The Epiphany by The Rev. Corbet Clark

jan. 6, 2019

Lessons:

Isaiah 60:1-6

Ephesians 3:1-12

Matthew 2:1-12

Psalm 72:1-7,10-14

On this feast of the Epiphany that ends the Christmas season, we still have the manger scene up, a very traditional sort of tableau that combines the birth stories we have in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. it’s a powerful symbol of what the gospel writers are trying to tell us about the birth of this unique figure – not just in human existence but in the existence of the cosmos. So we have cosmic elements present in this scene –  the stars, the angels – and all of it is focused on the adoration and worship of this baby. We have the shepherds and the wise men, representing the poor and the rich, we have Jews and gentiles – the wise men are foreigners from another country. And it’s not just humans who have come to adore, but the animals as well. So all of creation is gathered around this child to offer worship and homage. Powerful symbolism, but it raises some questions.

One of the things that’s interesting about the gospels is that there is a split in the four of them. Two of the gospels, Matthew and Luke, have a birth story, and the other two don’t. So why would that be?

I think one of the things that the gospel writers are wrestling with is the fact that on the one hand, even from the time of his birth Jesus is revealed to us as this unique, divine figure. But he’s not going to begin his ministry for another thirty years, well into adulthood. So what was he doing in those intervening thirty years? If he was self-aware as a divine figure really from the time of his birth and growing up, then why wasn’t he out there doing stuff?

Now Mark answers that question very simply, because for Mark, Jesus doesn’t realize his nature and his calling until his baptism. And it’s from the point of his baptism by John that there’s a flash of understanding. So presumably he’s been growing, he’s been learning, but it’s not until that point that he realizes that God has called him to a unique purpose. And in the meantime, presumably, he’s been living a fairly ordinary life. There are no stories in the gospels about those intervening years, which probably means nothing spectacular really happened.

Well, for some early Christians that was not a satisfactory understanding. So from pretty early on, we get some writings called “non-canonical,” meaning they didn’t end up in the official collection of New Testament books, for reasons that I think will be obvious in a minute. These are sometimes called the infancy gospels, and they have stories of Jesus as a child – with the assumption that as a child, he has the divine powers that he’s going to reveal later as an adult. For a couple of reasons these stories are problematic.

To use an analogy: one of my favorite superheros in the new superhero pantheon is Spider-Man. And Spider-Man, if you’re not familiar with the Spider-Man story, is a teenage boy who accidentally receives powers that are kind of spider-like, that allow him to go out and be a crusader for justice, etc. There have been a couple of iterations of Spider-Man in the movies, and the most recent one is really my favorite, because it reveals Spider-Man as just an ordinary kid who happens to have these super powers. But given that he’s a teenage boy, things don’t always work out in the best way. In trying to help people and save situations, he misjudges situations, he doesn’t realize what’s really happening, and he creates a lot of havoc. And people actually get ticked off at him.

Something similar happens in the infancy gospels. Because on the one hand there are wonderful stories of Jesus doing good as a young child. So for example there’s a story of a companion of his falling off a roof of a house and dying, and Jesus raises him back to life, and everyone thinks that’s fantastic. There’s a another story when he’s with a companion and the boy cuts his foot with an axe, and Jesus heals him instantly. Well, that’s really cool!

But there are other stories. He has a teacher who’s trying to teach him, and he’s really snarky with the teacher and tells him, “You don’t have anything to teach me. I know everything already.” Which presumably would be true – right? There’s a scene where he’s playing with some boys, and a boy bumps into him accidentally and Jesus gets ticked off and causes him to fall down dead. The boy’s parents are understandably upset, and they go to Jesus’ parents to complain, and Jesus causes the parents of the dead boy to go blind. And the villagers get really upset and go to Mary and Joseph to complain, and Jesus’ parents have the classic response, “There’s nothing we can do with him – he’s out of our control.” 

Well, you get a sense of why these stories didn’t end up in the canonical gospels, yes? Because, really, teenage boys – forgive me, teenage boys – don’t always have the judgment and self-control to be able to make wise decisions. Wisdom is something that typically comes with age. (Doesn’t always come, but it’s supposed to.)

So you can see the challenge here: if Jesus really does have these miraculous divine powers as a child, what kind of man would he become? We kind of have a choice: do we want a Jesus, can we identify with a Jesus, who even as a child is aware that he is really very different from everyone else, because he has these miraculous, divine powers. Or do we want a Jesus whose understanding of his mission and of his powers is something that develops gradually over time, and which he finally comes to realize in adulthood.

There’s only one story of Jesus not as an infant and not as an adult. It’s in Luke when Jesus goes to visit the temple at about age twelve, when a Jewish male would become an adult in the congregation. And what Luke says after that scene is that “Jesus grew in stature and wisdom, and in favor with God and people.” I think that’s a nice summary of what we might presume Jesus’ life was like between his birth and his beginning his ministry.

Now for Paul, the idea that Jesus is just a man is really critical. Paul makes a point to call Jesus “born of a woman.” It’s really important to Paul that Jesus is a man, not a god descended to earth, which would be a typical thing in Greek and Roman mythology. But a man, just a man. Paul talks in Philippians about Jesus emptying himself. Yes, he’s the son of God and yet he doesn’t claim that title. Instead he empties himself to experience the fullness of what it means to be human. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews, who uses the language of sacrifice in the temple to talk about Jesus’ mission, says Jesus is a high priest who can sympathize with human weakness because he has experienced human weakness. And that for Paul, and I think for the gospel writers as well, is really critical to understanding who Jesus is. That Jesus is able to redeem our humanity because he has fully experienced our humanity. In poverty, in weakness, in obscurity, in all of the ordinariness of daily life. For years and for years and for years. One of the early Christian writers, Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria, in a famous phrase wrote, in talking about Jesus’s humanity, “What has not been assumed has not been redeemed.” And the word “assumed” meaning here, that unless Jesus takes on true humanity then he cannot redeem our humanity.

So to go back to the Matthew story and the manger scene, and this moment of glory and adoration. Immediately after this scene Matthew wants to emphasize again that Jesus is born as a very vulnerable child into a dangerous and violent world. At the time of his birth under King Herod he is threatened by violence, and he and his parents have to escape and become refugees and go to Egypt and hide, and when they are finally able to return to their homeland they have to go to an obscure village. It’s an acknowledgement that Jesus is the Son of God and yet he is living the life of a human being like the rest of us. I think the Jesus I can identify with is the Jesus who has experienced all of human weakness, all of human poverty and suffering. Who has experienced life in its joy and in its sorrow, in its triumph and its tragedy – and who can therefore redeem me and all human beings.

Amen.

First Sunday after Christmas by The Rev. Martin Elfert

december 30, 2018

Lessons:

Isaiah 61:10-62:3

Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7

John 1:1-18

Psalm 147

At the Yule Be Merry concert the week before last, there was an amazing moment. (Actually, there were multiple amazing moments – it was a glorious concert – but there is one amazing moment on which I am going to concentrate.) The model of the evening was to have music punctuated by poetry readings. And at about the three-quarter mark, we were treated to an excerpt from Tennyson’s epic poem In Memoriam.

Completed in 1849, In Memoriam was Tennyson’s response to the death of his great friend, Arthur Hallam. And as its name suggests, it is a meditation on grief and on resurrection, on love and on loss.

The excerpt that we heard at the concert last week was full of bells. It was about ringing out the old year and ringing in the new, about ringing out that which is dead and broken and that is full of life and possibility.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,    

writes Tennyson,

   Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

And then he goes on:

Ring out the grief that saps the mind
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

In Memoriam was read for us by Christine, by one of two violinists in the concert. And as she read, you could see Christine’s tears building. They built the way tears do sometimes, the way that laughter does sometime, filling up like water into a reservoir until it is too much and the weeping or the laughing or both flows over the edges.

This is the line in which her weeping became too intense for her to keep going:

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Eventually, Christine handed the poem to her colleague, to the viola player, Vicki.

And then she sobbed as Vicki finished reading.

It was an awesome moment in the old-school sense of the word “awesome.”

In that instant of grief and catharsis, Christine gave us a gift. She was for a little while a sacrament, an outward and visible sign of what most of us, all of us, are experiencing, of what we all have been experiencing over the past few years as our country has sunk further and further into uncritical tribalism, into officially sanctioned bigotry, into anger and irretrievably lost tempers.

This is a moment in which so, so many of us are longing to ring out false pride in place and blood, to ring out civic slander and spite. In which we are longing to ring in the common love of good.

Tennyson’s poem is almost 170 years old. But, my God, in moments like this one, it might have been written last week.

It is the end of the year and, to mark 2018 coming to its conclusion, to mark the moment when, in the newspaper cartoon, 2018 is a bearded, old man and 2019 is a wee child toddling her way into January, the lectionary has given us one reading about hope and possibility and new life after another.

Isaiah talks about getting dressed for weddings, about new shoots pushing up through the springtime earth, about the sun rising. The Psalm talks about the Lord rebuilding Jerusalem and healing the brokenhearted. Galatians talks about being freed from slavery about the adoption papers going through and us learning that, now, we are, hallelujah, truly and officially children of God. John gives us the staggering promise that the Word has become flesh and lived among us, that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not, cannot, will not overcome it.

As the year ends, here, just as in Tennyson, are stories of hope and of freedom. And here, as in Tennyson, is the knowledge, the hard promise, that hope and freedom come to us not instead of loss and grief and trauma and unfairness and brokenness but, somehow, hope and freedom come to us out of these things. Somehow these things are necessary. It is in that darkest of moments before the dawn when Jesus shows up, it is in the moment of chest-heaving grief outside of the tomb that we discover resurrection.

Christian hope is something different than optimism. Our hope is not in the facile promise, in the Hallmark theology, that God doesn’t give us more than we can handle, that what doesn’t kill us will make us stronger, that God is going to pull through and make us rich. It is rather, in the stark promise that death is real, but that God has defeated it and will defeat it again.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out our anger at our fellow citizens.

Ring out our suspicion of those with foreign passports.

Ring out our fear of those whose skin is too brown or whose bank accounts are too empty or too full or whose gender is too ambiguous.

Ring out our love affair with violence.

Ring in listening.

Ring in open hearts and open doors and open minds.

Ring in prayer in quiet and prayer in action.

The year is going, let it go:

Ring in the promise of resurrection.

Ring in the love of Jesus.

Ring in the Christ who is to come.

This, this is a poem that is worthy of our tears.

Christmas Day by Holly Puckett

christmas day

Lessons:

Isaiah 52:7-10

Hebrews 1:1-4,(5-12)

John 1:1-14

Psalm 98

Christmas brings us joy, but is anyone else tired right now? The demands of visiting, travel, and gift-giving associated with Christmas, combined with the ordinary obligations of life, can drain the wonder and meaning from the season and leave you weary. Christmas Day may start to feel like a race with a finish line rather than the beginning of a feast. And yet – some of you know this, because Epicopalians like that they celebrate this way – the season of Christmas in the Church actually begins on Christmas Day and runs for twelve days, up to the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6.

Christmas is hard.

“Making time for God” feels like one more exhausting thing on our to-do list that we’re gonna fail at. But here you are. And here we all are. I’m going to quote my current favorite Christmas song a lot in this sermon. Like O holy night says, truly he taught us to love one another, his law is love and his gospel is peace.

As Rev. Laura Jean Truman says, “This is the season of God becoming vulnerable.”

A tiny baby – not one that just makes his parents and aunties happy, but that brings a new light into the life of everyone on the earth. This one special human being was sent to give us a glimpse of God, a glimpse of what God is like and what God sees, and a glimpse of ourselves from the point of view of God. 

There’s a lot of part s of having faith that seems like it’s out of our control, and sometimes it even feels like we don’t have a say in what is happening. if I say yes to God’s plan for my life, does that mean I’m still me? If my sins are erased, what’s actually left? Do I have a personality? Monastic communities, and even ordained people in our church, take vows of obedience and agree to submit to Christ, and to the church. What if…now, go with me here, what if God becoming fully human in Jesus and being fully vulnerable, is God’s way of having faith in us? Of submitting to us? God wants to work with us, and to live with us, and to die with us. As Rachel Held Evans says, God stoops. 

And as  Rev. Jes Kast says, I love the thought of human God so much. 

The one whose heart hurt. Who got splinters in his hands when he was working as a carpenter. The one who had crushes. The one who needed hugs as much as I do.” 

When God becomes Jesus, God is asking us to stand beside Jesus, as Jesus stands beside us. And oh what light reflects on us from standing by Jesus Christ! When we stand by him, so something of that light also reflects from us. Then we can turn to the world and, we bring light in places and situations of darkness. And ever since the first disciples, that light of Christ has traveled near and far, around our world, been passed on and magnified. Where the light of Christ shines with truth and honesty, it has brought healing out of brokenness, hope out of despair, peace out of hatred, and joy out of sorrow. 

In the Nicene Creed we say: God from God, Light from light

Jesus’ light is the search-light cutting through the night sky. 

Jesus’ light is the candlelight burning gently in the room where you let down your guard with someone you love. 

Jesus’ light is the light of the stars under which we dream of a better society built on a common good where all may flourish.

Jesus’ light is the Northern Lights that dance in the sky and allow us to wonder at God’s creation.

And Jesus’ light is the beam of a lighthouse, so we know where we are and where we are going in a world with many dangers.

When you stand with Jesus, and see the light, what light does that shine in the darkness of our world? 

Back to the hymn O holy night: Til he appeared at the soul felt its worth. What does it look like when a soul feels its worth? 

When I was trying to answer that question, in preparation for talking to you all here today, I kept thinking of Harriet Tubman. What a great example to us of how to live a life bravely, no matter what everyone else is doing. She followed a star, it led her to freedom, and she believed that she had a right to be treated with dignity and respect, on the same level as any other person, right? Absolutely. What she believed about her soul and its worth, seems to me exactly like what God is showing us through Jesus. We’re lucky enough to have some words from her that remain through time, telling us what she thought about her first journey after walking about 90 miles in the cover of darkness, what crossed her mind when she stepped across the Mason Dixon line, which separated the slave states from the free states as the sun rose “When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven”  And then when she was safe, she did the unthinkable. She went back. Back into the slave states to free her brothers, her sisters, her mother, her father and her friends. 

As I said when I began speaking, today is the beginning of Christmas. And, maybe that’s actually a great thing, because you already bought all the presents, and did all the stuff that society expects you to do on Christmas. A lot of other people consider today to be the end of Christmas. But now, with all that out of the way, you can focus on Christmas. Between now and Epiphany, I invite you to have, well, an epiphany. As you stand in the darkness and behold the light of Jesus, what does it mean to you? What does it call you to do, or to be? What are the things you can do, because God is with you, vulnerable, like a tiny baby, and ready to lighten the world with you? You can weave the old stories of the gospel into something new this year, as you go. Jesus did it. Mary did it. You are just as wondrous as them. So, Now you. 

Again, O Holy Night: A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

Christmas Eve by The Rev. Martin Elfert

December 23, 2018

Lessons:

Isaiah 9:2-7

Titus 2:11-14

Luke 2:1-14(15-20)

Psalm 96

It is Christmas Eve and I would like to risk doing something with you. I would like to risk entering into what might be a heady or an intellectual exercise. Although it is a heady exercise with a purpose.

I’d like to wonder with you tonight about what scholars call Biblical hermeneutics.

(Put you hand up if you have used the word “hermeneutic” in a sentence in the last month. Good. So, most of you.)

“Hermeneutic” is a 5-dollar academic word that, like many of our words, comes to us from the Greek. And what it refers to is the method that we use for interpreting something or someone. Another way – a plainer way – of talking about hermeneutics would be to use the word “assumption”: when you and I encounter a given thing, a given person, a hermeneutic is what we assume or take for granted about the information that is coming in through our senses. Another way would be to say that a hermeneutic is a lens. When I put on these glasses, I see the world differently, I am now able to see other folks facial expressions with much more clarity. Mostly that is an advantage. Occasionally not so much. Still another way would be to say that a hermeneutic is a story we tell about something.

The popular science writer, Brené Brown, even though she doesn’t use the word, is talking about hermeneutics when she asks us the question: Do you think that, generally speaking, people are doing their best? Or to phrase that question slightly differently, Do you assume good intentions in the people around you?

Brown says that the folks who respond to her question are typically divided into two binary camps. The first camp is comprised of those who say Hell no. People are not doing their best. And then there is the second camp, the folks who, kind of sheepishly say, Well, actually that is what I believe. In case it’s unclear from those responses, Hello no is the culturally dominant hermeneutic or story in our culture. Folks who assume that others are doing their best are, therefore, kind of embarrassed to admit it.

But here is what Brown’s research has found. Those folks who choose to assume that others are doing their best tend to be more effective and open leaders and they tend to have more joy in their lives. Our time together tonight won’t let me go into the leadership part. But I think that all of us know the joy part from our own experience. If someone cuts us off in traffic or if someone bumps into us on the playground, we have a choice between telling a story in which that person is deliberately being a jerk or, alternatively, telling a story in which that person made a mistake.

Which story you tell, which hermeneutic you employ about the dude in the other car or the classmate on the slide, has huge implications for your blood pressure.

I’ve been thinking a tonne about Biblical hermeneutics, about the pair of glasses that we put on when we read scripture, ever since I attended a lecture put on this past summer by my friends David Taylor and Andrew Halladay. David and Andrew are a married couple, they are both priests. And their thesis is that our hermeneutic about the Bible shape us for better or for worse.

Have any of you seen that photograph meets Photoshop composition in which we look at an iceberg from the side in such a way that we see it in its entirety, that part that is above the water and the bigger part that is below? It is an amazing and striking image. Above the water line is all of the stuff that is in the light, that we can see easily. Below the water line is the stuff that is harder to see. And the further down you go, the darker it gets.

Hard as it may be to see, the stuff below the waterline is an integral part of the iceberg, it shapes the iceberg. No matter far out of the light it is.

What I realised during David and Andrew’s lecture, what I realised thinking about it since then, is that most of us have Biblical hermeneutics that live beneath the iceberg’s waterline. Most of us have never surfaced and interrogated our stories about scripture. We’ve never named them. In my case, my stories weren’t all that far below the surface – it wasn’t hard for me to find them – but below the surface they were. Notwithstanding being an official religious person (you can tell I’m an official religious person because I am wearing a costume), I had never taken my Biblical hermeneutics up out of the water and examined them.

Before I get to what I found when I surfaced that stuff, let’s talk for a little while about the hermeneutics that our culture brings to the Bible. Let’s start the story that goes something like this:

The Bible is either literally true, it is either a collection of facts, or else it is total nonsense.

There is a reason that folks transition fairly easily and fairly often from Biblical literalism to aggressive atheism. That’s because Biblical literalists and aggressive atheists – what we might call antitheists – have this hermeneutic in common. The only real disagreement between them comes when we get to the yes/no question that the hermeneutic implies. Is the Bible literally, inerrantly true? Or is it an anachronistic absurdity, a leftover from a time when humanity didn’t know any better about how the world works? If your answer is A, congratulations, you are a Biblical literalist. If your answer is B, congratulations you are antitheist, Richard Dawkins is waiting to give you a High Five.

Do we accept the binary question posed by this hermeneutic? Or is there another way of reading the Bible?

Another common contemporary hermeneutic could be expressed this way:

Being a Christian is totally congruent with consumerism, and therefore faith is best understood as a transaction in which you pay to get something from God.

This hermeneutic says the Bible is an instruction manual and it explains, among other things, that you and I are putting money into a cosmic bank account by going to church, by giving money to church, by believing correctly and uncritically. In return for your payment, God will make you healthy, wealthy, and wise. If you are not healthy, wealthy, and wise, then you are doing faith wrong. If you are sick, you kind of deserve that. If you are poor, you kind of deserve that.

What do we think about that hermeneutic? Does it sounds like good news?

Still another hermeneutic – and this is the one the David and Andrew concentrated on in their presentation – goes like this:

God is terribly angry and terribly disappointed in you.

David and Andrew said that, when they talk about this stuff with folks, this is the moment when the handkerchiefs come out, when folks start to weep. Because an amazing number of us, without ever having brought it above the waterline, have been taught and have internalized this hermeneutic about the Bible and about who God is.

And it is not an exaggeration to say that this is a story about God that utterly poisons our reading of scripture. If God is like Santa, an old man on a cloud with a beard except thinner and with a bigger anger-management problem, if God is watching you to see who is naughty and who is nice and is constantly shaking his head at your screw ups, then the Bible is one passage of condemnation and contempt after another.

John 3:16 is maybe the most famous passage in scripture. God so loved the world that he gave his only son that so those who believe in him might not parish but have eternal life. Read through the lens of God’s anger and disappointment, this is terrifying news. Totally gone from the verse is God’s love. Totally gone is eternal life. Suddenly this passage is all about things it doesn’t actually say, suddenly this is about meeting God’s impossible standards or perishing, or going to hell.

Again, let’s ask: is this the lens that we want to use when talking about the Bible and, in turn, when talking about God?

A couple of minutes ago, I told you that I had started the work of bringing my own stories about the Bible above the waterline. I don’t know if these are the best stories about the Bible, I don’t know if they are right. I do know that I walk a little lighter when I look at scripture through their lens, that I encounter a little more joy. Results may vary. If they are useful to you, that’s great. If you reckon that they are wildly mistaken… that’s great. Take my mistaken hermeneutics as an invitation to craft your own hermeneutics.

Disclaimers aside, here are Martin’s Three Hermeneutics for the Bible.

One. 1John is telling the truth when it says that God is love. The word “God,” John says, is followed by an equals sign. And after that equals sign – amazingly, impossibly, wonderfully – comes the word, “Love.” That means that Richard Rohr is correct when he says that the test for discerning whether or not something is authentic revelation goes like this: if an assertion or a story about God that you are hearing, in the Bible or somewhere else, is less loving than the most loving person whom you know, then that is not and cannot be authentic revelation. Another way of putting that would be to say that reading the Bible through the lens of love means that an authentic reading of scripture can never lead us to violence or to exclusion.

Two. To riff just a little on the maxim popularised by Marcus Borg, we are called to take the Bible seriously but not always literally. Now, a lot of lefty Christians are good at not taking the Bible literally. But we are sometimes less good at taking it seriously. This hermeneutic says that we have a responsibility to wrestle with the Bible, to struggle with those passages that leave us confused or disoriented or irritated or whatever. If you don’t like Paul, for instance – and I hear from a lot of people who don’t like Paul – maybe get curious about that. If you don’t like the epic and sometimes violent family dramas in Genesis or Judges or Kings, maybe get curious about that. Take these passages seriously enough to ask what they might have to teach you about how our ancestors understood God, about how you understand God.

An addendum to Hermeneutic Two: If your wrestling with scripture takes you to a place of doubt, that’s okay. To borrow a line from Rob Bell: Doubt is evidence that your faith has a pulse. Looking at the Bible and wondering if these are nothing more than a bunch of stories that human beings made up, a way of explaining things, a way of whistling in the dark – that’s allowed, that is encouraged even. God created us to think, created us to question, created us to search. So God doesn’t mind when we doubt.

Third, and last of all. The Bible is about you and me right now. These stories and sayings may have been put to paper 1800 or more years ago, but God is speaking through them still. When the lector reads for us, she ends the reading by saying, “The Word of the Lord.” She doesn’t say, “The thing you just heard is the word of the Lord.” It’s broader than that, more ambiguous than that, more beautiful than that. The word of the Lord is what is happening in this room right now. It will be what happens in your heart and through your hands later on today when you are back home.

It is Christmas Eve. The child will soon be laying in the manger, the exhausted and proud Mary and Joseph looking on, the animals nearby, the shepherds and the Magi on their way.

What would happen if you looked at this scene through a lens that tells you that this is a story about love? That it is evidence that God loved us enough to risk everything for us? Not that humanity was so broken and so sinful that God needed to come fix our problems. But that God loves us so completely that God couldn’t stay away?

What would happen if you looked at this scene through a lens that says that it is our job to struggle with this story? To ask, for instance, how God could be willing to take on all of the beauty and all of the pain of being alive? To name that it is okay to doubt? I mean, God coming to live with us on this earth, well it’s too good to be true. Isn’t it?

What would happen if you looked at this scene through that says that this story is about you and me right today? And that if we make a manger in our hearts, the Christ child will come and live with us, right now.

Third Sunday of Advent by The Rev. Martin Elfert

December 16, 2018

Lessons:

Zephaniah 3:14-20

Philippians 4:4-7

Luke 3:7-18

Canticle 9

Have you ever had the experience of encountering the same words at two different times in your life and hearing them in a totally different way?

For myself, I think about the statement:

Having kids changes your life.

Before I had children, I heard those words and I nodded in agreement. I said, yes, that’s right, having kids changes your life.

And then I had kids. And I said:

Oh!

Having kids changes your life.

The words were the same, the information was he same. But my understanding of them was radically different.

A lot of theological statements are similar. I remember my wonderful Jesuit teacher, George Greiner, telling our class that there are certain statements about God and about life and about love that are true. But that you are required to do some real searching and some real struggling before you are allowed to say them with authority and with honesty. Dr. Greiner gave the example of the statement:

It is a mystery why there is suffering in the world.

Now, that statement is almost assuredly true. Maybe God understands where there is so much hurt. But as scripture says, our ways are not God’s ways. And so I can’t really disagree with those atheists who demand to know why a good and a loving God permits so much violence and so much injustice. It’s a fair and an important question. And to simply announce that suffering is a mystery is to give a flippant and way too easy response to one of the great questions of being alive.

We are morally and intellectually obligated to be more curious about the world than this, to struggle with this question, to wrestle with it like Jacob wrestles with the stranger in the night. It is after our struggle, during our struggle, that maybe we earn the right to say:

This is a mystery.

I think that the difference – and this is very similar to the example of parenting that I gave a moment ago – is that, in the first scenario, we are talking about the mystery. In the second scenario, we have experienced the mystery.

The words that we encounter in the Epistle to Philippians today are similar.

Don’t worry.

Jesus says something very similar in the Gospel. Are these words facile? Or are they profound?

Yes.

Again, the test is not in the words themselves but, rather, the test is in the one who speaks them and in the one who hears them. Have you done the work, have you lived through the hardship, that allows you to say don’t worry?

Many of you know that I used to work in the performing arts in Vancouver, BC. And I remember being out for a walk with Phoebe. We were taking our dog, then much spryer than he is now, through our neighbourhood, when we ran into a mutual colleague. Our colleague – his name is James – is an inveterate actor in Vancouver. And James was in one of those stretches that comes in the performing arts, a stretch in which he had nothing in his calendar for months to come.

I have held a calendar or day planner in my hands that looked like that. That showed January and then February and then March with not a gig in sight. It was, at least for me, an awful feeling, a sense of dull panic that hung out in my gut.

But James, who was maybe 60 at the time, was reflective about his situation. He said, I’ve been in this business for years. And things have always worked out for me. I’m going to trust that things are going to work out this time as well.

James had, over the years of being an actor, earned the right to say Don’t worry and to say it with authority.

Paul – the writer of the letter to the Philippians – has similarly earned the right to say don’t worry, to speak those words in such a way that they are not Hallmark theology but, rather, are a profound consolation, a profound promise about God. Paul, like his master Jesus, is someone who knows about suffering, who knows about being on the margins, who knows about being knocked off of his horse by God.

The words are the same. But they are not the easy words of someone who knows nothing about loss and yet is telling you that God doesn’t give you more than you can handle, that what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger. They are not the words of someone who is ostensibly reassuring you but is really reassuring themselves. Paul’s Don’t worry comes from one who knows all about worry, all about loss, from one who follows a crucified God, from one who has a pretty good guess that his writing and his teaching will land him in prison and in a coffin.

Paul’s words are the same. But his understanding is different. And therefore, maybe, there is freedom and hope for you and for me in hearing them. For Paul’s words are the assurance of the man who, because he has seen death, knows that there is resurrection.

Second Sunday of Advent by The Rev. Corbet Clark

December 9, 2018

Lessons:

Baruch 5:1-9

Philippians 1:3-11

Luke 3:1-6

Canticle 4 or 16


Are you basically an optimist or basically a pessimist? Do you tend to see the glass as half
empty or half full? John the Baptist seems to be a bit of both – both optimist and pessimist. I tend to be a worrier myself, so I don’t see the glass as either half full or half empty. Instead I worry about the glass tipping over and spilling whatever water it might have. My tendency is to look at the future and think about the bad things that could happen.

I feel as if there’s a lot to worry about right now in our world. Global warming or global trade wars, the rising costs of healthcare, mass gun violence, the anger and hatred in our national political discourse, the growing divide between the wealthy and the poor. We seem to be going in the wrong direction, and bad things are coming. You probably share at least some of those anxieties.

John the Baptist confronted high anxiety in his own age. The Jewish people could look
ahead and see disaster threatening them. John the Baptist does not try to reassure them;
instead he tells them, “Yes, you’re right, disaster is coming! You better get ready for it!” He uses their anxiety to try to get people to act, to make changes in their lives that will get them back on the path to God. Now is the time to get right with God.

Because the other part of his message is a message of hope. We hear that in the gospel
this morning. God is going to bring salvation to God’s people. There’s a glorious future that lies somewhere ahead of us. This is the vision that’s also laid out so beautifully in this morning’s lesson from the prophet Baruch: God is going to bring all of God’s children home, God is going to bring redemption. Looking at disaster ahead and yet still finding hope – that’s the balance.

In some ways this balance is essential to our spiritual lives. We are always on the knife edge between being anxious about disaster ahead and looking for the small signs of hope in God’s promised salvation.

I had an experience of this last week. I was in Seattle helping an aging family member move – always a difficult process, but made more so by the fact that they are in a relentless decline in physical and cognitive health. This is something that I know some of you have faced with your own family members or friends, and it’s a bleak kind of outlook to have. You know it’s not going to end well, there’s no bright light at the end, and this is so hard, because you feel there’s nothing you can do.

But in fact I did experience moments of hope and moments of light last week. It came in
small, unexpected moments, and it always involved an interaction with someone else. A brief moment of humor, a word of encouragement, acts of kindness and understanding and grace. It was like going outside on a dark night this time of year and looking up at the sky and seeing a few bright stars. Small signs of hope in the darkness, signs of God’s presence. It was enough to sustain me, even knowing the difficult path ahead.

I feel that Advent is a time like that, when we are experiencing darkness, experiencing
maybe fear and anxiety about lots of things. And yet this is also a time when we can be aware of what the late President Bush liked to call the “thousand points of light.” Do you remember how he talked about this? It was about the people around us and their small acts of compassion and generosity that are pointing the way forward.

So that’s what we can do in this dark season. We can look for those points of light, those
points of hope in the people around us, and we, too, can make our effort to be points of light, points of hope for others. We can do that in the acts of kindness we share with others – we become light to them in the acts of grace and of good humor. We become the light in the darkness, that gives us hope and confidence in the redemption and salvation that God is going to bring for all of us.

Amen.

First Sunday of Advent by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:

Jeremiah 33:14-16

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

Luke 21:25-36

Psalm 25:1-9

 

Be on guard, Jesus says, so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life.

Or that day will catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.

It is the start of Advent, the start of a new church year, the start of a year with the Gospel of Luke. And as we begin, this is Jesus’ advice to us, maybe his command to us.

What does Jesus mean?

I am familiar with two-thirds of the things that Jesus speaks against. I know what Jesus means when he speaks of drunkenness. And I know as well about the worries of this life – gosh, do we all know about the worries of this life. But I am less sure about the first item in this forbidden trinity, about dissipation. Dissipation isn’t a word that most of us reach for all that often. Dissipate – this word in verb form – we drawn on a little more regularly. Smoke dissipates, so do clouds in the sky, maybe an audience dissipates when the curtain comes down and the lights go up. But in noun form, in the form that the New Revised Standard Version translates Jesus’ word, this word doesn’t just mean things moving apart and vanishing from sight.

Dissipation has the connotation of squandering something.

The Greek word that the NRSV renders as dissipation is kraipalē, so the ancient root of our contemporary word crapulence. And to leaf through one Bible translation after another is to find that no one can entirely agree about what kraipalē means in English. Various translators, the ones who don’t reach for the word dissipation, tell us that kraipalē means a drunken headache. Others tell us that it means carousing. The King James Version, with its lovely poetic English, offers us the old-school word surfeiting. Eugene Peterson, in his paraphrase of the Bible called the Message, uses the word parties.

Actually, it’s worth pausing here for a second to hear Peterson’s rendition of Jesus’ sentence in its entirety. In the Message, Jesus says:

Do not let the sharp edge of your expectation get dulled by parties and drinking and shopping.

Think about that as our society enters into the lead up to Christmas, a time that is basically defined by parties and drinking and shopping.

Maybe this constellation of translational possibilities of kraipalē, maybe Peterson’s full-on sentence, get us a little closer to what Jesus means in this verse.

My sense is that we can say with some certainty that when Jesus says, Don’t let your hearts be weighed down with kraipalē and drunkenness and the worries of the life, Jesus doesn’t mean, “Don’t go to parties.” We know that Jesus loves partying with strangers and friends.

We can probably say as well that Jesus doesn’t mean, “No one should ever drink.”  We know that Jesus loves to eat and drink. And besides, he doesn’t say doesn’t say “don’t drink,” he says, “don’t be weighed down with drunkenness.” Alcoholism is real: there are people whom I love and respect who must not and cannot drink. And that acknowledged, enjoying wine in moderation with your friends on a Saturday night is a really different thing than polishing off a dozen beers by yourself on a couch on a Tuesday afternoon. Drinking on the one hand: being weighed down with drunkenness on other.

Jesus is not, in other words, commanding us to engage in a humourless or a puritanical life. And I’m going to go out on a limb and say that when Jesus says don’t be weighed down in the worries of the life, he doesn’t even mean that we shouldn’t worry. Jesus is fully human, and so he knows that a certain amount of worrying is part of being alive. At the end of his life, Jesus will sweat blood in the garden because of his deep and entirely understandable worry about what is to come when Judas and the soldiers arrive.

I wonder if what Jesus means in this sentence is something like this:

Don’t do stuff that leaves you numb. 

Now, the popular writer and researcher Brené Brown would be quick to jump in  here and say that absolutely everyone engages in a certain amount numbing. Pain is the price of admission being alive and we all respond to it by – what? – logging on to Facebook, eating muffins, gambling, playing video games, staying frantically busy, shopping, the list goes on.

A certain amount of numbing is permitted, it is okay. After a hard or a disappointing day, you are allowed to apologise to yourself, to give yourself a treat, by turning on Netflix and eating bonbons.

The problem comes shows up when you are still on Netflix at 3am and just vibrating with the sugar in your bloodstream.

That moment at 3am (maybe you know that moment, or maybe you have an equivalent to it in your life) is when we approach or cross the boundary between reasonably healthy numbing on one side and obsession or compulsion or even addiction on the other. This is when we are numbing instead of living our lives, numbing instead of engaging with God and creation and neighbour. This is the moment, when these activities or things that are officially pleasures – Netflix, sugar, booze, eating, whatever – end up robbing us of our joy.

Most of us sense the joy-robbing nature of deep numbing, sometimes even as we do it. I’ve had the fork holding the piece of cake partway in my mouth and said, Why am I doing this? I’m going to feel awful after eating this and the sugar and the suspicious icing hits my bloodstream. I’ve been the guy still in front of a screen in the middle of the night saying Why am I still here? This stopped being fun hours ago.

What Brown’s research has found is that when we articulate that why, whether it is in the moment or the next morning, we are naming the reality that deep numbing comes at a deep cost. That’s because human beings are wired in such a way, we are created in such a way, that we cannot numb the valleys without also numbing the peaks.

I guess I’m talking a bunch about screens this morning because they are one of the principal forms of numbing of our time. Through constant use of phone, through constantly being in front of a TV, we seek to eradicate silence and the sadness that can come with silence. The strategy works. The silence is gone and the sadness gets crowded out for a while. But what else gets crowded out when the silence is gone? Silence – in the woods, in a chair in the hum of the afternoon, even in church – is so often when joy shows up, when clarity shows up, when God shows up. When we are weighed down with kraipalē and drunkenness and worries (sometime worrying, too, is what we do instead of living, instead of paying attention to God and neighbour) the moment that matters comes and we are so far from ready that we are like someone setting off a trap.

A few days ago, I went to John Hammond’s 90th birthday celebration. There was one remarkable speech after another, one testament after another to John as teacher and as friend. At the end, John himself spoke.

This was one of the worst years of his life, John told us. This was the year that Alice died.

And then John said that, simultaneously, This was one of the best years of my life. Maybe the best year of my life.

Here are the peaks and the valleys together. Here is someone who, to use John’s own language, has chosen the hard and life-giving work of entering into an apprenticeship with his grief. John has chosen not to numb his grief. And as consequence, this thing that he did not want and would not have chosen and that he would not wish on anyone else, the decline and death of a spouse, has become an occasion for growth, for drawing nearer to God, for becoming more fully human.

Advent, like Lent, is a time of waiting, of getting ready. In the busyness and bustle of this time, may we take Jesus’ advice, may we obey his command. May we not be weighed down kraipalē and drunkenness and worry and food and shopping and screens, may we not be so numb that Jesus’ coming catches us like a trap. Or still worse, may we not be so numb that we do not even notice when the star hangs in the sky and the Christ child enters the world. May we be ready, may we pay attention, may we hold the holy and hard silence that permits us to listen for the voice of that child and to welcome him once more into our hearts and into our lives.

Last Sunday after Pentecost Christ the King by The Rev. Martin Elfert

November 25, 2018

Lessons:

Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14
Psalm 93
Revelation 1:4b-8
John 18:33-37

We are in the bustle and the heat that is Jerusalem, the most distant and forgotten corner of the Roman Empire. Inside the headquarters of the occupying forces, Pontius Pilate sits at his desk. Pilate is thirty-five years old. He is a mid-level government bureaucrat here in the Middle East on a resume building exercise. He is a busy man and, when he gets back to Rome, he hopes to be an important one. In the meantime, Pilate wants things and people to proceed in a orderly and sensible manner. He doesn’t want to have to do paperwork. He doesn’t want to have to work overtime. And he wants the headache that has been building all day to stop.

On this day, Pilate has been struggling to concentrate on his work. It’s not just the headache – he has those all the time. Something else is nagging at him: an old memory. His mind is pulled back in time, skipping like a stone across the waters of his recollection, to the days of his childhood – to a time when he lived in a world of wonder and of imagination. Pilate keeps pushing the memory down, trying to bury it under the dust that coats everything. He just about succeeds.

Pilate is ready to go home. He is ready for a drink. It has been a full day of administration: of seeing prisoners, of determining who will be flogged, who will be released, who will be crucified. But there is one more interview. It’s with a carpenter and a disturber of the peace. The note on his desk says: The King of the Jews.

Pilate stands up and starts walking towards the interview that will haunt him for the rest of his life. An interview in which his atrophied imagination will entirely fail him.

And then he is in the cell with the prisoner. Pilate experiences a dim awareness, a tug, like something moving in the corner of his eye. An awareness that the man who stands before him is extraordinary. There is a gravity pulling Pilate towards this man. Pilate has the sense that, even though he holds all the power in this relationship, including the power to pronounce death, that this man, this calloused and dirty carpenter, somehow, holds all the authority. That it is as though this man were interviewing him. Pilate fights this awareness off.

A moment of heavy silence passes between them. They are alone. And Pilate can say or ask anything that he wants. He begins:

So. You’re the King of the Jews.

This is when most prisoners start to weep, or to rage, or to beg for their lives. But not this one. The serenity in his eyes is his terrifying. This man does something that no prisoner ever does. He looks right at Pilate. And he asks him a question:

Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?

Is that what it was like?

It is hard not to speculate about this scene, about one of be the most iconic exchanges in all of scripture. Pilate gets the rarest of things in all four of the Gospels: the opportunity to secure a private interview with Jesus – to secure the opportunity to talk, by himself, with God. In just about every other conversation that the Gospels record with Jesus (save, perhaps, for Nicodemus and for the woman at the well in the fourth chapter of), there is someone else hanging around – the disciples, the crowd, the tax collectors and sinners, the Pharisees, the centurions. Pilate, by contrast, holds Jesus alone for as long as he wants.

How tantalising is this? For the Christian, the idea of being alone with Jesus is awesome. Consider what you might ask – what you might say – you would be limited only by your imagination. What would you say to Jesus?

Now, hold those words in your mind – all the possibilities of what you might ask or what you might tell Jesus. And then consider what Pilate asks about. He asks about personal power: So, you’re a King. You have a place on the top of a hierarchy. You have money, you have property, you can tell people what to do, you determine who will serve and who will eat, you can control people’s lives.

Jesus responds to Pilate’s question the way that he often responds to questions. He poses a question of his own. John 18:34: Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me? The folks who translated the New International Version of the Bible give us a lively alternative: Is that your own idea?

Through this question, Jesus is pushing Pilate to resuscitate his almost deceased imagination, to call it forth like Lazarus from the tomb. This invitation to imagine – to say “what if?” or “I wonder?” – is one that he has extended throughout his earthly ministry. He has extended this invitation by telling awesome and playful and paradoxical stories, by asking provocative and even intemperate questions such as this one, by taking actions which tossed expectations on their side, like a ship in a storm. Do you ask this on your own? Is that your own idea? This is the question on which the whole interview hinges. And Pilate refuses to answer it. He is irritated that Jesus even poses it.

I suspect this is because Pilate is a man who has been taught to hold his imagination at bay, to fend off the very thought that the world could be any different than it is, that he could be any different that he is. He has been taught to retreat into a sad world of permanence, a world predicated on power, a world in which the Roman Empire will last forever, a world in which it is impossible to imagine anyone being motivated by anything other than fear and selfishness.

This is a picture of a world in which faith is obscured, in which it is been hidden by certainty. And Jesus challenges this certainty because he knows that faith is predicated on the imagination. Faith is all about possibility; it is about the wonder of change; about the dance of beauty; about encountering something new; about trust in possibility; about reversal; about the first being last; about meeting God in the persons of the least of these, our siblings; about experiencing the Kingdom of God not as something that happens after we die but is something that, with God’s help, we can build right now.

Those times when the Kingdom has cracked through our permanence and changed this world were made possible by the imagination – by acts of faith. By individuals saying, You know, we actually could do this. This is possible! We are few years past the 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall coming down, a structure that mere days before it fell, we expected to stand for generations; that we expected to stand forever. I remember seeing the images of the wall falling and saying: That’s impossible.

Before the wall, there was a time when the end of slavery was impossible, when women getting the vote was impossible, when the end of apartheid was impossible, when the remarriage of divorced people was impossible, when broader marriage equality was impossible, when contraception was impossible, when the ordination of women was impossible, when we all knew that this county would never have an African American president.

Each act of imagination falls like a snowflake onto the roof of a prison. By itself, it looks like nothing. But, as it joined by another drifting piece of imagination and then by another, the snow of possibility builds up, higher and higher. And then, in what seems like an instant, the weight is too much. And the roof is down and the prisoners climb up and out into freedom.

When you talk to someone who has lived through such a moment – especially those who were in the prison when the moment came – they will often express a thought which is equal parts gratitude and disbelief: we never thought we would live to see this moment come.

So. What is impossible today? What is unimaginable? What have you been told is never going to change? Do you think this on your own or did someone else tell you? Is it impossible that hunger will ever end, that unemployment will ever end, that there will ever be a real place of dignity for the poor in our wider society or in the church, that economic vigour could mean anything other than frantic environmental degradation, that we might understand health care as a human right, that this country might have a healthy and sensible relationship with guns, that there might be a rule of life beyond selfishness and fear?

I’m glad that folks go to football games and hold up signs proclaiming John 3:16. It’s a beautiful passage. But the passage that I want someone to hold up at the next Seahawks game is this one: John 18:34. Is this your own idea? Did you think of this on your own or did someone else tell you? Is Jesus really that small? Is the kingdom really that distant? Can we really imagine nothing else? Is this how we thought the world was going to be when were were children? Are we so busy looking for Jesus sitting on a throne and holding a scepter that we don’t notice when he stands before us as a prisoner?

Let’s imagine for a second what Pilate cannot: that the impossible has happened – that the carpenter who stood before Pilate on that day was God. That God lived with us. And, now let us imagine something even more impossible: That, after Pilate sent that carpenter to be legally executed by a perverse justice system that he was resurrected. What if that were true? What else would be possible?

And now, let’s do something that Jesus did a lot of. Let’s tell a story about reversal in which we imagine that this peasant carpenter whose life was predicated on living with, and healing, and telling stories to the most suspicious of sort people is the king. Not Pilate’s kind of king, but another kind – one who believes that, in the greatest of kingdoms, the role of the king is to serve.

And, now, imagine that this king stands with you, close enough to touch. You are alone, he looks you in the eye. And he smiles.

Just imagine.

 

Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:

Daniel 12:1-3
Psalm 16
Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18) 19-25
Mark 13:1-8

 

 

What do we do when we hear a reading like the ones that we encounter today in Daniel in and Mark? Daniel says:

Michael shall arise. There will be anguish. Many of those who sleep in the dust will awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.

And then Jesus describes war and earthquakes and famines and he says:

This is but the beginnings of the birthpangs.

What do we do with apocalyptic Biblical passages? There are lots of them in scripture to choose from. What do we do with passages in which the Bible sure appears to tell us that God is the catalyst for violence, that God requires violence, sometimes that God is an active participant in violence?

This question is more or less inescapable at this time of year in which the lectionary, the schedule of readings that we follow from Sunday to Sunday, gives us one apocalyptic reading after another. For many Christians in parishes such as this one, these readings are variously troubling or embarrassing to us, maybe because we associate them with the Left Behind series of books and movies, with the notion of the rapture. Although, like a lot of troubling or embarrassing things, these passages are simultaneously fascinating to us.

Well, here is one of the things I believe. When someone or something leaves me feeling troubled or off balance, repelled and fascinated, that is an invitation to pay attention. Experience has shown me, for instance, that I when I notice feelings of dislike aversion in myself for another person, that person almost always has something to teach me. I remember some years ago asking for a meeting with a former boss – some things had happened since I had left that workplace – and opening my conversation with him by saying,

I knew that I had to talk to you because I really didn’t want to.

Apocalypse is similar. If we have a reflexive “yuck” feeling about this part of the Bible, if we are simultaneously attracted to and repelled by these passages, then maybe that is an invitation to pay attention, to ask:

What does this have to teach me about God and about my neighbour and about myself?

Now, I want to say something early and explicitly: what these passages do not and cannot teach us is that God is in the violence business. The cross makes that clear and irrefutable. Jesus suffers the worst possible humiliation, he endures the greatest possible agony, and after his return he refuses to respond to this violence with violence of his own. The resurrection is not about God coming back and exacting revenge on those who killed him. It is about God bringing new life and new light into the world.

The cross tells me that Richard Rohr is right when he says that the test for an authentic understanding of scripture and, more broadly, an authentic understanding of God is this: if an interpretation, a teaching, an action is less loving than the most loving person whom you know, then that thing isn’t from God.

Jesus coming back to torture or kill all the people who have believed wrong and lived wrong? That’s kind of less loving than the most loving person I know. So that can’t be how to understand Daniel, it can’t be how to understand Jesus when he talks the way that he talks today.

The word “apocalypse” translates into English as something like “unveiling” or as “revelation.” Hence, the final book of the Bible is sometimes The Revelation of John and sometimes The Apocalypse of John. It could just as well be The Unveiling of John.

And what is being unveiled when we encounter violence in the Bible? Well, as the theologian Mark Heim puts it, violence in the Bible is unveiling the truth, it is telling the truth. It is telling the truth about the human condition, about the conditions that lead to bloodshed, and in particular about the old connection between religion and violence.

Because religion, when it gets bent, when it loses sight of God and gets distracted or seduced by what St. Paul calls the world, has ended up in the violence business early and often. Somehow, when Emperor Constantine came along, when the other kings and emperors followed him, the symbol of Jesus – the symbol of the one who is murdered by the government for telling stories of freedom and handing out free food and health care – ended up on the banners of soldiers marching into battle.

There is no way to tell the truth without unveiling these things. As Mark Hein goes on to say, when we complain that the tales of Genesis, that the bloody sacrifices of Leviticus, that the fire for revenge in the Psalms, that Jesus talking about the birthpangs is too much, that these things are too sordid and too human to have any place in a book as holy as the Bible, then maybe we are admitting that these texts reveal the human condition altogether too well.

In Mark, Jesus says that the temple will be torn down, brick by brick. Peter, James, John, and Andrew ask him when this will be. And Jesus, who has elevated the non sequitur to an art form, who often answers questions with statements or stories that, at least at first, don’t appear to answer the question at all, says:

Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, “I am he,” and they will lead many astray.

And then he goes on:

When you hear of wars and rumours of wars?

Don’t be alarmed.

Wars and earthquakes and famines – this stuff going to happen. It is part of the human condition. Let’s name that, let’s unveil that. But let’s also, Jesus says – and this is fascinating and maybe surprising – not be alarmed by it.

Now, “do not be alarmed” cannot mean, “do not care,” or “do not take action.” Because we know that Jesus takes action in response to suffering early and often and always, that he calls us as his disciples to do the same. Maybe, therefore, “do not be alarmed,” means, “do not attach theological significance to this stuff, do not imagine for a second that this is something that God is doing or that God wants or that God requires or that proves that God is coming.”

If that’s right, then Left Behind and the televangelists and the door-to-door religion peddlers who love to point at this passage to prove that, well, the end is nigh, have things backwards. Violence isn’t telling us anything about what God is doing or when God is coming. Violence is telling us about humanity and about how far we sometimes stray from leading the lives of grace and mercy and kindness and love and freedom that God wants for you and for me and for everyone.

There is an amazing line that shows up today in the Epistle to the Hebrews. It is one of my favourite verses in all of scripture, when I last saw it printed in a bulletin or leaflet I cut it out and pasted it in my journal. It goes like this:

Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.

Not let us encourage one another, not let us teach one another, but let us provoke one another to love and good deeds.

Huh.

Weird as it is, maybe that line makes perfect sense. Because I think we all know about being provoked to goodness and to love. I suspect that all of us, as young people, received the difficult gift of a teacher or a parent calling us out on our behaviour, telling the truth about our behaviour, unveiling our behaviour and thereby provoking us to be better. I think that all of us, to this day, know about encountering art – several of the artists from PHAME are with us this morning and will be sharing their art with us as part of this service – that provokes us to be better. I think that all of us know about hearing someone’s story, a story of maybe searching or injustice or healing – I remember the woman who came here on a Sunday morning a couple of years ago and who told us about what it was like in Portland to try to function on minimum wage – and being provoked to being better.

And maybe that is what stories of violence in scripture, including stories – maybe especially stories? – that attribute that violence to God are doing. Those stories unveil human violence and they unveil our tendency to project human violence onto God, to make God in our own image, to say that God – who goes to the cross innocent and yet who will not make resurrection into an occasion of revenge –  somehow wants and needs our violence. Maybe these stories provoke us to say no! That isn’t and never was who God is. Maybe these stories of apocalypse and there to provoke us into following Jesus, into joining him in building a Kingdom of non-violence, of goodness, and of love.

Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Phil Brochard

Nov. 11, 2018

Lessons:

1 Kings 17:8-16
Psalm 146
Hebrews 9:24-28
Mark 12:38-44

SOLACE IN OUR FIERCE LANDSCAPES

RIGHTEOUS APPEARANCES

GIVING WHAT YOU’LL NEVER MISS

A POOL IN THE DESERT

GIVE FOR LOVE

 

SOLACE IN OUR FIERCE LANDSCAPES

Near the turn of this century, the theologian Belden Lane wrote a provocative book called The Solace of Fierce Landscapes. In it he explored what he recognized to be the theology of desert and mountain landscapes, landscapes that are unsparing, wild, and fierce.

In his estimation, when we enter these landscapes, because of their danger and their sublime beauty, they teach us truths that we would otherwise choose to avoid.

This past week, yet again, has been a journey through fierce landscapes. We endured one of the most divisive election cycles in modern history. And, once more, we reeled from the senseless destruction of human life. 12 people killed with unfathomable precision.

And so we find ourselves in the wilderness yet again. We struggle to comprehend how a fellow human can enact such wanton cruelty. We struggle with the proliferation of guns solely created to killing humans as efficiently as possible. And we struggle to see how we will do this, see as a fundamental truth that we are in this together.

And in my home state of California, just within the past several days, horrific fires are burning faster than we had thought possible, leveling entire towns, taking the lives of those unable to flee fast enough.

This week has left many feeling lost in their own land, and I, for one, am grateful this morning to worship God in this place, coming together, seeking solace.

And I am grateful for the wisdom that emerges from the desert. Because in the end, Belden Lane writes, when we open ourselves to fierce landscapes, two questions emerge:

How much can you give?

How much can you love?

Again,

How much can you give?

How much can you love?

 

RIGHTEOUS APPEARANCES

Well this is a particularly uncomfortable Sunday to be wearing long robes and offering robust Eucharistic prayers, seated in a choice chair. Because that seems to be one of the threads running through our Gospel passage this morning–– the danger of appearing to be righteous.

It’s what Jesus says some of these scribes are doing, by wearing long robes of respectability, by the sitting in the seats reserved for those who know the Law best, by uttering long, impressive prayers. It’s not that these actions in or of themselves are at fault, but more that they can be used to cover practices of deceit.

These appearances mask the destruction of the widow, that iconic image of the vulnerable who is to be protected, but instead is systematically preyed upon until they are destitute. Beware disciples of the Christ! Surface appearances do not necessarily signal true righteousness. What does?

Being righteous, as Kathleen Norris, among others, reminds us, is consistently defined throughout scripture as being willing to care for the most vulnerable, the widow and orphan, the resident alien, the poor. It doesn’t matter what it looks like, the suit it wears, the status it holds, the power it commands. It asks those same questions,

How much does it give?

How much does it love?

 

GIVING WHAT YOU’LL NEVER MISS

To make his point clear Jesus turns our attention to money.

Funny thing about Jesus––he is not afraid to talk about money. Continuing this teaching about the appearance of a righteous life, he has his students watch as people put money into the temple treasury.

When you see rich people pouring in large sums, he says, it might appear that they are righteous. But then you might miss this widow. Now it’s likely that she is always overlooked, both figuratively and literally, I can’t imagine that her two pennies made much of a sound.

But if you judge a righteous life by appearances, you’ll miss a lot. And here’s where I appreciate the recently deceased biblical scholar Eugene Peterson. In contradistinction to the widow who gave her all, Peterson’s paraphrase reads that, “All the others gave what they’ll never miss” Gave what they’ll never miss.

How often have I done that? Given what I won’t miss? The scraps, the left-overs, the left behinds? Because of fear? Or protection? Security? Pretending that what I have is mine alone?

Maybe that’s why the tithe, or other proportional giving is so instructive. Because by nature of this spiritual discipline you know what you are doing, you can’t help but miss it.

When my wife Sarah and I began this practice of tithing I wasn’t sure at first. It wasn’t clear what this would mean for our student debt, or the little things––our nights out together, our cable. What I remember is the distinct feeling being able to trust that our money won’t own us. It’s not over, of course, I don’t know that it ever is. But year by year I have been taught that what I have–– my home, my money, my life itself, is not mine, but has been given to me that I and others might live.

 

A POOL IN THE DESERT

Belden Lane concludes his book on the solace of fierce landscapes with this ancient story of a community of monks living in the desert. For years the brothers chose one of their members to go into the city to beg. It was a difficult task, but one old monk took it on without complaint, enduring abuse in the city as he begged for the food and coins that the monks needed to survive.

But every trip was made more worse on his return to the monastery, as the afternoon sun beat down upon him and the burning sands met his every step. Marveling at the monk’s faith and endurance, God created a pool of cool water to refresh himself.

But the monk, thinking himself unworthy of this miracle, always passed by the well, stopping only to express his thanks and joy. Each night as he lay down to sleep, he’d look up through the window of his cell, and see a single bright star, giving thanks that God had placed it there for him to see.

After years of making this arduous trip into the city, as the monk was full of days, the brothers chose a younger monk to go with him to learn this task. They set off, and that day in the city the younger monk found it hard to persist in begging, accepting the abuse of some of the people of the city, and especially the grueling trek back under the harsh afternoon sun.

But then, on the horizon, the younger monk sighted a pool of cool water! He ran quickly to it, knelt down and began drinking deeply from the cool, clear water. As the the older monk passed the pool, he was torn. If he refused to drink the water, this miracle in the desert, he would have to tell the young monk why he did so. And it was likely that the young monk would feel ashamed of his impulsiveness and lack of devotion.

And, if the older monk did drink, he wouldn’t be able to offer to God the gift of sacrifice that he had been offering to God for so long. In the end, his heart remained with the young monk, so the old man ran back to the pool knelt down beside him and drank the cool, clear water, offering God glory for what had been given them.

But as they made their way home that evening, the old monk fell into a deep silence. He feared that he had disappointed God by what he had done. As he lay down to sleep that night, he looked through the small window of his cell, and this time saw the whole night sky lit by stars, just for him. His joy was overwhelming, too much to contain. He slept with the greatest peace, and his brothers found him dead in his bed the next morning.

And if they’d been able to hear the words on his lips that last fell from his lips, they would have heard the words of the prophet Hosea, that love is always better that sacrifice.

 

GIVE FOR LOVE

For we do not give simply out of sacrifice.

We give because we love. We give so that any child, regardless of their families’ income, can encounter art and beauty, trust and caring. We give so that for anyone who walks through these doors, the kingdom of God can be realized. We give so that one day on this block there will be space for the widow to be cared for. We give because we love.

You see, those two questions asked by the fierce landscapes of our lives are intrinsically and essentially connected,

How much can we give?

And,

How much can we love?

Try as we might, we cannot ask one without the other.