Author Archives: Stephen

Fun Facts: Tuesday in Easter Week

Stephen R. Shaver
All Saints Chapel, Church Divinity School of the Pacific, Berkeley, CA
April 18, 2017
Tuesday in Easter Week, Revised Common Lectionary
Acts 2:36-41
John 20:11-18
Psalm 33:18-22
or Psalm 118:19-24

+ + +

One winter morning in 1891, the people of Randolph County, Virginia, emerged from their homes to find two feet of fresh snow on the ground. That wasn’t unusual. What was unusual was that the surface of the snow was covered with worms. Live, wriggling worms. Sometimes up to four inches of worms. No one could quite figure out where they had come from. Some thought they’d come up out of the ground, but the snow was crusty and undisturbed. Some thought they’d fallen from the sky. It happened several more times that winter. No one could quite explain it. Fun fact.[1]

In 1846 an English gentleman adventurer, of the kind they had back then, found an interesting snail in the Egyptian desert and sent it home to the British Museum. The curators, presuming it was dead, glued it to a card and put it in storage. For four years it sat there, until 1850, when someone noticed a suspicious-looking filmy trail on the card. When the curators gave it a warm bath and offered it some cabbage, the snail poked its head out of its shell, none the worse for wear after its long hibernation. The so-called “Lazarus snail” lived another two years and its shell is still in the museum’s collection. Fun fact.[2]

In about the year 33 a political criminal was executed outside Jerusalem. A few days later it was discovered that not only was his body missing, he was actually alive again. Several people saw him walking, talking, and eating fish. Fun fact.

Now one of these facts is not like the others. Because only one of them started a movement. Only one of them flung people out into the streets and markets to preach like we heard Peter doing today. Our reading says his listeners were “cut to the heart.” Nobody was ever flung out into the street or cut to the heart by news about a hibernating snail or a freak of worms and weather. Those things are cool and weird. Resurrection is cool and weird. But the first thing Peter’s listeners say is, “Brothers, what should we do?” They know this news isn’t just something to hear about: it’s something to act on.

My father-in-law, when he retired, took up a hobby of collecting frequent-flier miles. He and my mother-in-law have literally traveled around the world on very little money just by finding these special offers and amassing huge totals of points and miles. There’s a whole community of blogs and experts and people who do this. You can go to points and miles conferences. And when there’s a particularly good offer, my father-in-law will send out an e-mail to friends and family, and he titles it, “News you can use.” News you can use, something not just to file away as trivia but to take action on.

That’s something a little closer to the gospel than just reading about a fun historic fact. The resurrection is news we can use. But it’s more than that too. Because it’s also news that will use us. If you act on a great points and miles offer, it might change your vacation opportunities. But if you act on this news, it will change your life.

When the people ask, “What should we do,” Peter doesn’t say, “Sign up for this rewards program.” He says, Metanoēsate, which we translate “repent” but has very little to do with how we use that word in English today. We think of “repent” as something like feeling bad about your past misdeeds. But metanoia means something more like “reorient your whole self.” It doesn’t have much to do with how you feel but how you act. It means changing your behavior and your worldview, which often happens in that order.

And Peter spells it out further: be baptized. Receive the Holy Spirit. Join a new community with a whole new way of life. The verses immediately after this reading tell us exactly what that way of life is. It says the new believers devote themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of the bread and the prayers. It says they share their possessions and care for those in need. It’s the same way of life we commit ourselves to every time we renew our baptismal covenant from the Prayer Book, just as we did three nights ago—was it already three nights ago? It’s an Easter way of life, and it’s countercultural, and it’s profoundly attractive today just as it was back then.

What matters most about the resurrection isn’t the fact, wondrous as it is, that a dead person once got up and walked out of a tomb. What matters is who that person was, and is. He was the one who proclaimed the reign of God was near, who healed the sick and fed the hungry and said the greatest is the one who serves. He was the one who had already gathered a movement around himself, and when he was crucified it looked like that movement had died with him. But he didn’t stay dead. He’s alive today and his movement is marching. You and I have been swept up in it. And it won’t stop until God’s love and glory have filled up the entire world.

How did you get swept up in it? Just the fact you’re sitting in this room today means this news has touched you in some way, maybe a way that has changed your life. What is it about this person of Jesus that reaches to your heart? What is it that makes you not just file it away but makes you ask, “What should I do?”

It might be different for different people. Maybe for you it had to do with the search for community. Or for justice. Or for meaning, or beauty, or human dignity, or truth. It was different for people in first-century Jerusalem than it is for people in twenty-first-century Berkeley—or Sri Lanka—or Nigeria. And part of what’s so good about this news is that it’s big enough and good enough to speak to the longings of everybody.

Because what we have to share is not a fun fact, but a new life.

[1] http://www.ripleys.com/weird-news/cartoon-04-17-2017/; Journal of Microscopy and Natural Science 11 (1892), 118.

[2] http://www.metafilter.com/151242/The-desert-snail-at-once-awoke-and-found-himself-famous.

Polite violence

It was all such a shame, thought those in charge. It should never have come to this. It’s awful, but of course, it’s for the good of the whole community.

It is better for one person to suffer for the good of the people.

No one likes seeing violence, of course. It’s better to turn our eyes away when it has to happen and hope for it to be over as soon as possible.

Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?

None of us is really to blame. None of us chose this. We’re not responsible, not really, at least not individually. We wouldn’t hurt a fly.

I am innocent of this person’s blood. See to it yourselves.

Anyway, we delegate the nasty parts out to trained professionals. They can handle it.

When the commander saw what had taken place, he said, “Truly this man was innocent!”

The thing is, it’s not any one person’s fault. It’s about economics. You can’t argue with the bottom line. The market wants what it wants, and actually, it always works things out for the best in the end.

They weighed out to him thirty pieces of silver.

Anyway, they probably deserved it. They shouldn’t have talked back; shouldn’t have dressed that way; shouldn’t have made any sudden moves.  They brought it on themselves, really.

Those who see me laugh and mock at me; they shake their heads and hurl insults.

We’re not really sure what happened anyway. We’ll never know. Who can say, really? I have my facts and you have yours.

What is truth?

Anyway, what’s done is done. At this point we need to make the best of it and work on crafting the right media narrative. It’s only fair to make sure it’s our side of the story that gets out there.

What I have written, I have written.

 

Paschal, baptismal, ecclesial

I was looking through some old files from seminary and came across this paper I wrote for my liturgics class back in 2005.

I like it pretty well!

Not too bad, 23-year-old self. You had a lot of growing up to do (well, still do, I guess … ), but you could write a decent paper on the 1979 Prayer Book.

First, it is paschal: more than any previous Anglican prayer book, it is grounded in the pasch, the central Christian mystery of the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ.  Second, because it is paschal, it is baptismal; it sees baptism as the foundation of the Christian life and community.  Third, because it is baptismal, it is ecclesial; it is not a book for individual contemplative devotion but a book for a congregation of the priestly people of God.

I’d probably write it a little differently today but I think I still pretty much agree with everything in here. If only that were the case for everything else I’ve ever written … 🙂

Faith-based values

I am a Christian. My social values are 100% faith-based.

I believe, based on my understanding of the gospel of Jesus, that God made us in God’s own image, “male and female,” as it says in Genesis 1:27. Not male or female. In other words, gender is not a binary; it’s a multifaceted gift. It’s related in intriguing, complex, nonprescriptive ways to biological sex. Masculinity and femininity and other gender identities are not mutually-exclusive opposites but complementary blessings. And some unique mix of them is found in any given person.

I believe the sacramental commitment of marriage represents Christ’s fidelity to the church. I believe it should be available on equal terms to all who intend it as a lifelong union of body and spirit.

I believe, based on my understanding of the gospel, that abortion is a complex and never trivial decision, and that there are nevertheless times where it is the best and most faithful choice. I believe women and those they trust are best equipped to make those decisions. I believe if abortion is sometimes the most faithful option, then it needs to be available.

I don’t believe it’s appropriate to use government to mandate moral choices for a pluralistic society. I do think it’s appropriate for government to protect people in the minority from having their ability to live how they want, without harming others, taken away.

I can respect people who genuinely believe, based on their understanding of their faith, that abortion is never a faithful choice; or that you can’t be a Christian and have a nontraditional gender identity or be in a non-heterosexual relationship. I do strongly disagree with them. If you’re one of these folks, I hope you’ll respect me, but much more importantly, I hope you’ll respect my friends whose actions or identity you disapprove of. If you want to try to convince them that your viewpoint is right, please try to do it with your words and the example of your life rather than coercing them to act against their own consciences by means of the law.

I believe, based on the gospel of Jesus, that we have a duty to care for the poor and vulnerable. That’s non-negotiable for Christians, no matter what economic ideology you think will best achieve that (see Matthew 25).

I think—as a matter of practical methods, not as a gospel mandate—that it’s appropriate for citizens to act collectively through government to try to make life better for everyone. That means not just roads and armies but things like health care, housing, education, and some appropriate degree of income redistribution. I don’t think it’s good for people’s souls to be thousands or millions of times more wealthy than their neighbors. And I don’t believe raw dollars are the only motivation for people to work hard and achieve wonderful things. That’s why I basically tend to favor things like social welfare, well-regulated free markets, and a fairly high personal income tax rate on the top end. Those are personal opinions about what works, not gospel beliefs. I’m not an expert in economics, and I’m willing to be corrected if libertarians, anarchists, communists, or unfettered robber-baron capitalists can show good solid evidence that their way works better for everyone and in particular for those who are poorest.

But as a gospel value, I believe that Christians have a duty to care for the poor and vulnerable, whether the government does or doesn’t.

All these values are completely faith-based. I’ll happily debate them respectfully, based on scripture and Christian tradition, with anyone who wants to. Progressive Christianity isn’t watered-down Christianity–it’s radical Christianity. Secular humanists don’t have a monopoly on these values, although they are good allies on many of them, and many of them are my dear friends and family. And socially conservative Christians don’t have a monopoly on the gospel, although I rejoice in our shared love of Jesus, and many of them are my dear friends and family.

 

 

A new reality

God is our refuge and strength, *
    a very present help in trouble.

Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved, *
    and though the mountains be toppled into the depths of the sea.

“Be still, then, and know that I am God; *
    I will be exalted among the nations;
    I will be exalted in the earth.”

The LORD of hosts is with us; *
    the God of Jacob is our stronghold. (Psalm 46)

I had never truly allowed myself to contemplate the reality of a President Trump until Tuesday night. I was walking down the block at about 7:00 to pick up takeout for dinner, and I had just seen The New York Times’s forecast that there was now greater than a 75% chance of a Trump victory. So I had a several minutes’ walk for the pit of my stomach to begin feeling cold and numb from fear.

Of course I had contemplated it. But it had seemed so truly farcical that it hadn’t been possible for me to really, truly, come to grips with its possibility. I was ready to turn a page; to move on with life more or less as usual; to breathe a sigh of relief at the election of a president I basically liked and whose general adult competence I trusted; to continue welcoming the gradual but real progress toward greater gender inclusion, racial justice, and a stronger social safety net that had been happening despite resistance and seemed fated to proceed along its inevitable course. The arc of history.

It is not that way.

The people have spoken. Donald Trump, a man who has said things that would have disqualified any previous candidate two hundred times over, who has boasted of groping women, who flirts with white supremacists, who has openly promised to trample on constitutional freedoms of the press and of religion and to reinstitute torture as national policy, who shows little to no curiosity or self-reflective capacity—how long should I go on?—this person will be the leader and spokesman for our nation and indeed the most powerful person in the world.

I am afraid because I believe some specific policy consequences will hurt many, especially the most vulnerable. Millions will lose their access to healthcare as the Affordable Care Act is swiftly repealed, to be replaced with something no one has yet thought through, or else not to be replaced at all. Tax cuts will shower “relief” on the wealthy and provide symbolic pittances to the middle class and nothing to the poor. Meanwhile, large pieces of the social safety net that helps those poor survive will be privatized or vanish altogether. With at least one and perhaps more Supreme Court nominees to be selected by Donald Trump and easily approved by a Republican Senate, the “right” of corporations to be treated as people will remain enshrined, while the right of women to make the most intimate decisions about their own bodies may well be taken away.

Beyond those policy consequences, there will be less tangible consequences that may be even more harmful in the long run. The fabric of our constitutional democracy will probably hold—but it has been badly stretched and frayed. We will have a president who has endorsed violence at his rallies, who has “jokingly” hinted at his opponent’s assassination and dead-seriously called for her imprisonment, and who has repeatedly vowed to do things that are blatantly against our most basic constitutional freedoms. Leaders of countries around the world are alternately terrified or exultant at the prospect of seeing the United States led by an erratic bully and our (already much eroded) moral standing reduced to that of any other troubled democracy. Closer to home, the unprecedented strategy of stonewalling a Supreme Court nomination for an entire year is now vindicated as a clear success, meaning that it will likely become a norm.

This is not good news, not any of it. I fear that people will suffer and that the world will be less prosperous, less happy, and less free.

Still, there is a clarity that comes with this new reality. It calls for those of us whose vision of a compassionate, fair, and inclusive society is grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ to speak out boldly.

It convicts me of my silence, my failure to engage in real conversation with those different from me, my life in a liberal bubble. It convicts me also of my genuine incomprehension of and aversion to the values and culture of many people, most of them white, many of them working-class, whose pain and anger needs to be heard and respected even if it is often accompanied by racism and sexism that cannot be.

And it means that the task for those of us who are shocked and disheartened is to serve as a dogged, loyal opposition. Loyal to the values for which this country, at its best, stands; and loyal, more deeply still, to the gospel. We are called to proclaim the good news in season and out of season. Our trust is not in having a government we like, but in God’s grace and goodness, which never fail.

Some put their trust in chariots and some in horses, *
      but we will call upon the Name of the LORD our God. (Psalm 20:7)

Two Kinds of People: Proper 25, Year C

Stephen R. Shaver
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Berkeley, CA
October 23, 2016
Proper 25, Year C, Revised Common Lectionary

Jeremiah 14:7-10,19-22
Psalm 84:1-6
2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18
Luke 18:9-14

+ + +

It’s been said that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who divide the world into two kinds of people, and those who don’t.[1]

Consider the Pharisee for a moment. He is not the bad guy in this parable. If we write him off as the cartoon villain in the black cowboy hat we miss the entire point of the story. He is, in fact, a very good guy. He’s not a hypocrite: there is no reason whatsoever to believe what he says about himself is anything other than true. He really does pray the prayers and fast the fasts and give away his money. He really doesn’t cheat or steal or commit adultery. This is a pious, faithful person who’s put in a lot of time and discipline to cultivate some very real virtues. If you met him today on the streets of Berkeley, maybe he’d be the one who buys local, eats organic, runs marathons, and volunteers for a couple of admirable nonprofits, all while regularly donating to public radio.

It’s also not clear that the tax collector is particularly good in this parable. In his place and time, being a tax collector means earning your living by essentially shaking down your countryfolk for money and sending a prescribed amount to the Roman colonial occupiers. The more you successfully shake loose, the more you get to keep. He’s something like an officially sanctioned small-time racketeer shaking down his neighbors for protection money. There’s a reason tax collectors were not particularly popular.

What does seem clear is that this tax collector has at least one moment of clarity as he stands before God. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Does that mean he reforms his extorting ways after he goes back down to his house redeemed? Maybe. Next Sunday we’ll hear not a parable but an actual episode from Jesus’ ministry about a tax collector named Zacchaeus who does just that. But in this parable we really have no idea. It seems that’s really not the point. In this story Jesus doesn’t seem to insist that the tax collector put his money where his mouth is and show some real change in order to get forgiven. It just happens, because he asks. It’s as if to say, of course: That’s what God does! That’s the kind of ridiculously generous God God is, willing to be taken advantage of, to forgive dozens and hundreds of times; the God of the Prodigal Son story who’s constantly looking for any opportunity at all to get back into relationship with a beloved child. The fact the tax collector gets God’s forgiveness is not actually the point of the parable. It’s not meant to be the surprise. The question instead is—how on earth did this Pharisee manage to get out of the temple without it?

I’m going to hazard a guess that there are two reasons. The first is that he doesn’t actually seem to see any need for it. He doesn’t ask for any grace or mercy because as far as he can see there’s nothing wrong with him, no need for self-examination, no room to grow. And the second is maybe even more significant: it’s that he defines himself not by who he is, but by who he isn’t. “I thank you, God, that I’m not like other people—all those thieves and rogues and adulterers—or even like, say, this tax collector over here.” Thank you, not for who I am, your beloved child, but for who I’m not.

The Lutheran pastor Duane Priebe has said, “Whenever we draw a line between ourselves and others, Jesus shows up on the other side of the line.”[2] God is in the business of breaking down dividing walls. The Pharisee is the kind of person who divides the world into two kinds of people. But in God’s eyes there’s only one kind, and you and I and the Pharisee and the tax collector are all in it. Beloved children. Flawed sinners, offered free and unlimited grace.

How often we’re tempted—how often our society almost forces us—to define ourselves over against others. In this bitterest and most divisive election season most of us have ever seen, one marked by an amazing lack of charity and humility, it’s ridiculously easy to write off those who disagree with us as unredeemable; to demonize and caricature and even to take pleasure in the “other side’s” missteps or bad behavior because it reinforces our narrative that “at least we’re not like them.”

It happens in other areas of our lives too. In academia, where I spend a lot of my vocational energy—as do many others in this parish—there is no better way to get published and get prestige than by one-upping another person’s work. It happens in workplace politics of all kinds. In our families, our parishes, our schools, whenever we find ourselves dividing into camps and identifying someone else as the other. And Christians do this no less than anyone else. How easy is it for many of us Episcopalians who are rightly proud of our tradition to begin congratulating ourselves and saying, “O God, I thank you that you have not made me like those fundamentalists, who are so rigid and exclusive. We would never divide the world into two kinds of people, like they do!”

Hmm.

All who exalt themselves will be humbled, Jesus says, and all who humble themselves will be exalted. I don’t think he means that these are permanent states and all of us are either in one group or the other. I think this is actually something more cyclical, and we all spend time in both sides of the equation. With the best of intentions, we try to be humble, to reflect on our need for God’s grace. Maybe we actually succeed. Then we notice, “Hey, I’m being humble!” And then before long we notice others who really don’t get it the way we do, thanks be to God. And then we need to open ourselves again to God’s purifying and healing grace. It’s available to the Pharisee, to the tax collector, to you and me.

Today we’ve come together into God’s house to pray. We confess our sins. We hear of God’s grace. And then in a few minutes we will be fed at this table with God’s very life. At this table there is only one kind of person, and we are fed without distinction, and healed without price.

[1] Apparently first by American humorist Robert Benchley. See http://quoteinvestigator.com/2014/02/07/two-classes/.

[2] Professor emeritus at Wartburg Theological Seminary. Attribution in several places online.

Ashes to New Growth: Ash Wednesday

Stephen R. Shaver
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Berkeley, CA
February 17, 2015
Ash Wednesday, Revised Common Lectionary
Isaiah 58:1-12
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Psalm 103:8-14
Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

+ + +

“It’s like a war zone up here, like a movie scene.”

“This is a level of horror few of us could have anticipated.”

“It’s like Hiroshima, like a nuclear bomb.”

“It was hell on earth.”

These were just some of the descriptions from survivors of the deadliest wildfires the twenty-first century has seen. They happened six years ago, in Australia, in the state of Victoria. At least 210 people died. 1800 homes were destroyed, and over 7000 people were displaced. And perhaps the most heartbreaking revelation came when authorities announced they believed the fires were caused not by natural disaster, nor by accident, but by arson: the free choice of a human being.

This story seems to capture human sin in one microcosm. We were created, the scriptural story suggests, in a green and flourishing garden: created to love and serve God’s good creation with thanksgiving and joy. We were made to live eucharistically, blessing God for all that has been given into our care. But instead, whether through malice or simple carelessness, we tend so easily to turn it all into ash.

Think of all the ways that what happened in Victoria reflects human fallenness. First of all, its impact on the natural world. The charred grasses and trees of that Australian landscape are a small symbol of all the ways we fail to care for our planet, threatened by pollution, waste, and the ever-increasing specter of irreversible climate change. Next, the way it devastated homes and families: an image of our wounded economy and our tendency toward shattered relationships. And finally, the lives that were lost: two hundred people whose deaths are emblematic of the way we humans kill one another, whether out of hatred, greed, or just simple carelessness. This too is a story that starts in Scripture, with Cain’s murder of his brother Abel. It continues through the centuries, through wars and crusades and inquisitions, through the all-too-literal ashes of the crematoria of state-sponsored genocide we have come to know in the past century, and to today, from the horrific beheadings and atrocities of the so-called Islamic State in Syria and Iraq to the fourteen murders in Oakland so far in 2015.

As the people of Victoria looked out six years ago at their charred landscape, remembering the grass and trees that once made it green, so we look at the world God has given us and the eucharistic words of praise we were created to say can easily turn to dust and ashes in our mouths.

Yet we have not come here tonight to despair about the magnitude of fallenness and sin. For there is hope for us. Because in all the brokenness of our world, God has chosen not to abandon us to our fate.

As we heard a moment ago in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians: “For our sake God made Jesus to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Jesus we might become the righteousness of God.” Hear how Paul’s poetic language strains toward paradox, how his words crack at the edge of meaning: one who knew no sin is made to be sin for us. This is the tremendous exchange in which Jesus, who uniquely among all humanity was free of sin, chose freely to empty himself of divine privileges, become subject to our human condition in all its beauty and suffering, and take on all the consequences of our sin so that we in turn might be made righteous.

Paul says that in the cross and resurrection of Jesus God has reconciled the whole world to God’s own self. Not some of the world: not the upstanding, not the decent; but ALL. God’s free gift of reconciliation is offered freely to both those people in Victoria whose houses were destroyed and the careless or wicked arsonist who set the fire. Scandalous as it may be, God’s grace is available for victims and for perpetrators—for you and me, in both of those roles, in each of which we will find ourselves in some manner throughout our lives. It is available for free. There is no entrance exam. There are no strings. The only requirement is that we accept God’s grace, turn away from evil, and turn toward the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ.

Of course, we can fail to open ourselves to that love. Paul goes on to warn the Corinthians that it is possible “to accept the grace of God in vain.” He does not say “to fail to accept it”—but rather to accept it and yet still have it not be effective in us. One sign that we may be accepting God’s grace in vain is when we begin to congratulate ourselves on our goodness. Paradoxically, it is often Christians who can be better at that than anyone else. And so we do well to hear Jesus’ warning in today’s gospel reading against hypocritical worship, priding ourselves on appearances, assuming we have ourselves put together so that we forget our deep need of God. That forgetfulness is what we are here today to resist. In a few moments, when we come forward to receive ashes, we will be told, “REMEMBER that you are dust.” We need to remember our own ashiness, our limitations and weakness, so that when we come to the joy of Easter we may not receive it in vain.

There’s a word for this remembering. It’s an old word, and one that perhaps we don’t use as often anymore—partly because it’s been used too often in the past to beat people into submission and blind obedience. But when used rightly, it’s still a good and faithful word. The word is “humility.” And it comes from the same word as “humus”—a word for soil—indeed, the most fertile layer of the soil. When we have humility; when we remember that we are dust, that we are humus—we can become fertile soil so that God’s Spirit can grow in us and bear fruit. And when we live in this way, we are returning to our eucharistic calling by blessing God for the life we have been given.

Digital Photograph - Black Saturday Bushfires, Rosewhite, Victoria, 7 July 2009
image by Robin McDonald from Museum Victoria

If you go to the web site of the Museum of Victoria in Australia, you can see a page that tells the story of how the local forest regenerates after a bushfire. As it happens, the trees that make up the forests in Victoria can only reproduce after there has been a fire. The hot fire triggers the trees to drop seeds by the millions. And the tiny saplings that begin to come up are nourished by minerals from the layer of ash that covers the ground. Until the fire happened, those minerals had been sequestered in the old trees. But now those nutrients are returned to the soil and fertilize it for new growth.

This Lent, may we remember that we are dust, so that we may receive the grace of God with open hearts rather than closed ones. May the ashes we receive on our heads reach into our hearts and fertilize them, so that God may once again make a fresh planting in our lives, and that we may tend God’s garden with thanksgiving and joy.

Bring Your Gifts: Epiphany

Stephen R. Shaver
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Berkeley, CA
January 5, 2015
Eve of the Epiphany, Revised Common Lectionary
Isaiah 60:1-6
Ephesians 3:1-12
Matthew 2:1-12
Psalm 72:1-7,10-14

+ + +

They brought him gifts, these magi: these wise men—magesones from the East. They came to find a king, and the one who was already king was not amused. He sent them on to Bethlehem: Herod, that fox, that sly wielder of power; plying them with smooth words even as his soldiers sharpened their swords.

They brought him gifts: these sages—these Persian stargazers—these Zoroastrian seekers after God. They followed a mystic light from heaven, and they came to a humble house. And they opened their chests and brought forth their treasures, rich gifts laden with hope and expectation: Gold. Incense. Myrrh.

What have you come to give him? What do you bring with you, tonight, hidden in the treasure chest of your deep and mysterious soul?

What do you bring?

Maybe you will give him your gold. Gold, a gift for a king: the currency of the rulers of this world. Gold for leadership and finance and getting things done. Gold for iPhones and project management and household budgeting and résumés. We all use gold—or dollars, or euros, or bitcoin, or the softer currency of time and energy and influence. We do work in this world, whether our sphere is the household or the workplace or the empire.

The rulers of this world know about gold, how it can be used for good or evil: gold to build public works, gold to feed the poor, gold to pay the soldiers to slaughter the children of Bethlehem. Jesus will grow up to say that where our treasure is, there our heart will be also—in that order: because our hearts tend to follow our wallets, rather than the other way around. Where we invest our money and our time tends to become that which drives our hearts. Choosing to give away what God has first given us is for most of us about the quickest and most basic spiritual practice there is. How will we allocate the resources of which God has made us stewards? Will we follow the path of Herod or of Christ? Maybe gold is the gift your heart yearns to bring him tonight.

 

Maybe you come bringing incense. That sweet-smelling sap of Arabia whose billowing smoke sanctifies temples of Jerusalem and Rome. Incense, a gift for a god: the fragrance of prayer and devotion. Maybe your heart yearns to know what lies beyond this world, to taste the transcendent and commune with the Holy One. These magi know well what it is to seek the face of the holy. And so do so many of us, who yearn for meaning in a world we fear may lack it. We live in an age of crumbling religious institutions, when respectability and certainty ring more and more hollow. But our hunger for holiness is as fierce as ever. We seek the sacred in church and at yoga and at meditation, in music and art, in wilderness, in beauty wherever it may be found. We seek it, sometimes, in substances or food or sex; or we seek to stifle it in those things or in work or self-harm. But we are spiritual beings. The spark in us is drawn to the flame of the holy. We are created for awe.

And so maybe tonight you have come to offer him incense: to kindle the flame of worship, to cultivate a life of prayer. Maybe your heart yearns for a deeper pattern of spiritual practice in your daily and weekly round. Maybe you are called to take up in a new way your priestly vocation in the priesthood of all believers. Maybe this year will find you deepening your spiritual practice. Offer the gift of incense.

 

Gold and incense: we heard of them in the words that were just read from the prophet Isaiah. Two gifts that were foretold so long ago, gold for a king, incense for a god. But to this newborn Jesus the magi have brought a third gift—an unexpected gift, an unforetold gift: perhaps an unwelcome gift. Another spice of Arabia—but this one not for a temple, but for a tomb. Myrrh to embalm the dead. And the time will come when this gift is needed, when the body of Jesus will lie not in swaddling clothes but in a shroud. No prophet could have predicted this crucified Messiah. Gold for a king—that we can understand. Incense for a god—just what we were looking for. But this king and this God has come to do something new: to go with us into death itself. Myrrh is for one who shares our vulnerability and our pain, who mourns and laments, who knows what it is to be left all alone and cry out to a God who does not seem to hear: My God, why have you forsaken me?

Maybe tonight you bring the gift of myrrh. Maybe what you carry with you tonight is your heart’s pain and sorrow, or the sorrows of someone you love, or even the sorrows of the whole world. Tonight we celebrate the Epiphany: and “epiphany” means the revelation of a mystery. Part of the great mystery revealed tonight—and revealed at every eucharist—is that this king prefers to rule not from the throne but from the cross, and this God has made the place of outcasts into the Holy of Holies. Our suffering is close to the heart of God, because God has chosen to come among us. Jesus has gone with us into the mouth of death. God has raised him from the dead, and in that raising is God’s promise that our own suffering and our own death is not the final word, and the powers of death will not prevail against God’s love.

 

Bring your gifts tonight as you come to meet him. Bring your gold: your money, your time and labor, the best of all your efforts in this world. Bring your incense: your prayers and devotion, your thirst to know the Holy One. And bring your myrrh: your suffering, your fear and anger, your vulnerability. Come to the prayers and the table.

And come knowing that in an even deeper sense there is nothing we can possibly offer, because Jesus himself is all gift, and his love and his yearning for you is already the gift that has brought you here in response.

Violence and the Banquet: Proper 23, Year A

Stephen R. Shaver
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, San Francisco, CA
October 12, 2014
Proper 23, Year A, Revised Common Lectionary (Track I)
Exodus 32:1-14
Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

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In a pastoral care class during my last year of seminary a wise guest lecturer handed out a simple, tongue-in-cheek card entitled “Ten Modest Suggestions to Keep Your Vocation in Good Health.” Under the title was a small notation: “suitable for framing.” I’ve found it so helpful that I did in fact frame it, and when I’ve been in parish ministry I’ve kept it somewhere in my office. The suggestions include things like “Say the Daily Office” and “Keep your financial life in order” and “Keep your promises” and “Remember it’s not about you and you’re not entitled to anything.” And they include my favorite: “Don’t dismiss the tradition. You are not smarter than it. Wrestle with it until it blesses you.”

It’s a reference, of course, to the story of Jacob in the book of Genesis, who wrestles all night with a mysterious stranger only to find out that it’s the angel of God. And it’s a good word for us as Christians, who live within a great historical tradition, and who need to continually find ways to move into the future without coming unmoored from who and whose we are.

Sometimes it’s scripture that we need to wrestle with until we get a blessing. As Anglicans we believe scripture is holy and inspired; the Holy Spirit breathes through it and speaks God’s Word to us. But that doesn’t mean we believe it’s inerrant, or self-interpreting, or free of the biases and limitations of its human authors. So it takes wrestling sometimes to discover where God’s Word is for us in a particular text.

Today’s parable from Matthew’s gospel is one of those, I think. It’s not often that we get a glimpse of how a parable of Jesus was told and retold in different ways by the first few generations of Christians before it got written down. But with this one, we do—because it so happens that Luke’s gospel has a simpler and quite different version of this same story. Luke’s version has a man who decides to throw a wonderful banquet. The people he invites turn down his invitation with various polite excuses. So, because he’s so determined to throw a fabulous party, he sends his servants out instead to go out onto the streets and bring in everyone they can find. End of parable. It’s an appealing image of God’s overwhelming, inclusive grace. I like this parable. Maybe you do too.

I don’t find it as easy to like Matthew’s version. Because Matthew has taken the basic, skinny bones of this story and hopped it up on steroids—into a parable of rage and retribution. Now the man is a king who’s throwing a wedding banquet for his son. But when he tells his guests that dinner is ready, instead of just declining his invitation, they beat and kill his messengers. That unusual response might be our first clue that we’re on very strange territory in this parable. Next, in turn, the king massively escalates the violence. He mobilizes his army, wipes them out, and burns their city to the ground—all, apparently, while keeping dinner warm, because he then sends out another round of messengers. This time no one is bold enough to say no. But then—and here I find myself imagining him like a medal-chested dictator, toying with the squirming guests at his gold-plated gala—he singles out a poor fellow who has shown up underdressed and has him clapped in irons and sent to the gulag.

What kind of parable is this? What kind of God is this? Is the king supposed to be God? Are we the guests? And what is God going to do to us if we don’t wear the right robe? For that matter, what is the robe? Is it baptism, belief in Jesus, good deeds? The conventional readings of this parable overlay and compete with one another. And it can be hard to hear the gospel, the good news, through all the violence.

Now the scriptures were written by people: faithful people, people who loved God and sought, under the Spirit’s inspiration, to make sense of their experience of God in the places and times where they lived. And the anonymous Christian who compiled the gospel we know as “Matthew” lived in a violent and turbulent time. Most commentators think he—and it probably was a “he” in this case—was a Jewish believer in Jesus, one who had studied the Hebrew scriptures and come to believe that the crucified and risen one was the Messiah. He and his community understood themselves as faithful Jews, but they also welcomed Gentiles who had come to believe. Meanwhile, they struggled to understand why most of their Jewish sisters and brothers weren’t accepting their invitation to join this messianic community.

And in the midst of all that, there was a revolt against the Roman Empire, and the Roman army responded by flattening Jerusalem and burning the Jewish Temple to the ground.

It’s that trauma, and this particular group of Jewish Christians’ attempt to make sense of it, that most scholars believe has affected the way this parable was told and retold in Matthew’s community. Matthew has taken this parable and made it into more of an allegory: God invites the people of Israel to the Messiah’s banquet, but they reject the message of the prophets and finally of Jesus himself, and kill him. In Matthew’s understanding, then, the destruction of the Temple is God’s judgment on the people’s rejection of that invitation.

We can have compassion for Matthew and his point of view without being willing to share his interpretation of what happened. For one thing, Matthew is a Jew. And it is when we are members of a group, and then feel betrayed by our sisters and brothers within that group, that we can come to criticize it most violently. Maybe you’ve experienced this in at least a small way. Maybe, like me, you’ve found yourself at some point making an angry or dismissive comment about a group you belong to: perhaps “Americans” or “San Franciscans” or “Episcopalians.” In the trauma of the destruction of Jerusalem, Matthew comes to feel this way about his own people, Israel. He comes to believe that the church has replaced Israel as God’s chosen people. Not all the books of the New Testament have that point of view. Paul has a very different understanding, for example. But for too many centuries, Christians have often used a simplistic form of Matthew’s point of view to support anti-Semitism and all kinds of violent exclusion of those who didn’t accept Jesus as Messiah.

Now a parable isn’t simply a code meant to be deciphered: it’s a story through which the Spirit speaks to us. And so there is always more than one way to read it. There may well be true and worthy lessons to be drawn from this story if we read it in the conventional way, with God as the king and us as the guests. For example, God’s invitation isn’t free. It costs something, and we can refuse it. And the consequences of refusing God’s invitation are serious. But if we literalize this one reading, we can end up with all kinds of implications about God that just aren’t workable. Because the king in this parable also behaves in ways that simply don’t match the personality of the God we know from the rest of the scriptural story. Think of the God we meet in the Exodus lesson today, whose anger burns hot when the people turn to a false god, but who is quick to change his mind and forgive the people rather than destroying them. Think of what Matthew himself writes, elsewhere in his gospel, about Jesus teaching his disciples to forgive seventy times seven times. And think of Jesus, the very incarnation of the personality of God, who refuses violence and forgives his enemies right up to the cross itself.

Who is Jesus in this story? Perhaps he’s the bridegroom, the son who never actually appears in the parable. But perhaps he might show up in more than one place. In fact, if there’s any character in this parable who most resembles Jesus, it might just be the man at the end. Like Jesus, he’s silent in the face of his accuser. He’s bound hand and feet and cast out into the darkness. If we read this parable with Jesus as the innocent victim, we might discover something totally new here about God—the God who shows up in the most surprising places, in solidarity with everyone who is terrorized or tortured or excluded.

It turns out, maybe, that Matthew is writing scripture in spite of himself. Because a parable is never about just one thing. And sometimes when we wrestle with it Jesus gets in there somehow, the good news gets in somehow, where we least expect.

Who are the ones we would rather ignore? Who are the ones who are being cast into the outer darkness? Whose city is being destroyed? Who might we ourselves rather not find ourselves next to at the heavenly banquet? It might be that each of these people is Jesus for us.

Jesus is the bridegroom, and he is also the speechless man. And he is the robe, the wedding garment God has already provided for the whole world. And he is even the food for the banquet itself, whose foretaste we celebrate today. And in Jesus there are no scapegoats, no outcasts.

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For insights behind this sermon, including the image of wrestling with scripture and the reading of Jesus as the man bound hand and foot, I’m indebted (as I often am) to the work of Paul Nuechterlein and others over at the Girardian Lectionary Page.

Collects in Common

This evening I went to Vespers at Incarnation Monastery here in Berkeley. On Mondays this community has a very simple evening prayer liturgy that includes an extended time of silent meditation. This was my third time there and every time I’ve been glad I’ve gone.

I was surprised and delighted when the officiant read the collect for the day. Since this wasn’t a feast day, it was the same as the collect for this past Sunday–and I realized it was the same collect we use this week in the Episcopal Church. Here’s the Roman Catholic version:

O God, protector of those who hope in you, without whom nothing has firm foundation, nothing is holy, bestow in abundance your mercy upon us and grant that, with you as our ruler and guide, we may use the good things that pass in such a way as to hold fast even now to those that ever endure. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

And here’s the version in the Episcopal Prayer Book:

O God, the protector of all who trust in you, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: Increase and multiply upon us your mercy; that, with you as our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

According to Marion Hatchett, this collect comes from the supplement to the Gregorian Sacramentary that was compiled around 790 under Charlemagne. It was revised by Thomas Cranmer and then revised again for the 1979 Prayer Book. I have to admit I find our version more prayable; here as elsewhere, the new Roman Catholic translation from the Latin leans heavily toward literality at the expense of prosody. I’m grateful for the prose gifts of Cranmer and for the fact that the 1979 revisers modernized his language without losing its limpidity. But far beyond all that, I’m charmed to find our two churches praying this collect in common this week. After 500 years of liturgical reshuffling, it doesn’t happen that often.