Monday, July 18, 2022

Funeral Sermon for The Rev'd. Donald Austin Stivers

 It was my privilege to preach at the funeral for Fr. Don Stivers, a wonderful priest and longtime Associate of OHC.  The funeral was at Trinity Church, Santa Barbara.  For many, many years Don presided at the Wednesday eucharist at Mount Calvary.  He his wife Floss and his children Michael and Margi were/are dear friends of the community.

The service is available on Vimeo.  The sermon starts a little after minute 39:

https://vimeo.com/730754240  


Donald Austin Stivers RIP
10 May 1924 - 28 June 2022
Isaiah 25: 6-9; Psalm 121; Romans 8:14-19, 34-35, 37-39; John 6:37-40
Trinity Church, Santa Barbara CA: July 16, 2022
The Rev’d. Adam D. McCoy, OHC

      Early in 1944. Donald Austin Stivers, 19 years old, born and brought up in Geneva, NY, was drafted into the Army, together with hundreds of thousands of other young men.  His outfit was at Camp Gordon, near Augusta, Georgia, and he was in the hospital.  Lt. Fr. John Baldwin, OHC, the chaplain, visited him, prayed with him, invited him to attend Mass, then taught him to serve.  Donald was deeply moved.  He wanted to be like Fr. Baldwin.  He wanted to be a chaplain.  In his kind way, Fr. Baldwin directed his ambition to a wider sphere.  As Don later wrote, “I remembered what Father Baldwin said.  ‘When you see a need the Lord is calling you to serve him.’”  The seed of Don’s vocation was planted.      
      Instead of a chaplain Donald became a Battery Clerk.   Typing lists.  Filling out forms.  A bureaucrat filing the endless paperwork the armed forces ran on.  Somewhere in northern France, in the late summer of 1944, this company clerk was with the Battery Commander.  A young private was brought in, who had been found drunk and cleaning his gun while on guard duty.  Drunk and disarmed.  Weak, foolish, irresponsible.  The penalty for that offense could be to be shot. The clerk drew up the charges, brought them to the Commander for his signature.  Then the clerk asked, Perhaps the army might be  too busy liberating Paris to be concerned about such small matters.  With wisdom about such things, the Commander said, “See if you can find the regulation that would tell us what to do.”  Somehow the clerk never found that particular regulation.  Almost a month later, so much time had passed that  a smaller action was called for, one which could not apply the death penalty.  The private pleaded guilty to his offense before a Special Court-Martial presided over by the Commander.  He was sentenced to a month’s pay and three months confinement.  He thanked the clerk for “saving his skin”.  “I didn’t do anything,” Don said.  “That’s what I’m thanking you for.”  Wise as a serpent.  Innocent as a dove.
      From our Gospel reading: “And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me.”  Don Stivers helped save that weak, foolish, irresponsible lad.  Helping to save.  One story of many like it in his wonderful book The Chaplain’s Assistant.  Don Stivers decided to give his life to cooperate in God’s saving work, to help God not lose us, us who are also so weak, so foolish and so irresponsible. 
      Don joined the Army a boy and left the Army a man - a man with a calling.  He finished his education, was ordained, met and married his dear Florence - Floss to those who knew her - and reared two wonderful children, Michael and Margi, who are with us today.  He took Fr. Baldwin’s advice and opened his eyes to see that every need we see is a call from God.   A trained counselor, a musician, a serious student of theology, a youth leader, and much more. 
      His longest ministry was 25 years as the priest at All Saints, Irondequoit, NY, in the Diocese of Rochester.  But instead of moving up the ladder and on to a bigger place, something drew him on a different path.  In 1979 he came west, to minister to two hurting groups of Christians.  He  answered the call to be the priest at St. Christopher’s Church in Boulder City Nevada, which had been wrenched apart by the controversies of the time.  For three years his gentle, skillful ministry helped heal that damaged flock.  And then he was called to the Church of Christ the King in Goleta, recently shocked by the sudden death of its beloved first Vicar, and brought his enormous theological and pastoral wisdom to that place of grief.      
      Don, good priest that he was, chose the lessons for his own funeral.  I think we may be sure they express his faith and the way that faith shone forth in his life.  The prophet Isaiah speaks to us of God’s promise of the great feast for all peoples, when death is swallowed up forever, and our tears, the tears of all of us, will be wiped away.  The mountain where that great feast will take place is like the mountains in Psalm 121, which promise God’s protection, even in our sleeping and our waking, in our going out and our coming in, in all the smallest details of our lives.  St. Paul’s great ecstatic revelation of the true nature of things tells us that all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God, heirs of God, co-heirs with Christ.  We are all of us invited into God’s family.  And our Lord himself tells us, “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.”
      Don Stivers was a eucharistic evangelical.  Which is to say that he believed deeply in the clear, simple Christian faith: First, that in Jesus, God came down, became one of us, lived and healed and taught and broke bread with us, suffered and died with us, and now from the right hand of the Father invites us to join him in the great Resurrection life.  And second, that Christ’s invitation to us is to join the fellowship of the redeemed at the Great Table, the unfathomably unexplainable yet always beckoning fellowship of the undivided Trinity, Father, Son and Spirit, inviting us into their very life, into their very communion each with the other. Don believed in his place at the altar, and cherished every opportunity he had to offer the great privilege of that eucharistic invitation. 
      Don Stivers’ life was one of faith and hope.   But the picture of Don’s life and ministry would not be complete without one final piece: He was energetic and determined.  He had a will of iron.  Clothed in kindness and generosity to be sure.  But he never lost sight of what he wanted to accomplish.   I suspect anyone who drove with him - which is to say, anyone who was in the car when he drove - knew this in a very immediate way.   This force of will formed him from his earliest years and gave him a wonderful strength of conviction.  I have no doubt that there are family stories about the strength of his will.  I hope so. It is a wonderful thing to be part of such a life!
      We all of us look for the path to a useful life in the service of God’s promise and invitation, in whatever form it is offered to us.  We want to save.  But we also need to be saved. That poor lost young private stands for all of us.  We all of us can be weak, foolish and irresponsible, but then, by the strangest combinations of unexpected holy events and holy energies, we also can be brought into the possibility of new life.  Whatever does God see in us?  Why would he invite us into his innermost life?  But He does.  Our lives can be set in new directions and we can be given a place in the family of God.  The needs we see and the needs we have are God’s call to us:  A hospital visit, an invitation issued, can become the occasion of a life-changing friendship.  Mercy has many faces.  Who would have thought that one of them would be a piece of bureaucratic work left undone?   The kindness of a wise superior can become the occasion of a life saved which could have been lost.  Churches in conflict or laid low with grief: all these can occasion the blessed healing love and life of God.
      Every human life is a mystery.  We think we know each other.  We think we know ourselves.  We think we have a grip on what God wants.  But God sees more in us than we can see.  God’s love breaks in, God’s love breaks open our plans, God’s love sends us in different directions, God’s love involves us in each other in ways we can hardly imagine, let alone understand.  This was, I think, a secret key to the mystery of Donald Austin Stivers’ life.  It can be ours as well.               

Monday, December 27, 2021

Preaching at St. Cecilia's, Palm Springs.

 Here is a FaceBook video of the sermon I  preached last Sunday, Dec. 26, 2021,  at St. Cecilia's Catholic Community in Palm Springs.  The pastor is Fr. David Lynch, and the deacon is his wife Sharon Talley.  They were members of St. Michael's, Anaheim CA when I was Rector there in the 1990s. They were observing the Feast of the Holy Family.

https://www.facebook.com/SaintCeciliaCatholicCommunity/videos/640521047074357

The sermon begins a moment or two after 17:20.

I have discovered that it is possible to retrieve older sermons recorded on FaceBook as well.  Here is one I preached at St. Cecilia's on August 29, 2021.  It was a baptism.  I preached a bilingual sermon on baptism, which I offer here:

https://www.facebook.com/SaintCeciliaCatholicCommunity/videos/1363701140715295

 The sermon starts at 22:15 or so.  The volume was a little low so you may need to turn it up a bit. 

The first sermon I preached at St. Cecilia's was on July 25, Proper 12, Pentecost 9: the feeding of the five thousand.

https://www.facebook.com/SaintCeciliaCatholicCommunity/videos/343998260730556

The sermon starts at 15:25.

Monday, November 22, 2021

Christ the King: A Meditation on Power

Christ the King
21 November 2021
Grace and St. Peter’s Church, Baltimore

Proper 29B:  Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14
Psalm 93, Revelation 1:4b-8
John 18:33-37

This sermon is available as a FaceBook stream on the page: "Grace and St. Peter's, Baltimore" on Nov. 21, 2021.  The sermon begins just after the 28 minute mark.

    In today’s gospel Jesus says “My kingdom is not of this world.”  Kings and kingdoms are about power.  Pilate is looking for Jesus to assert the power he as a Roman governor understands: the power of the state,  an assertion of legitimacy against the emperor who calls himself divi filius, son of the divine, who rules by force and fear of force.   Jesus however is asserting a different kind of power: not of the forces of this world, but the power of ultimate reality.
    Power and religion are always intertwined.  Whether it is about public righteousness, the law and the state, or about personal righteousness, interpersonal behavior or interior striving, religion by its nature stakes a claim to define what is good  and promote it, to declare what is evil and oppose it.  In our public lives it defines what is good and just.  And it invites us in our private lives and in our private concerns, our small selves, so partial, so of the present moment, so pressing to us now but also now passing away, it invites us as well to the same encounter with the eternal.  This is the power of natural religion, the collective human wisdom of the ages.
    Ancient people, and not just ancient people, have always been on the lookout for the power of the eternal, looking for it to break in.  In fact, it’s a little bit like birdwatching.  Someone reports the sighting of an unusual specimen, like the fabled red crested tee-too-wit, seen only once in the last 45 years, in a mulberry bush, down by the shore.  The birdwatchers rush out to see this great thing.  Those first at the site see it, but it is a shy thing, and flies away.  Or like the dead eagle that falls on the head of the boy Claudius, foretelling his unlikely promotion to emperor in the tv production of I Claudius.  Looking for phenomena.  Looking for the inbreaking of power, from above.
    From the beginnings of human consciousness we all have been watching carefully to see what is happening, what succeeds and what fails, what we can understand and control and what we can’t, and asking, What power is making this happen?  What does it mean to us now?  How can we get on the good side of whatever it is?  
    Where did our ancestors find this ultimate, eternal power?  By observing how the powers around us operate.  The powers of nature: the alternation of light and dark; the sun, the moon and the stars; the course of the year with its seasons moving from warmth to cold and into warmth again; the mysterious ways plants and animals grow, flourish and die, and then regenerate, reproduce to life again; the weather, sometimes delightful and sometimes violent; the sea with its winds and storms and currents and tides; the powers of human interaction: love in its many forms, and lust and hatred and war, with all their mysterious energies; health and disease; wisdom and folly; birth and death.  Some of these powers follow patterns which we can learn by patiently watching and come to understand them  But what of the ones we can’t understand?  Those we name, we honor them, we identify our needs in whatever department these deities might be, and we take those needs to them in sacrifice and supplication.  Then we watch and see if we have been heard.  
    This is not just ancient human behavior.  We still behave this way.  And as more and more of the phenomena of nature are understood by careful observation and reason, we come to think that our need to connect to what is ultimate can be left behind in the graves of our less enlightened ancestors. We think we can use our skill and understanding to bring about a better world.  We come to think that we hold the keys to ultimate reality.  We think we are God.
    But the need to connect with an ultimate power, an ultimate reality, is deeply human.  It does not go away.  It is there even if we don’t believe in God or the gods.  Rather it changes.  It secularizes.  The desire for what is good, for what is better, for a better life for ourselves and those we love and care for, drives our politics, our economics, our legal systems.  It is so powerful that we construct more and more all-encompassing systems to bring about these good ends.  We tell ourselves that when we strive for power we are striving for what is good in order that it may be better.  And because it is better, we can use that power to bring about that good.  Even when it seems that force is needed.   
    This mysterious connection, beginning by wanting what is good and ending with all-encompassing coercive forces, comes from a restless desire for what it better, married to the conviction that if we only apply ourselves we can surely bring it about.  In Jesus’ time it was called the Empire.  It now goes by other names, among which which are the ones we don’t approve of  - authoritarianism, fascism, communism, but there are other names as well, all of them claiming ultimacy, claiming total allegiance.  We think we are God.
    In this process we also want to invest our leaders with almost divine identities, as the ancients did with Caesar.  We are not content that they simply be people who have been given responsibilities and are as answerable to the ultimate as any of the rest of us.  We unthinkingly, unconsciously exalt them.  We want to exalt them, but when the prove unworthy we’re deeply, deeply disappointed.  And they are glad to accept this invitation to quasi-divinity: pharaohs, kings, emperors, captains of industry, prime ministers, presidents, the great and the good of every age, all who would wield power welcome their divine promotion.  But this is not the way of God.
    We strive for the good, the better, the best.  We search for it, hoping to find it, and when we think we have found it, we invest ourselves in it.  This active yearning and striving is deep in every human heart.  St. Augustine puts it best: “Our souls are restless” he says. “Fecisti nos ad te et inquietum est cor nostrum, donec requiescat in te”, from the first paragraph of the first chapter of Augustine’s Confessions.  “You have made us for yourself, and so our heart is restless until it rests in you.”  
    We keep restlessly looking and looking for what cannot be found in the things of this world.  We genuinely want the things of this world to work good for us.  But as wonderful and bountiful and good as the things of this world are, they are not ultimate.  They will all fail, now or later.  They are not God.
    The persons we wish so desperately to trust are not in fact divine.  They are not God.
    The systems we build to achieve what is good will fail.  At best they are strivings.  At worst, their coercions in fact lead us in the opposite direction of the good.  They are not God.  
    In time, we will know all about the mysteries of nature.  In time those mysteries will yield to the patient efforts of science and reason.  They are not ultimate.  They are not God.      
    The powers we find in this world are awesome.  But they are not God.
    The great breakthrough of the Hebrew, Christian and Muslim understandings of reality is that while we can learn from the powers of this world, while we can name them and honor them and learn and follow their wisdom, they are not ultimate.  Only God is ultimate.  God who stands outside of our reality, who encompasses it all but is not determined by it.  Who nevertheless reaches out to us and to our world with the compassion of a parent, with the ardor of a lover.
    This is the One who Is.  Ultimate.  To Whom we are drawn by our restless hearts.
    Jesus’ royal legitimacy is categorically different from that of Pilate and the world.  Christ’s kingship is not political.  It is not based on force or fear.  His kingdom stands outside the present moment and circumstance, holding up standards of goodness as plumblines of comparison for our efforts, bringing our efforts to the hope of ever higher goodness and to the judgment of our failures and cruelties.  
    This king is the Word through whom all that is has come to be, and he draws all he has made to himself by the attraction of his truth and beauty and harmony.  He never forces but waits in patience for everyone, everything, to respond to his invitation of goodness and generosity, to the great wedding banquet He has been preparing for us since the dawn of time.  He is willing to wait in patience as long as time exists.  He is willing to suffer to bring us all to Him.  He is even willing to suffer death for what is good and for what is right in order to bring us all and all that is to share his kingdom.  He rules the world with love.

Anglican Values 9: Church and State

 Anglican Values 9: Church and State

    The Christian faith has had an ambivalent relationship with official power since its earliest days.  In any monarchy, which is what the Roman Empire in fact was, any religion which calls its central figure a king, traces his line back to the founding royal figure, calls his expected triumph a kingdom, and looks for that kingdom to be manifested in our time and in this world, is throwing down a challenge to the existing authorities.  An interesting recent approach to New Testament interpretation traces this theme of engagement with Roman power.  Warren Carter, The Roman Empire and the New Testament: A Essential Guide (2006) is a good introduction.  
    In fact the Christian faith was for almost three centuries a movement divorced from this world’s power.  Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313 recognized Christianity as a legitimate religion, and the rest of that century can be read in the light of the consequences the Church moving into the seats of power.  From that point on, Christianity held power and at the same time was power’s severest critic.  Over time every state in Europe and many in North Africa and western Asia came under the banner of the Cross.  Which raises the question, How can the state exercise its power through force and be Christian?
    Our own Anglican tradition, as is true also of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, has always been deeply embedded in this issue.  The conversion of England was in many ways a top-down affair.  The Venerable Bede’s charming story from the 600's of King Oswald accompanying St. Aidan as his translator on that monk’s missionary journeys has an underside: What is the message when the king is backing up the preacher?  Power is evident here.  The church in England has always been deeply involved with the monarchy, long before Henry VIII and his famous marital career.  
    Henry did not intend to create a new church; in fact he loved late medieval Catholicism.  His issue was whether the Pope had a right to interfere with a political question: in an absolute monarchy, providing an heir was the most important work the monarch could perform.  It was not personal.  Without an heir, the inevitable struggle for power could well ignite a civil war.  The last civil war had come to an end only in 1485.  But once the door was opened to one issue, many others followed, and the English church entered the Reformation.  This struggle did not end until Elizabeth, some 30-plus years later, defined the nature of the Church of England, embedding the Church in the English state.  Since then, the Church of England has been the religious face and voice of a state which, at least in its official self-definition, embodies Christian virtue and values in its public policy.
    All Anglicans share this history and heritage.  Anglican churches in countries still nominally under the Crown do not suffer much of an identity crisis in this regard.  But in the United States, as well as in other places not subject to the monarchy, Anglicans have had to find another way.   The American Revolution made it impossible for clergy and laity alike to swear loyalty to the King and continue their ministry in the new situation.  How to be loyal citizens of the new republic and faithful Christians in our Anglican tradition?  Our church found its way through this dilemma by creating a self-governing system in our General Convention, in which the Church is independent of the state, abandoning all official connection to public power.
    But interestingly, one thing did not change.  The Church of England’s assumption that it acted on behalf of the public, enshrined in the official status of that church, morphed into an American Anglican assumption that public issues were also issues which the Church had a right, even a duty, to engage in.  The Episcopal Church has always felt a responsibility to weigh in on the questions of the day: slavery in the leadup to the Civil War; the needs and rights of working men and women; the conditions under which the poor and disadvantaged live; the beginnings of an American colonial empire in the Philippines and the Caribbean; the entry of the nation into a world war; civil rights; ecology and climate change; immigration, to name only a few.  As a church we act as though the nation is waiting with bated breath for our latest official statement on public issues.  It isn’t.  In fact, the Episcopal Church is now quite small, and has lost the importance it once had as the religious expression of many American political and other leaders.        Nonetheless, although as a Church we are relatively powerless, we continue to act as though what we say and what we do matter.  Our church has found numberless ways to put its values into practice.
    In the face of smallness and what seems at times to be irrelevance, I believe that this continuity of Anglican/Episcopal engagement with public issues is a clear sign of one of the unique values of our Anglican heritage:  Even when we are not sitting in the seats of power, we think it is important to proclaim and do what we think the teachings of Jesus are, and to proclaim and do what we believe the voice of the Gospels tells us.  And to do it even when it seems it doesn’t matter, because in the light of what Jesus tells us about the Kingdom of God, small things do matter.

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Br. Thomas Schultz, OHC - Requiem Sermon

I preached at the Requiem for Thomas Haines Schultz, OHC

Trinity Church, Santa Barbara, CA, April 9, 2021

Zoom video recording.  The sermon begins about 10 minutes in:  https://vimeo.com/535013687


    Very often one of the joys of preparing a homily for a requiem is the discovery that the life of the person being celebrated is much more complex than might have been thought at first.  Undiscovered or long-forgotten aspects of education and early employment, areas of special interest, hobbies, quirks of behavior and character, early ambitions serving as unlikely platforms for later pursuits: all of these serve to broaden our view.  In the Order of the Holy Cross, Roy Parker was originally going to be a mechanical engineer.  Nick Radelmiller was an accomplished water color artist who traded much of that energy to try to learn to play the cello, as best he might.  Fr. Parsell was shipwrecked off the coast of Africa during the Second World War.  Fr. Hughson wrote a book on pirates.  We love to find multiplicity in our brothers.

Like all of us, Tom had his quirks of behavior and character as well.  He was not an ambitious leader.  He was not much given to researching solutions to problems.  He was not a managerial type, though he did a pretty good job as Prior of Berkeley for some 16 years.  He willingly did whatever he was assigned to do, but did not himself seek to expand those tasks or make them his own.   He was especially happy when people helped him out.  He liked cooking the same thing over and over.  He loved clothing from REI and baggy pants with many pockets and Tilley hats and large plastic shoes.  He either could not or would not learn how to use a cell phone or a computer or an Ipad.  He loved little containers to carry things in.  He loved pictures of icons.  He loved driving our little Smart car around town.  He loved shopping trips to CVS for little things.  He loved a good gin and tonic or two on Sunday nights.

Sometimes we reflect on the complexities of the lives of people we knew. Alongside the quirks that made them human, we discover multiple facets which need to be viewed together to see them whole. But in some people we find a deep simplicity of character.  And when that simplicity is rooted in their search for God, we find something wonderful, something profound, something holy.  

Tom Schultz was that kind of person.  All his life what he wanted was to be a monastic priest.  He discerned that call early, took counsel with his priest and bishop, followed their advice, went to college and then to seminary, got ordained, and joined our monastic community.  In addition to Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, NY, he was variously active in our monasteries in Bolahun, Liberia; Grapevine, Texas; Tower Hill, South Carolina; Berkeley and then Santa Barbara, California.  Which sounds like a career.  But the word career, in the sense of an upward path of jobs and responsibilities, does not really describe Tom. 

His approach to stability was old school: he waited until the Superior told him he was to move.  Then when he got there he would set out making personal contacts through his priestly and monastic work: especially with spiritual directees and penitents coming for confession, people drawn to him because there was something in him and in their interaction with each other that opened up to them the presence and love of God.   

He really wanted to stay where he was, wherever that was at the time.  I can’t count the number of times he told me that he felt he had just begun to feel rooted in a place when he “had” to move.  This was especially true for him at Tower Hill in South Carolina and Incarnation Priory in Berkeley and then here in Santa Barbara.  He felt he was not a stable monk because of the times he had moved.  But actually, the second half of his life, from 1977 on, was a study in monastic stability. He was in South Carolina for 15 years and in Berkeley for another 18, then in Santa Barbara for 13 more.  How many of us have such “instability” in our lives?  In each case the reason he had to “leave” was that the community had decided to close those monasteries.  But he felt those moves deeply and personally.  In each case, he had to leave that holy place around which were centered those wide circles of friends he had created with his quiet confidence in the presence and love of God.   

Tom went through several stages in his journeys into spirituality.  He studied each of the ways he was drawn to and tried to put them into practice, within OHC’s monastic framework.  When I first came to know him in 1973 he was transitioning from the severity of Carmelite practice to Russian Orthodoxy.  Augmented by a late blooming interest in Buddhism, he remained on the orthodox path for the rest of his life, loving it especially for its quiet depths of hesychastic mysticism.  He deeply admired holy men and women of that tradition, especially their conscious choice of the path of holiness and their attempts to live a daily life devoted to it.  I remember once his delight when I shared with him an online video of Fr. Gabriel Bunge which followed Bunge’s daily life in all its visual particularities.  

I think Tom really wanted to be a starets.  He wanted to live a quiet holy life as a spiritual elder, enjoying the support the monastic community gave him, becoming a personal center of holiness.  He wanted, through his monastic life and friendship, to bring people into the presence and love of God.

The presence and love of God.  This, I think, was the center of Tom’s faith: that God is always present and that God’s love is pouring out on us always and everywhere and in such abundance that we can hardly imagine its depths.  

Our readings this morning express this quality of Tom’s faith, a life lived in the loving presence of God.  From the Book of Wisdom: “Those who trust in him will understand truth, and the faithful will abide with him in love, because grace and mercy are upon his holy ones, and he watches over his elect.”   From the Gospel of John: “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”  And from the First Letter of John: “When he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.”

Abiding, a place being prepared for us.  

Being watched over, cared for.   

Discovering our true identity, which is to be like God.  

Seeing God as God really is.

That was Tom’s life.   It can be ours as well.  

 




Sunday, September 13, 2020

Forgiveness

Sunday, 13 September 2020, Pentecost XV, Proper 19A

All Saints Episcopal Church, Beverly Hills, CA

This sermon is available as a video online, starting at 17:47:

https://vimeo.com/457319292?fbclid=IwAR3fZOtbSfWUNJb4p-uQ1erg2KgMMF7onFKXZ0bWJT8fktYh0gMD8LZtKRs 

  It is a joy to be with you today, sharing the Word of God with the All Saints, Beverly Hills community.  I am so glad to be with you. 

We have heard two stories from scripture this morning: the first, a principal turning point in the story of Joseph, and the second, Jesus’ other parable of the talents.  Both are about forgiveness, forgiveness in extreme situations, forgiveness that comes with a cost. 

The story of Joseph is a miracle of narrative subtlety.  It is quite the longest single story in Genesis, taking up fourteen of the fifty chapters of Genesis.  It has always been understood as a working out of God’s mysterious providence in human affairs, and  Joseph himself has always been understood as an embodiment of wisdom, who through his suffering and then in his prosperity, saves his family, secures their heritage, and alters the affairs of nations.    

The story of Joseph is embedded in the narrative of his father, the patriarch Jacob.  It begins in Genesis, chapter 37, in what seems a quite simple statement: “Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canaan.”  But things in scripture are never simple.  The closer you look, the more interesting they become.  Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, in her brilliant, midrash-based commentary on Genesis, The Beginning of Desire,  tells us that the word “settled” - va-yeshev in the Hebrew -   indicates a desire on Jacob’s part for a peaceful, stable, settled life after the tumults of his earlier years.  That is the story he is telling himself.  But it is not the story that God is telling.  

To Jacob’s disappointment and sorrow, he finds nothing settled at all.  His eleventh son, Joseph, turns out to be a problem - loved by his father above his brothers, Joseph is seventeen years old, and full of himself.  He dreams that his brothers are to bow down to him, and instead of holding this sort of premonition in his heart, as Mary later would, he boasts of it to them, his narcissism setting in motion the whole train of his tumultuous life.  

His brothers decide they have had enough of him, and want to kill him.  But after arguing about it, they decide to sell him into slavery instead.  And so they do. Or so it seems: the actual text is a syntactic muddle: the deed itself seems to be done by a group of passing merchants.  And when the brothers tell their father what happened, they don’t really tell him, but they show him Joseph’s famous coat covered with blood and let Jacob make up a story for them: He was killed by a wild animal.  Something worth noting here, something perhaps relevant now: The origins of this act of slavery are couched in ambiguity.  You can’t quite pin it down.  So the brothers conspire to construct a narrative that makes the act seem socially acceptable, that deflects their own guilt. 

And so Joseph’s life goes on: his work increases his master’s wealth; his sexual virtue leads him to prison; more dreams foretell the future; he once again brings profitable service to his master; then his final rise to the highest possible power.  His family has noticed, and as families sometimes do, they get back in touch with their prospering relative.  But of course, there is a problem.  As the brothers say to each other when they are about to meet Joseph, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?”  What if, indeed.  Eventually the bill comes due.  

Another thing worth noting here: It is not until the power dynamic has shifted and the former slave is now in charge that the brothers confront their guilt.  Because they have to.  

And here is where the story becomes even more interesting.  There are several stories being told by different people here.  The brothers’ story among themselves and with their father, based on their shifty construct of the original deed, shored up by a made-up, but socially maintained, narrative, has now collapsed, and their only hope is a full and frank confession.  

The story Joseph told himself about himself, as we all do, might well have been a version of Gotcha! He certainly has justification for it.  And perhaps he has told himself that story before.  But in fact he changes both stories, first by craftily ensnaring his brothers deeper into their guilt, and then by graciously letting them off the hook:  “Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.”  Joseph chooses to avoid revenge, but rather he brings out the truth with a firmer awareness of its horrible consequences, and then, instead of vengeance, he chooses to build up their life together.  In fact, Joseph is in the place of God.  Joseph chooses to move from death to life, and in choosing wisdom, chooses good.  And in doing so he starts in motion the whole future of his family, the nation they will become, and ultimately the salvation of us all.       

In some ways the parable of the forgiven and unforgiven debts from Matthew is simpler. The people in it are hardly complex.  There is something reductive about the characters in this story, which is, after all, on one level about money, and money can at times diminish human complexity to mathematical terms.

Jesus tells the story in response to a question about forgiveness: How often should I forgive?  Seven times?  No, says Jesus: seventy-seven times.  Jesus takes the question out of the realm of legalistic calculation – I’m off the hook if I refuse forgiveness on the eighth time.  I’m keeping track, writing it down in my little personal grievance ledger: Ahah!  You’ve reached the limit!  Or, perhaps, I’ve reached my limit with you.  

But Jesus, as he does so often, moves away from legalism and into the territory of eternity, by using the rhetoric of exaggeration, of absurdity, of essentially infinite numbers: Not seven but seventy seven, or in the older translations, seventy times seven.  In other words: Stop keeping track.  Stop basing your interactions with each other on piled-up grievances and begin to live another life, the life of infinite love.

We see this absurdity even more clearly in the parable itself.  Some scholars think the talent was not so much a unit of money but a financial concept: Approximately 20 years’ wages for an ordinary worker making about one denarius a day.  20 years’ wages was perhaps the usual working lifetime in those days.  The ancient economy and ours are wildly different in almost every aspect, but let’s try to get some idea of what Jesus is getting at.  In our California economy the minimum wage for  businesses with more than 25 employees, which presumably would apply to the king in this story, is $13.00 an hour.  A five day, 40 hour week yields the worker $520.  Assuming full employment through the year, an annual wage of $27,040.  Twenty years is $540,800.  A cool half a million or so per talent.  The servant owes 10,000 talents: 5 billion, 408 million dollars.  Put this against the 100 denarii owed by the second servant.  100 days’ wages.  At California’s minimum wage rate of $104 a day, 100 days comes to $10,400.  Not an impossible sum for some of us perhaps, but one which any minimum wage employee would be hard put to cough up on demand. 

As I said, Jesus uses here a rhetoric of absurd exaggeration: The king forgives the first slave a debt of perhaps five and a half billion dollars, simply because the servant asks.  That same slave not only does not forgive a debt of perhaps some $10,000, but throws the second slave into prison until he pays.  Which of course is next to impossible if he is in prison.  

The contrast could not be greater.  An almost infinite debt is freely forgiven.  A far smaller amount is not.  

Who are we in this story?  The king, who takes on an almost incalculable financial loss in his compassion for the first slave?  The first slave, a high-level management type, whose work has been a disastrous failure, who begs for and receives forgiveness and then viciously turns on the second slave, a simple workman on day wages?  The second slave, an ordinary working guy who has got into debt and can’t pay it off?  The other slaves, who are outraged at this injustice and bring it to the attention of the king?  

The story is about forgiveness.  God  forgives as the king forgives.  Who should we strive to be like – God who forgives without counting the cost?  The first slave, who turns viciously on someone in his debt the minute he thinks he is settled and secure?  The second slave, whose situation is in fact hopeless?  I would suggest that we are invited to consider ourselves as potentially all three, to ask ourselves, not only what should I do in the future, but what have I actually already done?  Have I forgiven?  Have I received forgiveness?  How many times have I needed to be forgiven?  How many times do I need to forgive?  Who close to me needs my forgiveness?

And, Jesus says, the consequences are real.  There are consequences for not forgiving.    Jesus is asking us to choose which model we should follow.  As Joseph says to his brothers, “Am I in the place of God?”  The surprising answer is, Yes.  You were sold into slavery, thought dead, and yet here you are.  You have the capacity to choose – to act out of anger, to make real your fondly-nursed and imagined acts of revenge, or to choose another path, one with unknowable results but openness to a fruitful future - to act as God acts, in the full light of reality and truth, knowing this will start another story as unpredictable as the one it grew out of, but with wisdom choosing what will bring life.

Human life is full of restlessness.  We all tell ourselves Jacob’s story of a settled life, a story that cannot really be. There is always another Joseph and his brothers waiting around the corner.  Injustice is always potentially the fruit of generosity.  But in the midst of all life’s uncertainty we are invited to act as God would act.  As Avivah Zornberg says,

“In this world, what is most needed is not fear, which deprives man of initiative beneath the sleepless eyes of God, but love – the capacity to act in a world where absolute clarity is not attainable.”  (p. 278)

Monday, June 24, 2019

Trinity Sunday 2019

Trinity Sunday, 16 June 2019
Grace and St. Peter’s Church, Baltimore

In the early 1960s I was an awkward, skinny 14 or 15 year-old paperboy for the Las Vegas Sun.  In those days paperboys donned an odd garment with big pouches front and back, folded the newspapers and secured them with rubber bands, filled the pouches and trudged along the prescribed route, throwing the paper with more or less accuracy toward the front door. It was a repetitive activity, and left your mind free to roam.

My family had moved to Las Vegas a year or so earlier from a small college town in southeastern Washington State so that my father, an Episcopal priest, could start a new congregation. To say I was unhappy would be a gross understatement. Pullman was an intellectually and culturally rich place for a young teenager, and Las Vegas was not. I took refuge in a small circle of friends and in the liturgy, memorizing the Communion service from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. I repeated its eucharistic canon like a mantra, over and over as I walked along.

It was about 5:00 or 5:30 in the morning. The air was cool, the streets were quiet, and I was walking along the north side of West Riverside Drive as it neared the Tonopah Highway. There were three or four houses in a row in which lived a set of Mormon families, all of them named Stewart. One did not inquire too closely in early 1960's Las Vegas just precisely how people were related, but one did wonder. As I passed the third house, I was overcome by a sense of comforting goodness, a sense that the entire universe was actively enfolding me and everyone and everything else in an indescribable warmth of acceptance, purposeful movement forward, and happy outcome. I knew in that moment what Julian of Norwich had already discovered: that the whole world is a small thing, as I was a much, much smaller thing, in God’s hand, intensely loved, and that all would be well.

That experience has never left me.

I begin with an experience this morning because I believe that, even if we do not realize it, our faith is always grounded in our experience. God is always with us, always breaking through our shell, always leading, guiding, accompanying, comforting, encouraging, opening us to new possibilities. And sometimes God’s presence breaks through in our lives. As I try to unfold some of the mystery of God this morning, I hope your own experiences will present themselves to you.

Experiences like ours, but from long ago and far away, have been remembered and written down and achieved  canonical form in the Holy Scriptures, in theology and in the histories of the people of God. It is wonderful to read and study them. But it is even more wonderful to find them alive in ourselves.

I link theology and our experience of God because when we think of God we are really thinking about reality, our reality. When we articulate our own human experiences, our growing knowledge of the nature of the world, our histories, and our imaginations about the world we live in, we are always looking for Something More. We can’t always easily put it into words, and when we do, later, after time passes, we usually discover how limited our words, our descriptions, our analyses were. But still we are impelled to do it. Not everyone gives the word God to these attempts. But whether our vocabulary is secular or sacred, we are all urged toward the same ineffable greatness and mystery.

In our own religious tradition our experiences seem to fall into threes, which we might call beginnings, encounters, movements.

What are the principles of existence? Why is there something instead of nothing? What is the nature of the energy which brings it all into being? Is there a direction, a telos, as Aristotle would call it, or is it all simply accidental process? Is there a purpose? In our traditions, Jewish, Christian and Muslim alike, we call this God. As Christians we call it God the Father. 

How does this divine directionality translate itself into concrete reality? How does it make this directionality physical and operative in the world? How is God’s intentionality made incarnate, so that the universe structures itself, follows and reflects God’s rationality, from simple addition to complex mathematics, through all the scientific disciplines, each of whose growing body of knowledge carries us more and more profoundly into the mind of God? In our tradition we call this the logos, the Word. Its first incarnation is the universe itself, but there are others. Angels, seen at first as human but afterward understood to be That One himself among us for a brief but unforgettable intervention. The High Priest emerging from the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement, for that moment Yahweh himself in flesh before his people. Jesus Christ with us in the flesh not for a moment but for a lifetime. Jesus in whose cross and sacrifice we glory, taking his flesh and blood mystically into ourselves at the eucharistic table, invited as we are to share his life, his actual life given for us so that we may be with him, and in him, and through him, one with the Father. All this is God the Son, ever begotten through all time, choosing our human form to sit at the right hand.

And what is this wind that tingles our ears, ruffles our hair, pushes us from behind, whispers breaths of possibility and draws us on? What is this irresistible energy, this fire of all-consuming love which from time to time seizes us and moves us, propels us into something new, warms our hearts and kindles in us a strange and unaccountably empowered daring to act as if God’s love is true, and in doing, finding that it is? What is this enfolding warmth and assuring kindness speaking now to a person who does not want to be a prophet, now to an overworked mother, now to an unemployed young man on the street, now to one weary in years, now to a lonely 14 year old paperboy, now to me, now to you? The energy of divine comfort and assurance, of divine imagination and possibility, of divine purpose, finding a place, perhaps all unknown, in our days and lives? This we call the Holy Spirit, eternally proceeding, eternally enlivening, eternally drawing us on to the next great thing that God has prepared for us, if only we will enter into his gifts to us.

This we believe is the structure of reality, not simply as a thought system of our own construction and our own choosing, but the first principle of the universe itself, the laws of mathematics and physics and astronomy, of time and space, of the expanding universe, indeed the life of the One from whom and by whose mind and restless, creative and saving energy we believe comes all the purpose of what is. The Trinity is our religious description of the way things are.

And if the Trinity does describe the way things are, why should we be surprised if we are occasionally seized by the Spirit, lifted into the life of the Son, and drawn into the loving purpose of the Father, if only for a few moments. How wonderful to find all that as we trudge along the humdrum paths of our lives’ paper routes. God is there, and everywhere, waiting and wanting us to open our eyes to the glory all around us. Even now. Even here.

I hope and trust that we all have had experiences of God, and that we will have more. That we will find the Father’s creative purpose for us, that we will meet the Son as God enters into our world and our lives, that our hair will be ruffled and our hearts comforted and warmed and our vision uplifted and confirmed by the Holy Spirit. That we will be borne aloft before the throne of God and invited into the endless Alleluia of praise for the love of God, Who has brought all things into being and set them in motion for inexpressible Good.