19 August 2018
Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
Jesus said, “I am the living bread … Whoever eats this bread will live for ever.” (John 6)
After three weeks away, my head is spinning from all that has happened.
Three weeks ago: Bismarck, Annunciation Convent, Marcel Breuer
Two weeks ago: Fort Collins, parents’ 70th wedding anniversary (1948!)
Last week: wedding of my niece in a mountain valley near Taos
Meanwhile back at church: death of a beloved child of the parish
Armando released on parole (30 min response time!)
Trip to Indian Market: a new edge—activist, resistant
All this leads me to think about the question: is there a thread running through the events of our lives, both public and personal, both tragic and celebratory, that somehow holds them together?
And the thought toward which my mind turns comes from yet another event of the past week, when the author Jim Kristofic (who grew up on the Navajo reservation) talked with a group from the parish about that experience. One of the questions he reflected on was what gives a modern-day Navajo his or her identity? He suggested that it is not tradition (for too many traditions are of ambiguous meaning in the modern world, though many are still rich); it is not language (for too few Navajo are able to speak Diné, though many do); and it is not ancestry (for too often Navajo are of mixed blood, through intermarriage, though many are not).
For him, the essential factor is a way of life—a certain orientation toward the world that is based on a sense of the sacred (both of land and people); a commitment to the wider community and of one’s obligations to it; and a distinctive patience with time (for there is always time enough for whatever needs to be done, because time is endless).
And out of that third element—patience with time—Kristofic drew an important point. If we have a sense that life extends beyond physical death into an eternity (however we conceive of that), then we are as close to eternity in the present moment, as we will ever be. If time is infinite, then we will be no closer to its end in 100 years, than we are now. We already live life eternal.
Now, take that thought and bring it to bear on today’s gospel, where Jesus describes himself as the bread of life, by whom those who partake will live for ever. We tend to hear that as descriptive of something in the future. But what if Jesus is saying something more like what Kristofic said of the Navajo: “I offer you a way of life, and those who choose to follow it will find themselves swept up here and now in the life of God, which knows no beginning, and no end?”
What if Jesus is inviting us to see ourselves not just as finite, physical beings who are born, live our lives, and then die—but as part of God’s creative drama in which all things are interwoven in one tapestry of living, and creating, and loving, and sharing, and giving? And what if the key, the point of entry, is to commit ourselves to living as he lived: always on behalf of the other, always on the side of mercy and compassion, always along the trajectory of peace and relationship?
Now, that’s not a new thought, I know. But at moments when we find our heads spinning from all that has happened, both good and bad, it is important to be reminded that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. We are part of the community of creation that both gives us everything that we have, and asks of us everything that we are.
At my niece’s wedding, I was asked to be one of two officiants. I wasn’t sure I was supposed to give a homily as part of the “ceremony” (this was a very secular wedding), but just in case, I gave one anyway. I talked about how a wedding celebrates two things in particular: the life that two people are creating together in their marriage, and the familial context which gave them birth and shaped them into who they are. It was a moment to recall that day was both about them, but also about my niece’s grandparents (my parents), who were celebrating 70 years of marriage; her other grandparents who were celebrating 60 years of marriage; and each of their parents, who were celebrating 32 years.
The point is, that who we are as individuals is shaped by the bonds of relationship and commitment that we make and with which we are surrounded. And so, I said, the recipe of “Me first” and “Me alone” is not conducive for human flourishing, either for individuals or for nations. A wedding, therefore, is in this day and age a truly prophetic act: not me first, but us together. And then, since I wasn’t sure whether I was supposed to be speaking or not, I just left it at that.
But this summer for me has been a time for reaffirmation of these primordial truths: that (as an old prayer puts it) life is eternal, and love is immortal, and death is only an horizon—and an horizon is nothing, save the limit of our sight.
Proper 12B (29 July, 2018)
St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church
The Rev. Carolyn W. Metzler+
1 Samuel 11:1-15; Ps. 14; Eph. 3:14-21; John 6:1-21
There is so much about King David to love! Plucked from the fields to rule when he was a very young man after countless hours of silence, tending sheep. The Bible goes to great pains to tell us it had nothing to do with how handsome he was, and then goes to great pains to tell us how handsome he was! He leaves the fields and wins battles for King Saul. After Saul’s death this tender lad was made king over a people impossible to rule. He made good choices. God was pleased with him. He wrote some of our most beloved psalms. He built a magnificent palace for himself. He had at least seven wives, with slaves and concubines as well. In gratitude to God, he brought the Ark of the Covenant to Israel and offered to build a Temple, a task that went to his son Solomon. He danced for joy before the Lord wearing nothing but his ephod! God made a covenant with David, that David would be faithful all his days and God would bless David’s descendants forever. Nobody in the world had as much power as David. Everybody wanted to be his best friend. He was the envy of every other ruler. It went to his head. He made bad choices. And this story is about a whopper of a bad choice. Let us speak a truth that is not often spoken in Christian churches: This is entirely David’s sin. Bathsheba was wronged. I recently heard a sermon preached in an other denomination on this text where Bathsheba was labeled as a temptress, an adulterer, seducing David. I was furious, and confronted the preacher about it. I gave him a conversation NO preacher wants to have at the door to the church. David was the most powerful person in the world. Bathsheba was just a woman, though she came from a good family and was one of the few woman actually named in the Bible. The power differential was completely stacked against her. Deny her king his pleasure and she could lose her life. People like David are why we need the #MeToo movement. Bathsheba has a story too. It needs to be heard. I for one, want to hear it.
So David, who was used to getting his way, began to manipulate others which gave him what he wanted. And then he forgot about her. He did not give Bathsheba another thought until a message arrived that his pleasure had resulted in a pregnancy. David got scared. He probably knew Uriah, one of his own “mighty warriors.” They probably had fought side by side. Uriah was off in battle, making it clear the child was not his. So David began a conspiracy of attempted deception and coverup worthy of any headline today. As the conspiracy got more complicated due to Uriah’s unwillingness to play along with the charade, David brought more and more people into his scheming to do his dirty work. Finally he realized he just had to get rid of Uriah, making Bathsheba a widow, meaning he could marry her and legitimize the child as his own.
This is not the David of a few chapters ago. This is not the gentle, ruddy faced, clear- eyed boy tending sheep and composing love songs to God. This is a man whose power had gone to his head. He believed himself to be above the law of God and civil society. He had lost his way spiritually, caught up in a complicated web of greed and coverup. He was now hard, calloused. He did not feel anything but his own need. He had lost his moral compass.
We may not go to the lengths that David did, but there is not a person alive who has not betrayed their own heart for some lesser desire of the mind. We use people. We choose more of what we don’t need just because we can. Recently I saw a scarf in a thrift shop. I have about 30 of them. This was lovely. So are the others. Every voice in me told me this was just greed. I bought it anyway. It was a scarf, not a human being. But the root was the same. Also the coverup. I could use it in an altar for a retreat! That made it ok! When I make my confession, it generally includes the all ways I try to pretend I don’t need to make my confession! We excuse excess as individuals and as a nation. When did greed become a national status symbol? When did the coverup of “alternative facts” become acceptable?
Fortunately, the story does not end with the last line of our lesson today. Next week we’ll hear the conclusion of the story. Spoiler alert! I won’t give you the brilliant way it happens, but suffice it to say David is literally brought back to his knees. Then we see a David we can remember loving. Richard Rohr says that people do not evolve spiritually without some great love or great suffering. David is made to see the horror of his ways and his guilt and shame become unbearable outside of grace. He knows he deserves to die. Repentance doesn’t bring back Uriah who he killed. It doesn’t undo the evil David did to Bathsheba. There are still severe consequences to pay for his actions, and even then some of us might think he got off too lightly! But a profoundly repentant David experiences the grace and mercy of God. No it’s not fair. No it’s not just. Mercy is never fair! That’s why it’s mercy. Grace is never just! That’s why it’s grace. Those of us who have been violated and wronged may have a hard time with this part of the story. People who need a tit-for-tat world sometimes struggle with the grace and mercy of God. Many people I see in spiritual direction rail against a God who can forgive even abusers. And so David is a stand-in for each of us who use our privilege and agency for our own selfish gain, and David also is the stand-in for every person who is horrified by our capacity to betray the higher nature and longing of our own heart.
The story goes on even beyond next week’s lesson: the David saga continues. God knows David, knows his human flaw, and uses him anyway. “Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid…” That, friends, is the good news. We are more than our mistakes, more than our moral failings. When we turn again, allow mercy and grace to transform us into people who are aligned with the kingdom, we go on serving God’s purposes. Bishop Steven Charleston writes: “One of the great blessings of life is that we are always standing on the threshold of being something new. Whatever our past experiences may have been, however they may seem to define us, each time we open our eyes we look out on unclaimed territory of the heart. No matter what our current circumstances may be, the present does not own us, for the next step we take is always our decision.”
The Gospel reminds us that no matter who we are, what we have done, how puny our resources in the face of the enormity of world need, God takes us exactly as we are to use all that we might offer jn love. David’s sin was his using others to support his insatiable greed. Jesus does the opposite. He begins with a pittance of an offering - a few loaves, a few fish, and however it happens, people are fully satisfied. David just feeds himself. Jesus feeds the multitudes. David uses others as possessions. Jesus serves others with himself. David loved no one but himself. Jesus uses love as the means by which a little becomes more than enough. It is excess opposite of David’s excess. God’s strength begins with and is made perfect in our weakness. All God has is us. All God needs is us. What is broken and small in us is made whole and abundant. That’s the miracle. And so we can sing with Leonard Cohen,
“And even though it all went wrong I’ll stand before my Lord of song
With nothing on my tongue but ‘Hallelujah!
Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah. hallelujah…”
Proper 10, Year B St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church
Mark 6: 14-29 Albuquerque, New Mexico
A Most Disturbing Dance:
A Sermon Preached by Pastor Susan Allison-Hatch
I find myself recoiling at this gospel we just heard. I find myself wondering, “What is this story doing here—here in this gospel and here in this place? Why is this the gospel assigned for the tenth Sunday after Pentecost? Of all the many stories of Jesus we could tell—why this story, a story not of Jesus nor really of John the Baptist either but rather the story of a party given for himself by a small-time leader of an insignificant province on the distant outskirts of the Roman empire, the story of his vindictive wife, and driving the action in the story, a young girl (that small-time leader’s very own step-daughter). Jesus doesn’t even appear in the gospel we hear today—except by reference in the very first sentence. What gives? What is this story doing here? And what has it to say to us?
King Herod throws himself a party—a birthday party, a fancy banquet—a banquet worthy of a king. All the worthies were invited: court officials and civic leaders, big wigs and wannabes, folks with ties to power, folks who profit off the backs of others. Reclining on couches carefully placed around the room, the guests gorge themselves on food fit for a king. They eat, they drink, they talk, they laugh. Eagerly they await the evening’s entertainment.
A young girl enters the room. I wonder, “Was there a gasp that reverberated through the room when the men reclining on those couches realized that the young girl about to start her dance was kin to the king?
The music starts, the young girl begins to dance. What a beguiling dance it was. I can imagine that when the music stopped, when the young girl stood before the king, the room fell silent. “What can I give you?” the king asks the girl.
The scene shifts to a chamber not far from the banquet hall. The young girl’s mother, the king’s new wife, stands waiting. “What shall I ask for?” the young girl asks her mother. The answer comes quickly. No hesitation there. That mother knows just what she wants. “The head of John the Baptist.”
That young girl, that prepubescent child rushes back into the banquet hall with her answer to the king:
“the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”
What troubles me most about this story is not the prophet’s head on a platter—gruesome as that image is –nor those court officials and civic leaders standing silently by. What troubles me most in this story is that young girl dancing. For she was just a girl. That’s how Mark refers to her. Young girl. The very words he used to talk about Jairus’s daughter. The child Jesus raised from death.
I hear the words, “Herodias’s own daughter came in and danced, she pleased Herod and those reclining at table together,” and I recoil.
That fox Herod. He knew what he was doing and so did his wife Herodius.
Do you hear the undertones of abuse and exploitation? A young girl—a child—manipulated into carrying out the machinations of her parents.
Can this be gospel truth? Where is the good news in all of this?
I think we have to look beyond this short story to find good news, to find the gospel truth.
I think we have to listen for the echoes and inversions in this story—echoes of other parents and their children, echoes of other feasts, inversions of other kingdoms.
I hear this story of a young girl and I remember other stories with children at the center: a young demon-plagued boy whose father pleads first with the disciples and later with Jesus to cure his son; a Syro-Phonecian woman—an outsider—begging Jesus to heal her daughter. Parents seeking for their children what you and I would seek for the children in our lives.
I hear this story of Herod’s birthday banquet and I hear echoes of another banquet.
A banquet hosted by a very different host. A different kind of feast. In a different place. A deserted place or so Jesus and his disciples thought. A very different place and a very different crowd. People hurrying to get there even before Jesus and his disciples arrive; people from nearby cities and towns, and I suspect, people on the road as well—people who had no place to call home. Mothers and fathers seeking healing for their children; others themselves hoping to be healed—the blind, the deaf, the demon-possessed. Some walking on their own power; others carried on pallets. There were children at that feast. Lots of them. Some with family; some alone. Thousands of people crowding around Jesus. All welcome at that banquet. All fed. All eating their fill. And all then filled with hope.
Some days I think I’m living in Herod’s world—a world where the powerful and privileged put their need for more, their fear, their greed before the needs of their own children.
Some days I worry that I might be a bystander at that banquet. Horrified by what I see, yet immobilized by my own despair.
And then I remember that Herod’s birthday banquet is not the end of the story. I remember the many children drawn into the center of Jesus’ s world. I remember the healings, the feasts, the promise Jesus offers that the kingdom of God has drawn near. I remember the Cross. And I remember the empty tomb.
At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus says to Peter and his brother Andrew, “Come along with me.” “Follow me”; “Come and see”—invitations Jesus proffers time and again throughout the gospels.
You and I invited to open our eyes and see the reign of God at work in our very broken world.
You and I invited to join in the work. Some days that’s hard to do. Some days that’s hard even to imagine. And yet….
I’m reminded of the words of the spiritual:
Sometimes I feel discouraged
And think my work’s in vein;
But then the Holy Spirit
Revives my soul again.
Some days you just have to trust in the power of that Holy Spirit.
July 8th, 2018: The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Pr. Joe Britton, and "Precious Lord, take my hand"
8 July 2018
Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“Whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12)
Today we are going to rehabilitate the word “weak.” It is a word, like a number of others, which has had a lot of use as of late. In previous sermons, we have already revisited truth, and lying, and human dignity (that was Easter Sunday), and a couple of weeks ago, bullying (in reference to David and Goliath). But today’s topic is weakness.
The word is suggested to us, of course, by the epistle lesson, one of those rather inscrutable passages in Paul where it’s not clear at all what he’s talking about. But his point comes pretty clear in the end: for a Christian, strength comes from the realization that we are in and of ourselves weak, and know that we rely on God for our strength.
The context is this: Paul is describing “a person in Christ” who was caught up into the third heaven (not the blue sky, not the realm beyond the sky, but into heaven itself), where he had a vision of the strength of God’s mercy and grace. Now, although Paul uses the third person here, he actually seems to be talking about himself. He is the one who has been granted the sight of the glory of God, and it is comparison with that vision, that he realizes how weak he is in himself.
He muses that there are two possible responses: one is to boast of how great it was to have had this experience, placing the emphasis on his own privilege. Or the other response, is to use it as a means of self-knowledge, seeing clearly his own need for what has been disclosed to him. He chooses the latter, and so comes to his conclusion, which is the point of what he trying to get across to his readers: when we know that we are weak, then it opens us up to know the strength of God. Or, as the great nineteenth century Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon put it, “We can know that God’s grace is sufficient, only when we know that our strength is insufficient.”
Weakness, it turns out, is not the opposite of strength, but rather an honesty that we cannot be fully who we are meant to be, except by relying on something greater than ourselves—on friends, allies, communities, civilities, traditions, and ultimately, on God. Even Jesus seems to have to learn this lesson in today’s gospel, when he realizes that he can do no miracle in his hometown, but must turn to his disciples and send them out to carry on his work. Weakness is a willingness and openness to seek help, to engage the world, to look outside of ourselves, to realize that we are not at the center of our own universe. Weakness is what makes us strong.
Now, that is Paul’s point, but it may all still seem a bit abstract. So let me try to bring it a bit closer to home by turning to that old gospel song, “Precious Lord, take my hand,” which we are going to sing together at the end of this sermon.
The song was written in 1932 by Thomas Dorsey (his picture is in the bulletin, if you want to look at it). Dorsey was a minister and blues singer who was living in Chicago and struggling to make ends meet for himself and his young wife Nettie. Reflecting on his troubles, he once remarked that, “The trouble with singin’ the blues, is that when you’re done you’ve still got ’em.”
While he was at one of his out of town gigs, he received word that his wife had died in childbirth, and he rushed home only to have his newborn son die in his arms shortly thereafter. Heartbroken, Dorsey was inconsolable. The women of his church, however, rallied round him, and flooded him with letters of condolence and encouragement which planted the seed in his mind for what emerged as his most famous song: Precious Lord. Perhaps you remember the words:
Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand;
I am tired, I am weak, through the storm, through the night,
Lead me on to the night.
In the song, he pours out his grief, his sense of helplessness, his weakness—and then, unable to anything else, he reaches out his hand to the Lord, asking for help.
And out of this lament of weakness, strength has come indeed. It has of course comforted many a person in grief, and is sung at countless funerals and memorials. But it also became a well to which the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement returned again and again, seeking the strength to carry on in the face of violence and brutality that they faced, and so in a very real sense this song helped to change the course of our nation’s history.
It was Martin Luther King’s favorite hymn. In the movie Selma, when he is at a particularly low point, he calls up his friend and colleague Mahalia Jackson seeking some word of encouragement. Her response is to sing Precious Lord softly to him over the phone line. Whether that call ever really happened we don’t know, but we do know that he asked her to sing Precious Lord at his funeral, anticipating that he would die young. And the song is closely associated with his last hours—in some tellings, it was sung at the rally the night before he died where he gave his Mountain Top sermon, or in other tellings, the last words he uttered before being cut down by an assassin’s bullet were a request that it be sung that night at the meeting he was preparing to attend.
In any case, the key is that out of the naked weakness that Precious Lord gives expression to, has come towering strength and resilience. But it is a strength that has had its roots in community—the consoling women of Dorsey’s church, the fellowship shared among civil rights leaders, the mourning of a nation after King’s death. So when you go home today, perhaps you will want to listen to just a few of the recordings that have been made of it, and you’ll hear what I mean: Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin, B. B. King, Tennessee Ernie Ford, even Elvis Presley. Each, in his or her own way, pours out a soulful lament that touches us at some place deep within, where we know the true neediness of our inner selves, but find God’s strength therein.
For you see, the lesson that we human beings have to learn—and sometimes have to learn over and over again—is that we are not sufficient unto ourselves, not as individuals, not as races, and not as nations. We try to pretend that we can put ourselves first, and come out ahead. But all we really do when we do that is to break down those bonds of community and affection that hold us up and challenge us to be more and to be better than we are in isolation. Without the other, we are diminished. Without the stranger and the foreigner, we are impoverished. Without the poor, we are grudging. Without the grieving, we are arrogant. Without the weak, we are shallow.
So if you will, take out the Gather Hymnal, and turn to number 955, and remaining seated, let’s pray together the words of Precious Lord, hearing in them the assurance that whenever we are weak, then we are strong.