Sermons

  • July 14, 2024 Sermon

    The Rev. Joseph Farnes

    All Saints, Boise

    Proper 10B

    When the news of yesterday afternoon’s violence hit social media, many of my clergy friends began posting prayers for peace. The prayer attributed to St Francis popped up – “Lord, make us instruments of your peace.” A laudable prayer, one that speaks to our deeper desire for peace, compassion, and hope.

    Yet what came to mind for me was a line from the prophet Jeremiah: “They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace’, when there is no peace.” (Jeremiah 6:14, 8:11). That line echoed in my head – we pray for peace, we long for a return to some semblance of quiet and civility. But … was that quiet and civility true peace?

    We Americans have historically looked around the world at governments and societies ripped apart by violence. We’ve seen violent, terrible rhetoric put into action, and we breathe a sigh of relief that we don’t imagine it could ever happen here. But couldn’t it? And didn’t it?

    American history is littered with examples of violence. Sometimes it was at the hands of the government, sometimes it was at the hands of armed groups who could operate as the government ignored it, and sometimes it was more invisible: maybe not physical violence, but forced economic deprivation, misogyny, and racial segregation sure are violent in the harm they cause. A good number of us have blessedly only experienced small bits and pieces of outright or subtle violence. That little bit is what has passed for peace for us. By comparison, we felt at peace because the misery and violence of the world felt so far away from us; it was not on our doorsteps day after day. And so we are shocked – the fear so much of the world feels day after day now seems to roar nearby.

    This calls us to a deeper empathy and understanding with those who endure this, and who endure much worse. What we thought was peace for us, was not peace for everyone; what we thought was peace was not true peace because it was not a full, true peace for every person and for all people; and our peace cannot be separated from the peace of others.

    What we feel most clearly, I think, is the fear that the political violence that has plagued most of human history could boil over right here and right now. Are we afraid that we could we find ourselves like St John the Baptist in today’s Gospel reading, at the whims of the powerful, the wealthy, the well-armed? Could such violence turn its eye toward us?

    Every year, on Ash Wednesday we connect with our mortality, that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. It’s not comfortable. It’s not easy to talk about. We avoid it. We’re afraid of it. But death is always there. We remember that Christ was crucified – a supreme example of violence. And we also recall that Christ has conquered death in his resurrection.

    We as Christians proclaim that we follow Christ, crucified and risen. We proclaim in our creed, we proclaim in our baptism, we proclaim in our Eucharistic Prayer that Christ is risen; we proclaim that Christ is present to us in the breaking of the bread, that Christ is present among us as we worship God.

    It’s true. We believe it. I believe it. No matter what happens, Christ is victorious, and thus fear is not the last word in my life. I can be afraid and my heart can be pounding and my mind can be racing with anxious thoughts, but, even in the midst of all that, I can still hold close to Christ, the deepest desire in our hearts. I can be left adrift on a turbulent, violent sea with no glimpse of peace or safety to be found and fear is all around, and yet there, too, is Christ.

    Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, as St Paul says in his letter to the Romans. And this man was chased, imprisoned, and finally beheaded. He knows what he’s talking about. I believe Paul with all my heart.

    Christ says he abides with us always in the Gospel of John. I believe Christ himself, for he is Lord and Savior. He gives a peace that the world cannot give – a real peace, a durable peace, a peace that makes room for our fears and calls us to a greater hope in God.

    And other saints through the centuries attest to this. St Benedict in his Rule calls us to “prefer nothing to the love of Christ.” The entirety of our life, drawn into Christ. No matter what – waking or sleeping, working or sitting in quiet, in the midst of a little bit of peace or in the middle of chaos – our hearts and Christ’s heart knit together in one with each act of love toward God and neighbor.

    And St Julian of Norwich in her Revelations – yes, yes, some of you may be aware of the phrase, “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well” – there is a Great Deed that God shall do that shall bring the deepest misery and pain of the world into the fullness of God’s rejoicing. But you know what I especially treasure in her? She says that God is close to us even at the “time of our necessity.” What does she mean? God abides in our souls even when we’re going to the bathroom. The medieval St Julian does not share our modern sensibilities about what’s polite for God. The peace and presence of God – even on the potty! Such is the wonderful graciousness of God, and the unshakeable dedication of Christ, and the strength and courage of the Holy Spirit!

    The presence of Christ is with us: this is a true gift of peace. A peace that pushes us past a comfortable quiet for ourselves, toward justice and peace for all people, a true peace for all the world. A peace that holds us and anchors us in the midst of any storm – peace in our fear; peace in the midst of violence; peace in the midst of chaos and uncertainty. Even if the storm does its very worst, the peace of Christ holds us still, now and to eternity. This is the peace of God which passes all understanding – peace that keeps us in the knowledge and love of God and of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

  • July 7, 2024 Sermon

    The Rev. Joseph Farnes

    All Saints, Boise

    Proper 9B

    As part of my counseling degree internship, I’ve been working with folks at the county drug court. I work with individuals and groups around substance use disorders: for some it is primarily alcohol, for others methamphetamine, for others opiates like heroin or fentanyl.

    For much of history, substance use was a “moral” problem, that it was strictly a choice, a choice that the person who was addicted kept choosing. In the 20th Century, in some ways our view began to change, to embrace more of a medical model. Substances affect our brains, and our brains are responsible for our behavior, and our brains love patterns and habits. The brain’s dopamine circuits get out of whack. Our brains and our bodies get hooked – and thus we find it harder to choose what is healthier for us.

    Of course, the “moral” view of addiction hasn’t gone away. It’s still impacting how we treat drug addiction. We pass heavy sentencing guidelines for certain drugs to show we’re “tough” on drugs. And then we fill our prisons and jails with inmates, we make it as miserable as possible (while also making sure that private prison contractors get plenty of government funding) … and then we are surprised that people still just circle back into prison. Making people miserable doesn’t keep them from choosing drugs … so maybe “choice” isn’t really what’s happening. Something has messed with their ability to choose.

    So what makes someone choose to use substances in the first place? Very rarely is it about “fun.” It’s about covering up pain inside. Childhood trauma, abuse, assault, neglect are incredibly common. Substances become the coping mechanism that shoves away the pain. It might numb the pain, might help someone run away from the pain in busy-ness, might disconnect them from the world and their pain.

    When I’m working with someone in drug court, it’s not just them in the room. I’m never really having a one-on-one session. The room is filled with others: their addiction, their substance of choice, their trauma, their shame, their grief, their fear, and all the voices of all the people who have hurt them in the past. When I’m trying to help them in their healing, I have just an hour or two to work; they walk out the door, and all those patterns, all those thoughts, all those feelings abide with them every other hour of the day. It’s why it’s more than just “choice”.

    But we’d be mistaken if we think this is only about addictions and drugs. All of us are this way. All of us have experiences from our past that still reverberate in our heads. We all have pains that have impacted us, and we all have those ways of coping that we cling to.

    Some folks grew up with a hypercritical parent – and that parent’s voice is always present with them. Their self-esteem is about perfection, or about fixing everything … because that hypercritical parent’s voice is always criticizing them, and so they have to be perfect or make it all right. Perfectionism and “fixing others” is about trying to quiet an angry inner voice that makes them miserable … and perfectionism and “fixing” make them miserable and exhausted, but it’s the way they learned to try to quiet the voice. It’s what their wounded childhood self had learned in order to cope. This coping skill, like a drug, soothes in a way even as it harms more deeply.

    And no priest, no counselor will have a voice louder than that inner voice that makes its presence known throughout the day. And that inner voice will sometimes get even louder when it’s pointed out. As a priest and as a counselor, I’ve watched it happen in real time – like in a movie where the bomb squad cuts the wire and the timer gets faster and faster – and boom! That inner voice’s energy explodes outward. It hurts, as a priest, feeling that explosive burst. But that inner voice, that inner pattern of behavior presents itself as so strong that it’s a virtue, not a hindrance.

    This voice, this pattern of behavior, this habit has been reinforced over decades and decades – and our brains love habits. This way of thinking, this way of behaving has been around for 30, 40, 50, 60, 70 years… what will it take to change something that is harming this person, and harming the folks who love them?

    Jesus goes to his hometown – and they reject his teaching. The people who knew him disparaged him and rejected him. “Who is he, this young whippersnapper? Does he think he’s better than us? Does he think he knows something? How dare he!” And Jesus sends out the apostles – to towns that will be as hostile as they will be welcoming. They would rather keep the way things are than change and grow in the Gospel.

    Do we blame them? No. They are just like us … they are us.

    To change is to let go of things that we have clung to for a long while. Do we cling to perfectionism to protect our sense of self? Does our self-hatred spill over – do we imagine everyone else hates us as much as we do, or do we snap at them like a wounded animal? Do we cling to an image of being deeply spiritual when we feel a hollowness inside? Do we cling to work and busy-ness to keep us running from an inner voice that says we’re never going to be good enough?

    What we cling to, we will have to let go. We have to let go of them so we can see where we are really hurt. We need to look into our pain. What is it that hurts? What is it that we are afraid of? What makes this pain so powerful in our lives, so powerful that we’d still choose coping strategies that make us and others so positively miserable?

    Like St Paul, we need to look at the thorn in our side. “A messenger of Satan” he calls it – and Satan, in Hebrew, means “accuser.” Centuries later, we still wonder what that means. I wonder if St Paul had a deep pain to his sense of self. Maybe he grew up thinking he wasn’t good enough, or was unlovable, or was only valued for what he knew. Maybe he was abused, and decades later he still bore a wound of shame. The wound doesn’t go away – there’s no magic that makes that pain go away.

    But Paul looks into his woundedness, looks into his pain, looks into whatever it is that hurts deep inside. And he hears Christ: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

    We’re all struggling with something. We all are. That very thing you struggle with, someone else here or watching online also feels. And Christ’s grace is sufficient for you, for me, for everyone. Much like how cravings rarely ever go away completely for someone in recovery, these thoughts and feelings rarely ever go away completely as we heal. They show up, they still try to get us to go back to a pattern that makes us and others miserable. They poke us hard in our wounds to get us to react. But we don’t have to invite these thoughts in to stay, we don’t have to invite them in to tea. We don’t have to react the way they want us to. We can try to choose, in that single moment, to do something better for ourselves and for others. “One day at a time” as they say in AA. I won’t fix my sense of self in a day. I might not ever be “fixed” or cured from these negative thoughts. But you know what? As Christ says, “My grace is sufficient for you.” Yes, it truly is.

  • June 23, 2024 Sermon

    The Rev. Joseph Farnes

    All Saints, Boise

    Proper 7B

    I am not a fan of flying. People can explain to me all sorts of reasons why flying is incredibly safe (well, at least *used* to be, until a certain major company decided to really cut corners to maximize corporate profits). You could explain to me how lift and thrust work, how there are all sorts of safeguards in place, how the probability is higher that something would happen on my way to or from the airport than in the air… but no, my brain is completely aware that there are thousands of feet between me and the surface of the earth, and that gravity would be rapidly reducing the distance between me and the earth if it weren’t for that pesky jet engine.

    But what terrifies me more is the anticipation that something will happen that I won’t foresee. The irony is not lost on me that I can have more flight anxiety when it’s a calm, clear day than it is when I was flying back to seminary in Austin, Texas in the middle of a storm. The “what-ifs” pile up higher and higher when there isn’t a serious situation at hand.

    If I had been on that boat with Jesus, I’d have been an anxious mess before the storm arose. I’d have been wondering: is this boat really safe? What if I forget how to swim? How deep is this water, anyway? The disciples were at least accustomed enough to the water that they waited until the storm got bad before they panicked.

    When Jesus says, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” I feel some shame. I know some Christians have a sense of confidence that their prayers will keep the plane aloft and safe even amid peril, that a miracle is surely right there for the asking. I admire their boldness. But I do not have that same sense of prayer. I know in my heart that plenty of people have prayed and yet suffered loss from natural disasters and violence. A miracle for me and not for them just… doesn’t sound right. I can’t be confident that I deserve it more, or that God has some secret plan for me – for one, I know I don’t deserve it more, and second, I just can’t imagine God being so seemingly callous to suffering. So I have to hold that it’s not about praying for a miracle so I can be safe; it’s praying that, in the midst of peace or peril, that I have the strength and courage to do what is good and right. Tragedy is part of our human life. We have to choose how we will respond to it.

    In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul is dealing with a congregation in turmoil. There is division. Paul’s reputation is ripped apart – some new preachers in Corinth say they are superior to Paul because Paul’s clearly a loser, a failure. These “super-apostles” point out that Paul frequently gets arrested and imprisoned. They point out that Paul lives a small, humble lifestyle instead of garnering riches and support. These “super-apostles” point to their success. They are charming, perfect pastors. Who wants to listen to the words of a loser when you can follow a winner? The “super-apostles” are a confident bunch, and the church in Corinth is awed by such confidence and power. Paul is a loser, not a winner, according to the Corinthians. Who wants that kind of faith? These super-apostles and their Corinthian fans would prefer heroes, pastors, and prophets who don’t get arrested and imprisoned.

                Faith is not “claim your miracle.” Faith is not a power to get what you want from God.

    Look at Job in our first reading: he has had everything ripped away from him. His children have died. His wife is disgusted by him. His friends condemn him: surely Job must have done something to deserve this suffering. And all Job wants is to have God come down and explain why. Job’s faith is not about getting his stuff back. The tragedy has happened. The pain and suffering are real. Job wants to know why. He wants meaning. And his faith is holding fast that he truly is innocent, contrary to what his so-called friends say. Job is faithful to God so much that he wants to argue with God. It’s not belongings, family, or dignity that Job wants; he wants God to come down here and make all this suffering make sense. The book of Job ends with an ultimately unsatisfying ending. But I don’t think that any explanation of suffering can ever be satisfying – suffering is real, and it hurts.

    Faith isn’t about claiming a miracle, and faith isn’t about sweeping away the suffering of the present, either. Faith is not “I won’t be afraid, nothing bad will happen to me” but rather “God is with me, even when I am afraid.” That’s a big difference.

    Faith, then, is an orientation to God. Argue with God – that is faith. Ask God to be present with you in your suffering – that is faith. Ask God to be present with you as you sit with someone else who is suffering – that is faith. Faith is not that we have answers or the power; faith is that our relationship with God abides even in suffering and tragedy.

    So when we are on the boat on a turbulent sea, or in a plane in a frightening storm, we look to Jesus there with us. He is at peace. Even as we are afraid, he gives us his peace. A peace that does not take away our fear or anxiety, but a peace that sits with us. This is our faith: that nothing can separate us from Jesus, not fear, not suffering, nothing. Amen.

  • June 16, 2024 Sermon

    The Rev. Joseph Farnes

    All Saints, Boise

    Proper 6B

    Mustard seeds and mustard plants – a parable of hyperbole. Mustard plants can get big, but they’re not absolutely huge shrubs. And the seeds, they are pretty small, but orchid seeds are even tinier. Jesus isn’t giving us a botany lesson, but he is using some hyperbole to get the point across. The kingdom of God starts small and grows. But as with any parable, the more we sit with it, the more it opens up to new meanings. Parables are open-ended, much like our use of mustard.

                Think of the different species of mustard: there are white, brown, and black mustards. Each one has a different flavor profile, and they are widely cultivated. Like many cultivated plants, we’re not exactly sure how far back in ancient history it was when we first started domesticating mustard, or even where it started. Mustards are related to turnips and radishes, but over millennia we focused on the seeds to give us maximum flavor. There is a diversity to mustard.

                I didn’t know it, but mustard is sometimes used in agriculture besides for food. It can be grown in fields to deal with some kinds of pests through crop rotation; certain mustard plants produce compounds that deal with nematodes and insects, so it can help a field recover from an infestation. And the debris of mustard plants can be used to help renew the soil.

    And think of how we use mustard for food, even just the different kinds of mustard. There is classic American yellow mustard, Dijon, hot Chinese mustard mixed with more spices for extra punch, like this one, that I found in the back of my cupboard (Please don’t eat it, it’s definitely a few years old, it’s just a prop). Mustard seeds can be pressed into mustard oil, used for cooking in many cultures, and certain mustard plants are grown so we can eat their leaves.

    Mustard, then, is not a one-kind-of-use plant. It’s not a one-trick pony nor a one-hit wonder. Neither is the Kingdom of God.

    The Kingdom of God shows an amazing diversity just like mustard. We see glimpses of that diversity as we look at how the worship of God takes on different characteristics throughout the world. Different languages, cultures, metaphors, liturgies and prayers. Different kinds of gifts, different ways of serving God, different ways of showing the love of God and neighbor.

    The Kingdom of God is a blessing not just for humanity, but for the whole creation. The birds may nest in its branches, but mustard also enriches the field with nutrients and heals it when it’s been infested without using harsh synthetic chemicals that poison the soil. “But what about the nematodes”, you may ask – perhaps in this parable the nematodes are the little bits of sin in our hearts – the Kingdom of God heals our hearts of an infestation without destroying us.

    And the Kingdom of God nourishes with gratuitous flavor. Flavor isn’t “essential” – we could, in theory, eat a nutritionally complete bland food and be fine. But what is food without flavor? When we are sick and can’t taste flavor, or when our senses don’t perceive flavor as well as we used to, we miss so much the joy of food. The Kingdom of God gives us our needs, gives us our daily bread, but the Kingdom of God also gives us our flavor. It gives zest; it goes over the top. The Kingdom of God gives us life, and it makes life marvelous. Look at all that we uncovered with our attention to the parable. The parable of the mustard seed isn’t boiled down to “the Kingdom of God is small and grows”. There’s much more. Parables plant seeds in our imaginations, and they grow into new insights and deeper life. Parables branch out in many different ways, and we nest in their branches … and make delicious, delicious mustard. Amen.

  • June 9, 2024 Sermon

    The Rev. Joseph Farnes

    All Saints, Boise

    Proper 5B

    I have always found it fascinating that, throughout the Bible, there is not a call to return to the primordial innocence of the Garden of Eden. There is no “un-eating” the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We don’t hear of a “Golden Age” that lasted for generations, one that would live on only in story, never to be relived again. Ancient mythologies talked about a Golden Age, but the book of Genesis does not. Creation, the intimacy of the Garden of Eden … and a fateful decision. The rest of the Bible is not trying to convince us to re-create the Garden of Eden. We do not get recommendations that we should be intentionally foolish, become vegan like Adam and Eve who only ate plants, and run around nekkid … in fact, in Genesis, God makes clothes for Adam and Eve. Just as Adam and Eve could not return to the Garden, so too they could not return to the innocence of nakedness. Though, I guess we could try eating more fruits and vegetables like Adam and Eve.

    And, similarly, the creation story in Genesis does not portray some cataclysmic fight between gods – that was another feature in many ancient societies. In many ancient mythologies, human beings were caught in the middle of a war between the gods and demigods who cared not one bit about humanity. No wonder everything was terrible! Just get what you can while you live.

    And Genesis does not go that direction, either. No big battle scenes – no, God creates humanity, God walks in the Garden with humans, and humans make a really bad decision. Even as later Christian tradition sees the serpent in the Garden of Eden tempting Adam and Eve as Satan, still, no real battle. A bad decision, and no more Garden. And our life goal still isn’t to get back to the Garden.

    Why is that? It’s almost as if our paradise is not the Garden of Eden itself. Our paradise is not a place. Our paradise is God.

    Notice what I didn’t say – I didn’t say paradise is heaven. Heaven is not the ultimate vacation resort for all eternity for people on God’s good side. Have you noticed that so many visions of heaven focus on all the amenities we might have? I hope that I’m not the unlucky guy stuck in the room next to the noisy ice machine for all eternity.[1]

    Paradise is God. What makes heaven heaven is God. God is our paradise, God is our heaven.

    So there’s no need to try to re-create or return to the Garden of Eden. We don’t need to play the blame game for who is responsible for our situation. (Side note: isn’t it funny that Adam tries to pass the blame onto Eve and God? “God, the woman YOU gave me is the one who did it!”).

    And we sure can’t just ignore the here-and-now for a future heavenly paradise, either. St Paul’s letter isn’t telling us to give up and ignore the present because there’s eternity ahead. “So we do not lose heart,” St Paul. We do not lose heart. Our bodies may fail, but we do not lose heart. The situation may seem bleak, but we do not lose heart. Even when it seems impossible to follow the way of Jesus, even when it seems like doing what is good and right is absurd in the eyes of the world, even when it seems like even our friends and family think we are foolish for proclaiming the freeing and life-giving grace of God, in all of this, we do not lose heart.

    Hope is a precious commodity – it’s something we need in the here and now. Hope may seem like it’s about the future, but hope is in the here and now. It gives us courage to keep going when even our bodies and our best efforts fail. It gives us meaning. Hope is not “I can give up now because it will turn out good in the end.” Hope is, “Because it will turn out good in the end, I can bring some of that goodness right now.”

    Maybe this metaphor will land: hope is like a little time travel device to bring the goodness and completion of our future in God into the present. Hope reaches into eternity, hope reaches into God’s eternity and brings goodness to the here-and-now.

    Our hope isn’t based in the Garden of Eden – we messed that up once, we could do it again. Our hope isn’t far off into a heavenly future paradise; that future is far off where we are right here, right now. Hope is now. Our hope is founded in God, and God is not far off in the past, and God is not far off in the future. God is right here, right now with us, sustaining us and strengthening us every day.

    Hope teaches us that we are not fighting a losing battle. If it were a losing battle, we’d give up. If it were all up to us, we might give into fear and despair. But hope tells us that the future rests in God, and so too does the present moment, even if it is so imperfect and broken and painful now. Genesis tells us that our ancestors turned from God, but that was not the end of the story. It wasn’t the climax of our story and everything is doomed to be downhill. Every moment with God is the fullness of joy, a taste of eternity in the here-and-now, and a living hope that gives hope to all the world.

    If the best isn’t behind us, what might we do here-and-now? If the best isn’t behind us, our hope will give us strength to do wonderful things, and to celebrate the goodness of God in every moment of life. Amen.


    [1] Apologies to Weird Al Yankovic