June 29, 2022
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
St. Paul, Minnesota
The Rev. Barbara Mraz
Gracious God help us to understand that we know more than what we have words for. Amen.
Many of us here today are carrying a lot on our shoulders. Not only the joy of the Pride Festival and all it represents to the LBGTQ community and to those of us who support and admire your courage, your resilience, your pride in who you are, but we also carry the blessings of summer weather, and the things in our own lives that sustain and nourish us— a moment of connection with someone we love, a sunset, a garden, the effusive love of a pet.
Yet we are still masked due to the threat of Covid; we may be reeling from the ongoing January 6 hearings and the reasoned evidence about that shameful day; the relentless slaughter in Ukraine, the shootings in Norway, the earthquake in Afghanistan, and Congress, still unwilling to outlaw assault rifles.
Many of us are distraught about the court’s ruling on Friday that the Constitution does not guarantee a woman’s right to control her body, access safe health care during pregnancy. I wonder what other rights the Constitution does not explicitly guarantee and if they are in jeopardy – education, personal safety, food, shelter. Justice Thomas said yesterday that repealing “gay marriage” should be next on the Court’s docket. With a married gay daughter, my stomach lurched at this.
We’re fortunate to be part of a church that supports the right of women to control their bodies and the rights of people to marry whom they love.
During the past four years, ten states have passed abortion bans that contain no exceptions for rape or incest, a previously unthinkable extreme. So a woman can be forced — by law — to bear her rapist’s child or her brother’s baby. By the way the Bible says not one word about abortion. Jews say that life begins when the baby takes its first breath.
We’re carrying a lot today and we come here to lament, to tell our stories, sing our songs, say our prayers, and break the bread, which is what Christians have done for 2,000 years. It reminds me of being in this sanctuary the Sunday after 9/11. It was packed with people who were fearful, disbelieving, and not knowing what else to do, came to church.
Turning to today’s Gospel, I wonder if Jesus is in a bad mood. He has “set his face” towards Jerusalem, determined to face what awaits him there, but first he has to deal with his followers. Some of them want to burn down the Samaritan village they just visited for their lack of hospitality.
“No!” he says. “We’re not burning anything down.
Then he issues an invitation to the crowd to follow him. One prospective disciple says, “I’ll follow but first I have go home and bury my father.” Another pipes up: “Yes, sign me up, but first I need to say good-by to those at home.” Jesus responds that anyone who looks back and is not willing “to put a hand to the plow” is unfit for the kingdom of God.
This is a very high standard for discipleship. Jesus does not grant any deferments or acknowledge the need for any delays regarding his invitations.
The imperative to follow and to put nothing ahead of Jesus or faith or his teachings sounds severe, impossible to implement in our daily lives with their complexity and schedules and lack of time. “Yeah, I’ll come to church but first I have to arrange the soccer carpool and get the laundry done before Monday and the dog is out of food…”
“I’ll commit but first I want to know what the church is doing about social justice.””
One person writes that a lot of people have not yet returned to church after COVID because first they need to evaluate whether their prior participation in church “added value” to their lives. Or if time spent on Sunday mornings better used in some other way? “Added value! “It’s almost like considering a purchase on Amazon or joining a gym. Jesus does not equate following him to attending church, I get that, but one way that our faith is formalized, attended to, lived out can be through church, imperfect as it is. It can be one indicator of a religious
So where are we with that? Where are you with your feelings towards church? Are you grateful to be back? Are you not back much—yet? I have been haunted by a statement from theologian and writer Diana Butler Bass ever since I read it weeks ago. She says, “One of the most consistent things I
hear from those who have left, those doubting their faith, and those just hanging on is that the church or Christianity has failed them, wounded them, betrayed them, or maybe just bored them—and they do not want to have much to do with it any
What do we say to these accusations? Honestly, who here has not on occasion been wounded by a church experience – usually one of neglect or
marginalization; There are times when no one said hello or answered your emails. When you find yourself standing alone at coffee hour. Who had not been bored at a church service? Do you walk out those doors at nine o’clock or eleven o’clock and think, “Well that had nothing for me.” The thing is Church is not a pageant that you review. Liturgy is the work of the people.
If you’re bored, make suggestions. Reconsider your expectations. I used to tell my Blake students: “No one is trying to be boring up here. Help me out!
So some common objections to church…
1. “I don’t need the church for moral guidance.”
True, messages about love, kindness and fairness are everywhere from Oprah to Lester Holt, who ends his newscast: “Take care of yourself—and each other.” Ads show elders giving advice and animals, always animals. Yet these scattered reminders to “do better” are not part of an ongoing story or necessarily relevant to our own struggles. Transitory, timid and lasting only until the next ad campaign or talk show.
2.“I can worship by myself. I worship in the Cathedral of the Pines or by meditating in the garden or by reading the Bible.”
True, but the writer Christian Wimans notes, “Solitude is an integral part of any vital spiritual life, but spiritual experience that is solely solitary inevitably leads to despair….You ascertain the truth of spiritual experience if it propels you back to the world and other people and not just more deeply into yourself.” I’ve noticed that if I isolate myself for too long, absorbed in some project, I often emerge depressed and sad for no real reason. A note about online church – truly miraculous in reaching those who are homebound or travelling. You can attend SJE, or the National Cathedral or anywhere! But we have to watch getting into a consumer mindset and not participating. And what is those of us in the rest of the church is doing to help the online viewers stay connected? Sending an email? Making a phone call? Offering a ride?
3. “My really- smart friends don’t go to church.”
The supposed barriers between science and religion are falling rapidly. For those who want “proof “of the existence of God or the opposite, the next statement is relevant (and appears in a hundred of my sermons) is this, from the great scholar of comparative religion Huston Smith: We cannot prove or disprove the existence of God because all of the variables are not within our control.
You may not think about any of these things for a long time but eventually most people will have to and then the rush begins to construct what I would call an “emergency room faith.” As my brother lay dying, my niece asked me, “Okay, what do we believe again?” A 90 second elevator speech is not possible here. You can’t make an experience into an argument,” Kierkegaard says. Thinking about these things beforehand can be a good thing – church can help.
Religion is not a mood; cannot be reduced to sound bites. The church offers you a history of people struggling with all manner of human questions, a book of stories more than 2000 years old. Attending church works these stories into your bones.
4.“I’m not sure I believe all that stuff.”
You don’t have to. Belief means turning your heart towards something and even if you don’t “believe” in the sacrament, you do recognize the hunger, the longing as you reach out your hand for the bread of heaven and the cup of wine. These are difficult times, complex times, and the cries of suffering echo through the world. The poet Ranier Maria Wilke was asked this question: “Tell me, poet, how do you bear them – the dark, deathly, violent days? How do you suffer them?” Rilke’s response: “I praise.
That’s why we come to church, too, to praise, to worship, and to draw near to “the heart of love beating at the center of the universe.” And to remember that we know far more than we have words for.
Diana Butler Bass, The Cottage, “Sunday Musings.”
Opening phrase from Marilynne Robinson, Gilead.
“The heart of love…” phrase from Bishop Desmond Tutu “