Sermon – December 24, 2017

Rev. John M. Hayes

I heard the bells on Xmas day
Their old familiar carols play
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men
And in despair I bowed my head
There is no peace on earth I said
For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men

That old song was written in a terrible time, three horrific years into the American civil war by the poet John Greenleaf Whittier, whose own young son was brought home from battle with a destroyed body and a deranged mind.

We also are living in a dark time and there are few signs of hope on the horizon. The edges of the predictable and predicted ecological crisis are now all too familiar to peoples in the Caribbean and the American southern coastlands. Fires rage in the hills of Southern California as we speak, and starving polar bears wander in confusion and wonder where all the ice has gone?

Did I mention that nuclear war is hanging in the wings? Our conflict with North Korea continues to heat up, as provocations are exchanged.

Can there be anyone left who doubts that our political system is broken? Our country is hopelessly divided and alienated across party lines. The year concludes with our esteemed president signing into law a tax bill that effects a loot of our treasury and makes our economy even more outrageously unjust. Some are just beginning to see that our democracy is becoming an oligarchy.

Here in our fair city we had more homicides than ever before and no sign that the root causes of violence will be addressed. Prisons are now a privatized growth industry, while our Secretary of Education, the former queen of Amway, proceeds to dismantle public education. It is becoming nakedly clear that the powers of this world believe in disposable communities and disposable people. And hasn’t that always been true?

Here is our little community of St. Luke’s there has been much heartbreak and loss this year. And God knows every family has its share of private conflict, loss and pain. And no person is completely at peace. In the depths of every human heart there rages anger, hurt, envy, and the vestiges of old trauma, loss and grief.

Peace on earth, good will to men, really? Tell me when is that going to happen exactly. Isn’t there every reason to be cynical about Christmas?

We might well think: what difference did this birth some 2,000 years ago make? What’s with all the fol-der-al? Face reality: we are in a bigger mess than ever before. If God supposedly did something in the distant past it clearly made no real difference.

Wait. Maybe we have it all wrong. Maybe we have to turn the story upside down to get it.

See the image of the child born to poor parents, throwaway people in a backwater, throwaway place, and angels greeting shepherds, men with no status or security, announcing the breaking in of God’s kingdom into this sorry, sorry world.

See this is not a story of the distant past but of God’s future, of God’s dream for humanity, God’s promise of humanity’s future.

Jesus is not a figure from the past. Jesus is the very newest thing. Jesus comes to us now – from God’s future. Jesus comes to us now as the completely new human. Jesus comes to us now from God’s future as the completely non-violent one, who refuses all power-over, all the scapegoating, and all plotting, scheming and grasping that make this world a seemingly hopeless mess.

Jesus’ only power is truth and the self-emptying love that is God’s very nature. Jesus comes now as the human face of the Holy One that loves sorry humankind when there is every reason to despair, and loves humankind extravagantly, senselessly and faithfully. God does not give up on us. Jesus comes to us now to lead us into the future God dreams for humanity – a future of God’s kingdom realized where finally peace, love and truth govern human life and humankind becomes at last truly and authentically human.

As much as God comes to meet us in Jesus, God also dwells in the depths of the human psyche impelling us to recognize and see God’s coming.

The Gospel proclaims that to see Jesus is to see God, and to know Jesus is to know God. This seeing and knowing are of course not ordinary seeing and knowing, but that which comes with intuition and imagination formed by the Holy Spirit’s most often unseen and unknown movements in the depths of the human psyche, opening our spiritual sight to God’s presence and our mind to true and deepened knowledge of God. Seeing and knowing God in Jesus makes us more the true and authentic person we are meant to be.

The God of human invention is the projection of human power fantasies. It has been said that God created humans in God’s image and they are forever attempting to return the favor. Jesus is the corrective to that dead end, being the antithesis of human expectation, the human of God’s future whose power is only the power of truth, vulnerability and love.

This Jesus encounters us in Scripture, in the Eucharist, and in the beloved community and in those who he loved most in this world, the throwaway folks, the poor and disenfranchised, the sick, the imprisoned, the powerless and vulnerable.

This encounter with Christ demands a change, a re-orientation of our life. Christ calls us to a life of discipleship, to commitment to following the Gospel way, to attentively and obediently discerning his will in our lives so that we live not for ourselves but for others, and so that we find our own particular way to heal our sad and broken world. This is the way we realize our true humanity. We are meant for nothing less.

The priest and prophet Daniel Berrigan wrote these words in another dark and greatly troubled time:

It is not true that creation and the human family are doomed to destruction and loss—
This is true: For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life;

It is not true that we must accept inhumanity and discrimination, hunger and poverty, death and destruction—
This is true: I have come that they may have life, and that abundantly.

It is not true that violence and hatred should have the last word, and that war and destruction rule forever—
This is true: Unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder, his name shall be called wonderful councilor, mighty God, the Everlasting, the Prince of peace.

It is not true that we are simply victims of the powers of evil who seek to rule the world—
This is true: To me is given authority in heaven and on earth, and lo I am with you, even until the end of the world.

It is not true that we have to wait for those who are specially gifted, who are the prophets of the Church before we can be peacemakers—
This is true: I will pour out my spirit on all flesh and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions and your old men shall have dreams.

It is not true that our hopes for liberation of humankind, of justice, of human dignity of peace are not meant for this earth and for this history—
This is true: The hour comes, and it is now, that the true worshipers shall worship God in spirit and in truth.

So let us enter Christmas in hope, even hope against hope. Let us see visions of love and peace and justice. Let us affirm with humility, with joy, with faith, with courage: Jesus Christ—the life of the world, born some 2000 years ago this night, but also born now this very moment in every human heart that makes room to receive him.

Sermon – August 27, 2017

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 16
August 27, 2017

(Matthew 16:18-19)
Rev. Jane Mayrer

Tell us, O Lord, what we need to hear, and show us what we need to do, to be followers of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Today we hear what is commonly referred to as “the confession of Peter” as told by the author of the Gospel of Matthew. Peter’s recognition and acknowledgement that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of the living God, was a pivotal point in Jesus’ ministry. All four of the Gospels – in one way or another – depict Peter as the first disciple to come to this realization about Jesus’ identity. But only the Gospel of Matthew expands upon what this means for Peter. Jesus says to him, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

These couple of verses have born a heavy weight of scholarly inspection over the centuries. Some question whether Jesus even said this, since no other Gospel writer includes these words in their account. These scholars think that Matthew added this bit to support his particular community of Christians and to bolster Peter’s authority. And even those who assume Jesus did say this to Peter, are not sure what Jesus meant. There seems to be general agreement that “keys of the kingdom of heaven” refer to Peter’s authority as a leader of the community. There also is agreement that the term “bind” means to forbid, and the term “loose” means to permit. But as to what action is forbidden or permitted, “question has arisen” – as the footnote to the NRSV somewhat understates.

I have always felt a certain discomfort with these two verses from Matthew’s Gospel, I suppose because – as I understand it – they are the foundation upon which the institutional church is based. Peter, as leader of the church in Rome, was the first Pope, and the church established in Rome became the one true, holy, and apostolic church, with the power to forbid and permit, to declare sin and to forgive sin. That’s a lot of power for an institution run by humans to have.

One problem is, what happens when the church – the institution – itself is sinful: when it engages in sin, condones sin, is silent about sin, is complicit in sin. Consider the Roman Catholic Church and its long history with sexual abuse of children, and others, by priests. Clergy, acting as spiritual leaders of the church, engaged in sinful acts. They were forgiven by other spiritual leaders, quietly moved from one location to another location, and allowed to continue to engage in the same sinful acts. The institutional church first refused even to acknowledge the allegations of victims, then covered up and silenced those allegations.

Well, as my favorite theologian, Barbara Brown Taylor observed in her book, Speaking of Sin, we like to single out wrongdoers, because that frees those of us who have not been caught for anything to enjoy a bracing sense of innocence. But, as another wise person has observed, none of us are innocent. When we point a finger at someone else, three fingers are pointing at us. So, before we become too comfortable, or judgmental, let us look at our own Episcopal Church and its accommodation of sin – the sin of slavery.

And slavery is a sin. The evil of slavery is obvious from even the sparsest description, such as we have in today’s reading from Exodus. The purpose of slavery is to exert power and control over a group of people. “A new king arose over Egypt … who said to his people, ‘Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies.’ Therefore, they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor.” The mechanism of slavery is to so demean the enslaved that they are deprived of their humanity. “The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.” The result of slavery is that humans, deprived of their humanity, become expendable. “Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, ‘Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.”

It’s hard to understand, now, how any Christian church in the pre-Civil War United States could read this account of slavery without being compelled to condemn and repudiate slavery. Some, in fact, did. But others were silent. And in the south, it was not slavery, but slave rebellion against a master that was regarded as sin.

In Maryland, it seems that the issue for the Episcopal Church was not whether to free slaves, since the economic welfare and social status of the church was deeply embedded in slavery, but rather whether to evangelize them and make them Christians. Mary Klein and Kingsley Smith note in their research on the history of racism in the Diocese of Maryland, that Episcopal clergy were expected to convert slaves, but “were frustrated in their efforts to catechize slaves because many masters feared the consequences of education, and some thought that once a slave was baptized, he or she would have to be freed.” The first American census, in 1790, showed that the overwhelming majority of clergy and lay delegates to the Convention of the Diocese of Maryland owned slaves, including Thomas John Claggett, the first Bishop of Maryland and the first bishop consecrated on American soil.

Thanks be to God, the Episcopal Church has finally owned up to our shameful past. In 2006 General Convention adopted a resolution explicitly acknowledging and regretting “the Episcopal Church’s support of the inhuman system of chattel slavery and Bible abuse that was used to justify a sin that dehumanized a people created in the image of God.” The following year, the Diocese of Maryland went beyond expressing regret and apologized “for the Anglican Church in Colonial Maryland and of the Episcopal Church in the state of Maryland for their role in the slavery of African Americans and in the subsequent racial injustice.” [This was by resolution adopted by Diocesan Convention in 2007.]

Since that time, our Diocese has been engaged in researching our Episcopal history of slavery and its legacies of segregation and racism. I mentioned the paper written by Mary Kline and Kingsley Smith pertaining to the Diocese’s history. Parishes are also delving into their own histories of involvement with, and complicity in, slavery. This effort is supported by the Research and Pilgrimage Working Group of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Three years ago, in 2014, the first Trail of Souls Truth and Reconciliation pilgrimage was held to commemorate the abolition of slavery in Maryland in 1864. Sites visited on that pilgrimage included Clover Hill, where the Diocesan offices are located, which was built with slave labor; All Hallows’ Church in Davidsonville, where the first African slave was baptized in 1699; All Saints’ Church, Sunderland, which was built by enslaved people, and where proceeds from the sale of a slave girl were used to purchase a silver chalice; Grace Episcopal Church, Silver Spring, which has a burial ground for Confederate Soldiers; and the slave cemetery at Claggett.

The second Trail of Souls pilgrimage will be held this November, on November 4th. St. Luke’s will be one of the pilgrimage sites, along with Old St. Paul’s, Emmanuel Church, and Memorial Church in Bolton Hill – all white parishes founded before slavery was abolished in 1864. So that St. Luke’s can participate as a pilgrimage site, I have been researching our own records to learn about this church’s experience of, and relationship with, slavery. Some of this history has already been written about and is referred to on our website. Some is contained in the church history written in 1947, when St. Luke’s celebrated its 100th anniversary. Some I found reading the earliest Vestry minutes. Some is extracted from information recorded in the first church registry. Here is what I have discovered.

St. Luke’s was incorporated as a church in the Diocese of Maryland on St. Luke’s Day, in October,1847. At the time, it was worshiping in a small building located at the corner of Hollins Street and what is now Arlington Street. In 1851, the land upon which our church now sits was donated to St. Luke’s, for the purpose of constructing a church building, by John Glenn and his wife, who were members of Old St. Paul’s. John Glenn was a judge on the United States District Court for the District of Maryland. He, and his family, owned a vast amount of real estate west and south of the City of Baltimore (some of that property became Glen Burnie). They also owned slaves. John Glenn himself owned a slave farm, Hilton, near Catonsville.

The first stained glass window just around the corner there is dedicated to the memory of Ann Jane Steuart, the wife of George H. Steuart. George Steuart was born into a family of slave owners. They were strong supporters of the institution of slavery. The family’s town residence was a substantial estate and mansion located in West Baltimore, called Maryland Square, just a few blocks west of here. George inherited both the family property- land and human – and the family’s attitudes.

George Steuart was an influential member of St. Luke’s Church, instrumental in its founding, both financially and personally. He was elected to the first Vestry in 1847, and re-elected thereafter until 1862. Minutes of the annual meeting of the congregation, held on April 21, 1862, at which members of the Vestry were elected, state, “The Rector alluded to the obligations which the Congregation were under to the Steuart family, especially to the late Mrs. Steuart, for their active effort, and the liberal contributions in the foundation and support of the church, and expressed the desire that the family should be represented in the meetings of the Vestry with more regularity than the state of health of General Steuart for some years past had permitted. He therefore suggested that the name of his son, Thomas E. Steuart, Esq., should be substituted for his.”

More than illness was involved in General Steuart’s absence. George Steuart was a supporter of the Confederacy. His oldest son (also George H. Steuart) had resigned from the United States Army and joined the Confederacy. Both George Sr. and George Jr. had made strenuous efforts to persuade Marylanders to succeed from the Union, and to use the state militia to prevent the occupation of the State by Union soldiers. But those efforts failed. Union officers occupied Baltimore in May 1861, and soon began arresting Confederate sympathizers. General Steuart fled to Charlottesville, Virginia. Maryland Square, the family mansion, was seized by the U.S. army and used to house troops. An army hospital was built on the grounds to care for Federal wounded. Meanwhile, Gen. Steuart, aged 71, was deemed too old for active service in the Confederate army. However, he spent much of his time following the army and was present at, or near to, a number of battles, including Gettysburg. Son George Jr. fought with the Confederacy until the end, and surrendered with Gen. Robert E. Lee at Appomattox. Another son, William James, died from wounds received fighting for the Confederacy in the Battle for the Wilderness. The Vestry minutes tersely note condolence to Gen. Steuart upon the death of his son.

I suspect that the membership of St. Luke’s at this time reflected the general population of Baltimore – a combination of white slaveowners and those who did not own slaves, of white Union supporters and supporters of the Confederacy. The church records also show the presence and participation of African Americans, both free and enslaved, again reflecting the African American community in Baltimore.

The first baptism of an African American recorded in the St. Luke’s registry is that of Martha Ellen, child of Hezekiah and Hillary Primus, born August 26, 1846 and baptized June 26, 1847. The first death of an African American recorded in the St. Luke’s registry is also Martha Ellen. She died at ten months of age, and was buried on July 7, 1847, in a private burial ground belonging to the Stephenson’s. And that is all we know about her or her parents. What can we infer from this slim information? Can we infer that Hezekiah and Hillary Primus were slaves owned by the Stephenson family? Or that they were free African Americans who worked for the Stephensons? Some of the African Americans whose names are entered in the parish registry are identified as “servant of” someone, or “former servant” of someone. Mr. and Mrs. Primus are not so identified.

Also from the parish registry: Clara Butler, born in May, 1842, daughter of Isa and Angela Butler, was baptized March 11, 1860. Her sponsor is listed as Mr. D. Orleans. She was confirmed April 21, 1861, and here she is identified as the servant of D. Orleans. She was married to Richard Troupe at St. Luke’s Church at 6:30 p.m. on November 4, 1862, “Rev. Rankin and the Congregation present.” Who was this woman? The notation that she was married in the church with the Congregation present stands out as unusual. But what to make of? I don’t know.

The most explicit indication of African American ownership that I’ve located in the parish registry relates to Eliza Butler, who was baptized on May 20, 1861. Her parents are not named. Mr. and Mrs. Oliver are listed as her sponsors. A note says that Dr. Oliver is her owner.

The Rector of St. Luke’s, the Rev. Charles W. Rankin, took his obligation to minister to the African American communicants of his congregation seriously. In 1855, he organized a “servants’ class’ for their instruction. This grew into a “colored Sunday School that met at the church “three times every Lord’s Day, and had an enrollment of one hundred twenty scholars.” [I’m quoting from the church history written in 1947.] According to the church’s parochial report for 1864, the Sunday School continued to grow and at the beginning of the Civil War almost 300 persons were enrolled.

The diverse membership of St. Luke’s, both African American and white, raises the question of how they worshiped. This leads to what I think of as the enigma of the gallery on the west wall of the nave, below the rose window. The original design of the church specifically did not include a gallery. For financial reasons, the structure was built in two phases. The first phase of construction was completed in in 1853, and the congregation moved into the building from its location on Hollins Street. When, in 1857, the church was ready to proceed with the second phase of construction, a different architect was hired. This man, John W. Priest of New York City, proposed significant alterations to the original design of the church, including the placement of a “light gallery” across the west wall. The advantage would be threefold: it would relieve the blankness of the wall, it would provide space for a vestibule underneath that would allow for a double set of doors and help alleviate loss of heat in the winter, and it would “afford accommodation for colored persons,” the common practice in those days. Mr. Priest’s plans were approved, enlargement of the space proceeded, and the Rev. Rankin reported progress to the Vestry. When he reported that the gallery had been built, he noted that now “the blankness” of the west wall was relieved and there was now a vestibule. He did not say a word about accommodation for the “colored” worshipers of St. Luke’s. Why, I wonder?

One inference is that Rev. Rankin simply did not think it worthy of mention. But, where had the African American communicants of St. Luke’s been worshiping when there was no gallery? Certainly, they had not been sitting among the white congregation, and probably they had not been sitting at the back of the church, either. Having the African American communicants worship with the white communicants following the completion of a gallery would have been a significant change in the way things were done at St. Luke’s something that would have occasioned mention. My guess is that the African American congregants worshiped at one of the several services held on Sunday afternoon, and that the church did not see any reason to change this practice after a gallery was built.

I’ve gone on at some length here, and I apologize for that. To me, it seems that St. Luke’s was no different from the other Episcopal churches in Maryland that accepted, accommodated, and benefited from the sin of slavery without talking about it. But I want you to hear our church’s history, so that you can draw your own conclusions.

And this brings us back to where we started. What kind of community was Jesus envisioning when he said that his church would be built on a rock with the authority to bind and loose on earth as in heaven? I think that Barbara Brown Taylor gets it right. The church is a community that reminds us of who we are and what we are created for. Taylor says: “The church exists so that God has a place to point people toward a purpose as big as their capacities and to help them identify all they ways they flee from that high call. The church exists so that so that people have a community in which they may confess their sin … as well as a community that will support them to turn back again. The church exists so that people have a place where they may repent of their fear, their hardness of heart, their isolation and loss of vision, and where – having repented – they may be restored to fullness of life.”

And that is precisely what we here at St. Lukes, along with other churches in the Diocese of Maryland, are seeking as we honestly face up to and own the place of slavery in our past, confess it, repent it, and seek to make restitution for the wrong done. Our country’s history of slavery is the root from which the racial hatred now being expressed so openly and violently is rooted. White people must openly acknowledge and accept this. The church, confronting that evil honestly and fearlessly, offers another way, a way that leads to forgiveness, restoration, wholeness – a way of salvation.


Sermon – September 3, 2017

Homily: Matthew 16:22-28, Exodus 3:1-5, Romans 12:9-21

Thursday afternoons I’m on grandpa duty with Fiona and Maja.

Hanging out with four and six year olds can really open these old jaded eyes to see things as they see them. They ask lots of questions about the things they see. Difficult questions!

We were down in Mt Vernon with some time to kill before their dad would fetch them. This crusty old homeless man who hit me up for some money would be a rare sight out in leafy Ellicott City. “Why did you give him money? Why don’t they have a house? How come somebody doesn’t bring him home with them?”

Hard questions I did my best to answer, but really I would rather to dodge this invitation to initiate my granddaughters to the cruelty of the world. And seeing the nearby Walters Gallery’s open doors, I thought maybe I’ll distract them with a little cultural exposure.

Out of the summer glare into the cool marble vestibule, we are first greeted by two large naked and amply endowed Greek gods. Fiona and Maja thought this was uproarious good fun and it took some work to settle them down. I herded them down the nearest passage into what turned out to be section of medieval art.

“What’s that? Why is he nailed up like that? Why would they do that to him?” Here was a 18’ painting of Jesus crucified writhing in agony and gore. So much for my attempt to distract and amuse and dodge difficult questions!

The dark side of humanity is so numbingly pervasive we stop really seeing it. We become cynical and hardened, accepting the injustice and cruelties of the status quo as “reality”.

We have heard this passage from Matthew’s gospel so many times we scarcely take in just how jarringly shocking are Jesus’ words: “deny self and take up a cross”, “lose your life to save it”. Imagine how shocking is a young child’s glance at a picture of a crucifixion. How can they bear the excruciating pain and cruelty of it all? Jesus’ listeners knew well what crucifixion entailed and it was no tame metaphor for accepting life’s troubles patiently; Rome made sure that subject peoples had frequent reminders of what was in store for those who challenge their brutal power.

So Jesus intimates to his disciples that he knows well his fate. Jesus stares without blinking into the heart of human darkness. Peter protests.

Can we blame him? We don’t want to know and see that maelstrom of human cruelty that will condemn the innocent Jesus, not just then and there, but again and again and again down through the centuries. With tediously predictable cruelty the wheels of history grind down and grind up the powerless, the scapegoat, the outcast – in every age, in every place.

Little Fiona and Maja can’t understand that we are content to let some people sleep on the streets. Their innocence challenges are unthinking disavowal or habitual looking the other way. How would we explain to them the terrifying ugliness of recent events in Charlottesville?

Peter wants Jesus to avoid the fate he predicts. He wants Jesus to want what Peter wants and what we all want: power, recognition, prestige and the security that he imagines comes with it. Who wants to be powerless and vulnerable? But scripture tells us over and over that God is with the vulnerable and powerless. Jesus tells us that our only hope is to desire God alone and God’s purposes for humanity.

We all shrink from knowing and seeing clearly this very evident human reality. We are all like Peter, and Jesus’s rebuke is sharp and clear. “Get behind me Satan! You are a stumbling block! You are setting your mind not on the things of God, but the things of humans.” We don’t’ get it, and everything depends on our getting it. We sorely need an upgrade on our consciousness. We need to see things as God sees them. Indeed as Jesus reminds us – we would do well to see things as young children do.

Today we hear of Moses tending his sheep in Midian – Moses doing his own thing, far away from all that unpleasantness in Egypt, far away from his own people, forgetting their enslavement and their oppression, not knowing, not seeing their terrible suffering.

Almost a distraction in his peripheral vision he sees a strange sight, a bush burning and not burning. That’s curious?!?

Moses hardly expects to encounter the living God in that bush.

But God is there and God makes it clear that he is God and a God who is very much aligned with humanity and history. This is not a metaphysical god, but the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This is the God who hears the cries of powerless enslaved people being ground down. The flaming heart of God is joined to his suffering people.

And God has a big job for our reluctant recalcitrant friend Moses, work Moses would rather not do, a job he would much prefer to pass up. Like most of us most of the time, Moses would prefer to stay with his sheep, and stay fat, dumb and happy in our illusory routines. That’s not God’s way. God wants our eyes, minds and hearts open, alive and responsive to the painful realities of this broken world. Human suffering is God’s suffering and must truly be our own.

There are times when we gets a glimpse of what humanity can be, what human beings were meant to be, and in God’s good time will be.

All week TV’s glared with images of terrible flooding in Texas, thousands of poor people stranded in attics and rooftops seeking refuge from rising waters. But also witness the other side of our flawed humanity. Contrasted with the ugly tribalism of Charlottesville, there is the unselfconscious generosity, the self-emptying heroism of ordinary decent people coming to help their fellow humans in terrible circumstances. Thousands of people arriving with boats and trucks to help rescue stranded folks, ordinary people of modest means taking time off, and sacrificing freely their resources to help other humans in trouble, and making no distinction of race or ethnicity or creed or class. That is taking up the cross –loving as God loves, embracing the poor and dispossessed because ultimately we are all in the same boat, and we are all brothers and sisters and children of the same God.

Echoing the words of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, St. Paul says, “rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Bless those who persecute you… rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”

The great paradox is that the more human we become the more like God we become.

Theologian Walter Wink wrote: “And this is the revelation: God is HUMAN… It is the great error of humanity to believe that it is human. We are only fragmentarily human, fleetingly human, brokenly human. We see glimpses of our humanness, we can only dream of what a more human existence and political order would be like, but we have not yet arrived at true humanness. Only God is human, and we are made in God’s image and likeness – which is to say, we are capable of becoming human. (Walter Wink, Just Jesus, My Struggle to be Human, p.102)

May it be so. Amen.

Sermon – Jan 22, 2017

January 22, 2017
Jeremy Funk

“I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” This confession of faith falls near the end of today’s psalm, Psalm 27. This morning I want to reflect with you about seeing the goodness of the Lord here and now. I want to suggest that seeing the Lord’s goodness first has to do with trusting that God’s gifts to us are good, and second with seeking them out; then again trusting, then yet again seeking, then trusting again and seeking again—over and over.

“The Lord is my light and my salvation,” our psalm begins, “whom shall I fear?” God’s light recalls the first act of creation and reminds us that all life comes from the divine. God’s salvation recalls the Israelite liberation from Egypt and the journey to the promised land. Ongoing creative power and saving help are God’s fundamental, good gifts. They are life and freedom. They come to us because of who God is. When we trust God, we trust in one who by nature is life and liberation. So we do not need to be afraid. Across the Psalms we hear calls like this: You have saved my soul from death; and questions like this: Will the dust praise you? Of course the Christian claim is that God’s saving help has come to us in Jesus, who has died and risen to everlasting life. We too trust the God of the Psalms.

What are some ways that you pause to notice God’s fundamental, good gifts of life and saving help? Just this year Helen and I began writing down, on a new colored slip of paper for each day, something we are grateful for, or our happiest moment, that day. We’re collecting the paper in a jar and plan to read through our gratitude slips on New Year’s Eve. This practice helps me to stop and think about what I’m choosing to write down not only as a happy moment but also as part of the good gift of life God has given me.

“I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” After we have acknowledged the fundamental, good gifts of God’s creation and liberation, we live in God’s presence seeking out more of God’s good gifts. Verse 4 of Psalm 27 says, “One thing I asked of the Lord,” says the psalmist, “that will I seek after: / to live in the house of the Lord / all the days of my life, / to behold the beauty of the Lord, / and to inquire in his temple.”

So the presence of the Lord is a place to live in, a space to inhabit.

Helen and I meet monthly with a small group from Stony Run Friends Meeting. When we gather, we sit in silence, and out of the silence eventually each of us will share, in a way of speaking, how God is at work in our lives. One member of our group has said that her spiritual practice is to remember as often as she can that she is always in meeting for worship. That is, she is always in church, always ready to notice how God is at work within and through her.

According to our psalm, one quality of life in the Lord’s goodness is beauty, “the beauty of the Lord.” Certainly in the Old Testament a defining trait of Israel’s God is that the Lord is invisible. So for this psalmist, where does God’s beauty come from? One commentator suggests, “It is possible that the psalmist perceived and experienced God’s appearance and presence (God’s face) via the sunlight that shone in the temple and reflected off gold decorations.”

Given that the Lord is the Creator, it may be helpful to take “the beauty of the Lord” more broadly. Wherever beauty is, through that beauty we also see something of God’s beauty. So when we worship upstairs in our sanctuary, through the beauty that there surrounds us, we glimpse God’s beauty. And whether we’re upstairs or down here, when we exchange the peace of Christ with smiles, hugs, and greetings we experience through them something of God’s beauty. In the children and babies among us too we see something of God’s beauty: in Mackenzie, in Amiyah, in Hunter, and in Austin—and in the new babies that will arrive. I experience something of God’s beauty when I listen to music that stirs me. Certainly all of us could tell of times when we have known something of God’s beauty through the beauty in this world.

Another feature of life in God’s goodness, our psalm tells us, is knowledge or wisdom. The psalmist says that besides gazing on the Lord’s beauty, he also wishes to “inquire at [God’s] temple.” Later the poet prays, “Teach me your way, O Lord.” This psalmist may have inquired of God through a prophet or a priest at the temple. This psalmist wants to hear God’s word. In Jesus Christ we hear God’s living Word, and through the Spirit this word lives in our hearts. If we listen with ready ears, we may hear God’s Word preached or God’s word spoken in truth and love between members of our community. If we listen with ready ears or read with ready eyes, we can hear God’s word in Scripture. I have spent time listening to the Psalms in an audio Bible so far this year, mostly at lunch. I find that listening to the words of Scripture helps me to remember God’s goodness.

“I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” We see God’s goodness in the here and now by trusting God’s fundamental, good gifts of life and liberation, and then by seeking out or noticing others—signs of beauty, words of wisdom. Then we trust those and notice others, and then we trust and notice again and again and again.

In Psalm 27 the poet sings to a God whose nature and gifts enliven. But the psalmist faces enemies who want to do nothing but thwart God’s life-giving purposes: they want destroy him. That’s why he seeks protection in the temple. The psalmist is hounded by folks who want to put an end to him or at least to his good name—and those were pretty much the same thing in biblical times.

And despite all this trusting and seeking after God, even this psalmist wonders whether God will stick with him. He wouldn’t be human if it didn’t: “Do not hide your face from me,” our poet begs. “Do not turn your servant away in anger, you who have been my help.” And finally, “Do not forsake me; even if my father and mother forsake me, you will not.”

Given our very human struggles to trust and seek after God, we need God’s own grace to imitate God with each other as best we can. We will do well to trust the Spirit of God in one another and to seek out God’s gifts in each other. I’ve learned a new angle on this practice from the improv introduction class Helen and I are taking. In just two weeks I’ve come to realize in a new way the importance of stepping forward in faith toward a partner in a scene and trusting in the goodness of whatever gift—in words, pantomime, or what have you—that the partner gives.

So let’s trust and seek out God’s goodness in one another. We already see goodness flourishing here, whether through Eva’s relationship with Franklin Square parents and children, or through Bertina’s nurture of this community. We notice God’s goodness in Andre’s leadership and in the music John and Anna provide to enrich our worship.

Our psalm winds to a close with the confession we’ve heard already today: “I believe that I will see God’s goodness in the land of the living.” Our psalm’s final lines call us to wait for the Lord. This is an active waiting, a courageous waiting. It’s the constant back-and-forth of seeking and trusting we’ve been talking about; it’s looking out for the goodness of the Lord. And I do see this goodness here, at Saint Luke’s. I’m grateful for the chance to keep trusting, looking, and waiting for it with you.