This sermon was offered at the Saturday 5:30 service on November 12. There was no sermon on Sunday, November 13 because of the celebration of First Solemn Communion for four of our children.
Why? The Following Is My Effort to Answer that Question.
This is the sermon I gave on Fathers’ Day, June 19, the Sunday following the Sunday of the Orlando Massacre.
At first, I thought writing this sermon was going to be kinda fun – Fathers’ Day! I was really looking forward to that. I found this wonderful description of fatherhood from author Ben Fountain (Billy Flynn’s Long Halftime Walk), who said, “…nothing really prepares you for kids, for the swells of emotion that roll through your chest like the rumble of boulders tumbling downhill, nor for the all-enveloping labor of it, the sheer mulish endurance you need for the six or seven hundred discrete tasks that have to be done each and every day. Such a small person! Not much bigger than a loaf of bread at first, yet it takes so much to keep the whole enterprise going. Logistics, skills, material; the only way we really learn is by figuring it out as we go along, and even then it changes on us every day, so we’re always improvising, which is a fancy way of saying that we’re doing things we technically don’t know how to do.”
“…small person. Not much bigger than a loaf of bread… it takes so much to keep the whole enterprise going. Logistics, skills, material…” I love it! A father describing childcare as troop movements!
And of course, he hit upon what we all know – we have to figure it out as we go along. No child arrives with instructions. You can read all the advice books you want, but nothing beats the hands-on experience, the ability to improvise. And faith… And prayer…
I looked forward to starting my sermon with that.
But then, last Sunday, just as the altar party was approaching the back of the church to process in with the first hymn, someone came up to us and asked us if we had heard about the massacre in Orlando. Luckily one of our Lay Eucharistic Ministers was able to add the victims to our prayers. But that was the first we’d heard of this tragedy.
Of course, I had no sermon prepared for it. All I could do was bow my head with everyone else and pray for the repose of the souls of those who died, and their families and friends.
Orlando seems to have become the epicenter of tragedy recently. And the question that immediately arises is “WHY?” For us as Christians that is our cry to God – “WHY?” For those of us who are priests, this is an especially painful question because people often ask us “Why?” and believe me, we struggle with the answer.
If God is a loving God, and I believe God is – how can God allow things like this to happen? Does God want things like this to happen? Are we supposed to learn some sort of lesson from this? No – No – and No! I don’t believe God would ever cause this. Bad things do not happen as a punishment any more than good things happen as a reward. We are blessed by God’s grace; freely given unconditional love – there are no debits or credits. There is no heavenly bank account.
So how is this horrible slaughter an expression of God’s love for us? The answer of course is – it isn’t. God weeps with us for all the victims in Orlando, for the patrons of the Pulse nightclub, for singer Christina Grimmie, and for little Lane Graves. God weeps with their families, their brothers and sisters and friends.
So how can God allow things like this to happen? Well, the bottom line is – we don’t really know. But I have thought and prayed about this question, not only in regards to this latest tragedy, but also horribly similar tragedies in the past. How can such terrible things happen with our loving God?
So please try to follow me here as I share with you my thoughts on this. After a lot of prayer I believe it is important for your priest to make an effort to speak to the role God plays in events like these. Where is God here? Here’s my effort at it.
We are created by God and we are created as imperfect beings. I understand that the Fall in the Garden of Eden is the story given to explain our imperfections, but God could have always started over with perfection. Yet God didn’t do that. Why not?
As God’s creation, our primary function is to love God. That is the first and greatest commandment, to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, souls and minds.
So why didn’t God create perfect people who would always be ready and able to love God? I believe the answer is because God didn’t want robots or puppets who simply popped out automatic love for God. No! That isn’t love. God doesn’t want automatic, “perfect,” mechanical love from us. God doesn’t even want love from us that comes from a sense of obligation. God wants love freely given. We can understand that. We all want to be genuinely loved – really loved – freely loved. God wants love given because we want to.
There is only one way that we can love God freely, and that is if we have free will. And there we have the great variable of creation. There we have the opportunity for chaos.
We are not “perfect.” God doesn’t want us to be “perfect.” God wants us to be human. And as humans, we are flawed, imperfect creatures. And it all starts with the gift of free will.
Looking at this from a positive point of view, our free will, this element of chaos, also gives us the opportunity to be creative – to think and act creatively. That is the unknown, unpredictable element about us.
But there is also the dark side to free will. We can choose. We can choose not to love God. There are those who will say that it is solely a matter of denying God and denying the good in oneself, and embracing what we call evil, or allowing evil to enter into our lives, but I think it also involves evil as chaos, a dark chaos. This choice, this dark side, this chaos is also part of our gift of free will from God – the dark side of free will. That is what was exercised by the killers in Orlando. Frequently, this dark side is set in motion and fed by ignorance and fear.
We are gloriously human. We are delicate and complex organisms. All of Nature is delicate and complex. All of creation is glorious and flawed. Without those flaws – we – all of creation – could not have the infinite variety that we have. That element of chaos is the part of creation that can result in divine creativity or madness. The outcome can be beauty or horror. The wonder of us is that we – are – flawed. It’s our blessing – it is also our curse.
There is evil. There is madness. There is imperfection. The poor man who was possessed by a legion of demons in our Gospel reading today? Two to three thousand individuals made up a Roman legion. That’s how many demons possessed that poor man. Sort of a massive case of multiple personality disorder.
Was he that different from the man who was obsessed with Christina Grimmie? Or the man who was clearly so frightened of homosexuality and disturbed by other elements of the western way of life that his fear grew into an obsession. His terrible fear grew into hate. He too, like our poor man running naked through the gravestones appears to have lost all reason. This is the dark side of free will.
It is part of what we as human creations live with. Now, how do we choose to live with it? Do we choose to expend our energy, our God-given life energy, hating back or trying to find someone to blame? Or do we look for Jesus’ example to us? Jesus knew the pain of that madman and he knew the pain of the demons that possessed him. Jesus gave them all what they wanted and needed. (I feel kind of sorry for the pigs, though.)
Jesus knows our flaws. How many of us who are parents or who have ever cared for children have made mistakes, have turned our heads away for just a few seconds and didn’t see the danger our child might be in. That can happen to anyone. How do we respond to the tragic death of little Lane Graves? By blaming his parents? What’s the point of that? We respond with God’s love and we grieve with those parents for the pain they are going through. We can accomplish so much more by praying for them in their pain and celebrating our fathers and father figures and the joy they bring us on this Fathers’ Day.
Oh there is the tendency to feel rage, even a righteous rage (as Jesus did when he cleaned out the Temple) – but be very careful. That rage can become the very thing that caused Omar Mateen to careen over into destructive insanity
Sometimes it’s hard to trust in God. But we need to. We need to be open to God and to the pain of this event. We need to trust that God weeps with us. Haven’t you ever watched one of your kids make a terrible mistake or hurt themselves in some way and there wasn’t really anything you could do about it except to weep with them when it was over? We all have had those moments. And I don’t think either we or our children ever fully understand them.
We can rejoice in the fact that we are wonderfully created, with flaws that are a part of that wonderful creation, with elements of chaos within us that can be wonderfully creative or destructive. We can rejoice in the fact that God loves us always and unconditionally, all of us, no matter who we are or what we do. We can rejoice in the fact that God can and will grant us peace.
Where is God in these terrible tragedies? God is with us.
For Your Kids
I have a book that I found for my children to help explain why their Grandma (my mother) was dying. It’s titled Lifetimes. It talks about every living thing having a lifetime – a beginning and an end and living in between. And it reminds us that dying is as much a part of living as being born. Death is as much a part of God’s creation as birth. The book is in my office if you ever want to look at it.
Sermon 12 20 15 Advent IV Yr C
This week of Advent, Advent 4, we focus on Mary. Earlier this morning we spoke her Magnificent. Mary has always been a difficult figure for me. When I was young and a little Swedish Baptist girl, all my little Roman Catholic friends had pictures and statues of Mary all over their houses. Some of them had statues in their gardens. And in some of this art her heart was exposed! This freaked me out a little bit. My Dad just said that that was the Roman Catholic way and that we don’t think about Mary the same way they do. And she had a halo in the pictures and on the statues, and I thought that was odd. She didn’t have wings, so she wasn’t an angel. And there’s only one God, right? As you may recall, I didn’t understand about saints when I was a little girl.
Later, as I became acquainted with the Episcopal Church and came to love it, I began to understand about saints – human beings who we revere and whose lives are important to our salvation history.
But what remained a problem for me, and it still does, is any notion of Mary as perfect. I believe in the virgin birth just fine, but the idea that Mary was perfect or that she somehow achieved a divinity of her own seems to me to defeat the entire purpose of incarnation. The idea was and is that Jesus came to us as both human and divine, Mary contributing the human part and the Holy Spirit taking care of the rest. From Luke, the angel Gabriel said, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.” What is the point of incarnation, of Jesus born as both human and divine if the human component – Mary – isn’t as human like all other humans? There is nothing in the Bible about Mary’s divinity or Ascension or anything that makes her anything other than a person just like the rest of us.
In the 2nd century, there was a document written that was titled “The Proto-Gospel of James, the brother of Jesus.” It is highly unlikely that any brother of Jesus was still living in order to write this document, so it was probably actually written by a follower of one of Jesus’ brothers. The character of James claimed to be Jesus’ half-brother, a child of Joseph by a prior wife who had died. It is only in this document that we read of Mary’s history and her immaculate conception, her perpetual divinity and her ascension to become the Queen of Heaven. Most scholars of that time rejected the information as an effort to deify Mary, but much of the story has taken on a life of its own. She began to be revered in the second century.
For us Episcopalians, this is again a theological area that reflects the great sweep of Episcopalian thought. Some of us are very Roman. Some of us are very protestant. Most of us are somewhere in between and there is room for all of us at the table!
So that’s where the idea of deifying Mary came from. I personally just have to say that I think it takes away from Mary to think of her as perfect. I think it diminishes her.
Also, to set her up as the perfect role model of wifeliness and motherhood is, I think, destructive. Who can live up to that? Who wants to? Thinking that mothers are supposed to be perfect is just plain crazy and striving to attain that perfection has driven more than a few women right over the edge. Parenting is not for sissies! Forget about a pedestal – it can stand there empty as far as I’m concerned. Talk about a useless piece of furniture…!
I feel more in sympathy with Mary’s story if I think of her as who she was – a young girl – probably 12 when she was first betrothed. Mary may have been as old as 15 when she was visited by the Angel Gabriel. 14 or 15 was around the traditional age for a bride of her time. Children and women often died in childbirth. It was important to begin the child-bearing process early, while a girl was young and strong. It is traditionally accepted that Joseph was older, possibly even a widower, but I don’t know why. Again, that may have been the accepted story so that Jesus’ siblings would be the product of an earlier marriage, thus maintaining Mary’s virginity. The whole discussion of the Christian view of virginity and the effect that has had on history is a topic for another time. Suffice it to say that I think the ideal of the spotless female is just plain unnecessary and destructive.
But for us in the 21st century, it’s hard to tell our young adolescent daughters about 15 years old or younger about Mary and explain how her pregnancy was OK. This is not what we in the 21st Century want our teenage girls to emulate. But we must remember that the very concept of childhood is relatively modern. Until the late 19th and early 20th centuries, children were babies and then they were treated as very young, perhaps unformed adults, but nevertheless adults. There were no such things as adolescents until the 20th century.
So Mary, this young 15 year old girl, was an adult. She was betrothed to Joseph, which meant she had already begun the marriage process. In our gospel reading for today we meet her after she had been visited by the Angel Gabriel and told that she would become the theotokos, Greek for the God bearer. She would contribute humanity to this very different human being. The Holy Spirit would take care of the rest.
The only trouble with all this was that as a young unmarried woman, she was supposed to be a virgin, unless, of course, she and Joseph had begun cohabiting, which would have been OK, but they hadn’t. She faced terrible ostracism, possible stoning. Her very survival rested on Joseph accepting the story of her pregnancy. So Mary’s own acceptance is extraordinary. “I’m here. I will do and be whatever you want. May your words be fulfilled.” So simple and straightforward and yet so full of faith. She had to have known the dangerous position she was in.
She rushed off to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Madeleine L’Engle wisely comments, “Sometimes it is very important to have an older friend who is not a parent.” I like to imagine that Elizabeth was the first person she told.
Elizabeth was further along in her surprise pregnancy than Mary and we are told that the future John the Baptist moved within her with excited, joyous recognition as Mary approached. I imagine that with John, Elizabeth’s entire pregnancy was pretty exciting!
Elizabeth’s reaction must have been reassuring for Mary. The right things were happening. So she praised God – in spite of all the danger she could be in – she embraced the unknown and the extraordinary and praised God. She didn’t react rationally, with her mind. She didn’t question. No – her soul, her spirit rejoiced in God’ greatness.
Sometimes that’s the only response we can have to God. Sometimes we can’t use our intellect. Sometimes we need to let God be God in our lives and accept. That’s hard! We like to be in charge. We want to know everything that’s going on and we want to know why. But sometimes we can’t. Sometimes we need to accept – whatever it is – we need to accept.
What we find throughout the story of Jesus’ human birth is that supposedly insignificant, ordinary people, simply because they accept who they are and who God is and trust, supposedly ordinary people achieve true greatness.
Joseph is an unsung hero. He isn’t mentioned in the gospels by name after the birth narratives. Joseph would have had every right to set Mary aside and refuse to marry her. One gospel says that is what he planned to quietly do. At worst he could have publicly accused her of adultery and insisted that she be stoned. But he accepted what the angel told him and was willing to endure the questioning glances (is she carrying his baby?).
It must have been difficult for both of them.
Unquestioning, accepting. This sort of behavior may strike us as passive and maybe even unintelligent, but no, Mary made a choice, a strong choice. To simply say to God, “Here I am. Do with me as you will.” She chose to give her very self over to God.
While with Elizabeth, Mary began to speak in poetry, the Magnificat, elevated language. Poetry is music we speak. You know, there are those who say that song in musicals or in opera is for those moments when talking is not enough, when the feelings are so strong that one must sing. We don’t know if Mary actually sang the Magnificat but when I read it, I think of song. It’s quite possible, even probable that the Magnificat was composed later and added to the birth narrative in Luke to best express the feelings that rushed through her. The Magnificat is one of the earliest Christian hymns. It is easy to envision her saying or singing it. She had stepped into history! “From this day all generations will call me blessed. The Almighty has done great things for me and holy is his name.”
First, Mary gave her sense of who God is. “God has mercy on those who fear him” – fear as in awe, not as in being afraid – “in every generation.” Always.
Then she recited God’s great deeds, and they are all great deeds done for ordinary people, people just like her. God had scattered the proud, cast down the mighty from their thrones, lifted up the lowly, filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. These are the people God blessed and she was happy to be among them.
Mary was an extraordinary young woman, a woman who listened, who paid attention, a woman who was thoughtful. One of my favorite remarks about her is when we are told “She kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.” Again, she didn’t apply her intellect to what was happening to her – she pondered in her heart. She applied her heart.
Mary accepted what she didn’t understand. And she was willing to never understand. Think of that. To be aware of something cosmic happening within you and to know that you will never fully understand it. That takes great patience and strength.
And finally, the matter of God’s grace. There was nothing noteworthy about Mary. She was a little nobody from a nothing town. All of the stories about her extraordinary piety are fiction. Made up to explain why this particular 15 year old was the mother of Jesus! When that was the point! She was nobody! She was from nowhere! She didn’t do anything. She didn’t earn anything. She found favor with God because God decided to favor her. She found favor with God through grace. Grace is a gift from God. It’s just grace.
I do believe Mary is a saint, a human to be revered and remembered as important in our salvation history. She was an ordinary human who found herself in extraordinary circumstances because of God’s grace. An ordinary human being just like any of us. Each of us, all of us can be available to God’s grace at any time. With patience and acceptance – to choose to take that leap and simply say to God, “Here I am.”
Sermon 12 13 15 Advent III
There’s not an actor on the planet who wouldn’t love that line – “You brood of vipers!” More on that later.
Just before I came here to you folks I served as extended supply for St. James, Long Branch. There was one point this fall when we had had yet another horrifying occasion of terrorist violence and when the time came for the Children’s Sermon I decided to ask them if they knew that something bad happened in the last week. All of them, even the youngest, knew something bad happened. I asked them if they knew what it was. One little girl responded, “Yes. A lot of people got shot.” I pointed out to the congregation that we can be pretty confident that our children know when something scary is going on. There’s no real hiding it.
Then I asked the children what they do when they’re scared. One little girl piped up and said, “I go and get into bed with my sister.” I thought that was a good answer – find someone you love and get close to them!
Last Sunday at church, someone asked me why I didn’t mention the shootings in San Bernardino. I’m embarrassed to say that I wasn’t aware of them. I went for days without listening to my car radio. I didn’t hear or watch the news. I was so busy unpacking that I was out of touch!
Then I happened to watch CBS Sunday Morning later in the day. Brad and I especially like the human interest stories from Steve Hartman. He often brings tears to our eyes.
Last week, in response to the San Bernardino shootings, Steve Hartman said that even though he and his wife choose not to tell their children about bad news, to protect them, he decided to ask “the experts” about their decision – the boys themselves. When asked if they wanted to know about bad news, the boys immediately asked if people died. Their dad said “Yes.” Then they said, no, they really didn’t want to know about bad news. But then the oldest, 7 years old, took his dad to task. He said, “You’re always telling us that everything is going to be OK. And I keep trying to tell you, but you don’t listen. You can’t always say that. You don’t know!” Finally, the boys decided that if something was going to happen right here in their own country, the United States, they wanted to know.
What they all were talking about was their fear. Often, when people are reacting so strongly to these events, it’s about their fear. Often, even when we find ourselves in a rage, it’s not about our anger, it’s about our fear.
Our bishop, Bishop Stokes, sent out an email Friday. I didn’t get to it until yesterday. He recalled what FDR said to our country at a frightening time in our history. Interestingly enough, I had just used the same words at a Vestry meeting earlier that morning! “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Those words were never truer. Whatever may be frightening us, nothing has more potential to damage us, to hurt us than our own fear. When you hear people yelling their wholesale condemnation of any group, that is fear talking. We are thoughtful, intelligent people. Here at Good Shepherd, we are also Christian. As our bishop recently said, “As Christians, we cannot allow hateful rhetoric and fear-mongering to prevail.” Speaking practically, how do we end it? By yelling back? No. The best way to end a fire is to starve it – don’t give it oxygen. We can choose not to react, not to respond. We can answer such rhetoric with silence and non-participation and then move on. If enough of us do that, we leave the yellers talking to themselves. If they think no one’s listening, they’ll eventually stop.
More important, we can continue to trust in God and God’s love for us. It’s times like these when the rubber hits the faith road, my friends. Do we really believe in God’s love? In God’s bountiful grace and mercy? Or are those just pretty words we drag out at Christmas? Can we honestly rejoice and exult in God’s love with all our hearts? Can we believe that God will continually renew us, rejoicing over us with gladness? Can we say today’s Canticle with confidence?
“Surely it is God who saves me; I will trust in him and not be afraid. For the Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense, and he will be my Savior.”
We have to mean it! We need to mean it!
Every person thinks their time is unique, that no one else has ever lived through what they’ve had to live through. Israel, through the centuries, had to live through one crisis after another. And yet, through it all, even when they denied God, God was with them, just as God is with us.
In Philippians, Paul’s reaction to his own terrible fear and the fear of his followers – they feared death at the hands of the Romans. Paul told them all to rejoice – in the face of persecution, to rejoice always! And then he told them to let their gentleness be known to everyone. In the very face of brutality, to show gentleness. Not to display useless posturing – but to let their “gentleness be known to everyone.” And finally, the hardest instruction –
“Do not worry about anything,…” Do not worry about anything. Telling someone not to worry is like telling them not to itch! But that is what God asks us to do – “don’t worry, it’s a waste of time and effort, have faith in me, trust in me, know that I am here and that I love you.” That is where our strength can be found – faith and joy in the face of the madness of hate.
And then we come to John – John the Baptist – whose every word was despised by Herod. Herod was a king appointed and approved by the hated Romans. He didn’t want any revolutionary voices stirring up trouble. All he wanted was to remain in office and collect taxes for Rome and be allowed to go on his merry way. But no! John had to stir up trouble and predict a Messiah! Messiahs were a dime a dozen in those days. There was always someone stirring up trouble and threatening to start a revolution.
And John didn’t know what the crowds who came to him were looking for. Some of them were people who were sincerely looking for salvation. Some of them were looking to trap him so that he could be legally silenced. John was looking for the Messiah and trying to prepare the people of Israel for him. But it was hard. Betrayers around every corner. He didn’t know who to trust either. All he knew was that God would let him know.
We can’t really blame John for being frustrated. What he was really asking people in our Gospel for today was, “You people! Who are you? Why are you here?” How could he know who would support the Messiah and who would betray him? My guess is that if all the disciples were baptized, Judas was baptized like everyone else.
“You brood of vipers!” Vipers attack for food and out of fear. Fear is a great motivator. John wanted the people to change their behavior from fear-based to love-based. He wanted them to leave their fear of the Romans behind and to bear “good fruit.” He wanted them to be willing to share both food and clothing with each other, even in their poverty. People who share with each other aren’t acting out of fear. He taught the tax collectors to gather fairly (almost unheard of in those days!) He taught the soldiers not to threaten and extort, but to do the jobs they were paid for. He wanted people to live in fairness with each other. He asked them to look at their lives and consider whether they were good useful nutritious kernels of grain or the dry, light chaff, the husks of the kernel that were burnt as cheap fuel. Were they the core or the useless outer shell?
John was asking people to live with integrity, generosity, and love in an incredibly difficult time, a time of fear that tempted them to consider their own selfish needs first, not the needs of others. In the face of civil uncertainty and grave danger he was asking them to trust in God’s love.
And that is what God asks us to do. God asks us not to give in to fear, but to be his loving presence in the world, to show the world that we don’t need to give in to fear, but that we truly can trust in God and so can they. Trust is where our strength lies and that is where we can find peace – the peace that is beyond all understanding, the peace of God that will protect our hearts and minds.