Sunday, March 10, 2024

No Accident We: The sermon I didn't preach on Lent IV

It was written, printed and ready to go -- this sermon for Lent 4/2024 -- but it turns out I wasn't. Ready to go.

Still managing symptoms from a virus picked up traveling a week ago, I opted to pass the 10am pulpit baton to the 7:30am preacher and keep my possibly germy self home for rest and hydration. But ... with deep bows of gratitude to the brilliant Deon Johnson ... here's what I would have said:

No Accident We | Lent 4_2024 


Remember that you are dust,

the substance of the stars,

animated with the breath of life.

Uniquely formed in the image and likeness

Of Divine Love,

authored in hope, forged in joy,

very good of very good.

No accident we.

This beloved quickened dust

Knit to love and be loved.

Remember that you are dust. Amen.

“Remember that you are dust” … words that have launched the holy season of Lent down through the centuries … words that showed up for me reframed and reformed this Ash Wednesday in this prayer posted by friend and colleague Bishop Deon Johnson.


It is a prayer that I have returned to daily during this Lenten Journey

and one I believe has a word for us … not only as we gather

on this Fourth Sunday in Lent in the year of our Lord 2024

on this Annual Meeting Sunday in a Centennial Year for All Saints Church …

but as we look ahead to the word we need to sustain us

for the journey in the days, weeks and months ahead …

the word we need to continue the struggle
of living out lives aligned with love, justice and compassion

in a world being torn apart by violence, polarization and division ...

the word we need as we strive to offer

an antidote to the toxic theology of Christian Nationalism

and the clash between two worldviews in our body politic and civic discourse.

It is not a new struggle.
But it does remind me of an old story.


It was 2007 and then rector Ed Bacon invited me to join him for his annual retreat.
It was an eight-day silent retreat
with the Handmaids of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Haverford, Pennsylvania —
and it is an experience I will always remember
and have absolutely no plan to replicate.


It will not be a surprise to most of you
that eight days of silence and I
turned out not to be a match made in heaven
and …
there were some wonderful things about the experience
I still hold with gratitude and which continue to inform my journey.

One of them was the homily I heard from Father Sullivan —
one of the Roman priests who came to preside in the convent chapel.
He talked about his early days in ministry,
doing missionary work in Guatemala
and the deep friendship he developed with his Evangelical roommate.
He said they had MUCH in common
as they worked among the most vulnerable in the city
and they had lots of great conversations about theology, mission and ministry.

The one chasm they couldn’t bridge, however,
was the one between their different views on the nature of humanity.

His roommate, the priest recounted,
was convinced humans are inherently evil beings
who can only accomplish good by being bathed in the Blood of the Lamb.

The priest, on the other hand,
was convinced that humans are inherently good
and that our baptism into the Body of Christ
is what enables, equips and empowers us to resist the evil present in the world
in order to participate with God in making that world a better place.


These two schools of thought create two very different world views because who we think we are turns out to have a lot to do with who we think God is: and how we understand who we were created to be turns out to have a lot to do with how we understand who the Creator is.

Are human beings inherently evil or essentially good?
Is God a punitive male authority figure
with an anger management problem
ready to cast us into outer darkness
for coloring outside of the lines of any of the house rules
or a loving creator
yearning to realize the dream
of gathering all creation around the table
to be fed by the holy food of love, justice and compassion?


And how we answer those questions for ourselves
turns out to influence not only how we live out our faith in the world,
but how we put our faith into action through the values we embrace,
and as we struggle to be the change we want to see in the world.


And it turns out, my sisters, brothers and gender fluid siblings,

that this struggle did not start with a particular election cycle or party platform

or the rise of a particular autocrat or economic system.


It is the same struggle we hear about week after week, year after year in the ancient scriptural story of our spiritual ancestors who struggled against the same powers and principalities they faced in their time as we do in ours.


In our scriptural story we hear about the times they succeeded – and about the times they failed.


But more importantly, we hear about the God who never gave up on them; whose quality is always to have mercy; who is always with us in the struggle against systemic evil.


Walter Wink — the 20th century biblical scholar and theologian
of “Engaging the Powers” fame —
brilliantly summarized what it is we’re up against
in this 1999 summary of what he called “the myth of redemptive violence:”


“The myth of redemptive violence is, in short,
nationalism become absolute.
This myth speaks for God;
it does not listen for God to speak.
It invokes the sovereignty of God as its own;
it does not entertain the prophetic possibility of radical judgment by God.
It misappropriates the language, symbols, and scriptures of Christianity.
It does not seek God in order to change;
it embraces God in order to prevent change.
Its God is not the impartial ruler of all nations
but a tribal god worshiped as an idol.
Its metaphor is not the journey but the fortress.
Its symbol is not the cross but the crosshairs of a gun.
Its offer is not forgiveness but victory.
Its good news is not the unconditional love of enemies
but their final elimination.
Its salvation is not a new heart but a successful foreign policy.
It is blasphemous. It is idolatrous.”


The bad news is that is what we’re up against.
The worse news is the Christian Nationalism
Walter Wink wrote about in 1999 is on steroids in 2024.
But good news is that we’re not up against it alone.


Lent is the season we reprogram our spiritual GPS.
It is the time we commit ourselves to realigning ourselves
with the grain of the universe which is love
in order to share what we know,
what we value,
and to spin a force of the Spirit
that reaches back to a tomorrow
we cannot yet imagine;
a tomorrow where the myth of redemptive
is banished
and the reign of God’s love, justice and compassion
has come on earth as it is in heaven.

To reverse our amnesia about who we are,

from where we come

and ultimately to where we will go when our time in the realm is over.


Of Divine Love,

authored in hope, forged in joy,

very good of very good.

No accident we.

This beloved quickened dust

Knit to love and be loved.

It was that glimpse of humanity as we were created to be –

of what the world could be

made manifest smack dab in the middle of the world

as the worst it had become --

that drew people to Jesus in 1st century Palestine

and continues to draw people to him in 21st century Pasadena. 


The thousands who flocked to him in this morning’s reading from Mark is one of the most famous in all of scripture – the miracle of the loaves and fishes where Jesus pulled off abundance in the face of scarcity while the disciples cluelessly flunked the story problem at the end causing him to ask – one more time – “do you not understand?”


A glimpse of Beloved Community where all are included, nobody leaves hungry and even if you don’t “get it” you’re still welcome.

It seems that Jesus had as many parables and stories as there were people who came seeking him – seeking that other world he came to show us was not only possible, but was here – but was now.


·      “The kingdom of God is like …”


But of all the stories in scripture of those who come seeking Jesus, the one on my heart this Fourth Sunday in Lent is not the one appointed for today by the lectionary lottery – it is the one we hear every year on Tuesday in Holy Week:  


Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.   


And one of the questions I have every time I hear this one is:
“But what about the Greeks?”
Every time I hear it read in church and we say  

“The word of the Lord/Thanks be to God,“   

I’m left wondering 
what happened to these Greeks who showed up 
at the beginning of the gospel saying 
"Sir, we wish to see Jesus" 
and set off the from Philip to Andrew to Jesus chain of events 
that ended up with Jesus going into 
the poetic and prophetic musing 
on what it means to be glorified 
and "indicating the kind of death he was to die." 
We never find out what happened to those Greeks. 

A brief historical “contextual” note: 
when John says "some Greeks", 
he doesn't mean folks who hang out in Athens and are related to Zorba. 
To the 1st century hearers of the Gospel "Greeks" meant "non-Jews" - 
foreigners - Gentiles. 

No wonder Philip had to go check with Andrew first ... 
did you notice that in the text? 
"They came to Philip -- who went and told Andrew; 
then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus."
As one of the commentaries I consulted noted: 
"... evidently being dubious how they might be received." 
No automatic welcome for these guys: 
these Greeks who wanted to see Jesus. 
So we’re all left wondering: 
Did they get to see Jesus? 

Were they in crowd when Jesus offered this long explanation 
of what his death was going to be about ... 
and if so did they "get it" ... 
or did they leave wondering what the deal was ... 
feeling as if they came in late in the second act 
and were not sure what the plot line was all about? 

Let’s hope not.
Let’s hope they encountered a 1st century version of our 21st century Welcome Table with someone like Nancy Naecker there to greet them and make sure they got a welcome bag and met some folks to help them find their way.


For at the end of the day,

what we are called to be about each and every time

we gather here in this sacred space

is to be the Body of Christ …

to do the ministry of Jesus on earth –

offering that glimpse of humanity as we were created to be –

a window into the world as it could be

made manifest smack dab in the middle of a world

that sometimes seems to be working overtime to be the worst can be.

Yes, it’s an aspirational goal.

Yes, we frequently fall dramatically short of living into the full stature of who we are called to be.

Nevertheless – we persist.


We persist in being the change we want to see in the world;

We persist in offering loving liberation

as an alternative to the myth of redemptive violence

And we persist in living lives in alignment

with the love lures us toward hope – 
as followers of the one who yearns to draw all people to himself:
the Jesus who spoke, in the last days before his crucifixion, 
to those Greeks who came to him – 
not sure if they'd be welcome. 
It is an old, old story still begging to be fulfilled – 
and we are the Body of Christ 
who have been charged with fulfilling it in our generation.

In the words of Deon Johnson:

No accident we.


And so, in this March Women’s History Month:

May we claim the charge of our sister Esther who “for just such as time as this” was called to speak to truth power; to risk for the hope of liberation; to trust in the God who created her from the substance of the stars.

May we remember Phyllis Tickle of blessed memory who taught us
that doctrine and liturgy are important 
because they represent 
the paper trail 
of our historic experience of God 
but those coming toward us 
don’t want just a paper trail … 
they want their own experience:
Just lik the Greeks
who came to Philip and Andrew 
they want to see Jesus. 

And we are the ones who have been called to show him to them.


Three weeks ago Gary Hall launched us into Lent reminding us of our call to be a prophetic church with these words: Prophets show things how they really are – and the church’s prophetic voice shows the world what it really is – reverses its amnesia about what it was created to be … calls us to remember who we are created to be.”


And so, beloved … if you remember nothing else:

Remember that you are dust,

the substance of the stars,

animated with the breath of life.

Uniquely formed in the image and likeness

Of Divine Love,

authored in hope, forged in joy,

very good of very good.

No accident we.

This beloved quickened dust

Knit to love and be loved.

Remember that you are dust. Amen.


Thursday, January 11, 2024

Rejoice & Resist

Rejoice & Resist: A Sermon for Advent Four

December 24, 2023 | All Saints Church, Pasadena

On this Fourth Sunday in Advent, 
we light the final candle on the wreath
that has marked our time of preparation for Christmas –
the annual celebration of
the mystical longing of the creature for the creator –
the finite for the infinite --
the human for the divine –
all wrapped up in swaddling clothes
and lying in a manger.

As we light the fourth candle – the “love” candle
we prepare to wonder again
at the power of a love so great that it would
triumph even over death ...
a love that came down at Christmas
incarnate in the One who loved us enough to become one of us
in order to show us how to love one another.
And many of us wonder as well:
how can it possibly be Christmas again already?

That final wondering is all the more present this year
when we have the unfortunate calendar karma
of the Fourth Sunday of Advent falling on Christmas Eve Day …
which means as we gather here in this sacred space
with lessons and hymns and reflections
on the gifts of waiting and preparation,
we do so with Christmas literally in the wings
waiting for its cue to take center stage …
not in a few days but in about four hours!

Tick Tock Baby Jesus!

We may or may not be ready –
but like any other baby about to enter this realm
when the time has come the time has come …
and the time is almost here,
my brothers and sisters and gender fluid siblings
to shift from “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” to “Joy to the World.”

But we’re not quite there yet. Christmas is still in the wings
as we pause for this last little bit of Advent.
And as we pause to gather as this faithful remnant
on this Sunday morning in this Centennial Year,
we recognize that as we gather in this sacred space –
in this thin place in this sanctuary we call All Saints Church
on this corner of Walnut and Euclid
where the faithful have gathered in this very room
for 100 years of Christmas celebrations –
we join the generations of those
who have lit the candles, said the prayers,
sung the hymns and maybe even listened to the sermons –
that call us to dwell for just a little longer
in that Advent both/and place of the not yet and the already.

Of the kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven
that dwells in us and is yet to be realized in this realm.

Of the Good News of the Prince of Peace coming into a world torn by War.

All of these both/ands point to the truth
Madeline L’Engle penned in her poem “First Coming”--
which is as true today as it was when she wrote it in the 1980’s:

We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!


For many of us, that’s a tall order in a year,
in a moment, in a world, in a nation
that far too often feels the exact opposite of sane …
where we are bombarded with what
my father used to call “news of fresh disasters”
as innocents are slaughtered in a war that rages on
in the land where shepherds watched their flocks by night;
as gun violence continues unabated,
hatred and polarization reach epidemic proportions,
and refugees seeking sanctuary find no room at the inn at our border
while fascism rears its ugly head in a nation aspirationally dedicated
to the proposition that all people are created equal.

Nevertheless, we light the candle and we claim the promise –
because we are hardwired to live with the both/and –
the not yet and the already –
to live into the non-binary truth of Advent
that grief and pain can co-exist with love and joy –
and that the incarnation of that truth is once again about to come among us
as that baby born of our sister Mary:
the Word become flesh to show us how to live in a broken world
as if the kingdom God has already come --
as if the love of God is greater than anything that challenges it.

And how do we do that seemingly impossible task?
Sometimes begrudgingly.
But most importantly we do it together.
We do it together as community.

We do it as the Body of Christ
living out the peace, hope, joy and love of the Advent candles
not just during the run-up to Christmas but all year long.

And here at All Saints Church
we do it holding in tension two of the core values
we both claim and proclaim: Joyful Spirituality and Courageous Justice.
And so – with apologies to Madeline L’Engle – I want to suggest a slight reframe of her words
for this Fourth Sunday of Advent in the Year of Our Lord 2023:

We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
He came with Love: Rejoice! Resist!

Most of you are familiar with the blessing
I customarily offer when it’s my turn to offer the blessing
at the end of the service. It is one I inherited from Bishop John Shelby Spong
via one of my mentors the Reverend Liz Habecker:

Send us anywhere you have us go, only go there with us.
Place upon us any burden you desire, only stand by us to sustain us.
Break any tie that binds us, except the tie that binds us to you.
And the blessing of God – creating, redeeming and sustaining
Be with you – those you love, serve and resist – this day and always.

I love it because it not only calls me – calls us –
out of our comfort zone but reminds me – reminds us –
to hold always in tension the powerful truth
that this love of God we strive to live out in the world
is broader and wider than tribe, nation, dogma, doctrine,
race, creed, gender, identity or orientation.

And it calls me – calls us –
to never lose sight of the humanity of those whose actions we resist –
to never resort to becoming the evil we deplore –
to be the bridge builders, the boundary crossers and the breech repairers
striving with God to make the kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven
not just a prayer we pray but a reality we live.

That is the work we have been given to do.
We are the people we have been given to do it together.
And this is table we have been given
to be fed by the bread and wine make holy
to nurture and fuel us for both the challenge and the opportunity
of living out the Gospel in our beautiful and broken world.

I want to close this morning with these words from Steven Charleston –
a Bishop of the Episcopal Church and an elder of the Choctaw Nation:
words that summarize for me the both/and
of what we are up against in this moment in our community, our nation and our world
and of the power that is behind us as we lean into the work ahead:

Trust is hard to come by these days.
Suspicion, on the other hand, is abundant.
We must not look away from that reality.
It defines the scope of our challenge.
We must reverse the trend.
We must generate stable alliances of trust
while creating a transparency
that minimizes levels of suspicion.

Hard times are not a time to close our eyes,
but to open them to a brighter possibility.

So let us be bold in our witness,
for the time of change is upon us,
and the dreams of many hang in the balance.

Let us be clear in what we say,
for there are uncounted numbers listening,
waiting for just such a message
as we ourselves have been given.

Let us be transparent:
we are agents of love,
workers for peace,
stewards of the Earth,
and members of a community of seekers,
united in respect and diverse in opinion
[by the indestructible power
of God's inexhaustible love.]

Let us be bold in our witness, for the time of change is upon us,
and the dreams of many hang in the balance.

And so as we prepare to go forth this morning:
As we turn the corner from Advent preparation
to Christmas celebration:
May we be given the grace to move forward in faith
as rejoicers and resisters,
as agents of love and workers for peace,
as outward and visible signs
to a weary world in desperate need of
that indestructible power
of God's inexhaustible love.

Won’t you pray with me:

O come, Desire of nations, bind
in one the hearts of humankind;
bid thou our sad divisions cease,
and be thyself our King of Peace.
Rejoice, Rejoice.
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.