Scroll down to view some recent sermons from The Rev. Brian Backstrand of Trinity Church.
18 Pentecost THE SLOW DESCENT TO GREATNESS The Rev. Brian E. Backstrand 9-23-18
On Tuesday morning in the midst of time off, I found myself in a quiet space. It was raining, hard–you might remember? Marilee was driving up to Minneapolis to be with Brenna, our oldest, who was recovering from surgery. I had already been outside in the steady rain on that morning– a liquid reminder of our two years of constant rain in Sitka Alaska. Rain was the norm.
On Tuesday, I decided to take a look at the texts for this Sunday. First there was Jeremiah, the forlorn prophet whose life is in real danger. He is feeling very isolated and very vulnerable and that too is part of the reality of being a prophet–aloneness and abandonment at times.
As I looked through the lectionary readings further, I came upon the wise counsel of James, our second reading. Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish.
In this passage James is presenting to the Jerusalem church two kinds of wisdom. Envy and selfish ambition and the tendency to be “false to the truth” are a product of a wordly wisdom. This human wisdom found quite often in our society, James portrays as distinctly unspiritual. Contrasting this tendency to be selfish and competitive and full of self adulation, there is another wisdom, a wisdom from heaven, a wisdom–James says– sent from God.
But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace. This righteousness that James mentions is a gift. It comes as a product of living a certain way. James says that this righteousness is a gift from Sophia, from Wisdom and in this regard, we should note that in the New Testament there is a tendency to directly identify wisdom with Jesus. Raymond Brown speaks of Jesus as personified Wisdom and another scholar, James Dunn, speaks of Jesus as the exhaustive embodiment of divine wisdom. Wisdom from above…. Wisdom encountered in a relationship with Jesus in which we pay attention to his values, his agenda, his kingdom, his teachings. Wisdom can be an encounter with Jesus as personified wisdom.
But then I decided to sneak a peek at the Gospel text while the rain fell on a Tuesday morning. And here I encountered Jesus as Wisdom in action.
The lesson begins with Jesus sharing a profound truth, the truth that he is going to be betrayed and eventually killed. This is heavy, difficult material for Jesus to share. It no doubt has been a burden.
Maybe it is in response to Jesus’ profound message–so difficult even to hear much less to accept–that the disciples respond by abandoning heavenly wisdom for earthly wisdom. They began arguing. The followers of Jesus become engaged in contentious conversation. A dispute about who is the greatest?
Our culture loves the question of greatness. Who is the greatest player on the Brewer’s team? Who is the greatest QB in Packer history–present or past? Who is the greatest president in the history of the United States? Who is the highest paid worker? Who is the greatest?
And so the disciples stand there, in my mind at least, stand there on the dusty road gesticulating with arms raised, voices strident lost in a moment of self absorption and selfish ambition–shedding the wisdom from above and trading it in like a worn-out garment heading to the rag bin–trading in heavenly wisdom for devilish, earthly, spiritual foolishness–the kind of spiritual stuff that de-constructs harmony and peace.
Who is the greatest? Let me catalogue and list all the things I have done for the church…. Who cares most for the church? Who knows the most about the Bible, about the history of the Christian church through the centuries? Who gives the most money? Who spends the most time? Greatness –it seems– and the desire to be great, and perfect always winds up wearing the satiny sheen of Pride.
One of the things we do almost on each and every Sunday when we gather is say a corporate prayer of confession, responding to the invitation that the priest provides– Let us confess our sins against God and our neighbor. Then we say it. And on good days, perhaps we are able in the midst of it all to finger one or two things that we have in fact done–making our prayer more personal and more deep. And all of us do this together.
We begin by bowing down and together we seek forgiveness for things done and left undone. Including pride. Including perhaps boasting or selfish ambition or many other things. And then the priest stands and faces the group of people and proclaims forgiveness on the part of God whom we already have addressed as “Most merciful”– The pardon includes forgiveness (The Lord forgive you all your sins through our Lord Jesus Christ), a message of strengthening (strengthen you in all goodness–I like that part a lot), and finally preservation or–sustainability– (keep you in eternal life).
Eternal life. Not eternal in the heavens, but here. Eternal in the midst of it all. Eternal life freeing us.
I have been reading a book by Rachel Held Evans entitled simply Searching for Sunday–with the subtitle: Loving, leaving and finding the church.
In one chapter, Evans began discussing what she calls “dirty laundry.” She says: The practice of confession gives us the chance to admit to one another that we’re not okay, and then to seek healing and reconciliation together, in community. No one has to go first. Instead we take a deep breath and start together….
This a sacred act–confession–and it begins internally when we face ourselves. But we do not want to know our weaknesses and our vulnerabilities, our hang-ups. We do not want to look. And so, when we do, grace arrives in the form of the Spirit to help us. Why do we always have to clean up for church? Walter Bruggerman, Old Testament scholar writes: Churches should be the most honest place in town, not the happiest place in town.
There are places in almost every town, often in church basements, that speak to this spiritual issue. People gather, share some strong coffee and perhaps a cookie or two and then begin: HI. I’M JACKIE, I’M JOE; I’M FRED, I’M FLORENCE AND I’M AN ALCOHOLIC.
There is a sacred spiritual act in telling the truth and also in being willing to listen to it. James says, “draw near to God and God will draw near to you.” Telling the truth includes telling the truth to God–and perhaps it begins there.
All parts of our lives have edges and uncertainties, places of weakness, raw places of vulnerability. No one is exempt. And down in the church basement and at times also right here in church, people come face to face with those parts of themselves that are not powerful, not composed, not flawless. And they begin there to find new life–in the grace of simply being powerless.
Rachel Held Evans writes:
We Christians don’t get to send our lives through the rinse cycle before showing up to church. We come as we are–no hiding, no acting, no fear. We come with our materialism, our pride, our petty grievances against our neighbors, …. We come with our fear of death, our desperation to be loved, our troubled marriages, our persistent doubts, our preoccupation with status and image. We come with our addictions–to substances, to work, to affirmation, to control, to food. We come with our differences, be they political, theological, racial, or socioeconomic. We come in search of sanctuary, a safe place to shed the masks and exhale. We come to air our dirty laundry before God and everybody because when we do it together we don’t have to be afraid.
These words, too, are a call to confession. What an invitation.
But let us give James the final word:
17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.
In the name of God–Father Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
15 PENTECOST Spirituality and Action The Rev. Brian E. Backstrand 9-2-18
Yesterday I found myself arrested in the midst of a long list of things I was going to do to pause for over three hours to witness the nation come together to remember and honor the late Senator John S. McCain. It was a layering of tributes and remembrances that lifted up the ideals of our nation once more — ideals that insisted that we could be better and do better–part of the legacy of the man who –in his final months– planned this service asking family members, political allies, political foes alike to join him at his own funeral in publically presenting an America that could be generous, inclusive, respectful, courageous.
All this took place at the Washington National Cathedral in a service that was awash with stirring music, prayers, eulogy all in the milieu of Episcopal-Anglican liturgical worship –a powerful ethos of worship that drew together disparate peoples even as it draws us together today into the context of prayerful liturgy and holy worship.
I am speaking of the Episcopal ethos: We have an appreciation for paradox and synthesis–a willingness to live with a holy worldliness; to hold in tension the sacred with the secular; one’s personal freedom in tension with communal responsibility. We combine Word and Sacrament. We read, hear and reflect upon the Word as a preparation for coming to the holy Table, the place of holy presence in bread and wine. And we pray the scriptures even as we look to holy scripture to inform our living. As Westerhof puts it: Before decisions are made … the community gathers in the context of communal prayer and meditation on the Scriptures so that the Holy Spirit might inform and influence our decisions.
Evelyn Underhill, one of our saints in the Anglican Communion — in writing about the inner spiritual life–has this to say about the kind of spirituality that is involved in shaping our interior and exterior lives as Episcopalians:
“One’s first duty is adoration, and one’s second duty is awe, and only one’s third duty is service. And that for those three things and nothing else, addressed to God and no one else, you and I and all other countless human creatures evolved upon the surface of this planet were created. We observe then that two of the three things for which our souls were made are matters of attitude, of relation: adoration and awe. Unless these two are right, the last of the triad, service, won’t be right. Unless the whole of your … life is a movement of praise and adoration, unless it is instinct with awe, the work which the life produces won’t be much good [mine].(See Underhill Concerning the Inner Life.)
We are living in a time in which social involvement increasingly is becoming more and more paramount. The world is shrinking. The environment –the biosphere for so many species, including ourselves, is under assault. Yet if we approach the ecological, social or economic issues of our times, the ones that strike us and invite us to respond, how will we be grounded? How will we avoid being consumed by impulses which move us away from our own, best humanity?
Underhill points to two dimensions of a holy worldliness that exist to be spiritual habits nurturing and strengthening our souls. Adoration and awe. These two qualities contain and promote he ability to live in a prayerful awareness of the Thou, the Other, the Mystery, the LORD. Adoration and awe promote the grace to stop in the midst of whatever. They ask us to turn aside and worship–both here as a community of prayer and there wherever your “there” may be. They are essential spiritual duties designed to take prayer as a pro-forma part of worship and make prayer a component of a prayerful life. Adoration, awe –two essential duties–and then, grounded in prayer and prayerful awareness, that third duty–the duty of service.
It is as St. Augustine has said: My life shall be a real life, being wholly full of Thee. And I remind us this morning of the times which St. Augustine faced when he said this. He lived in North Africa. He served as Bishop of Hippo in North Africa, in the tumultuous time of the decay of the great Roman Empire. The Visigoths, sacked Rome in 410. The Empire was profoundly shaken. The city’s walls had not been breached in 800 years. Many in Rome argued that the abandonment of Rome’s traditional gods for Christianity was the root of the problem. Augustine pointed out that many basilicas provided refuge for Rome’s citizens during the attack. He did so in his last work, The City of God.
Augustine saw Rome as an earthly city, a city, like all other cities, eventually destined to pass away. Against the decaying city of Rome he presented the City of God–an eternal place of ultimate consolation, a city that will ultimately prevail.
So here is a man dealing with the suffering of the righteous and the existence of evil — writing for his time but out of a profound spiritual faith and spiritual underpinning.
Immersed in political conflict in the midst of decay, this man nevertheless was a man of prayer–a man who knew both the duties of adoration and awe in preparation for that third duty of service. He once wrote: “Pray as though everything depended on God. Work as though everything depended on you” and “God is always trying to give good things to us, but our hands are too full to receive them.” A man of an inner spiritual life and outward action, Augustine died in August of 430 as the Vandals were besieging his own earthly city of Hippo. We remember Augustine on August 28th as a saint of the church.
Today we begin a period of worship in which we will be reading Sunday by Sunday from the Letter of James. Our reading this morning contains the famous verse:
27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
But this morning we also heard– 17 Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18 In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
James also links the idea of doing with the idea of receiving spiritual insight and spiritual strength. If we are generous, we are to realize that our generosity is in itself a gift coming from what he calls “the Father of lights.” And later he admonishes us: Be doers of the Word and not hearers only. He writes: …those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.
“Pray as though everything depended on God. Work as though everything depended on you” This is a part of our Episcopal ethos–a desire to adore, to pray, to come into the presence of the Holy One with a sense of awe–and then a desire to serve, to love, to be compassionate.
Unless the whole of your … life is a movement of praise and adoration, unless it is instinct with awe, the work which the life produces won’t be much good.
Jesus is our Word. Let us come before him with adoration and with awe; with praise
and thanksgiving. Let us serve him with humility and devotion.
In the name of God–Father , Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
14 PENTECOST– A Discomfiting Topic August 26, 2018
In all of our lectionary readings this morning, we encounter the presence of intentionality and conflict. There is a tension in our readings. It occurs first in our reading from Joshua 24 at the holy city of Shechem.
Shechem lies on a trade route 41 miles north of Jerusalem. It was the first city that Abraham visited in his journey from Haran. It was a city of refuge in the time of the patriarchs and later it became the earliest religious center of the tribes of Israel. A holy city. Not far from Shechem lies Jacob’s grave and Jacob’s well.
It is at Shechem that Joshua stands before the people and renews the Sinai Covenant in a reading that understandably carries overtones of liturgy. At Shechem, Joshua challenges the tribes of Israel and we hear his challenge to be intentional:
Now therefore revere the LORD and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt and serve the LORD. …Choose this day whom you will serve….
This kind of challenge brings with it both commitment and conflict. Joshua challenges the people to make sure of their commitment and when they persist in affirming their allegiance to YHWH, Joshua erects a stone and, in the words of scripture, set it up there under the oak in the sanctuary of the LORD. Joshua said to all the people, “See, this stone shall be a witness against us; for it has heard all the words of the LORD that he spoke to us; therefore it shall be a witness against you, if you deal falsely with your God.”
Intentionality and conflict. Are you going to commit? What do you oppose? Our Psalm this morning speaks of a division between good and evil and states that the eyes of the LORD are upon the righteous but The face of the LORD is against those who do evil. There is tension here in terms of opposing forces, tension that perhaps we would like to quickly resolve.
This sense of tension persists in our Gospel. Here we see tension of a different sort: The leaving of disciples of Jesus, abandoning him. Jesus teaches about being the bread of life and people find his teaching difficult and offensive. Because of this, many disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go. You have the words of eternal life.”
Leaving/ staying, embracing/ rejecting, righteous living/ evil doing — these pairs produce tension and conflict. But there is a greater conflict. It comes right at the beginning of our Christian life. It occurs at our baptism.
Beyond the innocence of children and the somber faces of adults, beyond water and the welcome into Christian community, baptism has to do with intentionality, and even renunciation. Anticipated conflict.
In the Orthodox tradition of the Christian faith, baptism begins with a service of exorcism. It has been this way for a long time. The idea of renunciation is an ancient practice preserved in liturgies of baptism through centuries and civilizations.
The Orthodox scholar, Alexander Schmemann in his book, For the Life of the World, writes:
The first act of the Christian life is a renunciation, a challenge. No one can be Christ’s until he has, first, faced evil, and then become ready to fight it. How far is this spirit from the way in which we often proclaim …Christianity today! … How could we then speak of “fight” when the very set-up of our churches must, by definition, convey the idea of softness, comfort, peace? … One does not see very well where and how “fight” would fit into the weekly bulletin of a suburban parish. …
The Orthodox tradition does it this way: The priest “breathes thrice in the face” of the catechumen and signeth his brow and his breast thrice with the sign of the cross and layeth his hand upon his head and saying:”
In Thy Name, O Lord God of Truth and in the Name of Thine only-begotten Son and of Thy Holy Spirit, I lay my hand upon Thy servant who has been found worthy to flee unto Thy holy Name and to find refuge under the shelter of Thy wings….
Schmemann then says: The exorcisms mean this: to face evil, to acknowledge its reality, to know its power, and to proclaim the power of God to destroy it. The exorcisms announce the forth-coming baptism as an act of victory. (70)
Our own liturgy of baptism reflects this ancient tradition in a section dealing with the examination of the candidates:
Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel and turn against God? [I renounce them.]
Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God [I renounce them.]
Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God [I renounce them.]
Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your savior? [I do.]
But there is one more passage to consider this morning, Ephesians chapter 6 and the armor of God.
I imagine a scene. I may have been in it; I do not remember. They are passing out the armor of a Roman soldier at Vacation Bible School on a warm summer day and they want different people to take some of the armor and try it on. Breastplate of righteousness. They look for a kid with the right girth. Helmet of salvation. Sword of the Spirit. Belt of truth. All the boys want the sword of the spirit. Quite a few want the shield of faith. They are thinking of all those flaming arrows that they will quench. And pretty much nobody wants to put on shoes that proclaim the gospel of peace. Sandals no doubt. A few kids prance around and one of the teachers reaches out to one of the youth counselors –those who have been committed by their mothers to a long and tedious servitude of keeping the younger kids in check. One of them is handed Ephesians chapter 6 and begins to read. The voice is soft, searching for the right words. Be strong in the LORD and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against the enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil….
Is it? This morning we have encountered passages dealing with the need to be faithful, the need to be committed, the need not to turn away. But evil? It is convenient to think that evil is simply the absence of good and leave it at that. But evil as a power? Evil as a seductive presence masquerading as good. Evil as a contagious engaging force sweeping away all in its path. Evil as Rawanda. As Syria. Auschwitz?
But also evil that slaughters people in public schools or at Bible studies. Evil that comes in the form of munitions sold to foreign countries. Evil that overcomes, persuades.
And so we are challenged this morning, by Joshua at Shechem, by baptismal ritual, by Paul writing to Christians at Ephesus– Whom will you serve? And our weapons? They truly look scant. Cardboard cut-out weaponry from VBS experiences perhaps. But consider the spiritual qualities that we are invited to embrace: hear them once more :
- Sword of the Spirit, the word of God
- And infusing and implied in all of these things– LOVE
Put on the whole armor of God. Including prayer. Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. And intentionally resist.
Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God [I renounce them.]
In the name of God–Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
13 PENTECOST EUCHARIST The Rev. Brian Backstrand
51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” 52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; 55 for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. — John 6:51-58
In one of his books, the Franciscan priest Richard Rohr expresses his appreciation for the evangelical witness captured by the term, “born again.” Rohr is no evangelical in any strict sense of the term, but he has a deep appreciation for religious experience — for some kind of encounter or insight. He writes I can see why we use the language of ‘born again.’ The great traditions seem to say that the first experience of being born is not enough. We not only have to be born, but remade. The remaking of the soul and the refreshing of the eye is the return to simplicity. It has to be done again and again and somehow it feels like starting over each time (Everything Belongs, 160).
The remaking of the soul and the refreshing of the eye also comes when we return to altar–again and again–to taste and see that the Lord is good. At the altar we come into a place that binds us together in community as we stand or kneel, arms outstretched. And at the altar, we also come into a place that is intensely personal, an intensely private and gathered space in which we seek the presence of the great creative and redemptive and liberating mystery (capital M please)– that Mystery which can ground us, refresh the eye and the mind, and slowly form and reform that deep place within each one of us that we call the soul.
In our Gospel this morning, Jesus assures us Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them. Today we have heard from Proverbs and the great feminine figure of Wisdom and she also presents this combination of bread, wine and spiritual perception. Wisdom says:
Come, eat of my bread/ and drink of the wine I have mixed./ Lay aside immaturity and live/ and walk in the way of insight.
Raymond Brown is a Roman Catholic scholar whose work in the midst 1960s produced the three volume Anchor Bible commentary on the Gospel of John –a work that still stands in terms of its comprehensive, fair and thorough-going scholarship.
When he comes to our Gospel lesson for this day, verses 51-58 of chapter six, Brown seizes on the frequent use of the word “flesh” in these verses. Again and again it appears with perhaps the most dramatic use of the term coming right at the beginning: 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” Brown reminds us that the beginning of the Gospel of John says of Jesus: And the Word became flesh and lived among us and we have seen his glory, the glory of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. And now, through the depth of love and obedience, through the total emptying of his self, this same flesh is offered; this same flesh is given to humankind as living bread “for the life of the world.”
And so there is this cluster of ideas and associations. The need for religious experience and not just religious thinking. The invitation from the feminine figure of Wisdom to come to a place of insight and simplicity. The invitation from Jesus to enter into a state of communion — a private place of bread and wine and silence and prayerful presence.
For me, there are two writings that speak powerfully of what can happen at the altar, at this intersection of community, communion, prayer, insight — all in the sharing of bread and wine.
` The first is a poem from the 19th century now a hymn (318) from Horatius Bonar:
Here, O my Lord, I see thee face to face
here would I touch and handle things unseen;
here grasp with firmer hand eternal grace
and all my weariness upon thee lean.
Here would I feed upon the Bread of God
here drink with thee the royal Wine of heaven
here would I lay aside each earthly load,
here taste afresh the calm of sin forgiven.
I have no help but thee, nor do I need
another arm save thine to lean upon;
it is enough, my Lord, enough indeed;
my strength is in thy might, thy might alone.
Mine is the sin, but thine the righteousness;
mine is the guilt, but thine the cleansing Blood.
Here is my robe, my refuge and my peace;
thy Blood, thy righteousness, O Lord, my God.
Here in the moment of bread and wine we would indeed touch and handle things unseen and find in this moment, refuge and peace–a place for our weariness; for each earthly load that we carry.
The second is a wonderful poem from the 17th century and the pen of George Herbert — a poem called simply Love III.
Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lacked any thing.
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.
Inviting us to this meal, each and every time, accepting us in moments of disarray, or in awareness of dust and sin, or in times of division or estrangement–inviting us always to this meal, this encounter, this cleansing, this renewal is Love. Love is behind the invitation. And it is Love who tells us that we–the unkind and the ungrateful–are the guests worthy to be here. Worthy all because of Love.
Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Let us come to the Table.
In the name of God–Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.