Tag Archives: faith

Fractured Fairy Tales of the Kingdom

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Gospel Reading

Four days ago, June Foray died at the age of 99. You probably don’t recognize her name, but you just might recognize her voice—at least if you are of a certain age! You see, she was the voice of a whole host of cartoon characters in “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show,” which was popular when I was a child. I bring this up for a couple of reasons. First, I was particularly fond of that cartoon. And second, “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show” gives us some insight into today’s Gospel. You see, a regular feature of that cartoon was a segment called “Fractured Fairy Tales.” In it, they would retell a well-known fairy tale, but then give it an unexpected twist. You just never knew how the “fractured fairy tale” was going to end. I think that Jesus’ parables are like the fractured fairy tales of “Rocky and Bullwinkle.” They all have some kind of twist to them.

Consider the well-known parable of the mustard seed. We are told that someone planted a mustard seed in his field, which according to the parable is the smallest of all seeds. But in reality, the orchid seed is smaller than the mustard seed. Next, we are told that the mustard seed grows into a tree and the birds of the air nest in its branches. This is even more problematic than the error about the mustard seed’s size. For mustard bushes simply don’t grow to the size of trees, and the branches are too flimsy to support bird nests. So what are we to make of this impossible parable? Here’s what I think: Jesus knew very well that mustard bushes weren’t trees, but he wanted his audience to suspend their disbelief for a moment…to imagine the impossible. For if we can imagine that the mustard seed is the smallest of seeds and then imagine that it can grow into a large tree and provide nesting for birds, then and only then are we ready to imagine what the Kingdom of Heaven is like.

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Be Lamps to the World and Rays of Righteousness

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Gospel Reading

Today is the fourth Sunday in Lent. Traditionally, it is called Laetare Sunday from the Latin word for “rejoice.” On this Sunday, there is a lightening of the penitential austerity of Lent, and in some parishes, the celebrant wears pink vestments to mark this change. Since I’m not overly fond of pink, I’ve decided to stick with violet. However, in keeping with the lessening of our penitence, you will get a rather jaunty spiritual for the communion anthem.

Now let’s turn to Chapter 9 of John’s Gospel and the story of the man born blind. The story opens with Jesus’ disciples asking him whose sin was the cause of the man’s blindness, his or his parents. It seems a strange question to our ears. I doubt that most people today believe that their sins will be visited on their offspring. But in Jesus’ day, this idea was still prevalent. That explains the possibility of his blindness being due to his parents’ sin. But how on earth could his blindness be due to his sin, if he was born blind? The answer, of course, is that he must have sinned in the womb. According to Jewish tradition, this was possible. For example, if the mother worshiped an idol while pregnant, the fetus was considered guilty of idolatry as well.

In any case, Jesus dismisses both possibilities. The man’s blindness was due neither to his parents’ sin nor to his own. Instead, Jesus says, “He was born blind so that God’s work might be revealed in him.” The Greek here is ambiguous. It can be translated “He was born blind in order that God’s work might be revealed in him,” implying that his blindness was part of God’s purpose. Or it can be translated “He was born blind, and as a result, God’s works will be revealed in him.” Here, there is no implication that God willed his blindness, only that good will now come of it. Needless to say, I prefer the latter translation. I prefer to think that God was pleased to bring good from a bad situation that he had not willed, rather than that God actually willed the bad in order to bring about the good.
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Hear, Obey, and Follow

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Bible Readings

Today is the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, and the story of the Transfiguration completes the season by bringing us back full circle to the theme of manifestation. (As you may know, the English word epiphany derives from the Greek word for manifestation.) The season started on the Feast of the Epiphany with the story of the Magi, symbolizing the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles. Today’s Gospel story deals with another epiphany, the divine manifestation of Christ to his three closest disciples.

the-transfiguration-1520This year, we hear Matthew’s account. And in some ways, his version is the least difficult. In the other accounts, it’s not clear how we are meant to understand this story. Is it real? Is it describing something factual that any bystander would have been able to witness? Matthew’s Gospel helps us here. In this Gospel, Jesus himself refers to what has occurred as a “vision.” Is it real? Yes, but on a level of reality that transcends the everyday. Would any bystander who was at hand have been able to witness this event? Maybe not. Divine visions often belong to the realm of private mystical experience.

moses-receiving-the-tablets-of-law-1966Given that the Transfiguration story is a vision, we should not be surprised by the occurrence of symbolism that requires interpretation. And we find such symbolism in the very first words of the account. The Gospel reading starts by telling us that six days after the Confession of Peter, Jesus takes his three closest disciples to a mountain top. Now in the Old Testament, many numbers had special numerological significance. But 6 isn’t one of them. There is only one place where the number 6 has a special significance—in the story of Moses on Mt. Sinai that we heard read in the first reading. For six days, a cloud covered Mt. Sinai; on the seventh day, God spoke to Moses from the cloud. In the story of the Transfiguration, the very timing of the event has symbolic significance. It hints that what is about to happen is as momentous as the giving of the Law to Moses.

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Jesus, Our Emmanuel

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Bible Readings

This is the fourth and final Sunday of Advent. And today we consider the first advent of our Lord. More precisely, we look at the time just before Jesus’ first advent, namely, the annunciation to Joseph. Now the art world has always favored Luke’s story of the annunciation to Mary over Matthew’s story of the annunciation to Joseph. I don’t know about you, but I could not possibly rank one story above the other. Each has its own artistic and theological merits.

ahazBut before addressing the Gospel, let me say something about the first reading from the prophet Isaiah. We get this story about a prophecy to King Ahaz for one reason, and one reason only. It serves as a proof-text in the Gospel of Matthew. The original context of this prophecy is the Syro-Ephraimite War. King Ahaz is besieged by his neighbors and fears that Jerusalem will fall. At God’s behest, Isaiah comes to reassure him with a prophetic sign that Jerusalem will not fall, at least not yet. King Ahaz, feigning piety, refuses to accept a sign. Well, he gets one anyway! Isaiah famously proclaims, “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and she shall name him Immanuel.” The child in question was probably King Ahaz’s future son, or just possibly Isaiah’s.” And there is no reason to believe that the young woman in question conceived in any way other than the normal way of doing it. For some reason or other, our lectionary omits the final verse of the prophecy, which portends the future fall of the kingdom to Assyria.

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Of Seeds and Slaves, of Faith and Favor

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Gospel Reading

 In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

This coming Tuesday is the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of this city. And some Episcopal churches in town are using the readings for St. Francis’ feast day, instead of the regularly prescribed readings for this Sunday. One motivation might be to give greater honor to our city’s patron. But I suspect there may be another motivation: to avoid preaching on this Sunday’s readings! Today’s Gospel reading is particularly difficult, even a bit offensive. But, in my humble opinion, that is all the more reason for wrestling with it, instead of avoiding it!

The Gospel story seemingly starts with the apostles’ demanding that Jesus grant them more faith. But really, this is the middle of the story. The lectionary omits the beginning. It turns out that what evoked this response from the apostles was a teaching on forgiveness. Jesus had just told them, “If the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.” It’s when the apostles hear this that they ask the Lord for help, crying out, “Add to our faith!” And who can blame them! Forgiving may very well be the hardest thing that followers of Jesus are asked to do, and it takes faith to sustain a life of forgiveness.

3-mustard-seed-sproutingIn the English translation we heard read today, Jesus prefaces his response with the words: “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed….” The translators have tried to fix what they see as a grammatical error in the Greek. But by doing this, they give a wrong impression that this is an instance of what grammarians call “a condition contrary to fact.” Paraphrasing, Jesus seems to be saying, “If you had even the smallest amount of faith, which unfortunately you haven’t, you would be able to do great things.” The clear implication is that the disciples are faithless.

But a more accurate rendering from the Greek would be “If you have faith like a mustard seed…” Note the two differences from the translation we heard read. First, by using the word have, instead of had, Jesus implies no lack of faith in his listeners. The condition that Jesus proposes may, in fact, be factual. Second, Jesus never mentions the size of the mustard seed. He speaks of having “faith like a mustard seed”? Paraphrasing, Jesus is saying, “If you have the kind of faith that can sprout and grow like a mustard seed, which you may very well have, then you will be able to do great things.”

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The People Are Grass

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, on  December 7, 2014, the Second Sunday in Advent.

Lewis Thomas died 20 years ago but I remember him in connection with today’s Old Testament reading. I read a magazine article in the New York Times some while ago about Lewis Thomas and his thoughts about life and death and the words of Isaiah in the first lesson today seemed to connect: “All flesh is grass” the prophet tells us,

All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.  The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass.  The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.  (Isaiah 40:6-8)

So who was Lewis Thomas?  He was dean of the medical schools at NYU and Yale, chancellor of the Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Scholar in residence at Cornell Medical School and author of essays collected in books called “The LThomasLives of a Cell,” “The Medusa and the Snail,” “The Youngest Profession,” and others.  I enjoyed reading them.  They are wise and warm and endlessly interesting observations about human nature and about the human race.

When Lewis Thomas learned that he was terminally ill someone interviewed him and wrote about it so I read the article with special interest and I was disappointed because he was a man who had seen so much and understood so much and now he was dying and it turned out that he didn’t have a clue about some pretty basic things like God and heaven and life hereafter.  Whatever ideas he had picked up on the subject could have been picked up secondhand from a church school dropout.

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The Same Lord

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, on August 10, 2014.

Suppose St. Paul were alive and well today and living – well, maybe in Tel Aviv, maybe in PaulIstanbul – and suppose he were still writing letters. Of course, today I think that he would use a computer and a voice dictation program; a good scribe is hard to find these days.  But if he were working today, I think he might write a series of letters to American cities: Washington, Dallas, San Francisco, New York.  And he would have a number of issues to deal with, but I think the one we would all be waiting for would be the letter to Washington – probably a pretty long letter, covering all sorts of subjects.

To be honest, I’m thinking about this because I have a book coming out next month which is a collection of the letters I would write today if I were St. Paul and there are two letters to the Californians to replace the two to the Corinthians. (I have to admit that I wrote those before I had moved to California or even thought about it.  They might be different if I were to write them now.)  There is, of course, one to Washington, the capitol of the modern empire to replace the DearFriendsone to Rome, the capitol of the old empire.  Some of the advice Paul gave the Romans would still be relevant: “Owe no one anything,” he wrote to the Romans, “except to love one another.” That’s a message for the members of Congress to ponder! But I’ll leave that for others and move on to inter-faith relationships.

When Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome, he used much of the letter to write about inter-faith relationships. He wrote specifically about the relationship between Christians and Jews. He agonized about it. That there should even be a division between them was a grief to Paul. It seemed so clear to him that the ancient purpose of God had been fulfilled in Jesus. Everything the Jews had been waiting for had been fulfilled in Jesus. So for three complicated chapters Paul wrestles with the issue and last week, this week, and next week we get brief excerpts from that passage in which Paul is agonizing about why the great majority of the Jews probably 90% have not accepted the Messiah and how it could be that God would have let it happen.

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