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

Oct. 14, 2018

Lessons:

Amos 5:6-7,10-15
Psalm 90:12-17
Hebrews 4:12-16
Mark 10:17-31

 

The blogger and comedian Gaby Dunn talks about engaging in a do-it-yourself social experiment. Dunn’s experiment involved going up to strangers in coffee shops and other public contexts and saying:

Can I ask you two questions?

Most folks said “yes,” and so Dunn began. Her first question (and forgive me in advance if this is a little raunchy for church – you can plug your ears if you want, or you can plug your neighbour’s ears) was:

What is your favourite sexual position?

What Dunn discovered is that, by and large, folks responded to that question with enthusiasm, not only giving her an answer but volunteering a reason for their answer. The strangers would say to Dunn, O, my favourite position is this – and here’s why…

The first question completed – and sometimes it took a while for folks to tell Dunn everything that they wanted to share, they liked this question a lot – the strangers energetically asked Dunn:

What’s the second question?

And so Dunn asked them:

How much money is in your bank account?

This is the point at which folks became shocked and appalled. They couldn’t believe that Dunn would have the rashness, the uncouthness, the rudeness to ask such a personal question. This was the moment, if we lived in another era, in which the strangers would have slapped Dunn with a glove and said:

How dare you, Madam! I challenge you to a duel.

How fascinating.

We talk sometimes about how nothing is taboo anymore, about how we can now say or print anything, about how we can show anything on TV. But that’s not actually true. There are some taboos today that did not exist 20 or 50 years ago, and often we are richer for that. A generation or two ago, smoking was a marker of sophistication: today it is a marker of poor judgment. That’s probably mostly a good thing. And then there are other taboos – like the taboo around talking about money – that persist and remain powerful.

I’m not convinced that the taboo against talking about money is so healthy.

Here in the church we more or less mirror the culture around us when it comes to talking about money. (I would venture that virtually all of us in this room participate in this taboo to a significant extent. I tell you what: if you don’t participate in this taboo, just shout out how much money is in your bank account.) Talking about money is something we’d just rather not do. Sometimes we even feel more strongly than that, sometimes we feel like money is something we ought not to talk about.

And like a lot of taboos, the emotion that we feel around this monetary taboo is simultaneously vague and powerful. We will say, often with a bunch of intensity but usually without a whole lot explanation, I just feel like that money is something that is private. I remember a number of years ago at the Cathedral in Vancouver when a fellow parishioner, in a state of anger and annoyance and agitation said to me:

The church should not talk about money.

Ever.

I suspect that this taboo – inarticulate and powerful as it is – is the reason that so many Episcopalians kind of dread the fall financial stewardship campaign in their parishes, a campaign that we are starting here at Grace today. The campaigns are either boring because the leaders choose to honour the taboo and never end up talking about anything real. Or they feel kind of dangerous because the leaders choose not to honour the taboo, and we’re not sure what to do with that.

In case it’s not obvious, our financial campaign this year will be in the dangerous category.

However. My hope is that the campaign will also prove to be spiritually rewarding and maybe even fun.

Here’s the curious thing. We in church who participate in this taboo are disciples of Jesus, we are followers of Jesus. And Jesus, our teacher and model? Well, he doesn’t participate in this taboo at all. Jesus talks about money early and often and openly.

In Matthew 5:42, Jesus says when people want to borrow money, you should go ahead and lend it to them. Later on in the same book, Jesus says we ought not to store up riches on earth, but to store up riches in heaven. In Luke, in the story that we call the Good Samaritan, Jesus’ definition of a neighbour is the one who generously makes their resources – including all of their financial resources – available to someone in need. Elsewhere in Luke, he says that you and I cannot serve both God and money.

And here today in Mark, Jesus encounters a man. A rich guy who asks him a question: What must I do to inherit eternal life? This is a question, by the way, that for our ancient ancestors does not mean, “How do I get into heaven?” It means something more like, How do I participate with my whole life in what you are doing, Jesus? Eternal life, the age to come, is what happens, as the Lord’s Prayer has it, when things on earth are as they are in heaven.

Jesus answers the rich guy’s question:

You know the commandments.

Don’t murder. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t steal. Don’t lie. Don’t defraud.

Wait a minute. “Don’t defraud”? That isn’t one of the commandments, is it? There is a verse in Leviticus that says something like “don’t defraud,” but it sure isn’t chiseled onto the stone that Moses brought with him down from the mountain. Jesus is doing some on the fly editing of scripture here.

When he does that there is usually something important going on for us to notice.

Jesus says all these things and the rich guy responds: I’ve kept all of those commandments since I was young.

And then the text says that Jesus loved him. This, by the way, is the only time in the whole Gospel of Mark that scripture says that Jesus loved anybody. Apparently, Jesus is moved in a big way by speaking to this man. So he says to him:

Sell everything you have. Give it to the poor. And follow me.

And the guy does what I would probably do and, maybe, what you would do if Jesus said the same thing me. He goes away grieving.

For he has a lot of stuff.

Then our Lord looks around at his friends and he utters what might be my favourite Jesus zinger, my favourite Jesus one-liner in all of scripture: It is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to get into the Kingdom of God.

Now, maybe I’ve just answered my own question. Maybe I have actually just explained why most American Christians, like most of the rest of our culture, don’t want to talk about money out loud. Because the way that Jesus talking right now? This is kind of squirm-inducing stuff. Jesus sure appears to be saying that being rich isn’t very good for you. Jesus’ implication sure appears to be that, just by being wealthy, by being on the rich side of what we would today call the income divide or wealth divide or, to use another contemporary economic term, by having equity that is working harder then labour, this man – and by extension you and me – are defrauding our fellow children of God. We are breaking God’s commandments, and therefore we are doing damage to our souls. 

I don’t know what we do with a message like that in America, where being rich is everything, where being a winner while other people lose is everything.

If we take this passage seriously (and a number of our fellow Christians have worked pretty hard not to take it seriously – the same folks who will tell you that 1 Timothy’s prohibition on women teaching or holding authority over a man is eternal and universal will tell you that Jesus’ instruction to the rich man is only about that rich guy, not about you or me; and even those of us who don’t make that argument are likely to rationalise that we aren’t really rich because there are other people who have more stuff than us) then what does that mean as we embark upon this year’s financial stewardship campaign?

Well, there are probably, assuredly a number of answers to that question. But I’m just going to explore two. First (and maybe this is obvious, but I think it bears saying out loud), the example of Jesus is that money is something that disciples talk about directly and honestly and in an unvarnished way. Maybe – and let’s try this idea on – one of the things that Jesus wants us to know if that money is too unimportant to be a secret. We give something big power in our lives when we refuse to discuss it. Let’s not, Jesus says, give money that kind of power.

Second – and this is where I am going to spend a little more time – Jesus’ teaching, his example, is that how we spend our money is a spiritual exercise that shapes our capacity to participate fully in the Kingdom of God.

Whether or not we reckon that Jesus’ words today are directed at you and me, whether or not we think that he is really telling you and me to sell everything and give it to the poor (and let’s be clear, there have been Christians, like St. Francis and his friends, whom we remembered a couple of weeks ago, who figured that these words absolutely did apply to them), what is clear is that the Western way of clutching on to money and stuff, of living lives of anxious scarcity as opposed to lives of holy generosity, comes at a cost to our souls.

When we clutch on to material possessions and money, when we store up treasures on earth rather than in heaven, our hands become too full and too clenched to hold the Kingdom of God. They become too full and too clenched to be Jesus’ hands and feet in this world, to participate in building the Kingdom of God.

So.

There is a thread. A thread that goes back into the past, way back to Jesus, way back before that to the beginning of time, when God created and said:

It is good. It is good. It is good.

For most of us, for all of us, the thread passes into the clouds and out of sight long, long before its beginning. Maybe as far back as we can see is 100 years or so, back to the place where people whom we know and loved walked and whose stories we have heard.

100 years or so ago at Grace, some people had a holy vision – a vision for a church building in this place. And so a woman by the name of Angeline Berry made a gift. Through that gift, she was for a while the hands and feet of Christ in this world. So many people have benefited from her ministry, we are the beneficiaries of her ministry to this day. In the 1980s, some folks at this parish decided to stretch their financial resources and purchase the parking lot outside. For a while, those folks were the hands and feet of Christ in this world. So many people have benefited from her ministry, we are the beneficiaries of her ministry to this day. Around the same time, Bobbi Anderson’s family made the gift that made this stage or platform that the altar sits on possible. How many people’s theology has been shaped by having the altar in our midst rather than way back there? For a while, Bobbi’s family were the hands and feet of Christ in this world. So many people have benefited from her ministry, we are the beneficiaries of her ministry to this day.

None of these people – let’s be clear about this – bought God’s love through their gifts. God loved them unreservedly no matter what. Rather, through their gifts, they participated in God’s love, responded to God’s love.

And then we come to here. This amazing moment that we call now. This is the moment when, if you and I want, we can be Christ’s hands and feet in this world for a while. If we want, we can, with God’s help, shape what happens further down the thread. Perhaps one day – 10 years from now, 100 years from now, further down the thread – someone will say your name and say thank you.

In a month’s time you and I will be invited to make a pledge to Grace. Between now and then, we will be engaging in a spiritual practice together, a time of discernment together. We’ll be reflecting on questions about how we have experienced God’s generosity, about how we spend and save and give money, about how we want to spend and save and give money, about being Christ’s hands and feet in this world.

On November 11th, our discernment will end as we bring our pledge cards to the altar. This year as we do so, our pledge cards will look slightly different than in years past. There will be a check box on the card that says: This is a proportional gift. That statement is deliberately ambiguous. For me, when I check that box, it will mean that our family has made a tithe to the church. I have a gross salary of approximately $80,000 a year, and so our family’s pledge will be $8,000. Phoebe has income and we tithe that as well to God’s work outside of this parish.

I am aware that the subject of tithing leaves some of you here grinding your teeth. I am aware of that because you have told me. But I would be remiss not to talk about tithing. Friends, the tithe has become one of the most rewarding parts of our family’s spiritual practice. It is a way of making sure that our first fruits go to God, it is a way, as my friend Caroline McCall puts it, to stop haggling with God about how much God’s church is worth to us. Should I give what I gave last year? Should I give three times what I give to me alma mater? That’s not discernment. As Steve Lovett, our Senior Warden says, that’s just math.

Regardless, I encourage you to find your way to a place where you can check that box. Where your gift, in a way that makes sense to you, is proportionate to your income, to your spending, to your wealth, or to something else.

If your experience is anything like mine, a proportional gift will change your relationship with God. It will help the parish, yes. Imagine what this parish could do if we all became proportional gives, let alone if we all became tithers! We could dream big. But more importantly, a proportional gift will open your hands. It will declare that your money doesn’t own you. It will free you up to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world.

Jesus is a lot like Gaby Dunn. He will talk to you directly about money. He will ask you how much money is in your bank account. This fall, may you and I discern a gift to God’s church that, when Jesus’ question comes, will allow us to go away from him not like the rich guy, not grieving but, rather, will allow us to go forth rejoicing.

 

 

  • String or thread going into the past
  • Opportunity to shape reality and to shape ourselves
  • Tithe – I’m not ashamed to ask you for one; I know this bothers some of us
  • Series of questions, encountered by lay people and by you and me
  • Done haggling with God
  • Pledge card – proportional gift
  • Relationship with money that will leave us not going away from Jesus grieving but, rather, allow us to go away rejoicing

The Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, Blessing of the Animals by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Sept. 30, 2018

Lessons:

Jeremiah 22:13–16

Galatians 6:14–18

Matthew 11:25–30

Psalm 148:7–14

 

I’ve been struggling these past few days. Maybe you have been struggling too.

Watching and listening to and reading about Thursday morning’s hearings was hard. Witnessing the kind of pain we saw on Thursday morn, the kind of grief that we saw, the kind of anger that we saw, the kind of trauma that we saw; well, I think that many of us paid a price for our witness.

I know that many of us paid a price for our witness.

I am not a survivor of sexual violence. I know that there are survivors here this morning. And I know that all of us have survivors whom we love in our immediate network. I don’t know what to say except I’m sorry. As paltry as that is, I am sorry that these past few days have touched such profound wounds in so many lives.

The price that we paid for watching these hearings was magnified for me and maybe for you by the deep mistrust and even contempt that it is apparent that many of our elected officials feel for one another and that many of our fellow citizens feel for one another. The marriage researchers, John Gottman and his spouse and collaborator Julie Gottman, have learned that contempt is the most consistent and reliable predictors of a divorce. What does this kind of mutual contempt mean for our country?

I realised how much all of this was weighing on me when I got up on Friday morning in a state of amorphous anxiety and anger. I was pissed off at nothing, at everything. I felt like I had been mainlining the news, that the reports out of Washington were an IV running directly into my arm and leaving me dangerously off-balance. On Friday morning, it felt like losing my keys or stubbing my toe might be the sort of thing that would be too much, that would leave me shouting and my hands shaking.

I remembered the scene in that movie About a Boy, in which a single Mom, played by the incomparable Toni Collette, is unable to fit a dish into her kitchen cupboard. And so she just begins to sob.

What do we do with an experience like this? How do you encounter it and not feel despair? How, in particular, do we encounter it as church?

Here’s what I don’t want to do. I don’t want to regurgitate something that you have heard elsewhere, somewhere outside of church, except dressed up in religious language. There is a quip from maybe 50 years ago that the Episcopal Church was the Republican Party at prayer. Here on the West Coast in 2018, our danger is almost the opposite, our danger is in becoming the Democratic Party at prayer – and the left wing of the party at that.

That’s not any better.

When a preacher, when a Christian, takes pre-existing taking points and then proof texts them with the Bible, when they enlist Jesus to back up whatever they were already going to say – that’s something that I have probably done, that I have assuredly done – well, we fail as disciples when we do that.

Here’s what I’d like to do instead. I’d like us to notice that this is the day when the church is full of an unusual number of furry parishioners, the day when we talk about and celebrate St. Francis. On occasion of shared hurt, I’d like to wonder about what this gentle Saint from the town of Assisi might have to teach us.

Generally speaking, we don’t spend a whole lot of time remembering Saints these days. Gone is the time when Feast Days were a big part of our shared life, when an English village would turn into something like a carnival when the Feast of St. Lydia or St. Stephen or whoever came along.

But Francis remains kind of a big deal. You see his statue in a lot of places, including Grace’s own garden. And on this day, we move his readings from mid-week to a Sunday in order to specially remember him. (That practice, by the way, while widespread is authorised nowhere in the Book of Common Prayer. This is a total deviation from the rules.)

Why do we do it? Is this just kind of harmless fun?

Maybe it is that. There is something wonderful about the prayers of the people when the congregational response includes a few barks. But I think that there is more than that going on. I think that this is a day that reminds us of who God is, of what God is like, and of what God thinks about us.

Every now and again, you’ll encounter one of those bumper stickers that says Dog is my co-pilot. And I have at least one friend who finds those stickers offensive or blasphemous.

But actually, I think that they might be okay theology.

What if the love with which a dog looks at the members of its family is a lot like the love with which God looks at you and me?

I have heard folks say that what they value so much about their pets is that their pets love them unconditionally. But as a theologian observed a while back, putting the word unconditional before the word love is actually a redundant. Love that is conditional isn’t love at all: that’s just approval. Genuine love is without limit or constraint. That is the kind of love that God has for you and me. We see that love made manifest in our pets.

In this season of hurt, know that you are loved. You are loved absolutely and without reservation.

Maybe that is a platitude. But it’s also true. And Francis knew that it is a truth that, should we come to believe it, should we come to trust in it, will change everything. Imagine what the world would look like if we all knew ourselves, knew in our bones, that we are God’s beloved children, and that our neighbours are equally beloved.

Francis was not, is not, a naïve saint. He knew about suffering, he lived in poverty, he worked for justice. Late in his life, he received the stigmata, the wounds of Christ. His body bore the hardship of being alive, of risking love. But he also was and is a saint who knows that this life is so, so beautiful. And that Jesus is with us every step of the way, whispering God’s love our ears, challenging us to grow in faith and in compassion, to grow not so that God might love us, but to grow because God loves us.

We have big work to do. Big work as individuals, as a parish, as a county, as a human family, as a family of all of God’s creatures. If we are to do that work, the work of bringing justice nearer, of bringing the Kingdom of God nearer, we need the strength of God’s love. We need to voice of Jesus, which never ceases to say:

You are loved, you are loved, you are loved.

 

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

September 23, 2018

Lessons:

Jeremiah 11:18-20
Psalm 54
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
Mark 9:30-37

 

A professor emeritus from the University of British Columbia by the name of Dennis Danielson has taken on an unusual retirement project. Danielson decided to examine curricula and student handbooks from educational institutions across Canada.

Danielson reviewed these documents looking for a particular word. Late in his career, he had started noticing that this word was appearing over and over. And he had a hunch that he would find it similarly repeated across the nation. The word that he did indeed find in one context after another was the word inappropriate.

Certain conduct when writing an essay is inappropriate, certain conduct when interacting with your fellow students is inappropriate, certain conduct when interacting with your professors is inappropriate.

Prior to his retirement, Danielson was a professor of literature. He was and is, like me and like many people in this room, someone who loves words. And he was and is, also like me and like many people in this room, someone who knows that words play a huge role in creating our understanding of reality. How we tell a story plays a huge in creating reality.

When we use the word waterboarding – waterboarding sounds like some kind of sport, like it might be fun – to describe simulated drownings that sometimes turn into actual drownings, that shapes how we think about the actions of our country. When we use the term collateral damage to talk about accidentally killing civilians in a bombing raid, that shapes how we think about war. When we talk about an allegation of sexual violence and our words focus primarily the harm that might be done to the alleged perpetrator’s future or how the incident in question happened decades in the alleged perpetrator’s past rather than on the trauma of his victim, those words shape how we think about justice.[1]

Danielson’s thesis is that the educational documents he reviewed are doing something similar, that their heavy use of inappropriate in lieu of words that would have been common a generation or two ago – words like wrong or immoral or in a church context, sin – is shaping how we think about right behaviour, about just behaviour, about loving behaviour.

Inappropriate is a word that has a bland, conditional, equivocal, punch-pulling flavour to it. “Plagiarising your essay is inappropriate” is a seriously different and seriously weaker statement than “plagiarising your essay is wrong.” “Engaging in vicious gossip is inappropriate” is a seriously different and seriously weaker statement than “Engaging in vicious gossip is immoral.”

Now, I understand how we got to where we are. (I think I can safely use the word “we” here – while Danielson’s study focuses on Canadian educational contexts, but my guess is that it is not a stretch to say that American syllabi and employee manuals newspaper articles use inappropriate as early and as often as Canadian contexts.) Words like wrong and immoral and sin have a pretty long history of being used in a poisonous way, especially here within the church.

I have an acquaintance who says that it is almost impossible for her to hear the word should (as in, “you should clean up your room”) without all of the guilt of her conservative church upbringing crashing over her like a wave. That’s not an accident. These words are used by people in positions of power – people like pastors – to induce shame and the off balance state and the compliance that comes with shame.

These words are used as well to shut down debate. “Homosexuality is wrong” is a statement that doesn’t invite a whole lot of conversation. Or let’s track back a generation or five: “Women having the vote is wrong” or “Ending slavery is wrong.” How do we respond to statements like that?

I guess what I’m saying is that I get the instinct to excise these words from our vocabulary. Reaching for inappropriate early and often, by and large, is a choice that comes from a place of good intention.

However, it is also a mistake.

One of the most important things that the GLBTQ community and that other marginalised communities have taught to me is that we are not required to cede the meaning of words to anyone, including to people with power or privilege. The GLBTQ community has said, for instance, that we refuse to allow words referring to gay men to be insults or to be diagnoses. That is not and must not be cannot be what those words mean.

Inspired by my GLBTQ friends, I’ve wanted to ask the question: Do we want to cede control of church words and/or moral words to people who use them in a screwed up way? Does evangelism need to mean aggressively pushing your faith on people who just wish you would get off of their porch? What if that word meant loving Jesus so much and finding so much freedom and joy and meaning in following Jesus that you want everyone to have what you have found?

And could words like should, like wrong, like immoral (or for that matter right or moral or grace) function not as triggers for shame, not as devices for shutting down debate, not as perpetuators of patriarchy but, rather, as catalysts for moral clarity?

The problem with inappropriate and its wishy-washiness is that all but invites one of the great rejoinders of our time:

That’s just your opinion.

Whatever the moral question is that may be before us, your response to it is just your opinion, it is one opinion amongst many, all of which are equally valid. And sometimes that’s okay, I guess. But sometimes it really isn’t.

I remember vividly my professor when I was in first-year university doing a thought experiment with our class. Imagine, he said, that there are a row of babies sitting on the floor, babies of every gender, every colour, every everything. And now imagine that I walked down the row of babies, kicking each one in the head.

Would any of you think that was okay?

No! Kicking babies is wrong. It is evil. That is not just my opinion. Such an action would be categorically, unequivocally evil.

Taking children away from their parents at the border is wrong. Selling guns that meet three-quarters of the test for being assault rifles to the general public is wrong. Snipers gunning down unarmed protesters as they near the Gaza Strip border is wrong. The way that human beings treat God’s creation is wrong. Allowing people to sleep on the streets of Portland because the rest of us more or less like things how they are is wrong. Marching through the streets of America with a Nazi flag and a Tiki torch is wrong.

In his marvellous sermon last week, Corbet talked about Jesus as teacher and, in particular, about Jesus as asker of questions – sometimes a great teacher will ask a question that just opens everything up, that changes everything. This week we see Jesus using another tactic of the great teacher, and that is he employs the strong moral language that we have been talking about, accompanied by a strong moral image.

Sometimes Jesus says to us, to his students, You brood of vipers not You people who are behaving inappropriately.

So, the disciples are walking along. Jesus has just told them that following him means taking up their crosses, but they have no idea what this means. We know that they have no idea because the text says so – they did not understand what he was saying. We also know that they have no idea because, talk of the cross notwithstanding, they start arguing about which one of them is the greatest. James says to Peter: I am way more holy than you. And Peter says: Are not. To which James replies: Am so.

Are not. Am so. Are not. Am so.

And Jesus interrupts them and he says:

What are you guys talking about?

And they immediately clam up. They are like, O crap. He heard us.

Jesus, of course, knows exactly what they were talking about. And so he says:

Sit down.

They sit down and Jesus sits in the middle of them. And he says: Whoever wants to be first must be last. Not “it would be appropriate for the first to be last,” not “This is just my opinion, but maybe the first could be last.” But the first must, must be last.

And then a child runs into his arms. And the two of them sit there for a moment, in the middle of the disciples, Jesus holding the little girl or boy.

Whoever welcomes this child welcomes me.

So, whoever welcomes the one without power or status or money or fancy words, welcomes me. And this teaching is underscored by where Jesus and the child sit, here in the middle of the circle of disciples. Is this the place where the teacher sits? Maybe it is. But remember that Jesus has just been talking about the cross, so maybe the circle represents something else. Because the middle of the circle is where the one who gets stoned by the mob stands, it is where the first martyr, Stephen, will die in a few years’ time. The symbol backs up the words: I am with those on the margins, I am with those who suffer violence. If you are my disciples, you must be here too, you should be here too.

The institutional church has worked pretty hard to make words like wrong and immoral and sin refer overwhelmingly to sexuality and then to make that into a source of shame. But the example of Jesus is that sin refers to something way more important than that. Maybe we could venture that sin is another way of saying selfishness. Sin is refusing to be last, refusing to serve. Sin is when we abandon Jesus and the child in the middle of the circle. It is when we say that I am safe where I am and I’m going to stay here.

We need words that talk about our calling, about our mortal duty as disciples. These words have been used in defence of a bent theology. But we don’t need to let that bent theology own them.

It is wrong, it is immoral, it is a sin to hang back on the edge of the circle. It is right to stand with Jesus, that is something that we should do. It is right to stand with the child, to be Jesus’ arms and hands holding that child within this hurting world. And here is the good news: when we say yes to that calling, when we risk stepping into the middle of the circle with Jesus, when we risk becoming last, we will find God’s freedom not only for that child but God’s freedom for ourselves.

[1] This argument is profoundly indebted to George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language.

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Sept. 9, 2018

Lessons:

Isaiah 35:4-7a
Psalm 146
James 2:1-10-17
Mark 7:24-37

A couple of minutes ago we listened to part of a letter written by James, an epistle that today might be most famous for reputedly really annoying Martin Luther.

Those of you who know a little bit about Lutheran theology, who have hung out with Lutherans even briefly, will likely have heard about Luther’s vigorous objection to what he and other theologians called works righteousness. Works righteousness is the notion that I can buy my way into heaven, in this case not with money, but with good deeds. So, when I serve at the Friday Feast or engage in some other act of generosity or compassion, I am paying into a cosmic bank account – or, if you are into roleplaying games – I am accumulating the experience points that eventually will allow me to level up into salvation.

Luther – following in the example of Jesus – did the important work of reminding us that works righteousness isn’t and never was the Gospel. You cannot buy your way into God’s good books. Not with cash, cheques, credits cards, or bitcoins: remember from history class that the thing that got Luther into so much trouble with the institutional church was his critique of indulgences, with his insistence that you cannot pay off God. And not with good behaviour: God is not Santa Claus, God is not watching to see whether you are naughty or nice and deciding whether to reward or punish you accordingly.

The story goes that, because Luther was so on guard against works righteousness, because searching out works righteousness was a huge part of the lens that he looked through when he read the Bible or a theological commentary, when Luther got to James and this line about faith without works being dead, steam started to come out of his ears. No, no, no! Luther said (or the German 16th-Century equivalent thereof). He pounded the table and said, James is making it sound like faith and everything good and holy that flows out of it is contingent on something that human beings do. But that’s not true. It’s not about human beings. It’s about God!

In the first introduction that Luther wrote to own translation of the New Testament, he declared that James is a “really strawy epistle,” and that “it has nothing of the Gospel about it.”

What I’d like to suggest this morning is that Luther was write about the Gospel, right about Jesus – indeed, you cannot buy your way into heaven – but wrong about James. When James says that faith without works is dead, he means something different and harder and better and more freeing.

Before I go any further, I am going to ‘fess up to some of my own theology. I believe that God’s love is relentless, that God is continually seeking out our hearts, that God never gives up on inviting us to freely choose to reciprocate and to live into the love that God has for us. And I believe that God’s pursuit of our hearts does not end when we die. You will sometimes hear folks argue that if you haven’t confessed that Jesus Christ is Lord before your dying breath, you are out of luck: it’s straight to hell for you.

I have more confidence in God than that, more faith in God than that. I don’t believe that God’s power is that small or that limited, I do not believe that God is constrained by death. My guess, my faith, is that even after death, God keeps on showing us the towering, infinite goodness and love that is the Trinity. And that when we encounter that love, we will eventually choose to say yes to it. I believe that the theologians got it more or less right when they wrote that the Christian is required to believe that there is a hell – but that they are not required to believe that anyone is there.

Now, let me acknowledge that the theology I just shared has two significant problems. First, it’s kind of unfair. And second, it obligates us to ask the question: if we’re all getting into heaven anyway, then what’s the point of going to church, what’s the point of being good?

Let’s look at each for a moment. First, is everybody getting into heaven totally unfair? Yes it is. Jesus is actually quiet clear about the unfairness of God. Remember the parable about the day labourers working in the vineyard? The master (whom, I am going to venture, Jesus intends for us to understand as God) goes out and finds folks and brings them into the vineyard to work. She says to the labourers, harvest my grapes and prune my vines and rake the ground, and I’ll give you a hundred and fifty bucks. And the labourers say, Okay.

Some of the labourers start at 8am. Some of the master doesn’t find until noon. And some of them she doesn’t find until quitting time. The 5pmers have no sooner walked into the vineyard than she says, The day’s over! Time to go home!

Everybody lines up to get paid. The last are the first in line. They get a hundred and fifty bucks. And when they see this, the labourers who started work at 8am begin rubbing their hands together. There is going to be some serious overtime! But then the labourers who started at noon also get a hundred and fifty bucks. And furrows start to appear on the brows of the 8amers. When it is their turn and the master gives them the promised fee, the flip out at the master. You hosed me! they say. I was here all day, picking your stupid grapes under the stupid sun! And now, this!

And the master says: But I gave you exactly what I promised you.

The 8amers are doing something totally human and totally understandable here. They are saying: I can’t enjoy the thing promised to me unless those who are less deserving than me get less. It’s not fair.

I can’t enjoy heaven unless those who lived in a way I don’t like are kept out. It’s not fair.

And what does the master say to our It’s not fair?

She says: You’re right. Here’s your hundred and fifty bucks.

It is exasperating when God behaves like this. This is either the worst news or the best news that there is. I’m not sure which.

Here’s the second problem: If the 5pmers are getting a hundred and fifty bucks, if the adulterer and the murderer and the most selfish rich person in the world are getting into heaven – if works righteousness doesn’t work – then what’s the point of all of my efforts? Why am I in church right now? I could be reading the New York Times or sleeping or eating eggs benedict. Why should I be generous or kind or loving when, like the Prodigal Son, God is going to welcome me home no matter what?

Let’s stop for a second and do a thought experiment. Imagine the most loving person whom you have ever known. That might be the person sitting beside you right now, it might be someone far away, it might be someone whom you knew long ago, someone who is now in heaven. You receive a card telling you that this person’s birthday is coming up and that you are invited to their party. You have an opportunity to attend and to give them a present.

Now imagine that I run into you while you are looking for that person’s present. You tell me what you are doing. And so I ask you a question:

If this person is as loving as you say, then they are going to love you no matter what. So why are you bothering to get them a present, why are you wasting your time going to their party when they are going to love you even if you don’t?

Friends, I think we all know that question is absurd. I don’t give the one I love a present or spend time with them in the hopes of buying something from them. This is not a transaction. I give them a gift because the gift is a symbol, it is an outward and visible sign of the love between us, because giving them a gift brings me joy, because it somehow transforms me.

When we freely choose to say yes to discipleship, we don’t show up in church because God needs us to show up in church, we don’t give glory to God because God needs our glory, we don’t serve the Lord because the Lord needs our service. We do these things – and we are at or beyond the limits of language here – because it’s what deep freedom looks like. Remember the vision in Revelation. Heaven looks like everyone gathered around the throne of the lamb, freely and joyously offering their praise.

My guess is that Luther tripped so hard over James because he accidentally read James’ intention backwards. When James says Faith without works is dead, he doesn’t mean, Do the works and then you’ll have faith. He means, When you have faith, you will automatically choose to do works, joyfully and freely. To put that another way, James is not saying:

You do good things: therefore you know that God loves you.

James is saying:

You know that God loves you: therefore you do good things.

He means that a living faith cannot help but invite us into loving service.

We are reading James on the very day that we are welcoming new members into the church. Avril Johnson would say that is not a coincidence. Here is James’ admonition against being excited and super welcoming when one of those members looks rich. And kind of indifferent when they don’t. James’ letter is almost 2000 years old but it could have been written last week.

This is real.

I am part of the team that administrates the budget at Grace, part of the team that is responsible for keeping then lights on and the rain out. And it is a terrible temptation to look at a new member and say:

That person looks like a solid pledger – I better make sure we do a good job of welcoming them. Unlike that other person.

James says: Don’t you do that. James says: Share the love of God with the same abandon that it has been shared with you. Share the unfair love of God, the love that is not and never was a transaction, with everyone, even if they can’t pay you back, maybe especially if they can’t pay you back.

I am not saying that pledging doesn’t matter. It does. What I am saying is that we pledge not in the hopes of making God love us but because God loves us and because doing so brings us holy joy. We go to church not in the hopes of making God love us because God loves us and because doing so brings us holy joy. We serve the Lord – however imperfectly – not in the hopes of making God love us because God loves us and because doing so brings us holy joy.

Maybe we could flip James’ statement around. Maybe Martin Luther would like it that way better. Instead of saying Faith without works is dead, maybe we could say:

When you have a living faith, you will do works that are full of joy, full of freedom, full of love, hull of justice, full of the Kingdom of God.

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

August 26, 2018

Lessons:

Joshua 24:1-2a,14-18
Psalm 34:15-22
Ephesians 6:10-20
John 6:56-69

This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?

Of all the things that the disciples say in all four of the Gospels, this one might be my favourite. It is such an unvarnished, such a direct, such a real response to a teaching by Jesus.

And it’s also kind of hilarious.

Although maybe we don’t actually have to choose between real and hilarious. Maybe the two often belong together. I have sometimes wondered if a serviceable definition of a joke is that a joke is something that tells the truth in an unexpected way.

Children often give us the gift of telling us the truth unexpectedly. Maybe that is the reason that Jesus tells us to become like the very young. My friends Jeremy and Heather tell the story of visiting a friend’s home to attend a party. Their youngest child, Theo, went to the bathroom and there he discovered that the toilet was outfitted with a bidet. Now bidets are common in Europe and in Japan, but they are unusual in our part of the world.

And so Theo came marching out of the bathroom, got the attention of everyone at the party and said, “You guys! In the bathroom they have a butt wash station!”

That’s hilarious – and it’s true. I suspect that Theo wasn’t the only one at the party who wanted to comment on the bidet, who was curious about it, who thought that it was really cool. He was just the only one who was brave enough or, maybe, unscarred enough by life to name his curiosity and delight out loud.

The disciples do something similar today. The disciples are not children. But many of them are young people. Some of them, perhaps, are what we would today call teenagers; in Jesus’ time, adulthood starts at around age 12 or 14. And, like Theo, they are brave enough or innocent enough or guileless enough or trusting enough in Jesus to listen to what he has to say (just like us here in church over the last several weeks, the disciples have been listening as Jesus says I am the bread of life and eat my flesh, drink my blood) and then to say out loud:

This is hard.

Who can accept it?

One of the churchy words that we use from time to time is discipleship. Discipleship means something like being a follower of Jesus, it means saying yes to the Gospel with your life, it means being friends with Jesus. And the example of Jesus’ first friends is that a legitimate and faithful way of being alive and responding to Jesus is to say:

This is hard.

Who can accept it?

This response suggests that faith is something more complex and more beautiful and more broken than a flawless and finished piece of art that we hold in our hands, that perhaps we ask other people to admire.

Have you seen my faith? It’s perfect.

It suggests that faith is something more like a verb, it is something we do. Maybe, to borrow an image from the book of Genesis in which Jacob meets the stranger in the night underneath the stars, faith is like a wrestling match, like a struggle.

Friends, to my mind naming out loud that faith can be hard is good news and freeing news. Because I suspect that many of us – most of us? – have moments of when we wonder if we are impostors in church or impostors in life, moments when we say: I’m the only one who doesn’t get what this passage from the Bible means or why it is in the Bible at all; I’m the only one who sometimes finds the worship service confusing or weird or even boring; I’m the only one who has moments when I experience suffering or loneliness or unfairness and I don’t feel the presence of God at all.

What if we were brave enough to name those experiences out loud? What if, like Theo telling everyone about the butt wash station, we could name when discipleship is hard, when being a Christian is hard, when believing in God or believing in ourselves is hard?

I wonder what would happen if, when we did a reading in church – imagine the first reading that we heard today, a reading from the Book of Joshua, a book that sure can be read as celebrating genocide and God’s presence in genocide – imagine if we heard that reading and then the lector said:

Hear what the Spirit is saying to the church.

and instead of us replying, “Thanks be to God,” we all said,

This is hard. Who can accept it?

Or imagine if we said the Creed together and at the end, instead of Amen, we said,

This is hard. Who can accept it?

Or what if we had a litany? A litany like we do at the start of Lent every year, where I chant or say a prayer and we all respond in prayer. A litany that names what is hard about being a Christian and being alive. Wouldn’t it be cool if someone wrote a litany like that? Wouldn’t it be amazing if someone wrote a litany like that?

I’ve written a litany like that.

Let’s try it out:

Cantor:           The Trinity is comprised of three persons but only one God.

People:           This is hard. Who can accept it?

Cantor:           Jesus is fully human and fully divine.

People:           This is hard. Who can accept it?

Cantor:           In the Book of Kings, some boys make fun of Elisha for being bald. And so he curses them. And then two she-bears come forth from the woods and maul 42 of the boys.

People:           This is hard. Who can accept it?

Cantor:           Our parish is discerning the possibility of a major redevelopment project, we are wondering if God’s preferred future for us will see us replacing most of the buildings on our campus.

People:           This is hard. Who can accept it?

Cantor:           Our holiest of books, the Bible, has been quoted to defend slavery.

People:           This is hard. Who can accept it?

Cantor:           When you pray to God asking for forgiveness, even for that thing that you think might be unforgivable, before your prayer begins God has already said yes.

People:           This is hard. Who can accept it?

Cantor:           You are made in God’s image and God has designed you for a life of joy, but that doesn’t mean that you will not get the phone call that floods your life with loss and grief.

People:           This is hard. Who can accept it?

Cantor:           Sometimes when you come to communion you will kneel beside someone whom you find it hard to respect or like.

People:           This is hard. Who can accept it?

Cantor:           The homeless person sleeping on the street is a beloved child of God.

People:           This is hard. Who can accept it?

Cantor:           The woman at the border who has her baby taken out of her arms is a beloved child of God.

People:           This is hard. Who can accept it?

Cantor:           The President of the United States is a beloved child of God.

People:           This is hard. Who can accept it?

Cantor:           You are a beloved child of God.

People:           This is hard. Who can accept it?

Amen.

Maybe there is more to be added to that litany. Assuredly there is more. This thing we call discipleship is hard. This thing we call being alive is hard.

I’m always sorry when I meet someone who tells me that the reason that they don’t go to church is that they don’t know what they believe. But what if church is the perfect place to not be sure what you believe? What if the odds are high that when we come to church unsure of what we believe we will stand beside someone who, at least some of the time, is not so sure what they believe either?

In the story that we hear today, some people encounter the hardness of discipleship and they leave. We’ve all been those people. God knows I have. This is too much, too confusing, too exhausting, I have to stop. But some of them stick around. Even after they say, this is hard, maybe because they have named that this is hard, they have the strength to stay, to remain with Jesus. And maybe some of them leave and then return.

Jesus says that the truth will set you free. So let’s tell the truth.

I was at a party and they had a butt wash station; it was the most amazing thing. Someone close to me, someone I counted on, disappointed me profoundly and I wasn’t so sure that I wanted to trust people after that. Someone close to me died, and I felt like that time when I got punched in the gut on the schoolyard, I couldn’t quite breathe. Sometimes I pray and I wonder if all I am doing is whispering to an empty room. One time I was in a public space and I had something like a vision in which there were bands of light connecting everyone and illusions of separateness fell away. But I was embarrassed about the experience and so I didn’t tell anyone.

This is hard. This thing called faith is hard. This thing called life is hard. Who can accept it?

But when we keep on showing up with Jesus, we may be surprised to remember that it is also so, so beautiful.

 

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

August 19, 2018

Lessons:

Proverbs 9:1-6
Psalm 34:9-14
Ephesians 5:15-20
John 6:51-58

The novelist Salman Rushdie has a line about storytelling, about crafting words, that goes like this. Rushdie says:

Good metaphors shock.

Good metaphors don’t merely surprise us or delight us or invite us into curiosity – although they certainly do most or all of those things. Good metaphors make us gasp. They are startling, almost vulgar, offensive. You listen to them and you say: what are those words, those ideas doing together?

Here’s the problem for those of us who like telling stories: much like a joke tends be a lot less funny on the second telling, metaphors tend to lose their capacity to shock through repetition. They get worn out, they die, they no longer evoke shock or, for that matter, much of anything else. Think of the popular metaphor for betraying someone, for making someone into a patsy or a fall guy when something goes wrong. What’s the metaphor for that?

They threw him under the bus.

In its beginnings, that was a shocking metaphor. Throwing someone under the bus is a metaphor about committing murder in the most gruesome and hands-on way available. Through repetition, however, we now hear it and we don’t really even blink, let alone imagine someone disappearing beneath the wheels of a public transportation device.

Those of us who read and honour the stories of Jesus and by Jesus have the same problem. Jesus uses some seriously shocking metaphors. Sometimes they are comical, sometimes earthy, sometimes hyperbolic, sometimes just weird.

You are the salt of the earth.

The Kingdom of God.

You brood of vipers!

Take the log out of your eye before complaining about the speck in your neighbour’s eye.

Or what about the metaphor that we hear in the Gospel reading today?

I am the living bread that came down from heaven: whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood will have eternal life.

Imagine the people standing in the crowd when Jesus first speaks those words, when his words are brand new and raw, when no one has heard them a thousand times. The people look at one another and they say:

Did Jesus just use a cannibalism metaphor?

And the answer is: Yeah, he kind of did.

Jesus is upping the ante from his already shocking words Take, eat: This is my body. In case there is any ambiguity, Jesus adds the gruesome additional words: eat my flesh, drink my blood. Those who read Biblical Greek tell us that there are at least a couple of Greek verbs that mean “to eat,” and the word that Jesus uses for eating in this passage has the connotation of gnawing on bones. This is a super carnal image.

What do we do with a saying like this? If we dust off the years of repetition, if we permit Jesus’ metaphor to strike us with its full, original shocking weight, how do we respond to a Messiah who says that faith looks like a scenario in which he is our dinner?

Now, before I go any further, I want to stop for a second and do something like inserting a footnote into this sermon. (Imagine a big floating number one appearing in the air beside the word bubble coming out of my mouth, imagine it referring you to a paragraph of text down by my feet.) What I want to be clear about in this footnote is that, when I use the word “metaphor,” I don’t mean, “as opposed to something that is true or real.” Sometimes we speak of metaphors in that binary and dismissive way, sometimes we say, “That’s just a metaphor,” and what we mean by that is, “That’s just a made-up story. It’s not true.”

I don’t mean that at all. What I mean when I speak of the metaphors of Jesus is something harder to quantify. I mean that there are certain kinds of truth that are at or beyond the limits of human understanding, that are so deep into mystery that the only way that we can talk about them is by employing image and poetry and paradox. When we get super literal with these mysteries, we end up in a place that is unintentionally ridiculous. (Speaking of eating Jesus’ flesh, I know folks who were told as kids not to chew when they received communion, lest Jesus start bleeding in their mouths.)

For the purposes of our conversation this morning, what I mean by a metaphor is a symbol that points us to the truth.

Okay, that’s the end of the footnote. Back up to the word bubble.

When we hear Jesus say, “I am the bread of life,” when we hear him say, “Eat my flesh, drink my blood,” many of us think of the Eucharist. And we are right to do so – this is absolutely Eucharistic imagery. But the shocking violence of Jesus’ metaphor invites us to at least one other place as well.

That place is the cross.

It is at the foot of the cross that we encounter Jesus’ flesh and his blood most directly. He goes to the cross innocent, he is sacrificed there by empire and by the religious and economic systems that collaborate with empire. And by going to the cross innocent, he does no fewer than two things. (He assuredly does way more than two things, but these are the two that I am going to concentrate on this morning.)

The first thing that Jesus does on the cross is to reveal the total moral failure of the system that put him on the cross and that puts other people on the cross. He declares that any system which sacrifices some of its members so that others may be comfortable is engaging in evil, whether that means high priests saying “Better for one man to die”; whether it be our culture declaring that people living in tents under overpasses is an okay prince of admission for our economic structure; whether it be children being taken from their mothers at our border because we are afraid of how migrants might change us; whether it be, and think of this week’s news, Bishops covering up years and years of sexual violence by priests so as to preserve patriarchy and power.

The second thing that Jesus does on the cross is to declare his absolute and unreserved solidarity with those who suffer. On the cross he embodies what he says elsewhere: Just as you have done to the least of these, so have you done to me. When we turn violence on the least of these –economic violence, the violence of racism, the violence of nationalism, the violence of gun-worship, the violence of patriarchy, the list goes on – we are turning that violence on Jesus. On the cross we learn that it is Jesus who is living in the tent under the overpass, Jesus who is the child taken out of his mother’s arms, Jesus who is the victim of years of sexual violence from a priest.

Now, a minute ago I said that we often think of Eucharist when we hear Jesus say, Eat my flesh, drink my blood, and that we were right to do so. Yes, this is Eucharistic language. But it is Eucharistic imagery that must be understood in light of the cross.

There is a moment at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer – after we say amen, after we say the Lord’s Prayer – when the priest (today, that will be me) holds up the bread and then breaks it. One of my mentors taught me the practice of pausing in that moment, of letting the bread rest there for a beat, intact. His reading of the symbol of waiting is this: in that moment of waiting, we declare our longing that the Body of Christ could be unbroken, that Jesus’ flesh could be unbroken. But then we do break it, we accept that the wounds of Jesus are inescapable part of his story, that the breaking of the Body of Christ is an inescapable part of our story.

Once the bread is broken, we take it into our bodies.

As the old saying has it, you are what you eat. On Sunday mornings we eat the brokenness and the suffering of Jesus, we eat his radical and non-violent resistance of empire, we eat his absolute loving solidarity with the poor. May we indeed, with God’s help, become what we eat. May we come to communion, not as an intellectual concept that we must agree to, but as an encounter that might transform us.

Good metaphors shock. May the bread of life, the flesh and blood of Jesus, give us a holy shock. And may that holy shock invite us to share God’s freedom, God’s joy, God’s love. May the flesh and blood of Jesus invite us to share the bread of life across the world.

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.