Involved in Mankind

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

by Christopher L. Webber.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s Frederick Robertson almost two hundred years ago:

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

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

What’s in a Name?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seeing the Vision

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 old-apple-tree-3372anything 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 tpeaceable-kingdomhe 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.

That God

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 glorythe 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 Dalione 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 mornwheating 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.

Celebration

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 cathedral_of_the_incarnation_-_garden_city_nyreluctantly 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 all-saintscommunity 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.last supper

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.

Divisions and Unity

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 good-samaritanthe 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 eucharistshare 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.

“In a very nice way . . .”

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 mein_kampf_dust_jacketmixed 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?

Known by Name

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 baptismsome 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. sheepWe 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 skyuniverse 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.

The Value of One

A sermon preached at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, on September 11, 2016, by Christopher L. Webber.

On a crystal clear September morning fifteen years ago today, two airplanes full of people like you and me plunged into the Trade Towers in lower Manhattan where nearly 20,000 people were at Trade Towerswork. Another plane hit the Pentagon and a fourth plane plunged into a field in Pennsylvania. When the day was over some 3,000 people were dead.

So 9-11 has become a date to remember and this year it falls on a Sunday when the Gospel reading talks about the value of a single life. Jesus asks, “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? . . . Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, `Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

God places such value on one.

Today is the fifteenth anniversary of a tragedy we still can barely comprehend. In a matter of only two or three hours, nearly three thousand people died. Some were simply passengers on a plane as most of us have been at one time or another, some were pilots and stewards, some were ordinary people who were just beginning another day’s work, some were police and fire fighters, and some, of course, were people we label “terrorists” – people whose thought processes we can’t begin to understand. Over the next number of months after 9/11 the New York Times ran a series of biographies of those who had died. One by one, the pictures were printed and a short paragraph describing something of who they were: people, human beings like us, who died suddenly, unexpectedly, because they happened to have a particular job and work in a particular place.

The Times series served the valuable purpose of reminding us that it was not an anonymous 3000 who died but individuals, each one with a life that had value not only to them, but to friends and family. The Times didn’t say so, but we believe those lives had value to God. And I wonder whether a non-Judaeo-Christian society newspaper would have done such a thing.

I learned from reading the 9/11 Commission Report that there were some 16,000 to 18,000 civilians in the Twin Towers that morning and that of the over 2,000 civilians who died almost all were at or above the impact zone, only 110 of those who died worked below the impact zone while some 14 or 15 thousand on those levels escaped. Therefore, the report says, “the evacuation was a success for civilians below the impact zone.” It was a success because only 110 died.

If you put it that way, it sounds good. But if, apart from everything else, you heard of an accident that killed 110 people, I think your first thought would be “how awful.” No recent terrorist attack in the United States comes close: 14 in San Bernadino. 49 in Orlando – small numbers – but not “numbers” to their friends and families. Every one of them valued as one. If you knew only one of those 110, those 14, those 49, if you were related to one or married to one, I’m pretty sure you would not be impressed by the ratio of success to failure. Terms like success and failure somehow wouldn’t have much meaning, if one person you cared for had died. There are statistics on the one hand and human lives on the other.

When Jesus talks in the gospel today about one missing sheep, I think we know what he means. Jesus is not looking for statistical success but human souls. And yet, how much of our world operates on statistics? And why is it that somehow statistics lack the urgency of personal, individual knowledge? sheep35 million Americans live in households at risk for hunger. That’s a statistic. But in parishes I have served, I have known a few of those 35 million and they are not statistics, they are real people, human beings like yourself trying to make their way in a world that seems to be harder on some than others. You and I can’t do much about the 35 million but perhaps we can do something about one or two, the people who live in San Francisco or the Sunset. When I had a garden, I would sometimes take some vegetables from my garden to a nearby food pantry. Statistically it made no difference, but one or two people got a bit of help.

Politicians debate the role of government and whether it should do more or less. I happen to think it’s our government and it ought to do what we want it to do and I want it to do all it can; I want it to be more help to more people. Why else is it there? I believe that our government ought to work harder to meet human needs. But governments deal in statistics: 3 million jobs lost, 1 million new jobs created. That kind of thing. You aren’t likely to find a government agency that sees you as an individual human being. Maybe not even a church agency.

I got a mailing a while back from the Episcopal Relief and Development Fund, which does excellent work relieving poverty and hunger. But this mailing talked about “IDPs.” What’s that? I wondered. I went back and read the document more carefully and learned that an IDP is an “internally displaced person.” In other words, a refugee who hasn’t crossed a border. Someone uprooted by famine or violence or natural disaster who is now homeless in their own country is an “IDP.” Think of the Sudanese people of Darfur; think maybe of the people of New Orleans after the hurricane. But an IDP? The minute you use terms like that for human beings you’ve forgotten what it’s all about. It’s about John; it’s about Mary; It’s about Muhammed and Amina; it’s about real people with real names and precious in the sight of God; not statistics, not categories, not numbers, and not, for heaven’s sake, IDPs!

When Jesus speaks of himself as a shepherd concerned for even one lost sheep in a flock of a hundred, he’s giving us an insight into the nature of the God we worship here. He’s telling us that in this huge, impersonal world where candidates vie for votes by talking about unemployment and creating jobs and so on and all our experience tells us it’s smoke and mirrors, he’s telling us that there is a heart at the heart of the universe, a God who cares about each and every human being: the rallyhopeless refugee in a makeshift shelter in the deserts of western Sudan, the single parent trying to stay above the poverty line, the young American soldier who volunteered to serve his or her country and became a statistic in an Afghan province none of us had heard of before, the office worker struggling down a smoke filled staircase in the North Tower, yes, and the hijackers who thought that somehow they were serving God by killing others. They, too, are not statistics but human beings whom God loves for themselves, not for their actions.

Each human life matters to God; God is the good shepherd who cares about each human life, including yours and mine. That’s the first point: God is a God who values each one.

The second point is very similar, maybe just a different way of saying the same thing. God values each one in part at least because each one is unique. If you go to the post office to buy a first class stamp you don’t ask to see a sheet of a hundred identical stamps so you can select the particular one you want. It makes no difference. They’re all the same. Human beings are not like that. We have unique fingerprints and irises and DNA. They say no two snowflakes are alike and certainly no two human beings are, not even so-called identical twins. I think it was Abraham Lincoln who said, “God must have loved the common people; he made so many of them.” I disagree. Lincoln was wrong. God must have loved uncommon people; because it’s the only kind God made.

You are uncommon. For better or worse, there is no one in the world quite like you. I’ve heard priests say, “I was in a parish where the people were X or Y” as if you could sum up a parish with a label. I’ve never known a parish like that myself. I’ve never known a parish with two people alike or one person who didn’t have a unique story. But I don’t think we live in a world that really understands that. Candidates hone their message for groups: soccer moms, race car enthusiasts, NRA members, bleeding heart liberals, stony hearted conservatives. Do you know one person summed up by such a label? I don’t.

We live in a world dominated by science because science works so well at identifying commonalities. Science works with groups, things in common. It makes rules: all water boils at 212 degrees, all type-A flu bugs can be prevented by serum B, all hurricanes blow clockwise above the equator, all plants need water, but science is helpless when confronted with something or someone unique. There are no rules for one. You can’t say, “All Linda McMahons think this way” or “All John Malloys think that way.” You can’t make rules like that for one. How can you tell until there’s a group to compare? The scientist’s area of expertise is groups, classes, phila, and genera. But God’s area of expertise is different. God specializes in one: caring for one, knowing one, loving one.

And come to think of it, when the Bible says we are made in the image of God it’s that kind of thing it’s talking about. God is one and so is each of us. We are like God in the unscientific ability to love one, to care about one, to respond to what’s unique and wonderful about the human beings we encounter. It’s what churches ought to be about. It’s what we try to do here: to care about one, to value each one for who they are, for the qualities, needs, and abilities that we will never meet in anyone else.

Anywhere else, you will find people sorted out by what isn’t unique: we start out by putting all the five year olds in the same kindergarten, and then we put the musically inclined in the band and the athletic types on teams and we send the academically advantaged on to colleges and we put uniforms on policemen and soldiers and put salesmen in used car lots and financial manipulators on Wall Street and senior citizens in assisted living facilities and so on. Birds of a feather and human beings with similar interests or characteristics flock together and church is maybe the one place in our world that pays no attention to any of that – ideally anyway – that brings us together with people with whom we have nothing in common except the same Creator and the fact of baptism and the life we share baptismfirst at the altar and then, as much as possible, in our common life.

Again, it’s the value of one that God is trying to teach us. And the uniqueness of one. Faith challenges us to deal with difference, uniqueness, the things science can’t account for and doesn’t understand. I’ve heard it said that 23 children die every minute from malnutrition. That’s a scientific fact and I think we express it that way because we can’t cope with the enormity of it, to know and care for and weep for each single one of those children, each single soul, precious in God’s sight. But God can and God does. It’s why the Times found a story to tell about every one of those individuals who died fifteen years ago. It’s why our police departments need to be trained to see individuals and to understand that the use of a gun to kill an individual human being, to destroy a human life precious in the eyes of God, is always a last resort, and a dreadful failure.

I want to take a few minutes at the end to read you a remarkable document that came my way last week. I get regular e-mails from Senator Chris Murphy, the junior senator from Connecticut for whom I made phone calls and house calls a couple of times when I wasn’t in charge of a parish. He doesn;t write often, but when he does it’s always worth reading. Senator Murphy improved the end of his summer by setting out to walk east to west across Connecticut in a week, averaging 30-35 miles a day. How he did that and still had time to talk to people, I don’t know, but he told some stories, and he did what I’ve been talking about: he met and responded to individuals, one by one.

Senator Murphy wrote this: “Upon arriving in Clinton, I meet one of the most memorable people from the entire walk. At a gas station I introduce myself to James, and after exchanging pleasantries, he starts telling me his story. He is a drywaller, and though he has lots of experience, he still makes ‘as much money per hour as I made when I was fifteen years old.’ He works as many hours as he can get, often more than 50 hours a week. But life has thrown James a few curve balls which means that expenses usually exceed his salary on a weekly basis. James has four great kids, but one is blind due to cerebral palsy and another has been diagnosed with autism. The expenses for these kids add up and often, James says, he can’t afford enough food for his family to eat. Other months, he puts off paying the rent in order to fill the kids’ lunch boxes, but that just makes matters worse when he has to later pay interest on the overdue rent. Food stamps help, but they are inconsistent due to his fluctuating income. James is frustrated – he doesn’t understand why his children go hungry when he is playing by the rules, working his tail off, and staying out of trouble. ‘What is wrong with this country,’ he asks me, ‘when I do everything I am supposed to, and I still can’t pay my bills?’ In fact, the working poor are a silent crisis in Connecticut and across the country. And during this walk, I meet them, almost every hour of every day. They are everywhere — and they want to tell me their stories. Cindy in West Haven who works the overnight shift at a grocery store but still has her electricity shut off. Ed in Bridgeport who travels hours to a moving company job in New Haven that doesn’t even pay enough for him to live on. Several years ago, I spent a full day with a homeless man in New Haven, so I have some sense of what they are going through. They are caught in a vicious catch-22: they can’t get a job without angood shepherd address, and they can’t get a home without a job.”

Politicians tend to talk about policies and programs, and some policies and programs are certainly better than others, but a politician needs to be thinking first about people, James and Cindy and Ed, and how they can help each one, each one whom God values. That’s what Jesus is reminding us of today. That God cares that much for each one, each single, wonderful one, and also, very much, for you.

Sharing Food

A sermon preached at All Saints, San Francisco, on August 28, 2016, by Christopher L. Webber.

Let’s think about food.

The Gospel this morning is only one of many that gets us thinking about food. In fact, it’s a major theme of the Bible: there from beginning to end.

The Bible story begins with food and it ends with food. It begins, actually, with a meal Adam and Eve were not supposed to eat but it ends with an invitation to a feast in heaven. So the movement is in a Evegood direction, and in between there’s also a lot about food. Take the five books of the law, to begin with. A lot of the law has to do with food: what you can eat and what you can’t eat and how to prepare it. You can’t eat vultures or eels or pigs or bats.

And then in the New Testament, the Gospel begins with John the Baptist, who had a low carb diet: locusts and wild honey. And how much time did Jesus spend sharing meals – with publicans and sinners, with crowds of thousands, with Mary and Martha, with the disciples at the Last Supper, with the disciples after his resurrection in the upper room, on the lake shore in Galilee, and in the Gospel this morning, with “a leading Pharisee”?

Meals. Jesus shared our lives and our lives are shaped by what we eat – for better or worse. What is more central to your waking hours than food – except for breathing. Well, of course, you may have a job that takes some of your time – lots of people do – but a lot of jobs these days have to do with food: growing it, transporting it, preparing it, serving it. There’s everything from MacDonald’s to the exotic high-end, latest fad elegance. And how many places of work have food available – everything from the machines that dispense snacks to the exotic in-house restaurants of Silicon Valley.

We have to eat. So it’s a necessity, but it’s also a celebration. There’s hardly ever a wedding or familybirthday or anniversary or even a funeral without a meal. You can’t celebrate Thanksgiving Day or Christmas without a meal or Easter or probably not the 4th of July.

I spent a summer years ago as a camp counselor in Connecticut where kids came from the lower east side of Manhattan and I heard about families – hard for me to imagine – that never shared meals. There’d be a pot of something on the stove and you helped yourself when you got hungry. I felt sorry for these poor deprived kids, growing up without that basic experience of being a family. And then I became Rector of a church in a very wealthy community where the men – mosty the men in those days – took the train to Manhattan at 6:49 and got home after 8 and those families too seldom shared meals and it showed. Kids who don’t get attention find ways to get it anyhow. Families who don’t share meals probably don’t share much else either.

So we spend a lot of time with food. I live in the Sunset and I can walk down Irving or Noriega or Ninth Avenue and there’s Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Siamese, Manchurian, Ethiopian – even the inevitable MacDonald’s. There are a dozen restaurants within a very short walk of this church.

Restaurants everywhere; food everywhere. And our problem is that evolution left us well-adapted to deal with famine, but not so much with a MacDonalds on every corner. Our bodies are designed to store up energy in the form of fat and science hasn’t yet discovered a fool-proof way to help us cope with a society that only knows about famine by reading about it somewhere else.

I found reports on-line that show a third of American adults are obese and two-thirds are over weight and the expectation is that those rates will continue to grow. All the concern for fitness and diet is not solving the problem. So let me suggest you look to the Bible for help. Why not? There’s more about eating in the Bible than there is about sin, more about eating than there is about love, and half as much about eating as there is even about God. So why not start with the Bible? And why not start with today’s readings which have a lot to say on the subject if you stop to look.

The Bible does have some answers when we’re thinking about food. And the first advice is to share. “Do not neglect to show hospitality,” says the second reading: “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have . . .” And the Gospel gives very specific, practical advice: “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” And don’t tell me you don’t know anyone who is poor, crippled, lame, or blind. We see them every night on the news, and some of them not that far away.

Some of you, I know, help with a soup kitchen. There are dozens of food pantries and soup kitchen in San Francisco – and it isn’t enough because at bottom we’re facing a problem we don’t know how to solve because we’re dealing with people and we don’t know how to “fix” people. People are people; food pantrynot machines. If we’re looking for solutions, solving problems, we may be doing it wrong. Even in marital relationships, you know, we can’t fix the other person – they’re going to be who they’re goinmg to be – but we can love them. And that’s all we’re commanded to do. And love is expressed by sharing.

One reason, you know, that Americans are eating too much is that we don’t share enough what we have. And not just with people elsewhere. More children in this country live in poverty than in any other developed country – one out of every five and up to a third in the District of Columbia. Can you believe it? In Washington D.C. a third of the children live in poverty.

Franklin Roosevelt in his second inaugural address said, “I see one third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clothed, ill-fed.” Eighty years later our representatives can look out their windows and see it now. A third of the children in Washington ill housed, ill clothed, ill fed. In this country, the last survey I saw by the U.S. Department of Agriculture said that nearly 32 million Americans live in homes at risk of hunger, 15.3 million children lived in food-insecure households in 2014. 20% are ineligible for government assistance because we tightened up the welfare rules and children suffer. But world-wide, millions of children die of malnutrition every year. That figure is sometimes publicized as saying that so many children die of hunger every few seconds – but that’s not exactly right. It’s not starvation but malnutrition that’s the deadly enemy. Mal-nourished children die of all sorts of things. And it’s not necessary. There’s food enough for all. It’s just not in the right places. You might say that Americans also are dying of malnutrition – but for many of us it’s too much, not too little.

There was a time when they thought that the world couldn’t feed any more people, but since then the world population has doubled and tripled, and the rich nations have more than is good for us and there is more than enough for all – if it’s shared. Forty-two years ago, in 1974, world leaders at a cornucopiaWorld Food Summit committed themselves to end hunger in ten years. That was forty-two years ago. It was agreed that the means were available; only the will was lacking. So, in 1996, 22 years later and twenty years ago, world leaders committed themselves to cutting hunger in half in twenty years – they would do half as much in twice as long and time is up. Did you ever have children in the back seat asking “Are we there yet?” Well, we’re not. Not there. No. A long way from it.

But why should our leaders push when we followers don’t care? Have you ever written your Congressional representatives on the subject? Have you asked what the candidates this year plan to do on the subject? Have you looked at web sites for the two parties to see what they say about food and hunger – or don’t say? I could go into detail – but I think it’s enough to say that one document has a lot to say on the subject and the other says nothing at all. But then I looked up our member of Congress and her web site highlights seventeen issues she’s concerned about. Food isn’t on the list.

The point is simple: where there is enough food for everyone and some have too much and some are starving, the obvious thing to do is share: contribute to the Episcopal Relief and Development Fund or any other, take part in a Crop Walk or sponsor someone in it, vote for candidates who understand the issue – if you can find one. And cut back on your own food intake so you can share more. Some people set an extra place at the table and put something into a box or jar at each meal to contribute. That’s one way of inviting the poor and hungry to your table; one very simple and practical way of sharing what we have. Episcopal Relief and Development is also a good way to go. Look it up on line. They’re into fixing the problem: Providing chickens, not egg salad; seed and fertilizer, not sandwiches. Solutions, not bandages. And it starts with sharing.

Sharing does two things: it helps keep us from over-eating and it keeps others from dying. Jesus provides the solution in today’s gospel. The program has been in place for 2000 years. But sharing is more than just feeding others. Sharing is also about our own lives. Sharing food brings us together in all sorts of ways: as a family, as a congregation. It’s no coincidence that what we do here on Sunday is to share a meal. It’s what Jesus did so often with his disciples; not just at the Last Supper. And it’s not just about bringing us together with each other; it’s about uniting our lives with those of our Risen Lord. It’s Jesus’ life we share in this meal, his life that renews and strengthens ours.

I served for a number of years in churches that always brought food to the altar at the Offertory, not just bread and wine but food to share with others, cans and boxes for the nearest food pantry. They set the basket down in front of the altar and took it off the next day to a food pantry. It made an important point: this meal – what we are doing here this morning – is about sharing.

And maybe it’s also worth noticing that the food we share here comes in very small portions. When I go out to eat with family we almost always come home with enough for another meal. But not here. Here, one small piece of bread, one sip of wine, is food enough to renew us and strengthen us. That probably won’t do for your evening meal but it is, I think, a reminder that we don’t need to stuff ourselves to have enough. This simple sharing unites us and renews us and there’s more than enough for all. Compare serving sizes here and at your favorite restaurant and your own table and think about it. What does that tell us? How much do we really need? In the second reading we are told to show hospitality to strangers. Share with others. In the Gospel, Jesus tells us what to do: “When you give a banquet, invite the poor . . .” If we can’t do it in practice, we can certainly do it symbolically and practically and this central act of worship provides the example.last supper

Here’s a table where all are welcome. So what is it all about? It’s about unity, first of all: It’s about unity. It’s about sharing our lives with others. It’s about God sharing life with us. It’s about coming together at every level. Second, it’s about renewal. We eat to live, we eat to renew our strength. But we need more than vitamins and minerals. Jesus said, “We do not live by bread alone but by the word of God.” And the word is made flesh and the word is made bread. So here, as in every meal, we are renewed inwardly and outwardly. Did you ever learn the catechism definition of a sacrament: “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual gift.”

One of the great tragedies of Christian history is that this meal was so misunderstood that some churches gave it up almost entirely. Still today there are churches where it is seldom provided. But we need more than sermons and hymns; just as we need more from our parents than good advice. We need to share food. We need the Eucharist. We need it for unity, we need it for renewal, and we need it for joy.

Joy: my last point. The prophets and the Book of Revelation both describe heaven as the sharing of a great feast. How could it not be? It’s the joy of coming home at last, the joy of being loved completely and powerfully, the joy of being united with God and all God’s saints. It’s the joy of victory. And what we do today is a foretaste of all that, a reminder of what will be and what could be now if we only learn to do better such a simple, instinctive thing: share. Share what we have with others who are still in need. Share our food. Share this meal. Share the love of God. Share the joy.