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The Rev. Canon Mark E. Stanger’s sermon manuscript will be available soon.
Last Message for My Son
“You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” (2 Peter).
On September 9, 2001 full of hope I stood in the pulpit for my first sermon at our new church. I was about to preach about falling in love. But in the silence after the prayer, and before I could say a word, our then two year old son sitting in the back pew called out in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear. “Daddy!” In that unscripted moment I said back, “I love you too Micah.”
Since then I have been blessed to speak about Jesus to our children in sermons almost every Sunday of their lives. Over these years I have always remained grateful for this amazing gift. In a world where God is such a problem for so many people I get to speak about what I love most. This happens in a setting that is unhindered and undeterred by the norms or discomfort of secular society.
During that time I have preached some terrible sermons (I don’t know why but some of my worst have been about films). I have preached many not-yet-finished sermons that I didn’t really understand until a few days later. But there have also been those magical moments with gracious people sitting in the congregation like you are today. They looked interested and encouraged something to come out of me that can only be described as a gift from somewhere else.
So many times God has been with us in the sense of Ellen’s preaching prayer when she says, “Between the words that are spoken and the words that are heard may the God’s spirit be present.”
Today is my last chance, my last sermon with him as a child under our roof. In a week he turns eighteen and leaves for college. I have to let him go into the company of other preachers, to learn from other teachers.
It is so hard to know what to say. How do you prepare someone for the ugliness and cruelty of the world? How do you alert your child to the extraordinary holiness that also arises out of our daily experience? What is the wisdom that he will need in the future?
I suppose that it begins with a picture of what it means to be human. Ray Hart wrote a book called Unfinished Man and the Imagination. The implication of the title is that through the power of imagination we are constantly being finished by our connections with each other and God.
We are creatures primarily directed by our unconscious life, by the mysterious strivings, longings and fears that we rarely can even name. The moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes that we are ninety percent chimp. By this he means that we are extraordinarily selfish primates, looking out for ourselves first but immersed in “relentless competition of groups with other groups.” Haidt says that we are also ten percent honeybee. In the sense that we, “long to be part of something larger and nobler than ourselves.” I believe that there is more than this however.
This Thursday in the Cathedral lunchroom Mark Stanger talked about two competing Christian views of our situation. On the one hand there is the idea that the world is a minefield of evil, full of dangers. We have to avoid being trapped and damaged, ruined so badly that we loose ourselves. This picture focuses on the cruelty of the world and the unkindness that we recognize in our own hearts.
In a way we are in the impossible situation of being frenemies with God (that is, friend – enemies like Aaron Burr). Karl Barth (1886-1968) argues that creation does not come first as if it were separate from redemption. Our alienation from God is no further away from us than our creation. In every moment we depend for our existence on the same God that we reject through our thoughts and actions.
Barth writes, “To be sinners means that we have come to a place where our existence is absolutely inconceivable because at this place it can be only a plunge into nothing, where our existence can be understood only as an event of inconceivable kindness….” Another way to express this would be to say that sin cuts off the branch that we are sitting on.
For many years I have been working on a chapter in a book called The Oxford Handbook of Nineteenth-Century Christian Thought. It finally arrived in the mail last week. I wrote about changing views of nature. My story begins with the philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). In his later philosophy Kant explored the idea that we do not experience the world as it actually is (the noumena) but only as our senses and brain reconstruct it (the phenomena).
Kant also cared deeply about the freedom of human actions. For him what we know about God is ultimately based on morality, on our experience of the social world. By the end of the nineteenth century most Christians in most places concerned themselves almost entirely with the social world. I feel this especially when other kinds of Christians talk about what they believe. This picture of faith as relief from sin has an enormous power.
But as Mark Stanger says our tradition also offers another view of the human condition. In his words this picture of the world is “miraculous.” With a mysterious smile he quoted the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1884-1889). “The world is charged with the grandeur of God. / It will flame out like shook foil… For all this, nature is never spent / There lives the dearest freshness deep down things…/ Because the Holy Ghost over the bent / World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration, a feast dedicated to this second kind of faith. In my experience Anglicans care about sin and redemption but our hymns, art, culture, history and the spirit that animates us keep us from thinking that this is the only thing.
On Thursday night at evensong we sang Hymn 46. It conveys this sensibility. The second verse goes like this, “Now all the heavenly splendor breaks forth in starlight tender from myriad worlds unknown; and we, this marvel seeing, forget our selfish being for joy of beauty not our own.” You might have known this, “joy of beauty not our own.”
I imagine the disciples did long after his death in recalling the joy of being with Jesus. Jesus goes to a mountaintop to pray with his friends Peter, James and John. As he prays his image (eidos) changes and his clothes flash with the whiteness of lightning. Then the great prophets Moses and Elijah speak to him. Strangely Jesus’ friends feel weighed down by sleep but manage to stay awake. When Jesus, Moses and Elijah are done talking Peter says that he wants to build dwellings for them. Suddenly clouds cover them, the disciples are terrified and a voice declares Jesus to be God’s son (Lk. 9).
I want to point out one striking thing about the story. Although this may have been one of the most important moments of their lives, the disciples almost missed it by being asleep.
This week after yoga Sadvi Bhagawati Saraswati and I were on a panel together being interviewed. The first question was for her and it went like this. “Why are you a spiritual leader in India when it would have been so much easier for you to stay here and be an Episcopalian minister?”
Sadvi told the story of how she woke up. She grew up in the U.S. attended Stanford as an undergraduate and was a twenty-five year old psychology doctoral student when on a lark she decided to go to India. There she had an experience of God that changed her life. She did not choose this. She felt compelled. She said it was as if she had been walking along a beach picking up seashells when all of a sudden she came upon someone offering her diamonds instead. It was obvious to her that she should throw away all the seashells so that she could carry the jewels.
Every day you too are being offered diamonds. But too often we just sleep through it. Instead of waking up to transfiguration we are obsessed with how our bodies look, our accomplishments, how others perceive us. We are haunted by regrets about the past. We refuse to live in the present because of our dreams of the future.
This week I listened to a Dear Sugars Podcast about the struggles of teenagers. One twenty-year-old girl had been captain of her high school cross-country team, valedictorian, totally in control of her grades and weight. Everyone always commented about how beautiful she was. By the time she reached college she realized that she had an eating disorder. What struck me most about the broadcast was how much she and the hosts, and all of us, care so much about what people thought of us in high school.
What will it take for us to wake up out of this dreamlike existence, for us to stop trying to always win other people’s approval through our accomplishments and our appearance (from trying to win over even God)? How can we wake up to see the moments of transfiguration happening all around us? The Apostle Paul writes to his friends, “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead and Christ will shine upon you” (Eph. 5).
Something like this happened to me this weekend. My son and I went surfing at Bolinas for one last time before he leaves for college. On a perfectly still, impossibly temperate summer day we passed along the edge of the mirror-like lagoon and I felt an intense surge of emotion. Later we traded perfect glassy waves, just the two of us, resting only to watch the pelicans glide past. Above the rim of hills the sky, with distant high clouds and closer mists, seemed infinitely beautiful and mysterious.
In that moment it seemed like God said, “as far as you can see from Pedro Point in San Mateo County to Duxbury Reef, this is the world given for you.”
The last sermon is done and I can hardly believe that this season of our life is over. What I want for my son is the same thing I want for all of us. In terms of the first picture of faith, I pray that we are forces of compassion, justice and goodness, that through kindness our lives will build God’s kingdom. But I also pray for the second religious vision. I pray that we will recognize that the “world is charged with the grandeur of God.” I pray we will seek and discover “the joy of beauty not our own.
 Ray L. Hart, Unfinished Man and the Imagination (NY: Herder & Herder, 1968).
 Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (NY: Pantheon, 2012) 220.
 “To be sinners, as we are shown to be in the revelation of Jesus Christ, means that we have separated ourselves from the One without whom we would not be even in this separation and yet, separated from whom, we cannot be in any true or proper sense. To be sinners means that we have come to a place where our existence is absolutely inconceivable because at this place it can be only a plunge into nothing, where our existence can be understood only as an event of inconceivable kindness, or it cannot be understood at all.” Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics Volume 1, Part One Tr. G. W. Bromiley (NY: T&T Clark, 1956) 444.
 Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason (NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1965).
 Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1993).
 Gerard Manley Hopkins, Poems, 3rd Edition (Oxford University Press, 1948) 70.
 Hymn 46 from The 1980 Hymnal. Words Paul Gerhard, translated by Robert Seymour Bridges and others, Music, “O Welt, ich muss dich lassen, melody attributed to Heinrich Isaac (1450?-1517); harmony Johann Sebastian Bach.
 Tuesday 1 August 2017.
 The second element in the story that seems odd to me is Peter’s offer to make three dwellings (called skēnas in Greek). This is the same word that John uses in his prologue when he talks about the Word dwelling among us. Matthew writes that Peter did not know what he was saying. And yet I have a sense for why he did. I think that this refers to our longing to hold on to these moments of transfiguration. We want to stay on the mountain, to remain in that moment of unity with God forever. We can be so overcome by the beauty of holiness that we do not trust that God will give us this experience again.
Sermons from the last six months are listed below. Older sermons can be heard through iTunes podcast.
Eucharistic Practice and Learning to Live as Prisoners of Hope
“Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope”
Every night when it’s about time to go to bed
I engage in the same little game of self-sabotage
I’m embarrassed to admit
It looks a lot like a scene out of the Secret Life of Pets…
You know that moment when we’re introduced to Chloe the cat?
As soon as her human companion is gone
She swats away the dish of boring cat food, and opens to fridge
Only to find a jaw-dropping, drool-worthy roast chicken
She jumps up to get at it
but in a fleeting moment of self-control, hesitates –
she knows she’s about to do something wrong –
shaking her head in shame, and sinking down
But she can’t stay away…she has to have the chicken!
She opens the fridge again, glimpsing the juicy chicken
And freaks out as she tries, in vain, to restrain herself
Next scene: Chloe spitting out a chicken bone
Her eyes glazed over in a food-coma-induced-stupor
And we all roar with laughter as she rolls off
The fridge shelf, flopping to the floor, only to discover an irresistible cake.
We love Chloe because she is us. A clever parody of us.
We become cartoonish, too, when we behave this way.
Sub out a paw for a hand, and it’s pretty much the same story for me:
11pm comes around and…
A bowl of cereal, a bag of caramel popcorn, and an ice-cream sandwich later
And all those calories burned at gym are for naught.
You’ll be happy to learn that your priest goes to weekly confession,
And it looks something like this:
“Jude, why hasn’t your body fat index declined at all in the past 3 months?”
My only defense: “I love sweets, and they love me right back.”
We all struggle with doing good, and not doing bad;
But we all sometimes fail, too.
Chloe is Paul, too, or Paul, Chloe…whichever you prefer.
In a rare moment of vulnerability,
Paul steps outside his paternalistic comfort zone with the churches in his charge,
Putting himself on the proverbial couch for their benefit and ours.
He openly admits to the Church in Rome
That sometimes he misses the mark despite his best efforts.
In fact, he notices it’s precisely when he’s trying the hardest to do good
That he becomes most susceptible to sin’s power within him.
It’s a strange paradox:
“I do not understand my own actions.
For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”
Those are strong words coming from a man who elsewhere
Describes himself as “a slave to Jesus Christ,” and “in chains for the gospel.”
Even Paul finds himself a prisoner of less holy forces.
The subtext of this passage is clear, and clearly encouraging:
Take heart, beloved. Even super apostles don’t always get it right.
We know the good, we may even will the good,
But so often we choose the alternative,
We fill ourselves with empty half-pleasures,
And we do this through no one else’s influence but our own.
Thankfully, God’s grace is not depleted by our deficiency.
I chose a fairly silly example, but there are many more serious ones
If we but scan our hearts and take an honest inventory of our lives:
Refusing to be reconciled to a loved one
Because we are too convicted of our self-righteousness;
Returning over and over to destructive behaviors we know will not end well.
And this occurs along a spectrum, doesn’t it?
From the trivial to the highly consequential –
Bad habits on one end, and addiction on the other –
And from the personal to the social.
We talk about being addicted to fossil fuels in our society today,
I’m coming to believe we’re addicted to division, too –
That high we get from generated needless conflict.
We often think of addiction relating to things like illicit substances or sex,
But it may just as easily come in the form of food, anger, control, etc.
We have an endless capacity to fixate on things
That become impossible to detach from without a feeling of violent separation.
We all need God’s help overcoming these things,
And the good news is that God is more than willing to help us.
We just have to turn our hearts toward Wisdom.
As you consider what that looks like in your own life,
Consider also Jesus’ words in today’s gospel.
Like Paul, he names a powerful reality at work in us:
We are our own obstacle to the progress we desire.
To put it in the vernacular: we can be our own worst enemy.
Paraphrasing today’s gospel:
We are like children who can’t play with each other
Because we don’t know how to receive what’s already on offer.
Instead of receiving the gift freely, Jesus charges,
You’re always putting on airs, wearing unhelpful masks.
And, Jesus says, it’s exhausting.
“Come to me all who are weary.”
What wearies you tonight/this morning?
What do you need to lay down today?
Where do you need to take on Christ’s yoke of gentleness and humility?
Yoke is an interesting word,
One that’s no longer familiar to us in the post-industrial age.
It’s a piece of wood attached over two animals
So their combined energy can be harnessed to plow a field.
Darren often reminds us at yoga on Tuesdays
That the word “yoga” in Sanskrit simply means “yoke.”
We need spiritual practices to yoke ourselves to the very salvation we seek.
Yoga may be one of your practices, and at this table we engage in another:
The Eucharist, or Holy Communion.
Jesus commanded that we remember Him every time we gathered
Not because He requires our validation in any way,
But just the opposite –
Because he knew that we need holy habits to break unholy ones.
Here at this table we learn to yoke ourselves to God’s will for us
By surrendering our affections to that Love that remakes the world.
At this table, we learn that God already wills what’s good for us.
God’s life and power pulsing through the cosmos, and through our veins, wills it.
In Jesus, God comes very near to us, close enough to touch and heal us.
Close enough also to challenge us, to confront our own lowered expectations.
Time and again, Jesus demands that we not see ourselves as defeated.
“Very Truly I tell you: these things you shall do, and greater things still!”
Crucially, we learn by Jesus’ relationship to his disciples
That God is immensely patient with our own slowness of heart and ineptitude
As we stumble toward who God calls us to be.
And this divine compassion is very heart of our salvation.
“His compassion is over all His works.”
If someone in your life has ever mentored you through a significant challenge
You know what I’m talking about.
More often than not, the key to our success in those moments is humility.
Admitting that we don’t have all the answers
And opening ourselves to the possibility others may have something to teach us.
It’s not a coincidence that recovering addicts have such a strong,
instinctive grasp of God’s saving grace.
When I say salvation, I don’t mean from the hellfire hereafter.
I mean from the Gehennas that burn in our own hearts,
Threatening to consume everything around us.
How might your understanding of Communion change
If every time you approached this table you imagined yourself to be an addict?
So much of our lives may be characterized as learning, or not,
How to get out of our own way,
Learning how to say yes to our own thriving.
Here, at this table, God invites us to be prisoners of hope.
I love that phrase.
Take it in. Receive it. Claim it tonight/this morning.
Would that our lives were captive to hope instead of other things.
It begs the question of us:
Will we live in the grip of fear, or the grip of grace?
One will choke the life out of us,
The other will empower us to squeeze the sweet nectar out of life.
One is like vinegar, the other like wine.
Darren usually pauses during yoga on Tuesdays to remind us:
“Notice,” he says, “that the world outside is the same
As the one that was there before you came in;
But something feels different, something has changed.
Yoga isn’t about forcing everything around us to conform to our expectations
But letting go of that need, and in doing so, discovering true freedom.”
So a fun spiritual direction game to play with yourself is this: Is your inner life more like a tax collector of a prostitute?
Is it like a masquerade – mysterious even to you –
whose faceless dancers are nevertheless also your own invited guests.
Perhaps it’s charged with a sense of intrigue but also danger.
Or is your inner life more like an overly managed wedding reception –
meticulously choreographed down to the last detail –
guests not only known but strategically placed
so as not to upset the delicate social balance
that arises out of bringing in the new and the old, the familiar and the extended.
We come to the altar today of a God
Who prefers the company of prostitutes and tax collectors
To priests in their pious finery,
Who dances in our masquerade
in order to invite us to the table of Love’s true feast.
Who, by an act of unimaginable humility,
is content to remain veiled to the naked eye under the guise of bread and wine
That we, opening our hands in naked need of His saving grace
May see Wisdom lifting us out of our exhausted striving after passing things
And Into the eternal light of Her joyful presence.
Praise be that She always has the final Word.
Feast on that this tonight/morning.
Pentecost 4 – Proper 8 – 2017
I know you can’t tell it from my voice but I am a proud Canadian citizen, eh. I support the Blue Jays and enjoy poutine and say sorry a lot – and can get misty eyed when singing O Canada. Which I did yesterday. As I’m sure many of you know, July 1st is Canada Day and yesterday was particularly special as it was 150 years since confederation. I celebrated my love for my adopted country and its wonderful multiculturalism, its work for peace in the wider world, its self-deprecating humour and its universal health care. Just as many on Tuesday will celebrate the freedom and independence and optimism and openness and passion that make the United States of America such a great country. But let’s get real, neither the USA nor even Canada is the kingdom of God on earth.
It’s easy to have rose-coloured view of places we don’t live. Before I moved to Canada I had no idea of the depths of colonialism and racism that were present there. Not white/black racism but white/Asian racism as well as colonial racism towards indigenous peoples. There are many First Nations reserves in Canada facing on-going poverty and deprivation leading to distressing levels of youth suicide. Don’t believe that your northern neighbour has got everything right because we haven’t.
And none of us just at the moment are likely to believe that we in the US have got everything right. The threat to take basic healthcare away from millions, the deeply engrained racism that makes the police a source of fear rather than reassurance to many black Americans, the gun culture that makes death by shooting the 3rd highest cause of death among children in the United States.
Where is the prophet of peace that Jeremiah spoke of? The one whose words, when they come true, will signal the deep will of God for peace throughout the world. Where is he? When I was a little girl I dreamed of a gallant knight on a white charger who would ride bravely in and set everything right. Sometimes I dreamed I was the princess waiting to be set free but, as often, I saw myself in the figure of the knight – the rescuer rather than the one needing rescue. And I think that’s where we’re at today – we are to be the rescuers, the prophets of peace, the knights – not the spoiled princesses waiting for our world to be set right.
One of our contemporary gallant knights is the lawyer and writer Bryan Stevenson who works with prisoners on death row. His book Just Mercyi is a heartbreaking and soul-stirring picture of the injustices that poor and especially black defendants face in many courts in America. Stevenson writes not to boast of his own altruism and courage but to move his readers to help change an unjust system. And he offers a four-step plan for doing so – four steps that happens to echo all of this week’s Bible readings.
Stevenson’s first step towards change is to get proximate. Get up close and personal with those you want to help. Don’t drop kindness down on them from a great height but get to know them and their needs and the solutions that they suggest. Be like the prophets – one of the people. Not a class set apart but individuals embedded in the world of those to whom they speak God’s words.
Let me tell you of one time when I got proximate. It was during the Truth and Reconciliation process in Canada. A time when churches and the government faced up to the damage they had inflicted on First Nation families through the residential school system. In these schools children were not allowed to speak their language or to follow their own customs but were cruelly divided from their families and, often brutally, indoctrinated with western values and culture.
One small act of reconciliation was to knit prayer shawls and offer them to residential school survivors, along with a deep apology. With others from the church I took these shawls to one of the large Reconciliation events. I was fearful – I expected accusation, rightful anger and rejection. But one survivor in her 60’s let me place a shawl around her shoulders while she spoke words of gentleness and thanks. She put aside my guilt with her forgiveness. She allowed us to see one another with respect as equals. She helped me to see First Nations women and men as my sisters and brothers rather than as a problem to be solved.
Get proximate – truly see the marginalized people you work beside for change. And then move on to Stevenson’s second step – change the narrative. Tell a different story. Like Paul says in his letter to the Romans, stop telling a story focused on sin and start telling a story focused on grace. How transformative is that! To focus on God’s gift to us, to focus on the gift that we are to one another. To see the world as a playground for God’s joy and grace not a battleground for a war against sin. Change the narrative – tell God’s story of gift and life and grace taking the place of sin and guilt and death! Tell America’s story of welcome and hope and embracing the refugee until it replaces a narrative of exclusion and fear and discriminatory travel bans!
Get proximate. Change the narrative. Third step – stay hopeful. This is one of the reasons we gather together on a Sunday morning. Not just to bathe our souls in the beauty of this building and the beauty of this music. But to remind ourselves that we are not alone in our yearning to change the world. We are companioned by a whole host of other flawed and wonderful human beings who seek the commonwealth of God. And we are fed and nurtured and called and liked and empowered by God’s very self. By the God who tells us that when we offer welcome to another person we are offering it to God.
How can we not stay hopeful when we see God so abundantly present with us? Here at the altar as God gives us his very self for food. Here in the pews as we see God in one another’s wounded and glorious faces. Out there in all those people who need a cup of water from our hands. Out there in all those willing to accept the gifts that transform us in the giving. That moment with the First Nations woman was far more transformative for me the giver than for her the recipient.
Get proximate. Change the narrative. Stay hopeful. Just one more. Be prepared to be uncomfortable. Justice work isn’t easy. It isn’t achieved simply by preaching or by listening to sermons. It’s achieved by being willing to be open to the pain of the world. To be fully present to the damage that human beings do to one another. Remember what Jesus said earlier in this chapter of Matthew – I am sending you out as sheep among wolves. We won’t change the world unless we are willing to get out there, to go to sketchy places, to talk with angry people, to stand up for those too frightened and vulnerable to stand up for themselves.
Canada Day, the Fourth of July, should never be mindless celebrations of blind patriotism – ‘my country, right or wrong’. They should be days on which we do celebrate all that we’ve been given on this beautiful continent, and all that we have given to God’s world from here. But they should also be days on which we look honestly and fearlessly at what still needs to change. At what needs to happen to bring God’s rule of peace and justice to our land. How we can make the voice of God’s prophet of peace heard above the hubbub of self-interest. How we can weave a narrative from a place of grace not sin. How we can offer a drink of water to the little ones who need it most. How we can make America as beautiful in spirit as God made her in creation, more truly than ever the land of the brave and the home of the free.
Reference: Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2014.
The Rev. Canon Mark E. Stanger’s sermon manuscript will be available soon.
There’s a lot of talk at the moment on social media about the Danish concept of hygge. Have you heard of it? It’s a word for that feeling you get on a cold and foggy afternoon when you’re curled up with a cup of tea and some chocolates and your favourite slippers on your feet and the person you most like to be with is curled up there too and all is snug and comfy and copacetic. I can feel my shoulders lowering and my mouth relaxing into a smile just thinking about it. The bliss of being warm and safe and comfortable! Hygge sounds so much more like good news than today’s gospel.
Did you hear what was being said to us? Shake off the dust from your feet of homes that do not welcome you, that everyone was harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd, that you will be hated because of my name, and worst of all, especially on Father’s Day: ‘brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death.’ Where is the good news in this? I want my slippers and chocolates and a whole Danish hygge-fest!
The easiest way to slip back into a hygge world is to dismiss this gospel as a word for its time and not for ours. That the gospel writer is expressing a reality for the early church that we have left behind us. And that is partially true. Whatever fundamentalist preachers might want you to believe, Christians are not a persecuted group in the western world today. Check your privilege if for a moment you believe that this society is out to get you because you attend church. Or better yet talk with a Jew whose cemetery has been desecrated, a Muslim whose mosque has been vandalized, or a black southern Christian whose church has been burned by white southern ‘Christians’. There are places in the world where to profess faith in Christ is a path to persecution – we should remember our sisters and brothers of faith in Coptic churches, in Iraq, in parts of Nigeria – but we should not pretend that we share their vulnerabilities and dangers.
What we do share with the early church is a world where, despite its beauty and its wonder, there is violence, injustice and many feel harassed and helpless. There are still families which are torn apart by anger and resentment, homes that, far from being sanctuaries of cozy rest, are places of fear and intimidation for children and women, and occasionally men. I am still haunted by a memory from seminary when I was helping in a poor and understaffed local school. I can still picture one six year old boy crying and cursing and running away from his teacher and myself, begging not to be sent home to his temporary foster home. Not that he was abused there, not in most definitions of abuse, but just that he knew he wasn’t truly seen and valued and loved by those who were taking care of him. And let’s not forget that unhappy homes are not the prerogative of the poor and the ‘other’– there will be people in church today for whom home has been – maybe still is – a place of violence and fear.
This is getting grim for any Sunday, let alone one with the family focus of Father’s Day! So let’s hunt down the good news that is here. The good news that is harder edged than mere coziness but also far more effective in refreshing the human soul and the human situation. The heart of this for me is those short few words that occur early on – he (Jesus that is) had compassion on them – and what arises from them. Jesus doesn’t just wipe away a pitying tear and get on with life. He calls a group together, shares authority with them, and sends them out with orders to make a difference. In the language of that time ‘to cast out evil spirits’. In the language of our time to address the social as well as bodily ills that corrupt and twist and destroy individuals and whole societies.
This is one of the foundation stories of the church. This story is one of the reasons that Grace Cathedral, in all its beauty and grandeur and tradition, actually exists. This group of people being sent out to make a difference. This group of people who are, delightfully, called to be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves. This group of people who are called to be vulnerable, to be non-violent – to be sheep among wolves – but who are also expected to change the world and begin to heal its hurts.
We sometimes talk about the church as a family, but that’s an image I’m not too comfortable with. While, for most of us, family is a place of nurture and belonging and love it can also, as we’ve said, be a place of violence and hurt. I can’t forget the one unclaimed body from the Pulse massacre a year ago. A bereaved father refusing to collect his murdered son’s remains because that son was gay. ‘Family values’ as usually defined are not necessarily Christian values. They have become shorthand for valuing those people who most closely resemble us – our own kin first, then our own community, our own race, nationality and class, our own sexual orientation. Family values come to have more to do with deciding who is acceptable and who isn’t than with challenging all people to live lives of inclusive love.
This is not something that’s actually very easy for us to grasp. This is something that it was not very easy even for Jesus to grasp. There’s a line in this gospel that I wish I could ignore, because it challenges my belief that God is for all of us. But that’s cowardly for a Christian – we need to look harder at the places where our certainties are challenged not look away – and even more cowardly for a preacher. (It’s actually a good rule of thumb – never trust a preacher who ignores the troubling verses) It’s where Jesus says to the apostles: ‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of Israel.” In other word, don’t go to the ‘others’ just stay within the family.
It is true that family and clan and race was where Jesus started. Like all of us, this was his comfort zone, his familiar territory. But this was not where Jesus ended. Remember last week’s gospel – the resurrected Christ sending his followers into all the world – that was where Jesus ended. Our incarnate God was completely human. Like us he had to learn to see the value in the other, like us his heart grew wider and more open the more he experienced God’s compassion living in him, like us his life involved a process of growth and learning. There is comfort and consolation here. We cannot judge our own limitations too harshly when we see these in the one we follow. We can know that we, like Jesus, can grow beyond our beginnings into heart-strong lovers of all God’s creation.
So, my dear wise serpents and innocent doves, my dear church sent to be God’s healing presence in the world, this is the good news for this Father’s Day and for every day. Not just that God loves us but that God has a job for us to do. Not one that means we can always sit at home by a warm fire with slippers on our feet hygge-style. But one that means we can be the fire – God’s fire to warm and transform the world, a fire of healing, a source of warmth for the desolate and a fierce flame of compassion to burn out injustice. Those of you lucky enough to have loving good-enough fathers still with you, embrace them and celebrate and cherish them. And then turn your face to the world and go and do God’s work.
The Very Rev. Dr. Alan Jones’ sermon manuscript will be available soon.
The Rt. Rev. Marc Handley Andrus preached without a manuscript.