Bodies, Not Souls

April 22nd, 2017

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

April 8th, 2017

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

March 11th, 2017

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

January 29th, 2017

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?