s the vision.
Hold onto it.
A Sermon preached by The Reverend Christopher L. Webber on the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 25, October 27, 2010
My wife died two years ago today.
I didn’t have that in mind when we made the schedule for this month. But when I remembered the date, I thought, Why not? I’m a preacher and I cope by preaching. It’s the way I’ve been given to work things through. And not alone, but together with a congregation, with you. You can help.
You know how sometimes you need to talk things out, not just think about it, but talk it out with someone else? Clergy get to do that sometimes with a congregation – not, I hope, dumping my issues on you but trying to find ways of saying things, of seeing things that may help all of us.
To preach today makes me do some thinking and that’s always good. I hope it will be good for you to do some thinking also. Not every sermon asks you to do that. I was thinking about today last week, last Sunday morning, as Beth talked about the joy of her son’s wedding the week before. And weddings are joyous occasions. But in the Episcopal Church at least they are realistic. The Prayer Book provides vows that are starkly realistic: I John take you Mary / to have and to hold / for better for worse / for richer for poorer / in sickness and in health / til death us do part. The promise is not “for better or worse,” not maybe one, maybe the other, but both: for better / for worse. There will be both. In this church at least, we sign up for both, for the real world, “til death us do part.”
Just out of curiosity, I went on line and found a site that helps you write your own wedding vows. It did note that you may not get to do that. Some churches and clergy, it said, insist on the traditional language. But if you get lucky and a chance to write your own, it provided 15 or 20 samples for guidance. Here’s one: “I promise to always remember that laughter is life’s sweetest creation, and I will never stop laughing with you.” I think I can overlook the split infinitive, but you should never promise to keep laughing. There will be days – there will be days – when laughing would not be appropriate
Not one sample vow mentioned death. Not one. But if you have a good marriage, death will be part of it. It happens. A bad marriage may end sooner, but every marriage has an end. Death happens.
Now we don’t come here to be morbid – and I’m moving on. But we do come here on serious business: to share a death, to drink the shed blood. There’s joy here, of course, lots of joy, but there is an end to this life sooner or later, and only the church, I believe, gives us a way to face that. So we are being realistic. We’re facing facts. Nobody lives for ever. Not in this world anyway.
Now Jeremiah is grappling with all that in the first reading. I always look at the readings first. I may not start the sermon from the readings, but I start my thinking there and it turned out that that’s where Jeremiah was also. That happens. The lessons speak to us if we’re ready to listen. They have messages for us. And they invite us in to a dialog. I go to the readings with questions: Here’s where I am; what do you say to that? I found Jeremiah working through similar issues to mine: the pain of absence; the need for God, and the absence of God, a God who seems so often not to be there when needed.
Jeremiah challenges God for an explanation:
“Why should you be like someone confused,
like a mighty warrior who cannot give help?
Why have you struck us down so that there is no healing for us?
We look for peace, but find no good;
for a time of healing, but there is terror instead.
Do not spurn us, for your name’s sake;
do not dishonor your glorious throne;
remember and do not break your covenant with us.”
Jeremiah is challenging God: “think of your reputation. God. What will people say if you dessert us?” The technical term for that is “chutzpah.” But Jeremiah’s in agony; he wants help and he wants it now. “Be here for me in my need; don’t forsake me.” Elsewhere in the Bible, Isaiah put it differently: “Truly You are a God who hide yourself, O God of Israel, the Savior.” Where are you, O God, when we need you?”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great German theologian who was killed by the Nazis had an answer for that. He wrote once to someone bereaved:
“Nothing can make up for the absence of someone whom we love, and it would be wrong to try to find a substitute; we must simply hold on and see it through. That sounds very hard at first, but at the same time it is a great consolation, for the gap, as long as it remains unfilled, preserves the bonds between us. It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap; he doesn’t fill it, but on the contrary, he keeps it empty and so helps us to keep alive our former communion with each other even at the cost of pain.”
I give that statement often to people bereaved. I’ve been thinking about it myself these last two years. Can you just close the door on sixty years and move on? I don’t think so. But just as one we love can be there in the absence, in what we feel – experience – as absence, so is God there for us in the darkness as well as the light – and maybe more truly present in the darkness
The great Spanish mystic, John of the Cross, wrote about what he called “the dark night of the soul.” “Although it is night, I know there is nothing else so beautiful, earth and heaven find constant refreshment there. Although it is night, there are no clouds to conceal its clarity, and from it comes the light by which alone we can see. This is the living fountain and the bread of life, I see it clearly, although it is night.”
The great Welsh poet R S Thomas wrote something similar when he said:
“God is that great absence
In our lives,
the empty silence
Within, the place where we go
Seeking, not in hope to
Arrive or find.
He keeps the interstices
In our knowledge, the darkness
His are the echoes
We follow, the footprints he has just
But is it an absence or simply a presence we are too small to hold, too blind to recognize? Gilbert Murray, the great Classics scholar who died in 1957 once wrote, “We are surrounded by unknown forces of infinite extent – the essence of religion is the consciousness of vast unknowns – To be cocksure is to be without religion.”
To acknowledge our ignorance is the first step toward faith. I sometimes think that we use incense in worship to create what a great medieval mystic called “the cloud of unknowing” – it’s the cloud that Moses entered on Mt Sinai, the cloud that overshadowed Jesus at the Transfiguration, the cloud out of which God speaks, but remains never clearly seen.
I remember passing a church in Australia one day that had a big sign out front that said, “You have questions? We have answers.” I wouldn’t go there myself. If they have the answers, they aren’t asking the right questions. I want to go where the questions are acknowledged, where I am encouraged to think for myself, where I can find fellow seekers, but also a rich tradition of answers – not simple answers to all questions, but answers that have helped others and may help me. Jeremiah wrote – we read it this morning – “Is it not you, O Lord our God? We set our hope on you, for it is you who do all this.” It is you who are there when we are too blinded by grief to see.
Hold onto the absence. Hold onto the pain. Hold onto the God who is able to accept our doubts and our questions and wait for us to come, to come to him with all our questions and doubts and to find there in the darkness and the cloud the strength that only God can give.
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 preached by The Reverend Beth Lind Foote, Interim Rector, on the 4th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 10, July 14, 2019
We know this story of the Good Samaritan. Hospitals are named after the Good Samaritan, and there’s even a Roadside Assistance service for Recreational Vehicles called Good Sam. But do we know it? What is Jesus the storyteller telling us today, in 2019? Two themes stand out for me this time around: Borders and Brokenness.
Borders have been in the news a lot lately. Chris Webber preached about borders last Sunday, and it’s worth continuing. The Southern Border of the US with Mexico, the border between North Korea and South Korea, the border between truth and falsehood, the border between the rule of law and authoritarianism, the border between love and hate.
In our passage from Luke, Jesus is talking about a kind of border that was important to Jews of his time: the line that marked whether you were being a good Jew and following the Law of Moses, or not.
In today’s passage, Jesus meets a lawyer who asks him, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Lawyer in this context means an expert in the religious law, sometimes known as a scribe, rather than what we think of as an attorney.
Jesus knows his Scriptures. He asks the Lawyer, the scriptural expert, “what is written in the Law?” Both of them are thinking of the Shema, the verse from Deuteronomy that’s foundational to Judaism, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself,” and Jesus says, “you have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
The lawyer shoots back a clarifying question for the ages: “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus’ response is the story of the Good Samaritan.
There was a clearcut border in Jesus’ society: Samaritans and Jews didn’t mix. To Jews, Samaritans were the “other,” branch of Judaism who did not worship in the Temple, and they were all considered “unclean.” So when we call our hero, “The Good Samaritan,” it’s ironic because to Jews, Samaritans were not considered “good,” and so this particular one was called out as “The GOOD Samaritan.”
Jesus says the Samaritan passing by, “was moved with pity.” The Samaritan walking to Jericho crosses the border into human kindness.
This morning I’ll ask the lawyer’s question, “who is my neighbor,” in our world. Our neighbors to the south of us in Central America are fleeing for our lives, and we are not being Good Samaritans. These people are refugees, not criminals. The lawyer in our passage today would not even question the necessity of treating refugees well; hospitality to foreigners was a well-settled precedent in the Law of Moses.
Yesterday I saw a video clip of our VP looking with distain at hundreds of young men behind chain link fences who’ve been detained for 40 days without showers or other humane conditions, in an overcrowded U.S. detention facility. He turned his head, and offered no sense of compassion or kindness.
If we learn anything from today’s story it’s that Jesus calls us to compassion, and to care for other people, not put them in cages, not turn away from their pain, especially if we call ourselves Christians.
My colleague at Grace Cathedral, Rev. Ellen Clarke-King wrote a petition that asked fellow clergy and other mandated reporters to report the Border Control’s treatment of children as child abuse. I was happy to sign along with 1,400 other Episcopal clergy and mandated reporters. As Christians, we are all mandated reporters called to witness as the lawyer in the story, and keep asking, “who are our neighbors?” Jesus teaches us that we’re all neighbors to each other, we’re all on this earth together.
Another border in Jesus’ time was the border of brokenness. Illness, disability, mental illness, all made someone broken and “unclean” under the Law of Moses. This was a reason why the priest and the Levite pass by the injured man in the story, they are observing the border between themselves and a man made unclean by injury. Corpses were especially unclean. He could have been dead, so they look the other way.
It’s important to remember that throughout the Gospels, we see Jesus healing everyone, even the most “unclean” people around: lepers, people possessed by demons, the blind, the deaf, and the lame. I think we take it for granted because that’s what Jesus does. But he crossed a very big border in his own culture by touching these people let alone healing them. Once you were unclean you were “broken.” Jesus healing ministry shows us that the “broken,” like the man lying in the ditch at the side of the road to Jericho are our neighbors.
Here at All Saints’ we have continued to serve our neighbors in need through the HACS brunch program on Saturday mornings. This is a real strength of All Saints’, and we need to support it and work towards renewing its ministry for the long-term.
Let’s pivot for a moment to our reading this morning from Amos. The prophet Amos calls out the kingdom of Israel because they were headed in the wrong direction. In a vision, Amos saw a plumb line, a measurement of sound construction, that was crooked.
To my mind the plumb line, or measurement of sound government in the United States– that we can expect a level of more governance— is out of whack. This week I’ve been dismayed by the Trump Administration’s attempt to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, yet again. There’s a disturbing undercurrent in our country right now that sick people deserve to be sick because it’s their own fault. In other words, they’re “broken” and do not deserve healthcare.
It’s dangerous because it ignores the traditional understanding that insurance that benefits everyone who participates, and the more people who participate the better because it spreads the risk.
I think this has something to say about the Good Samaritan story. We see a story about attending to and caring about others. We’re supposed to emulate the Good Samaritan and extend ourselves to care for others, and see ourselves as members of a society who values the decency of caring for each other.
And, I think the story is also about confronting our own “brokenness” and mortality, and our need for healing. The story creates a vision of greater mutuality
Sometime during our lifetime we will be the man at the side of the road, beaten up by something: a pre-existing condition, cancer, an accident, divorce, mental illness, grief, or plain old aging. We will all need help from others, through medical care, through the personal care and love of other people.
We also see a foreshadowing of Jesus’ brokenness in the Good Samaritan story. Jesus will shortly be the one who’s stripped, beaten, and crucified. Jesus dies a young man on the Cross, not in comfortable surroundings as an old man. He becomes one of us in his brokenness on the Cross.
In the words of the Eucharistic Prayer we hear the words, “This is my Body, which is broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” Jesus offers himself to be broken for us, and affirms the holiness of brokenness as part of the human condition.
The Good News is that Jesus is there for us. In a sense, He is the Good Samaritan, crossing borders to enter into our lives, and offer us healing. Perhaps the Good News is that the church is the Inn, where we can accept that healing and receive Christ’s body and blood broken and offered for us, and share it with others. The Resurrection is the Good News that our brokenness leads to new life in Christ.
The Good News is that Jesus cares that we care about each other, like a parent who cares about how their children care for each other. We are all children of God and we are all broken members of the human family in need to healing, and we are all called to love in Jesus’ name. Amen.