This Sunday we had a visit from The Rev. William Beers, a representative from the organization Food for the Poor. A former hospital chaplain and university instructor in religion, philosophy, and the social sciences, Fr. Bill has traveled to the Caribbean and Latin America and shared his experience of the poor in those regions with other people of faith.
By The Very Rev. Frank Alton
This has been a hard month for truth. Presidential candidates speak as if truth mattered but then give arguments that are specious and interchangeable. Modern governors like Pontius Pilate proclaim policies that acknowledge the truth of security but ignore the truth of compassion. Members of this church debate whether truth can turn into gossip, or only falsehood. Facebook has come alive with debates about the proper response to Mali, Paris Beirut, Syria and Iraq. How long can political leaders and the rest of us pretend to care about truth? It looks like we can do it for a long time. Politicians aren’t any worse than the rest of us in standing up for truth. But they’re not any better either, and that’s a sad state of affairs because they have power to set policy.
We have to start with politics because today’s Gospel is thoroughly political. Religious and political authorities tried to keep their hands clean, while safeguarding their political futures. The religious authorities who successfully schemed to do away with God’s Messiah, did not want to enter Pilate’s headquarters so as to avoid ritual defilement, since the Passover was near. Jesus wanted to speak about “truth”, an utterly strange topic to Pilate. Pilate operated in a carefully maintained world of illusion, and the presence of one whose mission was to strip away the illusions and point to what is truly real posed an enormous threat. 'Disillusionment' was precisely what Pilate needed if he was to be set on the road to truth; but it was also what he most feared. We can’t keep our hands clean and commit to the truth at the same time. Truth always threatens, especially when the one in our midst is the way, the truth, and the life. Jesus’ truth is risky, relational and revolutionary.
Truth is Risky
What was Pilate’s tone of voice when he asked, ‘What is truth?’ Was he sincere or cynical? Was he seeking or sarcastic? Pilate is in the same dilemma we are in when we stand before Jesus. It looked like Jesus was standing before Pilate. But actually, Pilate was standing before Jesus. Externally, Pilate was in charge. But the dialogue and questions showed that Jesus was really in charge. He defined the terms of the discussion. I believe Pilate’s tone was incredulous, desperate: “Truth? You expect me to care about truth in a moment like this? Do you think that mob out there cares about truth? Do you know what my political future will look like if I don’t give them what their leaders have convinced them they want? I’d be toast. Who has the luxury to care about truth in this world?” This isn’t only an ancient problem. We still start with good intentions when it comes to truth, but then we cave.
Since truth is connected to power, it requires courage. Who has power over us? What compromises do we make with truth to keep our power? Truth is risky precisely because it calls into question the status quo. When a friend speaks truth to us – perhaps saying, “You really shouldn’t have spoken to her like that” - it calls into question the status quo of our life. But we need that. No truth, no freedom. No truth, no growth. No growth, no life. Jesus was giving Pilate the opportunity to face his own truth. Both of
their lives depended on it. Their fates were intertwined. Jesus had accepted Pilate’s power over him. Now if only Pilate could summon the courage to deal with the situation truthfully, he could save both Jesus and himself. When we avoid truth that is staring us in the face, we diminish as persons, and there is less life in us. As this story played out, Pilate was diminished and Jesus was put to death.
What truth are you avoiding today? Ask yourself two questions: what is the worst thing that could happen if you face that truth? And what is happening by avoiding it? The cost of avoiding truth is usually higher than the cost of facing the truth. There’s no denying the risk, but we have to measure the risks of both action and inaction. Right now wise politicians and government officials are doing that about ISIS.
Truth is Relational
Both the religious leaders and Pilate tried to remain disengaged from personal involvement in
the criminal case of Jesus of Nazareth. Both eschewed any personal responsibility for ridding themselves of Jesus the troublemaker. They carried out an avoidance dance. The religious leaders started it. They had Jesus arrested under the shroud of night in a garden away from the crowds; but they were scrupulous to avoid the ritual defilement that would have accompanied entering Pilate’s headquarters. But Pilate didn't let them get away with it. He went out and asked them what accusation they were bringing against Jesus.
Their response wasn’t an answer: “If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.” But Pilate plays along: ‘Then take him yourselves and judge him according to your law.’ They had to show their cards: Jesus had already been through a mock trial and had been judged and sentenced. All they wanted from Pilate was a rubber stamp of approval. How convenient that under the Roman system, the religious leaders were not allowed to put anyone to death.
Then Pilate goes inside with Jesus. Jesus kept trying to engage Pilate personally: “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate demurs: “I am not a Jew, am I? Don’t try to involve me in this, Jesus. I don’t belong to your community.” Jesus uses Pilate’s response to move him: “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
What does it mean to ‘belong to the truth’? That is relational language. For Jesus, truth is not something you believe in; it’s something, or someone you belong to. In other words, “I am the truth. Do you belong to me?”
This is the kind of truth today’s generation is asking for, and that this moment in history demands: relational truth. Truth is not just information to be believed. It has to be lived out by real people. It has to be connected to a person or institution that relates to them truthfully. The question for this week in the world is, does truth have to do with avoiding risk or caring for people? The answer reveals our values. Jesus is truth in human form. That’s the kind of truth we’re looking for; but, like Pilate, we’re scared because Jesus’ truth is so personal. We’re also scared because
Truth is Revolutionary
I grew up believing that law and order were always on the side of truth. It was the Superman
version: truth, justice and the American way. Bad guys were always bad guys and good guys were always good guys. But when I hear that police dogs urinated on, and police vehicles intentionally ran over, a makeshift memorial on the site where Michael Brown’s body lay just hours earlier, I dare not stick with my Superman version of truth. When the eyes are taped over in pictures of black professors at Harvard
University hanging in those learned halls, I dare not stick with Superman. When Mali and Paris
and Beirut and Syria become targets of terrorism, and refugees seeking safe haven are turned away
because terrorism is truly happening, we need to remember that truth is revolutionary.
Pontius Pilate must have come from a neighborhood more like mine than like Michael Brown’s. He spent his life protecting the truth of the status quo. But in his encounter with Jesus, he was threatened with the possibility that perhaps the criminal standing before him had the truth rather than his accusers. He didn’t know what to do with that. His upbringing hadn’t prepared him for this moment. Truth was staring him in the face, and it looked like a revolutionary, and he was scared to death.
How will we respond to truth that is risky, relational and revolutionary? Will we avoid it? Will we try to snuff it out? Or will we embrace it and let it embrace us?
By The Rev. Lorenzo Lebrija
This is not how today was meant to go. When Frank and I planned this Sunday a few months back, we decided that today I would talk with you all about our annual pledges to the church. But with what has happened in our world, stewardship is not what I will be speaking about today.
This is not how today was meant to go. That is probably a thought that went through the minds of the parents and friends of Nohemi Gonzales, the 23 year old Cal State Long Beach student among the victims in Paris. Their world has been thrown down.
This is not how today was meant to go. How many times does life throw that utter curve ball at us that leaves us stunned to the point we cannot even think much less speak? Accidents that take the life of a loved one. Or a diagnosis of cancer for the one person who makes our world, our lives, worth living. Or, when senseless violence reaches the inner most parts of our soul and leaves us feeling so run down, so violated.
You don’t plan for those days.
Friends, it is an honor and a privilege to be a priest; to be your priest. But on days like today, when we—all of us—feel broken I am afraid I may not be the best of priests. You will note that I am uncharacteristically reading my sermon today. And this is actually my fourth attempt at words for you today. It is my attempt to makes some sense of this world that is falling around us. But please keep in mind that it is from a man who is hurt and who feels broken and scared.
As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, "Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!" Then Jesus asked him, "Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down."
To be clear, the temple to which the disciple was referring was a HUGE place. It was meant to be human kind’s response to God. It offered a glorious palace to hold the Ark of the Covenant for all of humanity. It was meant to hold the holiest of holies. So perhaps imagine the biggest most secure building you could imagine and then make it even bigger and more majestic. That was the temple.
The disciple had ample reason to be proud.
And yet Jesus tells him that it will be destroyed. This, the most secure and holy of buildings will come to an end. This huge construction that took so long and so many lives and so much of who we are, it will come down. To the point where “not one stone will be left here upon another.” And it will be shocking and it will be as though the actual end of the world was here.
We have all been there, have we not? Where our world seems to come to an end? Or at least when we wish it would.
So, let’s name the question we’ve heard or thought or cried since Friday: where, Lord, huh? Where were you when this happened?
I don’t know the answer to that for certain. But I’d like to think that God was the little voice in the head of the terrorists that was screaming “No, don’t do this!” Or the inner calmness that those poor and innocent victims felt as they died and God received them.
Make no mistake about what happened on Friday. It was evil. It was the personification of the devil in our world. It is tragic and horrible and the worst that human beings can be. And here two days later we don’t yet know how to respond. But maybe, us gathered here today seeking some answers…well maybe we do know.
Author Nadia Bolz Weber wrote about a bishop who taught her that “the greatest spiritual practice isn’t yoga or praying the hours or living in intentional poverty, although these are all beautiful in their own way. The greatest spiritual practice is just showing up.”
And so here we are on a Sunday morning. Emotional. Raw. Confused. Scared because we have come in contact with evil once more. Because “these great buildings have all been thrown down.” But we have shown up.
A few weeks ago a friend of mine asked me if they could borrow this cathedral space for rehearsals of a new choir he’s starting. It’s a choir of volunteer actors and singers who will perform a concert to bring awareness to the homeless situation in Los Angeles. They won’t get paid, of course, and they want people to come to the concert for free and bring blankets and toiletries for the homeless. With Fr. Frank’s approval I was able to say that yes, they could borrow our space.
As I sit pondering these words to you the choir has gathered and they are singing some of the most beautiful arrangements of Christmas music I have ever heard.
Yes, there is evil in the world. It is awful and scary and I don’t know how to defeat it. But that volunteer choir who is gathering despite their own fears and problems, who just showed up, if you will, they remind us that, as Bolz Weber said, remind us that despite violence and fear, it’s still always worth it to love God and to love people. And always, always it is worth it to sing alleluia in defiance of the devil who surely hates the sound of it...singing in the midst of evil is what it means to be disciples.”
Make no mistake about it. We need to not give in to our fear. We cannot let our anger or our heartache lead us to a broken place of vengeance. Let the horrific attack lead us to the real place we belong: into God’s caring arms. Let us ask God for the courage and the strength we need to follow even though we are so massively hurt.
This is not how today was meant to go, and yet here we are. Let us hold on to what is good and to each other and to the knowledge that while we don’t know how, or where, or when, good will triumph. God did not mean, nor want for this to happen. But God can make good from this.
Ours is a God of love. So much love that it defeated even death. So let us mourn and let us hold up the victims and, yes, even the perpetrators. Let us raise them to God who is love and who can make all things new again.
This is not how today was meant to go, but dear God take us from here and remind us of your love.
By The Very Rev. Frank Alton
Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17; Mark 12:38-44
Last Friday the movie, Spotlight, opened in theaters. It is the story of the Boston Globe’s investigation into the sexual abuse of children by priests in the Roman Catholic Church. According to the New York Times, the movie’s major concern is “the way power operates in the absence of accountability. When institutions convinced of their own greatness work together, what usually happens is that the truth is buried and the innocent suffer. Breaking that pattern of collaboration is not easy. Challenging deeply entrenched, widely respected authority can be very scary.” It is often women who do that.
The story of Ruth and Naomi invites us into a family without borders; an experience of transforming love and hospitality; and a generative spirit that multiplies love. In case you don’t know the story, Ruth is Naomi’s daughter-in-law. Naomi’s husband and two sons both died while she lived as a foreigner in the land of Moab. Ruth was a Moabite who chose to return to Israel with Naomi, even though it wasn’t her obligation to do so, and even though Naomi did not ask her to and could offer her no security. What today’s section reveals is the impact which that act of love had on Naomi. When Naomi returned to her circle of friends, she told them her new name was Mara, which means bitter. She was understandably bitter and sad with all her loss. But over time the impact of Ruth’s love healed the bitterness and opened Naomi to love again, so much so that she wanted to make sure that "it will go well" with Ruth. She was able to extend herself, to put another person's welfare first, and she was also able to think about the future, even though she felt she had none herself. Naomi made it her life’s cause to guarantee that Ruth found security. In that culture that meant Ruth had to find a man. The only men a widow could marry were relatives of her deceased husband. Enter Boaz.
The biblical version is the PG version of an R rated story. Ruth was told to dress in her finest, wait until Boaz was drunk and full and about to fall asleep, and then to “uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do.” If anyone wonders what that was code language for I’ll whisper it to you after the service! Boaz had already been unusually kind to Ruth. When she asked him why, he responded, “All that you have done f or your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before.” (2:10-11) Ruth’s story had inspired Boaz. That is the core of the story for me. The love Ruth showed to Naomi inspired Naomi to dedicate her life to finding security for Ruth. The same love led Boaz to notice Ruth and treat her with extraordinary kindness. Indeed, “love evokes love.”
The Gospel story is connected to Ruth’s story in many ways – not just that both deal with widows. The striking thing about the Gospel story is not just that the widow gave all that she had. It is that Jesus noticed her action. Seeing anything against the backdrop of the temple during the daytime was unusual. Some historians say that the temple was overlaid with so much gold that when the sun shone on it the brightness made it unbearable to look at. Jesus was able to notice the widow in spite of the brightness of the temple. More than that, she served as the perfect illustration of what he had just stated in public: “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” This widow is an example of how exploitation works.
Naomi and Boaz noticed Ruth’s love, and it evoked a loving response in them. Jesus noticed the widow’s love and used it to call his disciples to notice how the beautiful temple hid a system of exploitation that needed to be overcome in the interest of love. Beauty still hides systems of exploitation.
At the Parliament of the World’s Religions last month I was moved to tears by stories of modern women. Joan Brown Campbell was the first woman President of the National Council of Churches. We heard story after story of her courageous interventions with Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Fidel Castro. In the 1950s she met Martin Luther King when both were young. He encouraged her to go into the ministry, even though women did not do that back then. One time when King went to Cleveland, he visited several black churches, but wanted to visit a white church as well. She invited him to hers. But when she asked the pastor he hesitated. The next thing she knew they had pulled up the carpet in the church and the pastor informed her that they were getting new carpet and it would be inappropriate to have Dr. King come when they had no carpet. She refused to stop there. So she negotiated to have him speak from the steps of the church, with people gathering outside. Over 3,000 people arrived to hear Dr. King that night. I can only imagine the pastor with his tail between his legs after that.
Neither Ruth nor the widow in the Gospel nor Joan Brown Campbell challenged authority because they were natural rebels. They all did it because deep inside each of them was a quality of love that the Bible calls hesed. Hesed is sometimes translated “covenant love” or “faithful love.” It is one of the central features of Israel’s God. The stories of “little people” show how hesed works in what one writer has called “the dirt-real lives of the many.” Malcolm Sinclair
Hesed love is the foundation upon which churches, communities, and a better world are built. And even though God is its ultimate source, hesed is best learned by receiving it from another human being – one in whom we encounter the image of God. Of course that means there needs to be a Ruth, a widow with her mite, and a Joan Campbell in whom that image is being made clear; and it means that there must be a Naomi, Boaz and Jesus who get spiritually centered enough to notice the image of God in another broken clay pot of a human being.
One of the most impactful experiences I had at the Parliament of the World’s Religions was eating lunch at the Langar. A Langar is a term used in the Sikh religion for a common kitchen where food is served for free in a Gurdwara to all visitors without distinction of background. Each day of the Parliament, the Sikh community served thousands of free meals to the delegates. They welcomed us into the space, invited us to remove our shoes and led us through a display about social ministries of the Sikhs. They gave us head coverings, a cloth to wash our hands, and ushered us to sit in lines on the floor. Then people started serving us food and drink from large containers, dishing up portions onto our plates. It was a modern day feeding of the 5000 with a level of hospitality that was transformative. It was so simple, and there was so much dignity and love generated. It could have been a feeding of the homeless in downtown Los Angeles. But in this case the people being served were not poor or homeless. We had all managed to get to Salt Lake and pay for a hotel. For people like us to be served so graciously and freely touches and transforms the heart. Such hospitality and love do not belong to a single religion. It is a human quality that transcends any particular religion. The theme of the Parliament was “Reclaiming the heart of Humanity.” The Langar was the clearest lived expression of that theme.
Ruth's story of unexpected welcome and faithfulness, Jesus’ story of unnoticed generosity, Joan’s story of courageous confrontation of authority, and the Sikh’s radical hospitality all shine a light on God's relational grace. They take us beyond our natural limits to see God’s hesed love occurring in history. We discover through them that God’s grace has the capacity to expand into new situations and problems. We can draw on this kind of grace when we respond to questions prompted by new circumstances in a new day, and count on the covenant law to be flexible enough to handle the challenges they present. When we are open to noticing hesed love being expressed in unexpected places, we will enter the stream of love evoking love, and become part of the new history that is emerging out of the old. What are you noticing? How can you shine a light on God’s relational grace?