Sermon on the Third Sunday in Lent, February 28, 2016, the Rev. Anne Edison-Albright preaching. Today’s text: Luke 13:1-9.
It’s something that was said before and has been said many times since then.
But when I heard people say,
“They deserved it,”
After Hurricane Katrina,
It made me mad.
Really, really mad.
To respond to that storm and its terrible aftermath
With public statements about
God punishing New Orleans for its sins …
Who would do that?
Well, it seemed like a lot of people were,
Certainly John Hagee, a megachurch pastor out of Texas,
Got a lot of press for it,
And I remember thinking,
I hope no one is taking this seriously,
And I hope no one thinks Christians really think this way.
And I wanted to say, “You know, not all Christians
Believe that natural disasters are God’s way of
Punishing America for its sins.”
But that “not all Christians” defensiveness,
That self-righteous anger,
That smug judgment on my part,
That doesn’t actually help.
As personally satisfying and cathartic as it may be.
And I imagine Jesus entering the conversation,
And getting right in between me and John Hagee and saying,
Knock it off, both of you.
You both need to repent.
That’s essentially what Jesus is saying to the crowd in our Gospel lesson today.
Jesus speaks about two current events,
Two situations where lives were lost in terrible ways.
One, an event where people from Galilee were murdered by the occupying government.
The other, an event where a tower fell, crushing the people below.
From Jesus’ response, we can imagine that some people in the crowd
May have been wondering out loud what those Galileans did
To deserve their fate.
And maybe others in the crowd were thinking,
“I’d never say something like that.”
And Jesus says to the whole crowd:
“Hey, judgmental people
And you, too people judging the judgmental people,
Do you think the Galileans who died were any more sinful
Than any other Galileans?
Do you think the people who died when the tower fell in Siloam,
The people who just happened to be standing there
When the tower fell,
Do you think they were more sinful than the people who’d stood in the shadow of
That same tower safely the day before?”
Jesus tells the whole crowd to repent,
That we all fall short,
We all need God’s grace and forgiveness,
And we are all going to die someday.
Deserving it or not has nothing to do with it.
It’s going to happen.
To repent means to turn,
And so Jesus tells the crowd, urges the crowd,
To turn away from sin and toward God
Away from hate and toward love
Away from death and toward life.
Not because it’s going to prevent a building from falling
If you happen to be in a place where a building falls,
But because that turn will be life-giving.
It will give us joy to live life fully in this world,
And with God in the world to come.
To make that turn, that repentance, possible,
Jesus promises that God will not cut us down and throw us away,
Even though we are fruitless fig trees.
Instead of saying, “These people are hopeless. I’m done.”
God says, “These people need better soil and more time.
If I love them, they will bear fruit,
They will share my love with each other.”
To understand God’s love, and to see that love at work in the world,
We have to believe that no one,
Is a waste of soil.
People are not expendable.
And God doesn’t give up on anyone.
That love can give us the courage we need to
Take a hard look at mass incarceration,
And at the way people with drug addictions are treated (or not treated)
In our society.
The planet we live on is not expendable.
God’s creation is good,
God’s creatures are good.
God wouldn’t throw it away,
And neither should we.
Dan Dietrich is going to talk after worship today
About what it means for us as Christians
To be good stewards of the earth on a personal level,
And to also work for systemic change on a policy level as well.
I started out today talking about Hurricane Katrina.
If you think back, over ten years ago now,
To all of the injustices that disaster brought to national attention
In a new way, in ways that we are still unpacking today:
Systemic and institutional racism,
Rising economic disparity,
Tensions between communities and police,
Corruption in government at all levels,
The failure of both federal and nonprofit relief agencies
To act quickly and competently and invest in long term solutions.
The role of climate change in making the storm itself so powerful
And the role of ecosystem damage, soil erosion,
And water mismanagement that made the levy break
And disaster aftermath so terrible.
When you remember all of that going on in New Orleans and
The Gulf Coast at the time of Katrina
And think about how it’s all still playing out in our country today,
It becomes necessary for us to assert,
As boldly and directly as Jesus did to that crowd
As they worried about their world and their current events,
We, like Jesus need to assert and claim the truth,
That God did not, has not and will not give up
On New Orleans,
Or on Flint.
God hasn’t abandoned Hesston, Kansas
Or Mason County, Washington.
God hasn’t forsaken the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria,
The places and people we’ve forgotten about,
And places and people we haven’t heard about yet.
God hasn’t given up on Syria,
On refugee camps in Calais,
On the land we call Holy.
God isn’t going to give up on you, either.
You aren’t expendable.
You aren’t a waste of soil,
You are so precious to God.
God isn’t going to give up on the people you love,
Or on the people you hate, for that matter.
God’s persistence in fig-tree growing is remarkable.
Thanks be to God.
Sermon on the First Sunday in Lent, February 14, 2016, the Rev. Anne Edison-Albright preaching. Today’s text: Luke 4:1-13.
A couple weeks ago Donald Trump promised that,
When he’s elected president,
“Christianity will have power.”
It’s a statement that raised a lot of eyebrows and questions,
Questions about what kind of power Christianity has in America,
What kind of power Christianity had in America in the past,
And what kind of power Christianity ought to have.
It’s not really a new question.
But we tend to talk about it more in election years,
When the relationship between power and faith gets more attention and press.
The questions of how much power the Church should have,
And what kind of power it should have,
And where that power should come from,
Are some of the most essential questions of Christian ethics.
Because we do have power,
As Christian individuals and as members of the wider Church,
And how we use and understand that power is important.
We get a strong sense of that in our Gospel reading for today.
When the devil tempts Jesus in the wilderness,
Power is at the heart of each temptation.
“Show me how powerful you are,”
The devil says. “Go ahead and turn this stone into bread.”
“If you are really the Son of God, go ahead and jump from this pinnacle.
The angels will protect you from the fall.
That is, if you are who you say you are.”
The devil also offers Jesus dominion over all the kingdoms of the world,
“To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.”
We read this text together at the council meeting on Monday,
And the very good question came up: “Who gave the devil authority over anything? What makes the devil think he can give authority to anyone else?”
Where does the devil’s power come from?
One way of understanding this that I’ve found really helpful comes
From Star Wars.
Science fiction is great for helping us understand the world,
And Star Wars is great for helping us understand this Gospel lesson.
In Star Wars, The Force is the power that holds the universe together.
It’s everywhere, and it’s not good or bad in and of itself
But it can be used for good or bad, the light side or the dark side.
There are these figures in the movies, these very powerful evil figures,
Who prey on promising young people who are strong in the force
And tempt them into joining the Dark Side.
And the way they do it is by capitalizing on their fears,
Their feelings of betrayal or loss or abandonment,
And especially their youthful insecurities.
The Lords of the Dark Side promise power,
They promise glory,
They promise, maybe most convincingly of all,
The ability to keep loved ones safe from harm.
They promise security that, sure, yes, it comes at the expense of others,
But at least I will be safe,
And the people I love will be safe.
The power of the Dark Side,
The devil’s power,
Comes from our own vulnerability, anger, hate,
And most of all, fear.
Which is why the devil has no power over Jesus.
You and I are a different story, though.
We don’t have to look too far into history
Or into current events
To find many examples of this kind of temptation.
When you think about why ISIS is so good at recruiting
Adolescent kids in Europe to become fighters in Syria,
You can start to see some parallels.
The kids they target aren’t super religious,
In fact, they usually aren’t kids who are very committed or involved in their faith.
They’re kids who feel stuck.
They’ve grown up as outsiders,
Facing racism every day.
They don’t have great education or employment prospects.
They may feel unappreciated, powerless.
ISIS says, “Well, we appreciate you.
And you deserve to be powerful.
We’ll give you the chance to be powerful,
To be the master of your own destiny.
We’ll give you the chance for glory
And to be a hero,
And to right all the wrongs that have been done to you and your family.”
It’s a convincing argument.
Mosques all over Europe are partnering with parents to fight these ISIS
Trying to show teens that they are connected in their communities,
They are appreciated, and loved, right where they are and as they are.
Parents and Muslim community leaders come together to tell youth that
They have a lot to live for,
And that God doesn’t want them to go and fight this war.
You can see, in this example just like the Star Wars example,
That the source of the temptation,
The source of the power of the evil,
Comes from our own human fears and insecurities.
Examples from science fiction and from other parts of the world
May be easier for us to recognize as parallels
Than examples we’d find closer to home.
But if someone offered you the power to protect your family,
To keep them safe from harm,
Would you take them up on it?
Even if it meant harming others?
To understand the difference between the power the devil offers us,
And the power Jesus offers us,
We need to ask ourselves the same question about Jesus that we asked
About the devil:
Where does Jesus’ power come from?
Certainly it comes from being the Son of God,
It comes from Jesus’ own divinity,
And his role in the creation and the salvation of the universe.
It also comes from Jesus’ humanity.
That part of Jesus, and of God,
That is so surprising and unexpected,
Even to us now thousands of years after Christ was born,
Lived, died, and rose to turn the world upside down.
Paul wrote that Christ’s power was made perfect in weakness.
It is God’s choice to be as vulnerable as we are,
And to live in actual solidarity with our human weakness,
That is the greatest bafflement of all to the devil,
And the greatest hope for all of us seeking to be ethical
And faithful in our use of power, too.
When God helps Christians act out of love, rather than out of fear,
The power of the devil is baffled and diminished.
When God leads Christians to ally ourselves with people
Who have been oppressed,
With people who have been marginalized,
And with people we might otherwise fear because of our differences,
Then God is glorified
And the devil is thoroughly confused.
When Christians, by the grace of God, can act
Not out of a desperate sense of need for self-preservation,
But out of genuine care and concern for others,
That is a powerful act,
Powerful enough, even, to overcome the devil’s worst temptations.
That kind of selfless, loving action
Is only possible with the help and by the grace of God.
The power we have as Christians comes from the cross.
And the cross is an excellent ethical guide for us when we wonder
If we’re being tempted to use our power to promote fear
Or called to use God’s power to serve our neighbors
Turn the world’s expectations upside down,
And stand with people who are weak, marginalized or oppressed.
As we begin Lent this week,
And always, may the cross be our guide.
Through the wilderness, through temptation, through fear and vulnerability, anger and loss. May the cross of Christ be our guide. Amen.
On February 3, at a Democratic Town Hall Debate,
Rabbi Jonathan Spira-Savett from Nashua, New Hampshire,
Asked Hillary Clinton this question:
“Rabbi Simcha Bunim taught that every person has to have two pockets, and in each pocket they have to carry a different note. And the note in one pocket says the universe was created for me. And in the other pocket the note says I am just dust and ashes.
I want you to take a moment and think about what you would tell us about your two pockets. How do you cultivate the ego, the ego that we all know you must have—a person must have to be the leader of the free world—and also the humility to recognize that we know that you can’t be expected to be wise about all the things that the president has to be responsible for?”
He was asking about balance,
About humility and ego
And also about faith,
And how our understanding of God
Shapes the way we think about ourselves and relate to the world.
I’d never heard of the two pockets teaching before,
And what struck me as really beautiful
Is that both statements are true:
Both statements are good and right
Both statements are essential to understanding ourselves and God.
And we all need both,
And we’re all probably out of balance,
When it comes to which pocket we spend the most time living in.
If we live too much in the pocket that says that the universe was created for me,
We can lose sight of the truth that the universe was created for everyone else, too.
We can become selfish, arrogant, power-hungry and self-centered.
But if we spend too much time in the pocket that says
“I am just dust and ashes,”
That’s not the whole truth either.
We are dust and ashes, yes, we are mortal.
But we DO have hope, and we ARE loved and forgiven and blessed by God.
If we live only in the ashes pocket, we will surely despair.
The story you just heard about Absalom, the favorite son of King David,
Is, it’s pretty safe to say, the story of a man
Who lived pretty deeply in the “the universe was created for me” pocket.
Absalom was beautiful.
He was charismatic, he was ambitious, he was heroic.
And he was arrogant, self-righteous, and hungry for power.
There are large parts of his story that I chose to leave out
Of the reading in the interest of time,
But I commend it to you.
It’s a compelling story, a terrible story:
A story about violence against women,
And a story about violence breaking apart a family.
And even though Absalom is far from blameless or righteous or perfect
In his role in that story,
He does emerge as this strange hero: this beloved, beautiful, favorite son.
I met Absalom for the first time when I was a freshman in high school,
And read Walt Wangerin’s, The Book of God,
Which is the Bible written as a novel.
I loved Absalom, I think, because he’s such a tragic figure,
But also because his beauty and confidence reminded me very much of a boy
I was very fond of at the time.
He was a senior in high school, a star of the drama department,
Who just seemed to glow with this incredible inner light,
And whose arrogance seemed … justified, maybe?
Because he was just that beautiful.
I wrote poems about Absalom.
I reflected, rather melodramatically,
On the irony of Absalom’s beautiful long hair getting caught in the tree branches:
His vanity sealing his fate.
David’s favorite son,
Your green-gold eyes flash,
Your long curly hair, raven black,
Is tangled in the branches of power and lies.
A hero dies.”
These poems were really about the boy I liked, of course.
But they were also about me.
They were poems about a girl who didn’t know how to live very gracefully
In either pocket.
Who struggled to balance ego and humility almost daily.
This two pockets question takes on some different nuances for women, I think.
And I wonder if it’s ever a question that anyone would have thought to ask
Bernie Sanders, or any of the other men running for president.
The question of how powerful women balance ego and humility
Is fraught, because women still aren’t fully allowed
To claim that pocket, that truth that the universe was created for me.
There are lots of people, whole groups of people,
Who we try as a society to keep very firmly in the dust and ashes pocket.
We humble them.
Which is another way of saying that we oppress them.
And when I say “we,” I mean, “I.”
I do this.
I’m the one who made a hero out of Absalom,
And cut his sister Tamar completely out of the story “for the sake of time”,
And because I was afraid to talk about what happened to Tamar,
To tell you that she was raped by her brother, Amnon,
And that Absalom killed Amnon,
But really, when Tamar needed help–from her father and her brothers–
Everyone she loved let her down.
She dressed herself in sackcloth and ashes.
She was deep, deep in the pocket of sorrow, death and despair.
The truth is that the Holy Hypocrite I’m preaching on this Lenten season,
Isn’t Absalom, really.
Because I don’t know how to balance these pockets.
I’m still struggling, almost as much as I was when I was 15,
With the truth that I am loved by God,
And with the truth that I am going to die.
Maybe you are struggling with that, too.
Whatever pocket you find yourself most in tonight,
Hear this Good News:
God is God.
And we are not.
Jesus didn’t come to save us because we have it all figured out,
Or will ever be capable of having it all figured out.
Our hypocrisy, our arrogance, our despair:
God will never abandon us or turn away from us because of these.
God will not leave us to our sins of self-righteousness,
God will not leave us in our ashes of despair,
And God will not let us die alone:
God will not let death have the last word.
The only thing I’ve ever found that made my life feel balanced between pockets
Is genuine gratitude for that grace and love of God.
The hymn “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” is one that brings it all together for me,
And has been a source of call to ministry for me since I was very young:
“Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a present far too small,
Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life my all.”
I am only dust.
And yet, God loves me, and created the universe for me.
I want my life, short and dusty as it is, to reflect that love,
To serve that love,
To model that love and inspire that love in others.
We are hypocrites, we are sinners, we are dust.
We are also beloved beyond belief, and made in the image of God.
Thank you, God.
Thank you, Jesus.
Sermon on Transfiguration Sunday, February 7, 2016, the Rev. Anne Edison-Albright preaching. Today’s texts: Exodus 34:29-35, 2 Corinthians 3:12–4:2, and John 2:1-11.
or right-click to download the mp3.
There’s a scene in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,
Where the wizard Dumbledore finds young Harry
Sitting, late at night, in front of a magic mirror.
The mirror is enchanted to show the deepest desire of anyone who looks into it.
Harry, who is an orphan, sees himself in the mirror surrounded
By his parents and other family members who have died.
Dumbledore warns Harry that the mirror can be dangerous.
People have wasted away in front of it,
Unable to tear themselves away from the illusion of their heart’s desire.
A mirror’s job is to simply reflect what’s in front of it,
But the thing you see in the mirror isn’t actually the thing itself,
And anyone who’s ever experienced the natural process of aging knows
That even regular, un-enchanted mirrors
Seem to be playing tricks sometimes.
Writers love mirrors as plot devices and metaphors and
And so mirrors feature prominently in Harry Potter,
In Snow White,
In the Phantom of the Opera,
And in the letters of Paul to the church in Corinth.
Last week you heard what Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians:
“For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”
And this week we hear, from the second letter to the Corinthians:
“And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”
I think it’s really important to talk about this mirror image,
And to connect those two readings, this week’s and last week’s, together,
Because if we miss Paul’s reference to the mirror, here,
In this week’s reading,
If we overlook the connection to the mirror we see through only dimly now,
Then I think it’s pretty tempting to read our second reading today as
Superseding that first reading, the one about Moses coming down from the mountain,
With his shining face veiled.
I have to tell you, when I read or hear that reading from 2nd Corinthians,
My stomach just drops,
Thinking about all the terrible things the church has done
To people of Jewish faith because of misreading and misusing texts like that one.
Supersessionism is a really dangerous, very common form of anti-Semitism.
It’s something you’ve probably heard a lot of if you’ve grown up
In any Christian church.
We’re kind of steeped in it.
It’s something I have to work really hard to keep myself from doing
As a preacher and a theologian.
Supersessionism is the idea that Christianity
is the completed or perfected form of Judaism:
The idea that God was really only in relationship with Israel in order to bring about Christianity.
It denies the Jewish faith and Jewish scripture any value in its own right
Separate from what it means to us as Christians.
And it might lead us to say things like:
“The Jews are really legalistic,
But we have grace, so we’re free.”
As if there were no concept of grace or freedom in the Torah.
It might lead us to characterize the “Old Testament God” as harsh and violent
In contrast to Jesus,
As though the God that Jesus grew up knowing through his own Jewish faith,
Wasn’t the very same God of incredible, unconditional love.
And it might lead us to really glom onto that contrast that Paul seems to be making,
Between Moses veiling his face to shield the people from God’s glory,
And the unveiled minds of Christian believers.
I would argue with Paul, first of all, because I think the minds
Of ALL human beings are pretty veiled,
Especially when it comes to recognizing God.
You can see it in our Gospel lesson, up on the mountaintop,
When Jesus’ disciples,
The first missionaries of the Christian church,
React to seeing Jesus revealed in shining glory
By … speaking without knowing what they were saying.
Their vision is almost immediately veiled by a massive cloud,
And when that veil lifts the vision is gone,
And they’re not sure what to make of it.
The veil over their minds is still there, even with everything they’ve seen
And experienced firsthand as Jesus’ closest friends.
Most of us, I think, go through life pretty veiled when it comes to seeing God.
We have trouble recognizing God in our neighbors in need.
We have a LOT of trouble recognizing God in our enemies.
We know God is with us,
But God seems far away sometimes. Difficult to see.
That inability to see very far beyond ourselves
And our own immediate concerns … that’s a human thing.
That’s not unique to any particular faith group.
But at the same time,
The strange, seemingly innate desire for God,
The drive to find meaning beyond ourselves,
That’s a human thing too,
And also not unique to any particular faith,
Although each faith group articulates that search for
And that way of seeing and connecting with God
In particular, different, distinct ways.
That’s why I’m glad Paul mentions the mirror.
In the middle of this text that seems to try to claim some sort of superior
Divine vision for Christians,
Paul sneaks in this reminder that ALL of our experiences of God,
No matter what our faith background may be,
All of those experiences are mediated.
When we experience God, in this world, we are experiencing God
Through the lens of something else:
Through the bread and wine of Communion, for example.
Or through the kindness and care of a Samaritan:
A person of a faith and culture different from our own.
In this world, we can see God’s love, grace, and beauty reflected in the faces
Of the people around us.
But we can’t see God face to face.
We are, all of us, looking at God through a mirror.
Sometimes that mirror image is pretty dim and unclear.
And sometimes we get these incredible glimpses of God’s glory,
Shining so bright it hurts our eyes
And we might not know what to say.
What we say about God matters.
It matters because statements about faith can be used
To justify violence, oppression and hate.
And statements about faith can be used to promote peace,
And counteract hate with love.
May the love of God guide us, always,
And make a way for us. Amen.