Monday, October 2, 2017

Saying Yes and meaning it

Sunday, October 1, 2017
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 19, Year A
Matthew 21:23-32
The Rev’d Richard Smith, Ph.D

The two sons in this gospel story are sent to the vineyard: one says yes, but never sets foot in the vineyard; the other says no, but later changes his mind and goes. The moral is not hard to grasp, and the cliches come tumbling out: Talk is cheap. Actions speak louder than words. Practice what you preach. As Jesus says in another place, “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but those who do the will of my Father.” And St. James puts it starkly: “Faith without works is dead.” (James 2:14-26).

In the end, it’s not about what you say, but what you do.

Somehow we’ve gotten all messed up. We’ve come to think believing in Jesus is a matter of getting the words right, of making some disembodied, intellectual Yes to a checklist of doctrines and finely honed theological statements. Somewhere along the line, the litmus test for being a Christian became a matter of correctly rattling off all the obscure theological words. We got it backward.

Marcus Borg says this distortion of what it means to believe came out of the Protestant Reformation.
Protestants distinguished themselves from Catholics by what they believed compared to what Catholics believed. Then Protestantism divided into many churches, each distinguishing themselves from others by the doctrines they subscribed to.
Add to that popular Christianity’s emphasis on the afterlife, and being Christian came to mean assenting to the right doctrines now for the sake of heaven later.

But it was all so different in the early church, which had no clear consensus about doctrines, and in which a variety of opinions held sway. They did not call themselves “People with the absolutely correct theological doctrine you better believe or you’ll burn in hell forever,”–they did not call themselves that. Rather, they called themselves simply “the people of the Way”–that is, the Way of Jesus. For them, it was less about correct doctrinal statements and more about following Jesus–sharing food with the hungry, sheltering the homeless, welcoming the immigrant and the stranger, visiting the sick and the incarcerated, working for peace. Being people of the Way.

Then, a few hundred years after Jesus, the bishops and Emperor Constantine wrote what we now call the Nicene Creed. It’s in your service bulletin; we’ll recite again in a few minutes. Like so many works from other times and places–like our scriptures and our hymns, like the music of Thomas Tallis or Bach, or the plays of Shakespeare–the Nicene Creed was written by people with experiences and challenges and ways of thinking very different from ours. For that reason, like the works of Shakespeare or Bach, it can take a little work to understand it.

And yet, even in this statement, however obscure and baffling to us, we can see the earlier understanding of what it meant to believe: It’s not about an intellectual conviction, but rather a way of life.

The creed begins with the Latin word credo, most commonly translated into English as “I believe.” But at the root of the Latin word “credo” lie two smaller words: cor, meaning “heart”, and do meaning “I give.” At its root, the word credo means “I give my heart.” In other words, saying the creed does not mean, “I believe the following theological affirmations to be literally true,” but rather:

  • “I give my heart to one God” – and who’s that? The creator of heaven and earth, of all that is.
  • And “I give my heart to Jesus – and who’s that? God’s beloved child, who was born into this world, became fully human, suffered, died, was buried, and rose again.
  • And “I give my heart to the Holy Spirit” — and who’s that? The Lord and giver of Life who has spoken through our prophets and our ancestors.
  • And so on…
Belief is not just a matter of subscribing to some list of doctrinal statements. Rather, it’s about giving away your heart in a passionate, and compassionate, way of life. It’s about saying Yes and meaning it.

And later in the creed, we say “I give my heart to the church–that all-too-human community that many of us have struggled with over the years to be sure, but one that nevertheless tries, in its best moments and however imperfectly, to follow the Way of Jesus.

Here at St. John’s we are part of this larger community, and for us, our being church comes with a few specifics:

  • Radical hospitality to a motley crew of people, including those needing a safe, dry, quiet place to sleep;
  • Protection and accompaniment of refugees from the poverty and violence now laying siege to their struggling Central American countries
  • Strong arms and legs and backs and a little cash to help rural Nicaraguans build latrines and water stations
  • A prophetic outcry against the increasingly shrill voices of white supremacy and anti-immigrant hatred
  • A plea for an end to the violence both nationally and here in the Mission, whether
  • that violence comes from random individuals, gangs, or police
  • A special pride at seeing so many young people in this struggling neighborhood finish high school and head off to college because of the work of Mission Graduates
It’s not just about some disembodied, left-wing, progressive agenda for saving the world. It’s about following Jesus.

And it’s not some disembodied, abstract, lofty ideal. It’s more real than that, more practical; it’s about your credit card and bank balances and checkbooks and squeezing what you can from your already meager resources. Over the next few weeks, you’ll hear a few reflections about our financial stewardship of this community.

This stewardship is about living into what we say we believe, and about our deepest values as followers of Jesus. It’s about being people of the Way who are willing to sacrifice to do the works of love.

It’s about giving your heart away, saying Yes and meaning it.

Sunday, September 17, 2017


Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 19, Year A
September 17, 2017
The Rev'd Richard Smith, Ph.D

A couple of weeks ago, I gathered with many neighbors up on 26th and Van Ness to remember 23-year-old Abel Esquivel. He had been shot and killed on that spot a few days before.

I had seen Abel over at CARECEN, one of our local non-profits. He had left gang life many years before, and was mentoring other young people who were also trying to leave the gangs.

Late one night, Abel was home with his mom. She hadn’t eaten, and the fridge was empty, so he headed up the street to buy her a burrito. On his way home, a car pulled up and fired several rounds into his body. He lay on the ground for several minutes, then managed to get up, pick up the burrito, and take it home to his mom. She immediately rushed him to the hospital where he died a short time later.

The evening I stood in remembrance at 26th and Van Ness, I watched the Danzantes perform their beautiful ancient indigenous dances, every step a prayer. And I watched Abel’s mom quietly sobbing. I couldn’t help but wonder how I might feel if I ever lost my son this way.

They asked me to say a few words. I was not prepared. I said, “Well, I know the cliche is that time heals all wounds, but I’m not so sure about that. Some wounds never heal. Losing a child like Abel may be one of them.” Then I tried to muster whatever words of comfort and hope I could--knowing, of course, that I would inevitably sound like one of Job’s well-intentioned but vapid friends. Anything I might say in that moment would inevitably be hollow, completely inadequate to the pain Abel’s mom and family were feeling in that moment.

Some wounds go so deep they’re beyond the reach of whatever feeble but well-intentioned words we can muster. In the end, something else is needed.

And sometimes, such wounds are also beyond the reach of any given judicial system--the laws and procedures by which a given community tries to resolve disputes and restore just and healthy relationships.

Years ago, another young man was savagely murdered. His family went through hell: enormous grief and pain and tears and rage. They rightly demanded justice. After many years, a jury found the murderer guilty and sentenced him to death. The family was relieved. At last they would see justice for the murder of their son and brother, bring closure to this unspeakable ordeal, find some healing.

The day of the execution arrived, and the family waited in the viewing room. Eventually, the drapes to the execution chamber opened. They could see their son’s killer strapped to the gurney, his arms attached to IVs, and a monitor recording his every heartbeat.

When offered a chance to make a statement, the condemned man said nothing. The warden gave the go ahead, and the executioners began injecting the three lethal drugs into the man’s body, one after the other. Seven minutes later, the condemned man’s body lay dead on the gurney. The drapes closed; it was time for the family to leave.

The family’s parish priest had been with them, and he walked them back to their car. As he said goodbye to the young man’s mom, he gave her a hug, and opened the car door for her. The mom looked at him, and said to him in tears, “I don’t understand, but even after all this--even after all this--I still don’t feel closure, I still have all this pain.”

Sometimes healing is beyond the reach of the various laws and procedures a given community might establish to ensure healthy and just relationships. Sometimes we need more than a judicial system can provide.

Which brings us to today’s gospel. It follows last Sunday’s gospel about what to do when someone in the church commits a very real injustice against you. That gospel laid out the rudiments of a judicial system for the Christian community for resolving disputes and restoring broken relationships.

In that gospel, Jesus said if someone in the church seriously sins against you, don’t just let it go by without comment, brushing everything under the rug as though nothing has happened. That would be what one of our great theologians calls “cheap grace”.

No, when an injustice has been done to you or someone else, you must speak up. First, speak to the person directly. If, after that, the other person continues the abusive behavior, then bring one or two other members of the church to listen in and provide their perspectives. If that doesn’t achieve reconciliation, then bring the issue before the larger church. If, after exhausting each of these three steps, the other person continues their bad behavior, then put some distance between you and them--”Let them be as the Gentiles and the tax collectors to you,” to use Jesus' words--set them outside your usual circle of friends and acquaintances.

But then what? Is that it? What happens if, after all the well-intentioned words and all the community’s judicial processes, the abusive behavior continues? What then? That’s where today’s gospel comes in.

As Peter sees it, the question then becomes: “How many times must I forgive? Seven times?” He’s keeping score. He wants to know when the retaliation can finally begin, at what number can he finally strike back?

Peter seems to think seven might be the right outside number, which is pretty generous. Most people stop forgiving and start getting even at two.

But Jesus uses another number: seventy times seven. In other words, your willingness to forgive must be limitless. Jesus is getting at what must underlie all the judicial procedures and processes:
  • That through all the words and necessary judicial processes, you never give up your willingness to forgive
  • That you bring everything you have to the process of reconciliation
  • That you never give up on the possibility that your sister or brother can redeem themselves. Each of us is more than our own worst moments. We can never give up on the possibility of redemption and reconciliation.
But Jesus goes even further. This commitment to forgiveness and redemption and reconciliation, as he sees it, is rooted in the very rhythm of life. He tells a simple story of a servant who was forgiven a staggering debt, one that no one could repay in a million years, but who then refused to forgive another servant for a much lesser amount. Don’t be like that servant, Jesus says. Because you, like him, are swimming in a sea of mercy. And this mercy that frees you from your past mistakes and allows you a new future--this same mercy is meant to flow through you to others. This is one of the rhythms of life: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”

This is how it works for Jesus. After all the well-intentioned but inadequate words and all the necessary but inadequate judicial processes have taken us as far as they can, mercy gets the last word.

Songwriter Mary Gauthier puts it this way:
Yeah, we all could use a little mercy now
I know we don’t deserve it
But we need it anyhow
We hang in the balance
Dangle ‘tween hell and hallowed ground
Every single one of us could use some mercy now
Every single one of us could use some mercy now

Sunday, September 3, 2017


Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 17, Year A
September 3, 2017
The Rev'd Richard Smith, Ph.D.

Maybe it’s just inevitable, a simple fact of life: You stand up, you get knocked down.

Take whistleblowers for example.

  • A black woman police officer calls out her labor union for it’s racist culture. The union loudly insists they are not racist, before showing her the door. 
  • A woman reports an accounting abuse in a large corporation, her manager praises her for her courage, then downsizes her for no apparent reason. 
  • A priest reports another priest for sexual abuse. The bishop says he’ll take care of the matter, then takes care of the priest who blew the whistle, assigning him to a remote parish where his voice will no longer be heard.
  • Many counter-protestors confronted armed white supremacists in Carlottesville a couple of weeks ago. As a result, several of the counter-protestors were injured, one was killed.
  • Last weekend, I had to deal with this myself after several of those same white supremacists had planned a rally here in San Francisco. Several leaders from the Mission and I had decided we needed to directly confront them and the hate they were promoting. Although we were committed to nonviolence, we were pretty sure from the videos that the other side was not. We knew we could be physically in harm’s way.

Because that’s how the world works. If you stand up, you can expect to get knocked down.

Jesus was a fierce whistleblower. He pointed out the hypocrisy of the religious leadership. Whited sepulchers he called them. “You lay heavy burdens on people’s shoulders and will not move a finger to lift them.” Jesus saw clearly the organizational abuse, and he blew the whistle.

And his prediction in today’s gospel that he himself would soon suffer and die as a result of his whistleblowing was not exactly a stroke of genius. It was obvious. Those in power try to eliminate those who question them. Anyone who questions the status quo will be treated harshly by those sitting on top of the status quo.

This was hard for Peter to understand. Poor guy. In last week’s gospel, he was the rock on which Jesus would build his church. This week, he’s a stumbling block. What happened?

Peter doesn’t get it. For him, a messiah is the one who is victorious and inflicts suffering and death on all the bad guys. But a messiah who puts himself in harms way, eventually being tortured and executed? For Peter, this is no messiah at all. He doesn’t get it.

So why do people decide to confront evil, putting themselves at risk in the process? Different people have different explanations like, “I just decided enough was enough!” Or “I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t do something.” Or “I saw what was once a great country, and it still means something to me.”

Underneath each of these explanations lies a sense that something deeper is at stake, a life deeper than everyday life. Sometimes we call this deeper life our soul. If we ignore it or silence it, it will die.

It’s a profound spiritual irony that Jesus is getting at here: “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?”

In Robert Bolt’s play, A Man for All Seasons, Thomas More sees a man who has perjured himself and is now wearing a chain of office, he has just been promoted to attorney general of Wales. That high-ranking, prestigious job is his reward both for keeping quiet and for lying. Thomas More says to him, “Richard, it does not profit a man to lose his soul for the whole world, but for Wales?”

Sometimes moments arise when a deeper life, our own souls, are at stake. This deeper life is more important than anything--even than our everyday concerns, our careers, our reputations, even our own physical safety.

When such moments come around, some might like to think speaking out is an option--”Go ahead and speak out, if that’s your thing.” If that’s your thing. But the gospel is not so blasé. In fact, it’s very clear: Not speaking out when you see injustice and evil can cost you your soul.

So the gospel encourages us to shoulder the cross freely--because the cross is the price you will pay, it’s what predictably will happen to you when you pursue justice in an unjust world.

Dr. King got this. The cross, the willingness to relinquish your life in order to find it, lies behind his words when he confronted his own enemies at the height of the civil rights struggle:
We will match your capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. We will not hate you, but we cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children; send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities and drag us out on some wayside road, beating us and leaving us half dead, and we will still love you. But we will soon wear you down by our capacity to suffer. And in winning our freedom we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process.
In fact, Dr. King put it even more baldly: “If a man or woman has not discovered something to die for, they’re not fit to live.”

Not speaking out when you see injustice and evil can cost you your soul.

Letting go of the surface of things for the sake of something deeper. Losing your life in order to find it. A type of death that leads to resurrection.

It’s this mystery, this great irony, of a kind of death that leads to life that we enter once again at this table where we share bread, Christ’s body, broken, and given. And it’s this great irony we must each try to live out after we leave here this morning.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Mary's Song after Charlottesville

The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 16
August 20, 2017
The Rev'd Richard Smith, Ph.D.

Let’s first look at the context in which Luke wrote the powerful story about Mary in today’s gospel.

The song Mary sings is part of a conversation she's having with her cousin Elizabeth. The two women lived in a country dominated by Rome under a brutal dictatorship. Just a few years before Jesus’ birth, about four miles from where he was raised, some twenty-thousand Roman troops stamped out a Jewish rebellion, burned the town of Sepphoris to the ground, and sent its inhabitants into slavery. When Jesus was growing up, Mary probably told him stories about this: “The day the Romans came”.

Years later, just before Luke wrote this gospel story of Mary, the Jewish population rebelled against the Romans. The Romans retaliated, attacking Jerusalem, burning much of it to the ground, slaughtering people left and right. Those who survived were brought under Roman rule by force, as virtual prisoners in their own city.

For Mary and for Elizabeth, the challenges they faced would have been similar to women in troubled regions today, particularly in Syria and Central America. Today there are pregnant women making dangerous crossings on rafts over the Mediterranean Sea, through the Sonoran desert along the US/Mexico border, across the Rio Grande, trying to escape tyranny and violence in their home countries and sometimes finding no room at the inn in the places where they arrive! These women, like Mary and Elizabeth, have every reason to be afraid, to fear the future.

So that’s some of the context in which Luke tells this story of Mary.

Now let’s take a look at Mary herself.

  • She was a teenage Jewish girl from a fourth-world country under brutal occupation by a foreign power.
  • Despite the efforts of Western artists to portray her as white, she in fact had dark skin, dark brown eyes, and dark hair.
  • Some English translations say she was a handmaiden, which sounds nice, but the Greek word Luke uses is “doulos,” which means slave. Mary was a slave girl in a fourth-world occupied country.
  • And her name, Mary, is Hebrew and has two meanings. The first meaning is bitterness. Mary lived in a bleak time of struggle. Like many of her fellow Jewish women from Miriam on down, Mary knew the bitterness that her own people experienced under the slavery and oppression of foreign nations, from Egypt to Babylon to Rome. Like them she struggled to keep hope alive in her people. The second meaning of her name is rebellion. Not the Mary meek and mild of Hallmark Christmas cards, she is the one who rebels against anything that crushes the human spirit.

And this dark-­skinned slave girl in an occupied land becomes the powerful prophet, singing the revolutionary words of the Magnificat. God, she says,
...has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
These are dangerous words. In the days of the British Empire, William Temple, the Archbishop of Canterbury, actually told the missionaries to India never to read the words of the Magnificat to the many poor people of that country because it could incite them to riot in the streets.

But Mary not only speaks powerful words, she also puts her body on the line. Not only does she put one foot in front of the other, making her way to Elizabeth’s house, but she puts her entire body to the task of carrying and birthing a child, nursing and cuddling and bathing him, raising him to become a young man--a project many of you know something about.

It wasn’t just a matter of words. She put her body on the line as well. Because this is how love works.

Last weekend in Charlottesville, white supremacists, emboldened by the president’s rhetoric, unleashed a torrent of hatred resulting in the death of a young woman. Yesterday they showed up in Boston, and when tens of thousands of people marched against them, the president initially referred to those marching against the supremacists as “anti-police agitators”, words he later decided to walk back.

Next weekend could see similar hatred showing up in our own town. This past Friday, a synagogue in Alameda was vandalized. Yesterday morning, a friend went to breakfast with her family on Bernal Heights where she saw two men wearing “Make America Great Again” baseball caps and carrying tasers strapped to their belts. In ways big and small, the hatred and bigotry are becoming increasingly, painfully obvious.

But let’s be clear: The violence and hate of these white supremacist groups will not stop us as followers of Jesus:

  • from praising and thanking God for the beautiful diversity of our people, 
  • from looking out for the more vulnerable members of our communities
  • from honoring the beautiful faith traditions of our Muslim and Jewish and indigenous sisters and brothers.
  • from welcoming hardworking immigrants with their rich and beautiful cultures to this Sanctuary City of St. Francis and our state of California, and keeping them safe here

Faced with brutal oppression and violence in her own time, Mary both spoke out and put her body on the line. Today, given the brutal oppression of people of color, Jews, Muslims, and immigrants, we too must speak--to our friends, coworkers, and neighbors, to our senators and congress-people, to anyone who will listen--naming the hate, calling one another back to justice and basic human decency.

And like Mary, we, too, must put our bodies on the line--picking up the phone to call our representatives, showing up for a prayer vigil, marching in one of the many protests now being planned throughout the city, responding when deportation forces raid one of our terrified immigrant families. This is an all-hands-on-deck moment.

There are many ways we can respond. Good people can follow very different strategies, and there are many options. But for followers of Jesus in these perilous times, doing nothing is simply not one of them.

Standing on Troubled Waters

August 13, 2017
The Rev. Dr. Jack Eastwood

Let us pray.
Lord of living waters you saved us from the flood of violence and despair: reach out to us when
faith is weak, when we are going under and make us unafraid to walk with you: through Jesus
Christ, in whom we are raised. AMEN.
Appointed for today, this collect by Steven Shakespeare from Prayers for an Inclusive Church summarizes the three lessons this morning. God’s prophet Elijah is hiding in fear for his life at the hand of Jezebel and her cronies. Paul counsels the church in Rome to be strengthened by the gift of faith and the generosity of God to those who call on him whether Jew or Gentile, slave or free, to live in wholesome love rather than through works of the law, and in the gospel reading Jesus reaches out his hand to support Peter and the disciples who are sinking into fear. Like the prophet, the disciples discover peace in God in calming serenity of spirit.

Huston Smith wrote a book at the turn of the century about religion in response to the
crisis in faith caused by among other factors, the rise and effect of science on our human
understanding. The title of the book is revealing. “Why Religion Matters: the Fate of the Human
Spirit in an Age of Disbelief.” He characterizes the condition that effects the world as “loss –
the loss of religious certainties and of transcendence with its larger horizons. When,” he explains, “human beings started considering themselves the bearers of the highest meaning in
the world and the measure of everything, meaning began to ebb and the stature of humanity to
diminish. The world lost its human dimensions, and we began to lose control of it. “ That is, of
religious certainties.

Try applying the Jesus words “Love your enemies and those that persecute you” to
some of our crises of terrorism today, both on the global as well as domestic fronts.

As Huston describes, built into the human makeup is a longing for a “more” that the
world of everyday experience cannot provide. There is a longing in the human soul, a reaching
for something beyond, simply put, a reaching for God.

And so in our story today, Peter, terrified by a storm on the lake and more probably by
the appearance of a ghost walking towards them. They cry out in fear, they hear a voice but are
not certain of it. Peter reaches for Christ. First he must test if he is going to trust. “If it is you,
Lord, command me to you on the water.” “If it is you, show your stuff as did when you fed
5,000 people earlier today!” In our times of suffering and weakness, we often cry out for God,
for the strength beyond us to give us confidence.

This very cry is in our Eucharist today, we pray, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ
will come again.”
Somehow, Peter responds. He takes those first steps. I can imagine his friends in the
boat well-familiar with his impetuosity, shouting at him, “Are you crazy? What on earth are you
doing? You are going to drown, we know you can’t swim!”. But this is an important moment. I
wonder if we are too often used to splashing around in safe shallow water and resist
opportunities to deepen our faith, to let ourselves be challenged. That is Peter’s moment. It is
the opportunity to choose to love our enemies and those who hurt us, There is the old song
where we sing “Jesus call us o’er the tumult of life’s wild restless sea , , ,saying “follow me,”
Better said, it is like Jesus calling us into the tumult.

The day after the horror of September 11, there was a couple being interviewed on the news.
They were standing on the street, before the wreckage of ground zero obviously in grief. Their
beloved daughter had perished in the tragedy of that day. Through tears, they shared their grief
with the reporter. The reporter, stammering, said to them, “Well, I know that you will be able
to go to your place of worship this weekend and there maybe you’ll find some consolation in
your faith…” And the grieving mother replied, “No, we won’t be going to our place of worship
this weekend ‘cause we’re Christians, and we know what Jesus commands about forgiveness,
and frankly, we’re just not yet ready for that. It’ll be some time before we’ll want to be with

Here is a couple who have no trouble identifying what Jesus looks like and what it
means to follow him. It takes time to be free to forgive. Hatred can enslave us to not heed
the call until we are free to respond.

Nelson Mandela heard a voice calling him during those long lonely years he spent in
prison. It was God’s voice of wisdom saying to him, over and over. It said, he writes in his
autobiography, that “I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as
surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressor and the oppressed
alike are robbed of their humanity.” The hatred and bigotry of white nationalists we are seeing
now in Charlottesville must be denounced. Can the injured forgive? As Christians, we know
the call to root out any bitterness and hatred in our own hearts. We know what it means to be
called into that tumult. Non-violence is the call of Jesus. it is not an easy call whenever we see
people threaten each other, neighbor against neighbor, citizen against citizen. That is how
demanding the call of Jesus can be.

“Take my hand, precious Lord” is the first phrase of one of the well-beloved Christian
hymns. Composed by Thomas Dorsey, this reading from the Gospel of Matthew may well have
been his early inspiration. As an African American composer, his skill was in writing hymns that
not only captured the hopes, fears, and aspirations of the poor and disenfranchised African
American people, but to all people. Many of our hymns have a story behind them. The writing
of this hymn was born of a personal tragedy. Like Peter striving to stand on trouble waters,
Thomas Dorsey had his own experience of the pain of loss and anger. In 1932 Dorsey had driven
from Chicago to St Louis to organize a gospel choir. When he arrived, a telegram awaited him.
The telegram said that his wife had suddenly become extremely ill and that he should return
home at once. Dorsey’s wife was in the last stages of pregnancy, and when he finally returned home he found that his wife had died. The baby had been born without difficulty but
unfortunately died within two days. He retired to his “music” room and remained there for
three days. Dorsey said that when he came to himself after three days he went to the piano
and composed this song: Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand, I am tired, I am
weak, I am worn; through the storm, though the night, lead me on to the light, take my hand,
precious Lord, lead me on.”

So in the dead of night, or maybe just before dawn, should you hear something, perhaps
a voice coming through your own thoughts as you lie in restlessness, calling you step out into
uncharted, untested, perhaps turbulent waters, asking you to rise up and move through it,
defying the waves that seem to hold you back, there is a good chance that voice belongs to
someone who is your Lord and Savior. And what may he call you to do? In the spirit of today’s
lessons and examples, he calls us to follow the words of our former President Barack Obama,
recently quoting Nelson Mandela:
No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his
background or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love. For love comes more naturally to the human heart than its

Monday, July 31, 2017

That pesky mustard seed

The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 12, Year A
July 30, 2017
The Rev'd Richard Smith. Ph.D.

Heaven is totally overrated. It seems boring. Clouds, listening to people play the harp. It should be somewhere you can’t wait to go, like a luxury hotel. Maybe blue skies and soft music were enough to keep people in line in the 17th century, but Heaven has to step it up a bit. They’re basically getting by because they only have to be better than Hell. 
These are the words of LA Times columnist Joel Stein, and he’s right. I don't know where this boring idea of a gauzy, cloud-filled, harpy afterlife came from, but it certainly wasn’t from Jesus or our Jewish spiritual ancestors. Their concern was with this world--a new world in the making, even now, right here on this earth. They called it the reign of God, and they longed for it and spoke of it in beautiful poetry, like these words from Isaiah:
On this mountain the Lord will prepare
    a feast of rich food for all peoples,
a banquet of aged wine—
    the best of meats and the finest of wines.
7 On this mountain he will destroy
    the shroud that enfolds all peoples,
the sheet that covers all nations;
8     he will swallow up death forever.
The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears
    from all faces;
he will remove his people’s disgrace
    from all the earth.
The reign of God.

In the parables in todays’ gospel, Jesus adds even more images, each revealing a slightly different facet of this reign of God. He gives you several to choose from: a mustard seed, a treasure you stumble across in a field, a great pearl you find after a long search, yeast that permeates the dough. Each is a little different, but there are a few themes that run through all of them. I'll mention just one.

The reign of God is disruptive., tainting the reality we’ve grown to accept, challenging the views we’ve lived by, and subverting assumptions that have guided much of our lives in the world.

  • Take the mustard seed. Most of us grew up reading this parable somewhat simplistically – “big things often have small beginnings”. That’s the platitude. But the truth is that mustard was a pesky weed--uncontrollable, invasive, undesirable, like crabgrass or dandelions. Mustard was disruptive of whatever you were trying to grow in your garden or your field. 
  • And yeast--it, too, was disruptive. As some commentators note, in the biblical world, yeast was a sign of impurity. Kneading it into flour irreparably tainted the bread.
  • Buying a field because you happen to know it’s worth far more than the seller is aware may be a shrewd business strategy, but it could also be considered dubious, if not a little sketchy.
  • And the idea that you, a purveyor of fine pearls, would sell everything, including all the other amazing pearls you’ve acquired over the years, to buy just one special pearl, makes no sense. It would raise eyebrows, make your business colleagues wonder what you’re up to. 

Which is to say the reign of God disrupts the world as we've come to know it, challenges the views we’ve lived by, and again and again subverts the political regimes and cultural assumptions that have guided much of our lives in the world.

This is the disruptive message of Jesus, whose family thought he was crazy, the political leaders deemed subversive, the religious leaders deemed a blasphemer and a heretic.

Depending on where you’re standing, Jesus’ disruptive message can be good news or bad. For those who are content, disrupting your life by planting mustard or selling everything to possess a single pearl, no matter how valuable, would be crazy. To them, these disruptions will be bad news.

But to those who are not content – with the status quo, with the lack of resources they need to survive (healthcare, education, a decent wage) or with the values, stereotypes, or prejudices of the dominant culture – to these, Jesus’ gospel, disruptive and upsetting as it is, nevertheless rings true and real, something worth buying at any cost. For these, disruption is a good thing. It is the foundation of resistance to a regime that is oppressive and a culture that is so often racist, homophobic, and misogynistic. It explains why, back in the day, many slave masters would not allow such a subversive message to be preached to their slaves lest it foment rebellion.

Maybe this is why the gospel resonates most deeply among those for whom life is most fragile. As David Lose writes, "When you can set yourself up with the comforts of the world, and fortify the illusion that you are master of the universe, why would you need the gospel? As Paul says, the gospel appears foolish in the eyes of the world and so has little value to the self-contented, the self-made man or woman of the age, and the powerful." (

But to those whose spirits are crushed – whether by illness or disappointment or poverty or discrimination or the inequities of the economic system – Jesus’ promises are good news -- in fact, they are the best news we’ve heard and worth sacrificing everything for.

To those who recognize there is something more out there than the world can offer, who can feel the deep ache in their hearts for true joy, then that reign of God will surpass our wildest dreams. It will disrupt, invade, take over, and transform our lives--even here, even now.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Sower

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, Proper 10
The Rev'd Richard Smith, Ph.D.

When the disciples ask Jesus to explain the story in today’s gospel, he begins by giving that story a title. He calls it “the parable of the sower”, which I take to mean this story is not so much about the seed that is sown nor about the soil it’s sown in. Rather, it’s more about the one who does the sowing. This is a parable about a sower.

What can we say about this sower except that he is reckless and extravagant--scattering seeds everywhere, regardless of whether they land

  • among rocks where they are unlikely to take root, 
  • or along the footpath where the birds will likely eat them, 
  • or among thorns where they can get choked. 

None of this seems to matter to this unlikely sower who seems so careless and inefficient.

Which is exactly how Jesus went about sowing his message--carelessly, recklessly, inefficiently, extravagantly--giving himself, his message, his works of healing to those least likely to yield a harvest. This was the irony in his ministry--that he had come not for the righteous, whom you’d reasonably expect to yield a rich harvest, but for the lost sheep: the whores and scarecrows and misfits of his day.

But, ironically, this inefficient strategy seemed to work. As he explained to the religious leaders, “the tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of heaven ahead of you.” Those you’d least expect understood him more than did the righteous. Clearly, there was a method to this reckless sower’s madness.

This has implications. For example, if you’re ever looking for God in your own life, don’t forget to look in the places you’d least expect to find him--perhaps in moments of darkness, disappointment, pain, and yes, sinfulness--the rocky, thorny soil of your own heart.

One day, the great spiritual writer, Thomas Merton, was reading through the pages of his own journal. He prayed: “I am content that these pages show me to be what I am--noisy, full of the racket of my imperfections and passions, and the wide open wounds left by my sins. Full of my own emptiness. Yet, ruined as my house is, You live there!”

This was his confidence, that even in the darkness and noise and racket of his own heart, the seeds of God’s presence were there. His life may have been rocky and full of thorns, but Merton knew God was there.

Sometimes it can take awhile for that seed that God has planted to become visible.

This is a dark time for our country. The drums of war are beating more loudly now, more immigrant families are being torn apart, the wealthy are getting increasingly wealthy while more and more people are left homeless, and the earth is not as safe now.

If we are to believe today’s gospel, then we know that even in these rocky, thorny times the reckless sower has planted seeds. It may take time for those seeds to become apparent, for the presence and the work of God to be clearly seen.

Yet even in the darkness of the world and the darkness and racket of our own hearts, the reckless sower has already planted seeds. Although still unseen, those seeds are already growing. Do you see them yet?

Keep your eyes open for glimpses of grace; it is the hour of the unexpected.