Read Sermons Author: The Rev. Amber Carswell

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A Few Last Words

January 07, 2018

My first Sunday with you, I preached on the Gospel of John, which is my least favorite gospel. Today, we are ending on a higher note — the highest, in fact, because Mark is my favorite gospel. He’s the earliest, which I respect; the shortest, which I — whose job involves writing ten-minute speeches — I admire; and he’s the darkest, the most anxious, which I can feel.

I think he’s also the bravest. Take the passage today. It’s one of those passages that scholars are united on (or as united as scholars get) about saying this is one of the most historically verifiable pieces of Jesus’ life. This much is certain: before the beginning of his ministry, Jesus was baptized by a man named John in the river Jordan.

Scholars agree not because anyone had any Polaroids from the day, nor is there a white lacy baptismal gown Jesus wore tucked away in some reliquary, they don’t have witnesses outside the gospels for it. They agree because this story is embarrassing. If you were making up a messiah, this is not a story you would tell.

Think about it. Paul writes earlier than these gospels, by as much as a decade or two, and he repeats the already-formed Christian doctrine: Christ is sinless, the spotless lamb, a total innocent. Why, then, would he need to go through a baptism that John says is for the forgiveness of sins? Why tell a story about an unnecessary baptism? Or… Had he sinned?

It's embarrassing and the editing of the story starts immediately with the other, later, gospel writers. Luke gets his copy and says, let's not mention who does the baptism... John thinks real hard and says, I'm just gonna leave out this bit.

Matthew starts his copy and tries another way. He has John the Baptist tell Jesus that he’s not worthy to baptize him, you remember the story: you should be baptizing me, Lord, you've got phenomenal cosmic powers, I’m a worm and no man… and John only consents to baptize Jesus after this verbal self-immolation.

But Mark heads straight in, caring nothing for our developed doctrine, and says fine. This is an embarrassing story, a flaw in the system, a crack in the logic — but do you see the light getting through here? This is the first Sunday after Epiphany, and we tell this story because Jesus is having one. You are my beloved son, a voice says to him. In you I am well-pleased. Mark is telling the story of Jesus’ baptism but is not relating baptism to a reductive notion of the forgiveness of sin. He says it’s like an epiphany, an understanding, a revelation of belovedness and purpose that, I think, set Jesus on the path he was to take for the rest of his life.

There are different ways to tell the story of Jesus. What version are you telling?

The way you tell the story matters, especially, I think, the ones we wish we’d never had to tell. The hard ones, the embarrassing ones. How do you tell them?

Imagine, if you will, a wealthy, white parish in the midst of the segregation crisis in Arkansas who starts a school for their children to attend when the public ones are closed. Two generations later, after that beloved school had gone the way of all things and closed, the doors are reopened, now used for a school whose student population is 98% black, the very population the schools had been closed in response to by the governor in the 50s. What a tale of redemption, if I’ve ever heard one — a revelation of belovedness. This could be the way you tell the story. I’ve heard some of you telling it to me, in ways greater than words.

Imagine a parish that split in the 90s — and what was the split over? You tell many different stories here; they circle around homosexuality and the 1996 election of a dean who would not say that being gay was a sin. I was an 11-year-old in Kansas then, where the very worst insult I could call someone was gay, even considering my vocabulary that was colorful beyond its few years. This past fall, on November 11, you and I were together at my marriage to Melissa. All the love and support I felt could’ve flown me across the Atlantic without the use of a plane. Who knew that our stories would converge in the happiest days of my life?

Imagine, if you will, a parish full of people with complicated histories and connections to one another, to the town, to the bishop — a parish with generational risings and fallings. Then imagine a story that it was modeled after Jesus’ — the powerful becoming humbled, of being taught the way of the cross, of a people willing to let go of their desire for control and safety and prestige, and who looked back on the time in the wilderness without bitterness to say, it was there when we learned what mattered. It was there I saw Jesus, and I now can see him in the people least like me in this world. An epiphany. Those of you who told me these stories have told me the story of Jesus.

The wilderness where John preaches is a hard place to visit. It’s bone-dry, the sun is blinding in the desert, we step into frigid and murky waters for a baptism for the repentance of sins, we go under. We experience death — death in all its forms, the loss of our control, the loss of ways of life we loved, sometimes the slow and agonizing slope of long-term illness, sometimes it comes as suddenly as the ring of the telephone. We all go under. There’s no way to get back to it.

But that’s not the aim of the Christian hope, to get back to some past splendor that was. The Christian asks, how then can we change? Because when we are brought up out of the water, the story changes. There’s an epiphany. A voice pronounces a love that can guide the rest of your life. That is the story of Jesus. Is that the voice that guides your story?

Brene Brown writes that only once you claim your story can you begin to write a brave new ending. The wilderness can become epiphany.

So, my friends, I bless you with all my heart:
May you continue to look for the stories of those around you;
may God enliven your imaginations with resurrection;
may you live and feel your belovedness in God;
and may you tell the story of Jesus.


Getting Lost

September 11, 2016

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

My dad fancies himself a funny man. When I was young, he would embarrass me by snickering and pointing and elbowing me every time we walked passed the women’s lingerie section at Wal-mart. When I say young, he still does this. He used to tell me that I had two twin older brothers. I’m the oldest child. He said that I used to have two twin older brothers who had behaved badly, and the story changed each time. They behaved badly by not buckling their seatbelts, or not eating their dinner, or fighting in the back seats with their siblings, and that was why he had to kill them.

His antics extend to Facebook now where he regularly invites me to like fan pages for the Monsanto Company and Ayn Rand. This week he put a meme on my wall with a woman holding a bible. Some of you may have seen this, it was circulating. It said, “You’re so vain, you probably think the psalm is about you.” Over the years I’ve learned to play the straight man to his antics.  I’ve gone from flustered and red-faced and to another approach.  So I replied to the picture and I said “You know, that’s a really interesting question of biblical hermeneutics, Dad” and I meandered on thoughtfully about who scripture is for and about what an expansive interpretation of scripture might look like if it is not for you. He never replied so I think I won this one. And well it is an interesting question of biblical interpretation. Who are these stories for? What are they about?

Take the Gospel for today. I read it a chapel this week for our Early Childhood Education Program, and a bunch of 3 and 4 year olds can definitely count up to nine and exclaim that they are indeed missing a coin. A group of 20 of them can more that multiply in volume to make up for the sounds of 99 bleating and vying sheep. But when it comes to the moral of this story? “So boys and girls, God is a shepherd who finds his lost sheep. God is a woman who sweeps her house and finds what she’s misplaced.” I felt a little lame. When you tell these stories to kids, you’re struck by the fact there isn’t a very clear moral in most of them. These aren’tAesop’s Fables: no warnings against the witches in the wood; nothing really about the virtues of unselfishness or truthfulness; no real promises that anything is going to go particularly well for you, even by being totally perfect. If serving a crucified God holds its proper weight in our minds. That’s why I am dubious when people tend to equate Jesus with a Zen master or a teacher of timeless truths or a dispenser of any sort of good advice. “Which one of you,” Jesus asks, “wouldn’t abandon 99 sheep to find that one missing sheep?” At which, everyone with your inquiring and discerning hearts, should look around and think, “No, no I don’t think abandoning 99 sheep to fend for themselves is a very effective sheep-maximizing strategy here. Have you met sheep?” “Which one of you,” Jesus asks,  “wouldn’t sweep the house for the coin and throw a party when you find it?” That’s not a party I’ve ever been invited to. The coin was a day’s wages. I mean, how much does a party for all of your friends and neighbors cost? The Gospel today is unfortunately, in my opinion, truncated in its crescendo that’s two of the three stories that Jesus is telling in a row here, and the peak of which is “The Prodigal Son.” You’ve heard the story, and it’s the older brother, always the straight man to his father’s antics, who boils over at his father’s prodigal nature.

Who are these stories for? Who are they about? Jesus tells the scribes and Pharisees, our current straight men, this series of stories about the lost being found. Now, just sort of base level here, when Jesus tells parables, the main actors are God and/or Jesus, the “and/or” being the particularly provocative part about this guy hinting maybe he is more that he is willing to say, something too holy for the Gospel writer to name. But he is provoking a question to all of us with these inquiring and discerning hearts: Who exactly in this story is lost? Is it the Gentiles as a whole? Is it just the tax collectors and sinners sitting around them, the dregs of society? Is it Israel? Is it these scribes and Pharisees entrenched so in the answers that religion has given them that they are so lost, that they cannot see the kingdom of God sitting around them? And what does it mean to be found? Can a coin or a sheep have anything to do with its own finding, or does it rely on being totally sought, swept from the dusty corner, carried back into the fold, being not more responsible for its foundness than its lostness?

I’m reading a book about the Nones, which is the term which we use for the 25% now of Americans who say that they have no religious affiliation. Not necessarily atheist, often they describe themselves as spiritual, not religious, right? The author is a None and her status happened unconsciously for her and her family, she said. These lofty intentions, she had been raised in all sorts of different types and experiences with church, but lofty intentions to expose her children to the great traditions of human existence when she got married. She thought, “This is what we will do.” She and her husband talked about it. But life happened, as it does, and she woke up one day with her 9-year-old confused by the sight of a Good Friday church procession. She said all of her nonreligious parent friends were worried about it too when they were talking about it at a party. They’d all grown up with some sort of church interactions, but it was a given and that given just left over time. There were various and understandable reasons that people had to have problems with the church: the hypocrisy of the people, the exclusionary nature of the beliefs. But she kept saying it was mostly not even a thought, an unconscious decision, until they all had kids who had full expectation of an Easter bunny that loved them and brought them candy but not much else. The author’s lovely and she had very good hopes for her children, though, and there was this line in there of when she realized what had happened. She wanted her child to know what it was like to bow down to something larger than himself. I’ll call it humility, though she didn’t. It was a very good hope that her child would find his proper place rather than this aggrandized self-indulgence of a consumer culture to which he would bow in order to satiate the growing appetite of his whims. The problem is that to bow to something larger, there must first be the admission of something larger. Spoken about by the ones who have come before, the handing down of practice and parables that ask more questions than they do dispense answers.

G. K. Chesterton said, “The riddles of God are more satisfying that the solutions of man.“ The worthiness of the pursuit of the mystery, the discomfort of kneeling, the burn of the wine that this is the blood of God you are taking it in, and when you do it you are being taken in as well.  Drawn past the consuming mystery of your own soul and into the deep and dazzling darkness. It is something like being lost. It is there where you know what it is like to be carried. It is there where you are fed with spiritual food and drink meant to awake your parched sense of wonder. The glimmer of your compassion to open your eyes to the world around you.

These stories are about you, too.

King David’s appetite got the better of him. What he wanted was good, but not for him.

In the Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas affirms that love was God’s reason for the making of the world and that his goodness permeates creation—but in pieces, disassembled like a jigsaw puzzle. He writes: “The perfect goodness that exists one and unbroken in God can exist in creatures only in a multitude of fragmented ways.”  

So David was drawn to a fragmentary good. His desire was one that we instinctively appreciate, because without it none of us would be here, but the wrongness of his acting on it was severe. Our appetites cause trouble when we are heedless of the good of others, and the puzzle as a whole.

What is love? “Willing the good” of another person, according to Aquinas. David’s motive wouldn’t count as love. He wanted Bathsheba for himself. Perhaps her feelings were reciprocal, but David left her husband’s good, his kingdom’s good, and other puzzle pieces, neglected on the floor. Inconveniently, a pregnancy occurred. Plan A was to give Uriah, the husband, grounds to believe he was the father. When that plan failed the king successfully arranged to have him killed in battle.

Evil, according to Aquinas, is a corruption of the good. “Power tends to corrupt,” as Lord Acton warned, and in this story we see why. Only a king could be tempted to sin like David did, because it would take a king to pull it off. David’s failure is common to men in high places, shadowing the lives and times of several of our recent presidents and even Martin Luther King. Like kings and presidents, prophets are susceptible.

When I started SUMMA, the high school theological debate camp, I named it partly for the Summa Theologiae––“the Summa,” for short. SUMMA, the camp, highlights faith’s intellectual dimension. According to the Summa, the book, our intellect is like an appetite. As David’s eye was attracted to the beauty of Bathsheba, our mind’s eye is drawn to truth. We call this attraction “reason.” Aquinas writes; “As the good denotes that towards which the appetite tends, so the true denotes that towards which the intellect tends.”

If truth is the sun, sometimes our sight of it is fogged by other appetites. David had broken three of the ten commandments (the sixth, seventh, and tenth, if you are keeping score) but he was oblivious. Nathan the prophet found a way to lift the fog. Lawyer-like, he caught the king’s attention with the case of a poor, honest sharecropper and his beloved lamb. David’s first job had been tending sheep, so he could relate. A selfish plantation owner took the poor man’s lamb to feed his party guests. The king was livid. “Is this for real?” “For real.” David’s appetite for justice burned. “That Simon Legree will pay!” he swore. Coming from a king that was a verdict, not an empty threat. Nathan had him. He drew out his mirror and held it to the king’s face. Look close, he said. You are that man. “The moment of truth.”

“We must no longer be children,” Paul writes to the Ephesians. “We must grow up,” he says, by “speaking the truth in love.” At SUMMA, the camp, the highest honor, “the SUMMA Prize,” is awarded to the camper who best shows us how that’s done. The prize is one thousand dollars. That is one way to make our point that truth and love are intertwined.

Often, finding truth takes expertise: science, logic, math. Aquinas’s expertise was logic and it took him years to learn. Not everyone would have the skill even if they afford the time. By God’s design, love requires no expertise. Everyone can understand and anyone can do it if they will. “It is evident,” Aquinas writes, “that not all are able to labor at learning and for that reason Christ has given a short law. Everyone can know this law and no one may be excused from observing it based on ignorance. This is the law of divine love.”

For a counterpoint, Franklin Roosevelt once compared our nation’s moral progress to our scientific progress unfavorably, which might suggest that finding truth is easier than loving. According to Jon Meacham, Roosevelt had drafted a speech to give on Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, April 13. This was 1945. The speech was discovered on Roosevelt’s desk in Warm Springs, Georgia, April 12, the day he died. This is FDR:

Today, science has brought all the different quarters of the globe so close together that it is impossible to isolate them one from another . . . Today we are faced with the preeminent fact that, if civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships—the ability of all peoples, of all kinds, to live together and work together in the same world, at peace. . . . Let us move forward with strong and active faith.

That’s from Meacham’s book The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels. From 1776 to now, the book tracks our national ups and downs in answering to what what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” Meacham wrote the book because he thinks we need to listen much more closely to those better angels now. Who could disagree?

Aquinas and Roosevelt were both right. Aquinas, because only an Isaac Newton could discover calculus; and Roosevelt because, once discovered, truth is ours to keep. Libraries are full of it. Love is more like breakfast—we have to make it every morning. Aquinas called theology the “Queen of Sciences” because it's the science that has to reckon with both the library and the kitchen.

SUMMA, the camp, is a crash course in truth detection. I tell the students: “I didn’t bring you here to tell you what to think, but to show you how.” They learn the three parts of an argument: claim, evidence, and warrant. Claim: ‘What are you trying to get me to believe?’ Evidence: ‘What are you giving me to go on?’ Warrant: ‘How does the evidence support the claim?’

For example, claim: I say “Tomorrow it will rain.” Evidence: You ask “Why should I believe that?” I answer: “Open the window and take a whiff.” You open the window. “Oh,” you say, “the paper mill.”  Warrant: By what logic does this smell support my claim? It’s called an “inference from sign.” Does the Pine Bluff Paper Mill cause rain? No, but it lets us know the wind is from the south, and southern winds bring moisture from the Gulf of Mexico. Summer heat means afternoon convection: hot air rising from the earth. Add moisture and boom! Summer thunderstorms.

In one sentence in our gospel reading, Jesus makes two claims: (1) God sent me.  (2) Faith in me is a sign of God’s activity in the heart and mind of the believer. “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent,” he says. Again: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” Smartly, people ask Jesus for evidence to support these claims. Moses gave us evidence, they remind him, out there in the wilderness. Our ancestors were hungry and thirsty. Miraculously, he gave them manna for bread and water from a boulder. So show us. “What sign are you going to give us that we may see it and believe in you?”

For John, the gospel writer, this question is like a student’s who had dozed off in class. It is summer school, the air conditioning is out and the windows are open. The air is hot, moist, and heavy with that familiar smell. The boy wakes up and asks the teacher to answer something she had just explained in detail: “So why should we believe that it will rain tomorrow?”

Jesus’ questioners had been dozing. In John’s gospel, signs followed everywhere he went. In Cana, he turned water into wine. In Capernaum, he healed a dying child; in Jerusalem, it was a sick old man too weak to walk. The latest sign had been the most spectacular so far, and these people who were asking for a sign had either seen or heard about it. From five loaves and two fish, five thousand hungry appetites were satisfied. In a fog, these interrogators fail to draw the inference from sign.

Jesus backs up and tries another tack. With Moses still in mind, he offers an analogy. Analogies are warrants that work by comparison. “This is like that.” You know what its like to hungry and be given bread? They nod, still digesting loaves that he had given. I am like that he says. “Those who come to me will never hunger and those who believe in me will never thirst,” he promises. He isn’t talking now about digestion, but about that activity of God in human hearts and minds––also called the Holy Spirit.

By this, he puts us on watch for good that answers to a longing deeper than hunger even, and more thrilling even than that dizzy dancing feeling that draws us to each other sometimes. Powerful and necessary though they are, these appetites, they point to only fragments of the good we need as human beings. We are made for more.

We don’t need faith to know this. Aristotle knew it. Reason, he taught, is like an appetite for good things greater than our emotional enjoyment and even our physical survival.

We do not live by bread alone. Reason shows us that much. Faith, hope, love—the activity of God in the minds and hearts of all believers––now show us more: eternal truth, everlasting goodness, and transcendent beauty. They are like coffee, eggs, and bacon cooking in the kitchen early in the morning, smells wafting up the stairs into the bedroom as we’re dressing, getting ready for the day.