Justice Transformed by Mercy

A sermon preached at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, November 6, 2017, by Christopher L. Webber.

“ . . . let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”

There are probably people who think Martin Luther King said that, and he did, more than once, but Amos said it first. Amos was a shepherd and a trimmer of sycamore trees, a country man living a simple country life over seven centuries before the birth of Christ. But Amos went to the city one day and he was appalled at what he saw. Here were people driving big cars, chauffeured limousines, shopping for stuff they didn’t need, and walking right by homeless men and women lying on the sidewalks. Here were people with computers and iPhones and central heating and cooling who would go the market and buy choice steaks and exotic fruits and pay taxes to a government that would bomb people on the other side of the world and ignore the needs of people next door. Amos was appalled. He called them out: He said, “they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals–they trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way; so that God’s holy name is profaned; He might have read the same headlines we read and watched the same television and asked how it could be that politicians and corporate executives would hide their money in overseas tax shelters while people are homeless and why they would try to cut taxes on the wealthy while cutting back health care for women and children.

What would Amos say to us? He’d say what he said to his own day: “Sweep it away; honor God . . . . . . let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” Amos was first of the so-called “canonical prophets,” the first prophet whose words were written down. His people had worshiped God for centuries, but they had known God as a God of power, a God who could make a way through the Red Sea and drown Pharaoh’s army and thunder down from Sinai: a God of overwhelming power, a God on their side against their enemies, but not a God to worry about much from day to day. Amos had a different picture of God. Amos portrayed a God who cared first for the weak and the poor, whose power had purpose and whose purpose was to use that power for those in need: the widow and orphan, the refugee and the immigrant, those with no friends in Jerusalem or Washington or city hall. Amos thundered about a God who had no interest in power politics or personal piety, no interest in prayer breakfasts or national greatness, but a deep concern for the hungry and homeless, the weak and the helpless, the sorrowful and poor. Amos, I think, would look at the churches of America and ask, “What are you doing when you promote a so-called personal relationship with God and have no relationship with those who need your help?”

The religion of too many Americans is a false religion that centers on feeling good and cares nothing for my neighbor. What kind of world have we made when 20% of the world consumes 80% of the world’s goods, when the rich hide their wealth in tax shelters while Africans flee from land parched by drought and Syrians flee from bombs and poisoned gas and children in Central America flee from armed gangs and our concern is to build a wall and keep them out? What kind of world have we made? Who is there to speak like Amos to those in power and warn them of a judgment that will sweep them away? Amos warned of a day of judgment. Amos had a vision of God standing beside a wall with a plumb line in his hand and the wall would not stand. Amos would tell us, Your guns will not save you when that day comes. Moses had given the people the Law, the Decalog, the Ten Commandments: worship God, honor your parents, deal honestly with each other, but it was all too easy to see a narrow vision: say your prayers, behave yourself, take care of personal relationships with family and friends. Amos had a larger vision: a social vision, a concern for the weak and the helpless, a concern for a society that left too many out and he applied that vision to his world and he saw no hope, only death and destruction, death and destruction for a people who could not see beyond themselves, who talked about national greatness while having no vision of national justice.

The world of Amos was very small. He never traveled more than a few miles from home. He never imagined a world of human beings so powerful that they could destroy themselves in a dozen ways, but the same words still work: love justice, hate evil, care for those in need. Jesus came with the same message: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Notice the word Jesus used: “righteousness.” Not justice; righteousness. Actually, the words get used almost interchangeably in translation: justice; righteousness. Two words, maybe, for the same thing. But maybe not. The word “justice” actually never comes up in the New Testament and seldom in the Old Testament. The same Hebrew word can be translated either way but the English words have a different feel. But I think “justice” is a rather impersonal word. Justice is given, meted out. It has to do with laws and judgment. But righteousness is a human quality; it’s a lifestyle. It can be negative; if someone is self-righteous, that’s not popular. But righteous and righteousness are common words in the New Testament and they are rooted in the nature of God. God is righteous and it’s a way of acting toward others. It’s not judgmental like “justice” but merciful and transforming. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says, “Seek first the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness . . .” So start there: seek righteousness, seek for the kingdom, the nation, concerned not for national greatness but human fulfillment: justice transformed by mercy, love conquering hatred, fear overwhelmed by love.

Isaiah’s Vineyard and Ours

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, on October 8, 2017.

Forty years ago my wife and I bought some land. It was, in the words of the prophet, “on a very fertile hill. (And I) dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines . . .” Well, actually, I planted it with apple trees and peach trees and corn and potatoes. But I tilled the soil and I pruned the trees and I established an asparagus bed, and I looked for it to produce good crops and by and large it did. I had a much better experience than Isaiah in the first reading – or, actually, God; it’s God speaking through the prophet about a bad experience God had with the people of God. But I had a good experience.

Eventually the time came to sell it and move on, to move west, and so we entrusted our land to new hands, a new owner, and unlike God’s experience with Israel, I have not been disappointed in the new owners either. I think he’s done better with it than I did. He sent me some apples once from my trees and some asparagus by overnight express. I’m very happy with what’s happened.

God has not been so lucky. God plants vineyards and it doesn’t work out very well.. We read about it in today’s first reading and it’s echoed in the Psalm and the Gospel. God planted a garden. God has been doing gardening from the beginning. And God has been disappointed again and again by the caretakers sent to take care of it, by the lack of a good harvest.

God also, come to think of it, planted a garden in North America. We sing about it and it always brings tears to my eyes:
O beautiful for spacious skies
For amber waves of grain
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain . . .

That’s what we’ve been given. That’s what was entrusted to us. And we were challenged to build a shining city on a hill, to draw others and inspire others.

We sing about it still: “O beautiful for spacious skies . . .” We sing about it, and we wake up in the morning to hear how many died in the latest killing spree and how badly we have failed to help those whose lives have been destroyed by a hurricane and we continue to pour carbon dioxide into the air and to warm the seas. And one plus one is still two. If you pollute the air and warm the seas, they will spawn ever fiercer storms and trees will be uprooted and farm land and gardens and homes will be washed away and human lives will be lost.

And yet we choose leaders who make false promises and are intent on their own power and wealth and have no notion, not the slightest notion, of a vision like that of Isaiah, like that of Jesus, leaders who have forgotten, as we have forgotten,
“the heroes proved in liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life!

Why is there such an apparent shortage of leaders and followers
Who more than self their country love
And mercy – and mercy – more than life – more than life.

For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!

The Hebrew has a little play on words there:
He looked for righteousness but heard a cry.
The King James says, “He looked for righteousness but behold oppression.”
In Hebrew it says:
Vayikáv lamishpát, v’hinéy mispách; litz’dakáh, v’hiney tza’akáh.
He looked for mishpat but behold mispach, for dakah but behold za-akah

or to make a similar play on words in English:

he looked for right but behold riot;
for equity, but behold, iniquity.

God looked for righteousness.
God had expectations.
America! America!
May God thy gold refine. . .
It’s so easy, isn’t it, to watch the news and despair. How can I make a difference? I can see what needs doing but the people in power are blind, blind, self-obsessed, willing to take actions that destroy our future, blind and deaf to the things that need to be done.

We ought to know what God hopes for in this western vineyard, this city on a hill, this America. We know we ought to create a health care system that works for everyone. We know we ought to rid the nation of guns, take action to reduce air and water pollution, teach tolerance and self-sacrifice. And doesn’t it seem hopeless?

It’s easy to say, “I’ve done what I could: I voted right; I give to environmental and justice causes and I pledge to the church. I try to have an influence on others but I don’t personally know anyone who has an influence in city hall or Sacramento or Washington., so there’s nothing I can do.”

I’m just one small voice, right? But the world is made up of small voices. There are more of us than there are of them. And if I truly care, I and millions of others can make a difference. Yes, we can.

Do you tithe? Do you contribute to justice causes and the environment? If not, it’s no wonder the world’s a mess.

I’m working on the biography of a man who had been reading about coral reefs and he said, “I must have had a coral insect for a millio-millio-grandfather, loving to work beneath the tide in a superstructure that someday when the laborer is long dead and forgotten, may rear itself above the waves and afford rest and habitation for the creatures of the Good, Good Father of all.”

I like that picture: building a coral reef, century after century, a durable, lasting beautiful structure, grain by grain, grain by grain.

God didn’t call the apostle Paul to convert the world; but just to preach the gospel and Paul probably spoke to hundreds, but those hundreds became thousands, and those thousands became millions. And the world has been changed.

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!

Have you seen those cities, alabaster cities undimmed by human tears? I haven’t. I don’t expect to. So shall we change the hymn?

O pretty nice for modest hopes
Where we would like to see
A city that’s not halfway bad
And not much misery.

It doesn’t sing, does it? It doesn’t grab me either. I stand with Isaiah. I want to know why we aren’t getting better crops and I want to be sure the weeds don’t grow where I can pull them up. Have you pledged a tithe to the church? That’s the standard the Episcopal Church formally adopted years ago. How can we make a difference without commitment. Have you contributed to the Sierra Club or an organization working for the environment? Do you make an annual contribution to a group working for social justice? There are things we can do. We can make a difference. or we can sit home and complain that nothing ever changes, that the vineyard still produces the same wild grapes.

O beautiful – potentially –
God grant us grace to be
A fruitful vine:  justice and peace,
Fulfilling prophecy.

A Letter to Us

A sermon preached at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, on August 20, 2017, by Christopher L. Webber.

NOTE:  This sermon supposes St. Paul writing letters to American DearFriendscities.  Those letters have been written and published in “Dear Friends:  Letters of St. Paul to American Christians” available from Amazon and other book dealers.

Suppose St. Paul were alive today and suppose he were still writing letters. Of course, he would use a computer and I think he would write a series of letters (e-mails, of course) to American cities: Washington, Dallas, San Francisco. I think the one we would all be waiting for would be the letter to Washington. That letter would cover all sorts of subjects – some I will not get into – and one of them, I think, would be inter-faith relations.

Almost 2000 years ago Paul wrote a letter to Christians in Rome, the Washington of the ancient world, and he didn’t write about the emperor but he did write about inter-faith relationships. He wrote about the relationship between Christians and Jews. He agonized about it. That there should even be a division was a grief to Paul. It seemed so clear to him that the ancient Paulpurpose of God had been fulfilled in Jesus. Everything the Jews had been waiting for had been fulfilled in Jesus. For three chapters Paul wrestled with the issue and last week, this week, and next week we get brief excerpts from a passage in which Paul is agonizing about why the majority of the Jews have not accepted the Messiah and how it could be that God would have let it happen.

By the time he wrote that letter, Paul had had years to think about it and in writing to the Romans he gives them his theory. That’s what we’re reading for these three weeks. And what Paul says is, God is wiser than we. God is able to take that rejection and use it to accomplish far more than God’s people could ever imagine. Did the Jews reject Jesus? Yes, but look at the result: Gentiles turning to God in record numbers. And if Paul were writing now he could feel well justified in his logic. Look it up on the web, there are about 13 million Jews in the world today, but about 2 billion Christians. That’s what God accomplished out of human failure.

So what could God do for an encore? Paul thought about that and when Paul wrote to Rome he imagined a time when Jews and Christians would be brought back together, separate branches with a common root and all to the glory of God. And you can really begin to imagine it today with Jews and Christians talking together at more depth than ever and a greater desire to understand.

I think that if Paul were writing to Washington today and felt that the people there needed some guidance – and they might – he could certainly begin with the same analysis he brought to the question of Christians and Jews 2000 years ago. We’ll hear a little more about this next week but you really ought to take time with your Bible to read chapters 9-11 of Romans yourself to get the full impact. In brief, what Paul says is God has used the Jewish failure to accept Christ to make the gospel known to the Gentiles. His own words are: “a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved . . .” God has, so to speak, put 13 million on hold until billions more are gathered.

But now go back to the 7th century. Christianity had become the established religion of the Roman Empire but the Roman Empire had fallen and Christianity in the west was struggling to survive in what have been called “the Dark Ages.” But into this situation came a man named Mohammed with enormous energy and organizational skill and a vision of one God and a pattern of life centered in prayer and alms giving, and concern for the poor. Paul didn’t know about that, of course, but if he had, I think he might have fit that also into his vision. If that Islamic zeal in less than a hundred years could carry this new monotheism from Spain to India and bring into its fold spaceearthmillions upon millions, why could that also not be fitted into God’s final plan? Jews and Christians in Paul’s day were utterly irreconcilable. Christians and Muslims from Mohammed’s time to our own have been utterly irreconcilable but Paul had faith that God could do more than even he could imagine. Why can’t the same faith be ours?

Listen again to today’s epistle: “There is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’”

Now, there’s a simplistic version of this that you often hear: stuff about “all roads lead to Rome” and “we all believe in the same God” and “we’re all going to the same place eventually” and so on. If Paul thought that, he could have stayed home and been a successful rabbi. Instead he gave it all up to endure enormous hardship: “Thrice was I beaten with rods,” he writes, “once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; In journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren.” Paul didn’t endure that because he thought it made no difference. It did make a difference. It still does.

Christianity today, for all its divisions, for all its failures, is light years ahead of Islam in terms of dealing with the 21st century world, light years ahead in terms of working through issues of sexuality and human relationships. And I believe that’s true simply because at the heart of the Christian faith is a knowledge of the triune God and a belief in the incarnation that requires us to approach this world in a very different way and a way that makes a vitally important difference.

But would it have been better for the world if Islam had never come to be? I can’t see that it would. As it is, the vast majority of the world’s peoples have come to believe in one God, a merciful God, a God who works to give all people a knowledge of the God who created us and cares for us. That’s a lot to have in common. I think St. Paul could write to Washington that “There is no distinction in God’s sight between Jew and Greek, between American and Arab; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.”

Well, but isn’t the present state of the world a messy way for God to be working? Was God really at work in the American invasion of Iraq and the endless war in Afghanistan? Absolutely. Not to say that God would have deliberately chosen Plan A or Plan B as worked out in the Pentagon as the ideal way to proceed, no; probably not; but it is to say that God is able to bring out of this chaos far more good than any of us could ever imagine. The fifty year confrontation between east and west over politics and power, communism and capitalism, has been replaced by something far more important and yes, oil, and politics is still very much at the center of it but so is faith, so is faith. When the television news shows us again and again prayer13pictures of Muslims at prayer that demands our attention. Faith matters. Faith may divide, but only faith can bridge that divide. Only faith, only a deep understanding of who we are and what God calls us to be, can ever unite us. And it still can. It still can. God is able to use even this for the unity of God’s people and the ultimate glory of God. That’s the hope Paul held out to the Romans 2000 years ago and it’s the hope still held out to us today.

Through the Torii

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at All Saint’s Church, Haight-Asbury, San Francisco, on August 6, 2017.

I wonder whether any of you have climbed Mt Fuji – Fujiyama – Fuji-san? I did it many years ago and I bring it up because this morning’s gospel takes us to a mountaintop in Israel and I’ve been there too. But when I climbed Fuji-san, I walked. When I went up the mount of vision in Israel, I got there in a car driven by a man who had done it so often that he went zooming around hairpin curves as if he were dealing with Interstate 80 in Kansas.

So there are two mountains, each with a commanding view, and how you get there can make a big difference in your experience of it. I wonder whether for most people It isn’t the climb that matters more than the view. People don’t come back from Everest talking about the view but about how they survived a land slide or had their tent blown away. The view, when you get there, isn’t that different from the view from any other peak in Tibet and you can get a better view much more easily from an airplane. I didn’t come back from Israel talking about the view from the top but the kamikaze driver who got us there.

This morning we hear nothing about the climb. It’s what happens on top that’s critical. But there’s a more important difference, I think, in the way you approach the mountain in the first place. Again and again as you approach the summit of Fuji-san, you encounter torii, the traditional gateways that snowy-mount-fuji-view-through-torii-shinto-shrine-gate-at-fuji-sengen-D8B3G9frame not simply the entrance to a sacred site but often the site itself so you have it framed to contemplate as in the picture in your bulletin. The torii asks you to look at the mountain as if through a doorway, a window. It concentrates your vision. It asks you to look at this scene, look at it deeply, and appreciate what it is. This is not just a mountain, not just a pile of rock, but a place capable of speaking to you, showing you something more than itself, something beyond itself, something you ought to see more deeply with an inner eye of vision. To call it Fujiyama is to say “Mt Fuji” but to call it Fuji-san, as they often do, is to call it “Lord Fuji.”

What the torii does, as I understand it, is to recognize that Lord-ship: to give definition to something basic to being human. Human beings seem to have an innate sense of something more to life than biology. We live, we reproduce, we die. So do other animals. But so far as we can tell, other animals generally go about their assigned job without worrying a lot about questions like “Why?” We have a cat that eats two meals a day, lies in the sun when she can find it, climbs into my lap occasionally – most often when I’m working on my lap top – tears paper apart if she can find some, and otherwise just naps. Dogs do what dogs do and cats do what cats do and whales do what whales do but human beings do zillions of things that have nothing to do with our material, animal existence. We play golf, we listen to music, We read books. We go to church. We climb mountains. We do things that are inexplicable, counter-intuitive, and really useless in terms of their contribution to our animal existence, our material well-being. We elect Presidents and members of Congress. What does that do for our well-being? But I digress.

The point is that very often we do things hard to explain logically but we do these things because they are satisfying in some strange way. They appeal to us in a way we often find hard to explain. Human beings apparently have a sense of something more, something beyond, something other, something that gives life a larger meaning.

Now, the torii, as I understand it, frame places, objects, scenes that awaken that sense of something more. Some use the word “numinous” or the more familiar word “holy.” The torii frames an entrance to the holy. It can, of Erlangen-botanical-garden-toriicourse, be simply the gateway to a shrine, but also it may frame a scene that is somehow evocative: it evokes, it “calls out” some other aspect of your being, that holds your attention, that makes you thoughtful. The snow-capped volcano, Fuji-san, rising out of the plains is a place that inspires awe and wonder. They say it’s a wise man who climbs Fuji once; it’s a fool who climbs it twice. But the vision inspires. So does a tree, especially a gnarled and twisted tree or a bonsai, or a lake or a rough stone. So the instinct is to frame it. Erect a torii. Call attention to it. Challenge others to see what you see.

Every human society, so far as I know, has developed some way of responding to that sense of something more—a pattern of worship, a building with a spire or minaret—some way of recognizing, developing, and institutionalizing that sense of what we call “the holy.” “Kami” is the Japanese word and that’s a word that has a broad range of meaning. It troubled the early missionaries in Japan because in translating their faith into Japanese they needed a word for “God” and kami seemed too vague, too impersonal, too general. The God of the Bible is not vague at all. The Biblical God gets involved very specifically in human events, acts in history.

The first Roman Catholic missionaries to Japan tried to import the word “deus” from the Latin because it was specific – but deus has problems too. All the Greek and Roman deities were “deuses,” dei. So, yes, it’s specific but it can be specifically wrong. It might just mean one of those mythical deities that the Hebrews refused to honor even if it cost them their lives. So the Anglican missionaries and most other churches have been content to go with “kami.” It has its problems, but it can be redefined to connect with the God of the Bible, to take on more specific meaning. And also it creates common ground with Shinto and that’s important. After all, the kami of Japanese tradition is a sense of the holy and the sense of the holy connects us also to the God of the Bible who calls us to be holy also.

Christians and Jews and Moslems and Buddhists and Shinto respond in various ways to the holiness of God. It is, I would say, a universal instinct. So “kami” can be Fuji-san but it can also be Jesus. We use a cross or crucifix to concentrate our thought on the revelation of holiness In the life and death of Jesus. The point is that we have a sense of something beyond and it’s as if you were in a closed room and had a sense of something outside and needed a window to see it. The torii is such a window; it frames some earthly thing that has the ability to point beyond, to open our minds, our souls, our selves, to the other whatever you want to call it – “the wholly other” – the numinous – 1024px-Shitennoji-toriithe holy – the transcendent – the ultimate reality – the ground of being – or just plain “God.”

God, the ultimate reality, is always visible in some way here in this life, this world – more so, perhaps, in some places than others, more evidently to some people than others. Some people talk about “thin places” where the separation between this world and another is less thick, less opaque. I don’t like that myself because I don’t like to imagine any division between this world and another. It might be better to say that a torii reminds us of a holiness that is in all things but too easily lost sight of, forgotten. The torii reminds us of an ultimate reality we might otherwise forget. It says, “Stop, and look, and remember.”

In the west, I think we are likelier to build a church or a cathedral to remind us, to create a holy place rather than recognize one. But many of the ancient cathedrals in Europe were built on top of pagan holy places. The first cathedral at Salisbury in England was built near Stonehenge. I think they couldn’t move Stonehenge – they’d lost the ability to move stones that big – but that area seemed as thin to the Christians as it had to the pagans. Salisbury plain was a place where a sense of the holy was strong so they built a cathedral not far from those ancient stones and people still go there and are moved by the mystery of it. I wonder how people felt when they moved this church off the noisy, main street through Haight-Asbury to the nice, quiet side street where it’s hard to find. I wonder how people felt when they moved from the place this congregation once used to this place. Was there a sense that however necessary it was, this place lacked the holiness of the other? That would be understandable. I think that sense of holiness can be built up in places that have been used for prayer. TS Eliot wrote about such a place in England in his poem Four Quartets, a place called Little Gidding where a small group of men and women kept up a pattern of prayer for many years in the seventeenth century and made it a place of pilgrimage and prayer – which it still is. There’s not much to see when you go there now—just a very small Little-Gidding-8920chapel and, of course, a souvenir shop—but Eliot says: “You are not here to verify, Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity or carry report. You are here to kneel where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more than an order of words, the conscious occupation of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.” “Prayer is more. . . “ Yes, prayer, of course, is communication with the holy and it takes place at Shinto shrines as well as in churches and it’s why we’re here. But it’s more than places, and the gospel today moves us from a place to a person. The place is a mountain somewhere in the mid-east. One gospel account places it just north of Israel but another puts it in the center of Israel. Either way, it’s a commanding height, the kind of place that literally changes you, transforms, transfigures. I think you can get something of that sense even in San Francisco – or is it that I’m still new here? – but I know when I’m in a car or bus and come over a rise, a hill, and see a part of the city laid out below me it makes an impact. Or look at the city from where I live: I can climb Golden Gate Heights just a few blocks away and see the ocean to the west and the city to the east and the Golden Gate Bridge to the north. And that’s somehow very special. There ought to be a torii there framing the view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Can you be blasé about it? Maybe you can. Maybe after a while you stop really seeing it and responding to it with some sense of awe and amazement. But the higher and more dominating the mountain the greater that sense of being raised upGolden Gate Bridge – and we may know intellectually that heaven is not up but we can’t help feeling that somehow it is, that somehow. whatever the tensions and problems of the world may be, we can rise above it all to a place of serenity and peace. It’s no wonder we instinctively talk about heaven as “up.”

But the gospel this morning is about more than a mountain climb and a sense of exhilaration, separation, bring lifted up and separated, because the three apostles in the story are not looking down at the world or even up toward heaven. No, they are looking at Jesus and seeing him, seeing who he is, as if for the first time. It’s as if he becomes for them in that moment the gateway, the torii, the door through which, or through whom, we come closer to the kami, the very specific holy God, Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier, Savior.

And this is critical. Yes, there are places and buildings that give us a sense of the holy but the holy God we worship is not an object or a “force” as some like to say, but a personal being, a God most fully revealed and known in a human life, in Jesus, who calls us to respond with the full offering of our life to a living God whom we can call Father, or Mother if you prefer, but to a being beyond any idea of person we can have and yet, none the less, at the very least also personal – a God to whom we respond as person to person – possibly more than that, probably more than that, but nothing less than that, personal at the very least and made known most fully in the person of Jesus Christ.

It’s too bad, I think, that we can’t put the gospel reading this morning in context by reading on to see what came next. When they came down from the mountain, two things happened: they came to Jesus with a paralytic boy and asked for healing and they came with a question about taxes. The next two stories in the gospel are about taxes and health care. If that sounds like the evening news, that’s exactly the point. If God is present to be encountered in Jesus, then Jesus is not here to separate us from the world, to give us a break from all that, but to transform that too by entering it, coming into it to heal and transform – to transfigure not Jesus alone but this world also with all its narrow and limited agenda. Can you imagine what would happen if the members of Congress would pause for a moment and think about what they are doing in the light of the Transfiguration?

And what difference would it make if we did? What difference would it make if we tried more consciously to live in that light and not just on Sunday morning where we have shaped this place to make it easier but on the street and in stores, in Safeway and Walgreen’s. Try thinking of the check out counter or parking lot as one of those thin places where the glory of God is visible. Think of the glory of God in the Safeway parking lot. The gospel, after all, is not primarily a story of magic moments like the one in the gospel this morning but of gritty, day to day encounters with suffering and doubt and death and it is not at last the mount of transfiguration that best expresses our faith but the mount of Calvary, Jesus lifted up not on a mountain top but a hill top on a wooden cross. “I, if I be lifted up, he said, will draw all people to myself.”

And we are called to be his agents. What we are called to do is to be people who carry God’s light and peace down from the mountain top, out of our churches and places of prayer, into the dark places, the hard places, where the holy God is most needed and also very often found. So we ground our lives, yes, in times like this when we can come away briefly from all that, but we go back out through the doors of this place as if we turned the torii around or as if we passed through it from the other side with the kami, the special gloryholy place, not only behind us but moving out in us into the world, coming through the torii in the other direction so that what is framed now is not the set apart sacred space but the everyday world – the cars going by, the stores open, the buses and taxis, and Jesus there, the kami there, divinity there, God present there, as truly as God is here, the holy God, present, incarnate, in you.

Making Sense of Snippets

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber on July 2, 2017, in the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco.

Today’s sermon has three points to make:
1) the inadequacy of snippets
2) the role of a prophet
3) the ultimate value of an act

Suppose we had a fourth reading this morning and it came from the prophet Hamlet. Suppose some one stood up and read:

“To be or not to be; that is the question.
Whether tis nobler in the mind
to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
or to take arms against a sea of troubles
and by opposing end them.”

I could then preach you a sermon about the value of suffering “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” or maybe I could preach about taking “arms against a sea of troubles.” But I doubt you would get very much sense of Shakespeare’s play from short snippets like that.

Well, we don’t have a snippet of Shakespeare all out of context this morning. Instead we have a snippet of Jeremiah and a snippet of the gospel, both completely out of context, and we are supposed to see the relationship between them and find instruction in them just the same. I think it’s about like trying to make sense of a few lines of Hamlet out of context. I really think we’ve gotten into a world of Sunday snippets with the current assigned readings and I think it’s often more puzzling than helpful.

Do you remember Trinity Sunday? That was three weeks ago and we had the world’s record longest first reading – 863 words – and followed it up with a world record for the shortest snippets from the epistle and gospel: 66 words for an epistle 93 words for the gospel It takes longer than that to say, “Good morning!”

All of which is background for trying to understand the Old Testament reading this morning. It’s supposed to illuminate the Gospel – one snippet illuminating another – but both of them are too brief and too far out of context to be much help to anybody. But here we are, so let’s focus on the Old Testament and see whether we can figure out what’s happening.

We begin with two prophets, Jeremiah and Hananiah, and Jeremiah is saying to Hananiah, “I hope you’re right, but I doubt it.” Hananiah has been prophesying peace, an end to the exile in Babylon, just what people wanted to hear. Prophets of peace can make a good income by telling people what they want to hear. Preachers of the “prosperity gospel” drive fancy cars and own grim-reaperprivate jets. So Hananiah prophesies peace and Jeremiah says to Hananiah, “I hope you’re right – but I doubt it.” The passage goes on – what we didn’t hear because the reading was so short – to find Jeremiah saying to Hananiah: “Don’t count on it. Two years from now, you’ll be dead.” And two years later Hananiah died. And peace did not come. So much for the vision of peace.

Here we are on 4th of July weekend and the world as usual is a mess. North Korea has atomic weapons and Donald Trump has atomic weapons and we have no clue about how either one makes decisions. So I’d like to come to church and hear from Hananiah. I’d like a promise of peace. But what Jeremiah is saying is, “Don’t count on it.” Jeremiah says, “When God calls a prophet, it’s not usually to talk about peace. The prophets who preceded you and me from ancient times,” says Jeremiah, “usually prophesied war, famine, and pestilence.”

Well, think about it: if God sends a prophet, it’s because God has a message people need to hear and the message is that God is often at work in hard times. When good times roll around, we assume that’s God at work, and we talk about our blessings. We know good things come from God. We know it instinctively. We don’t need a prophet to tell us. But hard times, we don’t know about. And that’s why prophets are needed. I can think of a time or two when the prophets had good news but lots and lots of times when the news was bad. it may be a long hard road to where we want to be and we need prophets to tell us that God is also at work here, today, in the midst of chaos and confusion if only to teach us what a mess we make of it when we try to go it alone.

We are still in God’s hands even when there is no peace. Think of Washington at Valley Forge or think of Lincoln again and again confronting disaster. They needed a prophet like Jeremiah to point to God at work in hard times. stormRoosevelt after Pearl Harbor needed that kind of prophet. All of us on this July 4th weekend need that kind of prophet: not one who promises an easy road and no cost or hardship.

As a country, we are heading into uncharted waters with an ignorant, undisciplined man in the White House, and a prophet who says things are going to be fine can’t be trusted. Things may not be fine but what we need to know is that God will still be with us and maybe help us grow by confronting the evil around us. That’s our faith and we need that faith now. Jeremiah is saying to Hananiah, “You with your talk of peace and prosperity don’t sound like a prophet to me.”

So that’s the Old Testament snippet. How does that connect to the Gospel snippet? Remember, in the reading plan we’re following the Old Testament and Gospel are theoretically connected and the one should shed light on the other. So the Gospel does talk about prophets but not so much the role of a prophet as the reward of a prophet. A modern translation puts it this way: “If you welcome a prophet because he is a man of God, you will be given the same reward a prophet gets.” Well, we don’t read much about rewards for prophets in the Old Testament. They were likelier to get stuck in prison on bread and water. There’s not a big demand for a prophetic message of hard times; the pay isn’t good. But if you welcome the prophet as a man of God, says Jesus, you will get the same reward as the prophet.

Jesus isn’t talking about issues of war and peace; he’s talking about sharing rewards. If you stand with the prophet, you will get what the prophet gets – like it or not – and if you stand with those who are righteous and faithful, you will get what they get, and if you give someone in need a cup of cold water, you will have your reward. So let that be connection enough: Times of trouble will come; the prophets remind us of that. And actions have consequences; Jesus reminds us of that. What you do for those in need makes a difference. So in the midst of trouble keep your eye on the task at hand. Above all, keep your eye on the human need around you that you may be able to touch.

The Unknown Trinity

A sermon preached at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, by Christopher L. Webber on June 11, 2017.

I have ordained friends who hate having to preach on Trinity Sunday. I think they find it hard to explain how three is one and one is three. But that’s Trinityexactly the point. It IS hard to explain, and if you try, you will fail.

I had a guest preacher once on Trinity Sunday and at the door after the service one lady thanked him effusively for explaining the Trinity: she said she’d never understood it before and now she did. The guest preacher looked puzzled and said, “I must have said something wrong.” Yes! If you understand it, you’ve got it wrong!

One of the great additions to the 1979 Prayer Book is the Athanasian Creed which has always been in the English Prayer Book. If you’ve never read it, you should look it up; it’s on page 864 – but don’t look now! The Athanasian Creed begins this way:

“Whosoever will be saved, above all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic faith. Now the Catholic faith is this: . . . That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the Persons; nor dividing the Essence. For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost. . . Such as the Father is; such is the Son; and such is the Holy Ghost. The Father uncreated; the Son uncreated; and the Holy Ghost uncreated. The Father incomprehensible; the Son incomprehensible; and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible.”

And it’s often said, “The whole thing incomprehensible.”glory

Yes, and what did you expect? That you could understand God? Our first American Prayer Book was compiled, of course, in the 18th Century, the Age of Hamilton, the so-called “Age of Reason” and they almost dropped not only the Athenasian Creed but the Nicene Creed as well. John Toland, a leading English philosopher of the early 18th century, wrote a book called “Christianity not mysterious, or, A treatise shewing that there is nothing in the Gospel contrary to reason, . . . and that no Christian doctrine can be properly call’d a mystery.” But, you know, the 18th century – as I said, The Age of Reason – was the time when they had it all figured out. They knew the earth was round and the earth moved around the sun and all that.

They thought they knew it all. Thomas Paine wrote the book on it and called it “The Age of Reason.” He said we should replace revelation with reason, and reject miracles and see the Bible as “an ordinary piece of literature rather than as a divinely inspired text.” That was then, and this is now, and the scientists have done more to reveal the mystery of being than Paine could ever have imagined. To reveal the mystery, not to understand it.

A couple of weeks ago we had a reading from the Acts of the Apostles that told how Paul arrived in Athens and set out to preach for the first time to Gentiles and he told them that as he had wandered around their city he had seen a number of altars to various gods and he had seen one that was inscribed “To the Unknown God.” For the Athenians, I suppose it was like an insurance policy: “If there’s a god we left out, this one’s for you: The Unknown God.” That unknown God, said Paul, is the God I proclaim.

Yes! Me too! The Unknown God. Put the sign on this altar: to the Unknown God. I’ve been saying that it’s science that reveals this God and to a point that’s right. If I didn’t know that it would take a zillion years traveling at the speed of light to get to the edge of the universe and that when I got there it glorywould have expanded a zillion light years more, I might claim understanding. If I didn’t know that I can know the location of an electron or its direction but not both at the same time, I might claim to understand. If I hadn’t been exposed to modern science, if I had been born into the eighteenth century, I might claim to understand God and have no need to worship. But I’m here in this century and I know too much to begin to imagine that I know it all.

I could imagine a God who created the old, flat world, or even the little round world that Columbus discovered – but the world of dark matter and spiral galaxies – no, a God of that world is an unknown, unknowable God – a God of the Athenasian Creed – not three unknowables, but one unknowable — and that’s enough!

There’s a Welsh priest and poet, R.S.Thomas, who writes poems about this God:

Why no! I never thought other than
That 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
Between stars.
His are the echoes
We follow, the footprints he has just
Left. . .

I’ve been saying this is a new idea, that we didn’t used to know how unknowable God is – but that’s not quite right. The Athenasian Creed knew it and the Old Testament knows it. They knew the mystery because eighteenth century science hadn’t yet come along to explain things. In the Book of Job God asks Job, “Where were you when I framed the world” and then God asks maybe the key question: Have you considered the hippopotamus? Well, have you ever thought seriously about the hippopotamus? But imagine a god who can imagine that! Can you imagine the humming bird? Awesome!

But that’s what Trinity Sunday is all about; stretching your imagination until it breaks – because the bottom line is worship. We come here because we have glimpsed the outer fringes of the unimaginable and realized that that unimaginable God calls us into relationship – and the only possible response is worship.

The Athenasian Creed says it all in the first eight words: “The Catholic faith is this: that we worship . . .” Vestments, candles, incense, music, bread and wine are all about that – the sense of mystery that leads us to worship. But a eucharistTrinitarian God, a God beyond all understanding, is the same God who came to us in flesh and blood in Jesus of Nazareth, and the same God who works within us by the power of the Spirit. The mystery remains, but the Unknowable God comes to us in ways we can feel and know.

In some ways that only makes the mystery greater. How can a God who fills and creates the infinite universe come in a human life and a fragment of bread? But how could we really know God at all unless God had done just that? So if you understand the mystery better, I have probably failed in my task. If you are as baffled as ever, we can move on to worship because that’s what it’s all about.

An Unknown God

“I found …. an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.'”  (Acts 17:23)

Paul’s visit to Athens was a little like Donald Trump’s visit to Arabia. He, too, was a stranger in a new world. Paul had been places before and Trump has been places before – but Paul had never been to Athens and Trump – who has traveled 500,000 miles in the last six years had never been to Riyadh or Rome or Jerusalem. He’s been the equivalent  of 20 times around the world but never to a place of spiritual significance.

Trump has traveled to places with golf courses. Paul had traveled to places with Galatiasynagogues. Eventually both of them did something new.

Actually Athens also had a synagogue and Paul went there first. But he went out to the market place as well and people said, “You ought to go to Mars Hill; you should go to the Areopagus.” Which was maybe a little like telling Donald Trump, “You’ve been to Dubai; you’ve played the golf courses. But to make a difference you need to go to Riyadh and Jerusalem and Rome. They said to Paul, “You’ve been to the synagogues, but what can you say to the pagan world?”

And obviously Paul had thought about it. He had grown up in the Greek world, not the Jewish world. He came from Tarsus in Turkey, not Jerusalem. He knew the Greek world and he thought he could talk to that world. He set out to do just that.

I think the passage we read as the first lesson this morning is one of the most fascinating passages in the Bible. It’s Paul’s first sermon to Gentiles and it shows us how he tried to shape his Jewish message for a Gentile world.

When I begin thinking about a sermon, I try to find a subject that everyone knows about, a point of commonality, something we’ve all been thinking about – like Donald Trump’s travels and travails. And then what I hope to do is see whether I can lead our thoughts from Trump to Paul, to the problems of Paul, because then we’re all on the same page. Otherwise I’ll be talking about Jesus and you’ll still have your minds on whatever you watched on television last night or checked out on your iPhone as you came in the door.

Paul was a preacher. He looked for those commonalities. He began to talk to the Athenians, about their city, not his. He began to talk about the shrines and Paulmonuments they’d all seen, that they all knew about. “I’ve been wandering around your city,” he said. Well, everyone wants to know what visitors think of their city. People are always asking me, “How do you like California now that you’ve been here a few years. Have you seen the red woods? Have you seen the Japanese garden in Golden Gate Park?” And I ask them, “Have you seen the Prayer Book Cross in Golden Gate Park?” I’ve yet to meet anyone who’s been there.

So Paul said, “I see you have lots of shrines. I see you are very religious, and I noticed one altar inscribed, ‘To the Unknown God.’” Apparently the Greeks had a shrine for every purpose – plus one: an insurance policy shrine, a shrine to any god we’ve left out: “To an Unknown God.” It gave Paul his opening: “I’m here,” he told them, “To tell you about the God you worship but don’t know.”

So now they were all on the same page – briefly – until Paul maybe went too far. He began with familiar sayings of Greek philosophers or, as he put it, “as some of your own poets have said . . .” He may be quoting Aratus, or maybe Epimenides. We’re not sure these days who wrote it or said it, but it was familiar stuff, quotations everyone knew. “We have things in common,” he was telling them, but he moved on quickly – maybe too quickly – to suggest that he knew something they didn’t know. “The God you ignorantly worship,” he told them, “has sent a man to tell us more and raised him from the dead.”

That’s where today’s reading stops because the next verse tells us the reaction, and it’s negative: “Some scoffed, and some said, ‘Come back another time. See ya later.’” They weren’t ready to make the leap from Greek philosophy to Christian faith. Not that fast.

Well, how do you tell strangers about God? Can you do it at all? How can you tell Christians? I wondered how it would look to put a sign on the altar here: “To an Unknown God.” Because after all, what do we know? Paul told the Athenians who he was talking about. He said, “I want to tell you about the god your own poets have written of. “The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth.”

That might have been simple for Paul. He didn’t know the world was round. You could maybe imagine a God who created the little world they lived in, a world a few spaceearthhundred miles in any direction, but what about our world, our universe? Astronomers these days seem to be finding new planets every day. In the last seven years they’ve discovered 2700 potential planets and confirmed 120 of them. They expect to confirm most of them. Last month they said there are five that seem able to support life as we know it.

It makes me a think of a couple of lines in one of John Donne’s sonnets:
“You which beyond that heaven that was most high
Have found new spheres and of new lands can write.”

I remember a cartoon – probably in the New Yorker – that showed a space ship in the background and a tree in the foreground. Two naked figures stand under the tree and one is reaching up to pick a low hanging fruit, and from the adam_and_eve_in_the_garden_eden_royalty_free_080827-024591-841042space ship an astronaut is running toward them calling, “Stop!”

But the scientists tell us it would take 1200 light years to get to the nearest inhabitable planet.  And if someone there wants to pick forbidden fruit, we can’t get there in time to stop them.  None of us will be getting there soon and if somebody out there reaches out for the forbidden fruit, we have no way to stop them. We’re not doing that well right here. But my point is the size of the God we worship. J.B.Phillips, an English priest, wrote a book years ago called “Your God is too Small.” And that’s right.

I can maybe, barely, imagine a God who could create this blue world and human life but I can’t imagine a God who could create the universe scientists talk about now – or multiple universes, or alternative universes stretching out thousand of light years in all directions.  That God, it seems to me, is unknowable, and must remain unknown. I can’t stretch my mind to imagine such a God. The God we worship at this altar is always ultimately unknown, always will be. Like the ancient Athenians, we worship an unknown God.

One of the questions I’ve been asked over and over again by teen-agers in confirmation class is, “Where did God come from?” The human mind cannot conceive an uncreated God.  Everything we know of has a source, a maker, a creator. So where did God come from?  Where indeed? There is no answer. We don’t know. We worship an unknown God.

My older son has recently retired and moved to Panama – I can’t process that either. But he and his wife have always enjoyed looking at birds and they are sending back pictures – posting them on Facebook – of more varieties of birds than I ever imagined – every size and shape – tiny birds and big birds, long-necked and short necked, long billed and short billed, some with tiny, sharp beaks, and some with long wide beaks and some with beaks almost bigger than the bird itself. Long-legged birds and short-legged birds and birds in all the colors of the rainbow. I read last month an article about frigate birds that can stay aloft for weeks at a time and soar up to two miles high. Who knew? Forget other worlds; this world itself is unimaginable. The God who can shape such a world is also unimaginable, an unknown, unknowable God.

And we, like Paul, are here to make known this God to an uninterested world, a world that has too much to think about already. And if we make the effort and the people we are speaking to wander away well, that’s what happened to Paul also. But we do know something and we have something to tell them. We know that if God is to be known at all, God will be known in the world, not in books. Despite what some Christians think, God did not send a book, but a human life because only a human life can embody whatever we are able to know. There are people who fall in love with books, but they don’t marry them.   The most we can know about God is not in a book but in Jesus, in a human life, and it’s still true today that we will know God best in other lives and respond to God best by reaching out to others.

So, yes, we might appropriately put the sign “To An Unknown God” on the altar here
but not on the soup kitchen door. That’s one place we can come to know God, not fully, of course, never perfectly, but better.

This coming Thursday is Ascension Day, an odd thing to celebrate if it marks – as it sometimes seems to – the departure of Jesus from our world. But only Luke of the four gospels speaks about an Ascension at all. The other three gospels leave it up in the air if I can put it that way. And Matthew ends with Jesus saying, “Remember, I am with you always.” You might like it if I went away; less pressure on you if I get out of your way, but I’m not going. I’m going to be here. You’ll see me in the evening news and standing on the street corner, and huddled under a blanket.

It’s also Matthew who gives us the great parable of the Last Judgment when sheep and goats will be separated out to go where they belong as a result of their actions toward the sick and the naked and hungry and homeless. Both the sheep and the goats, Matthew tells us and both the sheep and the goats, Matthew tells us, will respond in the same way:
“Lord, when did we see you hungry or homeless or sick or in prison and did not come to you?” and the King will say, “Inasmuuch as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.”

So, yes, an Unknown God – it’s an unknown God we serve and an unknown God we worship.  The great Welsh priest-poet, R.S.Thomas, has written:
“His are the echoes
We follow, the footprints he has just
Left.”
And we will never catch up but that’s no excuse for turning back or not following those footsteps. We don’t know as much as we’d like to know. We never will. But we know enough. We know where God can be found and we know where we are called to meet God.  Here, yes – at this altar – in this bread and this wine – but also in each other – we are Christ’s body – and always, always, always in the needs of the world, in the sick and the homeless and hungry, in the immigrants fleeing oppression, in the weak and the powerless and forgotten.

I don’t expect the powerful people in Washington to do very much useful about those needs  but they represent us and until we have our priorities straight we can’t expect them to do the job any better. We can’t expect therm to do better until more of them know what we know.  So come to Jesus here and go to serve Jesus there -and as we do the Unknown God will become more fully known and our world, God’s world, will be transformed.

Bodies, Not Souls

A sermon preached at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, on  April 23, 2017, by Christopher L. Webber.

Now that we’ve gotten past the Easter eggs and the chocolate bunnies, I wonder whether we can do some Crocusserious thinking about the meaning of Easter.

We say in the Nicene Creed, “I believe in . . . the resurrection of the body.” My guess is that most American Christians don’t believe that at all. They believe in Easter lilies and chocolate bunnies, and the immortality of the soul.

Somebody gave me a church bulletin last Sunday from the church they attend – not an Episcopal Church – and it had a quotation from Chief Seattle on the cover: “There is no death; only a change of worlds.” Well, tell that to Jesus. You can’t put that on the cover of a Good Friday Bulletin And you shouldn’t on Easter; not if you’re a Christian; not if you read the Bible. There is nothing about chocolate bunnies in the Bible and there is nothing about the immortality of the soul.

Spirituality is very popular these days, The more people don’t go to church, the more they turn to spirituality – Eastern religions primarily. But the New Testament is not about spirituality, it’s about history, it’s a history book that tells us what God has done to shape human history and its primary purpose is to show us how to act with God in shaping history today. It’s about concrete things like loving your neighbor and making a difference for refugees and immigrants and the homeless and the hungry.

The Bible is about seeing God at work in Africa and the Middle East as well as here in this country. And it’s about taking our part in that work – all of which requires a body more than anything else. I can’t help someone else without a body to do it with. And because the body is so important – because we only know ourselves as bodies – the Gospel tells us that we will continue to know ourselves as bodies forever. It gives us a Credal statement of faith that leads up to that dramatic closing: ‘And I believe in the resurrection of the body, and the life of the world to come.”

Now, the resurrection of the body is not the same thing as an immortal soul. If we have an immortal soul, there’s no need for a resurrection. If we have a soul that can’t die, we can skip church and all that because if we’re immortal, God makes no difference. By definition an immortal soul lives for ever and there’s nothing God can do about it. But if we have mortal bodies, we depend totally on God. God can raise that body or not. God can, as St Paul says, “give life to our mortal bodies.” But God has no need to give life to immortal souls or raise them from the dead, if Chief Seattle is right and there is no such thing as death.

All of which gets us into a bigger subject than I can deal with in 15-20 minutes. In the good old days when the preacher had an hour we could have made some progress. I can’t really deal with the resurrection of the body in one sermon but I can set up some markers, some basic guidelines, and maybe come back to it another day because this is so fundamental and so seldom dealt with that even a brief beginning may be worth something.resurrection

What is it we say we believe when we say the Creed? Let me deal with it in three words: what, when, where.

First is “What.” What is this resurrection of the body? Well, start with the real world as we know it. We know ourselves and each other as bodies. If you don’t have one, I won’t get to know you. And I could only get here today in my body. We’re here as a congregation of bodies and we center our faith, our Easter faith, on a bodily resurrection that took place almost 2000 years ago. We read about it in the Gospel this morning – a resurrection of a real body. Jesus challenged Thomas, if he had doubts, to touch and make sure. But the doors were locked when Jesus appeared so what kind of body can you touch that can pass through locked doors? A changed body, that’s what.

What is a changed body? Consider that we have changed bodies every day. They say that every gene and molecule of the human body is replaced every seven years. Well, for sure I don’t have the body I had 20 or 30 years ago – I’m not as tall as I was and my hair’s a different color – and so on – you know what I’m talking about. In the Middle ages the theologians decided that hereafter we will be thirty years old forever. I hope not. I think I’ve learned a few things since then and forgotten quite a lot also.

St Paul says “we shall be changed” – he talks about the resurrection body and says “all flesh is not the same flesh.” So the resurrection body is different – but it is a body, not a soul. It has a reality to it, a recognizable sameness. The disciples didn’t always recognize Jesus right away – but they did recognize him as their risen Lord. So I can’t tell you a lot about the resurrection body but I know this: it will be real and it will be recognizable.eucharist

I might just also add that Jesus’ body will be with us this morning in two ways: first, as the assembled church – we are members of his body – and second, at the altar as we eat and drink the body and blood of Christ. The molecules can all be changed but the body has continuity and Jesus is physically present, bodily present, here today.

So what will my resurrection body be? It will be real and it will be recognizable. I can’t tell you more than that. That’s “what.”

“Where” is harder. Real bodies need real places to be. But we know a lot more about places than St Paul did. He talks about meeting the Lord “in the air.” Well, the air only goes up a few miles and beyond that is an infinite universe. I’m sure there are worlds out there that we could inhabit but I’m not interested in that. This world is great – is has its problems but I’ve enjoyed it. I wish more people could and we need to work on that but hereafter I don’t want to do it again in endless cycles. Playing golf forever holds no interest for me. Standing around on clouds would be boring. In the book of Revelation John sees endless singing before God’s throne – well, I can imagine endless music better than endless golf but a resurrection body may have new interests. “Where” is probably the wrong question because different dimensions may not be spatial at all. What scientists have glimpsed is the existence of other dimensions and life in another dimension might be good. But we have three dimensional minds and I don’t think we can even imagine a multidimensional world. We can’t say much at all about the “where” of resurrection.

And “when” is harder still. I think we are even less likely to be able to imagine a trans-temporal world. I never went to a church where they sang “When the roll is called up yonder” but I used to have a record of Burl Ives singing it:

“When the trumpet of the Lord shall sound, and time shall be no more, glory
And the morning breaks, eternal, bright and fair;
When the saved of earth shall gather over on the other shore,
And the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there.

But if “time shall be no more” how can there be a morning to dawn eternal bright and fair? And if time shall be no more, how can there be music? I’ve always said that hereafter I want to learn to play the cello, but if there is no time, there is no music. And if there is no time, how can I learn anyway because tomorrow will be the same as today and I will be always the same – and that’s frightening.

So here again, I think we need to think in terms of a different dimension. When Jesus said, “Before Abraham was, I am” people said, “You’re not yet fifty years old and have you seen Abraham?” Jesus answered, “Before Abraham was, I am.” Not “I was” but “I am” We have minds that can deal with three dimensions and time sequences but timeless eternity not so much. I think it’s as if we had triangular minds and needed to understand a circle. If you get a circle into a triangular mind, it’s no longer a circle. Eternity is like that. Heaven is like that. We do the best we can but it doesn’t help to reduce the complexity of a resurrected body to the unreality of a soul in a non-dimensional world of eternity.

A God worth worshiping will always be beyond human understanding but not beyond worshiping and not beyond the affirmations the Bible makes again and again. We shall be raised – and we will live with God forever and we will discover more of God’s power and love than we can ever begin to imagine. And I hope I have raised more questions than we will ever be able to answer.

But this we believe because Jesus was raised and because his disciples bore witness to that fact: We believe in the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come. We believe it because Jesus was raised and offers us the gift of resurrection life.

Facing God’s Future

A sermon preached on Palm Sunday, 2017, at All Saints Church, San Francisco, by Christopher L. Webber

Palm Sunday is like no other Sunday of the year because on Palm Sunday we do a small re-enactment of a day almost 2000 years ago. We start somewhere else and wPalm Sundaye bless palms and distribute them and we read the gospel with several voices, not just one. We try to recreate an event, relive a drama, get the feel of a day long past.

Of course, when you stop to think about it, we do a kind of re-enactment of a past event every Sunday. We remember a meal Jesus shared with his disciples and we take bread and wine as he did and give thanks to God as he did and break the bread as he did and share the meal as they did.

I’m sure there are some who see this as something like a grade school pageant remembering and re-enacting the first New England Thanksgiving, but just a re-enactment, an attempt to remember and re-live a long-dead past.

Let me suggest another way of looking at it – and a better way, I think. If you go to a concert, or even if you listen to a tape or CD or pull something up on your iPhone, what are you doing? If it’s a Mozart symphony, are you trying to re-live the 18th Century? Would it be better done if you put on a wig and 18th century clothes? If you put on a Beatles’ record, for that matter, are you trying to relive the 60s? I doubt it. I doubt that idea ever occurs to us. We listen to great music, or not so great music, surely not to recreate the past but to recreate ourselves, to make an impact on our own lives today. And each time, it’s a new experience and it affects our feelings, our mind-set, our outlook on life, who we are. We “get into” the music, and it gets into us, and it changes us, changes our day.

Now, it seems to me that liturgy, what we do in church, is something more like that. Just as Mozart and Haydn and John Lennon shaped a pattern of sounds that many still value today for what it is, not what it was, so liturgy is a pattern of actions that we value now for our lives today. Going to a concert has nothing to do with re-living the past. It’s last supperabout now. In the same way, when we go to sports event and rise to sing the national anthem, we’re not remembering Fort McHenry or trying to re-I’ve the War of 1812. We’re remembering who we are and what we hope to be.

Music does that. Liturgy does that. It’s about the order and harmony which we want in our lives now. It’s a matter of finding a shape and a pattern, an order and a harmony, which our lives need now and which we can’t find any other way. Liturgy is like that. You can hear sermons and read the Bible and say your prayers and sing hymns and all that kind of thing – and there’s nothing wrong with it – but liturgy is something much more, liturgy is something that involves our whole life: mind and body, eyes and ears, hands and feet – all of us, all that we are, and all that we need to become.

You know, before astronauts are sent into space, they spend months and years rehearsing, going over and over every possible contingency, so that the future will have no surprises. Whatever happens, the odds are good that they’ll have done it before and are ready to do it again. But ordinary life isn’t like that. Tomorrow you’ll be faced with problems you’ve never faced before because you’ve never lived on the 10th of April in the year 2017. If nothing else, you’ll see something on television, for better or worse – most likely worse – that’s at least a little bit different and your reaction will be at least a little bit different.

You and I are not computer chips ceaselessly choosing between Os and 1s. Real life is constantly shifting and changing and facing us with new decisions, new questions, new reactions. And we can’t rehearse how to do them. Real life is a question finally of who we are: the order and pattern and harmony of our souls, our essential being. What we do here today is to become part of a pattern, part really of another life because liturgy is the process that brings our lives together with the life of Jesus in whom God was fully present and so it’s a pattern by which the order and pattern of Jesus’ life shapes ours, by which we enter his life and he enters ours; it’s a pattern, indeed, by which the order and pattern of the universe God made shapes us and recreates us here and now.

So we aren’t simply repeating the past this morning when we take part in Palm SunDaliday and the liturgy of Holy Week and we aren’t trying to program the future as the astronauts do. God calls us into a future beyond anything astronauts can imagine and liturgy is our way of being prepared to live in that kind of world.

2000 years ago, on that first Palm Sunday, Jesus confronted the people of Jerusalem with a way of living so new that most people couldn’t face it. They killed him rather than try. And that’s not surprising at all. A future that’s really new can be frightening. It’s much easier to do things the same old way and ask no questions. It’s much easier to invoke memories of a former time to go back to – to “make America great again” – to go back to the past out of fear of the future rather than go forward in faith and confidence with the vision of God’s future.

Every day of a real life is new and you can’t rehearse it. What you can do, though, is find a music, a pattern, a liturgy, that will still be valid whatever the future may be. For nearly 2000 years, in every age, every society, in all those past futures that human beings have created and lived, Christians have found in this liturgy a pattern of life that enabled them to go forward and live in a new world with confidence because in that world as in this their lives were joined with God.

I was struck by the story Fr Schmidt told a few weeks ago about the Summer of Love fifty years ago and how the Diggers came and asked to use church space. You can’t rehearse for that because it’s never happened before, but the response was immediate. Yes. It was almost as if the Rector and parish had been rehearsing for that day and in a real sense they had.

Somewhere there are astronauts rehearsing the possibilities so they can make the future as dull as the past – no surprises. Here we’re preparing to live in a world so new only God can imagine it, so new that only in God can we enter it and where the only surprise is the joy – the always new joy of God’s love.glory

Faith Sizes

A sermon preached at the Church if the Incarnation, San Francisco, on March 12, 2017, by Christopher L. Webber.

There’s a little poem I saw somewhere years ago that says this:
Men’s faces, voices differ much,
Saints are not all one size.
Flowers in a garden various grow;
Let none monopolize.
(Morgan Lywd, 1619-1659)

“Saints are not all one size.” Relationships with God come in all shapes and sizes. I think that’s good news and bad. It’s bad news because we like to have simple answers and standard sizes. I remember looking for socks one day and finding some marked: Sizes 6-12. One size fits all – or almost all. How do they do that? I don’t know, but it works. Christian faith is not like that. “Saints are not all one size.” But that’s good news because I think it helps to know that not all Christians are the same size. In other Paulwords, I can’t expect to be the same kind of Christian as St. Paul or St. Francis or Joan of Arc or even as another member of this congregation. So that’s good news: I don’t necessarily have to write epistles or preach to the birds or lead armies or even necessarily help out in a soup kitchen. Some saints will do that and some won’t and that’s fine. But that’s also bad news because our relationship with God is so important, so life-changing, that we can’t help wanting a prescription to follow and to be able to analyze everyone else by the pattern that works for me.

Maybe it’s partly the way things are in an industrial society. You remember how Henry Ford said you could have a car in any color you wanted as long as it was black. So you can get any pack of beer you want as long as it’s a six pack. You probably won’t find a seven pack or a five pack. We live in a standardized world. There is, however, a book called, “How to wrap five eggs” published in Japan in the 1970s that explains how things used to be done in a less standardized world. But they haven’t read it at Safeway. And you can get a huge argument over public schools and charter schools that is basically on that subject. We obsess about every child reading at a certain level by a certain age. But maybe some aren’t ready. Children are not all one size. That doesn’t mean I necessarily agree with Betsy DeVos. It’s a lot more complicated than that.

Some churches have a check off system: attends every Sunday, pledges 10%, joined a Bible study group, etc. to see who measures up. And that’s all great but take that same trio I started with: Sts. Paul and Francis and Joan of Arc and ask what they had in common or even whether they pledged and went to Bible study and I don’t see a standard pattern.

It’s hard to avoid thinking that if others see God through different eyes and respond to God in different ways, there’s something wrong with them. They must be deprived or depraved, or unhappy or heretical. I mean, if my congregation, my church, the Book of Common Prayer and the Anglican form of Christianity have been the means by which I have come to know God’s love, it’s hard to understand why someone else would want to be a Methodist or Congregationalist or Roman Catholic. In fact, we ought to want others to know God’s love as deeply as we do and more deeply. I want that for you. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that God’s plan for you is the same as God’s plan for me. It doesn’t mean I should be working to get all of you off to seminary and ordained. This congregation doesn’t need a lot more Episcopal priests. One or two is more than enough. What it needs is maybe one of those and some Vestry members and a treasurer and clerk and an organist and sexton and someone to set up the coffee hour and someone to pitch in at the book sale and lots of people to pray for everything that needs prayer. We don’t need fifty sopranos; or fifty quilters. We need thirty or forty or fifty or more individuals, all different, each responding to God in a different way and each playing a different part in God’s church and God’s world. I think very often we are like the infant who has just discovered the joys of pablum and offers others at the table a taste from her spoon. Pablum is wonderful stuff, but most of us have moved on. Some of us have moved on to broccoli and others to spinach; tastes differ. We all need vitamins and minerals but we don’t all need to get them in the same form.

Episcopalians have often said that our goal is “unity in essentials and diversity in non-essentials and charity in all things.” But what’s essential and what’s non-essential? That question is being asked these days with new intensity. What is it that we have to agree on in order to live together in one church? What is it we have to agree on to live together in one country?

I raise these questions because this is Abraham Sunday. Always on the Second Sunday in Lent we hear about Abraham. Abraham followed God’s call and came into the promised land. And here we are: baptismAbraham’s descendants. What do we have in common? What do we need to have in common? What is essential to serving God and following God as Abraham did? Abraham is sometimes called “our father in faith;” the first to respond to God in faith. What do we need to do to be his descendants: children of Abraham?

When we look at the readings this morning they show us drastically different ways of response to God. So let’s start there: what is there in these readings for us to learn? The Old Testament passage is amazingly brief and shows us God giving Abraham a command and promising Abraham blessings. But all God asks of Abraham is obedience. God said, “Go,” and Abraham went. And that’s pretty much how it was for Abraham. God spoke and Abraham jumped.
“Get out of here and go west.”
“OK, Lord; I’m going.”
:Sacrifice your son on an altar.”
“Right, Lord, I’m on my way.”
Abraham was obedient. That’s one pattern of response and for some people it’s an easy and natural response: just tell me what to do. It worked for Abraham; maybe it’ll work for you. But, you know, it won’t work for me or for most Episcopalians. We always want to know why.

I remember trying to get that across to a former Roman Catholic priest years ago who was on his way into the Episcopal Church. He was coming into a church that provides a lot of freedom, and I kept having to say, “John, when an Episcopal bishop asks you to jump, your response isn’t, ‘How high?’ but ‘Why?’”

Abraham wasn’t an Episcopalian; he didn’t ask; he just did it. Leave home and family, OK. Sacrifice your son, OK. God tells me what to do and I do it. That was Abraham’s way and that’s still the pattern in some churches. Here are the rules; don’t ask. But what a contrast with today’s Gospel. Here’s poor Nicodemus trying to figure it out, trying desperately to understand what Jesus is talking about. Nicodemus had questions and he wanted answers. t’s hard to imagine a sharper contrast with Abraham. But some people are like Nicodemus and need to ask questions, need to explore different answers. I think that’s more comfortable for Episcopalians than Christians in some of the narrower traditions. We want reasons. We want to understand. We’re more like Nicodemus than Abraham. I remember coming by a church once that had signs out front saying: “You have questions; We have answers.” But there’s an Episcopal Church I know of that gives its members bumper stickers saying: “Thoughts provoked daily.” Not answers provided, but thoughts provoked, questions raised.

So there are at least two patterns, two ways of being a Christian, and the epistle leads us in still a third direction by stressing faith and picturing Abraham not so much as a man of obedience but as a man of faith. The problem is that we don’t really see that in the Biblical picture of Abraham; what we see is what he did. And I think we need to pay attention to that.

I think most Christians have trouble with the idea of faith because it’s so invisible, so unmeasurable, and it seems to ask us to see what can’t be seen and measure what can’t be measured. How do we know faith? How can we be sure? And of course, that’s a paradox, maybe an oxymoron. We’ve been brainwashed by science into thinking we have to be able to use the same techniques scientists use to prove faith, demonstrate faith the way you can prove that water freezes at 32 degrees. But you can’t. If you can measure it or know it or be sure of it, it isn’t faith; it’s something else.

Abraham was told to go and he went. On the surface, at least, that’s obedience, not faith, but it is the evidence of faith. And I think that’s what we ought to look for. If we have to look for faith, let’s look for what we can see. Now, that gets us into potential trouble because it seems to be saying that works is what matters. It isn’t. That’s not what I’m saying. But what I am suggesting is that most of the time it’s the only part of faith you can see. It’s all we can see of Abraham’s faith. It’s all we can see of Paul’s faith or Augustine’s faith and probably all we can see of our own. We can see what we do, not what we believe. And what I’m suggesting is that we need to concentrate not on what we can’t see but on what we can. And we can take these two contrasting pictures – Abraham and Nicodemus as two pictures of faith in action. God told Abraham to go and he went. That’s faith in action. Nicodemus came to Jesus with questions and that’s faith in action also. It’s faith that cares enough to ask question. Faith that takes the time to come and discuss and try to understand. I would even go so far as to say that we shouldn’t worry about faith, not think about it, not concern ourselves about it. Yes, I know, we are saved by faith, faith alone, but somehow the more we worry about it, the less we have it. The more we aim at it, the more we are likely to miss it.

I came across some words of Rabbi Abraham Heschel that I think throw a useful light on the subject: He said, “The secret of spiritual living is the power to praise. Praise is the harvest of love. Praise precedes faith. First we sing, then we believe. The fundamental issue is not faith but sensitivity and praise, being ready for faith.”

Notice the hierarchy: “Praise is the harvest of love. First we sing, then we believe.” In other words, love produces praise and praise leads to faith. First we sing, then we believe. It sounds counter-intuitive, but isn’t that what St. Paul is saying in that great 13th chapter of First Corinthians when he says: “There are three things that matter: faith, hope, and love; but the greatest of these is love.” That’s Paul, remember; Paul the great advocate of faith. Paul says love, not faith, is greatest.

Would it fit with your experience, I wonder, to suggest that love leads to praise and praise leads to faith? that love is greatest because love is the foundation, that love is greatest because love is the end, that love last supperis the beginning and end, and that we are saved by faith through grace because faith is the name of the critically essential response we make to that love that surrounds us and draws us ever onward and upward?

Abraham is one role model; there are many. “Faith,” the Epistle to the Hebrews says, “is the evidence of things not seen.” And it goes on to cite the various scriptural figures who responded to God in various ways, by making an offering, building an ark, saving a baby, abandoning Egypt, by being stoned to death, sawn in two, killed by the sword; suffering destitution, persecution, torment. Those acts are not faith themselves but they are the visible evidence of invisible faith.

I knew a senior warden once who would come into my office at regular intervals to worry about a particular phrase of the Creed that he wasn’t sure he believed. And I used to say, “Stop worrying. You’re in church every Sunday, you serve on the Vestry, you contribute your time and talent to every good cause that comes along, and you take the Creed seriously, and you care enough to ask good questions. If that’s not faith, I don’t know what is.”

Saints are not all one size. So look for examples and learn from them, but don’t feel you need to be like any one of them. Be who God is calling you to be, now, where you are; respond in love, respond with praise, care enough to ask questions, and the evidence of your faith will be there.

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