An Unknown God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bodies, Not Souls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Facing God’s Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Faith Sizes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God Is Our Strength

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Involved in Mankind

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

by Christopher L. Webber.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s Frederick Robertson almost two hundred years ago:

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

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

What’s in a Name?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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. “” 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.


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.