Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Sermons (Page 1 of 38)

Of Amos, John, and White Christian Nationalism – Sermon for Proper 10, RCL Year B

The United States is, at least ostensibly, a very religious country. Nearly two hundred years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that “there is no country in the world where … religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America; and there can be no greater proof of its utility and its conformity to human nature than that its influence is powerfully felt over the most enlightened and free nation of the earth.”[1] While recent polling data demonstrate that the influence of religion seems to have declined, it remains a powerful force.

According to an average of all 2023 Gallup polling, about 75% of Americans identify with a specific religious faith, and 71% say that religion is either “important” or “very important” in their lives; over 40% attend religious services at least monthly, more than half of those weekly.[2]

But there is “important” and there is “important”; there is “religious” and there is “religious.” Is a religion “important” to someone in that that person spends a good deal of time observing its outward rituals, or is it “important” in that its moral precepts form a significant underpinning of his or her social behavior? Is a person “religious” because they make large donations or sacrifices and frequently attend significant rituals and ceremonies, or because he or she is an ethical and compassionate person who stands for justice and equity?

In de Tocqueville’s observations of America, it was the latter. He praised American religion for its comparative simplicity and its elimination of ritual: “I have seen no country,” he wrote, “in which Christianity is clothed with fewer forms, figures, and observances than in the United States.”[3] For the Prophet Amos in ancient Israel, the problem was the former. As biblical scholar and professor of Old Testament F.B. Huey, Jr., has noted:

Amos appeared on the scene in Israel during the reign of Jeroboam II, a time of relative peace and prosperity in both Israel and Judah. Some of the people enjoyed great wealth, but others experienced crushing poverty. The poor were oppressed, cheated, and exploited. Their rights were ignored. Immorality of every kind was openly and unashamedly practiced. Drunkenness, adultery, licentiousness, and self-indulgence had rotted the moral fiber of the nation.

However, the people could not be accused of neglecting religion. Ritualistic practices abounded. High places for worship of other gods were tolerated. Idolatry was not suppressed. [Professor John] Paterson’s classic statement best sums up the situation: “The people were oozing and dripping with religion of a kind.”[4]

About 170 years before Amos, around the year 930 BCE, the People of Israel had divided themselves into two kingdoms. The ten tribes whose territory was north of Jerusalem revolted against King Solomon’s son Rehoboam and formed a new kingdom, taking the name Israel, under Jeroboam I, who had been the official over Solomon’s public construction programs. The tribes of Judah and Benjamin, together with the Levites who served the Jerusalem Temple, remained loyal to Rehoboam and formed the southern Kingdom of Judah.

The northern kingdom established two centers of worship; one at Dan and the other at Shechem. The temples that were built at these places displayed statues of golden calves as symbols of God; they were even emblazoned with the four-letter ineffable name “YHWH”. Worship and sacrifice were performed by non-Levite priests appointed by the king.[5]

Jeroboam I was succeeded by several kings, nearly all of whom, according to Scripture, “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, walking in the way of Jeroboam and in the sin that he caused Israel to commit,”[6] some worse than others. And after 170 years, Jereboam II took the throne. His reign was one of military success and triumph against Israel’s enemies and neighbors, and of extraordinary wealth for the king and his aristocrats. Jewish tradition records

The triumphs of the king had engendered a haughty spirit of boastful overconfidence at home. Oppression and exploitation of the poor by the mighty, luxury in palaces of unheard-of splendor, and a craving for amusement were some of the internal fruits of these external triumphs.[7]

It is against this profligate extravagance, and the injustice and iniquity that accompanied it, that Amos spoke out.

Amos was a native of Judah, from the town of Tekoa, ten miles south of Jerusalem, but he was sent by God to prophesy in the Northern Kingdom. The central message of his prophecy is summed up in four verses in which God says:

I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings
and grain-offerings, I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.[8]

Amos testified to what has been called the “seamless relationship between ethical behavior and true worship, between justice and piety.”[9] The latter without the former is hollow and worthless. It’s no wonder Amaziah the priest told him to return to Judah and never prophesy in Israel again. I’m sad to say that I suspect that Amos would receive no better welcome in parts of modern-day America, for all our reported religiosity. In any event, for its injustice, its corruption, and its ritualistic but morally bankrupt religion, Amos prophesied the destruction of the Kingdom of Israel, and it came to pass.

Nearly eight centuries later, Judah had also ceased to exist and the whole of Palestine had been absorbed into the Roman Empire. The last king of anything that could be called a unified Jewish nation, Herod the Great, King of Judea, had died and the Romans (confirming instructions in Herod’s will) divided his client kingdom among his children. His youngest son, Herod Antipas, ruled, under the title of “Tetrarch,” a portion of what had been Jeroboam’s kingdom and, like Jeroboam, he had to contend with a prophet condemning the morality and injustice of both his political reign and his personal lifestyle.

Luke rather white washes or sugar coats John’s social justice prophecy, making it sound like an adult Bible Study class:

[T]he crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”[10]

But remember, John was also talking to the religious authorities, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and “all the people from Jerusalem,”[11] the same people he had just addressed as “You brood of vipers!” and called a bunch of rotten trees producing bitter fruit which God plans to chop down and throw into the fire![12] I would think the conversation was a little more heated than the polite Sunday School class Luke describes.

It was not John’s concerns about neglect of the poor, excessive taxation, or military oppression that got him arrested and beheaded, however; it was his criticism of the Tetrarch’s marriage. History tells us that Antipas occasionally paid heed to the outward norms and forms of contemporary Judaism: “[H]e is known to have celebrated Passover and Sukkoth in Jerusalem. Unfortunately, his subjects were not convinced by their leader’s piety.”[13] He’d been educated in Rome, venerated the Emperor Tiberius, and in his personal life, especially it seems in regard to marriage, he was pretty much culturally a Roman.

Initially, he was in a political marriage to Phasaelis, daughter of King Aretas IV of Nabatea, a neighboring country. But then he met Herodias, the wife of his half-brother Archelaus. They fell in love and each divorced their current spouse so they could marry the other. While marriage to the ex-wife of one’s living brother was not against Roman law, it was not acceptable under the Law of Moses. On top of that, Herodias was also his niece, the daughter of his other half-brother, Aristobulus. Again, marriage to one’s niece was permitted under Roman law, but outside the bounds Jewish propriety. John called him out on it, and this is what got John arrested and eventually beheaded.

Like Jeroboam and Amaziah, Herod Antipas and the religious leaders of Jerusalem adhered to the outward trappings of religion, but within those rituals there was little or no ethical content; worse, there was unrighteousness, injustice, and immorality. They were, as Jesus would later say, like whited sepulchres, “which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.”[14]

Amos of Tekoa and John the Baptizer were followers of the God of Israel who called those who claimed to be their co-religionists to task. They sang from the same hymnal as all the prophets who called on God’s People to “do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with … God,”[15] and they invite us to sing from that hymnal, as well, for we also have co-religionists to correct.

There is, as you know, a growing movement in our country and within the church called “dominionism” or “Christian nationalism.” It is, primarily, a phenomenon of white evangelicalism. It is quite simply a heresy. Dressed up in the rituals and ceremonies of the Christian faith, it promotes something very different from the love, justice, and humility taught by Jesus and all the prophets before him. But we cannot, as many have tried, simply dismiss dominionism as “not Christian” anymore than Amos or John could wash their hands of Jeroboam, Antipas, and their religious leaders as “not really following the religion of YHWH.”
As historian Jemar Tisby says:

[W]hite Christian nationalism is Christian, not because it resembles Christ but because it’s in the church.

White Christian nationalists attend church. They may not be the kind of churches you would want to join, but they are there.

White Christian nationalists look to the same sacred text, the Bible, that other Christians do. It may not be how you interpret scripture, but it’s the same book.

White Christian nationalists would largely claim the resurrection of Jesus, the Trinity, and other core, historical Christian doctrines. They may not derive the same meaning from those theological principles as you do, but they believe them.

White Christian nationalists use Christian symbols and rituals—crosses, prayers, spiritual songs, and fasting. These may not soften their souls in the ways we’d expect, but they are present nonetheless.[16]

No, Christian nationalism does not “soften the souls” of its adherents; on the contrary, it rather remarkably hardens their hearts. As described by Evangelicals for Democracy, Christian dominionism

treat[s] minorities and non-Christians as second-class citizens [and promotes] voting restrictions on a massive scale; more aggressive police tactics targeting black and brown communities; prohibiting interracial marriage and transracial adoption; ending protections for the religious liberty of Jews, Muslims and other non-Christian faiths; … enacting policies that are hostile to immigrants and refugees [and] the belief that women should be subservient to men.[17]

Dr. Tisby argues that the dominionists’ “misuse of the term ‘Christian’” imposes on other believers, that is us, “the duty to set forth an alternative witness of the faith.”[18]

The message of the prophets, of Amos and John, is clear: the God of Israel, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, demands morality, ethical conduct, justice, and equity. When de Tocqueville described the contribution of the Christian religion in America he wrote that it “impos[ed] some degree of humaneness on [the country’s] competitive, materialistic society.” His description of religion in the early days of the Republic differs dramatically from the program of the Christian nationalists; he observed religion that “placed mankind’s objectives beyond the treasures of earth and the soul above the senses,” that “imposed on human beings some responsibility for the welfare of others and compelled them to contemplate concerns other than their own.”[19] This religion, with its “seamless relationship between ethical behavior and true worship, between justice and piety”[20] is and has always been the “alternative witness of the faith” in this nation that we, like Amos and John before us, are to proclaim to the rulers and the people of our time.

Amen.

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This homily was offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, July 14, 2024, to the people of Harcourt Parish (Church of the Holy Spirit), Gambier, Ohio, where Fr. Funston was guest presider and preacher.

The lessons for the service were Amos 7:7-15; Psalm 85:8-13; Ephesians 1:3-14; and St. Mark 6:14-29. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.

The illustration is an 18th-century Russian icon of the prophet Amos from the Iconostasis of Transfiguration Church, Kizhi monastery, Karelia, Russia.

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Notes:
Click on footnote numbers to link back to associated text.

[1] Quoted in Norman A Graebner, Christianity and Democracy: Tocqueville’s Views of Religion in America, The Journal of Religion 56:3 (July 1976), p. 263

[2] How Religious Are Americans?, Gallup, March 29, 2024, accessed 11 July 2024

[3] Quoted in Graebner, op. cit., p. 265

[4] F.B. Huey,, Jr., The Ethical Teaching of Amos, Its Content and Relevance, Southwestern Journal of Theology, Vol. 9, Fall 1966, quoting John Paterson, The Goodly Fellowship of the Prophets (Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York:1948), p. 25, online at Preaching Source, accessed 11 July 2024

[5] See 1 Kings 12

[6] 1 Kings 15:34 (NRSV)

[7] Emil G. Hirsch, Jeroboam, Jewish Encyclopedia, undated, accessed 11 July 2024

[8] Amos 5:21-24 (NRSV)

[9] Eldin Villafane, To Live in Justice: The Message of Amos For Today, Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, October 24, 2016, accessed 11 July 2024

[10] Luke 3:10-14 (NRSV)

[11] See Matthew 3:7 and Mark 1:5

[12] Luke 3:7,9

[13] Herod Antipas, Livius: Articles on Ancient History, August 4, 2020, accessed 12 July 2024

[14] Matthew 23:27 (NRSV). The term “whited sepulchres” is taken from the King James Version.

[15] Micah 6:8 (NRSV)

[16] Jemar Tisby, Is White Christian Nationalism Christian?, Footnotes by Jemar Tisby, January 17, 2024, accessed 11 July 2024

[17] The Truth About Christian Nationalism, Evangelicals for Democracy, undated, accessed 12 July 2024

[18] Tisby, op. cit.

[19] Graebner, op. cit., pp. 269-70

[20] Villafane, op. cit.

Of Binary Thinking and Hope – Sermon for Proper 9, RCL Year B

We have had more than enough of contempt,
Too much of the scorn of the indolent rich,
and of the derision of the proud.[1]

Have you ever noticed how binary a document the Old Testament seems to be? Mike Kuhn, a professor of biblical theology at Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut, Lebanon, has pointed out that “the Bible is a book replete with binary categories: dark and light, the broad and narrow way, truth and lies, life and death, Jew and Gentile, etc.”[2] One could go on listing other opposed pairs described in the Hebrew Scriptures: the righteous and the unrighteous, the poor and the rich, the humble and the proud, us and them, God’s People and all those others. These are the categories we find in today’s gradual psalm, one of the fifteen Songs of Ascent, Psalms 120-134, which scholars believe are songs “the people of ancient Israel [sang as they] went on pilgrimage to the temple to worship … songs they sang as they traveled to express their faith.”[3] In this psalm, the dualism is between the malevolent wealthy and the faithful (and presumably poor) pilgrims who look to God for protection.

Now, binary thinking can be functional and beneficial; it has its uses. It helps us make fast decisions like those we need when our fight or flight reflex kicks in. Binary thinking clarifies, simplifies, and helps us categorize and analyze; it increases efficiency in reaching speedy conclusions. On the other hand, it can lead to oversimplification, stifle creativity, and foster polarization and division.[4] “While binary thinking can help us survive, it can, at other times, be deadly. Such thinking blinds us to innovative solutions available outside the binary system we desperately cling to.”[5] As a citizen, a lawyer, and a priest, I would suggest to you that rigid and erroneous – and frankly deadly – binary thinking is what is displayed in Monday’s Supreme Court ruling that official presidential actions are always unassailably proper, not subject to question, and immune from judicial or legislative scrutiny: despite being over 100 pages, the decision is overly simplistic, non-creative, and clearly polarizing.[6]

Binary thinking fosters inflexible and unrealistic expectations, stunts opportunities for growth, and limits our ability to see and appreciation alternative outcomes. These expectations then create a sort of feedback loop encouraging further binary thinking. Wellness entrepreneur Sharmadean Reid puts it this way, “These expectations are a like a strait jacket that can create [more] binary thinking, where we are forced to choose between two opposing options that are presented to us. … right/wrong, good/bad, male/female. … [This] results in a warped, hateful and predictable sense of what is right and wrong.”[7] It makes it impossible, she says, to fully embrace the complexity of the human condition, to appreciate the spectrum of possible alternatives. As psychotherapist Paige Dyer puts it, “If you’re anticipating it’s never going to improve, it never will.”[8] Theologically, we might say that binary thinking negates hope.

Today’s gospel lesson is another example of binary thinking and limited expectation. The people of Nazareth (Mark doesn’t actually say it’s Nazareth, just that it’s Jesus’ home town so I’m making a possibly unjustified assumption, but let’s run with it) … the people of Nazareth have certain expectations of the young men of their town, and being a prophet (let alone the Messiah) just doesn’t fit. So they reject what they see and ask, “Where did this man get all this?” and the marvel that “deeds of power are being done by his hands.”[9] They could not believe and would not accept evidence outside their limited, binary-thinking fostered expectations of Jesus.

This is the second time Jesus has been home and surprised these folks. Just three chapters earlier, Mark tells us Jesus went home and the folks there (including his family) thought he was either insane or possessed by demons.[10] A boy raised in Nazareth learned his father’s trade, spent some time in schul with the rabbis, got married, had kids, and his sons would do exactly the same thing. He didn’t wander the countryside preaching the coming of the kingdom of God and healing people with all sort of physical and spiritual ailments. No, that didn’t fit their binary thinking, so they wouldn’t, indeed they couldn’t, accept who Jesus was. The Nazarenes had different expectations of Jesus.

Expectations are powerful things. According to neuroscientists, “Our perception of the world is influenced by our expectations. These expectations, also called ‘prior beliefs,’ help us make sense of what we are perceiving in the present, based on similar past experiences.”[11] Our expectations determine how we see and appreciate or interpret the world around us, the actions of others, and the culture within which we live. But so do our hopes, and in the aftermath of the Supreme Court decision, as well as the follow-on to last week’s presidential debate, I got to wondering about the difference, if there is any, between expectation and hope.

As it turns out, this is a question that a lot of people have explored. Most of the non-theological answers to the question assert a difference based on the degree of certainty of the anticipated outcome. For example, Promova, an on-line English language tutoring site, says: “Expect is a stronger word than hope, meaning that something is likely to happen while hope is more of a desire that something will happen.”[12] Psychotherapist Naomi Yano similarly asserts: “An expectation . . . is a strong belief that things will be or should be a certain way, and an attachment to the outcome. A hope is a desire for an outcome, a wish with some uncertainty about what will actually transpire. We cling to expectations, and hold loosely to hopes.”[13]

This is what makes binary-engendered expectations so deadly: “They infect and overwhelm us, like a virus. They consume us like the plague. We are unable to give them up. We are unable to let go.”[14] Dr. Gerald May, the late psychiatrist and contemplative theologian, defines expectation as a “rigid clinging to unreal belief.” Typically fixed and frozen, expectations are inflexible and rigid, unable to give or to bend or to change. Expectations are not only based on prior beliefs, they are “limited to our previous experiences. We are unable to expect something that we haven’t seen before. We cannot expect something better than what we know.”[15] And here is where theology and faith enter our consideration of the difference between expectation and hope.

Hope, as we know from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, is waiting with patience for something we do not see, because “hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen?”[16] It is the basis not of the rigid certainty fostered by expectation, but of the flexible, adaptable confidence of faith, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”[17] Hope opens us up to the suppleness and resilience of innovation; it opens our eyes to possibilities outside the binary systems that bind and blind us. “Hope is not limited by previous experience. We can hope for more than what we know.”[18]

Motivational speaker and author Thane Ringler contrasts expectation and hope this way:

Having hope means you are trusting the process.
Having an expectation means you are trusting the results.
Having a hope means that the future is uncertain.
Having an expectation means that you are predetermining the future.
Having a hope is an action of humility.
Having an expectation can be an act of pride.
Having a hope does not disappoint.
Having an expectation often falls short.
Having a hope helps us acknowledge that God knows best.
Having an expectation often indicates that you know best.
Having a hope produces a life of faith.
Having an expectation produces a life of entitlement.[19]

We live in a time, a world, a nation where the rigidity of binary thinking is at war with the flexibility of spectrum or alternative thinking, in which the life of privilege and entitlement is at war with the life of faith and participation. In this war, the ostensible binary of “commandment of God” opposed to “human tradition”[20] is being misappropriated and misapplied to exploit and misuse the apparent binaries found in Scripture. But the Bible is not as binary as it sometimes seems.

For example, there are demands for a rigid, so-called Biblical model of marriage, but there is not one, single model of male-female relationships in Scripture; there are many, as well as models of male-male and female-female companionship. The Scriptures reveal the world as it is: varied and complex, not neatly divided between men and women, nor between rich, whether indolent or industrious, and poor, whether righteous or undeserving. The Bible is loaded with stories of the permeability of economic and class boundaries, of slaves becoming rulers, of rich men becoming paupers, of gardeners becoming prophets and shepherds becoming kings.

And both the Bible and history are full of stories of those kings and other rulers engaging in acts that are unquestionably official but equally unquestionably morally corrupt and criminal, stories which put the lie to former President Richard Nixon’s once-laughable assertion that “when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.”[21] Monday’s Supreme Court decision seems to validate Nixon, treating “official act” and “criminal act” as the opposing poles of a definitional binary that Scripture and experience clearly show to be erroneous: human government, especially the actions of supreme executives, is not and never has been that neat and tidy.

In like manner, the world has never been neatly divided between ethnic or racial groupings, between Jews and Gentiles. In the ancient world described in the Bible the Jews encountered Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, Jebusites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Edomites, Girgashites, Egyptians, Romans, Samaritans, Persians, and many other assorted non-Jews some of whom were sometimes allies, sometimes enemies, sometimes conquerors, sometimes liberators. The Jews themselves were divided into the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Herodians, the Zealots, the Essenes, and other smaller groups, and they didn’t just come from Judea. As the feast of Pentecost a few weeks ago reminded us, they were

Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene; [they came from Rome and Crete and Arabia].[22]

The world simply is not and never has been black and white, divided neatly between men and women, rich and poor, the “ins” and the “outs,” Jew and Gentile, children who grow up meeting our expectations and those who seem to be possessed by the devil … between “real” Americans and those accused of trying to “replace” them.[23]

Many of the parables of Jesus challenge binary thinking. It is the greedy younger son rather than his dutiful older brother who is welcomed as the beloved child.[24] It is the wretched tax collector not the thankful Pharisee who is accounted righteous before God.[25] It is the despised Samaritan instead of the respected priest or Levite who turns out to be the loving neighbor.[26] It is the smallest seed which becomes the greatest tree[27] and the tiniest bit of yeast that leavens the greatest amount of flour.[28] The Bible it turns out is no more binary than the world it reflects and addresses; neither has ever fit neatly into the rigid, expectation-defined boxes of binary thinking.

And yet, in the culture war in which we find ourselves, the choice actually is binary: there is good and there is evil and we must choose between them. On the side of evil there is the rigidity of binary thinking, the oversimplification of privilege, prejudice, and exclusion, and the disappointing inflexibility of expectation. On the side of good there is the adaptability of alternative thinking, an openness to complexity that fosters innovation and encourages inclusion, and the resiliency of hope.

As people of faith, we know what we must do. Like the Twelve in today’s gospel lesson, we are sent by the One who failed to live up to his neighbors’ expectations but, instead, offered the world hope; we are sent to proclaim the Good News, bear witness to the truth, and call one another and our neighbors to repentance. We are to oppose evil and the binary thinking it promotes. We know that today’s epistle lesson is correct: in taking up the cause of good we will encounter and endure “weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities,”[29] but as Paul wrote elsewhere “endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope [unlike expectation] does not disappoint.”[30]

Amen.

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This homily was offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, July 7, 2024, to the people of Harcourt Parish (Church of the Holy Spirit), Gambier, Ohio, where Fr. Funston was guest presider and preacher.

The lessons for the service were Ezekiel 2:1-5; Psalm 123; 2 Corinthians 12:2-10; and St. Mark 6:1-13. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.

The illustration is Christ Preaching in the Temple by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (Il Guercino), ca. 1625-1627, from the collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA.

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Notes:
Click on footnote numbers to link back to associated text.

[1] Psalm 123:4b-5, BCP Version (The Book of Common Prayer 1979, page 780)

[2] Mike Kuhn, The Seduction of Binary Thinking, Arab Baptist Theological Seminary, March 23, 2016, accessed 1 July 2024

[3] W.H. Bellinger, Jr., Commentary on Psalm 123, Working Preacher, July 5, 2009, accessed 2 July 2024

[4] Chris Drew, Binary Thinking: 10 Examples And Clear Definition, HelpfulProf.com, September 21, 2023, accessed 1 July 2024

[5] Ryan E. Long, The Good, Bad, and Ugly of Binary Thinking…, Stanford Law School Center for Internet and Society, October 21, 2015, accessed 3 July 2024

[6] Trump vs. United States, SCOTUS, Docket No. 23-939, decided July 1, 2024

[7] Sharmadean Reid, Practice Non Binary Thinking, Stack World, April 17, 2023, accessed 3 July 2024

[8] Family therapist Paige Dyer quoted in Ashley Carucci, What Is All-or-Nothing Thinking and Why It’s Important to Manage It, Psych Central, August 22, 2022, accessed 3 July 2024

[9] Mark 6:2 (NRSV)

[10] Mark 3:19b-30

[11] Anne Trafton, How expectation influences perception, MIT News, July 15, 2019, accessed 4 July 2024

[12] Confusing Words: Expect vs. Hope, Promova, undated, accessed 1 July 2024

[13] Naomi Yano, What’s The Difference Between an Expectation and a Hope?, Emotional ICU, May 6, 2022, accessed 1 July 2024

[14] Jeremy Stratton, The Difference Between Expectation and Hope, Living Better Stories, undated, accessed 1 July 2024

[15] Ibid. citing Gerald May, The Awakening Heart (Harper Collins, San Francisco:1993)

[16] Romans 8:24-25 (NRSV)

[17] Hebrews 11:1 (NRSV)

[18] Stratton, op. cit.

[19] Thane Ringler, Hope vs. Expectation: A Finer Line Than You Might Think, Thane Marcus blog, November 13, 2017, accessed 4 July 2024

[20] Mark 7:8 (NRSV)

[21] Nixon Interviews, Wikipedia, accessed 4 July 2024

[22] Acts 2:9-11 (NRSV)

[23] See Robert Greene II, White Supremacist Violence Is All Too American, In These Times, September 12, 2017, accessed 6 July 2024

[24] Luke 15:11-32

[25] Luke 18:9-14

[26] Luke 10:25-37

[27] Matthew 13:31-32

[28] Matthew 13:33

[29] 2 Corinthians 12:10 (NRSV)

[30] Romans 5:4-5 (NRSV)

Of “Why?” and “Yes!” – Sermon for Lent 4, RCL Year B

There is a graphic artist named Brian Andreas whose work I can’t really describe to you. He uses a lot of primary colors, representational but non-realistic images, and words to create prints called “StoryPeople.” In one of them that I saw a while back is this quotation (I don’t know if it’s original to Mr. Andreas or quoted from someone else):

I had no idea that when I invited life to take over that it actually would and now I’m somewhere miles away from any place I know and life keeps waving its arms and grinning like a crazy person saying “This. Is. So. Great.”[1]

I thought of that when I encountered, again, what may be the most famous verse from the Gospel of John in today’s lesson: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”[2]

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Of Lent and Social Action – Sermon for Lent 3, RCL Year B

When I was about 8 or 9 years of age, my grandparents gave me an illustrated bible with several glossy, color illustrations of various stories. They weren’t great art, but they were clear and very expressive. My favorite amongst them was the illustration of today’s gospel lesson.

I know it was John’s version of the cleansing of the Temple because in that picture Jesus was swinging a whip. John’s is the only version of the story with that detail. The rest of the picture was filled with movement. Jesus was whirling about like a dervish, his long hair and the hem of his rob flaring out. Men were scattering, tables and cages sailing through the air, birds fluttering away, and coins flying everywhere.

A couple of decades ago, when several of my friends were wearing “WWJD?” (What would Jesus do?) bracelets, I’d think of that illustration and wonder, “Have you considered that time with the whip in the Temple courtyard?”

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Of Temptation and Self-Discovery – Sermon for Lent 1, RCL Year B

What is Lent all about?

Some say it’s a time when we are supposed to find the presence of God in everyday life. The Most Rev. Dr. Jonn Sentamu, Archbishop of York from 2005 to 2020, suggested as much in his 2015 Ash Wednesday meditation when he said, “Lent is a time to get to know God better.”[1] The metaphor of keeping Lent as being a journey during which we search for, find, and come to know more of God is so widespread and prevalent, one cannot find its origin.

It seems to be the most common way to think about Lent. But that way isn’t working for me this year, especially as I contemplate Mark’s description of Jesus’ baptism and its aftermath. If in our Lenten discipline we are to be, in some way, doing what a Lenten hymn attributed to St. Gregory the Great says — “keep[ing] vigil with our heavenly lord in his temptation and his fast”[2] — then we should pay particular attention to what really was going on there and seek to do during Lent what seems to be going on with Jesus in the wilderness.

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Of Thomas Jefferson, Ricky Bobby, and Archie Bunker – Sermon for the Last Sunday after Epiphany, RCL Year B

Here we are at the end of the first period of what the church calls “ordinary time” during this liturgical year, the season of Sundays after the Feast of the Epiphany during which we have heard many gospel stories which reveal or manifest (the meaning of epiphany) something about Jesus. On this Sunday, the Sunday before Lent starts on Ash Wednesday, we always hear some version of the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration, a story so important that it is told in the three Synoptic Gospels, alluded to in John’s Gospel, and mentioned in the Second Letter of Peter.

Six days before, Jesus had had a conversation with the Twelve in which he’d asked them who they thought he was. They had said that other people thought Jesus might be a prophet and that some thought he might even be Elijah returned from Heaven or John the Baptizer returned from the dead. Jesus put them on the spot, though, and asked, “But who do you say I am?”[1] Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”

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Of Healthy Skepticism – Sermon for Epiphany 2, RCL Year B

In the Episcopal Church, when we baptize a person, we pray that God will “give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will, and to persevere, a spirit to know, and love, [God], and the gift of joy, and wonder in all [God’s] works.”[1] Similarly, in the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the prayer is that the baptizee will receive “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge, and the fear of the Lord, [and] the spirit of joy in [God’s] presence.”[2]

In both traditions, our prayer is that the new church member will live a life of faith, in which he or she will develop and exercise the faculty of discernment, which is “the ability to make discriminating judgments, to distinguish between, and recognize the moral implications of, different situations and courses of action.”[3] In today’s readings, we have two stories of discernment.

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Of the River Jordan and Jesus – Sermon for the Baptism of Our Lord, Year B

There’s a story about a pastor giving a children’s sermon. He decides to use a story about forest animals as his starting point, so he gathers the kids around him and begins by asking them a question. He says, “I’m going to describe someone to you and I want you to tell me who it is. This person prepares for winter by gathering nuts and hiding them in a safe place, like inside a hollow tree. Who might that be?” The kids all have a puzzled look on their faces and no one answers. So, the preacher continues, “Well, this person is kind of short. He has whiskers and a bushy tail, and he scampers along branches jumping from tree to tree.” More puzzled looks until, finally, Johnnie raises his hand. The preacher breathes a sigh of relief, and calls on Johnnie, who says, “I know the answer is supposed to be Jesus, but that sure sounds an awful lot like a squirrel to me.”

My best friend (another retired priest) and I often ask one another, “What are you preaching about on Sunday?” and our answer is always “Jesus.” For a preacher, the answer is always supposed to be Jesus. We’re supposed to take Paul as our model; he wrote to the Corinthians, “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”[1] So we are to do the same, preach Christ and him crucified, or perhaps today preach Christ and him baptized.

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Of Mary and Personal Agency – Sermon for Advent 4, Year B

When I find myself in times of trouble,
Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be
And in my hour of darkness
she is standing right in front of me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be[1]

I did not begin this morning with “Happy Christmas” or “Merry Christmas” because, although it’s December 24th, it’s not Christmas; it’s not even Christmas Eve yet! The rest of the world may want you to think it’s Christmas and that it has been since mid-October, but the Episcopal Church insists that it is not yet Christmas. In fact, there’s still more than nine months until Christmas if we believe the good news we just heard from the evangelist Luke! We still have some time to wait for trees and carols and packages, for festive dinners and “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” and the “holy infant so tender and mild.” We still have some of the Advent season to complete and so on this, the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we focus our attention on Mary and consider not the end of her pregnancy, but its beginning, that moment when the Angel Gabriel told her that she had been chosen to be the mother of the Messiah.

Visual artists depict the stories of the bible in many fascinating ways and their works can help us explore scripture’s meaning. Often their images capture or suggest nuances in a story that we might miss just hearing the words. This morning, I’d like to tell you about three paintings that particularly speak to me about the Annunciation. They are the Pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rosetti’s Ecce Ancilla Domini painted in the 1850s, Florentine painter Sandro Botticelli’s late 15th Century Cestello Annunciation, and a contemporary piece by American artist John Collier.

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Of Everyday Apocalypses – Sermon for Advent 1, RCL Year B

On April 12, a little more than seven months ago, I was privileged to officiate and preach at a service of Choral Evensong at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Cleveland. Following the service, on our way home to Medina, my wife Evelyn and I stopped at a Lebanese restaurant in Middleburg Heights for a late dinner in celebration of our 43rd wedding anniversary, which that day was. After a lovely meal of hummus, baba ganoush, spicy beef kafta, and chicken shwarma, we went home to bed. A few hours later, around 2 a.m., I woke up with a horrendous case of heartburn. I took some antacid and went back to sleep sitting up in my favorite armchair. At 7 a.m. the next morning, I woke up knowing that I hadn’t had indigestion after all; I was having a heart attack.

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