Faith and Mulberry Trees

October 5th, 2019

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, on October 5, 2019.

Hy – per – bo – le.

That’s the key word to understand the gospel reading today. Hyperbole. Look it up on line and you’ll find lots of definitions and lots of examples.

Hyperbole is defined as “an exaggerated statement” or “extravagant exaggeration” or “a claim not meant to be taken literally.” I think we all probably use hyerbole just about every day. I could say “we use it all the time” but that would be hyperbole.

If you say to someone: “I’ve told you to clean your room a million times!” That’s hyperbole. Or if you say, “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.” That’s hyperbole. You don’t expect someone to put a horse on your dinner plate. Or if you say, “That suitcase weighs a ton.” That’s hyperbole. You don’t expect someone to get out the scales and weigh it. And if they do, you’re going to say, “Oh, come one; you knew what I meant.” And they did. They knew exactly what you meant. Because everybody understands hyperbole even if they never heard of it. It’s hyperbole; hyperbole. It’s exaggeration for effect, to make a point dramatically.

Jesus used hyperbole. He probably thought it was pretty obvious what he was saying. But he probably never met a fundamentalist. If I said, “Faith can move mountains” you would know what I meant and you would know it’s true. And you wouldn’t expect me to relocate Mt. Tam to prove it. But somehow when Jesus says something like that we totally forget how language is used. So we read the gospel this morning and hear Jesus say:”If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, `Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you,” and it worries us, because for some reason we think that if Jesus said it, we have to take it literally – and if we can’t relocate mulberry trees that our faith is too small.

I went on line looking for examples of fundamentalists who had taken Jesus literally and had moved mulberry trees. I didn’t find any but I did find some who are worried by this text because they don’t know about hyperbole. And it was kind of funny. I found one who said, “There’s a mulberry tree right outside my window,” and he’s never yet had a reason to move it but he sort of implied that he could if he really wanted to. I can think of lots of reasons he should try it. Think how many converts he’d make. I found one on-line preacher who tried to talk around it by blaming his congregation: “I haven’t moved any mulberry trees this week and I bet you haven’t either.” But that’s not the point! That misses the point.

I don’t know where the nearest mulberry tree is, but I think most people who have them would be happy to cast them in the sea because they’re messy trees. I remember living in a town where there was one just down the street and we learned to stay away from it in summer. They produce these tasteless berries that mess up your sidewalk and get on your shoes and stain your clothes. Worse, the male mulberry tree produces pollen that is terrible for people with asthma. Lots of cities have actually banned them for that reason. So if there were a shortcut way to cast the things in the sea they’re be a line of people ready to help. But they would need machinery, not faith. Faith can do lots of good things for you but it’s not about moving mulberry trees.

I wish we had Hebrews 11 to read this morning, because that’s the passage we need to go with this gospel. Hebrews 11 defines faith and Hebrews 11 describes faith. It defines it as “the evidence of things not seen.” I can’t see faith but I can see what it does. I can’t see faith but I can see faithful people: I can see you here this morning because you’re faithful. So there’s evidence of faith even though we can’t see it.

Hebrews 11 describes faith by remembering one by one the Biblical characters who acted in faith. It starts with Moses: By faith Moses identified himself with the enslaved Hebrew people, by faith they passed through the Red Sea by faith they conquered the promised land by faith they endured hardship and suffering mocking and flogging, chains and imprisonment And this great cloud of witnesses, Hebrews 11 tells us, of whom the world was not worthy gives us courage to go ahead, gives us courage to move not mulberry trees but doubt and discouragement and hardship and suffering, move them out of the way, cast them in the sea, and keep going because we have faith in God’s promises. Faith enables us to move on, to keep going, because God has given us a promise greater than any tricks with mulberry trees.

The disciples said, “Increase our faith.” I’m with them. I’d like a double dose. But Jesus doesn’t really answer them. He tells them if they had even the smallest bit of faith, they could do great things. And then he moved on down the road that led to Jerusalem and they followed him. See? That’s faith: They followed him even though they didn’t know where he was going, even though they might have guessed it wouldn’t be easy. But it turned out that they had faith enough to change the world. Forget about mulberry trees. They changed the world. And it wasn’t because he taught them any special tricks or secret formulas. They got it by walking along with him day after day, day after day. And that’s where we get it too. By being here, by saying our prayers, by reading the Bible, by following Jesus on the path in front of us. Faith comes by walking with Jesus and if we do that we’ll have enough. God promises us life: changed life now, and new life hereafter. All God asks of us is faith, faith the size of a mustard seed to accept that promise and live by that faith..


September 27th, 2019

A sermon given at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, California, on September 29, 2019, by Christopher L. Webber.


I wish we could read the story of Dives and Lazarus on Easter Day.

We come to church on Easter Day to give thanks for the gift of eternal life, life after death, Resurrection life – with happy, upbeat hymns and Easter eggs and chocolate bunnies and wouldn’t it be good to have this story with a few more specifics about eternal life? about the rich man and the poor man, about Dives and Lazarus? who died and went elsewhere. Both of them were given eternal life but not in the same place and that might be worrisome.

Does it worry you? I’m getting old enough that I have to worry. I pay for my living space a month at a time. More and more people live to be 90 and even 100, but not 110. They’re working on it, but we’re not there yet. And even 150, which some think is someday possible, is a blink of an eye to eternity. Primitive human beings were honoring their dead with burial and burying useful tributes in the grave 100,000 years ago and that’s a long time, but even that is not eternity, not eternity. Eternal life is a long time. This life is not a long time. whether it’s three score years and ten or ninety-five, or one hundred and ten, it still has an ending and this morning’s parable puts that ending in graphic terms: Lazarus in the bosom of Abraham and Dives in flames.

I have two points to make:
1 – God cares how we use our money
2 – Eternal life is real

So Point One is that there is a destiny, we’re going somewhere. We’re here for a purpose. And there’s a loving God who gives us that purpose. And it’s not about how much you can pile up. Have you seen the stories about the family who owned the company that made oxycontin that killed however many people – thousands and thousands – but made one family rich, filthy rich. And when the government began to catch up with them they transferred billions to secret accounts. It’s blood money; but they’re hanging onto it. Like Dives. Eat, drink, and be merry – and hope the Feds don’t get you, and hope there’s no hereafter because if there is, they’re in big trouble. God cares how you use your money. God cares how YOU use YOUR money. I don’t know whether there are literal flames below or not – I’ll come back to that – but I know I don’t want to face my creator with blood on my hands. And I’m not sure there isn’t.

How does the government use my money? To build a wall, to incarcerate women and children fleeing conditions our policies helped create. We spend more money on bombs and guns – military – than anything else, and how much good does it do? But I am a citizen of a country that builds walls and makes bombs and I may or may not have voted for a particular candidate but did I work for someone else or sit on the sidelines? I’m a citizen and I’m responsible.

But forget the government, how do I myself spend my money? I donate to Episcopal Relief and Development every Christmas and I know they do good things, but I spend more on myself every month for things I don’t really need. Is my lifestyle more like Dives or Lazarus? Notice that nothing is said about who went to church or synagogue or mosque – only one thing counts in this story that Jesus told: Dives had the good things all his life and he never shared so much as the crumbs with the poor man at his gate. And that settles it. That does it. That’s all that matters.

How do you and I measure up? Did I – did you – do something about the needs around us while we had time or did we not? What charities do you support? And how will you vote in this next election? Will you ask what’s in it for me or are you asking, How can we as a country do most for those with the most needs whoever and wherever they may be?” Are we asking which candidate will lower my taxes most or which candidate shares my values most fully in terms of human need? This country perhaps is Dives and perhaps Honduras is Lazarus.

How should we respond? “Stay away from my door?” “Build a wall?” People who think you can separate church and state need to look at the Bible. It’s a political document; it’s about God at work in history. Jesus talked often about money, about wealth and poverty. God cares and God wants us to care. And when you get a stewardship letter sometime in the next few weeks we need to consider our response in these terms: in the light of eternity: sub specie aeternitatis. So let me also say a word or two about that: about eternity and eternal life.

And notice also that Lazarus gets named in the story, but not the rich man. Names matter. And the poor man got no recognition from the rich man, but Jesus only names Lazarus. The rich man is just another rich man: met one, you’ve met them all. Somewhere later on in the Middle Ages they began calling the rich man “Dives,” the Latin word for “rich.” Maybe his name was Richard and they called him Rich for short. God, I believe, knows the rich man also by name but Jesus doesn’t give him a name. He’s just “a certain rich man who fared sumptuously every day.” As I do. As most of us do, although there are homeless men and women lying not far from our doors. But Lazarus is given a name to make the point: the Good Shepherd knows his sheep whether the world does or not.

Second, think about the picture of flames and all that. I don’t expect the scene painted in the gospel to play out in real time, or at the end of time. I think pearly gates and raging fire – or, perhaps, as Dante saw it, a place of terrible cold – are useful images. Perhaps they are, but I know perfectly well that whatever comes next is beyond picturing, beyond imagining, because my imagination is so narrowly limited by the familiar things of tis earth. The Bible pictures heaven as Jerusalem – only better. You might think of it as an infinite golf course or an endless Mozart concert. You might see it as a choice between Tahoe and Arizona. Our imaginations are too small. But the picture the gospel gives us, I think, is a useful reminder all the same that how we live matters. It matters.

Speaking of the picture the Bible gives us, let me end with a word about the picture that came with your Bulletin this morning. I printed up some pictures because, they say, one picture is worth a thousand words. It almost doubles the length of the sermon. But the passage we read this morning describes Lazarus with Abraham. It says that Dives saw Abraham far away with Lazarus “by his side.” But that’s not what the Bible says. Some of us are old enough to remember the King James Version that says Dives saw Abraham “afar off and Lazarus in his bosom.” So the modern translators were squeamish about that and we get “by his side” Instead of “in his bosom.” But what St Luke wrote was “En tois kolpois autou” – “In his bosom.” You can look it up. So that’s why I got that picture printed. There’s Lazarus: maybe we could say he’s “in Abraham’s lap” and all the other souls are lined up to get their turn. It’s very real and very physical and that’s important, really important.

Don’t let people soften it up by talking about souls. Jesus never talked about souls nor did Paul. They talked about the resurrection of the body. Not, of course, these particular atoms which are new every seven years anyway, but what Paul calls a “resurrection body.” Buddhists believe in immortal souls but Christians believe in the resurrection of the body: a resurrected body that Abraham can embrace. Bodies matter – now and hereafter – bodies matter. We are physical beings with physical needs, and we will be judged hereafter by how we cared for those needs – and especially the needs of others, those lying at our gate, those outside the wall. We come here, and form a community to support each other in this brief pilgrimage and to do what we can to reach out to Lazarus – while we have time.

Making History

August 18th, 2019

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at All Saints Church, Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco, on August 18, 2019.

I meet every week with a small Bible study group where I live and we’ve been making our way through the so-called history books: 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings. And the Bible is unlike the sacred scriptures of any other faith because of books like those, books of history. Much of the Bible is history, history, not teaching, or, rather, teaching with history. If you’re into comparative religion you can look at the Muslim Koran and the Hindu Bhagavadgita or the Buddhist Pali Canon and Agama and you will find wisdom but you will not find anything like the history books of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. Even the Old Testament this morning provides history indirectly as a parable.

Today we have to look at the first New Testament reading to get the Old Testament history summarized. It has to be summarized here, the author says,

For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets– who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight… Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; . . . (They were) destitute, persecuted, tormented– of whom the world was not worthy.

The passage ends by saying:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us . . .looking to Jesus the author and perfecter of our faith

One modern translation puts it: Jesus “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” I like that: “pioneer and perfecter.” I like that because Americans know about pioneers: people who range out ahead, exploring new land, settling, finally, even places like California and maybe the moon and Mars. Human beings are pioneers by nature. Think of the very first Americans crossing the Bering Strait – long before Jamestown or Plymouth – and moving down the west coast of the continent and spreading out across America first from west to east: first California, then New York, – that’s not the sequence they taught me in school but that’s what those first Americans did and not stopping in California either but moving also further south, crossing the border into Mexico without a wall to stop them. And all of that is part of the larger chronicle of which the Bible gives us only snippets, bits and pieces, but significant bits and pieces in which we can see more clearly the things we need to know about human society and human nature, things God wants us to learn and knows that we can learn by experience better than books. Our sacred book, our Bible, does have teaching, yes, of course, but grounded always in human experience, in history. We know because we’ve been there, we’ve done that, we’ve learned from events.

We’ve had some history lessons in recent weeks, haven’t we? Not for the first time. How many times do we need to be taught the same lesson before we act? Take chapter 4 of the Bible, for example: the story of Cain and Abel? In the larger picture – this is a personalized summary of what happens when shepherds and farmers, ranchers and farmers, have their eyes on the same land. But Abel was a keeper of sheep And Cain was a tiller of the soil. It’s condensed history: the Jews come on the scene as keepers of sheep moving into farm land in Canaan and fighting with the native farmers for that land. You can’t grow lettuce if the cattle aren’t fenced out and you can’t raise cattle if somebody fenced off the grazing land. So Cain and Abel happened, and it happened again as the west was settled, first by ranchers until human beings recognize that God made human beings for a purpose, that God made them to live together in peace and they need to learn the art of compromise and find ways to settle disputes before it comes to blows.

There came a time, long ago, when human beings understood that well enough to sum it up in four words: Thou shalt not kill. And later they learned an even better way to say it: love your neighbor as yourself. We learned that out of history by sad experience – or started to learn it because we’re not there yet, are we? Columbine, Parkland, Sandy Hook, Gilroy, Dayton, El Paso – the list gets longer and longer. How long, O Lord, how long?

Martin Luther King, Jr. confronted that question again and again. If you are black in America, you’re bound to ask. In one of his greatest sermons, King said,

I know you are asking today, “How long will it take?” Somebody’s asking, “How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, . . . Somebody’s asking, “When will wounded justice, lying prostrate on the streets of Selma and Birmingham and communities all over the South, be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men?” Somebody’s asking, . .. . How long will justice be crucified, and truth bear it?” I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because “truth crushed to earth will rise again.”
How long? Not long, because “no lie can live forever.” How long? Not long, because “you shall reap what you sow.” How long? Not long: How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. How long? Not long, because: Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord . . .

And our eyes have seen the glory in the battles raging now in the streets of Charlottesville and El Paso and still in Ferguson, Missouri, where American citizens are still stopped for driving while black as a good friends of mine have been even on Long Island and in northwestern Connecticut just a few years ago. It happens. It’s happening right now. But what we see when these dreadful things take place – what we’ve seen when people come together in a common grief – what we’ve seen is always a renewed determination to work and pray for something better. Not thoughts and prayers, Not hope and pray. No, but work and pray. Make a commitment to change, make a commitment to work and give to the city that has foundations. a commitment to the kingdom of God. A commitment to work together in faith remembering, remembering what God’s people have accomplished in faith, what we read about this morning:

By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, By faith the walls of Jericho fell . . .

By faith we will move on. And we read last week in this same passage from Hebrews about those others:

who confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way (we read) make it clear that they are seeking a homeland, that they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.

Yes, and some people are willing to wait, but I think God gives us the vision of that heavenly city to make us less patient with this one. I think we wouldn’t mind so much what’s happening if we didn’t have a vision of a different world, a better community. But we do and that’s why we’re not willing to settle for things as they are.

Dorothy L Sayers once said, “The best kept inns are on the through roads.” That was a hundred years ago. The best kept inns today are likelier to be at the airports than the train stations. We’re people in a hurry and now we know what’s possible and we’re not willing to wait. It’s because we have that vision that the patterns of life are being challenged and that’s frightening to some people who don’t share the vision, who think they can turn the clock back and build walls and deny travel documents to stop change from happening. It can’t be done. God is at work. Mine eyes have seen the glory – the glory of the vision of a nation where color no longer matters and ethnicity no longer matters but love matters and justice matters and peace matters and the faith that we can get there is the faith proclaimed in the readings last week and this: the faith that is shaking the foundations to tear down the city of human pride and build up the city of God

Don’t Worry!

August 10th, 2019

A sermon for the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, on August 11, 2019, by the Rev. Christopher L. Webber.

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” St. Luke 12:32

It seems to me in the nature of things that sermons should make you worry. My job as a preacher, I sometimes think, is to make people worry. Either there is something you’re supposed to learn or something you’re supposed to do or maybe there are other people we should worry about because they aren’t up to snuff or need converting or something. So the sermon tells us things to worry about.

I guess it goes with the territory. All this last month, we’ve been reading passages that set standards and point directions: “Love God,” “Listen to God’s word,” “Don’t set your mind on wealth” – – that kind of thing: things to worry about.

So it’s nice to come to church in the middle of August and hear a Gospel that says, “Don’t worry.” The Gospel said, “Don’t be afraid, little flock…” but, you know, right there is one of the things we worry about: we are a little flock. 25 or 30 people on a typical Sunday is what percent, do you suppose, of the neighborhood. Does anyone of our neighbors on this street come here on Sunday? Just to keep the church doors open takes a certain number of committed people, and generally just a few more than seem to be on hand.

So we do worry. We’d like a bigger flock. Even on a national basis, two or three million Episcopalians in a population of over 300 million is not good odds. And worldwide, 85 million Anglicans in a population of several billion is even worse. But even if you take the biggest church, the Roman Catholic, maybe one third of the world’s Christians and easily a quarter of the population of California – with all those people they don’t have enough priests to hold services in many of their churches nor can they avoid really serious divisions over the direction the church should go. And they are closing churches.

I talked last week to a friend who spent most of his life in Pittsburgh as an active member of a large Roman Catholic parish with multiple priests – it’s closed.

So Christians are, and maybe always will be, a little flock: seldom overwhelming in numbers, seldom seeming to have the resources or manpower needed, and yet here is Jesus saying, “Don’t worry.”

It’s not surprising actually that Jesus would need to say this. Jews had been worried about numbers for centuries before Jesus came. Way back in the Book of Deuteronomy we find Moses saying, “It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples.” There is a feeling of smallness and inadequacy right from the beginning, but always the reassurance that God does not save by numbers. So relax; God promises that we will always have the resources we need. Not the resources we might like to have or the resources that would make us feel confident about doing the job. But enough. And it always has been enough. That’s why we’re here.

They say that God made the universe – – the sun and stars and planets beyond any counting – – out of the tiny ball of matter which exploded out into everything that exists, and here is this tiny earth floating along in infinite space, a mere grain of dust in the expanse of the universe, but big enough, big enough for God’s purpose. Don’t be afraid. It’s enough.

We have a way of borrowing trouble, fearing possibilities rather than realities, and it’s probably part of the human tendency to want to be independent and self-sufficient and in charge of our lives. But we’re not. We are not any of those things. We are not in charge. Neither the President of the United States, nor Bill Gates is wise enough or smart enough or rich enough or powerful enough to control events, much as they might like to, nor are we. But we keep trying and keep scaring ourselves to death at the thought that the situation is not really under control. But you know, what’s scary is not the situation but our presumption. If we hadn’t been trying to go it alone, if we had accepted our status as totally dependent beings, we would have had nothing to worry about except the nature of the One who is in control. And the evidence of that is what the Bible is all about, what the Gospel is all about: that God is good and is in charge and loves us and can be relied on.

Don’t be afraid. that comes first, and why? Because “It is your father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” I wish all the worried people in the world could hear this, really hear it. You know, there are people out there with guns and dynamite who think God’s will depends on them. In the name of God they blow up federal buildings and abortion clinics and airplanes and shoot down dozens of innocent people because they don’t trust God, don’t believe God’s promise, or have never heard it. And so they create the violence that is absolutely opposite to all that God wills and promises. Does that make any sense at all?

God promises to give us the kingdom. It’s a gift; it would have to be. We ourselves can’t take it or make it. Human beings have been trying to do that now for thousands of years, trying to create the ideal society, and you see what we’ve got. And the societies that do best if you notice, are the ones that are so set up that it’s almost impossible for human beings to get anything done. Dictators can get the trains run on time, but not democracies. Dictatorships can reduce crime and produce unity, rallies of people all shouting the same thing, whether it’s “Heil Hitler” or “Down with the great Satan.”

And yet we worry: “What do I have to do?” “When do I have to do it?” Again, there are churches with answers. One of the first great heresies to shake the church was preached by a man called Pelagius who had the idea that we can save ourselves. There are churches that set rules to follow about doing this and not doing that, and they may all be good rules but they won’t save us. God saves us. And see what Jesus tells his little flock to do? Wait. Just wait. Be like servants waiting for their master to come home. Yes, be on the lookout, stay awake and be alert, remember who you belong to and what you ought to be doing when he comes; don’t wander off and get so engrossed in your own concerns that you forget your primary allegiance. But basically, have an attitude of expectant waiting, joyful expectancy, because what’s going to happen? When the master comes, what will happen? Everyone will run around in a dither trying to meet all his demands? No, not at all. They will open the door and then, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them.” Now isn’t that incredible! He will serve us!

It’s amazing, but that’s the promise: he will serve us. And it must be true because it’s happening already. Every day we wake up and find air to breathe and water to drink and the sun to warm us (well, sometimes the fog breaks and the sun is still there) and it’s all free of charge, and when we come here to give thanks for all God’s gifts, what happens? God gives us still more: feeds us at God’s own table. And, you know, if we happened to whisper to others what kind of God we know and invited them to come and share the gifts instead of worrying so much, we might even become a slightly bigger little flock.