Monday, July 4, 2016

The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 9, 3 July 2016

Berkeley, California

The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost,
Proper 9,
3 July 2016

The Rev. Fr. Michael T. Hiller

“Failure and Rejection”

Isaiah 66:10-14
Psalm 66:1-8
Galatians 6: [1-6] 7-16
Saint Luke 10:1-11, 16-20


This morning we are greeted with what seems to be two almost divergent themes, and one wonders whether the framers of the lectionary haven’t treated us to the text from the last of the Isaiahs to ameliorate the possible hurdles in the Gospel. The Isaiah text is beautiful, and directed to a people who have seen so much difficulty. The images are comforting and satisfying. What we are met with here is the abundance of a mother’s love, the plenty of a mother’s providing. This is this Isaiah’s image of Jerusalem, the city of return. These satisfactions greet the exile that comes back, returning from the foreign land and foreign gods. So they are greeted as hungry children.

There are discordant notes in this reverie over Jerusalem as well. “Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad for her, all you who love her; rejoice with her in joy, all you who mourn over her – that you may nurse and be satisfied from her consoling breast.” In the midst of joy we may yet mourn, or is it that our mourning is moderated by the joy that God promises to us? What an appropriate theme for the people of God at Saint Mark’s. For some of you the last months have seemed like an exile, torn away from the church of your expectations and hopes. In the past weeks, in our parish forum, and in small groups meeting about what it means to communicate with one another, you have begun to talk with one another about your sense of grief, loss, and frustration. The journey has been difficult and taxing. Some of you have given to it beyond your means. In a way we are only beginning to understand and apply Saint Paul’s lesson for us, “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”

I think, however, that I am rushing ahead to a conclusion that is not taking into account Good News. I think that there is more Scripture with which we need to wrestle and be aware. Last Sunday we met a Jesus who had set his face toward Jerusalem, in spite of what it will mean for him. There is a determination to face all things. There is an urgency that wants to be on the way to Jerusalem. Will this Jerusalem be the mother of the Isaiahs, the Jerusalem that feeds and satisfies, and the Jerusalem that comforts the one who returns to her? No. And in spite of Jesus’ determination and urgency, there are other lessons to be learned by those who wish to follow him and learn from him.

There is a sense of abundance here, much like the picture that Isaiah paints for us in the first lesson, “the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” It is the present situation of both abundance and need that Jesus wishes to address before he continues on the road. Thus he appoints seventy others to precede him as he continues on his way. In a way they have the same mission, as did the Baptist. They go before Jesus and announce his presence to all who might listen and hear. Unlike the Baptist, who attracted the people to himself and the Jordan, these emissaries are sent out into “every town and place where he himself intended to go.”

It is here where the instruction and the situation become very interesting. It is here that the words become Good News for us at Saint Mark’s. Jesus warns them to strip down for the task, and to be ready for adversity.  They are made aware that they will be welcome in some places, and rejected in others.  The peace they offer will either be accepted or returned.  The reaction of others to them will reflect what the others think of Jesus.

Someone can help us at this point, and that is Father Dwight Zscheile, Episcopal priest and professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. His book, The Agile Church – Spirit-Led Innovation in an Uncertain Age, can teach us to deal with what we might see as failure, or what is actually failure. He writes, “The central challenge facing churches today is rediscovering who they are in a society that has in many ways rejected Christianity.”[1] This is news that Jesus seems to have warned us about and that we have forgotten. The lesson, however, is not the primary one that Fr. Zscheile teaches us. Perhaps a little background can help us to understand his message. He was born in Silicon Valley, where he watched his father work with technology and innovation. He observed how companies had failure after failure before finally finding the solution or the product that would make their way in the world. He began to understand that it was the iterative process of failures and successes that made the innovations of the valley work – and his goal is to get the Church to see the Spirit active in this endeavor.

Now we come back to Saint Mark’s and our experiences with success and failure. Many have expressed their feelings to me, and now to others, about their sense that what the parish has gone through is failure. Perhaps it was. But we need to ask the question, “Failure to what end?” Jesus wants us to expect rejection along with acceptance, failures along with successes. Do the failures need forgiveness, or do they just need a healthy look again at what caused them. I’m afraid that I’m going to quote Yoda, “There is no try, only do.”

Jesus sends out the seventy to experience how the world receives Jesus’ message of the Kingdom of Heaven. That ought to be our aim here as well – first to ourselves so that we understand how God has accepted us, and then to others so that we might share that Good News. It must be done over and over again regardless of the results. It is inherently risky, and it will challenge us. What did we learn over the last few years? What can we learn as we pick ourselves up in forgiveness and joy to try something else – something new?

Isaiah’s mother, giving food to her children, is a wonderful image of the church. What we need to see, however, is that we are all the mother, giving acceptance and forgiveness to one another as the Body of Christ. There may yet be mourning and grief amongst us. If that is shared so that we bear one another up, there will be joy amidst the mourning, and that is Good News.


[1]Zscheile, D. (2014), The Agile Church: Spirit-Led Innovation in an Uncertain Age, Church Publishing, Inc. New York, Kindle Location 240.

The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 7, 19 June 2016

This is a sermon preached by the Rev. Fr. Stephen Trever, Assistant Rector at Saint Mark's Episcopal Church in Berkeley, California, on his last Sunday there.

“What is your name?”

Galatians 3:23-29
Luke 8:26-39


That is a seemingly innocuous question.  It is so commonplace that the question may easily go unnoticed, as it appears nestled into this fantastic story of demons being driven from a man to a herd of swine the swine. For the fortunate majority this question is asked so often in the course of living, that we may never even notice how amazing it is in this context. 

But in this case, it seems quite remarkable because I imagine that for this man, referred to as the Garasene Demoniac, I suspect that it is a question that is rarely if ever asked.  Indeed, this man is treated more like a wild animal than a human. He lives in the shadows of society naked amongst the tombs. If he is engaged with at all, it is only to be tied down.  And as he sees Jesus approaching he begs Jesus not to torment him. 

I am reminded of a dog that we had when I was a child.  We had acquired her from the humane society and she would wince whenever anyone would make any fast sweeping hand gesture!  It was a sad testimony to the history of abuse that she must have experienced in her former home.  Likewise this plea not to be tormented tells us much about how this man has come to expect to be treated by those who even engage with him at all.

But Jesus does not torment him.  Instead Jesus asks this seemingly mundane question.  “What is your name?”  In this context, this question is hardly an invitation to small talk, but it cuts deep.

For a name is a complex and powerful thing.  When we acknowledge someone by name we engage with the absolute particularity and uniqueness of that individual.  A name signifies that no matter how similar or dissimilar we might be to anyone else, there is something irreducibly unique. 

And when we begin to dig deeper into the complexity of the individual, we find that each unique story is so deeply interwoven with the stories of others that we might all rightly be called “Legion.”  Our identity, though singular, is complex. It consists of a multitude of identities.  We share elements of our story with others according to some common identity markers.  For instance I am a Caucasian, heterosexual, American, episcopal priest, father, and husband of pan-European descent with political leanings that lead me to broadly identify with one party more than the other.  Which one doesn’t even matter, because the point is that all of us have a similar list of categories that speak to some extent to our identity.  And yet, none of those terms are sufficient to express the fullness of our unique and unrepeatable story.  The closest we can come to doing that in words is through our name.

By asking this man his name, Jesus acknowledges that he is much more than a “demoniac” but that he is a person.  He is a person whose value and worth is intrinsic to his being and not determined by whatever the legion of voices might have him or us believe.  In short, this question signifies Jesus’ recognition that this man who has been exiled to the tombs and abandoned by everyone else is a child of God, and as such is beloved.

In that seemingly mundane question, we find the profound depth of God’s love!

For God's Love penetrates to the heart of our being.  Whereas we seem to continuously evaluate ourselves and one another according to culturally inherited scripts, God sees us for who we truly are - as uniquely beloved Sons and Daughters of the Living God.  This is what I believe Paul means when he insists that in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, Slave or Free, Male and Female.  Not that those distinctions are erased, but that our true identity can never be reduced to any of those markers.  They do not dictate the intensity of God's love for us. Nor do they constitute a barrier for our love of one another.

And as disciples of Christ we are invited to let this same Spirit of love take hold of us. That the mind of Christ be in us, so that we might begin to see and relate to one another according to this same depth of love which does not bind us according to any label, but sets us free to love and be loved as unique expressions of God's creative Spirit.

But this Love does come with a price!  It is quite telling that when the townsfolk see what Jesus has done, they do not embrace him, but they instead ask him to leave! At first this might seem counterintuitive.  Why wouldn't they be overjoyed and celebrate what Jesus has done?  But if we stop for a moment to reflect on what it is we will see, if we actually acknowledge one another as brothers and sisters, I don't think it is all that difficult to see why that is upsetting. 

Because if we actually let this love take hold of us, not simply in intellectual platitudes, but in the depth of our being, our hearts are going to break!  They will break as we come to recognize just how deeply broken our world is.  They will break as we come to recognize the true depths of systemic injustice that implicates us all.  Our hearts will break as we recognize that hunger pains of those starving are not simply "their problem," but our problem.  Our hearts will break when we begin to feel as our own, the pain of those who grieve the loss of their sons, daughters, brothers, and sisters who lives were tragically cut short in Orlando.  

If we allow God's love to dwell in us, our hearts will break!

And in the face of that overwhelming heartache, it may seem easier to rationalize away that brokenness as an unfortunate but inevitable fact rather than to allow for the possibility of another world.

But the very Good News of the Gospel is that not only is another world possible, but it is inevitable.  In the Resurrection, God reveals his Life to be stronger than death.  In the Resurrection, God reveals his love to be stronger than doubt, stronger than despair, stronger than fear, and stronger than hatred. 

The Resurrection assures us that the pain of the heartbreak is not the end. In fact, it is the other side of the Holy Spirit, who like a refining fire is already at work burning Her law into our hearts so that we might at long last come to our right mind and reject all of the dehumanizing rhetoric of fear that seeks to keep us divided and cut off from our common humanity so that we might meet one another, not by labels, but by Name.  And in doing so, we might lay claim to our Divine birthright as heirs of God's Kingdom--Children of God.  

Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, proper 6, 12 June 2016

Preaching at Saint Mark's Episcopal Church
Berkeley, California

The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 6
12 June 2016

Note: After this sermon was written, but before it was preached, news reached us about the terrorist attack on the gay bar in Orlando, Florida. It stunned the entire congregation into the silence of prayer and meditation. Although not mentioned in the body of the sermon, it certainly was part and parcel of my thinking as it was delivered, and members offering commentary on their own "privilege" had no problem in adding it to the thoughts recommended for the day.

May the souls of the faithful departed and all the dead rest in peace,
and may light perpetual shine upon them.

The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
12 June 2016

Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church
Berkeley, California

II Samuel 11:26-12:10, 13-15
Palm 32
Galatians 2:15-21
St. Luke 7:36-8:3


This has been an odd week, and there are several things that have suggested themselves to me as grist for the homiletical mill. There was a primary election and whatever our feelings it did have a certain impact and importance. There was the revelation about the rape at Stanford University and questions about the justice that meted out in the situation. There was the death of Muhammad Ali. There is much more of course, but these seem to have stuck in my craw as things to ponder and think about.
            Although born in Southern California, I really did my growing up in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  It was there that I picked up many attitudes and prejudices. I was always aware of being a Lutheran and German, for the language was spoken occasionally within the family and the home. Although we lived in a nice home, the parsonage as they called it, money was scarce and we were aware of the difficulties that surrounded its lack. My father was not a personal entrepreneur. When members of his parish encouraged him to buy a house for investment purposes he did so, only to sell it some months later making a small profit. He was always burdened by a sense of guilt from the largess he realized of his investment – a real capitalist. More likely a real German peasant. To talk about “privilege” within this context seems to miss the reality of the situation, and yet with the events of the week, I am forced to do so. Please do not worry. This homily will not be a personal journey – all of us, I hope, will learn from its musings.
            So what do David, Uriah, Nathan, and Bathsheba; Simon, Jesus, and an unidentified “sinful woman” have to do with this set of circumstances and a preacher’s thoughts? Well, that is the task of the moment. The key for me was the death of Muhammad Ali. As I think back on that period of time when he emerged, changed his name, made his boasts, and captured the imagination of the boxing world, I was, I now realize, in a state of denial about what was really going on about me and within my own life as a Christian. My upbringing had been respectful of others and yet a level of prejudice and privilege was there not allowing for the possibility that all was not well. As others reviewed his life and accomplishments, his sayings, and his example, I realized that I had never really thought deeply about them. They were merely dismissed. It may have been the closed culture of the Missouri Synod that engendered this within me, but I think society in general contributed as well. Now I was forced to see value and heroism, wisdom and skill. How had I not seen it before?
            So what about Bathsheba, the unidentified woman at Stanford, the perfume-bearing sinner, and Mary Magdalene to whom Luke briefly alludes at the end of today’s Gospel? What about them – these women whose story is known in our great spiritual story – how does their belittlement keep us in the grip of sexism and privilege? The great theme that one discerns in these readings is one of forgiveness, but isn’t there really more? Isn’t the theme of acceptance and respect just as great? Simon is embarrassed by the interloper who takes intimate advantage of his guest, and it is Jesus who must mine the situation for its truth. “Simon, which of them will love the creditor more?” “I suppose the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.”  The psalm for this morning says it well, “Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven, and whose sin is put away!”
            Our time, however, seems to delight in the trials and tribulations of others. We (and here I speak as a man) never seem to own up to the effect of our unexamined attitudes. And what should motivate us in this endeavor – in this struggle to see people as God sees them, forgiven and whole. Someone is weeping at our feet and anointing us with tears and we’re uncomfortable. We find it difficult to express the need for not only repentance but resurrection as well. Yesterday at the funeral of a dear friend at Trinity+Saint Peter’s Church in San Francisco, I ran into a priest with whom I had served there. As we talked about our various troubles in growing old he suddenly thrust an icon in my face and said, “Here, kiss the resurrection.” I did.
            How do these women and Muhammad Ali represent to us the hope of the resurrection? For Bathsheba it would be her son Solomon who would bring wisdom and justice to David’s bloody empire. For the woman at Stanford University it was a letter that witnessed her own wisdom and resurrection, a witness that flew in the face of those who denied the severity of the situation. For Muhammad Ali it was the pause he gave the nation to realize the gifts of people who are not all white, and not any shade of Christian. (I am thinking of Uriah, the Hittite here – who is the most faithful in the David and Bathsheba story – the foreigner – the outsider.)
Finally resurrection is seen and felt in the tears and drops of ointment that greet the feet of Jesus. Where others denied hospitality, she granted it. Where others would not want to see what was to come in Jerusalem, she anticipated it. Next Sunday, in the reading from Galatians, Paul will make us understand that it is not the privilege of gender, economic status, or skin that holds us up. It is God’s uniting us in Christ, in the death and resurrection of Christ – that is our true privilege. The problem and the challenge are how we honor that shared privilege in others.


Sunday, June 5, 2016

The Third Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 5, 5 June 2016

Preaching at Saint Mark's Church
The Third Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 5
5 June 2016

on 5 JUNE 2016, by Louis Weil,
on the 45th anniversary of the Ordination of
Father Michael Hiller

 [Homily not based upon the readings.]

Father Michael’s ordination took place in the early 1970s;  my own took place in the early 1960s.  During the decade between the two of us, some very significant developments took place in the life of the Church:  they had been simmering on the back burner for a long time, but during the decade of the 1960s, they came to the surface. 
            These developments particularly affected what we might call ‘the Liturgical Churches’ --- our own Episcopal Church, the Lutheran Church, and the Roman Catholic Church:  this was the decade of the Second Vatican Council, a council which initiated reforms for Roman Catholics, but which also had enormous impact in other Christian Communions.  This was an important time ecumenically, when Christians were discovering how much all our churches have in common --- for centuries we had emphasized how we were different, and that the important issues which separated us seemed irreconcilable.   For all of us, the most obvious fruit of these developments was in the preparation during the 1970s of new liturgical books:  the 1979 BCP which we have here in the pews is an example of these developments.
            [Since I have been a teacher all of my life, I am always concerned that a sermon should not be a lecture --- I always want to avoid that, but today I may be offering you a hybrid.]    
            This celebration today of Father Michael’s forty-five years of pastoral and sacramental ministry offer me an occasion to look at the changes which emerged during the decade between our two ordinations.   I am convinced that those developments affected all members of the Church --- and that they marked a recovery of important aspects of the Gospel of Christ. If that is true, as I believe it is, then these developments are very good news.
            During the many years that I have taught the theology of the sacraments, I have often used a metaphor to indicate how the process of change works:  I call it the metaphor of a mountain climber.  (Since I have never climbed a real mountain, I hope that I am being faithful to that experience.)  The sense of my metaphor is that developments in our understanding of the sacraments may be compared to a climber beginning a climb on a tall mountain --- the climber’s focus is on that goal.  But when the climber reaches the peak, and in the exhilaration of that achievement, the climber sees that other mountains have come into view --- and one or another of these may turn out to be taller than the one just climbed.  But the others could not be seen during the climb.  The first mountain turned out to be part of an interrelated chain.
            This has been my experience and the experience of many of my colleagues as together we have studied the sacramental life of Christians.  In each of the various liturgical traditions, the common first goal was to restore that tradition to its own integrity --- and to prune out the accretions which had slipped in over time and which often had undermined how Christians understand what a sacrament is, even while continuing to perform it.
            At the time of my ordination, it was common to hear a parent say, “My son has decided to enter the Church.”  (At that time, of course, it was “my son.”)  We all knew that this meant that their son was going to seminary to prepare for ordination;  but this also revealed a very inadequate understanding of the Baptism which all Christians share and which is the true sign of membership in the Body of Christ.  During that period, all of the churches began to discover a deeper sense of what Baptism means.   The impact of that upon our understanding of the Church was enormous.
            It is important for us to see that the call for the Ordination of Women came not only from a renewed understanding of ordination, but also from a renewed understanding of Baptism.
Not that ordination is more important than Baptism, but rather that for those men and women whom the Church calls to ordination, it is the way we are called to live our own baptismal identity.  NOT superior to Baptism --- but an explicit commitment of our baptismal vocation to the pastoral and sacramental care of the people whom we are called to serve.
            As we climbed the baptismal mountain, we learned that our understanding of ordination had to change.  This change is still working itself out in the various Christian Communions --- and inevitably there is reaction;  there is a kind of nostalgia for the former understanding in which clergy had the primary role in the Church’s life.
            Several years ago, I wrote an article on the awakening of the laity to their authentic place in the life of the Church.   I was shocked by one response in particular:  in my article I made the claim that the laity are not second-class to the clergy in the Church.   I received a quite angry letter in response in which the writer said,  “I prefer to be second-class.”  (As many of you know, I am rarely speechless!)
            In many parts of the Church the recovery of the meaning of Baptism is still a work in progress --- clericalism is not only an issue for the clergy;  as I saw in that letter, for many laity as well, it is how they have understood their place in the life of the Church.  There is still much work to do.
            I believe that we can see another mountain before us.  When I was a doctoral student in France, one of my great professors was André Liégé, a Dominican theologian.  Fr. Liégé had devoted his academic life to the Christian education of the laity.  In a course I took with him, I was one of perhaps 200 students in the class ---all the others were Roman Catholic sisters, brothers, and priests.  Fr. Liégé had a way of surprising us in class, and one day he asked, “Do you know the cause of atheism in our world?”  I could see that the people near me had their pens ready to take down this important fact.
He paused --- (he had a flair for the dramatic) --- and then he said, “It is caused by Christian educators.”  Then he looked out at us in a room filled with Christian educators, and he said, “You have taught about a God who is too small to be believed in.”         
            The mountain before us now is implied in this statement:  our God is an awesome Mystery --- we must beware of a domesticated God who has a special interest in religion.  Our God is a God in whom “we live, and move, and have our being.”   We try in our best words and images --- and in songs of praise --- to acknowledge this God who is the Source of all that exists --- the Holy One who in great humility has lived among us in Jesus Christ.  
            One of the major theologians of the twentieth-century --- the German Jesuit Karl Rahner --- has written of this and reminds us that God’s work and Presence extend throughout the whole of Creation:
            “The world (he wrote) is permeated by the grace of God … The world is constantly and ceaselessly possessed by grace from its innermost roots, from its innermost personal center …” [1]
            This is no small, domesticated God:  --- this is the Holy One who calls us to faith.  It is here that we see the authentic work of the Church, what is often called ‘the mission of the Church’:  to proclaim this God who is at once both totally other --- “in light inaccessible” --- and at the same time present to us in our human experience.  Here we see the foundation of the Christian faith in the Incarnation:  ‘God is with us’ in Jesus Christ. 
            I believe it is here that we find the explicit work to which the ordained are called.  The signs of human indifference and even brutality are evident in our world.  We would need blinders not to see it.  We live in a world that longs for “the peace which surpasses all understanding,” but ignores where that peace is to be found.
            To Fr. Michael, and to all of us called to ordained ministry, the Church has given the vocation of lifting up the signs of faith in word and sacrament --- to remind the whole People of God again and again that they --- that YOU --- are called to embody God’s transforming Presence in this world.

[1] Karl Rahner, “Considerations on the Active Role of the Person in the Sacramental Event,” in Theological Investigations 14 (NYC: Seabury, 1976), p. 166.