How to be in the presence of Jesus

by Deirdre Good

Text: Luke 10: 38-42

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me." But the Lord answered her, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her."

Think about the last meal with friends you really enjoyed. Was it at your house or theirs? Or maybe you were at a restaurant. In which case you were able to enjoy the company and the food without having to prepare, cook, or clear away afterwards. If the meal was at your house, then you know what was involved.

Before I arrived in Maine this summer, I was able to share a memorable meal at home with friends. It all came together at the last minute. I wanted to extend hospitality to our new President at the seminary where I live and work since he had just arrived and was temporarily without family. Fortunately, I was able to invite two other couples to join us. And thanks to Whole Foods, I was able to assemble the dinner at the last minute rather than cook it. So I was able to enjoy the company rather than worry about whether they liked the food I’d cooked. Why was it so enjoyable? Because all the couples (including us) knew and liked each other. Three of us work together, and six of us went to the same church at one time. We have the same sense of humour, values and interests. We respect each other’s viewpoints.

The meal Jesus shares with Martha and Mary presupposed in today’s gospel is quite similar in that the three of them are friends—they eat together in Bethany; they probably worship together and they love each other. How do we think about it? Does the story describe types of people, and continue by commending contemplative types over active types, as Luke’s Jesus apparently does? I know the story can be read this way but there’s a price to pay. It’s a moralistic reading, seeing figures as exemplars. It favors one character over another. Are all of the characters in Jesus’ stories intended to advise readers? Are they meant to evoke empathy and strengthen our proclivity for doing good? Or might we see the whole story in a broader context of Luke and thus as a meditation on deeper issues in the surrounding material. I want to suggest that the passage is a meditation on what it means to be blessed to see and hear what is at hand since others longed to see and hear it but did not (Then turning to the disciples, Jesus said to them privately, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.” Luke 10: 23-4)

A few words about context. Today’s gospel lies close to the start of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem (9:51) that is a journey of many functions besides travel. One of them is shaping of a community around Jesus (followers, disciples, crowds) alongside the shaping of opposition outside that community. Travel and following Jesus to Jerusalem to death and beyond is also about discerning the meaning of presence and absence and how to be in the presence and absence of Jesus.

So here’s a suggestion: If you are on a journey and Jesus joins the journey, stop whatever you are doing. Look and listen. If there’s time for a meal, order a take-out and food to go. This is a meal to remember: tastes, sights, sound. Savor the meaning of Real Presence.

Now what Martha is doing in our gospel is the important task of service (from which we get the word “deacon”) that can be applied to church leadership with connotations of administration and organization. And the verb in Luke’s description, “Martha welcomed him into her home” shows Martha as head of a household, which leads us to think more broadly about Martha in the rest of the New Testament and beyond.

In John’s Gospel, for example, the siblings Mary, Martha and Lazarus are described as loved by Jesus, a term that scholars understand to describe relationship of disciple to teacher Jesus. In the episode reporting that Lazarus has died, it is Martha who engages Jesus: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” “But,” she continues, “Even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus assures her that her brother will rise again and when he declares, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-6) Martha professes: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world” (11:27). Her confession is a high point of the Johannine communities’ profession of belief in Jesus. Martha is every bit a thinking person.

And, when we look at the rest of the New Testament, it turns out that Mary of Bethany is every bit a doer. At a meal in Bethany where she functions as host and her sister Martha serves, Mary anoints Jesus as a prefiguring of self-giving in the service of footwashing he is about to enact and his death and burial. She does what friends are taught to do by Jesus says Johannine scholar Cynthia Kittredge.

If we take all the evidence of the New Testament, we see that both Mary and Martha have been with Jesus in ways that indicate they both listen, think, and act out a deep understanding of Jesus’ ministry.

I think the lesson for us from the gospel is how to be in the presence of Jesus.

Anthony Bloom, an archbishop in the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church, recounts in his book Beginning to Pray an experience with a Russian woman whom he visited in a nursing home before she died at the age of 102. It was shortly after his ordination and she sought his advice. “All these years I have been asking people who are reputed to know about prayer, and they have never given me a sensible reply, so I thought that as you probably know nothing, you may by chance blunder out the right thing.” She explained further that for 14 years she had been praying the Jesus prayer almost continually and had never perceived God’s presence.

Bloom blurted out in response: “If you speak all the time, you don’t give God a chance to place a word in.” “What shall I do?” she said. Then he suggested:

“Go to your room after breakfast, put it right, place your armchair in a strategic position that will leave behind your back all the dark corners . . . into which things are pushed so as not to be seen. Light your little lamp before the icon . . . [Orthodox homes traditionally have an icon altar, often with an image of the face of Christ.] and sit, look around, and try to see where you live. Then take your knitting and for fifteen minutes knit before the face of God, but I forbid you to say one word of prayer. You just knit and try to enjoy the peace of your room.”

At first, Bloom writes, the woman was suspicious that this advice was superficial. But when she returned to see him some time later, she announced, “It works!” Bloom was eager to hear her elaboration, so she told him how she had followed his instructions to neaten her room and then settle herself peacefully before her icon. She continued:

I settled into my armchair and thought, “Oh how nice, I have 15 minutes during which I can do nothing without being guilty! I looked around the room and thought how nice it was. After a while I remembered that I must knit before the face of God, and so I began to knit. And I became more and more aware of the silence. The needles hit the armrest of my chair, . . . there was nothing to bother about, . . . and then I perceived that this silence was not simply an absence of noise, but that the silence had substance. It was not absence of something but presence of something. . . . the silence had a density, a richness, and it began to pervade me. The silence around began to come and meet the silence in me. . . . All of a sudden I perceived that the silence was a presence. At the heart of the silence there was the One who is all stillness, all peace, all poise.”

So if Jesus appears on our doorstep, close the laptop, turn off the ipad, and sit down at his feet. This is a time to savor. And if Jesus doesn't appear – do what ever it is that you naturally do; and in that very action; in that deep silence, look and listen for the Divine Presence.

**Preached on Sunday July 21st 2013 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Castine, Maine.

Dr. Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. Her blog is called On Not Being a Sausage.

O Freedom

by Sara Miles

Galatians 5:1,13-25
Luke 9:51–62

Most days, as I sing my way through the Psalms for morning prayer, the words enter me in a half-focused way. But I always wake up with a shiver, the way you jerk awake from a dream of falling, whenever I hear: “I raise the cup of freedom as I call upon God’s name.” The line is from Psalm 116—crucially, a Psalm of praise.

I am filled with love, for the Lord hears me;*
     The Lord bends to my voice whenever I call.
Death had me in its grip, the grave's trap was set, grief held me fast.*
      I cried out for God, "Please, Lord, rescue me!"
Kind and faithful is the Lord, gentle is our God.*
      The Lord shelters the poor, raises me from the dust.
Rest once more, my heart,*
      for you know the Lord's love.
God rescues me from death, wiping away my tears, steadying my feet.*
      I walk with the Lord in this land of the living.
I believe, even as I say, "I am afflicted."*
      I believe, even though I scream, "Everyone lies!"
What gift can ever repay God's gift to me?*
     I raise the cup of freedom as I call on God's name!

And yet there’s something frightening about that raised cup. It is the same bitter cup Jesus will soon sadly offer his quarreling disciples, asking, “Can you drink the cup I will drink?” It is the same cup Jesus holds in the hours before his death, praying, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me.”

Take this cup from me—this cup of freedom.

This past month we celebrated Gay Freedom Day, or Gay Liberation Day – I’m too cranky, too old-school and, actually, too proud to refer to it as Gay Pride Day, which I consider a blasphemous name designed by marketers from the self-esteem-industrial complex ––and also celebrated, weirdly enough, the law. Or at least the freedom to marry under the law, the moment when the law aligns with love.

Freedom is our song, freedom is Paul’s text, freedom is Christ Jesus’ living word. We proclaim and celebrate freedom––and yet, like the disciples accompanying Jesus on the road to Jerusalem, I sometimes want to turn back. Remember how our ancestors craved the foods of their bondage—how even the abundant manna God freely gave them in the desert didn’t taste as sweet, in their imaginations, as the cucumbers of slavery? It’s like St. Paul’s argument to the Galatians. He’s disputing other evangelists who insist that new Christians need to adopt Mosaic law, observe dietary practices, and become circumcised in order to complete their conversions. You need rules, these preachers say, if you want people to be good Christians. You need identifying marks, identity-making rituals that prove you’re like the others; then you have to follow the law to keep you from slipping. St. Paul sees this reliance on law as nothing less than a return to bondage. But I understand. Like the Galatians, I can find myself afraid, and praying for the cup of freedom to pass me by. Oh, take it from me.

As old bumpersticker says, freedom isn’t free. It’s like coming out. Coming out is liberating, thrilling, but it means you have to give up the safety and the privileges of living under the law. I remember a girlfriend in New York hissing at me, “Let go of my hand, are you crazy?” panicked that we’d be attacked for being two women, one white and one black, showing affection in public. Freedom isn’t free: leaving the closet means you might lose your family, or your home–––foxes have holes, birds have nests, but queer people are way, way over-represented among the homeless and marginally housed. And I hate to break the news, but the gay community isn’t made up entirely of people who are tall, fashionable, beautiful, funny, artistic and rich. Coming out means you have to identify yourself with all kinds of others: mostly weird, stigmatized outcasts despised by decent folks: screwed-up runaway kids, big homely bull-daggers, awkward campy boys. Freedom isn’t free: it binds you to the costs of loving a community. I remember a hospitable little band of transsexual friends, early in the AIDS years, who had a tiny slum apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, with a mini-frig where they kept and shared black-market hormones: they’d invite me to hang out with them after my restaurant shift…. And where are they now? Dead, I suppose, like so many others. Freedom isn’t free: you have to drink from the cup of tears to taste it.

And so, considering the cost, I might desire to look back, and turn my face away from Jerusalem. Because I’m not always sure I want that cup of freedom Jesus offers. It requires me to love all kinds of strangers: I want to bury my dead, that is, to take care of my own family above anyone else. It requires me to let go of my desire to be respectable: I’m an employed, middle-aged white lady, a Christian preacher, after all, not just a sexual deviant, and I want the law to ratify my rights and my social standing, and I want the church to admit I’m morally better than the Samaritans, the unbelievers, the opponents of gay marriage. I want the freedom to be as bitter, vengeful, jealous, bad-tempered as I feel like; snapping and biting at my enemies, calling down fire on their heads in God’s name. Follow Jesus? Jesus is only going to the cross, after all, and what kind of freedom is that?

The freedom the law offers is different. It seems easier. The law says I just have to take on the identifying marks of the normative community—circumcision, for example, or dietary laws, or marriage. The law ––with its reduction of truth to logic, its reduction of mercy to justice, its heavy debt to the rulers of this world––the law says nothing about what I owe my neighbor. The law doesn’t require me to love anybody but myself. The Supreme Court decision on marriage, coming just a day after its decision on voting rights, says it’s OK for me to be free while others aren’t. And so, in the name of those saints and martyrs who turned their faces resolutely toward Jerusalem, kept their hands on the plow, and went forward singing, even to death, for the right of all people to vote in this country, I commend to you not the laws of the Supreme Court, but the teaching of St. Paul:

After all, brothers and sisters, you were called to be free. Do not use your freedom as an opening for self-indulgence, but be servants to one another in love, since the whole of the Law is summarized in the one commandment: You must love your neighbor as yourself.

Through Christ, St. Paul insists, God offers everyone relationship without conditions: a gift of freedom, given freely, for freedom. Nobody has to earn God's love, we just have to accept the gift. And then we have to share it, freely.

The cup of freedom Jesus offers is the freedom to love. Not merely to love another lady in the privacy of my own home, but the freedom to love my neighbors, bear their suffering. Not the freedom to do whatever I feel like, but the freedom to be part of a community that includes those members whose needs I find most difficult. Not freedom from grief, either, or affliction––there are tears in the cup––but a freedom that even at the cross will reveal the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness and self-control: no law can touch such things as these.

It is for freedom that Christ has freed us. We are freed to love, and to be freedom for others. The cup Jesus offers us, the cup we partake of and become, is his blood of the new covenant poured out for all: it is a cup, finally, of salvation.

And so we go up to the Table together, and raise high the cup of freedom as we call on God’s name. Drink it, all of you, and know the Lord’s love.

Sara Miles is Directory of Ministry at St Gregory of Nyssa in San Francisco; she's the author of Take This Bread, Jesus Freak, and City of God (forthcoming January 2014.)

Finally, beloved

by Emily A. Mellott

Look at that – the reading you picked begins, “finally, beloved.”

I don’t know if you did that on purpose - I’d guess that the statement of lived love that follows those words is why you picked that reading for you and us to hear.

But, finally, beloved.

We’re here.

Look at you – after twenty-five years of life together, getting married.

You know, and we know, that the real work of marriage is what you’ve been doing, and what you’re promising today to keep doing and do all over again.

But there’s something deliciously sacramental about this afternoon, this set of promises, this time of looking into each other’s eyes and taking each other’s hands.

Because today, when you stand up and make those promises, there’s another sacramental sign to go with the rings and the vows.

There’s a piece of paper from the State of Iowa that’s the visible sign of the fact that your marriage matters to the rest of the world.

It says your choice to be married to one another is an important piece of our public trust, our definition of community.

And it says – just like the promise the rest of us made a few minutes ago – that we owe you recognition, and support, and trust and faith in your commitment to one another.

That’s grace.
That’s why I’m going to cry, a bit, today.
Because you’re legal. And that matters for us
us, whom you’ve invited to be here
and us, the world we live in.

Also, apparently, to the Church Pension Fund. Wouldn’t want to leave them out.

It matters, because as your commitment to one another makes you more generous, more open, more skilled in the essential spiritual art of forgiving and being forgiven,
you create wells of grace that spill over into other people’s lives.

I’ve seen your humor bubble, your patience deepen, your hearts open, and your faith in each other and in your selves shine when I see you together. You contrast, and you fit together, and because of that, everyone each of you touches is richer for the experience.

Today, there’s a piece of paper that says that this richness matters in the way we make sense of our world.

It matters to me.
Because the two of you together have made my life more whole,
and I never thought I’d get to preach at your wedding.
So it feels like a victory and a vindication that today the whole weight of custom, society and the legal system affirm your truth.

That’s why I wanted to hear Jesus’ words about salt and light as we celebrate with you, today.

Today there’s no more bushel basket, even if you wanted to drop one over your light. Today we get to glorify God for the holy light of your everyday, life long, work of loving one another in the hard ways, the funny ways, the physical, spiritual, emotional, and practical ways.

That light matters.
And so does the salt.

Salt’s a funny thing to compare to love, but I think it just might work.
Salt changes things. It’s a preservative; it makes things just enough different so that they last a good long time.

And it’s got some rough edges. Salt doesn’t spice things up by being smooth and subtle, but by sharpening the edges of flavor, being a little rough on the tongue (and sometimes on the blood pressure).

And I like that for you, today.
Because we’re changing the story,
taking the assumptions of society and the promises you made 18 years ago, and sharpening the edges of both so that your flavors are brighter, richer, bigger.
And it took salt in a lot of raw places in the state, the church, and your own lives to change things, and make this happen.

But here we are.

Finally, beloved,
we’re here to celebrate all that is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, praiseworthy and excellent in your marriage,
because your marriage matters.

It makes life-giving light out of that piece of paper,
because it makes life-giving light out of your lives,
and that lights up me, and us, and people far beyond this place.

Finally, beloved, and forever.
Alleluia!


This sermon was preached on the occasion of the marriage of the Rev. Bonnie Perry and Ms. Susan Harlow by the Rev. Emily A. Mellott, is the rector of Calvary Episcopal Church, Lombard, Illinois.

Advent: History, mystery, majesty

by Laurie Gudim

The whole of Luke 21 is Jesus talking about floods and famines, wars and insurrections, earthquakes and betrayals. He finishes up with the terrible poetry of today’s reading: there will be signs in the sun, the moon and the stars and on the earth, distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding. The powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then the Son of Man will come in a cloud with power and great glory.

I have to confess that I don’t know what to make of all this. But, then, neither did the first followers of Jesus, who thought all these things would take place in their lifetime. And neither have subsequent generations, including our own, because we keep seeing the end times in the disasters in the world around us. Every time something big and cataclysmic happens we think maybe it’s the end. You’d think we’d learn after 2,000 years, and just let the idea go – chalk it up to a misinterpretation of what Jesus said, or maybe to the early church putting words in Jesus’ mouth. But we don’t. And maybe we don’t for a reason.

Advent is the season in which we focus on being ready, being prepared. It is an invitation to try to live in the present moment, awake and alert. This is important because living in the present moment makes us aware of how we always rest in God. Behind all our doings is the deep being-ness of our union with the Holy. And also, being aware in our moments gives us the opportunity to meet Christ in our interactions with others. Each word we speak and each action we take can welcome Christ or ignore him.

I have a saying taped to the dashboard of my car: “Live these transitory moments in light of the eternity at the end.” It’s from an ancient Chinese book of wisdom, and it reminds me to pay attention to the present moment instead of worrying about the past or the future. Each of the moments we live out is part of a tapestry we cannot undo or reclaim. In each moment we have the opportunity for creativity or anxiety, to focus on our relationship with God or on our ego needs.

Advent preparation is for the Coming of Christ. Every week as part of our Eucharist we repeat three sentences in one form or another. They are the core of our belief, a kind of pared down creed, and they place us squarely in a world belonging to and run by God. They make an excellent Advent meditation, and I want to recommend them to you for that purpose.

We say, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” Or we say, “We remember his death. We proclaim his resurrection. We await his coming in glory.”

As one young biblical scholar I read put it, it’s about history, mystery and majesty.

My daughter has a new boyfriend, R.J., whom I met at Thanksgiving. He’s a coal miner. Furthermore, he likes being a coal miner. For him it’s the most meaningful work in the world. So of course my daughter prepped him before we arrived. “Don’t mention Obama,” she cautioned.

But we were both up at 5 am one morning as he was getting ready to go to work, and we happened to fall into a conversation in which we could really talk to one another. Sure enough, we don’t agree on anything. Pick a topic: abortion, world peace, race relations, economics, politics, and of course religion. We live our lives in very different ways, value very different things.

Even so, there is one most important thing we agree on. Thinking about how afraid he has been about the economy – he has survived two major lay offs at his company in the last 6 months – he said, “I guess I’ve just decided that I’m in God’s hands. So whatever happens will be all right. Whatever happens, God’ll be in it with me.” “I feel the same way,” I said. “Yes.”

This is the history part of “history, mystery and majesty”. Christ has died. We have a God who put on human flesh and walked among us on our planet, right here, where we could touch and hear him. Anything we can experience, God has experienced also, first hand. Pain. Loss of control. Grief. Hunger. God’s very nature is forever transformed, from the beginning of time to the end of the world, by the event of Jesus. God lived, tented among us. And so God is with us always because God has been with us in the most concrete way. Remembering that, we can live more securely in all our moments, because God is there with us.

The mystery part of history, mystery and majesty is that Christ is risen and death has not prevailed. Death – all death – physical, emotional, psychic – is transcended by the mysterious aliveness of Christ, a presence that transforms us all the time, here and now – transforms all our deaths. Jesus enters our hearts, like yeast in dough or weeds in a plowed field.

Years ago a friend of mine was feeling kind of depressed. “I should do more,” she said. “But I just can’t find anything in me that wants to.”

“Don’t do more,” I suggested. “Do less. Just talk to God. Complain. Whenever you think of it, just turn your attention to God and complain.

After a few weeks I saw her again. I could tell right away she had more energy. “I tried that talking to God,” she told me.

“Oh?” I said.

“It was interesting,” she said. “But maybe I didn’t do it enough or something. It didn’t really do much good.”

“You seem livelier somehow, though,” I observed.

“Well, yeah,” she said. “A few days ago I saw an article in the paper where Orville was asking for volunteers.” Orville was the owner and operator of the local shelter and food bank. “I decided to go check it out. And helping over there kind of gets me out of myself and gives me more energy.”

“That’s wonderful,” I said. “And wonderful, too, that you saw the article and went and tried it. A couple of weeks ago you didn’t want to do anything.”

We mused on that for awhile. Then she said, “I suppose I wouldn’t have gone if I hadn’t been complaining to God. It was kind of like a challenge. Like, because I’d been complaining, it was somehow, ‘try this, smarty pants.’ So I went and did.”

Prayer is a very dangerous thing. It invites the Jesus-perspective – that death-transforming, life-changing, topsy-turvy point of view – into our most intimate hearts. Then before we know it we are thinking and acting in new ways. We’re heading off to Palestine or sleeping with the homeless as part of Faith Family Hospitality, giving away our money and our time, embarking on new creative projects – feeling loved for heaven sakes – and somehow secure in the midst of the wildest insecurity. The power of the risen Christ transforms our moments.

And that brings us to the majesty part of history, mystery and majesty. Christ will come again. We say this every week. What do we mean by it? For me, today, it means that the entire world will one day be wholly transformed. It will become the manifestation of God’s dream for it. God’s majesty, Christ’s majesty will become apparent. Personally I do not see this happening through great cataclysmic disasters. I think it will manifest as a change of consciousness, an understanding that transcends the little ego divisions we create. But what do I really know? I am just one tiny human being.

What Jesus says in today’s Gospel is: when terrifying things take place in the world, stand up and raise your heads, for your redemption is drawing near. And redemption here means being claimed – grabbed like a coat from the hat check counter after the concert. “This one is mine.” In the face of all horrible things, personal or universal, this can be our response: that we belong to God. We are part of God’s creation, and we have God’s signature written in our DNA. We can be present to all our moments without worry. We are claimed.

Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. History, mystery and majesty. May your Advent preparation be fruitful and holy, and may you stand in your moments fully aware, knowing you are a beloved child of God. Amen.


*thanks to Working Preacher for Bible scholarship.

Laurie Gudim is a religious iconographer and liturgical artist, a writer and lay preacher living in Fort Collins, CO. She will soon manage a website for the Diocese of Colorado highlighting congregations' creative ministries.

Hannah and the headline news

by Sam Candler

1 Samuel 1:4-20

This week, newspaper headlines are moving away from the coverage of a general’s extramarital affair, and moving towards the escalation of violence in Israel-Palestine. Both the stories are sad, and even tragic.

“How the mighty have fallen!” I might say. How the mighty have fallen. Like a lot of our ordinary wisdom, and ordinary common sense, this phrase is actually from the Bible. No matter how devastating or surprising or tragic is the news from our own day and time, our stories do not top the wisdom of the stories of the Bible. No matter what the incident, the Bible has seen it before!

“How the mighty have fallen” (2 Samuel 1:19). It was King David who first uttered those words, the same King David to whom another David has been compared this past week. Generation after generation, we watch people who are high and lifted up, but who nevertheless succumb, almost inevitably, to some weakness. The Greeks called it hubris, an overbearing pride that can lead to tragedy. It is part of being human, and we all share that tendency, in some measure. All of us do -- men and women alike.

And nations do, too. In a very real way, the same sort of danger now threatens the very land and people if Israel-Palestine. The more powerful a country is, the more risk it has of being brought low – if not literally, then certainly spiritually.

All these headline news stories point me to two truths. The first is that, ultimately, each of us needs mercy. No matter who we are, we need mercy. The second truth is this: it is only God who can restore mercy, and purpose, to our lives.

Today, we have another story. Today’s story from the Bible is one that we have not heard about in a while, the story of Hannah, the mother of Samuel. Samuel has been described as priest and prophet and judge and seer – almost everything. But his story is for another day. It is the story of Hannah that inspires us today. Her story, too, has all the elements of headline news: resentment and envy, deep prayer and restoration (which some might call karma), and even a sense of justice and balance.

Her story, and her song, “The Song of Hannah” ring throughout both human history and divine history. It starts with emptiness and sorrow. She cannot bear children, even though her husband, Elkanah, loves her very much. Elkanah actually had another wife, which, of course, was common in early Hebrew history. Some have said that the only reason Elkanah took another wife was so that he could have children and continue his heritage. Even though he had another wife bearing him children, Elkanah loved Hannah deeply, and gave her a double portion of all that he sacrificed.

The other wife, Peninnah, did not like this. In fact, she was resentful and downright mean about it. The Bible calls her a rival, saying that Peninnah “provoked and irritated Hannah, because the Lord had closed her womb” (1Samuel 1:6). One can imagine the sort of taunting and wicked talk that resentment might entail. If anonymous e-mails had existed in that time, Peninnah would have used them! The word for “irritate,” used here, can also mean “thunder,” or “thunder against.” Peninnah thundered against the barren Hannah.

But Hannah did not give up. Though she wept bitterly and would not eat, Hannah did pray. In fact, here is a curious thing: She prayed so earnestly and deeply that she did not use words. Well, she did have words, but they did not cross her lips. In those days, silent prayer was a bit uncommon, just as silent reading was.

In our day and time, we tend to take “reading to ourselves” for granted, and most of us here today know how to read silently. But in the history of civilization, that is a newer phenomenon. For instance, at the time of Augustine in the fifth century AD, most people read by saying the words aloud. Reading silently was unknown.

Apparently, the practice of prayer was similar. One prayed by saying something aloud. To pray without making a sound was something different. The priest, Eli, “observed [Hannah’s] mouth praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard” (1Samuel 1:12-13). Therefore, the priest, Eli, thought she was drunk.

When Hannah replied that she was not drunk, but, instead, deeply troubled and vexed, then Eli somehow knew the deep sincerity of Hannah’s prayer. And Eli blessed Hannah: “Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him” (1 Samuel 1:17).

I believe that the prayer of Hannah is remarkable for being a new kind of prayer in civilization, a prayer so sincere and deep that it was deeper than sound. It was silent and penetrating. God heard her prayer.

Hannah went back to her husband, and she ate and drank with her husband. (A great lesson: Never ignore the power of prayer and eating and drinking with your husband! Or your wife!) “In due time, Hannah conceived and more a son. She named him Samuel…” (1 Samuel 1:20).

It is a beautiful story. But the story continues after the text assigned to us today. Hannah gives up her son, Samuel, when he is three years old, to minister with Eli in Shiloh. She gives him up! (though she later has three sons and two daughters). And then she sings a song. Her song, the Song of Hannah, is what rings through human history and divine history. It is a song of how the humble overcome the powerful, and how the poor become rich. Listen to it:

My heart exults in the LORD;
my strength is exalted in my God.

…3 Talk no more so very proudly,
let not arrogance come from your mouth;
for the LORD is a God of knowledge,
and by him actions are weighed.
4 The bows of the mighty are broken,
but the feeble gird on strength.
5 Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.
The barren has borne seven,
but she who has many children is forlorn.
6 The LORD kills and brings to life;
he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
7 The LORD makes poor and makes rich;
he brings low, he also exalts.
8 He raises up the poor from the dust;
he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes
and inherit a seat of honor.

…10 The LORD! His adversaries shall be shattered;
the Most High will thunder in heaven. (1 Samuel 2: 1-10)

“The Most High will thunder in heaven,” Hannah said. I like that phrase “thunder,” because it is the same word that was used to describe how Peninnah irritated, or thundered against, Hannah! In the divine reversal of Godly justice, Peninnah’s thunderings are turned against her. That is the lesson of the Song of Hannah. God reverses the plight of the humble and the poor so that they are lifted up and become rich.

That is the original Song of Hannah, the one sung by Hannah herself. But it only started there. It continued! It got repeated in Psalm 113:

5 Who is like the LORD our God,
who is seated on high,
6 who looks far down
on the heavens and the earth?
7 He raises the poor from the dust,
and lifts the needy from the ash heap,
8 to make them sit with princes,
with the princes of his people.
9 He gives the barren woman a home,
making her the joyous mother of children.
Praise the LORD! (Psalm 113: 5-9)

Now, it is commonly thought that King David himself wrote Psalm 113, and he certainly knew about divine reversal. He certainly knew both sides: how the Lord lifts up the lowly, but also how the Lord brings down the haughty. After Saul had died, and after his best friend, Jonathan had died , it was David who lamented, “How the mighty have fallen.” In fact, he seems to lament the actual weapons of war. “How the mighty have fallen, and the weapons of war perished” (2 Samuel 1:27).

King David lived longer. It is King David’s final speech, when he was about to die, that might provide for us the summary stanza of this process of divine reversal. His last words are known as “The Song of David,” and they are an answer to the age-old question: How does one say what the will of the Lord is, amidst a world of jealousy and envy, violence and power?

So David sings, to God:

26 With the loyal you show yourself loyal;
with the blameless you show yourself blameless;
27 with the pure you show yourself pure,
and with the crooked you show yourself perverse.
28 You deliver a humble people,
but your eyes are upon the haughty to bring them down. (2 Samuel 22:26-28)

“With the loyal, God shows himself loyal.” Those are beautiful words.

Almost a thousand years after King David, a legendary book was written, one which tried to describe where Mary, the mother of Jesus came from. It is called the Protoevangelium of James, from the second century A.D. See if it sounds familiar. It says that Mary’s elderly parents prayed for a child, saying that such a child would then be “a gift to the Lord my God.” Miraculously, Mary is born, as a response to faithful prayer. Then Mary, at the age of three, is presented to the priests in the temple of Jerusalem. Just like Samuel was born and at the age of three was delivered to the priest!

And who was Mary’s mother, according to this story? The mother of Mary was Anna, which is the same word as Hannah. The word, “Hannah” means “grace.” The Song of Hannah, then, means, always, The Song of Grace.

The mother of Mary was named Anna, or Hannah, or Grace. This is why, later, when she learned she would conceive miraculously, Mary would sing her own song, which would be still another stanza of Song of Hannah, a song of grace:

Mary said,

My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:46-53)

We know that song as the Magnificat today, and we sing it every Sunday at Evensong in this Cathedral. We will sing it during this upcoming season of Advent; it will be our version of the headline news. And from it, a Savior will be born.

What will be your song during this next season? What will be your Song of Hannah, Song of David, Song of Mary, Magnificat, Song of Grace?

Where does your life need reversal? Where does your life need to be lifted up? And, conversely, where might you need to learn humility?

The song of grace is the same, and it has been throughout divine history:

“God delivers a humble people” (2 Samuel 22:28)

“The Lord makes poor and makes rich,
He brings low, he also exults.” (1 Samuel 2:7)


The Very Rev. Sam Candler is dean of St. Philip's Cathedral in Atlanta. His sermons and reflections can be found at his blog, “Good Faith and the Common Good”.

After the shootings

by Michael Carney

Friday morning I got up early to walk the dog and work on my sermon. Since the men’s Bible study earlier in the week I’d been struck by the Gospel reading’s description of a crowd yearning for healing. When I got downstairs Marsha was sitting in front of her laptop, crying. We tried to wrap our heads and hearts around the news of the shootings the night before. It was like entering the surreal landscape of a powerfully-presented action movie, taken over by a deranged killer just as cancer can take over the cells of a person’s body.

Next to Marsha’s laptop was that day’s Denver Post Entertainment section, with a review of “The Dark Night Rises” on the front page. Without really thinking I started to read the article, which was strangely ironic:

“Heroism is what Christopher Nolan’s rebooted Batman franchise has explored with a slow-burning, often brilliant intensity… Not the superheroism of so many comic book adaptations, but the individual and communal gumption required to face down evil…The final chapter (raises) a slew of nagging questions about how to rise to the task of the hero in the face of villainy, of evil.” (Denver Post, July 22, 2012)

Just days before I’d returned from our Mission Trip, immersed 24/7 with our youth. Attending a big midnight movie premiere is great fun in their world. At least one of our boys was at the Batman movie that night—fortunately at another theater. Dozens of witnesses originally thought a stunt was taking place—one said, “It was like something out of a movie. You don’t want to believe it’s real, but it is.” (DP July 21)

Accused shooter James Holmes dressed in a shockingly functional costume: body armor and a gas mask, with a deadly variety of weapons. After setting off tear gas canisters he strode through the theater “as calm as can be.” One witness reported “the gunman was standing there as if he were king of the world, like a video game or a movie scene.”

He’d apparently been methodically planning the assault for months, receiving deliveries of materials and ammunition. He identified himself to the police as Batman’s archenemy “The Joker.” It’s hard to say whether he’s mentally ill, but certainly he’s a sociopath. The Aurora Police made an extraordinarily quick and courageous response, but they couldn’t prevent his carnage. The suspect calmly surrendered to them, and the show was over.

The horror, however, was just beginning. The impact of this carefully choreographed act of terrorism quickly rippled out from its ground zero. Some victims were already dead or dying. Dozens of others had been wounded—hundreds were screaming as they tried to flee. Many who survived witnessed unspeakable acts of violence. Thousands of family members and friends were struck by the terror of not knowing whether their loved ones were safe.

These are not simply the actions of a sick man. In a vivid and dramatic way, we’ve been forced to confront the face of evil in our midst.

Many of us who are older find it hard to understand the appeal of action movies like this. I’m not drawn to attend, but I recognize them as imaginatively constructed and powerfully presented works of art. We may not like lumping them together with what we regard as great drama. We may consider them bad influences.

But our young people know they’re not real—it’s just entertainment to them. Why would they choose to watch such violent fare? Today’s sixteen-year-olds were in kindergarten when the World Trade Center was attacked. They’ve never heard of Ozzie and Harriet—21st century America is the only world they’ve ever known.

The young people on our mission trip had only been home three days when this tragedy erupted. There’s an interesting connection with today’s Gospel reading about the return of the disciples who’d been sent out two by two. There were many Facebook postings this week reflecting on the trip, including an older boy who described how sad he was to wake up alone in his own room—half a dozen others quickly agreed. They’d had powerful experiences serving in Birmingham, and it was hard to step back into their daily lives.

In the Gospel Jesus encourages the disciples who’d just returned from their missions to “rest a while” with him in a deserted place. (Mark 6:30) Before they can get away people begin to recognize them and hurry to follow. Soon there’s “a great crowd…like sheep without a shepherd,” which bears an eerie resemblance to the chaos at the movie theater. Jesus “had compassion” on the crowds, teaching and feeding and healing them.

Like the Gospel story, ours is a community experience. On Friday morning our Youth Director Shanda Velisek posted a pastoral message on Facebook and then texted me that she was “waiting to hear about some connection.” Denver is a pretty big city, but we’re all deeply connected.

A youth from St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Aurora was at the theater that night and made it home safely. One of my wife’s fellow students in the Audubon Master Birder course is a professor at the CU school James Holmes attended—another is a nursing supervisor at a local hospital. Shanda’s husband and sons work at Frito-Lay—the daughter of a co-worker was killed that night. Thousands of people have been impacted by the terror of this event, and the network of their relationships extends across the country and beyond. People all over the world are praying for the victims and their families today. Truly, we are all in this together.

I’m fascinated by the reviewer’s observation that this final Batman movie raises “a slew of nagging questions about how to rise to the task of the hero in the face of villainy, of evil.” I don’t think anyone’s feeling particularly heroic right now. Our reactions are all over the map: shock, bewilderment, sadness, outrage, fear, resignation.

Deep in our hearts, though, I think we’re bound together by the same yearning for healing shown by the crowds at the Sea of Galilee. Our hearts go out to those most directly impacted by the carnage, but we also ache for the healing of our world. How long, Lord, before your promise of “New Heavens and a New Earth” is fulfilled? (Revelation 21:4)

Somehow, despite all of this, life goes on. Friday afternoon I met with new parents to plan a baptism—I held their infant son as they shared their prayers and dreams for him. Yesterday a group of us met with leaders of five other Episcopal churches, all of whom are on fire with their ministries.

Regardless of all that has happened since, my memories of the mission trip are vivid—enduring glimpses of hope provided by our youth. In the face of villainy and evil, living into heroism may be a slow process, but each of us has a part to play. Please join me in saying a prayer which has expressed this for a thousand years—it’s in the Book of Common Prayer on p. 833.

Lord, make us instruments of your peace.

Where there is hatred, let us sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is discord, union;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.

“A Prayer Attributed to St. Francis”


The Rev. Michael Carney is the Rector of St. Timothy's Episcopal Church in Centennial Colorado.

Resurrection

by Sylvia Miller-Mutia

Some people want to see you...the disciples tell Jesus. In the light of all that's just happened, they might have been thinking, Maybe they want your autograph or something. After all, the disciples have just witnessed Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. They have just watched as people crowded into the streets to greet Jesus with blessings and shouts of “Hosanna!”

Jesus answers: The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.
Glorified. If we stop right there, it sounds pretty good...Glorified. Like maybe there will be a spotlight, some applause, some glitter & a crown.

Some people want to see you...the disciples tell Jesus.

The disciples might still be optimistic or naive (or clueless) about where things are headed, but Jesus knows better...

It's like when you come into a room and your friend tells you “so and so wants to see you”...and your heart sinks because you think you know what's coming next...and it's not good.

Like your boss wants to see you, and you think, “Uh oh. The hour has come to look for a new job.”

Or the person you've been dating wants to see you and you're pretty sure they're going to say, “The hour has come for us to start seeing other people.”

Your teacher wants to see you and you think “The hour has come to register for summer school because there's no way I'm going to pass the class.”

Or your parent wants to see you and you think, “The hour has come to go to my room or get out of the house.”

Your doctor wants to see you because the hour has come to look at the test results and discuss what treatment options are left.

“Some people want to see you” the disciples tell Jesus.
“So this is it,” thinks Jesus, “the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”

But there will be no spotlight, or applause, or glitter. There will be a crown, but it will be made of thorns. Because in John's Gospel when Jesus speaks of being “Glorified” he's talking about being crucified.

If that doesn't make any sense to you, you're not alone. It' didn't make any sense to the disciples, either. And sometimes it doesn't make sense to me.

My friend Sharon, an upstanding leader in her Unitarian Universalist congregation has started (religiously, I'd say) attending a Christian church in west Berkeley on Sunday nights. She finds the community compelling...she finds their faith compelling...she finds their prayer life compelling...she finds their action in the world compelling. The only thing that she finds really mystifying is the cross. “I just don't understand why they seem so EXCITED about this terrible thing that happened,” she says.

When I was a youth minister I would often get phone calls from salespeople trying to sell me the newest curriculum or trying to get me to buy tickets for my youth group to come to the next big youth revival. (Apparently they had missed the memo that Episcopalian youth were not exactly the “target demographic” for giant youth revivals where leaders dress in fatigues and rally kids to join the battle against the forces of sin and evil.) At the end of a phone conversation with one such salesperson, the guy (in attempt to be generous, I think) said, “It's all about the guy that died on a tree, right?” To which I replied (in my head or out loud, I can't recall), “Actually, it's all about the guy God raised from the dead.”

The truth is—it's both. Resurrection without crucifixion is meaningless. It doesn't tell the truth about our real human experience of evil, suffering, brokenness, and death. But crucifixion without resurrection is also meaningless. It doesn't tell the truth about the real power of a God who IS life, who is constantly calling forth new life, bit by bit, from every nook and cranny of our broken existence.

In John's Gospel when Jesus speaks of being “Glorified” he is talking about crucifixion AND resurrection. John testifies to this truth: crucifixion and resurrection go together. They are two sides of the same coin...two aspects of a single reality.

When Jesus talks about being “glorified” he's talking about the crucifixion AND the resurrection. When Jesus talks about being “lifted up” he's talking about being raised up on the cross...AND being raised up from the tomb, AND ultimately being raised up in glory from the earth and ascending to heaven.

The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. We don't have to rewind 2,000 years to come close to that hour... and we don't have to fast forward to Passion Sunday or Good Friday or Easter Day to come close to that hour. Because we can experience the moment of Jesus' glory: the moment of crucifixion, resurrection, ascension-- in a single moment; in the PRESENT moment.

The hour has come and now is

NOW is the moment of crucifixion and resurrection
NOW is the moment of judgement and of salvation
NOW is the moment falling apart and being made whole
NOW is the moment death and new life
NOW is the moment of falling down and being lifted up

For Jesus...for us...for the whole world...

I'm not trying to say that good things always come out of bad things. They don't. Sometimes bad things lead to more bad things. What I am saying is this:

Believing in God means staying open to the possibility of new life, even in the face of death.

Believing in the Resurrection means choosing to place every situation---even situations that seem hopeless—in the hands of God, and waiting and watching with hopeful anticipation for signs of new life.

Having faith means allowing ourselves—and allowing others—to be “lifted up” in the hands of God, in the hands of the angels, and in the hands of one another: lifted up to new life.


The Rev. Sylvia Miller-Mutia is the Assistant Rector and Youth and Family Minister at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church, San Francisco, CA

Doesn’t Jesus want good people like us for friends?

Just before Advent, Donald Schell and Amber Evans sent us some reflections from their preaching group. We published the first of these on Thursday, and the second today.

By Donald Schell

From the beginning Christians, even those who gathered Jesus’ sayings and wrote the Gospels, were puzzled to make sense of just HOW he was a ‘friend of sinners.’ They seemed to be as frightened as we are sometimes that someone might get the idea that Jesus condoned sin (or unjust or unrighteous behavior). How often, reading John 8 together, (the woman taken in adultery) do we find ourselves discussing (or even arguing) whether the story reaches its resolution when Jesus says, “Where are your accusers? Neither do I condemn you.” It seems as though there’s always someone to insist that the moment of not condemning is only prelude to Jesus’ real conclusion, “Go and sin no more.” But doesn’t that line contradict the story? Could it be an early editorial ‘fix?’

To my ear “sin no more” in this story echoes of catch-phrases most of us heard growing up like, “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” “a man is known by the company he keeps,” or “birds of a feather flock together.” Such folk “wisdom” poses a problem for us – though Jesus made himself of ‘no reputation,’ we, his followers, teach one another that reputation is everything. In effect we caution each other NOT to follow Jesus’ example.

Any of us who preach on such parables as the Unjust Judge, the Dishonest Steward, the Talents, and even favorites like the ‘Good’ Samaritan, and the Prodigal Son gets caught in this bind, and those of us who listen attentively to sermons will hear preachers doing exegetical handstands and somersaults to find ‘the moral’ of these quirky stories, or otherwise explain why Jesus would offer such contradictory and downright unsavory characters as some kind of likeness to God. Whatever we say between the reading and the conclusion, we seem to know we’ve got to reach the point of exhorting people to try harder to be “good.”

Unfortunately (or maybe by the Grace of God) if we stick close reading these parables patiently or come back to them again and again, finding their “moral” seems harder and harder. Gospel scholars tell us this preaching dilemma is even older than the written Gospels. Our bewilderment at the little sayings tacked on to the end of these problematic stories pushes us to accept that we may be hearing a saying of Jesus on another subject and from another context, and sometimes we’re hearing the Gospel editor and compiler putting someone else’s (troubled) explanation of the parable in Jesus’ mouth.

For almost thirty years I’ve guided volunteers through improvised Gospel enactments, sometimes of stories of Jesus, but also, sometimes of these parables. Working with groups as diverse as a family camp, 8-12 year olds at a kids’ camp, and associates of one of our church’s women’s religious orders away on retreat, I’ve found some of these stories demand a playful, comic telling as we get close to their stark tension and danger. Comedy reassures us until Jesus’ unsavory protagonist does something wholly unexpected.

Jesus draws people by surprise because his stories are of characters his listeners wouldn’t want to hear about. But my hunch as a writer, storyteller, and ‘theater director’ in these improvisations I’ve seen is that Jesus crafted stories about characters he liked.

The ‘good’ Samaritan offers a stark example of this. For Jesus’ listeners (far more immediately than for us), someone they would identify with lies near death by the roadside. The listeners know how dangerous the roads can be and they know the road from Jerusalem to Jericho is particularly dangerous. They also know that trouble is coming when Jesus introduces their Samaritan enemy coming down the road. Even in a story it’s a moment to catch your breath. What outrage would this hated enemy perpetrate on you or me if we lay helpless by the roadside? But then our Storyteller has the hated Samaritan quite inexplicably (and against the listeners’ inevitable ethnic profiling) do an expensive, hands-on, time-consuming act of mercy.

“The Samaritans - - - helps him? Jesus! We don’t get it!”

In this year’s lectionary run of these parables, while I was preparing to preach on the Unjust Judge, the guy who finally gives the stubborn suppliant widow what she says the law and justice owe her - - - because she just won’t stop hassling him - I remembered Belai the Cannibal.

The grotesque figure of Belai shows up regularly in Ethiopian churches, a nightmare character with a knife in his hand eating a large slice of raw flesh. The contrast with the warmth and folk art eloquence of surrounding icon scenes of Mary holding the infant Jesus, Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, and other Biblical stories couldn’t be greater.

Now don’t bother to check a concordance - Belai isn’t in the Bible. He’s a character from a religious folktale, the story of a VERY BAD man. Belai was a voracious cannibal. When Belai appeared at the gates of heaven, the deeds for which he’d be judged included the deaths of seventy-two people he’d killed and eaten - including members of his own family. St. Peter seems to know what the outcome will be, but for justice sake, he puts what remained of the corpses of the seventy-two on one side of the scale and asks Belai if he brings any good deeds at all. Belai can only offer one good deed. Once, as he was looking around for someone to eat, an unappetizing leper begged him, “in the name of God” for a cup of water. Belai protested that he neither knew nor honored that name. So then the leper implored him in the name of Saint Mary, and in some dark corner of his memory Belai remembered that name, and impatient to get on with looking for an appetizing victim, he gave the leper a cup of water.

“All right,” St. Peter says, and puts Belai’s ONLY good deed in his whole life, the cup of water, on the other side of the balance. St. Mary watches as the scale the weight of Belai’s seventy-two victims lifts the cup high in the balance, and she asks St. Peter if the good deed done in her name counts for so little. “Just look at the scale,” St. Peter replies. So St. Mary leans forward and lets her shadow fall on the side of the cup of water, and the glorious weight of her holy shadow tips the scale the other way. “All right,” St. Peter says with astonishment, “It appears Belai must receive God’s mercy.”

Dostoyevsky has Grushenka in The Brothers Karamazov tell a similar story. A very wicked old peasant woman dies and her guardian angel intervenes with God. The only good deed the angel can offer is the one time the old woman gave a poor beggar an onion. “All right,” God tells the guardian angel, “lower the onion down to the burning lake and tell the old woman to grab hold. If the onion is strong enough for you to pull her out, she’s free to come to Paradise.”

And the angel lifts, and draws the old woman slowly from the lake of fire. As everyone else in the lake sees what’s happening, they seize the woman’s legs and ankles, and the angel is drawing everyone out of hell by the one onion. And still the onion holds until the wicked woman panics and screams, “It’s MY onion!” and as she writhes and kicks her feet to break free of those about to escape with her, her writhing and struggling breaks the onion and all fall back into the fiery lake.

Grushenka’s story and the Ethiopian folk-tale of Belai shouldn’t startle Anglicans too much, at least not if we remember from Rite I and the old Book of Common Prayer that God’s “property is always to have mercy.” We sort of get it. But we also may not like it too well. Something in us protests - Belai is so NOT like us! Who cares about his single cup of water or that old woman giving a beggar an onion? An onion? So what! Anyone could do that!

Unintended, trivial kindness? Except when we need it ourselves, God’s mercy is just t-o-o much.

So this year preparing to preach on the Unjust Judge, I remembered Belai’s and the old peasant woman’s accidental good deeds. The Judge responds to the woman’s pleas because he’s annoyed. He gives the mercy he’d always had the power to give and he gives it quite reluctantly.

In fact Jesus’ selfish, opportunistic, wicked heroes in his parables all act like that. They do something kind or helpful or even life saving for no evident good reason at all. Or they do the right thing for a bad reason. The Unjust Judge, like the Samaritan, like the Unjust Steward, acts mercifully for no good reason. In fact the judge’s reason, to spare himself further annoyance, makes clear that he cares not a whit for justice. Unless you hassle him without rest, he never gives “justice” without a bribe.

Now, as a writer and storyteller and lover of fiction, I’m going to offer something I feel strongly but can’t prove. Jesus seems to genuinely like the bad characters in his troubling stories. Like the reputation he had for keeping bad table company, Jesus’ parables show his affection for people that ‘good people’ like us ought not like at all. And he repeatedly tells stories where his protagonists do good despite themselves, with no evident motivation, as often Jesus even declares that they’re doing it for the WRONG reason.

Moralizing these parables silences our teacher’s voice. His stories don’t tell us how to be good. They push us over the edge toward Godly mercy-practice. He’s inviting us into a kind of deliciously guilty pleasure celebrating people whom we don’t think we ought to or even want to like.

Here’s what I mean by mercy practice - “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven. Give and it will be given to you.” (Luke 6:36-37) And yes, Jesus wants people just like us for his friends, not good people, flawed people who stumble into goodness and mercy even for the wrong reasons.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is
President of All Saints Company.

Why even bother being good?

Just before Advent, Donald Schell and Amber Evans sent us some reflections from their preaching group. We publish the first of these today, and will publish the second on Saturday.

By Amber Evans and Donald Schell

Donald: For the past three years we’ve met monthly to talk and think together about the work of preaching. We’ve been four or five priests, and two lay preachers. I guess I’m the oldest in the group. The youngest, Amber Evans, was in seminary with my son.

Sometimes we read or listen to a sermon one of us has preached. Sometimes we talk about a reading that’s coming up or someone will raise an issue in mission or Christian formation and wonder how to explore it in preaching. I love the give and take of the group, the way we work to hold one another accountable for real, honest experience, the way we keep asking how we’re hearing Good News ourselves even when texts are difficult.

Recently the lectionary had us, like a lot of preachers, struggling with some of Jesus’ most challenging parables, difficult parables like the corrupt steward and the unjust judge. Our passionate, energetic conversations kept taking us deeper into uneasiness and uncertainty. And we kept preaching and reporting back to the group what we were learning.

I’d nearly completed a piece on those parables for the Café when I read Amber describing some powerful discoveries she’d made about these parables in her work with kids. Amber and I traded our explorations back and forth, both intrigued at how our discoveries flowed from recent conversations in the group and, beyond that, from ways the group has shaped us both over some years now. What each of us was beginning to see interpreted and enlarged the other’s discoveries.

We’re offering both of our voices here, Amber’s first, and mine in the piece that follows. We hope that preachers and anyone listening to this recent string of difficult parables will be inspired to join us wrestling with these parables. Do comment and speak up!

Amber asks the question these parables leave hanging, “Why even bother being good?” My piece that follows wonders why Jesus evidently enjoyed telling stories about such unsavory characters and whether he really wants good people like us for friends.

Here’s Amber - - -

As chaplain in an Episcopal Day School, I’m responsible for teaching religion to Preschoolers through Eighth graders. Right now I’m teaching parables with my fourth grade class, and they are really bothered by the injustice of God’s love and mercy. It makes them crazy to contemplate that even though they try to be good, God loves someone bad just as much. Fairness is the highest value to kids that age, and to imagine that God isn’t fair—that’s just too much. They begin to wonder, “why even bother being good?”

Teachers who applied parable-style justice in a classroom or parents to a conflict between siblings would have mutiny on their hands. It makes sense to us that our children’s world is structured around consistency, fairness, and incentives to be good, because we hope that they will learn through that structure to want to be good, that it’s its own reward. But fourth grade is a good age to pierce the bubble a little bit. Some of them have thoroughly embraced a “good guys/bad guys” view of the universe. And maybe that has to happen before they can consider the complex idea that though they try to be good, they still make mistakes, so if they want God’s mercy, mercy must also be available to people who have made even more mistakes.

Jesus uses the parables to shock and challenge US out of good guys/bad guys thinking—especially out of our presumption that we are the good guys. Through his parables, Jesus is revealing a deeper structure to the world than the provisional one we create for children (and ourselves). As adults we know how inconsistent and unfair the world can be, and we don’t expect to see good behavior rewarded. Through his parables, Jesus shows us this is actually good news: The world God made is not divided up between good and evil. Before there was ever good and evil, there was God’s unconditional love for all of creation.

With my first graders, I have been using Godly Play to teach the first stories in the Bible. Godly Play is a Montessori-style Sunday School curriculum created by Jerome Berryman. Teachers tell a bible story they’ve memorized by heart, using beautiful, tactile figures to illustrate the story. We’ve done the Seven Days of Creation; Adam, Eve and The Snake; Noah’s Ark and last week we did the Tower of Babel. Now the students are very proud that they know all the stories at the beginning of the Bible. Even though the youngest can’t read, they can look at the Bibles in the classroom and recognize the story through the pictures.

The children are fascinated by the darkness and the gravity of the stories. These are stories about the beginning of everything, why the world is the way it is, human disobedience of God and it’s consequences. It’s serious stuff and the kids feel taken seriously when you talk about it with them.

The Godly Play story about Adam and Eve is a new story and it’s not actually recommended for kids as young as first grade. That’s probably because you could do a Ph.D. dissertation analyzing the postmodern influences in this narrative. I think Jacques Derrida, the great French deconstructionist, might have secretly written this story before he died. The Godly Play version reveals some of the deep theology to the story and I think my first graders get it, or at least, like us, they partly get it.

There are two trees in the Garden of Eden. There is the Forever Tree, whose fruit holds eternal life. And there is the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, or as the Godly Play story says, “The Tree of Differences.” The sneaky snake tricks Eve and Adam into eating fruit from that tree. At first, everything in the garden was unified—people, and God and creation were all together without differences. But when they eat the fruit, suddenly it all comes apart at the seams, creation falls apart.

Then Adam and Eve know they are different from God and they feel ashamed, and they hide and cover themselves up. And then they’ve left the garden to live in a world where there is good and evil. And so do we… They can’t go back, and they have to find a new way of living and a new way of being with God.

It makes me wonder…what was the world like before there was good and evil?

The Godly Play story describes a kind of unity and intimacy between God and creation. I imagine, not that nothing bad ever happened, but that when it did, it was a matter of grief rather than moral judgment. Death, loss and sadness still happened, but were experienced in a context of total, universal love.

In the hardest times, when we face frightening obstacles, impossible decisions, suffering that feels like it won’t end, when we are reminded that the world is not really the world we create for children …we sometimes get a glimpse of the world that is deeper than good and evil. I have, haven’t you? I’ve been consoled by the image of the Garden of Eden, of an intimate love of God that precedes good and evil. God’s love in that unity isn’t lost to us, just harder to see because now that we know about good and evil; we can’t help but see divisions everywhere, we can’t help but compare ourselves and measure our goodness, and wonder if we somehow deserve the bad things that happen to us.

The parables we’ve been hearing read and preached on in church for many weeks are the antidote to the falling apart in Eden, they’re the remedy that Jesus offers to help us see deeper than good and evil. They tell the story of God’s universal love, they tell us that God loves the righteous and unrighteous, that God loves the good and the bad alike, and there is no reason to hide from God no matter how naked we feel.

God loves the tax collector as much as the faithful observer of the law, the Prodigal Son as much as the responsible son, The Good Shepherd knows all his sheep by name and would give his life to protect any of the sheep (not just the good ones). The parables are good news for bad guys and good guys alike, although if we are too invested in our goodness, they don’t really feel like good news.

Seminary was kind of a competitive place. We’d been told jobs were scarce, so we eyed each other trying to measure up who was smart, who was charismatic, and who was good. Not exactly the Garden of Eden! When I went to work as a priest at The Church of the Epiphany, Gail, the rector, mentored me in a way that freed me from the need to prove myself. She never compared herself to me, but just supported me when my work went well and when I screwed up. Pastorally, she felt love and compassion for the most difficult people in the parish perhaps more than the easy ones—although she could be firm if she needed to be. In three short years of working with Gail, I was practically cured of my competitiveness (at least at work—my husband still won’t play board games with me). Now I am free to do my best, without worrying “is it good enough?”

Parables don’t tell us not to bother being good, they just tell us it doesn’t make us more lovable than others. It’s still true what we teach children: Being Good is it’s own reward. But deeper than that—We can live guided by God’s universal love. Love that doesn’t judge us and doesn’t judge others. We don’t have to compare ourselves to others. And when we face something difficult--frightening obstacles, impossible decisions, suffering that feels like it won’t end-- we are freer if we remember that deeper than good and evil, deeper than “good guys and bad guys” is the love God feels for all of creation without judgment.

The Rev. Amber Evans is a priest serving as Chaplain at St. Matthew's Episcopal Day School in San Mateo, California.

Reviving the art of preaching

By Peter M. Carey

“Preach the Gospel at all times, if necessary, use words.”
~attributed to St. Francis

“A preacher should preach holding the Holy Scriptures in one hand and the newspaper in the other.”
~attributed to Karl Barth


As a kid, there were two things that most intimidated me about what priests did, what they did at the altar, and what they did in the pulpit. Growing up before the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, I remember well the “high church leaning” congregations of my youth and the reverence, mystery, hand motions way up there at the altar – often with the priest facing away from the congregation. As I grew older, I served as an acolyte, so I saw some of this up close, but the sacredness of it remained for me (and still remains today, thankfully!)

The preaching task seemed nearly as mysterious and puzzling. I wondered how the priests would be able to come up with something to say each week, some anecdote to connect the readings with the life of the people in the pews, some example or metaphor to connect the Holy Scriptures with the pastoral needs of the congregation. How did they do it every week?

In seminary, and before seminary, I heard the two quotes listed above quite often. I doubt whether St. Francis or Karl Barth actually said them. We have no way to know about the St. Francis quote, and at least two Barth scholars assure me that even if Barth said that second quote, it doesn’t seem to be consistent with his theology and practice of preaching. In any event, it seems that these two quotes are quite helpful for the practicing Christian.

The first quote, of course, points out that the Christian Life is more than just words; that we need to live out our faith, to “walk the talk” so to speak. However, there are times, of course, to use words. It is NOT merely ok to live well; it IS our calling to share the hope and Faith that we have in Christ Jesus. The fact is that people will see what we do, but they will also hear what we say. I read today that the Episcopal Church has cut its entire Evangelism budget, and without getting into a debate about why this line item was vetoed, I began to think about the need for grass roots Evangelism. To share our Faith with others, we need to live ethically, and we also need to speak with passion about the tenets of our Faith, to speak about God’s work in our lives. In essence, I believe, we need to recapture the ministry of preaching, and not solely for the seminary-trained clergy among us.

As our beloved Episcopal Church declines nationally in numbers, it will be essential for those of us who even have a bit of a spark of interest in preaching to PREACH IT! This means we need to “preach the Gospel at all times,” and it means we need to “use words.” It also means we need to hold our iPhone iBible application in one hand and our Kindle New York Times in the other hand as we connect our Faith with the life of the world and the lives of everyday folks.

Now that the focus of the Episcopal Church (and the Café) can turn away from General Convention, perhaps we can take on the challenge of preaching, teaching, practicing, and living our Faith, and having the courage to share it with a world in need. PREACH IT!

The Rev. Peter M. Carey is associate rector at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Greenwood, Virginia. He blogs at Santos Woodcarving Popsicles.

My back pages

By Roger Ferlo

For years I have thought about rifling through old sermon files to see whether there is a book lurking there somewhere. I suppose that publishing a book of sermons is every priest’s fantasy, after preaching week in and week out year after year. Surely there must be something valuable and permanent to make up for all that Saturday night angst and sweat. But sermons are by their nature ephemeral, or at least they ought to be. Permanence and preaching have always seemed to me contradictions in terms. Besides, it’s hard to imagine a vast reading public out there waiting to snap up a full volume of published sermons. For most people outside the churches (and not a few in them), the very word “sermon” smacks of pedantry and sanctimoniousness. Hey, don’t preach to me!

Preaching is by its nature of the moment. That’s perhaps its saving grace. When a sermon is good, it’s closely attached to a specific text, a specific time, a specific place, and most of all to a specific and particular group of people with whom the preacher is in some kind of continuing relationship, rocky as that relationship sometimes can be. It’s been years since I wrote out my sermons word for word. I am always a little shamefaced to admit that I preach from notes, and sometimes even without them. I tend to be at a loss about how to respond to requests for printed copies of a sermon I’ve preached, or even worse, requests for a tape. It usually means I have to go home and reconstruct what I said, which sometimes varies considerably from the notes I’d prepared in advance. It’s what my wife calls chewing your cabbage twice. I’m daunted by that character in Marilynn Robinson’s novel Gilead, old Reverend Ames, who estimates that in a lifetime of preaching to people week after week in the same little country church, he has accumulated thousands of sermon manuscripts, now stowed away in crates in the attic. What I’ve got is three thick manila files stuffed with piles of notes, carefully sorted into Year A, Year B and Year C—that odd preaching calendar of scripture readings that Episcopalians and like-minded liturgical Christians have long held dear. Not a very promising start for assembling a best-selling book.

Nonetheless, now that I no longer preach regularly, having left parish ministry after almost twenty years to teach in an Episcopal seminary, I’ve decided it’s time to take a second look. There won’t be any sort of systematic theology emerging from this material any time soon, which should come as a relief to a worried public. If there is a book submerged in this stuff, it won’t be the book I imagined when—earnest and naïve—I started preaching two decades ago, writing out every paragraph, reading the manuscript aloud word for word. Thank God that obsessive behavior didn’t last. But the upshot is that my surviving notes provide less a well-worked out theology or a consistent scriptural hermeneutic (a word I would try never to use in a sermon), than an oddly inadvertent and sometimes comic record of my life as a parish priest, and of the three or four congregations that have patiently put up with me.

That’s what happens when you preach in the moment—the moments come back to haunt you. There are the baptism sermons, where I seem to have taken great pains to incorporate the names of the about-to-be-baptized-babies into the text, only to discover that now, twenty years later, I have only the vaguest memory of who those children are or what their parents looked like. Then there’s the sermons about money—I know they’re about money because the notes tend never to mention the topic directly, an occupational hazard for Episcopal clergy in my generation. I served for several years in a tiny progressive parish in Pittsburgh, a diocese both then and now notorious as a hotbed of evangelical schism. There’s some censorious attention paid in these sermon notes to Episcopal church fights, again mentioned obliquely, but I suppose the message was clear as day to those who knew the score. And I find more than a few sermons that begin by describing incidents from my Italian Catholic working class childhood—memories of candles burning in grottoes in front of a whole line of life-size plaster statues, or of that cleverly wired confessional box where a green light over the door signaled that the coast was clear to enter. The light turned red when you knelt down inside, and then turned green again when you got up to leave—shriven, forgiven, green light good to go. My memory is that people enjoyed stories like these, which crop up often in my notes, but to listeners who had not grown up Catholic themselves I must have come across like a messenger from an alien planet.

The notes I am most interested in are the most recent ones, though, the notes of sermons I preached in New York in the months and years following the attacks on the World Trade Center, just twenty short blocks from the parish where I served. Like many of my colleagues in New York, in the immediate aftermath I found it hard to find words equal to my own deep sense of loss and fear and anger, and then, in the months that followed, equal to the mounting sense of frustration at the growing vindictiveness and xenophobia that have since proved so toxic in our public culture. I was out of the country, on a long sabbatical, on the day of the attacks. For complicated reasons, my wife and I didn’t return to New York until Halloween. My first sermon was at a parish baptism on the feast of All Saints. As I look at these notes, I realize that I was functioning in two worlds at once. In the pulpit, I was trying to shape the complexities of people’s pain to the promise of the Gospel; in my own inner life, I was trying to make the Gospel somehow answer to my sense of loss and fear. I suppose that any energy that preaching had derived from the struggle between my preacher’s vocation to let the Gospel speak to people’s hearts and my own heart’s deep sense of anger at my own inadequacies.

I always meant to reconstruct those notes, but discovered one Sunday morning, while I was browsing in a Washington bookstore, that someone else had beat me to it. It turns out that one of the authors of Killing the Buddha, a kind of po-mo anthology of post-Christian writing, had been in my church that All Saints Day in New York. Without identifying the preacher, he had reported my sermon almost verbatim in the first chapter of the book. Coming across the book by chance, I felt angry and violated, as if someone had eavesdropped on an intimate family occasion and blabbed about it to the world. I’ve calmed down since then, and am even grateful to that writer (whose account of the sermon, I had to admit, was both accurate and sympathetic) for doing what I never really have had the wit or courage to do—to share with others that remarkable moment of grace that allowed me to reconnect to my parish in those dark days in late 2001, a moment of grace that offered room to those of us gathered there on Hudson Street to reconnect, however tentatively and skeptically, to the hope of Christ that was in us.

Maybe reconstructing those twenty years of sermons is not such a bad idea after all.

The Rev. Dr. Roger Felo is Professor of Religion and Culture, Associate Dean and director of the Institute for Christian Formation and Leadership at Virginia Theological Seminary.

The cost of bearing witness

By Greg Jones

"Remember Jesus Christ – raised from the dead – a descendant of David – that is my Gospel for which I suffer hardship."

Paul wrote these words to remind the faithful that the Gospel is for real. That Jesus is for real. That God's power to give life, even to the dead, is for real. Paul wrote these very real words of life while he himself was in chains a prisoner of the Romans. Do you think Paul knew when he wrote this letter that he would suffer an even harder fate than mere chains? Do you think Paul knew he would also suffer death for his witness to the love of God in Christ?

Of course he did. Paul knew that witnessing for Christ can get you hurt – and even killed. He knew it, because he used to track Christians down in his former life, and we know he helped to kill at least one.

Paul knew that testifying for Christ was costly, but he knew it was worth it. He tasted the fruit of New Life that the Resurrected Jesus gave to him, and he knew it was worth giving his life in witness.

In Greek the word for 'Witness' is actually the word "martyr." For centuries the word 'martyr' literally just meant somebody who bore witness – like in a courtroom. Jesus used the word to commission his disciples – he said, "You will be my witnesses." He said, "You will bear witness to my love, to my cross, to my resurrection." Jesus commanded his disciples to be his witnesses – and he gave them the power of God to do it well. And they did. And they spread that Gospel all over the Roman world with a rapidity and tenacity that is still astonishing.

And the price the apostles paid was death. The most powerful witnesses to Christ faced crosses, fires and swords – and by doing so changed the lives of thousands who were made strong by their sacrifice. Because of the way they served God as witnesses to Christ, the word 'martyr' changed meanings also. Over time the word martyr took on the connotation of someone willing to pay the price for the sake of their witness.

If you've been following the news, you've heard that the Congress is trying to pass a resolution about the Armenian genocide which happened some 90 years ago. Or perhaps you've heard tell of the Armenian taxi driver slain in her car by an Australian security company doing business in Iraq.

These stories remind me of my Great-Grandfather, the Rev. James Perry, who was a missionary over there – in the Near East – doing humanitarian work for the sick and suffering. He spent years in various parts of the old Ottoman Empire doing relief work. He had a young wife and two infants, but nonetheless he worked to bring help to the suffering in the name of Christ in the face of great danger.

In February of 1920 – as Turks were massacring thousands of Armenian Christians in the city of Marash – my great-grandfather, another American, and two Arab Christians drove toward the city in a relief truck filled with supplies to help the victims and survivors. They were slain by Turks with orders to kill any Christians on the road. The story was front page news in America – from the New York Times to small town papers everywhere.

I can't wait to meet my Great Grandfather. I know I will because he has died with Christ and now lives and reigns with Him. But, I'm not counting my days until then. Because Christ wants me – and you – to focus on today ... to live today ... to endure today ... to praise God and witness to his saving love to this hurting world today. Our work as Christians is not to sit still or to wait or to quibble over words or to serve ourselves – but to give our lives for Christ.

God wants to transform our lives into the life of Jesus Christ for ministry in this world.

I understand if folks don't want this transformation into Christ – witnessing is dangerous. It is costly. But if any want to live eternal lives, we must remember that eternal living starts in the here and now. And eternal living is birthed by doing one thing:

"Remember Jesus Christ – raised from the dead – a descendant of David."

The Rev. Samuel Gregory Jones ("Greg") became a member of Christ's Body at St. Columba's in Washington, D.C. He is husband of Melanie, father of Coco & Anna, rector of St. Michael's Raleigh, and author of Beyond Da Vinci (Seabury Books, 2004). He blogs at fatherjones.com.

Anonymous apostles

By Roger Ferlo

About 50 new seminarians showed up here at Virginia Theological Seminary last week, three weeks before the start of the regular term. They’re here to get a head start on their required courses in Hebrew and Greek, and to undergo the time-honored training in the oral interpretation of Scripture that the seminary underground still refers to as “Read and Bleed.” Half of the newcomers seem to be in their twenties and early thirties, continuing the youthful swing we have experienced here in the past several years. (You have to admire these young people, committing themselves to a lifetime working in a church that too many people in my generation seem intent on tearing apart.) As to the other half of the class, a large number seem to be newly retired, in the way we baby boomers retire in our mid-fifties. There aren’t too many people in their 40s. My seat-of-the-pants demographic theory about this is that if you are going to go to seminary in these parlous times, you are more likely to try it either in your twenties (when you are still relatively free of commitments, except, of course, for that sizable college debt), or in your late fifties, after you’ve sort of completed the trajectory of your first career, maybe seen your kids through college, and sense that you now have permission to do with your life what you’ve always known you wanted to do.

I changed careers pretty dramatically in my early thirties, so maybe I’m projecting. To be fair, the best part of working in an Episcopal seminary is that you never really can predict where people might be coming from, or what brought them here. In their first session together last week, one guy introduced himself to the group by looking at his watch, and then declaring that it was now almost exactly 72 hours since he retired from the military. A woman of a certain age marveled that the student sitting next to her was young enough to be her daughter. Several people identified themselves as recovering lawyers. One of the youngest men wore a T-shirt that revealed an amazingly elaborate network of tattoos on his right arm—perhaps setting a new trend in clerical dress.

Whatever the case, here they are, part of our lives for the next three years, God bless them all. Their nametags dutifully hanging from their necks, they gathered yesterday with the rest of us for a Eucharist in the chapel at 8:10 in the morning. I suspect that they were too distracted by a looming pop quiz on Hebrew verbs to listen closely to the sermon, which might have been just as well, as I was the preacher, and it was St. Bartholomew’s Day, and St. Bartholomew does not provide you with the most inspiring of sermon texts even in the best of circumstances.

It was those nametags that set me going. I hate wearing nametags. Maybe that’s why I’m always attracted to the unnamed people in Scripture, like the anonymous woman who washes Jesus’ feet in Mark’s version of the story, or the unnamed young man who runs away naked to avoid being captured by the police who are arresting Jesus in the garden (did he too wear tattoos on his arm?). I think of St. Bartholomew as part of their company. He didn’t really have a name, at least any name the gospel writer cared to record. Roughly translated, Bartholomew just means “son of Tolmai.” No real claim to fame there, nothing really to put on a nametag. Matthew, Mark and Luke mention him only once or twice. John, on the other hand, seems never to have heard of him. As usual with mysterious figures like this, legends have accrued, the most persistent one being that he was flayed alive somewhere in Armenia (“read and bleed” with a vengeance), and that his body washed ashore on the Italian island of Lipari (a long way from landlocked Armenia), where a cathedral still stands in his honor. Colorful rumors, but not much to hang a sermon on.

This being the case, I decided to keep to that ancient principle of Episcopal homiletics--when in doubt, start with the collect. Whoever wrote it knew the score. The collect repeats all we know of Bartholomew—that he had the grace to believe and the courage to preach (and even the latter is only an inference from the scarcest of scriptural data). This being the case, we are made to ask not that we would love and venerate Bartholomew (it’s hard to love and venerate a relative cipher), but that we would “love what he believed and preach what he taught.” The feast of St. Bartholomew thus becomes a feast of holy anonymity.

I more or less said all this, and then looked out on that crowd of newly washed seminarians. I thought about my own ministry through the years, and realized that if what was said of Bartholomew could one day be said of us—that because of what we said or how we acted or who we were, others could be brought to love what we believed and to preach what we taught—well, then, maybe this priesthood thing would mean something in the end, long after our names were forgotten. The priestly life can be such an ego-trip—witness the clash of prelatial egos now bedeviling our common life. “I came among you as one who serves.” Bartholomew knew this about Jesus, and about himself, and acted accordingly. In spite of the occasional need for nametags, a little dose of this holy anonymity in love’s service might do all of us a world of good.

The Rev. Roger Ferlo is Director of the Center for Lifetime Theological Education at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, where he also directs the Evening School of Theology. His books include Opening the Bible (Cowley 1997), Sensing God (Cowley 2001) and Heaven (Seabury 2007).

What makes a good sermon?

By Susan Fawcett

One of the worst sermons I've ever heard was in the seminary chapel. Several weeks before, the school administration had asked preachers at Morning Prayer to keep their sermons to five minutes or less, in the interest of getting everyone out in time to get their obligatory coffee before 9:00 classes started. And on this particular morning, it was not a student but a professor who ascended the pulpit to speak. The service itself had already run long, and he preached...and preached...and after twenty minutes of discourse on The Faith of Abraham, we were finally released, grumbling about being late to class and missing coffee.

The sermon wasn't bad because of the content, per se. It was bad mostly because it was long, and disrespected our time (not to mention the Dean's request of five minutes or less). The absolute length of it overrode its message.

I come back to that sermon when I'm thinking about writing my own (as I am today, Thursday, without a clue as to what I'll be preaching on Saturday evening). That preacher had written a sermon that made a great deal of sense to himself, and yet he failed to ask himself what kind of sense it would make to the listeners, or whether they'd be able to listen to him with charity. Where is the line between communicating a message that you feel called to speak-as that professor clearly did-and communicating well? And where does sympathy for the listener fall in there?

I myself am one of those people who tend to think in the abstract and have read far more theology than is good for the average person, and so my natural tendency in sermons is to wax theoretical about an idea, tying together words and images to make some sort of emotional and psychological sense of a biblical passage. I like to think that I have been disabused of that tendency over the past few years: my husband is an engineer, a concrete thinker, and a painfully honest critic. We have spent quite a few Saturday nights revising my sermons, and we've got a running list of his typical responses:

You're dancing around an idea but you haven't nailed it. What's your take-home point here?"

"I'm sorry, but I don't speak church. What are you talking about again?"

"I'm getting kind of bored. Can't you tell a story or something?"

"You aren't going to just stand in the pulpit and read that from the printout, are you?"

Far from being offended by these remarks (ok, most of the time), I appreciate someone being honest. Most of my parishioners are so kind that they'll tell me they loved a dead-boring, high-theory sermon when most of what they loved about it was the chance to drift off into daydream land. So this article here isn't really an article: It's a plea for comments about what makes a great sermon. If you preach, what makes you feel good about your sermons? And how do you gauge it for reception? If you regularly listen to sermons, what keeps you tied in? What engages your mind and your soul? And what is it that you wish you could find a kind and charitable way to tell your beloved preacher?

The Rev. Susan Fawcett keeps the blog This Passage. She serves a parish in the Diocese of Virginia, and supports the work of the General Convention publication The Center Aisle.

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