Sermons

Everyone is Searching

February 5th, 2021

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at All Saints Church, San Francisco, on February 7, 2021.

“Everyone is looking for you”

We’ve all been in that situation. You go somewhere with a group of friends and somehow you get separated from those you were with – your wife, your husband, your child, your friends – and you ask around – “Have you seen Bill or Mary or whoever?” No, they haven’t. So you ask them to let them know that you’re looking and you ask others and you keep looking and asking and eventually you find them — they’d seen something that interested them and gone in a different direction – but you find them and your first line is: “Where have you been? Everyone’s been looking for you.”

Well, that’s not literally true and we all know it. Joe Biden hadn’t even heard they were missing, nor Donald Trump, nor Vladimir Putin. But that’s not what we meant, was it? Don’t be such a literalist, such a fundamentalist.

You and I are not fundamentalists. If we read in the Bible that Noah brought all the animals into the ark two by two, we don’t take that literally. If Noah brought two tigers on the ark, he would have needed probably a dozen rabbits. Maybe more. But you and I aren’t literalists. We may not even be sure there was an ark or a flood, though there might be soon. But that’s another subject. I just want to say that we may not be literalists or fundamentalists, but sometimes we ought to pay more attention than we do because sometimes the gospel writers mean exactly what they say. We need to notice.

“Everyone is looking for you.” Jesus had begun his ministry and the response had been overwhelming. He went to the synagogue on the Sabbath and taught and people were amazed. He was worth listening to. He had a message. And then he healed some people. And by the end of the day, word had gotten out, and there was a crowd. But finally people went home and everyone tried to get some sleep. But “while it was still dark” the Bible tells us, Jesus got up and went out to find a quiet place for prayer. Maybe he, too, was a little overwhelmed by what was happening and needed time and space to think through the next steps and be sure he was on course.

So when everyone else got up, where was Jesus? Everyone wondered. Everyone went looking. And when they found him, they said, “Everyone is looking for you.” Now a good old-fashioned fundamentalist knows how to read that verse, but most of us don’t even stop to think about it. But my point is that sometimes the fundamentalists have it right and we should pay attention.

“Everyone is looking for you.” Well, no, not right at that moment in a literal sense. Maybe Peter was still asleep; maybe his mother-in-law was in the kitchen getting some breakfast for all these visitors. And down at the local Starbucks or iHop, the patrons weren’t looking for Jesus. They were talking about him. “Did you hear what happened last night out at Peter’s house?” “Yeah, I was there for awhile, but it was such a crowd that I left.” Mark is wrong. I’m sure he is wrong. Everyone was not looking for Jesus. So why did he say so? And why do we not pay attention?

Last month when that crowd stormed the capitol: what was that all about? I think we’ve all asked ourselves: what was that all about? Let me tell you what I think. Some of them said they were looking for Mike Pence and some said they were looking for Nancy Pelosi – at least that’s what they thought they were doing – but, no, if you look more closely, these were people who felt life had been unfair to them. They thought they would have a secure and significant job, but they’d gone from one place to another and never had the kind of income they’d imagined, never found a secure relationship, never known they were loved, really loved. Hillary Clinton used the term “deplorables” and that wasn’t too smart, but it is deplorable that so many people fail to find the fulfillment they want and need. It’s deplorable that we as a nation have left so many people without opportunity and security and that so many of us are still seeking something more in life. That’s deplorable. But the simple fact is that a lot of people are looking for something and not finding it and lashing out in their frustration – storming the capitol, looking for someone blame, someone to attack.

Photo by Tyler Merbler

But that’s not us. We’re here in a setting that helps us make sense of our lives. We don’t think of ourselves as the “come to Jesus” type, but we have found something, someone, here at All Saints Church who gives our lives enough meaning that we don’t feel a need to take up training with a local militia or join a chapter of the NRA.

We’re fortunate. We found what we were looking for, what we needed, and we’re not angry at the world. But not everyone is so fortunate. They’re still looking and don’t even know it, don’t know why they’re so angry, don’t know that God cares for them, loves them, wants them to find peace. They’re so angry that if they had actually met Jesus in the capitol rotunda, they would probably have crucified him again. They’re that angry, that needy, that blinded by their anger.
And Jesus would let them crucify him again to show them how much he cares.

The lives of those who stormed the capital were not better – probably worse when the FBI showed up with a warrant, but for a while at lest they had a focus for their anger. It accomplished nothing, but it made them feel better, gave them someone else to blame rather than themselves. But it isn’t the answer. It’s not what they are really looking for, not who they are really looking for. Because what they need is a love bigger than their anger, and only Jesus loves them and us that much, loves them and us enough to die for them and for us and for all the world.

So I think Mark is literally right: everyone is looking for Jesus, everyone needs to find Jesus, everyone needs to know how much they are loved and be able to share that love.

But that’s not all: there’s another side to the equation and it’s equally true. God is searching for us, and that’s the larger theme of Mark’s gospel: that God, the Creator of the infinite universe, is looking for us, came in search of us, and died for us and rose again. That’s why Mark called his book a “gospel” – god-spel, good words, good news – news about our search for God and also God’s search for us. There’s a search going on and every human being is involved in that search – some of us more successfully than others – but we need to understand our world in that larger perspective. The news we see on line is the story of that ongoing search: there’s a search going on. There are a lot of unhappy, discontented people in the world, people seeking and not finding. There’s a search going on, and people are turning to anger and violence in their frustration. There’s a search going on, and I think we have a message and we need to find ways to get that message out and tell others – show others – that the God who created us loves us and seeks for us, and if we seek for that God and that peace and that fulfillment we’ll discover that God also is seeking for us. And God wants to be found.

 

Judgment is Real

November 15th, 2020

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber to the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, on November 15, 2020.  (This service was joined by telephone by church members.)

You might think, after all the events of the last few weeks that you could escape by going to church – or at least by dialing in to a service with the familiar language of the Bible and Prayer Book and find some peace and reassurance.

But no. The assigned readings used by all the major churches – well, not the evangelicals –
but almost everyone else – give us words that could have come straight from the headlines:

Take the Old Testament, for example:

The great day of the Lord is near,
near and hastening fast;
a day of ruin and devastation,
a day of darkness and gloom,

a day of clouds and thick darkness,
a day of trumpet blast and battle cry

I’m not sure that either Trump or Biden would put it that way exactly, but both would probably see it like that if the other side finally wins.

But beyond the immediate reference, each of the three readings tells us that God is at work in human history and warns us that God has an agenda. God has an agenda in human history,
our history, America’s history, your history and mine. God expects us to create societies of peace and justice, and God will bring down judgment when we fail. And we do fail, again and again.

The Old Testament reading is the worst of the three:
The great day of the Lord is near, it tells us, near and hastening fast;

That day will be a day of wrath,
a day of distress and anguish,

a day of ruin and devastation,
a day of darkness and gloom,

a day of clouds and thick darkness,
a day of trumpet blast and battle cry

against the fortified cities
and against the lofty battlements.

And God tells us,

I will bring such distress upon people
that they shall walk like the blind;
because they have sinned against the Lord,

Neither their silver nor their gold
will be able to save them
on the day of the Lord’s wrath;

God, we are told, will make “a terrible end . . . of all the inhabitants of the earth.”
Our silver and gold will not save us.

Saint Paul puts it differently in the second reading, but it’s the same vision:

When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape!”

And then, in the Gospel reading, Jesus brings it down to a simple story of a master and his servants and the sort of work they have done for their Lord.

The master gave his servants gifts and expected a return, as we would ourselves, and of there is no return, judgment follows.

 

 

 

And if the readings don’t refer specifically to the number of electoral votes in Pennsylvania
or Donald Trump’s latest tweet, I think the message is pretty clear just the same: God has given us gifts in this country and God cares how we use them. God has given us responsibilities and God expects results. And it won’t turn out well when we fail to produce.

We’re just one week away from the end of the Christian year and the readings every year at this time naturally try to get our attention and ask us to think about how we’re doing as individuals and as a society because God cares – God cares – God has given us great gifts and God expects us to shape a society that looks like the kingdom of God, not a society with self-seeking leaders chosen by self-seeking citizens who seldom give a thought to the gifts God has given or the responsibility that comes with those gifts and the use we make of them.

When we read the first chapters of the Bible and find God creating a man and a woman and giving them responsibilities and throwing them out of the Garden when they fail, we are getting the same message that we get in the last chapters of the Bible where we read of the end of time and a final judgment. It’s the same message all the way through: it’s God’s world and God cares about it
and God holds us responsible.

I find that frightening.

I find it frightening because we have a country with enormous problems, whether we look at the cost of housing in San Francisco and the homeless people sleeping on our streets or the ease with which so many police shoot citizens who happen to be black, or the far larger problem of a deteriorating climate.

Whether you are a black man held down by a policeman’s knee in Milwaukee or an ordinary resident of San Francisco who couldn’t go outside in early September because of the ash in the air that blocked the sun, we ought to be able to breath. We ought to be able to breath, but we have shaped a society where even fresh air to breath is no longer guaranteed. But this is God’s world, the world God made. Could we somehow imagine that God doesn’t care?

Sometimes I think we do imagine that – or even imagine that God is well pleased with the world we have made. Somehow, in spite of all the blood spilled at Gettysburg and in the Civil War and the two world wars and in Korea and Viet Nam, in spite of the thousands of lynchings and the maltreatment of immigrants, in spite of the prejudice and the persecution of Jews and blacks and immigrants, in spite of the exploitation of the poor and the self-indulgence of the rich, somehow we have contrived a society that remains in many ways the envy of the world – which tells you more about the rest of the world than about us.

The great German chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, once said, ‘God has a special providence for fools, drunkards, and the United States of America.’ I don’t know about the fools and the drunkards but I do sometimes think that God must have a very special providence for this country in spite of our failures.

I like to point out that my four grandparents were born in four different countries on three different continents and it’s a true miracle that I’m here at all, let alone in this country and being lucky enough to grow up in a small country town where nobody ever locked their doors. But here I am, and my eyes tear up when we sing “America the beautiful.” I love this country – but that’s all the more reason to be aware of judgment.

We face a judgment, because God loves us.

For all the warnings of judgment, the bottom line is that God loves us still. Somehow we have something here of great value and need to be reminded at least once a year in these end of the year readings. We need to be reminded of purpose and gifts and judgment, to be reminded that none of what we have is deserved, and for all of it we have a responsibility, that for all of it we are held responsible because God loves us that much.

Judgment is real. Never forget it. God loves us enough to judge us.

Judgement is real. Remember that – and try with God’s help to be worthy of that love.

The Easter Garden

April 11th, 2020

God’s Garden:  a meditation for Easter by Christopher L. Webber

When my wife and I returned from Japan almost forty years ago and moved to a suburban parish in Westchester County, New York, we began looking for some land where we could have a home of our own and a garden. Before long, we found an abandoned farm eighty miles away in northwestern Connecticut and bought thirty acres. The land had once been a farm, but it had been long abandoned and the woods had reclaimed most of the territory. But immediately after buying it, I began clearing it and planting seeds and bulbs and bushes. Forgetting what Adam and Eve had learned, I also planted apple trees. Eventually we built a house there and eventually we retired there, and for twenty years I combined a rural ministry with the work of a gardener. Last week the new owner sent me a picture of daffodils that I had planted and he had picked.

The Bible is full of surprises. There’s always something more to see and understand. On Good Friday I took part in or watched several zoom and You Tube services and heard or read the story of Jesus’ death at least four times and St. John finally got me to pay attention to a small point that he had embedded in his gospel for me to notice: they buried Jesus in a garden.

Now, John is always asking us to notice the relationship between his gospel and the story of Creation. John’s Gospel, like the Book of Genesis. is all about beginnings. The first verse of the Book of Genesis tells us, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” John’s Gospel begins, “In the beginning, was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”

In the same way, the Book of Genesis tells us that God spent six days in creation, and John’s Gospel tells us about six signs that Jesus did, and he even numbers them so we’ll notice. “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee,” for example, or “Now this was the second sign that Jesus did.” After that, John doesn’t flag them for us but lets us figure it out for ourselves.

What I hadn’t noticed until this year was what John shows us about gardening. Genesis tells us that God planted the first garden and placed the man in it to care for it. But the man and his wife messed up and got driven out and the man was sentenced to life as a gardener. Hey, it could have been worse! Suppose he had condemned the man to live in a city! But we did that to ourselves.

What John tells us (none of the other gospels notices) is that they buried Jesus in a garden. Yes, and when Mary Magdalene stayed weeping at the empty tomb on Easter Day, John tells us she failed to recognize Jesus because she thought he was the gardener! Well, he was – and is! He had planted the first garden East of Eden and he continues to challenge us to make the soil fruitful because our lives depend on it.

The great nineteenth century English poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, wrote a sonnet on the subject:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings

Sometimes we despair of getting it right. We destroy the soil with chemicals and wash it into the sea. We pave it with concrete. We burn down the forests. We may well wonder whether Hopkins is overly optimistic in saying that “nature is never spent.” But St. John has left us an Easter message of hope: God is the gardener and is able to bring new life even out of the sealed tomb.

 

 

 

The Samaritan Woman and Us

March 12th, 2020

A sermon prepared for the Third Sunday in Lent, March 15, 2020, by Christopher L. Webber

The first ecumenical discussion group met beside a well in Samaria almost 2000 years ago. Jews and Samaritans had been separated for about 500 years – about as long as Lutherans and Episcopalians and Roman Catholics. Like Christians today, they both had the same basic Bible, they both traced their descent from Abraham. But those who were called Jews had been through a 70-year period of exile in Babylon during which time the way they expressed their faith had been radically changed. The exiled Jews had added to the Bible and they now insisted that worship had to be centered in Jerusalem. No wonder the Samaritans weren’t prepared to go along. It’s not too different from the way non-Roman Catholics object to what seems to them additions to Biblical teaching and the new idea that everything has to be centered in Rome.

Even so, it was probably more a matter of class that divided them since the Babylonians had taken only the leadership group into captivity and the Samaritans were those who had been left behind, the so-called “people of the land,” the farmers, the blue-collar workers, the people least likely to cause trouble for the Babylonian occupation troops. In a similar way, there were economic issues in the Reformation that may have been more important than the theological issues. Christians in the north of Europe, for example, objected to the way their tax money went south to build St. Peter’s when they could have used that money to improve their own conditions. So at any rate there were all these issues dividing Jews and Samaritans and they basically didn’t talk to each other.

Of course, Jesus was different. He told a story, you remember, about a Samaritan who was a better neighbor to a wounded Jew than the Jewish leaders who went on by. And now he sits down beside a well and begins a conversation with – not just a Samaritan – but a woman. A Jewish man shouldn’t have done that. But Jesus had this idea that people should love one another, that divisions should be broken down, that people should come together and work together. So he ignores all the taboos, the prejudices, the traditions, and starts a conversation.

The Gospel tells us that the disciples had gone away to buy food so they weren’t there to check up on what Jesus was doing. It tells us that when they came back “they were astonished.” You bet they were. What if the Secret Service reported for duty some morning during a presidential trip to the mid-East and found the president deep in conversation with somebody in a turban? Some things you just don’t expect.

But what I want you to notice is how Jesus begins this conversation. He asks for help. “Please give me a drink.” Bad enough he’s talking with a woman of an alien sect, but he asks her to help him. The disciples would rather have died of thirst. But I said this was the first ecumenical discussion group, and if you want to break down barriers, there’s no better way to start than to admit that the other has something you need. You and I know that we have what Roman Catholics need: the freedom to use our minds and make decisions that seem right to us without waiting for word to come down from Rome. But if we set out with that attitude, we won’t get very far. “Look, my way is better than your way; let me show you how to do it better.” Most people don’t want to hear that. “Listen, I can make a better pie than you can; let me give you my recipe.” No, you’ll get along a lot better if you start out asking advice. “Your pie crust always seems so light and flaky; how do you do it?” “We always seem to be having these arguments; how do you keep everyone on board?” Start from weakness, not strength; from need, not superiority. It works in families, factories, congregations, government . . . every level of human relationships. How can you help me, not how can I help you. Suppose the President were to call Nancy Pelosi and say, “Look, we’ve got to get a solution to . . . . well, you name it: the border, the budget, the virus, whatever) and I’d really like your thoughts.” He’d have to persuade her it wasn’t a hoax . . . but just suppose.

Or churches: maybe if we spent more time trying to learn from the evangelical churches they’d be more open to learning from us. Its worth trying. Jesus’ example is always worth following. Moslems pray five times a day and fast all day for thirty days in a row. Is there something there to open a conversation that might be more productive than urging them to accept the Trinity? Well, that’s point one. Think about it in terms of any relationship that isn’t working for you; any division from someone else that concerns you.

Then notice this: once the conversation is going, Jesus moves it on to deeper things. Not just water from the well, but the life-giving water that God alone can give. We all need the same things. It doesn’t matter whether you are Episcopalian or Baptist, whether you are Christian or Moslem, all human beings need a deeper relationship with God. And, yes, Jesus alone can provide that and he makes that perfectly clear, but not on a “You want it; I’ve got it” basis. No, what he says is, “There is this water of life that you need and it’s available if you only ask.” Always he respects her freedom. It’s up to her to ask and he will not force it on her. Most people don’t want to be threatened or coerced or have their arms twisted. There are churches that come on with an attitude: “Join us or go to hell.” It works for some people, but not most. Most of us, I think, given a choice, would rather stay where we are than accept a gift under compulsion. Maybe your neighbor has the latest thing in computers and you’re still using a pencil or a beat-up old typewriter and they come along saying “How come you’re so stupid; let me give you a computer and show you how to use it so you can be almost as smart as I am.” No, it doesn’t work. “Let’s go together, grow together” works better. Jesus offers but never insists.

And a third thing: don’t get bogged down on the outward and visible. The Samaritan woman wants to talk about things she understands like, “Is it better to worship in Jerusalem or Samaria?” “This mountain or yours?” And Jesus just won’t go there. “God is spirit, and those who worship God must worship in spirit and truth.” If you’re having ecumenical conversations with Roman Catholics what matters is not the number of statues you have but the love of God. If you’re talking to evangelicals the issue is not that we use vestments and they don’t. The issue is the love of God. The issue is the presence of God’s Holy Spirit in your heart and mine. People come into an Episcopal Church and see some people crossing themselves and some people genuflecting and that’s what gets their attention. Do Episcopalians have to do all that? No. They don’t. Many find it helpful. Some don’t. At the Last Judgment, I don’t think this will even come up for discussion. Does it matter whether you worship God on Mt Gerizim or in Jerusalem? No, it matters whether you worship. It’s better to be a good Roman Catholic than a bad Episcopalian; a good Moslem, than a bad Christian. “The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship God.”

I need the help of outward and visible things: a church building, a sense of beauty, candles and crosses and vestments. But Jesus was born in a stable and I can worship God in a stable. I’ve prayed in pretty simple surroundings and it’s doable. Yet if I take the time to beautify my own home and leave God’s house bare, I’m not sure the Spirit is present. I’m not sure I can claim to be bringing my best, really offering my life to God if I leave the floor unswept and last week’s programs lying on the floor and a vase of drooping flowers on the altar and conduct the service in an old flannel shirt and blue jeans. But it’s not the vestments that matter or the location of the church. Those may be evidence of the Spirit but they are not the Spirit, and God is looking for the Spirit, for lives that truly honor God.

Week after week we hear about Jesus healing or Jesus teaching or Jesus doing miraculous things. But I suspect what made the real difference was the way he talked with people: last week with Nicodemus, this week with an un-named Samaritan woman, next week with a blind man: listening, showing respect, allowing them their freedom, pointing them toward the things that matter. And like most things we hear in church, it shows us some things we ought to pay attention to and remember and act on.