Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:

If you are listening to this sermon from California or the middle and southern part of Cascadia – Cascadia being that the massive watershed that extends from British Columbia down through Oregon – you have spent a good part of this week underneath an orange and terrifying sky. Folks have described this sky as apocalyptic, as the unveiling of the end of the world. And I get why. The sight would be distressing enough in any year. But then you drop it into 2020 – into the middle of pandemic; into the middle of wildly polarized election; into an economy filled with chaos and loss that we haven’t seen since the end of World War II; into the struggle against police violence and for black dignity – and that orange sky feels like a perverse sacrament, an outward and visible sign of everything that is hurting and broken and wrong.

Underneath that sky, in the middle of all of this turmoil, there is the wee corner of the world that we call Grace Memorial. And in this wee corner, our ministries continue. We continue to worship, to feed the poor, to work towards redeveloping our campus.

And my question for us this morning goes like this: given the enormity of the world’s hurts, do these little things matter?

You don’t have to spend long on Twitter or on TV to encounter folks making that argument about this moment.

Sure, Portland City Council has banned the worst kind of tear gas from our streets, but if a police officer is inclined towards violence they still have rubber bullets and truncheons and other flavours of gas. It doesn’t really matter. Sure, solar panels are nice, but the oil barons are belching smoke into the atmosphere at a pace that we cannot even comprehend and so the forests will keep on burning. It doesn’t really matter. Sure, we could put 80 or 100 units of affordable housing on Grace’s block. But the people living in cars and tents and on the pavement are beyond counting. It doesn’t really matter.

What does Jesus have to say about that?

Today Jesus tells a folk tale about this question. It goes like this.

Once upon a time, there was a man who was heavily in debt. And the person to whom this man was in debt was his boss. He owed his boss ten thousand talents. There are varying estimates as to how much ten thousand talents in today’s dollars, but all of them have a lot of zeroes in them. Folks doing the math reckon that this guy owed his boss somewhere between 3.5 and 9 billion dollars. That’s a lot of talents, an inconceivable amount of money. It would be a defensible paraphrase of Jesus’ story to say that the man owed his boss a gazillion dollars. So, more money than he could pay back in a lifetime, more than he could pay back in ten lifetimes.

The man fell on his face in front of his boss and he made a promise that both of them knew he could not keep: Have patience with me, he said, have patience with me and I’ll pay you back.

What did the boss do then? Did he set up a payment plan? Did he ask for something awful, the way that bosses do sometimes in folk tales? I want your soul? Or I want the life of your first born.

No! The boss forgave the debt in its entirety. He tore up the 4.5 billion dollar promissory note, the pieces of paper fell to the ground like snowy possibility.

The newly forgiven man left high-rise tower where his boss lived, a spring in his step that had not been there in years. I’m free! he sang. Listen birds in the sky, I’m free! Listen trees in the field, I’m free! Listen ground underneath my feet, I’m free! Listen guy I know from work –

But then the man stopped. And looked hard at the guy he knew from work. Wait a minute, he said, Guy from work: you owe me money. You owe me a hundred denarii.

(A hundred denarii, again depending on who you ask, being worth maybe $8700 in today’s dollars.)

The Guy from Work said, Have patience with me. Have patience with me and I’ll pay you back.

This is the same scene that we saw a moment before, except that the man is now in the role of the boss.

No way, he said. You’re going to jail!

And he got out the handcuffs and called the paddy wagon, and things were looking good until his boss came out of the high-rise tower and saw him.

The man stared at his boss in horror. And like a child with his hand in the cookie jar right up to his elbow, he said,

It’s not what it looks like.

And because this is a folk tale gives Jesus gives it an ending that the Brothers Grimm with their love of slapstick violence would approve of. The boss said to his employee:

To the dungeon with you. Where you will be tortured!

The end!

What is the moral of the story?

Here’s one possible answer to that question.

Let’s assume that the boss is God. And the employee – that’s you and me. And we owe this debt to God, we owe God a gazillion dollars. This body to walk through the world: God gave it to us. This mind to think: God gave it to us. This heart to love: God gave it to us. The stuff to use, the money to spend: God gave it to us.

We go to God and we say:

I’ll pay you back, I promise. I just need ‘til the weekend.

But God says:

Forget it. Your debt is forgiven.

It is a cosmic, earth-shaking, impossible act of generosity. A debt that we couldn’t pay back in a lifetime, in ten lifetimes: gone.

Now, in addition to all of the other stuff that God has given us, God has given us one more thing. And that is the opportunity to be generous, to give stuff away, free of charge. To imitate God. Now, the stuff that we have to give away isn’t on God’s scale. God has $4.5 billion to forgive. We’ve got something more like $8700.

But here’s the thing that Jesus sure seems to be saying in this folk tale. Even though what we have got is tiny, even though it is a drop in the proverbial bucket, being generous, giving as we have received: this matters. It matters to God. And it matters for our souls. Not because God will torture us if we don’t – that’s a folk tale ending, God is not in the torture business, God never was – but because there is holy freedom in this generosity.

To go around with clenched fists saying, this is mine and you can’t have any: it distorts our souls, it holds us back from the joy of being people with open hands. There is a kind of torture in selfishness. But we are the ones torturing ourselves.

We have the opportunity to be generous. To create just a little housing in a city that needs it so badly. To create just a little community in a city that needs it so badly. To create just a little beauty in a city that needs it so badly. It’s tiny what we can do, tiny compared with what God has done for us. And it matters. It matters to us, it matters to our neighbours, it matters to God.

This is what Jesus does across his life. He lives under brutal occupation, and maybe he is tempted to say that healing a handful of people doesn’t matter. But he heals them anyway. He lives in a time when hunger is known by so, so many, and maybe he is tempted to say that healing a few doesn’t matter. But he heals them anyway. He lives in a time, just like now, when there is no shortage of religious authorities insisting that God is petty and small, and maybe he is tempted to say that telling a story of freedom doesn’t matter. But he tells the story anyway.

Here’s the thing about this folk tale that Jesus tells us today. Jesus gives it an unhappy ending. And in doing so, Jesus is inviting us to rewrite it, to create our own happy ending.

Imagine.

The man comes out the front door of the high-rise door. I’m free! he sings. Listen birds in the sky, I’m free! Listen trees in the field, I’m free! Listen ground underneath my feet, I’m free! Listen guy I know from work… who owes me money.

The two of them look at each other for a second.

And then the man says.

Forget it. Your debt is forgiven.

And The Guy from Work smiles and says thank you. And they he goes on his way. And maybe, he forgives someone else, and maybe they forgive someone else, and maybe they forgive someone else. Maybe this act of generosity begins a virtuous cycle, a holy cycle. But we don’t know about that. Because the camera stays on the first man, the man who owed his boss a gazillion dollars and now owes him nothing. The man who a second ago, was owed $8700, and now is owed nothing.

You’d think it would sting to be out that money. $8700 isn’t $4.5 billion. But nor is it nothing. But the man realizes that in forgiving this debt, there is, somehow, impossibly, even more spring in his step than there was a second ago. He goes on his way whistling a tune. He goes on his way, free.

The Fourth Sunday After Pentecost by the Reverend Martin Elfert

June 28

Jeremiah 28:5-9
Psalm 89:1-4,15-18
Romans 6:12-23
Matthew 10:40-42

 

 

Just before the climax of a great many books and movies and plays, there is a speech that changes everything.

The speech comes at halftime at the big game or on the eve of the final battle or as the ragtag bunch of misfits are about to descend into the cave or the dungeon or the sewer and face the monster. Morale is low, our protagonists are figuratively and sometimes literally on their knees. And the speech – given by the coach, the queen, the least socially awkward of the misfits – is what allows them to get up and continue.

Jesus gives a speech like that today. There are twelve people in Jesus’ gang of misfits, twelve people plus Jesus himself to make a Messiah’s Dozen. Let’s imagine that you and I are each one of the twelve. Jesus gathers us in the locker room – if you’re following along at home, we’re at the very beginning of Chapter Ten in Matthew’s version of this story – and he stands up on one of the benches, he takes a breath, and he proceeds to give us a speech so alarming and strange and beautiful that it would get a lesser coach fired, fired even before he stepped down back onto the locker room floor.

The speech begins this way, with two instructions:

First, Jesus says, you have authority. You have authority to cast out demons and to heal everything and everyone and to raise the dead.

Maybe we look at each in confusion. Do we have that authority? These kind of seem like varsity level miracles. But before anyone can put their hand up to ask a clarifying question, Jesus keeps on going.

Second, do not get ready. Don’t take money, don’t take a change of clothes, leave your smart phones at home.

Now, if any of you were Boy or Girl Scouts you will know that even though the speech has barely begun, Baden Powell is audibly grinding his teeth right now. Do not be prepared, Jesus says. Not even a little bit.

Unprepared, Jesus says, you are to go. You are to leave this building, go outside, go into the community, and there you are to proclaim the good news. You are to say:

The kingdom of heaven

has come near.

Now, if folks welcome you, let your peace be upon them. But if they don’t welcome you…

And maybe some of us start rubbing our hands together now, because if Jesus has given us the authority to heal and cast out demons and raise the dead, then Jesus must also be giving us the power to destroy anyone who crosses us. We’re waiting for him to give us laser vision and Spiderman webs enough strength to lift someone in the air and huck them into next week. We are going to mop the floor with these suckers.

If folks don’t welcome you, Jesus says, then clean off your shoes. Shake the dust off of them. And then keep on going. There will be judgment. But that is God’s work. Not yours.

And then Jesus keeps on going:

You are going to be handed over, Jesus says – handed over meaning being put into the back of the truck or the train or into the room without windows, the bolt in the door sliding hard into place behind you. Handed over meaning that control over your life belongs to someone else. You will be beaten and dragged before the authorities.

And then Jesus repeats the instruction:

Do not get ready. Do not be prepared. You might want to prepare a defence, but don’t.

You don’t need to. The Spirit of your Father will speak through you.

Do not be afraid, Jesus says.

But then he adds something that, maybe, sounds less than reassuring.

Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, nothing is secret that will not be known.

Again we look at each other: Nothing? Including that time that I…

Jesus, Is this good news?

And Jesus says: Do not be afraid.

You might think I have come to bring peace. I haven’t. I have come to bring brass knuckles, a gun, a sword. I have come to set son against father, daughter against mother, daughter-in-law against mother-in-law. If there is a relationship in which one person has power over another, I am going to turn that into a fight.

This is the part of the speech that changes everything in which Jesus’ voice is getting louder, his gestures more animated, the spit leaving his holy lips with greater velocity.

Take up your cross.

Take it up. Whoever welcomes you welcomes me and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward. Whoever welcomes a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward.

And then, after all of that, here comes the climax of the speech. Jesus says this part quietly.

Whoever gives a cup of cold water to one of these little ones – they will never lose their reward.

These are the orders. This is the end of the speech.

This speech is alarming and strange and beautiful. It is so, so confusing. And here at the end, it is so, so simple.

Could it possibly be that simple?

Could it be that the test for whether or not you and I are following the Gospel is really as simple as the question: Did we give a cup of cold water to the little ones? Did we give a cup of cold water to the ones who thirst?

Jesus steps down off the bench and walks out of the room. He leaves us there with the echo of his words. Jesus has given the speech that changes everything. And now. Now you and I have to decide if we will do as he has told us.

The Second Sunday After Pentecost by the Rev. Martin Elfert

June 14

Exodus 19:2-8a
Psalm 100
Romans 5:1-8
Matthew 9:35-10:23

 

Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

Holy smokes, there is a lot going on that sentence. As Paul speaks these words – or as the person reading Paul’s words to the folks in Rome speaks them – I can imagine their voice rising steadily in intensity and excitement. Here in Paul’s letter there is this sequence, this holy chain of cause and effect, all of which lead us to the love of God through the Holy Spirit.

Like a lot of things in the Bible, these words come and go so fast that they are done almost before they begin. As the sportscasters sometimes say, blink and you’ll miss it.

So, what I’d like to do this morning is to zoom in on this sequence. If we had an hour together, we could look at every step. But given the limits of time, what I would like to focus on with you is one idea or virtue in particular, and that is character.

Character is kind of an old-fashioned notion or word, one that we hear about today less than we once did. Although I think that we mean something very similar very similar to character when we talk about integrity. Maybe you have seen the sign on the wall of the classroom at a child’s school.

Integrity is doing the right thing when no one is looking.

And there is something to that saying. To find a wallet, for instance (and I have actually found multiple wallets across the years, I don’t know what that means) is to be faced with at least a tiny bit of temptation. Everybody likes found money, there are few things as delightful as five dollars blowing in the breeze, manna from heaven. Except when that money is within a wallet – here are driver’s license, credit card, everything – you have the means to return it to its owner. And no one will know if you don’t.

To have integrity, absolutely, is to return the wallet and its cash even though no one is looking. And the more that you practice doing this, the less of an internal debate it becomes, the more it becomes a virtuous habit. Your character is supported and indeed created by behaving in a moral way. And to pop back a little earlier in Paul’s sequence, all of that is supported by your experience of suffering: because you know something about loss, you have the moral imagination to know what it must be like to lose a wallet. And so the virtue gets a little easier every time.

But I want to argue with or add to the sign on the school wall a little. And I think I’ve shared this with you before, but I am thinking of it in a new way now. In addition to saying integrity is doing the right thing when no one is looking I want to add:

And

Integrity is doing the right thing when everyone is looking and expecting you to do the wrong thing.

One of the things of which I am most ashamed happened in the schoolyard when I was, maybe, ten years old.. And I had a classmate who, maybe, we somewhere on the autistic spectrum. We didn’t use or know the word autism back then. We just knew that this classmate – I’m going to call him Paul – was weird.

Paul was a popular target with bullies. That’s because Paul cried and yelled – and I don’t understand this about human beings, but I know that it is true – and there was something delicious to us about drinking in other’s pain.

On this particular day at camp, a group of children had Paul surrounded. There was a circle, Paul was in the middle of it, and the children took turns lobbing taunts at him. It looked a little bit like an ancient scene of someone being stoned.

Paul’s fists were bunched up, his face was the picture of terror and rage:

Leave me alone! he screamed

Leave me alone!

And I stood there.

And I did nothing as Paul pleaded for it to stop.

I am thankful that a photograph of that moment does not exist. I am thankful because I don’t know what I would do to be confronted that directly with evidence of my passivity before cruelty, before evil. And I am thankful for another reason. I am thankful because I am afraid that in that photograph I might see evidence on my face that I too was taking pleasure in Paul’s suffering, that I too was drinking of his pain.

What if I wasn’t just passive?

What if I liked it?

Eventually, a classmate who had more character than me intervened. He stepped into the middle of the circle and put his arm over Paul’s shoulder and led the shaking and weeping boy away.

The horror of George Floyd’s murder is not only a police officer kneeling on his neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds. It is three other police officers watching and doing nothing – nothing, that is, except to make sure that none of the neighbours intervene. And in a way, their passivity and complicity is almost the bigger horror. Because an individual police officer or soldier or prison guard or plain-old citizen behaving in a deeply cruel way is something that we can explain away as the actions of a psychopath – those actions are awful, but they hold no comment and no condemnation for the rest of us. But when a horror is facilitated by a circle of police officers or a circle of children that is awful at an entirely new level.

It has been almost forty years since I watched Paul’s humiliation, Paul’s stoning. Almost forty years since I did nothing. Almost forty years since, God forbid, I maybe enjoyed what I was watching.

I want to believe that I would act differently today. I want to believe that I have more character now than I had then. And if that is true, if my character or integrity has grown since those days, then I owe that in significant part to my classmate who stepped into the middle of the circle and rescued Paul. That classmate showed me – showed all of us – that another, better world was possible. That we are not condemned to watching evil passively, to participating in evil.

It is Richard Rohr who says that Jesus always goes towards the pain. And that is what my classmate did all those years ago. He stepped into the middle of that circle of pain and he rescued Paul and, maybe, he rescued all of us, all of us who were debasing ourselves by participating in that schoolyard stoning. In the midst of suffering, he enduringly showed us character. Character which leads to hope. And hope which does not disappoint us, because always, always leads us to the love of God.

 

The Fourth Sunday of Easter by the Reverend Martin Elfert

My friend and mentor Bill died a week ago. Bill went to sleep on Friday night and he never woke up. As near as anyone can figure, he was doing fine when he turned out the lights on April 24th. He had just sent an email to a bunch of friends in which he wondered out loud about life in pandemic. “We have lost things we value very deeply,” Bill wrote to his friends, “and we don’t know for sure that we will get them back.” And then he went to bed. And then, well, that was the end of his life.

Several folks have asked how Bill might have died, if COVID-19 was the culprit. And I guess it could have been and I guess I understand why people want to know – this plague is so much on our minds now. But I’m also not sure how much I care. No matter what the answer to that question may be, whether Bill died of COVID-19 or an aneurism or a heart attack or from some cause that will never be known, he remains equally dead. He is equally gone from my life and from the lives of so many other people who loved him.

What I do know is that, with Bill’s dying, my grief has a focus that it didn’t have before. Thanks to COVID-19 and its many economic and social side effects, a lot of us right now are experiencing grief or loss or even trauma. But this grief – at least for me, I don’t know about for you – often had an amorphous or diffuse flavour until now. Life was going okay, I guess, and yet I was regularly worn down and regularly sad and regularly anxious, as though I were personally carrying the weight of everything.

For the many of us who knew and loved Bill, there is now a specific reason for our sadness. Bill’s death is a rip off for him and for his family. He had retired just recently and he would have made such good use of the 20 or even 30 years that were properly due to him; he was only 66 when he died. And it is a rip off for me personally to have his laughter and kindness and wisdom gone from my life.

Today is Good Shepherd Sunday, the day on which we always hear from the Gospel of John and the day on which we always read the most famous of the Psalms, Psalm 23. Psalm 23 is the Psalm that, in the Jewish and the Christian tradition alike, is read or sung at more funerals than any other.

Psalm 23 is beautiful. It is also weird and it speaks with authority and it speaks with intimacy.

Psalm 23 is weird because it is written in the first person. And if the Lord is my shepherd, that means that I am a sheep, something that I am not 100% certain I want to be. If you have ever hung out on a farm, you will know that sheep are startlingly stupid. And yet, maybe that is exactly why the image works. We go through this life and stuff happens: the death of a friend, a job loss, a diagnosis, a pandemic, and we have little or no idea why. There is comfort in trusting that we are accompanied by and guided by one who understands what is going on and who knows the path.

Psalm 23 speaks with authority because the one who speaks knows about suffering and hardship and unfairness. They know that following the Lord does not mean that you are insulated from or excused from these things. The Psalm does not say, the Lord is my shepherd, therefore nothing bad ever happens to me. It does not say, the Lord is my shepherd, therefore the prosperity Gospel is real. It says: the Lord is my shepherd and yet here is the valley of death. The Lord is my shepherd and yet here are enemies. The Lord is my shepherd and yet here is randomness and unfairness and suffering. Psalm 23’s promise isn’t that these things don’t happen. It is that, when they do, God isn’t somewhere else.

Psalm 23 speaks with intimacy because, partway through, it switches from the third person to the second. It begins speaking of the Lord, of he. But come verse 4, this changes. Now it speaks of you or, in the beloved language of the King James Version, of thou. In spite of all the hardship – maybe, somehow, because of all of the hardship? – there is a transition from a God whom I have heard about (“the Lord,” “him”) to a God whom I know (“you” or “thou”). Over the course of this journey, this walk with God, the words that we hear in the funeral rite come true: I myself shall see, and my eyes behold him who is my friend and not a stranger.

We are in the midst of pandemic. With job loss and illness and death and wild uncertainty about what the future holds. And Bill is dead. And in the midst of all of that, the Lord is my shepherd, the Lord is your shepherd, the Lord is our shepherd.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

I will fear no evil;

for thou art with me;

thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.

Palm Sunday & Sunday of the Passion by The Rev. Martin Elfert

 

Lessons:

Isaiah 50:4-9a

Philippians 2:5-11

Psalm 31:9-16

 

Click here to watch and listen to the sermon.

 

This is, maybe, the most dissonant day in the church calendar. Not Palm Sunday. Not
Passion Sunday. But Palm and Passion Sunday.
As recently as the midway mark of the past century, these were two different days in
the church calendar. One day on which we celebrated triumph, on which we marked
Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, branches in our hands, songs and cries of Hosanna – or in
English, something like Save Us, We Pray – on our lips. And then another day on which
we stood at the foot of the cross. Around the time of the Second Vatican Council in the
early 1960s, the two days merged.
And for a while, I thought that the intersection, the joining of these days was a mistake.
Surely, you have to pick one: triumph or desolation, celebration or deep grief.
But the more that I hung out in church, the more that I encountered the beauty and the
mystery of Holy Week in particular, the more that I concluded that the dissonant
joining of these two events on one day is, maybe, something like genius.
A year ago, I suggested that the dissonance of Palm and Passion Sunday has a lesson to
teach us about the way in which love and loss intersect in all of our lives, in which loss
and its cousin grief are the price of admission for love. This year, I’d like to explore a
different but related idea. And that is, as we move from Palm into Passion, as we sit on
the hinge between these two moments, we are invited to understand something vital
about Jesus and about ourselves.
In this reflection, I’m going to be drawing heavily on a book that, at least for me, is a
classic. This is W.H. Vanstone’s work, The Stature of Waiting.
Vanstone argues that for Jesus there is a before and after. There is who he is before the
garden of Gethsemane. And then there is who he is after he is handed over to the
soldiers and religious authorities.
Before the handing over, Jesus’ life is full of verbs: he teaches, he heals, he casts out
demons, he tells stories, he sleeps in storm-tossed boats and when he wakes he
commands the waves and our hearts to be at rest.
Vanstone gives an example from Gospel of Mark. Here, from Chapter Three of Mark are
six lines of Greek text in which Jesus is the grammatical subject of eight verbs:
Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted,
and they came to him. He appointed twelve that they might be with him
and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to
drive out demons. These are the twelve he appointed: Simon (to whom
he gave the name Peter), James son of Zebedee and his brother John (to
them he gave the name Boanerges…
Similarly, Mark tells a lot about what is happening inside of Jesus, in his mind and heart
and gut. Scripture doesn’t do this all that often – folks regularly act in the Bible without
a whole lot of indication of what is motivating them – but in Mark we hear that Jesus
had compassion, that Jesus wondered at their unbelief, that Jesus, when the woman
touches the hem of his garment, felt the power go out of him.
Jesus, in other words, is all verbs all the time, all action all the time, both outside and in.
So, that’s the before. And now here is the after (we’re still in the Gospel of Mark):
After Judas hands Jesus over in, there are one hundred lines of Greek text. And in those
one hundred lines, Jesus is the grammatical subject of just nine verbs, one of which is
that he died and four of which are phrased negatively:
He was silent.
He answered nothing.
He still answered nothing.
And when they offer Jesus wine mingled with myrrh:
He did not take it.
And we no longer hear what is going on inside of Jesus, no longer have any access to
what we might call his inner monologue. All of a sudden, Jesus stops acting and is acted
upon:
They took him.
They led him
They dressed him.
In Gethsemane, Jesus transitions from acting to being acted upon, from total freedom
to total passive vulnerability. Maybe another way of saying that is that in Gethsemane
Jesus loses the verbs in his life.
This transition was maybe more obvious way back when in the days when a couple of
English words had a different flavour than they have today. At the end of Jesus’ life, we
speak of his suffering and of his passion. And thanks to a lot of horrifying oil paintings
and Mel Gibson, we likely hear these words as indicating that Jesus is enduring pain
and injustice. And that is partially right. But back when the King James Translators
were at work, these words meant something broader and more neutral than that.
Back in those days, suffer meant something like, “to have something happen to you.” So,
when Jesus in the King James Version famously says, Suffer the little children… to come
unto me, he doesn’t mean, “I hate kids – being around toddlers is suffering for me.” He
means: let the children come, let that happen to me.
Similarly, passion comes to us from the Latin and the Greek. At one time it is the word
passio, which subsequently becomes both passion and passive. It is a word that is
something like the converse of to do. Passion means to be done to. So when Jesus
receives the sponge with its bitter wine, that is as much passion as are the nails driving
into his body.
This hinge, this transition between Jesus who acts and Jesus who is acted upon: it is all
here in this day, in Palm and Passion Sunday. Here is Jesus getting ready for and then
leading the triumphant procession, all planning and arranging donkeys, all riding
among the disciples into the city, a conquering hero, waving and smiling as the crowd
cheers. And then here – we’ll read the Passion story together in a little while – is Jesus
taken and bound and mocked and led and killed, his time of action over, the verbs
drained out of his life by the soldiers.
So. One of the things that sits right at the centre of my theology is that Jesus shares
absolutely in our joy and in our suffering, absolutely in our ecstasy and delight and in
our pain and grief. I trust that even in the very worst moments, we can always, always
say with confidence: Jesus, you know what this is like. In your life and, especially, on the
cross, you experienced the worst that life has to offer, the worst that humanity has to
offer. You, God, know suffering firsthand. There is no pain or injustice I can endure that
you, God, do not know.
Today, I want to expand that theology, I want to draw on the old-school meanings of
suffering and of passion that Vanstone explores in his work, and say that Jesus shares
with us not only in our grief and pain but also in those times when the verbs are
drained out of our lives.
We don’t like the verbs being drained from our lives. Especially in 2020. Especially in
the West, in the so-called developed world. What is the stock answer, possibly even the
morally correct answer to the question, “How are you?” I mean, beyond the answer,
“good” or “fine.”
The correct answer to “how are you” is:
I’m so busy.
Similarly, when we retire, the thing that we often say, maybe that we are expected to
say is:
I’m busier than ever.
And when hardship happens, when life happens – the stroke, the car accident, the
diagnosis, the plain-old march of time – and the verbs are drained from our lives, when
our old-school suffering or passion begins, we don’t know what to do. I remember
visiting with an elderly person who said, with a wistful sadness:
I used to be active and useful.
There is a long and ancient conversation, argument even, within Christianity about
what the cross means. As long as there have been Christians, we have been trying to
figure out how to understand Jesus’ suffering, his passion. But what there has never
been doubt or question about is that Jesus suffering is important. Everybody agrees on
that. In Jesus’ passion, something vital happens, something that changes the world, that
changes everything.
Maybe that’s because of the mystical, miraculous events that some of the Gospels say
surround the crucifixion. We’ll read from the Gospel of Matthew in at the end of this
service and hear about the earth shaking and rocks splitting and the tombs emptying
out so that the dead walk the earth. Except that doesn’t happen in all of the Gospels. In
Mark, where I’ve been spending a bunch of time in this reflection, none of that happens.
And yet the centurion still says:
Truly this man was God’s Son!
Amazingly, there is something about Jesus absence of action, about his being done to
rather than his doing, that proves to the Centurion that Jesus is the Son of God. There is
a real sense in which the cross, when all of the verbs are drained out of Jesus’ life, when
his capacity to be active and useful is taken from him and gone, is the most important
time in his ministry.
What if. What if when the season comes in which the verbs are drained out of our lives
– by illness, by accident, by age; by a pandemic: suddenly, most of us, those of us who
are not doctors or grocery-store workers are in this unchosen time of waiting, we are
in a time of old-school passion – what if this time without much action or much
usefulness, is a time that Jesus shares with us? What if, more than that, what Jesus
demonstrates on the cross is that this time is, somehow, necessary and even holy? That
in it, we will come to know something about ourselves and our neighbour and about
God?
This is Palm and Passion Sunday. This is Jesus’ hinge day, maybe our hinge day. This is
the day on which we name our inescapable transition from busyness into old-school
suffering, the day on which we name difficult gift that is the verbs being drained out of
our lives, the day on which we name the pain and the holiness of this transition. This is
the day on which we know that Jesus shares with us in all of it, all of it, action and
passion alike.

Christmas Eve by the Reverend Martin Elfert

Eve.jpg

Isaiah 62:6-12
Titus 3:4-7
Luke 2:1-20
Psalm 97

Our first child came on a hot day in July. He was in a hurry to get into the world, and all of our plans for what his birth would look like disappeared into the rush of the afternoon.

Our second child came in December in the night. She too came fast. My wife, Phoebe, will say sometimes that she went to sleep, woke up and had baby, and then went back to sleep. When we got up in the morning we looked around in our bed a said: Oh. A child.

Our youngest arrived in October, and he wanted to come fast as well. But as sometimes happens, his head was turned up, up like a cyclist pushing hard into the wind and towards the finish line. And so his coming into this life was marked by the siren and the lights of an ambulance.

We, all of us, have a story of how we were born. Some of these stories are part of family lore, some of them are written into books, and some of them are all but forgotten except for a mark on a ledger or a dusty photograph or an uncertain tale told by an uncertain relative. All of these stories are extraordinary, awesome in the old-school sense of that word. And all of them are everyday and ordinary. There is nothing more ordinary than being born. It is how 100% of us got here, much as 100% will leave this life through the awesome and ordinary thing that is death.

There are a number of things that I remember in particular about our children’s births.

I remember the intensity of it – intense, rather than painful, being the word that Phoebe reaches for to describe the physical reality of childbirth. It certainly was intense for me. So much of the time, my attention is going seven different directions. At our children’s births, my focus was total.

I remember the carnality of it, the indisputable proof that, at least during our time on this earth, we are inseparable from our bodies. That, as the wonderful feminist theologian Ellen Clark-King puts it, we are not people who have bodies; we are people who are bodies. When birth begins, there is choosing to go do something else.

I remember the divinity of it, the sense, the knowledge, the assurance, that God was there in the room with us, that if we had torn up the floorboards, we could have touched God’s face.

I remember the awe and wonder of it. The awe and wonder, especially, of witnessing my spouse give birth. I understood in a deeper way then kind of power Phoebe held within her.

I remember the finitude of it. (I’m not sure if that is exactly the right word, but it’s the best that I can do.) To be in the room when birth happens is, inescapably, to encounter death. It is to remember that we are but dust and to dust we shall return.

And I remember the communion of it. All of the helpers gathered ‘round. The midwives, Phoebe’s Mum, and later on our younger children welcoming their new siblings. At our youngest child’s birth, there were the firefighters and the paramedics and later the doctors and nurses. One of the nurses, in a detail that would have been right at home in a period drama, had a glorious Irish brogue.

Birth.

The Gospel tells us that birth is how God chooses to enter into the world. That God, too, has a story of being born.

The wonderful writer Sarah Bessey, whose reflections served as the fire starter for this sermon, has suggested that we would think of the birth of Jesus differently if the story of it were told by women. Creches are so clean and neat, oil paintings tend to feature a holy family that is suspiciously well rested. If women – or at least, men who had been present at births – told this story, the creches would be a whole lot messier. And the oil paintings would feature a whole lot more people, all of the helpers whom we encountered, all of the people participating in the intensity, the carnality, the divinity of birth.

And if the story were told not just by women but by women who knew birth in Mary and Joseph’s time, the creche and the oil paintings would put us in a different location. Today, we think of a barn or a stable as a discrete building, physically separated from the farmhouse. But all those years ago, people lived with their animals, both to keep the animals safe and because the animals warmed the house up. So, when the story says that Jesus is laid in a manger – in other words a trough – we might imagine that manger in less of a contemporary barn and more of an ancient living room, with the bustle of the kitchen and family life close at hand.

What does it mean that God is born in this way? What does it mean that God is born in this place?

Here are two possible answers. (This is not an exhaustive list. It is but two of the possibilities that I am thinking of tonight.)

First, it means that birth is holy. While the birth of the Messiah absolutely says something specific about Jesus, it also says something about being born in general. The incarnation declares in flesh what God declares in words in the Book of Genesis, that being born and having a body and walking the earth is good. It is very good.

I think it’s Hannah Arendt who says that we call ourselves mortals, and that we’re right to do so – we are, all of us, people who will die. But Arendt adds that we sometimes might do well to change things up and call ourselves natals: people who have been born. As a natal, know that you have come into this world in the same way as God. And know that being a natal means that you are beloved of God, precious beyond measuring to God.

The second thing that the incarnation tells us is that God participates absolutely in being alive. God is someone who has been born, with all of the radical vulnerability of that, all of the willingness to trust human beings as God came crying into this world. It means that God grew and God stubbed God’s toe and God got the flu and God has acne God wondered whether God’s classmate liked God as much as God liked them and, in the end, like all natals, that God proved to be a mortal, and died.

I’ve shared with you before the story that Richard Rohr tells of meeting a hermit on a path through the woods. The hermit, in some excitement, stops Rohr and says:

Richard! You get to preach and I don’t. So tell people.

Tell people.

God isn’t somewhere else.

The birth of Jesus, the incarnation, declares that God is not somewhere else. God is here, in our deepest joys and our deepest griefs.

Just like Jesus, all of us have a story of how we were born, of how we became natals, of how we came to walk this earth. Our story and Jesus’ story alike tell us that we are beloved children of God. Our story and Jesus’ story alike tell us that Jesus’ ancient name contains everything that we need to know. Jesus is Emmanuel, a word that is a promise, the promise that God with us.