April 08, 2018
Note: This was my sermon on the second Sunday of Easter a quarter century ago: 1993. I was thirty-eight years old. It is dedicated to all of you who suffer with and for your aging parents.
Last Sunday after Easter dinner I drove to Louisiana to see my mother and father, who live on a beautiful farm called Inglewood Plantation. They bought the farm from my grandfather just after World War II, farmed there for several years, then managed it from a distance as my father went into the oil business in El Dorado. At age forty, he resigned his position as executive vice-president at Murphy Oil Corporation to become a priest. He took to heart these words of Jesus:
Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of man also came not be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. 1
I was in the sixth grade when he was elected Bishop. Our family was in Athens, Greece the day of the election. I was sharing a hotel room with my cousin Claiborne, who now holds the job my father had had with Murphy Oil.
My father is Christoph Keller, Jr. I am Christoph Keller, III. The phone rang in the middle of the night. It was Bishop Brown in Little Rock. “Is this Chris Keller.” “Yes.” “Chris, this is Bob Brown. You were elected on the 7th ballot.” Imagine my surprise.
At supper last Monday evening my mother and I talked about Christoph Keller, Jr. We miss his wisdom, strength, and extraordinary depth of spirit. He still possesses kindness, remarkably.
He began to show symptoms of Alzheimer's disease around 1983. My mother warned us then that something was happening to our father. I asked her Monday what had been the early signs. She said she noticed that he no longer finished books. Dad always underlined as he read. Now the marks ended with the first chapter. He also struggled with arithmetic. Waiters and taxi drivers were picking up some extraordinary tips.
I spent some time Monday afternoon alone with dad. It was a gorgeous day in central Louisiana. We sat outside near the garden. There is a luscious smell this time of year from “magnolia fuscada.” Dad sat in the car, with the doors open, and I stood by. He didn't want to get out, and there was no reason for me to make him. He cannot really talk, and it seems to distress him when people try to make him communicate. So I just stood by, leaning on the car and soaking in the spring. It was like keeping vigil. It felt good.
March 25, 2018
The secret of life is that it is a passion play.[i]
Holmes Rolston wrote that in Genes, Genesis, and God, a book I read while working on my dissertation. The dissertation confirmed the fit between Christian faith and evolutionary science. So did Rolston. We hear our faith and Darwin’s science as resonant: in one there is an echo of the other.
Not all who write on faith and science agree. Fundamentalists do not, but I am thinking now of atheistic scientists, and two other one-liner quips that I remember from my research. One was Jerry Coyne’s, that in The Origin of Species “man was reduced to an aberrant ape and God to a powerless bystander.”[ii] The other was a claim by E.O. Wilson and Michael Ruse that moral conscience “is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate.”[iii] Those are three of many intellectuals who do not see Christian faith and evolution as compatible.
To see the fit, we must know the faith and that the secret of it is the passion play. God is both playwright and, in Christ, protagonist. For us, that is the faith that science would need to fit to.
As a priest, I knew the faith from Christmas, Holy Week and Easter. Incarnation, passion, and resurrection are the interwoven themes that give shape and color to our understanding of the world and God.
With the science, I had some catching up to do. How did Darwin shape our understanding of the world and life? I brought home some books and studied up. In nature, genetic variation, environmental tribulation, and reproduction add up to evolutionary change. This has been a slow, jagged process with a spectacular yield – our world in all of its pain and beauty and the civilization that has given rise to science, literature, and music (from Lynyrd Skynyrd up to Bach). I summarize the process as an interplay of themes: incarnation, passion and emergent value. From stardust up, we have made quite the climb. Life’s creative pathos and resilience are a prelude to the gospel, which answers to their need.
What happened in Jerusalem?
As Mark tells it, the instigators of the crucifixion were religious leaders. Priests and scribes had been incensed by Jesus’ actions at the temple, overturning tables and expelling money changers.[iv] That conflict started early his ministry. It seemed blasphemous to them that he kept doing things that only God can do––forgiving sinners, for example.[v] “Even the wind and sea obey him,” some were saying. Who does he think he is? Between Christ and their religious faith, these leaders didn’t see a fit.
Christians have long been prone to blame the Jews, as Jews, for the crucifixion. In the Middle Ages, passion plays were dangerous for Jews, because crowds would get their blood up and go
[i] Holmes Rolston, Genes, Genesis and God, 307.
[ii] Jerry Coyne, “Doing Acid,” New York Times Book Review, July 13, 2003, 11.
[iii] Michael Ruse and Edward O. Wilson, “The Evolution of Ethics,” New Scientist 108, no. 1478 (October 1985): 51–52, quoted in Rolston, Genes, Genesis and God, 250.
[iv] Mark 11:15-18
[v] Mark 2:7.
March 11, 2018
When a bad thing happens to a good person or a child we wonder: “Where was God?” When good things happen to scoundrels we may ask the same question. Both these things occur routinely. Even so, when a bad thing happens to sinner we may be inclined to jump to the wrong conclusion. A woman I knew who died way too young from cancer believed she was being punished for a sin. Her sin was serious, but she was misreading God. I will tell you how I know that in a minute.
The same misread pops up here and there in scripture, so the Old Testament gives one entire book to set the record straight. That book is Job. Terrible things are happening to Job, and his friends believe he is being punished. Job must have done something to deserve this pain. Job insists that he is innocent. In the end, God sides with Job. To Job’s accusers, God says: “You have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.”
So what are we to make of a sequence of events culminating in this mornings reading from the Book of Numbers?
First, God saves Israel from slavery under Pharaoh: a great victory for the underdog. Three cheers for God!
Next, Israel learns salvation is no picnic in the park. The wilderness road to the promised land is long and hard and the food is terrible. The people bitterly complain.
Enter the snakes. Who sent the snakes? According to scripture, God. Some of the people get bit and die. As a penalty for grumbling death seems harsh, I think we can all agree.
The people beg for mercy and they get it. At God’s instruction, Moses fashions a biblical caduceus—a snake-shaped into a symbol. To us, the caduceus symbolizes medicine. In our story, it is medicine itself. The snake-bitten sinners who look at it are healed:
So Moses made a serpent of bronze and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.
Except for those who died, the story has a happy ending. In outline, the sequence went like this: mercy®sin®wrath®mercy. Let’s not focus on the happy ending. Let’s focus on the middle chapters, sin, and wrath. What kind of entity is wrath? Is it real? Is it punishment for sin? Those are our questions for this morning.
March 04, 2018
May I speak to you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
In today’s gospel, we see Jesus’ outburst…how startling!…our God has an emotional life – and those emotions are not just warm fuzzies. There’s anger, there’s yelling.
But what is happening? In the passage, we see that the Passover is approaching and through lack of detail the passage makes it sound pretty neat and tidy, but at the time of the year of the Passover festival, there is great chaos in Jerusalem.
To understand this chaos, we need to consider both the crowd and the temple. During the time of Herod, while Jerusalem was under Roman rule, many changes took place to accommodate the festival crowds and, perhaps seek both efficiency and benefit to Rome. As we read the Old Testament our understanding of the temple may get lost in descriptions of sacrifice and instruction of how to do things, but we need to remember that after the Babylonian Exile, there was a re-start of practice and location that emerged over time. The dispersed Jews began to pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the three major festivals each year - Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. As time went on changes continued and things became modified. Not unlike today in our culture as we use Amazon to mail order our shopping needs instead of physically going to a store or read on a Kindle instead of using a bound book – culture changes, and behaviors change.
That’s where we find ourselves in today’s reading. As I said, Passover was a Pilgrimage feast where Jews, who had been dispersed would return for worship. The population of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus has many estimates, anywhere from approximately 100-200 thousand people – less than half the size of present Little Rock, but on the three major festivals per year the population would swell, some assert to close to a million – but at least double in population…you can only imagine how hard it was for the city to cope – food, accommodations, animals, offerings, ritual facilities. So, Herod began work on the temple: we hear it intimated today – “This Temple has been under construction…” Herod renovated both the city and the Temple to accommodate these times of massive influx – these changes in the Temple were not changes in what took place there, but in approach for greater ease of number of people and their needs – it had to do with bridges of connection, building a large plaza around the Temple that linked some aspects of commerce to the location of the temple for the ease of the city as pilgrims descended for the festivals. We can glimpse the chaos of this Passover festival: crowds, animals, sounds, smells, chaos…and Jesus comes into the Temple…
Jesus’ angry outburst is interesting and instructive to us. It might show us more of who God is – that God has an emotional life, but it also shows us more of who we are.
February 25, 2018
Abraham Lincoln was a firm believer in the Constitution, but he loved the Declaration of Independence even more. Along with independence, it declared the value on which this new nation would plant its flag: freedom. Race, language, and geography don’t define us. Love of freedom does.
I am quoting Allen Guelzo:
Lincoln read the Declaration as a document that transcended. . . national boundaries. . . . Immigrants who read the Constitution . . . saw only the rules and regulations of a foreign country; but when they read the Declaration, they found principles and ideas that reached over the head of language or section or previous nationality and bound Americans together as Americans, seeking life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
When Martin Luther King, standing under the Lincoln Monument, thundered “we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check . . . a promissory note to which every American was to fall, heir,” those were the values––life, and freedom to pursue our happiness and purpose––that he had in mind. “Let freedom ring!” he said.
Paul of Tarsus was a firm believer in the law of Moses, but he looked beyond its rules and regulations to a more transcendent value: faith. Just as, for Lincoln, the Constitution represented one good way, but not the only way, to embody freedom, for Paul the statutes and codes of Deuteronomy and Leviticus were one good way, but not the only way, to practice faith.
To make his point, Paul reminds us of God’s covenant with Abraham. God promised: I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. Abraham lived centuries before Moses, so he knew nothing of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Though he was old and childless, he believed the Lord’s word that from him would spring that multitude of nations––and that, said Paul, was “righteousness” enough for God.
As Abraham Lincoln read the Declaration, it unites us as a land of immigrants from a multitude of nations.
Again I’m quoting Allen Guelzo.
“Half our people have come from Europe—German, Irish, French, and Scandinavian,” Lincoln observed in 1858, people who had no personal or ancestral stake in the writing of the Constitution or the rights of states. “But when they look back to that old Declaration of Independence,” Lincoln believed, they find principles that rise above one’s place of birth, whether another country or another state of the union. “They find that those old men say ‘we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,’ and then they feel that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men . . . and they have a right to claim it as though they were . . .flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration.[i]
Likewise for Paul, when Gentile Christians come to faith, it is as though we now are “flesh of the flesh” of Abraham. Paul calls Abraham the “father of us all.”
[i] Allen Guelzo, Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President (Kindle edition, loc. 2664)
February 14, 2018
Lent is here…this special season of preparation – historically this predominately preparation was for baptism, but for most of us having been Baptized, it’s a season of preparation to encounter Christ’s resurrection. This means we seek to understand who we are as sinners, and who God is in God’s Holiness and God’s Extravagant love and power.
There is a juxtaposition in Lent. The word Lent in his root meaning is “spring.” Springtime…a time of life, of a new beginning. This life and a new beginning are found as we focus on sin and death and need for forgiveness…the making of a right relationship. Here we find the contrast – life and new beginning is found through a focus on sin and death. Through this, we move to reconciliation with God, self, and others. From separation to union.
This is a season of gazing, really looking. It’s also a season of remembering: to remember – to re-put together – re-member Christ’s suffering and death – as we look, as we remember it gets in us. As we with intentionality enter into this ritual of Lent, it helps us know our need for God and God’s power and love.
We’re exhorted about motives and behavior for the Lenten season – listen carefully as we are called to a holy lent in a moment.
With all of our hearts we heard in our scripture readings – we are called to come to God in this season: this is both corporate and personal and without fear. And let us be reminded: this is not a season to earn something from God or about making commitments to our self-care by diet and exercise – the ever popular giving up chocolate for Lent. It is about ordered self-control to let go of something that may draw our heart from God and pick up something that may draw us toward God.
Drawing near to God
How might we demonstrate this? We hear in scripture several things:
Prayer- perhaps picking up a prayer time personally or corporately – this may mean we let go of something else that currently occupies time in our schedules.
Alms – intentional giving of our money
Time alone “secretly” with God to pray and read scripture
Fasting – abstaining from a food or foods remind ourselves as we hold from a food or foods – perhaps weekly or daily - of our need or desperation for God.
What does this do? This letting go and taking up?
It makes us aware…aware of whose presence we are in every moment of every day. God who is Holy, powerful, perfect, the King, and love. We see God’s faithfulness and our limitations. We experience grace.
So, let us consider our returning to God with all our hearts. To God who is gracious, merciful, and abounding in steadfast love…and may God bless us with a fresh revelation of Christ’s resurrection at Easter.
February 11, 2018
Of William Faulkner's stories, maybe my favorite is As I Lay Dying. It is about a family of dirt-poor Mississippi country people named Bundren. “Poor White Trash,” is what people called them. Addie Bundren dies. Her husband, Anse, is lazy and not smart. They have five children: Carl, Darl, Dewey Dell, who is seventeen and pregnant, Vardaman, and Jewel, who unknown to Anse is actually Rev. Whitefield's son. Before Addie dies, she makes Anse promise he will bury her in Jefferson, her hometown on the other side of the river.
The story is tragic and comic. The Bundrens lay Addie in a coffin that Cash built, load her on a wagon and set out for Jefferson across the river. But it has been raining for days. The rising river washes out the bridge. Anse lacks the good sense not to try to ford a flooding river. The wagon tumps over midstream; the mules drown; Cash breaks his leg; they nearly lose Addie's body downstream. It now takes eight days to get to Jefferson. There is a bad smell from the coffin. Buzzards follow it and try to steal the body. Faulkner makes us laugh––and feel guilty for it.
Faulkner's people: Addie, Anse and the rest live in a realm of Faulkner's making. They and their world are his creation. They are made in his own image.
They cannot see or sense William Faulkner, their creator. Darl, who is a thinker, might guess that they live in a world of someone else's making: a world of fire, flood, and great misfortune.
Within Faulkner's world (which they do not know as Faulkner's world, but as the universe, they take for granted) they have their lives to live. They make decisions and reap the benefits or, more often, pay the consequences. Their author gave them freedom of will. If someone in the story were to suggest that they were all the creation of a greater mind they would wonder what he meant. What evidence was there of this greater mind’s existence?
If, after they dragged themselves exhausted and half dead out of the swollen river, Cash speechless for pain, as Buzzards circled overhead and dead mules washed on down towards the Gulf of Mexico, they were to stop and shake their fist at the grey skies, demanding to know why their lives were so wretched, and what kind of author would have prepared such pain and indignity for the works of His own hand, they would have received no answer.
If they became religious and prayed to their Creator, for guidance, strength, and help to meet the trials ahead, who knows whether they would receive any nudging that they could discern from their author's hands. And yet every move they made, every step they took, every place they saw, every moment they lived, was a move in Him, a step with him, a place of his making prepared for them, a moment alive in His hands. In Him, they live and move and have their being.
They could not know except by faith that he loved them. They could not know except by faith that he helped them. They could not know except by faith that he forgave them, again and again, their ignorance and sin against each other and against him. Of course, only God and William Faulkner know if William Faulkner would have been worthy of such a faith.
February 04, 2018
If you read the Gospels like I read them, by putting yourself into the story and imagining what it would be like, what it would feel like, to BE one of its characters, then, the Gospel of Mark can be daunting in its quick, sharp movements from scene to scene. You might want to say to Mark something like: wait a minute, slow down a bit so my heart can catch up with my feet.
We haven’t made it through chapter one yet, but already, John the Baptist has shocked us awake by telling us that someone else will be plunging us, not into water, but plunging us in the Holy Spirit. We have stood by the river Jordan as witnesses of Jesus’ baptism, and if we were listening, we’ve heard a heavenly voice proclaiming a heavenly vision. In the space of two verses, we have been whisked away to spend 40 days in the wilderness with Jesus. We’ve heard the bad news that John the Baptist has been arrested, and we’ve heard Jesus tell us that He brings Good News. In a flash, we’ve witnessed Jesus’ calling four disciples to follow him, and we’ve seen how quickly they respond without question. We’ve followed Jesus and his companions to Capernaum and sat with others, in awe, as Jesus, we are told, speaks with authority.
There is a sense of urgency in Mark’s writing. And chances are, if we don’t take the 50 minutes it requires to read the whole Gospel of Mark in one sitting, we will misunderstand this sense of urgency as a rushing through too much too soon. If on the other hand, we know the rest of the story, and we take the time to pause at key moments, we will better glean the sense of an urgent need for faithfulness. We will be able to see the quickness in Mark’s steps, not as a rush through life, but rather as an urgent need for our faithfulness to a life filled with service to one another, with Jesus at our center.
There are two scenarios in this morning’s section of Chapter 1 that gives us a much-needed pause to allow our hearts to catch up with our feet.
The first pause involves touch; the second involves prayer.
Simon’s mother-in-law is in bed with a fever, and Jesus touches her hand with his hand, and she suddenly becomes a model of faithfulness to service. Imagine that, a hand touching another hand, and someone unexpectedly has the strength to be of service to others. Pause to picture the other stories in the Gospels that speak of healing by touch. Pause to picture yourself reaching out to take Jesus’ hand into your own hand. Pause to remember when someone in your community reached out to touch you, and the touch gave you strength you didn’t know you had. Pause to remember someone you know who needs a loving touch.
There are myriad ways to touch one another.
January 21, 2018
May I speak to you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Over the last few weeks, we’ve moved at warp speed from the nativity and beholding little Baby Jesus, to adult Jesus. BAM! What does that mean for us – how do we not only catch up but how do we enter in?
This season in the church calendar following Advent and the 12 days of Christmas is Epiphany. An author I appreciate and a former seminary professor of mine lend help in understanding where we are on the calendar: Jan Richardson has written devotionally on Advent and Epiphany. She provides definition and description:
Epiphany means “manifestation,” “appearing,” or “showing.” Epiphany refers both to the appearing of Christ in the world and to the arrival of the wise ones who followed the star and welcomed the child.
We hear from Richardson a nativity focus.
J. Neil Alexander, Dean of the School of Theology at Sewanee’s University of the South asserts an almost contradictory point of view in his writing on liturgical time – the seasons of the church year:
Epiphany is something of a fulcrum that shifts the balance from the incarnation of God seen in relation to the nativity of Jesus, to the incarnate one being manifest in new ways as God’s anointed one whom we will come to know as teacher, healer, and miracle worker, and ultimately as the Crucified and Risen One.
…the present shape of things often makes Epiphany seem only the end of Christmas, it is important to recognize…that Epiphany is also about looking forward, about beginnings, about what is still to come.
Alexander and Richardson both challenge us in our understanding and approach to Epiphany. It is not merely the end of Christmas, but a season to engage this adult Jesus and what he’s showing us – how he’s manifesting himself to us…and perhaps be willing to be surprised and welcoming.
Epiphany is a season of recognition. As we hear the readings, we are shown Jesus in his character, nature, and commitments – we heard of Christ’s baptism last week, and this week we see the beginning of the call of the disciples.
January 14, 2018
At today’s services, we dedicated a beautiful new green altar frontal and hangings to the glory of God and in loving memory of William Leake Terry. Bill Terry died a year ago on Christmas Day. We buried him four days later. Knowing that we were dedicating the frontal today, I asked his family if I might repeat the homily I gave on that occasion. They said yes.
William Leake Terry, in memoriam
For some of us, The Crown was must-see TV this fall. It is the story of England’s Elizabeth II as a girl and young queen. The Crown is soulful like Friday Night Lights and dressed up like Downton Abbey.
In episode eleven, we learn that Elizabeth was embarrassed by her lack of learning. The episode title is Scientia Potentia est: “Knowledge is power.” She felt her lack of it, keenly, in her weekly chats with Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister, whose talk was salted by philosophy and history.
Elizabeth had been homeschooled by palace tutors, who spent hours drilling in her in protocol and etiquette: who sat where and talked to whom when entertaining heads of state. The one piece of philosophy she was taught was a silly-seeming distinction between “dignified” and “efficient” components of the English Constitution. It was a play on Aristotle’s four causes: material, formal, efficient, and final. Elizabeth was taught that the dignified, symbolic power would be hers as queen. The efficient power was the political machinery through which laws were made and things actually got done. That now belonged to Churchill. On my couch I am thinking: the crown and a quarter buys a cup of coffee.
Then, as the episode unfolds, we are shown a dangerous moment for England when it takes the Queen’s exercise of dignity to save the day. With the queen, we realize that her little bit of homeschooled knowledge could be potent and that her royal dignity was too.
William L. Terry was born with dignity. He bore it naturally, humbly, and heroically. It was for someone like Bill that the phrase was coined: “He bore an honored name and added honor to the name he bore.” As a quiet congressman’s son from Arkansas, he rose to the top of the ranks at St. Alban’s School as Senior Prefect. He rowed crew at Princeton. Pearl Harbor came December of his freshman year. Before graduating, he enlisted. He wanted to fly but was told he was too tall. The army let him be a gunner, on B-17 Bombers, only because this time he fibbed about his height. He completed 34 missions over Europe. As he knew from the start, the odds of his surviving that were small.
I was ordained in 1982, at which time the World War II airmen were beginning to retire. They were still vigorous. One of my first Senior Wardens had been a bomber pilot in the European Theater and when he wasn’t playing golf he was up and down the Ozark ridges hunting quail. I went back to bury him six years ago.