I Know Who You Are

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at All Saints Church, San Francisco, on January 28, 2018

“I know who you are!”

I take my text from a crazy man. He came to Jesus, the Gospel tells us, and said, “I know who you are: the Holy One of God.” Sometimes you have to be crazy to make sense of the world around us. Sometimes you have to be crazy to understand.

I read a book once by Jacob Neusner, a rabbi who imagined how it might have been if he had been there in Galilee listening to Jesus himself. He imagined himself being very impressed but turning and walking sadly away – sadly unable to commit to a teaching so radical. I understand that. I might have turned away myself. It’s a commitment to be a Christian. “Take up your cross,” Jesus said, “and follow me.” Maybe next week, but right now I’m busy. Got to write a sermon. You’d have to be crazy to be a Christian.

It took a crazy man to see who Jesus was – and is. “I know who you are: the Holy One of God.” Think about that. Think about holiness. What is he saying? What is he seeing? “The Holy One of God.” Read the Hebrew Scriptures: it’s the story of a discovery of holiness and especially the discovery of the great divide between holiness and humankind. God set out to create a people who could understand holiness, who could see beyond the mundane daily-ness of life, who could see another dimension, who could glimpse a reality beyond reality, who could recognize a reality too great for human beings to comprehend. And that’s hard to do.

At the simplest level, the problem is called sin. It’s called separation. It’s called failure. It’s called missing the mark. It’s called being human. “To err is human.” That’s a familiar phrase. The Bible is the story of the development of that understanding also: knowing what holiness is and knowing who we are and knowing how far we are from a reality beyond words, another dimension, something beautiful and dangerous, something that draws us, that fascinates us, yet terrifies us with its demand that we change, that we change, that we be changed, that we not settle for what we are, that we set out to become something more, something new, something other, something – holy. That’s frightening.

Holiness is frightening. Most religions find a way to tame it down, to domesticate it, to make it safe. Take a familiar prayer book, add some sentimental hymns, get a friendly pastor to reassure you. But then you come to church and they read you some crazy passage about a weird encounter on a hilltop in the middle east between the friendly Jesus you learned about in Sunday School and a crazy man who was yelling and screaming about Jesus being the Holy One of God. But if God were standing in front of you in human form wouldn’t that be scary? Wouldn’t you be scared? terrified? You would have to be crazy to face it because if it’s true, life is changed for ever.

I wonder whether you went to a college as I did and took a course that asked you to read a book written a hundred years ago by a man called Rudolf Otto. Otto was German, so he wrote in German and the German title is “Das Heilige.” In English, it’s called, “The Idea of the Holy.” If I had to make a list of the ten most important books I have read, “The Idea of the Holy” would be on it. Otto writes about “the elements of mystery, fascination, awfulness, and energy.” He talks about “the wholly other” and the “mysterium tremendum.” We are told that colleges today need to emphasize a “STEM curiculum” (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) so maybe nobody reads Otto any more. What about poetry? Do you read poetry? Do you go to museums, do you study the great artists, Rembrandt and Picasso, do you listen to music – any music – thoughtfully? Do you ask why the organ back there is so important to our worship, our common life? Otto says, “Religious worship cannot do without music – it stands too high for any understanding to reach.” We respond automatically to so much of this because of who we are – human beings, made in the image of God, the image of the Holy One. So it’s good to think about all this, and to ask why, to ask about the things that separate us from the dog on a leash or the bird on a wire. They need no higher education to be what they are nor do we, but to be what we might become: that’s something else. And it’s not necessarily higher education we need, certainly not a STEM curriculum, but some degree of self-awareness, that we are a flame in a fragile shell with “intimations of immortality” – that’s Shelley – that “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends” – that’s Shakespeare. We need glimpses of something more, but something all too easily ignored, put aside for a later day that never seems to come: glimpses of that frightening, terrifying aspect of life that Otto called “the wholly other.” Otto wanted to explore that sense we have that there’s another dimension, that the life we live day by day is only the surface of something more. But it might be frightening to do that and we can usually postpone it to another day.

Did you ever read C S Lewis’ children’s book, “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”? The children in the story have somehow gotten beyond the surface and crossed into a magical land where everything is strange and they are told that they need to meet the ruler of that land, Aslan, the Lion King. Susan asks, “Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”… “Safe?” said Mr Beaver …”Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” Not safe, but good. He’s holy. He’s that frightening power that draws us, and he’s frightening, maybe, because we’ve gotten so far afield. Like MacBeth, we’ve come “so far from shore returning were as tedious as go o’er.” But what would happen if we decided to go the rest of the way? What would happen if we fanned the spark into a flame?

Now if you’re paying attention, you may have noticed that I’ve been looking at the other side of the text. The mad man in the Gospel today was accosting Jesus, recognizing the holiness in Jesus, and I’m suggesting that there is a holiness also in us, in you and me. I think that’s what Jesus is all about: he came to show us holiness in human life. You may need to be slightly crazy to see it, but I think it’s why Jesus came and I think it’s why we’re here. An image that came to mind was “like moths drawn to the flame that can destroy us.” It’s dangerous, what we’re doing here, and yet we try to make it safe, to tell people about a friendly Jesus and invite them to a comfortable church where they can meet friendly people. I think this church is different. It is comfortable and the people are friendly, but I don’t think that’s why we’re here. I think there’s something more.

I came here last Sunday and a few minutes before ten o’clock the organ prelude began, a simple melody, one note at a time, the melody of a familiar hymn, but then a few chords were added and then some discords and more stops were opened and the melody ramified at last into a complexity of sound, a storm of sound, that washed over me, beyond analysis, beyond understanding, but conveying somehow a sense of a mystery beyond words and requiring worship. There are many paths to that sense of the holy. Music is one of them. Incense and vestments and silence are also part of it. There are paths we need to follow, country we need to explore, to know who we are and why we are here and all the outward show is dedicated to that purpose.

The third book of the Bible is called Leviticus and most people never read it – understandably. I recommend Rudolf Otto; I don’t recommend Leviticus. Leviticus begins with specific instructions on how to sacrifice cattle, how to make a burnt offering of sheep or goats. Why would you do that? Well, you might do it because you have a sense of mystery, and blood and death bring you close to that mystery. Then there are dietary laws. Well, we all know about dietary laws: calorie counting and all that. God gave you a body and you need to take care of it. We know that. Leviticus knows that. We have something in common. But keep on going. There’s stuff about sex – well, that’s terrifying also. But it also holds a potential for deep levels of love and a sense of the holy. Keep going and finally in chapter 19 you come to what is known as “The Holiness Code” and one of the most important chapters in the whole Bible. Verses one and two say it all: “The Lord spoke to Moses saying, ‘Speak to the whole community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.’” The Holiness Code goes on to provide a whole series of instructions about respect for the elderly – more important to me every year – and about leaving some of your harvest for the poor and not insulting the deaf or putting something in the way of the blind for them to trip over and not dealing falsely with others and not sowing two kinds of seed in one field and not turning to ghosts or soothsayers and trimming your beard in a certain way and tucked in with all of that is the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself, and we should do all of that in order to be holy because the Lord our God is holy. We are to come near to the awesome and terrifying mystery at the heart of creation and let that holiness transform us and make us new, make us like God.

There are sixteen Episcopal churches in San Francisco and how many Lutheran and Presbyterian and Methodist and Roman Catholic and Orthodox and other? And yet I read in the paper last week of a United Nations emissary visiting the homeless encampments in Oakland and Berkeley and San Francisco. “She met with dozens of homeless people — many disabled, elderly, veterans, chronically ill, and suffering from addictions — and she witnessed families with children camping in the 41 degree weather. At a camp in the San Antonio neighborhood, she watched large rats scurry in the mud looking for food scraps. While homelessness is an international crisis, in several respects, she said, the situation in California’s cities is worse than other parts of the world. “I find there to be a real cruelty in how people are being dealt with here,” she said.

You shall be holy: you shall be a transforming fire. What would a mad man say? Would he see what we fail to see? Do we know who they are? Do we see the holy there on the street? Do we see the holiness: that flame, that essential core of our being that we somehow are able to stifle and starve and beat down until all we see is the battered shell of a human life – maybe a homeless woman or man and maybe our own.

Jesus came specifically for this purpose: to be recognized as God’s holy one and to let us see who we are called to be, to call out the holiness in you and me so we can come home at last to the Holy God who made us for that end.

I know who you are. Do you?

All Flesh is Grass

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at All Saints Church, Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco, on the Second Sunday of Advent, December 10, 2017.

Lewis Thomas died over 20 years ago, but I think of him again in connection with today’s Old Testament reading.

Some while ago, I read a magazine article in the New York Times about Lewis Thomas, and his thoughts about life and death and the words of Isaiah in the first lesson today seemed to connect: “All flesh is grass” the prophet tells us. “The people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely

the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.” (Isaiah 40:6-8)

How does that connect with Lewis Thomas? Do you know the name? He was Dean of the medical schools at NYU and Yale, chancellor of the Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Scholar in residence at Cornell Medical School and author of essays collected in books called “The Lives of a Cell,” “The Medusa and the Snail,” “The Youngest Profession,” and others. They make good

reading. They’re wise and warm, and they make endlessly interesting observations about human nature and about the human race.

When Lewis Thomas learned that he was terminally ill someone interviewed him and wrote about it so I read the article with special interest and I was really disappointed because he was a man who had seen so much and understood so much and now he was dying and it turned out that he didn’t have a clue about some pretty basic things like God and heaven and life hereafter. Whatever ideas he had could have been picked up secondhand from a church school dropout.

Now, I think when someone in this culture, this society, has no idea of what Christianity is all about we have to take some of the blame. It’s at least in part because we who are Christians are not communicating, not getting our message across, not living up to our faith in a way that gets any attention or understanding. So ignorance about the faith is partly our fault surely, but on the other hand, wouldn’t you think that a highly intelligent, curious man would wonder what it was that shaped our world, our culture, our civilization? He must have heard of Saint Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, and maybe Karl Barth, Rheinhold Neibuhr, William Temple – some of the greatest minds of western civilization have been Christians. Wouldn’t you think that a well-read, well educated, reflective man would wonder why? Wouldn’t you think he would want to test their ideas for himself?

Lewis Thomas wrote an essay once about a space probe that was being sent out toward the far ends of the universe with a carefully coded message on board to tell any intelligent beings out there that we are here. He pondered what message we might send as typifying the very best of what we have done, and he suggested some music of Bach, all of Bach. “It would be boasting, of course,” he said, “but it’s surely excusable to put the best face on at the beginning. We can tell the hard truths later.” I like that suggestion, but can you imagine listening to Bach and Mozart and Haydn and Handel and not wondering about the faith that shaped that music? The B-Minor Mass, the Messiah: wouldn’t you wonder what it was all about? Is it possible truly to appreciate music like that and not understand what it’s saying? It seems to me that it would be like attending a performance of Shakespeare in Russian and not asking for a translation. Can you live in the western world and hear the Messiah and never wonder what it means?

“Comfort ye, my people.” We heard that passage read this morning. I remember the first time I heard it sung live my first year away from home at college. I’d heard it on the radio and maybe we had a recording, but I grew up in a small town and there was no one there who could have sung that aria. But Trinity Church Princeton had a good choir and in Advent the tenor sang “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people.” I was seventeen, so it was a long time ago, but I’ve never forgotten it. They are the words of the prophet Isaiah, words of faith and hope, and the music enhances that expression.

So who was Isaiah? Why did he write those words? Are they just beautiful words with no meaning at all? No, Isaiah was writing at a critical turning point in Jewish history. The Jews had been in exile in Babylon for seventy years, but then they were set free to return to Israel. The exile was ending. God’s people were experiencing God’s goodness in the chance for a new beginning. God had promised and God was keeping that promise.

God does that; God keeps promises. The prophets have visions and dreams and the dreams come true – like it or not. If you like the world we live in, don’t rest easy. It’ll change. God will bring it about. In Isaiah’s vision even death comes into a new perspective: “Surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flowers fades, but the word of our God shall stand for ever.” Death is real, but God is stronger than death.

In some of his essays, Lewis Thomas wrote about death as a scientist, as an observer, and never apparently asked whether there might be a meaning beyond what a scientist might observe. I guess I never really understood before how blind a scientist can be to so much of the same world he or she is studying. That needs to be said. We need to recognize it: how blind a scientist can be and how narrow-minded. Politicians, too, of course; but we know that: blind and narrow-minded and doomed.

I remember that years ago there was a science teacher in the local high school when I was rector of Christ Church in Bronxville, New York, a science teacher who delighted in telling high school children that the crossing of the Red Sea was probably made possible by a volcanic explosion in the Mediterranean that drained the water away from the Red Sea for a while so that the Hebrews could cross, and then sent it rushing back so that the Egyptians were

drowned. Well, I think that’s quite possible myself, but unlike the scientist I don’t consider that a full explanation. I can’t stop asking questions at that point. I’d want to ask what caused the volcanic explosion and why did it go off at just that time. Was it coincidence that led Moses to exactly the right place at exactly the right time? Doesn’t that seem – remarkable? For myself I can’t imagine not asking the rest of the questions. It amazed me how uncurious a scientist could be.

Parenthetically isn’t it odd that a teacher in a public school was free to try undermine a student’s faith but would never be free to try to build it up? I don’t want faith taught in a public school; they’d make a mess of it. But I don’t want atheism taught there either. We need to teach science and I wouldn’t leave it to the churches; they’d make a mess of that! So we equip our school buildings with all the latest scientific equipment. Students need it to survive in this world of ours. But is that all we need to know? It’s great to know What, but shouldn’t we also ask Why?

Are the scientific answers really the full, complete, and final answers to all of life’s questions? Is life only a matter of computers and equations? When we have a free evening to go out with friends, do we go out to watch computer screens or to enjoy a dinner, hear a concert, watch a play, even go to a basketball game? I have a couple of grandsons, actually, who do spend a free evening at a computer screen, but I think – I hope – they’ll outgrow it. Most of us, given freedom to choose, do things that are unscientific and can’t be measured or calibrated. Is it cold facts, is it measurable data, that give meaning to human life and relationships? Is it the power that flows through wires and the invisible internet that creates human relationships or is it the inscrutable power of love? And wouldn’t you want to know where that love comes from and what it means even if you can’t check it in test tubes?

Now, maybe the reviewer misrepresented Dr. Thomas. I hope so. But here’s a typical quotation: “I’m not sure that we’ll come to a flat end but I don’t believe in heaven either. Once we get better at living together I think the question of an afterlife will not seem so important. And once we acquire the habit of peacemaking I don’t think we’ll feel the need for ideas like immortality. I don’t think that the permanence of the individual human soul is an indispensable part of religious thought.”

The simple naivete is breath-taking! “Once we get better at living together” he said, as if it were a problem to be solved and it’s solution is just around the corner. “Once we acquire the habit of peacemaking . . .” he said. Right. Maybe after the next election. And then that line about “I don’t think the permanence of the individual human soul is an indispensable part of human thought.” Well, I don’t think that either. But the interviewer and the doctor both seem to assume that that’s what Christians believe. I guess actually a lot of them do, because they also may never have gone beyond first grade in church school. But the Creed we recite every Sunday talks about resurrection not immortality of the soul and resurrection is a very different idea. It’s based, for one thing, not on a philosopher’s speculation but on a real, witnessed, historical event: the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

So where did Lewis Thomas get the idea that “the permanence of the individual human soul is an indispensable part of religious thought.” Isaiah didn’t believe in it nor did Jesus nor did Paul. The Greeks did, but that’s where we get our philosophy not our faith. Yes, maybe Buddhists and Hindus believe in a permanent soul, but we’re not Hindus or Buddhists.

Listen again to what Isaiah says: ‘The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.” Isaiah, of course, didn’t know about resurrection. But he knew that human beings are not immortal. He knew that God alone is immortal. And he knew that whatever meaning life has, what ever hope we have, depends entirely on God. But who needs God, if you have an immortal soul? If you’re immortal, you don’t need God. Or else you are God. But that’s eastern religion. Jews and Christians know better. Life is fragile. Death is real. Without God, we’re doomed. But the joy and wonder of the Christian faith is that we know God loves us and God offers us life, new life, resurrection life.

I went back at a point and looked at some more of Thomas’s essays and I found one about death. He investigated it like a scientist, observing what can be observed and ignoring what can’t be measured. He saw it as inevitable, part of the biological process, not a matter of disease as he saw it, but simply of a biological clock that runs out. He wrote: “ if we ever do achieve freedom from most of today’s diseases, or even complete freedom from disease, we will perhaps terminate by drying out and blowing away on a light breeze, but we will still die.”

Well, he’s right about that, of course. But then he goes on, “even so, if the transformation is a coordinated integrated physiological process in its initial local stages, there is still that permanent vanishing of consciousness to account for. Are we to be stuck forever with this problem? Where on earth does it go? Is it simply stopped dead in its tracks, lost in humus, wasted? This seems to me unnatural . . . but I have no data on the matter.”

It’s almost funny. “Where does the consciousness go?” he asks. “I have no data on the matter,” he writes. Really? No data? Lewis Thomas was married for over fifty years; did he never notice that love and faithfulness are something more than scientific data? I value the scientific data. It tells us a lot about God. In recent years as we’ve heard more and more about black

holes and light years and spiral galaxies and an ever expanding universe, I’ve become more aware than ever before of the inadequacy of all our language about God and how much we need to be learning new and better and greater ways to speak about a God beyond all language. We need the scientists to expand our vision – and I think they need us to remind them of the limits of their data.

Isaiah demands that we pay attention to the basic realities of the human condition: our humanity and God’s divinity, our mortality and God’s eternity. Isaiah demands that we pay attention to areas of more concern than spread sheets and Dow Jones averages, and bank balances, and shopping lists. Isaiah insists that we pay attention to the fact that three weeks from now the stock exchange will close down and the stores will be shut and life as we know it will come to an end, however briefly, and the whole world will celebrate again the birth of a child demanding love, God speaking to us, God offering life to dying human beings. “Surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of our God will stand for ever.” In that Word is our life.

Justice Transformed by Mercy

A sermon preached at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, November 6, 2017, by Christopher L. Webber.

“ . . . let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”

There are probably people who think Martin Luther King said that, and he did, more than once, but Amos said it first. Amos was a shepherd and a trimmer of sycamore trees, a country man living a simple country life over seven centuries before the birth of Christ. But Amos went to the city one day and he was appalled at what he saw. Here were people driving big cars, chauffeured limousines, shopping for stuff they didn’t need, and walking right by homeless men and women lying on the sidewalks. Here were people with computers and iPhones and central heating and cooling who would go the market and buy choice steaks and exotic fruits and pay taxes to a government that would bomb people on the other side of the world and ignore the needs of people next door. Amos was appalled. He called them out: He said, “they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals–they trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way; so that God’s holy name is profaned; He might have read the same headlines we read and watched the same television and asked how it could be that politicians and corporate executives would hide their money in overseas tax shelters while people are homeless and why they would try to cut taxes on the wealthy while cutting back health care for women and children.

What would Amos say to us? He’d say what he said to his own day: “Sweep it away; honor God . . . . . . let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” Amos was first of the so-called “canonical prophets,” the first prophet whose words were written down. His people had worshiped God for centuries, but they had known God as a God of power, a God who could make a way through the Red Sea and drown Pharaoh’s army and thunder down from Sinai: a God of overwhelming power, a God on their side against their enemies, but not a God to worry about much from day to day. Amos had a different picture of God. Amos portrayed a God who cared first for the weak and the poor, whose power had purpose and whose purpose was to use that power for those in need: the widow and orphan, the refugee and the immigrant, those with no friends in Jerusalem or Washington or city hall. Amos thundered about a God who had no interest in power politics or personal piety, no interest in prayer breakfasts or national greatness, but a deep concern for the hungry and homeless, the weak and the helpless, the sorrowful and poor. Amos, I think, would look at the churches of America and ask, “What are you doing when you promote a so-called personal relationship with God and have no relationship with those who need your help?”

The religion of too many Americans is a false religion that centers on feeling good and cares nothing for my neighbor. What kind of world have we made when 20% of the world consumes 80% of the world’s goods, when the rich hide their wealth in tax shelters while Africans flee from land parched by drought and Syrians flee from bombs and poisoned gas and children in Central America flee from armed gangs and our concern is to build a wall and keep them out? What kind of world have we made? Who is there to speak like Amos to those in power and warn them of a judgment that will sweep them away? Amos warned of a day of judgment. Amos had a vision of God standing beside a wall with a plumb line in his hand and the wall would not stand. Amos would tell us, Your guns will not save you when that day comes. Moses had given the people the Law, the Decalog, the Ten Commandments: worship God, honor your parents, deal honestly with each other, but it was all too easy to see a narrow vision: say your prayers, behave yourself, take care of personal relationships with family and friends. Amos had a larger vision: a social vision, a concern for the weak and the helpless, a concern for a society that left too many out and he applied that vision to his world and he saw no hope, only death and destruction, death and destruction for a people who could not see beyond themselves, who talked about national greatness while having no vision of national justice.

The world of Amos was very small. He never traveled more than a few miles from home. He never imagined a world of human beings so powerful that they could destroy themselves in a dozen ways, but the same words still work: love justice, hate evil, care for those in need. Jesus came with the same message: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Notice the word Jesus used: “righteousness.” Not justice; righteousness. Actually, the words get used almost interchangeably in translation: justice; righteousness. Two words, maybe, for the same thing. But maybe not. The word “justice” actually never comes up in the New Testament and seldom in the Old Testament. The same Hebrew word can be translated either way but the English words have a different feel. But I think “justice” is a rather impersonal word. Justice is given, meted out. It has to do with laws and judgment. But righteousness is a human quality; it’s a lifestyle. It can be negative; if someone is self-righteous, that’s not popular. But righteous and righteousness are common words in the New Testament and they are rooted in the nature of God. God is righteous and it’s a way of acting toward others. It’s not judgmental like “justice” but merciful and transforming. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says, “Seek first the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness . . .” So start there: seek righteousness, seek for the kingdom, the nation, concerned not for national greatness but human fulfillment: justice transformed by mercy, love conquering hatred, fear overwhelmed by love.

Isaiah’s Vineyard and Ours

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, on October 8, 2017.

Forty years ago my wife and I bought some land. It was, in the words of the prophet, “on a very fertile hill. (And I) dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines . . .” Well, actually, I planted it with apple trees and peach trees and corn and potatoes. But I tilled the soil and I pruned the trees and I established an asparagus bed, and I looked for it to produce good crops and by and large it did. I had a much better experience than Isaiah in the first reading – or, actually, God; it’s God speaking through the prophet about a bad experience God had with the people of God. But I had a good experience.

Eventually the time came to sell it and move on, to move west, and so we entrusted our land to new hands, a new owner, and unlike God’s experience with Israel, I have not been disappointed in the new owners either. I think he’s done better with it than I did. He sent me some apples once from my trees and some asparagus by overnight express. I’m very happy with what’s happened.

God has not been so lucky. God plants vineyards and it doesn’t work out very well.. We read about it in today’s first reading and it’s echoed in the Psalm and the Gospel. God planted a garden. God has been doing gardening from the beginning. And God has been disappointed again and again by the caretakers sent to take care of it, by the lack of a good harvest.

God also, come to think of it, planted a garden in North America. We sing about it and it always brings tears to my eyes:
O beautiful for spacious skies
For amber waves of grain
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain . . .

That’s what we’ve been given. That’s what was entrusted to us. And we were challenged to build a shining city on a hill, to draw others and inspire others.

We sing about it still: “O beautiful for spacious skies . . .” We sing about it, and we wake up in the morning to hear how many died in the latest killing spree and how badly we have failed to help those whose lives have been destroyed by a hurricane and we continue to pour carbon dioxide into the air and to warm the seas. And one plus one is still two. If you pollute the air and warm the seas, they will spawn ever fiercer storms and trees will be uprooted and farm land and gardens and homes will be washed away and human lives will be lost.

And yet we choose leaders who make false promises and are intent on their own power and wealth and have no notion, not the slightest notion, of a vision like that of Isaiah, like that of Jesus, leaders who have forgotten, as we have forgotten,
“the heroes proved in liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life!

Why is there such an apparent shortage of leaders and followers
Who more than self their country love
And mercy – and mercy – more than life – more than life.

For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!

The Hebrew has a little play on words there:
He looked for righteousness but heard a cry.
The King James says, “He looked for righteousness but behold oppression.”
In Hebrew it says:
Vayikáv lamishpát, v’hinéy mispách; litz’dakáh, v’hiney tza’akáh.
He looked for mishpat but behold mispach, for dakah but behold za-akah

or to make a similar play on words in English:

he looked for right but behold riot;
for equity, but behold, iniquity.

God looked for righteousness.
God had expectations.
America! America!
May God thy gold refine. . .
It’s so easy, isn’t it, to watch the news and despair. How can I make a difference? I can see what needs doing but the people in power are blind, blind, self-obsessed, willing to take actions that destroy our future, blind and deaf to the things that need to be done.

We ought to know what God hopes for in this western vineyard, this city on a hill, this America. We know we ought to create a health care system that works for everyone. We know we ought to rid the nation of guns, take action to reduce air and water pollution, teach tolerance and self-sacrifice. And doesn’t it seem hopeless?

It’s easy to say, “I’ve done what I could: I voted right; I give to environmental and justice causes and I pledge to the church. I try to have an influence on others but I don’t personally know anyone who has an influence in city hall or Sacramento or Washington., so there’s nothing I can do.”

I’m just one small voice, right? But the world is made up of small voices. There are more of us than there are of them. And if I truly care, I and millions of others can make a difference. Yes, we can.

Do you tithe? Do you contribute to justice causes and the environment? If not, it’s no wonder the world’s a mess.

I’m working on the biography of a man who had been reading about coral reefs and he said, “I must have had a coral insect for a millio-millio-grandfather, loving to work beneath the tide in a superstructure that someday when the laborer is long dead and forgotten, may rear itself above the waves and afford rest and habitation for the creatures of the Good, Good Father of all.”

I like that picture: building a coral reef, century after century, a durable, lasting beautiful structure, grain by grain, grain by grain.

God didn’t call the apostle Paul to convert the world; but just to preach the gospel and Paul probably spoke to hundreds, but those hundreds became thousands, and those thousands became millions. And the world has been changed.

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!

Have you seen those cities, alabaster cities undimmed by human tears? I haven’t. I don’t expect to. So shall we change the hymn?

O pretty nice for modest hopes
Where we would like to see
A city that’s not halfway bad
And not much misery.

It doesn’t sing, does it? It doesn’t grab me either. I stand with Isaiah. I want to know why we aren’t getting better crops and I want to be sure the weeds don’t grow where I can pull them up. Have you pledged a tithe to the church? That’s the standard the Episcopal Church formally adopted years ago. How can we make a difference without commitment. Have you contributed to the Sierra Club or an organization working for the environment? Do you make an annual contribution to a group working for social justice? There are things we can do. We can make a difference. or we can sit home and complain that nothing ever changes, that the vineyard still produces the same wild grapes.

O beautiful – potentially –
God grant us grace to be
A fruitful vine:  justice and peace,
Fulfilling prophecy.

A Letter to Us

A sermon preached at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, on August 20, 2017, by Christopher L. Webber.

NOTE:  This sermon supposes St. Paul writing letters to American DearFriendscities.  Those letters have been written and published in “Dear Friends:  Letters of St. Paul to American Christians” available from Amazon and other book dealers.

Suppose St. Paul were alive today and suppose he were still writing letters. Of course, he would use a computer and I think he would write a series of letters (e-mails, of course) to American cities: Washington, Dallas, San Francisco. I think the one we would all be waiting for would be the letter to Washington. That letter would cover all sorts of subjects – some I will not get into – and one of them, I think, would be inter-faith relations.

Almost 2000 years ago Paul wrote a letter to Christians in Rome, the Washington of the ancient world, and he didn’t write about the emperor but he did write about inter-faith relationships. He wrote about the relationship between Christians and Jews. He agonized about it. That there should even be a division was a grief to Paul. It seemed so clear to him that the ancient Paulpurpose of God had been fulfilled in Jesus. Everything the Jews had been waiting for had been fulfilled in Jesus. For three chapters Paul wrestled with the issue and last week, this week, and next week we get brief excerpts from a passage in which Paul is agonizing about why the majority of the Jews have not accepted the Messiah and how it could be that God would have let it happen.

By the time he wrote that letter, Paul had had years to think about it and in writing to the Romans he gives them his theory. That’s what we’re reading for these three weeks. And what Paul says is, God is wiser than we. God is able to take that rejection and use it to accomplish far more than God’s people could ever imagine. Did the Jews reject Jesus? Yes, but look at the result: Gentiles turning to God in record numbers. And if Paul were writing now he could feel well justified in his logic. Look it up on the web, there are about 13 million Jews in the world today, but about 2 billion Christians. That’s what God accomplished out of human failure.

So what could God do for an encore? Paul thought about that and when Paul wrote to Rome he imagined a time when Jews and Christians would be brought back together, separate branches with a common root and all to the glory of God. And you can really begin to imagine it today with Jews and Christians talking together at more depth than ever and a greater desire to understand.

I think that if Paul were writing to Washington today and felt that the people there needed some guidance – and they might – he could certainly begin with the same analysis he brought to the question of Christians and Jews 2000 years ago. We’ll hear a little more about this next week but you really ought to take time with your Bible to read chapters 9-11 of Romans yourself to get the full impact. In brief, what Paul says is God has used the Jewish failure to accept Christ to make the gospel known to the Gentiles. His own words are: “a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved . . .” God has, so to speak, put 13 million on hold until billions more are gathered.

But now go back to the 7th century. Christianity had become the established religion of the Roman Empire but the Roman Empire had fallen and Christianity in the west was struggling to survive in what have been called “the Dark Ages.” But into this situation came a man named Mohammed with enormous energy and organizational skill and a vision of one God and a pattern of life centered in prayer and alms giving, and concern for the poor. Paul didn’t know about that, of course, but if he had, I think he might have fit that also into his vision. If that Islamic zeal in less than a hundred years could carry this new monotheism from Spain to India and bring into its fold spaceearthmillions upon millions, why could that also not be fitted into God’s final plan? Jews and Christians in Paul’s day were utterly irreconcilable. Christians and Muslims from Mohammed’s time to our own have been utterly irreconcilable but Paul had faith that God could do more than even he could imagine. Why can’t the same faith be ours?

Listen again to today’s epistle: “There is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’”

Now, there’s a simplistic version of this that you often hear: stuff about “all roads lead to Rome” and “we all believe in the same God” and “we’re all going to the same place eventually” and so on. If Paul thought that, he could have stayed home and been a successful rabbi. Instead he gave it all up to endure enormous hardship: “Thrice was I beaten with rods,” he writes, “once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; In journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren.” Paul didn’t endure that because he thought it made no difference. It did make a difference. It still does.

Christianity today, for all its divisions, for all its failures, is light years ahead of Islam in terms of dealing with the 21st century world, light years ahead in terms of working through issues of sexuality and human relationships. And I believe that’s true simply because at the heart of the Christian faith is a knowledge of the triune God and a belief in the incarnation that requires us to approach this world in a very different way and a way that makes a vitally important difference.

But would it have been better for the world if Islam had never come to be? I can’t see that it would. As it is, the vast majority of the world’s peoples have come to believe in one God, a merciful God, a God who works to give all people a knowledge of the God who created us and cares for us. That’s a lot to have in common. I think St. Paul could write to Washington that “There is no distinction in God’s sight between Jew and Greek, between American and Arab; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.”

Well, but isn’t the present state of the world a messy way for God to be working? Was God really at work in the American invasion of Iraq and the endless war in Afghanistan? Absolutely. Not to say that God would have deliberately chosen Plan A or Plan B as worked out in the Pentagon as the ideal way to proceed, no; probably not; but it is to say that God is able to bring out of this chaos far more good than any of us could ever imagine. The fifty year confrontation between east and west over politics and power, communism and capitalism, has been replaced by something far more important and yes, oil, and politics is still very much at the center of it but so is faith, so is faith. When the television news shows us again and again prayer13pictures of Muslims at prayer that demands our attention. Faith matters. Faith may divide, but only faith can bridge that divide. Only faith, only a deep understanding of who we are and what God calls us to be, can ever unite us. And it still can. It still can. God is able to use even this for the unity of God’s people and the ultimate glory of God. That’s the hope Paul held out to the Romans 2000 years ago and it’s the hope still held out to us today.

Through the Torii

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making Sense of Snippets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Unknown Trinity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Unknown God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, yes, an Unknown God – it’s an unknown God we serve and an unknown God we worship.  The great Welsh priest-poet, R.S.Thomas, has written:
“His are the echoes
We follow, the footprints he has just
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.