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 words, 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: Abraham’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 is 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.
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?
“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 who 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?
January 29th, 2017 in
A sermon delivered at All Saints Church, San Francisco, on January 8, 2016,
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 country 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 baptism 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.
January 8th, 2017 in
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 the 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 instructed 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 to 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.
December 31st, 2016 in
A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, on December 3, 2016, the Second Sunday in Advent.
There are churches these days that have a screen at the front and put pictures up during the sermon. I’m not ready for that myself but I see the point. We all know that one picture is worth a thousand words. So, two pictures and you’d have a pretty good sermon. Or not. But pictures do, often, tell us more than words. We also all know that seeing is believing. We often say, I can’t believe what I’m hearing or, I have to see for myself.
Words can paint pictures and make an incredible difference. I’m remembering the late unlamented campaign and two vivid – scary pictures: “We’re going to build a wall.” And “Lock her up.” Like it or not, those are vivid pictures. We may not like them. We may have voted against them. But they gave us a clear picture of consequences. And I’d be hard put to remember another.
So let’s turn to a happier subject and let me just show you again the pictures Isaiah painted for us this morning. We heard them read but I’m not sure we really saw them because we live in a different world with different pictures and we may not really see what Isaiah wants us to see. We live, I think, in a world so different from Isaiah’s that we may have real trouble picturing it even when we try to. But prophets are visionaries, they are people who see things and they want us to see what they saw, so they paint the picture to help us see what they saw. They want us to see what they saw because they saw more clearly than anyone else how things really are. They’re not fooled by surface appearances; they don’t settle for the easy rationalizations that we settle for, they don’t let the power of self-interest cloud their vision.
The prophet sees how it really is and that’s a rare talent – and it’s unpopular. I think most of us don’t want to see things as they really are, and we don’t want to see that God cares, cares about us, cares about our conduct every minute, cares about the societies we shape, and we don’t want to see that God sees individuals and societies and nations headed for destruction. Who wants to hear that – or see it? Who wants to hear about peace and love and justice if there’s a cost – if the cost is God’s will, not ours?
So picture this first of all: here’s a society, here’s a church, human are beings who don’t care much care for visions and feel free to ignore them, to close their eyes to what God wants them to see. But maybe on the other hand, there’s a society, a church, a human being who see the prophet’s picture – who sees it and can’t get it out of their mind and sees it so vividly that it changes things, makes things happen changes the society, the church, the individual until they become more like the picture, more like the vision, less far away from the will of God.
Let me show you, then, some pictures, the pictures you heard a few minutes ago but maybe didn’t really see. We read ten verses from the prophet and it’s not one picture it’s maybe more like a kaleidescope, a shifting array of images, more like modern art than, say, Soviet realism, more like the shifting scenes on a movie screen than a static image so it was hard to see clearly and we probably didn’t. Now, I don’t think the prophet meant us to have this problem and I’m also not sure the prophet painted the picture just the way we have it in the first reading. I think it’s entirely possible that the prophet presented these images one at a time over a span of years but then they were collected and written down and so now they come at us in a way that was never intended. So I think we’re well within our rights if we slow it down and sort the images out and look at them one at a time.
For example: here’s image one, picture one: “A shoot from the stump of Jesse, a new branch from Jesse’s roots.” So what is this picture? What are we meant to see? Well, Jesse was the father of David and David was the ancestor of Israel. So what we have here is a family tree and we still draw those ourselves. “Ancestry.com” is a very popular web site. The prophet is drawing a family tree and the prophet says, “It’s not dead. Maybe you thought it was dead, but it’s not dead; it’s still growing; there’ll be a new branch, a new beginning.”
Can you picture that? It makes me remember an old apple tree that my father-in-law had on his property on a Connecticut hill-side. It was a tree so old and rotten he thought about taking it down, clearing it off. But before he got around to it, suddenly one spring it sent up a new shoot so he left it alone and year after year it kept growing and finally one year it produced a crop of apples. My father-in-law would take visitors down to see it and he’d say, “Look at this; did you ever see anything like it?” He called it his “miracle tree.” And it certainly gave you a good feeling: if that old tree can do it, there’s hope, hope for all of us. I think that’s the picture Isaiah wants us to see: here’s the royal line of Israel, worn down over the centuries to a mere shadow of it’s former greatness. But it isn’t hopeless. Isaiah could, of course, just say it but he wants us to see it: he wants is to picture it and see and know that there’s life, there’s hope, a new shoot, new possibility. Can’t you just see it? Hold that picture in your mind. It’s not impossible.
OK, here’s another picture. It’s a picture of a king, but not just any old king pursuing his own glory. Isaiah wants us to imagine, to picture a new kind of king, a king with a new spirit, a spirit of wisdom and understanding, discretion and authority, knowledge and reverence. Can you picture that? Can you picture a president whose wisdom and knowledge and reverence are just so overwhelming – well, maybe not maybe that’s too hard to imagine right now. I certainly can’t imagine it anytime soon. And I think it may have been hard for Isaiah, too, because he himself had certainly never seen such a king. But Isaiah was dreaming, he had a vision, and it must have been hard for him to picture also, because he’d seen all kinds of kings but not one like that: “wisdom and knowledge and reverence” in a king? Hard to imagine. Hard to envision.
This was a hard picture for Isaiah because it was beyond all his experience. But it shouldn’t be that hard for us not for us, because we have seen such a person. He was dreaming, but we are remembering, more than remembering because we’ve seen that king and he knows us better than we know him. To see and respond to that king is what Christianity is all about. Hold that picture in your mind. It’s a true picture of King Jesus.
But still there’s picture three. Here’s a picture that’s more of a moving picture with Isaiah showing us this king in action. And listen. Look. Doesn’t it remind you of something, maybe the Sermon on the Mount? Listen. Look. Do you see it? Can you see him as he acts to care for the sick and the poor? “ . . . with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth . . . Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. You can’t, perhaps, picture someone whose life is controlled by righteousness and faithfulness- so they are like the robes you wear, the clothes you put on. But read the New Testament and that’s the picture we’re given of Jesus. And then the picture shifts again. Isaiah began by describing, picturing, the Spirit within that would fill this new ruler, this once and future king and he finishes by describing the outward aspect, the garments covering him. It’s as if Isaiah were saying, I want you to picture someone absolutely the same, inside and out, filled with righteousness, covered with faithfulness. He won’t just keep his good qualities within. He won’t simply appear to be good on the outside. He really will be who he seems to be: one whole person through and through. Can you picture that? For Christians it ought to be the center of our faith and the foundation of our life. And suppose that picture were widely shared. Suppose the subject of that picture were everyone’s vision and center and life: what then?
Here’s the next picture – the most visionary of all, the vision of the peaceable kingdom, a world unlike any world we’ve ever known, but still a world which, even as a vision, a wild-eyed dream, makes an impact we can’t forget. Look. Look. See this.
The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
Now that’s ridiculous, isn’t it? It’s that kind of stuff that gives religion a bad name. I mean, maybe it’s nice to think about on Sundays once in a while, but when you live in the real world and deal with practical people, it’s pretty irrelevant, isn’t it? Or is it? I mean, out there, sure enough, is the real world where they drop bombs on children, run cars into crowds, use assault rifles in night clubs, where two-thirds of the world’s children go to bed hungry, where violence is so constant and so ordinary that we watch it in our living rooms and are not surprised. Our cities are laid waste by arson, our air is polluted, our water isn’t safe to drink. You can pass laws, but not much changes. You can call a peace conference, but no one would come. And then here’s this vision, this crazy picture of a peaceable kingdom. What has that to do with the real world?
But you know, the odd thing is that Isaiah is the one prophet scholars tell us who knew the real world. They tell us he was an advisor to the king, a member of the aristocracy, a man of public affairs, an expert in international relations. So how can you explain it? How can you see it as having any reality about it at all? But this is the picture Isaiah gives us and he sees it as real. So fill your mind with it, try to see that picture as clearly as Isaiah did. Imagine, picture, the whole creation at peace: human beings, animals, the environment, everything at peace. Picture all the terrors that surround us made harmless, all fear removed. Picture it: walking home alone at midnight without any concern, take any bus, stroll through the darkest alley, Jews and Arabs will sit down together, capitalists and communists will work side by side to feed the hungry, you can board any plane without being searched or scanned, you can eat any food without fear for your health. Isaiah gives us this picture – and you turn on your television and there’s a different picture the so-called real world. But which is more believable? When you see Donald Trump sit down with Mit Romney Are you going to tell me that Isaiah’s vision is impossible? Which picture is more real? Which picture would we rather see?
There’s still one more picture in this morning’s gallery and it takes us back to the first: the root of Jesse, the new branch, but now the picture has changed and now the root is “a signal to the peoples . . .,” a flagpole, a signal light. “the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.” Because, you see, it’s a variety of pictures, but in Isaiah’s mind it’s all one thing, it all ties together. If you want peace and harmony, says Isaiah, if the peaceable kingdom appeals to you, you have to seek it as a gift of God. There’s never a hint in Isaiah that you can get there with better planning or programs or peace conferences or a different president. You know better than to expect that and Isaiah doesn’t ask you to. He’s been there. He’s gone to peace conferences. 26 centuries ago, he knew how far that will get you. You can’t plan a new shoot from an old apple tree. You can’t legislate peace between sheep and wolves. You can’t pay lions to eat straw. Something much more radical has to happen and Isaiah knew it long ago.
We should know it too. God gave him the vision, gives us the vision, and only God can bring it to pass – no president or secretary of State or international policy. Only God. But why are we here if not to share the vision: to acknowledge our failures and weakness and to pray, and to open ourselves to possibility, and to ask God to open our eyes and hearts and minds to that vision, that picture, and pray “thy kingdom come” and mean it and believe it and let God give us and all the world such a ruler and such a peaceable world as God alone can give.
December 3rd, 2016 in
A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber on November 20, 2016, at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco.
A long time ago there was a young man who lived in Israel who worked many years as a carpenter and then began to preach. For maybe three years he wandered around the countryside teaching people and drawing quite a following, but then he made the mistake of going to Jerusalem and upsetting the authorities. so he was arrested and tortured and killed.
It’s not, by and large, a very unusual story, similar stories might be told about the Greek philosopher Socrates or Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormons, or George Fox, the founder of the Quakers. But while the Gospel today tells us something about events surrounding the death of Jesus of Nazareth, the epistle we read this morning, written only twenty years later at the most, makes the most extraordinary claims about this crucified Jewish carpenter. It says:
“He is (not “He was” but “He is”) the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together, He is the head of the body, the church he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything, For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.”
Now that’s the most amazing claim that ever was made for any human being. No such claims were ever made for Joseph Smith or George Fox or Plato or Socrates or even Mohammad or Buddha. But stranger still, it comes from a Jew, Paul of Tarsus, who was educated in the best Jewish schools in a faith that had for at least fifteen hundred years been drawing a wider and wider line of separation between human beings and God.
In the early chapters of Genesis God is a kind of friendly neighbor who drops by occasionally to see how things are going. Early in the Book of Genesis you find God walking in the garden and looking for Adam, and a little later on you find God stopping in to have dinner with Abraham, but God gets more and more remote as the story goes on. God appears in a burning bush to Moses and then in a cloud to give the him the Ten Commandments while the people stand terrified at a distance. That early sense of closeness gradually disappears. Isaiah, centuries later, pictures God as being so high above the earth that the people appear like grasshoppers – but that’s the kind of view we ourselves might have these days as we come into any airport and look down at nearby suburban streets But the sense of distance continued to grow and not long after Isaiah, Ezekiel had a vision in which he could only speak of “the appearance of the likeness of the glory of God.” In his vision, he couldn’t see God, of course, or even the glory of God or the likeness of the glory of God but only the appearance of the likeness of the glory of God: a third-hand relationship.
Finally, Judaism became the religion in which there could be no image or likeness of God at all and in which the Name of God could not even be spoken. When they came to the four letters that represented the name of God it was never pronounced, instead the reader would say “Adonai” – “the Lord.” You know, it wouldn’t be a bad thing at all if people today would regain that respect for the name of God, for the Third Commandment and not use God’s name so freely. Sometimes people do use the modern equivalent of the four sacred letters – except it’s now three – OMG. But more often not – and lightening doesn’t strike but the sense of reverence and holiness in the world is cheapened, diminished, lost. I’ve occasionally suggested that we could get just as much satisfaction by substituting the name of a department store for OMG. How about “Gimbels” or “Abercrombie and Fitch?”
Judaism took the 3rd commandment seriously and the distance between the creator and the created became so great it seemed impassable and that’s not necessarily good either. It seems to me there’s a lot in common between that understanding of God and the vision of contemporary science which also pictures a universe so immense that a God who created it and stayed outside it would be so remote as to be beyond all knowing. When Solomon built the temple in Jerusalem he prayed saying, Behold the heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built.”
I wonder whether some of you have been to Japan and have seen those red painted gates – torii – a simple frame opening maybe into a shrine compound in the cities but out in the countryside more often framing a view of a lake or a mountain or just a scene whose beauty seemed to contain some evidence of “kami” of the holiness in creation that can’t be contained in any very specific thing but can only be hinted at, pointed toward. And yet, you know, almost two thousand years ago one small group of Jews began to claim that indeed one human life had contained “all the fullness of God.”
Now, if that were a claim made by people who hadn’t known him, or if that were a claim developed by theologians centuries later, I would reject it out of hand. But it wasn’t. It was said by people who knew him, It was said by people who were there. They were there when he was arrested and crucified and buried, and they went out saying, “This is what we ourselves saw.” “What our eyes have witnessed and our hands have handled” wrote St. John, “we declare to you.” Now, is that at all reasonable? Is it reasonable to believe that: that one human life could contain the fullness of God?
You know, that’s the quintessentiaI Anglican question, the kind of question mostly only Episcopalians ask: Is it reasonable? You can go to some churches your whole life and never hear anyone talk about reason. But we do. Is it reasonable to think that the creator of quarks and spiral nebulae and black holes and infinite distance would be present in one brief human life? I’m talking about the God of the scientists who tell us that there are 400 billion stars in our galaxy. But then, that’s just our galaxy and there are said to be 170 billion galaxies in the observable universe; (I didn’t do the math to figure out 170 billion times 400 billion but it’s a lot. I remember reading about an Eskimo language whose counting system goes: “One, two, many.”) That’s the number of stars and galaxies: many. 170 billion galaxies in the observable Universe, each with hundreds of billions of stars stretching out into space 13.8 billion light-years in all directions. That’s definitely “many” and probably that says it better than million and billion and trillion – which all sound alike to me. The only other time we need numbers like that is to talk about the national debt or Wall Street salaries.
So if you travel at the speed of light for 13.8 billion years you might – might, but who knows because no one has been there – you might come to the edge of the universe and then what? Then what? What would you see beyond that? But it’s that God, that Creator of that universe, we are talking about, that God who was present in Jesus. ls it reasonable to believe that? Yes, Yes, it is. For why would a creator indulge himself or herself with the creation of infinite space if it were all one vast impersonal swirl of power but empty of love, empty of response, empty of any intelligence able to understand – at least in part – and respond in “wonder, love, and praise?” In fact, it seems to me, it’s less unlikely that that Creator should be present in one specific human life than that that Creator should be vaguely present in all human life and it seems reasonable to me that that one human life, the life of Jesus, should be not totally different from any other but rather a summing up, a clarification, a simultaneous showing of all that God is and all that we – everyone of us – might be.
To say that all the fullness of God dwelt in Jesus is to say something about ourselves also: it’s a way of saying that all human life has that capacity for God-ness, for relationship, for wholeness and holiness, and therefore for that God to dwell in us. And that’s wonderful, isn’t it? That’s wonderful. And it’s also frightening. It would be much more comfortable to settle for something less, a remote, unknowable God basically indifferent to us and uninvolved in our lives: “The Force,” as they said in Star Wars. I’ve had young couples planning marriage tell me that they didn’t really know about God but they thought there was a sort of Force out there.
But that’s not what the gospel offers. What the gospel offers is a God beyond all knowing indeed, but somehow nevertheless “personal” truly known in human life, especially, uniquely, in Jesus, but also to some degree in Peter and Paul and John and Francis of Assisi and Thomas Cranmer and Samuel Seabury and Darren Minor and you and you and you. This is a God who could not possibly be contained in any human building, yet who can be present in this building yes, and in the very small piece of bread you receive this morning at the altar – think of that when the wafer is placed in your hand – the infinite God, present there, and, yes, even in you, even in me.
And then, you see, that relationship gives a purpose to the whole of creation. The Creator is a God who loves, who seeks a response, and who made us for that purpose. And all of this brings us around by a rather long route to the subject of Harvest and Thanksgiving coming to a table near you this Thursday. I told someone I was thinking of dealing with themes like that this morning and they said, “You need to remember that this is a city parish and pretty far removed from any ideas about Harvest.” Really? Does Thanksgiving bring to mind only the shelves full of canned and frozen food at Safeway? Do we never get far enough south to see the endless fields of Brussel Sprouts? Or appreciate how much the economy of this state and this nation depends on the harvest of fruits and vegetables in fields up and down the state?
But, you know, there’s a potential danger in any harvest festival because it’s a part of a natural rhythm of seed time and harvest, part of an annual circular pattern that goes around and comes around, unchanging year after year after year – well, except that we’re all a little older each time it comes around and around and around. And there’s nothing more deadly than a circle nothing more deadening than the same thing over and over again. Seen one turkey, you’ve seen ’em all.
You know, when the Hebrew people came into the land of Canaan they found people there who were fixated on harvests. They worshiped gods who could bring them a good harvest and nothing more, gods without any purpose greater than a good crop this autumn, and a great deal of the Old Testament is the story of the conflict between the God of the Bible and the gods of Canaan: the God who works in history versus the gods who work in nature. And the people were constantly tempted to settle for something that small: just a good harvest, food enough for another year. And the prophets were constantly threatening, urging, warning, that these gods were too small and basically not worth the trouble.
But out of the process the Jews did nevertheless acquire some harvest festivals which they still celebrate and which we inherited from them. Passover and therefore Easter itself was closely connected to the first spring harvest and Pentecost too was a harvest festival. But Passover remained rooted in history: an event – an historic event – in which God had been clearly at work, and the prophets continued to point toward a future, a future fulfillment of God’s purpose in history a Messiah and a Messianic age and a harvest of a very different sort a once and for ever harvest of human lives brought into an eternal kingdom. That’s the beauty of harvest festival, of Thanksgiving, coming at the end of the Christian year. Yes, Christmas is coming and all that, one more time, but the tragedy of the department stores and all those who skip Advent and move right on from Thanksgiving to Christmas is that they leave out the weeks that put it in perspective, that remind us that this Jesus I’ve been talking about, this incarnation of the eternal Creator. not only came once but will come again, just once more at the end of time, and bring in a final harvest and sort out the good grain from the bad.
So, yes, the world goes around and around, winter and summer and planting and harvest, but the Judaeo-Christian insight is that far more importantly it is going somewhere also going forward in a straight line with a beginning, a middle, and an end. One eternal beginning and one eternal everlasting end. The Creator beyond all knowing has come here to be known and to call us to a life as far beyond this as the Creator is beyond the creation. The Epistle and Gospel today go together and tell us about that God, that Creator God beyond all imagining that God who was fully present in Jesus of Nazareth that God who died for us on a cross and that God in whom we also find the meaning and purpose of life.
November 19th, 2016 in
A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber on October 30, 2016, at All Saints Church, San Francisco.
I was ordained on October 20, sixty years ago, but on October 20 this year I was flying east to take part in a special program and couldn’t celebrate anything, so I’m very grateful to Fr. Schmidt and All Saints Church – all of you – for making it possible for me to celebrate my anniversary belatedly here today at this altar. Thank you.
October 20 is not a red letter day or even a black letter day in the Prayer Book. It is simply the first date that was available 60 years ago when the Bishop of my diocese decided he wasn’t well and reluctantly would have to delegate the ordinations that year for the first time to his suffragan. Many years later I looked beyond the Prayer Book calendar to see whether October 20 had anything at all to recommend it. And therefore I learned from a google search – not available 60 years ago – that it’s the birthday of Christopher Wren, John Dewey, Mickey Mantle, and Jelly Roll Morton. I kept looking, and I did finally find one name associated with October 20 more significant in terms of faith. That name is James W. C. Pennington who died on that date in 1870. October 20, as they put it in the early church, is his birthday in heaven and he is part of that great cloud of witnesses, the communion of saints, that we will celebrate on Tuesday and next Sunday, All Saints Day, your special day.
Now, James W. C. Pennington is a wonderfully Anglican name, a name like one of those great English missionaries who went out to Africa in the 19th century, but Pennington was not English, he was American, and he was not a bishop but a fugitive slave and maybe you know that because I spoke about him here a while ago. If you were here that day, you may remember that Pennington was a fugitive slave who decided at the age of 20 that he had been beaten too many times and so he escaped, running for his life, until he got into Pennsylvania and came to the home of William Wright, a Quaker, and another member of the communion of saints – (not all saints are Anglican). William Wright took Pennington in and gave him work to do and paid him for it for the first time in his life. And Wright began also to teach Pennington reading and writing. Eventually Pennington made his way to New York City and found schools to continue his education. Eventually he went to New Haven where they let him audit courses at Yale Divinity School, To make a long story short, Pennington was ordained in 1838 and became pastor of a Congregational church in Hartford, Connecticut. Meanwhile he had been a delegate to the first full-fledged national black convention. He wrote a textbook on black origins to prove that all human beings have the same descent and intellect and are subject to a common law. He wrote an essay on prejudice and recommended methods for dealing with it. He became deeply involved in the Underground Railroad and efforts to prevent escaped slaves from being returned to the south. He traveled to England and Scotland and Germany and he was given an honorary doctorate by the University of Heidelberg. He helped integrate the NY City trolley car system and he continued to write and preach and work for civil rights until his death on October 20, 1870, exactly 88 years before I was ordained.
James W. C. Pennington died and in spite of my best efforts is not remembered. That doesn’t matter. None of us will be either. I’ve talked occasionally with priests frustrated because they serve so small a parish and I ask them a question: Who was Archbishop of Canterbury when George Herbert was Vicar of Bemington? I looked it up once, but I can’t remember the name. George Herbert was Vicar of Bemington for three years and died at the age of 39. He wrote hymns that we still sing and his book on pastoral ministry is still read. But he died unknown in a tiny community that is known now only because George Herbert was there because faithfulness matters; not fame. Faithfulness is what matters and ministry where we are.
James Pennington once said, “When you have made of man a slave by a seven-fold process of selling, bartering and chaining, and garnished him with that rough and bloody brush, the cart-whip, and set him to the full by blowing into the eyes of his mind cloud after cloud of moral darkness, his own immortality still remains. Subtract from him what you can, immortality still remains; and this is a weapon in the bosom of the slave which is more terrible and terrifying to the slaveholder than the thunder of triumphal artillery in the ears of a retreating army.” “Immortality still remains.” Whatever may happen to us, “immortality still remains.” This life, wherever we live it, is the prelude to eternity. We measure that prelude in years and decades and celebrate the passage of this time with anniversaries and looking back but I suggest – and I’ll come back to this – that we should also look forward. We are here for an eternal purpose, whether we are Archbishop of Cantervbury or Vicar of Bemerton or a fugitve slave – here for a purpose, every one of us – point one – and point two: priesthood gives that purpose a focus.
But what is priesthood? Why is a priest a priest? I served as an Examining Chaplain a lot of years in several dioceses. Examining Chaplains are to priests as the state board is to doctors and the bar exam is to lawyers. So there are canonical exams for seminary graduates and after passing my own I got put on the board myself to test others and spent maybe forty years in that position in three different dioceses. Some of those exams are oral and I would often find myself asking simple questions like, “Why do you want to be a priest?” And the answers were often not about priesthood. Candidates would say, “Well, I like to counsel people or I like to teach or I want to provide leadership in a congregation.” And then I would ask, “How is that different from being a social worker or a therapist or a teacher?” If that’s what it’s all about, it’s no wonder so many Episcopalians refer to the clergy as “ministers.” But that misses the meaning not only of the priest’s ministry, but of yours.
Why do we use the word “priest”? When I asked a candidate for ordination that question, I was looking for some reference to sacrifice, making holy, something about sacraments, something about the gift of grace, indeed, the very concept of gift: priesthood as gift, priesthood as related to God’s gift of grace, a free gift as they say in the ads – It’s redundant – ads often are – but it makes a point: the free gift of grace.
So today is the heavenly birthday as they say of James Pennington. And it’s the anniversary of an ordination. But it’s also an ordinary Sunday – which brings up a third point: we ought to look at the readings we heard a few minutes ago. We should always consider the readings, so I looked up the assigned readings weeks ago to see what connections might be there and I found first of all a reading from the prophet Isaiah with the phrase, “incense is an abomination to me.” My first thought was, “Maybe I’d better have my celebration somewhere else!” But that’s not the Bible’s last word on incense, fortunately! Text is important, but so is context. We need to notice that one of the psalms says: “In every place incense shall be offered to me and a pure offering for my name will be great among the Gentiles.”
So we look again at Isaiah and realize that it’s not the incense that concerns him but the people offering it: “Cease to do evil,” he tells them; “learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” Hold the incense till you’ve got the justice piece in place. Incense is only a symbol – it’s a symbol of prayers ascending, but it’s a false symbol if those offering it live lives of evil, fail to seek justice for God’s people. To paraphrase Shakespeare:
“Incense flies up, our prayers remain below;
prayers without deeds will ne’er to heaven go.”
I think we would be justified in adding a word to Isaiah’s words and read it as “Your incense is an abomination. Learn to do justice first and then, only then, offer incense. Priesthood is representational. Who does the priest represent? The oppressor or the oppressed?
Priesthood has to do with justice. Priesthood is representational. The worst flaw in the Book of Common Prayer is in the Eucharist where it speaks again and again of the priest as “the Celebrant” as if the priest alone were celebrating the liturgy. But no priest can stand at the altar without a congregation. If I came here on Friday to take my turn at the altar and there was no congregation, I would say Evening Prayer and go home. No congregation; no celebration. Priesthood is shared. I can’t represent you at the altar, if you are not there in the pew. Celebrating the eucharist is a corporate function. We do it together or not at all. We do it as a community or not at all. We do it as a community involved in ministry or not at all. The oldest records speak of the priest at the eucharist as “the presider” or “the president.” The priest is empowered to preside, to represent, to act for the congregation as the President represents and acts for the people of this country. But the President is not “the American” and the priest is not the Celebrant.
The congregation together celebrates the Eucharist and we act out our common priesthood as a congregation that takes Isaiah’s advice: “
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. And I would add: vote – vote ten days from now for the candidates who understand that priority and will act on our behalf, candidates who will represent us and all Americans to seek justice in concern for the poor and the oppressed. Then – and only then – our prayers can be like the bowls of incense in the Book of Revelation that are the prayers of the saints rising up before the throne of God.
Priesthood has to do with sacrifice and offering. The priest stands at the altar to represent a priestly congregation, a congregation that goes out into the world to do justice and comes here to offer ourselves with Christ as a living sacrifice and be renewed for our common ministry. And in that offering each of us has a role to play. Someone will be the organist – and I’m jealous of the ability the organist has to produce such great sounds, but it’s not my role. Nor is it my role to sing in the choir or do the Old Testament reading or lead the intercessory prayer or bring up the offering or prepare meals for the soup kitchen or keep the books. Those are all necessary roles in our shared priesthood – some I could probably do myself if it were my role, others not. Sometime I’ll tell you about my brief career as an organist. But together these various roles enable us to fulfill our shared priesthood and celebrate – celebrate – the liturgy. Point four.
A purpose, a focus, a concern for justice, a shared ministry.
Let me end by returning to point one: an eternal purpose.
The church I attended until I was seventeen had an altar in the basement – undercroft is the fancy term but it wasn’t fancy – and behind the altar was a picture of a priest at an altar and an acolyte – probably there was a congregation behind them but you didn’t see the congregation because your viewpoint was close up to the altar. What you saw was a larger congregation behind and above the altar, an immense host in shades of red and blue and gold, some with angelic wings and some in martyrs robes and some in ordinary dresses and suits – and it reminded us of that unseen infinite congregation that no one can number that surrounds and upholds us – “all those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore, and in a greater light, that multitude which no man can number, whose hope was in the Word made flesh, and with whom in the Lord Jesus we are for ever one.”
I remember a celebration of the eucharist I was involved in early in my priestly ministry in Brooklyn. Once a month I would go to a fourth floor walk-up apartment – the home of a retired truck driver and his wife who was confined to the apartment with multiple sclerosis. Several neighbors would come and we would gather around the kitchen table and celebrate the eucharist and I was never more aware of the words of the preface that we sing or say whenever we celebrate the eucharist: “with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, we praise and magnify thy glorious name . . .” There we were, with angels and archangels, and sometimes in the midst of it all the cuckoo clock would go off. It’s the real world and our most pious thoughts can be brought suddenly to ground. So that’s a favorite memory and there are many more.
Sixty years is a lot of years and I could keep you here a long time with the memories – but it’s not so long in the light of eternity. As children we look forward to what we might be as grown ups – be a fireman or a policeman or president of the United States – and when we leave college we narrow it down to a career with microsoft or as a psychiatrist or plumber or astronaut or priest. And all too suddenly we retire and begin to look back – but why do we do that when the greater part of life still lies ahead? Immortality still remains. Eternity still remains. And those other faces beyond the altar may be more familiar now – parents and friends, the bishops who ordained me, priest colleagues, Asian, African, and Anglo in Long Island and England and Japan and Australia – there’s a one-time fugitive slave and a truck driver in Brooklyn and a botanist’s wife in Westchester – and many more surrounding us at the altar in the communion of saints. And gathered with them, knowing more of them every year, we can look ahead with more clarity and with a sense of more familiarity. But here or there, there will be worship – the Bible is clear about that – music and worship and priestly offering – yes, and incense, and thanksgiving, great thanksgiving for the shared gift of priesthood, for the gift of life, for the gift of love, and the promise of life and love and joy here and now and forever.
- The picture of a church is of the Cathedral of the Incarnation, Garden City, where I was ordained.
- The picture of a priest and others at an altar was taken a few weeks ago at All Saints, not today, and the priest is not I – but the service today looked a lot like this.
A sermon preached at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, on October 9, 2016, by Christopher L. Webber.
A dozen years ago my wife and I went on a cruise along the Dalmatian coast, the coast of what used to be Yugoslavia, a part of Europe I hadn’t seen before, and perhaps the most striking aspect of it was the fact that almost every day we were in a different country. Up until ten years ago there was a country there called Yugoslavia. Like Iraq and Jordan and Syria, it was created after World War I by people who had no idea what they were doing, who put lines on a map and created countries without much reference to the population. It didn’t work. What had been one rather small country, about the size of Oregon, is now eight tiny countries, the smallest not much bigger than Massachusetts. Serbia, one of the biggest, is maybe 100 miles across maybe 150 miles north to south – and Bosnia and Croatia and Montenegro are all smaller yet they fought each other, and terrible things happened. So we were visiting people who not that long ago were trying to kill each other even though they have economies that depend heavily on tourism.
That behavior makes no sense – but human behavior often lacks much good sense. Maybe you’ve been following news about the election. I was pondering all that because the Gospel today centers on issues of ethnicity and the way we human beings divide ourselves. Why do we do it? Why can’t we, as someone asked years ago, “Why can’t we all just get along?” The gospel today raises, I think, that kind of question.
We read a story about ten men who were lepers and who were healed by Jesus. Being healed, one of them turned back to offer thanks and praise, and that one was a Samaritan. Now Samaritans and Jews were about as different as Slovenes and Croatians. The Samaritans were Jews with a difference. They were the Jews who stayed behind when the rest went into exile and when the exiled Jews came back with new ideas and new customs they never could get back together. They lived apart for maybe 70 years and five hundred years later were still apart and had learned to hate each other. That’s why Luke comments on the fact that the grateful leper was a Samaritan. It’s why Jesus’ parable about “my neighbor” – who is “my neighbor” – puts the Samaritan in that role. It was the Samaritans who were the hated minority and Jesus puts the hated outsider in the role of the good guy to make his point.
What would we have today, I wonder. Would it be the parable of the Good Mexican or maybe the Good Syrian? Perhaps in Bosnia they would need to hear about the Good Serbian. It’s sadly easy to update the story. But then it was Jews and Samaritans, like the people who lived in Yugoslavia, who were divided in some ways and united in others. Like the Yugoslavs, they lived very close together, separately, but in the same country. Like the Yugoslavs, they had a common ancestry and faith with strong common elements but also significant differences. And like the Yugoslavs, they had learned to hate and fear those others who shared their country with them who were so much like themselves and yet so different. Some of the former Yugoslav countries today are predominantly Moslem, others are Orthodox, and still others are Roman Catholic. But all three of these faith groups believe in one God, two of the three hold all the essential elements of the Christian faith: ministry, sacraments, Bible, and Creeds. They have a lot in common. And basic to the Christian faith at least is the summons to love our neighbor as ourselves.
So why were they killing each other? Why have there been these wars and why have these boundaries been created, and why are international peace keepers needed? Why can’t we human beings live together? Why can’t we all just get along?
This isn’t, of course, a question that involves only remote areas of the world. The divisions in the Anglican Communion in recent years seem to me angrier than ever and then there are the cultural divisions in this country, increasingly reflected in our politics, that seem to be deeper and angrier than in a long time.
Just before moving here, I was serving a parish in the Northwest Corner of Connecticut where there are half a dozen small towns, each with its own character. I was in Canaan, a blue collar sort of place but next door was Salisbury where there were lots of wealthy summer people and retired people. I wondered whether the Episcopal Churches in Salisbury and Canaan might have a joint youth group and mentioned the possibility one day in the Christ Church Canaan confirmation class and I was told “but kids from Canaan and Salisbury hate each other.” These were mostly Christians, living just a few miles apart. How is it possible? But ask what divides families; ask what leads to divorce; ask what puts us at odds with people, maybe even living next door and down the street. Does the story of the ten lepers throw some light on that?
Well, look at the story again. The one who came back was a Samaritan so presumably the others were not. Presumably the others were Jews and they should have hated the Samaritan. But these ten lepers seem to have been living together, in spite of that difference. So what made it possible for them to live with people who would normally have been their enemies? Was it, I wonder, the fact that the things that divided them were suddenly less important than what they had in common? Was it leprosy that brought them together: the fact that they all had this terrible, incurable disease? Certainly their neighbors no longer saw them as Jews or Samaritans. They were lepers, and that was all that mattered. The same disease that divided them from their neighbors brought them together.
Sometimes the things that divide us fade into unimportance compared to other issues that matter more. That’s not hard to understand, is it? If you were dying of cancer and heard of a doctor with a remarkable ability to cure your disease, would it matter if you heard that he or she was Mexican or Moslem? Would a difference of faith or language or ethnicity hold you back from seeking his or her help? There are things, in other words, more important than our differences and when they come up, our divisions fall into a different perspective, fall into place, and maybe aren’t as important as we thought. There are aspects of our human life that divide and there are aspects that unify. And it sometimes seems as if we want to be divided, as if we manage to find ways to use any excuse at all as a tool of division and thus even our faith becomes a means to divide when it ought to be a means to unite. But I think it’s because, like the nine other lepers we are so focused on ourselves and our problems that even a miracle of God can’t break through, can’t overcome that self-centeredness that divides us, so that instead of saying, “We all believe in one God, we have much in common,” we say “You are a Methodist and I am an Episcopalian; or you are a Roman Catholic and obey the Bishop of Rome – which I could never do; or you are a Moslem and call God “Allah” and that’s not a name I recognize.’ And we emphasize the differences rather than the commonalities.
If we human beings can’t work together in a common cause; we are all too likely to be suspicious and hostile and fight and kill and destroy. Is there anything sadder than that, anything more tragic: that we let ourselves be so divided when we could accomplish so much more together? But that divisiveness can only happen if the faith we profess is a living lie, if we have never really understood its meaning. Because, you see, if God is indeed the center of my life, I cannot hate. I simply can’t. To do so would make my faith false. I am commanded to love. I cannot hate. The Epistle of John is very clear about it: “If anyone says I love God and hates his brother or sister, he or she is a liar.”
What, after all, is the Christian faith all about? Isn’t it the proclamation that God so loved the world that he sent Jesus Christ to open the way of life to the whole human race, to break down our divisions, to unite us in a new community? How could anyone imagine that you can believe that and hate your neighbor? Well, you can if you have never really understood or accepted the faith we proclaim, if it’s just one more thing like belonging to the Audubon Society or the National Rifle Association – if it’s just a cause we believe in and contribute to but that doesn’t really change my life. I’m afraid there are, in fact, many what I would call “social Christians” whose commitment is no deeper than that. For many of us, our church has about the same importance as the Audubon Society, maybe less. We get the monthly mailing we may go to meetings if it’s convenient, we may send in an occasional contribution and then we get angry and fearful about the way the world is falling apart. The world is falling apart, but we leave it to others to make a difference. And then, on the other hand, when it comes to life and death decisions, if my country is attacked or critical decisions are being made, I won’t be any more influenced by the fact that I belong to the church than I will by my membership in the Audubon Society. I will side with people who seem to be like me against people who seem to be different and what will unite me with someone else will be color or accent or the superficial things that I can see at a glance rather than the deep things of the heart.
Governors of several states, many of them deeply committed Christians by their own account, have announced that they will accept no Syrian refugees. It takes an average of two years to pass the government’s vetting process, but these governors have let themselves be made captive to fear. Love is stronger than fear. I guess they don’t know that. They call themselves Christians but don’t know that love is stronger than fear and that’s very sad. We could be showing the world the power of love, and instead we are cringing in fear. It’s very sad. We come here today to remember who we are: we are a new people whose life is in Christ, whose lives are formed and shaped by grace and by this food we share at the altar. We share one life. We are members of one body. And so are many Syrians and so are many who will vote differently next month. If we go out from here and make decisions or take actions based on fear or anger or jealousy or status or party affiliation or national pride or any such thing as that, we’ve missed the point entirely.
Christ’s love unites us, and it does that not to divide us from others but to enable us to serve others, to serve without fear. And then I think you can see how all three readings today have a common theme. Faith breaks down divisions. The Old Testament passage tells us the story of a non-Hebrew general who has leprosy and almost rejects the chance for a cure if he has to go to Israel for it. No wonder St. Paul in the second reading says, “Avoid wrangling over words.” We don’t change minds by wrangling; we change hearts by love. Look to the things you have in common, not the things that divide. These are readings we need to hear as Episcopalians, as Christians, as Americans, – not just hear, but take to heart. Faith unites, love unites, look to the things we have in common, and turn back to give thanks as the Samaritan did to the God who is able to transform all life through faith and the power of love.
October 9th, 2016 in
I’m reading a book, “The Hare with Amber Eyes,” that traces the history of a wealthy Jewish family in Vienna, Austria, through the late nineteenth century and up through the rise of Hitler and the Second World War and its aftermath. In 1922, at a point when Austria was grappling with the problems of change from what had been a great empire to what was now a small and insecure country, there was a novel published that imagined a country without Jews. Hitler was still unknown, Mein Kampf not yet published, when Hugo Bettauer wrote a book called The City Without Jews: a Novel about the Day after Tomorrow.
Bettauer imagined an edict that all Jews must leave Austria: “All of them, including the children of mixed marriages, will be deported in orderly ways on trains.”
“In orderly ways . . .”
I couldn’t help remembering Donald Trump’s interview with Scott Pelley in which he talked about his plan for undocumented Mexicans: “There’s going to be a deportation force. . . We’re rounding them up in a very humane way, in a very nice way . . .”
As if racism can be “humane . . and nice.”
Three years after Bettauer’s book, Hitler published “Mein Kampf.”
After Trump’s “very humane” deportation force, what would be next?
October 7th, 2016 in
A sermon preached at St. Luke’s Church, San Francisco, on September 25, 2016, by Christopher L. Webber.
Years ago I was Rector of St Alban’s Church, Tokyo, Japan, which is the one parish in the Diocese of Tokyo that provides services in English They do that for the benefit of Anglicans and others who speak English better than Japanese. So it was my job to speak English which I am much better at than Japanese. So I was sitting in the church office one morning when a family of three appeared at the door: a man, a woman, and a child, a boy of 8 or 9. They were Australians and they told me they were hitch-hiking around the world (don’t ask!) and they were being delayed by a visa problem with the Russian embassy that couldn’t quite get the picture. So they were stuck in Tokyo and they wondered, could I maybe help them find a place to stay until the Russian embassy figured out what to do.
Well, we had church school rooms only used on Sunday and they had sleeping bags so we worked it out and they wound up staying several weeks. And after they had been there a while they came to me and asked whether I would be willing to baptize their son. He had never been baptized, they told me, because they thought he should make that decision himself when he was old enough, but then, after leaving Australia, they had trekked through southeast Asia and they had seen a lot of religious stuff going on that kinda turned them off so they thought maybe they would, after all, make a decision for their son while they had the chance. So we had a baptism.
And why not? We’re making a decision for Isabel here this morning and she has no idea! And it’s only one of a great many decisions made for her already. None of us get to choose our parents or place of birth or national origin and a number of other things, some basic and some trivial but parents do the best they can for us And there may come a day when we want to disown some of it – or all of it and some of it we can disown, we can move to Russia or Texas or go to a different church or none but we can’t change the DNA – not yet anyway – some of it we are stuck with, like it or not, and psychiatrists make a lot of money helping people sort these things out. No one asked Isabel whether she wants to grow up in a foggy city where it never snows nor will she be asked whether she wants to go to the school her parents choose without consulting her or whether she wants to learn the Star-spangled banner whether she can hit the high notes or not.
Nobody asks the Hispanic kids in this country either – documented or undocumented – whether they wanted to grow up here or whether they want to learn American history or be taught about the war with Mexico. If they live in Texas no one asks whether they want to remember the Alamo. We make decisions for our children on the basis of our own beliefs and they can reject them later if they want, but we give them what we believe will be good for them and we may make dreadful mistakes – you don’t get to rehearse being parents – and no one really warns you what may happen – but that’s why you also make this decision: to have her baptized. You come here and you place the child in God’s hands. There will be days when you may not know what to do but God does – and you ask God to share some responsibility.
The previous edition of the Prayer Book when it got to the moment of baptism had a rubric – a direction printed in italics – that said, “Here the minister shall take the child into his arms (and it was always “his” in those long ago days) and shall say to the parents and godparents, ‘Name this child’.” “Here the minister shall take the child into his arms . . .” But if you looked closely, you might have noticed that there was no rubric that said, “Here he shall give the child back.” Now that was very deliberate. The Prayer Book can sometimes be quite subtle, and maybe this was too subtle, but it was making a point: You give the child to God and God keeps her. God keeps her. I always used to point that out to parents and sometimes it worried them, but I think they liked it when they thought about it a bit.
There will be days when you don’t know what to do. Isabel is howling and you don’t know why. Is it a pin in the wrong place? Is she hungry? Is she tired? Who knows? And it only gets more complicated. “Everybody else is doing it.” “But you aren’t everybody.” You can say that, and up to a point you can enforce it. But there will be days . . . But you can always console yourselves with the thought that you put her in God’s hands and it’s God’s problem as well as yours. She is also God’s child, and God may be able to do the things that you can’t do. God can work within us in ways we are seldom aware of. And if things somehow work out in spite of our blunders, you can put it down to chance or coincidence or luck – but it might be grace. It might be grace: “the free gift of God that enables us to serve God and to please God.” It might be grace. And you are acting today to put Isabel in a place where grace happens, in a relationship in which grace happens. Point one.
Point Two. Baptisms are always individual. Oh, there may be several children and even adults baptized at the same time but always one by one and by name. The giving of a name is a symbol of that. You are baptized by name because God knows you by name: first name, given name or names; Isabel Wyler, Donald James, Hillary Diane. I didn’t know that last name until I looked it up, but God does; a personal God knows you as an individual person.
Two weeks ago, the gospel gave us the story of the good shepherd who goes in search of one lost sheep – there may be ninety-nine in the fold but he goes in search of that one. I was preaching elsewhere that morning and I talked about the importance of one, each one, in God’s sight. But it was only afterwards that I realized an important point: the shepherd didn’t count the sheep, One, two, three . . . ninety-eight, ninety-nine – oops, one missing. No, that’s not how it goes. The shepherd doesn’t count to ninety-nine to know one is missing. You can’t be counting sheep all the time; it’ll put you to sleep. We know that. But the good shepherd doesn’t need to count. No, sheep may look all alike to you but not to the shepherd – he knows each one – he knows the one with one black ear, and the one with a funny white mark on her face, – you don’t need to count because you know your sheep, every one of them – and you know if one is missing. God knows you, knows Isabel Wyler, knows each of us by name, by name, knows us by name. Knows who’s here this morning and knows who’s missing. Probably Dana does too.
You know, there are lots of people missing in the churches these days – falling membership in all the churches, main line, Roman, evangelical – makes no difference – we all feel it, see it, worry about it. And I wonder sometimes whether we know too much. I mean, how long have we known about black holes and spiral nebulae and the billions of light years that measure this universe and how small the earth is in all this limitless space. We didn’t used to know that. It’s only in the last hundred years or less that scientists got to talking about black holes and spiral nebulae and all that and less than that that such ideas have come into common use and begun to raise fundamental questions and reshape our understanding of our environs and don’t you sometimes wonder yourself, “How can we possibly imagine that there could be a Creator who cares about this speck of star dust and the short-lived, bi-pedal species that inhabits it?”
One sheep in a hundred is one thing – one planet in a small solar system matters – but a tiny planet in a galaxy that is a hundred thousand light years across and may contain billions of inhabitable planets – that’s something else. They tell us there may be billions of inhabitable planets in our galaxy – and there are approximately 170 billion galaxies in the observable universe – and who knows what’s beyond that and whether there are other universes – if that’s not a contradiction in terms! The numbers blow the mind. Can you still conceive a Creator who knows and cares about you? I will only say that a God not capable of that would not be a God worth worshiping. But it is hard to conceive a God who could create all that and still care about each speck of dust.
Micro-managing has a bad name these days; none of us wants to micro-manage. But God does. Would you create something this beautiful – the fog over the Golden Gate, the sea lions pulling themselves up on a lonely beach, the giant red woods, children in the school playground at lunch time – would you create all that and not care? But it’s hard. It’s very hard to imagine a God of this immeasurable universe whose eye is also on the sparrow. Human beings have lived most of their existence in a very small universe with gods on Mt Olympus or a nearby cloud: not that far away. And suddenly we are in this vast space and feeling very lonely, perhaps, and needing to reconceptualize a God who may seem unimaginably distant, but it would be a very small God who was unable to bridge the gaps – and it would not be the God we worship, who is here this morning, who fills the heavens – yes, all those billions of light years and, yes, this tiny, blue earth – and is here, here for each of us, and cares more for each small child than the child’s own parents.
Belief may be hard these days, but Dag Hammarskjold once said, “God does not die on the day we cease to believe in a personal deity, but we die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason.” That’s point two.
Point three brings me around at last to the gospel for today: the story of Dives and Lazarus. And notice first of all that Lazarus gets named in the story, but not the rich man. Names matter. I was just saying that. And the poor man got no recognition from the rich man – but Jesus only names Lazarus. The rich man is just another rich man: met one, you’ve met them all. Somewhere later on they began calling the rich man “Dives” – rich. God, I believe, knows the rich man also by name but Jesus doesn’t give him a name. He’s just “a certain rich man who fared sumptuously every day.” As I do; as most of us do; although there are homeless men and women lying not far from our doors. But Lazarus is given a name to make the point: the Good Shepherd knows his sheep whether the world does or not.
It’s good that we have this story this morning because baptism is the beginning of a journey that has an end, a destiny, and it’s good to be reminded also of that this morning. We’re all on a journey here that gets longer all the time – the odds are good that Isabel will live to be ninety maybe more, the journey gets longer. We celebrated a 95th birthday here last Sunday because 95 is still uncommon, but it’s getting less so all the time. But whether it’s three score years and ten or ninety-five, or one hundred and ten, it still has an ending and this morning’s parable puts that ending in graphic terms: Lazarus in the bosom of Abraham and Dives in flames. The translation we used this morning, btw, says Lazarus is “by his side” – by Abraham’s side. That’s what happens when you put a committee in charge of translations and somebody is squeamish. No: in his bosom, “in his close embrace.” Side by side, you might picture them up there looking down at Dives, but no; they’re not interested in Dives. They’re getting acquainted, getting close. But the point is that there is a destiny, we’re going somewhere. We’re here for a purpose. And there is a loving God who gives us that purpose and into whose hands we have placed Isabel.
I don’t know that there are flames down below but I do know that I don’t want to face my creator with blood on my hands. Notice that nothing is said about who went to church or synagogue or mosque – only one thing: Dives had the good things all his life and never shared so much as the crumbs with the poor man at his gate. And that settles it. That’s all that matters. How do you and I measure up? Did I – did you do something about the needs around you while we had time or did we not? What charities do you support? How will you vote in this election? Will you ask what’s in it for me or are you asking, “How can we as a country do most for those with the most needs whoever and wherever they may be?” Are we asking which candidate will lower my taxes most or which candidate shares my values most fully in terms of human need? This country perhaps is Dives and perhaps Syria is Lazarus. How should we respond? “Stay away from my door?”
I don’t expect the scene painted in the gospel to play out in real time – or at the end of time – I think pearly gates and raging fire – or, perhaps, as Dante saw it, a place of terrible cold – are useful images, perhaps, but I know perfectly well that whatever comes next is beyond picturing, beyond imagining, because my imagination is so narrowly limited by the familiar things. The Bible pictures heaven as Jerusalem – only better. You might think of it as an infinite golf course or an endless Mozart concert. You might see it as a choice between Tahoe and Arizona. Our imaginations are too small. But the picture the gospel gives us, I think, is a useful reminder all the same that how we live matters. It matters.
We come here, and we baptize children and adults here, to form a community and to support each other in this brief pilgrimage and do what we can to reach out to Lazarus while we have time. To reach out as members of this church have done just recently in Central America and last year in the Philippines and regularly through the ministry of River Sims to people in need right here in this city. That’s what the gospel today tells us. That’s why a bunch of busy people take time over a tiny baby. In this vast universe, Isabel matters. You matter. We need to be in a place where grace happens, where the individual matters, where life has a meaning and purpose. We need to be here.
September 24th, 2016 in