February 2, 2020
“Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted.”
How ironic that this particular reading should come up on the Sunday following the almost incomprehensible tragedy which occurred last week when NBA legend, Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and seven others lost their lives in a helicopter crash in Southern California. I don’t know the church affiliations, if any, of the other seven who lost their lives; but the Bryant family were members of a Roman Catholic Church in Orange County. My thoughts and my prayers have been not only with the family of Kobe Bryant and the other families who suffered the senseless loss of loved ones, but also with the priest who is preaching today in that Orange County church on Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes, where Jesus tells us that those who mourn are “blessed,”or, in the original New Testament Greek, “happy.” I can tell you all from experience—more than one experience—that to attempt to preach this particular Gospel message as “good news” to a family that has suffered such a monumental loss is a very difficult and a very delicate task. And yet, that is our calling, our vocation, and our duty in this world—and not only for us who have been called to the ordained ministry as priests. We, the baptized, are all called to somehow, by our lives, by our example, and by our witness to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ, even when that good news seems to fly in the face of worldly values and wisdom.
“Blessed are those who mourn.”
So, blessed are the Bryant family, the Chester family, the Mauser family, the Altobelli family, and the family of pilot Ara Zobayan. While I was unable to determine the faith backgrounds of the other victims, it appears that Kobe Bryant and his family were and are active members at Lady Queen of Angels Catholic Church in Newport Beach, California. In fact, it’s been reported that Kobe stopped by the church early Sunday morning, the day of the crash. And so, blessed are the Bryants in their grief, for their faith is an active and a practiced faith. They shall be comforted, and they will survive. In the days ahead, there will be many in their community who, knowing of their tragic loss, will ask them not only how they are doing, but also, “What’s getting you through this terrible loss? How are you bearing up so gracefully?” I have no doubt whatsoever that the Bryant family, having suffered a loss that might well have broken other families, wil respond by saying, “My God, my faith, and my church.” This is why the poor, the meek, the persecuted, and those who mourn are said, by Jesus, to be “blessed” or “happy.” Not blessed or happy, of course, because of their tragic loss, but in spite of it.
It might make no sense to the world; but to those who are called, it is the miracle of faith; it is the power of our awesome God. To me, no one has ever expressed this truth better than Paul: “The word of the cross,” he said, “is folly to those who are perishing; but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God. Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?”
Here's another thing that will most certainly take place in the days, weeks, and months ahead, in the wake of this tragedy. Again, I’m speaking only of the Bryant family since I have no inside knowledge concerning the other victims of the crash. Others, perhaps many others, given the superstar status of Kobe Bryant, and his followers on Twitter and other social media sites—others will be drawn to the light of Christ by the example, the strength, and the witness of Kobe Bryant’s family. I have personally witnessed this power of the Holy Spirit following funerals at which I have officiated. Sometimes on the day of the funeral and other times in the days, weeks, and months following, when I have been approached by someone who was in attendance with questions about the service, the rituals, the homily, and so on. On at least several occasions, individuals or families who attended the funeral would show up at a Sunday service. While I’m certainly not the first one to make this observation, I have witnessed its truth: That the two most evangelistic services we hold in churches are funerals and weddings and to a lesser extent, baptisms. Why? Because on those three occasions we find in the congregation people who are rarely, if ever, in a church--either because they have never gone or, more commonly, because they have fallen away over the years for any number of reasons.
These events—funerals, weddings, and baptisms--present an opportunity for many non-church people actually to see all of us “fools for Christ” up close and personal. And guess what? While they are waiting for us to do something foolish, to act foolish, they discover that we’re actually pretty normal; except that is, when it comes to Christ and to bringing Him into our lives and into the world. It’s on those occasions where we are likely to be called foolish because our decisions and our actions are often completely at odds with what the world might consider the safe and sane way to behave.
One example before us today is the idea that Jesus refers to those who mourn, those who are meek, persecuted, and reviled as “blessed” or “happy.” In First Corinthians we find Paul praising the idea of “foolishness,” calling it “wiser than human wisdom” and pointing out that God chose what is “foolish” in the world in order to “shame the wise.” I want to offer you all an example of this truth because there was a time in my life when I completely failed to grasp the biblical meaning of “foolishness.” It took place almost exactly 34 years ago this month, following my “freeway conversion” that ended up changing my life and the life of my family.
Following that experience in January 1986, I asked a priest acquaintance, Father Paul Camm, to write for me a letter of recommendation to the Bishop in San Francisco whose approval I needed to attend seminary in Berkeley. He wrote the letter; and when I received the copy Fr. Paul had mailed to me, I was infuriated. I found that letter recently in an old cardboard box. Here’s the part that set me off: “I had no idea or desire that Wesley become a priest. I thought it startling and even foolish that he altered his life-style and goals so rapidly. It took me sixteen years of business to hear the call and go to seminary. Still a fool for Christ is a most important asset to the church.”
The lawyer in me was infuriated! How dare he call me a fool. Immediately, I grabbed a pen and dashed off a letter to Paul defending my decisions and quoting from the Gospel about Andrew and Peter immediately dropping their nets to answer the call of Jesus and not taking sixteen years to think it over. Thankfully, Paul took no offense, saying it was his intention to pay me a compliment in his letter to the bishop, and that I would understand once I’d studied the Gospels a bit more deeply. He was right, of course, but that was 1986; and I was still 98% trial lawyer and 2% beginning seminary student. Today, those numbers are almost reversed, and I suppose what I offer you all this morning, my brothers and sisters in Christ, is the simple truth that it takes both courage and commitment to go against the grain, to be at odds with popular culture and the world, to out yourself by visibly being a Christian after you walk through our doors to reenter the world—especially if being a Christian out there is going to call attention to you, might single you out, mark you as a “Fool.”
Whether it’s openly bearing your grief in public and then telling others you are blessed in mourning because of Christ, or maybe striking out in faith in a new vocation or a new direction in life—one that defies the wisdom of the world and brings ridicule, even disappointment from friends and family, but one that echoed in your heart, mind, and soul as a call from the God of all creation. Maybe it’s just joining hands to say grace in a restaurant. The bottom line is that each of us must, in our own way, find a way to become a “fool” for Christ—and to be proud of it!
As Christians in this post-Christian world, 2,000 years after the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we must face a world everyday which exalts wisdom and conformity, going along to get along. Then we must look that world straight in the eye and with Paul let it know that “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom”; that God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; and that God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God! So, let the one who would boast, boast of the Lord!
Finally, on this second day of February in the year of our Lord, 2020, may the souls of Kobe Bryant, Gianna Bryant, John Altobelli, Keri Altobelli, Alyssa Altobelli, Christina Mauser, Sarah Chester, Payton Chester, and Ara Zobayan and the souls of all the departed rest with all the saints in the blessed rest of everlasting peace. Amen.
February 9, 2020
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand; and it gives light to all in the house. You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?”
I often find myself wondering after I open a sermon with one of the quotes from the lessons, whether any of you can actually envision its having anything at all to do with your lives today. I know I struggle with that at times. Maybe it already had, and the scripture quote awakens that memory. For example, when I had the vision some thirty-four years ago last month that sent my life on a different direction, it was only later that I realized it was very similar to what had happened to the Apostle Paul traveling on the road to Damascus. I don’t know if anyone here has had any life event in their background that resonates with Jesus’ examples of not hiding your light under a bushel or losing your saltiness. I did come across a remarkable story, which at first I believed to be true. It might have helped us all to better grasp this Gospel story--a story that might have served as an inspiration for you to become the salt or light that Jesus talks about.
However, in checking out the story on Snopes.com, a website devoted to fact-checking stories like this one I was going to share, I discovered that it was a long-time urban legend. I did, however, while on the Snopes website, discover a true story which does quite nicely demonstrate for us all just how easy it can be to be the light and/or the salt of God in the increasingly skeptical and secular world we face every day. It has to do with a high school graduation ceremony in Peoria, Illinois, at Washington Community High, a public high school. According to a May 17, 2001, Associated Press story, student-led prayer was going to be allowed at the senior graduation ceremony. However, just days before graduation, a lawsuit was filed by the ACLU and by the senior valedictorian, Natasha Appenheimer. On virtually the eve of graduation, they won a court injunction that barred any student led prayer at the event. It would be the first time in the school’s 80-year-old history that a prayer would not be offered; and the valedictorian, Natasha, was booed by the audience as she received her diploma.
Another student, Ryan Brown, was also one of the scheduled speakers. During his speech, he paused while he quite visibly offered a silent prayer. The Peoria Star Journal reported that, upon completing his silent prayer, Ryan “feigned a sneeze,” whereupon nearly everyone in the audience responded with a loud, “God Bless you!” In that single act, Ryan Brown found a simple, but effective way to put on a stand the light of Christ for all to see. He also became the salt of God by sprinkling his faith into the world without violating the injunction and also inspiring other Christians to literally voice their faith in a respectful way.
Another thing that young Ryan Brown accomplished, though less obvious, was to breathe truth into the words of Paul in his first letter to the church in Corinth that we heard a few moments ago. For in facing down the valedictorian and the ACLU, Ryan did not carry the day with any lofty words or wisdom, but rather with the simple act of a silent prayer, followed by a forced sneeze, relying in faith that many in the audience would respond in a way that would invite God’s name into the ceremony, while at the same time thwarting those who would shut the school’s doors on the God of all creation. I’m pretty sure that young Ryan’s actions were probably accompanied by and accomplished despite much fear and trembling on his part—also spoken of by Paul in his letter to Corinth.
While it’s probable that none of us here this morning have ever had an experience quite like the one of Ryan Brown at Washington Community High, we may have experienced something similar during our lifetimes. If not, his story will hopefully inspire one or more of us here today to find some creative ways to get our lights out from under those ever-increasing bushel baskets in the world which are always ready and willing to cover them up. I must say that if you haven’t already found yourself in at least some similar situations as a Christian out there in the world, you may be closing your eyes, ears, and other senses to the increasing unbelief and even hostility directed toward God at the dawn of this 21st century.
To bring it home, ask yourself this question about something in Dixon which could be just around the corner: During our recent Christmas holiday season I was again pleased to see the Nativity scene on the northwest corner of the Lee County Courthouse lawn. I remember seeing it in our first Christmas season here in 2017 and feeling both joy and then amazement that it was actually there, right on public property. Where we had moved from in Southern California, a nativity scene on public property might have lasted 24 hours before an ACLU lawsuit would have had it removed; and no amount of sneezing would have saved it. So, back to my question: Should that happen at some futuer Christmas season, how many of us here today would shine our lights or shake our salt to keep the Nativity on public property? Can you see yourselves holding a candlelight vigil or may be chaining yourself to the manger, an animal, or the stable itself, in below freezing weather before being arrested? Or at least writing letters to elected officials or making phone calls? All around us, every day there are subtle and not-so-subtle attacks on our faith and on the God of all creation, revealed to the world in the person of Jesus the Christ. We are still living today in what author Stephen Carter of Yale University called in his 1994 best seller, The Culture of Disbelief.
It is in response to this culture and knowing it would come that Jesus tells us today, as He told disciples 2,000 years ago, “You are the salt of the earth! You are the light of the world!” While for nearly all of us here this morning, it is far too late to be salt or light at a high school graduation, we must never forget that challenges to our faith come in many forms. We need only open our eyes and our ears of faith to perceive and then to challenge them. We may already know or be surprised to discover that many of those we encounter every day—including family members and co-workers—are challenging us with their own “bushel baskets” ready to cover the light of our faith or to somehow plug the holes of our salt shakers. I can’t possibly tell you all how this might happen; I can only alert you to the subtle but persistent attacks on and the attempts to extinguish the light of Jesus Christ in the world. Have you perceived them? If not, why not? If you have noticed what I’m talking about, how have you responded? Have you responded, or have you allowed your light to remain under a bushel, allowed your salt to remain in the shaker? Please, be brutally honest with yourself, because the stakes could not be higher. Forget for a moment the bushel basket and saltshaker. Out there in the world, have you, visibly and openly, come out as a Christian? Or has this church become for you a closet? To use a different metaphor or example, have you allowed yourself over the years to become what’s been referred to as a “rabbit hole Christian”? Rabbits are timid creatures that pop out of their holes every morning, try to avoid everything—except other rabbits—eat their food, and jump back into their holes in the evening, exclaiming, if they could talk: “Whew! We made it through another day!”
Rabbit hole Christians are a lot like that. They pop out of their homes each morning, eat meals with other Christians, and relate almost exclusively with other Christians. They avoid socializing with unbelievers; and, when compelled to do so, are careful to keep quiet about their beliefs, avoiding, for example, visibly saying grace publicly or doing anything else that might draw attention to their faith before returning to their homes, grateful to have survived another day out there, before praying for those unbelievers they’ve safely avoided all day.
By your words and by your deeds, have you shown yourself to be living the life of a rabbit hole Christian, or--going back to a recent homily--have you lived, are you living as a “fool for Christ,” bravely shining your light and shaking your salt in the world? There is a very great difference in being called a fool or regarded as a fool because of your belief in Christ and being a “fool for Christ,” as I hope I made clear in last Sunday’s homily in which I shared a personal story.
The young student, Ryan Brown, became a fool for Christ in faking a sneeze to allow the audience to bless his silent prayer. In shining your light and shaking your salt into this needy world, one should never worry about what we are going to say or how we are going to say it, as Jesus has made it clear that in such situations, the Holy Spirit has our backs. “At that time,” says Jesus, “you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit speaking through you.” Not only must we trust in the Spirit to give us the right words when we need them; but, in the words of an old hymn, we must always be ready and willing to “Stand up; stand up for Jesus,” for in the world today, He has only us. If we expect to be Christ’s lights in the world, we need to charge our spiritual batteries through daily prayer, regular Communion, and by spending at least some time reading God’s word. Thinking of those Rabbit Hole Christians, how can we expect to be God’s salt to the world if we never get out of the shaker; or, once out, discover that we’ve lost our seasoning?
The soon approaching season of Lent will provide you all with an opportunity through a Saturday morning Bible-based discussion to charge your spiritual batteries, to fortify and season your salt, so that you can enlighten the world, spice up your faith, and when the chances come, stand up for Jesus in this life so that when our time comes to stand before God to give an account of our lives here on earth, we will have no fear, knowing that our light shone brightly while on earth; and that when we drew our final breath, our salt shaker was empty!
February 16, 2020
“Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce. But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the grounds of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
This October Terri and I will joyfully celebrate our 35th wedding anniversary. However, if we are to take literally today’s Gospel passage, I stand before you today as an adulterer, since both Terri and I had been married before we met back in 1984. Having been raised in a very strict Roman Catholic family, this passage always troubled Terri a lot more than it did me—a seriously lapsed Episcopalian when first we met. It wasn’t until 1991, while driving from Berkeley, California, to Western Pennsylvania and my first job as the rector of a church there, that this terribly unfair burden was lifted from her shoulders by an excellent sermon from an Episcopal bishop in Davenport, Iowa, where we had stopped to spend the night. It is my sincere hope that this morning I will be able to step into that bishop’s shoes and shed some light on these uncharacteristically harsh words from Jesus.
It's not just the passage I read a few moments ago. If we go back just a few sentences, we find what has come to be known as the passage which nearly cost Jimmy Carter the 1976 election. In a Playboy magazine interview, Carter famously or, if you were his campaign manager, infamously said, referring to Jesus’ words that, “I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.” Fortunately, in 1976 I was not a priest but a practicing attorney and didn’t have to take the pulpit on the Sunday following that bombshell.
But here I am this morning, nearly 44 years later, in another election year; and Jesus’ harsh words still seem to convict millions of American men who, like myself, are not only divorced, but have remarried a divorced woman. Taken literally, it would seem that, at least in the eyes of Jesus, we are all adulterers and have violated the 7th Commandment.
However, thankfully for me and those millions of other men, the answer is no; we are not adulterers by reason of being divorced and then marrying a divorced woman and won’t be forced to display that scandalous red “A” across our chests, as poor and wrongly judged Hester Prynne was forced to do in The Scarlet Letter.
The point that Jesus is making here is also not just for the Pharisees and disciples of His day, nor is it limited to the marital relationship. It is also directed to all those in future generations who may be too quick to judge others based upon Bible verses they have either misunderstood or lifted completely out of context.
What I have asked God, in preparing today’s message, is that I might be able to convey to all of you this morning the truth that while Jesus is certainly using the marital relationship as an example, God’s larger message has to do with the connected lives that He would now have all of humankind live in the world “East of Eden.” This became necessary after God’s perfect hope that we might all live together in an Eden-like world was destroyed by the serpent’s manipulation of the free-will granted to Adam and Eve, representing all of humanity. Appropriately, it is in that famous garden that we find the key to unlocking and then applying to our lives an explanation which will not only shed light on these uncharacteristically harsh words from Jesus, but will allow us to use that light to illuminate the path back to Eden for all of humanity.
We begin our quest with a similar passage from Mark in which Jesus tells the Pharisees that the only reason Moses even allowed for a certificate of divorce was the hardness of men’s hearts. He referred in his explanation to these familiar words in Genesis that “ . . . from the beginning of creation God made them, male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and shall be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh, so that they are no longer two, but one flesh Therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
What’s really important for us to take away from this today is that in the perfect world that was God’s original plan and hope for us, not only would there be no divorce in the context of marriage, but also no separations, no divisions of any kind among those whom God had created. Here we arrive at a critical point in allowing us to be able to fully grasp the wider implications of this passage which takes it way beyond the marital relationship. Because while we have been conditioned our whole lives in an almost Pavlovian way to apply the word divorce exclusively to a marital relationship, it was not always so. By definition, divorce has to do with separation—not just in the context of marriage—but the separation of any things which had once been together. It should come then as no surprise that the word Pharisee, repeated no less than 98 times in the New Testament, derives from a Hebrew word meaning “to divide or separate.”
The degrading system of Apartheid, finally put to an end in South Africa, is defined as “any system or practice which separates people according to race or ethnicity.” The point to be made is that in that idyllic and perfect world envisioned by God with all humankind represented by Adam and Eve, there would never be any need for the separation which divorce entails. However, the great risk taken by God in granting us free will practically guaranteed that the perfect world hoped for by God would not last for long. And so it came to pass, to employ some biblical language, that while Adam and Eve were never divorced, as we understand that term today, they and all of humanity that they represented were certainly separated from that perfect, sin-free world envisioned by God at creation. A world in which there would be not only no divorce, but also no murder, no wars, no poverty, prejudice, or the many other things which serve to divide and separate . or divorce us one from another and increasingly from God in this post-modern world. But of course almost from the very beginning in this world, East of Eden as the saying goes, that is not the kind of world we have made for ourselves—largely due to the exercise of God’s greatest risk—granting us free will.
Because while divorce in the context of a marriage just happens to be one of today’s Gospel topics, it is but one manifestation of the much broader consequences of our humanity’s hardness of heart, separating what God had brought together in Eden. It is precisely this hardness of heart which has plagued humankind since creation, leading not only to the dissolution of marriages, but also to those countless other divisions and separations which continue to plague humanity today: wars, acts of terrorism, discrimination, passing judgment on one another, and countless other abuses of our free will that I’m sure cause God to shed tears as we continue to divorce each other.
We mustn’t, however, leave here this morning without addressing the impact of Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel on divorce in the context of a marital relationship, especially in a country in which nearly one-half of all marriages end up in divorce. Earlier I posed the question whether all divorced persons who remarry are considered as adulterers in the eyes of God. While I’ve read and even heard some very unfortunate sermons that do just that, the truth is that God made no provision for divorce because God never intended for it to happen. In Mark’s version of Jesus talking about divorce, He reminded the Pharisees that it was only the hardness of men’s hearts that led Moses to allow for a certificate of divorce. However, in Old Testament times following Moses’s decree, there were many men who would obtain a certificate in order to legally marry a woman with whom they had been carrying on an adulterous affair while married to someone else. In other words, they were adulterers before the certificate of divorce was obtained only in an attempt to legitimize the adultery ex post facto—or retroactively! “Not so fast,” said Jesus. The new marriage was nothing more than a continuation of the adultery, but now, under the guise of legitimacy. Unfortunately, some Christian denominations, who take every word of the Bible literally, end up condemning all those who divorce and remarry today as “adulterers.” However, the Bible is God’s living word, interpreted in every generation by God’s Holy Spirit, as Jesus told His disciples at the Last Supper. God’s word to us comes alive in every age; and yet those who are mired in Old Testament times and even in the world as it existed 2,000 years ago continue to insist that if you divorce your spouse today, meet someone else after the divorce, fall in love and marry—you are still an adulterer. However, in the context of scripture, guided by God’s Holy Spirit, what Jesus is actually telling us is that only a person who divorces his or her spouse for the purpose of marrying a person that he or she is already involved with sexually is guilty of adultery. That’s a big difference from branding all divorced and remarried persons as adulterers.
But we must not leave here this morning without understanding that today’s teaching from Jesus and my humble words seeking to shed some light on this subject that touches millions of our fellow human beings go way beyond divorce and remarriage between two people. It extends to all of those things we do in life in which our outward actions are in conflict with our inner motives. It has to do with all of those places where we have become hard of heart, all of those times in our lives where we have failed to remember that we are all descended from Eden and have at times in our lives failed to recognize and to treat one another as equals, as “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh,” regardless of race, creed, sex, political preferences, sexual orientation, or any number of things which can so easily divide or divorce us from our fellow human beings. We are a family, a people, and a world that continues to suffer from divorce in its many forms; and yet it is precisely that post-Eden world that Jesus Christ was born into. The “Word became flesh” with a mission to heal our hardness of heart, to heal our divisions, and to help us all to know that we truly belong to each other in this world, this “fragile earth, our island home,” in which today we are all citizens seeking to live lives which will allow us to one day become citizens in God’s Kingdom where our Father, who art in Heaven for all eternity, has never divorced us.