Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

August 12, 2018

Lessons:

1 Kings 19:4-8
Psalm 34:1-8
Ephesians 4:25-5:2
John 6:35, 41-51

l three Synoptic Gospels – so, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke – Jesus tells us that he is bread. We repeat his words, we pray them together, when we celebrate the Eucharist on Sunday morning. Jesus holds out the bread and he says to his friends:

Take, eat. This is my body.

Somehow – impossibly, amazingly – Jesus says, this is me.

It is only in the fourth Gospel, the Gospel of John, that Jesus adds modifiers when he speaks of bread and of himself and of how he is bread. In John he tells us that he is the bread that came down from heaven, that he is the bread of God, or maybe most famously – we’re going to sing the beloved hymn later on – that he is the bread of life.

At the risk of stating something linguistically obvious, the purpose of a modifier is to add or restrict the meaning of a noun. We don’t use modifiers if there is nothing to add, nothing to modify. If you went to a restaurant and the server brought you a glass of water, it would be very odd indeed if they placed the glass on the table and said:

This is the water of wetness.

As opposed to what?

What we may deduce from Jesus in the Gospel of John is that, by linguistic necessity, there is bread that does not come down from heaven, bread that is not of God, bread that is not of life. We may deduce that there is bread of death.

Huh.

What might this bread of death be? Or to put that another way, what is the bread that isn’t Jesus? Now, maybe his question – bread of life versus bread of death – is a super mystical idea, wildly esoteric, more than we can possibly encounter or understand. Jesus as we find him in John is certainly capable of speaking in pretty seriously mystical language.

But maybe this is isn’t mystical at all.

Maybe this is as everyday as we can possibly get.

One of the rules about being human and being alive is that we must eat. Unlike other forms of life on this earth, we are not designed to function through water and photosynthesis, we cannot turn the rays of the sun directly into our food. And the example of Jesus is that eating is generally a good and joyful thing – to read the Bible is to encounter a Messiah who is constantly sharing meals with strangers and friends and who delights in doing so.

More broadly still than eating, one of the rules about being human and being alive is that we must consume. It is necessary for us to put on clothes in order to survive the elements and to meet social expectations, it is probably necessary for us to live indoors. And while we may debate their necessity, most of us like the convenience and comfort that comes from having access to a washer and a drier, to a car, to a stove, to a computer, the list goes on.

What if Jesus is telling us that there is a way of eating, of consuming, that is congruent with discipleship, that is Christ-like in nature, that follows the example of Jesus, that is of life. And by contrast, there is way of eating, of consuming, that is incongruent with discipleship, this is not Christ-like in nature, that is out of step with the example of Jesus, that is of death.

Maybe what Jesus is saying is that when you and I consume – and today we mostly do that by spending money as opposed to, say, harvesting a crop or slaughtering an animal that we have raised ourselves – we are by definition making a moral decision. How we choose to consume, in ways small and large, in ways bad and good, shapes reality; not just for ourselves, but for other people, and for creation.

You and I have a big disadvantage in this moral decision making versus Jesus and his friends. First, we have a disadvantage because, we live in a globalised context; when we buy a banana in Portland, we are shaping reality in Central America and the Caribbean; when we buy an iPhone, we are shaping reality in China; when we consume fossil fuels and petroleum products, we are shaping reality across the world. (I don’t know how many Facebook friends in how many different cities have posted over the last few days about stifling and often record-breaking heat in the places where they live.)

For most human beings across most of history, if they wondered about the working conditions under which, say, their horseshoes were made, they could go down to the blacksmith and see. That’s largely unavailable to us – the scale on which we operate is enormous. We just have to take other folks’ assurances that our consciences would feel okay if we visited the planation where our bananas grow.

Second, you and I are rich. Now, I appreciate that not all of us in this room feel rich. But by global standards, by historical standards, 90 or possibly 100 percent of us in this room are wealthy. If you are not wondering where your next meal is coming from, where you will sleep this night, if you can get health care when you need it, if potable water comes out of your tap, you are kind of rich. And the problem for us rich folks is that we have so many more opportunities to buy stuff than the poor and, therefore, we have so many more opportunities to buy the bread of death.

Jesus and his friends have all but nothing – remember when he sends out his disciples to proclaim the Gospel, he tells them to pack light. And packing light for these folks means, among other things, not to take two tunics. These are people, in other words, who, when they are living large, have one change of clothes. Who knows how many changes of clothes I have in my closet at home? Certainly more than two. And when I look at the labels sewn into the collar, labels that explain that my clothes are made in countries that I have never been to under working conditions that, maybe, I don’t want to think about, I wonder: Am I eating the bread of death?

There may be a good reason that Jesus, in one of his most arresting images, says that it is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich person to get into heaven.

Now, one of the few stories that appears in all four Gospels is the story that we call the Loaves and the Fishes – in a couple of the Gospel, it actually appears twice.

That tells us that it might be important for understanding who Jesus is, that it might be important for understanding what the bread of life is.

Most of you know the story. It goes something like this: Jesus and his friends are hanging out outside, and a big crowd has come to hear Jesus talk. Suppertime rolls around and folks start to get hungry, possibly even hangry. And the disciples come to Jesus and they say: Send the people away, tell them that they are on their own for dinner. We only have enough to feed ourselves, just a couple of fish and a few loaves.

But Jesus says: You feed them.

And so they do. And once everyone is full, there are leftovers.

There are no fewer than two miracles here. The obvious one, is that the food multiplies. The less obvious miracle, but the one that may be just as big, is that the disciples hearts are transformed. The disciples start the story in a place that you and I probably recognise, a place that consumerism really encourages to hang out in. This is the place of scarcity, of anxious selfishness, in which our dominant narrative says: There’s not enough. What if I run out?

By the end of the story, the disciples have been changed. They have been transformed by witnessing, by participating in, holy abundance. They have eaten the bread of life. And they have shared it with others.

Friends, there is bad news and there is good news.

The bad news is that choosing to eat the bread of life is a choice to change and to be changed. bread of life involves sacrifice.

I’ve heard folks argue that we can lick global warming, but that doing so is going to require most of the earth’s population to go vegan. I don’t know how much I like that idea; I don’t eat a tonne of meat, but I love a good hamburger every now and again, and the idea of a world without chees and cream kind of makes me sad. I’ve heard folks argue that there is no reason that any worker in our country should not be receiving a living wage, enough to live indoors and not worry about food and have access to health care and enjoy some recreation, but that economic justice might mean the stocks in my portfolio are not quite as valuable as they are now. I don’t know how much I like the idea of that bottom line going down. I’ve heard contemporary prophets tell us that there can and will be a place of dignity and equality for those who have historically lived the margins. And while I nod in agreement, I am ashamed to admit that part of me isn’t sure how much it likes that idea either: I have gotten used to the privilege that comes of being straight and male and cisgender and white.

These are not sacrifices that you or I can outsource to someone else. They are mine to make, yours to make.

The good news – well, it comes at the end of the story of the Feeding of the 5000.

How do you imagine that the disciples feel in this moment? Are they angry? Are they cursing Jesus? Do they yell at Jesus, saying: We said that there wasn’t enough and then you made enough and, Jesus, you made us look stupid?

No.

They are joyous. They are amazed. They are set free. How good it must feel to put down the weight of the consumerist story that says that there isn’t enough, that I have to look out for myself, that this is a world of scarcity. How good it must feel to stand in community and, together, tell the story in which there is abundance, in which all of God’s children can thrive.

Jesus says: Take, eat. This is my body. Jesus says: I am the bread of life.  Whoever eats will never be hungry. Whoever believes will never thirst.

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

July 8, 2018

Lessons:

Ezekiel 2:1-5
Psalm 123
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Mark 6:1-13

 

Mr. Rogers is all over the news these days, all over social media these days. A big part of the catalyst for that is the new documentary about him, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? It’s a film that I cannot wait to see. I’m leaving on vacation after this service – I’ll be back at Grace at the start of August – and seeing this movie is high on my time off to-do list. But my guess is that there is more at work than this documentary in drawing Mr. Rogers back into our shared consciousness.

I think that many of us have a sense that Mr. Rogers is a prophet for our time.

Like a number of you in this room, I grew up watching Mr. Rogers. He was a kind and steady presence in my life. The language that he used to describe our relationship – that  of “neighbour” – did and does feel right to me. I never met the man. But he feels in my memory, in my heart, like the good and simple and generous person who lived a few houses away from me.

My guess is that these characteristics – goodness and simplicity and generosity – are why so many of us are drawn back to Mr. Rogers right now. This is one of those times in our national discourse, in the glorious and hard experiment that we call America, when kindness and simplicity and goodness feel like they might be lost values. It is a time when we are wondering if we have forgotten what it might mean to trust one another, to assume the best of intentions in one another, to listen to one another, to be lovingly curious about one another. We are wondering, maybe we are afraid, that we no longer know how to interact not with the goal of winning but, rather, with the goal of mutual understanding or, maybe, with the goal of moving deeper into communion.

Communion is, I think, what David Brooks was trying to get at in his beautiful article about Mr. Rogers this week in the New York Times when he opined that Mr. Rogers taught us things that we “obvious and nonobvious.” Few things were more obvious and nonobvious that Mr. Rogers’ famous words, “I like you just the way that you are.” On their face, these words are a platitude, they are a cliché. But coming from Mr. Rogers, they were awesome, staggering, life changing. They were an exercise in communion.

A number of years ago, I read an article about Mr. Rogers, late in his life and visiting college campuses and saying to the students there, many of whom had once been his television neighbours, “I like you just the way that you are.”

It was not uncommon for those young people to begin weeping.

Maybe the words were obvious. But the person saying them was not obvious at all. And hearing them, these young people touched the holy for a minute. They touched the face of God. It’s hard not to weep when that happens.

My guess is that when Brooks speaks of something being obvious and nonobvious, he is trying to get at the same paradox that Richard Rohr is searching for when he says:

Transformed people transform people.

Rohr tells the story of Mother Theresa saying to people, “Jesus loves you.” Now there is an obvious statement, a statement that you and I have seen on more billboards and bumper stickers than we can count. It might even be more obvious than, “I like you just the way that you are.” But coming from Theresa, it was suddenly nonobvious, it was suddenly new, it was suddenly transformative. Like the young people on the college campus, folks would hear these words and, coming from Theresa, they were totally new. The tears would roll down their cheeks.

Today, in Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth, we hear the words that are carved into the steps of Grace’s courtyard:

My grace is sufficient for thee.

I’ve lost count of how many people have told me that they love those steps, they love walking into this place across the reassurance and the beauty of those words. They too are words that are obvious and nonobvious. They too are words that, if we allow them, might just transform us. Their promise is radical.

My grace is sufficient for thee. This is the amazing promise that we have enough. That we are enough. That we are loved enough. That we don’t need to become someone else or something else in order to be worthy of God’s love, in order to lead a full life, in order to shine. These words are a paraphrase, another way of saying, “Jesus loves you.” They are another way of saying, “I like you just the way that you are.”

What would happen if we were to believe those words? If our neighbours were to believe those words? How might we change? How might the world change?

The rest of my sermon is plagiarised directly from Mr. Rogers.

At least twice, near the end of his life, when he was addressing a large group of people, he would invite them to enter into silence and to remember the person or the people who had loved them into being. I’m going to invite us to do the same thing today. Remember in silence the person or people who took and interest in you, who encouraged you, who allowed you to be the person who is sitting in this room right now.

I’ll keep time.

[Silence.]

Think how pleased that person or those people would be to know that they had made such a big difference in your life. These are the people who, whether or not they used these exact words, said to you: Jesus loves you. They are the people who said to you: God’s grace is sufficient for you. They are the people who said to you:

I like you just the way that you are.

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

July 1, 2018a

Lessons:

Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15; 2:23-24

Psalm 30

2 Corinthians 8:7-15

Mark 5:21-43

 

Today, Mark gives us a story about holy interruption. Or maybe I should pluralise that: Today, Mark gives us a story about holy interruptions. I count no fewer than six interruptions. Maybe there are more. With each interruption, I am going to suggest a possible lesson. Not the only lesson, but a possible one.

Interruption Number One. Jesus crosses the sea to the other side and there he encounters a crowd. Jesus before a crowd; if you have spent any amount of time reading the Bible then you know this story well enough to be able to predict what will come next. This is the moment when Jesus will begin to tell parables, to cast out demons, to feed the hungry, to heal. But Jesus is interrupted. Interrupted by Jairus, by a leader of the synagogue, a man of status and power. Jairus falls at Jesus’ feet and begs.

Please.

Please. My little girl is at the point of death. Come lay your hands on her so that she may be made well.

And so Jesus goes.

A possible lesson. It Richard Rohr who says: Jesus always goes towards the pain. Healing is his priority. Being with the suffering is always his priority. Jesus is not a harried bank teller or an overscheduled professional, too busy to get you into his day planner. When you and I say to Jesus, Come with me, I am hurting, or Come with me, the one I love is hurting, Jesus’ answer is always Yes.

As Jesus walks towards Jairus’ house, the crowd follows and grows and presses in him. Zoom in the camera on a woman. For twelve years – a number heavy in symbolism, think of the twelve tribes of Israel, the twelve apostles – the woman has endured much under many physicians. Like many people in America today, she has been bankrupted by healthcare costs. She has spent all that she has on doctors’ bills, but has gotten no better, only worse.

She touches Jesus’ garment.

And Jesus stops.

Interruption Number Two.

Who touched me? he says. It is an absurd question. Jesus is in the middle of a crowd, this is a scene like trying to get out of a stadium after a football match, he is pressed into by people on his every side. But Jesus notices the power go out of him.

A possible lesson. If we take it seriously, this moment in the story has a pretty shocking takeaway. We are used to the formulation Jesus saves, Jesus heals, Jesus forgives. We are used to a formulation in which the name “Jesus” is followed by a verb, in which has agency, in which he chooses to do good works. In this story, there is a startling absence of choice on Jesus’ part. The woman is healed even though Jesus didn’t choose it. He didn’t even notice her before she touched his cloak. But she is healed nonetheless.

I have heard theologians say – and there is a double negative coming up here, so listen closely – that God cannot not forgive. God, who is love, always forgives. Forgiveness is who God is.

Maybe Jesus cannot not heal.

Let’s stay in this moment for Interruption Number Three, maybe the most obvious interruption of them all. The woman touches Jesus’ cloak, or as Sam Cooke once sang, she touches the hem of his garment. And instantly the hemorrhage stops, the flow of blood is stopped.

A possible lesson. I’m least sure about this one, but let’s try it out together. Could the hemorrhage, the blood be a symbol of violence? Just like you and me, the woman is a member of a collective, a crowd, a culture, a tribe, a country. And there are times when the tribe to which we belong engages in cruelty and violence, when we are implicated in that cruelty and violence even if we do not participate directly. The confession that we are saying together in the season of Pentecost, right now, goes like this:

We repent of the evil that enslaves us,

the evil we have done,

and the evil done on our behalf.

Sometimes morality, sometimes faith, means stepping out of our tribe. Sometimes it means risking setting aside the privilege and safety and anonymity that comes of remaining in the crowd. Sometimes morality and faith requires us to risk reaching out to Jesus. Sometimes that is the only thing that will stop the bloodshed.

Interruption Number Four. The woman is healed, the woman steps out of the crowd, and full of fear and trembling, she falls before Jesus.

And Jesus does not say to her, Glad that I could help. Nor does he say, It was nothing. Nor does he say, Don’t thank me, thank my Dad. Jesus says:

Daughter, your faith has made you well.

A Possible Lesson. Somehow, faith itself has the capacity to make the woman well, faith itself is healing. Now, I want to be careful here. I don’t mean that if you believe hard enough or well enough you will stop having cancer and start being rich. That is destructive nonsense. It is destructive nonsense which here in America we know by the name of the Prosperity Gospel. It is a heresy that makes God into a used-car salesman, selling health and wealth and a ticket into heaven in return for the payment of our belief. What I mean is something more mysterious, harder to quantify than that. What I mean is that there is healing in faith itself.

The theologian James Alison says that we often misunderstand faith. That we make it about frantically following rules, about creating borders, about calling out people who are doing the wrong things, who are believing the wrong things, about feeling terribly guilty. But faith, Allison says, is actually about relaxing. Faith is about being with God, being with someone whom we trust, with someone who knows us absolutely and, as Mr. Rogers used to say, likes us just the way that we are.

That sounds like healing to me. Your faith has made you well.

Interruption Number Five. Jesus stops and he talks to the woman. I have children, I cannot even imagine how anxious Jairus is getting right now. Picture Jairus as Jesus stops his progress and turns to talk to this person who has fallen down before him. Picture Jairus dancing from one foot to another, his fists unclenching and unclenching, picture him whispering under his breath, “Come on! Jesus, come on!”

A Possible Lesson. There is a scandal here. A man of power and wealth is made to wait for an impoverished woman. A woman, what’s more, whose hemorrhage, whose flow of blood makes her ritually unclean. What is being interrupted here – by Jesus, by the woman to whom he gives his full attention – is not just Jesus’ journey to Jairus’ house. What is being interrupted is patriarchy, it is economic privilege, it is a societal system that values some human beings more than others. In this instant, Jesus and the woman embody what Jesus will say elsewhere: The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.

Interruption Number Six. Some people come from Jairus’ house and, in what makes a case for being the cruelest two sentences ever spoken in scripture, they say, Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?

But Jesus says to Jairus, Be not afraid. Believe.

And he goes to Jairus’ home where Jairus’ little girl lies on the bed, surrounded by mourners. Jesus asks why they are weeping, says that she is not dead but sleeping.

And they laugh at him.

Jesus puts them all outside. (I love the brevity of that sentence. What words or actions do you suppose Jesus uses to put the laughing mourners outside?) And he says to the girl:

Get up.

And she does.

A Possible Lesson. When we are with Jesus, even death is interrupted. This is the lesson of his life. It is the lesson of the cross, it is the lesson of then empty tomb.

A short story interrupted no fewer than six times. Each interruption takes us further into possibility, into faith, into compassion, into love. Each interruption takes us into resurrection. May Jesus interrupt your life and mine in the same way.

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

June 17, 2018

Lessons:

Ezekiel 17:22-24
Psalm 92:1-4,11-14
2 Corinthians 5:6-10,[11-13],14-17
Mark 4:26-34

 

One of the gifts of this past week at the College for Congregational Development was spending part of an afternoon with the Episcopal Church’s Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry. (Those of us who went on the pilgrimage to the Holy Land will remember that we also ran into Bishop Curry in Jerusalem. I am beginning to suspect that Bishop Curry is following me around.) We had the opportunity, as a group, to ask him questions. And so I put up my hand and said something like this:

You have witnessed and endured a lot of unfair things in your life, a lot of unjust things. And yet you appear to be a joyous person. Why is that? What is the source of your joy?

Bishop Michael thought for a good length of time before speaking. And then he told us that part of his joy came from the people who raised him and with whom he grew up – he spent his early life with people who loved neighbour and loved life, and he caught that love from then. And then he said that another part of his joy came from scripture. We laugh with Jesus, he said, and then we cry, and then we laugh again. And then we go to the cross and we weep. And then that Mary Magdalene tells us that the tomb is empty. And we meet the resurrected Jesus and we laugh once more.

Listening to Bishop Michael talk about the Bible I was reminded of the old preacher who said that the reason he was so full of joy was that he had read the story and he knew how it ended.

That encounter with Bishop Michael was one of those holy coincidences that the Holy Spirit keeps on putting into my life and, maybe, into yours as well. Because hearing a spiritual leader talk about joy in spite of hard news, in the midst of hard news: well, that felt pretty timely this week.

The news coming from our southern border is awful. The news of children being taken from their parents by the agents of our country is appalling. Our nation is telling parents that they are taking their children to bathe them and then not bringing those children back. Our nation is deliberately causing the suffering of children, it is weaponising the suffering of those children. And then the leaders of our nation are citing the Bible to justifying that suffering.

Here is Romans 13:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.

There are two words for using the Bible in this fashion. (Actually, there are more than two words, but there are only two words that I can say in church. One of the other words I am not going to say has to do with bulls and what they what they sometimes leave in a field after a big meal.) The first word that I am allowed to say is proof texting: this is the habit of pulling a verse of scripture out of its context and away from scripture’s wider arc towards love and justice in order to back up your argument.

Romans 13, by the way, has an infamous history of being used in this fashion. This is the passage pointed at by slaveholders to justify the practice of owning other people. This is the passage cited in Nazi Germany to justify a brutal dictatorship. This is the passage cited in South Africa to justify apartheid. (There is a fantastic article in Washington post, by the way, that walks you through some of the history of folks defending their society’s wildly immoral actions by pointing at Romans 13.) Suffice to say, when you draw on this passage on an occasion such as this one, you’re not in such hot company.

There is a second word for using scripture in this fashion, for recruiting to sculpture argue that the state has God’s blessing to separate children from their parents and store them in a box store turned prison. A good number of people have said that word on Twitter. I’m going to say that word this morning.

That word is blasphemy.

Let’s do some Bible study. Let’s see what else scripture might have to say here. (And I am hugely indebted to my friend Heather for assembling most of these verses.)

Hebrews 13:2: Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers.

Zechariah 7:10: Do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor.

Leviticus 19:33–34: When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.

James 1:27: Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress…

Matthew 22:37–40 (This is Jesus talking now, our Lord and Saviour): You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

On these two commandments hang everything. One more (and this is nowhere close to an exhaustive list – this is kind of a huge theme in scripture) before we get back to Romans 13:

Matthew 25:34–36: Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

What is that passage called, by the way? Does anyone know? This is the Judgment of the Nations. Jesus says that this is what we together will be judged for, for what our nation does. This is how we will inherit the Kingdom, by welcoming the stranger.

But what about Romans 13 itself?

Paul writes in a rhetorical style that is pretty foreign to us. It is one of the things that can make his letters a hard read and sometimes an opaque read. He may not always mean what he appears to mean on first reading. For the sake of argument, however, I am going assume that Paul means pretty much just what he appears to mean in the letter. He is saying: Hey recipients of my letter in Rome, you should obey the law.

What is vital to understand here is that this letter is what scholars call situational. It is written by Paul to a particular group of people in a particular time of place. And the group to whom Paul is writing is comprised of Christians who are living under the boot of repression and brutality, who are enduring state-sponsored violence. He is saying to them: Obey the Roman’s law so that you don’t get yourself killed.

This is a letter, in other words, written as consolation and encouragement and advice to people who are living under oppression. It is a not a letter extending permission for the oppressor to do whatever evil it sees fit, so long as it passes a law first. If there is any question about that, then let’s keep on reading in the same chapter. Romans 13:

Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

Maybe in light of the news from the border and the distortion of the Bible that we have heard in response to it, my question to Bishop Curry should’ve been different. Maybe what I should have asked is not, “given everything you have witnessed, everything that is going on in the world, how do you remain joyous?” but rather, “given everything you have witnessed, everything that is going on in the world, is it appropriate to be joyous?”

Today is the day at Grace on which we honour the choir. The choir which serves so faithfully across the fall, winter, and spring. Its members are here every Thursday night and every Sunday morn. If St. Augustine is right and those who sing pray twice, then the choir has doubled the amount of prayer in this room.

That is something for which to say thanks.

On an occasion such as this, when we name and say thanks for the presence of beauty in our midst – when we name that we are putting our time, talent, and treasure into beauty – sometimes you will ask a question of yourself or someone else will ask a question of you. And that question goes like this:

Given all that is wrong in the world, where are you putting resources into beauty? Why are you putting resources into joy? (For the purposes of this sermon, I am going to use the words “beauty” and “joy” more or less interchangeably.)

Think how many hungry people we could’ve fed by putting resources into food instead of installing stained glass windows or repairing a the organ. Why are we wasting our time with beauty and joy?

That’s a question that we need to take seriously. I’ve thought of at least two answers. The first is that beauty, that joy is a source of holy energy for us. Sometimes anger is a catalyst into action – when you hear about what is happening on our southern border, it is appropriate and motivating to be angry. But my experience is that if I get stuck in anger, I end up embittered and cynical. I don’t act at all.

Part of the reason that I come to church and seek out beauty is that this is a place in which I refill my reservoir. That refilling allows me to participate in justice, in compassion.

The other reason that putting resources into joy matters is that doing so reminds us of what the Kingdom looks like. The delight and experience and communion we experience here in church – that is what life is supposed to look like. We come here to remember what God wants for all us of, including refugees and migrants. Part of what church does is to give us a point of reference so that, when we see the news, we can look at it and say: That’s wrong. That’s not the way that people deserve to live.

Dostoyevsky was right when said, Beauty will save the world.

Today we hear one of a number of Gospel readings about the scattering of seeds. I think that these readings are funnier than we sometimes allow. In all of them there is this element of incompetence in the sower: the seeds are scattered all over the place, on rocky ground and on good soul; or in this case, the seeds are scattered by someone who is ignorant, who watches the seeds grow but doesn’t know how.

I wonder if these stories mean that the Kingdom is without limits, that God shares it broadly, that nowhere and no one is off limits, that even those places where you think the seeds ought not to go, there too God sows.

Or maybe these stories mean that, when the seed lands on the rock, you and I have the job of moving it to the soil. Maybe these are stories about our role as co-creators of the Kingdom.

We encounter joy in the choir, in Art Camp, in one other. That joy invites us to go forth and participate in building up the Kingdom of God.

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.