Sermons

The Wheat and the Tares

The Wheat and the Tares

“‘Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ The Master answered, ‘an enemy has done this.’” Matthew 13:28

The Reverend Luther Zeigler

July 23, 2017 – 7A Pentecost

A few years ago when I was preparing some parents for the baptism of their infant daughter, the mom stopped me in the middle of our conversation and said: “You know, I really don’t know why we have to spoil a perfectly joyful occasion with all this talk about ‘Satan’ and ‘evil’ and ‘sinful desires’?” She was, of course, referring to the questions we always ask candidates for baptism – “do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?…do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?…do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?” Often called the ‘three renunciations,’ these questions have been a part of the baptismal rite since the Church’s founding. But to this mom, and to many modern-day Christians, this language of renunciation seems hopelessly anachronistic. What are we to make of it?

Our gospel lesson today – the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares – is a good place to start in framing an answer to this question.[1] The Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus says, is like a field where the Master has spread plenty of good seed. There are acres and acres of flourishing wheat; but there are also weeds trying to take root among the stalks of wheat. ‘Where have these weeds come from?,’ the field workers want to know. Surely, they say to the Master, you would only scatter good seed. Yes, he assures them. So why are there weeds, they want to know? And then in one short, mysterious, but profoundly important sentence, the Master says: ‘An enemy has done this.’

When Jesus later takes his disciples aside to explain to them the meaning of the parable, he tells them that this enemy is the Devil. God is the Master who has created a wonderfully thriving wheat field; but then there are weeds, placed there not by God, but by the Devil.

For most of us, talk of devils is weirdly alien, an image drawn from a bygone mythology. But ‘the devil’ of this Parable is best understood not literally, but rather as a symbol of a deep theological truth – namely, that evil is real, and has a reality beyond the sum of its parts.

We moderns describe the array of destructive forces that surround us in different terms. Rather than devils, we talk about the scourge of addictions, obsessions and compulsions; the plague of depression and melancholy; the ravages of cancer; human preoccupations with violence and domination; and the like. We like to think we have a more sophisticated understanding of these dehumanizing forces, but at the end of the day, these realities are the same as they were in Jesus’ time, and they remain as intractable and destructive as ever, notwithstanding our fancier ways of describing them. To say that the enemy is the Devil, then, is not to revert to pre-scientific fairytale images but rather to acknowledge, through the ancient language of Scripture, that evil has a cosmic, trans-human reality.

Read More

Captive to Sin, Freed by Grace

Captive to Sin, Freed by Grace

“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Romans 7:15.

 The Reverend Luther Zeigler

5A Pentecost – July 9, 2017

If you’ve noticed these past few weeks, our epistle lessons this summer have been drawn from St. Paul’s magisterial, yet difficult, Epistle to the Romans. Well, I’ve dodged him long enough, so today I take up St. Paul and one of his favorite topics: sin. And not only do I hope to talk about ‘sin,’ but even more foolishly perhaps, I shall try to persuade you that ‘sin’ is still a theologically important category, a helpful and true way of talking about the human condition, even if the concept is, at the same time, in need of some modest rehabilitation.

Let me frame our conversation with a story: In the early 1970s, about a decade before I arrived on the Stanford University campus for my graduate work, a young psychologist there had made quite a name for himself because of a controversial experiment he had conducted in human behavior. His name was Phillip Zimbardo, and his study has come to be known as the Stanford Prison Experiment.

What Zimbardo did was this: He ran an ad in newspapers around the country seeking volunteers to participate in a study of the psychological effects of prison life. He sought healthy, intelligent, college-age men, and he screened them to eliminate candidates with psychological problems, medical disabilities, or a history of crime or drug abuse.

The young men were then arbitrarily divided into two groups by a flip of the coin: half were randomly assigned to be guards, the other half were to be the prisoners. They were essentially invited to role-play, so as to recreate the atmosphere of prison life. Zimbardo outfitted the basement of the Stanford Psychology Department building to serve as the prison.

The guards were given no specific training on how to be guards. Instead they were free, within limits, to do whatever they thought was necessary to maintain law and order and to command the respect of the prisoners. To give the experiment a feeling of authenticity, the prisoner volunteers were actually arrested by the Palo Alto Police Department from their homes, strip-searched, fingerprinted, given prison uniforms, and then confined in the makeshift prison. They, too, were given no specific instructions as to how to behave, but were left free to react to their captivity in whatever ways seemed real to them.

Read More

Welcome

Welcome

“Jesus said, ‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.’” Matthew 10:40

 The Reverend Luther Zeigler

4A Pentecost – July 2, 2017

Heroes seem few and far between these days. I’m not sure if every generation thinks that things were better in the past, but it is hard to look around the current landscape of politics, culture, or sports, and find many candidates whom one might nominate as a hero.

Perhaps for that reason, I believe now more than ever in the importance of learning from heroic lives. It is one thing to study the abstract truths of moral and religious philosophy; but it is altogether more rewarding to see how a real, living and breathing person uses his or her talents to make the world a better or more beautiful or more just place. Which is to say we find such people ‘inspiring’ – or literally ‘filled with the Spirit’ – which is why we call them heroes or saints.

When I was a chaplain to an elementary school many years ago, I taught a fifth grade religion course that was all about “heroic lives,” a unit I entitled “Saints of Yesterday and Today.” In the course, we studied saintly lives, both past and present, and as a final project, I asked each student to select a person whose life the student found to be compelling, and to do a presentation to the class about the saint.

Little Johnny was a quiet, Catholic boy, who was new to the class and whose family came from Hawaii. Johnny came up to me after I had given the assignment, and said to me: “I’d like to do my project on Father Damien.” I had vaguely heard of Father Damien, because the Episcopal Church had at the time recently included him in our own book of saints, but I honestly didn’t know much about him. “Terrific,” I said. “I look forward to learning about Father Damien.”

“Tell me, Johnny,” I asked, “why did you pick him as your saint?” Johnny thought for a moment, and then said: “because he welcomed people who nobody else liked.”

Read More

Losing One’s Life, Only to Regain It

Losing One’s Life, Only to Regain It

“Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Matthew 10:39

 The Reverend Luther Zeigler

Pentecost 3A – June 25, 2017

If our gospel story had taken place in today’s superficial world of tweets, I can only imagine what this morning’s newsfeed would read. “Jesus turns against families! Pits fathers against sons, and mothers against daughters!” Or, worse still: “Christ urges his followers to wield the sword! Says peace is not achievable!”

Such hypothetical tweets are not entirely inaccurate, of course, because Jesus does say, as we just heard: “I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother….” And so too does he say: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” But if we’re interested in really understanding what Jesus means with these words, rather than merely being seduced by the easy sensationalism of twitter feeds, then we have to take the time to plumb these texts a little more deeply.

To get at these issues, let me tell a story. When I was a chaplain at Harvard, our student community worshipped in Christ Church Cambridge, where my altar guild support was a lovely, older widow by the name of Summer Akimoto. With great care each week, Summer would always wash and iron the fine linens for the altar, so that our service of holy communion was appropriately elegant and reverent. Although Summer was a white woman, she had married a Japanese-American man by the name of Ted Akimoto, whose last name she had taken. I never knew Ted, because, sadly, he died shortly before I arrived at Harvard.

When you meet Summer, you immediately realize that she still adores her late husband, as she loves to share Ted’s story with others, and rightly so. Ted was a prize-winning war photographer. He served with distinction as a U.S. Army officer during World War II on General Douglas MacArthur’s staff. He was one of the first photographers to visit Hiroshima after the bomb, and his photographs painfully document the devastation of that awful historical moment.

The really extraordinary part of Ted’s story, though, is not his artistry as a photographer so much as it is the events that led up to his service. You see, Ted and his two brothers, Victor and Johnny, volunteered to serve their country despite the fact that just months before their enlistment, in early 1942, the United States had herded their family into an internment camp. The Akimotos were loyal American citizens who had lived in Southern California for decades, but that didn’t matter in the wake of Pearl Harbor, when panic won out over good sense. At the time, President Roosevelt ordered internment of anyone with Japanese blood as an expedient solution to identifying and corralling “the enemy.”

Read More

Rosalyn Baldwin’s Beloved Community

Rosalyn Baldwin’s Beloved Community

“Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.” Matthew 10:1

 The Reverend Luther Zeigler

Pentecost 2A – June 18, 2017

Amidst all the depressing news of this week, I was grateful to stumble upon the story of Rosalyn Baldwin, a seven-year old African-American girl from Hammond, Louisiana. The daughter of a pastor, Rosalyn was deeply affected last year by the news of the tragic killing of five police officers in Dallas, as I suspect many of us were. But Rosalyn, she decided to do something about it, something simple, something wonderfully naïve, something meaningful. She told her parents she wanted to travel around the country visiting police stations so that she could give hugs to police officers. When asked why she wanted to do this, Rosalyn replied simply: “They risk their lives and want to keep us safe. So I want to do this for them.”

When she first approached her parents about this project, they were touched, as you might expect, and agreed to take Rosalyn to the local Sherriff’s office, where she did indeed offer hugs to all the officers there. Secretly, though, her parents were hoping that this visit would satisfy Rosalyn, and that her dream of a nationwide hug-fest would pass, so that they could go on with their lives; but Rosalyn’s determination didn’t pass. She has politely, but tenaciously, insisted on carrying out her dream of visiting police departments in all fifty states, and she is now almost a third of the way there.

An interviewer recently asked her how she got the idea. She answered, “God told me to do it.” When gently pressed by a skeptical questioner, Rosalyn explained that she reads the Bible, that Jesus teaches us to love one another as he loved us, and that hugging people to whom we are grateful is a good way to love them. Yes, God told her to do it.

Somewhat more precociously, Rosalyn also noted that her daddy had taught her about Dr. Martin Luther King’s vision of Christ’s “beloved community,” a place where people consistently serve one another, meet one another’s needs, and base their behavior on concern and care for the other and justice for all persons. Rosalyn said she wanted to live in such a community, and so, if it didn’t exist, she would create it.

Read More

The Power of Sandy Koufax’s Witness

The Power of Sandy Koufax’s Witness

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 26:18-20

The Reverend Luther Zeigler

Trinity Sunday – June 11, 2017

1965 was a momentous year for our family. It was in the spring of that year that my mother and father picked up their two little boys and moved us all to Southern California. Mom and Dad had lived most of their lives in small towns in Pennsylvania and Maryland. Now, though, they were eager for a new start. Like the Joad family in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, my parents were lured by the promise of this new Paradise called California, where the sun always shines and everyone has a smile on her face.

For a six-year old boy like me, though, the only thing I cared about was that the fair weather of California meant I could play baseball all year round. Such is the wonderfully simple life of a six-year old, when baseball is all that matters.

Moving to Southern California, of course, was moving to Dodger country. The Dodgers had just invested in a brand, spanking-new ballpark, nestled in the foothills of the Elysian Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, and I couldn’t wait to go see it. My first trip there with my dad and little brother was to celebrate my seventh birthday and it was a memorable one indeed. April 29, 1965. A classic pitchers’ duel between the Dodgers Don Drysdale and the Giants Juan Marichal, won by the Dodgers, 2-1.

And that game was a mere hint of what was to come, for the National League pennant race that unfolded in the summer of 1965 was a thriller. Six teams were tightly bunched heading into September, when the Giants went on a 14-game winning streak to take a commanding lead with two weeks to play. But then the Dodgers exploded, winning 14 of their last 15 games to edge out the Giants, and clinch the pennant. The stage was now set for a World Series

Read More