Walls and Gates

A sermon by Christopher L. Webber for the 6th Sunday of Easter – May 26, 2019

In the spirit the angel carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.

I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day– and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. Revelation 21:22-27

Here’s the tragedy: millions of Christians will go to church this morning but not all of them will hear the description we just heard of the city of God. Roman Catholics will hear it, and Lutherans and Presbyterians and Methodists and Episcopalians, but you know who won’t hear it: most evangelical Christians, because those churches follow no set lectionary and the pastor can choose what he wants to preach about. So most evangelicals won’t hear today about the promised city of God which may have walls but also has gates that are never shut.

We Americans need to think about that: heaven is like a city with gates that are never shut, never closed at all day or night. The divisions within our society seem constantly to grow worse and it doesn’t help at all that we hear different parts of the Bible on Sunday morning. Imagine what a difference it could make if we all began the week from the same place with the same words of scripture in our minds and hearts. Imagine what a difference it would make if we all began this week with the same vision: God’s city, God’s city, where the gates are never closed.

You could point out, of course, that the city of God described in the Bible does have walls. Yes, it does, but that’s because an ancient city was defined by walls. If a community has walls, it’s a city. If it doesn’t, it isn’t. But in the heavenly city, the gates are never closed. That’s what makes the difference.

There was a time in the progress of humanity when people began coming together to build a more complex community. They had learned how to grow grain – rice or wheat or barley or quinoa and grain was a food that could be stored and that meant that you could settle down and live in one place. You could have a house instead of a cave. You could be a farmer instead of a hunter-gatherer. You could develop a community and you could put up walls to protect yourself against wild animals and wild people. You could live inside the walls and be safe and go out to work in your fields and bring your harvest into the city to store it safely. Outside the city walls there might be other smaller communities, but they also relied on the city walls for safety. A city was a community with walls. A village was a community without walls, but near enough to the city to fly there for refuge in times of trouble.

Maybe you’ve visited England or France or other European countries and seen the remnants of the walls that once protected them but are no longer needed. I think there’s only one city left in England that has a complete wall still standing, and that’s the city of Cheshire on the border with Wales. I spent some time in that area years ago and I took time one day to walk around that wall. These days there’s as much city outside the wall as inside because they’ve outgrown the need for city walls. In most places around the world human beings have outgrown the need for border walls as well. The Great Wall of China is for tourists to climb on. Even the Berlin wall finally had to come down. The idea of a wall on our southern border is out of date and absurd. Most illegal immigrants don’t come across the Mexican border anyway; they come by plane and overstay their visas. And they will continue to come as long as there are jobs Americans don’t want. They will continue to come to do not just the stoop labor of picking strawberries in the central valley emptying bed pans in our nursing homes and waiting on table in retirement communities. I’ve met people where I live from the Philippines and Bosnia and Uruguay and Uzbekistan and the Ukraine. And they don’t necessarily want to be here. Many of them have families back home that depend on them and they go back whenever they can – if they can. This country does have walls, but they’re economic walls. There are millions who would come here if they could, millions who are here who would rather be elsewhere.

Trump ponders the wall

There are millions of Americans, by the way, who live elsewhere by choice – in Mexico and Panama and Portugal – because its cheaper and warmer there than here. People who can afford to live elsewhere are happy to leave America. So we can build a wall on the Mexican border or not and it won’t make much difference. What will make a difference is the kind of community we build here, here where we are. Walls don’t matter; they keep them in Chester as a tourist attraction and someday whatever we build between us and Mexico may have that value also, but what matters is what happens inside the walls – in the city – don’t miss what the Bible says about that: “People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood.” No one who practices falsehood will be in God’s city, no one who tells lies will be there. God’s city is a place where people tell the truth and they bring into that community all that is good – the glory and honor of the nations. Nothing unclean will enter it. In God’s city no one will sleep on the sidewalk or under bridges. Forget about the borders, what matters is what happens inside.

In God’s city the walls are a tourist attraction but there’s no darkness there, nothing false, nothing unclean, San Francisco is not like that. I hope for the day that I can walk up 19th avenue from the N-Judah and see no litter, no trash on the sidewalk. I may be wrong, but I think it comes from the young men and women who I see standing on those sidewalks at 8 and 8:30 every weekday morning waiting for the giant bus to come and scoop them up and take them to Silicon Valley. I don’t see trash on the other side of the avenue so I think it’s these young Americans with jobs no Mexican immigrant could hope for who trash the sidewalks that others sleep on. Wouldn’t you think that we who live here because of choices our grandparents or great grandparents made could do better at preserving the dream?

We’re given a vision. How do we share it? How do we tell our friends and neighbors it doesn’t have to be this way? God gives us a vision of a new community. The verses we read this morning come from the next to last chapter of the Bible: This where we are going. This is the vision God gives us, not just to dream about but to work for and to share. A few verses earlier the vision began this way – I wish we’d had a longer reading but I’ll read it anyway:

Revelation 21:1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; 4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” 5 And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

Notice this one thing: this new city is not somewhere else, not in a distant heaven, but here. We don’t go up to it; it comes down to us. And I believe it’s up to us to prepare the way: to hold in our minds and hearts the vision of the city of God and not settle for anything less.

 

“All we like sheep. . .”

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at All Saints Church, San Francisco, on Good Shepherd Sunday, Easter IV, May 12, 219.

Up until six years ago I lived in the northwest corner of Connecticut, an area of small towns and small farms and I served a parish in the town of Canaan which liked to claim that it had more cows than people. Somehow I got into a conversation one day with a retired farmer about the relative intelligence of sheep and cows. He told me cows are smarter: they know when to come home and they even know their own stall. The farmer told me about a visit he had from a city friend who was surprised by the way the cows would come into the barn and go straight to their own stalls. And the farmer told him, “That’s why we have those plaques on each stall with each cow’s name on it, so they can find their own stall more easily.”

Well, cows may be smart, but not that smart. Sheep are not smart at all. But Jesus used them as an example because sheep are a lot like human beings, they’re a lot like us. There’s a form of confession in the Prayer Book in Morning Prayer Rite One that says it in so many words: “we have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep.” We, like sheep, have a tendency to err and stray from the way. The cowherd claps his hands and calls Bossy and Bossy comes. The sheep just keep on munching. The shepherd needs a crook to pull the sheep back from danger and the crook has a pointed end to prod the sheep in the right direction. The shepherd needs a good sheep dog if possible to run around and bark at the sheep and nip at their heels to get them moving the right way because without all that help the sheep would get lost. Sheep just focus on the next blade of grass and keep on munching as long as they see that next blade of grass until they’re hopelessly lost. Sheep are not smart.

So Jesus chose a relatively stupid animal to illustrate God’s love for us. When he compares us to sheep it’s not a compliment! Jesus is saying we are like sheep: we tend to wander, we lack much inner guidance, we have a tendency to get lost, we’re apt to get into trouble. It’s not, as I said, a compliment, but it is probably a fair assessment. Yeah, human beings are like that. I’ve met a few of them. I read about them in the paper. I see them on television. It makes you wonder. And, to be honest, I know myself well enough to recognize that Jesus was right. Maybe you’ve had some experience along these lines yourself.

But the other side of the coin is that for all of that, nevertheless, God loves us, God values us. The sheep may be dumb but they have commercial value so the shepherd exerts himself to save them. The shepherd would not exert himself for the sheep if there weren’t some value there: wool, mutton, lamb chops. Very few people raise raccoons. The sheep have a value to the shepherd. And the implication is that we have a value to God. Is that obvious? Probably not. When you stop to think of the billions of people crowding the planet, living very often in conditions that no self-respecting sheep would put up with, and put that in the perspective of a span of creation in which the human lifespan is insignificant and a span of space in which this earth is a grain of sand, who could imagine that a Creator would care? And yet, the Bible makes that claim. It not only makes that claim, it goes way beyond that: it says that we are made in the image of God; that we are in some essential way like God.

You and I and the people of Kathmandu are like God. Sheep are not much like the shepherd; they’re a different order of being. No number of sheep can change a light bulb; they can’t even find their way home. But the Bible claims that we are like God in some essential way.

I shouldn’t do this, but I can’t resist. On the subject of light bulbs: how many Episcopalians does it take to change a light bulb? Two: one to change the light bulb and one to reminisce about how much they liked the old one. That’s also relevant to the Rector search process you’re involved in. But I digress.

The Bible claims that we are like God in some essential way, and therefore God values us as we would value our own children. The Bible speaks of God as loving us, yearning for us, grieving over us and finally entering into our lives and living here among us and dying for us.

Now, what that also means is that God in some essential way is like us. It always surprises me when I have the chance to speak with a couple planning to be married and find out that they haven’t the foggiest idea what God is like. They have some vague idea of a distant, impersonal power – what the movies call “The Force” – which is not something I much relate to. What is “The Force.” Can you fall in love with a Force or imagine a Force that sees you as anything more than another force, and an insignificant force in the larger picture, a minor force to be absorbed or manipulated or annihilated?

Of course, we use force ourselves – sometimes well, sometimes badly – but force is a tool and our relationship with force is to control or be controlled. The Force is a tornado destroying homes, an earthquake wiping out a city, a military invasion, a cancer. A force is many things but none of them loveable. God is not like that. Nor did Jesus ever use language like that about God. God in Jesus’ teaching is sometimes a powerful king but more often a forgiving father, a careful housewife, a hen with chickens, a shepherd with sheep, one who cares for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field and knows our needs and loves us. It’s not a particular compliment Jesus pays us in comparing us with sheep, but it is a wonderful gift: God cares; God values us; God loves us.

Now that’s good to know but it’s not the whole story. It comes with a job to do. The Gospel speaks of other sheep who must also be brought so that finally there is one flock and one shepherd. I’ve had many a disagreement over the years with well-meaning Christians who wonder why we should spend our time worrying about foreign mission and trying to convert people to our faith when they have a perfectly good faith of their own. Well-meaning but totally confused. Does it make a difference to you to know God loves you? Wouldn’t it matter to someone else as well? Someone once described the church’s mission as being like that of hungry beggars who know where bread is to be found and tell others.

Is there really no difference between, for example, Christianity and Islam, between a religion of submission and a religion of freedom, between a religion of a distant God and the knowledge of a close and loving God? Yes, we have things in common: we worship one God, and we know God is merciful. But we also have vast differences. Muslims are for the most part, a peaceful people and we shouldn’t judge them by the worst examples. I don’t want Christianity to be judged by the fundamentalists who think the world is flat and was created 4000 years ago and we shouldn’t judge Islam by ISIS. But there is a difference between Islam at its best and Christianity at its best. And we have a mandate to share what we know.

There are people who think it’s fine to get all the marbles and keep them. There are others who seem to know instinctively that gifts are given to be shared. The Gospel surely, is a gift to be shared. In the early years of the Christian Church there were people called Gnostics who believed that there was secret knowledge available only to insiders and initiates. You couldn’t be given the secret knowledge unless you proved yourself worthy over a long time of training. Gnosticism won a good many followers for awhile; it’s nice to think you’re in on a secret and that you’ve earned the right to special status. But Gnosticism was condemned as a heresy. Christianity is not like that. Christianity is not a secret wisdom for the chosen few; it’s about a love that needs to be shared, shared with everyone, no holds barred.

Christianity is open and available and there for the taking and if that means that the church is filled with people who don’t seem quite nice or quite as deserving as we are – well, that’s the way Jesus and his disciples seemed to a lot of people in that time also. “Why does your master eat with publicans and sinners?” they asked. “If this man is a prophet, how come he’s doesn’t know what kind of woman it is that he’s talking to?” That was the criticism. And Jesus accepted that criticism. He said, “The well have no need of a doctor but only those who are sick.” He said he came for the sick. He told his disciples to go into all the world, not stay home where it’s safe, not keep it a secret, but go find those other sheep who are no more or less sheepish than you are; find them and bring them home to the God who loves them and wants them to know that love.

We are members of a church that in all too many congregations these days works hard to balance the budget and has all too little left for others. It may be that we have our priorities wrong, that we need to get mission into our budget first and then see whether we have anything left over for ourselves because the job isn’t done just because the doors are open on Sunday. Jesus did not say, “I’m waiting here with the door open.” The Good Shepherd doesn’t stand there waiting for the lost sheep to come back; the Good Shepherd goes looking. There’s work to be done and we’ve barely begun to do it. So there’s good news in today’s gospel but there’s a challenge also: God loves us – but not just us. Our God is the Good Shepherd who loves us all and seeks to bring us all home and calls us not just to be sheep but to help with the shepherding and help make God’s love known.

The Road to Damascus

A sermon preached at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, by Christopher L., Webber on May 5, 2019, the Third Sunday of Easter.

When I was in college, I had some friends who were Southern Baptists. They were nice people in many ways, but they believed in a kind of Christianity I had never before encountered. They were fundamentalists. They believed that the world was created in seven days and that Adam and Eve were real people. But their faith made a real difference in their lives. They wouldn’t do homework on Sunday even if they had a test scheduled for Monday. And I remember one Sunday, that one of them came back from the service he had gone to upset at the preacher because he had never mentioned the cross. He thought it wasn’t a Christian sermon if it didn’t mention the cross.

Toward the end of my time in college these Southern Baptist friends arranged for a revival meeting on campus, and they invited me to come. I was interested in what they were up to so I went and at the end of the service the preacher issued an invitation to those who wanted to accept Jesus to come forward while we stood and sang verse after verse of “Just as I am” and he exhorted us to come forward. “Let’s sing another verse,” he would say, “I believe there are more of you who want to come, so please come, come forward now . . .” I held onto my chair and stayed where I was and felt very uncomfortable. They had all been converted and accepted Jesus as their personal savior and knew exactly when it was – and I didn’t. I just was a Christian – always had been and expected I always would be. But there hadn’t been any single, datable, magic moment of conversion; just a gradual growth in faith over the years.

Now, St. Paul, of course, did have a magic moment and we read about it this morning. When you get knocked off your horse and struck blind, you know something has happened. It makes a difference. The story this morning from the Acts of the Apostles is one of the most dramatic conversion stories you’ll ever find. If ever anyone was converted, Paul was, and he knew exactly when – twelve o’clock noon on January 25, 35 A.D. Of course, we can’t date it quite that exactly but Paul could. He knew; there was a magic moment. And to hear some Christians tell it, if there wasn’t a moment like that for you, you’re not really a Christian.

But let’s look at that story again. The brief excerpt we have this morning begins with Paul riding out from Jerusalem to the Gentile city of Damascus in Syria. Syria has been in the news a lot in recent years and there’s no way Paul could go from Jerusalem to Damascus these days. But in those days it was all part of the Roman Empire and travel was easy. So Paul was going to see whether there were any Christians there so he could arrest them and take them bound to Jerusalem for trial. Paul was a zealot. Paul would travel the world to convert people to his beliefs. And God struck him down. But God didn’t just stop Paul, God re-directed him. God apparently thought, “I could use someone like that.” So God struck him down and turned him around and he was baptized. And the rest of the Book of Acts tells how zealously Paul traveled the world to convert people to his new beliefs.

But in a very deep sense, Paul was not changed. He was in many ways still the same man he had been before: still zealous, still conversion-minded – only refocused, re-directed.

I think we should notice something else about St. Paul. He had grown up in the Jewish community. He had come to Jerusalem to study his faith at the feet of Gamaliel, the greatest teacher of his day. And Paul believed – or came to believe – that his faith in Christ was the logical completion of the faith he had always held. There wasn’t a certain moment when St. Paul suddenly came to believe in God. No, what we see happening if we read Paul’s story carefully, is a steady process of growth which had difficulty with one crucial point: the identification of Jesus as the promised Messiah. That was a problem for Paul. A crucified Messiah didn’t fit – at first. Paul didn’t want to believe it. He didn’t want anyone to believe it. But it nagged at him all the same. And suddenly, suddenly, half way to Damascus, he knew; the truth broke through, and he took a major step forward along the path he had been following all unknown ever since he was born.

But now let me take Paul’s story one more step. We know about Paul’s upbringing. We know about that moment on the road to Damascus. But then what? Was it twenty years or twenty-five years, perhaps, Paul spent as a missionary, teaching, preaching, traveling, writing – with no more change? Is that possible? Well, sometime you might read two of Paul’s epistles side by side: take the one to the Galatians, for example, and the one to the Philippians, and think about what you find. In the one to the Galatians, early in his ministry, Paul is angry. People have been disagreeing with Paul and he wishes they would all drop dead. He argues, he exhorts, he denounces. But then read the letter to the Christians at Philippi written many years later. Listen to him talk there about those who disagree: “Some,” he writes, “proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill. These proclaim Christ out of love, knowing that I have been put here for the defense of the gospel; the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering . . . What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice.” (1:15-18)

What a change from the early epistles! This is a different Paul. This is a Paul who had deepened and matured and grown in ways he himself might never have anticipated: He had grown in patience and charity and joy. He was still zealous, yes, but eager now for an even deeper experience of the joy that comes with mature faith and wisdom and understanding.

Now, I think what we can see in St. Paul’s story if we look at it carefully, is something that broadens our understanding of true conversion. Martin Smith, an Episcopal priest, points out that the word “conversion” has been taken over by people who see it in one dimension only. They define conversion as a dramatic, emotional experience and demand that everyone have that particular experience. But each of us is different; each of us grows in different ways according to the various gifts we’ve been given. Conversion, Smith suggests, is many things:
Conversion is “appropriation:” the process by which something we simply inherited becomes truly our own. Once it was something I read in a book, now it’s a part of my life. Conversion is “intensification:” something colorless becomes vivid, exciting, rich. Conversion is “transfiguration:” an inward transformation that becomes radiantly visible. Conversion is “maturation:” organic change; you can’t be a tree until you’ve been a seed and a sapling. The need may not be for a Damascus Road experience but just for a bottle of milk, a little help with the next step.
Conversion is “enlightenment, a word used in Eastern religions – but Christianity also is an eastern religion and sometimes conversion comes to us as enlightenment, a sudden “Aha!” that changes everything.
Conversion is “arousal”: it’s like waking up, like falling in love.
Conversion is all these things and more, and there may be a magic moment along the way and there may not. There may be what seem to us like setbacks as well as progress. It’s not always a straight line. It’s not just a moment but a lifetime. But what matters is the process – the process of change and growth and maturation – the emergence of a faith that draws us onward and outward and upward, that satisfies us and yet leaves us still unsatisfied, because we know there’s always more. That’s what matters. That’s what drew St. Paul on from the very beginning. I hope that’s what draws you.

Having the Mind of Christ

A sermon preached at All Saints Church, San Francisco, on Palm Sunday,  April 14, 2019, by Christopher L. Webber.

“Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus . . .”

A week ago Friday I went to a demonstration. They held it at the corner of Powell and Market at 5 pm. There were placards being waved and a speaker, three speakers, in fact, holding forth. And a crowd. Not a very big crowd – maybe a few hundred quite a few waving posters of one sort and another. We were there demanding release of the Mueller report. I don’t think we made a difference. I didn’t see anyone with a TV camera and I don’t think it even made the local paper, but it made some of us feel better.

Now, I wouldn’t have done that before I retired because I wouldn’t have wanted the parish I was serving to be divided by a political issue. But I’m not in charge any more and I do have opinions and I sometimes feel free to express them in public. But I’m as concerned as I ever was about political differences dividing the church and I would hope that maybe next Sunday Beth would mention in a sermon that she’d been at a Trump rally and we could celebrate the fact that our unity in Christ was greater than any divisions between Donald Trump and Robert Mueller or any conceivable divisions that might come between us. I think we could do that. I hope we could. If our unity in Christ isn’t deeper than our political divisions, there’s something wrong.

I think there was a time when that wasn’t true. We assumed everyone else either thought as we did or else was wrong. The history of humanity is largely a history of wars being fought between armies dedicated to the simple proposition that we were right and they were wrong. We understand a little better now that not all minds work the same way and that we can sometimes learn from the way other minds work or at least need to be aware of their differences. I think, in fact, that human beings have always been fascinated by other lives, other mind-sets, other ways of thinking. We read books, or go to the movies, or exchange gossip to get insights into other lives. “Did you hear what happened to Joe or Susan?” we ask.“Can you imagine?”, we ask. And if we can imagine, really imagine, not critically, but sympathetically, (the word sympathy means “feeling with”) – if we can do that, if we can feel with others, we can grow, we can get outside ourselves a bit, not be so cooped up inside our own mind-sets, our own limited insights, the narrowness of our own experience and understanding.

We need to pray for our leaders, on both sides – or many sides – that they have some glimmer of understanding of what it must be like to be Donald Trump, in an overwhelming job, under constant pressure, constant second guessing by talking heads, and with a very real possibility that his taxes will be made public and he may lose everything.

I remember meeting a very wise bishop years ago who had been a missionary in Africa and had known the man who became one of the first African dictators when the future dictator, Kwame Nkrumah, was a school boy. The bishop had gone back to visit him years later when Nkrumah was at the height of his power. “The poor man,” the bishop said,“The poor man.He has all that power and doesn’t know how to let go of it.” I wonder whether there’s someone who has that perspective on Donald Trump. “The poor man; he has all that power and can’t trust anyone.”

Sympathy. Feeling with. Understanding. The need for understanding. To get inside the minds of others and see the world as others see it and understand, really understand, why they act as they do. Is it even possible. Do even husbands and wives, children and parents, ever really understand each other; really understand?

But however hard that may be, think about the challenge posed by this morning’s epistle: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” Can you even begin to imagine really doing that? And yet, isn’t that just one way of saying what Christianity is all about and what we are doing here today?

The letters of Paul come back to this theme again and again in all kinds of different ways. He talks about being “in Christ,” “Having the mind of Christ,” about Christ being in us, about being Christ’s body, about being joined with Christ. There’s a new jargon phrase I hear all the time in church talk these days: Christian formation. Well, yes: being formed – being re-formed – being not so much who we were as who we might be. “Putting off” – Paul’s language again -“putting off the old man or woman” and “putting on Christ”and beginning to be someone else: Christ in us; a new creation.

What would it be like to look at Donald Trump through the mind of Christ, to think about it from Jesus’ perspective? But more important still, what would it be like to live even a minute or two or three of our lives here, with the mind of Christ? What would it mean to deal with the children, the grandchildren, the parents, the neighbor next door, the clerk in the store, the waiter in the restaurant, to say nothing of our political leadership with the mind of Christ. Could we, for a minute or two imagine, letting that mind be in us?

The sentence just before that in Paul’s letter goes even further; it says:“Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”Isn’t that dangerous doctrine? To look to the interests of others: Mexican refugees on the border, for example. They do me no harm, they don’t show up in my neighborhood. But some people obviously do feel threatened. Can I understand their interests? Can I look to their interests also or expect my representative to do so? And how do we deal with it when the President looks to other interests, that radical right, that so-called “evangelical” right. What is it that forms their mind-set, and could I somehow begin at least to try to understand, or share their concerns, or find common ground. What would a world be like where we all looked first of all not for our own good, but for common ground, common ground? or better still for the mind of Christ: Christ in my spouse, my friend, my neighbor: Christ in the stranger on the N-Judah, the waiter in the fast food restaurant, the homeless man or woman huddled against our office buildings against the cold and the rain?

It might not be easy. Having the mind of Christ led Jesus to the cross. Someone described for me some time ago an icon, a painting, showing Jesus at the moment of his arrest with soldiers bearing down on him with spears and clubs all pointing towards him and Jesus paying absolutely no attention but reaching down toward the slave whose ear Peter had just cut off, reaching down to heal, concerned for the other, not for himself. Death staring him in the face, and his mind, his hand, on the other. Have that mind in you, Paul says. Have that mind in you, that concern for the other before yourself.

This church is here for that purpose. Here at the center of this community is a building and a gathering centered on the notion that others come first, and that we can make a difference in this world, can serve God best, can serve our neighbors best, can serve our families best, by letting the mind of Christ be in us.

Paul goes on – we read it just now – to talk about Jesus emptying himself, humbling himself, down from the heights of heaven, down from any human glory, down to the place of a slave, down even to death and the grave. And what did it accomplish? Now, two millennia later, a worldwide church, a changed society, one in which elections are fought – sometimes at least – over how best to improve our schools, how best to provide security for older citizens, how best to use our government to heal and help and serve.

And yes, that’s putting the best possible spin on a situation that we know falls far short of the mind of Christ, but think of how far we’ve come from the day we read about in the gospel when an innocent man could be arrested, tortured, and killed in a matter of hours, with no pretense of a fair trial. And think of how far we still have to go and yet what a privilege we have in being called to be citizens of the new kingdom Christ came to build and to come to his table and be nourished with his life and to let the mind of Christ so transform us that we see the world through his eyes and respond to it with his love.

 

Fathering Sunday

A Sermon preached at the Church of the Incarnation, San Franciisco, on March 31, 2019, by Christopher L. Webber.

There is a wonderful, old English custom called “Mothering Sunday.” It started In the Middle Ages when boys were often sent out at a very young age to learn a trade as an apprentice. It wasn’t an easy life but once a year they were given a weekend off to go home and see their parents and the weekend on which this happened was the one on which the Sunday epistle spoke about “Jerusalem above” who is our mother. It was the original Mother’s Day; long before Hallmark cards were ever invented, and it gave the whole concept of motherhood a deeper and theological meaning.

Motherhood is not just cards and flowers and apple pie; it connects with a deep imagery about ourselves and our eternal destiny.

So here we are celebrating the day when the apprentices came home to mother and now the assigned readings gives us as a gospel with the story of the Prodigal Son who is welcomed home by his father. Where was the women’s movement when they did that? And yet, when you stop to think about it, isn’t it curious? Suppose I were to tell you a story about a young man who took the inheritance and went off to Washington and wasted his money on wine, women, and song and then came home seeking forgiveness. Now, who would you expect would be willing to forgive and forget, welcome him back and cook up a huge feast with his favorite recipes? Who would do that: his mother or his father? Which would you expect? And yet the gospel story never mentions his mother; it’s the father who is filled with compassion and runs to meet him and prepare a feast.

Let’s look a little deeper.

The word for compassion is a very simple and obvious one in Hebrew: it is simply the plural form of the word for womb. The womb, the place of protection and growth and life is the obvious image of compassion. As the heart symbolizes courage and the head is wisdom, so the womb is compassion, and you might say that makes it a feminine virtue. Logically, we might expect the Prodigal Son’s mother to be the one to show compassion.

But look deeper still. Go back to that critical moment when Moses stood before God on Mount Sinai and asked for God to be revealed and God proclaimed: “The Lord, the Lord, a God compassionate and gracious . . .” (Exodus 34:6) God is known first of all as a God of compassion of which the womb is the symbol.

Then look at the last chapter of Isaiah and you will find a God who nurses Israel at the breast and dandles Israel on her lap and comforts Israel as a mother comforts a child. That’s not a passage we often read, but that, too, is part of the biblical picture of who God is.

We are learning a lot these days about what it means to be masculine or feminine. Oddly enough, at the very time when we are moving toward gender equality in the work place, in opportunity in every aspect of society, at this very same time researchers are finding (there are frequent articles in magazines and newspapers) that the male and female brain operate differently, that men and women respond in different ways in areas as different as the emotions on the one hand and solving mathematical problems on the other. Equal, yes, but different all the same and only now are we beginning to understand how different and why. And as a result, maybe – just maybe – we will begin to get a handle on the typically male pattern of aggressive behavior and learn better ways to channel it, and maybe – just maybe – we will allow men to show emotions more openly, yes, and maybe to be compassionate: more like the Biblical idea of God.

Have you ever noticed how often in the Old Testament the father figure is remote and uninvolved with his children? The story of Abraham and Isaac is a case in point: the father was even prepared to offer his son as a sacrifice. Or take the story of David and Absalom: David was the indulgent father, unable to say “no” to a son who finally saw no way get his father’s attention except by open rebellion. Again and again, we see fathers more concerned with their own goals and ambitions than with showing compassion, getting involved, saying, “I care.” It’s no wonder the image of God as Father never occurred to anyone until Jesus put it at the center of his teaching. It’s no wonder it still gives us a lot of trouble.

What image of God does a child have whose parents are divorced and whose father is a weekend visitor, compensating for absence by indulgence, married, perhaps, to someone else who has no interest in the child? Worse yet, how many children today grow up in one parent homes and maybe never know who their father is. Even in the so-called traditional home what image is provided when the child misbehaves and the mother says, “Wait til your father gets home”? The father becomes the avenger, the disciplinarian, the judge. How will children think of God when these are the images provided to them of fatherhood? What will the Lord’s Prayer mean to them?

I think we need to notice that Jesus never said “God is like your father.” He said that fatherhood can reveal God. But it’s a dangerous metaphor. It can destroy our faith. Worse still, it can destroy your child’s faith. But it can also hold up for us a vision of what fatherhood can be. It can give us an image of the potential in that relationship. And it can give the human father a role model better than those the television screen or the movies ever provide. This is what God is like. This is what true fatherhood can be.

So Jesus told this story, but why do we call it “The Prodigal Son”? A better title might be “The Compassionate Father.” It’s a story that suddenly brings into sharp focus all those Old Testament references to a God of compassion and mercy. It’s a story that reveals God as father by revealing the feminine side of God; a story that challenges us to rise above stereotypes and inherited patterns of behaviour and look again at the roles we play and the transforming biblical vision of God.

Heaven and earth cannot contain our God, nor is any metaphor, any image, adequate. Our God is a rock and a wind and a consuming fire; our God is just and compassionate and faithful. Our God comes to us in the water of baptism and the bread and wine of the altar. Our God is like a father whose compassion is like the compassion of a mother toward her child.

Desert or Wilderness?

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at All Saints Church, San Francisco, on March 10, 2019.

“Jesus . . . was led by the Spirit in the wilderness…”
St Luke 4, verse 1.

So let’s think about wilderness.

Some three to four thousand years ago the Hebrews were a nomadic tribe wandering in the deserts in the middle east. All around them were people who were 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.

But the Hebrews were nomads. In all the years they had wandered in the deserts with their sheep and their goats they had no crops to raise, and no need for gods of that sort. For them there was one God, invisible, all-powerful, a god encountered in the volcano at Sinai and the storms that swept across the Image result for Mt Sinai picturesdesert. Not a God to bargain with. But when the Hebrews came into the promised land and tried to learn farming themselves they naturally looked to the Canaanites for advice and they were told, “Well, here’s what you do: you set up a pillar or carve some statues of wood or stone and you make offerings, and you cry out to Baal or Astarte or whichever god you need at the moment for rain or sun or whatever crop it is. Sometimes it works; sometimes not; but that’s how you go to the gods for help.”

Some of the Hebrews tried it out and sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t but, like the Canaanites, they decided it was better to do it than not do it. Hey, you never know. Some tried it, as I said, 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 bargain with God to get God to line up with us.”

Now, that was a conflict that went on for centuries. You can read all about it in the Bible: First and Second Kings especially; an on-going struggle. The Hebrews were divided by it with the prophets and their visions on one side and the practical people on the other. The prophets said, “It doesn’t matter where you are or what the agenda is; there is one God, no other. You can serve God, but God can’t be bribed to serve you.” But the practical people said, “Look, the Canaanites have the experience and the smart thing is to hedge your bets, not put all your eggs in one basket, always backup your computer, don’t take chances.”

But the prophets didn’t give up; always there were prophets who insisted, “God is beyond all this and if this becomes an idol, God can and will destroy it and God can even destroy us, the chosen people, if we turn to our 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, to give ourselves without limit to the God who loves us without limit.”

Well, that’s what Lent is about: it’s a reminder that we are by origin a wandering, desert people with a radically unconfined God, a God who is free and calls us to freedom. Lent summons us to remember who we are and respond to that challenge. For forty days every year we are challenged to follow Jesus back out into the wilderness of our nomadic ancestors where there is none of the security of plowed land and settlements and walls and well-traveled roads.

The Prayer Book speaks of Lent as a time for “special acts of discipline and self-denial.” It asks us to find out whether we can get along without the images and the idols – the things, the possessions, that tie us down and somehow 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 are we on material things? What is it that takes the time we might have used for prayer or the energy that might have been used to help someone in need or to work to change a society that seems indifferent to the needs of others? It’s probably not something as simple as candy or computer games. It’s things that have become part of the very fabric of our lives and it will hurt to tear them out. The idols are where they are because we’ve learned to love them and depend on them and believe we need them. So Lent asks us to look again, to focus on this fundamental question: who is your God? One of the old mystics used to say, “This too is not God.” It’s a good line to remember. Look around at your life: “This too is not God.” I think some of the most divisive arguments in our public life, church and state, are about idols – not God.

Do you remember back a while ago the annual Christmas fuss about Christmas in public places? Almost every year it seems some mayor or public official tries to find a new way of putting up a creche to see who will complain. And someone always does. But, you know, I used to live in New England and back in Puritan days it was illegal to celebrate Christmas at all because I think the Puritans knew that so much of the celebration was pagan in origin and a distraction from the worship of the God who is beyond all images. The Puritans knew that but now their descendants, calling themselves Christians, demand that they be allowed their images, their creches and Christmas trees, and the very name of Christmas has become an image, as if by saying “Merry Christmas” out loud and in public instead of “Happy Holidays” the God who cannot be named is somehow honored. We still want our images, things to hold onto; We’re still afraid of the desert.

The Anglican Communion is being torn apart these days by those who insist on this reading of the Bible rather than that one, my way of reading the law and the security it gives me rather than your way which makes me nervous. Every ten years, you know, all the Anglican bishops in the world convene in England, at Lambeth palace, to see what they can learn from each other and recently they’ve had trouble doing that because in some parts of the world same sex marriage is not acceptable. The missionaries in the 19th century told their new converts that it was bad and they believed it – still do. Ten years ago quite a few of them didn’t come because the American church had just elected a gay bishop. This year the Archbishop of Canterbury has ruled that bishops with same sex partners can’t bring their partner – or if they do, the partners can’t come to the tea parties. A hundred years ago it was African bishops who wanted to be able to baptize polygamous partners and other bishops were saying, No, only one at a time. There’s always something. And not enough of us are prepared to stop and say, “Let’s really listen to each other; let’s admit that my way and your way both are inadequate images, neither one is an absolute and final and complete picture of God and it never can be. So instead of fighting, let me hear how what you have to say honors God and let me try to explain why I believe my views honor God and one way or another let’s recognize that we both are seeking to honor God and God is not honored by our anger or by a narrow clinging to images. Let’s confess our limitations and try still to love each other even if we no more understand each other than we truly and fully understand God.”

Lots of churches, you know, use purple vestments in Lent. This church, like the one I served for the twenty-two years before I retired, follows the old English custom in Lent which wasn’t purple but monk’s cloth or unbleached linen. You come into church on Ash Wednesday and the crosses and pictures were draped in simple sack cloth and it felt like spring cleaning. Here I think the custom is to do that in Holy Week; the visual distractions are covered and there’s a sense of simplicity and cleanness.

The Russian Orthodox have a custom called pustina, which has to do with going into a bare cell, a room with four walls and no more, to spend a day or two days or more – with nothing to see, nothing to hold on to – “sensory deprivation,” I think might be the modern phrase, removal of distractions. And who needs some such practice more than 21st century Americans whose lives are so full and whose souls are so empty? Lent is a time to clean house, to be rid of idols and images and preconceived notions to go into the “desert” or “wilderness” for forty days.

Years ago, when I was in Israel, we had a guide who took us down from Jerusalem to Jericho – down through the barren land where Jesus spent those forty days – and along the way he showed us a bright splash of green down the side of a steep cliff and he said it came from a break in a conduit pipe that takes water to an ancient monastery and he said it shows you that this is not truly desert but wilderness. There is a difference. Desert, true desert, he said, is where nothing can grow. Wilderness is where growth can take place if only it has water. When the spring rains come the wilderness bursts into bloom. When the aqueduct springs a leak, the barren land turns green.

Think about that this Lent. Yes, go back out into the desert, get rid of the idols, but then ask yourself this: where I am, can anything grow? Am I in the desert or the wilderness? I looked very carefully at the street outside the church this morning. I thought with all the rain this last week we might see some green pushing up through the sidewalk and know that this may be wilderness but it’s not desert. I didn’t see anything. Maybe it’s desert. But maybe we just need more rain to soak down in and get life going.

But what about your office or place of work. What would happen if you poured some water near your desk or work place and watched for a week or so. Is it desert or wilderness? Try it at home. Pour some water on the television set, maybe just a cup or so every day for a week. And watch: does anything grow there? Does any life emerge? But did it ever really enhance your life? It might do good things for you anyway if you water it well. I will guarantee that if you do that – water your television regularly – you will, of course, wind up with a short-circuited TV, but you will also have a better social life, your thinking will clarify, and you will lose weight.

But seriously, this is what Lent is about: Lent is a time to ask where I am, whether I’m in a place of life or not: am I in the desert or the wilderness: which is it? For all the visual richness of our society, a lot of it is desert: dead as it can be and deadening to those who come there. But we are not like the wilderness plants; that have their roots down in a dry place and have to wait for rain to come. No, we can move; we can pick ourselves up and put ourselves in a place where life can emerge and develop – real life, the life of the spirit, life that can transcend even death itself. And we can carry that life with us and make things bloom where we are. I trust this church is such a place: a place that can flourish and grow with your prayers and your presence and your participation. I trust your home and place of work can be such a place. But it depends on what you bring to it from here, from the sacraments ministered here, from the Word of God read and proclaimed and taught right here. I believe that this city, the places you work in the places you live in are not desert but wilderness, needing what you can absorb here and take there and capable of real life. But it’s not automatic and it won’t happen unless you want it to happen and make time for it to happen.Image result for road to Jericho

God twists very few arms. God wants us to respond in freedom. But God does want us to grow. God does want us to focus on life. God does want us to turn away from all that which is not God to come, to come, to come now while we have time, to come to the One who is.

Caesar on Shrove Tuesday

A sermon to be preached at the  Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, on Shrove Tuesday, March 5, 2019, by Christopher L. Webber.

TEXT:  Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.

Shrove Tuesday is not in the Prayer Book.
Shrove Tuesday is not really a religious occasion.
Shrove Tuesday has about as much to do with my faith as Halloween.
Exactly like Halloween, Shrove Tuesday grew up as a kind of a pagan blow-out before a serious Christian occasion.

Watch on the television news what they do in New Orleans and in Rio, and tell me what that has to do with Christian faith. What both Halloween and Shrove Tuesday are is one last chance to be silly before we need to be serious. That may explain the assigned first reading from Tobit in the Apocrypha (see below). I guess some committee somewhere thought it might be edifying for today, but I can’t imagine why.

I also have no idea what the Gospel reading has to do with either Shrove Tuesday or Lent – but it does tell us one thing we need to know at this moment in American history: God comes first. Always  – in everything – God comes first.

Jesus, I’m sure you know, was brought up on political charges and crucified as a danger to the state. And Christian faith is a danger to the State. It’s why for centuries the authorities tried to tame Christian faith by giving the church political power. The Archbishop of Canterbury has an interest in the state because he is appointed by the monarch and you don’t bite the hand that feeds you. Our founding fathers tried to do it the other way by separating church from state and leaving the church – which was established in New England and Virginia – without power or influence.

It hasn’t worked out that way. It may not be established, but the church provides moral guidance for millions of citizens, and does it more effectively because it is not beholden to government. Politicians pay close attention to what the churches say – whether it be the Cardinal in New York City or the pastor of Houston’s First Baptist Church. A politician as citizen may have views about abortion and tax support for parochial schools, but when the Cardinal or pastor takes to the pulpit to rally the troops, the politician pays attention. And so they should. They should pay attention to the beliefs of their constituents. The shame is that their constituents haven’t paid attention to what Jesus is saying in the Gospel today. “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”

Can you imagine sitting down to consider what part of your life and possessions belong to Caesar? If you were to make two piles and put in one pile everything that came to you from God, what would there be to put in the second? So start from there. All that we have – all life – is God’s gift. God is the Creator. All that I have is God’s gift. When stewardship time comes around and I set aside ten percent for the church, I’m not being generous. I’m returning to God a small part of what God has given me. It used to be common to say at the offertory, “All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.” It’s not in the current Prayer Book, but it’s still true.

All that we have comes from God and stewardship comes first. Taxes come second. Caesar comes second. But since what we give to Caesar was God’s gift first to us, we need to be sure that whatever we give to Caesar is used for God’s purposes. We have a vote to use to do what we can to ensure that Caesar uses our taxes – which are God’s gift to us – for God’s purposes, not Satan’s. So my taxes pay for a military to keep us safe and perhaps to keep others safe, but never to conquer or oppress or do harm to others.

My taxes can be used to provide assistance to those in need, but not for the benefit of the wealthy. My taxes can create schools and hospitals, roads and bridges, they can provide relief for communities devastated by fire and flood, and we can differ as to how much is needed for such purposes. We can differ also as to the value of a wall on the southern border, but the money to build a wall is God’s gift to us to be used for God’s purposes. God surely wants us to be safe, but God cares equally or more for women and children who are in fear of death and who turn to us for refuge.

If we are to use God’s gifts to us for God’s purposes, we need to be at least as much concerned for others as for ourselves. Politicians often appeal to our worst instincts – our fears and self-centeredness. The New York cardinal and Houston pastor have every right to talk about politics in the pulpit, but only if they support God’s priorities: only if they call on our politicians to care for others as much as ourselves, to welcome and care for the stranger in our midst, to support the

widow and orphan, those in need first of all.

So the gospel for this day – this semi-sacred solemnity – is a good one for all occasions, but perhaps especially for Americans this year as we argue about border walls and health care for all and climate change. As a nation, we have been blessed beyond anything Caesar ever imagined, yet there is need visible every day on our television screen and we have the means to make a difference. God has given us the means to make a difference. And whatever it is we give to Caesar, we should remind Caesar where it comes from and to whom it belongs and that it must be used to make a difference for good and to the glory of God.

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Readings for Shrove Tuesday:
A Reading from the Book of Tobit.
The same night that I buried the murdered man, I washed myself and went into my courtyard and slept by the wall of the courtyard; and my face was uncovered because of the heat. I did not know that there were sparrows on the wall; their fresh droppings fell into my eyes and produced white films. I went to physicians to be healed, but the more they treated me with ointments the more my vision was obscured by the white films, until I became completely blind. For four years I remained unable to see. All my kindred were sorry for me, and Ahikar took care of me for two years before he went to Elymais. At that time, also, my wife Anna earned money at women’s work. She used to send what she made to the owners and they would pay wages to her. One day, the seventh of Dystrus, when she cut off a piece she had woven and sent it to the owners, they paid her full wages and also gave her a young goat for a meal. When she returned to me, the goat began to bleat. So I called her and said, “Where did you get this goat? It is surely not stolen, is it? Return it to the owners; for we have no right to eat anything stolen.” But she said to me, “It was given to me as a gift in addition to my wages.” But I did not believe her, and told her to return it to the owners. I became flushed with anger against her over this. Then she replied to me, “Where are your acts of charity? Where are your righteous deeds? These things are known about you!”

The Holy Gospel according to St. Mark (12:13–17):   Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said. 14 And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? 15 Should we pay them, or should we not?” But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.” 16 And they brought one. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” 17 Jesus said to them, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were utterly amazed at him.

Resurrection People

This sermon was preached by Christopher L. Webber at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, on February 17, 2019.

“how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?” 1 Corinthians 15:12-20

I grew up in a small town in upstate New York – twenty-five hundred people – and maybe I didn’t know all of them, but I certainly knew all the people up and down the street I lived on – and they knew me. Actually, some of them didn’t. I’ve never forgotten going somewhere with my brother one day – we were maybe six and eight years old – and meeting a lady who said, “Now which one of you is Christopher and which one is Michael?” I was totally flummoxed. It hadn’t occurred to me that someone might not know. It was a town where no one locked their doors. A different world.

So when I watch the news and hear the President lying about basic facts – what they call “alternative facts” – I’m having to learn again to live in a different world: a world where you can’t be sure that the President has the best interests of the country at heart and where you know he doesn’t see the same world you do. I look at the Mexican border and see women and children fleeing conditions we can’t even imagine. What would it take to get you to walk a thousand miles to get into a country where you didn’t even speak the language? I read last week about an Episcopal church sponsored program to provide food and medicine and clothing for them. They look around and they see human need. The President looks at the same people and sees rapists and murderers.

Of course, my view of the world is shaped by 80-plus years of going to church and listening to the Bible. If you play golf on Sunday morning, that also shapes your vision; you never hear about that other world.

But is there ever a clearer contrast than in the readings this morning? Is there anything more basic to Christian faith than these readings? We think of “the Sermon on the Mount” as basic, but Luke’s version – as we read it this morning – is a sermon on a level place and Luke’s version is more down to earth in other ways as well.

“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.

“Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.

“Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.”

“But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.

“Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.”

If you don’t hear such words as those once a week, you might well imagine that building walls against the poor and helpless is appropriate. You night well imagine that heaping up riches was the way to go. And maybe that’s the world most people live in. It may be that we are the ones who are being fed a diet of alternative facts when we read the Bible. Certainly it’s an alternative world that the gospel pictures, not the one we see when we step outside.

I live in a micro-world of a hundred or so elderly residents, many in wheel chairs, many totally dependent on others to get dressed, get breakfast, get around. And those others on whom they depend are often immigrants who have left their families behind for the chance to make a decent living. But most of them get paid the basic minimum $15 an hour and have to commute long distances because they can’t afford to live in the city. Yet I often go out early to get the N-Judah and walk past dozens of young people waiting on the street corner for the giant bus that will come by and scoop them up to spend the day in Silicon Valley. So on the one hand we have people who live in the city but don’t work here; on the other hand, people who work in the city but can’t live here. Does that make any sense? What kind of world is it that pays minimum wage to those who care for the elderly and several times as much to people who spend their days designing computer games?@jimgreer posted this photo of a Google bus on Twitter: "@google bus stuck at 23rd and Chattanooga. pic.twitter.com/VZi4iOSU"

It’s good that some of us at least come to church on Sunday and hear about another world and have our way of thinking changed. The Psalm today also reminded us that there are two ways of thinking and living:

Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked, *
nor lingered in the way of sinners,
nor sat in the seats of the scornful!

2 Their delight is in the law of the Lord, *
and they meditate on his law day and night.

But it’s not just that there are two ways of thinking, two ways of living, it’s the recognition of an alternative reality. It’s the understanding that we live in a different world, a world transformed by the life and death and resurrection of Jesus.

Paul is on that case in the second reading. He’s baffled by the fact that some Christians, some members of the church, are saying there is no resurrection. If there is no resurrection, why are you here? “If Christ has not been raised,” Paul writes, “your faith is futile . . . If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”

Unless we are resurrection people, we are still living in a world of fear, where we have to lock the doors against our neighbors and hoard our possessions knowing no one will help us if we’re in need.

Unless we are resurrection people, we have to build walls every day to protect ourselves and have no time or energy to help anyone else. And that’s the world, unfortunately, our President lives in and that he wants us also to live in. And it’s hard not to. It’s hard to swim against such a powerful current and to hold fast the faith that there is another way.

But there IS another way. We ARE resurrection people. We are followers, Paul reminds us, of a risen Lord who has passed through death. There is another way. It makes a difference, an ultimate, life-changing difference.

Now, I’ve believed that, more or less, my whole life. But I’ve learned something more this last year. My wife died a year ago last October. Some of you attended her funeral service. Last June I went to Connecticut to dedicate the stone that marks her burial place – and mine.

Now, I’ve lost close friends and family members before, but this was different; this was qualitatively different. Some of you, of course, have gone through that same experience: the loss of a spouse, death of a child. It changes us. But 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. It means that I was and am involved in her life in a totally different way: that where she is, I am already. So 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.
And I’ve come to realize that I know something now that I hadn’t fully taken in before. Death is less fearful now – not more. Husband and wife, as I said, are joined in one body, one life, and with my wife’s death, I also have died to this world in a very real sense, part of me has died, and that makes a difference. I don’t share the values of those whose focus is this life only; whose lives are shaped by fear, who live only to protect themselves with walls and wealth, who live for this world only.

I should have understand that long ago at a deeper level.

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 to move on, as it will, a lot of the fear is gone, and should have been gone long ago because I am also one with Christ in baptism, and he also has passed through death into life and I have died with him, as St Paul says, 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.

Let’s remember who we are: we are Resurrection people. Resurrection people. We are the people of God in whom Christ is alive and in whom we live as Resurrection people; in whom we have the gift and the promise of life hereafter forever.

“Great Expectations”

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at All Saints Church, San Francisco, at the celebration of the Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple February 3, 2019.

Charles Dickens is one of those great names in English literature that everyone ought to know – at least if you study English literature. I can name half a dozen novels he wrote: Oliver Twist, The Pickwick Papers, A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities, Bleak House, Great Expectations – but I’ve never read any of them.

I mention it only because one of those titles popped up in my head when I began to think about the service today and the readings: Great Expectations. Great Expectations. I’ve never read that one either, so I looked it up on wikipedia and read a long summary and wound up confused. Great Expectations: I couldn’t tell who expected what or whether they got it or not. Maybe one of you can explain it to me at the coffee hour. I have great expectations that one of you knows.

Great Expectations. The title came to mind because this is a day of great expectations. We celebrate “The Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple.” Israel had great expectations. I have a Bible that allots almost a thousand pages to the Hebrew scriptures as most Bibles do, and it’s really all about expectations, God’s chosen people and their hopes and dreams. Great expectations. When they escaped from Egypt they had great expectations; when they crossed the Jordan into Canaan they had great expectations. When they chose David as king they had great expectations. And as the expectations fell short again and again, they re-focused their dreams and developed them into even greater expectations. If those dreams were not fulfilled, perhaps it was because God had something greater in mind.

The gospel today brings those expectations down to an elderly man and an elderly woman who have lived in hope – with great expectations. Simeon believed that he would live long enough to see the Messiah himself, to see the expectations fulfilled. I wonder what he expected. The Gospel tells us Simeon was “looking forward to the consolation of Israel” and had been promised he would live long enough to see the Messiah. And somehow he knew that this child was that promise. This child he somehow knew would be a “light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

But specifically, specifically, what does that mean? A “light for revelation” and “glory.” Sounds wonderful, but what does it mean? I walk by a school yard when I walk down to the Sunset Library and there are often children out in the schoolyard running and screaming and young mothers – sometimes fathers – pushing strollers and carriages and it’s a scene full of hope. But those bundles of hope will soon be teenagers and great expectations become – shall we say – very complicated.

We’ve been three months now without a Rector here at All Saints – and I wonder what the expectations are. It used to be simpler when a Rector resigned or retired: expectations focused very quickly on the next Rector – who would have all the virtues of the predecessor and none of the annoying quirks. Now expectations focus first on an interim. I’ve often told the story of how, when I retired from Christ Church Bronxville New York after twenty two years as Rector the Vestry was given a choice of three interims to interview and one of them said he saw it as his mission “to help people with their grief work.” Whoever told me that, I said, “But some of them aren’t grieving.”

There’s a range of expectations in any parish. No priest totally satisfies everyone. They’re human beings; they have strengths and weaknesses. The weaknesses are where you come in. At some point, I expect, there will be a process to sort out expectations and needs, hopes and dreams. What could this church be if someone like Billy Graham preached here every Sunday – maybe full to overflowing? But I wouldn’t be here. If there were no liturgy and no sacraments would you still be here yourself? I wouldn’t.

So there’ll be a process to sort out the expectations, to winnow the great expectations and find realistic expectations. And somewhere out there is a priest who will come here in a year or two with her or his own expectations of you – – great expectations – and whoever it is will encounter the reality of a parish dedicated to music and liturgy and an outreach ministry that you and I believe in but that haven’t exactly drawn in all the people out there who need what we have and don’t know it, whose own expectations are shaped by an upbringing in a narrow-minded, old-fashioned Roman Catholicism or narrow-minded evangelicalism or broad minded-atheism and are not satisfied and do need what we have but don’t know it and can’t see it and we don’t know how to tell them.

We have great expectations: and you will have the opportunity to try to define them in a way that makes sense and find the priest who can help you find better ways to tell the world what’s here. And it won’t be easy. Why would you even want it to be easy? Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.”

I wonder whether anyone has thought of getting red baseball caps inscribed “Make All Saints Great Again.” All Saints was great when it confronted the aids epidemic, but no one would want to return to those years. I love history and I love this country, but there isn’t a single year in American history I would want to repeat. The shining city on a hill that Reagan used to talk about lies in the future if anywhere. I hope and pray we have better days ahead. I hope the best days of this parish are in the future also, but each of us may have a different vision of what a better future for this church might be. I think they will be the best years if they draw people together in a new and deeper and harder and costlier commitment, and the benefit may not be greater numbers but a deeper awareness of God’s love in your life and in this community.

Simeon somehow knew that he would not die until he saw the Messiah with his own eyes. And he did. But he wasn’t there when Jesus was baptized or when he called his first disciples or when he preached the sermon on the mount or when he was crucified or when Jesus rose again to life. Simeon had great expectations, but I doubt he even imagined any of what actually happened or ever pictured who Jesus really was. He had great expectations.

Simeon saw in Jesus “a light to enlighten the Gentiles” but I doubt that vision was widely shared. I doubt that vision was high on the agenda for most of Simeon’s fellow citizens. “The glory of your people Israel” – yes, but oddly Simeon gives that second place. It’s the light for others Simeon mentions first, and surely that was what happened. Israel for the most part failed to see in Jesus the expected glory, and the apostles went elsewhere and found a better audience in the Gentile world. When Paul thought about it he realized that it all made sense: the failure to find an audience in Israel sent the apostles out to the Gentile world where they might otherwise never have gone. What looked like failure at first was part of a larger plan. Failure in Jerusalem meant success in Rome. But even that success involved three hundred years of persecution. “The blood of the martyrs,” wrote one early Christian teacher, “is the seed of the church.”

Today the church is growing fastest perhaps in China where the government tears down churches and imprisons Christians. But the church there is growing. I read an article recently about churches – Roman, Catholic, Anglican, and Protestant – being closed in Canada, not because of persecution but because of indifference, because no one cares. That’s also happening here. I think people have very few expectations of the church these days. They see a President and government mired in corruption and blind to the real needs of real people and the most vocal and visible people who call themselves Christians supporting that program and no one visible speaking against it. They see human need – homelessness and hunger – in the wealthiest cities in the world – right here in San Francisco – and no effective human response. If people had great expectations of the church, I think they’d be here – but they’re not seeing or hearing anything that makes them hopeful.

So that’s where we come in. What do we expect – not that we could do – but that God could do through us? What might God do through us to make this church, all our churches, a light to enlighten the world around us and the glory and joy of all God’s people? Do we love God enough – know God well enough – to have great expectations? Are we ready to open ourselves to the power of God to change this church through us?

A Wedding in a Less than Rational World

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at All Saints Church, San Francisco, on January 20, 2019.Epiphany 2 C January 15, 2019.

Twelve score and three years ago our forefathers and foremothers brought forth upon this continent a new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all white men were created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. Looking back with the wisdom of 21st century Americans we can see how limited that vision was, but it was, in its day, a remarkable statement of trust in human reason.

The 18th century had seen an enormous up-welling of human confidence. Isaac Newton and others had begun to map the scientific structure of the universe and the result was a wave of confidence in the power of human reason. They called it “The Enlightenment” and “The Age of Reason” and said it was “the best of all possible worlds.” One leading English theologian wrote a book called: Christianity Not Mysterious.

If you visit New York you can visit St Paul’s Chapel built in that era with its clear glass windows to let in the light of reason and its central pulpit where God is to be explained, not worshiped. Ironically, the Chapel barely survived the impact of the falling towers which had also been designed for a logical world in which religious zealots would not commandeer airplanes and fly them into buildings `on an irrational religious mission.

Seven score and fifteen years ago Abraham Lincoln was a leading figure in another irrational time testing whether this nation or any nation conceived in liberty could long endure. And now today again we are in the midst of a crisis testing the validity of the founders’ vision and their confidence in the ability of human beings to create a rational and orderly society. What confidence can we have that a few hundred men and women in Washington can make wise and rational decisions when we see irrational actions being taken again and again and the news media calling attention to a world that seems heading increasingly in an irrational direction.

Less than a year ago, the President signed an executive order designed to encourage clergy to endorse or condemn politicians from the pulpit. I myself never felt a need to keep my sermons legal, but it’s nice to have the president’s permission to say what I think about the president. There’s never been a time when we needed it more. It’s a time – I believe it’s a time – when Christians need to apply a Biblical standard to our politics: I think those standards are clear:

“Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor” Deuteronomy 5:20

“Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” Leviticus 9:17

“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. Exodus 22:21

This is what the Lord Almighty said: “Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.” Zechariah 7:9

If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. I John 3:17

Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God. — Proverbs 14:31

Jesus said . . . . When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous. St. Luke 14:14

I suppose all that is political talk and someone might imagine it would be a violation of the separation of church and state to read those portions of the Bible in church because it certainly does condemn some of our leading politicians, but those politicians are only speaking what their constituents want them to speak and what they elected them to do. So it’s ultimately we who are to blame, we who fall short, we whom the Bible condemns because given the freedom to create our own government we have created a government that gives tax breaks to the wealthy and leaves the poor to fend for themselves

On the day that Jesus began his formal ministry he went into the synagogue in Nazareth and was asked to read, and he read from the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Now all this might seem to have little to do with the readings this morning . Those readings deal on the surface with marriage. But the marriage in the first reading is a marriage between God and God’s people. and that marriage comes at the end of that very same passage that Jesus read at the beginning of his ministry. It’s the culmination of a picture drawn by the prophet of a people ready for the Lord to come, and those would be people not embarrassed by men and women sleeping on the sidewalks of their cities or building a wall to keep out refugees from violence and despair. Such a people, the prophet tells us, will be a suitable bride for the Lord when he comes – and that’s not us.

So, yes, it’s about marriage: it’s about a people who are ready to be married, married to a God who looks for justice and truthfulness and concern for the least among us, a people who share what some have called “God’s preferential option for the poor,” who understand that the Messiah came first of all to a manger in Bethlehem not an elegant resort in Florida.

Now all of this might still seem to have little to do with the Gospel reading and with that strange story of a wedding feast in Cana, but I think it’s the key not just to this morning’s readings but to our contemporary politics. Pay attention to what’s going on in the story. Pay attention. This is, I believe, the only miracle story in which Jesus is on the sidelines. He’s at a wedding and we all know the bride is the star at a wedding, but this time we would be wrong. This is a first century wedding and the groom is the star. We hear nothing about a bride. Probably there was one, but in those days It was all about the groom. And the groom has messed up. They’re out of wine. And Mary noticed. And Mary mentioned it to Jesus. And Jesus said, quite properly, “Not my problem.” But Mary told the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” And Jesus told the servants to fill the water jugs and then take that water to the host. So the host, a sort of maitre ’d, gives it a taste and calls the bridegroom and says, “Wow; good stuff; How come you saved it for now when most of your guests can’t tell what they’re tasting?” That’s where the story ends and like any good story it’s open ended. What happened next? We don’t know; we’re never told. But we know something none of the people at the party knew except Jesus and Mary. We know that Jesus saved the day with no one noticing.

Now, the story ends with the words: “Jesus revealed his glory and his disciples believed in him.” It says, “Jesus revealed his glory.” But if I can be allowed to second guess the Gospel, that’s exactly what Jesus did not do. So far as we know the groom never knew what happened. No one knew except Jesus and Mary – Well, and maybe the servants. And some of the disciples who were there because John put it in his gospel and gave it first place in all the stories about Jesus, first place in revealing Jesus glory even though hardly anyone noticed. But isn’t this story important in showing us exactly how God works so often in God’s world: invisibly, unseen, unnoticed. Again and again, the day is saved, and no one knows how.

And isn’t this story vitally important as showing us how God works in the world? The same prophet Isaiah I have quoted already grew frustrated with God at a point and cried out, O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence– 2 as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil– to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! 3 (Isaiah 64:1) Do it the way you used to do, Isaiah begged: “When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.” Oh, for the good old days when God spoke and the world trembled.

But that is not generally God’s way; not in Isaiah’s time and not in ours. Just a few weeks ago we were singing, “How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given.” Yes. We know all this. We learned it in church school The Jews were expecting a Messiah: a conqueror, a semi-divine figure from the clouds, at the least a second David – a warrior, imposing his will. But that is not the God revealed in Jesus Christ. The apostles went up to Jerusalem still expecting great things – and their chosen savior was quickly arrested, condemned, and killed. So much for that. But something else happened, something quiet, almost secret, that worked inwardly, changing hearts and minds, spreading slowly century after century sometimes seeming to be a lost cause but continuing to change human hearts.

Think again of Jesus on the sidelines, sitting quietly with his mother, reluctant to intervene and then doing so in a way that left most of the party-goers unaware. Something like that. So where are we? In the midst of an unprecedented crisis with a president who lies and may be an agent of a foreign power. Isn’t it time for Christians to speak out. Well, yes, but about what? Surely about our own failures to be effective ministers of the gospel of God, unable to heal the wounds on our own doorstep, and wringing our hands about the White House because we don’t see a way through the crisis. We don’t see a way. Nor did the steward at the wedding feast, nor did the bridegroom whose problem was solved before he knew he had one.

The founders thought they could create a government with sufficient checks and balances and rational people could make it work. But people are irrational and the small coins remind us of priorities: “In God we trust.” That’s not rational and I doubt Mr Jefferson or Hamilton would have liked it. But somehow we are still here. Still here, but not by any wisdom of ours. Mr Trump’s father joined the ku kux klan and back in the 1930s the klan met in my small town in upstate New York where there were no black residents and only a few immigrants: the cobbler and the ice cream maker. The only thing we had to fear was fear itself but the fear was real and the danger was great and if somehow we muddled through, it wasn’t any wisdom of ours.

In this irrational world, there was World War II and the Cold War, there were confrontations over Berlin, and there was the Korean War, there was the senseless slaughter of Vietnam, and now, worse yet, the looming danger of climate change. So far, we’re still here and the government created by rational men to serve rational people has survived the irrational actions of ordinary human beings again and again and God continues to work – invisibly – from the sidelines you might say to draw wine out of water to bring order out of chaos with no better tools than us to work with. God is able to do that; God is able; so say your prayers, do what needs doing, Look for ways that you can be Christ’s unseen hands and Christ’s quiet voice, servants at the wedding feast, quietly, faithfully, letting God act through you.

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