The Day of Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Pentecost

Lessons:

Ezekiel 37:1-14
Acts 2:1-21
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
Psalm 104:25-35, 37

What do the leaders of an oppressive system, an oppressive state, do in order to maintain control of those who suffer under their rule?

The first – and probably the most obvious answer to that question – is that the state will employ violence. In Jesus’ time, that violence most famously and most terrifyingly takes the form of the cross, a torturous way of killing a human being who resists the system or who calls the system in question.

The crosses that Jesus knew growing up, just like the cross from which he eventually hung, were erected in public places such as the gate to a city, and the dying person was hung low enough that a passerby could look them straight in the eye and see the fear and the agony there.

The message was clear. This is what happens when you resist.

A second possible answer to that question – and this is what I would like to focus on today – is that the state will do its best to nurture a scenario in which its citizens are fearful not just of the state but of one another, in which there is a culture of mutual suspicion. The state will encourage us to indulge the worst part of ourselves. It will pour fertiliser on our old bigotries, on the reptilian and tribal parts of our brain.

The state will invite us to say: I cannot trust you because you dress differently than me; because you speak another language; because you worship differently or you don’t worship at all; because you and I are different genders; because your skin is a different colour than mine, your passport a different colour than mine; because you don’t vote the way that I vote; because your Facebook feed looks different than mine.

The people who do not belong to my tribe, who do not look and act like me, are dangerous and suspicious. In a very real sense, they are less human than I am. I dare not talk with them, let alone work with them. And I need not mourn when the state sheds their blood. Maybe I will participate in that violence, maybe I will celebrate it.

Consider this tactic by an oppressive system. And then consider why Jesus and the movement that he began and the Spirit that he called into this world leaves such a system off balance and afraid.

What is it that happens on the day of Pentecost? What is it that happens in this story from the Book of Acts?

At one level, this is a story of something glorious and impossible happening. Fire, or something like fire (as tends to be the case when we describe mystical experiences, Luke, who writes the Book of Acts, is at or beyond the limit of words here) descends from heaven, it settles on the disciples, and they can suddenly speak in all sorts of new languages. And because of this mystical nature of this moment, the danger is in understanding it as something unbelievable or, at least, something utterly divorced from our own experience.

This is like a scene in Harry Potter, in which everyone abruptly has magic powers. It is really cool but it has nothing to do with my life or yours.

Let’s honour this text by pushing a little deeper.

Now, I don’t know about you, but when there is a reading in church that has the names of a whole lot of people or a whole lot of places, my eyes tend to glaze over. I sometimes suspect that the only one who is really paying close attention is the lector – there are some hard to pronounce place names in this list! But this is an instance in which I want to resist my glazedness, because these place names are a clue to the radical, the revolutionary nature of what the Spirit is doing here on Pentecost.

Here are people from all over: Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Egypt, Libya, Rome – the list goes on. Maybe we could recapture the holy and dangerous and subversive nature of this scene by imagining it in the present day. Some of the place names would be the same – the citizens of Egypt, Libya, and Rome are unchanged. But then let’s add Israelis and Palestinians, Syrians and Central Americans, North Koreans and Mexicans, Iraqis and Afghanis, folks from Portland and Deep in the Heart of Texas.

And maybe we could add in people who come not just from different places but who belong to different categories. In the crowd on the Day of Pentecost there are vegans and gun owners, environmentalists and transgender folk, lefties wearing sandals and conservatives wearing suits, Muslims and bikers and day labourers and musicians and bankers, people wearing pussy hats standing beside people wearing hats that say, “Make America Great Again.”

And suddenly, the Spirit like fire moves and all of these people are able to hear the Gospel. All of them are able to hear the good news, the story of Jesus in their own language.

The Holy Spirit shows up and things that divide us start to fall away. We are united by a love that looks like fire.

No wonder an oppressive system is afraid of this. This is dangerous stuff.

Today we are baptising Frances. And whenever I have the privilege of being present for the baptism of a small child, I think about an old classmate of mine who asked the question, “Why in the world do we baptise babies? They can’t consent, they can’t claim this faith for themselves. We should wait until they are grown up.”

My classmate did me a favour by posing that question. Because I knew that I disagreed with him – our own children were all baptised as infants, and Phoebe and I did and do feel good about that. But I realised that I had never really articulated why I thought that was a good and faithful practice. It certainly isn’t because I think that you need to be baptised to get into heaven or for God to love you.

My classmate’s question makes perfect sense for so long as we assume that baptism is, like so many things in our culture, an individualistic sacrament, that it is about me choosing Jesus, about me being saved. If that is right then, absolutely, we should wait until a person grows up and they can say “yes” for.

But my classmate’s question stops making sense the instant that we assume that baptism is a sacrament of Pentecost. That it is a sacrament that, while it focuses on one person and that person’s family, is about the entire body of Christ. In baptism, a love like fire comes down among us. And we say to Frances and to one another: you are not alone. You are not alone in the beautiful messiness of this life. You are loved. By this community, by God. Your creator has made you holy. You are made in God’s image. You are with us in the Body of Christ, a Body that extends across time and across space. We say hallelujah and the church across the world says hallelujah and the angels in heaven say hallelujah.[1]

The seed for this sermon – the fire starter, if you like on Pentecost – was a reflection that I found on the website of the folks behind the Poor People’s Campaign, behind the Moral Monday movement. These are people who are working to resuscitate Christianity as a moral voice in America. Not a moral voice in terms of tut-tutting people about sexuality – we’ve had a lot of that – but a moral voice focused on remembering our duty to the poor, remembering the dignity of every human being, including those outside of our borders.

This is a dangerous holiness. No wonder the oppressive system fears it. The system knows that people coming together and working together will change the world. We saw that in our country achieving marriage equality. And we see it now in teachers fighting for dignity and a living wage, we see it in students saying no more, declaring that our national love affair with guns will not and cannot be worth more than their lives.

No wonder the system in which Jesus lived and his friends lived tried so hard to destroy it. But this faith like fire will not be destroyed. No wonder that oppressive leaders since then, having failed to destroy this faith, have tried to domesticate it. But this faith like fire will not be domesticated.

The Spirit is among us. Her fire is falling upon us, burning away those old fears which we have been taught. After the fire we see that we are free, and we see each other. A firm comes down which is like freedom, which is like possibility, which is like imagination, which is like love. After the fire we see that the things that separated us were never of God, and we brush them aside like ash. After the fire we see the full humanity of one another – including the one with whom we disagree, including the one who oppresses us.

After the fire we see that we are bound together in God’s love.

[1] I went off script here and talked about Michael Curry’s sermon at the Royal Wedding.

Seventh Sunday of Easter by The Rev. Martin Elfert

May 13, 2018

Lessons:

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
1 John 5:9-13
John 17:6-19
Psalm 1

The Lutheran pastor, Nadia Bolz-Weber, says that when she welcomes newcomers to the parish at which she serves, she always shares with them the same message:

I want to guarantee you one thing, she tells the newcomers.

I want to guarantee you that this church will disappoint you.[1]

I love that line. I love it for its directness, its vulnerability, its raw honesty. It is a line that I may start plagiarising when I welcome newcomers here to Grace. Although maybe I shouldn’t limit it to the newcomers. Maybe I should share this guarantee, this promise more broadly with everyone at Grace. Why not? Here goes:

I want to guarantee you that, whether this is your first week here or you have been here a year or ten years or sixty years, Grace Memorial Episcopal Church will disappoint you.

You will be disappointed when I say something foolish or, at least, something that doesn’t sit right with you. You will be disappointed when someone whom you love or respect or look to for approval does something or leaves something undone that leaves you feeling sad and stung. You will be disappointed when there is a power struggle over… What? What are the sorts of things that parishes have power struggles over? How the flowers are arranged or how coffee hour is set up or what kind of music we sing or what subjects we are allowed to talk about or what colour we paint the building.

Perhaps you have your own additions to that list of disappointments.

What will you do when the guaranteed happens and Grace Memorial Episcopal Church disappoints you? Or wait, that’s not right: I shouldn’t be phrasing Bolz-Weber’s question as though it were hypothetical. Unless you are really new here, this question isn’t hypothetical at all. It certainly isn’t hypothetical for me.

So:

When Grace Memorial Episcopal Church disappointed you, what did you do?

I guess that I am captivated by Bolz-Weber’s powerful and dangerous and mischievous question, not only because it offers insight into this beloved and flawed community that we call church, but because it offers insight into our broader web of relationships within the world. You could apply her question to any cherished relationship, to any human connection that we hold in such high esteem that, whether or not we name this expectation out loud, we expect to be the kind of context in which disappointment doesn’t happen.

This is church. Disappointment shouldn’t happen here. This is a marriage. Disappointment shouldn’t happen here. This is my country. Disappointments shouldn’t happen here.

In a way, these relationships or people or places or ideas are victims of the very high esteem in which we hold them. When they turn out to be flawed, as everything this side of heaven is flawed, it feels kind of like a betrayal. As a consequence, we sometimes commit to these relationships with an unspoken reservation:

I am here, I am with you – until you disappoint me.[2]

That’s why every good set of marriage vows names disappointment: We are together for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; for better and for worse.

Now, I want to throw in a significant caveat here before I go any further. What Bolz-Weber is talking about and what I am in turn talking about is not a scenario in which we stick it out no matter how screwed up it becomes. Sometimes a marriage dies. And the most compassionate and loving thing to do is to name that death via divorce. Sometimes a church has so unmoored from the Gospel that it is stuck a place in which it is celebrating patriarchy or homophobia or Islamophobia; in which it is preaching consumerism as though buying stuff were the Gospel; in which it is utterly forgetting its duty to the poor. If that church is unwilling or unable to change, then the most faithful thing you or I can do may be to move on and to respond to the Gospel of Christ elsewhere.

What we are talking about, in other words, is not a scenario in which we stay in a relationship not matter how great the cost to our integrity or to our joy. What we are talking about, rather, are the mostly healthy relationships in our lives (and I don’t know if this is pessimism or realism, but I’m going to suggest that our very best earthly relationships are mostly healthy; mostly healthy is the apex of what we will achieve during our sojourn on this earth) in which we periodically, predictably, and inevitably encounter disappointment.

What Bolz-Weber goes on to tell the folks at the newcomer gatherings is that when we encounter disappointment but we keep on showing up, then the Holy Spirit shows up as well.

Bolz-Weber’s advice is consistent with my own experience. A number of months ago, someone asked after my life, asked me how I was doing. And I told them: these days, I am having a lot of generative conflicts.

What I mean by “generative conflict” it is the sort of intense or fierce conversation, maybe even the sort of fight, that when you risk having it, teaches you a whole bunch about your neighbour, about yourself, about God. It is a conversation that is hard work. But it is a conversation that generates stuff: it generates compassion, connection, communion. It generates love.[3]

These are the sorts of conversations of encounters in which we remember that we are made by God for interconnection, for relationship. These are the moments in which we catch a glimpse of what, in South African theology, is called Ubuntu. Not Descartes’ hyper-individualistic, “I think, therefore I am,” but “I am because you are.” Ubuntu says that it is in encounter with the other, including disappointing encounters with the other – maybe in a way that we can’t quite name, especially in disappointing encounter with the other – that we see that the other is made in the image of God, and that we, too, are made in God’s image.

The Gospel of John is perplexing and surprising and beautiful and paradoxical. This is the Gospel in which Jesus doesn’t tell parables. It is the Gospel that maybe features the most human, down to earth Jesus: in John, Jesus starts his earthly ministry at a party; and it is John that contains the staggering words, Jesus wept. And it is the Gospel in which Jesus, when he talks, sound most like a mystic, most like someone plugged into a cosmic secret.

Today we hear him say to the one whom he calls Father: Protect my disciples so that they may be one, as we are one.

Maybe it is that awesome oneness that Bolz-Weber is getting at when she says that the Holy Spirit shows up when we power through disappointment and keep on showing up ourselves, maybe that is what Desmond Tutu and others are getting at when they speak of Ubuntu.

I can’t quantify this. But I know that I have experienced it. I know that when I have risked an intense conversation, when have I risked conflict, when I have risked telling the truth and deeply listening for the truth in return, when I have listened to another human being in love – a human being with whom I felt disappointment and, as or more often, a human being who felt disappointment in me – God has been there. And something has shifted.

When we show up after the disappointment, Jesus shows up too. And if we let him, Jesus will do what he does: he will heal and teach and maybe even cast out a few of our demons. And we are surprised to realise that our disappointment has turned into understanding, surprised to notice that we are there, that we are one, that Jesus is with us, together.

[1] Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Life of a Sinner & Saint (New York: Jericho Books, 2013), 54-55.

[2] This line – and much of the thinking that surrounds it – is indebted to: Ron Rolheiser, “Fidelity – Our Greatest Gift to Others,” Ron Rolheiser, OMI, accessed May 11, 2018, http://ronrolheiser.com/fidelity-our-greatest-gift-to-others/#.WcUonoprxE4.

[3] On Sunday morn, I had an unscripted thought here about my own history of conflict avoidance. You can hear it on the recording if you like.

Fifth Sunday of Easter by The Rev. Martin Elfert

April 29, 2018

Lessons:

Acts 8:26-40

1 John 4:7-21

John 15:1-8

Psalm 22:24-30

 

This morning we hear a conversion story. A story about one of those experiences in which we have a God sighting and we come away changed – or, at least, we come away invited to change. This particular conversion story takes place in the Book of Acts.

The Book of Acts is written by Luke, by the same person who wrote the third Gospel. As far as we know, Luke is the only one of the four evangelists who felt a call to write a sequel to the story of Jesus. In Vestry, we have been reading the Book of Acts, chapter by chapter, for the last number of months to begin our meetings. During the season of Easter, the lectionary invites us to read from Acts on Sunday morning in lieu of reading from the Old Testament.

Today we encounter the staggering story of Philip meeting and baptising this unnamed stranger, a person identified to us only by his country of origin and the condition of his body. This is the Ethiopian eunuch.

Now, my guess is that, generally speaking, when we read this story, we focus on the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch, on how he chooses Christ and, therefore, he chooses baptism.. If we focus on Philip at all, it is to note that he is doing what a Christian is supposed to do, which is to say he is engaging in evangelism. So, Philip is the converter, the eunuch is the converted. And that’s a good and a fair and a faithful reading of this story But today, I’d like do something different and shine the light on Philip. Drawing on an argument advanced by the marvellous Lutheran pastor, Nadia Bolz-Weber, I’d like to wonder:

What if this story is actually about the conversion of Philip?

Philip, like Jesus, is a faithful Jew. And as such, he is thoroughly aware of the prohibition to be found in Deuteronomy 23:1: “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.” (I don’t know if, when you were making your way to church this morning, you expected to hear a reference to crushed testicles but, hey, hooray for the Bible.) The eunuch’s body – could we say his disability? – disqualifies him from full participation in the Kingdom of God. Throw into the mix that he is a foreigner, an immigrant – a category that, then and now, renders him suspect – and that, coming from Ethiopia, his skin is probably darker than Philip’s, and Philip has lots of cultural reasons to exclude this guy.

And maybe that is exactly what Philip would do. Except that Philip hears the voice of the Spirit: Get up and go over to the chariot and join it. Philip obeys. These words, Get up and go, may sound familiar to you: one of the reasons is that they are the very words that Jonah hears in the book that bears his name: Get up and go to Nineveh. Jonah is a reluctant prophet. But Philip is not: did you notice the verb that comes next in this story? It says Philip ran up to the chariot. This is someone who listens when he hears the Spirit.

Is Philip jogging beside the chariot when he sees that the eunuch has a scroll in his hand, and he hears that he is reading from Isaiah? (Philip hears, by the way, because this is a time and a place in which it is unusual to read silently – there is actually an ancient document in which someone comments on how amazing one of his fellow scholars is because when that scholar reads, his lips don’t move.) Philip and the eunuch have a conversation, the eunuch invites him into the chariot, Philip climbs up beside him.

And then Philip and this suspicious, physically limited foreigner proceed to share in an in-depth Bible study.

During the study, Philip tells him about Jesus. And it is after the telling that his new traveling companion sees the water and he utters those amazing words, “What is to keep me from being baptised?”

And Philip realises that, the color of his companion’s skin notwithstanding, his country of origin notwithstanding, Deuteronomy 23:1 notwithstanding, the answer to his new friend’s question is:

Nothing.

As soon as Philip’s new friend is baptised, Philip is pulled away by the Spirit: like his master, the resurrected Jesus, Philip vanishes, reappearing in another town. And there in that new town, Luke tells us, he proclaims the good news.

I’m curious about that good news. While there is little doubt that the good news that Philip proclaims is the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, I wonder if he is also proclaiming the good news of his encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch. If Philip is like most of his neighbors, then before he had this encounter, he reckoned that God’s love wasn’t intended for people like the guy in the chariot – that there were walls between him and this disabled foreigner, and that God’s love was contained within the walls. But by the end of their time together, he understood that God’s love was vastly more expansive than anyone had told him.

Philip is converted.

There is a clue in the text that Luke is inviting us to read this story in that fashion, and that is in the way that he sets it up[1]. As you may remember, it is also Luke who gives us the story that we sometimes call the Good Samaritan. In that story, there is a dangerous wilderness road. And there is a suspicious foreigner who turns out to be plugged into the Kingdom of God. And in this story from Acts, there is a dangerous wilderness road – as you may remember, Luke underlines its wild nature right at the start of the story – and there is a dangerous foreigner who is plugged into the Kingdom of God.

If that’s right, if this story is not just about the conversion of the guy in the chariot but also about the conversion of Philip, then I wonder: what does this story have to teach you and me? Because scripture is always, sooner or later, about you and me. This story is about your conversion and mine.

Maybe the question that this story is inviting us to ask is: What walls do we imagine that God has built? And who do we imagine is outside of them?

If this were a different kind of congregation with a different kind of values, I might talk now about the church’s awful history of excluding GLBTQ folks. But I’m not going to go there today because, for north of 90% of us gathered here this morning, it is self-evident that God loves and welcomes GLBTQ people. That isn’t, in other words, a particularly challenging message for us.

In order to find the challenge, I’d like us to think about who we imagine might be outside of God’s love. Who do you imagine is appropriately excluded and unworthy?

God says: These walls you built? They were never my stuff. They were always a human thing. I am going around that wall and above that wall and through that wall. And I invite you to meet me on the outside. I invite you to risk heeding the call of the Spirit. Meet me in the chariot with that dangerous stranger. Climb into the chariot and be converted.

 

[1] When I gave this sermon on Sunday morn, I had a quasi-digression here about the cinematic phenomenon known as Easter Eggs. I haven’t reproduced that digression here. If it is of interest to you, you can find it in the recording of this sermon.

Third Sunday of Easter by The Rev. Martin Elfert

April 15, 2018

Lessons:

Acts 3:12-19

1 John 3:1-7

Luke 24:36b-48

Psalm 4

 

Jesus himself stood among the disciples and said to them:

Peace be with you.

They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them:

Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?

Look at my hands and my feet;

see that it is I myself.

In the Gospel of Luke, the resurrected Jesus visits his disciples twice. Jesus first comes to them in the story that we call the Road to Emmaus: two friends, rocked by the injustice and the trauma of the crucifixion, are walking away from Jerusalem when they encounter a stranger. This stranger says to them: How come you guys are sad?

The friends are in disbelief. It turns out that they have just met the only person in the world who has not heard about the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, about the last meal and the washing of feet, about the betrayal in the garden, about the trial before Pilate, about the cross.

And so they tell the stranger the story as they walk. And when they reach their destination and the stranger makes to keep on going, they invite him in to share a meal. It is in sharing a meal that they understand that it is Jesus who is with them. And then Jesus is gone.

The two friends run back to Jerusalem to tell everyone else what has happened.

The friends’ story ends with word that we sometimes say or sing here in church.

The disciples knew the Lord Jesus in the breaking of the bread.

Immediately after they get back home, Luke tells us the story that we hear this morning. Indeed, Luke makes it clear that the Jesus’ two appearances are consecutive not just in the text but they are also consecutive as the disciples experience them. The one happens right after the other. The lectionary cuts off the opening words that we find in Luke: “While they were talking about this.” While they were talking about what had just happened in Emmaus, “Jesus himself stood among the disciples.”

Luke tells that these two stories, these two appearances of the resurrected Jesus to his friends, are interconnected, that we are to understand them together.

In the story that we hear today there is, as on the Road to Emmaus, confusion. And this time there is the additional element of fear. Jesus says, “Peace be with you.” But peace is not what his friends feel. They feel something more like panic. They reckon that they are encountering a ghost.

But then something wonderful and strange happens.

Now, I have seen enough action movies and read enough fantasy novels to know that when you think that a beloved character is dead but they really are not, what that character generally does when they reappear is to explain how they avoided the avalanche by hiding in a cave, how they escaped the villain’s laser beam by using the mirror hidden in their shoe, how the bullet was stopped by the Bible in their pocket.

The hero’s friends say: We thought that you were dead! And the hero replies: I’m just fine. See?

But when Jesus’ friends say: We thought that you were dead! Jesus replies:

You were right. I was dead. Look at the mortal wounds on my body.

And somehow, it is in seeing the wounds that they understand that they are not looking at a ghost but, rather, that they are talking to their teacher and friend.

Is there an equivalent to the end of the Emmaus story here? The disciples knew the Lord Jesus in the breaking of the bread. And the disciples knew the Lord Jesus…

in his woundedness and pain.

What do these consecutive stories in the Gospel of Luke tell us about who Jesus is?

Let’s try out an answer or two to that question. This won’t be – this can’t be – an exhaustive list. The resurrection of Jesus pushes the boundaries of our understanding, of our imagination, of our faith. The resurrection always contains more meaning that we could hope to define. But here is a beginning.

Knowing Jesus in bread and in hurt means that God is to be found in the peak and the pit of human experience. Bread – in Jesus’ time and ours – is a symbol of celebration. Right now, we live in a ritually impoverished time. But we still understand that a necessary component of marking a big occasion is food. It would be odd to have a birthday party without cake, to have a wedding in which you sent everyone away without feeding them. We understand that breaking bread marks a joyous occasion.

Sometimes we stand on a mountaintop (be it a literal or a figurative mountaintop) in which we encounter God, in which we reach out and touch God’s face. And when we come down from the mountain, we say, “God was with us.” And we’re right.

Sometimes we have a near miss in a car or we dodge some other kind of disaster and, as we sit shaking under the streetlight, we say that God was with us. And we’re right when we say that.

Jesus in bread tells us that God is present in these moments. But Jesus in his woundedness tells us that Jesus is with us in what the psalms call the pit as well. Jesus is with us when the other car doesn’t miss, when it hits us square on and the metal crumples, when our lives change or end in an instant. Jesus is with us on the day that we start the chemo. Jesus is with us when we sign the papers finalizing the divorce. Jesus is with us when we get the phone call that changes everything.

A second way of reading bread and hurt – and I can’t decide if this is contradictory or complementary – is that Jesus is present not just in the peak and the pit but also in the everyday. There is nothing more normal, more daily than sitting down for a meal. We name this normality in the Lord’s Prayer: give us today our daily bread. A kitchen is where life happens. The resurrected Jesus says that God is with us not just in the peak and the valley but also in the valley when we are wandering around buying groceries or working on our taxes or vacuuming.

And if bread is everyday, so is hurt. There is nothing more normal, more daily than suffering. To live any kind of life is to know pain, to know disappointment, to know injustice, to know grief. All of us are coming here wounded. And Jesus is with us in that too.

Whether we are talking about peak or pit or valley, in the resurrection, we see holy confirmation of what we see across Jesus’ life before he went to the cross: that Jesus shares with us in everything; that the promise of Christmas is true and Jesus really is Emmanuel, God with us.

Maybe another way of expressing God’s steadfast presence is to say that knowing Jesus in bread and in hurt means that God’s great qualities are not so much power and might as they are vulnerability and solidarity. God is willing to risk sharing with us in our joy and our pain. In the resurrected Christ, we see proof that Jesus knows life in its hard and beautiful fullness. Jesus breaks the bread and he shows us his wounds and he says: I know life completely. I have risked sharing it with you, and I have celebrated and suffered as a consequence. There is nothing so mundane that you cannot say to me: Lord, you know what this is like. There is nothing so awful or unfair that you cannot say to me: Lord, you know what this is like.

I wonder. I wonder if the solidarity and vulnerability of God are what we are talking about when we use the word communion.

The late author and theologian Nancy Eiesland wrote extensively about her understanding of faith as a person with a physical disability. Eiesland tells the story of leading a Bible study with a group of people with spinal cord injuries, more than one of whom were operating their wheelchairs with a sip-puff, with a straw that allows the person in the chair to control its speed and direction. Eiesland says that she asked the gathered group of people:

How would you know if God was with you and understood your experience?

After a long pause, a young man replied: If God was in a sip-puff, maybe God would understand.

Eiesland suggests that when Jesus shows his wounds to us that he is demonstrating that this young man got his wish. Jesus says: Look at my disability, look at what the new normal is for me. In the bread, Jesus says that he is with us in our joy. And in his woundedness, Jesus says that he is with us in our pain.

I am here in the sip-puff. I am the one being waterboarded in the secret room. I am the one being evicted with nowhere to go. I am the one being deported to a country he doesn’t know after 20 years in America. I am the one who is gunned down in the school shooting.

The vulnerability and the solidarity of the resurrection are an embodiment of what Jesus teaches us when he says: Just as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.

God is not watching from a distance. God literally has skin in the game. And as a consequence, God is deeply and personally invested in healing, in justice, in creativity, in love, in reconciliation.

Jesus breaks the bread.

Jesus show us his wounds.

He says:

See.

See that it is I myself.

Easter Sunday by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Easter Day

Lessons:

Acts 10:34-43
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
Mark 16:1-8
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24

 

He said to them:

You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.

He has been raised. He is not here.

The novelist Salman Rushdie says that, in the storytelling tradition with which he grew up in India, the storyteller begins her tale not with the words, “Once upon a time,” but rather with, “It was, it was not.” In other words, as the storyteller gathers her listeners around the campfire or the dinner table, she starts by acknowledging that what she is about to share exists in the realm of memory, of paradox, of imagination. Maybe of faith. The storyteller says:

What I am about to tell you is true.

But it exists outside of the realm of the quantifiable, outside of the realm of the reproducible experiment, outside of the realm of fact.

This paradoxical setup – it was, it was not – in many ways forms the basis for the genre in which Rushdie has written across his career, the genre that we call magic realism. Magic realism is characterised by an amorphous or permeable relationship between the literal and the metaphorical, the one continually melting into the other. The literary critic and academic, Matthew Stretcher says that magic realism is “what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe.”

We live in an era with a huge focus on the literal. Sometimes that is good and healthy. When I fly on an airplane, it is my preference that the pilot and the ground crew rely on hard data. Similarly, I am a big fan of fact checking the claims made by politicians. And generally speaking, I’d like my doctor to offer me advice that is supported by peer-reviewed research. There are lots of categories, in other words, in which the literal or the factual is the best and the strongest and the most sensible tool that is available to us.

I’m not persuaded that faith – and that scripture in particular – is one of those categories.

Now, I realise that I am in dangerous territory here, that I am skating out to where the ice is thin. For many of our fellow Christians, particularly those who identify as fundamentalists, reading scripture as the literal and inerrant word of God is a major building block of their relationship with Jesus, maybe even the cornerstone of their relationship with Jesus. For a lot of our fellow disciples, faith starts to shake if we allow that scripture might be something other than full-on fact. Thus, the reality of evolution is threatening, the mounting archaeological evidence that the stories in Exodus and Joshua aren’t history is threatening.

Those Christians on the more liberal end of the spectrum are by no means immune to this focus on the literal or the historical. While the search for the historical Jesus has yielded profound insights into our faith – to know about the culture in which Jesus lived, to know about the land on which he walked, is to hugely deepen your understanding of Jesus’ life and of the parables that he tells – it has also led us into us into really limited and really limiting territory.

When we encounter the miraculous in scripture, for instance, a lot of the historical Jesus crowd have attempted to make these stories conform to a 21st Century understanding of reality. Sometimes that takes the form of projecting modern or post-modern explanations into the text. For instance, I’ve heard folks argue that when Jesus walks on water what is actually happening is that there are stones just beneath the water’s surface on which he is standing. Reading scripture in this fashion is a bit like being an audience trying to puzzle out how David Blaine or David Copperfield does a magic trick. You know what you are encountering isn’t real, that it can’t be real. You just have to figure out where in his sleeve Jesus has hidden the card.

The other common strategy is to simply declare that 100% of the miracles that we encounter in scripture are nothing more than metaphors. In this perspective on faith, the resurrection, which we celebrate today, is simply a bit of poetry about what happened in the disciples’ hearts after Jesus died.

I don’t know about you, but all of these variations on literalism strike me as hollow and false and devoid of holy fire. They read to me as an effort to domesticate scripture and, in turn, to domesticate Jesus. They read to me as an effort to strip out an essential element of faith from the Gospel, and that is the element of wonder.

Maybe that is one of the reasons why I am drawn to the storytelling introduction of Salman Rushdie’s childhood and why I am wondering this morning about the possibility of applying it to scripture. What might happen if, here in church, we encountered the Bible using the introduction of the storytellers of Rushdie’s childhood, if we stood up at the lectern on Sunday morning and said not, “A reading from the Book of Genesis,” but rather:

It was, it was not.

What would happen if we out tried understanding scripture as a magic realist text?

It was, it was not is an invitation to rediscover our sense of wonder. It is an invitation to acknowledge that, “Did that literally happen?” and “If so, how did that happen?” are good questions, maybe even important questions. But that never progressing beyond them holds us back from encountering beauty and meaning. An overemphasis on these questions hold us back from allowing ourselves open ourselves in wonder to the awesome and transformative story of God becoming a human being and walking the earth and healing and telling stories and casting out our demons and sharing in meals and going to cross and proving to be bigger than death.

To encounter that story with open wonder. Well, that might just change everything.

A group of us from Grace are just returned from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. We touched down Tuesday evening after a huge day of travelling – it was a 26-hour project, door to door. (If I say anything particularly heretical this morning, blame the jet lag.) We are coming home with an extraordinary bucketful of stories.

There is one story that I would like to share with you today.

We were staying in Nazareth, the town in which Jesus spent much of his life. And our accommodations were in a convent, a guesthouse run by the Sisters of Nazareth. One evening, we were invited to meet one of the Sisters. She was an Italian woman who spoke a startling number of languages, English included, the language in which she gave the tour.

Sister had a gentle and yet almost mischievous smile. I was reminded of interviews with Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama, of people of faith so deep that there is a gentle and persistent joy and even playfulness that permeates their lives, a sense of okayness with everything.

Sister asked us to follow her. And we went downstairs.

Down one set of stairs after another we went. Until we were standing in a cavernous, underground room. And there Sister explained to us that, a while back when some workers had been doing renovations on the convent, they had discovered the remains of a church down below, and then down below the church, the remains of a house.

As you will know if you have been to Europe or the Holy Land, it was often the custom to build a church on top of a holy site. And the guess, Sister explained, is that this forgotten church was built on top of the house of Joseph. That we were standing in the house, in other words, in which Jesus grew up.

We stood there, our group of pilgrims, looking at the stone walls and the dirt floors and the place where the skylight had been to let in the sun in and then the remains of the old church above and the new convent still above that. And then one of us couldn’t resist, one of us asked Sister:

“Do you think this was really the house where Jesus grew up?”

And there again was that gentle and mischievous smile on her face. She said:

“It doesn’t matter.

“It doesn’t matter. This place tells me something about our Lord. It tells us that he lived in a house, that he drank water, that he ate food, that he had a family.”

Sister might have answered our question, was this really Jesus’ childhood home, by saying:

It was, it was not.

What we hear in the Gospel accounts of the resurrection are stories of encounter with deep mystery, stories of an experience that cannot be measured or quantified. Here is the tomb empty and Jesus walking around outside of it. But the resurrection has changed the rules of how reality works: sometimes his friends don’t recognise Jesus until he shares a meal with them or until he calls their names, at which point they see him with clarity; Jesus is able to come and go through walls and locked doors; Jesus is alive, but the mortal wounds remain on his body. The resurrection is laden with paradox.

Resurrection is, as Matthew Stretcher says, reality invaded by something too strange to believe. It is reality, to borrow Madeleine L’Engle’s line, reality invaded by the glorious impossible. And as such, it may sound like something that we need to explain away as nothing but metaphor.

Except.

Except I want to suggest that, if you have had any kind of experience with loss and love, with grief and joy, you will have caught a glimpse of what resurrection looks like.

When, after the death of my friend, Doug, I said that I knew that Doug was safe and home, I couldn’t prove that he was in God’s hands. But I knew that he was. When my children were born I couldn’t prove that the divine was still soaked into their skin. But I knew that it was. When I said that I loved another person and that they loved me, I couldn’t prove that there was love between us. But I knew that there was.

When I say that I believe that the women found the tomb empty, I cannot prove that. But I know that it was.

In these moments resurrection, we are invited no into certainty but, rather, to amazement, to imagination, to possibility, to faith.

Maybe that is what the storyteller’s of Rushdie’s childhood are getting at when they say, It was, it was not. They are getting at those realities that you can’t know through measurement or fact or proof but, rather, that you can know through wonder. If we allow ourselves to accept the gifts of possibility that God gives us, we will catch glimpses of resurrection. Like the women at daybreak, we will find the tomb empty. And we will meet Jesus walking the earth.

Fourth Sunday in Lent by The Rev. Martin Elfert

 

March 11, 2018

Lessons:

Numbers 21:4-9

Ephesians 2:1-10

John 3:14-21

Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22

Are there times when a poison is its own cure?

Today we hear the story of Moses and the people of Israel meeting snakes in the wilderness. It is an extraordinary story, a weird story, and yet somehow a powerful story. With Moses’ help, with God’s help, Israel has escaped from slavery in Egypt. And as sometimes happens, the glow of freedom is fading. Like a young person who has moved out of their parents’ home and, after a week of saying, “I’m free – I can do whatever I want!” they are now beginning to grumble and say, “I’m lonely, and no one seems to be washing the dishes.”

They start to complain. They say to Moses:

Why?

Why have you brought us out Egypt to die in the wilderness?

There is no food and no water and we hate the food.

(That is a line that suggests to me that the comedy of scripture is underappreciated.)

It is shortly after the people pose this question that the snakes show up.

Now, somewhere along the way, when folks first started telling this tale around the campfire, it became part of the story that God sent the snakes to bite the people, that God sent the serpents to teach an ungrateful people a lesson. I don’t know if I think that God does that sort of thing, but I admit that I kind of love this element of folk-tale comeuppance. There is something satisfying about the kind of Brothers Grimm slapstick justice: here is an echo of the guy who in boastfully announces that he is invulnerable and then is promptly crushed by a falling piano.

Regardless of why it happens, the snakes are here. And the people are soon dancing around in pain and grabbing their freshly bitten ankles, more than one of them falling over dead, X’s drawn over their lifeless eyes.

They turn to Moses and say, “help us.”

And Moses, who probably could be forgiven for celebrating this development –after all, the people of Israel can be pretty obnoxious – jumps into action. He resumes his ongoing conversation with God, he prays to God. And God tells him what to do:

Make a serpent. Put it on a pole. And then have everyone look at it. They will be cured.

Moses digs out the collection of bronze and his hammer and his fire and he gets to work. He puts the serpent on the pole and, the people look at it.

And they live.

The poison is its own cure.

Now, if you have ever taken a course on classical literature and mythology, then you may be noticing right now that there are echoes in this story of the Ancient Greek god Asclepius, the god of medicine, whose symbol is a pole with a serpent wrapped around it. (The pole and the serpent remains the symbol for medicine to this day.) Somehow across the Ancient World, there is this notion that if you have been hurt by a snake, you need to encounter a snake. There is this notion that drawing near to the thing that hurt you (or at a minimum to a safe or symbolic version of the thing that hurt you), is what is going to make you well.

And maybe that sounds odd until we remember that this notion of a poison being its own cure is not confined to the Ancient World. The famous and suspicious home remedy that involves trying to cure a hangover by consuming some of “the hair of the dog that bit you” – in other words, by getting up in the morning and drinking more alcohol – is an identical strategy. Or if you prefer a more evidence-based, or at least a more sensible, perspective on reality, consider what a vaccination is: a vaccine is a sterilized version of the very disease that it protects us against. I understand that a lot of anti-allergy medications are manufactured in a similar way.

And speaking of snakes: we cure the poison from snakebites by administering an anti-venom which is made out of… snake venom. (You may have seen a nature show in which one of those somewhat misguided animal experts wearing khaki shorts “milks” a snake to get venom out of it.)

Similarly, the psychological notion of exposure therapy is about doing the thing that you fear: if you are afraid of heights, go climb a ladder; if you are afraid of looking silly, go out in public wearing a goofy outfit; if you are afraid of rejection, give people opportunities to say “no” to you. This is the very thing that your Mom or your Dad told you when you were learning to ride a bike and you had your first really good crash: get back on, start riding again. This is what is going to let you test your limits, to grow.

Two weeks ago, Corbet shared an amazing sermon with us about resiliency. And the notion that the poison is sometimes its own cure is related to what he shared with us. Corbet talked about the research that says that resilient people have a vigorous support network, are able to reframe the stories of the things that hurt them in a way that gives them meaning, and they are adaptable. It is adaptability that we are talking about today. When we encounter the poison in a symbolic or safe way it frees us up to walk through the world with greater freedom.

Sometimes it doesn’t even have to be safe. There is fascinating research that says that children who have had a significant fall – say out of a tree – are actually less afraid of heights than those who have never had such a fall. That is the opposite of what you might expect. My guess is that what the research suggests is that the opportunity to test our limits – to get hurt and say, “that was bad, but I was able to survive it” – invites us into resiliency. That’s an important and hard lesson for those of us who are charged with the care of children. We have an instinct to protect our children from as much hurt as possible. But if we get carried away, we may end up inadvertently nurturing brittle people.

There are, of course, real and significant limits to a poison being its own cure. If you have a hematoma under one of your fingernails, you aren’t going to make it better by whacking it a second time with a hammer. If you are afraid of cars, the solution is not to run back and forth across the I-5.

Could we think of building the bronze serpent as a parable? A parable about appropriately and generatively engaging with the poison that has hurt us.

Three things happen when we follow the example of Moses’ parable. First, we name our pain out loud. Second, we allow the possibility that our hurt might have something to teach us. And third, we open ourselves to the presence of God in our hurt.

I’d like to spend a little time with all three.

First, naming. As Moses creates the serpent, he says: This is the thing that hurt you. He names that out loud.

There is something powerful and insidious about unhealthy secrets. They can end up having this huge gravitational pull over our lives. There is a reason that, in the Harry Potter books, Harry and Dumbledore refuse to participate in the practice of not saying Voldermort’s name. They are unwilling to give him that kind of power.

My cousin Mike – this is a sad story with a happy ending – was a closeted gay man well into his forties. (This was not 50 years ago: this was in the early teens of the 21st Century.) My read is that Mike had a story that his Dad, my Uncle, could not handle hearing the truth about Mike’s sexuality; that his Dad would blow up or disown him, that the news would kill him. Mike had a partner he had been with for 18 years. And his partner was never mentioned in the Christmas letter, never at a family gathering.

I don’t know what happened. But Mike – maybe with his partner’s help, maybe with his community’s help – found the permission to come out late in his Dad’s life. There was recently on Facebook a photo of Mike and his partner and his Dad and their whole family. It was a glimpse of the Kingdom, of what can happen through naming.

On a justice front, something similar is happening right with now with the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. This is about what happens when people have the courage to name something. A year ago, it was an accepted and immutable fact that Harvey Weinstein was untouchable. And then some courageous women named his behaviour. And that changed reality.

It’s a big deal to name hurt out loud.

Naming leads us into learning. Vaccination, which we talked about earlier, is about allowing your immune system to learn from an illness, to become resilient. Our hurts, if we allow them, give us a similar opportunity.

I want to be careful here. Because I don’t want to get into a facile theology in which everything happens for a reason and God doesn’t give us more than we can handle. Those are problematic statements; they are often more about consoling the person speaking than consoling the person who is in pain.

What I am trying to get at belongs more to the realm of paradox. I think about certain griefs, certain hurts in my own life. This is stuff that I didn’t want to happen, stuff that I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

And

Somehow if I know anything about compassion it is because these things happened. Somehow if I know anything about justice it is because these things happened.

I have, as I’ve told you before, lost track of how many people have said to me: the time after the car accident was a spiritual awakening for me; the time after I got sick was a spiritual awakening for me; the time during my divorce was a spiritual awakening for me. Even though I didn’t want this thing to happen, it allowed me to understand something about myself, about my neighbour, about God.

I we allow them, our hurts will be our teachers.

Last, as the people look at the serpent on the stick, they are invited to see God in their hurt, to recognise that God is present in their woundedness. I don’t mean that God is responsible for their woundedness, that God sent the snakes (although that is a way of reading this story). Rather, I mean that they are invited to see that God shares in the pain.

My guess is that this is why John draws on the imagine of the snake on the pole when talking about Jesus on the cross. The message of the cross is that God endures and accepts the worst kind of violence and humiliation. And because of that, we are able to say that God shares with us in our suffering. There is no pain or lostness so great that we cannot say to God: You know what this is like.

If indeed we can read the story of the snake on the pole as a parable about naming, learning, and seeing God in hurt, then the question for you and me is:

What are the serpents that have bitten you and me?

We all come here wounded. We all come here wounded by trauma, grief, by an experience of unfairness – the list goes on. What would happen if we were to name these things, to learn from them, to see God in them?

We might be able to look at the serpent on the pole, to look at Jesus on the cross, and live.

Third Sunday in Lent by The Rev. Martin Elfert

March 4, 2018

Lessons:

Exodus 20:1-17

1 Corinthians 1:18-25

John 2:13-22

Psalm 19

One of my theological heroes, the Franciscan priest and author and activist, Richard Rohr, has said that in all of his years of attending church he has never ever heard a sermon on the Tenth Commandment:[1]

You shall not covet.

You shall not covet your neighbour’s ox or donkey or sports car or lawn mower or flat screen TV. You shall not wish you were dating your neighbour’s spouse (let’s broaden the lens a little here from scripture, and not assume a heterosexual male perspective). You shall not covet someone else’s stuff or someone else’s life.

If Rohr is right about never encountering Commandment Ten as a sermon topic (and anecdotally, his experience is consistent with my own: I don’t think I’ve ever heard a sermon on this subject myself) then: how come? How come those of us who have the privilege to preach are ignoring or dodging God’s prohibition on covetousness?

Well, maybe preachers recognise that covetousness is an almost universal phenomenon and we are nervous about a subject that is likely to touch a nerve in, well, everyone. Covetousness certainly has been and remains a part of my own life. During those times in the theatre business when I was underemployed, I coveted the career opportunities that some of my peers had. During high school, when I was telling a story about how everyone but me had a girlfriend, I coveted the romance that some of my classmates had found. And to this day, I kind of covet the effortlessness with which some folks appear to navigate social situations; I don’t share the common fear of public speaking – standing here is pretty natural for me –but I find cocktail parties mildly terrifying.

Now to be clear, there is nothing wrong with wanting any of the things that I just named: it is good and fine to want to gainfully and steadily employed, to want romance in your life, to want to navigate social encounters with a degree of ease. What distinguishes covetousness from a dream or an aspiration is that covetousness assumes a perspective on the world based around scarcity and resentment. It assumes that, if I am to have the things that I want then you need to not have them. I need to take them from you. If I am going to win, you have to lose.

Richard Rohr’s guess – and maybe this is a variation on what I just said – is that preachers don’t touch covetousness because we recognise that so much of our society is built around it. To look at the ads at the Oscars or on the bus or on a billboard is to see one monument to coveting after another. Here in the ad is a bunch of young, athletic, beautiful people. And they are having the best time on a beach or at a party while surrounded by their equally young, beautiful, and athletic friends. The message is clear: if you want to be young, beautiful, and athletic, if you want to be happy, if you want to be lovable and loved, you need the goods or the services that the people in this ad have.

Occasionally, Madison Avenue will wink just a tiny bit in one of these ads. I remember a Home Depot spot that kind of mocked the competition between two neighbours, both of whom wanted to have the most beautiful lawn. But the ad didn’t wink too much. It said: even though a lawn war is silly, even though coveting your neighbours grass is demonstrably ridiculous, you should probably still buy our lawn care products.

Better to be safe than sorry.

I have wondered, sometimes, why I find it so demoralising, so draining to walk through Lloyd Center. Maybe what wears me down so much is the unexamined and unnamed religiosity of the place. In that building there are a thousand and one messages that say: this is the place where you will find your freedom. We have the keys to the kingdom here. If you are to find healing, you need this stuff; if you are to find belonging, you need this stuff; if you are to find meaning, you need this stuff.

Most of us have tried entering into the contract that Lloyd Center and places like it offer: we have bought the new necktie or phone or whatever. And for a while it worked: we had a rush of satisfaction and happiness for a few hours or maybe even a few days. But then it wore off and we realised that we needed something else, something more if we were to be happy if we were to fill the hole in our lives. This built-in dissatisfaction is, of course, by design. The consumer model would fall apart pretty fast if you could buy one and only one iPhone and then be happy forever.

I think that I have told you before about my friend Barbara. Barbara is in her nineties, she is one of the people whom I see when I preside at the Eucharist over at Holladay Park Plaza. I look forward to seeing her every month. Much like the recently deceased Charlotte Creswell, Barbara has a palpable joy and palpable faith – a joy and a faith that she has chosen despite some significant suffering in her life. Barbara said to me once:

We have to be careful about what we worship. Because we will worship something.

You and I will worship something.

I spend a good part of my time talking with folks about faith. And pretty often, someone will say to me about one of the things that we say in church:

I don’t know if I can believe that.

And you know what? Good. God invites us to question. God expects us to question. I just wish that we would expand that questioning, so that when we stand in the middle of Lloyd Center and see its promises that our credit cards will allow us to buy love and freedom, we might say to ourselves:

I don’t know if I can believe that.

Scholars who study rabbinical interpretation, who examine the long Jewish history of interpreting scripture, tell us that the Jewish tradition tends to give special attention to the first and last items in a list or a sequence, that these items are set apart or emphasised versus the rest of the list, that they are tied together.[2] Thus, in the Ten Commandments, this final commandment – you shall not covet – is tied to the first commandment – I am the Lord your God… you shall have no other gods before me.

This linking makes a lot of sense to me. Because it seems to me that coveting is all about directing our love and our energy towards something that isn’t God, about having other gods before God. What we find at Lloyd Center – call it capitalism, call it consumerism – in a very real sense, is a religion: it is a promise that you and I will find healing in stuff, that we will find belonging in stuff, that we will find meaning in stuff.

At the far entrance, there is actually a statue within a fountain made out of coins. Could we call that an idol to money? It isn’t too hard to imagine Jesus outside of Lloyd Center. It isn’t too hard to imagine him seeing that idol, picking up his whip of cords, and going berserk.

To let go of covetousness is hard. It is an act of vulnerability and hope. It is a choice to go through the world saying that there is enough, and that I have enough, and that who I am is enough. I need to be something more, I don’t need to get something more in order to be loved by others or by God.

Keeping the commandment to not covet, in other words, isn’t just good for our neighbour, it isn’t just good for creation, it is good for our very souls. Setting aside covetousness allows us to be genuinely happy for other folks’ successes. Keeping the Tenth Commandment, hard though it may be, allows us to follow Jesus’ commandment: to love God, to love our neighbour, and – amazingly, amazingly enough – to love ourselves.

[1] Richard Rohr’s Meditation: Community as Alternative Consciousness. Accessed March 03, 2018. http://campaign.r20.constantcontact.com/render?m=1103098668616&ca=bb8b4e6d-8bc4-4bc3-b3fc-facb2ed56d19.

[2] “Lent 3B.” Girardian Lectionary. Accessed March 03, 2018. http://girardianlectionary.net/reflections/year-b/lent3b/.

First Sunday in Lent by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Feb. 18, 2018

Lessons:

Genesis 9:8-17

1 Peter 3:18-22

Mark 1:9-15

Psalm 25:1-9

This is a Gospel story. It is a Gospel story that takes place in an apartment building.

My friend Darcy is a residential property manager. His job takes him all across Canada, to apartment buildings in the North of British Columbia and in the South of Ontario. At these apartments, Darcy works with his staff of local building managers – with what another generation called superintendents – to make decisions about maintenance and renovations and interactions with the city and about the thousand and one other things that make a building into a place that people want to live. And at these apartments, Darcy meets with those especially attention-getting residents whom the building managers have saved just for him.

One of these residents was something of a legend. He was the source of constant complaints from his neighbours: the thumping music and the shouting at his almost nightly parties kept the whole building up well into the wee hours of the morning. He was selling drugs out of his apartment. And he and his many guests had damaged the building on several occasions, pulling doors off of hinges and kicking holes into drywall, although no one could say if the damage was a consequence of something as deliberate as vandalism or, rather, if it flowed out of plain-old drunken carelessness.

As many of you know, eviction is really hard. It is an expensive and time-consuming pain. That made Darcy wonder if there was another way. And so he decided that what he was going to do was to metaphorically “stand beside” this tenant. He wanted to see what would happen if the two of them could look at the horizon from the same perspective, if there was a way that they could discern a path that they could walk on together.

Looking at the world from his tenant’s perspective, Darcy immediately saw that this man’s goal was pretty clear: he wanted to party all the time. Darcy said, “I don’t understand that. I can’t understand that. And I don’t have to understand that. What I have to do is to reconcile his goal to party all the time with my goal that the party happens somewhere else.”

And so Darcy got on the internet and found a house for rent, all by itself at the end of a lane, perfect for parties. Then he went to a couple of contractors who were working on the apartment – they had a truck, now empty of the lumber and other equipment that they had installed – and he said to them, “If I keep you on the clock, would you mind helping someone to move?” The contractors said, “You bet!” And then Darcy knocked on tenant’s door. And he said:

“I’ve found you a place to live, I’ve got a truck and a couple of guys ready to move you. If I give you $300, will you move out right now?”

The guy said, “Okay.” And, just like that, he was gone.

Now, that story kind of amazes me. I think I’m amazed because most of us – myself included – when confronted with someone who was behaving like that tenant would probably say: That son of a gun. I’m going to fight this guy. I’m going to win. He’s not going to get a nickel out of me. I’m going to teach him a lesson. 

But Darcy didn’t do that. Instead, he took an action that saved him a heap of time and his investors several thousand dollars. Think of the cost of eviction, the rent that the tenant might have defaulted on during a protracted legal battle, the damage that he and his friends might have continued to do to the building, the ill-will that another three or five months of all-night parties would have created with the other tenants, the stable tenants who would have refused to move in when they heard that the apartment was party central For $300 and a couple of hours of overtime, Darcy solved his problem. That was an extraordinarily shrewd entrepreneurial move. But, more than that – and this is why I’m telling you this story this morning – it was a Gospel move, it was a Kingdom of heaven move.

Notice. Notice that Darcy’s interaction with the tenant was not predicated on win/lose model. When the tenant said “yes” and moved out, nobody lost. Everybody won: Darcy got a quiet apartment in which the doors stayed on their hinges and the drywall stayed undented and the tenant got a new venue and enough money for several kegs of beer. Notice that this “yes” flowed out of empathy. Darcy stood beside his tenant and looked with him at possibility. Notice that the empathy that Darcy extended was unilateral. And notice that his empathy was one step ahead of where the tenant was.

It is that unilateral and one step ahead empathy that really gets into Gospel territory. Darcy somehow figured out how to let go of all of the complaints of the playground: It’s not fair; He started it; Everybody thinks that he’s mean; I’ll only say I’m sorry after he says that he’s sorry. Darcy decided that, even if his tenant wasn’t going to move an inch towards reconciliation and a common solution on his own, Darcy was going to move towards him.

So. It is the end of the flood and Noah and his family step out of the ark and onto the miracle of dry land. We tend to concentrate on the earlier part of this story. And we tend to tell that story to children: countless picture books feature a boat overflowing with cute animals. In many ways, that is a strange choice. The flood is a hard story, a disturbing story, a story that demands that we ask: does a tale that features God killing everyone tell us something true and real about God?

But that’s another sermon.

Today, I’d like to focus on what we might call the moral of the story, the moment when God places his bow in the sky. This is not a cutesy rainbow, not a rainbow that has a bowl of Lucky Charms at its end or features My Little Pony dancing across it. This is the bow that is part of God’s bow and arrow – it is a weapon, like a sword or a dagger or a club. God places it in the sky, God hangs it on its rack like a rifle, in order to announce: I will never turn violence on humanity again.

What is extraordinary about God putting away the bow is that humanity doesn’t have to do anything to get God to behave this way. Humanity doesn’t have to apologise, to make a sacrifice, to go church, to write a cheque, anything. God’s mercy, God’s compassion, God’s empathy is unilateral and it is a step ahead of humanity.

God hopes that we will respond with empathy of our own. God wants us to respond with empathy of our own. God calls us to respond with empathy of our own. But God is going to give us this gift, God is going to hang up that bow, God is going to engage in unilateral, one step ahead empathy whether we reciprocate or not.  

God knows that extending this kind of empathy is a risk. Sometimes, when God unilaterally extends empathy to us, we don’t respond – or we respond with hostility. We remain as selfish as ever. And sometimes when you and I unilaterally extend empathy to another, we are greeted with cynicism or apathy or anger.

The story of Jesus’ life is that of unilateral, of radical empathy. And the story tells us that this empathy will not always be welcomed, that sometimes it will be greeted with violence. That violence comes because those who are invested in the status quo, those who like things pretty well the way that they are, find unilateral empathy to be profoundly threatening. In God’s empathy, all of the labourers in the vineyard received the same wage no matter when they begin their workday and the first are last and the last first and prodigals are welcomed home with parties.

To participate in the Gospel empathy is a risk. But the promise of the Gospel is that the risk is worth it.

Darcy’s story has an epilogue. I don’t think that it is an epilogue that he ever expected.

Months after he found his tenant a new home and, thereby, found quiet in the apartment building, Darcy ran into someone who knew the tenant. “Have you heard about Mark?” the mutual acquaintance asked, “You know Mark, the guy you got to move out?” Darcy said he hadn’t heard anything about him.

“Well,” the mutual friend said, “When you got him to leave, something changed for him. Mark was shocked, I think: no one had ever talked to him the way that you di before.

“Mark has stopped drinking. He’s stopped dealing drugs. He’s got a honest job doing roofing.

“He’s going to church now.”

We can’t know. When we engage in unilateral, one step ahead empathy, we can’t know what seeds we might be planting. We can’t know what new covenant we might be inviting into being. The Gospel tells us that this empathy might lead us to the cross. And it promises us that it will lead to resurrection.

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Feb. 4, 2018

Lessons:

Isaiah 40:21-31

1 Corinthians 9:16-23

Mark 1:29-39

Psalm 147:1-12, 21c

We’re going to begin this morning with a quiz. Take out a piece of paper or open the drawing feature on your mobile device or call up a blank page in your mental notebook. And within the medium of your choice I am going to ask you to make a map or a graph. And the purpose of the map or graph is to illustrate, within the whole world, where God is, and where God is not. Or let’s add a little nuance to that, because maybe “is” and “is not” is a little too binary. Let’s draw a map that explains where God is most present and that takes us through a series of gradations to the place where God is least present.

I’ll give you a few seconds to complete your work.

Okay, now pass your completed work to your neighbour. We are going to grade one another’s work.

That’s a joke.

One possible way of creating this diagram – and here and in much of this sermon I will be leaning heavily on the work of the wonderful scholar and blogger, Paul Nuechterlein – would be to draw a series of concentric circles and to label each of them. So at the centre, maybe, is a building like this one, like this church. As we work out way out, we move to somewhat less holy but still beloved locations: let’s say our homes. Then at 50% holiness comes – what shall we put there? – our places of work, where we go to school. As we move to still less holy, still further removed from God, we find the places we don’t like followed, last of all, outside the circle, by the places that we fear.

We could do a similar diagram with people: here in the middle is Desmond Tutu or the Dalai Lama, and then a beloved teacher, and then friends and colleagues, acquaintances, then people whom you struggle to like or understand, culminating with your least favourite person in the world.

We could do the same thing with food. While most of us here this morning don’t live with values like Kosher or Halal, we don’t live within a context in which foods are ritually clean or unclean, we do have some pretty intense and deeply-held cultural notions about what is tasty and what is disgusting, not all of which are especially rational. 80% of the world’s nations, for instance, regularly eat insects as part of their diets; there is no particular reason that most of us in Portland would react with revulsion if we were presented with a bowl full of mealworms or deep-fried crickets, both of which would be common meals elsewhere.

To some extent, this stratification or sorting of reality into circles of holiness is normal and universal and good. We need contexts such as this church in which we gather to name the holy and to encounter the holy. We need a centre to our lives. (Before I started going to church, the centre of my diagram was the theatre, and in many ways it still is: in the theatre I found friends and beauty and meaning.) At the centre of our personal diagrams is we find what the Celts would call a Thin Place: a location in which we sense that God is particularly near the surface of things.

The problem shows up when we begin to regard this diagram not as a map of where I have encountered God most strongly, but rather as an objective statement about where God is and where God is not. God is objectively, literally here around this altar and God is not – well fill, in the blank of your own outer circle – in the alley downtown where someone is shooting up, in the migrants and refugees south of our borders, in the White House.

For the second week running, we hear a story from Mark about Jesus coming to the Synagogue. This is the first half of the last line of today’s reading:

He went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues…

Within Jesus’ culture, a Synagogue is probably as close to the centre of the diagram as you can get. Only the Temple in Jerusalem would be closer in to the middle, closer in to God. And for the second week running, we hear something unexpected paired with the word synagogue. Here is that sentence in its entirety:

He went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues… and casting out demons.

This week and last, it is here at the centre of the diagram, at the epicenter of holiness, that Jesus meets demons, that he meets something unholy.

Now let’s track back to earlier in the reading. Jesus goes to a deserted place – maybe a place that is like that alley in downtown Portland, somewhere further out on the circle, maybe as far out as you can get on the circle – and there he prays. It is out here on the periphery, in other words, that Jesus encounters the one whom he calls Father, that he encounters the deepest kind of holiness.

The unholy is in the centre, the holy on the outside.

What is going on?

In the past, I have suggested that we could liken the Gospel to a Gilbert and Sullivan opera, that Jesus’ words and actions invite us into a Topsy Turvy place, a place of reversed expectations. What’s up is down, the poor are blessed, the outsiders are first in line. And I mostly stand by that. But every analogy has its limitations, and I’m not sure that Topsy Turvy entirely works when we encounter this diagram and Jesus’ challenge to it today. Indeed, I want to suggest that this diagram might be an instance in which Topsy Turvy could lead us to duplicating the very mistake that Jesus is shining a light on and critiquing through his actions.

Not quite ten years ago in 2009, a South African filmmaker by the name of Neil Blomkamp created a fascinating and ultimately disappointing movie by the name of District 9. District 9 is a science-fiction film and, like a lot of fantasy (think of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis), it uses a fantastical scenario to talk about real life. In brief: a group of aliens come to earth and their spaceship breaks down, stranding them here. The human military rounds them all up into a ghetto or a camp where they live under harsh conditions and have fewer rights than their nearby human neighbours. Because of the sort of accident that happens in Science Fiction films, however, a human being is transformed into one of the aliens. The literal and figurative line that subdivides the two species is crossed.

District 9 is an allegory for apartheid, for any scenario in which human beings build walls between themselves based upon race or national origin or money or something else. And it is an allegory for what happens when a privileged person wakes up to the evils of apartheid, when they cross the line from the centre of their circle and moves out into what their culture has told them is unholy. The allegory is the fascinating and exciting part of the movie.

The disappointing part of the movie comes as it wears on. Because the movie ends up being a fairly standard-issue shoot ‘em up: the protagonist realises that the people whom he thought were the good guys – the human agents of government, whom he thought were at the centre of the circle – are really the bad guys and the people whom he thought were the bad guys – the aliens, whom he thought were outside the circle – are really the good guys. And so he has moral permission to kill lots of government agents and we, as the audience, have moral permission to cheer as he does so.

In other words, by the end of District 9, the epicenter of the concentric circles has shifted – it used to be here, now its over here – but its model is fundamentally unaltered. There are still holy people and unholy, we’ve just shifted who is in and who is out.

Maybe District 9 caught my attention so much – and disappointed me so much – because it had the opportunity to proclaim the Gospel but, instead, became representative of an all too Hollywood and all too human way of encountering justice, of imagining that justice looks like simply shifting who is the target of our contempt, our ostracism, our violence. Human beings do this a lot. Over the last forty or fifty years, for instance, we moved a long way towards recognising the dignity of GLBTQ folks. At the same time, many of us have given ourselves permission to hold Evangelical Christians and conservative voters in contempt, to shun them. You don’t have to scroll far on Facebook before you see an announcement that says: if you voted this way, unfriend me now!

But that isn’t what Jesus does. Jesus doesn’t just shift the concentric circles. He explodes the circles altogether.

Jesus doesn’t have an unfriend button.

Jesus’ diagram looks like this. [We look at the opposite side of the piece of paper, on which nothing is drawn.] At first it looks like nothing, until we realise that it looks like everything. If there are boundaries to this diagram at all, they are on the very outside, on borders of the universe. Everything is inside of God’s centre.

Gospel in English means “good news.” What it doesn’t mean is “easy news.” Giving up the model of concentric circles is hard. There is a comfort in this model: this model says that the people whom I love are blessed by God and the people whom I dislike are rejected by God. Giving up this model means allowing the possibility, insisting on the possibility, that God’s love is without limits, that God will not be fenced in, that God is there with the people whom you like and respect the least.

That’s hard. But it’s also the best news that there is. Because when you allow the possibility that these boundaries are gone, that for God they never existed – the walls were always our stuff, never God – you realise that nothing, nothing stands between you and Jesus. The two of you are together, together as he tells stories, as he casts out demons, as changes everything.

 

Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Jan. 28

Lessons:

Isaiah 40:21-31

1 Corinthians 9:16-23

Mark 1:29-39

Psalm 147:1-12, 21c

 

 

It’s the Sabbath, Jesus has gone to the Synagogue (as is his habit), and there he is teaching. And the people who are listening to him, Mark tells us in his tantalising brevity, are astonished because he teaches as one having authority. Something about his words, his manner, the content of his teaching, just who he I, says that he knows what he is talking about.

As Jesus teaches with authority, abruptly, a man with an unclean spirit enters the scene. Today, our mental picture of what this man might look like is heavily shaped by medieval paintings and by Hollywood movies. It is not hard to imagine the man’s head rotating 360 degrees, him body levitating, his eyes burning red and his skin a cadaverous grey. That may or may not have been what Mark’s audience imagined when they gathered around the campfire and Mark first told this story to them. We don’t know.

While we don’t know much about his appearance, we do know that the man has an aggressive, yelling manner. He yells at everyone, he yells at Jesus:

What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?

So there is fear and recognition is the man’s voice. And then something fascinating happens. Did you notice it? From one sentence to the next, the man switches from the first person plural – from “us” – to the first person singular. He says:

I know who you are, the Holy One of God.

Jesus responds: Be silent. Come out of him!

And the unclean spirit does come out.

The people watching are amazed. Their mouths hang open in wonder, their eyes bulge wide, they gasp. They say – as you and I might say in the same circumstances:

What is this?

The people are like an audience watching a magic trick, asking the question: How did he do that? Except that Jesus’ magic trick is not an illusion. It’s real: the man is transformed. And then, like the man with the unclean spirit, what they say next is fascinating and, at least to my ears, unexpected.

They answer their own question – What is this? – by saying:

It’s a new teaching – with authority.

Huh.

So Jesus casting out the unclean spirit is not just gift to the man whom the spirit plagued, but it is also a lesson. A lesson for those watching and, across time thanks to Mark, a lesson for you and me. It is a lesson about who Jesus is and maybe, as his followers, who you and I are called to be. The Christian movement, after all, has long affirmed that one of the goals of discipleship, maybe the whole goal of discipleship, is to become Christ-like ourselves. In the famous words of Thomas à Kempis, we are called to The Imitation of Christ.

If the crowd gathered at the synagogue is right, if this is a lesson, then what is the lesson that Jesus has to teach us?

This morning, I’d like to wonder with you about that question by looking at the shift from the plural to the singular in the man’s speech.

Living in 2018 in Portland, the notion of an unclean spirit, of demonic possession, is not a common one. There may be some of our neighbours for whom this is a concept that is coherent or consistent within their worldview, but for most of us this is unfamiliar language. I often visit with folks who are struggling in some way or who have a family member who is struggling in some way, and exactly never has someone said to me, “Oh, Dave has an unclean spirit. He’s been possessed since the late nineties.”

(My apologies to anyone here this morning named Dave.)

Because the language of unclean spirits doesn’t dovetail into the stories and assumptions that most of us in Portland have about the world, a lot of Pacific Northwest Christians – particularly those of us who worship in what we might call progressive parishes – respond to a story like the one we hear today from Mark with embarrassment. One of our go-to strategies is to ignore these stories. You often hear Christians in parishes such as Grace talking about Jesus as an author of parables, as a healer, as a sharer or meals. But pretty rarely will you hear us acknowledging Jesus as someone who casts out demons.

Another strategy that we employ is to try to shoehorn these tales into our own, pre-existing worldview. So we will say: an unclean spirit is just how people in the first century understood epilepsy or mental illness. And I guess that could be true. We don’t know.

I’m wondering about another way, however. I’m wondering about a scenario in which, whether or not we think that there are literal unclean spirits or demons at work in our world, we allow that the idea of a demon remains a useful one. Could this be an idea, a lens for reality, that invites us into compassion for ourselves and for others and that deepens our commitment to justice?

This is where I want to suggest that the man’s shift in language holds a key lesson, that the shift is a big part of what Jesus wants us to know through this teaching. When the man first says, “us,” we may deduce that he and his unclean spirit are speaking as one. They are, in this sentence, a team or a single unit or a family, they are indivisible. But as Jesus confronts the unclean spirit, the spirit begins to speak on its own, independently of the man.

What this shift proclaims is that the man is not his demon. And across 2000 years, it proclaims that we aren’t our demons. We may have demons – but they aren’t who we are, they aren’t how God made us, they aren’t want God plans for and wants us to be. We are not our addictions. We are not the crime that we committed when we were young. We are not the cruel thing that we said or did to the one whom we loved. There is no escaping that there are things that we have done or left undone. And we are called to name those things and repent for them.

But those things aren’t us.

Now, I want to be careful here, because I don’t intend in any way to argue that the notion of a demon represents an excuse for bad or immoral behaviour. If I cheat on my taxes, I don’t get to say, “Oh, that was my demon,” at which point the IRS gives me a mulligan. To the contrary, the lens of the demon insists that, if I am participating or I have participated in something immoral, then I am in profound need of healing, profound need of repentance, profound need to turn back to Jesus, to ask Jesus to help restore me to being the person whom Jesus wants and expects me to be.

And furthermore let’s be clear, this story says that there is nothing simple or easy or asking for Jesus to rid us of a demon. When Jesus cast out the man’s unclean spirit, the man convulses and cries in a loud voice. In a funny way, in a terrible way, there is a comfort in our demons. We know them, they are kind of predictable, we have learned how to make them fit into our lives, more or less. Saying goodbye to them hurts.

I guess that what I want to argue is that the lens for reality via which we speak of unclean spirits or demons is two things. First, it is an invitation into compassion: for ourselves and for our neighbours when we fail. We live in a age (maybe every age is like this – I don’t know) when we are heavily drawn into a binary way of subdividing the world, so that there are good guys and bad guys, people in Category “A,” whom we can safely admire, and people in Category “B,” whom we can safely hold in contempt. We become confused and frustrated and fearful when someone moves from one category to another or when it is ambiguous as to which category they properly belong. We become even more confused and frustrated and fearful when it becomes ambiguous as to which category we ourselves properly belong.

The lens of the demon or the unclean spirit says that everyone, everyone belongs to Category “A” and that all of us, at least to some extent, have demons which belong in Category “B.” Our Category “B,” our demon, is asserting itself when we call the humanity of another person into question, when we engage in destructive gossip, when our own comfort becomes more important than someone else’s suffering. When our demon arises, we are called to be patient with ourselves – struggling with the darkness is a universal part of being alive. We are called to repent. And we are called to extend the same patience and the same invitation to repentance to our fellow human beings, including the ones that we like least and respect least.

And that leads me to, second, the lens of the demon calls us as Christians to function prophetically, to name demons when we see them. That includes the hard work of naming the demons in our own lives. And it includes the maybe even harder work of naming our culture’s shared demons.

Consider the demon that is consumerism, the way of being in the world that says that the test for something being right or wrong is whether or not we have enough room on our MasterCard to pay for it, not whether this purchase will hurt the earth or the person who manufactures it for us. Consider the demon that is nationalism, the way of being that says that migrants and refugees from outside of our borders are, in a real sense, less human than us, less worthy of safety and stability. Consider – and we just passed Martin Luther King Jr. Day, so let’s name one of the demons that he talked about – that of militarism, the demon that celebrates state-sanctioned violence. This is not even close to a complete list: let’s think about the demons of racism and sexism and homophobia and Islamophobia.

Here, it is as a culture that we are called to repent.

Here is the lesson that Jesus has to teach us. In the move from “us” to “I” and the subsequent casting out from the demon, we learn that while God could destroy you and me because of the demons that we carry, God won’t do that. What God will do – if we allow God, because God never makes us do anything, God respects our free will too much for that – is to heal us and restore. Come to Jesus, this story says, with your own demons, with the demons of our shared culture. Come to Jesus, the one with authority, and he will set you free.