Author Archives: Stephen

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 Millions will lose their access to healthcare as the Affordable Care Act is swiftly repealed, to be replaced with something no one has yet thought through, or else not to be replaced at all.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)

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

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“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

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They brought him gifts, these magi: these wise men–mages–learned ones 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.


The Invasive Kingdom: Proper 12, Year A

Stephen R. Shaver
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Berkeley, CA
Proper 12, Year A, Revised Common Lectionary
Genesis 29:15-28
Psalm 105:1-11, 45b or Psalm 128
Romans 8:26-39
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

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Last weekend I was at a family wedding in South Carolina. As soon as I stepped out of the airport I was struck by the climate, by the overall feeling of things: the heat. The humidity. The chirping crickets. And all around, the green, green, green. So different from the golds and greens of our California hills and evergreen forests: there it was deciduous trees, and vines growing on the deciduous trees, and more vines growing on those vines. Driving down the freeway was like being in a tunnel between two walls of solid vegetation. So much of that, of course, is thanks to just one plant: kudzu. It started as an ornamental plant and ground cover crop imported from Asia. Well, it covered the ground, all right. It’s been called “the vine that ate the South.” It spread to become one of the most successful invasive species ever.

Now we don’t have kudzu here in California. But we do have invasive plants of our own. When I go running on the Bay Trail or the Ohlone Greenway I see big bushes of thorny blackberry and wild fennel. Those are both plants that people cultivate, and that produce delicious things to eat; but they also easily escape and grow wild and take over all kinds of places where they’re not wanted.

It’s hard to contain an invasive species.

A single stand of fennel ...

a wild, weedy fennel plant

a brambly blackberry bush

a brambly blackberry bush

“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field,” says Jesus. And we nod our heads, having heard this parable before, perhaps, most of us: the tiny seed becomes a big tree, God can make great things out of little things, very inspiring, next parable please. We in our place and time can so easily miss what Jesus’ hearers would have noticed right away: the utter strangeness of this example.

For one thing, it’s not the most impressive of examples. A mustard plant grows to be something like a big bush. You could charitably describe it as a tree, maybe. In this version of the parable Jesus does that, but he hedges his bets by also calling it “the greatest of all shrubs”—a phrase that always makes me smile in its modesty, sort of like the slogan of my former hometown of Reno: “the biggest little city in the world.” But Jesus had plenty of other symbolic possibilities to choose from. In fact, he seems to be intentionally reworking an image from the Old Testament books of Daniel and Ezekiel in which a nation like Assyria or Babylon or Israel itself is compared to a cedar of Lebanon: a towering, vertical giant in which the birds of the air find shelter. So Jesus is ignoring the image of the cedar, an image as obviously available to him in his place and time as a giant redwood would be in ours, and instead comparing God’s kingdom to something like a really big blackberry bush.

And just like that blackberry bush, mustard is extremely prolific, to the point of being invasive—even of being basically a weed. You might choose to cultivate it, but if you did, you’d put it in a plot by itself, carefully segregated away from the rest of your garden. To sow it on purpose in the middle of your field, as Jesus is apparently suggesting the person in this story does, would be to invite disaster as it starts to grow all over everything, transgressing your neatly planned rows and crop boundaries, growing through and around all your other plants in a big, bushy mess. The greatest of all shrubs, indeed.

In Godly Play, that wonderful way of telling sacred stories to children, the materials for parable stories are always kept inside wooden boxes that are closed with lids. That’s because a parable isn’t always easy to get into. Sometimes, no matter which way we turn it, we can’t find our way in, and we just have to come back another time. And even when we do find our way inside a parable, there is always more there waiting for us to come back and discover it.

Sometimes in Godly Play children will call a parable a “terrible.” And there’s wisdom in that too, because there is something transgressive about a good parable. It’s like that with the next one too: the woman takes three pecks of flour—a huge amount of flour, about fifty pounds—and mixes in yeast, which throughout scripture is almost always used as a symbol of impurity. What does it mean, this yeast of impurity, working its way invisibly through the flour until all of it is leavened? And what of the sneakiness of the person who finds treasure in a field and, instead of telling the owner, rehides it for just long enough to go and buy the field at market price?

Today’s gospel reading has things to teach us about how God makes big things out of little ones, yes. But there’s another dimension to these parables: they are about slowness and imperceptibility, but also about contamination. Jesus in these terribles is telling us that the kingdom of heaven is not at all what we might have expected. It’s not like a cedar of Lebanon, not a superpower like Assyria or Rome or the superpowers of our own day. Nor is it a well-behaved garden plant that grows in its proper compartment. It is like an invasive weed that grows unpredictably, messing up our carefully planned boundaries and rules; sometimes seeming to do nothing for a long time, then bursting out with new shoots in a new direction; sometimes growing close to the ground and hidden, sometimes stretching towards the sky for all to see.

It grows from the smallest of seeds: a single man on a cross, rejected, ignored, and impure. And from that seed it has been growing for thousands of years, and it is still growing today. Our call is to become branches of this invasive kingdom, to take part in this contamination of love that is spreading through God’s world. You might say the kingdom of heaven is going viral. You might not always know it is there. But it is growing wherever people are proclaiming good news and doing the work of love.

This week again shells are falling in Gaza and rockets in Israel. On both sides are many who believe that peace can only come through violence and the eradication of the other, or else through creating firm and unbreakable boundaries between Palestinians and Israelis—and I am thinking here of spiritual boundaries, even more than the physical ones which also exist: spiritual boundaries that keep relationships from forming so that people know one another only as enemies and not as human beings. But there are also those people on both sides who are working to create peace as an invasive species.

Twelve years ago the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem and the Middle East began a program called Kids 4Peace. Jewish, Christian, and Muslim kids from Palestine and Israel come together to build friendships and travel together to attend summer camp, along with American kids, in the United States. They do arts and crafts and activities and all the things that kids do at summer camp; they have fun together, learn about one another’s families and traditions, and learn the skills of dialogue and peacemaking. Right now there are 400 young people involved in the program. Many of them tell stories of the friendships they’ve made across boundaries and the ways their lives have been changed. One young Palestinian who participated and later became a counselor in the program said, “I consider us farmers, planting peace seeds in the kids’ hearts.” It’s a small kind of thing, so far: a shrub, not a cedar. But you never know what will happen when the kingdom of heaven starts to break out in somebody’s field. What birds will it shelter? What boundaries will it cross?

fennel in greatest-of-all-shrubs size?

fennel in greatest-of-all-shrubs size?

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Kids4Peace is a great organization; my friend Josh Thomas is the Executive Director and many people I admire are directly involved as officers, board members, and staff. Do go and check out their web page to learn more about their work, and please consider supporting their mission with your donations as well as your prayers.

Ascension: Fractals and the Liturgical Year

It’s been a long time since I posted anything other than a sermon here. Not surprisingly, my activity on creative projects is inversely correlated with the academic semester being in session. As I move out of coursework into a less structured part of my program, I hope I’ll be able to be on this page a little more frequently. We’ll see.

Last night I went to celebrate the feast of the Ascension at the Church of the Advent in the City. One of the best things about Anglo-Catholic parishes is that they tend to take the liturgical year very seriously. Ascension Day is a principal feast of the church. It’s right up there with Easter, Christmas, and Pentecost as a day the Prayer Book envisions us celebrating with all our liturgical and programmatic resources. But many of our congregations tend to neglect it because it always falls on a weekday (Thursday, to be specific, forty days after Easter Sunday).

That’s a shame, from my perspective. These feasts can be terrific occasions for congregational fellowship and for helping people encounter the church’s year more deeply. I remember being a child and being excited and curious when from time to time we would go to church in the evening on a schoolnight–what was going on here?

The Ascension is worth celebrating. It’s a feast of paradox when we celebrate both the real absence and the real presence of Christ. Absence: Jesus no longer present with us here, visible and touchable, as he was to his friends both during his ministry and in those mysterious appearances after his resurrection. Jesus exalted to the right hand of God, preparing a place for us as we await the day when the love of God triumphs completely over evil and death. Jesus longed for and not seen.

Yet also, presence: Jesus with us always, even to the end of the age. Jesus present in the sacraments, touched and tasted. Jesus present in the Word proclaimed, in the faces of the gathered church, of all who suffer and whom we are called to serve, and of every human being created in God’s image. Jesus filling all things, his gracious presence immediate to all of creation so that every crag and wave and creature resounds with the cosmic song of the Logos. The Ascension is a holy paradox indeed.

As I was teaching a short segment on the liturgical year a few weeks ago with students at CDSP, I brought in a picture of a head of romanesco. Romanesco isn’t in season in May, so it had to be a picture only: from

This unique (and tasty) cauliflower is a fractal in vegetable form. The cone-shaped head is composed of lots of cone-shaped florets, each of which is made of lots of cone-shaped buds. Those buds have tiny buds on them, and so on. It’s recursive: the shape replicates itself at level after level. The whole and the parts interact in a pattern of beautiful complexity and order.

The liturgical year is a little like this. The shape of Christian worship is the paschal mystery: the pattern of self-giving love that is the very life of the Holy Trinity. For us that pattern is seen most centrally in the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is seen also in his incarnation, his life and ministry, teaching and healing, in the ascension, in the sending of the Spirit at Pentecost, and in the lives of faithful followers ever since. In worship we encounter that paschal mystery at the lifelong level of our individual birth and death; at the yearly level as the cycle of feasts and fasts comes around again and again; at the weekly level as the Lord’s Day brings us to gather again with sisters and brothers at the holy table; at the daily level as we pray with the evening and morning light.

If the church year is a romanesco, the Prayer Book calendar sees the principal feasts–Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, Trinity, All Saints, Christmas, Epiphany–as big florets. These are the hinges of the annual level, shaping each year into an encounter with the paschal mystery in its different instantiations. Then there are Sundays, each one a paschal feast in its own right, punctuating our lives at the weekly level. Then come those days called “major” feasts: these are celebrations of New Testament events and saints, like the Transfiguration or the Visitation or St. Mary Magdalene. One of the treasures of our common life that I think many Episcopalians aren’t aware of is that it is on these three types of days that the Prayer Book envisions all our parishes celebrating the eucharist. Principal feasts, Sundays, major feasts: these are the particularly eucharistic days, celebrations of the paschal mystery in its many facets.

Then there’s the daily level–the ordinary day-in-and-day-out of life. This is what the daily office is for: praise and prayer in the everyday, the people of God joining together in the common prayer of the church celebrated in parishes or in households or on buses. There can be a place for the eucharist at this daily level too, if a parish has the resources for it; weekday eucharists are an ancient and venerable part of liturgical history. That’s where what the Prayer Book calls “days of optional observance” comes in. It’s at this level that Episcopalians have spent a lot of time in discussion recently. But it’s important not to get so stuck wandering around in the buds that we lose the shape of the whole romanesco.

How many of our parishes celebrate regular weekday eucharists, maybe at noon or in the evening, once or twice a week, and yet skip holding principal eucharistic liturgies on the Ascension or the Epiphany?

What might it look like instead to celebrate these feast days with all the festivity we can muster, doing our best through planning and publicity to make sure these are central events in our congregation’s life, and taking the opportunity for an evening gathering to share food and drink and conversation together?

All Souls: The Shroud Cast Over All Peoples

Stephen R. Shaver
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Berkeley, CA
Year C, All Faithful Departed (Eve), Revised Common Lectionary
Isaiah 25:6-9
1 Corinthians 15:50-58
John 5:24-27
Psalm 130

On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food,
a feast of well-aged wines strained clear.
And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples;
he will swallow up death forever.

+ + +

If you go to Jerusalem, to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, just in front of you as you walk in you’ll see a long, flat stone on the floor, surrounded by candlesticks at each corner, with a row of lamps hanging above.

This is the Stone of Unction; the anointing stone. It commemorates the anointing of the body of Jesus, after he was taken down off the cross, before his burial. If you stand nearby and watch, you’ll see people coming in: pilgrims, locals, Christians from all around the world, the pious, and some of the just curious as well. Many come in, go straight to the stone, kneel or prostrate themselves, and press faces and hands against it, kissing it, venerating this symbol of the loving care of Jesus’ friends for his crucified body.

Some people do more than this. Especially among Orthodox Christians, it’s customary to buy a linen shroud to save for one’s own burial, and to bless it by bringing it to the Anointing Stone. As you lay out your shroud on the cool, long, flat stone, you unite your own death with the death of Christ. And then you have your shroud: something to take home, knowing it will one day be spread out over your body when it lies in death, a tangible symbol that your own death is wrapped up in that of the one who has gone before you.

It’s said that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the only religious building in the world that is built around a tomb with no one inside. There are lots of shrines and temples and churches built around tombs, of course; but most of them are significant because of the body that is inside. This one is significant because of the body that’s not inside. Jesus had a burial shroud of his own; the resurrection stories tell us that the disciples found it lying rolled up in the tomb. Somehow, in the mystery of that holy night, Jesus took off his burial shroud and put on immortality.

But tonight we commemorate all those whose tombs are still full, all those who still sleep beneath their burial shrouds.

We all die.

We are dust, and to dust we shall indeed return. You and I and all seven billion people on the surface of the earth today, along with the hundred billion or so who have come and gone before us. Set against the history of time, each of those individual stories can seem impossibly small. And yet each one is irreplaceable and unique. They are for us, of course. Each of us knows and loves people who have died. Most of us have loved ones in mind and in heart tonight. And our faith insists that they are no less known and loved and irreplaceable in the heart of God who made them and who knows every hair that ever grew on their heads.

Death is hard to face: our own, and that of those we love. There are some deaths that seem good, or at least fitting: deaths that come peacefully, without struggle or pain. And there are many deaths that do not seem good at all: the death of a child; the death that comes through violence, through war, through sudden disaster; the death that comes too early; the death, sometimes, that takes too long to come. Our deaths are as unique as our lives. But each death, even the ones that come easily, is a loss. It leaves a hole in the fabric of humanity. It leaves a hole in the hearts of those who grieve.

We come together each week to celebrate a liturgy that puts us directly in touch with the deep mystery of life and death. We do this in remembrance of someone scripture calls the firstfruits of those who have died: the only one, so far, who has passed through both death and what God has in store for us after death. We have so little idea of what that is that we can only talk about it in pictures: the prophet Isaiah’s rich feast on the holy mountain; the book of Revelation’s picture of the holy city, a new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven. When we celebrate baptism we proclaim the Apostles’ Creed, which insists that we believe in that very mysterious phrase, the “resurrection of the body.” St. Paul uses the analogy of a seed and a plant: the risen identity that is to come is continuous with the physical people we are now, just as a plant is continuous with a seed and yet also different altogether.

Now St. Paul had seen the risen Jesus—and yet he never describes what he saw. He can only resort to this language of poetry and mystery; the reality is too great for simple visual description. But he knows that it is Jesus whom he saw: the one who has passed through death and out the other side, and who holds our own destiny in his loving hands.

The dead will be raised, says Paul, and we will be changed: this perishable body will put on imperishability; this mortal body will put on immortality like a garment.

At Christian funerals we drape the caskets of our loved ones with a special kind of shroud: the plain white pall that recalls the white robe in which we clothe the newly baptized. When we are baptized we really and truly “put on Christ.” And when we die, we carry that garment with us. So, for Christians, even the very shroud we wear in death is a token of the garment of immortality. God will transform our burial shroud into the heavenly wedding robe. And we will put it on when the trumpet sounds, to wake us into new life, and to call us to the great banquet.

For now we live by faith; but in the resurrection of Jesus we have God’s pledge that there is yet more to come. On that day, at that table, the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast, an abundant feast that never ends. But even now, at this table, we have a foretaste of that feast of rich food; of well-aged wines strained clear.

Proper 23, Year C: Becoming Fully Human

Stephen R. Shaver
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Berkeley, CA
Year C, Proper 23, Revised Common Lectionary
2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c
Psalm 111
2 Timothy 2:8-15
Luke 17:11-19

“The saying is sure,” Paul says.

He’s an old man, imprisoned for the sake of Jesus Christ: held tight in chains of iron, looking ahead to the day of his martyrdom, looking back on his ministry, holding tight to what he knows to be more firm and more true than any chain. Maybe he quotes a fragment of praise they are used to singing in one of his churches: or maybe he simply coins these lines himself: either way, he knows the saying is sure. “If we have died with him, we will also live with him. If we endure, we will also reign with him.” For everything that we suffer in Christ, there will be a far more glorious reward. The parallelism of the poetry leads him onward: two lines on the promise of reward: and so now he turns to the consequences of failure. “If we deny him, he will deny us.” And then a surprise: “If we are faithless, he remains faithful: for he cannot deny himself.”

Hear this stunning, astonishing contradiction: from one line to the next everything has changed. Paul starts with reward, moves to punishment—but then is unable to stay there as the joy, the effervescence, of God’s unquenchable love wells up and overflows in him.

I imagine him, there, in his cell, dictating: starting the line, perhaps, intending the parallelism—then being surprised himself at what comes out of his mouth: “If we are faithless—he remains faithful!

“For he cannot deny himself.”

We are so deeply connected to God in Jesus Christ that we are actually part of his very self. Yes, as Christians when we are baptized we are grafted into the very life of Jesus Christ and become part of him, part of his body. And his love for us surges through every cell of that body and cannot, will not let us go.


What kind of God is this who holds on tight to us in spite of our faithlessness?

This is the God we meet in the story of the prodigal son: the story of a father who showers an inheritance on his child, watches with longing as his child rejects his love, wanders far off and squanders all the gifts so richly given, and then waits with eager yearning, ready to welcome the faithless child back with love and honor and lavish feasting the minute he comes back within sight. This is a God who gives gifts freely, who cares not a bit for dignity, whose concern is not for his son to perform good behavior but simply for his son’s presence, the child he yearns for, in whom he takes delight.


We need to hear that yearning in Jesus’ voice in our gospel today as he asks, wistfully, longingly: were not ten lepers healed? And where are the other nine? Did only one come back to give thanks and praise to God?

It is so easy to come to this story, shaped by our culture and our experiences, and to read it as a moralistic fable about giving thanks as an example of good behavior. Maybe we were taught to write thank you notes when we were children for gifts that didn’t particularly excite us—or for gifts that did excite us, so much so that it was much more appealing to be somewhere off playing with the gift than to sit down with a pen and paper and diligently produce the required token of gratitude. Now thank-you notes are a good and lovely thing. And it is right and it is important to teach children to be polite and considerate. But this is not a fable about our need to write thank-you notes to God. This is not a lesson teaching us that we had better say our proper prayers of gratitude when God gives us something or else God will probably not be in the mood to give us something next time. This is a story of the overflowing love of God, that depends not one whit on our own merits but simply on the fact that we are God’s children on whom God delights to shower an inheritance. All ten of the lepers are healed. The gift is given with no strings attached. In fact, the other nine are just doing what Jesus told them to do: go and show themselves to the priests. But one, this Samaritan foreigner, finds something else happening within himself: that overflowing love of God is welling up into a desire of his own, an answering love that has to be expressed in praise. And that answering love is what you and I were created for. The Samaritan has begun to be fully human.


Alexander Schmemann, the great Russian Orthodox theologian, wrote that human beings were created to be the priests of creation.[1] Our vocation is to be the voice of everything that God has made: to offer it all back to God in thanksgiving and praise.

J and I share our home with a small calico cat named C. She is a good cat, and much beloved by us: and I think she also loves us in the way of loving that is proper to a cat. She can curl up with us and purr. She can meow at us conversationally; and she can ask, in her own way, with great insistence, to be fed. One thing she cannot do, though, is give thanks: at least not on her own. A cat doesn’t have words or language. It takes a human being to be the articulator of the thanksgiving that we offer on behalf of the whole creation: sun and moon, land and sea, plants and animals and all that is. This is what we will do here in a few minutes, when we offer the Great Thanksgiving: because of course that is what the Greek word eucharist means: thanksgiving. We are created to be eucharistic beings. And as Father Schmemann says, none of us succeeds: like Eve and Adam, we all fall away from our priestly calling to live lives that are an offering of thanks and praise. But in Jesus God has done what we could not.[2]

Jesus has become the first of all humanity to be truly eucharistic. In his birth, ministry, healings, eating and drinking with sinners, voluntary suffering and death, and glorious resurrection and ascension, Jesus’ entire life is one mighty offering of thanksgiving and praise. Into that offering we have been incorporated as bodily members of the living Jesus Christ: and in him we begin to offer his own sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving in our own lives. We do it haltingly, stumbling and falling away, but even when we are faithless he remains faithful: for he cannot deny his own self. If we let it, his abundant life within us will overflow in ways we can only imagine. It will transform how we live: how we treat our brothers and sisters, how we spend our money, how we use our time, who we understand ourselves to be.

We are here to celebrate Eucharist. We are here to offer thanksgiving. We are here to be transformed, like the Samaritan, to become truly human. Glory and praise to this lavish God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: who yearns for us with an overflowing love.

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[1] See, among many other places in his writings, For the Life of the World, 2nd ed. (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s, 1973), 92-94.

[2] For the Life of the World, 37.

Trains, Buses, and a Physical Prayer Book

Derek Olsen posted a thoughtful essay on Episcopal Cafe earlier this week about the continuing value of a physical edition of the Book of Common Prayer, even as parishes increasingly move toward locally printed worship booklets and as digital technology makes it easier and easier to customize liturgies (in authorized and less authorized ways).

Thinking about Derek’s point that a collectively agreed-upon text almost demands a physical instantiation, I’m reminded of what city planners know about the difference between train lines and bus routes.

In a lot of ways, trains and buses do the same thing. They move people along a predetermined route with certain designated stops along the way. Buses are easier to maintain and more flexible, though; and they use the same road infrastructure that’s already there for cars. In the middle of the 20th century many streetcar lines were replaced by bus routes. In fact, outside my old Seattle apartment on 14th Avenue on Capitol Hill, you can still see the lines in the asphalt where the old streetcar tracks were removed and paved over.

But the very flexibility of buses can also be a downside: because commercial development doesn’t tend to follow bus routes in the same way it does train routes. Why? A bus route can be changed anytime by the decision of a transit authority. But because a train or trolley depends on fixed physical infrastructure that can’t be easily moved, it represents a commitment to that location. Open a coffee shop or drugstore next to a train station and you’re likely to benefit from foot traffic for years to come. Open it next to a bus stop and you could be looking at a very unpleasant surprise next month or next year when the bus line switches to the parallel street two blocks over.

Trains, streetcars, and the like have been making a major comeback in recent years in many cities. (Seattle, of course, is a prime example.) Sometimes these projects are criticized as nostalgic, hipster-friendly, gentrification-fests: and there’s truth to some of that assessment. Slick new trains carry more cachet than the good old buses that are the faithful backbones of most cities’ transport networks. In certain cities I’ve lived in (ahem, Atlanta and Dallas) buses are used in large part by people who can’t afford cars. Meanwhile, the light rail systems in those cities serve major business and shopping destinations and cater to commuters and tourists. The result is a self-fulfilling cycle and a textbook study opportunity for societal racism and classism.

But I digress–because what I want to say about the prayer book has to do not with the complex social dynamics of transport policy but with that much more basic difference: bus routes are moveable; train routes stay put. From a media-format perspective, buses are digital; trains are print. And like a set of physical tracks embedded in the ground, a physical prayer book represents commitment. A digital set of liturgical resources that live online–even if they’re approved by the General Convention–is easy to change. A physical book that lives in every parish isn’t.

We’re a church with a collective polity, especially when it comes to liturgy. I’d argue that this is part of the charism of Anglicanism (and, of course, of other catholic traditions): we make decisions about our worship at a communal level, not an individual level. This doesn’t mean that there’s no room for adaptation, experimentation, customization: quite the opposite. What it means is that we set the parameters for that flexibility together, as a whole church, through the provisions established in the Prayer Book and its authorized supplements. So get out there and experiment! Try new musical styles, new ways of using space, richer ritual embodiment. Heck, try new texts: if it’s not the primary Sunday service, the BCP’s Order for Holy Eucharist allows you to write your own eucharistic prayer or use New Zealand or the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom or just about anything you want to do. The point is that it’s the fact that we have some collectively-agreed-on parameters that allows creativity to be generative and not chaotic.

To return to the bus/train analogy, train stations make excellent starting and ending points for bus routes. It’s the predictability of the fixed that allows the flexible to flourish.