Sermon of the Month
Easter 6C 2016: Do you want to be made well?
When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” (John 5:6)
Good morning! It was lovely this rainy morning to step into our newly repaired and painted sanctuary — the sort of delightful new thing that is in keeping with the Easter season.
This Sixth Sunday of Easter is Camp Sunday in our diocese, and we should hear more about that at announcement time. There’s something about spending time in the outdoors with new friends from across the diocese that makes the camp experience a consistent catalyst for spiritual growth in our children and teen-agers. And in harmony with the outdoor theme, today is also Rogation Sunday, the beginning of the traditional Rogation Days when we pray for a successful growing season and, as a sort of American update to the old English customs of Rogation, think about and pray about environmental stewardship.
For most of Omaha outside of our walls, though, this weekend is known more for the big Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting that brings lots of visitors here. One of the visitors this year, Dr. James Hansen, was here to advocate for a shareholders’ resolution on climate change. Dr. Hansen, a former climate scientist for NASA who is now a full-time climate advocate, also lectured at Creighton University Friday evening on the topic “Energy and Climate Change: How Can Justice Be Achieved for Young People?”
I’m pretty sure most of the people gathered at that lecture were unaware of the exquisite timing of having a leading climate scientist in our midst as we Episcopalians begin our annual observance of the Rogation Days, but it delighted me. In my work in environmental stewardship and environmental justice, I’m well aware of the very critical and uniquely challenging situation we are in with regards to climate change caused by global warming. Things are much more dire than people might guess from the disproportionately small amount of attention the news media and political establishment give climate change, and it’s tempting to be discouraged. But as a Christian, I’m also aware of the hope in which we live always, no matter what. Hearing Dr. Hansen talk about the problems we face and possible solutions, and being in the company of more than 700 people who were willing to spend their Friday evening thinking about these things, was both sobering and heartening.
One of the questions for Dr. Hansen at the end of his talk was from a woman who said that when she had told a couple of other people that she was planning to go to a lecture about climate change, their reaction had been one of what she described as “fatalism” — basically the idea that there’s nothing we can do about this big problem, so why bother? Her question for Dr. Hansen was focused on how we can combat this fatalism: how can we help people feel empowered rather than fatalistic. Being immersed in this morning’s Gospel lesson, I realized how this new question about climate change can be answered at least in part by this old story from John’s Gospel.
This story has a lot to say about why we so often fail to do the things that would make us — and our planet — well, that would make us healthy, whole, and holy. And this story also tells us something about hope, especially the kind of hope that empowers us to take on big challenges.
This story in John’s Gospel is unlike the other Gospel stories about Jesus healing people. In the other stories, someone seeks out Jesus. Think of the story that precedes this morning’s lesson in John’s Gospel: the healing of the son of the royal official. John tells us that when the official heard that Jesus had arrived in Galilee, “he went and begged him to come down and heal his son, for he was at the point of death.” Jesus says the word, and on his way home the royal official learns that his son’s fever has left him. Or think of the man whose friends lowered him through the roof of a house lying on his mat when they couldn’t get near the door to bring their friend to Jesus for healing. Or think of the woman whose years of hemorrhaging had made her such an outcast that she didn’t dare to think of speaking to Jesus. But even she approached Jesus, though not in his direct line of sight, sure that if she could just touch the cloak of his garment she would be made well. In today’s passage, though, the situation is reversed: Jesus approaches this man who had been ill in some way for 38 years and asks him, “Do you want to be made well?”
It may seem an odd question to ask someone who shows up every day at the place where people go in hope of being healed, but then the man gives an odd answer. Instead of a simple, “Yes, I want to be healed”, he gives an explanation of why he hasn’t been healed. Tradition said that an angel periodically stirred up or “troubled” the water in the pool. The belief was that at the moment when the water was stirred up, it had healing properties, and the first person in the pool when the water was stirred up would be healed. The man explains to Jesus that he has no one to put him into the pool when the water moves, and that by the time he can make his way to the pool on his own, someone else always steps down into the water ahead of him.
In offering an explanation rather than an answer, this man may be telling Jesus more about why he doesn’t expect to be healed than about whether he wants to be healed. Maybe he can’t even make sense of wanting something that seems unattainable.
The puzzling thing is that even though what this man has done for years hasn’t worked in the past and is unlikely to work in the future, he keeps on doing the same thing day after day after day.
Why does he do that? It could be that, inaccessible as the pool is to him, it’s still the most accessible means of healing he knows. Maybe he continues his vigil by the pool because it’s his only hope of any sort. Or maybe it isn’t hope at all that keeps him coming back for another day of the same thing; maybe the familiarity of even this discouraging routine holds some sort of comfort that keeps him from changing what he does. His answer to Jesus’s question does indeed sound like the answer of a fatalist as much as it does someone with hope. That may be because there isn’t that much difference between false hope and fatalism. False hope is simply the optimist’s way of being fatalistic. Both work on the assumption that nothing we can do or are doing will make any difference; both assume that our fate and our present choices are unrelated.
False hope is magical thinking, wishing that the familiar thing we keep doing that isn’t helping us at all might magically produce the results we want.
I recall some students from my teaching days who wouldn’t read the books or engage in class discussions all semester yet hoped — in this false sense of hope, I assure you — that they might pull a good grade out of the course at the end of the semester.
That’s false hope. Real hope is something very different. The hope that Jesus offers is always real hope. In this story, we, the hearers of the story, begin to see hope the moment Jesus notices the man and speaks to him.
The startling beauty of the story lies in what Jesus does next. Having heard the non-answer to the question about whether this man wants to be healed, Jesus says, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” Jesus answers the explanation by cutting to an unimagined alternative. Jesus does just what we celebrate throughout the Easter season: he shows us something new and unexpected, creating a way where there was no way, creating hope where there was no real hope.
The sort of hope that Jesus brings isn’t a passive false hope that somehow everything will turn out well without our changing anything; Jesus brings genuine hope that calls us to act by embracing the new thing that Jesus offers. Real hope can feel risky because it calls us to abandon something familiar in favor of something we haven’t even fully imagined.
“Stand up, take your mat and walk” would be a cruel thing to say unless we somehow know, as Jesus seems to in this case, that the person really does have the capacity to get up and walk. Jesus simply calls us to do what we can do. When we do have the capacity to do something different – whether we had that capacity all along or have through an encounter with Jesus experienced the beginning of healing that we ourselves have the power to accept and complete – then being told to get up and walk is exactly what we may need. When we have the capacity to make different choices, to choose health over sickness, wholeness over brokenness, holiness over sin, then Jesus calls us to get up and do something.
Individuals, parishes, communities, and all of us on God’s good green Earth get stuck more often than we might like. Often when we get stuck in a bad place we put our energy into reciting to ourselves and to others our explanation of why we can’t do anything else instead of putting our energy into the disciplined work of getting up and doing something new. We might dodge the question “Do you want to be made well?”, or we might express a vague desire for our own lives and our common life to be better — maybe we even dream of the assurance of a stable climate that can continue to support human civilization and diverse forms of life on our planet — but our inaction and our sometimes contrary actions answer the question “Do you want to be made well?” with a resounding “No”.
Do we want to be made well? That’s a big question for all of us. Because if we want to become healthy, whole, and holy in our own lives, in our parishes and communities, and in the biosphere that sustains life on this planet, if we tell Jesus we want to be made well, we are also telling Jesus that we are ready to make some changes. We are telling Jesus we are willing to imagine with him a way to live that differs from what we are doing now, and we are saying we are willing to risk getting up and getting to work doing something new. Jesus invites us into his creativity; Jesus invites us to be empowered to engage our creativity and find a way for all of God’s children to have a chance at healthy, whole, and holy lives.
The words of this morning’s Collect remind us that God’s promises “exceed all that we can desire”. May we have the grace and imagination to believe God’s promises and accept the real hope Jesus offers us; may we have the grace to abandon false hope and fatalism in favor of the full life Jesus offers us all. Amen.
Preached by Archdeacon Betsy Blake Bennett at Church of the Resurrection, Omaha, May 1, 2016
The first thing to say this morning is that it’s still Christmas. The feast of Christmas doesn’t just last for one day, but rather extends over a full twelve days. We’re called to celebrate each of those days like Christmas. The cycle of our liturgical seasons is designed to give us a chance to steep ourselves a little in the major events of our faith so that our lives begin to be shaped in even deeper ways by what God has done for us. So find some way, every day, for the next ten days, to celebrate, even if it’s just in tiny ways.
Every year on the first Sunday after Christmas, our gospel lesson is the opening passage of John’s gospel. There are three very different Christmas stories in the Bible: Luke’s is the one with the shepherds, Matthew’s is the one with the wise men, and John’s is like the art house film version: abstract, experimental, maybe even a little obtuse. In Greek, it is written as a poem, and like all good poetry, it rewards repeated readings, and is most rewarding when you grab just a nugget here and there to chew on for a while. So I would encourage you to take your bulletin with you and just revisit this through this week as you celebrate Christmas and just see what grabs you at different points.
There were two that stuck out for me in particular this week that I’ll say just a few things about this morning:
The first is really the punch line of the whole thing: “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.” Most of us basically hear this as a simple statement of the improbable doctrine that God became human in the person of Jesus. But there’s a lot more going on here than that.
A better translation of the phrase “dwelt among us” in Greek is the “pitched his tent among us.” It doesn’t have the same literary gravitas, but it’s linguistically more accurate. So this isn’t just a one-time event, but rather it’s an ongoing characteristic of God to become one of us. The sense here is that God hangs out with us, God moves into the neighborhood.
At the first Christmas, God moved into the neighborhood of ancient Israel. Today, God is always moving into whatever our neighborhoods happen to be. God is constantly showing up as one of us. That means a big part of the life of faith is not just worshipping Jesus in here, but learning how to spot where Jesus is showing up out there.
And the other real nugget in this poem for me reminds us that whenever God moves into the neighborhood, it looks like light shining in darkness. The earlier punch line in the poem comes as “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
When God moves into the neighborhood, it looks like the light of staff and volunteers at the Yates community center working tirelessly to care for and support refugees as they begin to rebuild their lives after fleeing trauma that’s hard for us to imagine. When God moves into the neighborhood, it looks like young black leaders in Ferguson, or Baltimore, or wherever pointing out that the sin of racism continues to pervade our national life at every level. When God moves into the neighborhood, it looks like the voices of those who are calling our political leaders out on the hateful rhetoric of fear toward immigrants, and refugees, and even Muslim citizens of this country. When God moves into the neighborhood, it looks like a meal delivered to a family after a death, like a visit to a hospital bedside, like a marriage healed, or a petty grievance forgiven and let go. It’s happening everywhere, all the time, and we do this in here so that we can spot it, and join God out there in lighting the darkness.
Christmas is also a time when that particular interplay of light and darkness is most complexly mingled and the edges of both become most acute. For all the feasting and rejoicing, the time with family and the warm, sentimental scenes, this is also a time when we feel the absence of loss most bluntly, and the pangs of whatever grief we carry more sharply. In the midst of that, we have this nugget to carry with us this week: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not [will not] overcome it.”
Despite all that is dark in the world, despite all that is dark in our own lives, God is still moving into the neighborhood, light still shines in the darkness, and despite all logic, we are here, together with a few billion Christians around the world who are doing this same thing today, together with angels and archangels and all those lights who have sat in these pews since 1883, those lights who have sat around the table at our Christmas feasts. We are all gathered together in this moment, defying the darkness again, claiming God promise that it doesn’t get the last word. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Amen.
Dean Craig Loya
 This translation appears in Peterson, Eugene. The Message. NavPress: 2007. Carol Stream, IL
You can follow Dean Loya’s blog at http://fromthedean.com/
Several years ago, a priest I know in another diocese had one of those small crises that pop up from time to time in churches. Several people approached him during an otherwise typical week with the shocking news that the parish children had been coloring in the prayer books! There followed lots of hand wringing among a group of parishioners, and then discussion at a staff meeting about what should be done. After several rounds of these conversations, my friend got up, walked out of the church office, down the street to the local toy store, and bought about fifty dollars worth of small etch-a-sketches to put in the back of the church for kids to play with while they sat in the service. So all the handwringing and discussing was easily solved with about ten minutes and fifty dollars. Seemingly big problem. Very simple solution.
That feels like the idea in today’s gospel lesson, too. If you thought John the Baptist was wild last week, this week shows us he was just getting warmed up. He shifts into a much higher homiletic gear and shouts at the congregation that has journeyed out into the wilderness: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” His message is essentially you have screwed up, your religious credentials aren’t going to save you, and God’s full wrath is about this far away.
The people are unfazed by his tantrum, they’re still right there with him, and they ask: “What then shall we do?” John’s response is shockingly simple. He basically says: “share what you have with people who need it, be honest, and don’t exploit others for your own gain.” All of that impending doom and destruction can be avoided if the people will essentially do the things we teach preschoolers to do.
But if you stop and think for a minute about what it would be like if everyone actually started doing the things we teach preschoolers to do: sharing what we have, being honest and straightforward, not using other people for our own ends—the world would be vastly different. What would it be like if in the midst of the deep divisions in our country, our political leaders just started doing those three things? What would it be like if we really acted like that in our offices and schools and homes, and even at church?
John the Baptist is so passionate and wild in his rant because the gospel of Jesus is about utterly upending the way the world normally works. The gospel of Jesus looks like revolution to a world that is comfortable where some have more than they could ever use, and others lie hungry and naked in the street. The gospel of Jesus looks like revolution to a world where it’s ok to scapegoat refugees who are fleeing unspeakable violence and danger. The gospel of Jesus looks like revolution to a world where it still seems ok to fear and exclude God’s beloved children because of the nation they come from, the language they speak, or the religion they practice. The gospel of Jesus looks like revolution when we passively sit by and do nothing while people are massacred every day in schools and offices and clinics. That’s why John is on such a revolutionary rampage.
But the really crazy thing for us is that our job in the midst of this is so unbelievably simple and ordinary: share what you have, be honest with each other, practice compassion and mercy instead of using other people as objects for our own gain.
These weeks I’ve been away from you have been full of news that is hard to make sense of: terror in Paris, shootings in Colorado and California, disturbing rhetoric and even outright attacks on Muslims and immigrants. None of us are really all that powerful in the grand scheme of things, and in the face of all of it, we can find ourselves asking, like the crowds in today’s gospel: what then shall we do?
Generously share what you have. Be honest and straightforward with others. Look at the people around you as sacred and beloved children of God, there for you to serve and love, rather than objects to be feared or used to build yourself up. We may not be able to change a geo-political reality where one country casts off hundreds of thousands of people, and others blame those same people for the very violence they are fleeing, but we all have our little corner of the garden to tend: in our families, in our schools, in our offices, in this city. We join Jesus’ revolution when we are extravagantly generous with what we have, when we are honest with each other, and where we honor our baptismal promise to respect the dignity of every human being. Big problems. Simple solutions we are called to.
I came across a 2010 article in Wired magazine this week that detailed a study that determined acts of kindness and generosity and compassion are literally contagious. When we see generosity and compassion, we are hard wired to imitate them. That means the little acts we practice in our own little corners can, little by little, begin to infect the whole world with God’s peace and love.
If you’re wondering why the vestments today are pink, it’s because today is Gaudete Sunday. The word simply means rejoice in Latin, and in the midst of the darkness of the season, and the more penitential character of Advent, it’s a glimpse of light and joy springing up in the darkness.
That’s what all of us who follow Jesus, who claim to be part of his revolution, are called to be in the midst of our dark and fearful world: small points of light, springing up in the darkness.
In the midst of all that is dark and fearful and overwhelming in our world, I can’t think of any better wisdom than today’s reading from Phillipians: “Rejoice in the Lord always. . .Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Commit those thoughts to your memory. Write them down and stick them above your desk or on the dash of your car or wherever. Let them strengthen you in your own corner of the garden to be light in the midst of darkness, joy in the midst of sorrow, life in the midst of death. Amen.
Dean Craig Loya
You can follow Dean Loya’s blog at http://fromthedean.com/
(Bishop Barker delivered this Thanksgiving sermon at an ecumenical church gathering in DeWitt, Nebraska this past week on November 18th.)
Thanksgiving – “Do not worry” – Matthew 6:25-33
Hold Thou me Lord that I may uplift Thee. Amen.
Happy Thanksgiving my brothers and sisters.
My favorite holiday, bar none! I love the food. I love the football. As a pastor – I’ll tell you the truth – I love that of all the big holy days hardly anything is expected of me on Thanksgiving! Just figure out one heartfelt table blessing and we’re good to go!
What’s not to love about this All-American holiday?
I have so many memories associated with Thanksgiving. I’ll bet all of you do to.
– As a child my whole extended family lived in the same Nebraska town, and we gathered around an enormous feast at my parent’s house with every traditional thanksgiving food you could hope for … and all the zaniness you’d expect from the many assembled crazy cousins and tipsy uncles …
– As a young adult I travelled far away for college and seminary, and had neither the time or money to return to Nebraska at this time of year. I remember being welcomed into the homes of various friends over that stretch, and being both thankful for their kindness and a little sad about being away form the ones I loved most …
– I remember preaching once – about fifteen years ago – at an ecumenical Thanksgiving service just like this one. My brother had taken his own life just a couple of weeks before then, and I struggled – how I struggled – to find a way to give thanks during that hard season.
I can only imagine the many wonderful stories that all of you would share about this beautiful, holy time of year. I know I’m not the only one who loves Thanksgiving.
This afternoon’s Gospel passage is the one most closely associated with the Thanksgiving holiday. It’s interesting to me that of all the words of Jesus, these are the one’s that we always remember at this time every year:
Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.
Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?
Jesus goes on to further unpack these ideas in what is one of the most beautiful and well-known passages from the Sermon on the Mount. And the key idea here – the phrase which is repeated no fewer than three times in this short Gospel passage, is exactly and precisely this: Do not worry.
Do not worry about what you will wear. Do not worry about what you will eat. Do not worry about what you will drink. Is our loving God not present and active? Can’t you count on God?
I’m not sure there is a more important hope and expectation articulated anywhere else in the life and teaching of Jesus Christ. If we count up the times Jesus says, “Do not be afraid,” “Do not be anxious,” “Do not worry,” or “Fear not” we’ll quickly discover that it’s one of the most oft repeated phrases in the whole entire Bible …
That it is a teaching that lies right near the heart of the Holy Gospel.
Boy – do we need to hear our Savior offering this teaching here today. I’m not sure that in my lifetime I have ever seen or felt this country – and our churches – any more fearful and fretful than we seem to be right now.
The litany of things that cause us to be fearful is long and growing:
– We’re fearful about an uncertain economy – and the prospect of losing a job or being the one in charge when a farm or family business fails.
– We’re fearful for our small communities worried they will not be able to survive for another generation … that way of life is passing before our very eyes.
– We’re fearful of people from different cultures and customs … we’re untrustworthy of people with different religious beliefs than our own …
– We’re fearful about the power of government – either because it’s out of touch and asking too much … or because it’s out of touch and doing too little.
We’re worried about all kinds of smaller and daily stuff too: like our kids, and budgets and chores and relationships.
Right now we are a worrying people my brothers and sisters … and God knows, that worrying – that fear – does not bring out the best in us.
You probably remember that Thanksgiving was fixed as a national holiday right in the middle of the Civil War. There had been various statewide celebrations of thanks – especially around the harvest time – but it was President Lincoln who – at the urging of a wonderful activist by the name of Sarah Josepha Hale – finally made the thing official.
It happened in 1863 by way of a Presidential Proclamation, in which Lincoln said in part:
The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.
To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.
In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity … order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict …. the plough, the shuttle, the ship and the axe have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore.
No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.
I know this has been a year for many of you too!
2015 will be remembered in DeWitt as the year of the great flood … and the great hailstorm – all set against a backdrop of tensions at home and abroad that we read about in the paper and watch on TV and follow on line – and that make us nervous, and worrisome and scared.
But as followers of Jesus – as disciples of Christ – we have got to always remember and celebrate that fact of who we belong to … and what he accomplishes for us … and how we’re called to be his people in this here and now:
– We are a people who lift up hope – even in the face of challenges daunting and fearsome … for we know the miraculous power of God and the certainty that God accompanies us on every step of our earthly pilgrimages …
– We are a people who are bold to love and care – even when we have been betrayed or hurt or wronged in the most crippling way, because we too have been loved and forgiven … no matter how far we might have wandered from God’s embrace …
– We are a people who do not fear … a people who are brave to shout “Alleluia” even in the face of death itself … because we know that in Christ the power of death has been defeated forever.
What is there to fear if Christ is at our side on every day and in every place we journey?
At the end of that first Thanksgiving proclamation, President Lincoln wrote:
It has seemed to me fit and proper to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.
And I recommend that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, [we] do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers …
And fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it soon.
It is hard to love and serve when we are afraid. That’s the simple truth. It is impossible to do the work God has asked us to do – to respond to the call that Christ has placed on each and every one of our lives – if we live in fear.
This Thanksgiving, when you gather with the people you love and keep the traditions that make the day special for you and yours, remember the words of Jesus that have been so long remembered by the Church on this holy day …
Let us give thanks no only for the fruits of the harvest … for the blessings and freedoms we enjoy as citizens of this place …
But for the possibility of living a different kind of life altogether as brothers and sisters in Christ … as followers of Jesus: “Do not be afraid,” “Do not be anxious,” “Do not worry.”
+ J.S. Barker
May only God’s word be spoken, and may only God’s word be heard. Amen!
In a little while, Tangle Blue, is going to sing our offertory music. They’ll sing a song they wrote years ago called “I will not let you Go” The chorus is simple:
No matter what,
No Matter what may come,
No matter what may come I will not let you Go.
Joel and Aimee’ sing this to remind us–to remind us that God will not let us Go. Because God has already acted. Jesus is the king, and we can not be separated from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
I thought of their song as I meditated on our Gospel passage today. This dramatic scene between Jesus and Pilate is wrought with tension and unexpectedly hope. First, let’s set the scene. Jesus has been arrested, beaten, probably not given food or drink for hours. Clothes ripped and torn, face bloody and bruised Jesus stands before Pilate the Roman governor of Israel. Pilate, unlike Jesus, reeks of splendor and power. Pilate is the physical manifestation of the Roman Empire. Armor gleaming, scarlet robes immaculate, plumage combed, pilate oozes dominance and control from his very pores. With this overt power differential Jesus should be hopeless. Yet, when Pilate asks if Jesus is a king, Jesus responds that Pilate can’t understand Jesus’ Kingship because it is not of this fallen violent world. Jesus’ kingdom doesn’t work like Rome, if it worked like Rome his followers would be killing and dying to get him released. So, Pilate can’t comprehend Jesus’ Kingship because Pilate has no frame of reference for a peace-able kingdom. Instead Jesus just stands and simply says, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Jesus is convinced and therefore speaks with legitimate hope because God’s kingdom is based on love not hate, peace and not violence. Jesus is hopeful. His trust and hope is so deep, so strong he refuses to do violence upon Pilate Jesus trusts God not himself for redemption. There is hope here for us because of all the horrible things that we have done and do to Jesus, it is no worse than what Pilate is threatening to do to Jesus, it simply isn’t worse than crucifixion. If Jesus can stand peacefully and hopefully in front of Pilate, then Jesus waits for us in hope as well.
Today is our pledge Sunday, the day we make commitments to God through the Church of the Resurrection. More importantly than keeping the lights on, our building warm, and our staff paid, giving is a statement of Hope. The powers that be out there in the fallen world can’t understand giving to God through a church. The powers ask, “where’s the return on investment” what do you earn by giving? Return on investment, however, isn’t the point. Giving, in and of itself, is the point. Giving is hopeful because it is an outward visible sign of trusting God instead of trusting money. Giving is hopeful because it is an emphatic statement that Jesus is Lord not money. Giving is hopeful because it means we expect God to act and increase our ministry, to increase our love, to increase our service and increase our welcome.
My brothers and sisters, I encourage you to make a commitment to give to God through the Church of the Resurrection for 2016. Days are coming for us, and your gift helps make that possible. More important than making a financial commitment today, make a hopeful commitment. Stand in confidence and hope because God loves you. The theologian Jurgen Moltmann reminds us today to have hope in God because God has hope in us. Moltmann writes:
“But the ultimate reason for our hope is not to be found at all in what we want, wish for and wait for; the ultimate reason is that we are wanted and wished for and waited for…We are waited for as the prodigal son in the parable is waited for by his father. We are accepted and received, as a mother takes her children into her arms and comforts them. God is our last hope because we are God’s first love.”
My brothers and sisters, Christians are ridiculously hopeful. Chief among them is my dad. It is a marvel to watch this man who is approaching 80 and just coming out of a very challenging year remain, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu likes to say, Hopelessly Hopeful. Last year my dad began to experience excruciating, debilitating, energy sapping pain in his neck shoulders and hips. It took about six months before the doctors figured it out, and in that time my dad wasted away to about 120 pounds. Yet some how, even when he is depressed, he is hopeful, ridiculously hopeful.
He is hopeful because he is a christian. He believes deep in his heart that Jesus is his savior, Christ is his Lord, and to paraphrase the apostle Paul, whatever the pains of this word, they pale in comparison to the joys of the kingdom of God.
And so it is for Christians. We are called to be hopeful. We are called to expect God to act when things seem bleak because we remember the great stories of God acting in ancient Israel’s darkest moments of slavery in Egypt. We remember the story of God calling to the exiles through the prophet Jeremiah to remember that God has plans for them, plans to prosper them and give them hope. And we remember God’s greatest act at horrific Golgatha, where God incarnate was crucified. We remember that God did not wait around for us to get our act together. We did not and need not have our ducks in a row for God to love us. No, God loves us while we are still sinners. God loves us so much not to wait rather he became one of us. He suffered and and died because of us, so God could perform God’s mightiest act: forgiving us, loving us despite crucifying Jesus. We are hopeful because we remember.
My brothers and sisters, like my dad this building is about 80 years old. It has experienced excruciating pain in the last year. But we who worship in this house of prayer, we who go forth to seek and serve Christ from this building, No Matter What we are to remain Hopelessly Hopeful. We are to recognize Jesus waiting for us like the father of the prodigal son. No Matter What we are to follow Jesus to seek and serve others. We are to care for this neighborhood and our neighbors as a mother comforts her children. No Matter What we are to welcome all that we encounter as we would welcome Christ himself. Tall folks and shorts folks, black folks and white folks, latin folks and african folks, poor and rich, gay and straight, kind and cold-hearted, sinners and saints, we are called to tell everyone that No Matter What they are welcome here at this table, everything is gonna be alright at this table, and they are in the right place at this table. My brothers and sisters, No Matter What…Hope. No Matter What…Follow Jesus in service to others, and No Matter What…welcome all because Jesus welcomed you first. Amen!
– Fr. Jason Emerson
Church of the Resurrection, Omaha
John 15:20 – 16:1 October 15, 2015
Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.
– John 15:20
In tonight’s Bible story, we hear a small portion of what’s come to be known as Jesus’ “farewell discourse.” We’re in John’s Gospel account, and Jesus is gathered at Passover time with his closest followers at what we call the Last Supper. The “farewell discourse” is Jesus’ last word to his disciples before his passion, crucifixion and death. This discourse comprises fully five chapters of John’s Gospel, and includes prayers for Jesus’ followers, ideas about how to live as men and women of faith and encouragement for hard times ahead.
In the midst of all this talking – so very many words… so very many ideas – Jesus gets up from the table and stops talking just once. In the middle of all this long night’s supper – and all this teaching and talking – Jesus does just one thing, and it’s a something that has been remembered for 2,000 years:
Jesus [John writes] knew the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist.
After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.
“You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, [said Jesus] for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.”
In the middle of all the teaching, all the talking, all the instruction Jesus gets up and he does this one thing to show them who they’re created to be, to show them how they are called to act if they would be his disciples. You must serve one another. You must offer yourself humbly and completely. Here is the master showing us how to live … and “no servant is greater than the master.”
I am daily amazed at the sacrifices you make – both for your churches and for the world outside your parish communities. You are the finest leaders I have every served with, and your devotion to the Church and her ministries is unmatched in all my experience. I see on each weekly visit – to our every Nebraska church – the amazing ways it in which you share your time, talent and treasure all three:
– Studying up on church finances and gamely participating in long, complicated meetings as members of church vestries, finance committees, and stewardship teams;
– Washing crystal, ironing fair linens, and precisely setting out the parish’s cherished sacred vessels as members of church altar guilds;
– Writing big checks – maybe the biggest check you write to any charity every week or month – just to keep the promise you made about your pledge … and to do your part to support the ministries of the church.
From mowing lawns, to balancing books, to making cheesy potato casseroles. From polishing silver, to counting money, to watching over the kids in the nursery. From driving to a Saturday meeting, to praying the Anglican rosary to writing a card of condolence …
The list goes on and on. All the work you do, all the ways you give. You all give from your best selves. You act from your truest beliefs. You share what you have in ways that pinch and challenge and in ways that make you sweat and worry. I’m amazed and humbled at the sacrifices you make. I really mean that. Your devotion to the places and the people that you call “church” is unmatched.
I think it’s important to say that as we’re differently abled and differently blessed, as we’re differently challenged and differently inspired so too we are called to offer very different gifts – to make very different sacrifices – as disciples of Jesus. It’s important not to judge one person’s offering against another. Jesus himself teaches over and over again that every little gift matters … that every small sacrifice has real impact. So the child welcomed in Jesus’ name is an entre into a relationship with God. And the widow’s tiny mite is the greatest offering placed before the altar. And the cup of cold water offered to a thirsty traveler paves the way to heaven. We have different abilities and different gifts to share. It’s all good!
Where I think we are challenged tonight – challenged both by Jesus and the saints we commemorate – not in the kind of gifts we offer but more perhaps in the spirit in which we offer them. Our challenge is not that we give the wrong things or necessarily that we do not give enough. Our challenge is rather a tendency to be self-satisfied and defensive about our giving, instead of offering our part with the kind of joy and abandon that is modeled by Jesus, when he throws off his garments and washes the feet of every one of his disciples at that supper so long ago. It’s that joyful and complete abandon to service and loving kindness that we’re still learning how to do.
Tonight we commemorate a great feast of our Church. We remember the early Anglican churchmen: Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley and Thomas Cranmer. These were bishops one and all, martyred when they were burned at the stake on the order of Queen Mary in 1555 and 1556. They were convicted for heresy … for their too Protestant beliefs in a time of Roman Catholic ascendancy in England.
They are often said to be unlikely martyrs. All three men were academics from Oxford and Cambridge who lived sheltered and privileged lives in many ways. In every case their greatest accomplishments have more to do with their scholarly achievements than some muscular articulation of Christian living. Latimer was a great preacher who got into trouble in part (if you can believe it!) because he delivered public sermons advocating for the translation of the Bible from Latin and Greek into English. Ridley the sacramental theologian, touched a deadly nerve when he wrote and talked about reforming church vestments and when he conflated the words “altar” and “table” in church use. Cranmer – of the three the one most caught up in the politics of the day – got into hot water by arguing that the Pope’s powers should be limited to those of any old bishop.
There is no record these men gave more generously from the incomes they earned as professors, college heads and bishops than other men of similar rank in their day. They are not remembered for special service to the poor and the outcast in their time, and in fact all lived lives of comparative luxury until their last hours on earth. They did not travel and expose themselves to peril in the wider world for the sake of spreading the Gospel and planting the Kingdom of God.
What they did manage was a quiet, dutiful and constant ministry of reading, writing, teaching and preaching with such determination and faith that God honored their gifts, and gave flower to the seeds they planted in frankly miraculous ways. They may have been unlikely martyrs but their executions changed the course of history. Latimer is especially remembered for the words he called out to his companion Ridley as the executioner kindled the flames:
Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man! [For] we shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out!
And so it came to pass. The executions of Latimer, Ridley and Cranmer played an enormous part in opening up Church reform in England and so helped give birth to the Anglican (and Episcopal!) Church that we know and love to this day.
Almost 400 years later, Dietrich Bonheoffer wrote that, “When Christ calls us, he bids us come and die.” The chance you or I will be asked to surrender our physical lives for the sake of the Gospel is remote. But we are invited nonetheless to abandoned ourselves entirely to the worship and service of God in Christ. And the pattern for that life – the life of a disciple – is cruciform. Following Jesus is about taking up the cross. Following Jesus is about dying.
If that does NOT mean being burned at the stake, it does mean dying to the luxuries, the temptations, the heresies and the indulgences of this life that would keep us from being real disciples and the best version of the human beings God created and calls us to be …
Taking up the cross …
Means letting go of our egos. It means letting go of worldly cares and expectations about power and status. It means generously and joyfully sharing all the gifts with which God has blessed us. It means that when we give – whatever we give – we are called to give it joyfully, completely and without a hint or trace of selfishness, regret or doubt. We give because God first gave to us: our lives … the lives of ones we love … the small blessings of every day that we too often take for granted … and most of all, the gift of our salvation in Jesus.
Among the poetry Cranmer composed for our first Book of Common Prayer, are these sentences, which have meant so much to Anglicans down through the ages. I’m not sure there’s a more universally beloved prayer in that book, especially for Episcopalians of a certain age:
We do not presume to come to this thy table (o merciful lord) trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies: we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table: but thou art the same lord whose property is always to have mercy.
We are children of a loving, living and merciful God, who calls us to a life of discipleship marked by selfless and joyful giving of every sort … an expression of thanks and delight for the gifts, God first gave on our behalf.
You are cherished my brothers and sisters. You are beloved. I pray that you can let all that you offer in word and deed for the Church and for all God’s creation flow from that knowledge. Keep up the good work of living and loving in the name of the one who lived, loved and died for you first. Take up your cross. Follow Jesus.
+ J.S. Barker
Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, July 26, 2015
Most of you know that I spent this past week as a counselor at our diocesan youth summer camp. I’m committed to doing this every year, and it’s always exhausting and exhilarating in equal parts. It’s a mix of long days, short nights on uncomfortable beds, and the endless energy of kids from all over Nebraska between the ages of ten and eighteen. There is worship every day, small group time for kids, games like cabin Olympics and counselor hide and seek, and all the regular round of camp activities you’d find anywhere: sports, zip line, swimming, archery, crafts, and on and on. I think it’s one of the most important things we as a church can do. Every year, we form and renew one of the most loving, accepting, and holy communities I have ever been a part of. The bonds the kids form with each other become some of the most important that sustain them in their faith and life through all the challenges that growing up involves.
This year, we were at a new camp, and one of the most popular activities was something called “hammock village,” which is simply a large structure made of metal piping that has probably fifteen hammocks strung around a circle. It was one of about a dozen optional activities every day, and it was always full. You might think that more active pursuits like archery, or something called gaga ball–which is like dodge ball inside a wooden pen—would always be more appealing to these kids with endless energy than lying around in a hammock, but those hammocks always had people in them.
I think part of the reason they were always full is that the young people at camp, like all of us really, have very full lives. Most kids I know, like most adults I know, spend their lives running from one activity to the next. There are so many good options available to us, that we often stretch ourselves way too thin by pursuing every good activity that’s out there. In our culture, sitting and doing nothing is a rare thing. Idling and resting are often seen as self-indulgent luxuries. So I think at least part of hammock village’s popularity was the rare opportunity to do nothing but talk and daydream and even nap.
In our gospel lesson for today, Jesus and his disciples are moving at the frenetic pace of camp. Even though we’ve jumped gospels this week, Jesus and his disciples are really in the same position today as they were last week: the crowds are pressing in, and they can’t get a moment’s peace.
The main story here is simple enough. Jesus takes a few loaves of bread and some fish, and miraculously feeds five thousand people, with leftovers. Almost all of us have heard it before, and in fact it’s the only miracle of Jesus that is recorded in all four gospels.
But there’s a pre-requisite for this miracle that I hadn’t really noticed until I was literally lying in hammock village thinking about this sermon. Before the miracle happens, when Jesus and Phillip are discussing the problem, Jesus says to him: “make them sit down.” The crowd is massive, and they are all trying to manage their kids and make plans for the evening, and do all of the other things that made just getting through a day in the ancient world a huge project, and Jesus says the first thing is to just sit down. I’m acutely aware today of how hard it is to make sixty campers sit down, let alone a throng of five thousand people.
This story is told in every gospel because it communicates what is really the central message of all of scripture: God’s love always finds a way through our shortcomings. God’s abundance always fills up our scarcity. When we share what little we have with Jesus-like generosity, God always transforms what little we have into more than the world needs. But in order for this miracle of God’s love, and abundance, and generosity to happen, everyone first has to stop, cease all the frantic activity of managing every last thing in their lives, and sit down.
God’s goodness, God’s love, God’s comfort are always trying to find a way to us. Miracles of healing, and peace, and restored relationships are always waiting to bubble up from beneath the surface of our lives and our world. We are reminded today that we have to stop, and sit down often enough so that there’s room in our lives and spirits to receive them.
It’s why I’m always going on about the habit of praying for ten minutes every day. Just try spending ten minutes doing nothing else but letting God love you. Try spending just a morning, or an afternoon, or an evening each week with no plans and no schedule. Try giving up one commitment that isn’t feeding you and replacing with time to just soak in God’s love.
Part of the reason I think our diocesan camp is so important is because I’ve seen miracles happen there. Miracles of God’s love, and acceptance, and peace, and joy. They happen because even in the midst of all the energetic fun, camp creates a space for the kids to stop, and sit down.
The abundance of God’s love is waiting to fill up your spirit and your life. The first step in receiving it is to sit down. So stop, and sit down, and let God’s unbounded generosity take what little you think you have, and turn it into more than enough to feed a love-starved world. Amen.
All In: Being the Church in Today’s World
Celebration of New Ministry – Tar Drazdowski
Christ Church Sidney
March 31, 2015
Bishop J. Scott Barker
Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few. Pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into the harvest.” – Luke 10:2
What a night. What a rare privilege to take the time to stop and celebrate. To celebrate the call God has placed on our lives as disciples of Christ in this time and this place … to celebrate the ministries to which God has lead us to respond to that call. It’s a night to look back on a rich past, a night to celebrate a present day pregnant with wonderful possibility, a night to look forward to all that could be, if we stay faithful to the Lord of the harvest.
For almost 130 years this church has stood it’s ground! I went to Bishop Beecher’s autobiography last week. Of the several Nebraska bishops who were writers, Beecher’s are the best stories and his is the most beautiful poetry. Beecher moved to Sidney in 1892 to begin serving as your Rector. It was his first ever assignment as a priest in the Church. In his autobiography he wrote about his early impressions of this place:
When I first saw this lovely little church it was the most attractive building in town. It was surrounded by beautiful shade trees, blue grass lawns, and a fine picket fence …
[Christ Church] was like a watchtower symbolizing power and stability … from its portal one could look out across the prairie upon the infinite skylines, where the mountain peaks were lost in the azure blue … scarcely a human habitation in the foreground.
(For the record I think the Rocky Mountains are actually obscured by the curve of the earth and not the blue of the sky, but you’ve gotta love how deeply he feels for this patch of earth!)
For my money that short paragraph captures a sense of the land and the community that is not only the story of our past, but that shapes us deeply still as the people of God here, and to this very night. Beecher writes of the beautiful church and grounds – cherished sacred space bought, paid and cared for by the labor of generations of Cheyenne County Episcopalians. A place made holy – made holy – by the presence, hopes and prayers of God’s people across the ages.
This building is beautiful to be sure, but it is sacred because this is the place where for decade upon decade women, men and children have come all in the midst of life to seek out God in Christ: to lay their burdens down before him, to find fellowship with the members of his church, to be nourished by his body and blood.
Beecher writes of the astonishing natural beauty of this landscape – which still informs what we believe in this part of the world as much as any prayer in any prayer book. We exult in the beauty of God’s creation because we are in it in such a deep and real way. That endless grass and that deep blue sky still sing to us every day of all God’s handiwork and teach us about the power and majesty of our Creator God. We know how small we are when we live in a place this big! And we rely on God’s grace in the most concrete imaginable ways in this place – especially those who farm, ranch or work to support these labors. Nobody knows more about God’s providence and grace than those who rely on miracles like rainfall, photosynthesis and the reproduction of animals to make a living!
Now Bishop Beecher also wrote about the church as a watchtower. I actually edited a little bit out there. Beecher partly saw the tower atop Christ Church as a sign of advancing western civilization, come to bring peace and stability to the prairie. That of course, turned out not to be the whole story. Our church towers were not always a sign of peace and hope to the first people’s of this land.
We now see that we made some terrible, sinful mistakes along the way. The truth is we did far more harm than good to the native people of this region … and often to the flora and fauna with which they’d coexisted for a thousand years. We are even still today dealing with the consequences and legacies of the exploitation and extermination of the culture and ecosystem that once held strong in this place. Thanks be to God: it is part of our culture – it is part of our Baptismal Covenant – to name our sins along the way, and to repent and return to the Lord.
We can be brave and intentional about learning from our mistakes. We can work to ensure that the evangelism, mission and service work to which we are devoted in this age – which Mother Tar has in fact come to this diocese to help lead – is work that is respectful and celebratory of the cultures we visit: looking for Christ in all persons and respecting the dignity of every human being. Let’s pray that we will be more sensitive and open to the prospect of actually meeting Jesus – and being changed by him – when we encounter those in need in this here and now. Let’s insure that in this time and this place the proud tower that stands atop this church – and the cross which adorns it – are beacons that say nothing more nor less than this: Christ is here … and you are welcome whomever you are.
If we’ve gotten our research right, Mother Tar is the thirty-seventh priest to serve here at Christ Church Sidney! The story of how in the world she and Jim came to move from Valdosta to the Nebraska panhandle is a story only God could have written … and it is really Mother Tar’s to tell. But what I can tell you about tonight – what we can embrace as evidence of God Holy Spirit at work to bring us to this moment – is the amazing openheartedness that brought us here. Both the openheartedness the people of Christ Church extended to Tar and Jim as you all talked and prayed about whether you were called to come together … and the openheartedness that Tar and Jim brought to bear in their discernment to leave a home and family they cherished, to come and be with us.
This is the Spirit of God at work my brothers and sisters. Or perhaps this is the Christ – being born again in this time and place to remind us how we are called to live – and who we are called to be – as his disciples: brave, optimistic, kind … sacrificial.
Your diocesan staff – three quarters of whom are here tonight! – get to visit a lot of beautiful churches. That’s fun work. And the truth is that they all are all special in their own way. They all have their strengths. Here at Christ Church you lead the way in your ability to offer hospitality and true welcome to the stranger … to make Christ known by opening your old church doors and your big Nebraska hearts to all comers. It was no surprise that Tar and Jim fell in love with you.
And the beauty is that the Drazdowski’s too, led with their hearts: trusting that the tug of a new place and people was of God … that the lack of trees and abundance of cold would not in fact be overwhelming … that letting go of so many good things in Georgia would open them up to new life and horizons in Nebraska. Such openheartedness is costly and hard … and it is beautiful and it is holy. And we celebrate God’s presence in all that this evening.
So what about the future?
We can’t say much for certain sure. At least not about the many things that so often pre-occupy our days in this here and now:
– We do not know how the relationships between pastor and people will develop … or how long Mother Tar will be called to serve this place.
– We do not know whether this or any Nebraska church will be able to grow and thrive in this post-Christian world.
– We do not know whether the town of Sidney will continue ascendant … or whether L.L. Bean will finally invent a boot that puts Cabella’s out of business!
But we do know that we can trust in God to handle these worries so we can focus on the work that set before us … work we resolve this night to dedicate ourselves to with new enthusiasm and new hope as this new chapter begins.
Bishop Beecher wrote about the job of an Episcopal priest. I’ve only changed the pronouns for this occasion:
The bonds of friendship and affection between the pastor and her flock become more and more distinct and real as she builds up herself in the spirit of unselfish service, and finds within the constant desire to live and labor among the people …
She solemnizes weddings, baptizes children, prepares and presents [people] for confirmation, ministers to the sick [and] comforts those in sorrow.
And [so] she proves herself a worthy example of Christian leadership.
Beloved, that’s not just the job description of a parish priest. That is the job description of a Christian Church. That sort of loving and caring service is not just how a pastor shows herself to be a good priest, but how a follower of Jesus shows him or herself to be a true disciple.
Here’s what I know about the future: if you build on your proud past … if you lead in this day with your amazing openheartedness … if you get out into the world to work the harvest and welcome your fellows into the beautiful family … then the future will take care of itself, and this place and people will be forever renewed by the presence of Christ in it all.
And you will be a shining beacon to this town and region and world … of the transforming power of the love of Jesus.
+ J.S. Barker
[Sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, January 18, 2015.
Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Northampton, MA.]
Friends, it is good to be with you this morning. Thank you, Cat, for inviting me to preach. I serve the diocese as your Missioner for Creation Care, so I travel from church to church, preaching the Gospel and speaking about our call as Christians to heal the Earth. I am blessed by the timing of this invitation to speak, for across the U.S. this weekend Americans are celebrating the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., a man who gave his life, quite literally, to the quest to heal our country’s great racial divide, and who dreamed of a world in which men and women of all races could live together with justice and mutual respect. Racism and racial justice is of course a vital issue in our country right now, a topic of intense debate as we observe in several cities the tragic tensions between some white police officers and the people of color that they were sworn to protect. Across the country people are exploring hard questions about white privilege and institutionalized racism, about how far we have come as a society and how much farther we have to go before we finally manifest what Dr. King called the Beloved Community.
Dr. King recognized that race relations do not exist in a vacuum. He understood that racism intersects with other patterns of violence, including poverty and militarism. If he were alive today, I believe that Dr. King would add a fourth item to what he called the “triple evils” of poverty, racism, and militarism. To that list I believe that he would add environmental destruction, especially human-caused climate change. For unless we stabilize the global climate and rapidly reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases, we will unravel the web of life and destroy any possibility of Beloved Community for human beings and for most of the other beings with which we share this precious planet. The struggle to end racism is linked to the struggle to end poverty, the struggle to end war, and the struggle to protect life as it has evolved on Earth. Racial justice, social and economic justice, environmental justice, climate justice – all these struggles intersect. In the end we share one struggle, one dream, one deep and God-inspired longing: the desire to build a peaceful, healthy, just, and sustainable world.
It is God who whispers that dream into our hearts, God who plants that longing in us like a seed that grows into a mighty oak, God who stirs us out of our complacency and sends us into action. It is God who gives us a heart to care, and strength to keep fighting the good fight. For it can be difficult to keep going, difficult to keep the faith in the face of sometimes brutal opposition and the sheer inertia of business as usual.
There is a wonderful scene in the movie Selma, a movie that I hope you will see, if you haven’t already. The movie is set during the turbulent three months of 1965, exactly fifty years ago, when Martin Luther King, Jr. was leading a campaign to secure equal voting rights. Early in the movie we see David Oyelowo, the actor playing Dr. King, awake at home late at night, restless, anxious, and acutely aware of the threats against his own life and against the lives of his wife and children. Should he keep going and head to Selma? He is resisting the powers and principalities of this world and he has reached the limit of his strength. In that late-night hour he picks up the phone, dials, and says to the person on the other end of the line: “I need to hear the Lord’s voice.” The friend he has phoned is the legendary Gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson, and into the phone receiver she begins to sing very tenderly, “Precious Lord, take my hand.”
It is an intimate moment, as intimate as the moment recorded in this morning’s first reading, when late at night the boy Samuel hears the voice of God speaking his name in the darkness (1 Samuel 3:1-10). When God speaks to us in that intimate way, often without any words at all, we feel mysteriously addressed. In that quiet, intimate encounter we feel known by name, touched very personally by a loving power that sees us, knows us through and through, loves us to the core, and gives us strength to carry on. This is the experience of the psalmist who writes – marveling and full of wonder – “Lord, you have searched me out and known me; you know my sitting down and my rising up; you discern my thoughts from afar” (Psalm 139:1). This is the experience of Philip, who hears Jesus call him to follow, and of Nathaniel, who realizes that Jesus saw, and knew, and thoroughly understood him even before they’d met (John 1:43-51). As Christians, we open ourselves to be seen and known, loved and guided by an intimate, divine presence that will never let us go. That is what prayer is, and it gives us strength. And when we’ve lost touch with that divine presence, when we feel frightened, despairing, or overwhelmed, we rely on each other to help us find our way back to God, just as Philip helped Nathaniel, as Eli helped the boy Samuel, and as Mahalia Jackson helped Dr. King. As people of faith, we are in this together, and when any of us lose heart, we try to help each other, as individuals and as a community, to turn again to God and to make our appeal: Precious Lord, take my hand.
I feel as powerfully as ever that call to prayer, that call to community, and that call to active, faithful service and advocacy. I don’t usually carry a newspaper into church – actually, this is the first time I’ve ever done it. But I want to show you the front page of yesterday’s New York Times, which gives a map of the world colored in shades of red to indicate all the areas that were above average in temperature last year. The year 2014 broke the record for the hottest year on Earth since we started keeping records.
But hey, we may be saying to ourselves, it’s been so cold in New England! It turns out that below-average temperatures in our region may be indirectly linked to climate change. Some scientists are studying the likelihood that the unusual dips they are noticing in the jet stream are connected to the rapidly warming Arctic and the exceptionally warm waters of the Pacific Ocean. Bottom line is that the phrase “global warming” is probably much too simple – a better term might be “global weirding.” As the world grows warmer we can expect more erratic and extreme fluctuations in local weather, and some places will sometimes become unexpectedly cold. Yet all the while the average global temperature is heading in only one direction: up.
In just two centuries – a blink in geologic time – we have burned so much coal, gas, and oil and released so much heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are higher today than they’ve been for hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of years. I heard a climate scientist say, “We are breathing from an atmosphere that none of our ancestors would recognize.”
Sticking to business as usual could raise average global temperatures between 5 and 11 degrees Fahrenheit in this century. That may not sound like much, but in fact it would make the world extremely difficult for humans and other creatures to inhabit. Oceans are already heating and becoming more acidic; tundra is thawing; ice caps and glaciers are melting; sea levels are rising; coral reefs are dying; massive droughts are spreading in some places and heavy rains are intensifying in others. Last spring we learned that the huge West Antarctic ice sheet is starting to collapse and slide into the sea in a way that scientists call “unstoppable.” The latest climate report from the U.N. warns of food shortages, waves of refugees, and the mass extinction of plants and animals, if we keep to our present course.
This is the sort of news that wakes me up at night and pulls me into prayer: precious Lord, take my hand. It is also the sort of news that propels me out of bed in the morning, eager to find a way to be of use. Once we have grasped what the bishops of the Episcopal Church call “the urgency of the planetary crisis in which we find ourselves,”1 there is so much we can do, so many ways that we can contribute to the healing of Creation. Thank you for the work you’ve done here at St. John’s to conserve energy, switch to efficient light bulbs, and use cloth rather than paper napkins. Our individual actions add up: we can recycle more, drive less, be sparing in our use of water, quit using bottled water. We can turn off lights when we leave a room. Maybe we can eat local, organic foods and support local farms and land trusts, maybe even leave them some money in our wills. I hope you’ll form a “green team” in this parish, and name a Creation Care Minister. I hope you’ll sign up to join a network of people in the diocese who care about Creation. I’d be glad to support you in any way I can.
I also hope you’ll sign up to receive a weekly newsletter from the grassroots group, Climate Action Now, which is centered right here in the Pioneer Valley. If we work as isolated individuals, our success will be limited, for the scope and speed of the climate crisis require action on a much broader scale. So we link arms with other people and we join the movement to make it politically possible to do what is scientifically necessary. The climate movement is gaining momentum, and many of us are inspired by Dr. King and the civil rights movement. Last week I spent a day in Amherst with other local climate activists, studying the principles of non-violent civil disobedience as practiced by Gandhi and Dr. King. Along with more than 97,000 people across the U.S., I have signed a pledge of resistance, a pledge to risk arrest in non-violent direct action if the Keystone XL pipeline is approved. Stopping that pipeline has become a powerful symbol of the urgent need to keep 80% of the known fossil fuels in the ground, where they belong. Fossil fuel companies now possess five times the amount of coal, gas, and oil that, if burned, would force the average global temperature to rise far higher than the 2 degree threshold that gives us a 50-50 chance of preventing runaway climate change. So now is the time to make a swift transition to clean, safe, renewable energy, such as sun and wind.
In this unprecedented time, many of us feel called anew to listen to the tender voice of love that God is always sounding in our heart, and then to embody that love in the world as bravely and clearly as we can. If ever there were a time to bear witness to our faith that life and not death will have the last word, now would be the time. If ever there were a time to take hold of the vision of a Beloved Community in which human beings live in right relationship with each other and with all our fellow creatures, now would be the time. The collapse of the ice sheet in Antarctica may be “unstoppable,” but so is the love that calls us to stand up for life.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu fought for racial justice and against apartheid in South Africa, and now he is one of the world’s champions of climate justice. Reconciling human beings to each other, to God, and to the rest of Creation is what Tutu calls the “supreme work” of Jesus Christ.
Thank you, my brothers and sisters in Christ, for joining me in that supreme work.
1.In 2011 the bishops of the Episcopal Church issued a pastoral teaching on the environment that begins with a call to repentance “as we face the unfolding environmental crisis of the earth.” For the full text of “A Pastoral Teaching from the Bishops of the Episcopal Church,” meeting in Province IX, in Quito, Ecuador, September 2011, visit here.
TNE note: Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas is an Episcopal priest, writer, retreat leader, and climate activist. After 25 years of parish ministry, she now serves as Missioner for Creation Care in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts. You can follow her blog here.