Fear and Foreboding

A sermon preached at All Saints Church, San Francisco, by Christopher L. Webber on December 1, 2018.

I was just sitting down to work on a sermon one night last week when I had phone call from a man who wanted me to react to various statements about one thing and another:

“How do you feel about Mayor London Breed: very positive, slightly positive, slightly negative, very negative. . . ?
“Do you consider yourself progressive, liberal, conservative, reactionary?”

But it turned out that what he really cared about was driverless cars and especially about driverless cars on the streets of San Francisco. Well, I’m so out of touch that my computer doesn’t accept “driverless” as a valid word, but he wanted to know whether I think driverless cars will make the city more safe or less safe; and whether I support the notion of a company providing driverless cars for the elderly and handicapped, and so on. Did I agree with this statement and that statement strongly or slightly or disagree strongly or slightly? I kept saying, “I don’t know; I haven’t thought about it.” I wanted to say, “Send me the questions and let me think about it,” But that wasn’t an option. it probably only took ten minutes but it seemed like forever and when I finally got back to working on my sermon it seemed like a good idea to try the same approach on you. I thought maybe I could read you today’s gospel again and ask: do you strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, strongly disagree?

Well, I won’t do that, but I will read you two statements on a possibly related subject. I won’t ask you to agree or disagree but I would like you to consider which one worries you more or less or not at all. Statement A you have heard before; I read it to you just now in the Gospel:

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”

I could ask for a show of hands as to how much or how little that worries you, but let me just go ahead and read you Statement B:

“Two centuries ago the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere was 275 parts per million; it has now topped 400 parts per million and is rising more than two parts per million each year. The extra heat that we trap near the planet every day is equivalent to the heat from 400,000 bombs the size of the one that was dropped on Hiroshima. As a result in the past 30 years we have seen all 20 of the hottest years ever recorded.”

Now one of these statements is from Jesus and one from the November 26 issue of the New Yorker and my question is, “Which one worries you more?” The one thing I wanted from the man on the phone was time to think about it. I felt as if I hadn’t been worrying enough about driverless cars to have strong opinions and I just wished he could send it to me and let me think about it. So I want you to have time to think about which statement worries you more – or less – and ponder it this afternoon or tomorrow morning or later this week. Or maybe every day. I won’t get back to you for an answer. I just ask you to think about it. We’re talking about the future of human civilization, your life, my life, rising sea levels, and forest fires, and we need time to think about it – and maybe pray about it.

I was on this subject two weeks ago, if you remember; if you were here. If you were here, what you remember, if anything, is probably the joke I told you about Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior, James G Watt and Smokey Bear, but the gospel two weeks ago was asking you to deal with the same issues as this week’s Gospel. In fact, for reasons obscure to me, we are essentially getting the exact same message two weeks out of three. Two weeks ago we had St. Mark’s version of Jesus’ teaching about the end and this week we have St. Luke’s version. But it’s the same story. And why, you might well ask, do we have two versions of the same story two weeks apart?

Well, this sequence is provided for us by an obscure international, ecumenical committee on which, incidentally, the Roman Catholic Church is heavily represented. It’s a plan for reading the Bible used in every Roman Catholic Church as far as I know, and in Anglican Churches and the Episcopal Church. It’s widely used also in Protestant Churches – even, I learned just this last Friday, in some Southern Baptist churches. But when you see readings as short as this week’s Old Testament and Epistle readings, you can detect a strong Roman Catholic influence because they just aren’t used to spending big chunks of time reading the Bible. I think it’s great that we’re all on the same page, but I think it’s embarrassing to come to church and get no more than this to chew on. And then to get two versions of the same story two weeks apart: bad planning. Bad planning. Or did they want us really to pay attention to something we might otherwise dismiss as old fashioned, out of date, irrelevant, and the kind of thing that puts people off religion? Maybe they gave us those tiny snippets for the first two readings so we would really pay attention to the Gospel. Maybe. Maybe they imagined people listening to that reading two weeks ago and not taking it in, letting it role on by, and maybe they said, “Let’s give them a week to get over it and hit them with it again.” And maybe – how’s this for a conspiracy theory – maybe they also infiltrated an editor at the New Yorker to hit us from the other side in between.

But what if some people don’t read the New Yorker? If you don’t like to worry, you’ll be better off. I can’t remember a reading that scared me more than that New Yorker article; not for myself, perhaps, but for my grandchildren. The title of the article is “Life in a Shrinking Planet.” The quick summary is: “with wildfires, heat waves, and rising sea levels, large tracts of the earth are at risk of becoming uninhabitable.”

I said two weeks ago that the Bible has a “destiny orientation.” A destiny orientation. It imagines a time line with a start and a finish and a divine purpose, and science supports that orientation more strongly than ever. It was good science two thousand years ago and it still is. Put the Bible and the New Yorker side by side and you get the same story. On the one hand, all the stuff about the melting of the ice cap and rising temperatures and so on, and on the other hand “distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People . . . faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.” “Faint from fear and foreboding” because they read the Bible or the New Yorker or both and got the message.

The Bible does not imagine a world that goes on for ever, nor does science. Nor does science. This world is not forever. The Bible wants us to understand that because it ought to shape our lives. And if the lectionary committee gives us essentially the same reading two weeks out of three, we can put it down to carelessness or seriousness. I think perhaps they’re serious.

But the problem is that the Bible’s message comes to us from a world so different we can’t even imagine it: no computers, no cell phones, no cable network news, no television, no Golden State Warriors, no cures for cancer. It’s actually the world I grew up in; maybe the world you grew up in. The world has changed more in my lifetime than in all the centuries before. So we have to translate the Bible message, and the New Yorker does a pretty good job. The message is that time is limited. The Bible says it one way; the New Yorker says it another. If you are Donald Trump you can ignore it and make decisions that endanger life on this planet. If you are a Bible-believing, church-going Christian you will take it seriously and let it impact every aspect of your daily life: your stewardship of your own resources, your support of organizations committed to making a difference, your daily prayers, your buying habits in the supermarket, your concern for your children and grandchildren, and so on and so on: life itself, your life, your community, the commitments you make when you get an appeal from the Sierra Club or a letter from Colby Roberts about your stewardship and the church and when you decide who to vote for and maybe even what you think about driverless cars.

No, there are people who hear the message and decide to eat drink and be merry because the world is not for ever so you night as well enjoy it while you can: get down to Mar a Lago as often as possible, play golf every day or two, relax what few environmental safeguards we have, and send the army to beat back the desperate refugees on the border.

That’s one response to what the Bible and the scientists are telling us. It’s certainly the easiest. But set in a context of worship, of worship and prayer, in context of a Bible that proclaims a God with a purpose in history, we are, as I said, called on to respond with a commitment to being part of the solution, not worsening the problem. God has a purpose in history and if you read on you find a picture of a new Jerusalem in which people of all races and nations are united in worship and praise. That’s the other option.

I said two weeks ago that the message was hopeful, that the Gospel proclaimed the doomsday scenario to be the birth pangs of a new world. This week again, we are told that when these things begin to take place, we should “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” In the midst of chaos and change God’s purpose is being worked out.

I went over to Oakland one day last week to join in discussion of a book about American history with half a dozen other men who get together three or four times a year to talk about a designated book about history. Five of us had dinner together first in a local restaurant. Over dinner I learned that three of them were raised in the Episcopal Church but don’t go any more. One calls himself an atheist. There wasn’t time to get into the question. “Why?” but I hope we can at some point because it baffles me to find three intelligent men who care about history and don’t want to be part of the plan, don’t understand that they are called, as we all are, to work together with God toward a new world of peace and security and opportunity. Here, at the very moment when critical choices are being made, with the destiny of millions, billions, on the line they’ve opted out. They’ve decided life has no larger meaning or purpose, that this blue planet in one galaxy in an infinite universe is here by a lucky accident, that Plato and Aristotle, Moses and Isaiah and Paul were just people with interesting ideas, that Sunday morning is a good time to read the paper or watch a game show. They could be here as we are working and praying together to be part of God’s purpose and make a difference. Why would you not? It baffles me.

The Gospel reading said, when “People . . . faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world . . . stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” As I said two weeks ago, it’s a message of hope. God has a purpose and never more important than now that we understand and respond and be part of that plan. But if the Bible and the New Yorker together can’t get our attention and make a difference, we are indeed lost.

Ere the Winter Storms Begin

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, at the Thanksgiving Day Eucharist, 2018.

When I was growing up in upstate New York out toward Buffalo, it used to puzzle me that we would get to Thanksgiving Day and sing that hymn we sang to open the service: “Come, ye thankful people come . . All is safely gathered in / Ere the winter storms begin . . .” Where I lived as a child it had already been snowing since September. There’s a picture in an old family album of the street in front of our house covered with a foot of snow on Thanksgiving Day. It was already way too late to be bringing in the harvest and the winter storms had begun long before.

This year I find myself living in a whole ’nother world where the harvest keeps coming in year round

and nobody worries about snow storms – but fire storms are destroying whole communities. We find ourselves this year celebrating thanksgiving in spite of the fact that the air is full of smoke and tens of thousands of people are newly homeless and hundreds are missing and dozens are dead.

But that opening hymn segues pretty quickly from “all is safely gathered in” to talk about “wheat and tares together sown / unto joy or sorrow grown” and then moves on again to ponder a God who will “give his angels charge at last / In the fire the tares to cast.” That’s a pretty solemn thought this year especially.

This year especially, it seems to me that Thanksgiving Day has to be more than just a question of pumpkin pie and cranberry sauce and stuffing ourselves more than the turkey. I might even go further and ask whether the idea of an annual Thanksgiving Day at a certain time is a good idea after all. I remember that Americans never celebrated Thanksgiving on a regular basis until Abraham Lincoln called on the nation to do it in the midst of the bloodiest war this country has ever fought. The battle fields of Gettysburg where 50,000 were killed or injured and perhaps 10,000 died still lay in the future when Lincoln called for a Thanksgiving celebration. But Lincoln also suggested that along with the Thanksgivings there should be: “humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience,” and that those celebrating also “commend to (God’s) tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.”

So, that’s as relevant now was it ever was. Celebrate, yes; I still think my grandparents made the right choice in coming here. I’d rather be here than in England or France or Australia. Yes, we have problems, but we also have the means to fix them. Yes, we have problems and, yes, traumatic times are likely around the corner – but we have our Constitution and Bill of Rights and the resources to deal with the problems we face. That’s a lot to be thankful for.

Lincoln was roundly condemned by many for suggesting a Thanksgiving Day in the midst of war, but Lincoln was probably the best theologian who ever sat in the White House and maybe he knew something we also need to remember: Does Thanksgiving after all depend on a bountiful harvest, and peace and prosperity? Is God to be given praise only in those few countries and rare moments of history when there has been no war, no shortage, no threat to our common life? Is Thanksgiving entirely a matter of material goods and comfort and happiness? I don’t think so.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Russian novelist, in his book “The Cancer Ward,” wrote: “One should never direct people toward happiness, because happiness too is an idol of the marketplace … When we have enough loaves of white bread to crush them under our heels, when we have enough milk to choke us, We still won’t be in the least happy. But if we share things we don’t have enough of we can be happy today. If we care only about happiness and about reproducing our species, we shall merely crowd the earth senselessly and create a terrifying society . . .”

But that surely is not news to Christians. If our Thanksgiving is focused on our abundance in a world of scarcity then, yes, it’s no wonder we have troops on the border. The contrast between our abundance and the world of need around us should make us very uncomfortable at the Thanksgiving table. I think there’s a more useful contrast to bear in mind between self-seeking on the one hand and sharing on the other: the contrast between love and selfishness. And what does the gospel tell us except that love is to be found and made known in giving and self-sacrifice, that it is more blessed to give than to receive?

So Thanksgiving Day seems to me to provide a chance to practice what we preach. We have a chance to make an honest assessment of ourselves and to make a distinction between our failures and God’s goodness. But God has been good enough to us this year to send us the opportunity to open our eyes and see the sort of field in which we’re growing and to give us a chance to do some weeding and pruning in our own lives now, an opportunity to recommit ourselves to God’s service and perhaps to give God thanks not so much for material things which we can easily live without as for the knowledge of God who is our only true life and our only lasting source of thankfulness.

“Timor Mortis”

A sermon preached at All Saints Church, San Francisco, by Christopher L. Webber on July 1, 2018.

“Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” So he went with him.” (St. Mark 5:21ff.)

Do you know how much human life has changed just in the last hundred years? I’m not thinking abut airplanes and television and computers and space travel, I’m thinking about human life: human life has changed. I’m thinking about Jairus and his little daughter and issues of life and death.

My father, born at the beginning of the twentieth century was the youngest of some twelve or thirteen children. I don’t think he knew himself how many. He was the youngest and several of his siblings had died before he was born and he never knew them. I can only account for five who were still around when I was growing up toward the middle of the century, only five who had survived into middle age. My mother was one of eight or nine of whom I also knew only five. Several of her siblings died in childbirth or infancy and she never knew them. My parents on the other hand, had four children and they all grew up and three are still around. My wife and I had four and they are all still here. with ages between 50 and 60. Life expectancy in 1900 was less than that, less than fifty; now it’s upwards of 75. Infant mortality over the 20th century declined by 90%. Our lives have changed that much just in the last hundred years.

I’ve just finished a book about a man who died in 1865. He and his wife had ten children of whom five died before the age of six. That was typical. Three of them died in the span of six weeks one summer in a cholera epidemic. Can you imagine having four children and losing three of them, not all at once, but one this week and one the next week and a third several weeks after that? Six months later he wrote to a friend, “The first sharp bitterness is past,” but “oh it is sad to have no children playing around the hearthstone. I try, and may God give me the Grace to succeed, to look into other little glad eyes, and listen to other little glad voices; and I try to reason myself out of the selfishness that they are not mine. Oh that meeting hereafter!”

There’s a prayer in the Prayer Book that asks God to make us “deeply sensible of the shortness and uncertainty of human life . . .” It was written in the 17th century I don’t think they needed it. If they didn’t know life was short and uncertain, they weren’t paying attention. I think we need it now more than they ever did. But Jesus lived in that other world and so did Jairus.

We heard in the gospel how Jairus “Fell down at Jesus’ feet” – this distinguished leader in his community fell face down in the dust to ask for Jesus’ help – and begged him repeatedly to come to his little daughter lying at the point of death. I think we an understand where he was coming from. Yes, it was common for small children to die, but that made it no easier for their parents. To lose a child is never easy, whether to death or American border guards. These days neither should happen and thank goodness the threat of disease and death at least is greatly diminished. Or has it? What about our world? I remember Fr. Schmidt talking about how the AIDS epidemic hit this parish not that long ago and killed so many. What other virus is lurking out there that might hit some other population or all of us?

I went back to Connecticut last week to dedicate a gravestone for my wife – and me – and I preached at the small country church that I served for the last four years before I moved here to California. The gospel last Sunday was the story of Jesus and his disciples in a storm on the Lake of Galilee and when they woke Jesus up, he asked them, “Why are you afraid?” Why? They were afraid of dying, that’s why. It’s normal to fear dying.

So death and the fear of death is a common theme this week and last, and if you get on the subject of the fear of death in the northwest corner of Connecticut you can’t help think about Sandy Hook and the twenty children and six teachers and staff gunned down one morning five and a half years ago. I think it’s like Pearl Harbor and Kennedy’s assassination and 9/11: if you were alive at that time, you remember where you were. I was in my car between my home and the church I was serving when the first reports came in. Sandy Hook was about 25 miles from that church. People had friends there. I knew the parish priest who lost children from the church school. Since then there’s been Parkland and Houston and an average of one school shooting every week this year – to say nothing of non-school shootings like the one in Annapolis on Thursday.

Did you see the interview with the girl in Parkland who said she wasn’t surprised by the shooting She expected it would happen, she said; the only question was, When. Do your children or grandchildren go to school with that assumption, that expectation: it’s just a question of when? So mothers wonder when the phone rings, when the cell phone goes off during the school day, whether this time it’s their school, their child. Jairus’ world had no cure for disease and we have no cure for guns. It’s a sickness that leads to death. But maybe some ways Jairus’ world was safer. At least there were no guns. But one way or another, death and the fear of death have not changed that much over the centuries.

I remember an old Scottish poem I came across years ago with the repeated refrain: “Timor mortis conturbat me:” “Fear of death distresses me” Let me read you just a very short bit of a very long poem with the Scottish dialect cleaned up but the Latin tag line still in place.

I that in health once was and gladness,
Am troubled now with sick and sadness,
And feebled with infirmity;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

On to the dead go all estates,
Princes, prelates, and potentates,
Both rich and poor of all degree;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

He spares no lord for his presence,
Nor clerk for his intelligence;
His awful stroke may no man flee;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

He hes Blind Harry and Sandy Traill
Slaine with his schour of mortall haill,
Quick Patrick Johnston might not flee;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

Since he has all my brothers tane,
He will not let me live alane,
It seems I may his next prey be;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

That’s just a few of the many verses that make the point, rub it in, insist we pay attention. Well, that was six or seven hundred years ago but in the largest sense nothing has changed: death is still out there, and still disturbing. There’s a more recent American litany of the fear of death that skips the Latin and says it in plain English. You can find You-tube recordings by Lead Belly and Johnny Cash. I used to have a CD of Paul Robeson singing it and I would play it driving back and forth between Sharon and Bantam, Connecticut, between my home and the church. There were other songs on the same disc, but this one speaks to the subject of death and dying. You may know it yourself in some other version.

“There’s a man agoing round taking names, taking names;
There’s a man agoing round taking names;
he has taken my father’s name and has left my soul in pain;
there’s a man agoing round taking names.”

There’s a verse for every member of the family:

“There’s a man agoing round taking names, taking names,
There’s a man agoing round taking names,
he has taken my wife’s name and has left my soul in pain
there’s a man a-going round taking names.”

Does it make it easier to deal with somehow if we make poems or sing about it? The first reading today told us, “God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living.” That raises more theological and philosophical problems than I can deal with in one sermon. All I tell you this morning is, it’s here and it’s real and we have to deal with it. That’s where the gospel comes in.

Death is real and we have to deal with it. Sometimes we encounter it early. My grandmother lived with us when I was small and died when I was seven. I remember the open casket in the living room. My best friend died suddenly not yet 50. That was hard. My sister was killed in a climbing accident, also not yet 50 And last October, my wife died. I’ll come back to that because that was different – that was qualitatively different.

I think it was fear of death that terrified those disciples on the lake: the boat might sink – and they couldn’t swim. They were afraid of dying. They were afraid of that ultimate border between the known and the unknown: the fear of death. You can’t fix that by voting or volunteering or contributing. You can contribute to cancer research and so on and postpone it but it’s still out there. Average life expectancy, as I said, is a lot longer than it was a century ago but there’s still an average number that includes everybody sooner or later. The bottom line death rate remains 100%. There’s a “sell by” date which I have already passed. and you can’t postpone it forever.

Of course, whatever happened that night on the lake was only background to what happened in Jerusalem. They had given Jesus their lives, left everything to follow him, and then he, too, was dead, gone, beyond reach, and they were abandoned, and alone, and hopeless, and afraid. They hadn’t been listening, you see. They hadn’t been paying attention. “Why are you afraid?” Jesus asked them. Jesus shared their fear of death, but faced it for them and came again, rose again, to show them there was no reason to fear. And they went out with that message: He is risen; death is conquered; we are free of the fear of death forever. Christ has won the victory, conquered death, and offers us the gift of resurrection life.

Now, I’ve believed that, more or less, my whole life. But I’ve learned something more this last year. My wife died, as I said, last October. I came here not long after that for a funeral service and last week we dedicated the stone that marks her burial place and mine. As I said, I’ve lost friends and family members before, but this was different, this was qualitatively different. What I’ve slowly realized as the days and weeks have gone by is that death has lost its sting, lost its terror. Husband and wife, we say, “become one flesh in holy matrimony” I take that seriously. I experienced it. And it means that I was involved in her death in a whole new way: that where she is, I am already – and how can I be afraid of being there forever?

As I asked myself questions like that – came to that realization – I also realized in a whole new way, and at a deeper level what I have always claimed to believe at the very center of the Christian faith: that Jesus died, that he rose again to eternal life and that in him, I also have life. You see, just as I was joined in one body with my wife in marriage, so I was made one body with Jesus in baptism. And if they now live in resurrection life, so I also live that same life now, I begin now to share that life which is forever.

Now, I’m still planning to hang a round a good while longer. I’ve got lots of plans, lots of things to do, but when the time comes, as it will, a lot of the fear is gone, and should have been gone long ago because you and I are also one with Christ in baptism, and he also has passed through death into life and in him I share already the fuller, richer life still to come. And this life that we were given in baptism is the life we receive today at the altar: “The body of Christ, the bread of heaven,” a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. Why are you afraid? You are the people of God in whom Christ is alive and in whom we live; in whom we have the gift and the promise of life both now and hereafter forever.

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.

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