Acts 17:22-31 † Psalm 66 † 1 Peter 3:13-22 † John 14:15-21
If you get the environment right, every single one of us has the capacity to do remarkable things. Not only that, if you get the environment right, good deeds breed good deeds. When the conditions are right, safety, self-sacrifice, mutual love all increase exponentially. Generosity evokes further generosity. We’ve certainly seen that of late with your remarkable generosity toward this community and the church’s work within it. It builds on itself. Advocacy breeds further advocacy. An advocate shapes an environment of mutual support. Advocacy gets the environment right.
In John’s story Jesus speaks of the Spirit as an advocate. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask God to give you another Advocate to be with you forever.” Our Christian tradition understands this in a Trinitarian sense—that the Spirit of God in Christ is now with us forever as an advocate—a force of love absolutely and undeniably for us and for our corporate well-being. A force that abides in the very heart of God.
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7 † Psalm 32 † Romans 5:12-19 † Matthew 4:1-11
Is sin a virus? Does it spread with contact or exposure from one person to the next to the next? Is it transmitted communally, somehow?
Perhaps it is the attention that we’re giving to COVID-19, the novel coronavirus outbreak creating growing concern throughout the world, that has me thinking about this connection. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has stated that while the immediate health risk from COVID-19 is considered low for the general public in the United States, "current global circumstances suggest it is likely that this virus will cause a pandemic" and that more cases in the US will be identified.
The story is changing rapidly, as you surely know. I want you to know we are paying close attention, and thinking about how best to respond appropriately and reasonably to the most reliable and current information. And we trust that you are educating yourself, and considering how to respond according to your needs and resources—staying home if you have a fever, keeping yourself from potential transmission if your health is already compromised, practicing good hygiene.
For now, though, listen again to the beginning of the Romans reading:
Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned.
Sin sure sounds like its gone viral as we pick up the writer’s metaphor at this point in the text. It seems to have some of the same characteristics as this new epidemic and, for that matter, many a youtube meme--
This is Hilary Cottam in a TED talk from 2015.[i] She’s a social entrepreneur whose been thinking much of her life about how we solve some of these deep and complex social problems that have been perplexing us for some time now.
She has a new book out, called Radical Help[ii] that takes a deep dive into the welfare state and how we might remake it. As you can tell, she’s doing her work in Great Britain, and has spent most of her life in Europe and Africa exploring these questions. But I think her work speaks to our own experience in the states as well, and to the needs for many of our institutions to adapt to changing realities.
In her presentation, Cottam goes on to provide a pretty stark picture of how the system as it currently is does not serve Ella well or others in similar circumstances, but may, in fact, work to keep them imprisoned in a cycle of despair, even as the people and the institutions they serve were and continue to be well-intentioned.
Acts 11:1-18 † Psalm 148 † Revelation 21:1-6 † John 13:31-35
According to local legend, the largest octopus in the world lives below the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.
Some say it’s a 600-pound creature, once named King Octopus by The News Tribune.[i] Others say it lives among the ruins of Galloping Gertie, the wreckage of the bridge that collapsed during the November 7th, 1940 storm into the white-capped waters of the Puget Sound.
Douglass Brown was 15 when he saw a giant tentacle emerge from Puget Sound. He was walking along the beach with a girl he wanted to impress when he saw this arm come out of the water.
“It was 10, 15 feet in the air,” he told a reporter for KUOW. “It looked like an octopus or something like that, and I just took off running.”[iii]
Not surprisingly, there is no report on how the relationship fared after that fateful day.
“They try to scare you,” says commercial diver Kerry Donahue of these big octopi. “Their big defense mechanism [is that] they get bigger than you are.” The first time it happened to Donahue, it terrified him. “Because your radio is to the surface,” he told the reporter, “you take a lot of flak for screaming like a 2-year-old when you run into an octopus.”
They can also get small, though. National Geographic set up a tank and shot a video to demonstrate how malleable these creatures are.[iv]
On average, Death Valley gets two inches of rain a year. Two inches. There are two major mountain ranges—the Panamint Range, pictured here, and the Sierra Nevadas beyond them to the West that trap weather systems that would otherwise drop precipitation from the Pacific, making it one of the driest places on earth.
Yet it is fair to say that Death Valley, one of the driest places on earth, has been shaped by water.
Well, water and tectonics.
“I’m drawn to places,” writes Eric Weiner, “that beguile and inspire, sedate and stir, places where, for a few blissful moments I loosen my death grip on life, and can breathe again.”[i] He is speaking of what we’ve come to know as thin places.
Heaven and earth, the Celtic saying goes, are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter. The ancient Celts used the term to describe places like the wind-swept isle of Iona where Julie Kae will have an opportunity to spend some time this summer as a part of her sabbatical.
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10 † Psalm 19 † 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a † Luke 4:14-21
You’ve probably heard the one about lies and statistics. It’s a quote from Mark Twain, from about 1906 that he attributed to the British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli. Rather than repeat it here, let me just defer to a less colorful paraphrase of it from a letter to the editor of the British newspaper the National Observer: “Sir, —It has been wittily remarked that there are three kinds of falsehood: the first is a ‘fib,’ the second is a downright lie, and the third and most aggravated is statistics.”[I]
Anyway, I found myself thinking about this, and about statistics in particular, as I was preparing for today, and trying to get a sense of what Luke is trying to claim about Jesus and his work in this text. Jesus stands up among his hometown folk and reads from Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me,” And then the rest of it reads like a mission statement, which is, I think, Luke’s purpose. This, Luke suggests, is what Jesus is up to, what he is about, what God is doing in this promised one of unprecedented power and truth. “He has anointed me,” Jesus reads,
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”[ii]
The passage is plain, and the work is straightforward, although it may take a little unpacking. But Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, in his recent book Tenacious Solidarity is concerned that we may miss the plain sense of the text. Here’s why. He says: “we have been schooled, for a variety of reasons, to read the Bible in categories that are individualistic, privatistic, other-worldly, and “spiritual.”[iii]
Now, he is getting old. Perhaps he’s worried about what he sees, as he nears the twilight of his long career and his life. But he makes a compelling case that we are prone to step away from the plain meaning of this gospel to our peril.
Isaiah 60:1-6 • Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14 • Ephesians 3:1-12 • Matthew 2:1-12
I’m currently reading two books side-by-side. I don’t say that to impress you. In fact, I wouldn’t say that I planned it. Mostly, I fell into it. If I were more honest, I’d tell you that I can’t bear to read the one alone, so it is, as much as anything, a matter of survival.
The one—the hard one, the devastating one—is a book by Chris Hedges called America: The Farewell Tour. Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter, formerly a foreign correspondent for the New York Times. I’ve talked about him before and about at least two of his numerous previous books. One is called War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning. The self-evident title reflected on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Another, Losing Moses on the Freeway, was an examination of the ten commandments as they relate to American culture. I recommend them both.
In addition to his years in the Balkans, the Americas and the Middle East, Hedges’ writing is informed by his religious education as a seminarian at Harvard Divinity School—thus the reflection he did on the commandments.
Hedges is a devastating writer. He writes in excruciating detail about the state of things, creating a provocative and difficult-to-deny indictment on where we are currently—the decay of American democracy, and perhaps even civilization itself as the common good has been sacrificed at the altar of greed. “We cannot battle racism, bigotry, and hate crimes, often stoked by the ruling elites,” he contends, “without first battling for economic justice.”[I]
Isaiah 53:4-12 † Psalm 91:9-16 † Hebrews 5:1-10 † Mark 10:35-45
“What is it we want when we can’t stop wanting?” asks Christian Wiman. Wiman, an American poet who was the editor of Poetry Magazine and now teaches at Yale, asks a question that might remind us of James’ and John’s request of Jesus: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you… Grant us to sit…at your right…and at your left in your glory.”[i]
“What is it we want when we can’t stop wanting?” In a way, Wiman answers his own question: “I say God,” he continues, “but…greed may be equally accurate, at least as long as God is an object of desire rather than its engine, end rather than means.”[ii]
Now, to be fair, it is making something of an assumption to suggest that these two followers of Jesus or the other disciples who react once they hear the other two got there first are motivated by greed, pure and simple. In these days, we have enough of this simplistic, binary thinking that reduce others to a simple idea, to an enemy, to one who is good or is evil.
Neither is Wiman thinking of this scripture in Mark. He’s reflecting on something more basic—about survival, and particularly our survival beyond ourselves.
Amos 5:6-7, 10-15 † Psalm 90:12-17 † Hebrews 4:12-16 † Mark 10:17-31
There are five big words in the scriptures that speak to what God is like. Five big words that make the journey through the arc of the scriptures. Five big words that speak of God, and speak of us, because in the Christian biblical tradition, what it means to be human is to be in the image of God. What it means to be human is to delight in what God delights.[I] Five big words that speak of promise and possibility. Five big words that speak to what holds the world together. Five big words that give us something of an anchor in these unmoored times.
Five big words: Justice, righteousness, steadfast love, faithfulness, compassion.
I’ve been thinking about these lately, because I’ve been wondering about how we are going to hold together what seems to be spinning apart. I’ve been wondering about how we are going to find ways to live as one, to live with hope, to look to a future that is for everyone, not just for the 50.1 percent of us—or sometimes less—who can muster the votes to muscle our way or our version of the world on others. I’ve been thinking about these lately because, not only can we not agree on ideals, goals, truth. We seem not even to be able to agree on facts.
St. Andrew Sermons