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

Palm Sunday image

Lessons:

Luke 19:28-40
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Philippians 2:5-11
Luke 22:14-23:56
Psalm 31:9-16

There are moments in our lives that are more than one thing at the same time. These are the moments that are full of big feelings, intense feelings – and they are the moments in which we are surprised to realise that two feelings that we maybe think of as opposites are coexisting in the same place. To my mind, the quintessential early-life example of this mixing is when you wipe out on your bike or fall out of a tree and you find yourself moving with this easy fluidity between crying hard and laughing hard. Even as your skinned knee sings with pain and maybe with the embarrassment of having taken a huge tumble in front of an audience, another part of you is laughing at the absurdity of your predicament, of having just done a real-life pratfall.

As life moves on, here is the last day of summer camp, an occasion when you are full of joy at new friends and new experiences and newly found independence (I just had five days in a row without Mom or Dad!) and full as well of this wistful sadness that it is all at an end. When I was un the theatre business, the end of every show hung out in this same strange and blurred territory, so that we celebrated what we had just accomplished (it’s a lot of work to put on a play) even as we mourned that it was over. (It was our own John Hammond introduced me to the idea of having an apprenticeship with grief. A lot of my own apprenticeship has happened on and around stages.)

How many other examples can we come up with? Here is the day you leave for college, full of anticipation as well as of sorrow at leaving your home. Here is the day that you are present for a birth or that you give birth, and right beside the wonder is an awareness of death. Here is the day of a marriage, the day when you retire, the day when you celebrate a milestone birthday, the day when you mark the anniversary of everything changing.

To call our feelings mixed in these moments is not strong enough language. The experience in these moments is something more like two planetary bodies, both of which have a huge gravitational pull, coming near one another and bending and sculpting one another.

Grief and jubilation together, shaped by one another.

In many ways, this Sunday is one of the strangest in the church year. This is not Palm Sunday. This is not Passion Sunday. This is Palm and Passion Sunday. And maybe that is a mistake by the architects of the church year. Are we cheering for Jesus, waving our palms in triumph, as he rides into Jerusalem? Or are we on a hill outside of the city, standing gutted with grief before the cross?

But maybe this isn’t a mistake at all. Maybe this contradiction names something real in our own lives, real in the lives of Jesus and his followers.

Jesus and his friends have made this journey to Jerusalem and Jesus has told them early and often how it is going to end, that it is going to end with him dying on the cross. And they have tried their very best to talk him out of it. Peter has taken him aside and said Jesus, you have to stop talking like that. You have to quit talking about dying. But Jesus would have none of it. Get behind me, Satan, he told his best friend.

And so what is the triumphal entry like for those who have been with Jesus through it all, those who have been with him since the beginning, who have heard Jesus’ persistent warnings? All around the disciples on the street is this joyful, subversive parade. It is a glimpse of the Kingdom, a scene in which a defeated and occupied people claim, at least for a moment, their dignity and their agency, a scene in which they declare that another world is possible, one in which they do not live underneath the boots of Roman soldiers. And at the very same time inside of the disciples, there is this anticipatory grief, this knowledge that if Jesus is right about what’s coming next – and Jesus has not been wrong about much – then at the end of the parade route there is a soldier waiting with a post and a beam and a hammer and a handful of nails.

Although maybe it is not just the disciples who feel this way. Maybe a bunch of the people waving palms and shouting in triumph feel the same way too. Because they know what the Romans are like. They know how brutal they are. And even as this celebration, this protest, continues, they are thinking to themselves:

There’s going to be hell to pay for this.

And maybe some of them, like Judas, have an even more ambiguous and troubled relationship with Jesus than that. Because it’s a safe bet that more than a few of the people who are on the streets cheering today will, in less than a week, be outside of Pilate’s headquarters shouting, Crucify him!

I think it’s Nadia Bolz-Weber who said that, in Jerusalem, it isn’t a long journey from Hail him! to Nail him!

This is the first Palm Sunday that I have celebrated since my fellow pilgrims and I went to the Holy Land last year. We were there for Palm Sunday. Do you know how you sometimes build something up in your mind, maybe a movie, maybe a trip, maybe a milestone day of your life like graduation or getting a driver’s license or the first day at a new job, you reckon that it’s going to be amazing or life changing, and then it’s a let down when the day happens? The day can’t actually live up to your imagination. Prior to going to the Holy Land, I reckoned that marching in the Palm Sunday procession would be amazing.

And you know what? It was even more amazing than I expected.

The experience was a sacrament, an outward and visible of faith, of my faith and the faith of so many others. Thousands of us marched into the holy city, following the path that Jesus walked. It was a celebration, a kind of carnival or parade. We sang these high-energy, celebratory hymns in Arabic. The head singer or cantor led us by singing into this squawky little speaker mounted on a stick. I didn’t understand the words, but I joined in when we called out the name, Hosanna! Hosanna!

Hosanna being a name of adoration, an ancient word that means something like Save us, we pray.

And at the same time, in the midst of the celebration, were the soldiers. Standing on walls and peering down on us, marching through our midst, their machine guns at the ready, their heavy body armour moving in the sun. We complain, sometimes, about our country. And maybe we have reason for doing so. But here in the States we enjoy a really vigorous expectation of freedom of expression. In that procession into the city, no sooner did a Palestinian flag appear than the soldiers were wading into the crowd to take it away, no sooner did a young man lose his temper and begin to yell at the soldiers than he was in handcuffs.

It is close to two thousand later. And still there are the soldiers and still there are the people singing Jesus’ name and marching for freedom. All of it together, on this day: joy and sorrow, jubilation and grief, triumph and loss, as we march into the holy city and towards the cross.

 

Third Sunday in Lent by Suzy Jeffreys

March 24, 2019

Lessons:

Exodus 3:1-15

1 Corinthians 10:1-13

Luke 13:1-9

Psalm 63:1-8

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

When I told my husband that I was going to talk about darkness this morning, he said, “You’re not going to make it one of those interactive sermons where you ask everyone to close their eyes, are you?” He’s not a big fan of audience – or congregation – participation, if you couldn’t guess. If you’re like him, rest easy. I am not. But I am going to say something that as a young person going to church I would’ve loved to hear a preacher say – feel free to close your eyes during this sermon. As I was preparing for today, sitting on our couch at home in the evening, I found myself frequently looking out our front window at the darkening night sky as I considered how we talk about darkness, how we behave when we come upon it and what we might be missing when we behave that way.

In our western, technologically-developed, white-dominated society, when we say darkness, we often, almost always, are speaking of something negative. We talk about dark moods, being afraid of the dark, people who are the “black sheep” of their family. And like no one else in the history of our world, we push the literal darkness out of our lives. We yell to our kids to “come inside, it’s getting dark.” Even after we close our eyes, we leave nightlights on to show us the way, our electronics blink in the corner of our rooms, in my room the humidifier and the baby monitor both shine bright. If I got to the kitchen for a drink of water, the microwave and oven clocks provide all the illumination I need. That is the absolute totality with which we, in our society, have shunned darkness, because we believe about darkness being inherently scary or evil.

So if that’s a baseline for how we talk about darkness, it’s no wonder how we typically behave when we encounter it. We run, we turn our backs, we lock the doors, we pull the covers over our heads, we ask our parents to reassure us that everything will be ok. I don’t know if this is just me, but man can I literally let my own thoughts about darkness, not even the darkness itself, terrify me. I’ll be going to bed, slowly turning out lights as I head toward the bedroom where my husband is already asleep, and my feet will start to move quicker, my heart rate goes up, my gut just tells me to move through the darkness quickly and get to my bed, to my little reading light.

That’s why Moses’ encounter with the burning bush in this morning’s reading is so unusual to me. Now a story about a burning bush in what may have been the middle of the day may seem an odd reading to provoke a conversation about darkness…but I’m going to use the definition of darkness that Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor gives in her book Learning to Walk in the Dark. She writes, “darkness is shorthand for anything that scares me – that I want no part of – either because I am sure that I do not have the resources to survive it or because I do not want to find out.” And there’s no doubt that fire is one of those things that invokes fear, whether it’s opening the oven to flames to just smelling smoke somewhere it shouldn’t be to the absolutely devastating and terrifying impact on life and livelihood we saw in the California wildfires last year…and in the Gorge the summer before. Fire is a force that, rightly, makes us turn and run. It is a powerful darkness.

So we might expect Moses to behave the way we humans typically do when we encounter something terrifying…turn and run, possibly even leaving behind our flock that our father-in-law had entrusted to us. In the grips of fear, we take flight and put as much distance between us and the darkness as we can. But Moses didn’t do this.

First, we hear that “the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed,” which suggests that the fire maybe didn’t look like a typical brush fire. No, this blaze is described as being different, as not consuming the thing that it was burning. That gives us the sense that something strange, something unknown, something maybe to fear, was present. And yet Moses’s response is “I must turn aside and look at this.” While he would go on to have many more direct encounters with God, this was Moses’ first. It’s not like this was a common occurrence for him, God showing up in dazzling form. It’s not like Moses knew what to expect, or that he could assume from past experience of God’s presence that he ought to investigate. We get the sense from the reading that Moses was compelled and curious, and it’s at this point – when the Lord sees that he’s turned aside to approach the burning bush, that God then speaks to Moses, calls his name. And then Moses is afraid and he hides his face.

There is a lovely children’s book by the author Lemony Snicket called The Dark that I read to our kids about a young boy named Laszlo who we’re told at the start is afraid of the dark, the dark that lives in the same house as Laszlo, in the closet, behind the shower curtain, in the basement and, at night, across all the windows and doors of the house. Every morning Laszlo opens the basement door, stands at the top of steps and says “Hi” down the stairs to the dark, hoping that by visiting the dark in its room, the dark won’t come to his room. And then one night the dark says “Hi” back and tells Laszlo it wants to show him something. So Laszlo follows the dark around the house, finally down into the basement, where the dark shows him a chest of drawers full of lightbulbs. Laszlo says thank you, and, as Lemony Snicket writes, “The dark kept on living with Laszlo, but it never bothered him again.”

Who of us, if we heard something in the dark – the dark itself – asking us to follow it to show us something, would go along? Who of us, if while out walking alone saw a bush consumed by a strange blaze would get closer to investigate? And if we chose not to, who of us might miss the voice of God? Might miss hearing God call our name? Might miss being given a gift to help us understand and see our darkness. Might not see the “the way out” that Paul writes to the Corinthians about in his first letter to them that we heard from this morning.

There’s a lot in that passage we heard from 1 Corinthians. First, Paul is reminding the Corinthians of their heritage in the Israelites who were led into the wilderness by God through Moses, a journey that began with Moses encountering God in the burning bush. Second, Paul is reminding the Corinthians of the destruction and death that befell thousands of those Israelites, their ancestors, because of their turn toward evil. Why bring this all up? Why remind the Corinthians of these terrifying ends that many Israelites met at the very hand of God? Because, as he says in the final sentences of the reading from this morning, “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone.” He is reminding the Corinthians that despite the centuries they have on the Israelites, they have not somehow succeeded in separating themselves from the darkness of temptation, whether through special knowledge or spiritual awakening or even proximity to Jesus Christ. They are still confronted by darkness too. And then Paul writes – in one of the most perplexing statements in his writing – and there are many – “God is faithful, and God will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing God will also provide a way out so that you may be able to endure it.” That verse has always sent my brain into spirals.

Paul says God will not test you beyond your strength. What would it look like to be tested beyond your strength? When my mom died in 2012 after seven months with brain cancer, I was not enduring. I felt tested way beyond my strength, and so I did two things – I drank a fair bit of wine and I slept a lot. All I could do for months was avoid the darkness of her death, and alcohol and sleep facilitated that avoidance.

I’ve often fixated in those verses on the idea of God “providing a way out” and asked what that looks like. But I think maybe it’s the “ability to endure” that is the way out. In the Greek the word translated as “ability to endure” has the connotation of “to carry on under,” which is to say to be burdened by, to feel the weight of the burden, the weight of the darkness, of the temptation. For me and the death of my mom, it was finally feeling the weight of the darkness – picturing my mom ill, recounting conversations we’d had in her final months, thinking about my own immortality – that was the way out. The way out was to go further in.

There is a risk here in romanticizing darkness. In terms of literal darkness, the places on our planet that are best lit are not the ones that are most populous only but the ones that are most populated by the wealthy. Many people on our planet do not have or have been denied access to electricity, and therefore to the ability to light the darkness, and in many places and many ways this contributes to poor health, to oppression by those with resources and power, and to individual harm. In addition, we risk ignoring that there are privileges in whiteness, in seeing and in mental health that allow some of us to simply to explore the dark areas of our lives and the world when it’s most convenient for us. I think we combat this by practicing darkness in the way we do the spiritual practice of prayer or meditation: by saying yes to exploring dark things when they become known to us, not just when we choose. By making attention to darkness an everyday part of our lives. By believing and amplifying the voices of those whose skin color, whose mental health, whose life circumstances, mean that they experience darkness regularly and without warning or without their choosing.

Lent means, literally, springtime. The sun is out, at least it was, the days are longer. But our rebirth in Lent must necessarily come out of the darkness of winter. There are wonderful opportunities in Lent still to explore both darkness and rebirth, to accept that God may inhabit the darkness in our lives and to go to God there. I wish I could say that when I went deeper into that darkness of losing a parent, I discovered a loving and kind God of comfort. I didn’t. I discovered that I believe fewer things about God than I once did, but that the ones I still believe I do so more deeply and fiercely than ever. Was that worth it? No. I would rather have my mom alive. But I can say that to the God I know now, the God I would not have met had I not gone into the darkness.

 

 

Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany by Holly Puckett

Feb. 24, 2019

Lessons:

Genesis 45:3-11, 15

1 Corinthians 15:35-38,42-50

Luke 6:27-38

Psalm 37:1-12, 41-42

This sermon is about forgiveness. I am going to talk about a church shooting, and I am going to talk about abuse in the church. We have to face these realities, and in order to face them bravely, we have to talk and think about them. The readings today led me to these words. 

On the evening of June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof, twenty-one at the time, joined a group of African Americans gathered for a bible study at the Emmanuel African ­Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. For over an hour, he participated in the discussion, and then he stood up, brandished a handgun and, yelling racist epithets, began to shoot people. At one point ­during the attack, he shouted, “Y’all want something to pray about; I’ll give you something to pray about.” When it was over, nine people were dead, including the forty-one-year-old pastor of the church, Clementa Pinckney; an eighty-seven-year-old parishioner Susie Jackson; and a twenty-six-year-old man, Tywanza Sanders, who tried to talk Roof out of it, and jumped in front of Susie to protect her. 

Later, under police interrogation, Roof flatly admitted to the killings. In a journal entry made some weeks after the murders, Roof stated, “I would like to make it crystal clear, I do not regret what I did. I am not sorry. I have not shed a tear for the innocent people I killed.”

Listen now to words of forgiveness from the daughter of a murdered churchgoer: she said to the killer, “I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you.” The relative of another victim said to the murderer, “We have no room for hating, so we have to forgive. I pray God on your soul.”

Hearing the response of the families, we can see the ­unfathomable love of God. We can spend our whole lives trying to understand forgiveness, repentance, and reconciliation.

Forgiveness is how we decide to in our minds, and in our lives, let go of a hurt that someone else has given us. It’s when we find our own power, and don’t let another person tell us who we are, and define us. Maybe someone else put a heavy weight on your shoulders. And you don’t need it there. You don’t need to carry it.

Repentance is being aware of the harm that you have done to another person, and wishing that you had not done it, as well as taking steps to change what you do and how you act to make sure that you don’t do the bad thing again, and owning the consequences of your actions.

Reconciliation is the act of making true peace. Making things equal or right again when they were not compatible. Realizing harmony between issues, people, or groups that were against each other before. This can be a short process, or a long process, depending on the situation.

What is forgiveness, and why do we do it?

Forgiveness and reconciliation are different actions. Forgiveness is about what happens in our own hearts and minds. Repentance is what happens in the heart and mind of the transgressor toward the person they have wronged. And forgiveness can lead to reconciliation, just like repentance can lead to reconciliation, but it’s not just a given. Dylan Roof may never be sorry for killing those people in church that day. And sometimes the world is like that. And sometimes people don’t want to forgive. I don’t think that makes them less holy, or less loved by God for it. There is a person who harmed me, and I admit that I do not forgive that person. I’m not there yet. I’m not as good as God, or as loving as Jesus. 

In the Episcopal Church we say “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You!” and “All are Welcome!” – some tough questions flow out of that, though. Are our enemies welcome? Who are our enemies? What are the boundaries of welcome? For me, the key is not being welcome to the detriment of safety. Are all people actually welcome if there is a predator among us? We can say yes – all are welcome – if we make it clear that in our community we value victims and we value safety. To be a participant in our community, the predator must do likewise – value safety and respect those around them – in order to be welcome here. The typical power dynamic between weak and strong has to be flipped for this to work.

Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:43–46). In the Sermon on the Plain, he makes a very similar suggestion: “Do to others as you would have them do to you. For if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them” (Luke 6:31–32). And in dialogue with a Pharisee who had invited him to supper, he makes this teaching more concrete and pointed: “When you hold a lunch or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your wealthy neighbors, in case they may invite you back and you have repayment. Rather, when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you” (Luke 14:12–14).

In stressing love of enemies and generosity to those who cannot repay us, he is urging his followers to break free of the economy of exchange, which simply is our own egotism and it is a form of violence. “If I give you something, you have to give me something back. I deserve it. I demand it.”

Right now in the broader Christian church we are being rocked by scandals of abuse from priests and pastors. How a church responds tells us a great deal about who and what they value. Some, in my opinion, very unhealthy stories have emerged of regions choosing to cover up abuse, or not turning over criminal acts of abuse to be investigated by civil authorities, or saying that if an abuser has repented, then the survivor is now obligated to forgive.

 In our Episcopal Church, the response to this difficult issue of clergy sexual misconduct gives me hope that we are a group of people who is willing to flip that power dynamic on its head – we have said from the General Convention in July that anyone throughout time in our church who has experienced abuse is able to come forward and report, because the church, as a reaction to the many reports of abuse in other contexts suspends for three years the canon (church law)  that places a time limit on initiating proceedings in cases of clergy sexual misconduct. Leaders throughout the church  in the US will be working on other ways of addressing these issues, including a process to help the church engage in truth-telling, confession, and reconciliation regarding our history of gender-based discrimination, harassment and violence. This is the opposite of sweeping it under the rug. This is respecting the vulnerable people who have been hurt, and centering our community around their healing. This seems like difficult, sacred work.

Do you want to forgive someone, but you don’t know how?

Everett Worthington, was a professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University when his mother was brutally murdered in a 1995 burglary. In a weird coincidence, Worthington’s research at the university examined the effects of forgiveness. So in the days after his mother’s death, he decided to employ a five-step process he had previously come up with:

First, you recall the incident, including all the hurt. Empathize with the person who wronged you. Then, you give them the altruistic gift of forgiveness, maybe by recalling how good it felt to be forgiven by someone you yourself have wronged. Next, commit yourself to forgive publicly by telling a friend or the person you’re forgiving. Finally, hold onto forgiveness. Even when feelings of anger surface, remind yourself that you’ve already forgiven.

Worthington found that his approach worked—and that other examples confirmed his intuition. Studies have shown that forgiveness aids mental and physical health, while the opposite reaction—holding a grudge and harboring resentment—has the opposite effect on well-being.

Grace feels like a sanctuary most days – a safe and welcoming place. I hope our church and our diocese will not have to directly face the awful topics that I brought up today, that plague the modern world. But if we do, the story of Joseph forgiving his brothers who left him for dead, and the teachings of Jesus will implore us to find a path to healing: seek to forgive when you are ready and able. Seek to repent when you have done something bad. God, forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us, and as an entire community, when we face a mass tragedy, or even a small wrong help us remember – we all fall short of the grace of God, and yet, that grace is still there for us, reconciling us to God and to one another. 

This is a terrifying thing to say – All Are Welcome – but I think, if we are going to be a church for all people in the heart of the city, we have to say it, and mean it, and work through the forgiveness, and repentance and reconciliation that makes our lives truly holy: The Episcopal Church Welcomes You. 

Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Feb. 17, 2019

Lessons:

Jeremiah 17:5-10

1 Corinthians 15:12-20

Luke 6:17-26

Psalm 1https://gracememorialdotorg.files.wordpress.com/2019/02/elfert-sermon-february-17-2019.mp3

 

When I sit in the pews or, in our online world, when I plug in my headphones and electronically join a congregation elsewhere, I don’t mind disagreeing with the preacher. I am not among those who see critiquing sermons as a form of impiety. To the contrary, I am fully on board with my philosopher friend, John, who says that when you disagree with him, that is a sign of respect and engagement. Some of the most important sermons that I have heard over the years were ones in which I listened and said to myself, Wow, the preacher has really gotten this wrong. I appreciated those sermons because they made me think, they obligated me to challenge and to clarify my own theology.

A couple of weeks ago, a friend sent me a link to a sermon that she’d heard preached at her parish. I listened to it online. And it was very much in the, Wow, this guy is getting things wrong category. I had a frequently furrowed brow as I listened.

But it took me a while to figure out what was bugging me so much.

The sermon was an effort to be prophetic. (Prophetic not in the popular sense of predicting the future, but in the Biblical sense of speaking truthfully and forcefully and faithfully to the ways in which the world has become distorted, in which it has strayed from the path to the Kingdom.) It spoke to three of the great moral issues of our day, that of climate change; of income and wealth inequality; and of the dehumanisation of immigrants, people of colour, GLBTQ folks, and so on.

And on its face, I didn’t disagree with the preacher’s thesis. Climate change really is an emergency that calls for immediate action: we will deny that or ignore that at our peril. Income and wealth inequality really is a major justice issue: I have no dispute with those who argue that an individual holding a billion dollars when there are children in this country regularly missing meals in an obscenity. The violence that we do to folks who aren’t white and male and straight is appalling: I went to a workshop earlier this week in which one of my fellow participants talked about how, as a black woman in America, she felt simply exhausted.

All of the preacher’s critiques, in other words, were real and urgent. What troubled me in the sermon was the language that the preacher reached for when he spoke of those whom he reckoned were responsible for these moral crises.

He referred to the folks as the Priests of Moloch.

Moloch, as you perhaps know, is an ancient Canaanite God associated with child sacrifice. Whether or not Moloch’s followers actually engaged in child sacrifice is an open question. Some scholars reckon the accusation that the Canaanites were feeding their children to their God was an ancient exercise in propaganda or character assassination, that it was a story made up by people who didn’t like them, including the folks who wrote the books of Leviticus and Jeremiah. Regardless, Moloch and his priests are, in our popular imagination, Capital “E” evil. In Paradise Lost and in lots of books, movies, and TV shows before and since, Moloch has stood in for worst and most selfish and most terrifyingly destructive side of humanity.

And this is the language that the preacher was using to describe his fellow human beings.

Do you know the concept of the scapegoat? Today, we have the expression “scapegoating” – that’s when something goes wrong and we identify an individual or a group of people to whom we can assign all the blame. When I was first out of theatre school, I worked for a couple of productions at a semi-professional company. And the show went off the rails – it was a disaster.

The director of the company made it pretty clear that the show’s problems were my fault. I was the reason that it had gone so wrong.

I was pretty devastated about this. I was an earnest young man, I wanted to do a good job. And I was gutted to think that I had broken things so badly.

Seeing how much I was hurting, an actor who had been with that company for a while took me aside and let me in on a secret: The shows at the company always went off the rails. And someone was always blamed for that happening. “There should be a plaque on the wall,” he said, “that commemorates who was blamed for each show going wrong.” For that particular production, I was the scapegoat.

We engage in scapegoating in our families. (You’re the reason that we never have fun on vacations! You’re the reason that Dad left! You ruin everything!) We engage in it in church. We engage in it our country.

Scapegoating gets its name because, way back when, a village would take a literal goat – maybe sometimes another animal – and they would ritually assign their sins to it. They would gather around and, with the help of the priest, and they would say: This thing I did or left undone? That belongs to this goat now.

That time you manipulated your spouse to get what you wanted? Give it to the goat.

That place where you hide the booze so nobody notices just how fast the bottle is emptying? Give it to the goat.

The shared reality that we live in a city in which people sleep on the streets, human beings whom we walk around on our way to get a latte? Give it to the goat.

And then the sins transferred to this poor animal, the people would drive it out into the wilderness or stone it. Our sins have become the goat’s problem, we’ve gotten rid of the goat, and so our sins are gone. We’re absolved.

The problem is that people have never been all that hot at limiting our scapegoating to goats. We scapegoat our fellow human beings early and often.

Rene Girard, the great historian, literary critic, and philosopher, writes extensively about scapegoating. And he argues that we see the scapegoating mechanism in the cross. When we gather in the crowd and we shout crucify him, we are blaming Jesus for everything that is going wrong in our lives as individuals and as a community.

And what Girard says is that, by going to his death utterly innocent, Jesus reveals how screwed up scapegoating is. As we stand at the foot of the cross, we see our own violence reflected back at us.

I realised, after some reflection, that this is what was bugging me about the sermon from my friend’s parish. When the preacher spoke of blaming the marginalised, even though he didn’t use the language, he was talking about scapegoating. The notion that immigrants are, somehow, responsible for our country’s problems is a classic scapegoat mechanism, it is absurd and offensive.

But then, having done so, he advocated for creating a new set of scapegoats. If we stop blaming our problems on immigrants or people of colour or gay folks or whoever and, instead, start blaming our problems on the 1% or conservatives or Donald Trump, if we make these folks into the Priests of Moloch, the very embodiment of evil, have we improved things? Or have we just moved the violence around? Are we still stuck in the same busted system that got us where we are?

As long as we keep participating in scapegoating, no matter who the scapegoat may be, no matter how much it may sound like they deserve it, we are the abused child who becomes an abuser themselves, we are the exploited people who become oppressors ourselves, we are simply transmitting the violence that we have received.

Jesus on the cross says stop it. He says: Look at me. Look at my broken, dying body. Look at what the violence of scapegoating does to another human being, look at what it does to God. He doesn’t say, You need a better scapegoat, someone who is really responsible for your problems. He says: You need to burn this entire rotten system of shame and blame  down.

Today, we hear the Sermon on the Plain, the shorter and less famous answer to the Sermon on the Mount. Depending on your understanding of the Bible, this is Luke taking the same oral tradition and telling it in a different way than Matthew or, alternatively, it is evidence that Jesus, like touring lecturers everywhere, reused his material, editing or altering it to meet the needs of a particular audience.

There is a danger, a temptation, to hear the Sermon the Plain and to understand it through the lens of the scapegoat. Unlike the Beatitudes in Matthew, where we hear eight blessings, in Luke there is a quartet of blesseds followed by a quartet of woes. And the temptation is to hear the blesseds as addressed to us and the woes as addressed to those other people, as evidence of what God is going to do to the wicked.

But notice a few things.

First, notice that 100% of the blesseds and 100% of the woes are addressed to the disciples. Luke’s Beatitudes begin:

Then he looked up at his disciples and said.

100% of what Jesus says next is about you. Jesus doesn’t say, Blessed are you who are poor but woe to those people who are rich. He says Blessed are you who are poor but woe to you who are rich.

All of this is about us, not about a scapegoat somewhere else.

Second – and this comes and goes so fast that it is easy to miss it – zoom in on the first blessed, and notice that it is in the present tense. Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God. Is not will be. At least in part, Jesus is talking about reality in this very moment. This is not about putting up with the crushing weight of poverty in the hopes of being rewarded in heaven later – that would be the theology of the occupier or the slaveholder. Somehow this is about the Kingdom right here, right now.

And, confusing as that may be, I think part of us knows that Jesus gets this right. If you have lived any length of life, you have had the extraordinary experience of encountering loss or grief or unfairness and meeting God in that moment, of surprising yourself by saying, That experience was a blessing. And if you have lived any length of life, you have also had the experience of what we might call a real-time woe, a moment when you stray from your values and you realise that you have been diminished immediately by doing so.

And that is part and parcel of the last thing I would like us to notice, and that us that the woes are not something that God is doing. The woes just are. Jesus doesn’t say, Woe to you who are full now, for God will make you hungry. He says, Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.

I mentioned a minute ago walking past the man lying on the street to get our lattes. Why do we tend to avert our eyes, to walk fast to get past that person. Are we afraid of them? Possibly. But what if we are also afraid of the woe that we encounter in that moment?

My late friend Douglas Williams – and I’ve shared this with you before, but it made a big impression on me and I’m going to share it again – said that the problem with being a murderer isn’t just that it makes someone dead. It’s that it makes you into a murderer. And in a similar vein – and let’s acknowledge, of course, that this is not a moral scenario as extreme as murder – what if part of the problem of walking past a homeless person while averting our eyes on our way to get a latte is that it makes is into the kind of people who walk past homeless people while averting our eyes on the way to getting a latte?

Listening to the sermon that my friend sent me, I realised that what I was longing for that preacher to say was this:

After he talked about the moral necessity, the Christian duty, of building a newer world for the sake of the least of these, for the sake of immigrants and LGBTQ folks and People of Colour, after we said amen to that, I wanted him to talk about the moral necessity, of the Christian duty, of building a newer world because the 1% need it, because the conservatives need it, because Donald Trump needs it. Because you and I need it.

No more scapegoats. As seductive as it is to get on Facebook or head out to the parking lot and assign our problems to those people, Jesus says no. Stop doing that. Working for justice means naming our own part in injustice. Building the Kingdom means naming the ways that we sabotage the Kingdom’s foundation. Let’s accept that the woes are part of our lives, part of our doing, part of our responsibility. Not instead of offering moral commentary or critique or prophecy, but as part of it. Let us have the courage to stand before and with Jesus and to name our woes. Having done so, we may find that we are freed to receive our blessings.

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.