Faith

Show us the Father and we will be Satisfied

A sermon for the fifth Sunday of Easter, May 14, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and we will be satisfied.”

How many are you are familiar with this number? 80 sextillion, 268 quintillion, 300 quadrillion? …. That’s the number of miles a particle traveling at the speed of light would have travelled since the big bang (give or take a few hundred quadrillion).  So you can imagine that right?  Maybe we can make it a bit more familiar—think of an airline pilot, flying the maximum number of hours per year over a 40-year career.  That might reach nearly 20 million miles—so this number is only a bit more than 400 trillion times that distance. The thing is, we don’t have any scale to make any sense of those distances. And over those distances what we might experience is vastly more diverse and unexpected than the variation between a life on a sailboat in the ocean, or living in the high desert where I grew up, or the dense, big city of New York, or the Himalayan mountains where my niece’s mother grew up. Reality: Richer, bigger and more complex than we can actually imagine.

The thing is, God is much bigger than that. 80 sextillion miles? In the palm of God’s hand. The truth is richer, bigger, deeper and more wonderful than we could ever fit into our minds. So even when we think we are being hard-headed and scientific, our minds work in a universe of metaphor.  So when Philip says to Jesus, “Show us the Father…” what could that mean? When it says, no one has ever seen God, it’s not because God is shy, or because God is hiding. In this world, where we cheapen words by using a dozen superlatives to describe things that are quite ordinary, God is truly in-comprehensible—more than the circuits of our brain can take in. And the person who thinks they might aspire to that… well they have to increase their brain power a little just to get to the point of seeing that they really can’t.

In a mechanistic universe, where physical manipulation was what counted, that would be all we could say. But that’s not where we live. God, the vast and the incomprehensible, is love. The source of life and the source of love embracing and upholding the universe. So show us—with all the un-love, death and destruction in this universe—show us the Father of Love.

Jesus replied, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” Jesus was the one sent into this world, a person from God’s point of view, not from the point of view of human fearful confusion or self-serving hate, but the very image of the infinite God. Remember this, love is not just whatever we want it to be, all comfy and without pain or loss or challenge.

Those of you who were at Mary Pierce’s funeral two weeks ago, may remember that my homily was on this same lesson from John.  I will repeat a bit of what I said then: Jesus has just washed his disciples’ feet at the Last Supper and he has given them the only commandment that he ever gave: “Love one another as I have loved you.”  Judas has left the supper to go arrange his betrayal, and Jesus assured Peter, the one who was most confident and demonstrative about his dedication, that he too would deny him.  Those were the facts and Jesus says immediately, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Jesus’ compassion was not about everything being just fine, or nothing to be troubled about. Jesus says this in the midst of a real loss.

We know the love of the infinite and eternal God in his son who was betrayed, executed, died and was raised by God from the dead.  God among us, and that’s how we can see and know God. I heard a review on the radio of a new documentary about Roger Stone, who is a political operator. He’s had a lot of recent success, and one thing that he has said more than once, is “hate is a stronger motivator than love.” He’s right of course. If you want a shortcut to power in this world, find what people fear and hate, then amplify and steer it. It’s much easier to find a thousand cowards to hate and kill, than fifty courageous people who will suffer in order to be compassionate to those who suffer. That does not change reality—the living God is the God of love, we see him, we know him, we can talk about him because we see and know who Jesus was, how he healed, and listened, and cared for those who suffer. How he stood up for them, and was taken up on the cross.  This talk of the origin of all things as love, is it strange? Is it made up? The creation is the intimate fruit of its creator, the creator created because he loves that creation.

Today is Mother’s Day. When we think of mothers, we can get all sentimental and tell a bunch of half-truths, or we can think about real mothers: my own, yours, your own experience of being a mother, or the husband of a mother, or a daughter or a son. There are all sorts of people who are mothers, but one thing they have in common, whether they like it or not, is an intimate relationship with a person. Sometimes a person becomes a mother by adoption, or nurtures others who are not their children. Other times a biological mother isn’t involved in the raising of her children, and sometimes women lose babies or are unable to have a child. And they grieve. But in every case that bond between a mother and child is a powerful connection—a creation of an independent life. The love between mothers and children is as complex as all of human life—the 3 a.m. feedings, or the meltdown of a mom who’s frustrated at no time for herself, are just as much a part of that love as the beautiful moments of affection and the joyful rewards of happy, growing children becoming responsible people in this world. It’s not just a responsibility, or a gift—it is real life moving forward in its deepest connection—the creators living for the creation.  And thanks are never what motherhood is about. Though these human beings who have become creators deserve our recognition and gratitude. Thus the Day, which is only a sign, not any real compensation.

Our life, and our world are God’s creation. In creating, God has bound himself as a mother is bound to her child. In Jesus, we know that God has not abandoned us, or left us to our fear and hatred. In Jesus we have the love of the Father and of the Mother, we know compassion and we are invited to live in that compassion—a life of love for others.

Here are the first and last sentences of our epistle lesson today from the first letter of Peter: “Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation—“ “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people, once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy.”

Let us live in God’s mercy and as God’s mercy and rejoice.

She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni”

A sermon for Easter Sunday, April 16, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

Supposing him to be the gardener she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”

On Easter Sunday, we proclaim that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, that death is defeated; even the humiliation and agony of his execution on a cross is overcome—Life has overcome Death.  That’s why we’re here—because life has overcome death.  Of an Easter Sunday morning, many come hoping for solid simple assurance. We all like to imagine a day when we think life was simpler, everybody believed in the Bible, and it was no challenge to believe in the Resurrection.  Others stay away, because all of that seems too simple, too glib, and the complex problems of life aren’t just fixed with easy answers, at least not now, not in this modern world where it’s more difficult to believe anything.

I believe the Bible.  So let’s pay close attention to the Gospel lesson for today.  Outside that tomb in a garden near Calvary, it might well have been a beautiful spring morning—it was certainly in the spring.  But it did not start out with hope and Easter eggs and getting all dressed up for a joyful feast.

Mary Magdalene, Jesus’ disciple and friend, was going out, after the Sabbath had ended, perhaps to mourn, perhaps to finish tending to the body of her friend. A wealthy disciple had Jesus’ body placed in a tomb which was sealed shut with a large stone.  Mary saw something disturbing—the stone had been removed from the opening—she ran to get the guys, they look in—the body is gone but the wrappings from the body have been left behind—Peter and the other man leave, one happy and the other confused—and Mary remains behind crying.  There’s someone else in the tomb—two of them [the word “angel” means messenger in Greek, and our standard image of the angels with wings didn’t really emerge until the Middle Ages, or even the Renaissance]—and what do they say? They say, “Woman, why are you crying?”

Really, this is just too much.

Life could not be more chaotic, if you had to change the baby three times, break up two fights between the kids and poke the teenager yet again to get him out the door on Sunday morning.

And then there’s another man standing there, probably the gardener who takes care of this place—he says it too, “Woman, why are you weeping?”

“If you have taken him away, tell me where you put him!” This is not the only time in the stories about Jesus’ resurrection that a disciple looks right at Jesus and does not recognize him. In the Gospel of Luke, on the road to Emmaus, two of his disciples walked with him for miles before they recognized him when he broke the bread. And in the Gospel of John, in Jesus’ final appearance to the disciples at the Sea of Galilee, Jesus talks with the disciples for quite a while and gives them fishing advice before Peter recognizes him and puts on his clothes and jumps into the water. Recognizing Jesus was not so simple, and plain and self-evident, even for Jesus’ closest friends two thousand years ago.

And Jesus spoke her name: “Mariam.”  “Rabbouni” she said to her teacher.  He was no longer dead, but alive, and sending her to share this life, this Gospel with the others.

Now, note—recognizing Jesus did not make everything simple or smooth.  Not everyone took Mary’s word for it, or respected her, yet with that one word—“Mariam”—everything changed.  Jesus is alive, and death no longer has power over him or over Mary—he called her by name.

Christ rose from the dead.  The final reality and meaning is not death, destruction and dissolution, but life.  And the meaning of that life, that final reality, is the love that is the life of God, the creator who has entered into his creation, who intimately knows our real life, even to the point of dying with us and for us.  Even if it feels like despair—as Mary of Magdala appears early in this lesson to be despairing—that despair has no reality, for Jesus is as near to us as he was to her.  He is our hope, no matter how we feel or what we might think. He is our hope because he lives.  He is OUR hope because he has called us by name.

We have travelled through the season of Lent—that season is the time when from very early on, the church prepared new candidates for baptism.  This year, we walk the way with those candidates, called Catechumens, through the lessons. Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness; Nicodemus, coming by night and learning that he must be born from above—that God did not send the Son into the world to condemn it, but that it might be saved through him; the Samaritan woman at the well, who received living water; the man born blind who received his sight; the two sisters who had lost their brother, Lazarus, who Jesus raised from the dead.  In each of these lessons we learn more about dying to self and being raised to life in Christ in baptism. In baptism, Christians receive their name.

Jesus calls us each by name. Sometimes we don’t hear, sometimes we don’t recognize it. But Christ is here, for us and with us and in us.  The ultimate meaning of this world, despite what any might do, is life that dwells in God’s love. Fear and hate, as real and compelling as they might seem at times, have no permanent power. Even for Mary Magdalen, the death of Jesus felt like the triumph of violence, but in the end God stands it on its head: it is Jesus, not the manager of that garden who speaks to her.  It is the love of God in Christ that triumphs.

In our service at Easter, we invite you all, at the time we usually say the Nicene Creed, to join with all of us in reaffirming your baptismal vows.  We travel with Jesus, we die with him, and he calls us each by name.

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

The Lord is Risen indeed! Alleluia.

For the Lord is gracious, and receives the last even as the first

A homily at the Easter Vigil, April 15, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

Traditionally, catechumens were those who were preparing for baptism. In the ancient church that preparation was long and serious and the period before Easter, which we call Lent, was the last part of that. The lessons of the traditional lectionary, which were our Gospels for this Lent, were the focus of that preparation for the catechumens. This year at St. James, we have been walking the path along with the catechumens, preparing to re-affirm our own baptisms at Easter.

John Chrysostom was the Bishop of Constantinople in the late 300s and early 400s. That word, Chrysostom, was not his name—it means “Golden Mouth,” because everyone knew him for his eloquence. I will read his homily, which is read at all Eastern Orthodox Churches at the end of Matins for Easter, the traditional time for baptisms in the early church. It is an invitation to us all:

If anyone be devout and a lover of God, enjoy this beautiful and radiant Feast of Feasts!

If anyone is a wise servant, rejoice and enter into the joy of the Lord.

If anyone has been wearied in fasting, now receive your recompense.

If anyone has labored from the first hour, today receive your just reward. If anyone has come at the third hour, with thanksgiving keep the feast. If anyone has arrived at the sixth hour, have no misgivings; for you shall suffer no loss. If anyone has delayed until the ninth hour, draw near without hesitation. If anyone has arrived even at the eleventh hour, do not fear on account of your delay. For the Lord is gracious, and receives the last even as the first; He gives rest to the one who comes at the eleventh hour, just as to the one who has labored from the first. He has mercy upon the last, and cares for the first; to the one He gives, and to the other He is gracious. He both honors the work, and praises the intention.

Enter all of you, therefore, into the joy of our Lord, and whether first or last receive your reward. O rich and poor, one with another, dance for joy! O you ascetics and you negligent, celebrate the Day! You that have fasted and you that have disregarded the fast, rejoice today! The table is rich-laden; feast royally, all of you! The calf is fattened; let no one go forth hungry!

Let all partake of the Feast of Faith. Let all receive the riches of goodness.

Let none lament their poverty, for the Universal Kingdom has been revealed.

Let none mourn their transgressions, for Pardon has dawned from the Tomb!

Let no one fear Death, for the Savior’s death has set us free!

He that was taken by Death has annihilated it!

He descended into Hell, and took Hell captive!

He embittered it when it tasted of His Flesh! And anticipating this Isaiah exclaimed, “Hell was embittered when it encountered thee in the lower regions.” It was embittered, for it was abolished! It was embittered for it was mocked! It was embittered, for it was purged! It was embittered, for it was despoiled! It was embittered, for it was bound in chains!

It took a body, and face to face met God! It took earth, and encountered Heaven! It took what it saw, but crumbled before what it had not seen!

“O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory?”

Christ is risen, and you are overthrown!

Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen!

Christ is risen and the Angels rejoice!

Christ is risen and Life reigns!

Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the tombs!

For Christ being raised from the dead, has become the first-fruits of them that slept. To Him be glory and dominion through all the ages of ages!

Do not lose heart

A sermon for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, October 16, 2016

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

“Jesus told the disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”

Jesus is a story teller. In most of these stories the characters and places are not specific, rather they illustrate things we know to be true. They are seldom allegories, most of them tell about human interaction. You often hear this parable referred to as “the Parable of the Unjust Judge,” because the first character who appears is a judge, who in principle, is not just.

First—this is not an allegory about God. Nothing in the story refers to God. Second—the story is not about the judge at all. This is the story of the Persistent Woman. The Judge represents sort of a worst-case scenario. The woman’s persistence could have the same result with a number of people and in a number of circumstances—but let’s just suppose that the judge was as corrupt, arbitrary and self-interested as one could imagine. Susceptible to bribes or cronyism, disinclined to go to the trouble to make or enforce judgements in favor of the poor, the widowed, or anyone else who didn’t matter. How frequent, or where, or who such judges might be, is not the issue, it is the context where Jesus puts the widow in this story.

The woman is a widow. Widows were the most vulnerable of all people in that society. They had lost their means of income and often most of their assets when their husbands died. And without power, they were vulnerable to further injustice and exploitation. It could be discouraging. Exhausting to resist. So Jesus tells of a woman who kept coming for justice. She wouldn’t lose heart, she kept coming though the judge was the most hopeless source of vindication you could imagine. And she kept coming.

Why? Why didn’t she give up? It was certainly hopeless.

persistent-widowThe woman persisted because she believed in justice. I don’t see evidence of desperation or panic in her story.  An unjust judge who has no respect for anyone would notice desperation and conclude that a little more harshness and callousness would break the supplicant and make her accept his decision. To have justice was the widow’s deepest value. She knew that she deserved justice, and she was not going to give up on that. She was not going to give up on the truth, or on justice and her case was just, no matter how the judge tried to avoid giving it to her.  She persisted, even when tempted to give up heart, to walk away.

It wasn’t until someone pointed out to me recently how this is a story about a person and her deepest values that I was able to understand how it fits with the introductory sentence: “Jesus told the disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”  It certainly has nothing to do with haranguing God incessantly about the pony you want, or whatever outcome you desire. Jesus is telling a story about what is deepest, what is the most valuable—and never giving up on what is at the center of your heart. In truth, prayer is finding the center of your heart in God and trusting God and remaining there, no matter what happens.

For this widow, that manifested itself in the value of justice. Each of us is a bit different, the deepest and most essential values come from different perspectives and express themselves in different ways. Take a moment, and consider, listen to your heart and visualize what it is that you, yourself would be so persistent to hold onto—that you value so deeply –like this persistent woman before the unfriendly judge.

I won’t ask you to tell anyone—the answer and the value is yours, there is not some right or Christian answer to that.

However, as a community we also have values—the deepest ones are the ones that bring us here and keep us here, they are values that we share and hold together. Some, of course, are shared by all Christians: the love of God and our fellow human beings in Christ. Yet each congregation, each community is in its own situation with its own passions and deeply-held values, as distinct and individual as your own personal most deeply-held values.  Those values become clear in conversation and sharing. At this time of transition for St. James, you have answered a survey which is the beginning of a conversation about what is most important to you in this particular church at this time. The survey itself is not the conversation, but a way of focusing the questions about who we are together. Life as a community requires the kind of persistence that we see in the widow in today’s Gospel. Canon Andrea McMillan will be leading a discussion with us about the results of the survey in Martin Hall after this service. There is much food for thought, and her presentation will start a conversation which I expect will continue here long after her visit is over.  The conversation is about how we live as Christians and pray always and never lose heart. The lesson for today ends, “Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Persist in what is true, what is good—those values that God has planted within you and there will be faith in this place, long after all of us are gone.

 

Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you

A Sermon for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, October 9, 2016

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

“Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”

Of the ten lepers that Jesus healed, nine of them went to the priests as Jesus told them, and the other one was a Samaritan who came back to Jesus, praising God. Jesus commended the Samaritan.

Now the Samaritans were a large minority group in Palestine in Jesus’ time. They shared a common heritage with the majority Jewish population, but there were religious and cultural differences and the two groups had almost nothing to do with one another. If you asked around, most would tell you that the Samaritans were lazy, dirty and dishonest and that their worship was idolatrous. Of course most had virtually no contact with Samaritans or their religion, and didn’t know that it was based exclusively on the observance of the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures. The Samaritans were foreigners in their own country, and not to be trusted.

So Jesus asks, “Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Perhaps Jesus is being a bit mischievous here. The other nine did do as Jesus told them. They did what was prescribed by the religious commandments and had a priest verify that they were healed. Jesus upset everyone’s expectations by praising the person who did not do what he told him to do. Everyone’s expectations and everyone’s descriptions of the Samaritan notwithstanding, Jesus told the Samaritan: “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” The example of healing, of new life, of glorifying God and of faith, is the faith of this foreigner and outcast. God is free, and is not captive to our expectations.

Our Old Testament lesson is from the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah was usually very critical of the rulers and aristocracy of Jerusalem and Judah. Sometimes they imprisoned him; they even tossed him in the bottom of an underground cistern for it. The words he conveyed from God criticized their pride and their complacency. He criticized their assumption that God would preserve them from their enemies no matter what.

Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon conquered Jerusalem and destroyed it. And he took away with him the rulers and aristocracy of Jerusalem and Judah into exile in Babylon. Jeremiah remained in Jerusalem and he wrote them the letter that was read this morning.

The expectation of those proud people was, that if God did not save them and Jerusalem from the power of Nebuchadnezzar, they would be a people that was destroyed and humiliated; that they would have no life or prospects. They expected if God was real, their prosperity would be ensured, and things would stay the same as it had been.

Jewish captives with camel and baggage on their way into exile. Detail of the Assyrian conquest of the Jewish fortified town of Lachish (battle 701 BCE) Part of a relief from the palace of Sennacherib at Niniveh, Mesopotamia (Iraq)

Jewish captives with camel and baggage on their way into exile. Detail of the Assyrian conquest of the Jewish fortified town of Lachish (battle 701 BCE) Part of a relief from the palace of Sennacherib at Niniveh, Mesopotamia (Iraq)

But Nebuchadnezzar had prevailed and they were defeated, their houses and their temple were plundered and they were led away to a far-off foreign city.

The prophet Jeremiah wrote them this letter. The word from God was that it was God who sent them into exile, turning their expectations upside down. Their humiliation was not their death or the end of their people. Quite the opposite. “Build houses and live in them.” “Plant gardens and eat their produce.” “Take wives, have sons and daughters, have them marry and bear grandchildren.” In the reality of their desolation, God called them out of their self-absorption and self-pity into hope. Into life, even abundant life. Rather than worrying about the city that they had lost, God called them to seek the welfare of the city where they had been sent. In all this they did not lose their identity as the people of the God they had worshiped in Jerusalem, rather they became God’s people even more, they became that people even more richly.

Sometimes church people confuse their own expectations with the will of God. In fact, it is not that uncommon for people to conclude that when things are not going according to long-held expectations that somehow God has ceased to be there. A couple of weeks ago the Episcopal Church released an annual summary of statistics. Some might be surprised to learn that most of the indicators, such as church membership and attendance, were down, church-wide. Others might be aware that this has been the trend since about 1965.

So what do we say of a church that is half its former size and growing smaller by the year? Perhaps our leaders or our members could have done better, been more competent, and been more serious about their faith and commitment to support of the church. I could give you a list. But if everyone on that list did exactly as they might have, they would simply be like those nine lepers who Jesus healed and they went away to the priests—not like the Samaritan who returned to glorify God in Jesus.

Perhaps God is just not here, perhaps God is not giving us what we need.  Which is to say, what we want and have come to expect.  Certainly when I was on the East Coast, I was at places that clearly showed that at one time, not that long ago, Episcopalians comprised the rulers and aristocracy of America. Episcopalians quietly interpreted their well-being and the well-being of their church as the sign and condition of God’s presence and favor. But like the aristocracy of Jerusalem that was taken to Babylon, God is not finished with us yet. Indeed, he is just beginning. God’s love and faithfulness is not shown in comfort and wealth. It is shown in life and hope. “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you.” Do not look back at what was or might have been—be God’s servant, God’s hands, the voice and touch of the respect of God for all God’s people, especially the foreigner or the ones so unlike yourself that you never expected to know or care for them. Build houses and plant gardens—and in living on their abundance, glorify God by living a fearless life of thanksgiving.

Listen to how today’s psalm ends:

Bless our God you peoples; make the voice of his praise to be heard;

Who holds our souls in life, and will not allow our feet to slip.

For you, O God, have proved us;

You have tried us just as silver is tried.

You brought us into the snare; you laid heavy burdens upon your backs.

You let enemies ride over our heads; we went through fire and water;

But you brought us out into a place of refreshment.

 

 

Ivory Towers –Harry Nicholson on Liberal Education

I saw a Facebook post by Harry Nicholson which seemed so insightful about education, theology and the

Harry Nicholson

Harry Nicholson

church that I wanted more people to see it.  To me it has much in common with the concerns of the General Theological Seminary faculty, when we published our Declaration on The Way of Wisdom in February of 2014. In any case, we share a common Christian faith and an appreciation of the importance of depth and breadth in education, especially theological education.

With Harry’s permission, I am re-posting.

 

 

Ivory Towers

No doubt ivory towers, whether they are pillars of David or monoliths of Mammon, are constructs of the entitled. Nonetheless the popular idea that business is better suited to rule a university, seminary or parish is worse. A mature common sense, sometimes capriciously called wisdom, leads to the appreciation of best as less than ideal; Socrates tells us that Democracy is the second worst form of government (since it so resembles Tyranny in the majority’s reign over the minority) but is nonetheless the only option. Can scholarship in community produce the best priests? Only in a romantic fit of Anglophiliac longing for the good old days can we possibly believe that a residential seminary is bound to guarantee delivery of fit priests and even that lunacy would require, of course, a deliberate abjuration of English literature which plays, rather delightfully, on tropes of inept vicars and pompous bishops.

Those of us who have been subjected to or who embraced a liberal education, that is, an education whose primary goal is the production of women and men who are more skilled at asking questions than answering them, will understand that one goal of any community of learning that actually embraces question, dialogue, dialectic, and most curiously and absurdly, and necessary in the case of seminaries, prayer, is the trying of students in that fire of thinking. The idea is not to produce scholars. The idea is to produce citizens of the state or clerics of the kingdom.

I speak with the bias of one who actually did suffer a liberal education. My college was distinctly liberal which to outsiders often looked extreme, even fanatical. There were no majors. All students took what basically amounted to one class which took four years to complete and comprised among others inculcation in philosophy, music, math, and Greek. Every student was required to learn music theory in order to be able to have a reasonable discussion of the Bach Matthew Passion. Although my college had no religious affiliation and was adamantly non-Christian, we all read the Bible, Augustine, Aquinas, Anselm, Luther, Calvin, Kierkegaard, Spinoza (just to mention a few of the “religious” authors). It did not make us all into scholars, certainly not me. But I don’t know anyone from my college who doesn’t have a worldview built from a lifetime of careful questioning. Our minds, and our souls, were forged in that liberal education. My experience of the priests from General is that their priesthoods were forged in a similar way by their education at the seminary. This became abundantly clear to me the first time my husband, Wayne, and I were discussing Matthew one night after Evening Prayer, and he offered an explanation for something I asked and I asked, “Yes, Wayne, but what does the text say?” and he responded, “Oh Lord, I’ve married my New Testament professor!” (My question was not pedagogical.)

I have had three parish priests formed at General. They were all completely different. One was a fiery activist. One is a renowned scholar. And my current rector (if you can count your husband as your parish priest, which you really can’t), is almost an eidetic pastor who is only peripherally scholarly. All three have had profound parts in the development of my Christian core. I think all three experienced General in completely different ways. I’ll speak about my husband only briefly, and in doing so, I am somewhat telling a tale out of school.

One of the things that, I think, made him a very good priest indeed was a personal crisis he had when trying to survive coursework, especially in Systematic Theology. Surrounded by younger students whom he stills considers to be far smarter, and feeling woefully incompetent, he sought both spiritual and psychological guidance, and both were necessary to the formation of his priesthood. He also learned a great deal, but to get there, he had to wrestle with an angel. While it may seem that Jacob is most alone when wrestling, Jacob’s struggle is both supported by communal history and about community in the future. And that certainly was the case with my husband. Two things come to mind: (1) the curriculum was challenging, and (2) he couldn’t escape the learning community, that is, the constant presence of the students who challenged him was confounded by the necessity of living with them, of some of them becoming bosom friends. He is a good priest today, a very good one, beloved by his congregation and at the same time actually effective by “business” standards. In the decade he’s pastored the only Episcopal church in our county, it has steadily grown, if at a glacial pace. Meanwhile, application of business standards has wreaked havoc and the probable end of General. You simply cannot serve God and Mammon. Five-year plans are not appropriate in the church or in liberal academia by which, of course, I mean the most conservative, and best, kind of intellectual and spiritual institutional schooling.

We can construct as many ideas for an “ideal” seminary as there are stars in the sky. We can base them on ideas of sound business principles, modern real-world training, huzza huzza missional fervor, or ease of access (among many possibilities), but to my mind two things are absolutely necessary: scholarship and spiritual practice, both of which depend on the good faith of a community in which trust (which is how I translate the Greek “pistis”–usually translated as “faith”) is paramount.

Ultimately, the ivory towers do turn out to be the places where truly liberal aspirations bear fruit. The struggle to embrace diversity is born in them, for instance, precisely because they provide the luxury of thought and debate.

Robert Cromey, from General, taught me how to fight for my rights as a human being. Bruce Chilton, from General, taught me that one could be scholarly and Christian, and he gave me many tools to do it even while agreeing to play Gabriel in my play, “Brave Christmas,” a Gabriel who spends most of the play trying to prevent God from incarnating. My husband, from General, a far better and kinder human being than I even strive to be, teaches me, even from the pulpit, that most of us are lucky enough to experience God’s kindness, something I did not even consider until late in life.

For the last 35 years, in other words, General has supported my life as a Christian, and more importantly, as a human being, in unfathomable ways. The demise of the seminary is, for me, who never attended anything there other than Evening Prayer, a bit like the destruction of the temple, a grief beyond measure.

Lord, to whom can we go?

A sermon for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, August 23, 2015

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Lord, to whom can we go?

Today is the fifth Sunday in a row that the Gospel lesson is from the Bread of Life discourse in the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John. Starting with the feeding of the 5000, Jesus explained the he is the Bread of Life and in him, and by partaking in his body, we abide in God and God in us. Some may hear this as bland, or everyday Christian piety. But when Jesus said it, it was anything but bland. It was a huge controversy, and at the end of the lesson all those disciples and all those thousands of people who came to hear Jesus preach and received bread on the hillside were upset and went way. Jesus was alone with the twelve, no one else would stay, and he asked Peter, “Do you also wish to go away?”

The gospel is a challenge, not a joyride. When we say Jesus is the Bread of Life, that doesn’t imply the cake and cookies and sumptuous meals and everything we think we want. The Bread of Life is the fundamental nourishment of our spirit, the food to get us through the difficult journey, but it does not promise power, it just gives us Jesus, and those people who had been hanging around realized that Jesus was on the way to the cross, and he wasn’t going to make their lives any easier, or make them more powerful, or even get rid of the Romans for them.

They left, and Jesus asked that question of Peter. Peter’s answer really struck me this week. I think it is my answer too: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

It was a discouraging time for both Peter and Jesus. What may have looked like success was all gone. We can’t assume that Peter wasn’t interested in success—that he didn’t want to have a successful group, even an organization. But they were all gone. In particular, all those who were there as joiners of successful groups had just walked off. The situation forced Peter to consider why he was there and what he was doing. All the organizational and institutional reasons had disappeared. The idea of a movement that would somehow restore Israel—perhaps as a purer, more loving religion with people helping one another more, or perhaps as a political movement that would get rid of the occupying Romans and restore justice—was gone. I don’t know exactly what had been in Peter’s mind in the previous days or weeks or months. But on that day, he said, “To whom can we go?” Where else or what else makes any sense, or has any truth?

The story of Jesus is not one of triumph. And as much as we would often like it to be, being his church isn’t a matter of triumph or success. I have been reading a book recently, entitled “Church Refugees.” In it, a sociologist named Joshua Packard interviewed people from a growing category of Christians, who are sometimes referred to as “the Dones.” These are people who have been active in their churches but stop. They are “done with church.” Interestingly, in this research, this group of people did not leave because they were challenged by the Gospel, or because they lost their faith in God; rather they left because characteristics of the church became barriers to their following God and growing spiritually. Judgementalism in congregations and preoccupation with structures rather than service often led to breakdown of spiritual community, at least in the experience of these people. It happens increasingly among people whose experience in many congregations is enough to make them “done with church” altogether. They find themselves alone, with Peter’s question, “To whom then, can we go?”

Peter says these words to Jesus, and he continues, “You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” When Peter says this, it is not when he is leading the church or defining doctrine. Peter says this when both he and Jesus are basically “done.” The people had come, and they wanted many of the things that they saw, but when they came to see the truth, that Jesus was talking about transforming of their spirit, not about giving them security, power and bread in excess in this world, they went away. Peter and the others in that small group of twelve saw the truth as well, and they knew they could not be part of that large group walking away. They saw the truth and they had no place else to go.

YonkersJesus said, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” The spirit takes us out of concern for ourselves and puts us in a life of generosity. The flesh that Jesus mentions is a preoccupation with our own wellbeing that blocks us from living in generosity. This happens in churches and other organizations as well as in individuals. The community that is fearful and preoccupied with its own existence, its own material needs, its own desire for the security of the flesh becomes unable to be generous in the spirit. At that point, it is not surprising that some faithful Christians become “done with church.”

Before I came to Trinity last Fall, I was very nearly “done with church.” What I found was a community that loved and respected Christ and loved one another. The temptation is always there to be afraid, to turn inward for fear of losing the flesh and substance of the church. But in any of these cases, we are in the same place as Peter and the twelve. “To whom can we go?” The answer is: to him who we know is the Holy One of God.

Here is what Jesus said:

“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.

Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father

So whoever eats me will live because of me. …

The one who eats this bread will live forever.”