Fifty years ago this weekend, about half a million music lovers crowded into vans and cars and buses, and journeyed down muddy roads to congregate on Max Yasgur’s farm for the Woodstock Music and Art Fair.  The whole event was famously and somewhat wondrously mismanaged. If you listen to the recorded concert you will hear announcements about how the hamburger stand burned down but they will be trying to get some food to people soon.  You’ll hear announcements like “If anyone found a cassette tape, please bring it to the stage.” Nothing about the logistics inspired confidence.  

But there were many utopian proclamations made about the gathering, in the moment and after. Many stories and myths have spun out about the gathering, but there remains the seemingly miraculous fact that the weekend was largely non-violent—maybe with the exception of an altercation between Abbie Hoffman and Pete Townshend.

At one point on Saturday morning of that weekend, the owner of the farm, Max Yasgur, spoke to the crowd:

I think you people have proven something to the world — not only to the Town of Bethel, or Sullivan County, or New York State; you’ve proven something to the world. This is the largest group of people ever assembled in one place. We have had no idea that there would be this size group, and because of that you’ve had quite a few inconveniences as far as water, food, and so forth. …But above that, the important thing that you’ve proven to the world is that …a half million young people can get together and have three days of fun and music and have nothing but fun and music, and I – God Bless You for it!

Master of Ceremonies and ad-hoc security chief Wavy Gravy was predictably more lyrical, declaring “we must be in heaven, man!” and “there’s always a little bit of heaven in a disaster area.”  

He was looking on the bright side, I’m sure: at least two people died at the festival, one accidentally and one of an overdose. It’s sometimes said that a baby or two might have been born there, but I don’t think that has ever been confirmed.  

It was, in other words, a horrible, muddy mess with utopian aspirations, a lot of substance abuse, and a fragile but largely maintained commitment to peaceful squalor.  And yet the words from the stage made it sound like the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, the coming of a new world order. It was what it was, but the participants shaped it into something more.  They shaped it into an age, an event, a happening, the hallmark of a generation. Maybe you were part of that generation and these folks didn’t speak for you, but to look back on that time is necessarily to contend with what those speakers had to say about themselves and their dreams of peace, community, and freedom.  In its own muddy way the event was decisive. The lofty rhetoric held up even after the ideals of that generation seemed severely compromised.  

Jesus had been hearing high-flying rhetoric since before he was born.  While he was still in the womb, his mother proclaimed stirringly that the poor would be lifted up and the rich would no longer be obstacles, that the mighty would be cast down from their thrones.  This truth was in his blood. Presented in the Temple, he saw Simeon looking down on him and heard him declare that now his eyes had seen salvation, a light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of the people of Israel.  His cousin John let everyone know that when Jesus began his earthly ministry he would baptize with the Spirit and with fire, and that all would see the salvation of God. Everywhere around Jesus were the words of revolutionary new life.  He was spoken into being by the proclamation of an angel and the power of the Holy Spirit.

In Luke’s gospel, it seems, Jesus is surrounded by the sound of a new epoch beginning. Before he can do much of anything, even in utero, it seems that his presence causes the people around him to perceive time bending, the universe reaching toward what could be: the lowly raised up, rough places made plain, justice and mercy rolling like a river.  Jesus knew that the sound he was hearing, the sound of an age arriving, was a very old song, one of God’s most beautiful melodies. In Luke’s fourth chapter, when Jesus teaches at a synagogue in Nazareth, he opens the scroll and lets the song burst forth: “He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Lk 4:18-19).  All this, he tells us, if fulfilled in his presence.  

Jesus knew, I think, that the prophecies about him were not so much about what would happen in the future, but about the way the view of the future was changing in the present moment when people encountered him.  The way the universe was bending around the presence of God in him, the way that he was drawing others in to hear God’s ancient song of promise sung again as if for the first time. Sung this time as inevitable, sung as an irresistible force, as a truth carried in and communicated by his very flesh and blood.  

What we hear Jesus speak in this morning’s gospel is a word of frustration and distress, and a word of warning.  Hearing that song of rejoicing and promise will be decisive, and we can’t hear it soon enough. And if we are to know him, we must be ready to see our sense of what is inevitable change.  It may change so thoroughly that all our relationships are altered. It may—it will—change our sense of what must happen in this world, not only what is possible, but what must be given room to take place.  We will share his urgency if we are really encountering him. We too will be in distress until that fire of love purifies our world.

Let the world tell us that we are moving backward in the battle for justice or that we are doomed to fail in our stewardship of creation.  Let the world go ahead and fabricate unnecessary and fraudulent harm in the name of “the times in which we live.” But remember always that when we know God’s love, when we really see the face of Jesus, it will take an act of hypocrisy and denial for us to go on believing what the world says.  It will take active resistance to live as if our lives are unchanged. We’ll have to pretend painfully that we are not being called by God to be part of an all-encompassing embrace of love. Because we know we are. We know what God’s creation must be because we know God incarnate in creation, in this strange prophetic salvation we’ve found in Jesus.  If you’ve heard that song, the one that runs through Jesus and all around him and back as far as God’s word, God has broken through what the world says.  You are moving to the rhythm of God’s ancient song.

Clearly Jesus was no stranger to the awful tension of being in the world but not of the world.  Clearly Jesus understands what it is to find that the world around you, the times in which you live, are a kind of funhouse mirror of distorted aspirations.  We’ve all been subjected to empty utopian promises again and again, but scripture tells us that the word that courses through Jesus and swirls around him is a different kind of word.  It’s a word that changes everything when it changes us. It’s a word that means what it says: this must be heaven.

Preached by Mother Nora Johnson
18 August 2019
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on August 22, 2019 .

Counting the Stars

With more time on my hands, I could easily become obsessed with genealogy. But I’m at least sensible enough to avoid going down that rabbit hole. Purchasing a subscription to ancestry.com would be like opening Pandora’s box for me. I’d never get any sleep. I’d be up all night delving into the never-ending genealogical black hole, determined to see just how far back I could go in finding my ancestors. Found those ancestors from when the Magna Carta was signed? That’s nothing! Let’s go for the Norman Conquest!

The most I’ve done is send a packaged tube of saliva off to 23andMe. Modern genetic science is incredible, isn’t it? After a couple of weeks, a computer-generated map had the bulk of my DNA located right in the heart of France.

It’s an odd fascination we humans have with ancestry, isn’t it? We’re awfully preoccupied with where we came from. Whether it’s finding that famous king or queen in your family tree or seeing how your surname has morphed ever-so-gradually over time, there’s some mysterious human obsession with lineage and the history of one’s own family. Is that obsession itself genetic?

Maybe some of us are less interested in where we came from than in where we’re headed. Are my genes really that good, or will I be prone to cancer, dementia, and a long, lingering illness that ultimately ends my life? The possibilities for worry are endless. I don’t need to name them for you.

There’s an innate human desire to imagine our biological connection to future generations, as well as to our past. Call it pride, but maybe it’s really just a practical concern about survival and a hope that something of ourselves can live on after we leave this earth.

This is Abram’s great fear, isn’t it? When God’s word comes to Abram in a vision, God first acknowledges that Abram is scared. Can we blame Abram? He’s legitimately worried about the future of his family. He and his wife Sarai are really too old to produce children, and his property and bloodline are all at stake. Family ties were sacred in ancient Israel, and perhaps that’s exactly why Abram nervously laughed when God later announced that Sarai would conceive. Abram thought it was a preposterous idea at his ripe old age and yet, at the same time, he couldn’t bear the thought of not having an heir.

When God’s word comes to Abram and tells him that his reward shall be very great and urges him not to be afraid, Abram has every right to be scared of a future without any children. He’s already put a lot on the line for God, and God’s promise of innumerable heirs is still a pipedream at this point in the story.

Abram has uprooted his family from Haran and moved to a strange place. He’s experienced a sojourn in Egypt to avoid a famine. He’s gone into battle against invading nations who threatened his kin. It’s an epic story. Abram’s vision from God in chapter 15 is, in fact, the third time that God has said to him that he will make a great nation of his descendants. And guess what? Abram still has no heir. Things aren’t looking so hot.

I don’t know about you, but I’m on Abram’s side when he verbally takes God to task and challenges God to honor his promise. It’s hard not to sympathize with Abram after all he’s been through in following God’s call. And so, Abram lays it all out there. He reminds God of his promise and he specifically notes how that promise has not yet been fulfilled. And God’s response must be more than frustrating. It’s yet another rephrasing of the same assurance God has made all along: look at all those stars in the night sky, uncountable in number. Your descendants will be just as numerous.

Given the circumstances, is that really reassuring news to Abram? It’s not until several chapters later in the Book of Genesis that Abram’s wife does indeed conceive a child. But after God promises him descendants as copious as the stars in the night sky and without a biological child in sight, Abram suddenly ceases his questions and we are told that he believed the LORD. Can you believe it? He believed the LORD. For this, Abram is considered righteous.

Now, I think a modern reaction is to turn on Abram. Abram, you chickened out! Why didn’t you stand up for what you had been promised? Why didn’t you wait to believe until you saw the delicate head of your firstborn child? Don’t we want to cry out and defend him: Abram, make God deliver on his word!

Abram is kind of like the spiritual forefather of the modern person of faith, isn’t he? He’s still putting trust in a God who often seems not to deliver on promises, at least immediately or in any form that resembles the expectation. And the modern skeptic is waiting in the wings to point this out. Oh, you foolish believer! Look around, can’t you see your naïve and superstitious ways? Show me the proof. The proof is in the pudding.

It’s a point well taken. For those of us, like Abram, who are concerned about the security of our descendants and who consider ourselves descendants of Abram himself, trust in God’s promises might seem ludicrous indeed. Are we wrong-headed to be afraid that our own ancestors might drown in a natural disaster caused by receding coastlines? Is it idiocy to worry that our own relatives might be killed when shopping for groceries? Are we silly to fear that a reckless political leader with access to nuclear weapons might get angry enough to hit that red button? Sure, we can look at the night sky and try to number the stars and imagine an endless earthly future for our offspring and future relatives, but it’s hard to be assured of that promise. Sometimes, because of the havoc we have wreaked on our planet, it’s even hard to see the stars.

Why then, is Abram considered so righteous rather than foolish? Is it because he’s simple-minded and too trusting and therefore allows God to withhold the fulfillment of his promises while yet demanding obedience? Or does contemporary, post-Enlightenment skepticism have us in its grip?

I think that to see the root of Abram’s righteousness, we need to return to his conversation with God. Here we see that Abram argued and wrestled with God in conversation. Isn’t that worth something? It’s precisely because Abram cares enough about God’s promise and God’s perceived trustworthiness that he demands that God deliver on what he has said he would do. Abram’s pleading with God is evidence that Abram does indeed expect that God will fulfill his vow.[1] Abram may argue with God. Abram may even accuse God of failing to honor his word, but it seems pretty clear that Abram assumes that God could do nothing other than keep his word. Abram may not see the evidence, but he’s convinced it will be revealed.

There is quite a bit of merit in that attitude, if you ask me. Isn’t it much easier and arguably less honorable to write God off by assuming that he isn’t trustworthy enough to keep his promises? Isn’t it just a lazy way of excusing a lack of trust in God or a turn to atheism? It seems to me much, much more difficult to engage in heated words with God, laying it all out there and naming the reward we expect to see because God has pledged a rich future to us, a future of believers as numerous as the stars of the sky who can still be around thousands of years later to have their own stormy conversations with God.

If we rightly call ourselves ancestors of Abram, then our genealogy should tell us something about our spiritual selves, about who we can be, and about our future and our descendants’ futures. Our spiritual DNA from Abram gives us permission to bring our questions to God. It sanctions a heart to heart conversation with God in which we name to him exactly what we believe he has promised and what our wildest hopes are based on that promise. Sure, we don’t have to win God over. But acknowledging our painful human inability to fully know the ways of God is part of what faith entails. Only in such a relational dialogue with God might we begin to see God’s offer of hope manifested in our lives in ways to which we were previously blind.

Faith isn’t unflinching acceptance of a blissful future. Faith is born in our laments before a God whom we dare to deem trustworthy. Faith is strengthened when we cry our eyes out in sorrow and anger before God because we can’t bear to hear about one more act of violence. Faith is present when we demand from God an answer to the long, slow suffering that seems to have no merciful end. Faith is present when we lie awake at night wondering if our children will ever survive into adulthood because we live as if natural resources are as plentiful as the stars of the sky. Faith is present when we are courageous enough to claim Christ’s victory over death as our shield when all seems darkness around us.

Make no mistake about it: this is hard. It’s much easier to give up and to dismiss any prospect that God has a better future in store for us and for our ancestors. No wonder so many choose this route and label the rest of us as simpletons.

But imagine this: if we only heeded our spiritual genealogy as intensely as we obsessed with our biological genealogy, we could learn a lesson or two from Abram. So, go for it: call God out on his promises. Demand that the hope that comes from Jesus, which we boldly hold in our hearts, can indeed be realized. This is our fervent prayer. Be brave and expect that God is faithful and utterly trustworthy, because he is. Go on and claim the righteousness of your heritage. Lift up your heads and look toward heaven and count the stars. Dare to believe that as countless as those twinkling stars are, so our descendants shall be.

Preached by Father Kyle Babin
11 August 2019
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

[1] See commentary by Sara Koenig, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1730.

Posted on August 11, 2019 .

The Rich Fool

The rich fool might have known that he was a rich fool when he realized that his biggest preoccupation was with how to store his extra possessions.

If that didn’t tip him off, the rich fool might have known he was a rich fool when he spent so much time talking to himself instead of to other people. He might have noticed how stagey he was, asking himself questions filled with clunky exposition: “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?”  It sounds like a bad play.  And then he might have heard his own tone when he was supplying his own handy answers: “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.”  This not only allowed him to be a self-centered hoarder, it allowed him to be the hero of his own boring little story of hoarding.  He might have noticed that he was applauding himself for coming up with solutions to his own problems.  Dull.

You know, you can tell you’re really a rich fool when you not only talk to yourself, but you talk to your own soul.  You address it as “Soul” (“Soul, you have ample goods stored up for many years: relax.”)  Yes, you tell your soul to relax.  In fact, you tell it to eat and drink, which souls don’t do.  It seems you’ve confused your friend “Soul” with that other nice friend, “Body.”  What you don’t have is an actual friend, someone to interrupt the little success story you’re telling yourself.  Or someone outside your own head with whom you can actually eat, drink, and be merry.

It’s easy enough to see that the rich fool wants too much wealth, power, control, and self-satisfaction. It’s easy enough to see that he can’t acknowledge the possibility of death.  But let’s go out on a limb this morning and test another possibility: that the rich fool simply doesn’t want enough. 

St. Paul tells us that greed is idolatry, and that’s crucial to hear.  Greed is worshipping something that has no life in it.  Greed is making sacrifices to an inanimate object.  Now most of us would hesitate to bow down and offer sacrifice to a lifeless object, but we do live in a world that demands bitter sacrifice all the time: unrelenting perfectionism, status, a professional reputation, our brand.  Perpetual mobilization. It may not even be our greed—we may just be trying to carve out a place for ourselves in a tough economy—but to get along in this world we are likely to be asked to sacrifice to someone’s greed as if it were in fact a god. 

So I don’t want to let this rich fool off the hook too easily.  He is certainly greedy, and I don’t have to tell you that greed is eating away at everything we care about.  I want to distinguish, though, between this flat, self-centered, unimaginative greed (“What will I do?  I know, I will build a barn.”) and true desire.

Imagine if the rich fool had known true desire.  Imagine if he had a little hunger in him for something that actually showed him the face of God.  Not a barn full of dead possessions, but a life full of love and paradox and aching need and rich satisfaction.

Imagine that fool lying on his bed at night, troubled by the poverty of other people, hungry for a world in which no one was turned away from the table.  Think of the joy the next day might bring, as he learned to give and to welcome others.  Imagine that he craves justice, or beauty, or forgiveness.  I think I’d settle for a vision of this rich fool picking up a book and wondering what’s in it. 

Imagine what it would look like if, in a fit of distinctly anachronistic self-care, the rich fool decided that he actually wanted his soul to eat or drink.  Instead of telling his soul to go nosh on something in that odd offhand way he uses, he could issue a real invitation.  “Come to brunch with me!” he might say.  “Let’s see what happens when the body and the soul and the mind sit down together to enjoy a feast!”  Again, I admit that this is a new-age idea that would have sounded funny to Jesus, but I suspect God might prefer even warm-hearted self-preoccupation to the flat, dry, dull folly of our rich hero. 


Is it possible, in this world full of towering heaps of stuff, that we simply don’t want enough?  Is it possible that we don’t want the frozen expanse of the Arctic, that we can’t bring ourselves to love polar bears?  That a beautiful, pristine ocean not filled with plastic is not enough to spark our imaginations?  Don’t we love good schools and flourishing communities?  Are we inured to the beautiful faces of the tiny children of immigrants on our southern border?  Wouldn’t the blessings of peace be something to celebrate?  Wouldn’t you love to luxuriate in justice?

This morning, I found myself perturbed that I had to revise this sermon to register that there had been two mass shootings in this country on Saturday.  I was shocked and horrified, of course, but also perturbed, and I felt guilty.  But it is occurring to me now that the real trouble is that I am not perturbed enough.  I would tell anyone that I love gathering with you here on a Sunday morning in worship, that I love God and the liturgy and the church.  But maybe I don’t love them enough if I can adjust my expectations to include a threat against peaceful public assembly.

Do we love each other, friends and strangers, enough to build a society in which it’s possible to gather in peace?  People of all races and genders and ethnicities, unafraid that we will be targeted by violence?  I can’t stand in front of you and say that I know the exact answer to gun violence but I can say that money and lobbyists keep us from having the open, rational, healing conversations that we desperately need.

It’s a terrible paradox that as greed strips us of everything that matters, we may discover that we’ve never truly wanted any of it enough. 

Let’s not be fooled by the glitter and trash that come with greed.  Let’s not fall for the dry self-congratulation that comes with having too much and loving none of it.  No, the next time that idolatrous image threatens to cloud our vision of God, let’s remember what God says.  Our lives are fragile.  Our earth is fragile.  Our cultures are fragile.  Love them rightly, in the name of God.  Love everything as God loves us.

 Preached by Mother Nora Johnson
4 August 2019
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on August 5, 2019 .