Sermons

The Harvest

November 21st, 2019

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco,  November 24, 2019.

Once upon a time, there was a young man
who lived in Israel who worked many years as a carpenter
but then began to preach.

For maybe three years
he wandered around the
countryside teaching people
and drawing quite a following
but then he made the mistake of
going to Jerusalem
and upsetting the authorities
and the result was
that he was arrested and tortured
and killed.

It’s not, by and large,
a very unusual story.

Similar stories might be told
of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormons
or George Fox, the founder of the Quakers
or maybe of Mohammed, the founder of Islam.

But while the Gospel today
tells us something about the events
surrounding the death
of Jesus of Nazareth,
the epistle today,
which was written only twenty years later
at the most,
makes the most extraordinary claims
ever made about a human being.

It says,
“He is ths image of the invisible God,
the firstborn of all creation.”
It says that “all things ln heaven and on earth
things visible and invisible,
whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers,
all things have been created
through him and for him
and that he himself is
before all things,
and in him all things hold together.”
It says, “He is the head of the body,
the church; he is the beginning,
the firstborn from the dead
so that he might come to have first place in everything
for in him all the fullness of God has
been pleased to dwell.”

That’s what we read in the second lesson this morning
and that’s the most amazing claim
that ever was made for a human being.
No such claim was ever made
for Joseph Smith or George Fox
or even Mohammed.

But stranger still
it comes from a Jew, Paul of Tarsus,
a man who was educated in the best Jewish schools,
in a faith that had for at least fifteen hundred years
been drawing a wider and wider
line of separation
between human beings and God.

Early tn the Book of Genesis
you find God walking in the garden
and looking for Adam in the cool of the day,
and a little later on you find God
stopping ln to have dinner with Abraham,
and then you have God
appearing in a cloud
to give the Commandments to Moses
while the people stand fearfully at a distance.
And then Isaiah, centuries later,
pictures God as being so far above
the earth that the people down below
appear like grasshoppers.

That’s not very high by modern standards
but it was a new record in those days.
And then a century or so later Ezekiel had a vision
in which he could only speak
of “the appearance of the likeness
of the glory of God.”
Gradually, Judaism became a unique religion
in which no image or likeness
of God could be made
and in which the name of God
could not be spoken,
and the distance between
the Creator and the creation was so great
it seemed impassable.

Now, it seems to me
there’s a lot in common
between that understanding of God
and the vision of contemporary science
which also presents a universe so immense
that a God who created it
and stood outside it
would be so remote
as to be beyond all knowing.

Solomon built a temple for God and prayed saying,
“Behold the heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain you;
how much less this house
that I have built.”

But in spite of all that,
almost two thousand years ago
one group of Jews began to claim
that indeed one human life
had contained
“all the fulness of God,”
and to say that “All things visible and invisible
were created ln him.”

They said that about this young Jewish man
who was nailed to a cross by Roman soldiers.

Now, if that were a claim
made by people who hadn’t known him –
if that were a claim developed
by theologians centuries later,
I would reject lt out of hand.

But it wasn’t.

It was said by people who knew him,
who were there when he was arrested,
and crucified,
but nevertheless went out saying,
“We were eye witnesses.”
“What our eyes have witnessed
and our hands have handled,”
wrote St. John, “we declare to you.”

Now, is that at all reasonable?

That’s the most basic, quintessential Anglican question:
“Is it reasonable?”
Is it reasonable to think
that the Creator of quarks and spinal nebulae
and black holes and infinite space beyond what our minds can grasp
would be present here on earth
in one brief human life?

Yes.
Yes, it is.
For why would a Creator
indulge himself or herself
with the doing of all this
if the universe were all one vast impersonal
swirl of power
but empty of love or response
or an intelligence able to understand
at least in part
and respond in “wonder, love, and praise.”
ln fact, it seems to me
it’s less unlikely
that the Creator should be present
in one human life
than that the Creator should be present
in all human life
and that that one human life,
the life of Jesus,
should be
not totally different from any other life
but rather a summing up,
a clarification,
a simultaneous showing
of all that God is
and all that we every one of us might be.

To say that all the fullness of God
dwelt in Jesus
is to say something about ourselves also:
to say that human life has that capacity for God-likeness,
for that relationship,
for that holiness.

And that’s wonderful
and it’s frightening.
It would be much more comfortable
to settle for something less:
a remote, unknowable God,
a god who was basically indifferent to us
and uninvolved in our lives.

But that’s not what the gospel offers.
It offers instead a God
beyond all knowing indeed,
but somehow nevertheless
truly known in human life,
especially in Jesus.

Known especially in Jesus,
but known also in Peter and Paul and John
and Francis and Thomas Cranmer
and Harriet Beecher Stowe and Mother Theresa
and even in you and in me.

The God of the Bible is
a God who could not possibly
as Solomon knew
be contained in any human building
yet can be present ln this building
and even in the small piece of bread
we receive at the Altar rail.

And that potential relationship
gives a purpose
to the whole of creation.

The Creator of the universe
is a God who loves
and who seeks a response.

The Creator of the universe
is the God who made us
for that purpose.

And all of that brings us around
by a rather long route
to what goes on this week.

There’s a potential danger
in any harvest festival
because it’s a part of a natural rhythm
of seedtime and harvest,
part of a circular pattern
that goes around and comes around,
unchanging year after year. after year.

And there’s nothing more deadly
than a circle; nothing more
deadening than the same thing
over and over again.
When we want to indicate that someone is crazy,
we make circular motion.

When the Hebrew people came
into the land of Canaan
they found people there
who were centered on harvests

They worshiped gods
who could bring them a good harvest
and nothing more:
they worshiped gods without any purpose
greater than a good crop this autumn.

And a great deal oI the Old Testament
is the story of the conflict
between the God of the Bible
and the gods of Canaan,
the God who works in history
and the gods who work in nature.

And the people were constantly
tempted to settle for a good harvest
and the prophets were constantly
threatening, urging, promising, proclaiming
that these gods were too small
and really not worth the trouble.

So the Jews finally did create some harvest festivals.
Passover itself was closely connected to the harvest
and so was Pentecost .
but still Passover remained deeply rooted in history,
in real events,
a real escape from slavery,
an event at the Red Sea
in which God had been clearly at work.
And the more they were defeated after that
and the more the promise seemed unfulfilled,
the more the prophets continued to point toward
a future,
a future fulfillment
of God’s purpose ln history,
and the coming of a Messiah
and a Messianic age
and a harvest of a very different sort,
a harvest of human lives
brought into an eternal kingdom.

That’s the beauty of a harvest festival,
or Thanksgiving, coming at the end of
the Christian year.

Yes, Christmas is coming and all that one more time,
but the tragedy is the story of so many
who get over Thanksgiving and skip Advent
and move right on from
Thanksgiving to Christmas
without stopping to catch their breath.
The tragedy is that they leave out
the weeks that put it in
perspective, that remind us
that Christ not only has come
but will come again
at the end of time
and bring in a final harvest
and sort out the good grain from the bad.

Yes, the world goes around
but the Judaeo-Christian insight is
that even more importantly
it is going somewhere also
ln a straight line with a beginning,
a middle and an end.
That the Creator beyond all knowing
has come here to be known
and to call us to a life
as far beyond this
as the Creator is beyond the Creation.

The Epistle and Gospel today
go together and tell us of that God,
the one who died for us on cross
and in whom all the fulness of God was present
and in whom we also
find the meaning and purpose of life.

Although it is night

October 26th, 2019

A sermon given at All Saints Church, San Francisco, by Christopher L. Webber on October 27, 2019.

My wife died two years ago today.

I didn’t have that in mind when we made the schedule for this month. But when I remembered the date, I thought, Why not? I’m a preacher and I cope by preaching. It’s the way I’ve been given to work things through. And not alone, but together with a congregation, with you. You can help.

You know how sometimes you need to talk things out, not just think about it, but talk it out with someone else? Clergy get to do that sometimes with a congregation – not, I hope, dumping my issues on you but trying to find ways of saying things, of seeing things that may help all of us.

To preach today makes me do some thinking and that’s always good. I hope it will be good for you to do some thinking also. Not every sermon asks you to do that. I was thinking about today last week, last Sunday morning, as Beth talked about the joy of her son’s wedding the week before. And weddings are joyous occasions. But in the Episcopal Church at least they are realistic. The Prayer Book provides vows that are starkly realistic: I John take you Mary / to have and to hold / for better for worse / for richer for poorer / in sickness and in health / til death us do part. The promise is not “for better or worse,” not maybe one, maybe the other, but both: for better / for worse. There will be both. In this church at least, we sign up for both, for the real world, “til death us do part.”

Just out of curiosity, I went on line and found a site that helps you write your own wedding vows. It did note that you may not get to do that. Some churches and clergy, it said, insist on the traditional language. But if you get lucky and a chance to write your own, it provided 15 or 20 samples for guidance. Here’s one: “I promise to always remember that laughter is life’s sweetest creation, and I will never stop laughing with you.” I think I can overlook the split infinitive, but you should never promise to keep laughing. There will be days – there will be days – when laughing would not be appropriate

Not one sample vow mentioned death. Not one. But if you have a good marriage, death will be part of it. It happens. A bad marriage may end sooner, but every marriage has an end. Death happens.

Now we don’t come here to be morbid – and I’m moving on. But we do come here on serious business: to share a death, to drink the shed blood. There’s joy here, of course, lots of joy, but there is an end to this life sooner or later, and only the church, I believe, gives us a way to face that. So we are being realistic. We’re facing facts. Nobody lives for ever. Not in this world anyway.

Now Jeremiah is grappling with all that in the first reading. I always look at the readings first. I may not start the sermon from the readings, but I start my thinking there and it turned out that that’s where Jeremiah was also. That happens. The lessons speak to us if we’re ready to listen. They have messages for us. And they invite us in to a dialog. I go to the readings with questions: Here’s where I am; what do you say to that? I found Jeremiah working through similar issues to mine: the pain of absence; the need for God, and the absence of God, a God who seems so often not to be there when needed.

Jeremiah challenges God for an explanation:

“Why should you be like someone confused,
like a mighty warrior who cannot give help?
Why have you struck us down so that there is no healing for us?
We look for peace, but find no good;
for a time of healing, but there is terror instead.
Do not spurn us, for your name’s sake;
do not dishonor your glorious throne;
remember and do not break your covenant with us.”

Jeremiah is challenging God: “think of your reputation. God. What will people say if you dessert us?” The technical term for that is “chutzpah.” But Jeremiah’s in agony; he wants help and he wants it now. “Be here for me in my need; don’t forsake me.”  Elsewhere in the Bible, Isaiah put it differently: “Truly You are a God who hide yourself, O God of Israel, the Savior.”  Where are you, O God, when we need you?”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great German theologian who was killed by the Nazis had an answer for that. He wrote once to someone bereaved:

“Nothing can make up for the absence of someone whom we love, and it would be wrong to try to find a substitute; we must simply hold on and see it through. That sounds very hard at first, but at the same time it is a great consolation, for the gap, as long as it remains unfilled, preserves the bonds between us. It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap; he doesn’t fill it, but on the contrary, he keeps it empty and so helps us to keep alive our former communion with each other even at the cost of pain.”

I give that statement often to people bereaved. I’ve been thinking about it myself these last two years. Can you just close the door on sixty years and move on? I don’t think so. But just as one we love can be there in the absence, in what we feel – experience – as absence, so is God there for us in the darkness as well as the light – and maybe more truly present in the darkness

The great Spanish mystic, John of the Cross, wrote about what he called “the dark night of the soul.” “Although it is night, I know there is nothing else so beautiful, earth and heaven find constant refreshment there. Although it is night, there are no clouds to conceal its clarity, and from it comes the light by which alone we can see. This is the living fountain and the bread of life, I see it clearly, although it is night.”

The great Welsh poet R S Thomas wrote something similar when he said:
“God is that great absence

In our lives,
the empty silence
Within, the place where we go
Seeking, not in hope to
Arrive or find.
He keeps the interstices
In our knowledge, the darkness
Between stars.
His are the echoes
We follow, the footprints he has just
Left.

But is it an absence or simply a presence we are too small to hold, too blind to recognize? Gilbert Murray, the great Classics scholar who died in 1957 once wrote, “We are surrounded by unknown forces of infinite extent – the essence of religion is the consciousness of vast unknowns – To be cocksure is to be without religion.”

To acknowledge our ignorance is the first step toward faith. I sometimes think that we use incense in worship to create what a great medieval mystic called “the cloud of unknowing” – it’s the cloud that Moses entered on Mt Sinai, the cloud that overshadowed Jesus at the Transfiguration, the cloud out of which God speaks, but remains never clearly seen.

I remember passing a church in Australia one day that had a big sign out front that said, “You have questions? We have answers.” I wouldn’t go there myself. If they have the answers, they aren’t asking the right questions. I want to go where the questions are acknowledged, where I am encouraged to think for myself, where I can find fellow seekers, but also a rich tradition of answers – not simple answers to all questions, but answers that have helped others and may help me. Jeremiah wrote – we read it this morning – “Is it not you, O Lord our God? We set our hope on you, for it is you who do all this.” It is you who are there when we are too blinded by grief to see.

Hold onto the absence. Hold onto the pain. Hold onto the God who is able to accept our doubts and our questions and wait for us to come, to come to him with all our questions and doubts and to find there in the darkness and the cloud the strength that only God can give.

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..

NOW AND THEN

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.