Through the Torii

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making Sense of Snippets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Unknown Trinity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why no! I never thought other than
That God is that great absence
In our lives, the empty silence
Within, the place where we go
Seeking, not in hope to
Arrive or find.
He keeps the interstices
In our knowledge, the darkness
Between stars.
His are the echoes
We follow, the footprints he has just
Left. . .

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

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

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

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

An Unknown God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bodies, Not Souls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Facing God’s Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Faith Sizes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God Is Our Strength

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at St. Luke’s Church, San Francisco, on January 29, 2017.

I like it when we read the Sermon on the Mount because it reminds me that sermons are often ignored. If I preach and no one pays attention, that could be discouraging, but then I remember that Jesus preached and no one paid attention. Well, that’s a bit of an over-statement – an “alternative fact,” as we say these days – an exaggeration as we used to say, but not much of an exaggeration because we read this morning, just minutes ago, part of what has been called “the greatest sermon ever preached” and who takes it seriously?

Today we read the Beatitudes – the heart of the greatest sermon – and who was paying attention? Let me put it this way: Who will be changed by hearing it? Or more personally: will you be changed by hearing it? And not just you, not just here. This same lesson will be read today in every Episcopal, Roman Catholic, and Lutheran Church in the country, It will also be read in a good many Congregational, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches, probably even some Baptist and evangelical churches. So what would that be: fifty million people? Oh, at least that many, maybe twice that many. A lot. And if they all listened, wouldn’t the world would be different tomorrow morning, maybe even this afternoon. Wouldn’t it?sermononthemt

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. . . Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness . . . Blessed are the merciful . . . Blessed are the pure in heart . . . Blessed are the peacemakers. . . . “

It is all too easy – way too easy – to think in headline terms. Maybe a name comes to mind of someone we’ve been reading about who is not exactly “meek and merciful and pure in heart.” And yes, of course, we should worry about that and the message it sends our children, the message it sends us. Would the world be radically different if world leaders were in church this morning and paid attention? But that’s passing the buck. What about us? If we can’t at the moment do much about them, what about us? If Washington doesn’t set an example for us, can we maybe set one for Washington or at least for each other. Throw a stone in a pond and the ripples expand ever outward. But it begins with us.

Look also at the epistle reading, which was not chosen to go with the Gospel. We’re just reading through the Gospel according to Matthew and the First Epistle to the Corinthians in sequence and if they happen to speak to common themes, it’s a pleasant coincidence. But that’s what we have this morning: two readings with a common theme, two perspectives on the same subject. Let me try to state one common theme in maybe four words: “God is our strength.” It’s on every dollar bill we spend in four slightly different words: In God we trust. Actually, that’s the reverse side of what the epistle and gospel are saying. The gospel says: Blessed are the poor in spirit, Blessed are the meek, the merciful, the persecuted. The emphasis is on our weakness, on our need, and what we are told is that those who know their need are blessed because they can get help. They can get help. Because “In God is our strength.”

Alcoholics Anonymous, you know, has that message right at the center of its program. They find they can’t help those who think they can do it themselves. Many people have to hit bottom, as they say, before they recognize their need and look for help. And then AA can put them in touch with what they call “their higher power” and the AA group can support the person who knows their need.

There is a modern translation of the Beatitudes that begins right there: “How blessed are those who know their need of God.” Another new translation says: “God blesses those people who depend only on him.” Or, as I put it just now: God is our strength. But to know that and act on it, that’s what’s missing. That’s what the Gospel reminds us of. The Epistle is saying much the same things. St. Paul is writing to a church in trouble, divided, struggling. And Paul has advice for them, specific advice, but first he sets out to remind them who they are. “Look at you,” he says. “Look at who you are: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many of you were of noble birth, so what would makes you think you can work things out on your own?”

Paul might ask us the same kind of question. “If you aren’t first in your class, wouldn’t it be smart to ask for help with your home work? If you’re not an electrician, why are you trying to do your own wiring? If you’re not a Wall Street Wizard why are you planning your own investments? If you aren’t God, why are you trying to run your life without help?”

There’s an illusion, a common illusion, that human strength and wisdom can solve all problems. We look at scientists in their laboratories analyzing gene sequences and creating cures for disease and we think if we just fund a little more research maybe we’ll find the happiness gene and we’ll be able to clone it and we’ll solve all our problems and live happily ever after. We look at dot.com millionaires and we think if we just got the right advice, we could buy happiness. But there was an article in the New York Times last week — I’ve lived here now four years and I still read the New York Times! — Is there an alternative, is there a west coast news source I should know about? I still live mentally on the east coast – maybe you do too – but what I read was a long article —- actually it’s a report on a story in the current New Yorker — maybe you read that — about California, about all the Silicon Valley millionaires and billionaires who are stocking up on canned goods and bottled water, re-enforcing the walls of their houses, building underground retreats, stockpiling guns and bullets, converting underground missile silos into fortresses. One venture capitalist, told the New Yorker he estimates more than 50% of Silicon Valley billionaires have bought some level of “apocalypse insurance,” like an underground bunker. Fortified shelters, built to withstand catastrophic events from viral epidemic to nuclear war, seem to be experiencing a wave of interest as hints of a new Cold War – maybe a hot war – ramp up. One of these billionaire told the New Yorker that some rich people fear a backlash against Silicon Valley as artificial intelligence takes away an increasing number of jobs from humans. The CEO of a large tech company cited Russian cyberattacks as evidence of risk that the US might fall into disorder. All their accomplishments, and they are terrified about the future and trying to save themselves. And I wondered whether it might be smarter to spend that money on schools and hospitals and foreign aid programs that might do more to stave off apocalyse.

If we are really setting out to “Make America Great Again” shouldn’t we focus a bit on the word “united” in our title: the United States of America? And shouldn’t we ask what makes a nation great? We look at American military might pounding Iraq and Afghanistan into submission and think that might creates right and solves problems and makes the world a better place, and somehow we don’t come to grips with the fact that America has become a symbol of evil for a large part of the world. Power doesn’t get you respect and a personal fortune doesn’t make you secure.

Do you remember God’s challenge to Job? “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements— surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or glorywho laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy? Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades, or loose the cords of Orion? Do you know the ordinances of the heavens? Can you establish their rule on the earth? Another modern version is even clearer: God said, “Why do you talk so much when you know so little? Did you ever tell the sun to rise? And did it obey?”

“Blessed are those who know their need of God.” Blessed are those who know who they are and can build on that foundation. Human power does not gain love. The people who come here legally and illegally from all over the world don’t come to join the army or because they are so impressed with our bombers, they come for freedom, but power and freedom are not synonymous. Last week we sent two stealth bombers from Missouri to dump hundreds of tons of bombs on Isis bases in Libya. Do you feel more secure?

Power and security, it seems to me, are very often opposites. Jesus did not convert the world by power, by human strength or human wisdom. The church is not built on that foundation, but on human weakness and God’s power. “God’s weakness,” Paul wrote in today’s letter, “is stronger than human strength.” Much stronger. Infinitely stronger. We did not make this world. It can’t be forced to move by our rules.

They say that one third of the church members in the United States are in church on a given Sunday. That’s been my experience too. The percentage in church every Sunday of course is still less. Does that make any kind of sense? Do we know who we are? Do we know our need of God? The people in AA have one advantage over the rest of us: they know their need. The best attended meetings all week in many churches are the AA meetings. They know they can’t do it alone. But the rest of us don’t seem to know that and sometimes I think that God tests us, tests all of us with blessings, not adversity. God piles it on: the incredible opportunities we have as if to say will they still love me if they can have all this instead? Or is it possible that the wealth we posses~ ~ is not from God? Have we located some other source of strength? We will begin Lent in a few weeks with the story of Jesus’ temptation and the final temptation was the offering of “all the kingdoms of the world and their glory . . .” “All this you can have,” Satan said, “if you fall down and worship me.”

Who do we really worship? Martin Luther once said that “God creates out of nothing, and therefore until a man or a woman is nothing, God can make nothing out of him or her.” Again, we will be reminded on Ash Wednesday, that we are dust. Incredibly comfortable dust with good homes and a security unmatched by emperors, but dust. Without God, we are nothing but dust. But suppose, as I said, fifty million American Christians were to set out tomorrow to build their lives on that foundation. Suppose we were to put God at the center, beginning and ending each day with prayer, turning to God in prayer frequently during the day, reassessing our resources and deciding that there are others whose needs are greater than ours and so setting aside one tenth – only one small tenth – for church and charities. Suppose we were to let our politicians know that our priority is not unlimited military power — not America first — but our neighbor and our neighbor’s needs whether here or on the Mexican border or in Central America or the refugee camps of Syria. Let them know that they are our first concern, not for ourselves or even our country – but for the poor and the disenfranchised not only here but world-wide. Would it make a difference? Well, look what a difference Christian faith has made in the world in spite of the fact that that kind of commitment is rare.

Was Luther, right? Must we be reduced to nothing before God can make something of us, or can we help make America humble again, can we recognize that we are nothing already and come here week by week and be on our knees every day to ask God’s strength in our weakness and find the blessing promised to those who know their need?

Involved in Mankind

A sermon delivered at All Saints Church, San Francisco, on January 8, 2016, all-saints

by Christopher L. Webber.

Eight or nine years ago I found myself serving a new congregation in the northwest corner of Connecticut, in a beautiful 19th century building in the classic New England mold: white painted woodwork, flat ceiling, with a beautiful cut glass chandelier In the center and the choir in a gallery at the back. My first Sunday there we were going along very nicely until we got to the offertory. I was preparing the altar with the bread and wine when I heard the choir launch into an offertory anthem: “I come to the garden alone . . .”

Maybe you grew up Baptist or Methodist and remember how it goes: “And he walks with me and he talks with me and he tells me I am his own. . .” If you don’t know it, you can download a You tube version of it by Elvis Presley.

Elsewhere in the State of Connecticut there’s Yale University where Harold Bloom is still teaching as far as I know. He’s older than I am but he is still listed as Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University and he’s one of the best known voices in American literary criticism. He’s the author of a book called the “Western Canon” which tells you what you need to read to be adequately educated. He also wrote a book called “the American religion” which argues that most American versions of Christianity are Gnostic – they have more in common with some ancient heresies than with the faith of the apostles And the quintessential expression of that faith, said Harold Bloom – and Bloom is a non-observant Jew, so that makes him an intelligent, impartial observer – and the quintessential expression of American gnosticism, says Bloom, is the hymn, “I come to the garden alone. . .“

After the service I arranged with the choir director to have lunch at our first opportunity and we met regularly thereafter to make sure we were both on the same page.

“I alone” – remember those words from the late campaign? “I alone,” there’s a deep-seated part of the American character, that resonates to those words: “I alone . . .” I was brought up to believe in “American individualism” and only when I went to seminary did I begin to see the world in another light and I’m not sure that I’ve gotten reprogrammed yet. But we have had a unique opportunity in this America Onecountry to be individuals and lots of us aren’t ready to admit that it’s over. This was the country where everyone could follow their own vision. There was always room out west if you didn’t like it where you were. “Give me land, lots of land under starry skies above; don’t fence me in.” I’m not going to sing that one for you but I checked and you can get Gene Autry and Roy Rogers and Bing Crosby to sing it for you on the tube. “Don’t fence me in – let me ride to the ridge where the west commences” And there was lots of land out there. Maybe there were some inconvenient native Americans there, but Tom Mix and the Lone Ranger and maybe John Wayne would take care of that.

We had this notion that we could be ourselves, whatever that might be. Unconstrained by convention. Free to be ourselves, if only we knew who we really are. But the problem with individualism – well, there are lots of problems with individualism! – but one problem with individualism is that it relies on the emotions, it asks how I feel about things rather than how things really are. It makes me feel good to shout “Build a wall” but if you win the election, how will you really do it?

Arthur Schlesinger once summed up the American character this way: It includes, he said,

“a belief in the universal obligation to work; the urge to move about; a high standard of comfort for the average man; faith in progress; the eternal pursuit of material gain; an absence of permanent class barriers; the neglect of abstract thinking and of the aesthetic side of life; boastfulness; the general restlessness and hurry of life, always illustrated by the practice of fast eating; and certain miscellaneous traits such as overheated houses, and the passion for rocking chairs and ice water.”                      (American Historical Review 48:2 (January 1943): 225–244.)

“the general restlessness and hurry of life, and the passion for rocking chairs” So we can keep moving even when we’re sitting down. And that’s important because If we keep moving, we won’t have time to ask where we’re going or why, or where anyone else is going or why. Individualism, yes; I value it. I was brought up to value it and I still do. But what is it that unites us? Don’t we also need to ask that?

If there’s one thing that was clear in the last election it is that we have no idea what unites us. If anything. We’ve been lucky in my lifetime to have external enemies to unite us. Hitler, Communism, we knew who we were because we knew what we were against. Some would like Islam to play that role now, to unite us as against a common threat. But it’s hard to keep individualists together even with a common enemy. Can we be united by fear of immigrants and satisfy our fear by building a wall? I hope not.

Do you remember the cartoon figure Pogo? I’m showing my age. But Walt Kelly, who drew the strip, occasionally used it to satirize the contemporary fear of communism and I’ve never forgotten the line, “A door closes on both sides, remember that.” The same wall that keeps others out, keeps us in, cuts us off from the world.

Individualism was a 17th century discovery and it has a value. None of us want to be summed up as the proletariat, the masses, but individualism is not the whole story. Who really wants to be completely alone in the world? Life needs to be shared. But what do we have in common? Why do we need to have an adversary, to identify ourselves by what we are not? Fear of the “other”: Germans and Japanese, Communists, the other, the unknown, the different. Why am I less successful than others? It’s because the other stacked the deck; that’s why. But instead of obsessing about who we oppose, who we are not, why not give some attention to who we are and not my inadequate 9-5 self or my inadequate 24 hour self or my crazy, individualistic self, but myself as a child of God and a member of Christ and incorporated into a living whole with strength to take on the world – and overcome.

What I’m getting round to – if you were wondering – is the mystery of Holy Baptism which we are celebrating today as we remember Jesus’ baptism and our own baptisms, because it is in baptibaptismsm that we are given an identity as members of Christ, that we are made members of Christ, members of the church which is the body of Christ. We often use words like “grafted, grafted in” “Incorporated.” We don’t cease to be individuals. We are given a Christian name in baptism because God will know us now by name and yes, I suppose in some sense, “He walks with me, and he talks with me, and he tells me I am his own” but more importantly he also gives me life in Christ, a new and resurrection life as a member of the Body of Christ, nourished and fed with the life we share at the altar.

Someday, God willing, what’s left of our mortality will be carried down this aisle as the priest reads words from St Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome: “None of us have life in ourselves, and none of us die to ourselves. 8 If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s possession.” I think John Donne put it as well as St Paul:

No man is an island entire of itself, every one is a piece of the continent a part of the main, if a clod be washed away by the sea Europe is the less as much as if a promontory were as much as if a manor of thy friend or of thine own were; every man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls: it tolls for thee.

That’s unAmerican, I know; but it’s true. We’ll know how true it is in the coming months and years. If environmental protections are reduced or eliminated, if Social Security is privatized, if millions no longer have medical insurance. I can’t find refuge under starry skies above, I can’t walk in the garden alone and not be concerned. Some, I guess, can if their religion makes them feel good. But “I am involved in mankind,” and I have to be concerned, and that’s a frightening thought unless I am also involved in Christ, involved in the body of Christ by baptism and given a new identity that begins the redemptive process for humankind so that together, in Christ, in Christ, in Christ incorporated into his life, we can begin to make the difference our world so desperately needs.

That puts it also in a wider perspective: the unity of the human race, We are involved in mankind and it is the role of the church to be a transforming agency within the human race.

Jesus used the analogy of yeast, that hidden element that transforms a lump of dough into risen bread. We are called to be like that: the transforming element working within to transform as we are being transformed in the Body of Christ, not alone – what a frightening thought – but together, together, together in Him. These next few years promise to be tough, and hopeless if we face them alone. But we are never alone in Christ.

There is a kind of religion, a kind of Christianity, that grew and that grows out of that American sense of individualism, that trades in emotionalism, feelings, feel good religion, gnosticism, and then there’s the ancient Biblical sacramental faith of the catholic church which we try to practice here and in a way that reminds us again and again of our baptismal identity.

There’s a font at the back with water in it so that each of us entering can put our fingers in the water and make the sign of the cross and be reminded of our baptism. And if that doesn’t do it, we’re no sooner settled in than someone’s coming down the aisle sprinkling us anyway. I remember one Sunday not long ago when we arrived in a driving rain and got ourselves inside and here came more water down the aisle. It’s a baptismal faith we practice here and a baptismal identity that we are reminded of again and again. It’s not how we feel, but what God does. It’s why we baptize children before they can begin to understand. You don’t have to understand. You never completely will. It’s what God does that matters, not what I feel.

This is the Biblical faith that many talk about, but not all practice or understand. But read your Bible. Read St. Paul, especially. Read the 12th Chapter of I Corinthians ‘For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one spirit we were baptized into one body . . . Or look at Romans chapter 6: Do you not know that all of who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? … we have been buried with him by baptism into death so that just as Christ was raised from the dead . . . so we too might walk in newness of life. But we don’t ever do that alone. We don’t come to Jesus alone. We come in the unity of the body of Christ. And fortunately it doesn’t depend on anything as variable and uncertain and insecure as my emotions, how I happen to feel.

Here’s an obscure fact that I think is interesting and relevant. Oddly enough, the words “feelings” and “emotions” do not occur in the Protestant Bible. You will find them in the Apocrypha, in the Bible we use here in the Catholic bible, but it raises the subject of feelings and emotions only to say again and again, reason must rule the emotions. That’s so Anglican, so Catholic, so Biblical: Scripture, tradition, and reason. Let me just end with a few quotations from Anglican authors that sum up what I’ve been saying.

Here’s Thomas Cranmer, almost five hundred years ago:

I want you to know this well, good children, that those who are baptized may assuredly say this: that I am not now in this wavering opinion that I only suppose myself to be a Christian. For I know for a surety that I am baptized. . . (And) the Holy Spirit assures me that I am a Christian. And this is a true and sincere faith which is able to stand against the gates of hell because it has the evidence of God’s word and does not lean on anyone’s saying or opinion.

Here’s Frederick Robertson almost two hundred years ago:

Let no one send you with terrible self-inspection, to the dreadful task of searching your own soul for the warrant of your redemption, and deciding whether or not you have the feelings and the faith to be one of God’s elect. Better make up your mind at once you have not; you have no feelings that entitle you to that. . . . Baptism is your warrant—you are God’s child, live as a child of God . . .

“You are God’s child, a member of the Body of Christ.” That is the faith into which we are baptized and for which we give God thanks.

What’s in a Name?

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, on January 1, 2017.

Years ago a rabbi friend of mine told me a story that a rabbi friend of his told him. He was meeting with a family to plan a naming ceremony and he asked them, “What name do you want to give your son?” And they said, “Christopher.” The rabbi was a bit non-plussed, but he managed to keep his cool and ask, “And why did you choose that name?” And they said, “Well, we’ve always liked the story of Christopher Robin.”

Now, unfortunately, I don’t know the end of the story, but if I had to guess, I would guess that the rabbi probably explained a thing or two and they chose another name. Names have meanings – usually. And names matter.

Christopher, in case you don’t know the legend, comes from the story of a strong man named “Offero” from the Greek word for carrying. Offero wanted to use his strength to serve a great king but found no one great enough to win his allegiance until one dark and stormy night he found himself on the bank of a river and heard a child’s voice asking him to carry him across the river. So Offero set out to do it but christopherthe child became heavier and heavier and he barely made it across. But then he learned that he had been carrying the Christ child and the weight of the world on his shoulders and Christ re-named him Christopher – Christ bearer. So it isn’t the usual name in Jewish families.

There are stories like that, of course, behind many names and children get named for famous leaders and favorite uncles and aunts and grandparents and the thought is, of course, that all the good we remember in that one may be reborn in the child to whom the name is given. To name someone is to express our hopes, it’s to attempt to shape a life, it defines, it shapes.

When Adam named the animals he was asserting control. And that’s what I’m doing when I name a child or a pet. I name them, and they come when I call. I have no right to name my neighbor’s child or even my neighbor’s dog. They are hers; not mine. When she calls them, they come. When I call them, I’m asking for trouble. I suppose almost every culture thinks about names that way. I know there are cultures in which a child’s real name, an adult’s real name, is kept secret, never revealed, because to know the name is to control, to own. If I know your name, I can invoke evil against you. It’s better not to let you know my name because who knows what you might do with it.

“Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,” as Shakespeare says. “Is the immediate jewel of their souls. Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing; ‘Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands; But he that filches from me my good name Robs me of that which not enriches him, And makes me poor indeed.”

Names matter. We hope to make a name for ourselves as honest, faithful, good, and worth remembering, because if our names are forgotten we ourselves are forgotten.

We have an old family photograph album with full page portraits in oval frames. One page has a picture of a splendid-looking Victorian lady and someone has written at the bottom, “Who’s this?”

In the old Prayer Book and for centuries before when a baby was brought for baptism the priest was baptism-1024x683instructed to say to the parents and Godparents “Name this child.” And they would pronounce the given name or the Christian name. The family name was inherited so no need to repeat that. But the given name was chosen and given in baptism.

My father-in-law, also a priest, liked to tell of a baptism he did in a small town in Montana. The mother of the child unfortunately was not married and the father of the child was not present at the ceremony. So my father-in-law came to the line, “Name this child,” and the answer came back, “John Jones.” And my father-in-law said, “John, I baptize you . . .” only to be interrupted by a senior relative saying “Jones; that were his father.” But the point of the baptismal naming – played down in the current Prayer Book to make allowance for adult baptisms where the name may have been given long before and without reference to God – the point of the baptismal naming is that the child is no longer one more baby, but an individual with a special name and that God knows that child by that name – knows you by your name, has a personal relationship with you. Of all the millions and billions of human beings, God knows you by your name, you are special, and you belong to God. When God calls you by name, you should come. You belong to God.

Now, the converse side of that is perhaps even more important: that you – we – also know God by name. That side of the relationship is just as important and maybe more so. And that side of the equation also has a history. There’s a long rich history in the Bible of God giving names to human beings. In the Book of Genesis God creates Adam and Eve but doesn’t name them. God brings the animals to Adam to name and Adam names them, but Adam is just Adam – of the earth – and Eve is just Eve – the mother. They are nameless progenitors, symbolic people, representative people. They are not, as the fundamentalists like adam_and_eve_in_the_garden_eden_royalty_free_080827-024591-841042to think, specific human beings, placed in a specific garden somewhere in the middle east 4000 years ago.

No, Adam and Eve are symbolic figures and they name Cain and Abel as naturally as they named the animals. But God never names a human being until later in the story, until we move beyond the Creation myths and come to solid history. Then, when God calls Abraham, a specific figure living in a particular place, calls him out to be the father of a new people, to be the ancestor of a special people with a holy purpose, God gives that historical man a new name, no longer Abram but Abraham. God knows Abraham, this specific historic person, by name and God also renames Abraham’s grandson, no longer Jacob but Israel. And. of course, as we heard in Advent, God sends an angel to announce not just Jesus’ birth, but his name. So now, on the eighth day, we celebrate Jesus’ name, the giving not only of a child but a name by which he is to be known.

And why does it matter? What difference does it make? Here’s why it matters. Go back to the Bible again and notice this: When God appeared to Moses in the burning bush and told him to tell Pharaoh, “Let my people go” and Moses asked for a name, God gave him the name “Yahweh.” In other words, God gave Moses a name to use to call on God. I think we take it for granted. Well, of course, God has a name. But remember what I’ve been saying about names, that to know a name is a kind of control.

If I know your name, I have at least some control over you. I can at least make you look around when I call out your name. Try it this morning. Downstairs at coffee hour, if you spot someone across the room and call out their name they will at the least look around and maybe come across the room to see what you want – as if you had a line attached to them and could reel it in. You have that power over someone whose name you know. You can’t do that with a stranger. If there’s someone across the room and you don’t know the name, you have no power over them. You could try, “Hey, you!” but that doesn’t get you off to a good start.

I grew up in a small town and when dinner time came mothers would go out the back door and yell, “Johnny” or “Suzie” and Johnny or Suzie would come from blocks away as if reeled in on a string. That’s power! A name gives control. And God gave a name to Moses to call on God. You can call and God will come. Yes, God gives us that power. You can call and God will respond. And Christians have another name to use and that’s the name of Jesus. The God of Moses answered their prayers but the God of Moses was still a distant God who came down on Sinai in thunderclouds while the people stood back and told Moses, “You go talk to God, but not us.” That was the awesome God whose name was known but never spoken. Even today the sacred tetragram is never spoken in the synagogue. Indeed, in Jewish writing, you often see the word God spelled without a vowel – G dash D – so it can’t be pronounced, can’t be spoken, because if it can’t be spoken, it can’t be mis-spoken. Better safe than sorry!

And wouldn’t it be good if we didn’t hear God’s name invoked on the street and in crowds as if it were a meaningless term. Wouldn’t it be good if people would at least use the modern sacred and unpronounceable tetragram – OMG. But God took that risk when God gave the sacred name to Moses – that it would be mis-used, trampled on. There was also a commandment given that the name of God not be taken in vain, not used lightly, not casually. But God took the risk of that mis-use to draw into a closer relationship with the people God loves. We have a name to use – but not casually, not lightly.

Paul puts it well in this morning’s epistle: “(God) gave him (Jesus) the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Every knee should bend or every head should bow – and if you instinctively do that when you pronounce that name you won’t call it out in casual conversation. If everyone who uses the names “God” or “Jesus” casually bowed when they did it, you’d see a lot of heads bobbing on Market Street and in Safeway and on the N-Judah. God has given us a name above every name to call on in our need – and in praise and in thankfulness. When you worry about the next President, when a friend or relation is critically ill – when they make it through and come home – when you come to the end of the year with a balanced budget – we have a name to use: “Thank you, God;” “I need you now, Lord Jesus.” Jesus has given us a name to use.

So use it. Use it well. Get on a first name basis with God and especially the incarnate God, born for us, here for us: Jesus our Savior and Lord.

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