Second Sunday after the Epiphany by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Jan. 19, 2020

Lessons:

Isaiah 49:1-7

1 Corinthians 1:1-9

John 1:29-42

Psalm 40:1-12

If you have ever taken an acting class – maybe in high school, maybe in university, maybe somewhere else – then you will likely have done the exercise of selecting a short line of text and seeing how many different ways that you can say it. The line might be something that your teacher made up or it might be a famous line from a famous play. For the sake of exploration, let’s say that the line in question is what might be the most famous line ever spoken on the stage.

To be or not to be. That is the question.

How many ways could we say these words that Shakespeare gives to Hamlet?

Well, maybe we could lean hard into To be and then go soft on the rest of the line:

TO BE

(or not to be). That is the question.

Maybe we could borrow the technique of the late German actor, Bruno Ganz, who according to lore said:

To be

and then paused and paused and paused, waiting, legend has it, for more than two minutes of silence before concluding…

or not to be. That is the question.

Or maybe the first sentence with its contrasting choices isn’t as important as what comes next. How about:

(To be or not to be.)

THAT is the question.

We could keep on going as long as we wanted, as long as our imaginations lasted.

Scripture, like Shakespeare, doesn’t contain a lot of stage directions or other descriptions. Most of the time, folks in the Bible just say stuff. Their words are generally not followed by, “…she said, angrily” or “…he told them, with tears in his eyes and shaking hands.” The text does not volunteer whether their eyebrows are raised, whether they are speaking through gritted teeth, Clint Eastwood style, whether they are slurring their words, whether they are giggling as they talk.

And so here is my question for this morning. We are in the Gospel of John, right near its beginning. Jesus has just been baptised. And then the very first words that Jesus speaks go like this:

What are you looking for?

How shall we read Jesus’ words?

Let’s try out a few possibilities.

What are you looking for?

So, this is a Jesus who is aggressive, accusatory, and maybe wary. This is a Jesus who sees you glancing his way on the street and says, “What do you think you’re looking at?”

Now, stay with me here. Because we are so accustomed to Serene Jesus that we may want to reflexively rule out the possibility of Cranky Jesus. But I want to suggest that this is a thoroughly plausible reading of these words.

Because John the Baptist has just seen Jesus and announced to Andrew and his friend:

There goes the Lamb of God.

And what do we know about lambs? Well, we know that, as the old expression has it, they are led with some regularity to the slaughter. This is particularly true in Jesus’ time, where the sacrifice of animals is woven into the life of the temple. John is saying a lot of things when he announces that Jesus is the Lamb of God – there is a theological complexity to this statement that could and has filled up a few books. But one of the most basic things that it means is:

There is the one who is going to die in the service of the Lord.

Before Jesus predicts his own death – and as we know, Jesus predicts his dying early and often – John the Baptist predicts it.

And so we can understand why Jesus might speak with hostility, why he might say to Andrew and his friend:

What are you looking for?

Are you two here to watch me die? Are you like the people who slow down going past the car accident, equal parts horrified and titillated, both fearing and hoping that you will see blood on the asphalt?

Are you staring because I am a dead man walking?

What are you looking for?

Let’s try another possibility:

What are you looking for?

This is Jesus as the guru with the big beard on the mountaintop, this is Jesus as Yoda. Jesus is asking a question to which he already knows the answer. The purpose of the question is not for Jesus to learn anything, not for Jesus to find anything out. The purpose of the question is for the one being questioned to learn, for the seeker to learn. For you to learn.

This is maybe the Jesus with whom we are most familiar. And I can understand why: in a lot of ways, this is a reassuring Jesus: the Messiah who is in control, who is stable and powerful, who has something like superpowers.

Jesus asking the question in this way is like a guide on a journey. He knows the path on which we walk backwards and forwards, he cannot get lost. While he is on the journey with us, he shares in none of our discovery and none of our uncertainty. When we wander off of the way and into the briars or the poison ivy, he does not follow us. He stays on the path and asks his question: What are you looking for?

When Jesus ask his question, he is really saying: I know what you are looking for. Do you know what you are looking for?

Maybe there is a trace of a smile on his face as he speaks.

One more.

What are you looking for?

So, this is Jesus as genuinely curious. Not angry and challenging but not all-knowing either. This is the Son of God, shortly after his baptism, the day after the dove has descended and the voice of the one whom he calls Father has said:

This is my Son, the Beloved. In whom I delight.

This is Jesus wandering around in stunned wonder, standing in the wake of this profound mystical experience and not sure what is supposed to happen next. In the Synoptic Gospels (so, Matthew, Mark, and Luke) this is the moment when the Spirit drives or maybe leads Jesus out into the wilderness. Here in the Fourth Gospel, this is the moment when Jesus notices that two people have left John’s side and begun to follow him.

Picture him, blinking in the sunlight, his clothes maybe not entirely dry from that day before, the silt of the Jordan still in his hair. He looks at Andrew and his friend and says:

What are you looking for?

This is Jesus who is, himself, not sure what he is looking for. This is the Jesus who shares with us in our search. We are lost and hoping to be found. And so is Jesus.

Which reading is right? Which one is true? Is it one of these three or still another?­ How does Jesus sound when he looks at you and he says:

What are you looking for?

The Second Sunday after Christmas by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Jan. 5, 2020

Lessons:

Jeremiah 31:7-14

Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a

Matthew 2:13-15,19-23

Psalm 84

A remarkable number of Christmas carols and Christmas songs and Christmas hymns have a wistful, melancholic, plain-old sad side to them.

In the Bleak Midwinter and The Little Drummer Boy are both sung in the voice of one who knows poverty: What can I give him, poor as I am? and I am a poor boy, too – pa rum pum pum-pum.

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas speaks of finitude and randomness: Through the years we all will be together…

…if the fates allow…

and of troubles which, achingly, beautifully, the singer hopes and longs will now be miles away.

And even We Need a Little Christmas from the musical Mame:

We need a little Christmas, right this very minute!

Words that are almost impossible to sing without putting on your Angela Lansbury voice, a number as toe-tapping and danceable a Christmas song there is, tells us:

I’ve grown a little leaner
Grown a little colder
Grown a little sadder
Grown a little older

I bet that we could think of still more examples.

What’s going on? Why are so many pages of the Christmas song book stained with tears?

Some of it probably has to do with the time of the year. These short days are taxing and it is easy to feel out of gas. Some of it probably flows out of the dissonance that shows up when, in a season when you are kind of expected or even required to be happy, you realise that you are not: if Christmas sits for you in the shadow of loss or grief or loneliness and the world around you appears to be full-time joy and friendship and merriment and Christmas cards filled with success and success and winning and winning, that’s hard. And some of it is probably due to just having time off: if you, like me, are the sort of person whose preferred drug is not so much booze as it is busyness, getting a break from work or projects or school simply allows you the time to be sad.

And some of it has to do with Christmas itself – not the contemporary holiday, but the ancient story of the birth of Jesus. Sorrow is woven right into this tale, it is right there beside the joy. Here is a family living in poverty – remember in the Gospel of Luke that, when the holy family goes to the temple to make a sacrifice to the Lord in Jesus’ name, the family buys a pair of turtledoves and two pigeons, the cheapest possible animals available, a marker that tells you that their wallets are close to empty. Here is a family living with the indignity and fear of occupation – Mary must give birth on the road because that Empire commands them to travel. And here is a family who, shortly after Jesus’ birth, become refugees, who flee to Egypt, because Empire’s violence is coming for them.

Those of you who have been hanging around church for a while will know that, three days after the Feast of Christmas, there comes another Feast. This is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, a day that keeps the memory all of the children under the age of two whom King Herod orders to be murdered in the hopes that Jesus will be among them.

The story of those murders, the story of what, beginning in the twentieth century, we would call a crime against humanity, is one that we probably ought to tell not just on December 28th but on this Sunday as well. Except, because of a curious choice made by the folks who framed the lectionary (i.e., the schedule of readings that we follow from one Sunday to the next), we just skip past it. Here is Matthew Chapter 2, Verses 13-15, in which Joseph is warned in a dream and flees with his family to Egypt. And then we pop ahead to Verse 19, which begins, “When Herod died,” and it is safe for the family to come home.

And they lived happily ever after! This is almost a Disney story.

Except missing from what we just read together are verses 16 through 18:

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.

The Magi, in art and in nativity sets, are often these jovial, kind, harmless figures, gift-wrapped boxes in their hands. But what this story in its fullness tells us is that they are also tragic figures, sorrow-filled figures. They choose to trust Herod, choose to trust the King, someone who ought to be trustworthy, with the amazing good news that the Messiah has been born. And in so doing, they unwittingly invite Herod’s violence into Jesus’ life and Joseph and Mary’s lives and into the lives of who knows how many innocent and unnamed children.

Children who, now, will never get to grow up.

So. I have some distressing news to share with you. Over the last number of weeks, you may have received warning notice from Grace letting you know that there is a scammer or, maybe, multiple scammers hopping onto email pretending to be Jeanne or me or a parishioner here at Grace. And I’m really sorry to let you know that no fewer than two parishioners have been defrauded of money by this scam. One parishioner was defrauded of about $300. More recently, a second parishioner was defrauded of $1300.

Now, I want to be clear. I have just transitioned from the murder of children to the stealing of money, and I want to emphasise that the two are not the moral equivalent of one another. Of course they are not. What I am arguing, I guess, is that thefts such as these are microcosms, small versions, of other, bigger kinds of violence. Violence such as Herod inflicts, violence such as we hear about today in synagogues and churches.

Because in both cases, the violence is against trust, against community. We come to church or synagogue or other places of worship because we trust that we are going to find healing, belonging, and meaning in these places, we trust that we are going to find goodness and love in them, we trust that we are going to find safety in them, we trust that we are going to find God in them. These are places, we reckon, where we are home, where we are allowed to let down our guards.

And when someone takes advantage of that trust and pretends to be a member of the community asking for help or, far worse, brings a gun or a knife a machete into the community, it feels like an especially big violation. And it demands the question: how shall we respond?

Is church too going to be place where we must be on guard at all times?

For some of our fellow people of faith, the answer is “yes.” As you likely know, a recent shooting at a church in Texas was stopped and who knows how many murders prevented because several church goers were armed and one of them was able to shoot and kill the perpetrator. This is the famous “good guy with a gun,” except in real life. Is the takeaway that we at Grace should do the same, that acolytes and choir members ought to have pistols under their robes and keep a machine gun stowed in the pulpit? Microcosmically, do the recent scams mean that the trust that is so much part of this good place is something that we ought to regard with scepticism and suspicion?

Maybe a sensible answer, a street-smart answer, would be “yes.” But that’s not the answer that I want to give. And if Jesus is telling the truth when, in Gethsemane he tells his disciple to put away the sword, when he pushes back when that the disciples want to engage in violence, when, even on the cross, he chooses to forgive, then I don’t think that it is the answer that Jesus wants us to give either.

Maybe it is naïve or foolish or reckless. But I believe that Jesus, the child laying in the manger even as the soldiers draw near, wants us to keep on trusting in goodness and love, keep on hoping for goodness and love, keep on working for goodness and love.

Because I think Jesus’ trust, Jesus’ trust in humanity in spite of everything, is built right into Christmas. Theologians will sometimes say of the incarnation, of the Kingdom, of the Gospel, that these things have an already and a not yet quality. The kingdom is already here, Jesus is already among us. The church is already the body of Christ. And yet silly power struggles and hurt feelings remain. And scams remain. And the worst kind of violence remains.

And in a way, the not yet makes the already even more amazing, Here is all of this brokenness. And here is Jesus, here is God, showing up anyway. That is the best news.

Already and not yet is the paradox built into his paradoxical time of year, a time of year in which we sing paradoxical songs: songs of joy and glad tidings and loneliness and grief. Songs of hope, that Jesus is here among all of the hurt and that Jesus is coming and that Jesus will change everything. That is hope that I need, for which I long.

For we’ve grown a little leaner
Grown a little colder
Grown a little sadder
Grown a little older

We need a little Christmas. Now.

 

The Third Sunday after Advent by The Rev. Martin Elfert

 

December 15, 2019

Lessons:

Isaiah 35:1-10

James 5:7-10

Matthew 11:2-11

 Canticle 15 

 

In 1989 I obtained my driver’s license. And then then partway through the next year, I became a full-time bicycle commuter.

These two changes – the driver’s license and the vastly expanded understanding of where all a bike might take me; suddenly my bike was suddenly taking me everywhere – brought with them two things into my life. The first was a profound freedom. Up until then I had been kind of limited, depending on the bus or my feet or the kindness of my parents and their car to get around. Now, I could more or less go where I wanted when I wanted.

The second thing was a new kind of anger. It is an anger that you may know about, an anger that in its extremer form actually has a name: Road rage. There is something uniquely aggravating about getting around on the modern system of streets. I don’t know if that is because it is dangerous – the bent metal of two cars meeting or, worse yet, a car and a bike meeting can send you to the hospital right now or to the morgue right now, and maybe that danger touches the reptilian parts of our brains, the fight or flight parts of our brains. Or maybe there is just something about travelling on asphalt that is plain-old frustrating. I’m curious if our ancestors getting around in buggies pulled by horses had this kind of rage. I’m guessing – and maybe I’m mistaken – that they did not, that there were rarely people hopping off of one horse to kick someone on another horse.

Regardless of the reason, I am glad that smartphones did not exist back then and the camcorders were uncommon, glad that (as far as I know) there are no videos of me on the streets of Vancouver with spit and profanity and fury flying out of my mouth. I blew my stack with some regularity. And looking back on Younger Me, I guess that some of my anger was reasonable: here were people taking stop signs as suggestions and merging across lanes and opening doors without any idea that the shoulder check had ever been invented.

Justified or not, reasonable or not, I rarely achieve that level of anger on the road today. Some of that has to do with aging, I’m sure – the years have rounded off my edges, much as the ocean rounds off the edges of broken glass. But some of it is also a choice.

Be patient, says James. Be patient for the coming of the Lord.

Be patient like the farmer is patient with the earth.

Be patient and do not grumble, lest you be judged.

The Lord is coming soon.

I don’t know if how we behave in traffic is a trivial example, a silly example; there are so many things to get angry about that matter way more than how and where someone merges on the highway. I do know that it’s a real example, an everyday example. And maybe how we meet others on the road is a kind of sacrament – a kind of outward and visible sign – of how we meet our neighbours in general.

I wonder if part of what James means by this entreaty to patience is that grumbling, that rage does nothing to make the Kingdom get here any sooner. And that sometimes it might even slow it down.

Because choosing to be patient – well, it doesn’t mean being morally lazy, acting as though nothing is right and nothing is wrong. Rather, I want to suggest that patience, holy patience, means allowing that your neighbour is as complex as you, as contradictory as you, as well-intended as you, as fallible and broken as you, as loved by God as you.

These days, I still do speak to people who run stop signs or don’t shoulder check. But I speak to them way differently than I did in 1990. Because what I noticed over the years is that when folks swore at me or yelled at me or sent sarcasm or accusation my way, I become all but completely unable to listen to what they had to say. I get closed off like a turtle, all of my energy reflexively going into defending myself.

These days I will say something like, Shoulder check, please! Or That’s a stop sign. I don’t know my patience changes anyone’s behaviour – there is no scientist to interview these folks and to measure their reactions. I do know, if absolutely nothing else, this way of being in the world changes me. To encounter my neighbour with patience – well, my blood pressure is lower, I am happier, I am more generous.

I trust that this practice matters. And I wonder what it would be like if I and we could find a way of practicing this kind of patience not just on the roads but more broadly. What if we met folks who lived differently or voted differently with holy patience? Again, not shrugging at our excusing injustice, but encountering injustice with the assumption that even those who perpetuate it are as complex as we are, as beloved of God as we are? That might change us. That might change everything.

To move around a major city such as Portland, whether it be by car or by bicycle or by foot or by something else, is to have abundant opportunities to lose your temper. There are so many people out there making choices that you just would not make: folks regarding stop signs as suggestions; folks merging or opening doors without any sense that the shoulder check has ever been invented; folks driving in the highway’s leftmost lane who are moving so epically slowly that they are very nearly going backwards; and of course folks so absorbed by their phones that they have no idea that the light changed several weeks ago.

I’ve been a bicycle commuter for very nearly thirty years, going back to my days at the University of British Columbia. And I’ve done my fair share of temper losing, my fair share of getting red in the face of and shouting words that you aren’t allowed to say in church at my fellow commuters.

And looking back on Younger Me, I guess I can understand why he blew his stack as often and as enthusiastically as he did. To be on a bike in traffic – remember that in the early nineties bike lanes essentially did not exist – is to be profoundly vulnerable, vulnerable not an emotional or psychic sense but in an “I might go to the hospital or to the morgue” kind of sense. And when someone in a truck or a car makes a choice that puts you in danger, that old cocktail of adrenaline and fear and anger is not far away. Yelling is maybe reasonable.

But reasonable or not, understandable or not, I don’t yell much on my bike anymore. It isn’t just that I am embarrassed by some of the stuff that I shouted on the streets of Vancouver all the years ago (although I am embarrassed – I hope that there are no video records of me with bulging eyes and pointing figures and spit flying out of my mouth) but more than I came to believe that my yelling wasn’t helping anyone to become a better driver. And it certainly wasn’t helping me.

Now, let me pause here and say that I am in no way advocating for shrugging in the face of injustice. Certain things are wrong and we have a duty as moral people and as disciples to say as much. Rather, I mean something more like this: even as we name what is wrong or unfair or unjust, even as we act in response, is there a way we can do so while also remembering and honoring the dignity and humanity of the one with whom we speak? Is there a way that we can remember that they are contradictory and complex, just like us, that they sometimes make bad decisions, just like us, that most of the time they are trying their best, just like us.

Imagine what politics in this country would be like if we chose to act that way. Rather than assuming that our neighbour is being awful on purpose, destructive on purpose, selfish on purpose.

These days I still do sometimes talk to other folks on the road. But I talk to them really differently than I did in 1990. If someone makes a merge without shoulder checking – and that, as you likely know, is a scary experience on a bike – I’ve gotten to the point where I am able to say, “Could you please shoulder check?”

The First Sunday of Advent by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Dec. 1, 2019

Lessons:

Isaiah 2:1-5

Romans 13:11-14

Matthew 24:36-44

Psalm 122

Many of you, most of you, will know the famous prose-poem or, if you prefer, the famous confession by the Lutheran Pastor, Martin Niemöller. It’s about his time in Nazi Germany, and it goes like this:

First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist

Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist

Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist

Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew

Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me

There are certain ideas that just hang out in our cultural waters. Even if you have never seen the original Star Wars trilogy (and I am appalled to think that there may be people who have never seen the original Star Wars trilogy), you know the broad arc of its tale: if someone puts on their James Earl Jones voice and says, “Luke, I am your father,” you probably know what they are talking about. Even if you have neither read Treasure Island nor seen Pirates of the Caribbean, you probably have a mental image of someone with a peg leg, a parrot, and an inexplicable fondness for prefacing sentences with the word arr.

And even if you have never read the Left Behind series, even if you have never hung out in a church that has something Left Behind-ish as part of its theology, you probably know about the rapture. And as a consequence, Left Behind probably shapes how you hear Jesus’ words today, it certainly shapes how I hear them:

Two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left.

Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.

Thanks to Left Behind, what do we know about what Jesus is teaching us here?

Well, first, to be taken is something supernatural. One minute you are standing there and the next – Pop! – you are not. Maybe you just vanish or maybe an angel come and gets you or maybe you are sucked into the sky. Julianne Moore was in a movie that came out maybe 15 years ago that featured people getting sucked into sky. Folks flew up, up, and away out of the frame as though on an invisible bungee cord. The movie was okay. But that effect was amazing.

The second thing that we know from Left Behind, that we know about the rapture, is that to be taken is good. You want to be taken, to be taken means that you are good with God. If you suddenly find yourself alone in a field when, just a moment ago, your co-worker was standing beside you, that is not good news. To be the one saying, “I have been left behind” or, as they express it in French, “Je suis gauche derrière,” means either that God has found out who is naughty and who is nice and you are in the wrong column or, at a minimum, it means that God has a seriously difficult task waiting for you.

Either way, being left behind in the field sucks.

Here is my thesis for this morning – or at least the first part of my thesis. I want to suggest that if you and I were to learn Aramaic and then hop into our time machines and hang out with the crowds following Jesus, and if we were to stand up on a rock and announce these two assumptions – to be taken is a supernatural event and to be taken is good – both the crowd around us and Jesus himself would be utterly gobsmacked.

Because what Jesus and his friends living under empire know is the same thing Martin Niemöller knew. And that is that there ain’t nothing supernatural about being taken. And there sure ain’t anything good about it.

If you are working in the fields and one of you is taken it is because the men in uniforms have come. If you are grinding meal and one of you is taken it is because those same men have just kicked the door off of its hinges. If you are taken, you are not going to heaven, at least not directly. You are going to a cage or to a box car or to a place remote enough that no one will hear either the screams or the gunshots.

My father is 94 years old. And like Martin Niemöller, he lived through Nazism, although Dad was a generation younger. And Dad has stories of people being taken. People who criticised the government or complained about the wrong thing of the wrong public figure. Usually the disappeared were never seen again. Although Dad does tell the story of one person who had been taken returning to their village. All of this man’s teeth had been kicked out. And no one, no one, dared to ask him:

What happened to you?

Taking people is how empire functions. Rome had its famous peace, the Nazis at the height of their power were able to occupy huge amounts of land without a whole lot of soldiers keeping an eye on things because everybody knew that to cross empire was to risk being taken and to risk the ones whom you loved being taken.

In a sense, therefore, there were and there are two ways of being taken by empire’s violence. The first is the obvious one, this is the scenario in which the soldier’s come and grab you. This is what happens to John the Baptist and to Saint Stephen and to the folks in my father’s hometown and to Jesus himself. Jesus is taken by the soldiers to the cross. But there is a second way of being taken, and that is the way that Niemöller talks about in his poem, in his confession. This is when we are taken up and into empire’s violence by witnessing and doing nothing.

I am not a communist, so I will not speak out.

I am not a homosexual, so I will not speak out.

I am not a Jew, so I will not speak out.

I am not black in America, so I will not speak out.

I am not transgender, so I will not speak out.

I am not an undocumented immigrant, so I will not speak out.

And while in this second scenario, in this second kind of taking, we may not be taken away in chains, our liberty is nonetheless taken from us, our consciences are taken from us, a part of our humanity is taken from us. Here is Peter, near the end of the story, denying that he knows Jesus.

And so while, a moment ago, I said that Jesus is taken by the soldiers, there is a sense in which Jesus is never taken at all. Because Jesus is the one who, up until the very end of his earthly life, refuses to be taken up into empire’s hatred or into violence. Remember what we read last week: as he hangs on the cross, Jesus could be excused for cursing the soldiers, he could be excused for cursing the thieves who mock him. What he says is forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing. What Jesus says is Today you will be with me in paradise.

And maybe this is the choice that all of us as Jesus’ followers must make. When empire and its violence comes, will we be silent, will we allow ourselves to be taken? Or will we do something hard and good, something Christ-like, and choose to be left behind?

The Last Sunday after Pentecost: Christ the King by The Rev. Martin Elfert

 

Nov. 24, 2019

Lessons:

Jeremiah 23:1-6
Psalm 46
Colossians 1:11-20
Luke 23:33-43

It is the end of the church year and, as is always the case, we bring these liturgical 365 days to a close with the Feast of Christ the King. Now, what is unusual about this particular Feast Day, about this particular “always,” is that in this case “always” doesn’t actually mean that all that long. Christ the King is a Feast that was created by Pope Pius XI in 1925. Originally the Pope had Roman Catholics celebrating Christ the King on the final Sunday in October and then, in 1969 or 1970, depending on which part of the internet you ask, the Feast got moved to the last day of the church year.

It is not clear when the Episcopal Church started keeping the Feast of Christ the King. Indeed, if Scott Gunn, the editor of Forward Day by Day and one of the creators of Lenten Madness is to believed, the answer to that question is “never.” Gunn says that the Episcopal Church has never officially adopted this Feast at all and, therefore, what all real Episcopalians know is that what we are actually celebrating today is the Last Day of the Season of Pentecost.

Now maybe that is a lot of insider baseball. But I am bringing it up because I want to suggest the history of this Feast and the intention behind it may have some things to teach us.

Cast your mind back to 1925. Most of us here this morning had not yet finished college by then. But see if you can remember what was happening in the world at that time and, in particular, what was happening in and around Rome where the Vatican is located.

1925 was the year that Benito Mussolini came to power, that he became Prime Minister of Italy. So it was a time of rising nationalism and, still more specifically, of rising fascism. And one of the things that fascism looked and maybe still looks like is a leader, a human being, having this God-like status. Mussolini was someone who bordered on all-powerful, all-knowing. Whose will it was wrong to question, whose will it was maybe even impious to question. To question or to challenge Mussolini was very nearly to question or to challenge God.

Mussolini was Lord of Lords and King of Kings.

And it is in response to this understanding of the world, to this theocracy, to the model in which the leader overlaps with God, that Pope Pius says No. There is one King, there is one Lord, and he ain’t somebody goose stepping around Italy in brown pants.

This Feast, in other words, is explicitly political in nature. It declares that our faith as a Christians, as followers of Jesus, places profound demands on how we engage with the world of politics.

And if we want, we can regard Pius’ decision cynically. We can conclude that Pope Pius was lamenting the erosion of power by the Vatican and by the Pope in particular, that he was longing for centuries gone by in which the Pope was something pretty close to a monarch or a god himself.

And maybe that cynicism would be fair. But here is one of the things that I trust about God: God can and does take things human actions that maybe did not have the best motivations and find a way of making them holy. And no matter how pure or impure the intention behind this Feast may be, it has something important to say.

I think I have told you before about my late friend, Barbara. Barbara was well into her nineties by the time that I met her. She was full of years and full of wisdom. And Barbara said something to me that I think about often. She said:

We need to be careful about what we worship.

Because we will worship something.

To put Barbara’s thought another way, notwithstanding the hand-wringing that sometimes goes on in churches about a perceived decline in religious participation, in fact there has been no decline in religiosity whatsoever. To this day, 100% of human beings are religious, 100% of us our giving our lives, our attention, our hearts to something that is irrational or, if you prefer, transrational.

Virtually all of us, for instance – including virtually all of us here in church this morning – are worshipping early and often in the religion called consumerism. Consumerism is the promise that we will find healing, belonging, and meaning in stuff, that we will find transformation, in the accumulation of stuff. This is a religion that we keep on worshipping in even though it lets us down every single time. As Jeanne shared with us a couple of weeks ago, no matter how many shoes you accumulate, you will not satisfy your deep longings.

Some of us worship in the religion that is booze. It is our own Gary Tuck who pointed out to me that many bars feature row upon row of beautifully arranged and beautifully lit hard liquor, a setup that Gary calls An altar to alcohol. Some of us worship in the religion that is called work, boasting to our friends about how many hours we work and how little sleep we get, answering the question How are you? with the words I’m so busy. And some of us, as in the days of Mussolini, worship a public figure, a celebrity or a politician.

There are way, way more examples that we could find. And so our question is not, Am I religious? but rather it is something more like:

Have I chosen my religion critically and wisely and lovingly? and

Does my religion give life to me, life to my neighbour, life to God’s creation?

Maybe we could use the language of the Bible here and phrase those questions a different way:

Am I worshipping that which is joyous and true? Or am I worshipping a false idol?

Now, I want to stop here and emphasise that when I speak of idolatry, when I speak of bad religion, I am not speaking of other expressions of what we typically call faith. I am not the least bit troubled that someone is a Hindu or a Muslim or Buddhist or whatever. To the contrary, I am glad that those folks have a practice that invites them into conversation with the divine, I trust that, at some level beyond human understanding, those folks and you and I are talking about the same ultimate reality, about the same God.

No. When I speak of idolatry or bad religion, I am talking about that stuff that promises to fill the God-shaped hole that all of us have in our hearts and that fails spectacularly over and over again.

It is in response to this bad religion that comes the Feast of Christ the King. In response to the promises of Mussolini and his contemporary descendants, in response to the promise that you will find your salvation in iPhones and shoes, in response to the promise that you will find freedom in booze, in response to all of these idols, Christ the King says no. Here are religions that invite us into selfishness and apathy and maybe even self-destruction and hatred, and here is title of King, a title that belongs to the patriarchy and to the world of power and violence.

Here is given to a peasant who is murdered for telling too many people that all they really need to do is love God and to love neighbour.

Crown him with many crowns goes the old hymn. And this is the mystery of this Feast day, this is the mystery of our faith. That when all of the false idols gather together, when the bad religion that is empire takes Jesus, takes God, and nails him to a tree, there God reveals the futility and brokenness of empire’s violence once and for all. In God’s suffering on the cross, which God does in solidarity with every human being who suffers and with the suffering of the earth, we discover the staggering truth that Jesus Christ is King.

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

Nov. 17, 2019

Lessons:

Malachi 4:1-2a
Psalm 98
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Luke 21:5-19

 

 

One of the themes that recurs throughout Jesus’ teaching is:

Be ready.

You don’t know when the bridegroom is coming, you don’t know when the owner of the house is coming, you don’t know when the thief is coming. So stay awake. Have your lamps filled with oil, build your house on solid rock, slaughter the fatted calf and make sure that you have dinner in the oven.

Jesus is a bit like the motivational speaker who tells us:

If you fail to plan, then plan to fail.

That’s how Jesus talks.

Except when he doesn’t.

Except on days like today when he says:

Make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance;

for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.

Is this just Jesus trying to keep us on our toes? That’s entirely possible; I’m not going to rule it out. Jesus absolutely has the capacity to take the steering wheel and turn it hard, so that just when you are sure that a parable or a teaching is going one way it is suddenly skidding hard and facing back where it came from. But here’s what I’m wondering about this morning: what if when Jesus says that hard times are coming and that you and I aren’t to prepare our defence ahead of time, his instruction isn’t contradictory to those times when he says that we are to be ready but, rather, it is complementary?

Here we are in church. And what we are doing here together is a practice. We are practicing being Christians, we are practicing being in community, as Brené Brown says, we are practicing coming to the communion rail with people whom we would sometimes like to choke. We are practicing following Jesus. We’re not here because we have everything figured out, because we know with perfect clarity what we believe, because God has explained everything to us. Quite the opposite. We’re here because we do have doubts and because there are questions that don’t make much sense to us.

We are here because we sense that we need to practice.

And like every practice – like practicing scales on the piano, like practicing your lines for a play, like practicing your baseball swing, like practicing driving (what else belongs on this list?), maybe like practicing law or practicing medicine, the practice that we call church is sometimes exciting and sometimes beautiful and sometimes weird and sometimes aggravating and sometimes boring.

But we trust – I trust, anyway, and I’m guessing that you are here because you do as well – that all of the practice matters, including the hard and boring stuff, maybe even especially the hard and boring stuff. Because my understanding from folks who have gotten really good at something, let’s say folks who have gotten really good at playing the piano, is that they have gotten near to mastery because they have put in the kind of boring but kind of vital work that is doing stuff like playing scales.

And maybe Sunday morning in the Episcopal way has some things in common with playing scales. The liturgy – the order of service that we follow across this morning – is remarkably predictable across the year. We sing different hymns, we wear different colours, we say some different prayers. But a sermon such as this is almost always followed by the creed which is almost always followed by the prayers of the people which, unless it is Easter, are almost always followed by the confession and absolution, which is almost always followed by the peace.

Our practice takes us on this well-worn path. And while there is some variation on what we do on the path – some weeks there is a puddle on the path that we need to walk around – the path itself remains the same.

Walking this path is part of how we obey Jesus when he says, Be ready. Practicing is big part of how we get ready.

But having practiced there are times when we get to or, maybe, when we have to put down the structure of scales or Sunday liturgy and improvise. There are times when we have to make up our minds not to prepare.

So. One of the things that most folks who want to get ordained do is to spend a stretch of time, maybe ten weeks or so, functioning as an apprentice chaplain in a hospital. This time of apprenticeship is known as clinical pastoral education, or CPE. CPE is kind of legendary among ordinands. During CPE you have the privilege, the wonderful and the terrifying experience, of walking into the hospital rooms of strangers.

And I think that those of us who came to CPE having practiced church a lot, those of us who came out of structured traditions such as this one, often wanted to bring our structure with us into the hospital room. The Book of Common Prayer is a kind of security blanket. And I guess that we reckoned that, if we prayed with people in hospital beds using the official prayers within it, then we couldn’t go too wrong.

Except that sometimes, oftentimes, the set prayers of the BCP could prevent us from really listening and really being present with the folks in those rooms.

And so we got an instruction from our mentor, Will Hocker. Will said:

If you must bring a Prayer Book with you into a hospital room, make it a small one.

And leave it in your pocket the whole time.

Having prepared, having obeyed Jesus’ command to practice, to get ready, it was now time for us to obey his command not to prepare. Doing all those scales, if you like, had gotten us ready for a place where it was a good and holy thing not to be prepared.

I wonder how many other parts of our lives are the same? It is kind of a commonplace to say that we live in alienated society, but it’s a commonplace because it’s true. A great many of us are mystified by our neighbours who do not think or act or vote like us. A great many of us do not even interact with our neighbours who do not think or act or vote like us. We don’t encounter those folks except on Twitter or, maybe, over an excruciating Thanksgiving dinner. And at dinner, over the turkey, we either ignore that which divides us or we engage it with anger and even contempt.

We have in our hands our prepared talking points, our prepared jabs and jokes, our prepared data, our prepared tweets. And these things will earn us likes and high fives from people who already think like us. And they will do nothing, nothing to open our hearts or minds or to open the hearts or minds of our neighbours.

Now, let me stop here and emphasise that I am not championing some uncritical moral relativism where everyone is entitled to their opinion and all opinions are equaled valid. No. There is an objective wrong and an objective right, I insist on that, some opinions are far, far better than others. What I am saying is that, if it is our hope to be the best and most moral people that we can be, if it is our hope to follow Jesus as completely as possible, sometimes we need to set down our prepared everything and get curious.

I had an experience a few weeks back that I have been thinking about a bunch. There is a public figure out there whom I do not admire. As you think about my experience, I’ll invite you to imagine a public figure whom you do not admire. And I friend and I were talking about that public figure when my friend caught me utterly off guard by expressing their deep admiration for that public figure.

I was so startled that I didn’t say anything. Which is probably just as well, because if I had said something, it would have been:

Why do you like that guy? He’s a total wiener.

Looking back, I wish that I had gotten curious. I wish I had said:

Tell me. What is it that you admire about this public figure? What is it that you think that they are doing great?

And maybe that is what Jesus is doing in his teaching this morning. When he says, for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict, I’ve always heard his teaching as something like a revenge fantasy. With the Holy Spirit’s help, I am going to be able to turn the tables on my opponents, I am going am going to humiliate the people who have humiliated me, this will be like the last scene in an action movie where the villain gets what they deserve.

But what if what Jesus means is that, when you encounter violence and contempt, you do something amazing and keep on remembering the full humanity of the one who is turning that violence on you? What if you respond with curiosity, with generosity, and love?

Here’s the hard part. Jesus is really clear that this may not work. Even more, he is clear that it probably won’t work. He lists off all of these calamities, all of this suffering. And then he says, Make up your minds not to prepare. And then he goes right back into calamities and suffering. Jesus may well be saying that there is a one in ten chance of an open heart changing a situation that is filled with hate, maybe a one in a hundred chance.

But he says,

Do it anyway.

It is worth the chance that the wily Holy Spirit will move in their hearts and in yours. And something will change.

This is the holy naivete of the Gospel.

Jesus’ disciples have prepared and prepared. They have followed Jesus and listened to Jesus and imitated Jesus. And now with all of that preparation done, it is time not to prepare at all. It is time to go towards that which they fear and to make up their minds not to be ready. And as they meet their neighbour who maybe wishes them harm, as they meet their neighbour with their hands empty and their prayer books in their pockets and their phones turned off and their hearts full, maybe their neighbour will notice just a little of the love of Jesus that they are carrying with them.

And maybe that love will prove to be something that no one, no one, is able to withstand or to contradict.

 

Blessing of the Animals, The Feast of St. Francis of Assisi 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

Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me.

For I am gentle and humble in heart,

and you will find rest for your souls.

Why do we like Saint Francis?

Probably the most obvious answer, especially on a day like this one, is that Francis loves animals and so do most of the rest of us. Francis is the thirteenth century’s answer to Ace Ventura, Pet Detective: a bird perched on his shoulder, a mouse in his hand, wolves and dogs and cats curling around his legs.

And that’s beautiful stuff. To have a dog look at you in tail-wagging adoration is amazing, it is a foretaste of heaven. When a member of our family would return home after a few days away, our late dog, Bodhi, would run jubilant laps around the living room. In those moments Bodhi looked like he had won the lottery or, possibly, the Super Bowl.

There really is something to the old bumper-sticker prayer:

Lord, help me to be the person that my dog thinks that I am.

And so we are kind of going to be drawn to a saint who embodies our love of animals, who gets that love.

But I suspect there’s more, that Francis’ connection with animals is not the only reason that, in a time when most of us do not keep feast days, we keep Francis’ feast. My guess is that we are drawn to this human being because, almost 800 years later, we have the sense that Francis, in imitation of Christ, was and is deeply free, that he was possessed of a profound freedom.

Now before we go any further, let’s acknowledge that, in America, in October of 2019, freedom is a complicated word. We have neighbours for whom, somehow, wandering around a Walmart with an assault rifle is freedom; for whom the frantic consumption of the earth’s resources is freedom; for whom indifference to the suffering of the least of these is freedom; for whom celebrating war is freedom.

If that is what freedom is, may I be in chains.

I’d like to make the suggestion that real freedom, the freedom of Francis, the freedom of Jesus, is not like that stuff at all. Here’s the definition of freedom that I would like us to try out this morning:

Freedom is living with deep trust.

Freedom is living with the deep trust that God made us to be good; that our lives have meaning; that we, as individuals and communities, have the agency and ability to respond to God, to live into that goodness. It is to trust that there is enough, that God has given us a world of beauty and abundance, and that if we want, if we choose, there is enough for absolutely all of God’s children to thrive. It is to trust that no one and nothing owns us. And maybe this is more difficult – or maybe it’s the best part, I’m not sure – it is to trust that we don’t own anything, that everything we have, our very bodies included, are fleeting gifts.

Here’s the thing about freedom, about the freedom of Francis and of Jesus before him. Here’s what makes it kind of dangerous. Francis’ freedom is glorious, it is holy, it might be the best thing. But boy, is it hard.

Because Francis took Jesus totally literally when Jesus said Sell what you have and give the money to the poor. Francis chose to live in poverty; he chose to beg for his food; notwithstanding being disabled and what today we would call being chronically ill, he lived a lot of his life outdoors. He spoke Brother Sun and Sister Moon and, amazingly in our death-denying culture, even Sister Death.

And not many of us live that way. I certainly don’t. I like living indoors; I like knowing with something pretty close to certainty that I will have plenty of food for tonight’s dinner and for every dinner this week and every dinner this year; I like being able to travel; I like being able to save for retirement and for my children’s college education; I like having a computer and watching Netflix on it.

I am probably not going to be selling everything I have and giving it to the poor or to anyone else. And I don’t think all that many other Christians are going to do so either.

And yet I long – dare I say we long – for Francis’ freedom. Because as much as I like all of that stuff, all of the goods and services and privileges that I have, this stuff also troubles me, it is also something like a burden, something like a yoke that is heavy.

What does it mean that, by my own standards at age twenty, I am fabulously wealthy, and yet I am still worried that I won’t have enough, that my money will run out? If anything, I might be more worried than I was at twenty, more stuck in a place of scarcity than I was then. That suggests that I could have a hundred million dollars or a billion dollars or a gazillion dollars, I could have enough to pay off the national debt and still go yachting every weekend, and I would still be worried about running out.

And let’s be clear, my worry – and if this in any way sounds familiar to you, your worry – is not a character flaw or a failing or even a mistake. Rather, it is the consequence of careful design: constantly being worried about running out is how consumerism trains us to live. Consumerism tells me and you that we cannot join Francis in participating in the abundance of Jesus, in the feast where everyone gets fed, where the loaves and fishes never run out, because if we pass on the dish with the fish and the bread on it to the next person, there might not be enough for us.

So.

In addition to being St. Francis’ feast day, today is the first day of our fall financial stewardship campaign, that season of the year in which all of us who love this place that we call Grace Memorial are invited to prayerfully consider making a pledge towards God’s work through our parish. And when I realised that these two things were going to coincide on the calendar, St. Francis and money, I thought to myself:

Well, that sucks.

What a bummer that something as joyous as remembering Francis and blessing animals is intersecting with the annual chore that is a pledge campaign.

But then I thought some more and I prayed some more and I said:

Why am I acting and talking about giving to God’s church as though it were a chore? Because my experience actually hasn’t been that way at all. My experience – much to my surprise – is that financial stewardship is kind of a joy. That giving intentionally and prayerfully to church is a tiny taste of the freedom that Francis had.

This is a testimonial.

I don’t know if we are allowed to give testimonials in the Episcopal church. But here we go.

When I first started going to church on a regular basis some fifteen years ago, I encountered this idea called pledging. I’d never really heard of pledging before, it wasn’t part of my life anywhere else, anywhere in the so-called secular world. And so Phoebe and I had to encounter this question:

We love this church; how much are supposed to give? How much do we want to give? How much can we afford to give?

Both of us were working in the performing arts which, as you perhaps know, is the opposite of lucrative. We weren’t wealthy.

Rather than tossing a dart at a board or rolling dice or whatever, we took the advice of our priest, Peter, who said, Why don’t you try out giving twenty-five dollars a week? (Indexed for inflation, maybe that’s $32 or $33 a week now.) We did, and our family’s adventure with pledging began.

Over the ensuing years, we were lucky enough or blessed enough or privileged enough to increase our giving. It wasn’t a linear increase, like an escalator going up: when I went to seminary and our income got dramatically reduced at the same time that we started paying tuition, our giving reduced dramatically as well, and then it resumed its increase as we entered the workforce.

Now, here’s the problem with hanging out with people who have gotten serious about following Jesus. They challenge you. Their challenge is loving, but the challenge is real nonetheless. People who have gotten serious about following Jesus challenge you to see the dignity of every human being, even the human beings whom you don’t particularly like or respect. People who have gotten serious about following Jesus challenge you to understand the earth as something holy, as something pretty close to God’s body, and therefore as deserving of our reverence. And people who have gotten serious about following Jesus challenge you to have a day planner and financial statements that both proclaim how big a deal the Gospel is in your life.

Some of these people even challenge you to consider tithing.

Let me pause here to say that I am aware that I am walking out into a little bit of a minefield here, that there is more than one person in this room for whom the subject of tithing is a catalyst for annoyance or even resentment. And I get that: like so many things that the institutional church has gotten its hands on, the tithe has been used in a screwed-up way a lot of times, it has been a weapon for guilt trips and shame.

But I want to suggest that, like other churchy words that so many of us are suspicious of – words such as evangelism or ministry or even religious itself – we are allowed and maybe even called to take back the word tithe, to claim it, to allow the possibility that it is something good and holy. That the ancient, Biblical practice of setting aside 10% of what God had given us and giving that 10% back to God just might be wonderful.

A few years ago, Phoebe and I started to wonder about the tithe. We were drawn somehow to this practice – like a lot of the things the Holy Spirit does, She kept on gently and persistently suggesting to us that we take on this practice. Phoebe and I looked at each other and said: Is there any way that we could pull that off?

I have a gross salary of just over $80,000 a year. Is there any way that we could possibly give just over $8,000 a year to Grace?

But starting a few years ago, we tried it out.

And friends, the tithe has become one of the most rewarding aspects of our family’s shared spiritual practice.

For our family, the tithe has been the end of wondering whether we were giving enough, whether we were making a sacrificial gift to our church. It has been the end of being conflicted about our giving. It has been a choice to live with generous hearts, to know that our finances match up with our values. It has been a choice to trust that we have enough, that God’s abundance includes us. It has been a declaration that our money doesn’t own us. It has been a choice to loosen our grip on our money.

It has been a little taste of St. Francis’ freedom.

I know, from speaking to other folks who tithe, that our experience is not unique. That for those who are able to adopt this spiritual practice, it is liberating. And so I will invite you to talk about tithing with your loved ones, to pray about it, and if you haven’t done so before, to consider whether tithing might be a spiritual practice that you would like to try.

I reckon that we love Francis because, like Jesus before him, he was so deeply free. He took Jesus’ yoke and he learned from Jesus. And in doing so, he found rest for his soul.

May you and I find that kind of freedom that Francis had.

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Sept. 15, 2019

Lessons:

Exodus 32:7-14
Psalm 51:1-11
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Luke 15:1-10

 

This is a story that ends with a cliffhanger.

The story goes like this.

Once upon a time.

Once upon a time, Jesus came to Portland.

The whole city was really excited. Somehow, impossibly, Jesus was not on the news or on Twitter or NPR. But everybody had a story about bumping into him.

One person said that they had seen Jesus down on the Eastbank Esplanade, and that Jesus looked like he was thinking pretty hard about kicking his leg over the railing and walking across the water to the other side. Someone else talked with Jesus as they rode the tram up to OHSU. On the ride up Jesus told them that, back in his day, if you and your friends wanted to get to the top of a mountain, you had to climb it yourself. And still another person bumped into Jesus at Powell’s Books. You’ll never, they whispered, believe what Jesus was reading.

Everybody had a tale about meeting Jesus. Everyone, that is, except for one person, a person whose name I have changed to Stanley. Stanley was leading a good life. He lived in a good house, had good friends, attended a good church, drove his good car to his good job. Stanley was a good person.

Stanley wasn’t sure what it meant that so many people had met Jesus but he had not. He was getting kind of worried. And so he got pretty excited when word reached him that Jesus was at the park right near his house.

Stanley stopped everything. He turned off the kettle, he put the cat outside, he told Alexa to shut off the radio. And he got up and he went. Down the street, past the coffee shop, and the pub, and the other coffee shop, and the other pub, down into the wild green.

And there Jesus was.

Jesus was standing on a little hill, the toes of his bare feet digging into the grass. His blue track suit shining in the sun.

Telling stories.

A crowd was gathered around. Stanley joined them. He stood beside someone he knew, a friend, another good person. And he listened.

Jesus’ stories might’ve been even stranger and more confusing and more beautiful in person.

Who knows how long Stanley and the others stood there? Time passed that day the way that it did sometimes when Stanley was a child, when an afternoon of play would come so close to perfection that he could scarcely believe that the sun was setting and the voices of home were calling to him.

Jesus’ storytelling ended in the very same way as those afternoons did all those years ago, not with Jesus saying,

The end,

but with Jesus saying,

I’m hungry.

Stanley was hungry too. He started looking around for a food cart. Maybe he could take Jesus out for dinner?

But Jesus didn’t go anywhere and nor did anyone else. It looked like they had done this before. Somebody in crowd had a little food. And someone else had a little more. And together, Stanley was amazed to see, there was plenty. Down went the picnic blankets and down went the food and down sat the people and Stanley was just about join them.

When he noticed who all was there.

A minute ago, when everyone was standing, Stanley could only see the handful of people near him. But now, with Stanley still on his feet and just about everyone else sitting down, the faces became clear.

The friend whom he stood beside a minute ago is not the only one whom Stanley knew at this picnic. He know no fewer than half of the people here. Maybe more.

Here was Stanley’s relative, the one whom it was so much work to be around, so that Stanley spent every Thanksgiving and Christmas working hard to avoid the laundry list of subjects that lay like landmines between the two of them. Here was his neighbour from a few houses down, whose bumper stickers and lawn signs feel like bee stings or bombs into Stanley’s world. Here was the one whom Stanley had not seen in some time, maybe months, maybe years. At their last parting there was anger and accusation and damage that Stanley was not sure could ever be forgiven.

There were still others.

And so Stanley pushed his way through the people and across the picnic blankets and over to Jesus.

Jesus!

Stanley whispered. But it was the kind of whisper that is loud enough to turn heads.

Jesus! I’m not sure if you know who all is here.

And Stanley told him the history of the people who were sitting around him, that these were the kind of people who were here at the picnic.

To which Jesus replied:

I know! Isn’t it amazing that they are all here?

But the expression on Stanley’s face made it clear that he did not think that this was amazing at all. At least not amazing in a good way. Jesus saw Stanley’s brow furrow, saw his face start to redden. And so Jesus said:

Stanley.

Do you do much sheep herding?

Stanley was about to reply but Jesus just kept on talking.

You know when you have a hundred sheep? And one goes missing? Well, what do you do then? You leave the ninety-nine by themselves out in the desert and go find the one. Right?

But Stanley was not sure that this was right at all. In fact, it sounded kind of irresponsible to leave ninety-nine sheep with no one looking after them where they might get lost or eaten by wolves. But again, before he could reply, Jesus said:

So you leave the ninety-nine and you find the one. You pick up your sheep, you carry it home. And what you do say to everyone?

Rejoice me with!

And Jesus looked around at those seated on the picnic blanket and he beamed.

But Stanley still looked confused. And so Jesus said:

Okay, I’ve got another one. Have you ever lost a coin in a couch? You know how you drop everything and you tear apart that couch, until you are standing in a pile of cushions and couch lint and mummified raisins, the coin in your hand? You know how you text all your friends then? What do you text to them?

Rejoice with me!

A moment of silence passed, Stanley staring at Jesus, Jesus staring back at him with the biggest smile on his face that you can imagine.

Meeting Jesus was may more disappointing that Stanley had expected.

At last, Stanley spoke:

Okay, I get it,

Stanley said,

These people on the blankets, with everything that they have done, everything that they are responsible for, all of the hurt that they have caused. They are like the lost sheep, they are like the cost coin. And we’re all supposed to rejoice that they are here.

Yay. I guess.

Another moment of silence passed. And then Jesus says:

Oh, no, Stanley. They aren’t the lost sheep or the lost coin.

You are.

And we’ve found you.

Jesus looked around at everyone on the blanket and he said:

Rejoice with me!

And there was a great cheer.

And this is the cliffhanger at the end of the story. There is space on the picnic blanket for Stanley, there is abundant food for him to eat, there is a party hosted by Jesus.

Tell me,

Tell me,

Tell me,

Does Stanley choose to sit down?

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Sept. 8, 2019

Lessons:

Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Psalm 1
Philemon 1-21
Luke 14:25-33

Living this life is like building a tower.

I’d like to start with a quick survey: how many of you here have done a renovation project? (I’m defining the term renovation fairly broadly here – so as big as adding or altering a bathroom and as small as, I don’t know what, insulating your attic or putting drywall up in your basement or adding gutters. A project, in other words, that involves a drill gun and maybe a contractor and encountering the interior parts of your home, parts that you don’t normally see.)

So, a good number of us.

What you will know as a veteran of renovation is, with a handful of exceptions, renovations take longer than you planned, they are more complicated than you planned, they are more expensive than you planned. To open a wall in an old house is almost always to find problems or hurdles that you didn’t see coming.

I’m thinking about this, I guess, because I spent a good part of the last week working on running a new electrical receptacle to the narthex, to the wee lobby area just inside the front doors. It was more complicated than I had planned. That thing that looks like an arch around the door to the narthex, that appears to be holding up the ceiling? That’s actually hollow, at least down at floor level. The thing that looks like a plain-old wall beside it, that you would reckon would be lath and plaster with a hollow interior? That’s solid concrete, most likely the pillar that bears the load of the building.

That reversal of my expectations made running wire more challenging and differently challenging than I had expected.

I may have said some words that you are not supposed to say in church.

If the tradition is correct and Jesus followed his Dad into the carpentry business, if Jesus worked in construction, maybe building roads or houses in the city of Sepphoris, just a few miles north of Nazareth, then it is curious that in his parables and his other teachings Jesus reaches for imagery from construction so infrequently. He talks about agriculture a lot, about domestic service a lot, about money a lot. But not often does he talk about building things.

And so it is intriguing that, today, he talks about building a tower:

Who among you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and estimate the cost? Because if you don’t, if you pour a foundation and then run out of money when you’ve built a third of the tower, everybody is going to mock you.

And you will forever be known around the neighbourhood as The Tower Loser.

On its face, this is pretty fine advice, the sort of thing that your uncle or your grandma might say to you as you are heading off to college: be careful about taking out credit cards; learn to cook your own meals, you’ll save a fortune; make sure you estimate the cost before building a tower.

And while that is highly sensible advice, advice that I am inclined to heed both here at Grace and in my own family’s life, I am not convinced that it is Jesus’ advice. Because while Jesus is a lot of things, he is just about never sensible. Jesus is not the guy who is going to tell you how to judiciously navigate the stock market or how to advance your career or how to dress for success. The things that Jesus has to say are way more beautiful and way more dangerous than that.

And so any time we hear Jesus say something and we respond, “Well, isn’t that nice,” that’s a clue that we may be missing where Jesus is going.

A few things in particular make me suspect a more wonderful, frustrating, confusing, complicated, holy message behind Jesus’ words. The first is the question itself: Who among you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down and calculate the cost first?

This question is almost a trick or a trap. There is a temptation to answer it reflexively and fast and say No one or at least Not me Jesus! But the actual answer, as the fully human Jesus well knows, is, well, a lot of people. Who among you does not finish your taxes well before April 15th? Who among you does not finish your essay a week before it is due so that you have ample time to proof read and get feedback? Who among you has not laid in your Halloween candy, pre-ordered a turkey for Thanksgiving, and finished your Christmas shopping?

Sometimes we are pretty good at planning ahead. But a lot of the time, because life happens, because we get overwhelmed, because we just forget, stuff sneaks up on us. It is the day when we are supposed to break ground on the tower, all of our friends are there with their shovels, and our plans amount to three lines written on a napkin.

The second thing I notice about Jesus’ saying has to do with the history of towers themselves in scripture. If you have access to that old-school tool called the concordance, an enormous book that lets you find where and when and how many times any word shows up in scripture, or if you have access to that new-school tool called the computer, you will know that, a whole lot of the time, towers in the Bible correlate with hard news.

What is the most famous tower in scripture? Babel. A symbol of human arrogance and Divine anger and totally not up to code engineering. And while towers elsewhere sometime stand for good news – 2 Samuel 22:50 and Psalm 61 describe God as a “tower,” and the erotic poem that we call Song of Solomon speaks of breasts like towers – that is by no means the rule. In Judges, the tower of Shechem is burned in war with great and horrifying loss of life. In Isaiah and Ezekiel, destruction looks like hyenas crying in a city’s towers and towers being pulled down. Ecclesiasticus speaks of a tower of death. Jesus himself mentions a tower in just one other context. Does anyone know what that is? It is also the Gospel of Luke, the previous chapter, 13. And there Jesus tells of the tower of Siloam, which falls and kills 18 people.

In scripture the tower is, at best, an ambiguous symbol – and maybe a symbol of things going spectacularly, disastrously wrong.

Last – and here I would like to return to where I started, to renovations – a tower is, by necessity, a product of building stuff. And as everyone here who has done a renovation knows, and as everyone in Jesus’ audience knows (generally speaking, your grandparents and our ancestors still further back were more handy than us, they knew how to do things), building stuff is hard. And so the crowd before Jesus, like us, knows in their bones about the joys and the wild frustrations and the confounded expectations of digging out a hammer and a saw.

And this is what, Jesus says, following him is like. Discipleship, saying yes to Jesus, saying yes to the Kingdom: it’s like being caught off guard by the first day of construction; it’s like a tower falling over in war; it’s like starting to dig and opening the walls and finding out that your project is going to cost more and take more time and work than you had imagined.

How is this good news?

Well, it’s good news because it is the truth. Faith, hanging out in community with other people, doing this beautiful messy thing that we call church, having friends and family, being alive, building our real and our metaphorical towers: these things are all so much harder than we planned for them to be.

Or maybe that is not 100% accurate. Sometimes these things are exactly as hard as we planned for them to be. But we discover that it is one thing to plan for an experience and quite another to live that experience.

How often does someone say, I knew my spouse’s death was coming. And so I got ready. But when it happened I wasn’t ready at all.

Or

I knew that the job loss was coming. But when it happened I wasn’t ready at all.

Or

I knew that growing up or going away to school or moving to another city or retiring or getting old was coming. But when it happened I wasn’t ready at all.

We knew that building this tower, that standing in the hot sun and, then later, in the cold rain would be hard. We planned. And somehow it turned out that we hadn’t planned at all.

So Jesus’ words are good news because they are true. And they are good news as well because, while the tower of Babel did not get anyone to heaven, the hard work of building these towers does get us closer to God.

My old boss, Bill, would often ask folks at a funeral a question. The question went something like this:

Imagine.

Imagine that I have the lamp with the genie inside. When I rub it, the genie comes out and he says,

I can take all of your grief away.

There’s only one catch. You have to agree to change your past so that you never met the one who died.

How many of you,

Bill would ask,

Would take that deal?

No one ever, ever put their hand up.

Living this life is like building a tower. Sometimes we are ready for construction to begin, a lot of times we could not be less prepared. Sometimes the tower falls over partway through construction. Always, always, there are tests: things that we didn’t see coming and things that we did see coming but that push us to and beyond our limits anyway.

But who would wish it different? Who would wish our towers away? Even when they fall, even when they lean like Pisa, even when they take more than we could have imagined, they remain glorious and holy, evidence that we have lived our lives, that we have said yes to love, to possibility, to God. Our towers are proof that we are here.

 

 

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

August 18, 2019

Lessons:

Jeremiah 23:23-29
Psalm 82
Hebrews 11:29-12:2
Luke 12:49-56

 

On Wednesday morning I attended a rally organised by the mayor’s office. The rally was downtown at Pioneer Courthouse Square and I was there as a representative of the Interfaith Alliance on Poverty, an organisation to which Grace belongs. The purpose of the gathering was for folks from a whole variety of contexts (there were representatives in attendance from business groups, from other faith communities, from political and law-enforcement organisations, from unions) to together say that we condemn and we reject white supremacy and we condemn and reject the violence that it brings. As a group we declared that if folks are coming to Portland with the goal of nurturing violence and hate that they are not welcome here.

The folks coordinating the rally positioned me in the front row, just behind the dignitaries, somewhere to the audience’s right of the lectern; I wasn’t there to make a speech, just to look good, something at which I am excellent. And I was charged with the task of holding a giant letter “H,” part of a collection of giant letters that together spelled “Our city, our home.” (I was never a cheerleader, so finally getting to hold a giant letter, even if I had to wait ‘til middle age to do it, was kind of cool. Gimme and H!) Along with a lot of other folks, I stood there with my letter, looking out at a wall of cameras, at a whole bunch of reporters.

I don’t know how much the rally swayed the nouveau Nazis who want to come march in our streets. But I think that it was important for us as a community to say that white supremacy is not a part of who we want to be, not a part of who we are called to be.

The experience at the rally was mostly awesome. Except that, whoever designed the square, whoever designed what is sometimes called Portland’s living room, did not give a whole lot of thought to shade. And friends, I am not built for the heat. Even with a substantial hat on my head, even keeping myself well hydrated, standing still in the direct August sun was heavy going. And so about an hour into the rally and still only two-thirds of the way through the speeches, my knees just gave way. And me and my big “H” were suddenly half-kneeling, half-sitting on Pioneer Square’s brick floor.

Now, I am someone who not only really wants to be in control of myself but, more than that, I am someone who really wants to appear to be in control of myself. I did not care very much for adolescence, when my body frequently had its own ideas about how it was going to behave: without any permission from me, acne showed up on my face and my eyesight fell off of a cliff and I was listening to unbidden comments about how much my voice had changed. And to this day I don’t like it at all when the visible evidence of my control slips, when I am vulnerable. I want to be the one who gives help: I don’t want to be the one who needs it.

I totally understand what the writer David Dark means when he says that his sense of composure is almost sacred to him.

So, if I am going to be ill, or if I my knees are going to give way and I am going to fall, I’d really prefer to do so in the privacy of my own home.

But here’s the problem:

Standing in the front row of a press conference with several dozen cameras pointed your way is the possibly the least private place to do anything.

A lot of people noticed that I had fallen and came to help, to offer their kindness and their concern. The folks near me, several police officers and, fascinatingly, someone dressed like a national park ranger, like Smokie the Bear, all gathered around me, all of them sincerely, generously compassionate.

Other than sitting on the ground, I was actually doing okay: I didn’t hit my head, I wasn’t feeling dizzy. And I reckoned that the best plan was to sit there, to drink as much water as I could, and to trust that, in half an hour, my legs would be willing to hold me up again.

I told what felt like four dozen different people that this was my plan. And then my neighbour held up my “H” for me and I sat in its shade.

Today, in Paul’s letter to the Hebrews, we hear this protracted meditation on faith. Paul gives one example after another from scripture of what is possible when you have faith, of what people across history have done who have faith. Here are the folks who have endured much and have done much, who have walked through across the seabed and who have caused walls to come tumbling down and have seen resurrection.

And then Paul shares with us what, on some days, I think just might the most beautiful words in scripture:

We are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.

Now if we want to, I guess we can read Paul’s words as those of a kind of First-Century motivational speaker: David defeated all those armies, so you can too; I am a rock star or an NBA player or a billionaire entrepreneur, so you can be one too. In this reading, Paul is sharing a quintessentially Western and quintessentially modern message: say your prayers, work hard, set goals, and you will be rich and famous. You will win. Never mind that being rich or famous are, by definition, something that only a tiny fraction of us can do.

But what if that isn’t what Paul means at all? What if, rather than being a celebration of individual achievement, of rugged self-reliance, Paul is offering a repudiation of that philosophy and a celebration of something way better? Why if Paul is saying that faith is what happens when we realise that we are not alone, that we never were, and that we were never meant to live life without anyone’s help. More than that – and this is hard for a lot of us – we are incapable of living life without anyone’s help.

There is this cloud of witnesses.

To paraphrase that 20th-Century Saint, Mr. Rogers: some of the people in the cloud are here; some are far away; some are even in heaven. So, some of the people in our cloud of witnesses have died, maybe years or decades or even centuries ago. And I believe, I trust that our relationship with them remains. But the cloud is not comprised only of those who have died, not just of the angels in heaven. It is comprised as well of everyone around us. Our friends right now, our family right now, our loved ones right now, our neighbours right now, the strangers who makes a cameo appearance in our lives right now.

They are the cloud of witnesses for us, the ones on whom we lean. And we get our turn to be the cloud of witnesses for them.

And it is a failure of holy gratitude – or maybe that it is not strong enough language – it is heresy or idolatry to look at the cloud and say: I have no need of you. This heresy damages us and damages those around us.

I read a fascinating article, maybe ten years ago, about the ethics of organ transplants. And it featured someone making the case for paying people to donate their organs. The reason that the person wanted to pay donors was not to make them more likely to part with a kidney. But rather it was, so that after transplant, the recipient wouldn’t owe the donor anything. I’m just not comfortable, the person said, owing another person that much.

As though any amount of money given to the person who gave you the internal organ that allowed your life to continue would make you even, any more than you could be even with your parents or the others who loved you into being. A gazillion dollars wouldn’t make you even.

My friend Brian said something a while back that I have thought often. Brian recounted how folks who were sceptical of church would sometimes say to him Religion is just a crutch.

To which Brian, marvellously, replied:

Yes, it’s a crutch.

And I need a crutch.

Acknowledging the cloud of witnesses, acknowledging our dependence upon them, means putting away the story that says, so long as our credit card goes through or our cheque clears, we don’t owe anyone anything. It means acknowledging our profound and utter dependence on one another and on God.

This is the spiritual gift of falling down in a public place, whether that fall be figurative – a diagnosis, a job loss, a grave disappointment, an enormous grief – or whether, as in my case, it be as literal as literal can get. In the fall the illusion of self-sufficiency is stripped away, the illusion that we were ever 100% in control, that we were ever 100% composed, the illusion that we could stand on our own two feet and owe nothing to no one. In the place of the illusion is the hard but also glorious and freeing and joyous truth that our falling was always inevitable but, when that fall comes, the cloud of witnesses will catch us.