Who Do I Belong To

May 13th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being a Vine

April 29th, 2018

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at All Saints Church, Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco, on April 29, 2018.

“I AM the vine.” St. John 15:5

There’s a little history book discussion group I belong to that has been reading a book called “The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America” (Frances Fitzgerald, Simon and Schuster, 2017) and we meet next Tuesday to discuss it. I was looking forward to reading it, hoping for some insights, but I’m not sure I got any. What I did notice was that what started as a religious movement two centuries ago seemed to become more and more a political movement as we came down to the present day What started out with a particular teaching about the Holy Spirit and religious revival became more and more about names like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and organizations like the Family Research Council and Christian Broadcasting Network and narrowly focused groups aimed at enlisting politicians and winning elections and something called “the Christian right”

The book actually ended on a fairly hopeful note with a discussion of the increasing influence of “millennials” and concern for social justice issues. But better yet, one member of the discussion group sent us a copy of a speech he found on line by the President of Fuller Seminary, one of the most prestigious evangelical seminaries anywhere. Maybe you’ve heard of it. It’s in Menlo Park – not far away – and it claims approximately 4,000 students from 90 countries and 110 denominations. I read the speech with amazement and hope. Dr. Labberton, the president of the seminary, told his evangelical audience:

“When evangelical leaders like us gather, it is often with a spirit of optimistic hope, known for “pressing on” in the work of the gospel. For me, this is not a time of pressing on. I feel a personal urgency to stop, to pray, to listen, to confess, and to repent and want to call us to do the same. Only the Spirit “who is in the world to convict us of sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8) can bring us to clarity about the crisis we face. As I have sought that conviction, here is what I have come to believe: The central crisis facing us is that the gospel of Jesus Christ has been betrayed and shamed by an evangelicalism that has violated its own moral and spiritual integrity. This is not a crisis imposed from outside the household of faith, but from within. The core of the crisis is not specifically about Trump, or Hillary, or Obama, or the electoral college, or Comey, or Mueller, (MULLER) or abortion, or LGBTQIA+ debates, or Supreme Court appointees. Instead the crisis is caused by the way a toxic evangelicalism has engaged with these issues in such a way as to turn the gospel into Good News that is fake. Now on public display is an indisputable collusion between prominent evangelicalism and many forms of insidious racist, misogynistic, materialistic, and political power. The wind and the rain and the floods have come, and, as Jesus said, they will reveal our foundation. In this moment for evangelicalism, what the storms have exposed is a foundation not of solid rock but of sand.”

So OK – we have things to talk about. We do have elements of a common faith. And we need to ask, Who are we as Christians? What unites us? Why are we here? How can we get to work to serve Jesus here and now? What’s obvious is that we are not ready for the Second Coming, and we do have things to talk about and maybe we have some on both sides prepared to talk and more important prepared to listen.

The basic problem of course is that we are human beings who need structure to shape our lives We need rules, budgets, buildings, programs, meetings. That’s where it really comes apart: meetings: vestries, conventions, synods, committees, sub-committees. . . Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we do it to Jesus? We do it because we have to – without structure our lives fall apart – but with structure, we lose the spirit and have to refocus again and again and remind ourselves what it’s all about, why we are here. The Gospel this morning tells us. It says, “I am the vine, you are the branches.”

It all come back to that, to our relationship with Jesus. It’s just as simple as that – and just as complicated: our relationship with Jesus. “I am the vine,” Jesus said; “And you are the branches.” “Abide in me.” It’s simple. It’s simple to be branches of a vine: just don’t fall off. Hang in there. It’s simple. Just be there, be where the nourishment is. Simple. But being human, we always make it complicated. I am the vine; you are the branches. Abide in me.” Simple. And we mess it up. Time after time.

But of course, this idea of a vine is what the English teachers call a “metaphor”: like reality, but different. We may be a metaphorical vine, with metaphorical roots, but we’re actually human beings with unmetaphorical feet that walk us away from where we ought to be. We don’t have visible roots; we don’t have an obvious structure that just naturally draws nourishment up out of the ground, along the trunk, into the branches. We have the disadvantage of being seemingly separate human beings who have the ability to go our own way, think our own thoughts, and be vegetarians or carnivores, Democrats or Republicans, Christians or Muslims, Shiites or Sunnis, Episcopalians or Seventh Day Adventists or Two-seed in the Spirit Predestinarian Baptists. So where the vine just does its thing, we make it hard for ourselves. We have to figure out first what our thing is. Who are we? Who do we want to be – not what, but who. Are we going to be like a vine or like a bunch of lego pieces that may fit together and may not.

Where do we go wrong? The simple answer is that we don’t listen to today’s Gospel and Jesus’ words. It’s about life in the vine. It’s about sharing life, Jesus’ risen life, and we also call that “communion,” Food for the journey and that food for the journey is here at the altar: shared life, sharing eternal life, Jesus’ risen life, right here, right now, in a living relationship, we are branches drawing life from the vine.

I’m sorry for Christians who lack that center. It goes back to ancient controversies – times when people argued over what it meant to be in communion, to receive communion, what specifically it meant. And some walked away from the ancient pattern: better not to have communion at all than to do it wrong or share it with someone we disagree with as to what it meant. We’re getting over that. More and more churches are bringing communion back to a central place, but meanwhile we find ourselves divided over issues and rules and structures – yes, and politics. And we walk away from communion as if that would solve something. Ideally it should be Communion first, not last. We need to share life, But lots of Christians aren’t ready for that; don’t value it, don’t see it as central. We’ve got a long way to go even to get to square one.

Jesus said “Do this” and that ought to be the beginning, but instead it’s a goal. But we need to keep focused on that goal. Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches, abide in me.” He never said, so far as I know, “Here’s the rule book; obey it.” Or “here’s an organization chart and rules for electing Vestries.” Rules can be very helpful; because we’re human we have to have them but they’re not the gospel and they can be changed. We keep trying to put rules first and communion second.

But the goal is communion. We belong to a communion, the Anglican communion. We’re not Congregationalists where each local church is self-governing or at the other extreme Roman Catholics governed by the Bishop of Rome. We’re not Methodists with a particular Method or Baptists insisting on believer baptism or Lutherans with allegiance to a particular 16th century theologian. We’re a communion, united in worship, united by the life we share at the altar. But even in communion we find ourselves divided by the same issues Dr. Labberton was talking about at Fuller Seminary: There are, he said, “many forms of insidious racist, misogynistic, materialistic, and political power . . . that turn the gospel into good news that is fake.” For example: let’s talk about sex. Jesus never said, “You have to agree about sex.” But some people won’t talk to people who disagree with them about sex. And what makes it so tragic is that none of us – none of us – really knows what we’re talking about when it comes to sex.

Let me tell you some history. Ten years ago, the last time the bishops of our worldwide Anglican Communion tried to come together in England, as they have usually done every ten years, some of the bishops wouldn’t even go to the meeting because they disagreed with their brother and sister bishops. about various issues concerning sex – what was allowable and what wasn’t. They made it that important even though, on the record, Anglican Bishops would get a failing grade on that subject. I made a study the last time they met, about ten years ago of the history of the Lambeth Conference and I paid particular attention to their changing wisdom about sex. It all began in the nineteenth century when they first met and were confronted by a question from African bishops about polygamy. It wasn’t something English or American bishops had thought about very much, but they quickly agreed that polygamy was bad and polygamists couldn’t be baptized. There were missionaries in Africa who were saying, “We’ve got this man who wants to be baptized, but he’s got ten wives. What should we do?” And the bishops said, “Well, you can baptize his wives, but not him – not unless he sends nine of them away.” And the missionaries said, “But what would happen to all those wives without his support and protection? What would become of nine-tenths of the children?” And the bishops said, “Not our problem; we don’t do polygamy.” That was in 1888. In 1998 they looked at it again and said, “Well, actually, maybe; if he promises not to marry again, it might be OK.” Times have changed; so the rules have changed. If you are a rule-bound church, you wind up in big trouble. In 1908 the bishops said, “If you get a divorce, you can’t marry again and if you do marry again, you can’t come to communion. In 1968 they said, “Divorce happens but life has to go on. We all make mistakes, but there’s forgiveness in Jesus.” In 1920 the bishops said “Birth control is really bad.” In 1968 they said, “Family planning is really good.” Right now a lot of them still want to say that same sex unions are bad and I’d be more inclined to accept that if they had ever gotten it right about sex before. So, yes, give the bishops an F on sex, but fortunately it’s not critical because we’re not a church governed by rules; our unity is in communion, in the vine, in Jesus. Rules can be changed.

And still we have problems. There are Anglican dioceses in both America and Africa that want to divide the church over issues of sexuality. There are African dioceses that refuse to come to Anglican Communion meetings because they say they are just holding to the faith that western missionaries taught them a hundred years ago and they’re right – that is what they were taught and how do you account for change when you were taught an unchanging faith? The one thing I’m sure of is that we can’t solve issues by division: We can only solve them in the vine, only when we all draw our life from the same source. Anything else fundamentally alters the nature of our communion and puts us at odds with the gospel this morning that tells us to abide in Jesus, in communion, in the vine.

Why, at this point in human history, with attitudes toward sexuality changing from day to day , would we choose to draw a line in the sand and say “This is it: my way or the highway.” That baffles me. I know how much my own ideas have changed on this subject over the years and I’m glad I’ve been free to change. I want to keep my options open, not set in concrete in 2018. Evangelicals could maybe learn from us – that is from our mistakes – and we could learn from them and we could both learn by our own experience that it’s easy to put the emphasis in the wrong place – to worry about the wrong things, to care more about the rules than the vine. But we desperately need to work toward a deeper and fuller communion so that we can move forward on the things that matter like homelessness and the environment and medical policies and tax policies shaped by a concern for others rather than personal greed or our own narrow and limited understanding.

I don’t expect evangelicals to adopt the Book of Common Prayer any time soon and I don’t expect Anglicans, Episcopalians, to figure out ways to come to a common mind on issues of human sexuality, but maybe we can agree on what today’s Gospel reminds us of: that life comes first – the sharing of the life that flows through the vine to the branches.

The Anglican Communion has a seal it adopted maybe 60-70 years ago that shows a globe and a bishop’s miter and around the globe in Greek it says – “The truth shall make you free.” (John 8:32) That’s a great verse to take as emblematic of what we’re all about: truth and freedom. It’s just that simple and just that hard. Apart from love it’s impossible. But with God, with Love, all things are possible and it begins here at the altar where we are nourished in a common life. He is the vine; we are the branches; our life is in him.

Being Like God

April 14th, 2018

A sermon preached at All Saints Church, San Francisco, by Christopher L. Webber on April 15, 2018.

Many years ago, I had an assistant who was just out of seminary and one Sunday it was his turn to preach – maybe the first time he had done it. The epistle reading that morning was I Corinthians 13, the great passage about love: “Faith, hope, and love remain, but the greatest of these is love.” So the time for the sermon came and he went to the pulpit and read it again and then he said, “That’s just so beautiful, I don’t think there’s much I can add to it, so let’s just take some time to think about it” And then he sat down and out his chin on his fist like that famous statue of “The Thinker” by Rodin, and we all waited to see what would happen next and I have to admit that I didn’t think about I Corinthians 13 at all because I was trying to think of a way to move the service ahead.

I remembered that this last week when I started to think about this sermon and the readings we have just heard and was I drawn to the reading from the First Epistle of John and wondered what more could be said and whether that young assistant’s approach might not have something to be said for it. Listen again to John:

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. I John 3:2

What more is there to say? John himself runs out of words: “What we shall be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.”

I’ve spent a lot of time in recent sermons talking about the difference it makes to be a Christian but I’ve been talking about it in terms of the impact we ought to make on the world around us. Today, if we pay attention to the epistle, we’re asked to think about the difference it makes in us and, really, we probably ought to think about that first because how can we make a difference in the world unless we ourselves are different?

But here’s the problem: the difference comes in two ways and one of them is beyond words. Last week John was plain and simple: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves.” But, you know, dealing with sin is the easy part. we confess and we are forgiven. Well, that’s easier to say than to do, but at least you can say it and sometimes, on our good days, we can do it. But John is pointing us beyond that. He’s saying sin and forgiveness are just a first step toward a future beyond words and beyond imagination. “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.”

There are two steps there: first, “we are God’s children now.” We could sit for awhile and contemplate that. Do you take it for granted? You shouldn’t. I think we sometimes write it off as something that’s a “given,” as if it comes with being born: “all human beings are children of God; we’re all God’s children.” You hear people say that, but I don’t think so. God is the Creator and all human beings, like all cats and dolphins and sheep and red-tailed hawks are God’s creation. But not God’s children, not part of God’s family. Potentially, yes, but to become a child of God requires baptism; it’s what baptism is all about.

When we baptize a child the whole congregation joins in saying, “We receive you into the household of God.” In other words, “Welcome to the family; the family of God’s children.” We are children of God, the Bible tells us, not by nature, but by adoption and grace. St Paul talks about it in the Epistle to the Galatians:

God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God. (4:4-7)

So that’s an amazing first step toward an even more amazing future: God, the Creator of the universe, makes human beings of dust and then provides a way for us, these creatures of dust, to become God’s own children. And what John is meditating on is that this has consequences, it has to be only a first step because we earth creatures, on the surface at least, have nothing in common with the eternal God.

We say on Ash Wednesday, “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” But if so, why bother? Potentially, at least, there seems to be something more and it’s hinted at already in the first chapter of Genesis. It says, “God created humankind in the image of God.” We may be only dust but there is something in us from the very beginning capable of reflecting God. And what would that be? How do we, in any way, resemble God?

Well, of course, what often happens is that we draw pictures of a God who resembles us. We make God in our image. Even the great artists – da Vinci, Michelangelo – picture God as an old man on a cloud: God, in the paintings, does look a lot like us. And what else can they do? If God doesn’t look like us, what does God look like? But the Bible actually tells us a lot about what God is like and some of it can be seen in human life: there’s justice, for example. God is just and we are somewhat just, we aspire to be just. Maybe we know someone or know of someone who seems to be absolutely fair and just in their dealings with other people: a teacher who gives equal attention to every child, a businessman or woman who treats every employee and customer fairly, a politician who is never influenced by money or special interests. God is like that – only more so – and God is merciful and forgiving. Above all, God is love. And these are qualities we see in human beings and admire and we know that we all have the potential to embody these qualities more fully than we do. We could be more like that. And maybe we can dimly imagine someone who really is like that completely, perfectly. Out there, somewhere, we might imagine is one who embodies these qualities perfectly and what we see is just a pale reflection of our potential.

So in a sense God is like us, but infinitely, unimaginably more. God’s justice and love and so on, of course, are so far beyond ours that the resemblance is only slight but we do instinctively know when we see mercy and forgiveness and self-forgetting love in a human being that that’s what we ought to be. We know instinctively that God is like that and we ought to be, ought to be and can be.

We have that potential. And those qualities, when we see them, give us a glimpse of God. And of course that’s why the followers of Jesus Christ very soon began to say that in seeing and knowing him they had also come to know God. “God was in Christ,” said St Paul, “reconciling the world to himself.” God was in Christ showing us what God is like and drawing us back to that lost likeness, that image in which God first created us, and that we so quickly lost at the very beginning.

John says, “We are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” So baptism makes us the children of God by adoption and grace and starts us on the road home. But even knowing Jesus, we don’t really know what we will be. We have only seen Jesus in human form. What will he be like in glory? We can hardly imagine. And will we be like that? Yes, that’s what John tells us. Yes, we can hardly imagine, but we will be like that.

I’ve been talking the last few weeks about the failures of American Christianity and maybe the greatest of all is that it sets its sights so low. It tells us to be happy or be good or repent but John points beyond all that to something unimaginable. He tells us we were made for glory, and that glory dazzles human eyes. We would need new eyes to see it, new bodies to live it. But that’s what John wants us to understand: we were made for a glory so far beyond our understanding that no revelation can show us and no words contain it. It’s not a question of keeping the commandments, not even a question of loving God and loving our neighbor. That’s all well and good and we need to be working at it, but it’s a question of growing into God and I think that’s why there’s eternity. It may well take an eternity or two even to begin to be who God made us to be.

John Donne, as usual, said it best almost 400 years ago:
“Can you hope to pour the whole sea into a thimble or take the whole world into your hand? And yet, that is easier than to comprehend the joy and glory of heaven in this life. For this eternity, this everlastingness, is incomprehensible in this life.”
Incomprehensible, yes, but now, right now, we can make a beginning. We can remember our baptisms, the baptism that made us God’s children. We can come here to be fed at God’s table; how could we grow up without food, after all, and that food is Christ himself because we are called to grow into Christ, to be members of his body. And then we can pray and ask God’s help daily to draw us closer to that destiny for which we were made and which we will never fully understand until we are there in the presence of God and able to be at last all we are meant to be and what we can begin to be now.

We Deceive Ourselves

April 7th, 2018

A sermon preached at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, by Christopher L. Webber on the Second Sunday of Easter, April 8, 2018.

If we say that we have no sins, we deceive ourselves.  I John 1:8

If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained. St. John 20:23

There’s a familiar story about Calvin Coolidge, President almost a hundred years ago, who was a man of few words. When he came back from church one day They asked him about the sermon. What was it about. “Sin,” said the President. “Well, what did the preacher say about it?” They asked. “He was against it,” said Mr. Coolidge.

Me, too. But let me say a bit more. Let me talk about sin. The epistle reading said: “ If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves.” In the Gospel, Jesus said, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” So we need to talk about sin. Sin is a big part of life. You probably have some experience with it. Most of us do. But the gospel is about not only sin but also forgiveness. I think too many Christians miss the point.

I think at one extreme there are Christians who ignore sin entirely and at the other extreme there are Christians who spend too much time on it but don’t really understand it.

On the one hand, there’s a kind of Christianity out there that hardly ever mentions sin. Do you remember how when they asked the current President about his faith he said he had never asked for forgiveness? Some churches today don’t mention sin. And I guess that’s where the President had been, and you can see the results. Some churches don’t mention sin. They don’t want to upset people. They talk about being positive and happy and emphasize feeling good. Well, fine, but that’s not Christianity. Christianity is about the love of God, yes. It’s about love and forgiveness, but it recognizes the many ways we reject that love and shut God out of our lives. There’s a lot of Christianity that skips over all that and gives you comfortable chairs and entertaining music and says, “Feel good.” Fine, but Christian faith is about facing sin and being restored to life, forgiven, renewed, nourished, fed. It’s about being changed and changing the world. And it starts with forgiveness for sin.

The other extreme form of Christianity puts sin at the center as if it were all that mattered. It is important. Don’t get me wrong. But some preachers make it sound as if sin is all we need to care about. I think all the traditional evangelical churches have been guilty of an overemphasis on sin, pounding it in over and over and never moving on to the joy of forgiveness and the peace that comes afterwards. And the worst part of it is that it often gets identified with sex. The Roman Church also has done that. It’s one of the reasons why their priests can’t marry and women can’t be ordained. Sin and sex get wrapped up together in a funny way and that misses the point too. It makes for a narrow kind of Christianity that’s good at condemning but not very good at encouraging: not very good at forgiving, renewing, strengthening, not very good at giving thanks for God’s goodness.

Sin is not just about sex or swearing or stealing or lying – that’s the easy part. The churches that center on sin tend to center on personal failures and, of course, there’s plenty to talk about. But I think that the worst sins are the ones that have a social dimension: war and unemployment, a correction system that fails to correct an educational system that fails to educate a health care system that leaves too many people outside. I can go down the list of the Ten Commandments and check off making a graven image and committing adultery and murder and feel pretty good about myself but where do wars come from and why aren’t our schools better and why are there so many unemployed? Is no one responsible? Does it all just happen to happen and nothing can be done about it? Does anyone think it’s God’s will? I would think it was pretty obvious that war and unemployment and so on result from human decisions, but often a set of human decisions so interlinked that it’s hard to say who did it. Who got us into Iraq and Afghanistan? Who got us into Vietnam? It would be nice to have someone to blame but the truth is that no one person did it. No, lots of people did it. We all did it. We voted for the people that did it. And if we didn’t do it ourselves, we failed to use our influence. We all failed collectively to be wise enough or caring enough to make better choices and the result is that people suffer.

Sin has a social dimension. Jesus fed the hungry and healed the sick because how can you know God’s love when you’re sick and hungry and can’t find a decent place to live? How can we come here and talk about God’s love and not be concerned for those who are hungry and homeless and unemployed? But who’s responsible? Why is it my fault? Well, there might have been a time when individuals could say “It’s not my fault.” But not in a democracy, not when we choose the people who pass the laws that make a difference for those in need or allow such evils to go unchecked and grow. I think it’s the churches that talk most about sin that are often the churches that talk least about corporate sin. The churches that carry on about abortion are missing the point, taking the easy out. It’s much too easy to condemn someone else. We can feel very righteous about condemning others. But the sins that beset our society are broader and deeper and affect millions more than will ever want an abortion. They begin with us and all the people who never let their faith inconvenience them.

When was the last time I had to make any hard decisions because of my faith? When was the last time you did? When was the last time you tried to think through the connection between all the problems of our society and our faith? “If we say that we have no sin,” St John tells us, “we deceive ourselves.” Too many churches do that. Too many just ignore sin and tell us God wants us to be happy. Well, yes, God does; but we can’t be happy – God can’t be happy – when so many of our neighbors are not happy. We are asked to love our neighbors as ourselves and we have too many neighbors who aren’t experiencing love, who lie bleeding at the side of the road waiting for a Good Samaritan who never comes. There’s too little being done to create a social system that doesn’t just feed the hungry but enables more people to find work that enables them to feed themselves.

“We deceive ourselves,” St John tells us, “if we say that we have no sin.” We deceive ourselves, if we fail to see the real and deep problems we face and just go along when decisions are made that draw us away from God. But the Gospel tells us God’s will is forgiveness. God’s will is to love us God’s will is to call us together to love God and love our neighbor and carry the new life we are given out to a world that needs to know God loves us, and God forgives us. If we know that, if we understand that, If we face the truth about ourselves, and know the truth about God’s love and forgiveness, then, with God’s help, maybe we can begin to come together and begin to make a difference.