Matter of Life or Death

From Jeremy, priest in charge

You will have seen the devastating news of the murders at the Masjid Al Noor in Christchurch and Linwood mosque in New Zealand. Here is a response from the local Anglican church:
“This statement is being issued by Bishop Peter Carrell on behalf of the leaders of churches in Christchurch city and Canterbury province –
Church leaders are absolutely devastated at the unprecedented situation in Christchurch this afternoon and our hearts and prayers go to all involved. No religious organisation or group deserves to be the target of someone’s hate – regardless of beliefs. We stand for an Aotearoa New Zealand which will never condone such violence. So across the churches of Christchurch and Canterbury, we are praying for our Muslim brothers and sisters, for those injured and those who have lost loved ones, for the police, ambulance and other emergency services, and for all in the city of Christchurch who are feeling distress and fear due to this event.  We are upholding you all in our prayers. We pray too for the shooter and their supporters, because for any person to do this, they must have such hatred in their hearts, such misalignment of the value of human life, that they too, need our prayer. We thank many others from around our nation and the world who are praying for peace in Christchurch.” *

Right-wing populist anti-immigrant rhetoric is a dangerous and deadly lie.
Racism is a source of dangerous and deadly lies.

A comment by Islamic writer quoting the Anti-Defamation League:
“Every single American murdered by extremists in 2018 was murdered by a white supremacist or far right extremist.    Every Single One.    100%
It isn’t too soon to talk about the toxic role of white supremacy in the New Zealand mosque attack.
It’s too late.”

Moratorium of the Death Penalty
It now seems weirdly apt that our Governor’s action to halt the execution of people in California was announced this week. This is, I believe, a glimmer of the value of life amidst death. I think it also reflects the penultimate sentence in Bishop Carrell’s response above.
For an excellent reflection on the matter, please see Jan Adams’ article here.

With fervent prayers for More Love

If you have thoughts about any of this let me know.

* I have a practice of waiting until those close to an issue have made a statement or response and then sharing that. I do not need to add to the words and, more importantly, colonize the response.

Be Careful What You Wish For

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, July 15, 2018

By Rebecca Gordon

The Ark of the Covenant: A print from the Phillip Medhurst Collection of Bible illustrations.

I confess that I am very nervous about this sermon. We are truly living in terrible times, times of real, life- and soul-threatening emergency for millions of people around the world. Times when we have become inured to each story of a hundred or two hundred desperate refugees drowning in the Mediterranean; times when our own government literally pulls children from their parents’ arms at our southern border; times when the president of this country makes common cause with authoritarian rulers around the world and with white supremacists at home; times when U.S. planes are even now refueling Saudi Arabian bombers attacking the only open port in Yemen, driving the cost of food far beyond the means of ordinary people. Times when as a result, Yemeni mothers sit beside their starving children, helpless before their stick-like limbs and sunken eyes. The United Nations has repeatedly called Yemen’s famine the worst humanitarian disaster in the world. We rightly cheer when 12 young men are rescued from almost certain death in a Thailand cave, but for many of us know nothing of the hundreds of thousands of children who may well starve as a result of a war most people in this country don’t even know we’re fighting.

How, in such terrible times, can I take this Sunday to preach about what it means to be a woman before God? How, when humanity is in crisis, can I dare to focus on the concerns of only one part of humanity? Maybe it’s because as women know that, even along the path to liberation, there will always be a crisis, an emergency, a greater priority, that must postpone the day of claiming our full humanity until a later time, when other, more important, issues have first been resolved. And it’s because those crises are genuine and pressing that women so often choose to relinquish our particular claims as women in favor of the greater good. In this, we are a bit like the mother who, rather than see King Solomon cut her baby in half, offered it to another woman.

So, as I say, I am nervous in such times about preaching a sermon like this. But here we go.

Be careful what you wish for. Often the Bible (or the way it is interpreted) takes it as given that women are merely (to use the title of an enormously popular novel and TV show) “handmaids” to men’s more central relationship with God. So I’m always eager for scripture readings that pay attention to the thoughts and actions of women, stories where I can see something of myself reflected. But my heart sank when I saw the propers — the readings appointed in the lectionary — for today. In both the Hebrew scripture (Old Testament) lesson and the gospel, there are stories of women, all right — bad women.

Continue reading “Be Careful What You Wish For”

Why do we read these old stories every week?

June 10, 2018 — Proper 5, Year B, RCL

By Jan Adams

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, oh Lord, my Strength and my Redeemer.

If you ever want to goose the urgency of your prayers for God’s help, I’ve got a suggestion for you: be fool enough to volunteer to preach. Performance anxiety can do wonders to remind a person of her dependence on God’s help.

Photo of Donald Trump blimp. Caption: We are determined to have a king over us!"
“We are determined to have a king over us!”

Unlike my Erudite Partner, Rebecca — and many others in this congregation — I don’t have an academic credential that somehow qualifies me to stand up here. Many, many years ago I attended grad school and was on my way to acquiring the professional degree that would qualify me to study and teach history. But I came to feel that I had a different vocation. My apparent calling was to live consciously within history, and to participate in making more justice within contemporary history. So much for academia … But I have never stopped eagerly learning from history.

One of the aspects of Episcopal practice that brings me here week after week is our routine exposure to the ancient texts of old stories of people trying to comprehend how God/Godself is alive within history. I’m not saying, as our fundamentalist cousins do, that the Bible is The Last Word. Rather, I think we are challenged by these readings to extract meaning for our lives today from the lives of people wrestling, as we are, with how God is right there with them.

So let’s think about today’s readings. I’m going to start with the Gospel. In this passage from Mark (the story is also told by Luke and Matthew), Jesus tells the religious leaders who come to accuse him of being an evil magician that they are full of it. He asks them: how can he, Jesus, be doing the work of the Devil by using the Devil’s tools? That would not work. He points out “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Continue reading “Why do we read these old stories every week?”

Contradictions in the Wilderness

4th Sunday in Lent 2018

Rebecca Gordon, lay preacher

In the name of the one, holy and living God. Amen.

“And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” John 3:19

Today I’d like to talk about contradictions.

Saint Óscar Romero

It’s the fourth Sunday in Lent, the fourth Sunday in our journey through the hard emptiness of wilderness to the even harder place of the cross. We know what’s coming, and yet we trudge along anyway, in the crazy hope that something waits for us on the other side of that cross. In the same way, we’re told that the Israelites traveled 40 years, in the crazy hope that they, or their children, or their children’s children would see that promised land. And sometimes, like us they grew tired, frightened, and angry.

My partner Jan and I won’t be with St. John’s on Good Friday evening. As many of have heard me say, I’m a nice Jewish girl who goes to an Episcopal church. (Maybe it’s only half-true, at least according to 23 & Me, who recently informed me that I’m exactly 49.9% Ashkenazi Jew. I figure that other 0.1% on my Papa’s side is the Mongol he always resembled a little bit.)

In any case, this is one of those years when Eastertide overlaps with Pesach — or in English, Passover — and Friday is the first night of Passover. Jan and I will be sitting, as we have for the last 30-odd years, at a table full of women, eating symbolic foods and retelling the Passover story from the book of Exodus. We’ll remember that we were slaves in Egypt, and that therefore we must never allow anyone to be a slave again. We’ll remind ourselves that none of us are free until all of us are free. The exodus story appears in several places in the Hebrew bible. And in the book of Exodus there’s also a part of the story where, as in today’s passage from Numbers, the Israelites get angry and frustrated with Moses. “Were there no graves in Egypt,” they ask him, “that you had to bring us out into the desert to die?” The women around the table often pause at the at that point in the story to talk about the hardship of pilgrimage, about leadership and its costs, and about the risks of accepting a leader — whether it be Moses, Black Lives Matter, or Monseñor Oscar Romero of El Salvador.

The way of the wilderness is hard. Harder still, for the women who sit at the Pesach table every year is accepting the contradictions buried in God’s liberation of the Hebrews. Sure, we Hebrews get to enter the land of Canaan, and it is indeed full of milk and honey, but it turns out that it’s also full of people who were already living there. Told from a Canaanite’s point of view, the exodus is not exactly a story of liberation. It is not just the story that lifted up Harriet Tubman, leader of the Underground Railroad, whose people called her “Moses.” As the Native American theologian Robert Allen Warrior has written, for the Canaanites, the exodus story is a history of massacre and occupation. Liberation and occupation–opposites entwined in the same human history. What are we to make of this contradiction? I’ll come back to that in a bit.

Along our Lenten way through the wilderness at St. John’s, we’re given the weekly lectionary readings as signposts. But sometimes—and I’d count today as one of those times—the signposts seem to be pointing in opposite directions. It’s confusing out here in the wilderness. Take today’s readings, for example. Are we supposed to save ourselves through good deeds? Or by recognizing that our deeds alone cannot save us?

On the one hand, we hear in Numbers that the Hebrews performed evil deeds. They treated Moses badly and were punished with the bites of poisonous snakes. But then, as so often happens in these Hebrew bible stories, God relents. (One of the joys of being Jewish is we’re used to arguing with The Divine, and on occasion even winning the argument.) In this case, God declares that bitten pilgrims can be cured, if they will turn their gaze on the bronze viper Moses has affixed to his staff. Just as they have been condemned to a painful death because of what they did, they can also be cured through their own actions, through something they do.

But what is it they have to do?  They must recognize that they cannot save themselves by themselves. They must look to the visible, physical sign of God’s presence in the snake on the staff. That willingness to look, to recognize The Divine in the world, is a kind of faith. It is the faith that confesses (from the Latin for speaking “with faith”) that we cannot liberate ourselves by ourselves.

Most biblical scholars don’t think that St. Paul himself wrote the letter to the Ephesians, but the passage we heard today is very much in keeping with one of Paul’s central messages — that we are justified not by our works but by faith. “For,” says the letter’s author, “by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God–not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” We cannot save ourselves through our good works.

But really, why not? After all, how bad are we really? Think about St. John’s: we house the Gubbio project so that five days a week people can sleep here in safety. We make room for the Julian Pantry, so people can feed their families (whether directly by eating the food we provide or by selling it on the street–we don’t inquire too deeply!) We stand as witnesses to police and ICE violence. We’re basically pretty good people in a pretty good congregation that proudly hangs a Black Lives Matter banner on the side of our church. We do our best to live out our faith, to be the kind of people the Letter to the Ephesians describes: “For we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”

Lent — I always come up with two contradictory ideas. On one hand, like the folks at St. John’s, very few human beings are truly evil. Mostly we do our best, and sometimes it’s close to good enough. Certainly not deserving of the condemnation mentioned in John’s gospel today. Few of us are big enough to be truly terrible, to deserve to be cast out into the outer darkness. And yet. And yet. When you consider humanity as whole, it does seem to be true that — as the Rite I version of the general confession has it—“There is no health in us.” We torture each other. We slaughter each other in the millions and turn millions more into refugees, literal wanderers in the wilderness. We enslave each other and the planet, all for greed. There is no health in us. We are not so bad, and we are a scourge. How can both things be true?

And this brings me back to the contradiction I mentioned earlier. I don’t think it’s an accident that liberation and oppression are so often opposite sides of the same human-minted coin. That truth is implicit in the kind of creature we are. And that is why, as the authors of Ephesians and Numbers tell us, as our namesake evangelist John tells us, our health depends on turning and looking to the signs of grace that God offers us. For John, that sign is the person of Jesus.

When I decided I wanted to go to seminary, I went over to CDSP, the Episcopal school at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. I talked to a professor there about how I understand the Incarnation — the physical presence of God incarnated (made flesh) in humanity. “I think the divine is incarnated in human history,” I told him, “whenever human beings come together to struggle for justice.”

“Yes! Yes!” he said. “And I think you’d be really isolated here.” So I went across the street to the Unitarians, because they don’t care what outlandish thing you think, as long as you do it respectfully. Over the years I’ve become more orthodox, more interested in the actual person I secretly call “the Jesus guy.” But I still believe what I told that professor that day.

This past week, the Vatican announced that it has cleared the way to recognize the sainthood of Oscar Romero, the archbishop of San Salvador. (It’s more than a little ironic that this should come just as the Trump administration is planning to end Temporary Protective Status for people who have come to this country to escape violence in El Salvador.) You may remember that Romero was an ordinary, relatively conservative Salvadoran priest, who, through his willingness to look clearly at the lives of poor people in his country changed his understanding completely. Though repentance (which is the Lenten task of all of us) he acknowledged that there was no health his country: a country (supported by our own taxes, by the way) that used its military and police to enforce the power and wealth of a very few families by torturing and terrorizing poor people.

Romero could have led a safe and comfortable bishop’s and then archbishop’s life, enjoying the perks that a accrue to a prince of the church. But he repented — re-thought–his own and his country’s situation. Romero, snake-bitten in the desert, chose to gaze at the visible sign of the incarnation. He looked full on at poor people organizing for their own liberation, and in so doing, he allowed God to liberate him.

It cost him his life. Almost 38 years ago, on March 24, 1980, an agent of the US-backed right wing death squads murdered Oscar Romero while he was saying mass. But Romero, and we, too, as we accompany the Jesus guy on his way to the cross this Lent had one more contradiction to encounter. The cross is the most glorious contradiction of them all, that very real and tortured death that–whatever you believe about the actual Resurrection 2,000 years ago–leads to the life of the Divine within and throughout creation. Or as Romero said in his homily on the day he died, “Those who surrender to the service of the poor through the love of Christ, will live like the grains of the wheat that dies. It only appears to die. If it were not to die, it would remain a solitary grain. The harvest comes because of the grain that dies” and rises again in the people’s Easter.

San Oscar Romero, presente.


Epiphany 2018

Matthew 2:1-12
The Rev’d Richard Smith, Ph.D.
[Watch a video of this sermon.]

he qi epiphany-themagi

My last sermon at St. John’s…

Maybe you’ve heard the story of the crotchety old priest who announced his departure to his people. He’d been at that parish far too long. He didn’t like them, and they didn’t care much for him either. His last day on the job finally came, and he walked into the pulpit and said, “Well, this is my last day. I’m leaving. I know you’re sorry to hear this, and you hate to see me go. But you’ll just have to accept it as the Lord’s will.” And with that, he returned to his seat.

At that point, the music director stood and said, “Let us now stand and sing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”

Well, before you crank up the organ and join in the chorus, maybe I can say a few words about today’s gospel.

In the Christmas stories we’ve heard these last few weeks, the characters who have it the easiest are the shepherds. In their journey to the newborn child, they have a chatty angel lighting up the night sky with a hallelujah chorus, and sending them joyfully racing to where the child is, with directions that are clear and easy to follow.

But here at St. John’s that’s not how it works. Our path to the newborn child is usually not so clear and direct. Around here, we muddle. Around here, we’re not shepherds. Here we are magi.

It’s the Feast of Epiphany, and we remember the story of how the magi found the child by putting one foot in front of the other, not always sure where they’re going, trying now this way now that, with only a remote star in the night sky to guide them. Sometimes that star was fiercely bright, but on cloudy nights you could barely see it.

But they kept going. Together.

As they traveled along, their camels bleating and bellowing, maybe they’d talk of cabbages and kings, share stories, an occasional glass of wine, a few songs. Sometimes maybe they’d argue, ask strangers for directions, hope for the best.

At one point, they meet King Herod, a deeply insecure man, desperately grasping for power, known for his abuse of women and his cruelty toward children, for his inflated self-image and for driving the poor among his people into greater poverty while he and his friends got richer still. (I’m talking about King Herod here, by the way, and not our current president. It’s easy to get the two mixed up. :-))

But, anyway, these magi do not follow Herod’s decree. He tells them that once they have found the child, they are to return to him with details about where the child is. But their hearts tell them something different: that doing so would put this new child in great danger. So, in one of the first recorded acts of civil disobedience in the Christian scriptures, they go home another way.

During these last five years, we have been magi, putting one foot in front of the other.

  • We’ve watched our kids grow: Elena Claire and Audrey, Harper Dandridge, Rhys Monroe, Ben and Pilar and David and Iris, Isaac and Hannah.
  • And we’ve buried our dead: Dennis Turner, Barbara Colt, Nico, Amilcar, Alex Nieto, Luis Gongora Pat, Dennis Gould, Judy Eastwood.
  • We’ve welcomed new members and said farewell to some who moved away.
  • We’ve supported each other through bad falls, heart surgeries, cancer, grieving the loss of parents and a spouse of many years, a kidney transplant, the physical challenges of aging.
  • We’ve gathered many times around this table: activists and professors; monks and computer nerds; black, white, and brown; straight and gay and everything in-between; nonagenarians, millennials, and babes in arms; middle class and homeless; most of us happily clean and sober, some of us three sheets to the wind.Each with our own stories of love and loss, each with our own ragged edges. How did we all manage to get here?

It’s how we roll here. We are magi who, through all of life’s rhythms, keep putting one foot in front of the other, focused on a remote star in the night sky. This is how we find the Christ child.

  • The one who would later say, “Blessed, blessed, blessed are the poor, the gentle, those who mourn, and those who hunger and thirst for justice;
  • Who would throw aside all the laws of ritual purity and touch the untouchables: the leper, the lame, and the blind;
  • Who would sit at table with those deemed shameful and repulsive, and by eating with them, render them beautiful, acceptable, outcasts no more

Through these very ordinary rhythms, our journey as magi, something happens, almost imperceptibly, inside us. Our hearts change. And, like magi, we, too, find ourselves offering gifts.

  • Some of you have shared your voices in the choir, given your assistance in the altar party, arranged flowers, cleaned this space and arranged the vestments all to make our liturgies more beautiful.
  • Others have generously given their time and expertise on the Bishop’s Committee, as parish treasurer, as delegates to the deanery
  • Several of us have gone on nightwalks along some of the more violent streets of our neighborhood, pausing at times to talk and pray with the families and friends of those killed by gun violence and to call for peace.
  • We continue to support young people fleeing the violence in their own struggling countries in Central America, and, much to our great joy, we’ve celebrated Allan’s baptism.
  • Some of us have come on Saturday mornings to the Julian Pantry to distribute food to seniors and parents struggling to feed their kids.
  • Some have headed to Mission Police Station to spend time with the Frisco Five in their hunger strike calling for an end to police brutality, and demanding justice for Amilcar.
  • Some have gone to rural villages in Nicaragua with El Porvenir to help people there get clean, safe water.
  • Others have helped neighborhood kids through school through the amazing work of Mission Graduates.
  • Some of us have stood outside Senator Feinstein’s office with undocumented leaders demanding simply that our government stop tearing their families apart,
    or at the Federal Building silently calling for an end to the longest war in our nation’s history.

Along the way we’ve discovered something about ourselves, perhaps to our surprise: That we, with all our loose ends, can matter. That our own wild and precious lives can make a difference.

These things we do are part of a magi’s journey that leads to the child, to Jesus who, as Mother Teresa used to say, often comes to us in a distressing disguise. We are magi. It’s what we do.

Our patron St. John came to know this in his own way–that we draw close to God by loving our lives, and by the people and creatures of this world.

One part of our tradition says John was the one our scriptures call “the beloved disciple” who, when all the other men had fled, stood with the women at the foot of Jesus’ cross. The one who, when the disciples reclined at table, would lean back and rest his head on Jesus’ chest.

And there, in that moment, in that privileged and intimate place, he would listen to Jesus’ heart, learn what made him tick, what made him happy, and what made him sad; what made him angry and what made him laugh.

John leans against the heart of Jesus, and from that amazing place, he looks out at the world, seeing it all now with the eyes of Jesus.

When I started as Vicar five years ago, I had a suspicion that the same grace offered to our patron John was also offered to us in this community that bears his name. Five years later, I’m even more convinced of this: that you in this community of St. John, like your patron, are especially invited to listen to the heart of Jesus and from there to look out at this neighborhood and world, becoming the hands and feet of Jesus in this time and place.

And now it is time for you once more to put one foot in front of the other; your journey continues. And in the days ahead, as you, magis that you are, go through all your ordinary rhythms–

  • watching your kids grow,
  • and burying your dead,
  • and welcoming new members;
  • and marrying off your friends
  • after all your coffee hour chats about cabbages and kings,
  • the ministries you do together,
  • all your triumphs and setbacks,
  • your laughter,
  • your fights,
  • your joys

–through this entire journey, one question will remain: Through it all, have your hearts, like that of your patron, like that of magi, become more in tune with the heart of Jesus: full of more joy, more compassion, more life, more love. Yes, more love.

My brothers and sisters, I love you all very much. Blessings on your new beginning. Amen.