Sermons from the Church of the Incarnation
First Sunday After Epiphany, Year A, Revised Common Lectionary| Pamela Moore
First Sunday After Epiphany, Year A, Revised Common Lectionary
Psalm 29 + + +
Somewhere in my house, there is a button I got a few years ago that says, “Jesus loves you, but I’m his favorite.” I thought of that button when I read today’s Gospel lesson. As a young girl, I longed to be unique, to be noticed for who I was, and to know that I had God’s blessing. Whenever I heard the account of the Baptism of Our Lord, I could not help but wonder what it would be like for a ray of light to come from the heavens and for a voice to say, “This is my child, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” What would it take, I thought, to be the kind of person that God would think was an exceptional being?
It saddens me to think that for so many years, I felt that one had to be exceptional to be loved by God. My child’s view of the world was that only if one was kind, obedient, and followed all the rules, would they would be worthy of God’s love. Of course, now I know that God’s love is a gift freely given to us and that we are all worthy of that love just because we are who we are.
At the same time, it does not seem to me that we can do anything we want, any way we want, and still assume that our relationship with God is perfect as is. If that were the case, we would not have needed Jesus to show us how to fully live into our human identity and our spiritual communion with God.
For many of us, Baptism is the beginning of a lifelong commitment to seeking an understanding of what it means to be a child of God. It is a relationship that begins with a set of promises, sometimes made on our behalf when we are babe or children, and later on when we, as adults, renew those promises within our faith community. The Book of Common Prayer tells us that “Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s body, the church.” And that the bond which God establishes in Baptism is “indissoluble.” With Baptism we become Christ’s own forever, and that relationship can never be broken.
Holy Baptism is the process by which our parents, godparents, or we commit to Christ and to live the Christian faith. We promise to pray, continue in the teachings of the Apostles, to participate in fellowship, to resist evil, and when we do sin, repent, and return to God. We promise to share the Good News of God in Christ and to serve one another with love. We promise to work for justice and peace and to respect the dignity of other human beings. We ask for God’s help to live into this covenant because we know we cannot depend on our will power to keep faith with our Creator. We look to Jesus to show us how to go forth and do what we promise God we will do.
It is easy to understand why John was surprised when Jesus came to him to be baptized. Remember that John recognized Jesus as the anointed one when they worth both still in their mothers’ wombs. John’s ministry was to prepare the people to return to God through a ritual immersion designed to wash away sin and to purify the body. So, you can see why John wondered why Jesus, the one born without sin, would ask to be baptized? Although he was still probably unsure about who should baptize whom, John chose to trust that Jesus would know the right thing to do. Scripture tells us that this was the right thing to do because God affirms this decision by saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Like John, we may not initially understand or even agree on how things should be done. However, can trust that Jesus always knows what is right. When we choose to follow Jesus, to model our lives after his, to trust in him for guidance and strength, we affirm our belief that Jesus is our savior. Jesus will show us how to be in a relationship with God from the time we are vulnerable babies until the day we are called home to be with God forever. We can go forth in the world to heal and do good. We can go forth into the world to seek justice and peace. We can go forth into the world, knowing that God equips us with gifts of grace that come from living in communion with God’s beloved. The bond between God and us cannot be broken because God is with us. Our Emmanuel, God and human, shows us the way to live rightly and to keep the covenant we have made.
We make our promises to God, knowing that we will need God’s help to keep them. Human nature is such that we are subject to going astray, forgetting our purpose, and sometimes we are just plain lost. Prayer can be helpful, and there is a prayer that comes from the Forward Day by Day called For Today that helps me to focus on God’s will and not mine. I share it with you now in the hope that you will also find it to be useful.
“O God: Give me strength to live another day. Let me not turn coward before its difficulties or prove recreant to its duties. Let me not lose faith in other people. Keep me sweet and sound of heart, in spite of ingratitude, treachery or meanness. Preserve me from minding little stings or giving them. Help me to keep my heart clean and to live so honestly and fearlessly that no outward failure can dishearten me or take away the joy of conscious integrity. Open wide the eyes of my soul that I may see good in all things. Grant me this day some new vision of thy truth. Inspire me with the spirit of joy and gladness and make me the cup of strength to suffering souls. In the name of the strong deliverer, or only Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.”
The Epiphany, Revised Common Lectionary| Stephen Shaver
The Epiphany, Revised Common Lectionary
+ + +
They brought him gifts, these magi; these wise men, mages, learned ones from the East. They came to find a king, and the one who was already king was not amused. He sent them on to Bethlehem, Herod, that fox, that sly wielder of power, plying them with smooth words even as his soldiers sharpened their swords for what was to come.
They brought him gifts, these sages, these Iranian seers, these Zoroastrian seekers of God. They followed a light from heaven, and they came to a humble house. And they opened their chests and brought forth their treasures, rich gifts laden with hope and expectation: Gold. Incense. Myrrh.
What have you come to give him? What do you bring with you, tonight, hidden in the treasure chest of your deep and mysterious soul?
What do you bring?
Maybe you will give him your gold. Gold, a gift for a king: the currency of the rulers of this world. Gold for leadership and finance and getting things done. Gold for iPhones and project management and household budgeting and résumés. We all use gold—or dollars, or euros, or bitcoin, or the softer currency of time and energy and influence. We do work in this world, whether our sphere is the household or the workplace or the empire. The rulers of this world know about gold, how it can be used for good or evil: gold to build public works, gold to feed the poor, gold to pay the soldiers to slaughter the children of Bethlehem. Jesus will grow up to say that where our treasure is, there our heart will be also—in that order: because our hearts tend to follow our wallets, rather than the other way around. Where we invest our money and our time tends to become that which drives our hearts. Choosing to give away what God has first given us is for most of us about the quickest and most basic spiritual practice there is. How will we allocate the resources of which God has made us stewards? Will we follow the path of Herod or of Christ? Maybe gold is the gift your heart yearns to bring him tonight.
Maybe you come bringing incense. That sweet-smelling sap of Arabia whose billowing smoke sanctifies temples of Jerusalem and Rome. Incense, a gift for a god: the fragrance of prayer and devotion. Maybe your heart yearns to know what lies beyond this world, to taste the transcendent and commune with the Holy One. These magi know well what it is to seek the face of the holy. And so do so many of us, who yearn for meaning in a world we fear may lack it. We live in an age of crumbling religious institutions, when respectability and certainty ring more and more hollow. But our hunger for holiness is as fierce as ever. We seek the sacred in church and at yoga and at meditation, in music and art, in wilderness, in beauty wherever it may be found. We seek it, sometimes, in substances or food or sex; or we seek to stifle it in those things or in work or self-harm. But we are spiritual beings. The spark in us is drawn to the flame of the holy. We are created for awe. And so maybe tonight you have come to offer him incense: to kindle the flame of worship, to cultivate a life of prayer. Maybe your heart yearns for a deeper pattern of spiritual practice in your daily and weekly round. Maybe you are called to take up in a new way your priestly vocation in the priesthood of all believers. Maybe this year will find you deepening your spiritual practice. Offer the gift of incense.
Gold and incense: we heard of them earlier in the words from the prophet Isaiah. Two gifts that were foretold so long ago, gold for a king, incense for a god. But to this newborn Jesus the magi have brought also a third gift—an unexpected gift. And, perhaps, an unwelcome gift. Another spice of Arabia—but this one not for a temple, but for a tomb. Myrrh to embalm the dead. And the time will come when this gift is needed, when the body of Jesus will lie not in swaddling clothes but in a shroud. No prophet could have predicted this crucified Messiah. Gold for a king—that we can understand. Incense for a god—just what we were looking for. But this king and this God has come to do something new: to go with us into death itself. Myrrh is for one who shares our vulnerability and our pain, who mourns and laments, who knows what it is to be left all alone and cry out to a God who does not seem to hear: My God, why have you forsaken me? Maybe tonight you bring the gift of myrrh. Maybe what you have brought with you tonight is your heart’s pain and sorrow, or the sorrows of those you love, or even the sorrows of the whole world, a world still filled with manipulative rulers, with children in danger, with wars and threats of wars. Tonight we celebrate the epiphany, the revelation of a great mystery. Part of that mystery is that this king prefers to rule not from the throne but from the cross, and this God has made the place of outcasts into the Holy of Holies. Our suffering and our pain is close to the heart of God, because God has chosen to come among us. Jesus has gone with us into the mouth of death. God has raised him from the dead and in that raising is God’s promise that our deaths are not the final word, and that the powers of death will not prevail against God’s love.
So tonight as you come to meet him, bring your gifts. Bring your gold: your money, your time and labor, the best of all your efforts in this world. Bring your incense: your prayers and devotion, your thirst to know the Holy One. And bring your myrrh: your suffering, your fear and anger, your vulnerability. Come to the prayers and the table. And come knowing that in an even deeper sense there is nothing we can possibly offer, because Jesus himself is all gift, and his yearning for you is already the gift that has brought you here in response.
2 Christmas, Year A, Revised Common Lectionary| Stephen Shaver
2 Christmas, Year A, Revised Common Lectionary
+ + +
It’s not easy being twelve.
It’s not so easy being the parent of a twelve-year-old either.
Maybe even a little more so if that twelve-year-old is the Messiah.
This is the only passage in the Bible that tells us a story of Jesus participating in the universal human experience of being a kid, with every bit of the joy and frustration that involves.
Imagine how it is to be Jesus in this story. Here he is, twelve years old, just a year short of young manhood in his culture, given a chance to run around in the big city during the most important festival of the year. He finds his way to the Temple where his passion for God finds an outlet as he begins hanging out with these older, wiser rabbis—and lo and behold, he actually has a contribution of his own to make to the conversation. He’s being taken seriously by these adults—adults who are not his parents!— he’s grappling with his identity and beginning to discover a sense of calling.
And, of course, while all this is happening, he’s also being COMPLETELY oblivious to the fact that he’s putting his parents through hell. Which lets us draw the theological conclusion that when the Word of God became incarnate as a human being, he took on all of human nature, including the adolescent part. Including that quality of complete absorption in the events at hand that makes parents tear their hair out and use dreaded phrases like “teenage irresponsibility.” It’s no wonder they’re angry when they find him. Maybe even more so after his response, which after all seems a little flip. “Your father and I have been out of our minds with worry looking for you.” “Why, didn’t you know I’d be in my Father’s house?” Joseph gets the worst of it, with Jesus’ play on the word “Father.” There’s a theological point here about how Jesus’ identity as child of God is more fundamental than his identity as child of Mary and Joseph. But there’s also a strong hint of “Oh yeah? You’re not my real dad anyway.” If you’re from a blended family, you can appreciate that dynamic all too well.
So there’s pain here. But there’s also something precious. Jesus is growing up, and his parents can’t fully understand him. He’s entering into a world where they can’t totally follow. And in some way, they seem to get that, and there’s grace here too: it says Jesus goes back to Nazareth with them and is obedient to them, and Mary treasures these things in her heart, and Jesus grows in favor with God and people.
There’s so much here to identify with for any of us. Have you ever felt like your parents didn’t understand you? Ever wished you had a secret, special destiny? Ever parented a young person who took you for granted and knew just how to say the things that would hurt you the most? Ever had a family conflict that broke your heart, and then found a way to reconcile? This story is so precious because it’s so incarnational, so fully illustrative of Jesus as sharing our experience of what it is to be human. His vocation may be unique, but his experience of being an adolescent is the same one we share. Each of us, as we grow older, has to come to grips with the task of figuring out just who we really are. For Jesus that identity was the eternal Son of God. For us it’s different. But as Paul says today in the letter to the Ephesians, in our baptism we become children of God by adoption through Jesus Christ. We’re given a share in the relationship between God and God’s beloved child Jesus, and that becomes our truest deepest, identity.
For a while when I lived in Seattle I volunteered as a chaplain at the county juvenile detention center. One week I had a young man ask to talk to me; let’s call him Rico. He said he was worried about his mom who was in danger of being deported. Depending on how his drug treatment program went, he might not be released in time to see her. Meanwhile, he was also worried about his own kids. At age sixteen, Rico had three kids, with three different mothers. But none of this was the real reason he wanted to talk. Rico told me he wanted me to help him pray—for all these worries, but also for his fellow young people at the detention center. And in particular, he wanted to learn to pray for his enemies. I jotted down what he said to me shortly afterwards. He told me, “I feel like I need to pray for my enemies because God loves them too. I don’t need to fight them to prove who’s the biggest man. Praying for them is what Jesus would do."
Jesus came to discover that being God’s child was a deeper identity than what the world knew him as, Mary and Joseph’s child. Two thousand years later, Rico was discovering that his own identity as God’s child was deeper than what the world knew him as, a juvenile offender, or an immigrant, or a drug user, or any of the other labels that might be applied to him. And he was learning to see his enemies as God’s children too.
“Who are you?” That’s the question we begin to try to answer in adolescence, and we keep answering throughout our whole lives. Who you truly are is not just who your parents say you are, who your friends say you are, who your society says you are, or even who your church says you are. Who you really are is who God says you are. And what God says is: You are my child—uniquely created, uniquely redeemed, uniquely loved.
When we’re secure in that identity, we can find the strength to live the abundant life God calls us to live—even when it calls us to do hard things like forgiving our enemies, from the detention center, or from the cross.
The writer Mark Bozzuti-Jones has written about what it can feel like to experience ourselves as children of God. He writes, “Act silly to make God laugh. Curl up in the arms of God. Ask God to read you a story. Allow God to throw you up in the air. Play hide and seek with God. Allow God to play hide and seek with you. Cry when God goes away. Squeal with delight when God comes back. Listen to God say how much you are loved.”
As this Christmastide draws to a close, may we have ears to hear that message of love.
 For more reflections on the richness of this story and its connections to youth ministry, read the first several pages of the “Sample Pages” available from the Journey to Adulthood program at https://www.leaderresources.org/assets/images/J2A/J2A%20Overview%202016.pdf.
 The Womb of Advent (New York: Church Publishing, 2007), 87.
First Sunday after Christmas, All Years, Revised Common Lectionary| Hugh Stevenson
First Sunday after Christmas, All Years, Revised Common Lectionary
I got a kite for my birthday. I love kites, the way they ascend into the heavens transcending the force of gravity, up, up and away. We took my new kite to Bodega Head where there was a fresh breeze from the sea and it flew up into the air. What exhilaration! So the song that concludes Mary Poppins speaks to me. It’s a song of joy or redemption, a song of resurrection. The Banks family had been going down hill, while George Banks devoted his full attention to the bank where he worked and neglected his family. But when he lost his job it was a blessing in disguise; he had time to fix the kite which was broken and to take his family out to the park as he sang:
Up where the air is clear. Oh, let’s go fly a kite!
Among those who reached for the sky were Elijah who “ascended in a whirlwind into heaven” in a chariot of fire with horses of fire. And Jesus who “was lifted up (ascended), and a cloud took him out of [the disciples’] sight.”
In olden times when people still believed in a flat earth, there was a dome (or firmament) created by God whence soft refreshing rain fell down upon the earth.  Up above the dome, God sits enthroned surrounded by the heavenly court in the heavenly city–a magnificent place where the streets are paved with gold and the gates are pearls. From his vantage point God sees all things that take place on earth. He knows if you have been naughty or nice–or in Biblical terms “righteous” or “wicked.” Jacob had a dream of a ladder reaching up to heaven with angels ascending and descending and St John the Divine passed through an open door to enter heaven.
On a number of occasions when he was praying, Jesus looked up to heaven: when he broke the five loaves to feed the multitude and when He raised Lazarus from the dead. When he was baptized, the heavens opened and the Spirit descended upon him like a dove. 
In our sophistication, we know that there isn’t actually a dome up there. It is a metaphor rather than a reality. It stands for presence of God, it stands for heaven. We should “seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.” We should not spend our lives earthbound, with our eyes cast down. We should not be preoccupied with troubles that might afflict us in this life. Think how much we would be missing out on. So, as Jesus said, “Look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh.” The Christmas stories require us to look up lest we miss out.
At the annunciation, the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that “you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.” And in Elizabeth’s song which we call the canticle, Benedictus, “You, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.”  If you would see Jesus, the Son of the Most High then you must keep your eyes raised to the heavens. So we sing: “He came down to earth from heaven, who is God and Lord of all.
This is what the shepherds did when they were watching their flocks in the fields by night. They looked up and first saw an angel who told them, ” ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” Then “suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!”
If the Wise men from the East had not looked up they would not have seen the star that guided them to the stable where the child who was been born king of the Jews was lying in a manger. But they saw, they came they paid him homage and they gave him their priceless gifts. Following their example we should look up for the guiding star.
Finally let us not forget one more who flies through the air over the roof tops each Christmas in a sleigh drawn by Rudolph and the other reindeer in order to bring presents for the little children. As he finished his work, he was up, up and away and his parting word as he drove out of sight was “Happy Christmas and to all a good night.” Amen to that!
Christmas I December 29 2019
 Mary Poppins (1964). “Lets go fly a kite” is sung by David Tomlinson who plays Mr. Banks, then by Dick van Dyke, the chimney sweep, and finally by the full chorus. The composers were Richard Sherman and Robert Sherman
 Group Captain Douglas Bader (1910-1982). A group captain is the equivalent of a colonel in the military.
 A movie with the same title followed two years later starring Kenneth More as Bader. It won a BAFTA for Best British Film
 2 Kings 2:11
 Acts 1:
 Genesis 1:6-8
 Genesis 28:10-19, Revelation 4:1
 Matthew 14:19ff, John 11:41, Matthew 3:16
 Colossians 3:1, the epistle for Easter D (Year A, this year, 2020)
 Luke 1:31, 1:76. El Elyon was the deity of Melchizedek, the priest of Jerusalem when it was a Jebusite city (Genesis 14:18)
 “Once in royal David’s city” Hymnal # 102
 Luke 2:8ff
3 Advent, Year A, Revised Common Lectionary| Stephen Shaver
3 Advent, Year A, Revised Common Lectionary
+ + +
There’s something very human about buyer’s remorse.
In a few weeks we’ll be seeing that up close as the return lines get long after Christmas. Although less and less in retail stores and more and more in post offices and UPS Stores. A few months ago I made an Amazon return and discovered for the first time that I didn’t even have to box up my item—just to bring it to the UPS Store and they would box it up for me. Companies are realizing that making their return policies easier actually makes them more money, as customers get more likely to buy in the first place. Buyer’s remorse is all part of the business plan.
This Sunday we hear about John the Baptist apparently experiencing a case of buyer’s remorse. This time last week we heard John predicting that someone more important than himself was coming. Between last week’s gospel passage and this one, Jesus himself was baptized by John, and the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus in a public display of God’s favor.
But since then John has been arrested. His ministry is over. His execution is imminent. And it seems he’s begun to wonder whether his successor is really what he’d hoped. Like a politician in primary season, he worries: did I endorse the wrong candidate? “Are you really the one who is to come? Or should we wait for another?”
We might wonder what the problem is—why the buyer’s remorse? As Jesus says, he’s healing the sick, raising the dead, and preaching good news to the poor. What more does John want?
And the passage doesn’t tell us directly. But I wonder if the answer has to do with John’s expectations about what the Messiah was supposed to do. Last week we heard John warning people about God’s wrath to come. He predicted that when the coming one appeared, he would fry sinners in, quote, an “unquenchable fire.” John’s motivational technique was centered around a heavy dose of threat. Whereas among all the good and exciting things Jesus is doing, healing the lepers and proclaiming good news and so forth … we have to admit there seems to be a conspicuous lack of frying.
It may be that John expected a Messiah with more teeth. Someone who would open up a can of heavenly rectitude and set sinners in their place. Israel is oppressed by the Roman Empire, and instead of overthrowing Caesar or setting fire to the unrighteous, the person John has put his hopes on is going around a small corner of Galilee doing some very nice healings and proclaiming some very nice good news to the poor.
It’s interesting that Jesus tells the crowd that John is both more important than anyone else who’s ever been born, and less important than the least important person in the kingdom of heaven. In one breath he praises John; in the next he puts him in his proper place.
And again, Jesus doesn’t spell out exactly what he means. But it might have to do with the fact that John the Baptist is the ultimate preacher of God’s commands.
There’s a stark and terrifying truth about God that we as human beings have to come to terms with. God is holy. God is incredibly holy in a way you and I will never be. God is good—in fact God is the essence of what it means to be good. And out of that holiness and goodness, God is pleased when we act in some ways. And God is saddened and angered when we act in other ways. Many of us might prefer a cozy God who winks at our failings. John yanks away any gauzy sentimentality we might have about God. Change your lives, he says to God’s people: live the way God wants you to live … or else.
And it might be that or else that shows what John still lacks. For John it means or else the unquenchable fire. Not for Jesus. In Jesus we see both God’s perfect commandments and God’s never-failing mercy all in one. Jesus doesn’t wink at sin. He calls out injustice. And yet his response to it is not to torture his enemies into submission but to win them over through undefeatable love.
It’s easy to be tempted to remake Jesus in the image John would have preferred. A few years ago the bestseller lists were topped by what was essentially a Christian fan fiction series about the end times. You may remember it; it was called the Left Behind series. The last book in the series climaxes with the second coming of Jesus. And this time he’s taking no prisoners. I quote:
“Tens of thousands of foot soldiers dropped their weapons, … fell to their knees, and writhed as they were invisibly sliced asunder. Their innards and entrails gushed to the desert floor, and as those around them turned to run, they too were slain, their blood pooling and rising in the unforgiving brightness of the glory of Christ. … It was as if Antichrist’s army had become the sacrificial beasts for the Lord’s slaughter.”
Now I can only call this a kind of Christ-as-Rambo theology. And, with respect to my more conservative Christian siblings, I have to say it misses the whole point of who Jesus is. As if the character of Jesus we see in the gospels, the one who forgives his enemies from the cross, was just a mask that he’ll take off at the end when he quits offering second chances and comes out with all guns blazing. According to that theology, Jesus is just another coercive, violent tyrant like any other—only with superpowers. And you’d better get on his side of things before time runs out, or else.
That may have been the kind of Messiah John was expecting. But thank God that’s not the Messiah who showed up in Jesus. And if Advent tells us anything, it’s that the Jesus who will come again in glory is the same Jesus who came the first time. The same holiness. The same goodness. And the same mercy. This is the one who chose not to be born in a palace, but in a manger: to parents who weren’t important enough to get a room at the inn. He chose to ride into Jerusalem not in a chariot to be crowned, but on a donkey to be executed. He chose not to destroy those who killed him, but to destroy death itself.
“Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me,” says Jesus. May we never be offended by a God who is more merciful than we are. And at his coming, may we not cower, but rejoice.
1 Advent, Year A, Revised Common Lectionary| Stephen Shaver
1 Advent, Year A, Revised Common Lectionary
+ + +
It was about fifteen minutes before the end of my shift as hospital chaplain on call when I was paged to the cardiac catheterization lab.
I’d never been to the cath lab before. It’s not a place chaplains usually have a reason to visit. Patients usually go there for a procedure, then go home, or back to their inpatient beds. As I answered the page I could hear the shock in the nurse’s voice as she told me what had happened. A man in his fifties—let’s call him James—had come in for a test. Things seemed to be going routinely, until they weren’t. Without any warning, his heart stopped. The team performed CPR, but despite their frantic efforts, James died there on the table.
Through their tears his wife and daughters told me that he’d walked the dog in the park that morning. That evening they were planning to have dinner. Instead, for James and his family, that was the day the world came crashing down around their heads and their predictable lives changed forever.
Sometimes those moments come in other ways. For many here in Sonoma County a moment like that came in the early morning hours of October 9, 2017. We had an aftershock of that moment again this October. But whether it’s a natural disaster, a medical emergency, or some other unforeseen crisis, there are moments that crash through the bubbles of security and predictability we may try to construct for ourselves. Moments as unexpected as the flood in the days of Noah, or the coming of a thief in the night.
It feels a little jarring to think about the cryptic sayings of Jesus about the end of the world at a time when we might rather think about what to do with the leftover turkey or what to put on the Christmas wish list. But every Advent the Christian calendar does this to us: it prods us out of complacency and into self-examination. Advent is a time to prepare for the coming of Jesus. Not only the coming that already happened at Bethlehem, but also his future coming at the end of all things. Christians have always proclaimed that the God who brought new life to Jesus after his execution also intends to bring a new life to the whole creation. The reading we heard this morning from the prophet Isaiah gives us a glimpse of what God has in mind, a beautiful vision of the world at peace. But just as there is no resurrection without the cross, so the peace and reconciliation of the age to come can’t come without the confrontation and judgment of the present age.
That can feel like good news, or like bad news, depending to a large extent on how safe and secure our lives feel in the present. The apocalyptic sayings of Jesus about judgment and the end of the world were experienced as good news by early disciples who were poor and on the margins. When you already live on the edge of being hungry or getting arrested or assaulted, the idea of the world being turned upside down and God being ultimately in control can sound comforting. Not as much so if you’re relatively comfortable already. There’s a reason it’s been said that the good news of Jesus comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.
I know how much I would like to live a relatively comfortable and safe life. The kind of life that includes paying off my student loans, accumulating a non-extravagant but sensibly flush retirement portfolio, providing my children with everything they need and some of what they want, and dying in my bed at a ripe old age. The fact that on a lot of days that kind of life seems not only possible, but actually within my own control to achieve, has more than a little to do with the class and race I happened to be born in. And it has more than a little to do with the messages in our culture that say that prosperity is just a matter of working hard enough, acting moral enough, and planning carefully enough.
That’s why I need to hear Jesus’ words from Matthew’s gospel this Advent. If my life is built on the illusion of self-made security, what will happen to me when that foundation comes crashing down? Following God offers an alternative to that illusion. But following God isn’t exactly a recipe for security. Jesus himself is the prime example. As he speaks the words we heard today, he is in the last week of his life, facing his own “end of the world.” And instead of protecting himself, he prepares himself by living in a relationship of total trust in God. It doesn’t keep him safe in any of the conventional ways. By the end of the week, he will have lost all his possessions; his friends; his good name; and his life itself. And yet even in the time of greatest disaster, Jesus is held safe in the love of the same God who carried Noah through the flood, and who carries Jesus through his own passion, so that his tomb becomes an ark, bringing him to resurrected life. There is no true safety in this world … but there is permanent safety in trusting God.
Maybe you’ve seen the musical Les Miserables, or read the novel. It has a story about a thief in the night. The convict Jean Valjean finds lodging at the home of a kind bishop and steals the silver as he leaves. The next morning he is caught and dragged back to the bishop’s home. He’s astonished when the bishop tells him, “My dear brother, I’m so glad you’ve come back. You remembered the silverware I gave you, but you forgot to take the candlesticks!” In that moment, Valjean’s life changes forever as he is stricken to the heart by the bishop’s love and mercy.
That bishop was prepared for the coming of the Son of Man. He prepared himself not by safeguarding his life and possessions, but by cultivating a loving heart and a set of priorities that matched the values of God’s kingdom.
It is Advent. Jesus is coming. He came to us once as a poor infant without a safe place to sleep. He will come again in glory to bring in a new creation. Meanwhile he comes to us each day in the face of our neighbor. May we recognize him now, so we will know him when he comes.
 Actually a phrase coined by Finley Peter Dunne to describe the role of journalism, but often used in the twentieth century in connection with preachers and Christian social reformers like Dorothy Day. See “God Comforts the Afflicted and Afflicts the Comfortable,” https://www.dictionaryofchristianese.com/god-comforts-the-afflicted-and-afflicts-the-comfortable/; cf. James Allaire and Rosemary Broughton, “An Introduction to the Life and Spirituality of Dorothy Day,” https://www.catholicworker.org/dorothyday/life-and-spirituality.html.
Proper 29, Year C, Revised Common Lectionary| Stephen Shaver
Proper 29, Year C, Revised Common Lectionary
+ + +
“If you are.” “If you are.” “If you are.”
That’s what Jesus hears over and over as he hangs there. “If you are the King of the Jews, come down!” “If you are the chosen one, save yourself!” “If you are the Messiah, save yourself and us!”
And it’s as if his story has come full circle, back to the beginning, after his baptism when he went out into the desert and faced his first test, when Satan tempted him with almost the very same words. “If you are the Son of God. . . .” Turn these stones into bread, to feed your hunger. Bow down to me, and become king of the world. Leap from the temple, and test the Lord your God.
In the beginning just as in the end, the temptation is the same. To misuse his power. To turn his divine authority to his own ends.
Power corrupts, they say. And so often that’s true. From the corridors of Washington to the trading floors of Wall Street to the casting rooms of Hollywood. So many of our headlines and so many of the conflicts that are churning our society today are at heart about the misuse of power. It’s been that way back through the ages, in throne rooms and locker rooms and boardrooms, and in the halls of churches and cathedrals too, because religious power is one of the easiest forms of power to turn to evil.
Against that backdrop it’s no wonder conscientious people sometimes find it hard to talk about power, or admit they have power, or try to get power. It can feel as if power is just a code word for domination and exploitation. But power isn’t always a bad thing. Actually power is a good thing. Power is the ability to get things done. The capacity to make something happen. To change the world in some way. Like everything else in God’s good creation power can be used for good or for evil. We ascribe power to God every Sunday when we say “the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours” and “Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might.” And so the question is what kind of power are we talking about? Power to create, or power to destroy? Power to hurt, or power to heal? Power to enslave, or power to set free?
Here at the cross Jesus shows what Paul means when he writes that God’s power is made perfect in weakness. Jesus shows his power not by destroying his enemies but by praying for them and forgiving them. Here at the point of a Roman spear, under the heel of all the power of empire, he shows his power by welcoming a thief into Paradise. In Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words, Jesus meets physical force with soul force. He meets Caesar’s power of violence with God’s power of love.
Here in church on Sundays we proclaim our faith with the Nicene Creed. But the very earliest creed, the way Christians proclaimed their faith in the first generation, was much shorter: “Jesus is Lord!” And “Lord” was a title with a double meaning, because Hebrews used it for God, and Romans used it for Caesar. So to call Jesus Lord was to acknowledge him as holding not only the power of God but also the power of Caesar. It was refusing to worship the emperor that sent generations of Christians to a martyr’s death, because for them Jesus was Lord, and Caesar was not.
And again through the centuries it’s been the same. In the early 1800s a young enslaved woman named Isabella found Jesus and took on a new name: Sojourner Truth. Her preaching galvanized the abolitionist movement because for her Jesus was Master, and the white man was not. In the 1940s in Nazi Germany a Lutheran pastor named Dietrich Bonhoeffer helped found the underground Confessing Church and was executed for plotting against Hitler. For him Jesus was Führer and Hitler was not. In 1977 Janani Luwum, the Archbishop of Uganda, stood up against the disappearances and killings of the dictator Idi Amin. For him Jesus was president and Amin was not.
There are countless others. People whose obedience to Jesus has led them to renounce the world’s kind of power. Sometimes they have suffered for their faith. Sometimes they have died. But whatever you call their witness and the changes it has brought to the world, it sure isn’t weakness. It’s a power that goes beyond the power of coercion. It’s a power grounded in the cross of Christ—and in his resurrection.
I read a line once in the newsletter of the Open Door Community, an intentional community in Atlanta dedicated to serving people on the streets. It said, “If Jesus Christ were the king of the universe, [a] toilet brush would be his scepter.” And in fact Jesus Christ is the king of the universe—and he shows us what real power is. It’s the power to scrub a toilet so your neighbors can have a clean and dignified place to pee. It’s the power to kneel down and wash the feet of your friends. It’s the power to forgive from the cross.
This is the mystery at the heart of the universe: that the One who is all power and authority has chosen to be counted once and for all on the side of those who have none. And that is power indeed.
 Jeff Dietrich, “25 Years of Discipleship: Follow the Women,” Hospitality, October 2006, pg. 2. Available online at http://www.opendoorcommunity.org/HospOct06.pdf.
Proper 28, Year C, Revised Common Lectionary| Stephen Shaver
Proper 28, Year C, Revised Common Lectionary
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
+ + +
There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. Luke 21:11
We live in apocalyptic times. Let me explain what “apocalyptic” means. It is the opposite of the words of the song: “Don’t worry; be happy.”
Here’s a little song I wrote
You might want to sing it note for note.
Don’t worry, be happy
In every life we have some trouble
But when you worry you make it double. Don’t worry, be happy
But we do worry because we are threatened by the coming of “the Four horsemen of the apocalypse,” which are disease and war, famine and death. the gospels list the signs of tribulation as “great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.”
We don’t need reminding that we live in times of trouble. In Northern California alone in 2017, 245,000 acres burnt in the Tubbs and other fires, 8900 structures were destroyed and 44 people died. The following year, 150,000 acres were burnt in the Camp fire and 85 civilians died. This year, in the Kincade fire 77,000 acres burnt, 374 structures were lost but no fatalities. These are only some of the many fires throughout the state. Many of us know about sitting in darkness and about being evacuated from our homes.
One of the reasons for the fires is the growth of vegetation brought about by heavy rains. In 2017, the Russian River reached three feet above flood stage and washed away 500 homes. The El Niño of the winter of 1997–98 flooded the whole of the central valley.
Polar bears, Sea turtles, reefs are at risk because of climate change. October 2019 was the hottest month worldwide on record. Monthly temperatures average about 2F above average. Glaciers are gone and sea levels are rising.
I checked out an earthquake map and saw that the Rodgers Fault lies to the east of us here, running north-west between the Calvary Catholic Cemetery at the end of Farmers Lane and the Rural Cemetery on Franklin Avenue. Earthquakes are an ever-present danger.
We have had any number of epidemics: AIDS, Ebola, Mad Cow Disease, H1N1 flu, Legionnaires Disease, West Nile Disease and SARS; quite apart from the common diseases of cancer, cholera, influenza and now measles among those who resist vaccinations.
No longer do we fear being the victims of a terrorist attack. More likely now is the danger from a shooter who should not be in the possession of an assault weapon with a bump stock. On October 1, just over 2 years ago, a shooter in Las Vegas shot 1100 rounds in 10 minutes killing 58 concert-goers and wounding many others.
These are some of the apocalyptic catastrophes that we face in our own day. There have been plenty in ages past. Apocalyptic literature was designed to meet the challenges of these disastrous times. We heard part of the Little Apocalypse from St. Luke’s Gospel (chapter 21) this morning. There are similar passages in the other gospels. The purpose of this literature was to bring encouragement to the suffering during times of persecution. Thus the Book of Daniel was written during the persecution of Antiochus Epiphanes (who reigned 175-164 BC) and the Book of Revelation from the time of the Emperor Domitian (81-96 AD). The devastation was predicted in advance. Note how the gospels project the suffering into the future. “not one stone will be left upon another,” “there will be earthquakes, famines and plagues,” “they will arrest you and persecute you.”
It is necessary for all these things to happen “first, but the end will come.” (the τέλος meaning the consummation, the closure; not the ἔσχατον from which we get the word Eschatology, “the study of last things”). The apocalypses in the gospels conclude with this hope: “Then you will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. When these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
In testing times we need to remember that we are not abandoned by God. “He watching over Israel slumbers not nor sleeps.” We belong within the communion of the faithful including the saints, many of whom were martyred in times of persecution. Within that community we belong to this congregation where we are known, loved and prayed for. Here we hear scriptures which we read, mark, learn and inwardly digest so that we may hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life” and we hear them interpreted in the sermon. While we were powerless in October we came here to recharge our batteries (both physical and spiritual). So it makes sense to support this congregation in whatever ways we can. Not only for what it provides for us, but also for what it provides for those less fortunate than ourselves.
Among the great cloud of witnesses who surround of us is my patron, St. Hugh (1135-1200) who was Bishop of Lincoln towards of the 12th century. Today (November 17) is his feast day. Perhaps few will have heard of him. After Becket he was the most popular saint in Medieval England. He was happily ensconced in a Carthusian monastery in Avalon in Eastern France when he got the call. He really did not want to go to England: first because the climate was so abysmal (not to mention the food!) and second because it was ruled by Henry II, a violent man who was responsible for the martyrdom of Thomas a Becket in Canterbury Cathedral (Christmas 1170). Henry had made an outburst, “will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” As a penance he was required to found a number of monasteries, including one in Somerset. Hugh was sent to supervise and when they had no money, he told the king he had to pay up.
Hugh offended Henry by excommunicating one of Henry’s deputy assistants and for refusing to accept Henry’s nominee for a position in his cathedral. He was dicing with death from an unpredictable monarch. He met Henry in a forest, and Henry tried to bully him with silent treatment. But Hugh was a Carthusian who loved silence and began to pray. After awhile Henry gave up and began to laugh. Hugh was charming with a great sense of humor. Three kings and three archbishops were the pallbearers at his funeral.
Those times were no less terrifying than today. We need to see them as a overture to the glory that is to come So let us look up and watch out for the deliverance which is to come.
 Don’t worry, be happy, sung by Bobby McFerrin (1988) and covered by many others
 Listed by St. John the Divine in the book of Revelation 6:1-8
 Luke 21:11
 Luke 21:27f and //s
 Psalm 121:4. One of the great choruses in Mendelssohn’s Elijah
 The penultimate Sunday of the Church’s year is “Bible Sunday (from the collect of the day, BCP p.236, Proper 28)
 Quoted by James Comey when he appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee in June 2017. With a smile Sen. Angus King of Maine said he was about to say the same thing.
Proper 27, Year C, Revised Common Lectionary| Stephen Shaver
Proper 27, Year C, Revised Common Lectionary
2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
+ + +
It’s very human to want to escape mortality. To cheat the Reaper and live forever.
Sometimes quite literally. Maybe you’re familiar with the movement called cryonics in which people have their bodies frozen in hopes future technology will be able to bring them back to life one day. On the other end of the timeline, there are some biotech folks in Silicon Valley who are hoping to extend human lifespans to the point of never dying in the first place, at least not from old age. Now as Christians we might say that there’s a difference between endless life and eternal life. A life that’s just chronologically endless, and where you’re continually afraid of dying in an accident, might turn out to be a nightmare instead of a dream.
But most people channel that urge for immortality in more realistic and maybe healthier ways. Leaving a legacy behind: doing something people will remember, something to carry on our names after we’re gone. Or simply being remembered by those who knew and loved us in our lifetimes.
In many cultures having children has been considered a way of living on after death. Sometimes so strongly so that dying childless was considered a calamity. So a custom in ancient Israel, as in many patriarchal societies, held that when a man died childless, his brother would marry his widow and try to have children on the dead man’s behalf, so the family line would continue and the dead man’s identity would live on.
Now in Jesus’ time the Sadducees were a conservative school of Judaism who didn’t believe in an afterlife or resurrection. For the Sadducees this life was all there was: people were made to love and serve God here on earth, and then to sleep in the underworld. So when they hear Jesus preaching about resurrection and eternal life, a group of Sadducees decide to debate him. And notice what Jesus does. Instead of answering on the terms of their example, he explodes the whole scenario. The woman doesn’t have to be one brother’s wife or another. Resurrection isn’t like that at all.
In God’s realm we are set free from death, and the fear of death, forever. We no longer need to matter through our children, or through our spouse. A woman doesn’t need to matter only by being someone’s wife. In the resurrection you will be alive to God as the fully glorious individual you were made to be. Not because you left a legacy or achieved an achievement or made something of yourself. Because you are a child of God, and God is the God of the living.
Now today we are doing something we do every year, which is starting our annual pledge campaign. Today our vestry will be leading us by turning in their pledge cards first, bringing them to the altar at the offertory. Today leaders will be handing out pledge packets. And over the next two weeks—just two weeks, because our campaign was shortened this year by the fires—we are asking everyone at Incarnation to participate in making a financial pledge for 2020.
We ask people to make a pledge rather than just putting something in the plate week by week, partly because it means we can plan ahead and make a budget. But more, because when we make a pledge it’s a tangible way to be intentional about our giving. It’s a way of saying, “This is who I am and who I belong to. My life belongs to God, I am a child of God, the God of the living. And I am committing an intentional portion of the resources God has placed in my care to what God is doing through the church.” The simplest way to do that is to take what you currently give, divide it by your income, and notice what percentage that is. I have a priest friend who uses the phrase, “Know your number.” Maybe it’s 10%, or 6%, or 2%, or half a percent. Wherever it is, that’s a great place to start. And year by year we see if we can stretch toward growing a percent, or half a percent, gradually increasing the proportion of God’s resources we’re investing in this mission on God’s behalf.
This is an important year for Incarnation. For the last five years, since the painful departure of our previous rector, we’ve been running at a deficit of about $130,000. There are reasons why that happened in a time of crisis. But we’re in a new season of ministry together, and it’s time to grow toward financial health. Our vestry has set a 2020 goal to cut that deficit in half. If we can increase our average annual pledge by about $400 this year that will just about reach that goal. Some of us will be able to do that. Some won’t. Some will be able to do more.
So over these next two weeks, please join us in this Faith in Action Campaign. And give, not because you’re trying to prove something or cheat immortality or even leave a legacy to be remembered by. Give because God remembers you, knows you by name, and is giving you eternal life. Give because God is on the move, including right here at Incarnation, and is inviting you to join in.
All Saints Sunday, Year C, Revised Common Lectionary| Stephen Shaver
All Saints Sunday, Year C, Revised Common Lectionary
+ + +
This past Thursday I was unpacking my car when I found myself drawn into the stories of the saints.
What my car was full of was, essentially, Incarnation’s go-bag. In the midst of the evacuations, several of us packed up sacred items, vestments, chalices, and historic records into our cars for safekeeping. For four days my car was filled to the top with boxes of service registers and parish archives, along with our jeweled brass processional cross, removed from its staff, safely cushioned in Abigail’s car seat.
We packed those items up in a hurry. But on Thursday, during the unloading, I couldn’t help but leaf through some of the old records. And there they were: names and narratives of the great cloud of witnesses whose prayers have soaked into these wooden walls around us for nearly a century and a half.
There were records of baptisms in the old courthouse by the pioneering missionary James Lloyd Breck and of the decision to build this redwood building. There were stories of great conflicts and great successes. There was the newspaper clipping recounting how this very cross was stolen from the church in 1996 and rediscovered by Marti Kennedy ten years later at a rummage sale. There were vestry minutes full of names of saints like Cedric Johnson and Russell Tye and Frances Spater, who entered into glory just this past year.
We who worship in this congregation today are standing on the shoulders of generations who have come before us. That’s true in every congregation, of course, and not just those with a hundred and fifty years of history. Even a brand new church plant is just another budding branch on a vine that stretches back through the centuries.
Today is All Saints’ Sunday, a day when we celebrate what’s sometimes called the Church Triumphant—that portion of the Body of Christ who have already finished their earthly race and who now cheer for us as we run ours, who pray for us and strengthen us, and whose ranks we ourselves will by God’s grace, we trust, one day join.
We are what’s called the Church Militant, that portion of the church that is still fighting the fight and running the race here on earth. And we come to this day this year on the heels of a week that has been full of displacement and disruption and fear. We come hungry, having missed our congregational Eucharist last Sunday, as more than half of us scrambled out of homes, many not knowing whether or not there would be homes to return to. We come back here today with a complicated mix of exhaustion and trauma and gratitude.
Gratitude for the heroic efforts of firefighters and first responders, shelter staff, and volunteers of all kinds. Celebration, that no lives were lost or even anyone seriously injured, and that the scope of destruction was so much less than it could have been or than it looked, on Saturday and Sunday nights, as if it would be. And yet we’re also painfully aware that while fewer people have lost homes and property in this fire, for those who have, the losses are every bit as devastating. We’re aware that lost wages and spoiled food and evacuation expenses have hit many hard, and the poorest the hardest. And we’re aware that our entire community has experienced a collective reactivation of the trauma of 2017, and that for almost everyone there are psychic and spiritual wounds that can go deep even when they’re not obvious on the surface.
One thing that has been so apparent this crazy week is that we need one another. As a church, and as a whole community, we are in this together. And one of the most obvious ways that God has been present through these fires and outages and evacuations has been in the ways the saints have stepped up to be the hands of God for one another.
Last Sunday, after we secured the church, I put our parish database into a Google spreadsheet and began asking parishioners to help me make calls to find out where everyone was, if they had a safe place to stay, if they needed one, or had one to offer someone else. Within short order more than twenty people had stepped up. Logged into the spreadsheet on my computer I could see multiple cells at once being updated by different people at the same time.
Meanwhile I was having phone calls with fellow clergy from our neighboring congregations and from across our diocese as well as the Diocese of California, working together not only to make sure our own people were OK but also to think about how to be of service to our neighbors. Many of you know Kai Harris, who grew up here at Incarnation and is married to Christy Laborda Harris, rector of our neighbor parish St. Stephen’s in Sebastopol. Kai works for a nonprofit that serves low-income people in Sonoma County. Through their contacts they learned of a group of day laborers from near Geyserville who had evacuated to the Cloverdale Citrus Fair, where there was no official evacuation center and a shortage of supplies and services. Christy made a call to our siblings at Good Shepherd, Cloverdale, and the clergy team there headed over to the Fairgrounds with blankets and supplies. At a time when resources were stretched, it was the network of the church that had people on the ground just where they were needed.
Those are just two ways I saw the communion of saints at work this week. I bet you’ve seen others. And I know each of you in some way has been the hands of God for another person this past week. The Church Militant is on the move, as it has been in every age, loving and serving in the name of Jesus. And as we do, the Church Triumphant is cheering us on.
Just like our ancestors in generations past, we are not assured that things will be easy. We are not assured of an easy road. We will endure trials and temptations. We will sometimes be afraid. But their example is set before us, and they join us and pray for us. And Jesus, our Captain, runs alongside us, to guide and strengthen us until at last we cross the finish line and take our place with all the saints in our true eternal home.
Proper 24, Year C, Revised Common Lectionary| Stephen Shaver
Proper 24, Year C, Revised Common Lectionary
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
+ + +
“All scripture is inspired by God.”
When I was a teenager I had a number of friends who were conservative Christians with a pretty literalist understanding of the Bible. They would often quote this verse, sometimes using the translation “God-breathed” where the translation we heard today uses “inspired by God.” Now the word in Greek can mean either one. But of course there’s a difference between believing scripture has been inspired by God, or perhaps breathed into by God’s spirit, and believing that it is breathed directly out of the mouth of God. And as a bit of a contrarian, I would sometimes point that out. I would also point out that it’s a circular argument to quote scripture to support your argument about the inerrancy of scripture.
I don’t think we ever settled those debates. But even though I don’t share my friends’ literalist understanding of scripture, I have a lot of admiration for the way they loved scripture. They memorized verses and entire chapters, played games of Bible trivia, recognized the names of obscure characters and places. They marinated their minds in scripture. They loved it, and lived by it.
Episcopalians and other liturgical Christians often pride ourselves on how much scripture we read in church. Three readings every Sunday, and more in the daily services of Morning and Evening Prayer. But we tend not to do as well with personal study of the Bible. Hearing three isolated snippets of scripture out of their wider context each Sunday doesn’t in and of itself help people know and understand the overall story. So there are many devoted Christians who don’t feel they know the Bible well. And who may know that they aren’t fundamentalists, but aren’t quite sure what they do believe about the Bible.
It doesn’t help that reading the Bible can be hard. Often people try to start from the beginning and read straight through. That goes well for a while. Genesis, the first book, is full of powerful stories like the one we heard this morning, about Jacob wrestling with God until he receives a blessing. Adam and Eve, Noah’s ark, Joseph and his technicolor dreamcoat: a lot of us have some familiarity with these Genesis stories even if we’ve never studied scripture as adults. It goes on pretty well into the book of Exodus: ten plagues in Egypt, the Israelites crossing the Red Sea. And then we start getting into the details of the laws Moses receives from God at Sinai, and things get a little … bogged down. And that’s where a lot of attempts to read the Bible stop.
So reading sequentially may not necessarily be the right place to start. Part of the problem is that our culture thinks of the Bible as a book, when it’s not. It’s a library. The word Biblia is plural, “the books,” 66 of them, or more if you count some of those that some denominations include and others don’t.
Now there is an overall narrative across those sixty or seventy books, which we can sum up as Creation; Fall; Israel; Jesus; Church; God’s Future. Creation: God creates a beautiful and beloved world. Fall: sin, evil, and death enter that world. Israel: one particular people in the ancient world comes to know and worship God in a special way. Jesus: God’s own Word becomes a member of that people, lives and dies as one of us, goes freely to a criminal’s death, and conquers death by being raised from the dead. Church: Jesus’ friends and followers spread the good news and share in Jesus’ mission. That’s the time period we live in now. And God’s future is something not fully describable, but something we glimpse in images of a restored creation, a universe at peace, a heavenly banquet, eternal abundant life.
The Bible tells that narrative in many ways, through various kinds of literature. There’s history; legend; poetry; fables; prophetic visions, and much more. So we can’t read the Bible in just one way. What we need is a theology that takes inspiration seriously without getting stuck in literalism.
One traditional Anglican way of describing the scriptures is to say that they are “the Word of God, and contain all things necessary to salvation.” That’s part of a declaration everyone ordained in this church must make. And notice what it says and doesn’t say. It doesn’t say the scriptures are literally inerrant, and it doesn’t say everything in the scriptures is necessary to salvation. It says everything necessary to salvation is in the scriptures. That you don’t need anything else besides what’s in the Bible to know what you need to know about the love of God, the person of Jesus, and the power of the Spirit.
The catechism in the Prayer Book explains a little more about what it means to call scripture the Word of God. It’s on page 853: “Q. Why do we call the Holy Scriptures the Word of God? A. We call them the Word of God because God inspired their human authors and because God still speaks to us through the Bible.” We believe not that God dictated these texts, but that the human people who wrote these texts in their own place and time wrote in response to God’s call, and that God worked through them in the writing. And more important still, we believe God speaks to us in these texts today. Even when it’s hard to understand or challenging. Sometimes we have to be like Jacob and wrestle with a passage of scripture until it blesses us. But there is always a blessing to be found.
The Bible is the Word of God, yes. But of course only in a secondary sense. Because the primary Word of God is not a book but a person, Jesus Christ himself, the true Word that God has been speaking since before creation.
I’d like to leave us with a prayer from the first Prayer Book:
Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Proper 23, Year C, Revised Common Lectionary| Pamela Moore
Proper 23, Year C, Revised Common Lectionary
2 Timothy 2:8-15
“He makes his marvelous works to be remembered, the Lord is gracious and full of compassion.” Psalm 111:4
+ + +
The Leper’s Thank You
When I was a young girl my mother used to make me write thank you notes whenever I was given a gift. This was one of her “home training” rules (home training rules were designed to ensure that you had good manners). My mother wanted me to understand how important it was to be grateful that someone took the time to find something I would like, buy it, wrap it and give it to me. Thank you notes were to be written and mailed within the week. And, it took time to write those notes because it required thinking about what the gift meant to me and which words would best show my appreciation. I kept up this tradition for many years and I still hear my mother’s voice in my head if I do not send a thank you note when I should.
As I read the lessons for today I noticed how grateful Naaman and the Samaritan leper were when they received their gifts of healing. Each man immediately gave thanks and praised God. When I reflected on what it must have been like for them to finally have hope and be welcomed back into their communities, it occurred to me that it would be interesting to think about what it would have been like for one of them to write a thank you note to God for the gift of healing. I imagined that the Samaritan Leper’s thank you might sound something like this:
Many of us are like the nine lepers who did not think to take the time to stop for a minute to give thanks. A bible study* I reviewed for this week’s lessons posed some interesting questions about why the one leper returned and the others did not. Maybe the nine were eager to get certified by the priests so they could return to their families. Maybe they intended to come back later. We will never know how and why they made the choices that they did. We also do not know why the one returned. Maybe his mother made sure he had good “home training.” We can, however, think about how we might want to respond when we receive gifts of healing from God. With that in mind, I am about to share with you an activity from the bible study.
It was suggested that we imagine that we have been asked to draft a section for the Book of Common Prayer. Turning to page 810 in the BCP we will discover that there are 72 prayers that ask for things and you have to go all the way to page 836 to find 11 prayers of thanksgiving. If we want to practice an attitude of gratitude, if we want to give thanks to God, we might consider writing more prayers of thanksgiving. It would be wonderful if we could write enough prayers of thanksgiving so that they are at least equal to the number of bidding prayers. And if we do not want to wait for the next version of the Book of Common Prayer, we could even self-publish our own Church of the Incarnation Book of Thanksgiving Prayers.
Writing prayers of thanksgiving helps us to practice being grateful. Practicing gratitude helps us to see and understand what God is doing in our lives. An attitude of gratitude reminds us that goodness abounds and that even during great suffering and despair God is present and offering healing, hope and compassion.
I can say this to you as one who has been healed in so many ways by God. Sometimes that healing came when people were praying for me when I had cancer. Sometimes the healing came because people were willing to let God work through them and they gave me a much-needed hug or listened when I needed to talk. Sometimes the healing arrived in a meditation as I listened to lovely recorded voices that reminded me to surrender to God’s love. All I know is that when I needed it most, God always provided the healer and the healing. And for that, I am truly grateful. Thanks Mom, for reminding me to write this note.
Proper 22, Year C, Revised Common Lectionary| Stephen Shaver
Proper 22, Year C, Revised Common Lectionary
2 Timothy 1:1-14
+ + +
“If you had faith the size of a mustard seed you could say to this mulberry tree, Be uprooted and planted in the sea, and it would obey you.”
I’m sure I’m not the only person in this room that has tried this a couple of times. So far without success. I remember hearing this passage as a child, or maybe one of its parallel passages in Matthew and Mark’s gospels where it’s not a tree but a mountain that’s thrown into the sea. And the impression I got was that getting a prayer answered was a matter of believing hard enough. Driving every possible iota of doubt or uncertainty out of one’s mind and holding it that way long enough to get the words out.
It turns out the word we translate “faith,” pistis, doesn’t really primarily mean intellectual belief. It has more to do with trust and faithfulness. It’s less about believing in facts and more about being in faithful relationship with God. So it may be that Jesus isn’t so much suggesting we brainwash ourselves into certainty as that we work on the quality of our faithfulness. Not that if we play mind games we’ll be able to do magic, but that if our hearts and actions come to be aligned with God, nothing will be impossible, even things that seem as impossible as a mulberry tree taking root in the sea.
Now today we are blessing animals and giving thanks for God’s creation, mulberry trees and mountains and seas and all of it, remembering our brother St. Francis, whose feast day was this past Friday. And as we do so we acknowledge that God’s creation is good and beloved, and the human vocation that we were created for includes tending to that creation. And we have to acknowledge also that as a species we are not doing it. In the words of today’s gospel, we are worthless slaves who have not done even what we ought to have done. Today even as we give thanks for these dear domestic animals we are mindful of the species that are becoming extinct because climate change is making their ranges shrink or their food chains disappear. We’re mindful of the trees we are uprooting, not out of faith, but out of greed, as rainforests burn in Brazil and Indonesia, and of the sea levels that threaten to wipe cities and even entire island nations off the map.
Two weeks ago over 7 million people in 180 countries participated in the Global Climate Strike, the largest coordinated mass action on climate change to date. Much damage from climate change has already been done. We here in wildfire country know that as well as anyone. And there are great harms underway that we can no longer prevent. But it is also true that there are even worse harms ahead that we can prevent if the nations of the world act now, in concert, to commit to a path to a carbon-neutral future. It’s young people around the world who are leading the charge; because it is young people who will live through the effects of what today’s adults have created. “Anyone who causes one of these little ones to stumble,” says Jesus, “it would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.” And “these little ones” includes not only today’s children but also the animals, and plants, and other forms of life that now depend on us for survival.
The situation is urgent. But it’s not hopeless. There is a lot we can do. As individuals it can feel like our choices don’t matter—but our choices influence the choices of others, and collectively that matters a lot. We can drive less and fly less. We can eat less meat. We can talk about those choices with one another at church and with our friends outside church. And we can advocate for our elected leaders to put this issue front and center, because it’s also true that this issue won’t be solved unless it happens at a government and multi-government scale. So a lot of what we can do has to be working to influence what those with the actual power to decide do. We can do that through how we vote, as well as how we work to influence public opinion. We can show up at events like the climate strike. We can write to our newspapers. We can give money to environmental organizations that pay staff to work full time on this issue.
On this issue, and any other issue, we each have some power. And there are limits to our power. So our work is to do what we can and also to avoid becoming discouraged at the limits of what we can. In that, people of faith have an advantage. Because we believe ultimately the future is in God’s hands. Like the prophet Habakkuk we may rail against the evil we see around us and we may say, “how long will I cry and you will not listen?” And the reply is, “God still has a vision for the appointed time; it will surely come, it will not delay.”
The mystery of our calling is that in some sense, the future doesn’t depend on us. We’re not God. And at the same time, God chooses to work through us, when we’re open to it. So every time we choose to take an action that cares for creation, we are partnering with God, letting ourselves be instruments of God’s peace.
May God increase our faith—which means, our faithfulness. May we be aligned with God’s purposes so fully that nothing is impossible, not even healing this beloved and beautiful world.
Proper 21, Year C, Revised Common Lectionary| Hugh Stevenson
Proper 21, Year C, Revised Common Lectionary
1 Timothy 6:6-19
Alas for those who are at ease in Zion, and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria. Amos 6:1
+ + +
Back in 1972 when we were married, my aunt gave us £30 which we spent on a Vango “Force 10” tent from Blacks of Greenock. I was glad to see that in a photo of one of the Everest expeditions they were using our tent. We spent our days off camping in different parts of Britain; we still have it, though we do not use it often. It protected us from hurricane winds and torrential downpours. On various occasions we hosted friends whose tents leaked, soaking their clothes and sleeping bags.
On a number of occasions I have been backpacking in the Sierra. I enjoy the sensation that I am carrying everything I need on my back far from civilization. Life becomes very simple. There’s nothing to do except hike to our next campsite. At night I hear the sound of the wind in the trees and I look up to see the stars and in August the Perseids (shooting stars). There are no shops to buy things–so there’s no point in having a credit card; and there’s no cell-phone coverage. Up above 10,000 feet the air is thin, the sky is blue, the lake water is clear and stocked with golden trout.
For forty years the Children of Israel camped out in the wilderness under the leadership of Moses. They were nomads with no fixed habitation, looking for pasture for their flocks. They were like the Bedouin tribes of today in the Arabian Peninsular. It was the formative time in their nation’s history. Looking back they realized that it was the time that they felt closest to God. The Hebrew word for “wilderness” is midbar רמִדְבָּ which is derived from the root, דָּבָר which means “word” or “speech”. In the wilderness God spoke to Moses at the burning bush, to Elijah at Horeb and to the Israelites. They could hear because they were not distracted by the trappings of civilization. As pilgrims, they were all equal and no one was superior. God fed them all equally with manna from heaven and water from the rock.
The wilderness is a place of order where all of nature is in a perfect balance of harmony. By contrast cities are places of hurrying, rushing and crime. Some get ahead and take advantage of their position to exploit the poor and vulnerable. There are traffic jams and nowhere to park. Often the air is polluted by ozone or noise or light. Cities can easily be seen as places of chaos.
The prophets reminded the Israelites of their time in the wilderness. They did not need all the trappings of civilization and settled living that they adopted when they reached the Promised Land. But the people rebelled (according to those prophets) and they were blinded by the accoutrements of the surrounding nations. They wanted a king, and a temple made of stone with an altar for sacrifice and hierarchical leadership.
David thought it would be sexy to have a temple in his new capital of Jerusalem. His prophet, Nathan agreed with him,. But in a dream God said, “Not so fast!” God reminded Nathan, “I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle.”
They didn’t drink wine in the wilderness, not because they were teetotal but because it takes three years for a vine to produce grapes and they were never in one place long enough to grow grapevines. They were people on the move. When they arrived in the Promised Land they found “a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing.” Nevertheless there were radical types who refused to farm the land or live in cities or drink wine, because they regarded those practices as alien, borrowed from the locals. Some were called Rechabites, and another was Samson who was a Nazirite, a wild man who did not cut his hair.
Moses warned the Israelites not to be arrogant and say to themselves, “my power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth.” But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today. If you do forget the Lord your God and follow other gods to serve and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish.” 
The prophet Amos was one of those who harked back to the blessed time in the wilderness. He was appalled at the corruption of the Israelites. It was not just that they took advantage of the vulnerable and sold the poor for a pay of shoes. It was their lavish lifestyle. So he prophesied, ” Alas for those who are at ease in Zion, and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria.” They lounged around on beds of ivory, sang idle songs, drank bowls of wine and anointed themselves with the finest oils. “Watch out,” he said,” you’ll be the first ones to be carted off into exile.” And so it happened less than 40 years later.
Luke has much to say about having a right attitude towards wealth and property. Last week among other things we heard the warning of Jesus, “You cannot serve God and Mammon. You’re going to have to choose.” This week we hear the story of Dives and Lazarus. Dives obviously chose to ignore the blessings of the wilderness. He had a lavish lifestyle. Purple clothes were worn by royalty. Purple dye was very expensive. So this was a good way to impress your neighbors. He feasted every day, not just once in a while. He had plenty to eat even when there was a food shortage. No doubt he and his guests drank bowls of wine.
But Dives is not the central character of the story. That’s Lazarus. he lay outside Dives’ house. He was homeless and starving. Life, as the philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote (in Leviathan,1651) was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” No wonder his life expectancy was short. Then comes the reversal (there are number in Luke’s Gospel; this is not a literal description but a fantasy), Lazarus was whisked off by the angels to Abraham’s bosom, not only a place of comfort and feasting, but also a seat of honor. It would have been better if Dives had taken to heart the lessons of the wilderness. Instead he languishes in the flames of Hades, which is where his family will end up.
And we too can learn the lesson of the wilderness. There we will hear the word of God. There will be no ostentatious lifestyle. No claiming, “mine all mine!” No haughtiness in bragging, But as we heard in the epistle, “do good, be rich in good works, and be generous, and ready to share… Thus we will lay up treasure for the future and take hold of life that really is life.”
Proper 19, September 29 2019
 It’s still on the market, but its price is now £400
 See Johannes Pedersen, Israel: its life and culture (1926). Pedersen was a Danish scholar of the Old Testament.
 for midbar see Strong’s concordance #4057; for dabar see Strong’s #1697
 Deuteronomy 8.
 “The Nomadic Ideal” See Jeremiah 2:2: “I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown.” Also Hosea 13:5, Amos 2:10 etc
 2 Samuel 7:5
 Deuteronomy 8:7f
 Jeremiah 35
 Number 6. Samson is found in Judges 13f. Another was Samuel, 1 Samuel 1:11, 1:22 etc
 Deuteronomy 8:17f
 You can read all this in the bulletin, Amos 6:1a, 4-7
 In 722, Sargon II deported the residents of Samaria to Assyria.
 See Alice Walker’s book, The Color Purple (1982) about abject poverty in the American South.
 1 Timothy 16:18f (today’s epistle)
Proper 20, Year C, Revised Common Lectionary| Pamela Moore
Proper 20, Year C, Revised Common Lectionary
1 Timothy 2:1-7
+ + +
According to the Oxford Dictionary, wealth is defined as, “an abundance of valuable possessions or money.” Its synonyms include affluence, prosperity, riches, substance, and well-being. A person’s understanding of how much wealth they have can be based on a comparison to what someone else has, otherwise known as keeping up with the Joneses. A sense of wealth can also be a measure of what possessions and money represent: status, having “made it,” “living large,” “buying what I want when I want it even if I don’t really need it cause I just want to have it syndrome.”
It is my understanding that most people who have a lot of money or wealth for a long time, “old money folk,” never talk about how much money they have as it is considered ill-mannered. Most of the folks I know, talk about money or wealth regularly because they are still trying to figure out how to get it, when to use it, and on occasion, where to flaunt it.
Our readings today ask us to reflect on this notion of wealth. In Amos the focus is on those whose only concern is how to make money seemingly by any means necessary. Making money the minute the Sabbath is over. Making money even if it ruins the land or hurts needy people. Cheating if necessary to make money. By whatever means necessary, make that money, make that money, make that money. Like a drumbeat it is the driving force of those who will never have enough.
In Timothy, we hear a different definition of wealth. There is a richness to life that comes from praying for others in such a way that all will have dignity and live a peaceable life. Doing what is right and good, as defined by God, is its own reward.
The Gospel offers a third point of consideration. What happens when one receives wealth and wastes it? This troubles me the most because, truth be told, I am guilty of having wasted what I have received. Not all the time, just often enough to realize that I need to continually work to change my ways. Like the manager in the Gospel story, I have not always taken notice of what I have and/or have not used those gifts wisely. Let me give you a couple of examples. Every time I buy too much food and end up throwing it out because it spoiled, salad greens come to mind, I have wasted a gift that could have nourished me. When I order something new to replace something I already have, that works fine by the way, I am wasting resources that might have been better used for something else. Wealth is about abundance. It seems to me that taking the time to think about what I truly need and giving away the rest would be a good thing.
When I was first ordained I served at our mission in Monte Rio. It was a small congregation and in those days we functioned like a family. Everyone knew everyone else and although there were some folks who had plenty of resources, there were others who did not have as much. One summer we decided to have a giveaway. The idea was that everyone would bring to church things they no longer could use or wanted to give away to someone else. We had a few rules. The items had to be in good working order, clean and ready to use. People should only bring items that they would give to a friend. And nothing would be sold. The items were carefully organized and displayed throughout the church. The first hour was reserved for church members to share and then the rest of the day we opened the giveaway to the community. If you needed or wanted it, it was yours. Anything left over at the end of the day would go to the Goodwill or the Salvation Army.
As you might imagine, we had a lot of items to share. One of the items included a huge bag of clean baby clothes. We were about to pack up the items at the end of the day when I woman came by in a car to ask if we had, you guessed it, any thing for babies. It turned out that she worked at a hospital in San Francisco on a unit that served a lot of low-income mothers who had next to nothing for their newborns. We happily gave her that big bag of baby clothes. Of course these days you can do giveaways on the Internet by using sites like Freecycle and Craigslist however, our giveaway is one of my fondest ministry memories because everyone benefited. Folks gave, folks received, and all prospered. On that day, we were all wealthy.
How we define wealth and abundance is important. If one only thinks about money or material possessions as wealth, then we miss all the other forms of abundance in our life. Some of the richest people I have known are people who do not look like they have much. Their wealth came from loving, caring, sharing and believing, believing in a God who would provide them with the wisdom and guidance they needed to thrive. They always had enough, and their needs were always met.
We can serve God by serving one another or we can serve our selves in the pursuit of wealth. We cannot do both. Our choices will always reveal which one we think is the most important.
Proper 19, Year C, Revised Common Lectionary| Stephen Shaver
Proper 19, Year C, Revised Common Lectionary
1 Timothy 1:12-17
This guy welcomes sinners and eats with them!
Take a seat, fellow sinners.
+ + +
When I was in fourth grade, I lost my cross.
It’s a little silver Celtic cross I wear on a chain around my neck. My parents gave it to me when I was in the first grade. So the three years I’d been wearing it by then pale in comparison to the thirty-three years I’ve been wearing it now. But even then, it had been almost a third of my life.
My friends and I had taken to doing some wrestling at recess, in a wooded area of the schoolyard somewhat screened from interfering adult eyes. And mid-wrestle, I heard the jingle of a snapped chain and felt it slip from around my neck. I cried out, and my friends must have sensed my genuine distress, because the roughhousing stopped and we spent the rest of recess searching the leaf-strewn ground. To no avail.
I was back at my classroom explaining what had happened to my teacher and asking for permission to go back and look a little longer when suddenly I heard the tell-tale jingle one more time. And the chain slipped from inside my sweater where it had gotten lodged, and fell all the way this time and bounced on the carpeted floor. And my teacher and friends rejoiced with me, because what was lost had been found.
There are things that are precious to us far beyond their monetary value. Today Jesus tells us that sinners are like that for God.
We call Jesus the Good Shepherd. But the story of the shepherd he tells today could be called the Parable of the Lousy Shepherd. Imagine the utter lunacy of leaving the ninety-nine alone and unprotected “in the wilderness” to go after one. For Jesus it’s worth it. This shepherd doesn’t stay here inside the flock where things are organized and protected. He goes out to find the lost one, because it’s unimaginable to lose even one, because that one is precious.
Now the stereotype about sheep is that they are dumb. And scientists tell us that’s not exactly true. They have great pattern-recognition and complex social relationships. But they certainly don’t take care of themselves, and they’re prone to getting lost. If you leave them alone, they wander off. They don’t run away because they’re malicious or evil; getting lost is just what sheep do. And as for coins, they’re certainly dumb. They’re inanimate objects. They don’t get lost on purpose. The shepherd doesn’t say to the sheep, “You must have been a lousy sheep or you would never have gotten lost!” The woman doesn’t say to the coin, “If you get lost again, I’m throwing you out with the garbage!”
I’m not saying that we have no agency in the choices we make—although we often have much less than we realize. But I am saying that we have no power to choose not to be sinners, not to need finding, not to need God’s help. And I am saying that the initiative of salvation doesn’t lie with us. Not in the slightest. It’s God’s all the way, the crazy shepherd who goes out after a single sheep, the obsessive woman who tears apart the whole house looking for the lost coin. Sheep and coins don’t find themselves; they don’t make resolutions to get lost no more, or turn over a new leaf. They just sit there lost and helpless until the One who loves them brings them back home.
What does that mean for us? God is not scandalized by sin. God is not surprised by sin. God does not stay far away from sin. Sin is where God comes and finds us, in the darkest places we wander.
There’s a paradox about being here in this gathering today. We know, we are assured, that Jesus will reliably show up here, every time we come together in his name. But the greatest temptation of the church is to become a club of the Ninety-Nine Sheep, those who think they aren’t lost. And to designate someone else as the lost sheep. If we do that, we make two dumb-sheep mistakes. First, we forget that if we’re the ninety-nine and the other person is the lost sheep, then guess where Jesus is? Not in here with us. Out there under a doorway or in a prison or hospital or anywhere else one of his sheep might be lost, alone, and scared.
Second, we forget that when Jesus talks about “ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance,” he’s talking about fictional characters. Ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance don’t exist. There’s nobody here but us lost sheep. And we are set free when we quit trying to convince ourselves and other people that we’re not lost. Jesus doesn’t spend his time in the neatly dusted and vacuumed rooms of your spirit, the parts of yourself you keep respectable and put-together. He’s out in the back alley where you hide your garbage, knocking at the door of the ugliest, most insecure, greedy, lustful, grasping, chambers of your heart—not to condemn, but to redeem and restore.
If you go visit St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco, you’ll find a Greek phrase engraved on the altar table in beautiful gilded letters: houtos hamartolous prosdechetai kai sunesthiei autois. It doesn’t mean “Holy, holy, holy” or “Do this in remembrance of me.” It’s a phrase from today’s gospel, meant as an insult to Jesus, that instead is a testament to his love. “This guy welcomes sinners and eats with them!” And those words are invisibly written on this table too. This table is for lost sheep, lost coins, and lost souls. The only one not invited is one who thinks they don’t need to be here.
So come, let whoever is hungry take food and whoever is thirsty take drink without price, let the shepherd and the woman call their friends together and throw their parties, let there be rejoicing in heaven, and let the sinners take their places at the heavenly feast.
 Harriet Constable, “Sheep are one of the most unfairly stereotyped animals on the planet. Almost everything we believe about them is wrong,” BBC Earth (April 19, 2017), http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20170418-sheep-are-not-stupid-and-they-are-not-helpless-either.
Proper 18, Year C, Revised Common Lectionary| Stephen Shaver
Proper 18, Year C, Revised Common Lectionary
+ + +
It was 1862. It was wartime. But despite the Civil War, the new dome was still in progress on the U.S. Capitol building. The last piece was the great statue of Freedom for the top. It had been shipped from Italy in five sections and temporarily plastered together. But there was a problem. It was time to separate it again for the final casting, and no one knew how to get it apart. The seams were hidden by the plaster. One skilled laborer saved the day. He attached a pulley to the top and pulled up just enough until the seams began to show. The casting could proceed, and the statue stands atop the Capitol to this day.
That man’s name was Philip Reid. He was a black man. And he was a slave. Or rather, he was one of many, many enslaved people who provided the labor for the Capitol Building, most of whose names we don’t know.
It can seem ironic that enslaved people built the Capitol, this symbol of liberty; even the Statue of Freedom on the top. But it’s a symbol of the deep irony built into the history of this country, whose founding documents speak of liberty while enshrining the idea that one person could own another into law.
On August 20, 1619, four hundred years and about two weeks ago, the first European ship, the White Lion, arrived in Virginia carrying kidnapped African people to be sold into slavery. You may have seen the 1619 Project, the special edition of the New York Times Magazine, which tries to put this neglected event back at the center of American history. And it belongs there. We might wish that the story of this country can be told with slavery and racism as a sidebar. But the fact is that slavery existed here for over two hundred years, still longer than the time since it ended. And even after it legally ended, its poisonous legacy of racial injustice continues to this day. The fact is, just like slavery was a central part of the building of the Capitol Building, slavery is a central part of our national story.
Almost two thousand years ago the Apostle Paul wrote a letter to his friend Philemon. It was a personal letter, but one meant to be read in front of the whole church. And it was about slavery. Now ancient Roman slavery was different in some ways from American slavery. It wasn’t based on race. It was easier in some ways for ancient Roman slaves to gain education, social status, and their freedom. But at the heart of both systems was the idea that one human being could be another’s property. In Paul’s place and time that idea was taken for granted. So the letter Paul writes is radical.
There was a slave named Onesimus who had escaped from Philemon’s house. Somehow he made his way to Paul, where he became a Christian. An escaped slave would ordinarily face severe punishment or even death. But Paul writes to Philemon that he should take Onesimus back, not only without punishment, but “no longer as a slave, but as a beloved brother.” Scholars still debate whether Paul is actually telling Philemon to emancipate Onesimus, but I think the letter is fairly clear. For a wealthy person of status to forgive a runaway slave would already have meant significant loss of face in Roman society. To then free him and treat him as a brother would have been unheard of. But Paul says that’s simply what the gospel demands.
In today’s gospel Jesus tells us that following him has a cost. It might cost us money, or status, or possessions, or even loved ones or life itself. I wonder if Philemon realized the cost when he decided to follow Jesus. It cost him more than just the value of one enslaved worker. It cost him his sense of how his world functioned. It cost him his self-understanding as someone with more status. It cost him his ability to take for granted that the difference between him and Onesimus was just how the world worked. It cost him his illusions.
What illusions will following Jesus cost us?
We all have illusions about our society and our place in it. I remember as a child somehow having the belief that this country had never started a war, and never lost a war. I don’t know who taught me that or where I picked it up. I remember the surprise and kind of betrayal I felt as a teenager when I learned that neither of those things was true.
There can be a similar sense of surprise and betrayal for those of us raised on textbooks that gloss over this country’s racial history, and especially those of us like Philemon who happened to be born with some characteristics that gave us some social benefit and who have a vested interest in not thinking too hard about why that’s the case.
Today, for example, the average white household has a net worth ten times the average black household. That’s not because of working harder. Scholars can trace the wealth gap pretty directly from slavery, through Jim Crow laws, segregation, and redlining, up to the present day. That’s one part of the story. And there’s more to our national story about race too: the removal of indigenous people, the Chinese Exclusion Act, the interment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the treatment of Hispanic Americans and immigrants throughout our history, including the detention camps today. This country has been set up, since before it was a country, in ways that favor European settlers and their descendants. It doesn’t have to always be that way. If we hear Paul’s and Jesus’s words today, particularly for those of us who are white, there is a special responsibility—a necessity—to work to make sure it doesn’t stay that way. Facing our history is the first step toward changing our future. If we follow Jesus, it will cost us. But it will set us free.
 “Philip Reid and the Statue of Freedom,” Architect of the Capitol, https://www.aoc.gov/philip-reid-and-statue-freedom.
 “The median family wealth for white people is $171,000, compared with just $17,600 for black people.” Trymaine Lee, “A Vast Wealth Gap, Driven By Segregation, Redlining, Evictions and Exclusion, Separates Black and White America,” The 1619 Project, New York Times Magazine, August 14, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/racial-wealth-gap.html.
 Here I draw with thanks from Deacon Pamela Moore’s sermon “Confession and Forgiveness,” delivered at Epiphany Lutheran and Episcopal Church, Marina, CA, August 25, 2019.