A Good Man

June 10th, 2019

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber on June 11, St. Barnabbas Day, 2019, at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco.

Many years ago, I was called on to preach at an ordination on the 11th day of June – St Barnabas Day – and we read the same lesson from the book of Acts that we read this morning and I remember making a point in that sermon about the fact that Barnabas is described as “a good man.” That phrase, “a good man,” is used of no other individual in the whole Bible, not even Jesus.

What does it mean to call someone a good man or a good woman or a good person? Is it really that rare? I think we use the phrase ourselves more often than the Bible, don’t we? Don’t we say: “he’s a good man” or “she’s a good woman” fairly often? I hope we do because it would be hard to live somewhere where we never had occasion to say it.

I would imagine we depend on a certain general level of goodness just to get through the day. When tragedy strikes we’re often amazed at the way people rally around and go way out of their way to be helpful, to pitch in, to share, to go beyond what we might have expected because whatever the evangelicals may say about how we’re all sinners and need to repent – and I don’t disagree – I think it’s more important to recognize that there’s a fundamental goodness in human beings because, after all, we were made in the image of God and, yes, Eve offered an apple or banana or whatever it was and Adam ate it but she still probably cooked his meals and he probably still brought in the harvest and they still probably took time to play with the children and after the one boy killed the other and went off into exile they picked themselves up and started again.

There was a fundamental goodness in Adam and Eve because they were made in the image of God. We all are. It’s the exception who is known best as a liar or a bully. All of us of a certain age remember the lawyer, Joseph Welch, saying to Joseph McCarthy: “At long last, have you left no sense of decency? Have you at last no decency.” Just decency. We have to expect some basic level of goodness and decency in our fellow human beings just to get through the day and have to be saddened when we realize it’s not there, that someone in the public eye or someone in our own acquaintance has failed, has been corrupted, has yielded to temptation and no longer seems to have that basic goodness we depend on to get through the day.

Barnabas was a good man. Well, there lots of good people in the Bible but only Barnabbas gets the adjective, So he was special. I think the Bible is telling us he stood out – was “gooder” than most. But as we read on in the story what we hear is pretty basic stuff. You need to be able to count on people just for ordinary things like contributing financially. Barnabbas might be the patron saint of the every member canvass. Early on, in chapter 4 of Acts, we hear that he sold some property he had and gave the proceeds to the apostles. That qualifies as a good man; we need more of them.

But then Barnabbas also brought in a new member and we surely need people like that. It was Barnabbas who brought Paul to church with him. Paul had been converted on the Damascus Road but when he showed up in Jerusalem nobody trusted him. I mean, why would you? This man had been trying to destroy the church and now he wants us to take him in? I don’t think so. But Barnabbas took the chance and brought him along – and we all know what a difference Paul made.

But not right away. The church in Jerusalem was still suspicious and Paul finally went home to Tarsus apparently feeling unwanted. But Barnabbas remembered him. Time went by and the church in Jerusalem heard that the church was growing in Antioch and they sent Barnabbas to help out but when Barnabbas got there and saw what was happening he saw there was work enough for two and he remembered Paul and went to Tarsus to find him and get him to help. And that’s how it all began.

Still later things were going badly in Jerusalem. There was a famine and people were starving so the new church in Antioch sent Barnabbas and Paul with some badly needed funds. And still later when they decided they should share the word with still other cities they chose Paul and Barnabbas to go off on the first formal missionary road trip and one place they went – I think this is really interesting about Barnabbas – they came to a place called Lystra and the people were so impressed with Paul and Barnabbas they decided Paul and Barnabbas were gods and they called Paul “Mercury” because he was the chief speaker and Barnabbas they called “Jupiter” – the chief god in the Greek mythology. That’s the impression Barnabbas made even without speaking: people said, he must be god.

So Barnabbas was a good man: he did it by chipping in and pitching in and recognizing the gifts of others and trusting when others were doubtful. Without Barnabbas we might not have had Paul and without Paul what would have happened to the Christian church? But it’s all summed up in one word: “he was a good man.” We need more of them.

Walls and Gates

May 21st, 2019

A sermon by Christopher L. Webber for the 6th Sunday of Easter – May 26, 2019

In the spirit the angel carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.

I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day– and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. Revelation 21:22-27

Here’s the tragedy: millions of Christians will go to church this morning but not all of them will hear the description we just heard of the city of God. Roman Catholics will hear it, and Lutherans and Presbyterians and Methodists and Episcopalians, but you know who won’t hear it: most evangelical Christians, because those churches follow no set lectionary and the pastor can choose what he wants to preach about. So most evangelicals won’t hear today about the promised city of God which may have walls but also has gates that are never shut.

We Americans need to think about that: heaven is like a city with gates that are never shut, never closed at all day or night. The divisions within our society seem constantly to grow worse and it doesn’t help at all that we hear different parts of the Bible on Sunday morning. Imagine what a difference it could make if we all began the week from the same place with the same words of scripture in our minds and hearts. Imagine what a difference it would make if we all began this week with the same vision: God’s city, God’s city, where the gates are never closed.

You could point out, of course, that the city of God described in the Bible does have walls. Yes, it does, but that’s because an ancient city was defined by walls. If a community has walls, it’s a city. If it doesn’t, it isn’t. But in the heavenly city, the gates are never closed. That’s what makes the difference.

There was a time in the progress of humanity when people began coming together to build a more complex community. They had learned how to grow grain – rice or wheat or barley or quinoa and grain was a food that could be stored and that meant that you could settle down and live in one place. You could have a house instead of a cave. You could be a farmer instead of a hunter-gatherer. You could develop a community and you could put up walls to protect yourself against wild animals and wild people. You could live inside the walls and be safe and go out to work in your fields and bring your harvest into the city to store it safely. Outside the city walls there might be other smaller communities, but they also relied on the city walls for safety. A city was a community with walls. A village was a community without walls, but near enough to the city to fly there for refuge in times of trouble.

Maybe you’ve visited England or France or other European countries and seen the remnants of the walls that once protected them but are no longer needed. I think there’s only one city left in England that has a complete wall still standing, and that’s the city of Cheshire on the border with Wales. I spent some time in that area years ago and I took time one day to walk around that wall. These days there’s as much city outside the wall as inside because they’ve outgrown the need for city walls. In most places around the world human beings have outgrown the need for border walls as well. The Great Wall of China is for tourists to climb on. Even the Berlin wall finally had to come down. The idea of a wall on our southern border is out of date and absurd. Most illegal immigrants don’t come across the Mexican border anyway; they come by plane and overstay their visas. And they will continue to come as long as there are jobs Americans don’t want. They will continue to come to do not just the stoop labor of picking strawberries in the central valley emptying bed pans in our nursing homes and waiting on table in retirement communities. I’ve met people where I live from the Philippines and Bosnia and Uruguay and Uzbekistan and the Ukraine. And they don’t necessarily want to be here. Many of them have families back home that depend on them and they go back whenever they can – if they can. This country does have walls, but they’re economic walls. There are millions who would come here if they could, millions who are here who would rather be elsewhere.

Trump ponders the wall

There are millions of Americans, by the way, who live elsewhere by choice – in Mexico and Panama and Portugal – because its cheaper and warmer there than here. People who can afford to live elsewhere are happy to leave America. So we can build a wall on the Mexican border or not and it won’t make much difference. What will make a difference is the kind of community we build here, here where we are. Walls don’t matter; they keep them in Chester as a tourist attraction and someday whatever we build between us and Mexico may have that value also, but what matters is what happens inside the walls – in the city – don’t miss what the Bible says about that: “People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood.” No one who practices falsehood will be in God’s city, no one who tells lies will be there. God’s city is a place where people tell the truth and they bring into that community all that is good – the glory and honor of the nations. Nothing unclean will enter it. In God’s city no one will sleep on the sidewalk or under bridges. Forget about the borders, what matters is what happens inside.

In God’s city the walls are a tourist attraction but there’s no darkness there, nothing false, nothing unclean, San Francisco is not like that. I hope for the day that I can walk up 19th avenue from the N-Judah and see no litter, no trash on the sidewalk. I may be wrong, but I think it comes from the young men and women who I see standing on those sidewalks at 8 and 8:30 every weekday morning waiting for the giant bus to come and scoop them up and take them to Silicon Valley. I don’t see trash on the other side of the avenue so I think it’s these young Americans with jobs no Mexican immigrant could hope for who trash the sidewalks that others sleep on. Wouldn’t you think that we who live here because of choices our grandparents or great grandparents made could do better at preserving the dream?

We’re given a vision. How do we share it? How do we tell our friends and neighbors it doesn’t have to be this way? God gives us a vision of a new community. The verses we read this morning come from the next to last chapter of the Bible: This where we are going. This is the vision God gives us, not just to dream about but to work for and to share. A few verses earlier the vision began this way – I wish we’d had a longer reading but I’ll read it anyway:

Revelation 21:1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; 4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” 5 And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

Notice this one thing: this new city is not somewhere else, not in a distant heaven, but here. We don’t go up to it; it comes down to us. And I believe it’s up to us to prepare the way: to hold in our minds and hearts the vision of the city of God and not settle for anything less.


“All we like sheep. . .”

May 12th, 2019

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at All Saints Church, San Francisco, on Good Shepherd Sunday, Easter IV, May 12, 219.

Up until six years ago I lived in the northwest corner of Connecticut, an area of small towns and small farms and I served a parish in the town of Canaan which liked to claim that it had more cows than people. Somehow I got into a conversation one day with a retired farmer about the relative intelligence of sheep and cows. He told me cows are smarter: they know when to come home and they even know their own stall. The farmer told me about a visit he had from a city friend who was surprised by the way the cows would come into the barn and go straight to their own stalls. And the farmer told him, “That’s why we have those plaques on each stall with each cow’s name on it, so they can find their own stall more easily.”

Well, cows may be smart, but not that smart. Sheep are not smart at all. But Jesus used them as an example because sheep are a lot like human beings, they’re a lot like us. There’s a form of confession in the Prayer Book in Morning Prayer Rite One that says it in so many words: “we have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep.” We, like sheep, have a tendency to err and stray from the way. The cowherd claps his hands and calls Bossy and Bossy comes. The sheep just keep on munching. The shepherd needs a crook to pull the sheep back from danger and the crook has a pointed end to prod the sheep in the right direction. The shepherd needs a good sheep dog if possible to run around and bark at the sheep and nip at their heels to get them moving the right way because without all that help the sheep would get lost. Sheep just focus on the next blade of grass and keep on munching as long as they see that next blade of grass until they’re hopelessly lost. Sheep are not smart.

So Jesus chose a relatively stupid animal to illustrate God’s love for us. When he compares us to sheep it’s not a compliment! Jesus is saying we are like sheep: we tend to wander, we lack much inner guidance, we have a tendency to get lost, we’re apt to get into trouble. It’s not, as I said, a compliment, but it is probably a fair assessment. Yeah, human beings are like that. I’ve met a few of them. I read about them in the paper. I see them on television. It makes you wonder. And, to be honest, I know myself well enough to recognize that Jesus was right. Maybe you’ve had some experience along these lines yourself.

But the other side of the coin is that for all of that, nevertheless, God loves us, God values us. The sheep may be dumb but they have commercial value so the shepherd exerts himself to save them. The shepherd would not exert himself for the sheep if there weren’t some value there: wool, mutton, lamb chops. Very few people raise raccoons. The sheep have a value to the shepherd. And the implication is that we have a value to God. Is that obvious? Probably not. When you stop to think of the billions of people crowding the planet, living very often in conditions that no self-respecting sheep would put up with, and put that in the perspective of a span of creation in which the human lifespan is insignificant and a span of space in which this earth is a grain of sand, who could imagine that a Creator would care? And yet, the Bible makes that claim. It not only makes that claim, it goes way beyond that: it says that we are made in the image of God; that we are in some essential way like God.

You and I and the people of Kathmandu are like God. Sheep are not much like the shepherd; they’re a different order of being. No number of sheep can change a light bulb; they can’t even find their way home. But the Bible claims that we are like God in some essential way.

I shouldn’t do this, but I can’t resist. On the subject of light bulbs: how many Episcopalians does it take to change a light bulb? Two: one to change the light bulb and one to reminisce about how much they liked the old one. That’s also relevant to the Rector search process you’re involved in. But I digress.

The Bible claims that we are like God in some essential way, and therefore God values us as we would value our own children. The Bible speaks of God as loving us, yearning for us, grieving over us and finally entering into our lives and living here among us and dying for us.

Now, what that also means is that God in some essential way is like us. It always surprises me when I have the chance to speak with a couple planning to be married and find out that they haven’t the foggiest idea what God is like. They have some vague idea of a distant, impersonal power – what the movies call “The Force” – which is not something I much relate to. What is “The Force.” Can you fall in love with a Force or imagine a Force that sees you as anything more than another force, and an insignificant force in the larger picture, a minor force to be absorbed or manipulated or annihilated?

Of course, we use force ourselves – sometimes well, sometimes badly – but force is a tool and our relationship with force is to control or be controlled. The Force is a tornado destroying homes, an earthquake wiping out a city, a military invasion, a cancer. A force is many things but none of them loveable. God is not like that. Nor did Jesus ever use language like that about God. God in Jesus’ teaching is sometimes a powerful king but more often a forgiving father, a careful housewife, a hen with chickens, a shepherd with sheep, one who cares for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field and knows our needs and loves us. It’s not a particular compliment Jesus pays us in comparing us with sheep, but it is a wonderful gift: God cares; God values us; God loves us.

Now that’s good to know but it’s not the whole story. It comes with a job to do. The Gospel speaks of other sheep who must also be brought so that finally there is one flock and one shepherd. I’ve had many a disagreement over the years with well-meaning Christians who wonder why we should spend our time worrying about foreign mission and trying to convert people to our faith when they have a perfectly good faith of their own. Well-meaning but totally confused. Does it make a difference to you to know God loves you? Wouldn’t it matter to someone else as well? Someone once described the church’s mission as being like that of hungry beggars who know where bread is to be found and tell others.

Is there really no difference between, for example, Christianity and Islam, between a religion of submission and a religion of freedom, between a religion of a distant God and the knowledge of a close and loving God? Yes, we have things in common: we worship one God, and we know God is merciful. But we also have vast differences. Muslims are for the most part, a peaceful people and we shouldn’t judge them by the worst examples. I don’t want Christianity to be judged by the fundamentalists who think the world is flat and was created 4000 years ago and we shouldn’t judge Islam by ISIS. But there is a difference between Islam at its best and Christianity at its best. And we have a mandate to share what we know.

There are people who think it’s fine to get all the marbles and keep them. There are others who seem to know instinctively that gifts are given to be shared. The Gospel surely, is a gift to be shared. In the early years of the Christian Church there were people called Gnostics who believed that there was secret knowledge available only to insiders and initiates. You couldn’t be given the secret knowledge unless you proved yourself worthy over a long time of training. Gnosticism won a good many followers for awhile; it’s nice to think you’re in on a secret and that you’ve earned the right to special status. But Gnosticism was condemned as a heresy. Christianity is not like that. Christianity is not a secret wisdom for the chosen few; it’s about a love that needs to be shared, shared with everyone, no holds barred.

Christianity is open and available and there for the taking and if that means that the church is filled with people who don’t seem quite nice or quite as deserving as we are – well, that’s the way Jesus and his disciples seemed to a lot of people in that time also. “Why does your master eat with publicans and sinners?” they asked. “If this man is a prophet, how come he’s doesn’t know what kind of woman it is that he’s talking to?” That was the criticism. And Jesus accepted that criticism. He said, “The well have no need of a doctor but only those who are sick.” He said he came for the sick. He told his disciples to go into all the world, not stay home where it’s safe, not keep it a secret, but go find those other sheep who are no more or less sheepish than you are; find them and bring them home to the God who loves them and wants them to know that love.

We are members of a church that in all too many congregations these days works hard to balance the budget and has all too little left for others. It may be that we have our priorities wrong, that we need to get mission into our budget first and then see whether we have anything left over for ourselves because the job isn’t done just because the doors are open on Sunday. Jesus did not say, “I’m waiting here with the door open.” The Good Shepherd doesn’t stand there waiting for the lost sheep to come back; the Good Shepherd goes looking. There’s work to be done and we’ve barely begun to do it. So there’s good news in today’s gospel but there’s a challenge also: God loves us – but not just us. Our God is the Good Shepherd who loves us all and seeks to bring us all home and calls us not just to be sheep but to help with the shepherding and help make God’s love known.

The Road to Damascus

May 4th, 2019

A sermon preached at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, by Christopher L., Webber on May 5, 2019, the Third Sunday of Easter.

When I was in college, I had some friends who were Southern Baptists. They were nice people in many ways, but they believed in a kind of Christianity I had never before encountered. They were fundamentalists. They believed that the world was created in seven days and that Adam and Eve were real people. But their faith made a real difference in their lives. They wouldn’t do homework on Sunday even if they had a test scheduled for Monday. And I remember one Sunday, that one of them came back from the service he had gone to upset at the preacher because he had never mentioned the cross. He thought it wasn’t a Christian sermon if it didn’t mention the cross.

Toward the end of my time in college these Southern Baptist friends arranged for a revival meeting on campus, and they invited me to come. I was interested in what they were up to so I went and at the end of the service the preacher issued an invitation to those who wanted to accept Jesus to come forward while we stood and sang verse after verse of “Just as I am” and he exhorted us to come forward. “Let’s sing another verse,” he would say, “I believe there are more of you who want to come, so please come, come forward now . . .” I held onto my chair and stayed where I was and felt very uncomfortable. They had all been converted and accepted Jesus as their personal savior and knew exactly when it was – and I didn’t. I just was a Christian – always had been and expected I always would be. But there hadn’t been any single, datable, magic moment of conversion; just a gradual growth in faith over the years.

Now, St. Paul, of course, did have a magic moment and we read about it this morning. When you get knocked off your horse and struck blind, you know something has happened. It makes a difference. The story this morning from the Acts of the Apostles is one of the most dramatic conversion stories you’ll ever find. If ever anyone was converted, Paul was, and he knew exactly when – twelve o’clock noon on January 25, 35 A.D. Of course, we can’t date it quite that exactly but Paul could. He knew; there was a magic moment. And to hear some Christians tell it, if there wasn’t a moment like that for you, you’re not really a Christian.

But let’s look at that story again. The brief excerpt we have this morning begins with Paul riding out from Jerusalem to the Gentile city of Damascus in Syria. Syria has been in the news a lot in recent years and there’s no way Paul could go from Jerusalem to Damascus these days. But in those days it was all part of the Roman Empire and travel was easy. So Paul was going to see whether there were any Christians there so he could arrest them and take them bound to Jerusalem for trial. Paul was a zealot. Paul would travel the world to convert people to his beliefs. And God struck him down. But God didn’t just stop Paul, God re-directed him. God apparently thought, “I could use someone like that.” So God struck him down and turned him around and he was baptized. And the rest of the Book of Acts tells how zealously Paul traveled the world to convert people to his new beliefs.

But in a very deep sense, Paul was not changed. He was in many ways still the same man he had been before: still zealous, still conversion-minded – only refocused, re-directed.

I think we should notice something else about St. Paul. He had grown up in the Jewish community. He had come to Jerusalem to study his faith at the feet of Gamaliel, the greatest teacher of his day. And Paul believed – or came to believe – that his faith in Christ was the logical completion of the faith he had always held. There wasn’t a certain moment when St. Paul suddenly came to believe in God. No, what we see happening if we read Paul’s story carefully, is a steady process of growth which had difficulty with one crucial point: the identification of Jesus as the promised Messiah. That was a problem for Paul. A crucified Messiah didn’t fit – at first. Paul didn’t want to believe it. He didn’t want anyone to believe it. But it nagged at him all the same. And suddenly, suddenly, half way to Damascus, he knew; the truth broke through, and he took a major step forward along the path he had been following all unknown ever since he was born.

But now let me take Paul’s story one more step. We know about Paul’s upbringing. We know about that moment on the road to Damascus. But then what? Was it twenty years or twenty-five years, perhaps, Paul spent as a missionary, teaching, preaching, traveling, writing – with no more change? Is that possible? Well, sometime you might read two of Paul’s epistles side by side: take the one to the Galatians, for example, and the one to the Philippians, and think about what you find. In the one to the Galatians, early in his ministry, Paul is angry. People have been disagreeing with Paul and he wishes they would all drop dead. He argues, he exhorts, he denounces. But then read the letter to the Christians at Philippi written many years later. Listen to him talk there about those who disagree: “Some,” he writes, “proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill. These proclaim Christ out of love, knowing that I have been put here for the defense of the gospel; the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering . . . What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice.” (1:15-18)

What a change from the early epistles! This is a different Paul. This is a Paul who had deepened and matured and grown in ways he himself might never have anticipated: He had grown in patience and charity and joy. He was still zealous, yes, but eager now for an even deeper experience of the joy that comes with mature faith and wisdom and understanding.

Now, I think what we can see in St. Paul’s story if we look at it carefully, is something that broadens our understanding of true conversion. Martin Smith, an Episcopal priest, points out that the word “conversion” has been taken over by people who see it in one dimension only. They define conversion as a dramatic, emotional experience and demand that everyone have that particular experience. But each of us is different; each of us grows in different ways according to the various gifts we’ve been given. Conversion, Smith suggests, is many things:
Conversion is “appropriation:” the process by which something we simply inherited becomes truly our own. Once it was something I read in a book, now it’s a part of my life. Conversion is “intensification:” something colorless becomes vivid, exciting, rich. Conversion is “transfiguration:” an inward transformation that becomes radiantly visible. Conversion is “maturation:” organic change; you can’t be a tree until you’ve been a seed and a sapling. The need may not be for a Damascus Road experience but just for a bottle of milk, a little help with the next step.
Conversion is “enlightenment, a word used in Eastern religions – but Christianity also is an eastern religion and sometimes conversion comes to us as enlightenment, a sudden “Aha!” that changes everything.
Conversion is “arousal”: it’s like waking up, like falling in love.
Conversion is all these things and more, and there may be a magic moment along the way and there may not. There may be what seem to us like setbacks as well as progress. It’s not always a straight line. It’s not just a moment but a lifetime. But what matters is the process – the process of change and growth and maturation – the emergence of a faith that draws us onward and outward and upward, that satisfies us and yet leaves us still unsatisfied, because we know there’s always more. That’s what matters. That’s what drew St. Paul on from the very beginning. I hope that’s what draws you.