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

Nov. 17, 2019


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.


Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Corbet Clark

October 28, 2018


Jeremiah 31:7-9
Psalm 126
Hebrews 7:23-28
Mark 10:46-52

The last thing I do before I leave the sacristy to begin a service is to check my cell phone to make sure it’s turned off. Cell phones are a wonderful form of communication, that give us access to all kinds of information anywhere in the world. But they are also a major source of distraction for us. It turns out (I looked this up on the internet) that the average 40-something user looks at their phone 35 times a day, and the average 20-something looks 75 times a day. The latest iPhone operating system tells you every week how much screen time you had on average. Last week mine was 2 hours per day. Wow. My excuse is that I was following the World Series a lot last week.

Human beings are highly distractible creatures. We take in all kinds of sensory input – visual, auditory, touch – and our minds are active all the time. It helps make us the creative, imaginative creatures we are. But we can also be overwhelmed by everything around us. We know how critical it is, in work or in relationships or at church, to be able to focus on the main thing and not get bogged down in distractions, but it’s hard to do. If I ask you NOT to think about elephants for 15 seconds [pause] you just can’t do it. Your brain is telling you, “Don’t think about elephants! Don’t think about elephants!” It doesn’t work.

So we have to find ways to manage distractions so we can focus on what’s most important. Any teacher can tell you that highly distractible students need to find techniques to help them focus. For some it turns out that doodling actually helps them concentrate on what’s happening in class – which seems counter-intuitive. Others become adept at twirling their pencils in their fingers, which may be a distraction for the teacher but helps the student pay attention.

It’s not just students. We all have to find ways to manage the myriad of distractions that bombard us constantly. Across spiritual traditions, people have developed techniques of prayer and meditation that allow them to focus on the divine. Finding a quiet place away from daily activity, concentrating on one’s breathing, using a short repetitive phrase, walking slowly and mindfully – these are all ways of managing distractions and training ourselves to focus better.

Distractions surround us even in church. How often have I, sitting in the pew, come to the end of listening to a lesson and realized I remember nothing about it. Our attention inevitably wanders. “What a cute baby.” “I love the flowers on the altar – I wonder what kind they are.” “This music has too many notes.” “I wish that guy would stop coughing.” And in our church community life it’s the same thing – it’s easy to get bogged down in relatively small things and lose sight of the main thing, which is being the presence of Christ in the world.

Okay, so what does all this have to do with the gospel lesson this morning. The story of Bartimaeus is a perfect little allegory of how we come to faith in Jesus. Bartimaeus is blind – blindness is often used in the scriptures as a metaphor for not seeing or understanding God, of being blind to truth. He calls out to Jesus for mercy – the first step in faith is the appeal for help. Jesus responds by calling him to come and then asking what he wants. So faith involves movement towards Jesus and asking for what we need. Jesus restores his sight – he is able to see the truth and can go on his way.

It’s a beautiful story, but I want to consider it from a different perspective. What if it’s actually Bartimaeus’s blindness that allows him to focus on Jesus? Imagine the scene: it’s a crowded main road, with people doing business, going to market, people having conversations, children and dogs running around. Into the midst of this comes Jesus with his small band of followers. Perhaps people give him a look, but then they turn back to whatever they’re engaged in and let Jesus pass by. But Bartimaeus has no such distractions. He hears Jesus coming and is totally focused on him. When he hears Jesus’ voice among all the other voices, he goes straight to it. So in this case faith comes from not being distracted and focusing on the main thing. Not being sighted helps lead to faith. I’m reminded of the passage from the Letter to the Hebrews, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (11:1)

To be able to do God’s work in the world we need to be able to put aside distractions and focus on the main thing. I think about that in the context of our parish planning about how to develop the church campus. To do this brings up all kinds of issues and problems – many of them important to different individuals. “How many bathrooms will there be?” “What about parking?” “How big will the stove in the kitchen be?” “What about air-conditioning?” But as important as all these may be, they are not the main thing. So we need to learn to develop the discipline of always coming back to the main thing, which is, how can we develop the campus so as to be the presence of Christ in this city, in the world?

It’s not easy to see God in the midst of the world. I think it’s a little like trying to tune into a radio station in the car in a remote area. There’s a lot of static and competing signals, and you have to adjust the tuning very carefully to finally zero in to hear the station you want. The world is full of noise. Tuning in to God requires focus and concentration, and it requires the discipline to be able to manage all the distractions of everyday life, in order to hear that “still, small” voice.






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

November 12, 2017


Amos 5:18-24

Psalm 70

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

Matthew 25:1-13



Let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an everflowing stream.

We are gathering this morning in the wake of a mass shooting in our country.

It is America. It’s 2017. And so these are words that I could reasonably use to begin a sermon on essentially any Sunday of the year.


These are words that I could reasonably use to begin a sermon on essentially any Sunday of the year.

The latest high profile shooting took place in a church in rural Texas this past Sunday morning. And I don’t want to suggest this shooting was any worse because it happened in a church as opposed to in a school or a concert or a movie theatre or a public square. It wasn’t. What I will say that a shooting in a church is larger in my imagination, both because church is where I spend a whole lot of my time and because, in my understanding of this world, church is somewhere safe. I am reminded of what my friend and colleague James, a gay man, said after the Pulse nightclub shooting: James said that in the gay community, a club is supposed to be a place of freedom and joy, a place of refuge. A lot like church. And it is the grossest kind of violation when someone brings violence into your place of refuge.

Maybe it’s because this latest example of gun violence of has landed so near to my heart, maybe it’s because in a six week period we had two of the worst mass shootings in our country’s history – I don’t know – but I do know that the ongoing, horrifying reality of gun violence in America is particularly urgent in my mind this week.

Maybe the same is true for you.

Gun violence has become part of our country’s daily reality. What we know – the data is abundant – is that mass shootings, as appalling and attention getting as they are, are actually a fraction of the problem. Far more common, as Nicholas Kristof put it in his excellent and hard to read article this week in the New York Times, is “a friend who shoots another, a husband who kills his wife – or, most common of all, a man who kills himself.” There is absolutely no question that more guns equate with more violence of this kind, more death of this kind. To choose Kristof’s final example, that of suicide, when an individual in crisis attempts suicide by taking pills or cutting open the veins in their wrists, it is possible for them to change their minds and call 911. When such an individual attempts suicide by pulling a trigger, the possibility of changing their minds is gone.

Countries that have fewer guns consistently have fewer violent deaths. The jury is not out about this.

And so here, on Sunday morning, in church, the question is this:

What are we supposed to do?

And in particular, what are we supposed to do as people of faith?

I want to be really careful or intentional or deliberate about that question. I want us to ask this morning, “What are we supposed to do as people of faith?”


“Given that we have decided what to do, how will we make that decision conform to our faith?”

I want to be really careful because it seems to me that Christians like you and like me, when we encounter a moral crisis such as this one, a cultural crisis such as this one, will often to decide what we want to do or are supposed to do and then we will to try to make our faith fit the decision that we have already made. We reverse engineer, in other words, reading our favourite blog, listening to our favourite voices on Twitter, scanning our favourite newspaper, we make a decision and then we ask: how can I find backup for my decision in scripture or in church? Where can I get the proof texts that will make my case?

Through this strategy, without meaning it, we reduce Jesus to a Rorschach Test, into a mirror who does nothing but reflect ourselves back to us. Instead of Jesus being our teacher, we make him into our student. If we are liberal, Jesus is liberal; if we are conservative, Jesus is conservative. However we live, whatever we think, Jesus is there to back us up.

Let’s not do that this morning. Let’s ask a better, more faithful question. Maybe we could phrase it this way:

Who is Jesus? And what does who Jesus is have to teach us about a Christian response to gun violence?

Let’s try out a few answers to those twin question together.

Jesus is the one who embodies the promise that no one is outside of or excluded from the love of God. Jesus embodies this promise through his choice to share meals with everyone, to heal everyone, to tell stories to everyone, no matter how unpopular or unimportant or even hated those persons may be. In John, Jesus says of his sheep – of you, of me, of everyone – “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”[1] Jesus is in the abundant life business. What Jesus wants for you and me is abundant life. What Jesus wants for the one who is gunned down is abundant life. What Jesus wants – and this is harder – for the one who pulls the trigger is abundant life. Jesus, in other words, sees the infinite worth of every human being, the belovedness of every human being, the image of God in every human being.

What following the one who came that everyone might have life and have it abundantly, who sees infinite worth in everyone, means for gun violence is that we as disciples of Jesus are not allowed to be indifferent to this issue, to ignore it because it makes us uncomfortable or because it invites conflict into our churches or our families or because it risks overwhelming us with despair. We are not allowed to become numb, to react to the news of the latest shooting with a shrug.

Gun violence is antithetical to abundant life. It is antithetical to abundant life for the one who is killed. And here again I will bring up the perpetrator: it is antithetical to abundant life for the one who kills. As my friend Douglas Williams puts it, the problem with murder isn’t just that it makes someone else dead. The problem with murder is that it makes you into a murderer. The cost to the perpetrator’s humanity, to their soul, is enormous.

As disciples of Jesus, we are not allowed the privilege or the luxury of having no opinion on gun violence.

Jesus is the one who is persistently non-violent. When Jesus is rejected by the Samaritan village in Luke, and his friends James and John ask if they should call fire down from heaven and destroy the village, Jesus rebukes them.[2] When Jesus is betrayed by Judas and one of his disciples pulls out a sword and cuts off the ear of one of the people who has come to arrest Jesus, Jesus tells him to put it away. Do you not think, he says, that my Father would’ve sent an army if I had asked for it?[3] Throughout his life, Jesus faces the demons of this world unarmed. He goes to the horror of the cross unarmed.

What that means is that, as disciples, the response that we offer to violence cannot be more violence or better violence or the right kind of violence. We are not allowed to argue that, if we just fine-tuned the violence enough, then gun violence would end. We are not allowed, in other words, to argue for a scenario in which we try to stop school shootings by arming teachers. We are not allowed to argue for a scenario in which I respond to a church shooting by carrying a pistol under my vestments. “All who take the sword,” says Jesus, “will perish by the sword.”[4]

Now to be absolutely clear, non-violence is not passivity. Non-violence is not being a doormat when people beat you up. That is not the example of Dr. King, it is not the example of Ghandi, it is not the example of Jesus. As we talked about a number of months ago when we encountered Jesus’ teaching on turning the other cheek, Jesus resists evil, absolutely, unequivocally. What Jesus never does is to return evil for evil, to respond to violence with violence of his own. To follow Jesus is to actively and non-violently resist gun violence.

Jesus is the one who understands that human beings need symbols within which to encounter beauty, to encounter grief, to encounter healing, belonging, and meaning – to encounter the great questions of being alive and on this earth. Two of Jesus’ primary symbols are bread and wine. In the mystery of them, we encounter the Kingdom of God, we encounter Christians across time and space, we encounter Jesus himself. I don’t understand that, but I trust it.

It seems to me that, in our country’s conversation about gun violence, we are largely neglecting the role of the gun as symbol. I had a conversation with a colleague recently who argued that guns are tools, nothing more and nothing less. But then my colleague talked about the place of pride that a gun or a gun safe has in the living rooms of most of the homes in the town where she lives – the safe is the first thing that you will see when you enter the home. And I thought to myself: that doesn’t sound like a tool. I own a lot of tools and, when you come over to my house and look around my living room, you will not see my belt sander. I keep it in the basement.

My guess is that, for a lot of our neighbours, the gun is displayed prominently because it is a symbol of personal agency, of freedom, of safety, of personal responsibility. My colleague, Jeremy Lucas, encountered the gun as symbol, maybe a year ago, when he won an AR-15 in a raffle, the gun that is most commonly used in mass shootings, and then, in an echo of Isaiah and Micah[5], invited a sculptor cut it up and turn it into a work of art. Jeremy got hate mail. Someone called him and asked how he would’ve felt if someone were to stomp on a crucifix – in the American psyche, the gun and the crucifix are comparable symbols, worthy of comparable reverence.

Jeremy said that he figured that the whole thing would’ve blown over soon if he had burned a flag.

As a country, as a community, as individuals, we need symbols of personal agency, of freedom, of safety, of personal responsibility. I’m wondering how, as Christians, we can lovingly suggest alternative symbols to the gun. I’m wondering how we can help make my first colleague’s argument true, and make the gun back into a tool which is appropriately used, for instance, by people who hunt or who live on ranches where they may encounter dangerous animals.

Jesus is the one who continually sends those who are suffering his thoughts and prayers.

And who then Jesus is the one who translates those thoughts and those prayers into action.

Scripture tells us that Jesus goes to the synagogue every Sabbath day.[6] Scripture tells us that Jesus’ personal practice includes prayer by himself.[7] And to encounter the fecundity of his storytelling is to know that he spends a whole lot of time thinking.

And having thought and then prayed, Jesus acts.

Jesus’ thoughts and prayers are what call him into healing the sick, what call him into feeding the hungry, what call him into casting out the demons.

It’s kind of fashionable right now to dump on thoughts and prayers; I can’t go on social media without seeing someone mocking thoughts and prayers. But, as the wonderful Jesuit Priest James Martin says, thinking and praying are both really good things. And genuine thinking and genuine praying about suffering, about injustice, about a subject such as gun violence cannot help but lead us into action. If we speak of thoughts and prayers and then remain silent and passive, odds are good that we aren’t actually thinking or praying a whole lot. Odds are good that we aren’t paying much attention to the voice or to the example of Jesus.

Listen today to the prophet Amos, speaking in the voice of God. God says:

I don’t want your festivals, I don’t want your offerings, I don’t want your assemblies, if they don’t lead to justice. I don’t want your thoughts and prayers if they don’t lead to justice.

Maybe all of this is to say that Jesus is the one who never gives up hope. Hope for a newer world, hope for healing, hope for the Kingdom.

Is Jesus’ hope naïve?

Yes it is.

Jesus’ hope is thoroughly naïve. It is a holy naïveté. It is what Paul calls foolishness. It is a hope that yearns for something that may look impossible. But then, sometimes, it makes the impossible happen. How recently did we imagine that marriage equality was impossible in America? Ten years ago? Five years ago? But it’s happened, it’s the law of the land. How recently did we know that America would never have an African American president? Fifteen years ago? The day before the election? But it happened. How recently before the Berlin Wall fell did know that it would stand forever? I remember that day vividly. If you had asked me on the afternoon that it came down how long it would stand, I would’ve told you that the wall would still be there for my grandchildren.

We could keep on giving examples. Of things that looked like naïveté until one day, through the hope and the work of many, they turned into reality. Dare we engage in the naïveté of hoping and working for an end to gun violence in America? Well, if justice is to roll down like waters and righteousness like an everflowing stream, if we are to say “yes” to Jesus, then hope and work we must.

[1] John 10:10, NRSV.

[2] Luke 9:54–55, NRSV.

[3] Matthew 26:53.

[4] Matthew 26:52, NRSV.

[5] Isaiah 2:4, Micah 4:3.

[6] Luke 4:16.

[7] Matt 14:23.


Twenty Third Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert


Jeremiah 14:7-10,19-22
Psalm 84:1-6
2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18
Luke 18:9-14

A reading from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

We are about a third of the way in to the book. The children have journeyed through the wardrobe and into the wondrous and dangerous land of Narnia. And the three of them (Peter, Susan, and Lucy – Edmund has just slipped away to join the White Witch) are speaking with a couple of their hosts: Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, two of the talking animals who populate this magical place. They are learning they will soon meet Aslan, the Christ character who sits at the centre of all of the Lewis’ seven Narnia books.

Their conversation goes like this:

“Is – is [Aslan] a man?” asked Lucy.

“Aslan a man!” said Mr. Beaver sternly. “Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the great Emperor-beyond-the-sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion – the Lion, the great Lion.”

“Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was was a man. Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”

“That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver; “if there is anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”

“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.

“Safe?” said Mr Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe.

“But he’s good.”

One of C.S. Lewis’ great gifts was his ability to use captivating stories to express the big questions of Christianity, the big challenges of Christianity, the big promises of Christianity. And in this exchange between the three children and their animal hosts, he tackles one of the great questions:

Is God safe?

Across Christian history, a whole lot of people have tried pretty hard to make the answer to that question “yes.” Beginning way back in the early 4th Century when the Emperor Constantine declared Christianity to be the official religion of the Empire (a strange fate, by the way, for a movement that began on the margins of society and whose central figure was executed by the state) and extending into the present day, there have been Christians doing everything that they can to make God into a figure whose primary job is to safely affirm and celebrate and bless the way that we already live our lives.

We see this safe understanding of God in the contemporary American phenomenon called the Prosperity Gospel: the theology that says that my wealth and my social status and my stuff are direct rewards from God for my fidelity to God, for the holiness of my behaviour. The Prosperity Gospel is so prevalent in America that it subtly infects our speech and our thinking even when we don’t directly subscribe to it. Every time, for instance, that we look at our finances or our possessions and we say, “I’ve been really blessed” – and by necessary and unspoken extension, that those who are living with poverty and a shopping cart filled with aluminium cans have not been really blessed – we are engaging in Prosperity Gospel theology. We are making God into someone who safely blesses worldly status. Much as in Constantine’s time, when God blessed Empire, God now blesses consumerism.

And we see this safe understanding of God as well every time that we mine scripture for passages or proof texts designed to back up our life strategies or biases or opinions. I get multiple emails a day from various advocacy groups that dress up pre-existing political talking points in the language of the Gospel. Now, I may very well be sympathetic to these political perspectives, I may very well want God to back them up. But I have learned that you and I need to be careful, that you and I need to get suspicious, anytime that we catch ourselves saying, “Isn’t it amazing how Jesus always agrees with me?”  Whenever we examine the great ocean of scripture in a self-oriented way, there is a danger that what we will end up in looking at nothing more than our own reflection. When we refuse to go deep, as my old boss Bill Ellis says, we turn Jesus into a Rorschach Test.

Today Jesus shares with us the second of a twin set of parables, the second, to borrow a turn of phrase from the visual art world, of a diptych, of two paintings that are designed to hang on the wall one beside the other. Last week we encountered the first of the set: the parable that we know as The Dishonest Judge. Today we encounter the second part. I’m not sure that this second painting has as clearly an agreed upon name as The Dishonest Judge. I’ve heard it called The Pharisee and the Tax Collector, and maybe that’s a good enough name for us to work with.

The parables that make up the diptych have at least two significant common elements.

First, both The Dishonest Judge and The Pharisee and the Tax Collector are funny. In each of them, Jesus uses over-the-top humour to lampoon a certain way of being in the world. The judge and the Pharisee alike are wild caricatures of pompous and aggressively selfish men: the judge, when giving his ruling to the persistent widow, says to himself, “I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone”; The Pharisee goes to church in order to pray, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people.”

Second, both of these parables can be read in a way that makes God safe. When I hear Jesus’ stories, I often imagine them taking place in a contemporary setting and featuring contemporary people; on the stage of my mind, I am the director for Jesus’ plays. And if you live, say, in Portland in 2016 and, say, there is a Federal election going on, and you need to a contemporary figure to cast in the part of a pompous and aggressively selfish man…

The temptation to imagine judge or the Pharisee as Donald Trump is almost overwhelming.

My prayers are the best, everyone says so. Not like those other peoples’ prayers. Sad.

And doing that a lot of fun. But it is also a choice to make this story safe, to make God safe, to make God into someone who backs up what I already believe. Isn’t it amazing how Jesus always agrees with me?

Let’s see if we can encounter these pair of stories again, but this time let’s see if we can listen to them with the assumptions of someone living in the Ancient Near East. And let’s notice that, in both of these stories, the character who turns out to be pompous and sanctimonious and selfish is also the character who, according to the conventional rules of society, we ought to respect and to admire. A judge, then and now, is a person doing important and honourable work. We tend to hold judges to a higher standard than the rest of the population, there are rules, for instance, that say that judges must make every effort to appear neutral on political questions. And a Pharisee – a religious official – had a similar status in the Ancient Near East. These two men, by rights, ought to be the heroes of their respective tale. By contrast, a widow is someone on the margins. And a tax collector. A tax collector is a beneath contempt. A tax collector is a fraud and a thief. A tax collector is a collaborator with the occupying forces.

Maybe, if we want to hear these stories with the ears of Jesus’ original audience, we need to risk revising our casting. What if the Pharisee is an Episcopalian? What if the tax collector – well, what category could we draw on in order to feel the kind of visceral, immediate contempt that Jesus’ audience likely felt for tax collectors? – what if the tax collector is a terrorist, what if he is a young pharmaceutical executive jacking up the price of an HIV drug by 3000%, what if he is a pedophile?

The Episcopalian goes to church and says – maybe reasonably enough – “God, I thank you that I am not like those other people. I thank you that I am living a life of goodness and faith.” And the terrorist or the pharmaceutical executive of the pedophile says, “God have mercy on me, a sinner.”

I tell you, Jesus says, this man – the second one, the terrorist or the pharmaceutical executive of the pedophile – went home justified.

Is God safe?

Now, before I go any further, I want to be clear that I am in no way suggesting that God is championing some kind of moral relativism, some lazy ethical standard in which everyone has their opinion and all opinions are equally valid, in which going to church every Sunday is no better and no worse than deliberately exploiting other people. I don’t mean that at all, I don’t believe that Jesus’ parables mean that at all.

What I am suggesting is that when Jesus tells us stories about judges and religious officials – when he tells stories about people like us (most of us gathered in this room have way more in common with judges and Pharisees than we do with poor widows or tax collectors) people who, by any reasonable standard, should be the heroes of his tale – and then he tells us how these respectable people’s disdain or contempt for others alienates them their neighbours and from the Kingdom of God, he is telling us through comedy what he will later tell us through suffering at the end of his earthly life.

Jesus is telling us that God absolutely refuses to exclude, that God absolutely refuses to make anyone into scapegoats. As Jesus hangs dying, he forgives the thief who hangs beside him. Staggeringly, he even forgives those who murder him. No one, Jesus tells us through these pair of stories; no one, Jesus tells us through his dying, is beyond God’s forgiveness. Or, to put that thought another way, when anyone says to God, “God be merciful on me, a sinner,” God always says yes.

Over the last century, our country has done important work. It continues to do important work. The end of state-sponsored segregation in the South was a triumph for justice. The achievement of marriage equality was a triumph for justice. And, in this ugly election season, I believe that there is good news hiding: as a nation, we are slowly awakening to how much racism and how misogyny much remains in our country. I hope and I believe that this awakening will lead us to work for a new triumph for justice.

As we continue to work for justice, Jesus reminds that God’s justice means holding no one, no one in contempt. We are simply substituting one injustice for another, one act of exclusion for another, if we stop holding people of colour in contempt and start holding Donald Trump and his supporters in contempt. We have just traded one outsider for another.

Jesus says: no more exclusion. As much as ostracism may strike us as fair or just, as much as we may want Jesus to back us up when we lock people out, Jesus won’t do it. Jesus won’t back us up any more than Jesus will back other people up when they lock us out. As unwelcome or hard or unfair as it may strike us, Jesus says that, in the Kingdom, there will be no outcasts.

Is God safe?


But God is good.

Treasure on the Mountain + Twenty Third Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Esme J. R. Culver


Judges 4:1-7

Psalm 123

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

Matthew 25:14-30

There is a cross high on a mountain along the Colca Valley in Peru.  You can reach it by bus which will take you to the top of the mountain at 17,000 feet until you come to it on the other side…. sitting close to the top of the mountain at about 12,000 feet above sea level.  I know it’s there, because I laid it out myself and left it there with your name on it.   It’s made of rocks….the same kind of rocks that people have picked up for generations, building thousands of miles of terraces through time, even to today.  The cross lies on the ground, and next to it, the word “Grace” fashioned with smaller rocks of the same kind.  It was just about a week ago that I wrote the word made of rocks and I thought of all of you, how far away you were, and I longed to be back with you even as I was compelled to spell our name as an offering to God high up on that mountain. And I gave thanks for the privilege of doing so, even as I asked again in prayer to understand God’s purpose in bringing me to that place and why it had to be so hard.

The place is Casa Chapi, an orphanage and school for children who posses absolutely nothing except a growing capacity to love.  Some are without even a real identity.  They are Casa Chapi kids, rescued from neglect, abuse or absolute abandonment…….who now live with a measure of security, thanks to the tireless efforts of a non-profit group, founded by Christian alpaca breeders, from Portland, Oregon, and now an international organization called Quechua Benefit.  Quechua Benefit, along with the Catholic Church in Peru and various strands of Peruvian government, ensure that each child has a bed, hot nourishing meals, a loving house mother, and caring teachers helping them to learn about themselves and the world they live in.  Many of the children don’t realize it yet, but they are being prepared for the time when they will need to leave Casa Chapi to make their way into the world………and we pray they will take their experience and multiply the opportunity God brought into their lives tenfold so that other children might find the same safety….the same chance to live richly and fully in the world.

We know that,, in some way, all will reflect the story of the man in Matthew’s Gospel, who, going on  a journey entrusted his property to his slaves, giving one five talents, one two talents and another, one talent, giving to each according to his ability. God gives the children of Casa Chapi the same opportunities to take their gifts received and do something valuable with them in the world. We know from experience and statistics, that….just like the extremes of the world in which they live, some children will grow to be great leaders and will dedicate their knowledge, skills and passion to bettering the lives of those coming behind, giving thanks to God for their opportunity to do so.  Others will assist in that cause to a lesser degree and still be successful, productive people in the world and some will hold on to enough fear and mistrust to bury their gifts and avoid the risk of opportunity.  My heart breaks to think about the possibility of such misery and pain and we pray this number will be low to zero.

In the same way the God entrusts the children of Casa Chapi, God entrusts those called to serve them and all God’s people who suffer… at home in the streets of Portland and others all over the world. God hands each of us precious gifts and requests only that we use our gifts with boldness and courage, without fear of risk or ridicule, with faith and determination and with vision to co-create with God an evolving world of harmonious living, of peace and reconciliation.

And so it was, that during the year that Grace Art Camp embraced the culture of Peru, I came to meet Mike Safely, Founder of Quechua Benefit.  Mike began to introduce me to the work of Quechua Benefit.  It was that same year, that Mike noticed the work we accomplished in Kenya, bringing an art camp experience to a small village up near the Uganda border.  He knew immediately that this could be a perfect project for the children of Casa Chapi.  So I was called to invite people to share their own particular gifts with the children of Casa Chapi and with the people who care for them and subsequently…..a team of 15 Grace Parish and Grace Institute artists and young people serving as counselors…… five of the team from Grace ….entered into the experience of sharing their artistic talents with artists and their leadership talents with young people from Peru.  A mirror Peruvian team was gathered by the Peruvian Ministry of Culture and, like the US team, all volunteered their time….leaving jobs, school and family to do so.  All came together to create an art camp experience for the children of Casa Chapi and all received a ten-fold return on the investment of time and talent they gave.  Some of them told me their experience was transformational, inspiring, had changed them forever and that they vowed to return next year to create their own art festival on behalf of the children of Casa Chapi. I began to glimpse God’s plan that went far beyond the dreams and visions that any of us mere humans dared to embrace….I saw and felt the divine hand working into the future of the lives of little children at Casa Chapi and beyond. Now the Ministry of Culture has embraced the model concept of art camp and plans to produce an art camp in Arequippa for the poorest children in the surrounding mountains.  They will use the camps to reintroduce these children to their Quechua roots….allowing the children to find their true identity and traditions via the arts, via caring and fun.  We were called to plant the seeds… begin a movement that will reach far beyond us and yet be accessible to us and to you in all the years to come.

Not all are so called……but some are.  We are not all called to Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria, but some are.  We are not all called to the Holy Land, to Syria, or Sudan, or Afghanistan, but some are. We are not all called to work for the homeless in Portland, but some are.  Regardless of where and when…..we are all called to use our God-given gifts for the benefit of God’s people, God’s creation… to build up…..not tear down God’s Kingdom.

To not use our gifts is a sad and sorry waste.  We become like the slave who dared not consider the possibilities before him when presented with a great gift, and simply buried it along with his own sense of fulfilment and contribution.

And….so some of us were called to the mountains of Peru.  In all my travels around the world, never in my wildest dreams, was Peru on my list of places to find myself ….not once, and, certainly, not twice ….not for any reason, as beautiful as it is.  When I first visited the country earlier this year, I wasn’t sure why I found myself conducting a feasibility study for a possible art camp…….it all seemed a bit surreal and beyond my capability at the time.  It was during this second trip that God began to reveal to me the reasons I found myself there again….at The Casa Chapi Children’s Home and School.  Casa Chapi lies about a mile from the small town of Chivay, in the Colca Valley in the Arequipa region of Peru.  It is located at about 12,000 feet above sea level and lies upstream from the amazing Colca Canyon which is three times as deep as the Grand Canyon.  The town is a stopping point for tourists making their way to the famed Condor Cross or Cruz Del Condor, where, early in the morning, condors with 8-foot wing spans, can be seen rising up out of the canyon as they catch the morning thermal uplifts.  It is a place of great beauty, great extremes and great challenge.

Strangers to these altitudes are affected in various ways of discomfort.  The days are hot and bright and the nights are cold…..with no hot water….no flushing toilets…..and only bottled water to drink.   Not for the squeamish or infirm……where the environment makes no distinction between young or old………even the strongest and youngest of all the members of the team felt the effects of altitude sickness in various ways …..……headaches, nausea, shortness of breath…..and to various degrees at unexpected times. I, myself…..fatigued and not completely well when I left Portland found that during this visit, my compromised physical condition was hit hard by the altitude.  I lost one night to oxygen depletion, another night to food poisoning and more nights to an allergic reaction to the dust, altitude and extreme temperatures.  My throat was swollen, my eyes red and my breathing shallow.  These afflictions were far worse than those I experienced on my previous trip and I wondered why God insisted that I return to this place no matter how beautiful it appeared.

Then one day, during a break time from working in the printing studio, and following meetings with Peruvian artists and staff leadership, I felt compelled to walk up to the top terrace of Casa Chapi… a quiet place…….an alone place……a place where Mike Safely, the founder of Quechua Benefit, had explained he wanted to build a chapel. It was there I knelt to pray and cry.  Why, I pleaded to God, why must we suffer in order to give?  Why must we sacrifice in order to serve? Does serving God and God’s people mean we have to be uncomfortable?  I was, at once, pleading for answers, negotiating with God and letting God know that I wasn’t thrilled with the arrangement thus far. Why, I asked God, did all my planning, all my dreams come true only to have me compromised in the execution of those dreams.  I felt I could glimpse into the very heart of Moses as he came to the gates of Canaan…..and was not allowed in.

The answers to my prayers and pleas were fast and direct.  Feed my people. It is not about you or your difficulties….it is not whether you feel healthy or whether you feel ill….it is not about whether you feel you have done a good thing….it is not about you.  It is about what you do with the gifts I have given you to tend my sheep.

In hearing God’s message I remembered the meaning of “call.”  When I was called to the priesthood, it was not about personal choice.  It was a non-choice.  There was no choice.  I was compelled to accept God’s invitation to serve God’s Church. I recognized the same non-choice acceptance of God’s call to serve in Casa Chapi and I realized that I was not alone in this call…that my gifts were being used to allow others to utilize their own gifts and that all of us here at Grace were being called as well.  I realized that the work would continue for some among us here at Grace, without us knowing really why, but that all we will be called to do will be for the right reasons…God’s reasons………the reasons our hearts tell us are right.

We are not called to hide our gifts under the ground and to put our heads into the ground with them.  Our responsibility to use them goes far beyond ourselves.  Matthew’s Gospel parable hits directly at our tendency to live only for ourselves and our own wants, needs and desires.  It calls us out for clinging only to our own personal security.  It reminds us that we are part of some thing far larger than our own sphere of comfort.  We are called to examine our gifts and, with great celebration and joy, use them as a contribution to God’s desire for God’s evolving creation.

To understand this is to begin understanding our true purpose in life. It is not enough to recognize, use or develop our gifts…it is ours to use them to serve God.  It is in this path to servanthood that our petty differences fall away…..the blessings of our accomplishments for God’s good allow us to put away childish squabbles and resentments.  Our purpose becomes God’s purpose and the doors to joy and celebration will fly open.

Hear the words from an old hymn which cements this message of God as the source of our gifts:

We give thee but thine own

Whate’er the gift may be:

All that we have is then alone,

A trust O Lord, from thee.

A “trust” is held for the benefit of another.  The kingdom of heaven is made possible by nothing less than divine largess as if a man has entrusted with great extravagance…….. extraordinary wealth, freedom and powerful possibility to others who least expect it.  The man in the Gospel gave talents… talent being worth 15 year’s salary.  That means that five talents is enough for a lifetime salary.  A huge extravagance and a huge entrustment.

That’s how wide God’s extravagance of gifts to each of us is. Beyond our wildest dreams…beyond our little square boxes of thinking…..taking us by surprise and leaving us to wonder….how and why we might find ourselves on top of a mountain in Peru.

Don’t ever think you have you gifts.  As God’s own creation, you have been entrusted with the seeds of immense gifts.  They may seem simple and unimportant, or they may be readily visible and seemingly more important than others…….it doesn’t matter.  As the parable tells us….even the smallest gift is significant…..a privilege entrusted to you….a privilege which carries with it the responsibility to use it.

We have no choice but to accept God’s direction about how we use the power of our gifts and the very real consequences resulting from the way we freely use them.  What we do with them and how we use them will have a direct impact on the world around us…..close by and far away.

So….we find a new urgency to discover the gifts we are to use for God’s glory knowing full well that using our gifts in God’s way will lead us to be stewards over something far greater than our own lives. It is ours to trust God and to pull deeply on our faith as we step outside of our comfort zone to take risks.

I learned on that day, kneeling on the stony ground amid cacti and quinoa…… that regardless of how we feel…physically, mentally, emotionally…..spiritually……. to not risk … not feel deeply enough to act… not feel passionate enough to care beyond ourselves……to be too fearful to invest ourselves in the work of the Kingdom in the way God wants us to…… is the greatest risk of all.  The greatest risk of all is to stay on the safe side of life……to please and impress…..feeding one’s ego and pride.

So we  are to bring our heads up out of the ground in front of us and stick out our necks a little further than we’d like and, by doing so…… we avoid one of the ancient church’s seven deadly sins….that of not caring, not loving, not living  up to our potential for loving our neighbors.  Jesus teaches us that by playing it safe…..not caring….not loving passionately….. not risking or giving all of ourselves …it is as if we were cast into the outer darkness, where there is only weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Knowing this, and failing to act on this knowledge….not being willing to share ourselves and our gifts with others is just the same as knowing where there is great treasure buried deep in the earth and leaving it there undisturbed.

But knowing this and acting on what we know to be true…..we can put away our fears and our indifference, put aside our discomforts and sacrifice, and find the strength and determination to dig it up all our buried treasure……..even if we find it on the top of a mountain…….. and share all that we find there with the world.

Written to the Glory of God
The Rev. Esme J. R. Culver+
November 16, 2014