“Great Expectations”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Wedding in a Less than Rational World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our God, heaven cannot hold him

Do you all know what this is? It’s what some call a flash drive. Some call it a thumb drive or a memory stick. It’s something you can plug into your computer, and you can copy files onto it. I have no idea how it works, but I think this tiny piece of metal and plastic holds more information than my brain. It holds the entire Book of Common Prayer, at least half a dozen books, most of the letters and sermons I’ve written in the last ten years, and who knows what else? How does it get in there? I have no idea. But it’s there. And you believe me, don’t you? We’ve learned to accept the miracles of science whether we understand them or not.

Christmas is about a somewhat similar miracle. I understand it even less. But what Christmas tells us is that the Almighty God, the creator of heaven and earth, and the galaxies and black holes and quasars and all that stuff that scientists tell us is out there – though we’ve never seen it and some of it is invisible by definition – the creator of all that, who cannot be conceived or imagined or understood, came into this world, this tiny speck of cosmic dust, and into the womb of a young woman and was born as a helpless child: “God in man made manifest” as one of our hymns puts it. That which we cannot see becomes visible. The One we cannot approach becomes approachable.

A thousand years earlier, Solomon, king of Israel, built a temple, the greatest building the nation had ever seen, as a place of worship. He furnished it with gold and ivory and bronze, and he dedicated it with elaborate ceremonies, and he said a prayer. He said: “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, how much less this house that I have built!” Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain our God; how much less this child?

Now, you know what this is, I’m sure. It’s a wafer. We sometimes call it “communion bread.” Some churches use pita bread or even a regular loaf and break it into small pieces, but it’s the same principle and the same inexplicable miracle: that the God who created heaven and earth comes to us in this bread, is contained in this tiny piece of bread. Most Episcopal Churches have a tabernacle or aumbry, as we do here at All Saints – a special box or container near the altar where they keep some of the consecrated bread and wine to take to the sick and shut ins. Often there are lay eucharistic ministers who take the consecrated bread and wine to those who are shut in.

Years ago, a priest I knew was serving as chaplain to an Episcopal school that his son attended and one day his son got into an argument with another boy over whether Jesus was really in that box or not. “I know he is,” said the Chaplain’s son, “My father put him there.” But you know, that is what happens. God puts himself in our hands. We come to the altar and take God in our hands. The priest puts God there and we eat that bread and God comes into our lives to nourish and strengthen, to guard and to guide.

There’s a Christmas carol that puts it this way: “

Our God, heaven cannot hold him, Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away When he comes to reign;
In the bleak midwinter A stable place sufficed
The Lord God incarnate, Jesus Christ.

“Our God, heaven cannot hold him” but in the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed. “Our God, heaven cannot hold him but your hands and heart suffice. “Our God, heaven cannot hold him” so how is it possible that my hands and heart could hold my own creator? I don’t know. I can’t explain it. I can’t explain a flash drive either. But God goes out from this service in each of us.

“Our God, heaven cannot hold him” nor can this world in which we live but there are places so far from God and so empty there’s room for more. There’s room for more of God’s presence in the debating halls of Congress. There’s room for more of God’s presence where you work and where you live. There’s room for more of God’s presence where the homeless and hopeless look to us for the compassion that we seem unable to bring to bear effectively. There’s room for much more of God’s presence in so many places starting with the place where you live and where I live and that presence depends on us. God needs to go there in us.

How could God renew the world through us? It might seem impossible if we didn’t know how little room God requires: a virgin’s womb, a stable creche, a fragment of bread, a human heart. In and though us God still comes to bring peace to a world at war, hope to a world without hope, joy to a world that has all too little reason to rejoice. God comes today as God came on that night in Bethlehem this day, at this altar, in this bread, and most of all, in you.

A Time to Speak

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 2019.

Well over 200 years ago, they called a convention to meet in Philadelphia and work out a plan of government for a country without a king. That was pretty much a new idea in those days and no one was quite sure it would work. But they drew up a Constitution and they built in all kinds of safeguards against a president who might get big ideas. because they had fought to get rid of a king and they didn’t want to be stuck with another one.

We have a lot of references to kings in the readings this morning and they come off surprisingly well. I say it’s surprising because we like to think our country has a Biblical background, that the founding fathers were Christians and looked to the Bible for guidance. But the Bible gives us kings, not presidents. It gives us kings, but it gives us kings with a difference because the kings we read about this morning are not giving out orders, not running their countries. The kings we read about this morning are bowing down and making offerings and worshiping a child in his mother’s arms.

So we have a Constitution that is specifically designed to rule out kings but we have a Bible that shows us kings subordinate to God. Now this is a tricky subject because the Constitution also prohibits an establishment of religion. Kings, in the old way of doing things, often governed the church, and the founding fathers didn’t want that either. They didn’t want an established religion. And that also was a new idea – freedom of religion – no government control of the church, and no church control of the government. But they still assumed the church – or synagogue or mosque – would be there to provide moral guidance and call people to a way of life with God at the center.

I think the wise men or kings at the creche provides that picture – remind us that God calls all of us to live lives centered on God. God comes first; kings and presidents come second. I think the founders expected the church or synagogue or mosque to continue to play a critical part in society by holding up standards and pointing to failures. And I think the founders expected that those who seek to serve God would apply their faith to their actions as citizens. I think they expected the clergy and church members to act out of conscience, to contribute to society not just their taxes but their beliefs – to support the government when it seemed to be working for the betterment of all and to criticize it when it seemed to fail.

When it came to the greatest moral crisis this nation has ever faced – the issue of slavery and racial justice – churches and church leaders and political leaders both appealed to God in support of their actions. Churches and clergy took sides on a political issue – the question of human slavery – because it seemed to them it had moral dimension and it was right for the church to take sides. Abraham Lincoln provided a moral voice in his second inaugural address when he called on Americans to “strive on to finish the work we are in . . . with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right . . .” He made it clear that the political conflict had a right and a wrong in God’s sight and that the nation should learn to seek God’s will in establishing the right.

Now I’m saying all this because I have never spoken directly to a political issue in a sermon. I have my point of view, of course, but so do others, and my job is to hold up a standard not to apply it. Or so I used to think. But never before in American history have we had leadership so far from any moral standard, so far from any sense of God’s will for this earth. Worse than that, never before – except in the south in the days of slavery – have we had political leadership so indifferent to Biblical standards of morality and justice. When we have a president who says, “I have never asked for forgiveness,” we have a president who has no understanding of God or the Bible and therefore a President who can’t be trusted to work for peace and justice and the common good.

Worse than that, we have a substantial number of Christians calling themselves evangelical who justify this immoral president on the grounds that God can work through an imperfect tool. They point to David and the fact that David committed adultery and yet God used him for God’s purpose. Yes, but God sent a prophet to confront David with his adultery and David responded, “I have sinned.” Where there is confession of sin there can be forgiveness – and God can indeed use a penitent sinner – God can do more than that – but for Christians to support a sinner with no repentance seems to me to make a mockery of our faith and make all Christians seem like hypocrites.

We live in dangerous times. The New Yorker published an article a few weeks ago called “Life on a Shrinking Planet.” It said that “human beings have always experienced wars and truces, crashes and recoveries, famines and terrorism. We’ve endured tyrants and outlasted perverse ideologies. Climate change is different. . . . The extra heat that we trap near the planet every day is equivalent to the heat from four hundred thousand bombs the size of the one that was dropped on Hiroshima. . . . Nine of the ten deadliest heat waves in human history have occurred since the year 2000. Last June temperatures in Pakistan and Iran peaked at 129 degrees Fahrenheit, the highest reliably recorded temperatures ever measured.

And yet we have a climate change denier for President. The administration’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accords makes us, the largest source of carbon in the atmosphere, the only nation not engaged in efforts to control it. We have, in fact, a president who is removing efforts to save the environment – not just denying, but acting to make things worse. The New Yorker sums it up that “We are on a path to self-destruction.” And we have a president leading the charge, a president with no moral compass, with no concern for the poor and the outcast – the people the Bible calls us to care for most.

I do not see how Christian preachers can fail to identify these issues and call on Christians to act.

I recently returned from ten days in Panama where thousands of Americans live as “expatriates.” I’ve been asked whether I would want to live there and my instinctive answer is “No.” Why not? Well, because I’m an American. My life is bound up with this country, its history, its traditions, its hopes and dreams. I get misty eyed when we sing “America the Beautiful.” But America is not God’s kingdom. I dream of a day when there is a true world community, when Russia and China and Iran and North Korea also have functioning democracies. I pray for a day when this country comes closer to the ideal of freedom and opportunity for all, the ideal of adequate health care for all and adequate housing. But I can only work and pray for that day by taking my part in American life. I can only make a difference by playing a part in the life of this country, and that means not just living here but holding up a Biblical standard and speaking clearly about our failures. As a Christian, I have a standard by which to judge my country, and its leaders, and its institutions and as a priest and preacher I have a responsibility to apply that standard.

When World War II came to an end, a German Lutheran pastor, Martin Niemöller, thought back over what had happened to his country under Hitler, and he said, “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

For us, the time to speak is now.

A letter from Central American bishops to American Christians

The position of solidarity of the diocesan bishops of the Anglican Episcopal Church in Central America and Mexico confronting a new Exodus

October 28, 2018

Terror and dread fell upon them; by the might of your arm, they became still as a stone until your people, O LORD, passed by, until the people whom you acquired passed by.. 20 Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing. 21 And Miriam sang to them: “Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea
Exodus 15:16; 20-21 (Song of Moses)

The bishops of the Anglican Episcopal churches in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Southwest and North Mexico express in the name of God his voice and call for solidarity to the authorities of Central America, Mexico, the United States, the United Nations, and religious and civil leadership groups, with the caravan of migrants from the North Triangle of Central America who are heading to the United States to look for worthy jobs; caravans have occurred in the last days of the month of October of this year. We understand emigration by our own faith as a new Exodus; they are a village of poverty, enslaved in their country’s life by injustice and the violation of human rights. They are people who have in faith in God, who has promised to “keep you wherever you go.” (Genesis 28:15).

Because God always hears the cries of his people, the churches do the same, and we cry for the most vulnerable and weak. For example, in this new Exodus, many boys and girls, children, women, and men are victims of death threats, victims of unemployment, victims of the government’s irresponsible response to the needs of its inhabitants. We call on consciences to understand that this people’s movement has always been a permanent, historical characteristic of our central American countries. It has been a living force that has been nourished with jobs in our brother country, the United States. These displacements of entire families in “Caravans” reveals the migrant problem and that of their own country of origin, and acquires a new international political relevance in the new culture of the Trump administration and the application of a “zero tolerance” policy to migrants.

We remember in this context the forum on migration that was held in San Salvador, where it is stated that people who have good principles have often been victims of death threats, being under harsh economic and social vulnerability, others have been victims of gang violence by agents of their states. Its thousands of people have only the gift of life, and of hope and faith in God. For them, in the name of Christ and of San Romero [Bishop Oscar Romero], we request solidarity with the authorities of the transit countries as well as destination countries in the following ways:

– Respect and recognition of their dignity and rights such as freedom

– warmly attending to them as if they were our brothers and sisters

– humanitarian aid and facilities

– a reasonable opportunity to identify legal transit options in destination countries like the United States, Mexico, and Canada

– creation of migration programs for people seeking asylum and refuge, specifically from ACNUR (Agency of United Nations for the Refugees) and OIM (the United Nations Organization for Migration) able to offer international assistance

– guarantee of special protection for children and adolescents in a family unit

– the provision of necessities such as food, good health, shelter and security.

We call on the Anglican community to show solidarity in this tragedy; we call for the unity of Christians to create conditions for a culture of hospitality. We call for the governments in the Northern Triangle to work and generate conditions for the development of human life in our countries, but more than anything we demand that migration not be criminalized, because migration is a right and no one is illegal in God’s creation, and that a peaceful life be procured with dialogue, medication, and the principal of humanity.

We ask our Lord, to strengthen us and give us courage to denounce sin and continue working for our brothers and sisters, the migrants, and we commit ourselves to strengthen the care of migrants, at local and regional and, interprovincial level.

In Cartagena de Indias, Columbia, the 28th day of October 2018.

The Rt. Rev. Julio Murray
Primate of the Anglican Church of Central America\

The Rt. Rev. Francisco Moreno
Presiding Biishop of the Province of Mexico

The Rt. Rev. Lloyd Allen
Diocese of Honduras

The Rt. Rev. Juan David Alvarado
Diocese of El Salvador

The Rt. Rev. Silvesire Romero
Diocese of Guatemala

The Rt. Rev. Benito Juarez
Diocese of Southeastern Mexico

[This translation was made by Jennifer Cortes at the request of Christopher L. Webber.  San Francisco, CA December 14, 2018]


Fear and Foreboding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ere the Winter Storms Begin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Timor Mortis”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A sermon preached at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, on the Feast of the Visitation, 2016.

Isn’t it interesting that the calendar brings Memorial Day and the Feast of the Visitation so close together? It can’t help but make you thoughtful.

At first glance, Donald Trump’s visit to the tomb of the unknowns at Arlington and Mary’s visit to her cousin Hannah haven’t a lot in common, but the larger themes of war and peace mark both occasions and need, I think, to be looked at together.

Begin with the readings assigned. Both readings today give us a song of peace: Hannah’s song and Mary’s are similar. Mary’s, in fact, is based on Hannah’s and both celebrate humility and lowliness and both celebrate the downfall of pride. God, we are told, has an agenda and that agenda is the downfall of human power and the raising up by God’s power of the weak and the helpless.

Memorial Day on the other hand tends to celebrate military power. To be technical, it simply remembers those who died for their country and asks no questions about the worthiness of the cause. But surely the cause does matter. There’s been a lot of controversy this last year about statues and war memorials. My daughter went for years to a church on Memorial Avenue in Richmond Virginia where every few blocks there’s a traffic circle and in the middle of the traffic circle a statue of a confederate leader on horseback. The one exception is the last statue which gives us Arthur Ashe holding a tennis racket. Which, I wonder, will be longer remembered?

But what are we to do with the generals? I don’t have a big need, myself, to take them down. Memorial Avenue left unchanged is a powerful statement on the foolishness of war. Here are all these generals carved in stone, and all around them a city that has long abandoned what they fought to preserve. No one has accurate numbers, but nearly a million young men died in the Civil War, far more in the North than the South, and more than in all our other wars together.

This is, we like to say, a great country, but was there then no one able to avert that disaster? Why did so many have to die to gain freedom for slaves? Why were so many willing to die in defense of the indefensible, in defense of slavery, in defense of the power to buy and sell human beings?

But how many men and women have died in American wars more recently: in Vietnam in a losing cause, in Afghanistan to no obvious purpose? So, yes, let us remember those who have died, but let us also remember those who sent them to die when there was nothing to be gained by so doing.

I happen to be reading the second volume of a three-volume biography of Winston Churchill [William Manchester: “The Last Lion”] and volume two is the story of the ten years from 1930-1940 when war could have been prevented if politicians had been more centered on peace and less centered on winning the next election. How many millions died in World War II because politicians failed to act sensibly? By all means honor those who died, but not without questioning the necessity of those deaths.

Do you remember the story of Brer Rabbit and the tar baby? I sometimes think a good many wars are like that: the harder you fight, the more you get stuck. The more men die in Afghanistan the harder is to get out – because it will signify that they died in vain. But having more men and women die in vain is not the answer. Donald Trump and Barack Obama don’t have much in common but both announced themselves opposed to the war in Afghanistan and neither could find the courage to end it because they didn’t dare look like a loser. And how many more need to die before someone has the courage to act?

I’m supposed to be talking about the Visitation: the coming together of two pregnant women whose sons would change history without drawing a single sword. And one of them sings a song, basically the same song that Hannah sang a thousand years earlier, about the putting down of the rich and powerful and the raising up of the lowly. “He has scattered the proud . . . He has brought down the powerful . . . He has lifted up the lowly . . .” That is God’s priority. Let us pray that someday it will also be ours.

Who Do I Belong To

A sermon preached at All Saints Church, San Francisco, on May 13, 2018.

“They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.”  St. John 17:16

So who do you belong to? Jesus said, “They do not belong to the world.” He’s talking about his followers. He’s talking about us. He’s saying, “We do not belong to the world.” So who do we belong to?

There was a time when millions of Americans belonged to slave owners. It was pretty clear in those days who belonged to who. I’ve just finished writing a biography of James McCune Smith, a man who lived in the first half of the 19th century, a black American born in slavery in New York City when it was still legal in New York State to own slaves. As the battle over slavery heated up plantation owners would often argue that the slaves had a better life than the factory workers in New England. But Smith wrote an essay suggesting that there was no record of a New England factory worker fleeing south to become a slave. “There is not,” he pointed out, any record “of a single free black, who has gone down South and offered himself a candidate for the enjoyment of slavery. There is no impediment in his way. He has merely to go as far South as Baltimore, walk about the streets, and hold his tongue; the law will do the rest, and he will become a slave. No one has gone.” On the contrary, Smith pointed out, a thousand slaves a year were escaping to the North, but it is “a well-known fact,” he wrote, “that men, whatever the color of their skin, will not in their thousands run away from a good living.”

Who owns you? Who owns us? Every now and again I have to get to an early appointment and I walk down 19th Avenue between 7:30 and 8:30 in the morning and I see fifteen or twenty young men and women dressed alike in tight blue jeans and jackets leaning against a wall studying their iPhones. And suddenly an enormous bus comes up and scoops them up and off they go to the salt mines of Silicon Valley. Sometimes I’ll be walking up or down the street late in the day and see the same bus come back and let them out again still studying their cell phones.

Who owns them? What would Jesus say or James McCune Smith about who they belong to? What would they say of themselves? They might tell you that they own that iPhone in front of their face, but maybe not. Maybe it owns them. It certainly seems to control them. I don’t imagine they pick cotton in Silicon Valley. I imagine that they’re free to walk away from their work at any time, but who do they belong to, what purpose do they see for their lives? What is their vision? Is it to create the next big thing in the world of silicon chips or to make payments on a small house in suburban Oakland or Santa Somewhere. What’s the vision?

I doubt most of you are waiting for the morning bus to Silicon Valley but what are you waiting for, what treadmill are you on? To what are you committed? Jesus said, “You do not belong to the world.” But who do we belong to? And what difference does it make?

I’ve been asking myself these questions with a new urgency in recent months. Two or three things have changed in my life that have made me look again. First, I was asked to take on the writing of memorials for my college class. My college alumni magazine publishes short memorials 200 words or less for deceased classmates. We were upwards of 700 60-some years ago, but we’re down to less than half that now and new obituaries arrive in my on-line mail box almost every week. It makes you thoughtful. John Jones, graduated from Princeton, went on to earn an MBA from Harvard, worked for a giant investment firm for forty years and retired to Florida. Why? What difference did he make? Maybe he worked tirelessly for the local soup kitchen, maybe he left his millions to UNICEF. Sometimes the obituary notices such things; more often not. Who will write what about me? As I said, It makes me thoughtful.

And then, as many of you know, my wife died last fall and my life is changed in a fundamental way. I made decisions 60-some years ago about who I belonged to and I was ordained and I was married. And I think those were good decisions. I’m still committed to both of them. But I began to think last winter that I ought to think again about who I was, who I am, who I will be, and one way of looking at it is in the gospel this morning: Jesus said of his followers, “They do not belong to the world . . .”

That’s good. I have no desire to belong to this world. So who do I belong to and how do I live out that belonging? Yes, I belong to my wife – still do – but not visibly and physically and yes, I belong to God’s church and am still able to do ministry and then there’s all this writing I do and I’m an officer of the retirement home where I live and my family is evolving and changing – nothing ever says the same from one day to another – and who am I and is God still the center? And who do I belong to? Who controls my life? How do I establish priorities?

I was thinking about all that last winter and thinking I needed to find some time to be quiet and prayerful and deepen the relationship with God that a priest can take too much for granted and I happened to see an ad in a Christian magazine for a Trappist monastery in South Carolina that was offering the opportunity to be a monk for a month, and I thought, “That’s what I need.” So I wrote to them and they wrote back and I leave for Mepkin Abbey at the end of August. I have every intention of coming back. I plan to be back at the end of September. No small voice is telling me to stay longer. Not yet anyway. Though one should never say never. But the program is daunting: Up at 3 am for two hours of prayer then breakfast and more prayer and eucharist then three hours of work then lunch and an optional siesta than three more hours of work. They raise mushrooms, and I had a big garden and orchard for twenty years and worked with a tractor and chain saw, so mushrooms should be easy – even for six hours a day. Then comes supper and vespers and compline and bed at 8 pm. The Trappists are also an order renowned for their keeping of silence. What they call the “Grand Silence” extends From 8 pm to 8 am but they cultivate what they call “A general atmosphere of silence.” The point is to be able to listen and to let God speak. That’s what I’m looking for: to be able to listen and be clear about who I belong to. I won’t pretend not to be nervous about it. But I think it provides what I need right now: a chance to be quiet and to ask direction and think and pray about the big questions: Who am I? And what do I really know of God? And is my life really centered on God? Who owns me? Who owns my life? St Paul says in another place: You are not your own; you were bought with a price. I do not belong to the world. No. I think, I believe, I belong to God. But am I sure? Or have I need running away? Isn’t it maybe time to take another look?

Now, I’m fortunate because I have this opportunity. I couldn’t have done it ten years ago. And it’s not for everyone – I’m sure it’s not – but it is, I think, a benchmark for everyone. If not that, then what? When did I last ask myself serious questions? When did I last look carefully at my pattern of life, at my relationship with God, at my commitment of time and talent and treasure – the traditional three T’s. Do I truly “not belong to the world” and what am I doing to control the world’s claim on my life?

I read an article in last week’s New Yorker about a man who had worked for the CIA doing various things in Afghanistan and then transitioned to a private-sector intelligence analysis firm advising corporations and governments on matters of geopolitics and risk. But he began to feel like a fraud because he could see the flaws in other societies but he didn’t know his own neighborhood. Savannah, Georgia, where he lives, has one of the highest crime rates in the country, so why, he asked himself, was he worrying about Afghanistan. So he quit his job and joined the local police force taking a pay cut of over $100,000 a year. That’s not a decision you make if you belong to the world. It’s a decision you make if you see yourself as being responsible for the life that is given you for a purpose.

If you belong to the world you measure your life one way; if not, there are other concerns – and it’s not my comfort or my security or my convenience. If I belong to the world, the world shapes me; if not, I look for ways to make a difference. The Gospel this morning tell us – Jesus tells us – “You – I – do not belong to the world.” My home is not here. There is nothing I can’t live without except Jesus. I can say that easily enough but I’m not sure it’s true and I want to find out. I pray that you do too. For a slave in the cotton fields of Alabama it was clear who they belonged to and if they could they ran away, they boarded the underground railroad and headed north. For us, it’s usually not as clear but often our lives are shaped by priorities that have not much to do with an eternal purpose. And I think that requires some thoughtfulness: am I using what God has given me in talents and possessions to make a difference? Do they own me? Does the world own me? Or am I finding ways to give my gifts to serve others, to make a difference? Am I, you might say, willing to keep on picking cotton, or am I willing to take the risk of heading for freedom in an unknown country where I could make my life count for something? Does the world own me or does Jesus? These are questions I think we need to ask ourselves from time to time.