Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany by The Rev. Jeanne Kaliszewski

Feb. 10, 2019

Lessons:

Isaiah 6:1-8, [9-13]

1 Corinthians 15:1-11

Luke 5:1-11

Psalm 138

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;

the whole earth is full of his glory.”

For the past few months I have been serving as a chaplain intern at Good Samaritan hospital. This is part of my preparation for ministry and the experience has been harder and more rewarding and more exhausting that I could have imagined.

There is a chapel on the west end of the 3rd floor which is probably the quietest place in the hospital. When you walk in the lights are softer and the buzzing and beeping which is a constant undercurrent of noise in the rest of the hospital disappears in a hush.

Every weekday at 11:45 the chaplains who are available hold a quiet service of prayer. Anyone who is in the hospital is invited to attend, as a chipper overhead announcement reminds us each day around 11.

Two weeks ago I was the only chaplain available for the service. Part of the responsibilities of facilitating this time of quiet and prayer is checking the two prayer request boxes which are built into the walls of the chapel. They are square and brass and in the middle of the box are two narrow slots, forming the shape of a cross, through which you can slip thin, green prayer request notes which can be written on with the small little golf pencils which are there in case you do not have a pen on you (this is especially important if you find yourself there in a hospital gown I’d imagine.). Our practice is to check these boxes every day at 11:45 and to pray aloud these written prayers, with whomever is there.

Two weeks ago was the first time I opened the prayer boxes. I wrestled the key into the lock and as I pulled the brass boxes out of the wall I nearly dropped them. They were so heavy and unwieldy. Which was surprising for an instant, but then felt right. Somehow the heaviness of the boxes seemed appropriate, even though from a practical standpoint it seemed unnecessary. It’s hard to imagine anyone stealing these prayers and the papers they were written were so light, practically insubstantial.  And yet the prayers being offered, prayers of hope and despair and gratitude and grief were heavy and holy and it seemed only right that they were held in something so  solid and substantial.

Heavy is not a word we often associate with God…nor is it a word embraced anywhere these days. We live in a time and a culture in which heaviness is not valued, often even outright rejected. And sometimes that is ok….sometimes our hearts are healthier and our joints happier if our bodies are lighter, sometimes we need to get rid of those decades’ worth of National Geographic magazines or our collection of garden gnomes. But when lightness becomes the ultimate spiritual state to which we aspire, and a feeling we associate with God and Jesus, we might miss the strength and power and safety found in heaviness.

And I know, I know, Jesus tells us “Come to me all you that are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest….for my yoke is easy and my burden is light” and I love that passage and it eases my soul…

But Jesus also tells us to pick up our cross and follow him…

In today’s passage from Isaiah we have this trippy vision of the prophet in the throne room of God and God’s hem filling the whole hall and the six winged seraphs calling to one another in that refrain we still sing out together every Sunday “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of hosts. Heaven and earth are filled with his glory.” In Hebrew the word for glory, specifically God’s glory, is related to the word for heavy. One commentator gives the image of God’s glory being so heavy that heaven could not contain it and it fell to earth and created this world.

God’s glory was so heavy and abundant it fell to earth and Created the beauty and wonder that surrounds us…God’s glory is the seed and the soil, the ground of being, of the Douglas firs and the fireflies and the cheetahs and the rocks which we kick underfoot and the fish…all the fish.❤️

Simon, called Simon Peter and eventually Peter, was a fisherman. He lived near the lake and spent his nights hauling in his catch with his friends and neighbors, his days cleaning and mending his nets and resting for the next time out on the lake.

Certainly he had met this Jesus before. Jesus had been in his home, healed his mother-in-law of a fever, shared a meal with him. But this encounter is the call to Simon, This encounter with load of fish so heavy it almost breaks the nets and sinks the boats is what brings Simon to his knees.

This image of Jesus sitting in the boat, preaching to the crowds on the shore reminds me of the image of Jesus preaching and teaching in the temple just a couple of Sundays ago. But this time Jesus’s altar is the world, to borrow the words of Barbara Brown Taylor, and God’s glory and abundance is a revealed just beneath the surface of the water.

And that abundance can both breathtaking and frightening. Following  Jesus is not an easy thing. When we are face to face with the heaviness and power of God’s glory it can bring us to our knees, screaming out like Simon that Jesus should get away from us, that we are not worthy to follow him. The the heaviness of the sin and unworthiness we think we carry in our hearts paralyzes us.

But Jesus cares nothing for Simon Peter’s objections and cares nothing for ours. Jesus does not forgive Simon because forgiveness is not the issue, he simply responds “do not be afraid”. Jesus does not wait for Simon Peter to get his affairs in order, or even to deal with all those fish he just caught, instead he tells him to drop everything and follow him.

Jesus calls us to drop the heaviness of the things we think are holding us back. We are called to drop the anxiety that there is not enough time. We are called to drop the fear that we might do the wrong thing so better not to try. We are called to drop the belief that we can’t make a difference anyway so why bother.

And the good news is that we do not have to do that alone. I mean, those nets did not haul themselves into the boats. God’s abundance that Jesus revealed just under the surface of the water that day was pulled in by a group of folks working together. That abundance was shared by the community. And when Simon and James and John and all the other unnamed folks in the crowd that day dropped their nets because Jesus changed their lives they did it together.

 

We are in this together, with one another, and Jesus is in this boat with us.

I love that the shape of this sanctuary is like a boat…a boat where together we encounter Jesus’ abundance and God’s glory like those at Lake Gennesaret that day some 2,000 years ago.

Like that day in the boat, in this place Jesus points our attention to the table and uncovers God’s glory and love in the most ordinary objects of this world, bread and wine.

In this place the glory of God is uncovered in words and song and in the meal we all share.

In the beginning, God’s glory was so heavy it fell to earth in creation and infuses the very air we breathe and the wine we drink and the bread we eat together. The heaviness and glory of God fell to the earth in the form of Jesus who calls us together and calls us to this table and feeds us and then send us to do his work in the world.

When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

Amen.

 

Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Feb. 3, 2019

Lessons:

Jeremiah 1:4-10

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Luke 4:21-30

Psalm 71:1-6

Have you heard of the psychological phenomenon called Impostor Syndrome? Impostor Syndrome – and I mentioned this in passing a few weeks back on the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus, I’d like to go a little deeper this morning – is the fear, sometimes mild and fleeting, sometimes profound and debilitating, that sooner or later I will be exposed as an utter fraud. It is the nagging doubt that, notwithstanding my best efforts to hide my incompetence, folks will discover that I am not qualified to be a parent, to be a citizen, to be an adult, whatever.

In small doses, Impostor Syndrome might be okay. A certain amount of discontent is not a bad thing. There is some fascinating research that suggests that we may make better decisions when we are feeling a little sad or little irritated, that we may become more motivated and apply better critical thinking skills to the world around us. If that research is right, then the mild unhappiness that comes with small-dose Impostor Syndrome, kind of like small-dose physical pain, may give us a nudge be lifelong learners, to approach situations with curiosity and openness, to assume that life requires our best effort, to ask big questions.

That’s not a bad way of encountering life.

The problem shows up when we encounter Impostor Syndrome in higher doses, when it becomes our prevailing lens for encountering reality. When we are constantly living with a narrative that says that we are unworthy, unqualified, that we are faking it, that we are going to be exposed, what happens? We can end up as perfectionists, constantly trying to meet an impossible standard, and living with the emotion that inevitably comes with perfectionism, which is shame. We can end up stuck, unable to take a risk, maybe even unable to hear when God calls us to take a risk. And we can end up being kind of unpleasant to be around.

I am a reformed self-deprecator. Self-deprecation, tearing myself down, was a particularly big part of my life when I was an adolescent and a young adult. It was the primary ways that Impostor Syndrome manifested for me. (I think our teens and twenties is an age time a lot of us struggle to hold ourselves in esteem, to imagine that we are worthy or good or loveable.)

One of the ways that my self-deprecation manifested in a way that I particularly regret, for which I am sorry, was that I argued with people when they offered me praise and encouragement. I was in a lot of shows in high school, theatre is what let me survive high school, and so I got a fair bit of positive feedback. Folks would say, “I loved your performance in the play.” And often, I would respond:

Oh no, I was no good.

My guess is that, if you had asked me at 16 why I argued with affirmation, I would’ve told you that I was being humble. I no longer see it that way at all. I have come to understand arguing with praise and encouragement as an act of arrogance. When someone says, That thing you did or said was a big deal and we start refuting them, we are calling their experience into question, we are announcing that they are not experts in their own lives, that we know better than them what is important to them and what isn’t.

Sometimes people will thank you for the most unexpected or unlikely things. If you have ever visited someone, for instance, after a big loss, after a seismic grief or trauma, you may have been surprised when that person thanked you in apparent sincerity, when they told you that your visit mattered a lot. That’s a moment when someone wired like me, and maybe someone wired like you, is sorely tempted to argue. I mean, what could you possibly have said or done that would be equal to that kind of hurt?

I implore you – and I am preaching as much to myself as anyone else right now – to resist that temptation. When the urge rises up to say, I don’t see how I helped at all, push that down and instead, say:

Thank you.

If you absolutely must argue with praise, push that down until you have left the person in grief and then share your unworthiness with a trusted friend or a therapist.

Today, we hear about the young Jeremiah called by God. God comes to Jeremiah and he speaks these staggeringly beautiful words:

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.

And hearing this, Jeremiah’s Impostor Syndrome kicks in right away. He starts arguing with God. He says:

You must be mistaken, God. I’m just a boy. I don’t know how to be a prophet. I barely even know how to tie my shoes.

But God is having none of it. God says: Cut that out right now. This may surprise you, Jeremiah, but I, the Lord your God, do not make very many mistakes. Do not say, “I am only a boy.”

you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you,

And then God offers those words of reassurance that recur across the Bible:

Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you.

Jeremiah knows enough to stop arguing at this point.

And then God says:

Now I have put my words in your mouth.

And so Jeremiah joins the long list of folks in scripture who insist that they are underqualified to serve God and who, with God’s help, end up changing the world anyway. He joins with Moses, who says that he doesn’t know how to talk; with Sarah who says that she is too old; with Jonah who hears God’s call and just starts running. (Have any of you done that?)

I think we’ve all met folks, maybe we’ve all been folks, who kept on arguing with God until the moment of call, the moment of possibility, passed us by. God doesn’t insist. God doesn’t make us do anything. God loves us too much, God respects our freedom far too much to do that. And so, if we argue long enough and hard enough, God will say to you or to me:

Okay.

Thy will be done.

One of the saddest conversations of my life was with a childhood friend with whom I stayed in contact come adulthood. My friend, unlike me, had some athletic gifts. When we played football at the field near our houses, he was far and away the best of us. He had this long, glorious stride. I would play quarterback sometimes, and watching him go get a deep ball, fast and effortless, was beautiful.

A few years into adulthood I asked him: Given your talent, why did you never try out for a high school football team?

And in one of those moments of raw candour that sometimes show up, when the artifice falls away and we are able to tell the truth to one another, my friend said to me:

I was afraid.

I was afraid. Football was the one thing that I was really good at. And I was afraid that if I tried out and didn’t make the team, then that too would be taken away from me.

For my friend, his sense of impostorship was so pervasive, so corrosive, that it stopped him from taking a risk. Maybe he would’ve tried out for the team, maybe he wouldn’t have made it, maybe his fears would’ve been realised and he would’ve had to live with that disappointment and that grief. We can’t know. But I want to suggest that even that worst-case scenario would have been miles better than the hollowness that he lived with instead, the nagging awful sense that he was forgetting to live his life.

How do you and I keep from arguing with God? How do we keep from arguing when God offers us praise and encouragement, when God calls us? How do we prevent Impostor Syndrome from leaving us with an unlived life?

Today we hear that passage from Paul that everybody reads at their wedding. Love is patient, love is kind, love believes all things, bears all things. The greatest of these three is love. And maybe repetition has dulled these words a little, made them invisible or obvious. But I want to see if we can listen to these words with new ears. I want to suggest that we reach for these words on a big deal occasion such as a wedding with good reason. Because they tell us an awesome truth about life and about God. They tell us that, as our Presiding Bishop never tires of proclaiming, that love is the way.

And maybe they offer us an answer to, an antidote for, Impostor Syndrome.

When Phoebe and I were first dating, I remember her vividly telling me that a penny had dropped for a while back, that she had realised that Jesus’ command to love your neighbour as yourself by necessity requires you to love yourself. Now, for many of us, that command is hard. Loving others might actually be substantially easier than loving ourselves. But I want to suggest that doing our very best to keep this part of the commandment is actually a vital act of reverence. Because when we love ourselves we are declaring that God does not make junk. We are declaring that scripture is telling the truth when it says that we are made in God’s image. We are declaring that Paul is telling the truth when he says that you and I are the Body of Christ.

May you and I stop arguing when God praises us, when God encourages us, when God calls us. May we know, deep in our bones, that we are not impostors. May we know, instead, that we are made in God’s image, that we are the Body of Christ, that our bodies are covered with the holy fingerprints of God. May we know that we, just like our neighbours, are loved beyond limit. And may we live accordingly.

 

Third Sunday after the Epiphany by The Rev. Martin Elfert

jan272c2019

Lessons:

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10

1 Corinthians 12:12-31a

Luke 4:14-21

Psalm 19

I’d like to start with a survey: how many of you remember the first time that you heard a story around a campfire?

For me, the memory is indelible – it is a huge part of my personal mythology. I was away at camp for the first time, sleeping in a cabin without my family for the first time. I was maybe my youngest child’s age, so about seven years old. And the whole experience felt full of joy and danger and possibility. We stayed up way later than I did at home – it was near the summer solstice and we went out at some impossibly late hour to see the stars in their ancient immensity.

And then having gazed in wonder at the sky, we sat around the campfire.

The teacher or counsellor who told the story that night was named Steve. And Steve shared with us a tale of horror. In retrospect, it was kind of a goofy tale of horror, a riff on Poe whereby this guy murders his neighbour and then he is haunted by his neighbour’s coffin as it comes thump, thump, thumping up the stairs. But when I was seven it might’ve been the greatest story that I had ever heard, it kept me on the edge of my seat or, I suppose, on the edge of my log.

The story ended, by the way, with the hopelessly hokey punchline:

The door burst open and the coffin came in and our hero thought all was lost.

But then he took out his package of Vick’s and he stopped the coffin.

A lot of years later, when I started encountering the stories of the Bible, the penny dropped for me: I realised that, in origin, around the campfire is where almost all of these stories of faith would first have been told. Before there were scrolls or books or e-readers these stories were shared from people’s memories and hearts.

Most scholars reckon that no fewer than 20 years elapsed between Jesus’ death and the first of the Gospels, Mark, being committed to paper. And unless there are older texts that got lost, unless that scholarly guess is right and there really is a lost document that predates Mark, that means that for two or more decades the story of Jesus’ birth, his life, his death, his resurrection was remembered and told by folks like Steve to people like me, sitting on the logs around the fire and listening hard for what happens next.

How is the story different when there is no physical text involved, when there is no paper but just the human voice around the fire? Well, for one physical context becomes part a way deeper of the story. When it is the night and you are under the immense beauty of the stars, when the darkness is all around you, your imagination is unlocked in a way that, maybe, it is not and cannot be inside a building with artificial light and a text on a lectern. Around the campfire, you touch something primal, and it is a little easier – a lot easier – to imagine that coffins might chase people around or that Jacob might walk away from the fire and wrestle with a stranger in the darkness.

The campfire is a place of holy possibility.

The other thing that is different around the campfire is that the story is interactive. The story happens, to borrow a phrase from the world of computers, in real time. Steve listens to our reactions and he alters the story accordingly. We ask him questions – what colour was the coffin, what did the house the guy lived in look like, how does a coffin climb stairs anyway, given that a coffin doesn’t have feet – and Steve responds. In a sense, everyone who sits around the campfire tells the story together.

When written text shows up, it changes all of this. Suddenly, you need enough light to read, and light lessens the magic and the danger. And suddenly the story is the same, it is consistent, everywhere and always. If I am reading Roald Dahl’s Danny, Champion of the World to my son before he goes to bed (which I am), it is the very same text that someone else is reading to their child across the country or across the world or even across time. Maybe I do the voices differently, maybe my pacing is different, but by and large the story is identical. I am not changing Dahl’s tale as my son says why or how or more.

Today, we hear this reading from Nehemiah. In it, Ezra the scribe has a book or, more likely, a scroll, and he gathers the people and he reads to them from the law of Moses. This scene likely takes place in the 6th or 5th century before the Common Era, so maybe 500 years before Jesus’ birth. This is the time when, in much of the ancient world, the stories of faith and of life and of being human are being committed to paper on a scale and in a way that they had not been before. Plato is writing around this time, so is the Buddha, so is Confucius.

Now, there are couple of a fascinating lines in the passage that we just heard. The first one goes goes like this: Ezra reads the law to all who could hear with understanding. The second line, a little while later, says that Ezra reads the law with interpretation.

Huh.

Do these qualifications mean – and here and throughout the sermon I am drawing heavily here on the research of the wonderful scholar, Paul Nuechterlein – that the ideas are too complex for some of Ezra’s listeners to understand, that there is a theological nuance that some of his audience can’t quite track and, therefore, that he has to walk them through it? Or does it mean that we’re now living in a time in which not everyone can understand Hebrew and, therefore, Ezra has to keep on stopping to translate, that hearing this is a little like watching a movie in a language that you don’t know, so Ezra has to hit pause every couple of minutes to explain what the characters just said?

Either way, something is happening as Ezra reads from this text that doesn’t happen around the campfire – or, at least, that doesn’t happen when the storyteller is any good. Because Ezra is reading from a set text rather than telling a story or making an argument in a real-time collaboration with his listener, the mutuality that happens around the campfire is radically diminished. I suspect that we’ve all had the experience of hearing someone speak and being super engaged during the part of the speech when they are extemporaneously drawing on their own experience, but then losing our engagement, our eyes glazing over a wee bit, when the speaker starts reading from prepared remarks. The written text allows precision, but it also diminishes communion. It ramps up the likelihood that we will hear but not understand.

It seems to me that we encounter Ezra’s problem in church with some regularity. We have a set text that we read from the lectern or, if it’s the Gospel, in the middle of the aisle. Sometimes the text is confusing. If you’re like me (and I don’t know if I should admit this), that confusion comes up particularly often during the Epistle, during the second reading. That confusion can make it hard to listen. Occasionally, when I am travelling and I visit a church, I have the disquieting impression that not only do I not understand the Epistle, but neither does the person reading it. We are united in mutual incomprehension.

And sometimes the text is not so much confusing as it is hard, such as when it appears to paint a picture of God that we don’t like.

What do we do then?

Today in the Gospel, Jesus offers a possible answer to that question. And it is an answer that may be kind of shocking to us. What do you do when you are reading the Bible and you encounter something that is inconsistent with what you know about God? Well, you draw on your experience around the campfire and you edit the text.

Jesus’ quote from Isaiah is actually a combination of two passages. From Isaiah 61: The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the LORD’S favor. And from Isaiah 58: Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?

If you know your Bible, if you know Isaiah, you will know that, in addition to stitching verses 61 and 58 together, Jesus has omitted something from 61, he has stopped reading in mid-sentence. The original passage says:

…to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the LORD’S favor,

and the day of vengeance of our God.

The original text gives us what Nuechterlein calls the conventional messianic dream of an oppressed people. In other words, the Messiah is going to come, he is going to put things right for us, he is going to release our prisoners, he is going to heal our broken hearts. And then he is going to turn to those who have oppressed us and he is going to kick ass and take names.

And Jesus, like Steve around the campfire, knows that this line about vengeance isn’t right, it isn’t part of the story that his listeners need to hear.

And so, in his version, it is gone.

Here’s the question: Christians are called to be Christ-like, to imitate Jesus. But dare we emulate him imitate him here?

Jesus, well, he’s Jesus. He’s the Son of God, light from light, true God from true God. And if wants to edit the Word of the Lord, then he is probably qualified to do so. But could someone like you and me possibly do the same? If I just start editing the Bible, cutting out anything that I find strange or confusing or troubling, then what am I going to go except make God in my own image? This is what the scholars call eisegesis, where I project myself into the text, where I look down into a well and, without realising it, see nothing but my own reflection looking back.

And maybe that would be enough to stop the Christian from emulating Jesus when it comes to scripture. Except that, here too, maybe the campfire offers us a possibility. Because around the fire, the tale is never told alone, the editing is not done alone. The storyteller under the stars is not a novelist, putting their words into a machine and then sending them out to the world fixed permanently to the page. Rather, this storyteller is a collaborator.

If Paul is telling the truth and all of us together really are the Body of Christ, if we are Jesus’ hands and feet and voice in this hurting world, then maybe, together, we are qualified to edit this story. To shape the tradition we have received. To remind one another, as our friends in the United Church of Christ have it, that God is still speaking.

Together, maybe we can figure out how to be like Jesus. Together, maybe we can figure out which parts of the story we need to edit, to change, to add to. Together, we will proclaim the amazing story of God.

Second Sunday after the Epiphany by The Rev. Dick Toll

january 20, 2019

Lessons:

Isaiah 62:1-5

1 Corinthians 12:1-11

John 2:1-11

Psalm 36:5-10

We live in the moment.  And then that moment is in the past.  And we move on to new moments in the future,

Many moments in time are forgotten, and even though they remain in our memory, we sometimes have difficultly pulling those memories back into our present.  Many of our moments carry meaning for us and we remember them and realize how important those moments have been for us.

My first meaningful moment in time was when I was 2 ½ years old.  I have a snapshot in my memory of Pearl Harbor.  The news was on the radio and I can remember my parents and sisters huddled around the radio receiving the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor.  I can remember opening the door for a neighbor who came by to talk with my father.  Our lives changed from that moment on because my Dad joined the Army.

We have moments of spiritual awaking…profound at times and sometimes gradual as we awaken to those moments when we ask, “who we are in relationship to the creation and the one who gave us life.”  Profound moments under the stars, the moon, on the beach, hiking in the mountains.  My most profound moment of spiritual awaking was in the desert of West Texas, under a full moon and looking at my footprint in the sand and realizing a relationship with the one who created me and all that was within creation….a moment I have never forgotten and still receive strength from in my inner life.

Today is January 20, 2019.  Can any of you remember what you were doing on January 20, 1968?  Raise your hand if you do.  Goodness, I must be the only one.  I was coming down the aisle here at Grace Memorial during the offertory and shouting, “It’s a boy.”  Our son, David, was born on 20 January 1968 and he is 51 years old today.  He was born 10 days after my ordination to the pristhood here at Grace Memorial on January 10, 1968.  Moments that remain.

The bible is all about moments of meaning that were remembered by individuals and the larger community that experienced them.  Paul’s letter to the Corinthians in today’s reading expresses the gifts of people he has known and personally experienced their various gifts.  He writes to the people in Corinth a letter to build up their faith and as that letter is captured by them it was captured for the centuries and is captured for us today.  A moment for them becomes part of our on going moments of learning’s from Paul. In John’s Gospel today,  Jesus performs his first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee.  Who was there in that moment that put it in writing so we can share something of that meaningful time and find ourselves reliving what Jesus must have been like in a social setting rejoicing with a couple bringing their lives together.

How many of you remember when you were born?  That’s a trick question isn’t it.  But the stories of our birth are so important to hear from those who were part of your birth, at the hospital, or in a taxi, or maybe even at home.  Moments of life, moments of birth, moments of meaning.

And of course we know the pain of loss as we experience the loss of a loved one as they die and give up their last breath.  One of the moments of death for me was when I was in Chaplaincy training for a year at Emanuel Hospital.  I was on call one night and was called in at 2 o’clock in the morning.  I came to the room of a woman who had died and met her husband standing by the bed.  I spent about 45 minutes talking with him as he recounted their move during the depression to Coos Bay, Oregon.  He came from the East Coast with his bride and ended up in Coos Bay with $2 in his pocket.  He worked for years in the timber industry.  He talked about his marriage and his children and most of all he talked about his wife,

At the end of our conversation, I offered a prayer with him by her bed.  Then he took the wedding band off his wife’s finger and said a simple, “Thank you”.  I thought of the marriage service, “until death do us part”. 

It was for me a moment of grace in the midst of life and death.  It was for me a moment captured in my memory that has helped me understand the meaning of relationships.

We all have moments we remember from conversations with people.  One of the profound moments for me in my own learning about the Palestine/Israel conflict was on my first trip to Bethlehem in 1983 with 16 people from St. Marks Cathedral in Seattle when I was serving as Canon Pastor.  I was one who thought I knew something about the history and the issues and found out my profound ignorance as we were led around the region by a Palestinian guide.  He took us to a glass factory in Bethlehem where a young man about 16 years of age was blowing a glass bottle.  I have a memory of his saying to all of us, “I am so glad to meet you,  You are Americans and we know that Americans care for correcting injustices of people and you will go home and help us to end the military occupation that we live under.”  I have often wondered what happened to that young man as to his continuing his life under military occupation…and our own complicity as Americans in continuing to fund the occupation with our tax money.  Again, a moment that led me into many moments of learning and it continues.

Of course, we all have moments that we do not want to remember but are also part of what we experience.  I watched 60 Minutes recently on TV and saw a segment of the show which was about a person named Ryan Green with the nickname of Speedo.  Ryan is an African American opera singer who in his youth got in trouble and was jailed.  He had a teacher that believed in him and his talents and the teacher told him, “Do not let this moment define who you are.”  Now, he is a famous opera singer.  We all have moments to move beyond and discover how to use them to our advantage rather than our disadvantage.”

We also have our embarrassing moments.  What are your most embarrassing moments?  One of mine was at a General Convention of the Episcopal Church where a roving reporter asked me about an embarrassing moment.  I shared the fact that once when I was leading a Sunday service; I had to go to the bathroom.  I forgot to turn my microphone off.  I will never forget the faces of the people when I returned to the service.  What was more embarrassing is that my story was on the video at the convention and thousands heard my story.  Oh well.

I know that each of us is captured by our moments in our national and international history.  Some of us have experienced the end of WWII, John F. Kennedy assassination, Martin Luther King assassination, and on and on.  A book I am reading now by John Meacham, The Soul of America, expresses the turning points in our Nations history.  In his book he speaks to the moment in our national history about a sermon at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.  The sermon by Martin Luther King was given 6 days before his assassination in Montgomery, Alabama.  A quote from that sermon, “we are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality,” King said.   “And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.  For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.  And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.  This is the way God’s universe is made: this is the way it is structured.”  Tomorrow we honor Martin Luther King as a person who has made a difference in our national story.  Moments that we can recognize that can help us to move into our future. 

So, how do we embrace our moments that have been there and those yet to come?  How do we allow ourselves a way to embrace and nurture our lives with meaningful moments….painful as well as joy filled moments?

I believe it is important to learn how to reflect on our lives as these moments become a part of our past and can soon be forgotten.  If we can take a moment of meaning and reflect on it and savor it like we do with good food or a piece of candy we are able to let it become a part of us rather than a lost memory.  I am going to leave you with homework.  Start with 5 of the most important moments of your life and add to it with your reflections.  Before long, if you use pictures from the past, and old letters received and also diaries you will have so many moments to reflect on you will not be able to count them.  Reflect and enjoy.  Life is short.  We need to savor and reflect on our lives, we need to reflect on who we are and challenge what our moments have really meant to us.  I like to reflect in prayer and realize that every Eucharist is a meaningful moment that both reminds us of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus but is a moment in time in the here and now that is a sacred moment that moves us into the future…..a future that always includes God.

Amen.

First Sunday after the Epiphany by The Rev. Martin Elfert

january 13, 2019

Lessons:

Isaiah 43:1-7

Acts 8:14-17

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Psalm 29

A while back I heard a short radio documentary. The feature began with a story about the reporter’s four-year-old nephew. The little boy was visiting a toy store with his mother and there he was terrified by a hideous creature, by a large statue of Frankenstein’s Monster standing by the entrance. The boy’s fear was so great that he ran deep into the toy store to hide. And that would have been an okay strategy, except that it created a logistical problem: there was only one door and, in order to leave the store again, it was necessary for him to pass the monster once more.

After a great deal of negotiating with his mother, the little boy made it clear that walking past Frankenstein’s Monster a second time was an impossibility. And so, his Mom picked him up and, his face buried in her shoulder, she carried him past the awful creature and out of the store.

For a long time thereafter, the boy was fixated on the experience, almost paralysed by it. Over and over he would say, “Mom? Remember the monster?” And he would retell the trauma of that day at the store again and again and again, much as you or I might retell the story of a car accident – such storytelling is how we wrestle with such an experience, how we make sense of it.

But one day something remarkable happened: the retelling suddenly shifted. Just at the moment in the story when the toy store monster made its shuffling evil entrance, the fear fell away from the boy’s face like a sheet of ice and it was replaced by something else. I’m going to guess that his expression was a combination of mischief and glee. (Is there a name for that look, for that mixture of emotions? There should be.) And he announced to everyone listening:

I saw the monster. And I peed all over it!

And in that instant, the monster lost its power over him. Like David letting the rock fly which fells Goliath, the little boy claimed the most improbable of victories by doing something new.

The reporter then spoke to a researcher by the name of Timothy D. Wilson who explained that the technique that her nephew had employed is what, in his research, he calls story editing. Story editing takes two major forms.

First, story editing may involve doing what the little boy did, taking a negative experience and writing a new happy ending to it. In the revised story, you have the perfect rebuttal to the guy who insulted you, you don’t drop the game-winning touchdown, you are able to defeat the monster in the store. That kind of story editing is a way of escaping from an experience which is haunting you, of gaining power over that experience. And as simple, as silly even as it may sound, Wilson told the reporter that it works.

The second kind of story is something that Wilson has focused on a lot more. It involves taking a limiting narrative in your life and reframing it. An example of such a limiting narrative might be, “I’m no good at math” or “I have a hard time making friends.” Within the church it might be – and this is a story that is often told with shame – “We’re an aging congregation.” The researcher said that he has taught this kind of story editing on a large scale with of first-year university students, with people who are often carrying the story that goes something like, “I’m out of my depth.” Wilson invites the students to take this narrative of limitation – a story that I suspect that all of us struggled with at age seventeen or eighteen, and that many of us may struggle with still – and to craft it into a new story, a story whose thesis goes like this:

“Everybody struggles at first.”

Wilson said is that, compared with a control group, he discovered measurable improvements in the outcomes of the young people who adopted the new story. That they did better on tests, on essays, on oral reports. They were happier. “Everybody fails at first” was a story that set them free.

Over these last several weeks of Advent and Christmas, we have once again walked with the holy family to Jerusalem, there to witness the Christ child’s birth. Today, we fast forward two or even three decades to Jesus’ baptism. With the exception of Luke, who gives us the awesome account of Jesus as a child teaching in the temple, we really don’t know anything about the intervening time. There is a gap in Jesus’ biography. We don’t know what history Jesus brings with him as he steps into John’s arms and the Jordan River.

We are pretty used to picturing Jesus as an almost impassive figure. Years of art have encouraged us to do so. In one painting after another, Jesus has this look of distant and holy patience on his face. Occasionally he smiles, although he almost never laughs. And, at the end of his life, he suffers. But, even then, even on the cross, the theme of impassivity remains – Jesus on Golgotha still has an otherworldly patience, a borderline terrifying serenity. And maybe artists are right to depict him that way.

What I don’t think I have ever seen is a painting us Jesus looking befuddled, looking confused, looking lost. Why not? If we take seriously scripture’s claim that Jesus was fully human and not simply an all-powerful god disguised as a human being, then, much as he shared in our pain, much as he shared in our joy, Jesus must have also shared in that sense of lostness that is sometimes part of everyone’s life. There must have been a time when Jesus was the Ancient Near East’s equivalent of a nervous first year university student.

And that makes me wonder: could the account that we just heard of Jesus’ baptism be an example of story editing?

This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.

All three of the Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – begin Jesus’ ministry with some slight variation on these words of assurance. Now, I don’t doubt that God speaks these words in order for all of us, gathered with the crowd on the banks of the Jordan to eavesdrop, in order that we all might understand early on who our protagonist is. But what if God also speaks these words because he knows that Jesus needs to hear them?

What if Jesus comes to the Jordan labouring with the fears that so many of us have. The fears that say that God couldn’t have a purpose for someone like me, that God might not be able to forgive someone like me, that God might not even be able to love someone like me. And there, in John’s arms, God says to Jesus:

Let’s edit your story into something new. You do have a purpose. You are forgiven. You are good enough, you are worthy enough, you are loved enough to take on the ministry that is before you.  

Son, I’m proud of you. You are my beloved son. In you I am well pleased.

What if, in that moment, Jesus defeats the monster which has held him back? And that frees his ministry to begin, a ministry which will transform the world?

Here is the promise of the Gospel, the good news. God comes to all of us and invites us to edit our stories as well. Most of us don’t get an experience as profound as a voice speaking from heaven. Rather, most of us hear God through the voice of friends, through something we read, through an experience of beauty.

You may be lost. Everybody, God says, gets lost sometimes. Most of us get lost more than once. Sometimes we need to get lost. Sometimes it is in getting lost, in those experiences that we would never have chosen, that we learn the most about ourselves, about our neighbours, about God. You may be deep into grief. Everybody experiences grief. You may be full of doubt. Everybody experiences doubt.

These things do not define you, they are not who you are, they are not your story. Your story, God says, is:

you are loved.

The Epiphany by The Rev. Corbet Clark

jan. 6, 2019

Lessons:

Isaiah 60:1-6

Ephesians 3:1-12

Matthew 2:1-12

Psalm 72:1-7,10-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

First Sunday after Christmas by The Rev. Martin Elfert

december 30, 2018

Lessons:

Isaiah 61:10-62:3

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

John 1:1-18

Psalm 147

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

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

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

Ring out the old, ring in the new,    

writes Tennyson,

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

And then he goes on:

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

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

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

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

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

And then she sobbed as Vicki finished reading.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ring out our anger at our fellow citizens.

Ring out our suspicion of those with foreign passports.

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

Ring out our love affair with violence.

Ring in listening.

Ring in open hearts and open doors and open minds.

Ring in prayer in quiet and prayer in action.

The year is going, let it go:

Ring in the promise of resurrection.

Ring in the love of Jesus.

Ring in the Christ who is to come.

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

Christmas Day by Holly Puckett

christmas day

Lessons:

Isaiah 52:7-10

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

John 1:1-14

Psalm 98

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

Christmas is hard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christmas Eve by The Rev. Martin Elfert

December 23, 2018

Lessons:

Isaiah 9:2-7

Titus 2:11-14

Luke 2:1-14(15-20)

Psalm 96

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another common contemporary hermeneutic could be expressed this way:

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

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

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

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

God is terribly angry and terribly disappointed in you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Third Sunday of Advent by The Rev. Martin Elfert

December 16, 2018

Lessons:

Zephaniah 3:14-20

Philippians 4:4-7

Luke 3:7-18

Canticle 9

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

For myself, I think about the statement:

Having kids changes your life.

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

And then I had kids. And I said:

Oh!

Having kids changes your life.

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

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

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

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

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

This is a mystery.

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

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

Don’t worry.

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

Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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