Read Sermons Author: The Very Rev. Dr. Christoph Keller, III

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No Place Like Home

January 05, 2020

Are you ready now? The good witch asks the farm girl. 

Yes, she answers, but hesitantly. Behind her stand beloved friends: a tin man, scarecrow, and lion. She draws a deep breath and says, her doubt resolved:

Say goodbye Toto. Yes, I’m ready now.

Then close your eyes, and clap your heels together three times.

Eyes closed, she taps the ruby slippers.

And say to yourself  “There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.

I’ve told you before that the father of my first year college roommate was Robert Penn Warren, the novelist. I don’t believe I have previously mentioned that the great uncle of my second year roommate was L. Frank Baum, who wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. I’ve used All the Kings Men and The Wizard of Oz for sermon fodder so often through the years I may owe my roommates royalties.

I left home, here, for college in 1973. My father’s bishop’s diary entry for that September 3 reads: “Labor Day weekend with family. Down to two children at home. Tomorrow it will be one.” September 4: “Put son Christoph on the plane for Amherst College. Felt somewhat like the old rancher in the classic Norman Rockwell picture.” “Breaking Home Ties” is the name of the painting. A sad father sits at the bus stop with his eager son, who is leaving for State U. 

This eager son boarded the plane and was homesick all the way to Massachusetts. Four years later I collected my diploma and came right back home. 

On June 26, 1982—my sister Patty’s birthday––I was ordained deacon here. I was the only ordinand that day. As my home parish, you presented me for ordination. Somewhere down deep in the Cathedral archives there must be a vestry vote recommending me for ordination. My father came out of retirement to preach, from this pulpit, about the life and work to which I had been called. 

So kneeling on those steps, X marks the spot, is where I started out in ordained ministry, a yellow brick road that wound around the state: south to Pine Bluff, west to Van Buren, back east to Little Rock (St. Margaret’s); up north again for some extra years of school, then south back to St. Margaret’s, and finally right back here, home base, six years ago.

Beautiful Day

December 24, 2019

“He might as well have been a friendly alien, thrown upon the rocks of our planet to help us find our way to the impossible possibility that we are loved.”[i]

Those words were written not of Jesus, but of Mr. Rogers, by a journalist named Tom Junod, in the December Atlantic. I read it on an airplane. The article was titled: “What Would Mr. Roger’s Do?”

Personally, I was too old for Mr. Rogers. His show came on the air in 1968, by which time I was thirteen and done with children’s television. Eddie Murphy and Johnny Carson’s late night impersonations of him made me laugh, and that was all I knew.

Along with the rest of the country, I am getting to know him now in hindsight, through last year’s documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” and this year’s movie “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” with Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers. In both we learn about this writer Tom Junod, whose life Mr. Rogers changed by being kind. This happened in 1998, when Esquire assigned him a story on Mr. Rogers, a short profile, for a special “American Heroes” issue. 

At the time, Junod was a forty-year old reporter who had built his reputation by knocking big shots off their high horse. Mr. Rogers seemed ripe for exposure. Surely his niceness was an act and Tom was just the reporter to bring that truth to light—capable, he says, “of silken cruelties committed in the name of revelation.” He was assigned the story on Mr. Rogers, he remembers, “because one of the editors at Esquire thought it would be amusing to have me, with my stated determination to ‘say the unsayable,’ write about the nicest man in the world.”

One interesting thing he found out also came as a surprise to me. In Fred Roger’s closet there was . . . a preacher’s gown. He was an ordained Presbyterian minister. Tom asked him heavy, grown-up questions. In the news, another shooter had attacked a school. If God is love, why this evil? Fred replied with a grown-up, seminary educated reflection that God is constrained in his dealings with the world by some of his own commitments to it: “If there is such a thing as a ‘dark corner’ of God’s nature then I think it is God’s refusal to go back on the promise of ‘the creation’s freedom to love or not.”[ii]

Against his producer’s advice, Mr. Rogers was open to the Esquire interview. He sat for one, then another, and another. Finally the hidden truth came out, unearthed—but the tables had been turned. As Tom had scratched for dirt on Mr. Rogers, Fred was digging for gold in Tom. He knew he would find it. When he did, Tom said his heart, which had felt like an iron spike, “opened like an umbrella.” This happened in a prayer.[iii]

As for Mr. Rogers, his deepest secret was his kindness, born of his belief in children. “The Kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid.”[iv] A child was that treasure. Empty the bank to buy that field. And what Faulkner said about the past, he applied to childhood. No matter our age, our childhood isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.

God Save the State

December 08, 2019

Our psalm is a prayer for good government:

Give the King your justice, O God,
And your righteousness to the King’s Son;
That he may rule your people righteously
And the poor with justice.[i] 

Such a government would be godlike in its impartiality, and for its care, top to bottom, for the common good. 

We now interpret “King” democratically, with separated powers:

Give the president your justice, O God,
And your righteousness to congress.

If Washington, Hamilton and Madison were father to those revisions, their grandfather was John Locke. According to Locke, government exists to preserve a community, small or large, and protect the natural rights, God-given, of its people. The powers of government are given with trust for the attainment of these ends.[ii] 

Locke knew that wars complicate this formulation.

I have been reading James Michener’s novel The Source, an eight thousand year stroll through the history of the Holy Land. In 336 BCE, Alexander the Great conquered Israel for Greece. His successor Antiochus IV decided that it would serve the empire best if all its peoples practiced one religion, centered on Zeus, whom he personified. He renamed himself Antiochus Epiphanes, “God-Made-Manifest.”[iii] Under penalties up to and including death, a Jew “could neither keep the Sabbath, nor observe the feasts of his fathers, nor so much as confess himself to be a Jew.”[iv] Many faithful Jews refused to obey and were executed. In 166 BCE, Judah Maccabee led a Jewish revolt that drove the Greeks from Israel. 

The Greeks were followed by the Romans, who ruled Israel through Herod, a puppet king. John the Baptist chastised Herod for breaking divine law, and was beheaded. 

Such things don’t happen in our country as a rule. Our founders placed a hard stop on religious executions. These founders were wise to human nature’s mix of great and terrible potential, and masterful at giving freedom air to breathe while frustrating its appetite for power.

One of their best designs was the 1st Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” That plan would have spared John the Baptist and saved the Jews from Antiochus Epiphanes.”

Invisible God

November 24, 2019

God is normally invisible to human beings, and also inaudible and undetectable to human taste, or touch, or smell. Angels are thought to have more sensitive receptors—but we are naturally blind and deaf to the One in whom we live and move and have our being. 

Obviously, this is a gift. 

Imagine how different life would be if God were always tapping on our shoulders and staring at us from the rear view mirror. “Take a left here, you’ll save ten minutes and reduce your carbon footprint.” Morally and spiritually we would be a world of Peter Pans, stuck in childhood. As things are, we can grow up and come into our own as beings in God’s image who can think for ourselves and do as we see fit, as though God had retired and moved to Florida. We call this freedom. 

Obviously, it is also a problem. 

Divine invisibility opens the gates for human error and confusion. We are governed by people no better or wiser than ourselves. We get lonely often, and in trouble sometimes, and would appreciate a reassuring touch or a helping hand from heaven. 

Church is an answer to this problem. Here we surround ourselves with sights and sounds, and offer things to taste, touch and smell that have been blessed to stimulate our minds and open our hearts to God’s presence in our midst, and purpose for our lives––and to raise awareness of his almost palpable assistance. 

Karl Barth said it: God “is never sleeping but always awake; never uninterested but always concerned.” [i] 

And invisible does not mean inactive. 

Allow me to be personal and specific. From beginning to end my time here has seemed to me to have been invisibly scripted in key respects. There were events around my coming, my staying, and now my going that have called me to do things that I had not planned and, but those events, would not have considered doing. 

2013: “The dean is leaving: will you help us?” “No, I can’t do that.” Inaudibly, a still, small prompt: “Why don’t you just reconsider?”

2015: The new dean was on his way. They would be announcing it at any minute. Again, a prompt: “He ain’t coming. Are you going to leave them in the lurch?”

Home Run

November 10, 2019

Jesus debates the resurrection: “Resolved, the dead are raised.” Jesus argues the affirmative: yes, the dead are raised. His opponents are the Sadducees, who don’t believe that. 

For me, this reading brings back memories. My first sermon ever was on this text. It was November, 1980 at Christ Church, Hyde Park in Boston, my second year in seminary. I told them about my sister Caroline’s husband Robin, who was dying from a brain tumor at the age of thirty-nine. I dedicated my sermon to him, a month before he died. 

Let’s see how this debate unfolds. 

From their side, the Sadducees serve up a reductio absurdum. Are the dead raised? No, because that would lead to an absurd result. They tell their story of the unlucky widow who married, then buried, seven brothers in succession. If the dead are raised, she’ll find herself married to them all, which is crazy. Claim, evidence, warrant: they’ve met the burden of proof. 

The ball in his court, Jesus must offer a rebuttal. He might have countered that Jacob was married, at the same time, to Leah and her sister Rachel, and no one called that crazy. That argument would have been about two thousand years before its time, and Jesus doesn’t use it. Instead, he rebuts by dissolving his opponents’ premise. The Sadducees have assumed that marriages made in this life would continue in a new one. Not so, says Jesus Christ. “Those who are considered worthy of a place in the life to come neither marry nor are given in marriage.” That is to say the least an interesting disclosure and­­––voilà––by resolving the absurdity it meets the burden of rejoinder. 

Caroline grieved Robin’s death intensely, then married Jim and they have been happy now for almost forty years. I imagine they are glad not to have to worry or haggle over who will be married to whom in paradise. Deciding who will be buried next to whom is hard enough. 

Now Jesus serves another argument, which boils down to a logical proof built from premises in scripture his opponents would accept. How did God identify himself to Moses? Everybody knew the answer: “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”  Did Abraham, Isaac and Jacob die? They did. So here is the proof, dear Watson, a simple matter of deduction: 

God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob.
God is the God of the living, not the dead. 

Therefore: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who died, were raised.

For Luke and his early Christian readers, this little debate is merely academic. They all know what is coming. This is chapter twenty in Luke’s gospel. We are already in Jerusalem, between Palm Sunday and Good Friday. That the dead are raised will very soon be seen in Jesus Easter morning. For “proof,” observation beats logic seven days a week.

Grammar School

October 27, 2019

Growing up, our family dinner table was a forum, no holds barred and no topic out of order. School, politics, religion, war, sports, race: you name it and we would argue it. The table referee was Dad, who mostly listened, but would throw a flag for two infractions: (1) bad grammar and (2) self-righteousness.

“Me and Charles are going camping.” Stop. “You mean: ‘Charles and I are going camping.’ What about Fred?” “Eddie and him got mad last time because Charles wouldn’t let us go to sleep.” Stop. “You mean ‘Eddie and he got mad.’” Those were five yard penalties. Changing the subject, I complain about a girl at school “Barbara Melvin is a stuck up snob.” Stop. “So now you’re too good for Barbara Melvin?” Fifteen yards for a personal foul. 

Bishop Keller seldom quoted scripture to his children, but Jesus was his guide, who also called fouls on those, I quote: who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.

The Pharisee prays “thank God I’m good,” while Jesus approves the other man, a remorseful tax collector. This is the story of the prodigal son in miniature.

I would like to say a word on the Pharisee’s behalf.

Where would we be without the righteous? If right-doers, feeling disrespected, went on strike worldwide, the world would come unglued and so would churches. I remember a Mother’s Day sermon at the Fort Smith Ninth Street Baptist Church, an African American congregation. My friend, their pastor A.J. Parish, preached the story of the prodigal son, but with a twist. For Mother’s Day, he praised the older son, the boy scout. He showed up on time for work, said his prayers, and paid his bills. True, he sulked when his bad boy little brother came home broke and was welcomed back with open arms. Let’s not be self-righteous about that. “Thank God for that older brother!” Rev. Parish shouted, “who didn’t waste his father’s heard-earned bread and give his poor mother sleepless nights for years.” The church house resounded with laughter, claps and loud “Amens.” 

Let’s stay with that point for another minute. There is a grammar to good living in society. It’s how we solve Freud’s problem of the id. I love repeating C.S. Lewis’s description of that problem as he met it in the demons of his own psyche. I looked inside myself, he said, “and there I found what appalled me; a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatreds. My name was legion.”[i]

Those demons are cruel masters if we let them take charge.

Our parents quickly train us not to give these instincts full expression—we learn that grammar of good living at the dinner table––and if our parents fail our neighbors or the law will try to teach us. In Freud’s terms, we fold our primal id into a law abiding ego, for our personal safety and the public good.

Then comes life. We grow up, leave home, and drama, tragedy, and comedy ensue. Some never learn the grammar and are constantly in trouble. Some know it, keep it, then rebel midlife. Some get tired of pushing that big old rock up that same steep hill. Some think it is a rigged game and refuse to play, self-righteously.

Tequila Sunrise

October 06, 2019

Retirement’s approach has had me thinking back through my years in ministry. There have been forty of them if we count the three in seminary, which let’s do, because forty has a ring that thirty-seven doesn’t. 

Ministry is faith at work. “Increase our faith!” say the apostles to the Lord. Jesus indicates that they should have enough already, because the tiniest seed of it works wonders. “You have that much, don’t you?” Then he changes the subject to work. “Get used to it,” he tells them, because, like slaves, an apostle’s work is never done. The minute you kick off your shoes off and pick up the remote control, comes a knock, a ring, a text. There is a problem somewhere, or a need, and it won’t wait.

My grandfather, “Favoo,” thought ministers only worked one day a week. At Sunday dinner my grandmother, “Bubba,” would mention that Pastor Jones was on vacation.  To Favoo vacation for a pastor was redundant. Ministers need time off like Rockefellers need more money. 

I will admit that being a priest is not the hardest job I’ve ever had. After college graduation I needed temporary work and signed up for substitute teaching in the Little Rock public schools. My beat was Junior High School. Compared to that, being Dean is easy street. (What’s the protocol for breaking up a fight between two girls?) 

Favoo was an oil man. I never considered working in that part of the family business. I don’t know if I would have been any good at it or not. The oil business is a blend of science and high stakes poker. I might have been too cautious to succeed—a nickel here, a dollar there, but never all in.  

Before seminary, the two careers I did try on for size were farming and teaching, by which I intended teaching in an ivory tower, not substituting at Pulaski Heights. I worked on the farm most summers, starting at age thirteen. My first day on the job I was handed a shovel and pointed towards the calf barn, which hadn’t been shoveled, it seemed to me, since I was born. By the age of twenty I was competent with tractors, farm chemicals, and spray rigs. One difference between farming and most other jobs is that anyone driving by can see where you started and where you stopped and know how much you did that day. If you don’t get it planted, or don’t get it picked, there’s no pretending. On the farm, lazy has no place to hide. 

In parish ministry it does. The workload is mostly up to the priest. There is no limit to the work that could be done, or to the places where it happens: church office, home study, hospital, here and there around the town—so most people don’t have much more than an educated guess about how hard a given priest is working. Over time, the truth will out and parishioners wise up to who’s shoveling and who’s snoring in the hay barn.  

Chosen People

September 22, 2019

My mother died four years ago yesterday. 

From childhood, I remember her explaining how it works in heaven. At dinner in heaven we will eat with forks and spoons, but with handles too long to feed ourselves. With a three-foot arm and a four-foot spoon you could feed your foot but not your mouth. You can do the math, or try it, or take Polly Keller’s word, which is what I did. In heaven, it is written, “they will hunger no more.”[1] So how does it work? Mother explained. Each person feeds another from across the table. Dinner is a dance with forks and spoons, a feast of laughs and songs. In hell, she mentioned, the same food and silverware is on the table, but no one thinks to feed the other, so everyone is hungry all the time.

I don’t know where my mother got her intel, so we’ll just have to wait and see about the long-handled forks and spoons.

In the meantime, churches operate like that, financially. There is no end of ways that you can spend your money: a newer car, a nicer place to live, a trip. But you give freely to support the ministry and life of this Cathedral, which in turn we give back out for free: prayers, visits, counsel, classes, breakfast, laughs and songs. That’s how it works at Trinity Cathedral.

To what end? 

The “cure of souls.” We are animals, but more: we think. We are thinkers, but more: we love. Animal, rational, and spiritual: our souls combine those three dimensions. What a piece of work! What I call soul, Martin Luther King called personality, explaining that whatever in law or life enhances personality is just, whatever tears it down is not. We affirm the soul here, and feed it, and hand it a four-foot fork or spoon. 

In this morning’s gospel Jesus gives astonishing advice. Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth, he suggests, so that when the money is gone these friends, I quote, will “welcome you into the eternal homes.” I wonder, did Jesus say that with a wink? In Game of Thrones, that was the kind of thing we might expect to hear from Little Finger, the master of tit for tat. We know that Jesus Christ did not practice tit for tat, nor believe that we can buy our way in to heaven—so the answer almost has to be yes: Jesus was smiling when he said this, and people who knew him laughed. 

Turning serious, he says this:

Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much.

Summum Bonum

September 08, 2019

In retrospect, it was on Easter Sunday 1974 that I became a disciple.

It was my freshman year at Amherst College. You may have heard me say that the stupidest creature on planet earth is a college freshman. I was speaking on evidence of my own experience. On Easter Eve, I lost badly at beer pong and from there my night went south. Sunday morning, I stumbled out of bed to go to church for Easter service at Grace Episcopal on the town common. I arrived late. Sounds of brass, timpani, and “Welcome Happy Morning” floated towards me through the open door. When I heard them my heart filled up and tears poured out. Music does that to me. It opens the floodgates. This was an emotional epiphany, that I wasn’t being true to things I knew and felt to be important, that were in those sounds floating through the door. I was mad at my stupidity. It had been months since I had been to church. No one else I knew was going. We freshman had other fish to fry. But I decided that day to start. Grace Church offered a Eucharist late Sunday afternoons, in its small chapel, usually just four or five people with an old priest. From that Easter forward through the next three years I always went alone and almost never missed. I believed the music and I followed.

Jesus turned to them and said: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”

Do I hate my father, God rest his soul? Quite the opposite. The worst pain I’ve felt in sixty-four years of life was watching his slow decline into dementia. I love my father. I love my mother and my sisters too. (Today is my late sister Neil’s birthday, I pray in heaven.) My most difficult night as Dean was the night before my mother died on our farm in Louisiana. It was a Saturday night and I had a wedding. I was scheduled to preach the next morning. The call came that mother was very sick. “How sick?” It was hard to say, but it might not be long. “How long?” No one knows. So do I go or do I stay?  I had gone another time and it had been a false alarm. I decided to stay for the wedding and Sunday morning church, then drove fast to Louisiana.

Weighing options, choosing as best one can—such is the life of a disciple. Mother waited until I got there, then, surrounded by her children, died. There is no hate in any part of that—just love.

Do I hate my wife? Obviously not. That would be a broken promise and unanswered prayer. Right on these steps I promised Julie I would love, comfort, honor and keep her in sickness and in health, and forsaking all others be faithful to her as long as we both would live. At the rail our promises were blessed: Let their love for each other be a seal upon their hearts. Forty-one years later we are going strong.

Do we hate our children? Are we nuts? They are our pride and joy. We love their spouses too. We adore our grandchild Rosie. In Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, a father tells his son his love for him is like the grace of God: “Your existence is a delight to me.” Our love for our children is God-like. We know this as disciples.

Interpreting the Present Time

August 18, 2019

You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

Forty years ago I entered seminary, after a year at Harvard preparing, I thought, for a career in academia. “The History of American Civilization” was the name of my department, which sounds a little puffed up. Everywhere else they called it American Studies, which is what I had majored in at Amherst College. I took courses like “The History of the South Since the Civil War,” and “Race and Ethnicity.” I wrote papers on immigration and assimilation. My college honors thesis was on busing. I had lived it and was for it academically.

I left all that to be a priest.

At SUMMA last month I was lecturing about our faith as an intellectual tradition. Traditions, by definition, have core beliefs and practices. To illustrate the concept, I asked the class, “What might we say is the core of the American tradition?” I was thinking along lines of some truths we have held to be self-evident. With something else in mind, a bright student raised her hand. “Racism,” she declared. There was a murmur in the room.

There was a wonderful movie out last year called “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.” It was a documentary about Mr. Rogers. Mr. Rogers’s word to children was “I love you as you are.” He knew that children often feel unlovable. As we all do, in his lower moments Mr. Rogers felt that way himself sometimes. One of his sock puppets was a tiger named Daniel. Daniel, in a low mood, sang of his own un-lovability. But the song was a duet. In a soothing and insistent voice, Lady Aberlin sang back with reassurance. You are lovable, I know because I love you. Back and forth they sang, insecurity/assurance, unbelief, and gospel. The larger truth was clearly in the voice of reassurance but this greater truth was gentle with the insecurity, careful not to drown it out. The whole truth was in that interplay of unbelief and love.

“The History of American Civilization” is a duet. 400 years ago next week a boat with twenty slaves aboard arrived in Jamestown. Our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, invites us to remember and honor “those who came as enslaved, who came to a country that one day would proclaim liberty.” Slavery and liberty: those two counter ideologies shaped our history.

Martin Luther King called them “the two dominant and contradictory strains in the American psyche.” In colonial America, slavery had the head start, as Dr. King points out. “Our democratic heritage was the later devolvement. . . .Democracy, born in the 18th century, took from John Locke . . . the theory of natural rights . . . and imbued it with the ideal of a society governed by the people.” King quotes Thomas Paine: “We have the power to begin the world over again.”[i] Now we were singing a duet.

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