Visitations

A sermon preached at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, on the Feast of the Visitation, 2016.

Isn’t it interesting that the calendar brings Memorial Day and the Feast of the Visitation so close together? It can’t help but make you thoughtful.

At first glance, Donald Trump’s visit to the tomb of the unknowns at Arlington and Mary’s visit to her cousin Hannah haven’t a lot in common, but the larger themes of war and peace mark both occasions and need, I think, to be looked at together.

Begin with the readings assigned. Both readings today give us a song of peace: Hannah’s song and Mary’s are similar. Mary’s, in fact, is based on Hannah’s and both celebrate humility and lowliness and both celebrate the downfall of pride. God, we are told, has an agenda and that agenda is the downfall of human power and the raising up by God’s power of the weak and the helpless.

Memorial Day on the other hand tends to celebrate military power. To be technical, it simply remembers those who died for their country and asks no questions about the worthiness of the cause. But surely the cause does matter. There’s been a lot of controversy this last year about statues and war memorials. My daughter went for years to a church on Memorial Avenue in Richmond Virginia where every few blocks there’s a traffic circle and in the middle of the traffic circle a statue of a confederate leader on horseback. The one exception is the last statue which gives us Arthur Ashe holding a tennis racket. Which, I wonder, will be longer remembered?

But what are we to do with the generals? I don’t have a big need, myself, to take them down. Memorial Avenue left unchanged is a powerful statement on the foolishness of war. Here are all these generals carved in stone, and all around them a city that has long abandoned what they fought to preserve. No one has accurate numbers, but nearly a million young men died in the Civil War, far more in the North than the South, and more than in all our other wars together.

This is, we like to say, a great country, but was there then no one able to avert that disaster? Why did so many have to die to gain freedom for slaves? Why were so many willing to die in defense of the indefensible, in defense of slavery, in defense of the power to buy and sell human beings?

But how many men and women have died in American wars more recently: in Vietnam in a losing cause, in Afghanistan to no obvious purpose? So, yes, let us remember those who have died, but let us also remember those who sent them to die when there was nothing to be gained by so doing.

I happen to be reading the second volume of a three-volume biography of Winston Churchill [William Manchester: “The Last Lion”] and volume two is the story of the ten years from 1930-1940 when war could have been prevented if politicians had been more centered on peace and less centered on winning the next election. How many millions died in World War II because politicians failed to act sensibly? By all means honor those who died, but not without questioning the necessity of those deaths.

Do you remember the story of Brer Rabbit and the tar baby? I sometimes think a good many wars are like that: the harder you fight, the more you get stuck. The more men die in Afghanistan the harder is to get out – because it will signify that they died in vain. But having more men and women die in vain is not the answer. Donald Trump and Barack Obama don’t have much in common but both announced themselves opposed to the war in Afghanistan and neither could find the courage to end it because they didn’t dare look like a loser. And how many more need to die before someone has the courage to act?

I’m supposed to be talking about the Visitation: the coming together of two pregnant women whose sons would change history without drawing a single sword. And one of them sings a song, basically the same song that Hannah sang a thousand years earlier, about the putting down of the rich and powerful and the raising up of the lowly. “He has scattered the proud . . . He has brought down the powerful . . . He has lifted up the lowly . . .” That is God’s priority. Let us pray that someday it will also be ours.

Who Do I Belong To

A sermon preached at All Saints Church, San Francisco, on May 13, 2018.

“They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.”  St. John 17:16

So who do you belong to? Jesus said, “They do not belong to the world.” He’s talking about his followers. He’s talking about us. He’s saying, “We do not belong to the world.” So who do we belong to?

There was a time when millions of Americans belonged to slave owners. It was pretty clear in those days who belonged to who. I’ve just finished writing a biography of James McCune Smith, a man who lived in the first half of the 19th century, a black American born in slavery in New York City when it was still legal in New York State to own slaves. As the battle over slavery heated up plantation owners would often argue that the slaves had a better life than the factory workers in New England. But Smith wrote an essay suggesting that there was no record of a New England factory worker fleeing south to become a slave. “There is not,” he pointed out, any record “of a single free black, who has gone down South and offered himself a candidate for the enjoyment of slavery. There is no impediment in his way. He has merely to go as far South as Baltimore, walk about the streets, and hold his tongue; the law will do the rest, and he will become a slave. No one has gone.” On the contrary, Smith pointed out, a thousand slaves a year were escaping to the North, but it is “a well-known fact,” he wrote, “that men, whatever the color of their skin, will not in their thousands run away from a good living.”

Who owns you? Who owns us? Every now and again I have to get to an early appointment and I walk down 19th Avenue between 7:30 and 8:30 in the morning and I see fifteen or twenty young men and women dressed alike in tight blue jeans and jackets leaning against a wall studying their iPhones. And suddenly an enormous bus comes up and scoops them up and off they go to the salt mines of Silicon Valley. Sometimes I’ll be walking up or down the street late in the day and see the same bus come back and let them out again still studying their cell phones.

Who owns them? What would Jesus say or James McCune Smith about who they belong to? What would they say of themselves? They might tell you that they own that iPhone in front of their face, but maybe not. Maybe it owns them. It certainly seems to control them. I don’t imagine they pick cotton in Silicon Valley. I imagine that they’re free to walk away from their work at any time, but who do they belong to, what purpose do they see for their lives? What is their vision? Is it to create the next big thing in the world of silicon chips or to make payments on a small house in suburban Oakland or Santa Somewhere. What’s the vision?

I doubt most of you are waiting for the morning bus to Silicon Valley but what are you waiting for, what treadmill are you on? To what are you committed? Jesus said, “You do not belong to the world.” But who do we belong to? And what difference does it make?

I’ve been asking myself these questions with a new urgency in recent months. Two or three things have changed in my life that have made me look again. First, I was asked to take on the writing of memorials for my college class. My college alumni magazine publishes short memorials 200 words or less for deceased classmates. We were upwards of 700 60-some years ago, but we’re down to less than half that now and new obituaries arrive in my on-line mail box almost every week. It makes you thoughtful. John Jones, graduated from Princeton, went on to earn an MBA from Harvard, worked for a giant investment firm for forty years and retired to Florida. Why? What difference did he make? Maybe he worked tirelessly for the local soup kitchen, maybe he left his millions to UNICEF. Sometimes the obituary notices such things; more often not. Who will write what about me? As I said, It makes me thoughtful.

And then, as many of you know, my wife died last fall and my life is changed in a fundamental way. I made decisions 60-some years ago about who I belonged to and I was ordained and I was married. And I think those were good decisions. I’m still committed to both of them. But I began to think last winter that I ought to think again about who I was, who I am, who I will be, and one way of looking at it is in the gospel this morning: Jesus said of his followers, “They do not belong to the world . . .”

That’s good. I have no desire to belong to this world. So who do I belong to and how do I live out that belonging? Yes, I belong to my wife – still do – but not visibly and physically and yes, I belong to God’s church and am still able to do ministry and then there’s all this writing I do and I’m an officer of the retirement home where I live and my family is evolving and changing – nothing ever says the same from one day to another – and who am I and is God still the center? And who do I belong to? Who controls my life? How do I establish priorities?

I was thinking about all that last winter and thinking I needed to find some time to be quiet and prayerful and deepen the relationship with God that a priest can take too much for granted and I happened to see an ad in a Christian magazine for a Trappist monastery in South Carolina that was offering the opportunity to be a monk for a month, and I thought, “That’s what I need.” So I wrote to them and they wrote back and I leave for Mepkin Abbey at the end of August. I have every intention of coming back. I plan to be back at the end of September. No small voice is telling me to stay longer. Not yet anyway. Though one should never say never. But the program is daunting: Up at 3 am for two hours of prayer then breakfast and more prayer and eucharist then three hours of work then lunch and an optional siesta than three more hours of work. They raise mushrooms, and I had a big garden and orchard for twenty years and worked with a tractor and chain saw, so mushrooms should be easy – even for six hours a day. Then comes supper and vespers and compline and bed at 8 pm. The Trappists are also an order renowned for their keeping of silence. What they call the “Grand Silence” extends From 8 pm to 8 am but they cultivate what they call “A general atmosphere of silence.” The point is to be able to listen and to let God speak. That’s what I’m looking for: to be able to listen and be clear about who I belong to. I won’t pretend not to be nervous about it. But I think it provides what I need right now: a chance to be quiet and to ask direction and think and pray about the big questions: Who am I? And what do I really know of God? And is my life really centered on God? Who owns me? Who owns my life? St Paul says in another place: You are not your own; you were bought with a price. I do not belong to the world. No. I think, I believe, I belong to God. But am I sure? Or have I need running away? Isn’t it maybe time to take another look?

Now, I’m fortunate because I have this opportunity. I couldn’t have done it ten years ago. And it’s not for everyone – I’m sure it’s not – but it is, I think, a benchmark for everyone. If not that, then what? When did I last ask myself serious questions? When did I last look carefully at my pattern of life, at my relationship with God, at my commitment of time and talent and treasure – the traditional three T’s. Do I truly “not belong to the world” and what am I doing to control the world’s claim on my life?

I read an article in last week’s New Yorker about a man who had worked for the CIA doing various things in Afghanistan and then transitioned to a private-sector intelligence analysis firm advising corporations and governments on matters of geopolitics and risk. But he began to feel like a fraud because he could see the flaws in other societies but he didn’t know his own neighborhood. Savannah, Georgia, where he lives, has one of the highest crime rates in the country, so why, he asked himself, was he worrying about Afghanistan. So he quit his job and joined the local police force taking a pay cut of over $100,000 a year. That’s not a decision you make if you belong to the world. It’s a decision you make if you see yourself as being responsible for the life that is given you for a purpose.

If you belong to the world you measure your life one way; if not, there are other concerns – and it’s not my comfort or my security or my convenience. If I belong to the world, the world shapes me; if not, I look for ways to make a difference. The Gospel this morning tell us – Jesus tells us – “You – I – do not belong to the world.” My home is not here. There is nothing I can’t live without except Jesus. I can say that easily enough but I’m not sure it’s true and I want to find out. I pray that you do too. For a slave in the cotton fields of Alabama it was clear who they belonged to and if they could they ran away, they boarded the underground railroad and headed north. For us, it’s usually not as clear but often our lives are shaped by priorities that have not much to do with an eternal purpose. And I think that requires some thoughtfulness: am I using what God has given me in talents and possessions to make a difference? Do they own me? Does the world own me? Or am I finding ways to give my gifts to serve others, to make a difference? Am I, you might say, willing to keep on picking cotton, or am I willing to take the risk of heading for freedom in an unknown country where I could make my life count for something? Does the world own me or does Jesus? These are questions I think we need to ask ourselves from time to time.

Being a Vine

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at All Saints Church, Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco, on April 29, 2018.

“I AM the vine.” St. John 15:5

There’s a little history book discussion group I belong to that has been reading a book called “The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America” (Frances Fitzgerald, Simon and Schuster, 2017) and we meet next Tuesday to discuss it. I was looking forward to reading it, hoping for some insights, but I’m not sure I got any. What I did notice was that what started as a religious movement two centuries ago seemed to become more and more a political movement as we came down to the present day What started out with a particular teaching about the Holy Spirit and religious revival became more and more about names like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and organizations like the Family Research Council and Christian Broadcasting Network and narrowly focused groups aimed at enlisting politicians and winning elections and something called “the Christian right”

The book actually ended on a fairly hopeful note with a discussion of the increasing influence of “millennials” and concern for social justice issues. But better yet, one member of the discussion group sent us a copy of a speech he found on line by the President of Fuller Seminary, one of the most prestigious evangelical seminaries anywhere. Maybe you’ve heard of it. It’s in Menlo Park – not far away – and it claims approximately 4,000 students from 90 countries and 110 denominations. I read the speech with amazement and hope. Dr. Labberton, the president of the seminary, told his evangelical audience:

“When evangelical leaders like us gather, it is often with a spirit of optimistic hope, known for “pressing on” in the work of the gospel. For me, this is not a time of pressing on. I feel a personal urgency to stop, to pray, to listen, to confess, and to repent and want to call us to do the same. Only the Spirit “who is in the world to convict us of sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8) can bring us to clarity about the crisis we face. As I have sought that conviction, here is what I have come to believe: The central crisis facing us is that the gospel of Jesus Christ has been betrayed and shamed by an evangelicalism that has violated its own moral and spiritual integrity. This is not a crisis imposed from outside the household of faith, but from within. The core of the crisis is not specifically about Trump, or Hillary, or Obama, or the electoral college, or Comey, or Mueller, (MULLER) or abortion, or LGBTQIA+ debates, or Supreme Court appointees. Instead the crisis is caused by the way a toxic evangelicalism has engaged with these issues in such a way as to turn the gospel into Good News that is fake. Now on public display is an indisputable collusion between prominent evangelicalism and many forms of insidious racist, misogynistic, materialistic, and political power. The wind and the rain and the floods have come, and, as Jesus said, they will reveal our foundation. In this moment for evangelicalism, what the storms have exposed is a foundation not of solid rock but of sand.”

So OK – we have things to talk about. We do have elements of a common faith. And we need to ask, Who are we as Christians? What unites us? Why are we here? How can we get to work to serve Jesus here and now? What’s obvious is that we are not ready for the Second Coming, and we do have things to talk about and maybe we have some on both sides prepared to talk and more important prepared to listen.

The basic problem of course is that we are human beings who need structure to shape our lives We need rules, budgets, buildings, programs, meetings. That’s where it really comes apart: meetings: vestries, conventions, synods, committees, sub-committees. . . Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we do it to Jesus? We do it because we have to – without structure our lives fall apart – but with structure, we lose the spirit and have to refocus again and again and remind ourselves what it’s all about, why we are here. The Gospel this morning tells us. It says, “I am the vine, you are the branches.”

It all come back to that, to our relationship with Jesus. It’s just as simple as that – and just as complicated: our relationship with Jesus. “I am the vine,” Jesus said; “And you are the branches.” “Abide in me.” It’s simple. It’s simple to be branches of a vine: just don’t fall off. Hang in there. It’s simple. Just be there, be where the nourishment is. Simple. But being human, we always make it complicated. I am the vine; you are the branches. Abide in me.” Simple. And we mess it up. Time after time.

But of course, this idea of a vine is what the English teachers call a “metaphor”: like reality, but different. We may be a metaphorical vine, with metaphorical roots, but we’re actually human beings with unmetaphorical feet that walk us away from where we ought to be. We don’t have visible roots; we don’t have an obvious structure that just naturally draws nourishment up out of the ground, along the trunk, into the branches. We have the disadvantage of being seemingly separate human beings who have the ability to go our own way, think our own thoughts, and be vegetarians or carnivores, Democrats or Republicans, Christians or Muslims, Shiites or Sunnis, Episcopalians or Seventh Day Adventists or Two-seed in the Spirit Predestinarian Baptists. So where the vine just does its thing, we make it hard for ourselves. We have to figure out first what our thing is. Who are we? Who do we want to be – not what, but who. Are we going to be like a vine or like a bunch of lego pieces that may fit together and may not.

Where do we go wrong? The simple answer is that we don’t listen to today’s Gospel and Jesus’ words. It’s about life in the vine. It’s about sharing life, Jesus’ risen life, and we also call that “communion,” Food for the journey and that food for the journey is here at the altar: shared life, sharing eternal life, Jesus’ risen life, right here, right now, in a living relationship, we are branches drawing life from the vine.

I’m sorry for Christians who lack that center. It goes back to ancient controversies – times when people argued over what it meant to be in communion, to receive communion, what specifically it meant. And some walked away from the ancient pattern: better not to have communion at all than to do it wrong or share it with someone we disagree with as to what it meant. We’re getting over that. More and more churches are bringing communion back to a central place, but meanwhile we find ourselves divided over issues and rules and structures – yes, and politics. And we walk away from communion as if that would solve something. Ideally it should be Communion first, not last. We need to share life, But lots of Christians aren’t ready for that; don’t value it, don’t see it as central. We’ve got a long way to go even to get to square one.

Jesus said “Do this” and that ought to be the beginning, but instead it’s a goal. But we need to keep focused on that goal. Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches, abide in me.” He never said, so far as I know, “Here’s the rule book; obey it.” Or “here’s an organization chart and rules for electing Vestries.” Rules can be very helpful; because we’re human we have to have them but they’re not the gospel and they can be changed. We keep trying to put rules first and communion second.

But the goal is communion. We belong to a communion, the Anglican communion. We’re not Congregationalists where each local church is self-governing or at the other extreme Roman Catholics governed by the Bishop of Rome. We’re not Methodists with a particular Method or Baptists insisting on believer baptism or Lutherans with allegiance to a particular 16th century theologian. We’re a communion, united in worship, united by the life we share at the altar. But even in communion we find ourselves divided by the same issues Dr. Labberton was talking about at Fuller Seminary: There are, he said, “many forms of insidious racist, misogynistic, materialistic, and political power . . . that turn the gospel into good news that is fake.” For example: let’s talk about sex. Jesus never said, “You have to agree about sex.” But some people won’t talk to people who disagree with them about sex. And what makes it so tragic is that none of us – none of us – really knows what we’re talking about when it comes to sex.

Let me tell you some history. Ten years ago, the last time the bishops of our worldwide Anglican Communion tried to come together in England, as they have usually done every ten years, some of the bishops wouldn’t even go to the meeting because they disagreed with their brother and sister bishops. about various issues concerning sex – what was allowable and what wasn’t. They made it that important even though, on the record, Anglican Bishops would get a failing grade on that subject. I made a study the last time they met, about ten years ago of the history of the Lambeth Conference and I paid particular attention to their changing wisdom about sex. It all began in the nineteenth century when they first met and were confronted by a question from African bishops about polygamy. It wasn’t something English or American bishops had thought about very much, but they quickly agreed that polygamy was bad and polygamists couldn’t be baptized. There were missionaries in Africa who were saying, “We’ve got this man who wants to be baptized, but he’s got ten wives. What should we do?” And the bishops said, “Well, you can baptize his wives, but not him – not unless he sends nine of them away.” And the missionaries said, “But what would happen to all those wives without his support and protection? What would become of nine-tenths of the children?” And the bishops said, “Not our problem; we don’t do polygamy.” That was in 1888. In 1998 they looked at it again and said, “Well, actually, maybe; if he promises not to marry again, it might be OK.” Times have changed; so the rules have changed. If you are a rule-bound church, you wind up in big trouble. In 1908 the bishops said, “If you get a divorce, you can’t marry again and if you do marry again, you can’t come to communion. In 1968 they said, “Divorce happens but life has to go on. We all make mistakes, but there’s forgiveness in Jesus.” In 1920 the bishops said “Birth control is really bad.” In 1968 they said, “Family planning is really good.” Right now a lot of them still want to say that same sex unions are bad and I’d be more inclined to accept that if they had ever gotten it right about sex before. So, yes, give the bishops an F on sex, but fortunately it’s not critical because we’re not a church governed by rules; our unity is in communion, in the vine, in Jesus. Rules can be changed.

And still we have problems. There are Anglican dioceses in both America and Africa that want to divide the church over issues of sexuality. There are African dioceses that refuse to come to Anglican Communion meetings because they say they are just holding to the faith that western missionaries taught them a hundred years ago and they’re right – that is what they were taught and how do you account for change when you were taught an unchanging faith? The one thing I’m sure of is that we can’t solve issues by division: We can only solve them in the vine, only when we all draw our life from the same source. Anything else fundamentally alters the nature of our communion and puts us at odds with the gospel this morning that tells us to abide in Jesus, in communion, in the vine.

Why, at this point in human history, with attitudes toward sexuality changing from day to day , would we choose to draw a line in the sand and say “This is it: my way or the highway.” That baffles me. I know how much my own ideas have changed on this subject over the years and I’m glad I’ve been free to change. I want to keep my options open, not set in concrete in 2018. Evangelicals could maybe learn from us – that is from our mistakes – and we could learn from them and we could both learn by our own experience that it’s easy to put the emphasis in the wrong place – to worry about the wrong things, to care more about the rules than the vine. But we desperately need to work toward a deeper and fuller communion so that we can move forward on the things that matter like homelessness and the environment and medical policies and tax policies shaped by a concern for others rather than personal greed or our own narrow and limited understanding.

I don’t expect evangelicals to adopt the Book of Common Prayer any time soon and I don’t expect Anglicans, Episcopalians, to figure out ways to come to a common mind on issues of human sexuality, but maybe we can agree on what today’s Gospel reminds us of: that life comes first – the sharing of the life that flows through the vine to the branches.

The Anglican Communion has a seal it adopted maybe 60-70 years ago that shows a globe and a bishop’s miter and around the globe in Greek it says – “The truth shall make you free.” (John 8:32) That’s a great verse to take as emblematic of what we’re all about: truth and freedom. It’s just that simple and just that hard. Apart from love it’s impossible. But with God, with Love, all things are possible and it begins here at the altar where we are nourished in a common life. He is the vine; we are the branches; our life is in him.

Being Like God

A sermon preached at All Saints Church, San Francisco, by Christopher L. Webber on April 15, 2018.

Many years ago, I had an assistant who was just out of seminary and one Sunday it was his turn to preach – maybe the first time he had done it. The epistle reading that morning was I Corinthians 13, the great passage about love: “Faith, hope, and love remain, but the greatest of these is love.” So the time for the sermon came and he went to the pulpit and read it again and then he said, “That’s just so beautiful, I don’t think there’s much I can add to it, so let’s just take some time to think about it” And then he sat down and out his chin on his fist like that famous statue of “The Thinker” by Rodin, and we all waited to see what would happen next and I have to admit that I didn’t think about I Corinthians 13 at all because I was trying to think of a way to move the service ahead.

I remembered that this last week when I started to think about this sermon and the readings we have just heard and was I drawn to the reading from the First Epistle of John and wondered what more could be said and whether that young assistant’s approach might not have something to be said for it. Listen again to John:

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. I John 3:2

What more is there to say? John himself runs out of words: “What we shall be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.”

I’ve spent a lot of time in recent sermons talking about the difference it makes to be a Christian but I’ve been talking about it in terms of the impact we ought to make on the world around us. Today, if we pay attention to the epistle, we’re asked to think about the difference it makes in us and, really, we probably ought to think about that first because how can we make a difference in the world unless we ourselves are different?

But here’s the problem: the difference comes in two ways and one of them is beyond words. Last week John was plain and simple: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves.” But, you know, dealing with sin is the easy part. we confess and we are forgiven. Well, that’s easier to say than to do, but at least you can say it and sometimes, on our good days, we can do it. But John is pointing us beyond that. He’s saying sin and forgiveness are just a first step toward a future beyond words and beyond imagination. “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.”

There are two steps there: first, “we are God’s children now.” We could sit for awhile and contemplate that. Do you take it for granted? You shouldn’t. I think we sometimes write it off as something that’s a “given,” as if it comes with being born: “all human beings are children of God; we’re all God’s children.” You hear people say that, but I don’t think so. God is the Creator and all human beings, like all cats and dolphins and sheep and red-tailed hawks are God’s creation. But not God’s children, not part of God’s family. Potentially, yes, but to become a child of God requires baptism; it’s what baptism is all about.

When we baptize a child the whole congregation joins in saying, “We receive you into the household of God.” In other words, “Welcome to the family; the family of God’s children.” We are children of God, the Bible tells us, not by nature, but by adoption and grace. St Paul talks about it in the Epistle to the Galatians:

God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God. (4:4-7)

So that’s an amazing first step toward an even more amazing future: God, the Creator of the universe, makes human beings of dust and then provides a way for us, these creatures of dust, to become God’s own children. And what John is meditating on is that this has consequences, it has to be only a first step because we earth creatures, on the surface at least, have nothing in common with the eternal God.

We say on Ash Wednesday, “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” But if so, why bother? Potentially, at least, there seems to be something more and it’s hinted at already in the first chapter of Genesis. It says, “God created humankind in the image of God.” We may be only dust but there is something in us from the very beginning capable of reflecting God. And what would that be? How do we, in any way, resemble God?

Well, of course, what often happens is that we draw pictures of a God who resembles us. We make God in our image. Even the great artists – da Vinci, Michelangelo – picture God as an old man on a cloud: God, in the paintings, does look a lot like us. And what else can they do? If God doesn’t look like us, what does God look like? But the Bible actually tells us a lot about what God is like and some of it can be seen in human life: there’s justice, for example. God is just and we are somewhat just, we aspire to be just. Maybe we know someone or know of someone who seems to be absolutely fair and just in their dealings with other people: a teacher who gives equal attention to every child, a businessman or woman who treats every employee and customer fairly, a politician who is never influenced by money or special interests. God is like that – only more so – and God is merciful and forgiving. Above all, God is love. And these are qualities we see in human beings and admire and we know that we all have the potential to embody these qualities more fully than we do. We could be more like that. And maybe we can dimly imagine someone who really is like that completely, perfectly. Out there, somewhere, we might imagine is one who embodies these qualities perfectly and what we see is just a pale reflection of our potential.

So in a sense God is like us, but infinitely, unimaginably more. God’s justice and love and so on, of course, are so far beyond ours that the resemblance is only slight but we do instinctively know when we see mercy and forgiveness and self-forgetting love in a human being that that’s what we ought to be. We know instinctively that God is like that and we ought to be, ought to be and can be.

We have that potential. And those qualities, when we see them, give us a glimpse of God. And of course that’s why the followers of Jesus Christ very soon began to say that in seeing and knowing him they had also come to know God. “God was in Christ,” said St Paul, “reconciling the world to himself.” God was in Christ showing us what God is like and drawing us back to that lost likeness, that image in which God first created us, and that we so quickly lost at the very beginning.

John says, “We are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” So baptism makes us the children of God by adoption and grace and starts us on the road home. But even knowing Jesus, we don’t really know what we will be. We have only seen Jesus in human form. What will he be like in glory? We can hardly imagine. And will we be like that? Yes, that’s what John tells us. Yes, we can hardly imagine, but we will be like that.

I’ve been talking the last few weeks about the failures of American Christianity and maybe the greatest of all is that it sets its sights so low. It tells us to be happy or be good or repent but John points beyond all that to something unimaginable. He tells us we were made for glory, and that glory dazzles human eyes. We would need new eyes to see it, new bodies to live it. But that’s what John wants us to understand: we were made for a glory so far beyond our understanding that no revelation can show us and no words contain it. It’s not a question of keeping the commandments, not even a question of loving God and loving our neighbor. That’s all well and good and we need to be working at it, but it’s a question of growing into God and I think that’s why there’s eternity. It may well take an eternity or two even to begin to be who God made us to be.

John Donne, as usual, said it best almost 400 years ago:
“Can you hope to pour the whole sea into a thimble or take the whole world into your hand? And yet, that is easier than to comprehend the joy and glory of heaven in this life. For this eternity, this everlastingness, is incomprehensible in this life.”
Incomprehensible, yes, but now, right now, we can make a beginning. We can remember our baptisms, the baptism that made us God’s children. We can come here to be fed at God’s table; how could we grow up without food, after all, and that food is Christ himself because we are called to grow into Christ, to be members of his body. And then we can pray and ask God’s help daily to draw us closer to that destiny for which we were made and which we will never fully understand until we are there in the presence of God and able to be at last all we are meant to be and what we can begin to be now.

We Deceive Ourselves

A sermon preached at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, by Christopher L. Webber on the Second Sunday of Easter, April 8, 2018.

If we say that we have no sins, we deceive ourselves.  I John 1:8

If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained. St. John 20:23

There’s a familiar story about Calvin Coolidge, President almost a hundred years ago, who was a man of few words. When he came back from church one day They asked him about the sermon. What was it about. “Sin,” said the President. “Well, what did the preacher say about it?” They asked. “He was against it,” said Mr. Coolidge.

Me, too. But let me say a bit more. Let me talk about sin. The epistle reading said: “ If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves.” In the Gospel, Jesus said, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” So we need to talk about sin. Sin is a big part of life. You probably have some experience with it. Most of us do. But the gospel is about not only sin but also forgiveness. I think too many Christians miss the point.

I think at one extreme there are Christians who ignore sin entirely and at the other extreme there are Christians who spend too much time on it but don’t really understand it.

On the one hand, there’s a kind of Christianity out there that hardly ever mentions sin. Do you remember how when they asked the current President about his faith he said he had never asked for forgiveness? Some churches today don’t mention sin. And I guess that’s where the President had been, and you can see the results. Some churches don’t mention sin. They don’t want to upset people. They talk about being positive and happy and emphasize feeling good. Well, fine, but that’s not Christianity. Christianity is about the love of God, yes. It’s about love and forgiveness, but it recognizes the many ways we reject that love and shut God out of our lives. There’s a lot of Christianity that skips over all that and gives you comfortable chairs and entertaining music and says, “Feel good.” Fine, but Christian faith is about facing sin and being restored to life, forgiven, renewed, nourished, fed. It’s about being changed and changing the world. And it starts with forgiveness for sin.

The other extreme form of Christianity puts sin at the center as if it were all that mattered. It is important. Don’t get me wrong. But some preachers make it sound as if sin is all we need to care about. I think all the traditional evangelical churches have been guilty of an overemphasis on sin, pounding it in over and over and never moving on to the joy of forgiveness and the peace that comes afterwards. And the worst part of it is that it often gets identified with sex. The Roman Church also has done that. It’s one of the reasons why their priests can’t marry and women can’t be ordained. Sin and sex get wrapped up together in a funny way and that misses the point too. It makes for a narrow kind of Christianity that’s good at condemning but not very good at encouraging: not very good at forgiving, renewing, strengthening, not very good at giving thanks for God’s goodness.

Sin is not just about sex or swearing or stealing or lying – that’s the easy part. The churches that center on sin tend to center on personal failures and, of course, there’s plenty to talk about. But I think that the worst sins are the ones that have a social dimension: war and unemployment, a correction system that fails to correct an educational system that fails to educate a health care system that leaves too many people outside. I can go down the list of the Ten Commandments and check off making a graven image and committing adultery and murder and feel pretty good about myself but where do wars come from and why aren’t our schools better and why are there so many unemployed? Is no one responsible? Does it all just happen to happen and nothing can be done about it? Does anyone think it’s God’s will? I would think it was pretty obvious that war and unemployment and so on result from human decisions, but often a set of human decisions so interlinked that it’s hard to say who did it. Who got us into Iraq and Afghanistan? Who got us into Vietnam? It would be nice to have someone to blame but the truth is that no one person did it. No, lots of people did it. We all did it. We voted for the people that did it. And if we didn’t do it ourselves, we failed to use our influence. We all failed collectively to be wise enough or caring enough to make better choices and the result is that people suffer.

Sin has a social dimension. Jesus fed the hungry and healed the sick because how can you know God’s love when you’re sick and hungry and can’t find a decent place to live? How can we come here and talk about God’s love and not be concerned for those who are hungry and homeless and unemployed? But who’s responsible? Why is it my fault? Well, there might have been a time when individuals could say “It’s not my fault.” But not in a democracy, not when we choose the people who pass the laws that make a difference for those in need or allow such evils to go unchecked and grow. I think it’s the churches that talk most about sin that are often the churches that talk least about corporate sin. The churches that carry on about abortion are missing the point, taking the easy out. It’s much too easy to condemn someone else. We can feel very righteous about condemning others. But the sins that beset our society are broader and deeper and affect millions more than will ever want an abortion. They begin with us and all the people who never let their faith inconvenience them.

When was the last time I had to make any hard decisions because of my faith? When was the last time you did? When was the last time you tried to think through the connection between all the problems of our society and our faith? “If we say that we have no sin,” St John tells us, “we deceive ourselves.” Too many churches do that. Too many just ignore sin and tell us God wants us to be happy. Well, yes, God does; but we can’t be happy – God can’t be happy – when so many of our neighbors are not happy. We are asked to love our neighbors as ourselves and we have too many neighbors who aren’t experiencing love, who lie bleeding at the side of the road waiting for a Good Samaritan who never comes. There’s too little being done to create a social system that doesn’t just feed the hungry but enables more people to find work that enables them to feed themselves.

“We deceive ourselves,” St John tells us, “if we say that we have no sin.” We deceive ourselves, if we fail to see the real and deep problems we face and just go along when decisions are made that draw us away from God. But the Gospel tells us God’s will is forgiveness. God’s will is to love us God’s will is to call us together to love God and love our neighbor and carry the new life we are given out to a world that needs to know God loves us, and God forgives us. If we know that, if we understand that, If we face the truth about ourselves, and know the truth about God’s love and forgiveness, then, with God’s help, maybe we can begin to come together and begin to make a difference.

Good Morning!

A sermon for the Easter Vigil  at All Saints Church, Haight-Asbury, San Francisco by Christopher L. Webber.  March 31, 2018.

Good morning!
Don’t check your watches or iPhones. What do they know? It’s morning at All Saints. We’re here to celebrate a new day, a new beginning,
“The light of Christ.
Thanks be to God.”
That’s how we began the service and if that isn’t an announcement of light and the dawn of a new day, I don’t know what we were doing. I mean, are you going to be limited by clock time. What was it, three weeks ago, we all changed our clocks because Washington said to. So who are you going to believe: Washington or the Gospel, Washington or the Easter liturgy. My Prayer Book says its morning, it’s the start of a new day, new world, new life. The liturgy says it; I believe it. That’s why I’m here.

Ronald Reagan used to talk about “Morning in America” – we’re talking about “Morning for the world.” I think the Jews have it right. The day begins at Sun down, not sun up. “In the beginning. . . ” Read your Bible: Book One, verse one: “In the beginning, the world was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep.” In the beginning . . . darkness. In the beginning of life . . . the forming foetus has its beginning in the darkness of the womb. The sprouting seed lies in the covering darkness of the soil. Life begins in the dark. The women came to the tomb – You heard it read – at the rising of the sun, but they were too late. The new life was already at work. They were too late. New life burst out in the darkness

The women were too late. Let’s not even ask how late the men were. Life was up and out and long gone before it occurred to them to go look. That’s our problem, isn’t it. God is ahead of us, always ahead of us. R S Thomas says in one of his poems
“His are the echoes
We follow, the footprints he has just
Left.”
Or as Thomas says in another poem, “. . .
He is such a fast
God, always before us and
leaving as we arrive.”
Don’t wait for the sun to come up; it’s morning now. God is at work now in the dark. Thank goodness. Thank God. Do you worry when you watch the news? Seems as if the world is a dark place? Yes, it does. But God is at work in the dark. Light is on the way, but don’t wait for it. Work now. Work with God now. Make a difference now. Don’t wait. Tom Paine wrote about “The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot.” Don’t sign up when the battle’s over. Be there at the outset.

No, Mark is onto something. This service makes the connection. The new day begins in the dark and its coming. In God’s time, it’s coming. And notice how once Mark makes that point, he stops dead almost in the middle of a sentence. “And they said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” You have no idea how many scholars from that day to this have complained about that ending. “They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid . . .” It’s worse in Greek: “ephebunto gar.” “They said nothing to anyone, afraid for . . .” One scholar suggested that Mark was writing away with only a paragraph or two left to finish the story when a Roman soldier grabbed him and carried him away yelling, “Hey, wait, let me finish.” But he never did. No, I don’t think so; he wrote as much as he could, told the whole story that mattered, and left it for us to finish.

Just imagine Peter or Paul coming to Mark and saying, “Aren’t you ever going to finish your gospel?” And poor Mark, bewildered, saying, “What do you mean? I thought I did.” And Peter says, “Well, what about how John and I came to the tomb. Shouldn’t that be included?” And Paul would say, “What about how Jesus appeared to me, shouldn’t that be included?” And I imagine Mark saying, “Exactly my point. There is no ending. If you don’t stop where I stopped, the story expands and grows and I would need an endless supply of scrolls to tell the rest of the story. You want me to write a new chapter every day? I broke off before it got out of control. There is no end for the gospel.

If you remember the previous Prayer Book – some of us are old enough to remember it – when the Epistle was read, the reader said, “Here endeth the Epistle” but when the Gospel was read, the reader just stopped and there was only a response: “Praise be to thee, O Christ.” But you never said, “Here endeth the Gospel” because the Gospel has no end. Mark’s Gospel also has no real end. As we heard it tonight, “they were afraid” but their fears would be overcome and the Gospel story would continue down to our day and to us in this church and still no end in sight. No end in sight; not here in the dark; not this early morning.

Point One: it’s morning now, a time of new beginnings.
Point Two: the gospel goes on.
And that brings us to Point Three: it’s early in the day and hard still to see clearly where we’re going, but it’s God who directs the story; God who empowers it.

I happened to turn up an old diary recently. When you move from one apartment to another things surface. Things also disappear, but that’s another subject. This diary emerged from the first year or two after I was ordained. Long ago – some of you may remember – the church was growing, new churches were being planted, new buildings erected. I was finishing a graduate program in the seminary in New York and serving part time in an inner city parish in Brooklyn. I could tell you stories about that parish: not a single college graduate in the parish, but some deeply committed Christians. The diocese thought it couldn’t survive; they’d tried to close it once or twice. It was too small, too poor, not worth the effort, but it was still there, and what got my attention as I reread my diary and remembered was the couple of places I had noted the attendance. 32 at an 8 am service, 62 at 10, 80 at the main service on a hot 4th of July weekend, 150 at the main service on Palm Sunday. It didn’t look very successful to the diocese, but it was far from dead.

I went from there to a suburban parish that had a graded church school through 6th grade and three different women’s groups, and a confirmation class my last year there of 25 young people. There would be 150-200 in church in an average Sunday. Those days are over and that church is closed. The Brooklyn parish is still there.

Back in the middle of the 20th century, we thought we had it figured out – we thought the church would continue to grow because we knew how to make that happen. But the times have changed. Well, you know all about it. I’ve heard stories of what this church was a generation ago. But ask around – you hear the same story everywhere from Roman Catholic to evangelical. Things aren’t what they used to be. Or maybe we don’t go back far enough. We hear a lot about the faith of the founding fathers, but many of them were barely Christian and colleges like Yale that were founded to train men for ministry had been taken over at the end of the 18th century by people like Tom Paine who were great on freedom but not Christians by any stretch of the imagination. Jefferson, you know, went through his Bible with a pair of scissors and produced a sort of Readers Digest version including only what he thought he could believe and it wasn’t very much. Those were bad days for the church. Then there were waves of revival and things changed again. When I was ordained there was a church year book that had a table every year showing the membership of the Episcopal Church decade by decade and the percentage of the population that were members – greater every decade. They don’t include that page any more. There are almost as many Muslims in America now as Episcopalians.

I think back then, back when I was ordained, we thought we were pretty smart; we knew how to build the church and we were doing just fine – until we weren’t. Because God’s church is built by the power of God and not any human skill or wisdom or strength and God seems to need to remind us of that from time to time. It would be lovely if the story of the church were a steadily rising curve of success, but it isn’t – it never has been. There have been good times. In the early 20th century they talked about converting the whole world in the next hundred years. Not going to happen. First we have to convert the church. What message do we have for the world when so–called evangelicals support a man like Donald Trump? What example do we set for the world when Christians are so divided? It was sad recently to hear of the death of Billy Graham and read about his second thoughts, late in life, about the amount of time he had spent basking in presidential approval instead of calling on presidents to repent.

It’s hard – it’s very hard – to remember that human power is not God’s power, that we are not called to be successful in human terms, but to open ourselves to the love and power of God. The so-called early church spent almost 300 years enduring waves of persecution, dying for their faith. Jesus, after all, gave them an example not of how to build better synagogues or how to convert the Roman emperor but how to die for others and the first Christians did that/ One early Christian wrote that, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Maybe we’re not providing enough seeds. But seeds grow in the dark, and it’s still early morning, and it’s God’s church, and we don’t see clearly what God is doing but we know a bit more than Mark. “This is the night when Christ broke the bonds of sin and death; this is the night when Christ rose victorious from the grave. How blessed is this night when heaven and earth are joined and we are reconciled to God!” This is the night that turns into God’s morning and brings us the promise of life and new beginnings and great joy.

This is the morning to open ourselves to the gift of new life on this new day, this new morning, this new beginning, this next chapter, of the breaking day of the life-giving Gospel of God.

Holiness Made Known

A sermon preached at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, on Maundy Thursday, 2018, by Christopher L. Webber.

I think every human being comes complete with some sense of the holy, the sense that there is beyond the material world of taste and touch and sight and smell something else, something more, and though we have trouble expressing it or understanding it, it gives meaning to our lives. We speak of it as holiness; we have a sense of some further dimension of life, a transforming power that gives life meaning.

Years ago I climbed Mt Fuji in Japan, and just as you get to the top there’s a torii, a red-painted formal gate, that is used in Shinto to frame a special place and mark it as holy. You see such torii sometimes in front of a tree or a lake, a place of natural beauty. In Shinto it’s most often places that are thought of as holy – places where that other world of power and meaning shines through into this. In Judaism, I think it’s time that conveys that sense. There’s a special time, the Sabbath Day, one day marked off as special, a time when we have a glimpse of eternity.

But in Christianity, I think the sense of the holy is personal. Of course we have holy days and holy places, and there have been times when we have let them control our thinking. Christians have fought over possession of Jerusalem as a holy place, and Christians have made laws about time: about the keeping of Sabbath, we have some vestige of it still in our weekends off. Sunday took the place of Saturday as a Christian sabbath, a holy time, when we could rest from work.

Of course, Jerusalem is a special place, and the loss of the sense of Sabbath in our society is a sadness – it impoverishes us. Space and time belong to God; we should never loose sight of that. And yet we are truly impoverished only when we lose sight of the centrality of Jesus; it is in his life that God is most completely revealed. For us, the holy is glimpsed, revealed, known especially in Jesus; in his life God is made known most fully.

And that’s why the Eucharist has always been so central to the Christian faith. We come here to a special place and at special times, but we could come together as well around a kitchen table on any day of the week, because we come here not so much to be at a certain place or special time but to meet with Jesus and in meeting with him to know the presence of the Holy God, the Creator of space and time. That’s why at the Last Supper with his disciples Jesus gave them a way to renew that relationship, to be present with him, to come into the presence of the holy. “Do this,” he said, “in remembrance of me.”

That word “remember” is a misleading word in English, it has a whiff of nostalgia about it, recalling someone or something absent, no longer here. Not so in Hebrew and Greek where the word has to do with making present again, with the reality of presence, with calling back into the here and now. I may have used this illustration before but I don’t know a better one. Suppose you’re walking down the street and someone walking toward you puts out his hand and says, “Hi, I’m Bill Jones. Remember me?” And you say, “Well of course I remember you!” But you hadn’t thought about old Bill in forty years and you remember him now only because he is here.

It’s like that with the Eucharist. We all too easily forget Jesus in our daily lives, but we come here and remember because Jesus is here. No wonder, then, that we treat this bread and wine so carefully: we put some aside in a special place for the sick, even as a help to focus our devotions. Here, in this church, there’s usually a candle burning to remind us that Jesus is truly present, the distance between time and eternity is dissolved, and this place, this time is holy because God is with us in Jesus.

Yes, God is with us here in this place, now at this time, but more than that, here in this sacrament he himself comes to meet with us in person and go out with us in our persons so that in us and through us the world will come to know the holiness of God. The holy God is made known to us in Jesus and made known to the world in us.

Discovering the God Who Is

A sermon for Ash Wednesday by Christopher L. Webber.

Four thousand years ago the Hebrews were a nomadic tribe wandering in the deserts of the middle east. 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 and so no need for gods of that sort. So when the Hebrews came into the promised land and tried to learn farming themselves, they looked to the Canaanites for advice and were told, “Well, here’s what you do: you set up a pillar and you make offerings; you carve some wood or stone and you cry out to Baal.” 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, 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.”

When the Jews finally finished conquering Canaan and built a capital in Jerusalem, David wanted to build a temple for God – something symbolic, something concrete and visible – but God said “No.” Solomon built one anyway, and at last the people had at least some place to locate God and a tangible symbol as a center for their worship. But the prophets didn’t give up; still 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.

That’s what Lent is all about: a reminder that we are by origin a desert people with a desert 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 desert 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 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? 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.”

Lent is a time to turn away from the things that are not God and discover again, or perhaps for the first time, the God who is.

Everyone is Looking for You

A sermon preached at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, on February 4, 2018, by Christopher L. Webber.

Most of us, I expect, at one time or another, have had the experience of being told “Everyone is looking for you.” It’s one of those things people say when you’ve forgotten that you were supposed to be doing something like conducting a funeral or going to your spouse’s birthday party and they come and find you watching television or at the local MacDonalds and tell you, “Everyone is looking for you.” It’s not literally true – there are people in China and Sumatra who have never heard of you – but you know what they mean.

It’s a similar situation when you see someone on the street and they say, “How’s everything?” They probably don’t really want you to tell them. They know and you know that these phrases are “hyperbole,” an overstatement. No one wants to know how “everything” is and not “everybody” is ever looking for you or me.

In today’s gospel, Jesus is in that sort of situation: he had put in a full day’s work teaching and healing and finally the day was over and people had found places to sleep and the next morning Jesus was up early and went off by himself to pray. So when his followers got up, they couldn’t find him and they went looking and when they found him they said, “Everyone is looking for you.”

The gospel according to St. Mark doesn’t waste words and it often packs in more meaning than you might notice on a first reading. I think Mark means it. When he has people tell Jesus “Everyone is looking for you,” I think he means it quite literally. Yes. It’s true. Mark means to tell us that everyone in the world, every single human being is looking for Jesus and needs to find him.

This is, you might say, the other side of the mission coin. The mission of the church is to proclaim the gospel to all people. Why? Because we assume that all people need the gospel, that all people are looking for Jesus. They may not know it, but they are. If they haven’t found Jesus, there’s something missing in their lives. That’s why the CEO of a major corporation with a salary of a zillion dollars and stock options for more, who has a Rolls Royce and a private plane and a house in Sun Valley and another in Bermuda, and on and on, still goes to work and still tries to increase his wealth. There’s something missing in his life and he tries to fill the void with money and possessions and it never works. It’s why some people live to go shopping and it’s probably the root of most addictive behaviors. If we eat too much or drink too much maybe we need to find Jesus; maybe that’s what we’re looking for. It may explain a lot about most of us because most of us have behavior patterns that if we analyzed them objectively might have more to do with silencing our hunger for God than any socially useful purpose.

St. Augustine said, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in you.” Or, as someone else put it, there is a God-shaped blank – or a Jesus-shaped blank – at the center of every life; there’s a void that cries out to be filled. Everyone needs to fill that space and Jesus’ disciples saw that Jesus could do it in a way no one else could do. That’s why they said, “Everyone is looking for you.”

Now, think about the world from that perspective. What does that tell us about the suicide bomber in Afghanistan who has despaired of any future, or the tyrant who runs North Korea with his need to control his country, or the President of the United States with his insatiable need to be liked, or what does it tell you about the neighbor whose behavior drives you around the bend, or about myself on the days when I do things that I know are hurtful or create needless tensions in a local community?

At their root, all these problems are the same. Everyone is looking for Jesus. Our problem is that we don’t know it so we try everything else in the world to fill that need and none of it works – not for very long. Over 20% of the world’s population is Muslim, 1.5 billion people. Are they looking for Jesus? Well, certainly not consciously! Most of them have probably never met a Christian. But they need to.

Come closer to home. If every member of the Episcopal Church is looking for Jesus, why can’t we get along with each other better? Shouldn’t we have more in common than we seem to? Maybe we need to meet Jesus in some deeper way.

I come across the term fairly often these days, “a seeker-oriented church.” It’s a description often used about some of the mega-churches: “seeker-oriented.” But why would that be different from any other? I hope this church is seeker-oriented; I hope you and I are seeker-oriented. I hope we are all seekers ourselves. I hope each of us comes seeking every week and is consciously seeking every day and seeking especially such a knowledge of God and relationship with Jesus Christ that other seekers, maybe not quite as far along as we are, might find some answers through us, might recognize us as people whose lives reflect a certain sense of purpose, whose lives seem to be centered, seem to be moving in a direction that might draw them along to come seeking with us.

As we move along toward the Annual Meeting next week we need to think in those terms: what kind of church are we, what kind of church do we want to be, why are we here, what or whom are we seeking, what help do we need in our search, how can we draw others to join us in our search. These are, first of all, the kind of questions we need to be able to answer. And pre-packaged answers don’t usually help. What we need instead are tools to help this particular community and each particular individual find the answers that are right for them.

I learned early on not to be too certain as an Episcopalian about anything – except the love of God. Apart from that, there is no one-size-fits all answer because there’s no one single question. Even my own questions today are different from the ones I had last year or ten years ago or fifty years ago. Some Christians think there is one simple answer like “John 3:16.” That’s the right answer for some people some of the time, but some people may need to hear John 3:17 or 3:18. But our questions change and the answer comes in  different forms. It’s still Jesus – that’s still the answer – but what Jesus means to me now is different in some ways from what he meant to me fifty years ago. What Jesus means to me is different from what he means to someone dying of cancer or a teenager whose friends are doing drugs or a Detroit auto-worker just laid off from the only work he knows or a Palestinian with no work or hope of work or an Afghan whose life has been torn apart and who finds American troops to be a convenient focus for his anger. Are all of them looking for Jesus? Yes – at the deepest level – yes. Because what all of us need to know deep down – is the same thing: that there is a God who loves you and cares for you and sent his own son to die for you and rise to a new life. That’s Jesus. That’s life. God’s promise is life. Life in Jesus. That’s what we need to know. And that’s what we need to translate to the specific needs of others. And it does translate: differently for each life, yes, but it does translate, and that’s what today’s gospel tells us that Jesus’ disciples had realized: “Everyone is looking for you.”

I Know Who You Are

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at All Saints Church, San Francisco, on January 28, 2018

“I know who you are!”

I take my text from a crazy man. He came to Jesus, the Gospel tells us, and said, “I know who you are: the Holy One of God.” Sometimes you have to be crazy to make sense of the world around us. Sometimes you have to be crazy to understand.

I read a book once by Jacob Neusner, a rabbi who imagined how it might have been if he had been there in Galilee listening to Jesus himself. He imagined himself being very impressed but turning and walking sadly away – sadly unable to commit to a teaching so radical. I understand that. I might have turned away myself. It’s a commitment to be a Christian. “Take up your cross,” Jesus said, “and follow me.” Maybe next week, but right now I’m busy. Got to write a sermon. You’d have to be crazy to be a Christian.

It took a crazy man to see who Jesus was – and is. “I know who you are: the Holy One of God.” Think about that. Think about holiness. What is he saying? What is he seeing? “The Holy One of God.” Read the Hebrew Scriptures: it’s the story of a discovery of holiness and especially the discovery of the great divide between holiness and humankind. God set out to create a people who could understand holiness, who could see beyond the mundane daily-ness of life, who could see another dimension, who could glimpse a reality beyond reality, who could recognize a reality too great for human beings to comprehend. And that’s hard to do.

At the simplest level, the problem is called sin. It’s called separation. It’s called failure. It’s called missing the mark. It’s called being human. “To err is human.” That’s a familiar phrase. The Bible is the story of the development of that understanding also: knowing what holiness is and knowing who we are and knowing how far we are from a reality beyond words, another dimension, something beautiful and dangerous, something that draws us, that fascinates us, yet terrifies us with its demand that we change, that we change, that we be changed, that we not settle for what we are, that we set out to become something more, something new, something other, something – holy. That’s frightening.

Holiness is frightening. Most religions find a way to tame it down, to domesticate it, to make it safe. Take a familiar prayer book, add some sentimental hymns, get a friendly pastor to reassure you. But then you come to church and they read you some crazy passage about a weird encounter on a hilltop in the middle east between the friendly Jesus you learned about in Sunday School and a crazy man who was yelling and screaming about Jesus being the Holy One of God. But if God were standing in front of you in human form wouldn’t that be scary? Wouldn’t you be scared? terrified? You would have to be crazy to face it because if it’s true, life is changed for ever.

I wonder whether you went to a college as I did and took a course that asked you to read a book written a hundred years ago by a man called Rudolf Otto. Otto was German, so he wrote in German and the German title is “Das Heilige.” In English, it’s called, “The Idea of the Holy.” If I had to make a list of the ten most important books I have read, “The Idea of the Holy” would be on it. Otto writes about “the elements of mystery, fascination, awfulness, and energy.” He talks about “the wholly other” and the “mysterium tremendum.” We are told that colleges today need to emphasize a “STEM curiculum” (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) so maybe nobody reads Otto any more. What about poetry? Do you read poetry? Do you go to museums, do you study the great artists, Rembrandt and Picasso, do you listen to music – any music – thoughtfully? Do you ask why the organ back there is so important to our worship, our common life? Otto says, “Religious worship cannot do without music – it stands too high for any understanding to reach.” We respond automatically to so much of this because of who we are – human beings, made in the image of God, the image of the Holy One. So it’s good to think about all this, and to ask why, to ask about the things that separate us from the dog on a leash or the bird on a wire. They need no higher education to be what they are nor do we, but to be what we might become: that’s something else. And it’s not necessarily higher education we need, certainly not a STEM curriculum, but some degree of self-awareness, that we are a flame in a fragile shell with “intimations of immortality” – that’s Shelley – that “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends” – that’s Shakespeare. We need glimpses of something more, but something all too easily ignored, put aside for a later day that never seems to come: glimpses of that frightening, terrifying aspect of life that Otto called “the wholly other.” Otto wanted to explore that sense we have that there’s another dimension, that the life we live day by day is only the surface of something more. But it might be frightening to do that and we can usually postpone it to another day.

Did you ever read C S Lewis’ children’s book, “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”? The children in the story have somehow gotten beyond the surface and crossed into a magical land where everything is strange and they are told that they need to meet the ruler of that land, Aslan, the Lion King. Susan asks, “Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”… “Safe?” said Mr Beaver …”Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” Not safe, but good. He’s holy. He’s that frightening power that draws us, and he’s frightening, maybe, because we’ve gotten so far afield. Like MacBeth, we’ve come “so far from shore returning were as tedious as go o’er.” But what would happen if we decided to go the rest of the way? What would happen if we fanned the spark into a flame?

Now if you’re paying attention, you may have noticed that I’ve been looking at the other side of the text. The mad man in the Gospel today was accosting Jesus, recognizing the holiness in Jesus, and I’m suggesting that there is a holiness also in us, in you and me. I think that’s what Jesus is all about: he came to show us holiness in human life. You may need to be slightly crazy to see it, but I think it’s why Jesus came and I think it’s why we’re here. An image that came to mind was “like moths drawn to the flame that can destroy us.” It’s dangerous, what we’re doing here, and yet we try to make it safe, to tell people about a friendly Jesus and invite them to a comfortable church where they can meet friendly people. I think this church is different. It is comfortable and the people are friendly, but I don’t think that’s why we’re here. I think there’s something more.

I came here last Sunday and a few minutes before ten o’clock the organ prelude began, a simple melody, one note at a time, the melody of a familiar hymn, but then a few chords were added and then some discords and more stops were opened and the melody ramified at last into a complexity of sound, a storm of sound, that washed over me, beyond analysis, beyond understanding, but conveying somehow a sense of a mystery beyond words and requiring worship. There are many paths to that sense of the holy. Music is one of them. Incense and vestments and silence are also part of it. There are paths we need to follow, country we need to explore, to know who we are and why we are here and all the outward show is dedicated to that purpose.

The third book of the Bible is called Leviticus and most people never read it – understandably. I recommend Rudolf Otto; I don’t recommend Leviticus. Leviticus begins with specific instructions on how to sacrifice cattle, how to make a burnt offering of sheep or goats. Why would you do that? Well, you might do it because you have a sense of mystery, and blood and death bring you close to that mystery. Then there are dietary laws. Well, we all know about dietary laws: calorie counting and all that. God gave you a body and you need to take care of it. We know that. Leviticus knows that. We have something in common. But keep on going. There’s stuff about sex – well, that’s terrifying also. But it also holds a potential for deep levels of love and a sense of the holy. Keep going and finally in chapter 19 you come to what is known as “The Holiness Code” and one of the most important chapters in the whole Bible. Verses one and two say it all: “The Lord spoke to Moses saying, ‘Speak to the whole community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.’” The Holiness Code goes on to provide a whole series of instructions about respect for the elderly – more important to me every year – and about leaving some of your harvest for the poor and not insulting the deaf or putting something in the way of the blind for them to trip over and not dealing falsely with others and not sowing two kinds of seed in one field and not turning to ghosts or soothsayers and trimming your beard in a certain way and tucked in with all of that is the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself, and we should do all of that in order to be holy because the Lord our God is holy. We are to come near to the awesome and terrifying mystery at the heart of creation and let that holiness transform us and make us new, make us like God.

There are sixteen Episcopal churches in San Francisco and how many Lutheran and Presbyterian and Methodist and Roman Catholic and Orthodox and other? And yet I read in the paper last week of a United Nations emissary visiting the homeless encampments in Oakland and Berkeley and San Francisco. “She met with dozens of homeless people — many disabled, elderly, veterans, chronically ill, and suffering from addictions — and she witnessed families with children camping in the 41 degree weather. At a camp in the San Antonio neighborhood, she watched large rats scurry in the mud looking for food scraps. While homelessness is an international crisis, in several respects, she said, the situation in California’s cities is worse than other parts of the world. “I find there to be a real cruelty in how people are being dealt with here,” she said.

You shall be holy: you shall be a transforming fire. What would a mad man say? Would he see what we fail to see? Do we know who they are? Do we see the holy there on the street? Do we see the holiness: that flame, that essential core of our being that we somehow are able to stifle and starve and beat down until all we see is the battered shell of a human life – maybe a homeless woman or man and maybe our own.

Jesus came specifically for this purpose: to be recognized as God’s holy one and to let us see who we are called to be, to call out the holiness in you and me so we can come home at last to the Holy God who made us for that end.

I know who you are. Do you?

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