III Advent – December 12, 2004
Tuesday, January 4, 2005 2:07 pm PST
Edited by John Nycamp
I don’t say this often enough, and today is an especially appropriate day to say this to you: That it is my great joy and privilege and honor to be here with you as your priest.
Today is Gaudete Sunday; otherwise known as Rose Sunday. Gaudete is the Latin for “Rejoice” –back in the days when we still did things in Latin, this would be the first word coming out of the priest’s mouth on this day: “Rejoice”
Rejoice in the Lord always; Again I say, rejoice
So when’s the last time you felt joy?
Now let me be clear here: I’m talking about joy, not cheerfulness.
I know lots of people who are naturally cheerful – heck, I’m naturally cheerful– but cheerfulness should never be confused with joy. Lots of cheerful people carry deep inside them a great sadness. One of the ways to tell a cheerful person from a joyful person is that when you’re with a cheerful person sometimes you feel an almost irresistible urge to slap some sense into him; but you would never want to slap a joyful person. A joyful person makes you want to sit down and listen to her.
Nor should joy be confused with happiness.
One of my favorite bumper stickers says, “Happiness is overrated.”
That’s true – happiness is over-rated. Some French person in a movie I saw recently said something like, “Americans are the only people in the history of the planet who think they not only have a right to happiness, they fully expect it.”
Happiness is a mood, and nothing more; the pursuit of happiness is a like a dog chasing its tail; it’s kind of funny and pathetic at the same time. If the dog does end up catching her tail, then what?
But joy… now that’s another thing.
The pursuit of joy is like a birdwatcher who rises before the dawn, hikes through a primitive forest to a still place that she has prepared, and waits for the appearance of a rare bird. If she only hears its voice, she is brimming with excitement; a mere glimpse of the bird will send her into silent fits; a sustained, long look takes on the character of sacred reverence.
We’ve all heard of the bluebird of happiness; the bird of joy is far more rare. Joy is a gift that comes to those who pursue it with patience and love; joy comes to those who have submitted to that love; so that they have no trouble getting up before dawn to wait for it; joy comes to those who have created a place of waiting and silence where it might find a place to land. Joy is one of the fruits of the spirit; it is not simply a matter of luck and of timing but a matter of love and discipline and waiting.
Think back over your life: what have been your most joyful moments?
For me the most obvious ones are the big four: my wedding day, of course; the moment my son was born; the moment exactly nine months earlier, which I shall not describe to you; and the moment when Jesus re-entered my life.
And there’s another moment that almost ranks up there with the big four: the moment when I finished writing my novel.
Those of you who didn’t know I wrote a novel, it’s just as well; it hasn’t been published and probably should stay that way; please don’t ask to read it, it would only corrupt if not destroy whatever remaining faith you might have in me. But it was important to me to write it.
One day I realized I was about to turn 46 and I still hadn’t written a book. If I didn’t get serious about this, I would die before I ever wrote that book; and I knew that one of the things that I would regret most about my life was that. So I said a little prayer; I said, “I am ready God, if you will help me I will respond.”
The next morning something very unusual happened; I woke up before dawn from a sound sleep, clear as a bell. It was as if a little alarm bell had gone off in my mind. It was like a Spirit or an angel had nudged me awake. She was saying, Get up now; you said you were ready; it’s time to start writing.
Now, at any other time in my life I would have simply rolled over and gone back to sleep. But this time it was different; it felt completely different. It felt like the Spirit herself had visited me and wouldn’t take no for an answer.
So I got up, made some coffee, got out a pen and a piece of paper, and started writing. And the weird thing was that, contrary to every habit and character trait that I possessed at the time, this happened every day for a year, until I had written an actual novel; an entire novel with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Plot and characters and narrative arc and all that stuff. Even a few metaphors thrown in there.
The day I finished it was one of the happiest days of my life; no, correct that. It wasn’t happiness. It was joy; the kind of joy that makes you weep and laugh at the same time; right up there with the other big four I mentioned.
This is what the Bible is talking about when it talks about joy. When Jesus says, “I say these things, so that your joy may be complete,” he is saying that this is what we’re called to; this is what God intends for us.
Not that we are all called to become novelists; or even that we are called to be especially creative; but that we are all called to joy. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. If we are serious about finding that joy, we have to be like the bird-watcher; we have to find that thing that we love; we have to commit ourselves to obeying that love; we have to be willing to find a discipline for expressing that love; we have to be willing to work; and we have to be willing to not work – to simply make a place for it and wait.
During the Advent and Christmas season, we hear the angel saying to Mary, and to Elizabeth; and to the shepherds: “I bring you good news of great joy.”
It’s the joy of Jesus, born. It’s the joy of a deep hope becoming real; taking on the flesh; becoming incarnate.
What if this joy were not just something that happens to us; but something that we work toward, and are led toward, and make room for, and wait for; and what if this joy were not something reserved for Christmas pageants and carol singing and present opening but something that formed the beginning of every day; and led us through the whole of our days? And what if God were saying to us, this is not simply my wish for you; this is my commandment to you; that you find that deepest joy?
What if God loves us so much that he gave his only Son; so that we might have joy? The kind of joy that comes when we love him; when we devote ourselves to him; when we make a place for him in our lives; when we discipline our lives so that we have a time every day for him to appear in our midst?
What if God loves us so much that, were we to do that, he would appear to us, every day, in an infinite number of ways?
This is what it means to be the Church of the Incarnation; that we believe in this joy; not only as a possibility but as a reality; that God is not merely a dream or a hope or a wish but a real presence living and breathing in our midst.
That is the good news of this season. It is not a hope; or a dream; or a wish; it is a truth. Jesus is coming into the world; God is being born in our midst.
Thanks be to God.
II Advent – December 5, 2004
Edited on Tuesday, January 4, 2005 2:00 pm PST
Edited by John Nykamp
They say that Advent is the time for waiting. But waiting… for what?
Back when I was a child, that’s exactly what I was waiting for – Santa Claus, in all his completely magical, flying through the air entourage of reindeer. It was the whole magical Christmas season feeling. That sense of expectation: of something wonderful about to happen; that on any given day during Advent I could have told you exactly how many days were left until Christmas. I was just counting down the days.
My favorite Christmas carol was,
You better watch out, you better not cry
You better watch out, I’m telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town
Back in Biblical days, they felt the same way;
But it wasn’t Santa that they were waiting for
It was the messiah
John the Baptist appeared, saying
You better watch out…
You better repent
The messiah is coming
And just like today, the people saw this as great news
Incredible expectation for something wonderful, something magical
How many more days til the messiah comes?
When the messiah comes, then everything will be better
There will be no more war;
Isaiah: the lion will lie down with the lamb
The leopard with the calf
Even spiders and poisonous snakes won’t bite anymore
The people kept asking, When is this going to happen?
How many more days ’til Christmas?
Sometimes the expectation and the waiting is more magical and exciting than the actual day of Christmas
Ever experience that post-Christmas let down, after all the presents are opened and someone has actually gotten onto their belly and crawled all the way under the tree to make sure they haven’t missed something, and afterward, no matter how many wonderful presents you’ve gotten, you kinda feel a little disappointed… like, that was great, really! And now I’ve got a new sweater and some very nice socks and some books that I’m sure I’ll actually read someday… but is this it? This is the big thing we were all waiting for?
It’s like when Jesus finally came along
The messiah is here! It’s Christmas!
And look he’s doing wonderful things, healing the sick and raising the dead and preaching good news
But… is that it?
What about all that stuff about the lion lying down with the lamb? The poisonous snakes? What about the Kingdom of Heaven?
And when Jesus teaches us to pray, he teaches us to say,
Thy Kingdom come; thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven
So Jesus seems to be admitting that there’s still more to wait for;
We’ve still got to pray for it
But Jesus also tells us that the Kingdom is here…
20 Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the Kingdom of Heaven was coming, and he answered, “The Kingdom of Heaven is not coming with things that can be observed; 21 nor will they say, “Look, here it is!’ or “There it is!’ For, in fact, the Kingdom of Heaven is among you.”
So this is pretty confusing:
what are we waiting for – if the Kingdom of Heaven is already here?
Why do we have to repent – if the Kingdom is already here?
Why do we have to pray “Thy kingdom come” – if it is already here?
Maybe… because prayer and repentance is the way we get into the Kingdom.
Jesus said, those with ears… let them hear
Maybe prayer gives us the ears for hearing the Kingdom that is all around us…
Maybe repentance gives us the eyes to see the Kingdom all around us…
Back in Michigan when I was an Interim Rector of a medium-sized church, there was a man in the congregation who stopped coming to church and so I went to his house to talk to him.
He was a heavy smoker, and had bronchitis, shortness of breath, and a constant cough
He was overweight, so much so that he had terrible back problems
And he had arthritis, which was aggravated by his obesity;
And instead of taking the medicine his doctor recommended, he medicated himself by drinking vodka
So he was an alcoholic
And his children – all they did was nag at him to quit smoking and drinking – they were no use to him at all
And so his life had degenerated into what is a surprisingly common scenario for a lot of people; he would sit around at home watching TV in his big barcalounger, eating potato chips and drinking himself into a semi-coma every day
When I went to visit him he said he had no use for church anymore; he had no friends in the congregation anyway
And when I protested and listed all the people who had been asking about him and encouraging me to visit him, he said
Well anyway he was so mad at God for all the pain and misery he had to endure in his lifetime and God had really let him down
I asked him if he ever prayed about it and he said that he had actually prayed to God to take away his pain and God was not answering; he said, “I just wish God would tell me what to do but God is so far away he’s not even listening.”
And so of course I had to ask, Is it God who isn’t listening, or is it you?
What would your life be like if you didn’t have this terrible shortness of breath and this cough?
What would your life be like if you didn’t have 80 pounds of fat around your middle that was pulling your back out of alignment every time you stood up?
What would life be like if you stopped drinking – alcohol is a depressant; of course you’re depressed and lonely and miserable and in pain
But how is that God’s fault?
What are you waiting for? The Kingdom of Heaven is here – for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear
But of course, he had stopped listening to me as soon as I began to suggest that maybe he had to let go of some of his addictions. In other words, as soon as I suggested that he needed to repent.
Repentance – real repentance – is hard work. Most of the time, we would rather live in a hell of our own creation, than to choose to step into the Kingdom of Heaven; because the price of repentance is too high.
Now, you might say, well, that’s all fine and dandy for an overweight alcoholic but I’m not overweight…
you might not even be an alcoholic…
but I’m thinking that no matter how virtuous we are; no matter where we are in the cycle of life and no matter what our relative health and wealth; the same thing applies:
The kingdom of Heaven is among us
But we don’t yet see it
And the ticket to get inside is always the same: prayer and repentance
The other day I was at the health club – which besides this place is pretty close to the kingdom of heaven for me — and I was on one of those elliptical exercise machines called a Precor; I try to get on those things two to three times a week and work out for 45 minutes;
I was almost done with my work-out; I had three minutes to go
And this woman tapped me on the shoulder and asked me if she could use the machine.
Now I was a little annoyed – who was this lady; can’t she wait her turn? I said I was almost done, I had three minutes left; and she gave me this eye-rolling look like I was being a jerk but I thought she was being a jerk so I kept going until I was finished. And when I got off I saw that all the other machines were in use and the lady could tell by looking at the timer on my machine that I had been on it for 42 minutes, which was longer than anyone else; and as I left the gym I looked up and saw the sign that I had never noticed before, which said, “Please limit use of machines to 20 minutes when others are waiting.”
Now I realized that I was the one who had been the jerk; the woman had every right to ask me to give up the machine and I had brushed her off.
So now I felt bad, and I went into the locker room and sat down, and it was very clear to me that I owed the woman an apology. And I could hear Jesus saying, “You’ve got to go apologize to her.” And I knew that if I didn’t apologize, this woman would go home and complain to her husband about what a jerk this guy was at the gym; and she’d feel bad; and if I ever ran into her again, which was likely, she would always think to herself, there goes that guy the jerk; and this harmonious atmosphere at the club, this feeling that everyone is friendly to everyone else and we’re all happy together would be completely destroyed for her and I would be responsible. Every time I’d see her I’d have to avoid her eyes. And then sure enough one day she’d find out that I’m a priest and then there would go her faith in God and it would all be my fault.
But you know what? I really did not want to apologize. Even though I knew it was my fault I was still angry at her. Repentance is hard work. I kept bargaining with God. C’mon God, I said, can’t we just let this one slide?
I really didn’t want to have to go back in there and apologize. But God just kept saying, “And you call yourself a Christian.” God felt like my mother; and I don’t mean that in a nice way.
Repentance is hard work – even when it’s on a trivial level like this. It’s really hard work. But I mustered my courage and went in and apologized to her. And of course she was like, “Oh, no, really that’s fine, don’t be silly,” and everything was fine after that. Our little kingdom of heaven was restored.
Prayer and repentance: tickets into the kingdom of heaven. Maybe the reason we’re not completely in the Kingdom of Heaven is we don’t do enough of it. Imagine what kind of world we’d have if we all practiced prayer and repentance perfectly. What if the Israelis and the Palestinians were able to repent to one another? What if the terrorists were capable of repenting of their crimes? What if we, as a nation, were capable of repenting of ours? What is it that we need to pray about and repent of?
It’s something to think about. It’s something to imagine. It’s something to pray for.
All Saints Day – November 7, 2004
Edited on Wednesday, November 10, 2004 11:09 am PDT
Edited by John Nykamp
I think I met Jesus last Friday. Let me tell you about it.
Last Friday morning after an early meeting at 7 and a Eucharist at 8, I took care of some things in the office and then got in my car to drive up to Healdsburg, where I often go to catch up my reading, praying, and on good days, my sermon writing.
I caught a glance at myself in the rear-view mirror and noticed something you probably noticed some weeks ago: I was badly in need of a haircut. So when I got to Healdsburg I drove around until I saw one of those swirling barbershop gizmo signs and parked my car.
What I found there was an old-fashioned barbershop that hadn’t changed since about 1963. The walls had that dark paneling that was popular back then, covered with layers of memorabilia that had collected over the decades: sports trophies, funny curios, pictures of kids and grand kids in graduation gowns.
The barber’s chairs were the old fashioned kind too, made from die-cast steel and leather. And in the corner there was even a little black-and-white TV showing a documentary about John F. Kennedy and the Cuban missile crisis. Suddenly I felt like I had traveled back in time to when I was seven years old.
I was greeted by an elderly Latino man who, I later learned, was the original owner. He was trim and muscular; he stood up straight and when he shook my hand I felt his strength. Right away, I knew I was going to get a good haircut.
Like all good barbers, he didn’t need to ask a lot of questions. He took one look at me and knew what needed to be done; and as he clipped away, very patiently and carefully, I found myself thinking back to the days when I was seven and the Cuban missile crisis had the entire world bracing for doom.
My parents did a pretty good job of shielding us kids from that sense of doom. But I’ll never forget one night when my grandparents came over, and my parents sent us to bed early. We sneaked out of our rooms, as we always did, and crept to our spying spot on the stairway landing, where we watched them, sitting in the living room, huddled together in a whispering, strained conversation, obviously worried. I didn’t know what exactly was happening — but I started having nightmares about war after that.
So anyway there I was on Friday morning, sitting in the barber’s chair, feeling like a seven year-old all over again, worried all over again. I thought about the recent election; the ways in which a sense of doom about terrorism has become part of our common lives; I thought about the young people I know, who have less confidence in our survival as a planet than I ever had.
Meanwhile the quiet barber carefully clipped away with his strong hands; it felt so soothing; I was in the hands of a master; I felt myself kind of melt into his care; the comb felt so good on my scalp, then the little tug, a snip, and the comb again.
It felt kind of strange, to be thinking such dark thoughts about doom, and yet on the other hand to feel so comforted.
The barber couldn’t help but notice my collar when I came in so he asked me what church I was serving and when I told him he said, “Oh, yeah, I know the one, right down there on Mendocino, right?” He said he had come to some concerts here a few times – “It’s a beautiful church!” Then he told me about how there used to be a prune orchard, almost 60 years ago now, right down the street near the Junior College — he knew because it was one of the first jobs he had in this area, back in 1947, picking prunes.
He said in those early years he used to live with the other migrant workers in a kind of tent city north of here. I asked him what that was like and he said, “Well, we had no running water, no toilets, no sanitation; people got sick a lot. But on the other hand, we were working, which is what we came here to do.”
We fell into silence again; the documentary was showing pictures of Kennedy and Khrushchev and nuclear missiles and American warships. I looked at the empty waiting room, and then my eyes fell on his price list, which was so low I thought it must be out of date too, and I realized how poor this man must be by the standards I grew up with. I wondered how he had managed to raise his family and keep his business going all these years. I wondered if he was working now because he couldn’t afford to retire; and I confess to you that I felt some amount of shame as I compared his life – at least as I imagined it – to my own.
And then I started to spiral into a familiar dismay as I considered the challenge I would face as soon as I got up from that barber’s chair, which was to write a sermon for this morning, the first of our “Commitment Sundays.”
I am sure you will not be surprised to hear that our beloved Stewardship Chair has encouraged me to “bathe in public,” as he says – to discuss candidly with you my own struggles and issues with respect to this extremely awkward subject of money. As the barber clipped away, I thought about the many times that stressful and complicated subject of money has surfaced in recent days: wonderful, grace-filled conversations with parishioners as they struggle to find the right balance between their love for the parish and their many other obligations; candid discussions with my wife and my son as we struggle to pay the bills and make those choices; not to mention conversations with the Vestry and leadership about our budget; and hours spent listening to political candidates talk about taxes and all the various referenda on the ballot.
We are faced with so many difficult choices: what’s more important, saving for my son’s college education, or increasing my support for the parish? Should I vote for stem cell research or health care for minimum wage workers or both? Should we be starting up a parish nurse ministry for our seniors or hold that money in a reserve fund? How much of a reserve fund is enough? How much wealth is too much? Whose needs come first?
As the barber clipped away I wondered exactly how much bathing in public I should do, and whether I should share with you the dream I had the night before, in which I was taking a shower in a huge locker-room open shower area and all of you were in there with me, and we were all happily chatting away and laughing and washing ourselves. Should I talk about that, I wondered… or not…?
I thought about how worried I’ve been about money lately, as Rose and I have looked for a way to balance all the demands made on my paycheck. I will spare you the grisly details but the bottom line is that we’ve lost over 30% of our household income since Rose’s research fellowship came to an end and we discovered how incredibly bad the job market is out here for people with prestigious PhD’s in Clinical Psychology, not to mention the shockingly high cost of getting Rose fully licensed and insured.
So the naked truth, if you will, is that in my own household we have drastically reduced our spending everywhere we can, and still we’ve blown through all our savings and we are now faced with some very difficult choices, not the least difficult being the fact that we can no longer afford to give $300 a month to the church. And it kills me to have to admit this, especially in a time when we are all being asked to increase our giving if we can in order to simply sustain the ministries of this parish at a bare minimum of functioning.
So this whole bathing in public idea – I’m not liking it so much right now. How much easier it would be to put on a face of hypocrisy, like so many churches do; and either lie about the real struggles we’re facing, or pretend there’s an easy answer to all these questions. But the truth is there isn’t an easy answer, as much as I wish there were. The heavenly realm of God’s kingdom is not going to be made manifest if I just manage to increase my pledge by 1%; unlike some preachers, I will never say to my congregation that God will shower blessings on you if you just give the church 10% of your income. I despise the ways in which religious leaders have manipulated their congregations over the centuries to increase giving in their church or temple or mosque. The truth is that when it comes to money and how we use it, whether we’re talking about our household finances, or our church budget, or our state or national budgets, there are difficult choices and real tradeoffs and no easy answers.
How much is it worth to us to wage a war against terrorism? How many dollars? How many lives? How much should we spend on stem cell research? Is that more important than AIDS research? Cancer research? New fire trucks?
So there I am in this pivoting chair at the barber shop; and as the barber is patiently clipping and combing, I’m balancing so many conflicting questions and feelings. I’m feeling guilty: about my relative wealth compared to this barber; about the decision I have to make with respect to my pledge to the parish; about taking time away from the office to write a sermon; about all the people in the parish whose needs I haven’t met and whose lives I haven’t touched.
And yet, balancing that guilt, there’s the deep sense of grace that I discover every day: in the ways in which my family and I are sustained and blessed by this church and by the communion of saints that are still with us now; I thought about the sense of grace I feel as God continues to bless our ministries.
So I’m balancing guilt, and grace. I’m also balancing fear and hope: I’m scared about the future of our planet; and yet I’m a great believer in the human spirit to overcome adversity.
And I’m balancing so many other things: my own needs for physical and spiritual wellness, vs. the overwhelming needs of others, too numerous to count.
And then something happens, while I’m sitting in the barber’s chair, that I didn’t expect, and which changed everything for me. It was a tiny thing, but it made a huge difference. It seemed to me that the barber was finished; he had clipped away everything; he had loosened the apron from around my neck and had trimmed around my neck. I was getting ready for him to call it a day when he paused, and put his hands on my shoulders, and gave them a little squeeze; it sounds silly and hardly worth mentioning but it felt like he had sensed all this pondering and worry in me, and he just paused, and held me there; it felt surprisingly intimate, like a deep kind of reassurance; it felt like a blessing. And then he wrapped up my neck again, and got out this warm shaving cream, and put it around my ear and the back of the neck, it felt so good; and then he got out an old fashioned straight-edge razor, and suddenly I was very attentive to what he was doing, and he began to trim my sideburns with this extremely sharp blade; around my ears and my neck. Images of Van Gogh came to mind. And again I felt like I was in this balance, between a fear of being cut, and this delicious sense of being so vulnerable in the hands of a master.
And that’s when I felt I met Jesus; because during this whole barbershop meditation I found myself going deeper and deeper into this place of blessing and danger: that every time I considered my fear, I found a deeper place of trust; that every time I felt anxious, I felt a deeper sense of blessing. It was as if Jesus were saying to me, as he says to all of us in our gospel reading today, that the first thing about our lives is that we are blessed.
Before we can talk about what God calls us to give, we have to open ourselves to what God has for us to receive; we have to put ourselves in that pivoting barber’s chair; we have to place ourselves in that dangerous place of trust. That is the place where God is working on us; that is the place where we are being real with God, and God is being real with us; and that is the place where we realize that we are not hanging in this balance alone; it’s not just a balance between fear and hope, guilt and forgiveness, as if both sides are equally strong and we need to find a center; when we really enter into that dialogue honestly and prayerfully, we find Christ there, tilting the balance toward his side; blessing us, loving us, forgiving us, sustaining us. It might feel as if the balance is a razor’s edge; but the razor is in God’s hands; and God is tending to our souls with great love, infinite patience, and enormous care.
My only prayer for this time in our lives together is this: that before you decide what you will give, you make a decision first to receive what God has to give to you. That’s the scariest thing: not the giving to God, but the receiving. Because we might just discover how deeply blessed we are; we might find out how deeply loved we are. And that changes everything.
XVIII Pentecost – October 3, 2004
Thursday, October 28, 2004 4:30 pm PDT
Edited by John Nykamp
The Grateful Leper
A few years ago I was talking to a man who had retired as the CEO of a thriving company. He didn’t seem very happy in his retirement so I asked him what was the hardest thing about it and he said, “When I was working, I was a somebody. Now I’m a nobody.”
I thought of him as I thought about the lepers in our gospel story today. Imagine you are a prosperous merchant in ancient Israel. You own a thriving business. Your beautiful wife has produced many beautiful children and they all wear beautiful clothes. You are recognized in the Temple by smiling priests and in the marketplace by grateful shop owners. Your name is called out with respect as you walk along the street.
But then one bright morning you wake up in your opulent bed with clean sheets and notice that your nose is unusually congested. You reach over for your silk robe and notice that several lesions have formed on your arms. For a day or two you try to keep the lesions hidden from your wife and your friends but soon they begin to appear all over your hands and feet; and the horrible secret is there for everyone to see: you are no longer a human being; you have become a leper.
Within days you are shunned by everyone you thought was your friend; you are driven out of your house and out of your town; you will never see your wife or your children again except on occasion from a distance as you sit in the dirt at the gate of the town begging for crumbs and pennies. Your only company is a bunch of other lepers, each of them more despised and miserable than the next, most of them constantly cursing God, cursing their fate; waiting to die.
Now if you lived in Lake Wobegone this would be a good time for Bee-Bop-a-Ree-Bop Rhubarb pie… but you don’t… and this is your life now; you learn to accept it. You become philosophical.
Time passes, the seasons change; one day you blow your nose and it just falls off; and you don’t even care anymore…
All that you have left are your memories of a better day; during the day you manage to forget about what you’ve lost but at night you can’t stop the memories, they just come flooding back, so vivid and fresh and painful; you remember your wedding day; how beautiful your wife was, how she leaned toward you, and gazing up into your face as she promised herself to you, as if you were a prince. In a way, it seems now, you kind of were.
You have a tiny memory box that you open, only at night under the stars when everyone else has gone to sleep so they won’t catch you crying; here is a scrap of linen from your son’s bar mitzvah. Here is a lock of your daughter’s golden hair.
Some of the lepers don’t have memory boxes; and they wouldn’t want one if you gave them one for free. They don’t want to remember their former lives; it’s too painful. But you are not like that. You need to remember; you need to remember that you used to be a somebody. Your memories are where you find your pride. “I used to be someone,” you say to yourself, over and over like a mantra; it’s the only thing that keeps you from breaking.
At the leper colony, you watch the other lepers; and over time you notice that it’s always hardest on the ones like you who have fallen from the greatest height. The prominent citizens; the ones from the best families; you stick together for comfort; you are the “cool” lepers; but you are also the most bitter, the most angry at God, the most self-destructive.
And then on the other hand there are the folks who were nobodies before they ever got leprosy; some of them haven’t fallen hardly any height at all; and you’re not sure but you think that’s why they seem to accept their condition more easily. There’s one guy in the leper colony who was so despised that getting leprosy almost seemed like a promotion: the Samaritan leper.
I mean, that guy was born a nobody; everybody knows that – a Samaritan is nothing but a no-good low-class trailer-trash heretic, lower than a snake’s belly. And I mean, talk about unlucky – you might be cursed with leprosy, but this one – he’s double cursed. So why does he seem so at peace? Sometimes he seems even cheerful. He used to whistle, even, but well… that was before his lips… well…
And so then one day you’re trudging down a dirt road in rags with eight of your friends — the “cool” lepers – and this one Samaritan leper, who follows the rest of you around like a dog or something; you keep telling him to go away but he just keeps following; and that’s when this miracle worker named Jesus comes along and, well, what the heck you’ve got nothing to lose so you ask him for a miracle and he tells you to go to the Temple and present yourselves to the priest.
The priest! Is he kidding?! Is this guy a comedian? Because that’s just hilarious – a bunch of lepers going into the Temple; presenting themselves to a priest! That’s the last thing a priest wants to see coming into the Temple, a bunch of lepers – the Temple is the sanctuary of the Holy One; inside is the Holy of Holies; only the most pure, the most undefiled high priest of the land is allowed in there. A leper in the Temple is about as welcome as a dead rat in the punch bowl. Who is this guy Jesus? He must be nuts!
But then someone says, “Well, who could stop us?” And you realize he’s right – nobody would stop us because we’re untouchable! People see us coming they get out of the way! Why not take ourselves to the Temple, yeah, that’s right! Let them try to stop us! Poke the Holy One in the eye if he don’t like it.
So with a brittle cheer you set off with your feisty band of lepers toward the Temple; you feel a strange dry burning sensation in your throat and hear something you haven’t heard since the day you first saw those lesions on your arm – you are laughing.
And you get no more than a few feet on your way toward the Temple when you see, right before your eyes, the lesions on your friend’s arms begin to dry up; the white, diseased skin falls away and there is pink, healthy skin underneath; you stare at your own hands and there they are as you remembered them, normal hands, no longer numb and crippled; you can bend them again.
You are healed! Amazing!
And now your only thought is to get home; forget the Temple, you’re going home; you start running now; desperate to see your children; to see your wife again. You’ve got things to do, people to see, a business to rebuild, a whole life to return to. You look over your shoulder and your friends are all doing the same thing; running for home… except for that Samaritan. He is running back to Jesus; he is prostrating himself at Jesus’ feet; he is giving thanks.
The other day I was at one of these meetings sponsored by the Diocese where the clergy get together to talk about their churches and get support for their ministries. And these things always start off the same way – we sit around in a circle and each person talks about what’s going on in their church. It’s supposed to be a time for open listening and sharing and every time it turns into a little competition. The first guy says, “My church just opened up a new room for our youth group,”
And then the next guy says, “Gee, that’s terrific, Jean – you know, we just built a new wing on our church that’s completely dedicated to our youth.”
And the next guy says, “You know it’s interesting you should mention youth, Larry, because I just got back from a ten day pilgrimage to the Sudan with 30 kids in my youth group; yeah, we delivered five tons of hospital supplies and fed fifteen thousand war orphans in one day – by the way, anybody want to adopt a Sudanese orphan because we brought a couple dozen back with us, yeah, they’re all sleeping in my living room right now, cute little buggers…”
I listen to these priests bragging about their work and after awhile you feel like Jesus listening to a bunch of self-righteous lepers talking about everything except their brokenness. To hear them talk you’d think everything is perfect in their world; you wouldn’t know that this priest is going through a divorce; and that priest is drinking herself into an early grave; and the other priest just got word of her cancer and is careening out of control with grief.
And as I listen to them I’m feeling this vacuum opening up inside me; this great sadness; because what I was thinking about was not the latest achievement but the woman I talked to whose husband just got word of cancer; I was thinking about the woman who died and only two people came to her memorial service; I was thinking about the homeless child who was here last week, whose screams of rage and sorrow rang through my office like a bell. And I was thinking about how all of that – every last tear, every last gasping breath – is blessed by this God; this God of the lepers.
Now if you want to get into bragging we’ve got as much to brag about in this church as anyone; this is the largest church in the Diocese, next to the Cathedral; you wanna talk about programs, we’ve got more programs than half of them combined; you wanna talk about success we are a thriving church; alive and growing with a renewed sense of mission and purpose.
But guess what? I didn’t come here to be successful. I’ve been successful before; I’ve done that. I came here to be faithful. I present myself to this altar like a Samaritan leper presents himself to the Temple: I am wounded; I am broken; I am healed in Christ; I turn to Jesus, and give him thanks.
The other day complimented me on a class I taught and said I was doing a good job. I appreciated his comments and a part of me wanted to take in his approval like a camel drinks water. But another part of me wanted to say to him, “Thanks, I’m grateful for your support, and I need it; but you know what, I didn’t come here to win your approval. I came here to serve Jesus, as best I can; I came here because I am wounded; I am broken; and I am healed in Christ; I turn to Jesus, and give him thanks.
That’s why we all come here.
Don’t be fooled by the carefully applied make-up and the well-groomed hair. We don’t come here to be admired for our clothing, though there’s a part of us that does. We come here because we are broken and we are healed; we are fighting cancer; we are praying for our children who seem so lost; we are feeling our husbands drift away from us; we are lonely; we are afraid to die.
I went to visit a member of the parish the other day and she spent half her time apologizing for what she thought was a messy house. I said, “I didn’t come here because I thought you might have a clean kitchen. I came here because I know you’ve got a troubled soul.”
And on Sundays I see her here; kneeling at the altar. I know what she’s praying for. She is well dressed and respectable looking. But inside she is a Samaritan leper. She is wounded; she is struck dumb with grief; she is lonely; she is afraid to die; and she is blessed – every bit of her, every shadow, every halting word of prayer. Like the leper, she is kneeling in front of Jesus.
Behind the placid eye
There is a well of tears
And through the black center
We fall into mercy.
V Pentacost — July 4, 2004
Edited on Wednesday, August 11, 2004 11:16 am PDT
Edited by John Nykamp
A few days ago, I was wondering what I should preach on this Sunday on the 4th of July. I had gone to see the Michael Moore film Fahrenheit 9-11 the night before – a film that I would recommend to anyone here today, by the way, no matter your political convictions, because beyond its artisitic merits, which are considerable, it raises very troubling questions that in my opinion we are morally bound to answer. But beyond that, I wasn¹t sure what I could say about the film, if anything: or how I should approach this morning’s sermon. Did I dare address the toxic mix of religion and politics? Would I be violating an unwritten code of Episcopal manners by stepping across the line into controversial matter?
So the next day I looked up a copy of the Declaration of Independence; and as I read those nearly sacred words, I found myself asking Thomas Jefferson what advice he had to offer me, or any preacher who dared to preach a sermon on this Sunday.
And then… well, I’m still not quite sure what exactly happened, but as I placed my hands over my computer’s keyboard to write this sermon, it was almost as though Thomas Jefferson himself began punching the keys, offering the very advice that I was seeking.
So this morning I thought I would share with you Mr. Jefferson’s advice as I received it. There’s just one editorial comment that I should probably offer that while the spirit of Mr. Jefferson seems to have been following current events rather closely, he obviously hasn’t adopted the modern habit of inclusive language. On behalf of Mr. Jefferson, I apologize for language that may seem rather archaic, and beg your indulgence. Here goes:
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for a preacher to address his congregation on the rare Sunday which falls on the fourth day in July, said date being the anniversary of our independence from the tyrannical establishment of King George the 3rd, that preacher is earnestly advised to follow prudent counsel.
Let this advice be submitted to a candid world:
First, the preacher must take notice of the desire among some in his flock to engage upon the singing of patriotic songs during the service of worship. Such recent inventions as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “America the Beautiful” do, indeed, succeed in stirring the most laggardly of oafs into a patriotic fervor. But patriotism is not to be confused with piety; and while it is not always the last refuge of scoundrels, it is their frequent habitation. Whenever possible, the preacher should simultaneously honor the honest patriotism of his people, while also gently resisting the usurpation of sacred ends by political means. That is to say, the anniversary of his nation’s founding remains a political, not a religious, holiday.
When necessary and appropriate, the preacher would also do well to remind his beloved people that, in obedience to our Lord, all boundaries of national distinction are dissolved at the door of His church. One might quote the apostle. Paul, who reminded the people of Galatia that in Christ there is neither slave nor free, neither Jew nor Greek, and by extension, neither American nor British.
The preacher may further be advised that, while the vast multitude of persons residing in his parish may be American, there are quite possibly others as well, even dare we say citizens of the British Empire (this being, of course, a church that traces its roots to, and remains in communion with, the established church of the country from which we have rebelled), and that those and others worshipping among us who are not citizens of the American States might justly seek to find their holy communion on this day undiluted by nationalistic preachments, however well intended. The preacher is further advised to consider the great disappointment that would befall a member of the British Empire upon the occasion of his entrance into this holy sanctuary, were he to find not a sacred consolation, but rather a spirit which celebrates rebellion against his very own mother land.
Furthermore, whereas it is without doubt a felt and passionately held conviction on the part of the preacher that he knows best whenever matters of political opinion arise, he should attempt to restrain himself from such partisan views as may deeply divide his beloved flock — unless matters of conscience ineluctably dictate otherwise. Indeed, if in the defense of liberty Americans cannot be moderates, then in matters of God’s justice, Christians cannot be cowed by common conventions and mean motives. Would we not be committing a crime of dispassion, were we to condone the moderate toleration of an immoderate injustice?
In humble obedience to this end, therefore, the preacher might recommend the film of Mr. Moore as an artistic achievement that raises important questions, without going into very great degree of further detail.
These are treacherous times, and the preacher¹s boat sails in treacherous waters. He must choose wisely, therefore, when addressing the partisan debates of his day, taking as his model our very own Lord Jesus, who, as this day’s recommended Gospel reading illustrates, was challenged to make a political stand either for or against the emperor of Rome. The preacher shall recall how wisely Jesus addressed the matter without falling into the trap of partisanship, by suggesting that we render unto Caesar that which is his, and render unto God that which belongs to God.
The preacher might, by such means, thus lead his flock into a contemplation of those things which rightly do belong to God, and are thus properly rendered unto him:
In the pregnant pause of this meditation, the preacher might pose to his congregation the question which the gospel story begs, which is this: what is it that does not belong to God? Is there anything under heaven or upon the face of this earth which is not claimed by God as his very own?
Is there any land, no matter how dismembered by fences or walls or the surveyor’s line, which is not, first and foremost, God’s property? Was not the Roman empire itself, for all its power and might, nothing but the mental construction of merely mortal minds? Would the walls of Rome not have collapsed as swiftly as the walls of Jericho, had its citizens been as moved by the Pentecost recognition that its Empire was but a puny invention compared to the majesty of God’s Kingdom, and not an invention worthy of their allegiance?
And was not this the very crime of which Jesus and his disciples were convicted, that they recognized not the self-proclaimed divinity of the emperor, as it was inscribed upon that coin, but dared to speak the treasonous truth of Jesus as their King and their God?
The preacher may then proceed to examine the multitudinous ways by which our God has claimed his creation as his own, rendering null and void all claims to possession by men, be they emperors or knaves. Is not this very earth, for example, when viewed from the distance of the heavens, nothing but a single living cell, its boundaries indetectable to the heavenly eye, and just as irrelevant? Has not the contemplation of our Mother Earth, beheld by those modern travelers in space, confirmed within us Christ¹s own sense of our common humanity? Indeed, is it not the revelation of our mutual habitation upon this tiny planet, drifting alone within an infinite sea of lifeless space, that compels us to cross the lines that from our earthly perspective divide us into mere nations, or colors, or any of a number of equally vain distinctions? Is it not God’s great desire that we should put aside our habits of mass extinction, and in the spirit of the prophet Isaiah, beat our swords into plowshares, seeking first our common survival, which is at this very moment hanging in the historical balance?
Are these not, after all, the reasonable conclusions of reasonable men, when they consider the entirety of this earth as God’s possession? Is not the earth itself but a precious coin in God’s realm, and do we not detect on its face the very face of our Lord? What is there, indeed, that does not rightfully belong to God, and is therefore properly rendered unto him?
Render it, then, unto God.
And finally, the preacher might consider even further that very coin which Jesus held in his hand. Whose image is upon it, he asked, to which was answered, Caesars. And thus by such contemplation he might lead his congregation into one final question: if it is the coin that is made in Caesar’s image, what is it that is made in God’s image?
What is it, indeed, that is rendered in God’s image? Is it not our very soul which is created in the image of God?
Is it not our very soul which we come upon now, at rest within the depths of our breast? Is this not our soul, which is lost like an ancient coin from God’s heavenly realm; it lies deep within us now as if it were at the bottom of a dark sea; as if it were a coin flung by a spendthrift god. He is coming now to reclaim his prize; he is swimming toward us like great Poseidon of the deep, our Lord swims into the very depths of our being, searching out the prize which he lost so long ago.
And now he spies it at last; it lies there in the muck, gleaming in the darkness. He comes more closely still, and finds the image upon the coin: is it not his face? Is it not your face? Is it not the face of all humanity?
Like a patient swimmer in the depths of the sea, he spies his treasure; he smiles in his joy; he hovers above our souls; he reaches out his hand.
7 Easter — May 23, 2004
Edited on Monday, May 24, 2004 10:31 am PDT
Edited by Gayle Turner
The Rev. Matthew Lawrence
Acts 16:16-34; Psalm 97; Rev. 22:12-14, 16-17; John 17:20-26
Yesterday morning, as many of us sat down with our newspapers and morning coffees, we found yet even more horrible pictures of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. It perhaps goes without saying that no more sordid and distasteful subject for a sermon could be found than this; it grieves us that such things come to our attention at all; a part of us wants to turn completely away from them; we want to pretend they don’t exist, or pretend that they have nothing to do with our lives of faith, here at home, so many miles away from the atrocities.
And perhaps we would ignore it, if not for the story we hear this morning from the Book of Acts, of Paul and Silas being set upon by a mob in Phillipi, and then being arrested by police in collusion with the occupying power, and then being stripped naked, and beaten with rods.
If you asked someone in the Middle East, whether in ancient or modern times, which fate they would prefer, to be stripped naked in public or to be beaten by rods, the great majority would choose to be beaten by rods –so great is the shame and humiliation of public nakedness. But Paul and Silas had no such choice – they were forced to endure both.
Today we can picture this scene with the unfortunate clarity of a modern color photograph; we now have a fresh and compelling measure of the humiliation they suffered.
This is an ancient tradition practiced since the beginning of what we call civilization: in order to thoroughly dominate someone, strip them of their dignity; make them feel deeply vulnerable; make them cower in shame.
But there is something different about these two men, Paul and Silas:
For reasons that are not immediately obvious, they seem to be immune from shame.
After being stripped and beaten, they are put in shackles and thrown into the highest security cell in the jail. But rather than collapsing from exhaustion and grief; rather than wailing with anger at the injustice of their treatment, they spend their time singing hymns to God.
They are not discouraged, in fact if anything their ordeal seems to strengthen their faith; they seem victorious rather than defeated; they sing hymns into the night.
This is the greatest testimony of their faith; this is their most powerful witness: that they have found within themselves an inner spiritual freedom that no one can imprison; they have found an inner victory, a meaning for their suffering that transcends mere physical pain.
But this sense of victory does not come from gazing at one’s navel for sufficiently long periods of time. Victor Frankl, the famous author of the book Man’s Search for Meaning, was a prisoner in the Nazi death camps of Dachau and Auschwitz. His punishment for being Jewish was to be rousted from his maggoty sleep before dawn every day, forced to march in the dead of winter without shoes or socks over stony roads, and made to dig into frozen ground with a broken pick axe for 12 to 15 hours each day while kept on a starvation diet of moldy crusts of bread and thin gruel. Anyone who fell down on the job was beaten with a whip, or simply shot in the head.
And then, one morning as he stood for hours beating at the frozen ground, he began to meditate on the image of his wife, whose fate he could not know; he began to have conversations with her in his mind, and he realized that the more he focused on her image and on his love for her, the more he was given the strength to endure his suffering. He says that as the dawn began to spread across the snowy field where they were working, he “…grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: [Our] salvation … is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved.”
This realization gave him the strength to endure hardships that would otherwise have killed him. By the time he was finally freed from the death camps, he had worked out his own philosophy by which one endures the utmost in suffering, and that is through love. He says “that being human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself, be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets [one's] self – by giving [ourselves] to a cause to serve or another person to love – the more human [we are] and the more [we] actualize [ourselves].”
At that moment, he learned that there was nothing that his tormenters could do to strip him of his dignity; that it was within his power to choose how he would respond to his suffering, and that the great test of his life and of every life is to respond to suffering with dignity and inner purpose and love.
And this is where it gets interesting – because of course, Victor Frankl was not a Christian. This powerful sense of life-affirming love and meaning was not something he derived from any convictions about Jesus as the Christ; what he discovered in that moment of life-saving realization goes deeper than any one religion or any one spiritual path; he discovered a fundamental spiritual force that is derived simply from fact that he was a human being, capable of love; he found a spiritual freedom that is not derived from any one faith or confined to any one culture; he found a spiritual freedom that is available to all human beings as a fundamental gift of being itself; a sense of worth that penetrates the flimsy fabric of creed or doctrine.
This is the universal experience of human freedom; it is an experience that is as fully available to Muslims in Iraq now, as it was to Black folks in Birmingham in the 1960s, as it was to the earliest Christians in Phillippi.
It is from experiences such as this that the idea emerges that certain rights are universal; that certain rights are given by the very fact that we are drawing breath; that we are born with the right to be treated with a sacred dignity and respect. It is not a right that is reserved for Americans any more than for Roman citizens; it is not reserved for Christians any more than for Muslims; it is not reserved for sober people any more than for drunkards; for people in possession of elegant homes any more than people sleeping on our curb at night. This is a condition of being human; that we possess our own inner freedom; and that no one can imprison our souls or take away from us our freedom to choose how we shall love, and with what dignity we shall suffer, no matter how hard they may try.
So one doesn’t need to be a Christian to discover this elemental truth about the human condition. But on the other hand… perhaps it helps… Because these truths were not always obvious to us; until a man came along who dared to touch lepers, and they were healed; he dared to speak to Samaritans and to prostitutes and to women and to children, and they were encouraged; and the miracle began to spread, like a virus born of heaven: what at one moment was clearly impossible suddenly in the next moment seemed perfectly, obviously true: that they, too, were human beings, loveable and capable of love; that they, too, deserved to be treated with compassion and dignity.
Love begets love.
The early Christians were shocking to the pagan Romans because of the depth of their love. One Roman pagan was quoted in a letter to another as saying, “Behold, how these Christians love one another!” He went on to describe how the Christians put the Romans to shame with their humane treatment of widows and orphans.
In the third century, a man named Cyprian, who would later by martyred for his faith, wrote a letter to his pagan friend, Donatus, in which he said,
“Brigands on the high roads, pirates on the seas, in amphitheaters men even murder to please the applauding crowds, under all roofs misery and selfishness. It is a really bad world, Donatus, an incredibly bad world. Yet in the midst of it I have found a quiet and holy people. They have discovered a joy which is a thousand times better than any pleasure of this simple life. They are despised and persecuted, but they care not. They have overcome the world. These people, Donatus, are the Christians – and I am one of them.”
Where did these Christians get this ability to rise above the suffering and humiliation of the world? Where did Paul and Silas get the strength to sing hymns into the night after a day of beating and shame? Well, they were some of the early carriers of that heavenly virus that 2,000 years later Victor Frankl would also catch. And through their faith in Christ they received a kind of extra immunity against suffering and humiliation… they were, after all, proclaiming a God that had suffered the ultimate humiliation; crucifixion upon a cross. Now how are you going to humiliate someone who places at the center of his faith the greatest humiliation of them all – a God who has died on the cross, only to rise victorious from the grave? There’s nothing you can do to humiliate someone like that!
This is exactly how shocking the scandal of the cross is; the image of Christ on the cross is no less shocking than the idea of God stripped and abused at Abu Ghraib.
Now we turn again to those horrible images at Abu Ghraib; and viewed from this gospel light we find that they show us the way in which the gospel works its miracle.
Because the gospel is all about the tables being turned; It’s all about flipping our conventional view of reality upside down. We see these pictures and suddenly the tables are turned: Suddenly, we ask ourselves, who has really lost their dignity – the prisoners, or the jailers? The jailers are smirking and laughing; they are doing things that in the light of day would horrify the entire world. Who has lost their dignity – the prisoners or the jailers? Who stands in shame now?
Who are the real prisoners – the ones handcuffed to the wall, or the ones committing the atrocities? When asked why they did these things, the guards testify that they had no choice; that they were only following orders; that they were forced to do these things. Don’t blame us, they say, we were prisoners in a jail of a greater corruption. Now, in the light of God’s truth, the prisoners have been freed, while the jailers have become imprisoned in their own shame.
Over the course of the coming years, when the early Christians would suffer the very worst forms of abuse, their spirit of dignity and love toward their persecutors proved to be their most powerful witness to the gospel. It became a witness that changed the world; and perhaps planted the seed for the concept of inalienable human rights, not only as a self-evident truth, but as a basis for law.
Is it a coincidence, after all, that while these same and worse abuses have been taking place in Iraq for decades in the same prison during the regime of Saddam Hussein, it is the United States, a country founded upon the principle of inalienable human rights, that has had the courage to publicly and openly investigate these crimes, and bring the perpetrators to justice? One wonders whether the voices of hatred toward America there are now having their day will ever for a moment acknowledge the simple fact that, as often as we fail to live up to our ideals, those ideals still lay at the core of our laws and our culture.
Now, ironically, we are being judged by the Arab world by the very standards that Christ himself taught us, and which Christ’s love has taught the world. Ironically, through our actions, the world is experiencing our culture, our influence, as the bit of suffering that they must overcome through their love for Allah. I fear that if we don’t confess our sins thoroughly and repent of our failures, the universal truths of human dignity and spiritual freedom will be claimed as the sole possession of two competing religions. Already, throughout the Arab world, Christians are viewed as enemies of spiritual freedom and human dignity. If we don’t change our ways, if we don’t thoroughly repent of our sin of dehumanizing Muslims in Iraq and elsewhere, I fear that we will continue to polarize into enemy camps; we will continue to dehumanize one another rather than regain the universal truth which our Lord calls us to and which unites us all: the love and respect of one another as children of God.
In our gospel reading for today, Jesus offers his final prayer for us; that we might know God’s love as Christ has known it; and that we might all be one, as Christ is one with the Father. This is my prayer, also: that as we move through these treacherous times, we will embrace the spirit of Christ’s prayer; that we will focus on the bonds of our common humanity rather than on that which divides us; and that we will be united by our love for God, who has many names, but is and will always be the infinite source of unconditional love.
2 Easter — April 18, 2004
Monday, April 19, 2004 10:55 am PDT
The Rev. Matthew Lawrence
Church of the Incarnation, Santa Rosa, California
Acts 5: 27-32; Psalm 150; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20: 19-31
I’m so impressed to see you here this morning! This is known in church circles as “Low Sunday” because so many people take this Sunday off from church, exhausted from Holy Week.
I’d take this Sunday off too, to be honest, if I could…
Every year, we hear the same gospel lesson on this Sunday; one of my favorites, the story of Doubting Thomas.
In fact, I like this story so much I named my son Thomas – the disciple who had the courage to step up and say, “Hey, wait a minute, I’m not convinced. I need evidence.” I wanted to instill in my son that independent spirit, that inquiring mind; I hoped that I would raise a young man who wouldn’t settle for easy answers. Now that he’s a teenager, I worry that maybe he’s taken that spirit a little too far for my comfort…
It takes courage to be the one who asks the difficult questions when everyone else in the room thinks they know the answers. This is why Thomas still gets a bum rap in many churches – people don’t want him to ask the embarrassing question. So a lot of churches ostracize, humiliate, or marginalize their Doubting Thomases. Many of them simply give up on religion after that; but if they’re lucky, they will find the Episcopal Church – a church which, at its best, respects their intelligence and values their questions.
I have a niece named Keegan – my sister’s daughter – who is very intelligent. When she was about five, my sister called and said Keegan needed to ask me something. She put her on the phone. Keegan said, “Uncle Matt, God created everything, right?” I said, “Yes, that’s right.” “Then who created God?” she asked.
I actually tried to answer. “God is eternal. God exists in a place beyond space and time.” I even tried a little physics on her: “Time began at the moment of the Big Bang — when God created the universe. So before the creation, there was no such thing as time. So there was no time in which God did not exist.”
This did not go over well. Keegan just sighed in a kind of exasperated way in me and hung up the phone.
Keegan is now a first year student at Grinnell College. This week she sent me a short essay she wrote, entitled “My Search for God.” I liked it so much I want to share it with you.
My Search for God
by Keegan Gourlie
First year student, Grinnell College
Last weekend it occurred to me that God is trying to contact me. It started Friday night with a billboard that said, “Trust Me! -God” and nothing else. Then, Saturday, the back of the tee shirt of the boy in front of me in line read, “You shall never walk alone”. During the Superbowl, a commercial for a new television show aired, and the bubbly voice-over announced, “She’s like every other teenage girl…except she talks to God!” And of course, Sunday night, the Mormon missionaries who stopped me on the street to ask, “What has Jesus done for you lately?” My arms were full of take-out Thai food, and I didn’t know what Jesus had done for me lately. I tried to brush it all off, but those words haunted me. I calmly ate my curry fried rice, but with questions mounting up on all sides of me and answers rapidly receding into oblivion I had to wonder: Am I merely taking note a web of coincidences that run rampant in our mostly Christian society, or is God trying to talk to me?
When I was growing up I went to Sunday school every week. I memorized the Lord’s Prayer and the 10 commandments and the history of the Episcopal Church. We drew pictures of Jesus, and he was a white man sitting on a cloud in the sky. We prayed to Him up there on that cloud. I asked my Mom, “Who made God?” and she would smile at me. When I was about 10 I began questioning these things I had been taught. Suddenly it all seemed like a big malicious lie. I wondered why I hadn’t questioned what I had learned, and felt betrayed that I had come to an understanding of God not through my own experiences, but through someone else’s. I stopped going to church, I stopped praying, and I thought I stopped caring. Somehow though, I couldn’t throw God away. My Jesus on a cloud still sat perched in the back of my mind, and though the image of Him grew more faint, He was always there. Finally I came to accept that I believed in something, I just didn’t know what.
The next few years of my life were spent formulating my agnosticism: I believed in the beauty of the universe, I believed in the questions of the universe. It felt safe, and I felt comfortable with it. That is, until last weekend and its onslaught of “signs”. I find myself again being confronted with questions. Is it possible to assimilate my Episcopal upbringing with my “new-age” focus on beauty? Wouldn’t it be easier to just listen to the billboard, to trust God to make my decisions for me? Have I completely lost my mind?
I wrote the first few paragraphs of this essay about a month ago. Since then I have been researching the topic of my religion. I read a physics book called God and the New Physics by Paul Davies. I read a Buddhist book called Being Peace by the monk Thich Nhat Hanh. I saw the Mel Gibson movie “The Passion of the Christ”. I discussed with my peers, and I prayed. The more knowledge I gain, the harder it has become for me to approach this essay. Every source I confront for answers leaves me with more questions. My best friend, Nick, tells me I am weak: I convinced myself God was trying to talk to me by attaching meaning to various meaningless coincidences. I ask Nick, “So, does God exist?” and he responds, “Not in billboards.” I confront my mom with this news, and she says, “Honey, God is everywhere!” I take this idea to my physics book, which seems to snarl, “You mistake God for Science!” I try in vain to recall countless conversations with my uncle (a Priest) and seem to recall him saying, “You have to figure it out for yourself.” So here is what I have figured out.
The answers don’t matter, because there aren’t any. To have faith in something means to constantly question it, and the questions are what it is all about. I don’t know if I will ever be able to define my faith in terms of words like agnostic or Episcopal, but I do know that it is there. God is there. It can’t be proven, but somehow I just know it is true. At least, I think I do. My journey has led me through so many emotions: trust, anger, confusion, and peace; and the great part is, my journey is just beginning. I see now that we are all on a journey, and we must never stop asking questions. I think back to the Mormon missionaries and their question, as loaded as a gun, “What has Jesus done for you lately?” At the time I had said, “I honestly don’t know.” Now I would just smile and say, “Exactly.”
Some people might find this last line to be distressing. They would rather that their children have ready answers to questions like this. Wouldn’t we all?
But Keegan has made a breakthrough. She understands now that we can only absorb the answers that we are ready for; but even a little child can ask the deepest, most profound questions. It’s the questions that take us into the mystery; it’s the questions that take us into the unknown, where God is alive.
But it doesn’t end with questions, of course. We wouldn’t be here if all we had were questions. Maybe we’d be Unitarians… Garrison Keillor’s annual Joke Show was on last night. “How do you drive a Unitarian family out of town? You burn a giant question mark on their front lawn.”
For Episcopalians, the question mark is always accompanied by an exclamation point. Thomas keeps asking the question, until finally he breaks out with the exclamation, “My Lord and my God!”
In the end, the question mark is joined with an exclamation point.
Jesus loves the skeptic. He could have continued on toward heaven after he appeared to the disciples, but he realized that Thomas had missed the meeting and still had questions. Jesus hears the questions. He takes time out from his busy schedule as a resurrected being and comes back to Thomas. The experience is enough to send Thomas across the globe as a missionary for Christ. The church that he founded in India remains today. That exclamation point continues to resound.
We are a church of wonderful questions and even more wonderful answers. The answer is perfectly simply, and infinitely mysterious. The answer is Jesus Christ, co-eternal with the Father; through whom all things were made; who for us and for our salvation came down from heaven. God in the flesh; our Lord and our God!
It’s an answer with an exclamation point. It’s an answer that we can chew on for the rest of our lives.
Somebody say, Amen.
Easter Sunday — April 11, 2004
Edited on Monday, April 19, 2004 10:50 am PDT
Edited by Gayle Turner
The Rev. Matthew Lawrence, Rector
Church of the Incarnation, Santa Rosa, California
Isaiah 65:17-25; Psalm 118:1-2,14-24; 1 Acts 10:34-43; Luke 24:1-12
Alleluia! The Lord is Risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Finally! What a long Lent this was! Does anyone remember what it was like before Lent? I can’t remember that far back.
It is appropriate that Lent seems so long – after all, if you were with us last night during our Easter vigil, you were reminded that we have been waiting since the creation for this moment; this moment when the One who was with God in the Creation conquers that which has haunted us since our birth; when the Risen One reveals his Power over death.
For thousands of years, since the dawn of time, we have labored under this curse of death. But now we have come, at last, to this happy day, to celebrate the end of the curse.
In the words of that ancient hymn,
“Welcome happy morning!” age to age shall say:
Hell today is vanquished, heaven is won today!
Well, at any rate, it sounds pretty good in theory doesn’t it? I mean, who wouldn’t want to believe in the resurrection? Because if the resurrection happened for Jesus, that means it can happen for us! And who wouldn’t want to believe that?
Last week, after a long and difficult pregnancy, a pair of twin boys were born to a loving couple in Rohnert Park, and then they died. Their obituary was very short and poignant; it said “they were brought into this world on April 3, 2004 and began their journey to heaven shortly after.” Well, of course. Who wouldn’t want to believe that the power of God raised these innocent children into eternal life, just as he raised Jesus from the grave? How else could we cope with such a tragedy?
Two weeks ago, a beloved member of our choir died unexpectedly, in the middle of the night. The next day we gathered the choir together and sang songs to him, as if he were still right here in this room. As we sang, we wept, and some of us swear we felt his presence, and we were comforted.
Of course. How else could we cope with such a tragedy?
Now I don’t think I’m giving away any secrets when I say that, like many first-rate choirs, a few of the members of the St. Cecilia choir are… well, let’s just put it this way, it’s the singing that brings them to church, not so much all the preaching and the religion. But I would bet that there wasn’t a single person in this room that day who wasn’t at least willing to entertain the possibility that Brian was in some way here with us that day; and if he was then he was raised into new life by the same power that rose Jesus from the grave.
Right now on a beach in Santa Barbara there are 605 little white crosses planted in the sand, each one of them inscribed with the name of a young American soldier killed in Iraq. 605 crosses. Why crosses?
Well of course. How else are we to cope with this tragedy if it isn’t in our belief that those crosses mean something; that through the cross, their lives have not been wasted, but instead been raised to glory?
This is what is at stake when we consider the question of the resurrection. It’s not just some intellectual game. Our very lives are on the line here. Because if there is no resurrection, what’s the point?
Like St. Paul said, if there is no resurrection, “our faith is futile” and “we of all people are most to be pitied.” If there is no resurrection, he says, then “those … who have died in Christ have [simply] perished.” (1 Cor. 15:17-19) That’s it! They’re just dead! And we have been fools to think otherwise.
So there is much at stake here; for some of us it may well be our ability to find any meaning to life beyond absurdity, death and the grave.
And so, given what is at stake – I mean, after all, we’re not idiots; we don’t want to be taken for fools – so we apply our brains to the problem and we try to think up a reasonable theory for the resurrection. We want to make it believeable.
This is sort of like climbing a mountain in the hopes of reaching the moon.
Some of you have met our dog, Penny. She is a beautiful dog. But she’s not exactly the brightest dog in the world – I have to admit that. Well, trying to make the resurrection believable to my limited brain is sort of like trying to teach my dog Penny how to do calculus. I mean, even if she were the smartest dog on the planet, I doubt we could get her past algebra, let alone calculus. Her brain is just not big enough.
Just like our brains are just not big enough to understand the ways of God. Sometimes we just have to admit that things which are obvious to God are still way beyond our comprehension.
It’s like this story we heard this morning. I love these angelic beings who greet the women at the empty tomb. In Luke’s gospel, there are two of them; in Matthew’s gospel, there’s only one, but never mind, they are described identically – their clothes are dazzling white; their presence, so unworldly that at the sight of them the women are terrified and bow their faces to the ground.
And this is what kills me: these angels seem so annoyed at the women for being so dense as to have expected to find Jesus’ body in the tomb. Their whole attitude is like, “What is with you humans? Don’t you get it? Jesus isn’t here! He is risen!”
It’s almost as if they’re off-duty policemen from another dimension; they’re moonlighting in our space-time continuum but nobody briefed them on how thick we are. I mean, really, somebody should have said to them, “Look, when you get down there, just remember, they’re not too bright… I mean, they don’t even understand the resurrection! I know! It’s like `Duh!’ So you might wanna go kinda easy on them.
“And whatever you do don’t try to explain it — because they’ll just look at you weird and then they’ll fall asleep.”
But nonetheless, despite mountains of evidence to the contrary, we humans continue to insist that we’re pretty darn smart and certainly smart enough to see through a scam like this whole “believe whatever the church tells you and you’ll get a ticket to heaven” thing, and so we apply our brains to the question and conclude with great conviction that the resurrection could never have happened.
Some of our own bishops do this. The other day I heard once again from our beloved Bishop Spong, who is a man that I deeply admire and love, but who continues to think that his brain is big enough to have figured this one out, and that no intelligent person could ever believe that the resurrection, at least as portrayed in the gospels, ever happened.
Of course, the sensational nature of his comments lends itself to the hysteria of the television media, who love to distort Bishop Spong’s message because controversy drives up the price of Pepto Bismal commercials, which is what you’re going to be buying after you watch their shows… Because what they don’t talk so much about is that Bishop Spong does believe that some kind of real and extraordinary event happened on Easter; he just says there’s no way that we can believe that it was actually a physical resurrection of Jesus’ corpse.
Well, maybe that’s fair enough. Except for the fact that, in my humble opinion, Bishop Spong is still way in over his head! Or maybe too much into his head. He’s my dog Penny trying to write linear equations! He still thinks that, in order for God to be believed, God must be judged believable.
He doesn’t see that the resurrection is unbelievable – and that’s the point. The resurrection is too magnificent; too majestic; too sublime to be reduced to the nice little factoids that will fit inside our heads — even a head as big as a bishop’s!
When it comes to matters of God, sometimes we simply have to admit that we cannot always be the ones who set the terms and conditions for belief. Instead, there are times when we have to submit ourselves to the possibility, to quote Shakespeare, that “there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies.” (Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 5)
We believe in the unbelievable. We submit ourselves to the idea that God breaks through the mysterious bonds of time and space to change our lives and to save us from death. Upon this unbelievable idea the entire foundation of the church is laid.
But guess what. This is the nature of all profound truth, that it is impenetrable to the merely rational mind – it’s sharper than that; it pierces through to the essence of our being, it leads us to grapple with what we know, but cannot think.
All the great spiritual traditions acknowledge this. The Upanishads put it this way:
Eye cannot see It, tongue cannot utter It, mind cannot grasp It. There is no way to learn or to teach It. It is different from the known, beyond the unknown. In this all the ancient Masters agree.
But still, there’s a part of us that resists; because as much as St. Paul likes to brag about being a fool for Christ, we’re not too keen on the idea. Maybe we just believe in the resurrection because we think we need to. Where is the evidence, we ask?
The evidence is this: that while the actual moment of resurrection itself was not witnessed and cannot be imagined; the effect of that resurrection on millions of ordinary lives is a matter of objective fact and historical record, stretching from the original Easter Sunday to today. It turned a depressed band of dull-witted and self-centered disciples that had given up on their cause into fire-breathing martyrs for love. It inspired countless generations of men and women to give up lives of privilege to take on roles as servants. It gave Martin Luther King the courage to face down the dogs and the bull whips and the death threats.
But, you might argue, this is all circumstantial evidence; that this is nothing that you can see for yourself. And you’d be absolutely right. You want to see it for yourself; but what I’m talking about is not something that you can see, I’m talking about the means by which you see it. I’m talking about Light of Christ that is burning in your heart; that is leading you to faith; that is lifting your spirit and healing your wounds and bringing clarity to your mind even as we speak.
The Upanishads say, “That which makes the eye see but which cannot be seen by the eye, that alone is God.” This is what I’m talking about; this primordial light that has awakened our hearts; this primary cause that gives light to the world.
Maybe we believe in the resurrection because we think we need to. Or maybe we find ourselves drawn to the resurrection the way a homing pigeon finds its way home. It doesn’t need a compass; it doesn’t get out a map; it doesn’t even have Mapquest. It just senses the way home.
Maybe we seek meaning because we know it is there. Maybe we believe in eternal life because we remember where we came from. Maybe we talk to Jesus because we know he is listening.
Maybe we believe in the power of the resurrection because we already sense that it is there. When I was growing up in Minnesota in the summers we could always sense when a storm was coming. We could feel the electrical charge, gathering in the clouds. Maybe we find ourselves drawn to the resurrection because we can feel the thunderbolts coming, we sense the rising charge in the air; the resurrection power is drawing us into belief like a cloudburst about to break; it is like an electrical charge hovering above us, seeking ground.
We are standing on sacred ground. We are taking off our shoes and standing in pools of holy water. This is dangerous; this is crazy; this could hurt; this could change everything. We are accepting the possibility that Christ is alive. We are lifting our hearts to God and we are saying Yes.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Palm Sunday — April 4, 2004
Monday, April 19, 2004 10:34 am PDT
Homily: The Rev. Matthew Lawrence
Church of the Incarnation, Santa Rosa, California
Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 22:14-23:56
Have you ever been afraid?
All of us have… and so has God.
Have you ever been so afraid of someone that you felt like running away instead of facing them?
Most of us have… and so has God.
Have you ever fallen down and skinned your knee?
Most of us have… and so has God.
Have you ever felt surrounded by idiots and nincompoops?
Most of us have… and so has God.
Have you ever been laughed at by people you thought were your friends?
Most of us have… and so has God.
Have you ever been betrayed by a friend?
Most of us have… and so has God.
Have you ever been hurt by somebody that you loved?
Most of us have… and so has God.
Have you ever spoken what you thought was the truth and been hurt by people who didn’t want to hear it?
Most of us have… and so has God.
Have you ever been really thirsty and taken a drink of what you thought was water and it turned out to be vinegar or something rotten?
Some of us have… and so has God.
Have you ever been beaten up or violated?
Some of us have… and so has God.
Have you ever been at a really important turning point in your life and your best friends didn’t even seem to care or notice?
Some of us have… and so has God.
Have you ever laid awake all night long worrying about something and wondering why everyone else seems to be sleeping peacefully?
Some of us have… and so has God.
Have you ever spent years of your life with people you considered to be your best friends, only to realize that they really still don’t know you very well?
Some of us have… and so has God.
Have you ever felt that people expected you to do something that was impossible for you to do, and yet they also gave you no credit for being able to do something you are fully capable of doing?
Some of us have… and so has God.
Have you ever felt that God has abandoned you, just when you needed him the most?
Some of us have… and so has God.
Have you ever felt at the mercy of a violent mob?
Many thousands of people have… and so has God.
Have you ever been persecuted because you are a member of an oppressed class?
Many thousands of people have … and so has God.
Have you ever been arrested for a capital crime of which you were innocent in a country that categorically denies your right for a fair trial?
Many thousands of people have … and so has God.
Have you ever been tortured and abused by soldiers while your hands were tied behind your back?
Many thousands of people have … and so has God.
Have you ever been forced to carry your own instrument of execution through the streets of a hostile town where a violent mob is beating you, spitting on you, and calling you terrible names?
Many people have… and so has God.
Have you ever been wrongly convicted of a death sentence, but thought it was sure to be overturned, and then as you watched the executioner approach you came to realize that you were wrong and that you are definitely going to die?
Many people have… and so has God.
Have you ever had iron spikes driven through your wrists and feet and left to hang on a cross to die?
Many thousands have… and so has God.
Can you imagine going through all of these experiences, and having only one thing to say at the very end before you died, which are nothing but words of love and forgiveness for all the people who have done these things to you?
Can you imagine knowing in advance that all these things would happen, and choosing to experience them, so that you might know what it is like to be God in the flesh, on this earth; and so that we might know what it is like to have God in the flesh among us, on this earth?
Lent 5 — March 28, 2004
Friday, April 9, 2004 4:08 pm PDT
The Rev. Matthew Lawrence, Rector
I can’t hardly believe it but here we are already at the fifth Sunday in Lent. Next week is Palm Sunday, which marks the beginning of Holy Week, and the beginning of the end of this season of self-denial and spiritual discipline.
I trust that by now, we have journeyed deeply into the spirit of the Lent. Our Lenten disciplines have either become routine, or been discarded like so many well-intended New Years’ Resolutions. I trust that most of us have used this time well; we have delved more deeply into the mind of Christ; perhaps we have even discovered some disciplines of fasting, or prayer, or service that will become routine parts of our Eastertide day.
When we devote ourselves to a spiritual discipline, sometimes we start to see the world in a different light. Things we might have ignored before come into clearer focus. Things we might not have noticed suddenly become obvious to us. For example: let’s say we’ve been meditating on Mary the Mother of God during Lent. During the last few weeks this has put us in touch with Mary’s sorrow as she witnesses her son’s Passion and Death. And then one day we’re at the grocery store and we encounter a friend who has recently lost a loved one. We might recognize, behind our friend’s smile, her heartbreak. We might be moved to respond to her more deeply; perhaps offer a hug instead of a breezy “hello.” Perhaps during our meditations on Mary we are put in touch with the greater sorrow of the world; perhaps we care more deeply about the troubles we face; perhaps we read the newspaper more closely, listening for trouble; praying for peace; joining with Mary as she weeps over the daily crucifixions.
But this sermon is not about Mary the mother of Jesus, but about another Mary – Mary, the sister of Martha. You know her: she’s the one who sat at Jesus’ feet and listened while Martha did all the housework. She’s the one who, along with her sister, scolded Jesus for letting their brother Lazarus die, and who then watched as Jesus raised Lazarus from the grave.
But by the end of this story, you might be wondering if Mary hasn’t freshly lost her mind; because she does a most peculiar thing: she breaks open a jar of very expensive perfume – this perfume came from a plant that only grew in the foothills of the Himalayas. A jar of it cost as much as the average worker made in an entire year! She breaks open the jar, as if to anoint Jesus for burial –that in itself is very strange. But then she pours the entire contents on his feet; and as if that isn’t strange enough, she unfurls her long hair – something that respectable women never did in front of men – and dries his feet with her hair!
So has Mary lost her mind?
Or is it possible that she sees something that the rest of us aren’t seeing? Is it possible that, while the other disciples are still pretending that all is well and that Jesus has a great future ahead of him, Mary sees differently; that unlike the rest of the disciples, she knows that Jesus is going to die. Unlike the other disciples, she hasn’t blinded herself to the disaster which is about to unfold. She alone has listened most deeply to Jesus’ teaching; she alone knows what will happen to him. She sees that Jesus is condemned to die. As Jesus himself points out, she has bought perfume in anticipation of the beautiful, grisly chore that lies ahead: the anointing of the body. She alone has the courage to face the truth.
Like a prophet, she knows that it is not enough to simply speak the truth. The disciples will just ignore her; they always have. She’s just a woman in their eyes; Jesus is the only man who has ever really listened to her. She needs to find a way to draw attention to the disaster that is unfolding. She needs to do something extreme; something outrageous; something sure to get the disciples’ attention.
Well, she got their attention, all right. This story of Mary breaking open the jar of perfume is one of the few stories that is repeated in all four gospels.
It seems that Mary is not crazy at all; in fact, she is the sanest person in the room, next to Jesus. She doesn’t allow her fear to blind her to what’s going on; she witnesses to the truth when everyone else in the room is conspiring to ignore it; somehow she has found the courage to see.
The great theologian Paul Tillich wrote a book called Courage to Be. But he might as well have called it Courage to See. Sometimes it takes courage to see; when disaster is looming it takes courage to see the truth.
Which raises the important question for the day: do we have the courage to see? Are there looming disasters that we are willfully blind to? Are we failing to see reality clearly because the truth makes us too uncomfortable; or because the truth is bad for business; of because the truth requires us to change our lives?
At 5:15 in the morning on Wednesday, April 18, 1906, the great San Francisco Earthquake struck. Jack London was in the city that morning; that day he got out of the city quickly and by mid-day he was standing on top of a hill north of the city, watching the fire spread. The next day he made it to Santa Rosa and found it to be in even worse shape than San Francisco.
But he found this church still standing, right here on this spot.
Historians have documented the ways in which San Francisco’s leaders were blind to the catastrophe that would ensue with a large earthquake. Despite the fact that an earthquake in 1836 tore the earth apart from San Pablo to Mission San Jose; and that an earthquake in 1857 caused enough damage that real estate prices dropped steeply, an 1860 history book stated with great confidence, that “no sizeable earthquake has ever been recorded north of the 35th parallel” – that is, north of San Luis Obispo.
When the earthquake of 1865 shook the Bay Area, some residents of San Francisco began to pay closer attention to the possibility of disaster. Mark Twain, writing for the San Francisco Dramatic Chronicle, mimicked a weather prediction. In October of 1865 he wrote that conditions for the weekend would be “Shaky: Occasional shakes, followed by light showers of bricks and plastering. About this time expect more earthquakes, but do not look out for them, on account of the bricks.”
By then, it was widely known that the biggest danger posed by earthquake was to the buildings built on landfill. Civic leaders began warning of the danger, but despite their warnings, Yerba Buena Cove continued to be filled-in with trash, dirt, and rotting timber, and houses, hotels, warehouses and stores would continue to be built on loose infill which, at 5:15 on the morning of April 18 1906, simply liquefied.
How are we blind to the disasters that may await us? What is it that we need to pay attention to, even though our economic interests, our discomfort, our desire to paint a pretty picture of the future tells us to ignore the peril?
Richard Clark, the former head of counter-terrorism in the White House, talks about how blind the White House was to the threat posed by Al Quaeda. He got demoted and, according to our Vice President, got taken “out of the loop.” People didn’t want to hear what he had to say.
This isn’t a Republican thing. It’s the human condition. I used to work as a Policy Analyst for a liberal Democratic administration back in Massachusetts; and it wasn’t long before I realized that they would listen to me when my policy suggestions were in line with the political interests of the day; but if they weren’t, they wouldn’t listen. This led to my general disenchantment with the idea that the Kingdom of God would be attained through the efforts of liberal Democrats…
Meanwhile, climate experts are warning about the threat of climate change — they’ve been dismissed. We have been losing the rain forest in South America at a rate of one acre per second! What about Social Security? We know it’s running out – is anyone fixing it? No!
And if anyone is thinking, “Let’s not talk about this – it’s too disturbing to the young people,” let me tell you, the young people know all about this, and what’s disturbing to them is that nobody’s talking about it!”
The prophet Isaiah this morning asks us to consider these things. “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”
As the rector of this parish, I need to be thinking about our future. I was feeling pretty good about myself when I came back from a retreat the other day with a one-year plan for the parish. But then I asked myself, “What about 3 years from now? What about five? What about 20 years from now?”
What about 20 years from now? With climate change happening at its current pace, will there even be a wine industry in Sonoma County? Will there be fresh water? What will be the price of energy?
What are we doing to lay an “earthquake-proof foundation” for tomorrow’s disasters? What jar of perfume is God asking us to buy for tomorrow’s crucifixions? What are we doing to prepare?
What does it take for a people to perceive the “new thing?”
Well, what did it take for Mary, the sister of Martha, to see the new, unthinkable thing? What gave her the courage to see?
She, of all the people in the room that night, had the courage to see the disaster, because, of all the people in the room that night, she had the privilege to witness the resurrection. When Jesus came to Bethany and raised her brother from the dead, her eyes were opened. Now it all made sense. Now she knew that there was nothing to fear. Now she knew that death had no sting. Now she knew she could stand in the face of death and proclaim, “Alleluia!” Now she knew that there wasn’t anything that she couldn’t handle; there wasn’t anything that she feared, because thanks to the power of the resurrection, nothing could separate her from the love of Christ.
I am so looking forward to Easter, so that we can once again plunge deeply into that resurrection spirit. Because with the power of the resurrection, we can bear all things; and God will see us through. Times may get tough, but this church has seen tough times before; and it stands! It stood through the great earthquake, and it shall remain standing! We stand tall; we stand together, and we are not afraid, for we have the power of Christ to see us through. Nothing can separate us from our love for God and for one another; and with God’s good grace we shall hold this community together, come what may, proclaiming with confidence and hope the power of the living God; even at the grave, singing “Alleluia!”
Somebody say “Amen.”
3 Epiphany — January 25, 2004
Tuesday, January 27, 2004 3:57 pm PST
The Rev. Matthew Lawrence, Rector
Church of the Incarnation, Santa Rosa, California
Luke 4: 14-21
I’ve been struggling lately with my faith.
Not my faith in God, but my faith in our government and in our system for electing governors and presidents.
I just can’t shake this feeling that it’s all so inauthentic.
Remember what they said about Al Gore in the last election – they he seemed to be constantly re-inventing his own image in order to respond to the latest poll?
I get that impression about just about all the politicians these days, Republican and Democrat: where’s the substance? Where’s the beef, to quote my fellow Minnesotan, Walter Mondale.
Am I alone? I don’t think so. Doesn’t it seem that the whole country is yearning for a leader that is genuinely, authentically real, instead of the hair-sprayed make-up jobs we see on TV every day?
Who is trustworthy? Who is genuine? Who is real?
I have also grown weary of politicians who only seem able to look at the problems of the past and have no vision for the future. I find myself getting more and more disengaged, as I watch stunningly expensive political campaigns devolve into pathetic parades of celebrities and politicos, pandering to a propagandized middle America that doesn’t know what to believe. The more I hear pointless and vain platitudes manufactured to win-over a pre-determined segment of likely voters; the more I hear the same tired litanies of what is wrong with the current world; the more I am convinced of the wisdom of that proverbial cliché: “Without vision, the people perish.” (Prov. 29:18)
It is not enough, in other words, for a us to endlessly complain about what is wrong with the world, no matter how satisfying that might also be. Because if we can’t figure out what kind of a world we want; if we can’t dream a new dream; if we don’t have any kind of a clue where we are going as a society, then the troubles of this world will eventually get just too overwhelming, and if we haven’t already, we will soon revert to a condition of passivity and private despair.
At the presidential candidates’ debate last week I heard one man say, “We have to save the planet,” in the same tone of voice that one might discuss the Saturday chores.
I’m looking for a presidential candidate who has the capacity to inspire this country. What’s it going to take, I wonder, for us to come together as a people, what is it going to take for us to be united by a common vision of a sustainable and compassionate society? Who will challenge us to make the sacrifices we need to make in order to save our planet?
So I guess what I’m saying is I’m having a crisis of faith in our country. And judging from the fact that half the eligible voters never get around to voting in any election, I guess I’m not alone.
Sometimes what is true for the world is also true for the church. In times of transition and change, in the midst of budget deficits and staff lay-offs and changing programs, a congregation can also have crises of faith; like our country, a parish can also flounder for lack of a vision. Where are we going as a church? Will we survive this controversy about a gay bishop? What will happen to our Sunday School and youth programs with Linda’s departure? How are we going to balance our budget next year? What is the future of our mission congregation in Monte Rio? Etcetera, etcetera.
Compared with some other challenges I could think of, these are not terribly difficult questions. These are problems we can solve. But without a vision of where we are going as a congregation, all these questions might seem overwhelming. So maybe it is time for us to reflect together on that vision thing…
And so in search of this vision we travel to a remote corner of the Roman Empire 2,000 years ago, to a little backwater town called Nazareth. Like any remote village in the ancient world, there are the obvious signs of desperate poverty. Abandoned children, their bellies swollen with hunger, sit quietly in the dirt, too weak to swat away the flies. A Roman guard kicks an old man out of his way; an aging widow, who lost everything when her husband died, offers herself to men on the street for pennies.
We turn the corner, and we find a clean, large public house with its doors open; there’s singing and the sound of prayers coming from inside; it’s a synagogue, and stepping in we find a good-looking man standing up in the middle of the congregation and reading aloud from the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” he reads, and there is something different about his voice; he’s not like the other readers; he doesn’t even seem to be reading so much as speaking for himself, as if he himself were the author of these words, “for God has anointed me; God has sent me to preach good news to the poor; to proclaim release for prisoners and sight for the blind; to relieve the oppressed, and to proclaim the Lord’s year of favor.”
The congregation is impressed with this young man; he really seems to mean these words, and he speaks so well, and this fantasy of Isaiah’s is so nice; it is such a comforting dream you can almost forget the misery and poverty and oppression right outside the door.
But then the young man says something that sends shivers up their spines. “Today —right now, as you sit listening — this Scripture is fulfilled.”
Those with eyes to see begin to see something about this man named Jesus. There is something real about him. You can sense that this dream of Isaiah’s is more than a dream to him; it is as if he is already living there; this Kingdom of God is not a fantasy to this man; the Kingdom of God is not a comforting dream but a reality of the deepest order; you can sense it in the way he walks; you can see it in his eyes; he is living in the Kingdom of God right now; the Kingdom is fulfilled in him.
After the service the young man steps out of the synagogue and walks down the street. He stops next to a beggar in the street and touches his forehead. “Blessed are you who are poor,” he says; and a change comes over the face of the beggar. You’d think the beggar would laugh at him: “Blessed, am I?” you expect him to say, “Look at me – you call me blessed?” But instead, the beggar’s face lights up. “Yes, I am blessed,” the beggar says. “You can see that?”
“I see that,” says Jesus.
In my life I’ve seen a lot of churches; and it seems to me that they fall into two basic categories. There are the churches for whom this dream of the Kingdom of God is only that – a comforting dream. They hear the dream proclaimed on Sunday, they get a nice tingle as they sit and think about it, and then they go out into the world and live their lives as if the Kingdom of God were only a dream. Monday through Saturday the Kingdom of God is nothing more than a pleasant fantasy to them.
And then there are the churches like this one, for whom the Kingdom of God is real. For us, homeless persons are not wretched beggars to be avoided; but blessed members of the Kingdom, they have a privileged status in the Kingdom; and they are treated as such. They are welcomed as Christ’s own; they are fed and clothed and treated with dignity; not because we feel sorry for them, and not because we think this will get us into heaven; but because for us the Kingdom of God is fulfilled; and we are simply acting on that truth.
And when we act on this truth, amazing things begin to happen. Jesus, acting on this truth, became a fountain of blessing to everyone he touched. Because of him, the world learned an entirely new way of being in the world. Because of him, we developed the means to care about persons that had previously been completely ignored. Over the years, because of him, because of the Kingdom of God that was realized in him, entire institutions were created to care for those blessed members of the kingdom: Widows and orphans were taken in off the streets; fed and clothed and restored to their humanity. Prisoners were visited, prisons were reformed; hospitals were invented; slaves were freed, schools were created and made public so that all God’s children could be educated.
The list of social reforms goes on and on: the very notions of human equality and human dignity and human rights; the very possibility of democracy itself, extend directly from this moment, when the Kingdom of God became more than a fantasy, but a reality in the person of Jesus Christ.
Jesus didn’t set out to be a revolutionary or an activist or, God knows, a politician. He simply lived the reality of God’s Kingdom. And that turned the world upside down: where there was contempt, he brought compassion; where there was darkness, he brought light; where there was death, he brought life.
This is what separates the passive, sleepy churches of dreams and fantasy from the active, engaged churches of the real Incarnation. Yesterday, 14 of your teenagers in Linda’s youth group spent the morning bagging frozen corn to feed the hungry. This week, we are tutoring and helping poor children with their math at Luther Burbank School. We are caring for homeless mothers and children at the Living Room. We are visiting the sick and the shut-ins through our Lay Eucharatistic Visitors.
Let this be the beginning of our vision together: that this will continue to be a place where the Body of Christ is alive, and where the Kingdom of God is very real; in Paul’s words, where “the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable; where those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor; where our less respectable members are treated with greater respect…” (1 Cor. 12)
If we remain focused on this truth, that Christ is alive in us as we are faithful to the reality that is the Kingdom of God, then we will be blessed beyond measure; we shall live in the abundance of the Kingdom, and miracles will happen.
2 Epiphany — January 18, 2004
Wednesday, January 21, 2004 10:48 am PST
The Rev. Matthew Lawrence
1 Cor. 12: 1-11; John 2: 1-11
As you know, we shall have a brunch together immediately following this service, and then go into our Annual Meeting. This will be my first Annual Meeting with you; but in fact it will also be the twelfth consecutive Annual Meeting that I have presided over as the priest in charge of a congregation. And so you should know that it has become my custom on these occasions to preach not so much a typical sermon but rather a reflection that weaves the themes of the scripture readings with some end-of-the-year Annual Meeting-type observations on the ministry we share together. This sermon-slash-address will then be incorporated into the minutes of the Annual Meeting under the title “Rector’s Address.”
You know how, once in a while, an idea occurs to you that is either crazy or brilliant, and you’re not really sure which until you say it out loud to your friends? If you’ve got really good friends, they will be honest with you and tell you whether you’ve just gone off the deep end, or perhaps have hit upon something interesting.
Well, the other day at a dinner party I heard myself blurting out one of those ideas, which is this: that, while it is true that I have been very happily married to my wife Rose for over 21 years, my real wife is the Church, and Rose is actually more like my mistress.
I’m still not sure why I said this, or even if I believed it — it could have been the wine talking — but it was one of those weird ideas that kind of made sense at the time… And as I heard the words coming out of my mouth, and saw the looks of confusion on the faces of our dinner guests, all of whom, by the way, were members of our congregation, I glanced over at my wife, somewhat afraid of what I might find in her face, and to my great relief she was delighted by the idea.
She said, “So now you’ll buy me flowers once in a while!”
Well, like I said, I’m still not 100% sure about this idea… But I have to admit there’s a certain kind of sense to it – at least the part about a priest being married, in a spiritual sense, to the church. After all, the search process that a church goes through to find a rector is a not unlike a computerized dating service — actually at the beginning I felt more like a mail-order bride than a groom; and the Installation service did feel kind of like a wedding, with mutual love expressed, and promises made, and blessings given.
And then, of course, there is the famous “Honeymoon Period.”
In some cases, the “honeymoon” between a rector and a congregation can last a full year or more; in other churches the wedding gets off to a bad start and the couple never gets a honeymoon at all.
In our gospel story for today, Jesus finds himself with his mother and early disciples at a wedding in Cana; and it looks like the marriage might be one of those that gets off to a bad start because apparently the bridegroom has completely forgotten to order enough wine for all the guests.
This is a good lesson in why it’s a mistake to put the bridegroom in charge of much in the way of wedding details. The bridegroom is in love; he’s not thinking clearly; he is doing what a bridegroom should be doing, which is celebrating, with his bride, this monumental occasion. This is why we should always leave the details of the party to somebody with a clearer head, such as the Best Man, or, even better, the mother of the bride, or best yet, the professional wedding planner.
But at any rate, apparently they couldn’t find a wedding planner in the Yellow Pages of Cana of Galilee, and the bridegroom took on too much, and he blew it! So now they’ve run out of wine and if somebody doesn’t fix this right quick the bride is going to find out and the honeymoon will be over before it got started and he’s gonna be hearing about this for the rest of his life.
And then along comes Jesus, the rescuer of weddings and honeymoons.
A week ago a friend of mine back in Michigan called and asked me how the honeymoon period is going with my new church. I said I thought it was going pretty well, but then again, it was still early – I haven’t had much time to make a really big mistake yet, I said. But just give me time…
But then, last Friday morning, as I looked into the very sober faces of two of my staff members, who had asked to have a meeting with me in the same tone of voice that one has when asking an alcoholic to come to an intervention, I realized that maybe, as far as they were concerned, anyway, the honeymoon might be experiencing its first moments of strain. They asked me whether I had seen to it that a brunch would be served, as is our custom, after this service before the Annual Meeting. When I admitted that I had completely forgotten about it, I watched as the blood drained from their faces, and I thought I could see the word “annulment” begin to form in their minds…
But this is how the relationship of a rector to a parish is different from that between two married partners: people who have been married and divorced many times are sometimes accused of marrying the same basic person each time, thus repeating the same mistakes over and over again. Churches, on the other hand, tend to look for someone very different from their last bridegroom. If the last rector was a very detail-oriented management-by-numbers type of leader, then it’s a good bet the next rector will be a big-idea visionary type who would much rather leave the details to someone else. And so, whenever a change in rectors occurs, there are a predictable variety of difficulties that arise.
So if our honeymoon feeling starts to fade over the next few weeks; if you find yourself singing that old song “Bring Back that Loving Feeling,” over the next few months, you should know that that’s perfectly normal, and in fact should be expected, because it is the inevitable result of a system readjusting to a very different management style.
But that said, you should also be reassured that I am not a complete flake about managing the details; that I have successfully managed multi-million dollar projects in my previous life and what’s most important, I do care and I pay attention and listen and take action. But I also know, as does your vestry, that this parish cannot move into the next phase of its development without undergoing a major shift in its management style, and that means a major shift in expectations around what the job of the Rector is and what the jobs of other staff and volunteers are.
And I think you should know that I am my own worst enemy on this matter. So if you ever hear me say something like “Yes, I’ll make sure to order the wine,” you have my permission to ask me whether they teach classes in banquet management in seminary.
Over the next several weeks, the staff and vestry will be working to clarify our expectations and job duties, in order to make sure this realignment of expectations and responsibilities, which began well before I was elected to this position, continues. This will be an important part of our vestry retreat next month.
So to finish the story, by the end of the day last Friday, the staff and vestry and I had come up with a solution for the brunch; the parish administrator wrote a shopping list, the sexton took the list to Costco with a pick-up truck, and the vestry agreed to arrive early this morning to set everything up; thus once again reenacting the miracle at the wedding in Cana, and proving the truth of St. Paul words, that there are a variety of gifts in the Body of Christ. We will feast this morning, to our hearts content; but not due to the merits of any single person, but due to the merits of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, who is constituted in this Body, and whose presence is made real at this altar, as we re-member Him.
This is the truth of the gospel, that the miracle at Cana continues. 2,000 years later, the wedding banquet goes on. The miracle continues in this fine collection of souls, gathered from all families and professions and fortunes, a healthy body of many gifts, heroes of the faith who this morning voluntarily forfeit the comforts of a warm bed and the lazy blandishments of a “bowling alone” culture in order to create, together, a banquet of love and friendship and service to God. When you step into Farlander Hall this morning, you will not find enormous stone jars full of water, mutely waiting for a magical priest to come along to turn the water into wine; you will find, instead, about fifteen people standing in the midst of bagels and cream cheese and muffins and donuts and coffee and orange juice, ready to serve. They are members of our vestry and staff; they are the leaders of this parish, who have learned from our Lord that leadership begins with service. They want to make sure that you are well fed this morning, because God’s realm is a realm of banquets and feasts; because Jesus expressed his love through food and drink; and because the banquet continues.
Finally, they are not here because anyone ordered them to be here. They are here because they are in love with God and in love with you.
As am I; your mail-order bridegroom; called to lead, ready to serve.
Christmas 1 — December 28, 2003
Edited on Monday, December 29, 2003 11:03 am PST
Edited by Gayle Turner
Luke 2: 41-52
There are two things a child can never know about her parents: how much she is loved by them; how much heartbreak she will cause them.
It is impossible for children to appreciate the depth of love that the parent has for them. When we have a child, we experience a kind of love that is categorically different from any other love that we have known up to that point; different from the love we have for our parents and different from the love we have for our spouses; it is deeper and more permanent, which is why, of course, parents getting divorced will go to such terrible lengths to retain custody of the children.
And it is impossible for a child to know how much heartbreak he will cause.
I have only seen my mother cry three times in my life. The first time was when President Kennedy was shot. The second time was in the middle of an epic battle with my sister. And the 3rd time was when my sister and I, the last of her five children, went away to college. There we were, happily driving off to new and exciting lives in college, while she had to turn around and face a house, now suddenly too large and too quiet.
Heartbreak is the price we pay for our deepest love.
And it is impossible for children to know how much heartbreak they will cause to their parents. To be a parent means that you will spend at least 18 years of your life pouring your love and time and money and energy into raising a human being who will repay the favor by leaving you. I read a columnist the other day who said, “Sometimes I look at my children and think, `You little ingrates, after all I’ve done, you’re going to up and leave one day.'” (J. Peder Zane, staff writer, newsobserver.com, July 13, 2003.)
And so we find paintings of Mary with her baby, her face downcast as she ponders the world of hurt she is about to endure, the shadow of a cross artfully cast in the background.
This heartbreak is illustrated well in our story from Luke’s gospel today:
Jesus is twelve years old, and the family has, according to custom, traveled to Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover. They traveled from Galilee in a large caravan full of Jesus’ many relatives and friends and fellow villagers, and so when it was time to leave Mary and Joseph assumed that Jesus was with one of his friends. They had traveled a whole day before they realized that Jesus wasn’t with them; in a panic they returned to Jerusalem, and searched for three days for him until finally they found him in the Temple, listening very carefully to the teachers, asking very penetrating questions, and giving astonishing answers.
Can you imagine the state that Mary and Joseph must have been in by the time they found Jesus? They must have been going absolutely berserk with fear. They must have been just about at the end of their ropes. Joseph, apparently, is so furious he can’t even speak to the boy; Mary does all the talking for both of them: “Child,” she says, “why have you treated us like this?”
You little ingrate! Don’t you know how much we love you? Do you have any idea how much pain you¹ve caused us?
But does Jesus apologize? Does he show any sign that he understands what he has put them through? No! Instead, he berates them for being so upset, and then to top it off, dissociates himself from the family, saying, “Did you not know I must be in my Father¹s house?”
Can you imagine how Joseph must have felt, hearing that? It must have broken his heart. In fact, it might have been the last straw: this is the last time Joseph appears in the gospels. You¹ve got to wonder if he just gave up on Jesus after this. I can almost hear him saying, “That’s it, I’ve had it. What kind of gratitude is that?! Adopted the boy as my own son even though God knows who the real father is; raised him to be a carpenter, now he’s denying me as his father! Maybe being a carpenter isn’t good enough for him, now he’s got to go off and be some kind of Messiah!”
So it’s not surprising that after this, it’s only Mary who appears in Jesus’ story. Joseph becomes distant and silent. He doesn’t even come by to say goodbye when he¹s hanging on the cross.
So it is natural that we might try to postpone the inevitable departure.
But even if it’s true that Jesus, like any child, could never have known how much love and heartbreak he caused his parents, so his parents could never comprehend the sense of destiny and purpose that Jesus felt. In the gospel story, even after all that business with the annunciation and the star and the shepherds and the angels and the wise men coming from the East, they still didn’t understand what Jesus was called to do. All they could see clearly was their own expectations for their child.
One day, when I was maybe a senior in high school, my dad and I were walking down to the tennis courts when we saw a young priest walking by on the other side of the street.
“Look at that poor kid,” my dad said. “God, I can’t imagine a worse thing than being young and smart and having to wear that collar around your neck. What a waste.”
And I said, “Huh, that’s funny I¹ve always dreamed of wearing one of those things. I think it would be really cool.”
Now, my dad was a doctor, and I was his last hope for seeing somebody in the family follow in his footsteps.
Like I said, children have no idea how much grief they can cause their parents. But a great deal of the parents’ grief is caused by unrealistic expectations that their children will turn out to be a better version of themselves.
How many children have obediently put aside their own passions and interests in order to go into the family business? How many children are unhappily devoting their lives to becoming what their parents want, rather than becoming who they were meant to be?
I would have been a terrible doctor. I am so absent-minded I would have killed more patients than I saved. I thank God I heard a different call, and that my parents came around to not only accepting it, by celebrating it with me.
The rabbi Harold Kushner spends a lot of his time on the road, preaching about this issue. He challenges parents to forgive their children for not becoming perfected models of themselves; and he challenges children to forgive their parents for not being perfectly able to embrace every change in hair style and vocational choice. He says, “Children think they need perfect parents to survive childhood, but they are wrong. Parents think they deserve perfect children and they are wrong too.”
I think Joseph must have been bitterly disappointed in his son. He hoped to teach him a useful trade, and instead he became a wandering teacher of some obscure philosophy and being completely broke all the time.
But I would like to think that eventually Joseph learned to forgive Jesus for not being perfect. Just as I would like to think that, when Jesus was hanging on the cross, he included Joseph in his prayer of forgiveness.
It’s comforting to me to know that even Jesus had issues with his family. During this holiday time, it is common for a lot of childhood wounds to be re-opened. It is easy for our disappointments in one another to surface. My prayer is that we can use this time to focus on the great love we have for our children and our parents, rather than on the disappointments and the heartbreak which that love inevitably includes; if we can focus that love on the power to forgive one another; if we can forgive our children for daring to become their own persons; if we can forgive our parents for the crime of being human, then we will have become good stewards of the love of Christ, which contains great joy, but always also a cross.
In the end, there’s only one thing we can do: offer ourselves to God’s love, who loves us infinitely more than we can ever know; and devote ourselves to God¹s work in the world. For our deepest identity is not as a Smith or a Jones or a Lawrence; our deepest identity is as children of God, who speaks our secret name, and calls us into service.
Christmas Eve 2003
Edited on Monday, December 29, 2003 10:59 am PST
Edited by Gayle Turner
Luke 2: 1-14
When I was a teenager I promised myself I would never have anything to do with a religion like Christianity. It seemed to me at the time just an old musty collection of myths and fairy tales
I was cynical about stories they taught me in Sunday school like David and Goliath and Noah¹s flood and even this story, about a baby in a manger.
Like all teenagers I was completely confident in my judgment. After all, I had given it quite a bit of thought, a whole ten minutes or so, and it was obvious to me that the story could not possibly be true: stars are simply not able to defeat the laws of physics and lead a bunch of so-called wise-men across hundreds of miles to a stable in a little village. Besides, I read somewhere that other religions had myths about a child-god being born to a virgin, so obviously it must never have happened.
“That’s just a story they tell. Just a myth,” I said.
What I didn’t understand at the time was the difference between what is real and what is true.
For example, I looked in the encyclopedia today and it seems that in reality there never actually was a prince of Denmark named Hamlet.
Nonetheless, there is a story that is told, about a prince of Denmark named Hamlet, and the story seems to ring a bell of truth. In fact, it rings so true for people that they have been repeating the story over and over again for the last 400 years.
What an impoverished world we would have if we limited our imaginations to that which is merely factual. No Shakespeare. No art. No movies except documentaries. No TV but reality TV. sounds like hell to me.
But you know, that skeptical teenager is still inside me today, still asking impertinent questions, so this evening in order to honor the skeptic in me and possibly in our midst, I will try to honor the difference between what is real about this story, and what is true.
What is real is that at some point some 2,000 years ago, there was a baby named Jesus who was born to a pregnant unmarried teenager named Mary. That much we can say with a fair bit of certainty; but I cannot speak to the question of whether or not an actual star defied the laws of physics and led the magi to the manger.
But what is true is that something like a star brought us all here tonight. We recognize the truth of that star because we sense within us something like it; a kind of homing device; a dimly present beacon of wisdom that is brightest when our lives are darkest, and which, when we allow ourselves to trust it, leads us out of the valley of the shadow of death and into the presence of peace and blessing. This truth is brought to us by a story about a star that leads those who are wise enough to follow it.
And I cannot speak as to whether, in reality, shepherds gathered at the manger, with cherubs looking for all the world like a Renaissance painting singing hosannas to God. But what is true is that this afternoon we had a children’s pageant, in which this scene was re-enacted.
I watched our assistant Rector, Linda, trying to organize two dozen children into an orderly procession. (Talk about “herding cats”!)
And at the pageant, I watched as the angels all arrived; including two barefoot little girls looking exactly like the cherubs in that Renaissance painting, with curly blond hair and bright blue eyes and very realistic wings held together with rope, and haloes made out of tinsel that were very slowly falling over sideways.
I noticed that the virgin Mary had competition from another little girl who also proclaimed herself to be Mary and brought her own baby Jesus doll to prove it.
For a moment I worried that they might start fighting over whose baby was the real baby Jesus and which one got to go into the manger but then I thought I saw one of the shepherd Dads give one of the Marys a look and all was well.
And we sang Joy to the World and Little Town of Bethlehem and at the communion rail a woman knelt down, carrying her real live baby in her arms; I approached to give the baby my blessing and he looked up at me with the oldest, wisest eyes I had ever seen. It was as if Jesus himself were visiting… And as I blessed the child I received a blessing that was far greater.
“Who is blessing whom?” I wondered.
That’s what is true; a truth brought to us by this story of an infant who is God.
Nor can I speak to the question as to whether or not, in reality, Mary and Joseph were homeless; but what is true is that for the past several years we have had hundreds of homeless women and children here at this church, finding shelter from the rain, finding compassion and dignity and the basic elements for rebuilding their lives. This afternoon our courtyard was filled with children playing with a football, while their mothers waited their turn to go into the treasury of Christmas gifts that we had waiting for them — a room filled nearly to overflowing with Christmas presents donated by Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts and firemen and schoolchildren and dozens of unknown individuals. Gifts to the homeless children, given by people who recognize the face of God in the face of a homeless child; a truth that is brought to us by this story of a homeless mother of God.
And I can’t say for certain whether those wise men ever did make it to the manger or not.
Someone once asked what the first Christmas might have been like if wise women had come from the east instead of wise men. The answer he got was that they would have asked for directions, made it to Bethlehem on time, helped with the delivery, cleaned up the stable, made a decent meal, and brought some practical gifts.
But what is true is that just before our 7 o’clock service tonight, a homeless man I’ll call Peter was standing outside the side chapel entrance and it looked like he was trying to decide if he could go inside or not. He told me he had been baptized in this church years ago, which I have no reason to doubt, and he asked me if it were true that we were going to sing It Came Upon a Midnight Clear tonight; and just as I answered the choir stood up and started singing It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, and he broke down in tears. He wept through much of the service; and when I gave him communion I saw on his face a peace and serenity I hadn’t seen before. Now, I can’t say whether or not, in reality, the service succeeded in breaking through his alcoholic haze long enough to suggest sobriety to him; but when I saw his face that moment, he no longer looked like a homeless drunk; he looked like a very wise man.
This is a truth, brought to us by this story of a God whose deepest wisdom is counted by the wise as pure folly.
There are many more truths in this story than we have time for this night or in a thousand nights: the truth about women in labor; the truth about political oppression; the truth about broken families; the truth about heartbreak and sadness; the truth about honest work; the truth about war and the truth about peace.
And the truth is that sometimes these truths seem obvious and sometimes they seem obscure; just as sometimes God seems very far away and sometimes God seems very close at hand. But whether we recognize it or not the truth is that God is very near to us tonight; those of us who feel that sometimes God is very far away need only look around this room and find god here: Emmanuel: God is with us.
How silently, how silently,
The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him still,
The dear Christ enters in.
3 Advent — December 14, 2003
Monday, December 29, 2003 10:23 am PST
Luke 3: 7-18
At the funeral reception for Bill Sarlin last Friday, as things were winding down, I mentioned to one of our members that I needed to leave soon to work on this sermon for Sunday. She asked me what I was going to preach on, and I indicated to her that I was open to suggestions.
She thought for a moment and then gave me her very sound advice: ‘Warm fuzzies,’ she said.
Good advice. Warm fuzzies. We could all use some warm fuzzies this time of year.
Warm fuzzies are especially appropriate on this, the third Sunday of Advent, which is traditionally known as Gaudate Sunday, which comes from the first word of the Latin text assigned for this day, from Paul¹s letter to the Philippians: “Rejoice!”
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!
Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Phil. 4:4-5
This day is also known as Rose Sunday. In many Anglican churches we light a rose-colored candle on the Advent wreath, and the clergy even wear rose-colored vestments. If we had any rose-colored glasses we could put them on too – all the better to spread a gospel of warm fuzzies.
But then I sat down to write this sermon and remembered that I am supposed to also be preaching about this scene in Luke¹s gospel, in which we find John the Baptist yelling at the people who came to him for baptism, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come!’
Apparently, this was the Baptizer¹s way of welcoming people into his pre-baptism class. Not very nice.
And therein lies the problem: I’m from Minnesota. Some of you have probably heard the term ‘Minnesota nice.’ It¹s a stereotype, I know, but it does carry some truth to it, that not only are all the women in Minnesota strong, all the men good looking, and all the children above average; but everyone in Minnesota is very nice also.
Which is why Biblical scholars are almost in universal agreement that John the Baptist was NOT from Minnesota. And let me tell you if he ever came to Minnesota with those kinds of manners, well, I dunno but I don¹t think he¹d be invited to too many church suppers I can tell you that right now! We might just have to get a little bit snippy with him, don’tchano?
I mean, sure, John the Baptist was talking to a bunch of self-satisfied Pharisees who wouldn’t do a thing to help poor folks, and to tax collectors who were nothing more than glorified thugs; and to Roman soldiers who just went around beating people up and stealing their money – so I guess you could say they did deserve a good talking-to…
But am I the only one who wishes John the Baptist was just a little bit nicer about it? I mean, ‘You brood of vipers?!’ Did John the Baptist have anger issues or what?
I have a friend in Boston who is a priest and a very nice, gentle person – until he gets behind the wheel of a car. When he¹s driving, he becomes another person entirely: aggressive, hostile, judgmental, and dangerous.
I was teasing him about this once and he admitted that a few years ago, when he was on his way home from church, somebody who was driving too slow pulled in front of him so he sped up to his rear bumper, honked at the man, passed him, and actually gave him a familiar hand gesture as he went by.
So by the time he recognized the man as one of his parishioners it was just too late to take it back.
Now, it¹s not that my friend is just an evil priest – it¹s that he was from Boston and just like practically everyone else who drives in Boston, he’s got anger issues. If you¹ve ever driven there, you know what I’m talking about. I swear, very ordinary, nice people grandmothers and Buddhist monks and girls named Bambi – become homicidal maniacs as soon as they shift into Drive.
So Rose and I were relieved when we noticed that people out here in Northern California are a lot nicer when they drive. They even stop for pedestrians in the crosswalks and stuff like that. Very old school.
In fact we were so encouraged by this that we started thinking maybe people out here just don¹t have anger issues like they do back East. Everyone seems so mellow — listening to their golden oldies radio stations and waving one another through intersections
But now that we¹re starting to get to know people better, of course, we’re seeing that anger is pretty much a constant part of the human condition; it gets expressed differently in different cultures, but everyone has anger issues even very nice people like us, even church-going people from Northern California.
I don¹t know where I got this expectation and so much of our anger has to do with our unrealistic expectations but I used to have an expectation that people who went to church would be – I don’t know – nicer than people who didn¹t go to church. Like I said, I don¹t know where I got that expectation, because when you read the Bible, you see that anger and religion go so perfectly well together, don¹t they? The Bible is filled with stories of people with serious anger management issues not to mention God, whose wrath is constantly being evoked, and who, in the book of Genesis, got so angry once that he went way too far and it scared even him and led him to the kind of promise that abusive men make to their wives all the time – honey, I’m so sorry, I¹ll never do that again. And yet, throughout the rest of the Bible we are being threatened by God¹s wrath on nearly every page, by people claiming to speak for God.
And you know, for those of us who are trying to find healthy, constructive ways to manage our anger, these are not very helpful role models. We have to remember that the Bible was written within an ancient culture that took violence for granted and gave tremendous power over to the figures in authority. For hundreds of years, the threat of punishment was pretty much the first and only method we knew of to encourage people to be nicer to one another. Love your neighbor as yourself, says the book of Leviticus, Ch. 19; after which immediately follows a whole series of laws defining the various ways in which a member of the community may be put to death.
So I guess it’s not surprising that religious people can be kind of mean sometimes – I mean, is there anything more delicious than finding someone who is in clear violation of one of God’s Rules? It’s like seeing someone run a stop sign or fail to yield a right-of-way – who can resist the temptation to yell at them?
The American Psychological Association has some good resources about anger and anger management on its public information website. One of the suggestions it has for people who feel that their anger is getting the better of them is to use humor to gain some perspective:
The underlying message of highly angry people is, “Things oughta go my way!” Angry people tend to feel that they are morally right, that any blocking or changing of their plans is an unbearable indignity and that they should NOT have to suffer this way.
When you feel that urge, picture yourself as a god or goddess, a supreme ruler, who owns the streets and stores and office space, striding alone and having your way in all situations while others defer to you. The more detail you can get into your imaginary scenes, the more chances you have to realize that maybe you are being unreasonable; you’ll also realize how unimportant the things you¹re angry about really are.
I found this to be very helpful; because so much of our anger is caused by an unrealistic expectation that we should be in control all the time; as if we were little gods and goddesses and the world belongs to us. In this respect, our prophets like John the Baptist are helpful because they warn us against idolatry: There is only one God, and as much as we¹d like to think that one god is us, it ain’t.
And during this season of Advent, if we can get past the crazy commercialism of the season — not to mention the unrealistic expectation that we might get a present that we actually wanted this year‹like maybe a socket wrench set or a laser level or a nice fleece like they have on page 12 in the L.L. Bean Catalogue (sorry)– I mean if we can get past all that we might finally come home to the notion that this God-that-is-not-us is coming into the world in the form of a baby; the most vulnerable, the least-in-control being on the planet. God, who by some accounts seems to be the ultimate control freak, chooses to come into this world in the form of a being that doesn¹t even have control of its own bladder.
Maybe this is why people are just a little bit nicer during the Christmas season: because if God can make himself that vulnerable, that trusting, that open; then maybe we can, also; maybe we can be that trusting and open and vulnerable to one another.
Warm fuzzies, at last. God is coming into the world, not as an angry, vengeful bully, but as a child, who will soon be wrapped in lamb’s wool and snuggling at his mother¹s breast. He is turning, even now, in the warmth of the womb; he is sucking his thumb, he is listening to our hearts beating; and in the sacred silence of Advent, he is learning the meaning of Gaudate:
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!
Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.
Christ the King Sunday — November 23, 2003
Tuesday, December 2, 2003 12:00 pm PST
The Rev. Matthew Lawrence, Rector
Daniel 7:9-10,13-14; Psalm 93; Revelation 1:4b-8; John 18:33-37
I have been told from time to time that my preaching would benefit from a little more subtlety. I have no argument with this. I am the first to admit that I do tend to err on the side of plain speaking. More gifted preachers find more artful ways of addressing controversial subjects; as for me, I tend to simply plow ahead. If I offend anyone by this method, please know that it is not out of meanness or spite, but simply a passion for the gospel of Jesus Christ.
There are times, and this is one of them, when, after lengthy prayer and careful thought, I cannot escape the conclusion that the gospel of our Lord would be compromised by my silence on an issue. In those times, I will speak out.
And so I begin by speaking plainly of the deep divisions running through our church and running through our culture.
I heard a veteran political commentator on the radio recently say that he had never seen a time when our politics have been so polarized. One could argue, I suppose, that we were more polarized during the era of the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War — we certainly haven’t seen anything like the riots or the demonstrations that we saw back then. But even with all that upheaval, I don’t remember people being so disconnected from a central unifying reality, lacking a common set of values, as we do today. All too often these days I find myself wondering if we aren’t losing our ability to even communicate with people on the other side of the cultural/political divide.
This week the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled in favor of gay marriage; and while hundreds of gay couples joyfully begin to plan their weddings, ranks upon ranks of conservatives promise to amend the Massachusetts, and the U.S., Constitution in order to stop them. The battle lines are drawn in the deepest, most irreconciliabe ways: A conservative young writer named Kyle Williams speaks for many conservatives when he says that the difference between liberals and conservatives is that those on the left “have no sense of absolute truth and morality,” while those on the right do.
Mr. Williams is so confident of his opinion that he is willing to claim it as “absolute truth.” Meanwhile, a growing number of Americans, including the majority of judges on the Massachusetts Supreme Court, is coming to the position that marriage is a simple a human right that cannot be denied to people based on the partner they choose. Mr. Williams may not think liberals believe in absolute truth and morality, but when they set about to amend the Constitution in order to deny U.S. citizens of their rights to privacy and equal protection, he might discover that they – and I include myself in that group — are not so relativist.
This is the sad state of our cultural divisions. Sometimes it seems as if we are living in two diametrically opposed but somehow intersecting universes; a situation in which self-evident and obvious truths in one universe exist in the other universe as self-evident and obvious falsehoods. Sometimes, when I allow my despair to speak, it seems almost as if truth itself is not one, but two; as if God were not undivided but instead rent right down the middle; as if God were simultaneously blessing two opposite realities; as if God were directly encouraging both sides to draw opposite conclusions on the important issues of the day.
Sometimes it feels as if truth itself were divided.
But it is not the truth that is divided. It is Christ that is crucified.
In our gospel reading for today, Jesus stands before Pontius Pilate, who asks him if he considers himself to be the King of the Jews.
Jesus answers, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth…”
To which Pontius Pilate famously responds, “What is truth?”
If we only knew the truth. How ironic it is, that this religion, which is founded on the principle that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, cannot seem to agree on the truth.
Ignorant of the truth, we become like Pontius Pilate; we gaze into the face of Jesus, then we survey the mob, and calculate the risks, turn our backs, and wash our hands.
What is truth, indeed? Upon that question are nailed all the crucifixions of the world.
Last week, as most of you know, the clergy and lay delegates of this parish attended our annual Diocesan Convention. And in many respects it was a wonderful, heartening, joyful convention. But I heard that question of Pontius Pilate’s raised more than once, as resolutions that seemed designed to divide the church were presented, and arguments ensued that felt to me to be unapologetically insulting to my faith, and which showed, in my opinion, no evidence of a desire to listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit.
One of the resolutions presented to the Convention asked that the Diocese find some way to release parishioners from the obligation of supporting the Diocese and the National Church due to their differences over issues of sexual morality.
This is a kind of taxpayers revolution, you might say. In my opinion it’s a rather bizarre proposal; because the money that a church sends to the diocese and the national church doesn’t go to pay for sexual immorality; it goes to pay for, among other things, their own priest’s health insurance, dental insurance, worker’s compensation, health insurance for retired clergy, not to mention about a million other things that have nothing to do with sexual morality and everything to do with serving Christ in the world: famine relief in Africa; building houses in Honduras; youth conferences, homeless ministries, church plantings.
If the folks who sponsored this resolution really want to target their protest against policies of sexual morality, I would challenge them to do the responsible thing and calculate what portion of their pledge goes to support programs of sexual immorality.
It is at times like those that I find myself yearning, as our Biblical writers do, for an Apocalypse.
That’s right, I am yearning for an Apocalypse. You see, the word “apocalypse” refers to that hoped-for time when that which is hidden becomes revealed. The day of apocalypse is the day when the truth becomes known for all to see: Paul was talking about apocalypse when he said, “For now we see in a mirror darkly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.”
The desire for Apocalypse is often thought of as a desire for judgment; and I suppose to the people who just can’t wait for the day when their oppressors are rounded up and banished to hell, that is the image they lead with. But to the Biblical writers the theme of revelation is the stronger image; in the Bible the great yearning is for the day when all ignorance is banished and the truth of God is made plain. That is why the apocalyptic books paint such vivid pictures of the day; streams of fire; strange apparitions; angels and seraphim and cherubim appearing; and Jesus, riding on the clouds.
“Look!” says John the Revelator. “He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him.”
On that day, Pontius Pilate will finally learn the answer to his question; the problem of our ignorance will be solved; the truth will no longer be crucified but will be flying through the air like a technicolor space ship, and in the majestic language of our faith, everything that is hidden shall be revealed.
Finally, we will have a world peace, finally, we will have Diocesan conventions without bitterness; finally, we will have a one-party government; and that government will be neither Democrat nor Republican; nor, dare I say, will it even be Christian in any sense that we can presently imagine it; because it is impossible for us to imagine Christianity without bringing into that vision all the elements of confusion that divide us.
Finally, we will know God as God knows us: not as Jew or Greek, not as male or female, not as slave or free; gay or straight; Republican or Democrat; Fundamentalist or Wacky Liberal; not even, I dare say, as Christian or Buddhist or Muslim or secular humanist.
On that day, Christ will be king; and even as we say that, we have to recognize that we don’t really know what that means; because even still, we live in ignorance of the truth.
But this much we do know: that Christ will be king because Christ already is; just as we know that we are all, despite our differences, united in him; just as we know that there is only one truth; a truth that passes all understanding; a truth that is only hinted at, but never fully revealed, in the reality of love.
Let us pray that we will continue to grow in that love, as we seek to grow in Christ, who reconciles us and heals us.
Pentecost 22 — November 9, 2003
Edited on Wednesday, November 12, 2003 8:54 am PDT
Edited by Gayle Turner
Church of the Incarnation
Santa Rosa, CA
The Widow’s Mite: Mark 12: 38-44
The Rev. Matthew Lawrence, preacher
Back when I was a parish priest in Boston I used to visit a nursing home once a month to lead a service of Holy Communion. It wasn’t a very good nursing home; it smelled bad; climbing the dirty stairs on the way to the common room on the second floor was enough to lose your lunch. But once you got to the common room, there would be 35 or so of the home’s residents, most of them widows in wheelchairs carefully arranged in rows, waiting for the priest to arrive.
One of the residents there was a woman I’ll call Sheila. There wasn’t anything very wrong with Sheila that I could tell; her mind was bright and her health seemed relatively good. The only thing unusual about her was that she was so mean. Everyone was terrified of her: if a nursing attendant was a little slow bringing her her morning coffee or her evening medication there was hell to pay.
Sheila had a permanent scowl on her face; with her jowly cheeks and furrowed brow she bore a slight resemblance to a bulldog. Some people said this only confirmed George Orwelll’s cruel saying, that “by the time you reach fifty, you have the face you deserve.”
Once when Sheila had a cold and couldn’t come to the service I visited her in her room and on her nightstand was a picture of an extremely beautiful woman with a dazzling smile – a flapper from the 1920’s – showing off her long dancer’s legs. “That’s me,” she said. “Back when I had my beauty.”
I tried not to stare, but I couldn’t help going back and forth from the picture, to the woman lying there in the bed blowing her nose. I could not for the life of me see any resemblance whatsoever.
During our worship service Sheila would sit in the front row with her almost-as-mean sidekick Beatrice and scowl. Nobody else sat near them.
Now, you might think that a worship service with about 35 people, most of them in wheelchairs, at which the average age was 85, would be a pretty quiet affair; but quite the contrary, we had a very lively service. In fact, you never knew exactly what would happen next because half the congregation had advanced Altzheimer’s. One lady, who was always very well dressed, was especially distracting due to her rather salty vocabulary, which she had developed since her brain started to go. She seemed to especially enjoy the sensation of loudly interrupting the Eucharistic Prayer with a mad string of obscenities.
But Sheila didn’t have Altzheimer’s and she was unforgiving toward anyone who did. Once during one of the obscenity lady’s especially offensive rants, which lasted the entire length of the Postcommunion Prayer, Sheila stood up and turned toward her and started yelling, “Why don’t you just shut up?!”
Between the two of them yelling, I didn’t know whether I should just pray even louder and pretend it wasn’t happening, or just stop and wait until they finished. I took my cue from the fact that nobody else in the congregation seemed to think there was anything unusual going on, and plowed ahead.
Then one day Sheila fell and broke her hip and the next time I visited her was back in her room and she seemed to be a changed woman. I expected her to be even meaner and more ornery after breaking her hip, but as soon as I entered the room I could tell that she had become softer. She even smiled at me when I entered, and when I took her hand she squeezed hard and didn’t want to let go.
I looked into her face and noticed how different she looked: with that scowl gone and her brow unfurled, her original beauty had returned. I could finally see the flapper.
That day she said something very wise to me. She said, “When I was born, I had all these things given to me that I never appreciated. I was healthy; I was beautiful; I found a good husband who bought me a beautiful house and I had three healthy children and I thought, `This is my life; this is all mine; aren’t I lucky to have all these things.’ And then I got older. The children grew up and never visited; my beauty left me; my husband died; my money got used up; my friends started dying; then I started getting sick, and finally I lost my house and had to come here… and it’s just one thing after another… just one thing after another that gets taken away.
“And I hated it. I hated losing everything that was mine. By the time I got here I was so mad I could spit. Mad at God for taking everything away from me.
“And then I broke my hip. I was right over there, walking down the hall, and I don’t know what happened but I guess I tripped or something and as I started to fall I realized there was absolutely nothing I could do about it. So I just fell. And as I was falling I remember thinking, `I’m going to break my hip,’ and a voice answered back, just that fast, it said, `Who says it’s yours?’
“It was the strangest thing; clear as a bell. `Who says it’s yours?’ And so there I was lying on the floor; and the pain was awful Father; it was terrible; but through the whole ordeal that question kept going through my mind. `Who says it’s yours? Who says it’s yours?’
“I’ve had a lot of time to think about this since, Father, and finally I realized that was God talking. I mean, I was a beautiful woman but that beauty wasn’t mine to own. It was a temporary gift; my beauty was on loan from God; it didn’t last long — it was great while it lasted but it was never really mine. I was so mad when He took it back I never even thanked him for letting me have it in the first place!
“And now, pretty soon, it’s my life He’s going to take. But who says this is my life? You can’t own a life — I didn’t earn it; I didn’t do anything to win the privilege of being born. All I can do is thank him that I got to borrow it for a while.”
Sheila was a widow. A widow is a very interesting thing to call someone – because a widow is defined by what she has lost. It’s the kind of loss that can turn a good person into a wise person. No wonder Jesus spoke so highly of widows.
The widow in today’s gospel has lost everything. She has nothing left but two copper coins, worth less than a penny. So she gives it away – everything she has. She has lost so much that she has achieved the deepest wisdom: she has learned that we never “own” anything; we certainly never permanently keep anything; so it wise to learn how to let go.
If you’re looking for wisdom, talk to someone who has lost everything. If you’re looking for even deeper wisdom, talk to someone who has given everything away. Talk to someone who has learned how to give.
Back in Boston I had a bishop who was also a monk; he was a member of the Order of St. John the Evangelist and like every monk he had taken a vow of poverty. But one day I noticed that he was wearing $200 shoes. (I know how much they cost because I had just been in the shoe store that weekend coveting the very same pair.) So I said, “Hey Bishop, nice shoes,” and he looked a little embarrassed and he said, “Oh, these aren’t mine, actually – they belong to the monastery.”
When he said that, a whole string of impertinent questions leapt to mind. So you’re just borrowing them? What size are they? Can I borrow them?
But after that moment with Sheila, I realized maybe my bishop was on to something very wise…
On the day before I received the phone call from our Vestry asking me to take this job, I was in a church in Minneapolis, praying to God and asking for guidance. I knew that your search had come down to three finalists and I thought I had a pretty good shot at the job but I still wasn’t 100% sure I should take it. I could think of about a hundred reasons why I should accept the job if it were offered to me, but there were also a lot of reasons why I should stay where I was in Ann Arbor.
So I was staring up at the walls of this church and I felt like I was a mathematician trying to solve a really complex equation, with all the negative reasons on one side and all the positive reasons on the other and trying to figure out which side had more value. But the whole thing was just so complicated and there were so many unknown variables and I was getting nowhere and then finally a voice broke through, probably the same voice that Sheila heard, and said, “Who says it’s your decision?”
“Who even says it’s your life?”
And then I realized I had a decision to make; but it wasn’t whether or not I would take this job if it were offered. My decision was whether or not I was going to keep grasping after my life as if it were mine to have; my decision was whether or not I had the courage to give over my life, yet again, for the umpteenth time, to God.
I looked up from where I was sitting and staring me right in the face was an enormous stained glass window of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemene; the famous picture of Christ suffering the agony of the Passion, begging God to take that cup from him. I realized that Jesus had gone through exactly this process, except of course infinitely deeper and more painful: that blissful agony of hearing a voice that is not your own say, “Who says it’s your life, anyway?”
“It’s not complicated,” the voice said. “When they call, just say yes.”
I took a breath, and raised my arms, and let go. And when I did that, I felt that whole enormous complicated equation I was trying to solve just collapse and fall to the ground. And I felt completely at peace.
If you’re looking for wisdom, talk to someone who has lost everything. If you’re looking for even deeper wisdom, talk to someone who has given everything away. Talk to someone who has learned how to give.
This is what Christ keeps teaching us, day after day: giving freely, giving joyfully, holding nothing back. He showed us the way to that truth by giving himself away, even unto death, even unto glory. He was able to do this because he knew that at the deepest level of his being – and at the deepest levels of our being — we are united with God; in our deepest place there is no self; there is nothing but God.
The church has always preached that when we are grounded in Christ, we will know that perfection of grace when we die; but Jesus says we are already there; if we would only learn to let go; if we would only learn the truth of these words:
“All things come of Thee, O Lord.”
“And of thine own have we given thee.”
Sermons by the Rector of The Church of the Incarnation
Edited on Wednesday, November 12, 2003 8:53 am PDT
Edited by Gayle Turner
This section contains sermons given by Rev. Matthew Lawrence at the Church of the Incarnation.
His latest sermon is to be found at the end of this list.
All Saints’ Sunday – November 2, 2003
Fr. Matthew Lawrence
Ecclesiasticus 44:1-10;13-14; Psalm 149; Revelation 7:2-4, 9-17; Luke 6:20-26
Good morning! My name is Matthew Lawrence, and I’ll be your Rector for the next few years… or decades…or so… I can’t tell you what a thrill it is for me to finally be here in this pulpit.
A lot of people have worked very hard to get me here, and before I do anything else I need to thank them for their outstanding generosity and commitment: Wardens Lila Kane and Steve Congdon; Treasurer Randy Coleman-Riese; of course the Vestry and Search Committee and the Transition Committee, especially Gerrie Congdon and Don Green, who traveled to Ann Arbor to interview me and, I hear, beat off my competitors with some ferocity; Gayle Turner our splendid Parish Administrator, who has really smoothed the way for this transition with great skill; Gail Tucker and Terry Howell, who brought us food while we were moving in; Diane Schoenrock, who lent us her wonderful house for three weeks; Ron Marley, who completely renovated my office from top to bottom; our Sexton, Eric Ramsey, who put my desk and bookcases together; Linda Campbell, who has done a wonderful job of welcoming Tom into the Youth Group and has shouldered so much of the burden of this transition time; and most especially, beloved Patricia Moore, who has been a fantastic Priest-in-Charge, a job she no doubt never asked for, probably didn’t especially want, but a job that she performed with exquisite grace, wisdom, and skill. Thanks to all of you and many more I’m sure whose contributions are unknown to me but fully known by God.
About a year ago, one of my friends in Ann Arbor told me he was thinking about moving out to here to this area. I said, “Oh, you’d have to be crazy to move out there. All that global warming, the droughts, the wildfires, the energy shortages, the cost of living, not to mention the earthquakes – you know they’re going to fall right into the Pacific Ocean any day now…”
I can’t take full responsibility for his decision not to move out here, but I have to say that when he decided to stay in Ann Arbor I was glad. But then a few months later I had to tell him that I was moving out here. He said, “Hey, wait a minute, you said I’d have to be crazy to move there!” And I said, “Well, I guess you have passed the sanity test … but I have flunked!”
Some people say Jesus was crazy too, what with that Messiah complex and all… When you read things in the Bible like today’s gospel reading I have to say it’s pretty hard not to draw that conclusion. I mean, what was he thinking, walking around the wealthy suburbs of Jerusalem, saying, “Woe to you who are rich?” How is that not crazy? Did Jesus really think he could build a church by alienating all the rich people?
Personally, I don’t think Jesus was crazy… which leaves only one other explanation, which is that he was extremely brave.
Of course, that’s not all there is to the gospel reading today – so far I’ve just talked about the Bad News part, the woe to you who are rich part; but there’s the Good News part, too, otherwise known as the Beatitudes. But let’s face it, it doesn’t take a lot of courage to preach the Beatitudes: blessed are the poor, blessed are the hungry, blessed are those who weep. For centuries, prosperous Anglican vicars repeated these words as they rode their carriages through the slums of London: “Ah yes, blessed are the poor, indeed,” they would say, and wave their hands with the sign of the cross…
That part’s easy to preach; but when it comes to this Woe to you who are rich part, Anglican and Episcopal preachers have tended to be pretty evasive. On the rare occasions when we are absolutely forced by the rule of the lectionary to read these words out loud, we tend to mumble: butwoetoyouwhoarerichforyouhavereceivedyourrreward… and then we change the subject. I would prefer to think that it’s not that we’re hypocrites, really; I’d rather think we have a collective form of hysterical blindness. It’s a kind of insanity, really, which makes it possible for us to simply pretend that Jesus never really meant what he said about money.
This is what I call The Episcopal Insanity defense. In my opinion, the whole Episcopal Church suffers from this – it’s a form of hysterical blindness, but it starts with the preachers. We are the reason why the Episcopal Church (and I’m speaking of the denomination now, not Church of the Incarnation) is crazy when it comes to money.
The craziness doesn’t stop there, either. For example, the Episcopal Church has this outstanding record of supporting all sorts of social programs to help the poor. When it comes to passing resolutions at our conventions, the Episcopal Church is on record as supporting of just about every social policy ever designed to improve the lives of poor people: welfare, Head Start, school lunches, affordable housing, you name it. But on the other hand, when it comes down to actually spending our own money, we have one of the tightest grips on our wallets and purses of any Christian denomination. As a denomination, Episcopalians give a smaller portion of their income to the church than just about anyone else in Christianity.
In fact, when you hear Episcopalians talk about money, if you didn’t know any better you’d think that our biggest problem with money is not that the love of it is the root of all evil – our biggest problem with it is that we never seem to have enough of it. As a denomination we’re kind of like the well-dressed businessman I overheard talking to a homeless man once. He said, “You know, you and I, we’ve both got the same problem. Neither of us has enough money.”
But if I believed that was true about this particular Episcopal Church – this Church of the Incarnation – I wouldn’t be here. I first heard about this church from a friend, another Episcopal priest, who was thinking about applying for this job. He said, “They’re a Jubilee Parish, they’ve got this fantastic ministry to the homeless going on, all sorts of good outreach programs – they’re actually doing something with their faith! Do you know how rare that is?”
Well, it just so happened that I knew exactly how rare that is, which is why I had to tell him that he’d be crazy to move out here…
I think we’ve all got to be a little bit crazy to live in this crazy-making world; and basically we have two forms of craziness to choose from. We can choose the Episcopal Insanity Defense Hysterical Blindness form of craziness, or we can choose the Gospel kind of crazy – the craziness of Jesus, who values poor people in a world that only honors rich people; who values loving our enemy in a world of endless retributive violence; who values women and children and lepers and prostitutes and Samaritans and prostitutes and beggers in a world that didn’t even consider them human. That’s the gospel kind of crazy.
And if that’s crazy, then we’re all certifiable! In fact it’s a wonder we haven’t all been committed. Which is why today is Commitment Sunday! Yes, the men in the white coats and butterfly nets are on their way right now; they’re coming to take us away …It’s a good thing my wife is a Clinical Psychologist… she’s already got the paperwork filled out for us…
But seriously…. It actually turns out that this Commitment Sunday is the first of two Sundays in which we ask you to make a commitment in support of this church. So I thought while we’re talking about commitment maybe it would be a good idea for me to go first. Today I stand ready to make the following commitments to you. They are in six areas: preaching, worship and music, self-care, parish administration, pastoral care, and stewardship.
First: I will do my very best, within the considerable limits of my ability, to be the best preacher I can be. I won’t insult your intelligence by preaching down to you; I will be truthful and honest with you; and I will strive to never compromise the integrity of the Gospel.
In exchange, I would only ask that you please don’t crucify me. Try to remember that I am only the messenger – if you got a problem with Jesus, take it up with the big guy. I just work here.
Second, with respect to our worship, one of the things that attracted me to this parish is its wonderful diversity of liturgical styles – from the Holy Wisdom and 2nd Sunday services, to the family service and the traditional service. I pledge to you that I will help to make the contemporary services here as creative and welcoming as they can be; and I promise to keep the traditional service traditional. I want the traditional service to be a sanctuary for that good old-time religion; a place where traditionalists feel perfectly at home. At the same time, I know enough about church growth to say with confidence that our most significant growth will probably be in the more contemporary services, and to that end I will be working with conviction and purpose to engage this parish in a conversation about what that means. I will speak in more detail about that, with some specific ideas for how we can begin that conversation, next week.
With respect to the music here, I absolutely adore the music at both 9 and 11:15 services. It is obvious that Incarnation has a terrific gift in its extremely talented Music Directors and Organists and I don’t see why I would want to screw that up.
Third, self-care: My wife, Rose, my son, Tom, and I have been deeply grateful for the generosity and good will that you have shown us since we arrived. At the same time, I am not so naïve as to think that I have won your full trust yet. Trust is our most precious gift to one another; it is the most important element in our relationship; and I know that while a certain amount is given, a far greater amount is earned over time.
Given the history some of the previous rectors in this parish, I can understand why trust might be an especially difficult thing to muster up. With that in mind I pledge to you, as God is my witness, that I will never engage in any kind of sexual misconduct or financial impropriety. Those days are over.
I will endeavor to model for you the basic elements of a healthy pastoral relationship, and I will work to help the parish do the same. Pastors get in trouble when they are unable to set appropriate boundaries and when members of the parish are unable to honor those boundaries; pastors get in trouble when they allow themselves to get too busy and too stressed and when the parish doesn’t see the pastor’s stress as a problem for the whole community. Finally, parishes get in trouble when they overlook the basic elements of financial oversight, failing to have the books audited regularly and failing to use standard accounting methods. I beg of you that if you ever feel that any of these areas are being overlooked, bring them to my attention right away.
Fifth, with regard to the administration of this parish, I am not accustomed to deficit budgets, I don’t like them, I take them personally, and I intend to do everything I can to bring you a balanced budget every year. In fact, if we are not growing both in terms of budget and people every year that I am your rector, it will be something of a first for me, and I will take it as a personal failing.
There are only two possible exceptions to my pledge to avoid deficits: first, I believe that a certain amount of deficit spending is appropriate when the economy is in the ditch – that’s why we have “rainy day funds”. If a deficit is caused by short-term economic factors and we have to choose between eliminating essential forms of ministry or borrowing a little from our surplus in order to continue serving people in need, I will likely support that. Second, I expect that someday we may develop a vision for our future together that challenges us to stretch our resources, in anticipation of rewards down the road. I am an entrepreneur by nature, and I know that successful businesses often need to take a loss during the start-up phase of a major new program.
Sixth, with respect to stewardship: like many of us, one of my biggest spiritual struggles, personally, has been to understand money in a way that is consistent with the Gospel. Sometimes as a matter of faith we need to take a step beyond our comfort zone. Rose and I are stretching our finances just to be living here in Santa Rosa, so we want you to understand that if it feels risky for you to make a pledge to this church based on a percentage of your income rather than some relatively low number that you think you can afford, you’re not alone. We share your pain! Nonetheless Rose and I are making our pledge to this parish based on the advice of the Stewardship Committee; it represents far more than we have given to a parish in the past, but it feels right. It feels like a downpayment; an investment, if you will, in what promises to be a beautiful friendship, both with this parish, and with the Kingdom of God that Jesus calls us into, and which is so wonderfully incarnate here at Church of the Incarnation.
Finally, I ask that you please pray for Rose, Tom and me as we make this transition into this blessed community; please pray for this church as it absorbs the impact of our arrival; and please join with us in making a significant investment to support the very important ministries of this wonderful parish.