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.




Wilderness or Desert?

March 1st, 2020

A sermon preached at All Saints Church, San Francisco, on March 1, 2020, by the Rev. Christopher L. Webber.

Well over three thousand years ago the Hebrews were a nomadic tribe wandering in the deserts of the middle east. All around them were people who were learning to be farmers: Egyptians, Babylonians, Canaanites who raised wheat and barley and melons and other good things to eat. And because they depended on the sun and the rain and the rivers, the soil and the seasons, and because these were not always favorable, these agricultural people prayed to the powers that they thought determined success or failure, abundance or hunger, and they made statues and images as a focus for their prayers.

The Hebrews, however, were nomads. They had no crops to raise, so they had no need for gods of that sort. For them there was one God, invisible, all-powerful, known in the uncontrollable volcano at Sinai and the desert storms.  So when the Hebrews came into the promised land and tried to learn farming themselves they looked to the Canaanites for advice and they were told, “Well, here’s what you do: you set up a pillar or carve some statues of wood or stone and you make offerings, and you cry out to Baal or Astarte or whichever god you need at the moment for rain or sun or whatever crop it is.”

Some of the Hebrews tried it out and sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t, but they thought it was better to do it than not do it. Hey, you never know. But others resisted and said, “No, the God of our ancestors commanded us to make no statues because our God is beyond all possibility of representation. And our God also cannot be influenced by the size of our offerings or anything like that. We can try to line up with God but no way we can get God to line up with us.”

That was a conflict that went on for centuries. The Hebrews were divided by it with prophets and their visions on one side and the practical people on the other. The prophets said, “It doesn’t matter where you are or what the agenda is; there is one God, no other. You can serve God, but God can’t be bribed to serve you.” But the practical people said, “Look, the Canaanites have the experience and the smart thing is to hedge your bets, not put all your eggs in one basket, always backup your computer, don’t take chances.”

But the prophets didn’t give up; always there were prophets who insisted God is beyond all this and if this becomes an idol God can and will destroy it and God can even destroy you, the chosen people, if you turn to your own ways, because God is always beyond, always greater than we can imagine and God asks us to respond in a freedom that lacks the apparent security of walls and borders and images and festivals and buildings and laws. God is not limited by our constructions. God is free. And God calls us to respond in freedom giving ourselves without limit to the God who loves us without limit.

Well, that’s what Lent is about: it’s a reminder that we are by origin a wandering, wilderness people with an unconfined God, a God who is free and calls us to freedom. Lent summons us to remember who we are and respond to that challenge. For forty days every year we are challenged to follow Jesus back out into the wilderness of our nomadic ancestors where there is none of the security of plowed land and settlements and walls and well-traveled roads. The Prayer Book speaks of Lent as a time of “special acts of discipline and self-denial.” It asks us to find out whether we can get along without the images and the idols – the things, the possessions, that give us a feeling of security. Can we put them aside and learn to live with God alone?

All the old traditional disciplines of Lent,  giving up candy and movies and television – the images of Canaan and Babylon – are basically about that: how addicted are you to the local idols? how dependent on material things? what is it that takes the time you might have used for prayer or the energy that might have been used to help someone in need or to work to change a society that seems indifferent to the needs of others? It’s probably not something as simple as candy or computer games. It’s things that have become part of the very fabric of our lives and it will hurt to tear them out. The idols are where they are because we’ve learned to love them and depend on them and believe we need them. Lent asks us to focus on the question: who is your God?

One of the old mystics used to say, “This, too, is not God.” It’s a good line to remember. “This too is not God.” I think some of the most divisive arguments in our public life, church and state, are about idols – not God. We still want our images, things to hold onto; we are still afraid of the desert.

The church today is being torn apart by those who insist on this reading of the Bible rather than that one, my way of reading the law and the security it gives me rather than your way which makes me nervous. And not enough of us are prepared to stop and say “Let’s really listen to each other; let’s admit that my way and your way both are inadequate images, neither one is an absolute and final and complete picture of God and never can be. So let me hear how what you have to say honors God and let me try to explain why I believe my views honor God and one way or another let’s recognize that we both are seeking to honor God and God is not honored by our anger or by a narrow clinging to images. Let’s confess our limitations and try still to love each other even if we no more understand each other than we truly and fully understand God.”

The church I served for twenty-two years, like this church and many others, follows the old English custom in Lent which wasn’t purple but monks cloth. You come into church on Ash Wednesday and the crosses and pictures are draped in simple sack cloth and it always feels to me like spring cleaning – the visual distractions are covered and there’s a sense of simplicity and cleanness.

The Russian Orthodox have a custom called pustina, which has to do with going into a bare cell, a room with four walls and no more, to spend a day or two days or more – with nothing to see, nothing to hold on to – “sensory deprivation,” I think might be the modern phrase, removal of distractions. And who needs some such practice more than 21st century Americans whose lives are so full and whose souls are so empty? Lent is a time to clean house, to be rid of idols and images and preconceived notions and start afresh.

Now, let me ask you to look at it another way:  we speak loosely of the desert or wilderness, but years ago, when I was in Israel, we had a guide who took us down from Jerusalem to Jericho – down through the barren land where Jesus spent those forty days – and along the way he showed us a bright splash of green down the side of a steep cliff and he said it came from a break in a conduit taking water to an ancient monastery and he said it shows you that this is not truly desert but wilderness. There is a difference. Desert, true desert, he said, is where nothing can grow. Wilderness is where growth can take place if only it has water. When the spring rains come it bursts into bloom. When the aqueduct springs a leak, the barren land turns green.

Think about that this Lent. Yes, go back out into the desert, get rid of the idols, but then ask yourself this: where I am, can anything grow? Am I in the desert or the wilderness? Go out onto the paved street outside the church and pour some water on it and watch for awhile. Probably that’s desert, not wilderness. Probably nothing can grow there. Try it in your office or place of work. Pour some water in a corner near your desk or work place and watch for a week or so and see what happens. Try it at home. Pour some water on the television set, maybe a quart or so every day for a week. Does anything grow? Does any life emerge? Did it ever? But it might do good things for you anyway if you water it well. I will guarantee that if you do that you will have a better social life, your thinking will clarify, and you will lose weight. But seriously, Lent is a time to ask whether I’m in a place where life can come or not: desert or wilderness: which is it?

For all the visual richness of our society a lot of it is desert: dead as it can be and deadening to those who come there. But we are not like the wilderness plants; we can move; we can pick ourselves up and put ourselves in a place where life can emerge and develop – real life, the life of the spirit, life that can transcend even death itself. And we can carry that life with us and make things bloom where we are. I trust this church is such a place. I trust your home and place of work can be such a place. But it depends on what you bring to it from here, from the sacraments ministered here, from the Word of God read and proclaimed and taught here. I suspect that this community, the places you work in, the places you live in are wilderness, needing what you can absorb here and take there and capable of real life.

But it’s not automatic and it won’t happen unless you want it to happen. God twists very few arms. God wants us to respond in freedom. But God does want us to grow. God does want us to focus on life. God does want us to turn away from all that which is not God to come to the One who is.

Being Christ

February 15th, 2020

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at All Saints Church, San Francisco, on February 16, 2020.

Why do we do what we do?

The New York Times bestseller list has two kinds of nonfiction: a general category, mostly history and biography, and a second category called “Advice, How to, and Miscellaneous.” “How to” books make up most of the list.  Usually they offer a couple on love, there’s probably one on diet, and maybe one on dealing with alcoholism. This week there are three on leadership and that might be appropriate reading for a parish seeking a new Rector, but one title I noticed LEADERSHIP STRATEGY AND TACTICS BY A FORMER NAVY SEAL  might not be a good fit.

The “how-to” book is is an old, familiar, American phenomenon. We are a nation of doers. If things aren’t right, we want to change them. And we have this pervasive idea that if we just knew how to do it, we could solve any problem. Through the years, religious books have often been at the top of the “how to” list. I remember one called “the power of positive thinking,” and more recently one called “the Be Happy attitudes.” Currently there’s one co-authored by the Dalai Lama and Bishop Tutu called “The Book of Joy.” Joy, happiness, God on your side. It’s an age-old search. And all too many of us, even if we’ve outgrown it ourselves, try to push it on our children. I’ve heard it 100 times: “I want little Suzy to be in the Sunday school because I think it’s good for children to learn about God and how to behave and get some ethics.”

Christianity is often cheapened into a self-help program, a self-improvement program. But Christianity is not primarily an ethical system and you can’t just simply teach behavior. Children are not dogs to be trained; they are people to be loved. And, anyway, behavior is not the point of Christian faith. It’s a byproduct at best. The church is here not so much to teach children as to love them.

Do you know that Sunday schools were only invented about 100 years ago, and only then to serve children whose families were unchurched? It’s only very recently, two generations, maybe three, that the idea took hold that churches should teach Christianity to children in separate classes. And it happened, I think, because so many families had a feeling that they were failing to do the job but it could somehow be taught.

But it’s interesting to notice that in the Episcopal Church, about 50 to 75 years ago, a counter movement began with the growth of the “family Eucharist” or “Parish Eucharist.” We still bought in to the general belief in Sunday school, though we tended to call it church school, but we began to combine church school with Eucharist. Somehow we knew that there was more to learning than teaching; that Christian faith could not be reduced to a classroom experience.

And especially Christian education can’t be reduced to a matter of good instruction

Why do we do what we do?

I remember a story told by the Bishop of Long Island back when I was in that diocese. It happened during the height of the Cold War. A Russian bishop somehow had gotten permission to travel and had made his way to Long Island and had met with the Episcopal bishop. And the conversation was very stiff at first, and Bishop DeWolfe gradually realized that the Russian bishop was concerned about being overheard. So Bishop DeWolfe got his guest into a car and went for a drive and finally the visitor felt free to talk about the problem of being a church that was forbidden to teach. So what can you do? asked Bishop DeWolfe, and his guest said, “We have the liturgy.”

In this morning’s Gospel, we have a part of the sermon on the Mount which we have been reading for several weeks now, in which Jesus seems to be teaching his disciples how to behave;

“You have heard that it was said to the men of old, you shall not kill; and however kills shall be liable to judgment. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment. . . “

“You have heard it said,” Jesus says again and again, and then he goes on, “but I say. . . .” and what he says is beyond any possibility of doing: “Do not be angry – – do not desire – – do not be limited by law not be unlimited in love.”

Down through the centuries scholars have argued, “Did he mean it? Did he have in mind an impossible utopia? Did he expect the kingdom to come in his lifetime and was he condemning us all to hopelessness? If it weren’t that Lent is coming, we would come back next week and hear the end of this section and Jesus saying “You must be perfect, as your father in heaven is perfect.”

Is that the gospel? Is that the bottom line? “Be perfect.” Is that Good News? Are we really to teach our children a way of life we haven’t even tried and can’t follow ourselves? Or is Christian behavior like the 55 mile an hour speed limit: a swell idea as long as nobody really expects me to accept it?

But I think we miss the point when we look at Christianity as primarily a way to behave, a system of ethics. There was a fundamentalist college in Upstate New York, near where I grew up, where girls were required to wear long sleeved dresses. Smoking, drinking, card playing were all no-noes. That trivializes something intended to be far more revolutionary than just being nicer to others. These commands of Jesus are serious and, yes, they are meant for us. But if we are called to be like Christ, called to perfection, then we have only two alternatives: to fail in a futile effort to do it ourselves, or to give up, admit who we are, and die to self – and let Christ remake us in his image. I think that’s the goal: Christ in us. I think that is what baptism is all about. I think that’s what the Eucharist is all about.  I think that’s  what prayer is all about. It’s about dying to self and letting Christ live in us. It’s about being born again. And as that happens, behavior will take care of itself. We will become a new person and act like that new person.

I happened to have a talk show on the car radio one day years ago and the subject was alcoholism. A woman called in and told how she was living with a man she loved a lot, but he was alcoholic and would get depressed over something, and get drunk, and beat her and her child. “Get out!” said the talk show host. “Go to Alanon. Hear about it from people who have been there. But you can’t change him. He has to change himself.” There was dialogue back and forth and finally the woman said, “well, all right, but what about him? Should he go to a meeting?” And the talk show host, a psychiatrist, said, “of course he should go to a meeting. He should stop drinking. But should is a meaningless word. You do what you have to do.”

“Should is a meaningless word. You do what you have to do.”

Well, how often have you and I said, “I know what I should do, but – – –“ haven’t you said that? What controls your life: “should” or something stronger? “You do what you have to do.” Exactly right. And what we have to do is what we are, what’s in us, our inner nature. Which doesn’t mean we are simply helpless victims of our genetic inheritance and environment, that we “can’t help ourselves” – – a kind of “no-fault” ethics.  No, it means that we need to concern ourselves not so much with the rules we learn as with the relationships we form, and with the environment we choose to live in, not so much with what guides us from the outside as with what shapes us from the inside, what in-forms us, not so much with what relationships we create as with what relationships re-create us.

Why do we do what we do? “A bad tree,” Jesus said, “cannot produce good fruit.” You can say “should” to it all you want; it won’t happen. What matters is the soil and the rain and inherited genetic traits that form that tree over the years from within. So too we may hear sermons that tell us “should” but they will have no affect on us unless we have found a source of life in the Eucharistic community that enables us to grow into the life to which we are called.

Jesus said, “do this,” and he took bread and said, “this is my body.” That’s what we need. His life transforming ours. Why do we do what we do? Because Christ in us so shapes our hearts and minds that we love what he is and do what he does and become who he is. When that happens “should” becomes a meaningless word.