Tenth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

August 9, 2020

Lessons:

1 Kings 19:9-18
Psalm 85:8-13
Romans 10:5-15
Matthew 14:22-33

 

Peace Be Still.

Jesus in the middle of the storm.

Jesus in the middle of the storm is a story that we hear six times across the Gospels.

Maybe, way back when, this was two stories, two encounters with Jesus, one in which Jesus sleeps in the stern of the boat while the storm thunders all around – there are three stories more or less like that preserved in Matthew, Mark, and Luke – and then another in which Jesus walks on the water – those are in Matthew, Mark, and John. Or maybe the story or encounter was one in the beginning, and as memory shifted the way that memory does across the years, the way that stories do as they are told around the campfire, it divided into two strands.

Regardless, Jesus in the middle of the storm is a story that the Gospels tell us six times. It has that sixfold telling in common with the story that we heard last week, the one that we sometimes call the story of the loaves and the fishes. This repetition suggests that Jesus’ first friends and then the early church reckoned that these encounters mattered deeply to understanding Jesus and to following Jesus.

In Jesus’ life, there is a malleable and a permeable border between the literal and the metaphorical. Jesus does things and says things and things happen to him that are real and symbol at the same time. So, last week, we saw Jesus feed hungry people. And way before we look for anything heady or spiritual in this miracle, let’s name and honour the earthy reality that when people are hungry, Jesus feeds them. As Jesus’ followers, we are called to do the same, to feed people when they are hungry.

And beside and within that intensely literal act of service, there are layers upon layers of metaphor. When we are with Jesus, the story tells us, we find creativity, generosity, possibility, compassion, fecundity, the absence of limitation, holy surprise. We are fed in so, so many ways.

This week – Jesus in the storm – is the same. At the story’s most basic level, there is something primal taking place. Heavy rain, high waves, a hard wind, lightning and thunder. Many of Jesus’ followers, most of Jesus’ followers, fish for a living. And if they are afraid of the storm, you know that it’s a bad one. This is a little bit like when you are on a plane and the turbulence gets intense. When that happens, I always look at the flight attendants: if they don’t seem nervous, I’m not going to get nervous, their calmness means that this is merely an unpleasant experience rather than a dangerous one. If they look afraid, by contrast, I’m going to start putting the finishing touches on my will.

And this week, the fishers, those who have logged hundreds or even thousands of hours out on the water, are afraid. Herb O’Driscoll, the wonderful Irish-Canadian preacher, has joked that Jesus’ calmness in the storm, whether that calmness takes the form of sleeping or of casually strolling on the surface of the lake, is proof that Jesus doesn’t fish for a living. Jesus, unlike the disciples, doesn’t know enough to be afraid.

The storm rages. This intense storm, this terrifying storm, this dangerous storm, this storm that may end in drowning rages. This is the sort of awful experience during which someone like you or me might call out God’s name.

God, help me. Please.

And from the deck of the ship, as we call out to God, what do we discover then? We discover that God is there, that Jesus is there. God is not watching from some distant cloud or castle or mountaintop. God is there in the middle of the storm. We see God walking on the waves, being pushed up and down by the swells, now rising, now falling, never breaking his stride, never losing his balance.

This is good news and hard news. It is very good news indeed to discover in the storm that God is not somewhere else. Alleluia.

And it is hard news to discover that God being with us doesn’t mean that there is no storm. The storm rages anyway.

And the storm – here is that malleable and permeable border between the literal and the metaphorical– in addition to being a very concrete and real and dangerous thing, is also this archetypal image for chaos, for uncertainty, for the absence of control, for volatility, for fear.

God is present in these things. And the storm rages anyway.

If the Gospels were a novel – they aren’t, there are a thousand and one ways in which the Gospels resist being classified as a modern book – if the Gospels were a novel, then Peter would be the character whose role is to stand in for you and me. As a child, I adored Agatha Christie’s mysteries and, in particular, I loved her Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. And the Poirot books work in significant part because of Hastings, Poirot’s friend and assistant and sometimes biographer, the guy who is amazed where the reader would be amazed, confused where the reader would be confused, who does and says the thing that the reader would do or say.

Peter serves much the same function in the Gospel. At the transfiguration, he says what you or I might say: Let’s build houses and stay here forever. When Jesus says that he will be crucified, Peter, like you or me, takes him aside and says: Lord, you have to stop talking that way. When Jesus nears the end, Peter is the one who swears that he will never abandon Jesus and who then flees in fear – that’s something that I might do and maybe that you might do, no matter how much we wanted to stay.

And today, in the middle of the chaos, in the middle of the storm, Peter is the one who sees Jesus walking on the water, dancing on the surging waves. Peter has one of those bracelets on his wrist that says WWJD: What would Jesus do? This is the question of his life. And he sees that the answer to the question What would Jesus do in the storm? is that Jesus would walk on the waves.

And so Peter kicks one leg over the side of the boat and then the other. He puts his weight down on the water. And for a little while, it works. Peter walk for several steps, getting nearer to Jesus, rising and falling with the swells as he does. But then he notices the danger, the impossibility, the absurdity of what he is doing. I don’t know if you have had the experience of learning to ride a bike, the grown up or older child who was helping you letting go and giving you a push, and you are able to ride exactly as long as until you don’t think about how your balance works and how much landing on the asphalt would hurt.

I think that something similar happens here. Peter starts thinking about what he is doing. And instantly, his leg punches through the surface of the lake as though he were breaking through ice. He is in up to his thigh, suddenly soaked. And sinking.

Lord, save me! he says.

And right away – Jesus does not leave Peter in his fear – Jesus reaches out his hand and catches him.

Oh, Peter, Jesus says. And I imagine that there is a big smile on his face. You almost did it. You of little faith.

And then the two of them get back into the boat, Jesus holding the now sopping wet Peter by the arm. Does Peter walk a little bit on the way back? Or does he kind of half swim? Or does Jesus carry him?

When they get back in, the storm stops. There is peace. And the fishers, they fall down on the suddenly still deck of their boat and worship Jesus.

Truly, they say, truly you are the son of God.

What does this end to the story mean? I’m not sure. But I do know that somehow it is right, that it is true. That in this moment when the real and the metaphorical intersect in the storm, Jesus comes to us and there is peace. Peace be still. I think that this moment is what Richard Rohr is talking about what he says that folks who are in deep communion with God find this okayness with life. Not because the storm doesn’t happen, not because they never experience grief, loss, unfairness, or suffering – they totally do. But because they know in their bones that Jesus is there with us as the storm rages, and that Jesus, always, always, brings us safely home.

 

Seventh Sunday of Pentecost by The Rev. Corbet Clark

July 26, 2020

Lessons:

Genesis 28:10-19a

Psalm 86:11-17
Romans 8:12-25
Matthew 13:24-30,36-43

View You Tube video of the sermon here.

 

In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier.

The Sunday readings always present a challenge and an opportunity. Sometimes they’re very closely related, and you can easily see a theme emerging. Other times it’s harder to find a connection among them. So for a preacher, it’s easiest just to pick one reading (usually the Gospel) to focus on, which is what I, in the interests of efficiency, usually do.

But this morning I’d like to see how we might draw on all three of the readings to try to make sense of our current predicament.

The parable that Jesus tells provides the framework for the predicament: God has planted the world – our world, God’s creation – with good seeds, but somehow the fields are full of weeds.

This will not surprise any gardener, and it must have touched a nerve with his peasant audience. You plant a vegetable garden in carefully prepared soil, and before you know it, the weeds are outcompeting what you planted. Then it becomes a constant chore to dig up and eradicate the weeds before they take over the garden and you lose what you planted. If you’re careless and allow the weeds to grow they take from the soil valuable nutrients that your vegetables need, so any self-respecting gardener works hard to control the weeds.

But this is not how God’s garden works, according to Jesus. Instead, God lets the weeds grow, until the final harvest, when weed and wheat will be separated. As with many of Jesus’ parables, this must have left his listeners scratching their heads. It doesn’t seem to be good cultivation technique. In fact, it seems almost irresponsible.

But Jesus is addressing the world as it is. The world, our world, is a messy place, which all his listeners also understood. God created the world and everything in it, in beauty and goodness, but it seems to us to be filled with wickedness and sorrow. Paul acknowledges this in Romans: all of creation is in “bondage to decay” and is “groaning in labor pains,” waiting for God to redeem it.

We can relate. Disease, violence, bigotry and hatred, poverty and economic anxiety. The sufferings of our present time seem almost overwhelming, and the evils of the world seem to come from many sources – from the outright wickedness of some, from the indifference of others, from willful ignorance of yet others, and from our own failing to do what we know is right. We find ourselves uncertain what to do, and we are afraid.

But Paul counsels his followers not to fall back into slavery to fear. It seems to me that much of what makes me angry about the world today is people – all of us – acting out of fear. We fear disease and harm so we act selfishly. We fear the loss of our familiar ways so we refuse to adapt to necessary changes. We fear those who are different from us – by ethnic background, religion, politics, class, ability – so we attribute to them evil motives, when they, too, are acting out of fear of the unknown. And so fear causes all of us to spiral downward together into hopelessness and inaction.

Jesus has a different take on our situation. Don’t worry about the weeds and focus instead on the coming harvest, Jesus suggests. It is in hope that we are saved, Paul says. Hope IS our salvation. Not a blind hope that ignores the continual stream of bad news but a hope for the full revelation of God’s rule.  A hope that even in an age of anxiety looks for signs that God is present and working among us.

Our ancestor Jacob spends much of his time in Genesis fleeing from one place to another out of fear of what may happen to him. At one point he finds himself in the middle of nowhere and has a visionary encounter with God. He receives a promise of God’s future blessing on him and his family, a promise of God’s presence and protection, a promise so expansive and without limit that it might have seemed absurd. But Jacob finds hope in it. “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it,” he says in wonder. That’s a good mantra for us to repeat at this moment: Surely God is in this place, and I did not know it.

If I pay attention to the signs of hope around me, I may just be able to perceive the reality of God’s kingdom. Even in the midst of a life-crushing pandemic.

I live in a suburban neighborhood where we don’t really know our neighbors. But that has changed since the shutdowns of the last several months, as people are more at home and we’ve struck up conversations outside. On the Fourth of July something took place that we had never experienced before on our block, in our 30+ years here. We gathered in the street, from small children to old folks, pooled our fireworks and put on a display for the enjoyment of those sitting on lawn chairs on the sidewalk.

Not really a big deal, but I found in that evening of blazing light and explosive noise and laughter, and children screaming, and applause, a sign of the presence of God’s new community of life and peace and joy. “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.”

Hope, Paul says, is the assurance of things not seen. And currently we don’t see much in this world to make us confident that God is in charge, or that the groaning of all creation will soon end, or that we will all soon be able to join together to solve our mutual dilemmas.

But we, people of faith, are called to search out and find hope in the world, even when it seems outlandish. We are called to find it even in the smallest moments and in unlikely places, and to proclaim it to others. We are called to act as if we had confidence that God’s fields of wheat will soon come to maturity and be harvested, and that the bounty of God’s creation will be shared with everyone.

Amen

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

July 5, 2020

Lessons:

Zechariah 9:9-12
Psalm 145:8-15
Romans 7:15-25a
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

 

A reflection with four stanzas or, four movements. Let’s call the four Joy, Love, Confusion, and – because there is a symmetry in beginning where we ended – Joy again.

One. Joy.

Rejoice greatly, says the prophet Zechariah. These words are not phrased as a suggestion nor as an invitation. They are phrased as a command. Rejoice greatly, says the prophet speaking on God’s behalf. And maybe that suggests that joy is a holy act and a subversive act.

Dan Savage, the wonderful advice columnist and activist and champion of GLBTQ rights, has said homophobia and transphobia and all of their cousin phobias can more or less deal with gay folks and trans folks hanging out in seedy clubs and doing seedy things in the seedy darkness. But that what these phobias and their owners cannot deal with it, what really rots their socks, is gay and trans folks finding everyday joy out in the daylight: GLBTQ folks going about their lives, raising kids, washing dishes, riding bicycles, being startled by the beauty of sunsets, the list goes on. That is because it is in these everyday acts of joy that we discover our full humanity and the full humanity of our neighbour.

Similarly, in this season of moral awakening, a season in which we are, as a culture, are thinking deeply about racial justice, we are hearing an important reminder. And that is this: Yes, listen to stories about black pain. But also, equally importantly, listen and celebrate stories of black joy. Absolutely, read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. But also read Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights. Black joy matters for the same reason that GLBTQ joy matters. Because grief and suffering are part of being alive. But they are not the whole story. You need joy to have the whole story, to be fully human. When we honour our neighbour’s joy we honour their humanity, we see the image of God in them.

So rejoice greatly. And pay attention and celebrate as your neighbour rejoices greatly.

Two. Love.

The Lord is loving to everyone

says the Psalmist

Compassion is all over God’s works.

As the feminist theologian, Ellen Clark-King says, God’s love is promiscuous. I adore Ellen’s language for a lot of reasons, one of those reasons being that it reminds us that the love of God is neither safe nor neat. Rather God’s love is transgressive and even dangerous.

Sometimes we try to force God into safe and neat categories. We tell God: you belong in this building, but not outside; you belong with these people, but not with those; this is where, God, your holiness is properly contained. But God won’t go along with our plans. We are like children trying to do that thing where you try to hold water cupped in your hands. Try as you might, God’s water runs out. Not all of it runs out – your hands remain wet and holy – but so does everything else.

Now, a major caveat before we go any further. The promiscuousness of God’s love, the go-everywhereness of God’s living water: this is not some cosmic moral relativism, where God is totally okay with you and me no matter how much we harm creation or harm our neighbour or harm ourselves. No. It is precisely because God loves you and me and loves us beyond limit that God confronts us in our sin.

Now, I realise that sin is a loaded word, so let me be clear that when I use that word I am not referring to anything as trivial as masturbation or listening to rock and roll.

Rather, what I mean by the word sin is basically the same thing that I mean by the word:

selfishness.

More on that in a second.

God loves you. And God wants you and me to be allies with God in sharing God’s promiscuous love, to participate in the compassion that is all over God’s works, in letting the waters of justice flow everywhere. If we allow it to be, if we put down our selfishness, our efforts to hoard God’s love, this might just be good news.

Three. Confusion.

I do not understand my own actions.

says Paul

For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.

Paul has a number of really famous lines. This particular one probably makes the top ten. Paul never says what the thing he hates is, never names what he elsewhere calls the thorn in his side, and so he has left room for generations of people to identify their own struggle in his struggle. You will meet alcoholics who are convinced that Paul was an alcoholic, compulsive gamblers who are convinced that Paul was a compulsive gambler, gay men who are convinced that Paul spent his life stuck in the closet.

This is not, by the way, a deficiency in anyone’s reading of scripture, nor is it a deficiency in Paul’s writing. Rather this is the genius of Paul. Whatever your struggle is, whatever your sin or your selfishness is, Paul is talking to you.

Because I don’t know about you, but there sure are times when I don’t understand my own actions, when I do they very thing that I hate.

I don’t understand why it is that I study and pray with the Gospel and yet I tolerate what Dorothy Day called the dirty, rotten system. I don’t understand why I tolerate the dirty, rotten system in my neighbour must sleep on the street. I don’t understand why I tolerate the dirty, rotten system in which my neighbour’s encounters with the police are regularly terrifying. I don’t understand – and I speak these words as the owner of shiny new iPhone – why I tolerate dirty, rotten the system in which my neighbour who built that iPhone is working in conditions straight out of the horrors of a Dickens novel.

I don’t understand why anyone tolerates a dirty, rotten system that is more or less okay with a pile of more than a hundred thousand bodies from COVID-19 so that we can tell stories of facile economic optimism.

Just like Paul, I am hurting. Just like Paul, I am confused.

Four. Joy.

This is where we began.

The Son of Man came eating and drinking,

says Jesus,

and they say,

Look,

a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!

This is one of my favourite things that Jesus ever says in scripture. This is the moment when Jesus reveals that likes going to parties so much that his critics give him heat for it. This is the moment when, all of those oil paintings and sculptures of super-serious Jesus notwithstanding, we discover that Jesus loves wine and bread and being with you and being alive.

Jesus is a party animal.

Amen.

This is not a triviality. Because joy, delight, curiosity, wonder, playfulness – they will change the world. The dirty rotten system that I was talking about a second ago – the system of sin and selfishness – cannot deal with joy. Because joy asks it dangerous questions.

The system relies on the God damn lie that our neighbours are less than human, that they are something less than the very image of God. But joy will have none of that. In sharing a party, in sharing in the holiness of a meal, joy sees us bonded together in delight. Our mutual humanity becomes inescapable, undeniable.

The system relies on the God damn lie that the exploitation of the earth, of its creatures, of our fellow human beings is the price of admission for a healthy economy. But joy laughs at that. And the system, just like the devil, withers before laughter. Joy knows about mutual thriving and vitality without exploitation.

The relies on the God damn lie that that it is inevitable, that it is like the sun rising in the morning, that there is no way that things could be different. But joy, delight, playfulness ask that childish and wonderful question:

Why?

Why do things have to be as they are?

Joy dreams of another world.

Jesus is at the table. There is a feast all around him: bread and wine and more. He is there with the tax collectors; with the sinners; with the people you saw sleeping on the street, homeless no more; with the immigrants, with the guy wearing the MAGA hat – who is seriously confused as to what he is doing at this party, but who is starting to have fun in spite of himself – with the trans kid, looking fierce and fabulous in her new dress; with your lonely neighbour; with everyone.

If you want, with you. There is a place for you at the table.

Jesus is drinking and eating and telling and listening to stories and laughing hard.

There is joy. Joy enough for everyone.

 

 

 

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

June 28, 2020

Lessons:

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.

Trinity Sunday by The Rev. Martin Elfert

June 7 Up

June 7 Down

Lessons:

Genesis 1:1-2:4a

2 Corinthians 13:11-13

Matthew 28:16-20

Psalm 8

 

I don’t know about you, but I am exhausted.

I am physically exhausted, emotionally exhausted, spiritually exhausted, full of grief. There has been so much loss and hurt and anxious uncertainty during this pandemic. To use the particular example of church, the appearance of Covid-19, partway through this past winter, forced us radically reinvent our models for community. Suddenly, without really any runway to work with, Jeanne and you and me were asking the question: what does being church right now look like? It’s been cool to answer that question with you. And it’s also been one of the most intense things that I have ever done, certainly the most intense thing that I have ever done in and around a church.

And then the reappearance of the America’s ancient pandemic, which is racism or white supremacy, added another layer. Well, that last sentence is probably inaccurate, because reappearance implies that white supremacy went away for a while. And it did not. What we had was a forceful reminder of America’s ancient pandemic via George Floyd’s murder, via the subsequent protests, and via the violence which so many of those protests have been greeted.

I’m going to admit that I am a little nervous about sharing my exhaustion with you, my grief with you. I am nervous because I am someone who really likes to appear to be calm and in control, and to visibly be neither of these things is hard. And I am nervous as well because I hear and applaud the activists who say: White people. Don’t you make this moment about you. Amen. Folks like me mustn’t do that.

There are three reasons that I am choosing to fight through my nervousness and name my exhaustion with you. First, my sense from talking with so many of you is that this exhaustion is something in which a lot of you share. One of you this week, when sharing with me about the experience of watching the police raining tear gas down on protestors, described your feelings of helplessness. I know about that helplessness. Another one of you spoke of the fear that you are feeling. I know about that fear. Still another one of you spoke of your grief. I know about that grief. Many of you have spoken about your anger at watching still more violence against black bodies. I know about that anger. And equally many of you have told me about the loss that is to unable to touch, to hug friends or children or grandchildren. I know about that loss.

We have a deep need as human beings to know that our hurt is seen. And I see your hurt. I see you.

Second, if my experience is anything like what is typical, you may be feeling confused or conflicted or even embarrassed about your fear or your grief or your helplessness. My colleague Sylvia is an inveterate youth minister, and she spent a number of years working with youth in a thoroughly privileged context. And what Sylvia says is that a number of the youth with whom she worked became depressed and they had this double challenge that not only did they have to battle depression but they had to battle the shame that they felt about their depression. They were aware that they were privileged and, indeed, radically privileged, that there were millions if not billions of people in the world who did not have the resources that they had. How silly, how pathetic, they thought to themselves, that I have all of this and I am depressed.

Maybe, if you are like me, you are experiencing something similar now. I am well fed, I am financially stable, I am about as safe as it is possible to be. Is it pathetic or unworthy of mention that I am exhausted, that I am encountering grief and anger and helplessness? Maybe this is stuff about which I should just put away, that I should just keep to myself.

Except – and I say this at just about every funeral at which I have the privilege of serving at – trying to put away grief never, never, never works. The idea of achieving closure on grief is one of the most destructive notions circulating in our culture. You cannot close a box on grief.

Perhaps you had the experience as a child of being at a swimming pool or in a lake or the ocean and trying to hold a ball underwater. It takes all of your effort, all of your concentration, to hold that ball down. And the instant that either your focus or your grip slips, that ball will go ballistic and smack you in the face. Trying to deny our exhaustion, our grief, our anger – trying to achieve closure on it – is just the same. We will end up a prisoner of our exhaustion and our grief. What if, therefore, naming our hurt is not an impediment to participating in working for justice but is actually a prerequisite for it? What if doing the work of grieving is what is going to permit us to let go of that ball, let it float to the surface, so that we can focus on what matters, which is declaring and insisting that black lives matter.

Third, and last of all – and here I am drawing on the wonderful Jesuit Priest, James Martin – what if our anger, our sadness, our grief, our exhaustion is something holy and, therefore, something worthy of our attention? What if what we are hearing through this emotion is our conscience speaking or, if you prefer, is the Holy Spirit speaking, is God speaking?

When you see something deeply unjust, it is a risk that we will slip into despair. But what if the heavy emotion that you feel – and that millions and millions of other people feel – is the emotion of God. What if that is evidence that God is with us?

There is a famous icon of the Trinity. I’ve shared this with you before, but it bears repeating on this Trinity Sunday. It is an image of three people, all but identical. In some understandings or readings, these are the three who visit Abraham and Sarah in their tent. In every reading, these three are the Trinity: Creator, Redeemer, and Friend; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Infinity, Immanence, and Intimacy.

In the lower part of the of the icon there is a patch of what some folks think is glue. And there is a guess that what was glued upon it was a mirror. If that’s right, then there is a fourth member to the Trinity. And that is you. And me. And everyone else.

Look into that mirror and see. That God is with us. That God shares with us in our exhaustion and grief. That our divine shared hurt is evidence of God’s longing for wholeness, for love, for justice, for what the Kingdom. That they are proof that God is with us and that, as we act to bring justice nearer, to bring the dignity of every human being closer to reality, to insist that black lives matter, that God will act with us.

Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

May 31, 2020

Lessons:

Acts 2:1-21
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
John 20:19-23
Psalm 104:25-35, 37

 

It is the Feast of Pentecost and it is an overcast day in Portland, Oregon. The sermon that you are about to hear is one that I recorded several days ago and that I wrote several days before that. And while there is lots that is awesome about pre-recording things ­­– as you will see in the sermon, you can do things when you pre-record that you can’t do in real time ­– there’s also some limitations built into it. And one of the big limitations is that you are preaching from the past, you are not speaking in the present moment.

And because in the sermon I am preaching from the past, I do not explicitly mention the murder of George Floyd, nor do I explicitly mention the subsequent protests against police violence, against white supremacy in our culture. And that’s something that I would do if I were giving this sermon in real time with you this morning, I’d make some real-time edits to it to speak to those subjects that are so much on my heart and so much on so many of your hearts right now.

I think in many ways these subjects are present in this sermon: it’s a reflection about trauma and about loss and about grief and about injustice and about how God is present in these things. But it doesn’t speak to George Floyd explicitly or police violence explicitly, and I wish that it did.

One of the great prophets of or time is Austin Channing Brown. A prophet being, in the Biblical sense, not a fortune teller but a present teller. And she shared something recently that I’d like to share with you this morning. It’s a little reflection called Trouble the Narrative. And it goes like this:

If you think all we need for this moment in history is to ask “What would MLK do?” It’s time for you to trouble the narrative. It’s time for you to move beyond simplistic, convenient narratives and wrestle with complexity and nuance. It’s easy to believe that the 1960s had only one leader, MLK, and that he led the perfect protests and that those protests are what led to change. And as much as I honor King, that is entirely ahistorical. The 1960s were filled with protests like King’s but also rebellions (riots) like the ones we’ve seen over the last few years. Both forms of protest put pressure on politicians. Both forms of protest were covered by media. Both forms of protest were in a tug and pull with one another. Both forms of protest were met with violence. Both forms of protest have always existed- together, in one exhale of the Black community. It is, quite frankly, lazy to accept child-like answers to questions like “what would King say?” Or “what would Jesus do?” Or “but isn’t violence always wrong?” Or “does the gospel have anything to do with race?” Or “but aren’t we all just human?” Or “but why can’t they just xyz?” TROUBLE THE NARRATIVE. King was human- growing, learning constantly. And since MLK was assassinated we have no idea what he would think about the fact that cops are still killing Black civilians in 2020. Trouble the narrative. Jesus held a one man riot over capitalism in the temple, but you think he’d be calm about George Floyd? Trouble the narrative. You find violence intolerable when it’s poor Black folks, but not when it’s white folks after a football game? Not when it’s America’s wars? Not when it’s stand your ground? Not when it’s ICE or patrols at the border? Trouble the narrative. History, Scripture, Social Revolutions, Black Struggle cannot be boiled down into one convenient sentence. It’s condescending, lazy, and uneducated. It’s thoughtless. And thoughtless isn’t what we need right now. Trouble the narratives of white supremacy and anti-blackness. Or else we will keep repeating this cycle.

Amen.

[A pause. Then.]

In the list of universal, or close to universal, human experiences, lying on your back in the summertime has got to be somewhere near the top. The warmth of the ground, the hum of the afternoon, the song of the birds, the buzz of insects. Maybe, if you listen closely enough, even the heartbeat of the earth, far below your body.

Sometimes, when I do this, when I lay on my back in the summer, I imagine that I can actually feel the spinning of the globe. And so I hold on to the sod, lest the centripetal force hurl me up, up and away. Even in the stillness of the grass, this holding on is just a little bit thrilling.

And then there is the sky above. Our ancestors – some of them – anyway, reckoned that they were looking at a great body of water in the sky, an ocean above them. This is why the creation story at the start of Genesis speaks of the waters above in addition to the waters below. The waters above are held in place by a great dome. Except sometimes, the dome leaks a little, and rain falls upon us.

Every day at dusk, the waters drain out of the sky, and the sun, maybe in a chariot, rides to the far side of the mountains and the far side of the waters below. And we are left with the new mystery, which is the night sky and the stars.

But right now it is neither raining nor nighttime. Right now is the warmth and the still of the summer day.

Underneath the dome but still above you and me are the clouds.

That one looks like a dog.

The one looks like a dragon. You can see the scales on its tail.

If I am right in guessing that this experience is universal or almost universal, then Jesus did this very thing, lying on his back in the grass looking up at what are sometimes called the heavens. And Jesus’ friends did it too: Peter and John and James, the sons of thunder, and Martha and Mary and the other Mary. Up they looked. Together.

Until one day, after the resurrection, all of the friends looked up and, as they looked, they realised that Jesus was gone from their peripheral vision. The indentation that he left in the grass was still there, but Jesus was not. Had he gone for a drink of water? Gone for a walk? Or just plain old gone, disappeared the way that Jesus sometimes did.

He had been disappearing a lot since the morning when they found his tomb empty.

But then one of them spotted him.

Up.

At first he was just a handful of yards up in the air. But then more, and more, like he was holding onto those great cluster of helium balloons like they have in comic books. As he rose, Jesus didn’t talk and his friends didn’t talk. His friends lay there and they watched him get smaller and smaller and smaller until, maybe, he was even with the clouds and then passing through a cloud, slipping out of vision and then back into the blue again. Until finally they could not see him at all.

Oh.

In music, they speak of the reprise of a theme. Sometimes the reprise has variations. One of my favourite pieces of music is Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini. Do you know it?

[Music.]

It goes like that. The theme is simple enough. But then the piano and the wider orchestra does one amazing thing after another with that first handful of notes. These variations are beautiful and new again and again and again. The original theme is always preserved – the variations are like turning a crystal in the sun and seeing light upon light.

The Ascension of Jesus followed by the coming of the Holy Spirit is a kind of reprise or variation on the cross and the resurrection. In both Luke and Acts – two books that are written by the same person, Luke being the only of the Gospel writers who felt that the Gospel needed a sequel – the same sequence or pattern takes place around both events.

In both cases, Jesus has this conversation with his friends in which they ask when he is going to restore Israel’s fortunes, when he is going to put things right, when he is going to lead a revolution. In both cases, Jesus replies with a mystical and a strange and an unsatisfactory answer. Jesus is then lifted up – first, onto the cross, second into the air – as his friends watch in confusion and horror: We can’t be losing him. In both cases, the friends in their grief focus on the place where they last saw his body: the tomb, the sky. In both cases these two men in white robes appear. And they say: Why are you looking for him here?

And in both cases, a little time passes then. Until one day, not so long after Jesus left and the men in the robes appeared, Jesus’ friends encounter God in a new way. First in the raised and contradictory body of Jesus – murdered and yet alive, instantly recognisable and yet not recognisable at all, eating and drinking and yet passing through doors. And then second in the coming of the Spirit. The Spirit which is like a violent wind, which is like fire, which is like being filled up, which is like being able to communicate without limitation, which is like blood and fire and mist, which is like prophecy, which is like dreaming dreams, which is like being drunk at nine in the morning.

The Spirit which is like holy possibility.

But the Disciples don’t know any of that as they look upon the cross and then look up into the empty sky. On these moments, all that they see is loss, all that they know is grief.

Very truly, I tell you,

Jesus once said to them,

unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain;

but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

So much has changed. We have lost so, so much. What if this moment, as we look into the blue emptiness, is when God is doing a new thing? What if we will look back on this day and we say, that is the day when the wonder began, that is the day when the Spirit came among us?

 

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

 

Nov. 24, 2019

Lessons:

Jeremiah 23:1-6
Psalm 46
Colossians 1:11-20
Luke 23:33-43

It is the end of the church year and, as is always the case, we bring these liturgical 365 days to a close with the Feast of Christ the King. Now, what is unusual about this particular Feast Day, about this particular “always,” is that in this case “always” doesn’t actually mean that all that long. Christ the King is a Feast that was created by Pope Pius XI in 1925. Originally the Pope had Roman Catholics celebrating Christ the King on the final Sunday in October and then, in 1969 or 1970, depending on which part of the internet you ask, the Feast got moved to the last day of the church year.

It is not clear when the Episcopal Church started keeping the Feast of Christ the King. Indeed, if Scott Gunn, the editor of Forward Day by Day and one of the creators of Lenten Madness is to believed, the answer to that question is “never.” Gunn says that the Episcopal Church has never officially adopted this Feast at all and, therefore, what all real Episcopalians know is that what we are actually celebrating today is the Last Day of the Season of Pentecost.

Now maybe that is a lot of insider baseball. But I am bringing it up because I want to suggest the history of this Feast and the intention behind it may have some things to teach us.

Cast your mind back to 1925. Most of us here this morning had not yet finished college by then. But see if you can remember what was happening in the world at that time and, in particular, what was happening in and around Rome where the Vatican is located.

1925 was the year that Benito Mussolini came to power, that he became Prime Minister of Italy. So it was a time of rising nationalism and, still more specifically, of rising fascism. And one of the things that fascism looked and maybe still looks like is a leader, a human being, having this God-like status. Mussolini was someone who bordered on all-powerful, all-knowing. Whose will it was wrong to question, whose will it was maybe even impious to question. To question or to challenge Mussolini was very nearly to question or to challenge God.

Mussolini was Lord of Lords and King of Kings.

And it is in response to this understanding of the world, to this theocracy, to the model in which the leader overlaps with God, that Pope Pius says No. There is one King, there is one Lord, and he ain’t somebody goose stepping around Italy in brown pants.

This Feast, in other words, is explicitly political in nature. It declares that our faith as a Christians, as followers of Jesus, places profound demands on how we engage with the world of politics.

And if we want, we can regard Pius’ decision cynically. We can conclude that Pope Pius was lamenting the erosion of power by the Vatican and by the Pope in particular, that he was longing for centuries gone by in which the Pope was something pretty close to a monarch or a god himself.

And maybe that cynicism would be fair. But here is one of the things that I trust about God: God can and does take things human actions that maybe did not have the best motivations and find a way of making them holy. And no matter how pure or impure the intention behind this Feast may be, it has something important to say.

I think I have told you before about my late friend, Barbara. Barbara was well into her nineties by the time that I met her. She was full of years and full of wisdom. And Barbara said something to me that I think about often. She said:

We need to be careful about what we worship.

Because we will worship something.

To put Barbara’s thought another way, notwithstanding the hand-wringing that sometimes goes on in churches about a perceived decline in religious participation, in fact there has been no decline in religiosity whatsoever. To this day, 100% of human beings are religious, 100% of us our giving our lives, our attention, our hearts to something that is irrational or, if you prefer, transrational.

Virtually all of us, for instance – including virtually all of us here in church this morning – are worshipping early and often in the religion called consumerism. Consumerism is the promise that we will find healing, belonging, and meaning in stuff, that we will find transformation, in the accumulation of stuff. This is a religion that we keep on worshipping in even though it lets us down every single time. As Jeanne shared with us a couple of weeks ago, no matter how many shoes you accumulate, you will not satisfy your deep longings.

Some of us worship in the religion that is booze. It is our own Gary Tuck who pointed out to me that many bars feature row upon row of beautifully arranged and beautifully lit hard liquor, a setup that Gary calls An altar to alcohol. Some of us worship in the religion that is called work, boasting to our friends about how many hours we work and how little sleep we get, answering the question How are you? with the words I’m so busy. And some of us, as in the days of Mussolini, worship a public figure, a celebrity or a politician.

There are way, way more examples that we could find. And so our question is not, Am I religious? but rather it is something more like:

Have I chosen my religion critically and wisely and lovingly? and

Does my religion give life to me, life to my neighbour, life to God’s creation?

Maybe we could use the language of the Bible here and phrase those questions a different way:

Am I worshipping that which is joyous and true? Or am I worshipping a false idol?

Now, I want to stop here and emphasise that when I speak of idolatry, when I speak of bad religion, I am not speaking of other expressions of what we typically call faith. I am not the least bit troubled that someone is a Hindu or a Muslim or Buddhist or whatever. To the contrary, I am glad that those folks have a practice that invites them into conversation with the divine, I trust that, at some level beyond human understanding, those folks and you and I are talking about the same ultimate reality, about the same God.

No. When I speak of idolatry or bad religion, I am talking about that stuff that promises to fill the God-shaped hole that all of us have in our hearts and that fails spectacularly over and over again.

It is in response to this bad religion that comes the Feast of Christ the King. In response to the promises of Mussolini and his contemporary descendants, in response to the promise that you will find your salvation in iPhones and shoes, in response to the promise that you will find freedom in booze, in response to all of these idols, Christ the King says no. Here are religions that invite us into selfishness and apathy and maybe even self-destruction and hatred, and here is title of King, a title that belongs to the patriarchy and to the world of power and violence.

Here is given to a peasant who is murdered for telling too many people that all they really need to do is love God and to love neighbour.

Crown him with many crowns goes the old hymn. And this is the mystery of this Feast day, this is the mystery of our faith. That when all of the false idols gather together, when the bad religion that is empire takes Jesus, takes God, and nails him to a tree, there God reveals the futility and brokenness of empire’s violence once and for all. In God’s suffering on the cross, which God does in solidarity with every human being who suffers and with the suffering of the earth, we discover the staggering truth that Jesus Christ is King.

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

Nov. 17, 2019

Lessons:

Malachi 4:1-2a
Psalm 98
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Luke 21:5-19

 

 

One of the themes that recurs throughout Jesus’ teaching is:

Be ready.

You don’t know when the bridegroom is coming, you don’t know when the owner of the house is coming, you don’t know when the thief is coming. So stay awake. Have your lamps filled with oil, build your house on solid rock, slaughter the fatted calf and make sure that you have dinner in the oven.

Jesus is a bit like the motivational speaker who tells us:

If you fail to plan, then plan to fail.

That’s how Jesus talks.

Except when he doesn’t.

Except on days like today when he says:

Make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance;

for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.

Is this just Jesus trying to keep us on our toes? That’s entirely possible; I’m not going to rule it out. Jesus absolutely has the capacity to take the steering wheel and turn it hard, so that just when you are sure that a parable or a teaching is going one way it is suddenly skidding hard and facing back where it came from. But here’s what I’m wondering about this morning: what if when Jesus says that hard times are coming and that you and I aren’t to prepare our defence ahead of time, his instruction isn’t contradictory to those times when he says that we are to be ready but, rather, it is complementary?

Here we are in church. And what we are doing here together is a practice. We are practicing being Christians, we are practicing being in community, as Brené Brown says, we are practicing coming to the communion rail with people whom we would sometimes like to choke. We are practicing following Jesus. We’re not here because we have everything figured out, because we know with perfect clarity what we believe, because God has explained everything to us. Quite the opposite. We’re here because we do have doubts and because there are questions that don’t make much sense to us.

We are here because we sense that we need to practice.

And like every practice – like practicing scales on the piano, like practicing your lines for a play, like practicing your baseball swing, like practicing driving (what else belongs on this list?), maybe like practicing law or practicing medicine, the practice that we call church is sometimes exciting and sometimes beautiful and sometimes weird and sometimes aggravating and sometimes boring.

But we trust – I trust, anyway, and I’m guessing that you are here because you do as well – that all of the practice matters, including the hard and boring stuff, maybe even especially the hard and boring stuff. Because my understanding from folks who have gotten really good at something, let’s say folks who have gotten really good at playing the piano, is that they have gotten near to mastery because they have put in the kind of boring but kind of vital work that is doing stuff like playing scales.

And maybe Sunday morning in the Episcopal way has some things in common with playing scales. The liturgy – the order of service that we follow across this morning – is remarkably predictable across the year. We sing different hymns, we wear different colours, we say some different prayers. But a sermon such as this is almost always followed by the creed which is almost always followed by the prayers of the people which, unless it is Easter, are almost always followed by the confession and absolution, which is almost always followed by the peace.

Our practice takes us on this well-worn path. And while there is some variation on what we do on the path – some weeks there is a puddle on the path that we need to walk around – the path itself remains the same.

Walking this path is part of how we obey Jesus when he says, Be ready. Practicing is big part of how we get ready.

But having practiced there are times when we get to or, maybe, when we have to put down the structure of scales or Sunday liturgy and improvise. There are times when we have to make up our minds not to prepare.

So. One of the things that most folks who want to get ordained do is to spend a stretch of time, maybe ten weeks or so, functioning as an apprentice chaplain in a hospital. This time of apprenticeship is known as clinical pastoral education, or CPE. CPE is kind of legendary among ordinands. During CPE you have the privilege, the wonderful and the terrifying experience, of walking into the hospital rooms of strangers.

And I think that those of us who came to CPE having practiced church a lot, those of us who came out of structured traditions such as this one, often wanted to bring our structure with us into the hospital room. The Book of Common Prayer is a kind of security blanket. And I guess that we reckoned that, if we prayed with people in hospital beds using the official prayers within it, then we couldn’t go too wrong.

Except that sometimes, oftentimes, the set prayers of the BCP could prevent us from really listening and really being present with the folks in those rooms.

And so we got an instruction from our mentor, Will Hocker. Will said:

If you must bring a Prayer Book with you into a hospital room, make it a small one.

And leave it in your pocket the whole time.

Having prepared, having obeyed Jesus’ command to practice, to get ready, it was now time for us to obey his command not to prepare. Doing all those scales, if you like, had gotten us ready for a place where it was a good and holy thing not to be prepared.

I wonder how many other parts of our lives are the same? It is kind of a commonplace to say that we live in alienated society, but it’s a commonplace because it’s true. A great many of us are mystified by our neighbours who do not think or act or vote like us. A great many of us do not even interact with our neighbours who do not think or act or vote like us. We don’t encounter those folks except on Twitter or, maybe, over an excruciating Thanksgiving dinner. And at dinner, over the turkey, we either ignore that which divides us or we engage it with anger and even contempt.

We have in our hands our prepared talking points, our prepared jabs and jokes, our prepared data, our prepared tweets. And these things will earn us likes and high fives from people who already think like us. And they will do nothing, nothing to open our hearts or minds or to open the hearts or minds of our neighbours.

Now, let me stop here and emphasise that I am not championing some uncritical moral relativism where everyone is entitled to their opinion and all opinions are equaled valid. No. There is an objective wrong and an objective right, I insist on that, some opinions are far, far better than others. What I am saying is that, if it is our hope to be the best and most moral people that we can be, if it is our hope to follow Jesus as completely as possible, sometimes we need to set down our prepared everything and get curious.

I had an experience a few weeks back that I have been thinking about a bunch. There is a public figure out there whom I do not admire. As you think about my experience, I’ll invite you to imagine a public figure whom you do not admire. And I friend and I were talking about that public figure when my friend caught me utterly off guard by expressing their deep admiration for that public figure.

I was so startled that I didn’t say anything. Which is probably just as well, because if I had said something, it would have been:

Why do you like that guy? He’s a total wiener.

Looking back, I wish that I had gotten curious. I wish I had said:

Tell me. What is it that you admire about this public figure? What is it that you think that they are doing great?

And maybe that is what Jesus is doing in his teaching this morning. When he says, for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict, I’ve always heard his teaching as something like a revenge fantasy. With the Holy Spirit’s help, I am going to be able to turn the tables on my opponents, I am going am going to humiliate the people who have humiliated me, this will be like the last scene in an action movie where the villain gets what they deserve.

But what if what Jesus means is that, when you encounter violence and contempt, you do something amazing and keep on remembering the full humanity of the one who is turning that violence on you? What if you respond with curiosity, with generosity, and love?

Here’s the hard part. Jesus is really clear that this may not work. Even more, he is clear that it probably won’t work. He lists off all of these calamities, all of this suffering. And then he says, Make up your minds not to prepare. And then he goes right back into calamities and suffering. Jesus may well be saying that there is a one in ten chance of an open heart changing a situation that is filled with hate, maybe a one in a hundred chance.

But he says,

Do it anyway.

It is worth the chance that the wily Holy Spirit will move in their hearts and in yours. And something will change.

This is the holy naivete of the Gospel.

Jesus’ disciples have prepared and prepared. They have followed Jesus and listened to Jesus and imitated Jesus. And now with all of that preparation done, it is time not to prepare at all. It is time to go towards that which they fear and to make up their minds not to be ready. And as they meet their neighbour who maybe wishes them harm, as they meet their neighbour with their hands empty and their prayer books in their pockets and their phones turned off and their hearts full, maybe their neighbour will notice just a little of the love of Jesus that they are carrying with them.

And maybe that love will prove to be something that no one, no one, is able to withstand or to contradict.