Sermons

God Does Not Give Wetas

July 26th, 2019

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, July 28, 2019.

“If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (St. Luke 11:13)

Ten years ago the Anglican Church of New Zealand produced a new Prayer Book.  It got rave reviews on all sides. It’s a beautiful book: beautiful cover, beautiful pages, wonderful art work, red-edged pages in the center so you can easy find the Eucharist and built-in book marks so you don’t lose your place when you find it. And besides all that it has almost everything not only in English but also in the Maori language.

My wife and I traveled to New Zealand eighteen years ago and we were there on September 11, 9/11, 2001. We were glad to find churches open and services to go to and a chance to use the New Zealand Prayer Book. Quite apart from 9/11, I was fascinated to see that at every service whether there were Maori New Zealanders present or not, some part of the service was always spoken in Maori and everyone seemed to know that language as well as English.

There’s one special section of the book that provides a brief and easy-to-use form of prayer for morning and evening of a seven day week. I’ve begun to use it first and last thing every day as well as the American Prayer Book Morning and Evening Prayer later in the morning and earlier in the evening. The New Zealand form for daily prayer is all in English, but there are sections provided in Maori as well and just one place where a Maori word is used in the middle of an English reading. It’s the same reading we had this morning in the Gospel and found Jesus saying, “If your child asks for a fish, will you give a snake instead of a fish? Or if your child asks for an egg, will you give a scorpion?” In the New Zealand Prayer Book those few verses come up every Monday morning as if we need to be reminded every week – and we probably do – that God knows our needs and won’t give us gifts we can’t use. But in the New Zealand Prayer Book one Maori word sneaks into the English as if it’s just one of those words everybody knows. And probably in New Zealand they do. It says, “Would any of you who are parents give your child a weta when asked for a fish?”

I guess everyone in New Zealand knows what a weta is, but I had to look it up. It’s easy to do on line. And what I learned is that a weta is one of the world’s largest insects, often bigger than a mouse, and fierce. Go on line and you can find a video of a weta attacking a cat. No, if your child asks for a fish, you will not give them a weta. Nor will God give one to you – unless you go to New Zealand. Thank goodness!

The Gospel today is about prayer. There’s nothing more important for Christians to understand than the importance of prayer. St Paul brings it up again and again: He says, “Pray without ceasing,” and he says he himself is praying constantly for the church. And it’s not so much about rewards; it’s not so much about getting something measurable or specific; it’s not about an answer to prayer that you might easily recognize. It’s about the relationship. It’s about building your relationship with God.

What kind of relationship do you have with God? I lived in a community for a number of years where people could give their children whatever they wanted, but sometimes they did that to be rid of them. “You want another toy: fine, here it is. Take it and leave me alone.” There were lots of young people in that community who had everything they wanted, but not what they needed. No, it’s not the gift that matters; it’s the relationship. And in a good relationship good things happen.

The Old Testament shows us that kind of relationship. Do you know the word “chutzpah”? Maybe you haven’t lived in Brooklyn. Look it up on line. It’s a Yiddish term for “unbelievable gall; insolence; audacity, cheekiness, crust, freshness, impertinence, impudence, insolence; the trait of being rude and impertinent; inclined to take liberties.” For a text book example of chutzpah, read today’s passage from Genesis: It’s the story of Abraham bargaining with God. “If I find fifty righteous people in Sodom,” Abraham says to God, “will you save the city? What about forty? What about thirty? Maybe twenty? How about ten? And each time, God agrees to the bargain and each time Abraham ups the ante until finally God just walks away. But Abraham got what he wanted. He persisted. Nevertheless he persisted. And I think that’s what God wants most of all: the kind of persistence that builds a relationship. The kind of persistence that develops a pattern of prayer: Daily. Frequent. Constant. A life of prayer centered on God’s will.

Will you get the gifts you want? Not necessarily. Do you always give children what they want? Not necessarily. But you will give them what they need. You will take them to the doctor for shots and you will take them to the dentist for drilling. It’s not what they want, but it’s what they need. But I am sure you will never give them a weta.

Let me tell you a story. I lived as you probably know for six years in Japan and one day I was driving in Tokyo and I took a wrong turn and got completely lost and found myself driving through a cemetery. On both sides there were the typical Buddhist shrines where ashes are placed. But suddenly I saw on my left some typical western grave stones and some with crosses on them. There wasn’t any traffic, so I pulled over and got out and took a closer look and I was amazed to see that I was standing at the grave of Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky. Now that may not be a familiar name to you but it was and is to me. It’s one of the great names in the history of the Episcopal Church.

Schereschewsky was born in Lithuania in 1831 in a Jewish family and he was studying to be a rabbi when someone gave him a copy of the New Testament in Hebrew. He studied it and he became convinced that Jesus was indeed the promised Messiah. He went to Germany to study further and after three years he came on to the United States where he was baptized in a Baptist congregation and then went for some reason to a Presbyterian seminary in Pittsburgh to study for the ministry. But after two years there they told him, “You can’t be ordained because you’re Jewish.” So he moved on to New York and found the Episcopal seminary which accepted him without a problem. So he graduated and was ordained and volunteered to go as a missionary to China where eventually they made hm a bishop. He founded a university and began translating the Bible into Chinese but after twelve years he had a stroke that left him confined to a wheel chair. So he moved to Japan and he spent the rest of his life translating the Bible into a basic Chinese dialect using a special typewriter and pressing the keys with one finger of his partly paralyzed right hand.

Bishop Schereschewsky died in 1906, and toward the end of his life he told a visitor: “I have sat in this chair for over twenty years. It seemed very hard at first. But God knew best. He kept me for the work for which I am best fitted.” God did not give him a weta. Nor did God give him a stroke. But God gave him great gifts as a linguist and translator and the perseverance to use those gifts.

If you know how to give your children good gifts, how much more will your heavenly Father. So pray for the gifts God is wise enough to give and pray for the wisdom to use them well.

What about borders?

July 5th, 2019

A sermon preached at All Saints Church, San Francisco, on July 7, 2019, by Pastoral Associate Christopher L. Webber.

I woke up last Sunday to pictures of the President stepping across a raised line in Korea and I’ve been trying all week to understand why the same man would want to ignore a border in Korea and build one up in Texas. I’ve been wondering whether today’s Old Testament reading can help us understand. It’s all about borders: the walls we build and the walls we tear down.

Naaman was a Syrian: commander of the armies of Aram Aram or Syria – same thing – a major power in those days stretching from the Mediterranean to the Euphrates It took in modern Syria and most of Iraq. Some borders mattered to Naaman and some didn’t. He ignored borders when he wanted to plunder his Hebrew neighbors. He was raiding south of the border one day and captured a young Hebrew woman and brought her north as a slave to serve his wife. Borders couldn’t stand in the way of personal gain.

Naaman’s behavior is similar, I think, to the way American corporations have plundered Central America for generations, exploited resources, overthrown governments, enriched a few and impoverished many. The American novelist, O Henry, invented the term “Banana Republic” to describe the governments created by the United Fruit Company and others to enrich American investors and impoverish Hondurans and Guatemalans. Borders don’t matter when we’re looking for plunder.

Israel had been a plunderer in the time of David and Solomon but now Israel was the plunderee, now it was a banana republic, ravaged by Egypt to the south and Syria to the north. Naaman would have understood our politics today. You might bring a few Central Americans north as servants and to work in the fields, you would certainly plunder the wealth, but you would build walls to keep most of the people you impoverished from coming north themselves. You build borders to protect yourself from that.

But the situation was complicated because Naaman was a leper. Well, it looked like leprosy. They couldn’t much tell different skin diseases apart in those days, but it looked like leprosy and that was scary. Leprosy ate away at your body and slowly destroyed you, and it was contagious so you exiled lepers, you made them stay outside the towns and cities, wander the countryside, but not get close. Lepers had to stay outside an invisible border ringing a bell to warn you and calling out “Unclean, unclean.”

But Naaman was the commanding general of the Syrian armies, so he wouldn’t be exiled quickly, but if that patch on his arm began to spread and he couldn’t hide it that was the end: no more palace, no more servants, no more luxuries, but a slow, painful, miserable death away from everything he valued and everything he cared about. But the Hebrew servant girl knew something, and she told Naaman’s wife and Naaman’s wife told him. The servant girl said, “There’s a prophet in Israel who does healings. Some say he even raised the dead. Maybe he can solve your problem.” So Naaman told the king and the king gave consent and Naaman headed south with a small army of servants and soldiers and went straight to the king’s palace in Israel.

The king of Israel at the time was probably King Jehoram, son of Ahaz, but this minor king was so unimportant we’re never told his name. So Naaman showed up at the door with a small army and said, “Cure my leprosy.” Well, the maid never said the king could do it, but Naaman just started at the top and scared Jehoram to death. “Me cure leprosy? Is he looking for another war?” But they got things straightened out and General Naaman went to see Elisha. And Elisha couldn’t be bothered even to go to the door. “Leprosy? No problem. Tell him to go wash in the Jordan and he’ll be fine.”

But Naaman was outraged. “Wash in the Jordan? That muddy creek?” We’ve got better rivers in Syria. Well, they did. Yjey had the Euphrates. He could have washed in the mighty Euphrates. Why bother to come all the way down south to wash in some muddy brook in Israel? Naaman flew into a rage and it took a while for his servants to calm him down. “Look,” they said, “if he’d asked you to do a hundred pushups or wash all over with Chanel #5 – wouldn’t you have done it? So why not the simple thing? What’s to lose?” So, grudgingly, he did. And it worked. And he was thrilled And that’s the end of today’s reading. It’s supposed to parallel or connect with the Gospel reading about Jesus sending the disciples out on a healing mission, but I’d rather make the connection to the headlines and borders.

So let me just finish off the story that the reading left hanging, unfinished. Here’s what we didn’t hear. Naaman was thrilled. He went back to Elisha and offered to pay him. But Elisha waved him off. “No problem. Go on home. Don’t worry. Forget about it.” So then – here’s the part I like – Naaman said, “Well, OK, but at least let me take back to Syria two mule loads of earth.”

Why? What’s that about? Naaman wants the dirt because now he knows there’s a God in Israel who answers prayer and he wants a chunk of Israel to stand on from now on when he prays so the God of Israel will hear him.

Do you see what’s happening? We’re at a stage of human development, religious development, when different people had different gods and the gods were connected with certain areas, certain lands. When in Israel, pray to Jehovah. When in Syria, pray to Baal. Gods have borders too. But Baal didn’t help my leprosy and Yahweh did. So if I have to go back to Syria maybe I can take some of Israel with me and stand on it when I pray and this powerful Israelite God will still hear my prayers

Here’s the point: this is a story of events that took place almost 3000 years ago and they were at a very early stage in the story of the human understanding of God. Move down a few centuries and you find Isaiah, another prophet for another time, and Isaiah knew something Naaman didn’t know and maybe Elishah didn’t either. Isaiah knew that God is a God who rules all nations. Isaiah knew that God could take King Cyrus of Babylon and use him as a tool in God’s hand. Isaiah knew that the God of Israel is the only God and there is no other. Isaiah knew that from the rising of the sun to it’s setting there is no other God. “I am the Lord,”“ says the God of Isaiah, “and there is no other.”

Think again about borders. We have a president who can step across one border and build walls on another. But what’s the big picture here? Where is God in all this? What does God care about borders? Here we are on the weekend celebrating American Independence and I learned something about that last week that I hadn’t known before. We have a prayer in the Prayer Book for Independence Day and we have assigned readings from the Bible, and I thought we always had. But No. No, the committee that created the first American Prayer Book in 1789 wrote a prayer for Independence Day and chose readings from the Bible, but the Bishop of Pennsylvania said, “Wait a minute. A lot of the clergy were not on board with this business. They had been loyal to their ordination oath to the King of England and some have gone back to England and some to Canada and we don’t want to embarrass the ones who remain by making them give thanks for something they aren’t thankful for.” So there was no prayer for Independence Day in the Episcopal Prayer Book until 1928 when most people had gotten over it. So in 1928 they put back the readings that are more relevant today than ever. They called on Episcopalians down to our own day to read these verses: Deuteronomy 10:17-21:

“The Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”If that’s not clear enough, there’s a newer translation, almost ten years old, but more relevant than ever, that puts it this way: “The Lord your God is the God of all gods and the Lord of all lords . . . He enacts justice for orphans and widows, and he loves immigrants giving them food and clothing. That means that you must also love immigrants because you were immigrants in Egypt.” (Common English Bible)

Argue the politics however you want and do what you want about walls and borders but our instructions

are clear. I took a certain pride in the presence of the one openly Episcopalian candidate on stage lastweek and the fact that he alone acknowledged that Christians are under orders. He said: “we should call out hypocrisy when we see it. . . a party that associates itself with Christianity . . . (and) suggests that. . . God would condone putting children in cages has lost all claim to ever use religious language again.”

And, yes, is it really so good a thing that there’s another set of borders in the world, another division between human beings? Is it a good thing that Korea is divided North and South? Is it a good thing that North America is divided three ways? Is it a good thing that Central American terrorists can control tiny countries and that we respect their right to rape and pillage as they like because, hey, there’s a border we have to respect?

What is it about borders? How is it that capitalists can ravage tiny countries with no one to hinder them, but when their victims flee for their lives we turn them away? What’s wrong with this picture? The wall is not the whole picture. The picture includes small countries destroyed by our corporations, but we’re not responsible and I don’t understand why.

Now I’m a priest, not a politician. I get to ask questions, not give answers. Except this: our God is the God of Isaiah, who knows no borders. Except this: we have a vision given us and a mandate to fulfill and the same God who loves us and calls us will also be our judge.

We will end the service today with the singing of that great hymn, “America the beautiful,” that puts into words and music something of what I’ve been trying to say:

“O beautiful for patriot dream
that sees beyond the years
thine alabaster cities gleam
undimmed by human tears . . .”

Few things, I think, cause more tears than borders, but we are given a vision that sees beyond the politics, beyond the borders, beyond the years; a vision that calls us and questions us: Must it indeed be always “beyond the years”?
Why not in our own day?
Why not now?

A Homily for Independence Day 2019

July 1st, 2019

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber, Pastoral Associate, at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, on July 2, 2019.

It never before occurred to me to wonder why we celebrate the 4th of July in Church until this year. This year it happened to be my turn to do the service today and I did the research. I had assumed that of course Americans would celebrate the 4th of July in church – well, at least some church-going Christians would do that – because freedom is a gift of God and our existence as a nation is a gift of God so of course there would be readings and a prayer assigned for the occasion.

But what I learned is: it’s not that obvious. When they sat down to create a Prayer Book for the newly independent Episcopal Church – no longer a part of the church of England but an independent church within the Anglican Communion – they included a form of service to celebrate what they called: “the inestimable blessings of Religious and Civil Liberty to be observed by this church for ever.” Of course. Obvious. Who would question?

Well, one who questioned was William White, the first bishop of Pennsylvania, who pointed out that the great majority of American clergy had not supported the Revolution – indeed had opposed it – and many had fled to Canada rather than work or pray for independence. Those who remained, White pointed out, were not likely to use such a service, celebrating what they had opposed, and would be greatly embarrassed if they did. White himself had supported independence, had served as a chaplain to the Congress, but he was concerned for his colleagues who had seen things differently. The war was over, White thought; let’s not embarrass each other. So the General Convention took the form out of the Prayer Book and it was only added in 1928 when the one-time loyalists had presumably all gone to their reward.

So it’s been there all my life time – and probably yours unless you’re over 91 – but we shouldn’t take it for granted. It took a while, but here we are, and here we ought to be because freedom is a gift of God and we have great cause to be thankful.

But look what they gave us when they finally got up their nerve: not just an appropriate form of thanksgiving for events well over 200 years ago but words to challenge us as if they had been especially chosen for current events, words to remind us of what it means to be a nation blessed with great gifts. The gift of freedom is a gift of God and it comes with an obligation. Listen again to the words we read this morning from the Old Testament:

“The Lord your God …. executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and . . . loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

If that’s not clear enough, I would refer you to the newest translation I know of, the Common English Bible, published under ecumenical auspices less than ten years ago, which puts it this way:

“He enacts justice for orphans and widows, and he loves immigrants giving them food and clothing. That means you also must love immigrants, for you were immigrants in the land of Egypt.”

Yes. “You must love immigrants.” “You yourselves were immigrants.” What part of that is not clear?

Now those words, of course, were written to Jewish people living in Canaan centuries after their ancestors had escaped from Egypt. I would guess most of us – most of our families – have not been around that many centuries. Three of my grandparents were immigrants. I know how my parents grew up as first generation Americans, first of their families to go to college and, in my father’s case, only after dropping out of school to help support the family and being enabled to go back to finish high school and college and seminary by a wealthy neighbor who took an interest and an older sister who had dropped out of school after 8th Grade to help support the family. This is a country where such things are possible. No wonder it continues to draw others.

No wonder also that we have an obligation to share the gifts we’ve been given. “. . . he loves immigrants giving them food and clothing. That means you also must love immigrants . . .”
But what instead do we see? You’ve seen the pictures. I don’t need to tell you.

I was delighted in watching the debates last week to hear the one Episcopalian in the debate say this: “We are committed to the separation of church and state and we stand for people of any religion and people of no religion. But we should call out hypocrisy when we see it in a party that associates itself with Christianity to say that it is okay to suggest that God would smile on the division of families at the hands of federal agents, [to say] that God would condone putting children in cages has lost all claim to ever use religious language again.”

Yes. Absolutely. The Bible lays a claim on our lives, lays a claim on our actions. We as Americans, as American Christians, are under obligation, under orders and we will sing about it before we leave:

“O beautiful for patriot dream that sees beyond the years
thine alabaster cities gleam undimmed by human tears . . .”

But must it be indeed always “beyond the years”?
Why not in our own day?
Why not now?

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.