Sermon, Jan. 18, 2015

It’s the custom in the Episcopal Church, on Annual Meeting Sunday, for the Rector to present a little speech on where the church has been in the past year, and where she thinks it’s going. And it’s our custom at St. Dunstan’s, as at many churches, for that speech to be my sermon, so that you don’t have to listen to me give TWO fifteen-minute talks in one morning.

I could probably spend 15 minutes just talking about everything we’ve changed in 2014.  2014 was a year of a lot of transitions and new approaches. We hired our office coordinator Pamela in March, and she’s already become essential. We got new accounting and member database software, and then a new office computer that can run it all better. Anyone who’s been through software transitions can guess how many hours that’s taken! We upgraded our Internet service here at the church – a long-overdue transition. I spend a lot less time waiting for pages to load than I used to, and we can actually stream video, and show some of the infinite world of content – some of which is actually useful and relevant – on our awesome new TV & Roku setup in the Meeting Room. We found a new home for our elderly commercial dishwasher – you can visit it over at Sector 67 Makerspace, if you miss it – and we bought a new dishwasher which is used several times a week. We changed over most of the light bulbs in this building to LED technology, to reduce our energy use and, we hope, give us longer bulb life!

And then there’s all the new stuff we did in 2014. Our growth, numerical and spiritual, called for new spaces and opportunities to grow more and go deeper. We began to offer some kind of teaching or sharing time every Sunday at 9am. Our growing Sunday School now meets twice a month. We added a summer Vacation Bible School, which was wildly successful. And our Sandbox Worship began in the fall of 2013 but became a weekly gathering in March of 2014.

Many of you may not be aware of a lot of these changes. New lightbulbs, or the fact that your giving statement is generated by Quickbooks instead of ACS… who knew? But believe me when I tell you that all of these changes have taken a lot of time and energy, for your church staff and many volunteers, too. I’m looking forward to a year in which all these changes can settle out and become our new normal. But as much energy as they took, and as crazy as we maybe were to pack so many into one year, they were all necessary, for various reasons. We replaced things and models and arrangements that weren’t serving us well anymore – too old, too big, too expensive, too slow, too limited. We’re moving forward with greater flexibility, focus, and efficiency, better able to become whatever God has in mind for St. Dunstan’s in the 21st century.

I wish I could tell you that we’re done. That we’ve changed what we needed to change and upgraded what we needed to upgrade and begun what we needed to begin, and we’re good to go. But I can’t tell you that. We are living in a time of great change, for the world, for the church.  This is the decade in which the Episcopal Church, as a body, finally has to face and respond to the epochal changes in culture, faith, and economy that have transformed the face of American society and religion over the past half-century. That’s the urgency behind the work of the Task Force for Re-Imagining the Episcopal Church, or TREC. TREC was called into being by our last national church gathering, the General Convention in 2012. They recently released their final report, in preparation for this summer’s General Convention, at which I will serve as a deputy from our diocese.

The simplest way to explain their work is to quote a little from the report itself. (You can download the full report here.) 

“The members of the Task Force for Reimagining The Episcopal Church believe that the Holy Spirit is calling our Church to participate in God’s mission in a faithful and life-giving way in a changing world…. 

[We must learn how to form Christian community and practice Christian witness in environments where the culture no longer supports Christian identity, practice, and belonging as it once did.]

The Task Force spent two years in discussions with thousands of Episcopalians about their hopes, dreams, ideas, and concerns for the Church and about our collective mission to serve Christ. We also reviewed broad research on the identity and mission of The Episcopal Church in which thousands more participated. We studied how other churches and even non-religious organizations have innovated to pursue their missions in a changing world. We conferred, we listened and read, and we prayed. 

In this final report, we present our recommendations for changes in the Church’s structures, governance, and administration, to serve God’s mission in the world.” 

TREC urgently calls the attention of all Episcopalians to the fact that big, big changes have gone on outside the church, and that big, big changes are needed inside the church, for us to adapt and flourish in this new reality. We’re not talking about moving a service time from 7:30 to 8am, or rearranging the chairs, or updating the website, though all of those things may be good changes to make. We’re talking about rethinking what it means to be church. What it means to belong. What it means to follow. What it means to serve.

I find it both terrifying and comforting to be reminded that the changes we’re dealing with at St. Dunstan’s – different patterns of belonging and giving and participating, different things people are seeking in a faith community – that’s not just us. It’s the whole Episcopal Church – and more: it’s the Protestants and the Catholics and even the Evangelicals, friends. Everybody in the church as it has been is striving to get a handle on the church as it is becoming.

Which brings me back to the TREC report. Because a lot of what it contains are recommendations for General Convention to deal with: resolutions about how we elect bishops, for example. But early on in the report, they lay out a call to the Church as a whole, and to all its member parishes and people. A set of simple yet transformational practices that they believe were the heart of the Christian way since the days of Jesus, and that still have the power to renew us today:

Follow Jesus together into the neighborhood, and travel lightly. 

The TREC report uses a portion of Luke 10 as its keystone Scripture, and I’d love to study that Scripture with all of you sometime; your Vestry read and reflected on it together this week. But it’s not one of our readings today, and in the interests of having this be at least 30% sermon, I do want to pull in today’s Scriptures. Fortunately, they connect pretty well with the TREC practices. Follow Jesus together into the neighborhood, and travel lightly. Let’s take a look, piece by piece.

Follow Jesus together.

The TREC report says, Christianity is an embodied way of life, not just an institution or set of ideas. The Episcopal Church has a distinct and rich heritage of interpreting and expressing the Way of Jesus, [how to live as Christians in the world.] The renewal of our Church will come only through discerning the shape of that Way and practicing it together in the power of the Spirit.”

Today’s Gospel from John brings us, quite simply, a story of following Jesus together. Jesus calls Philip. Philip knows Andrew and Peter, who have already begun to follow Jesus. Philip goes and calls his friend Nathanael, shares what he’s heard and seen from this new rabbi, and urges him to follow Jesus too. All of these young men are taking a risk – doing something new and strange and daring, leaving home, following this rabbi, questioning the status quo, risking trouble with both religious and political authorities.

But they’re doing it TOGETHER. With friends. When you’re starting something new, or hard, or new and hard, having friends beside you makes all the difference in the world, doesn’t it?

Follow Jesus together. What might that look like for us here at St. Dunstan’s? I think it looks like deepening our bonds of friendship and mutual care. Spending time together. Having real conversations. Bearing one another’s burdens. Sharing in both weeping and laughter. Listening and responding to one another, in the language of our parish mission statement. Building up the “together”. And building up, too, our shared sense of what it means to follow Jesus. Exploring Christianity as an way of life. Talking and wondering and sharing and praying – together – about what lived faith looks like and feels like for us. When are we conscious of bringing our faith into our daily life? – or of needing our faith? I anticipate with hope some holy conversations in the months and years ahead, as we explore what living faith means for us, individually and together.

Follow Jesus together, into the neighborhood. 

The TREC report says, “Jesus sends us together into the places where ordinary life unfolds. We are sent to [share the good news of God’s Kingdom and share in God’s work] of peacemaking and healing…. For many churches now disconnected from neighbors, this will mean attempting small experiments in [listening and in] sharing God’s peace [with our neighbors].”

The word “neighbors” here is used with a literalism that challenges us: the people who live near your church. Most churches are fairly disengaged from their immediate neighbors and the issues and concerns of their neighborhoods. TREC challenges us to re-engage, to look, listen, and learn. To seek out where God may have work for us to do, or may already be at work among our neighbors, and to join in that work.

Looking outside our church walls can be overwhelming. There are SO many issues, and SO many needs. SO many voices telling us that we live in terrible times. Watching the news can make us feel that we, like Samuel, are living in a time when the word of the Lord is rare, and hopeful visions are few and far between. But don’t let the news mislead or overwhelm you. There are good things happening in the world, in the big picture and over the long term. There are many ways in which human life has substantively improved in the past century. Maybe the realization that God is still at work in the world can turn our despair to hope, our discouragement to courage.

Yes, there are many voices that clamor in our ears, about the needs and struggles of our neighbors, near and far. What young Samuel discovered is that sometimes the voice that wakes and calls and stirs you turns out to be the voice of God. In the months and years ahead, let’s ask God’s Holy Spirit to help us listen with discerning ears to the voices around us, to discover together where God is calling us into new or deeper engagement with the world around us.

Follow Jesus together, into the neighborhood, and travel lightly. 

Travel lightly. 

Jesus, in sending out his disciples to preach and heal, told them to carry no bag or purse, not even an extra pair of shoes. The TREC report says, “Jesus sends us out empty-handed so that we might rely upon God’s abundance, which sometimes comes to us through the hospitality of our neighbors. We must hold [our inherited institutions and practices] loosely as we make space for alternative patterns of organizing our life together. We must discern what of our traditions is life-giving and what unduly weighs us down. Traveling lightly means going in vulnerability, risking being changed by God and our neighbors.”

Traveling lightly is very much what Paul is talking about in this portion of the first letter to the church in Corinth. Paul is writing this letter in a time when he expects Jesus’ return, and the end of the world as we know it, pretty much any day now.

A few verses earlier he used the phrase, “In view of the impending crisis…” In Paul’s later letters he begins to shift gears, to offer teachings on how to live as followers of Christ for the long haul. But there’s a theme here that carries on in Paul’s letters and in Christian thought over the millennia – what the Buddhists call non-attachment. “Let those who buy be as though they had no possessions, and let those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.” Paul says, if you’re invested in the way things are, you’re less ready for the way things are becoming, less open to the unknown future that is even now taking shape in the present.

I don’t think “traveling light” for us, in the here and now, means ignoring our spouses or burying our emotions. But the Episcopal Church as a whole is undertaking the needful work of discerning how to “travel lightly” into the 21st century, changing or laying to rest practices and structures and patterns that weigh us down or hold us back. And we can ask those same questions in our parishes. No sacred cows; everything on the table. If there’s anything we do just because we’ve always done it, anything we have just because we have it, it’s worth taking a thoughtful and prayerful look at it together, and asking ourselves:

Is this blessing us, or our neighbors? Is it life-giving, energizing, joyful?  Could it be? Can we make it so? Can we name why it matters to us, and are those Gospel reasons or human reasons? Does concern with protecting or preserving it

make us fearful, or reluctant to follow a new call? Is it something that attracts and engages new members, or creates stumbling blocks and closes doors? Is there anything that needs to die, that we are called to name, and grieve, and lay to rest? Is there anything that wants to be born, that we are called to draw forth, and baptize, and nurture? If we spend a year or eighteen months asking those questions about everything, I absolutely believe we’d have a lot less baggage to carry forward and a lot more energy and enthusiasm for the journey.

Follow Jesus together, into the neighborhood, and travel lightly. 

The TREC report says, “We believe that, rather than an anxious focus on how to preserve our institution, a joyful focus on these basic practices [of Christianity as a] movement will hold the real key for moving us into God’s future.”

We are in a good place, St. Dunstan’s. We have such a concentration of good, loving, committed, smart, brave, curious, generous, interesting, amazing people here. I am so blessed to be your priest; I am so excited by what God is doing among us and with us.  We have our feet on solid ground financially, for the moment; we have the blessing of young and old  caring for each other and living our faith together; we have strong and joyful worship at the heart of our common life. This is a wonderful year to say, Where do we go from here? What do we become? To say, with Samuel, Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening! To hear, with Nathanael, the words of Jesus: You will see greater things than these! 

Seeking the way of Jesus, together – hearing God’s call in the many voices around us, and following it into deeper engagement with our neighbors – holding lightly the way things have been, in confidence that there is hope in the way things are becoming … let us follow Jesus together, into the neighborhood, and travel lightly.

Let us pray.

Lord Jesus, stay with us, as we walk in new paths; be our companion in the way, kindle our hearts, and awaken hope, that we may know you as you are revealed in Scripture and the breaking of bread. Grant this for the sake of your love. Amen.


The Holy Innocents, 1/4/15

This is a difficult Gospel {Matthew 2:1-23}.  And I asked for it. Our Episcopal lectionary, our calendar of Sunday readings, tries hard to give us the Wise Men while avoiding the Holy Innocents – the name given by the church to the babies murdered by Herod’s soldiers. We have three options for Gospel readings today: the FIRST part of the Wise Men story, up to their arrival & the presentation of the gifts; the story of Joseph’s flight into Egypt with his wife and child, skipping what happens to all the other young boys in Bethlehem; and a passage from Luke about something else entirely.

Because I am committed to Biblical narrative, to taking these texts as they come to us, honoring the skill and inspiration of their writers by not chopping the text into bits, and wrestling with them even when they make us uncomfortable -because of all that, I said, Let’s take this whole chunk, the whole Wise Men/Herod/Egypt story, as our Gospel today, and let’s see what we can make of it.

Why the heck would I do that? Why would I give myself this story? When there is a big news story about something terrible happening to a child, because of racist systems or an unsecured gun or a parent’s unloving judgments, I am the kind of person who hides the story from my Facebook timeline, and avoids clicking on the headlines, because I just can’t. Those stories tear me up; they eat up the emotional energy I need for my family and my parish. I believe it’s important for me, as a citizen, a voter, a parent, and a leader, to be familiar with the ways our society tends to commit violence, and allow violence, against children. But I do not, will not, cannot wallow in the details; it would wreck me, and reduce my capacity to respond to events and tragedies within my own community.

So why hand myself Herod and the Holy Innocents, and why lay it on you? Well: because it probably didn’t really happen. This King Herod – there were several – was a really bad, crazy, paranoid guy. He was said to have even had some of his own sons killed because he believed they were plotting against him. So it’s not that he wouldn’t have done something like this; he would. But the historians who record his other awful deeds don’t mention anything like this event, soldiers killing all the male babies of Bethlehem. Some people say, Well, Bethlehem was a small town; maybe the massacre that happened there just didn’t make the Jerusalem Times, and enter the historical record. That’s possible. But the general scholarly consensus seems to be that this particular atrocity attributed to Herod was probably invented by the gospel writer we know as Matthew.

I find that persuasive because it fits what I know, what we know, about Matthew as a Gospel writer. One of the most distinctive things about Matthew’s Gospel is its emphasis on Jesus’ life as a fulfillment of the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible. Again and again, Matthew makes reference to Old Testament prophecies, often putting a spin on events in Jesus’ life that makes them fit those Old Testament patterns. Writing his account of Jesus’ life for a primarily Jewish audience whom he hopes to convince to accept Jesus as God’s Messiah, one thing Matthew does is deliberately cast Jesus as a second Moses. A new leader called by God to lead God’s people out of bondage. And one of the places we see that very clearly is right here. We just had the Moses stories at the end of the summer; who remembers another story about a cruel leader having baby boys killed? Does that ring any bells?… It’s exactly what Pharaoh did in the first chapters of Exodus, trying to reduce the numbers and break the spirits of the enslaved Israelites. Jesus, like Moses, is the one special baby boy, protected by God, who escapes an evil king’s cruelty and grows up to save his people. And in case anybody missed it, Matthew hits the point home by sending the Holy Family to Egypt. That would have been quite a trip… another country, another language… why flee so far, even if Joseph did get word that his family was at risk? I tend to take the Egypt expedition, like the massacre itself, with a grain of salt – or as a narrative that tells a different kind of truth than historical truth. As I’ve said before: stories carry their truths in different ways.

What is Matthew trying to tell us, here? If there never was a massacre of baby boys in Bethlehem, Matthew’s Jewish audience in the late first century would have known that perfectly well. They would have understood that the truth Matthew is trying to tell isn’t the literal truth of historical narrative. Matthew is telling us here about the kind of leader,  the kind of savior, Jesus was called to be; and the kind of world Jesus was born into, a society in which the powerful could do what they liked without accountability or consequence.

Remember, Jerusalem and Judea at this time were under Roman colonial rule. The Romans were the great power of the world at this time; their armies and their emperor claimed territory from Britain to North Africa, from Spain to Syria. Where possible, the Romans liked to use indirect rule: putting in place a local leader  who would serve their interests and follow their orders. That’s what Herod was: a puppet king, subjugated to the Romans just as surely as his people, dependent on their power and their goodwill. Hated by his own subjects for cooperating with their conquerors.

Notice what Matthew says here: When King Herod heard the wise men from afar speak of a newborn king of the Jews, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him. Herod the King is FRIGHTENED. Because his leadership, his position,  is tenuous at best. His people hate him; the Romans only care about him as long as he’s useful; none of his power or authority are truly his own. A rumor of a holy child, a new king called by God as in the time of Samuel, could threaten him in any number of ways; it’s entirely credible that he would have responded with repressive and ruthless violence.

But it’s not just Herod who is frightened. Jerusalem, the City and her people, are frightened. Their peace is just as uncertain as Herod’s power. A new popular leader could lead to civic unrest, which could lead – would lead – to Roman military violence, to crush any resistance and re-establish the Pax Romana, the Roman Peace. It had happened before; it would happen again, with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, four decades after Jesus’ crucifixion, and perhaps a decade before Matthew composed his Gospel.

Herod probably didn’t send soldiers to kill the babies of Bethlehem; but Matthew wants us to know that he could have, and the mothers and fathers of Bethlehem would have had no recourse. The Romans wouldn’t have cared unless it made trouble for them. The religious leaders of the great Temple had no power or will to oppose Herod. There was no earthly authority to hold Herod’s cruelty in check. The truth this story carries, what Matthew wants us to understand, is that Jesus, who was God, was born poor and ordinary and vulnerable, was born into a world of fear and violence, a world of powerlessness and bitter injustice. Everything else he tells us, about the love and anger and courage of Christ, about his preaching and teaching, his healing and arguing, his life and his death, flows out of this initial piece of scene-setting: Matthew’s description of the ruthless and hopeless times into which God chose to be born.

In the fifth century, this story began to be celebrated in the church as the Feast of the Holy Innocents. It was honored in many ways and many places, over the centuries. Today, in the western churches, it has largely fallen out of practice. Too ugly a story to celebrate. Too bloody, too strange, too archaic, too upsetting.

But there may be something here worthy of reclaiming. There is still much that is fearful in our world, much that is violent and ruthless, and many who are vulnerable. A friend of mine,  a priest in an urban setting in New Jersey, celebrated the Feast of the Holy Innocents this year by having a simple weekday service for the children of his community – largely children of color – and members of the local police department. The children anointed the policemen

and prayed for their work and their safety, and the policemen prayed for the children – for them to be safe and learn and grow into adults who make their world a better place.

That service reworked one of the ancient traditions of the Feast of the Holy Innocents: praying for the children of the congregation or village. Moved and inspired by that tradition and by this example in calling it into the present, I’m inviting us to pray together today for the protection and flourishing of our children, here at St. Dunstan’s. Those who are here with us today; those who are still traveling, or home sick, or tucked in for their morning naps – and by extension, for all the children of Madison and Middleton and beyond.

To the children who are here today: I invite you to come into the center of our church. Parents with babes in arms, if you’re comfortable doing so, please join us here too. And I ask the congregation to raise your hands and join me in praying over our kids, using words adapted from St Patrick of Ireland.

We pray over you not because we think you are in danger, dear ones – there is no Herod lurking here – but because we love you, and your wellbeing and safety and nurture are one of the very most important things entrusted to us as your family of faith. So, as we begin this new year, as we welcome the light of the Incarnation shining into the darkness of our world, let us pray for these young people.

I call today upon our God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity,

in unity of love,

to bless our children among us.

I call upon God’s power to guide you,

God’s might to uphold you,

God’s Wisdom to teach you,

God’s Eye to watch over you,

God’s Ear to hear you,

God’s Hand to guide you,

God’s Shield to shelter you,

God’s Way to lie before you.

Christ be with you, Christ within you,

Christ behind you, Christ before you,

Christ beneath you, Christ above you,

Christ in hearts of all that love you.

Dear ones, may you grow in wisdom as in stature,

and in divine and human favor.

And the blessing of God the Holy and Undivided Trinity be upon you,

body, mind, and spirit,

this day and forever more.

And let the people say AMEN.


Prayer for the Feast of the Holy Innocents 

We remember today, O God, the slaughter of the holy innocents of Bethlehem by King Herod. Receive, we pray, into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims; and by your great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love, and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

(1979 Book of Common Prayer, p. 238)