Announcements, September 28

THIS WEEKEND…

Men’s Book Club, Saturday, September 30, 10am-12pm: The Politics of Resentment by Katherine J. Cramer uncovers an oft-overlooked piece of the political puzzle: rural political consciousness and the resentment of the “liberal elite.” What can look like disagreements about basic political principles are rooted in something even more fundamental: who we are as people and how closely a candidate’s social identity matches our own. Have a good read.

Birthday and Anniversary blessings and Healing Prayers will be given this Sunday, October 1, as is our custom on the first Sunday of the month.

New Members’ Forum, Sunday, October 1, 9am: If you’ve started attending St. Dunstan’s recently and would like to ask questions or just chat and get connected,  come to the Meeting Room (all the way to the right, once you come in the main doors to the building) to visit with Rev. Miranda between our 8am and 10am liturgies.

Evening Eucharist, Sunday, October 1, 6pm: Join us for a simple service as the week begins. All are welcome.

MOM Special Offer, Sunday, October 1: Next Sunday, half the cash in our offering plate and any designated checks will be given to Middleton Outreach Ministry’s food pantry. Here are some current most needed items: canned chicken, pork (meat other than fish); boxed meals or soup; toilet paper; baking supplies all types; sugar and honey. Thank you for your generous support!

Fall Clean-up Sunday, October 1, 11:30-1pm: Wear your work clothes to church and stay after with 10am service for a simple lunch (with an overview of tasks to complete while we’re eating), followed by time to work on our grounds. We’ll wrap up by 1:30pm, but you can leave any time you’ve completed your tasks.

Youth Group Fundraising for GSAFE: Our Middle School Youth are creating a team to walk in the GSAFE Trick or Trot 5K on Sunday, October 15. GSAFE is an organization committed to support and leadership development for GLBTQ+ kids and allies, training educators, and other educational and advocacy work to ensure that GLBTQ+ kids are safe and supported. Our youth group hopes to raise $500 as a team. You can contribute by putting cash or a check in the envelope in the Gathering Area, or online here: https://runsignup.com/RaceGroups/34896/Groups/407541

Sign up now for our Parish Talent Show on Sunday, October 22! The Talent Show follows the 10am liturgy; lunch is included. What will you share? A poem, a song, a dramatic monologue, a unique skill, a dance? A sample of art, craft, tinkering, building, study or science? Group acts are encouraged. Start planning now, and look for a signup in late September!

Sanctuary Task Force: Hospitality towards others is one of the clearest mandates in Scripture. Rev. Miranda is gathering a small group to discern together about how that call speaks to us in this time, by learning more about the new Dane Sanctuary network. If you’re interested, contact Rev. Miranda at 238-2781.

Altar Flowers: fall dates available! We are back to our regular Altar Flower process: flowers will be ordered from the church’s florist. Honor a loved one or a special event with altar flowers. Reserve your special date by writing your dedication on the sign-up sheet. Suggested donation is $35. Write “flowers” on the memo line of your check or on envelope containing cash, or donate online at donate.stdunstans.com.

Coffee Hosts Needed for October and Beyond! Join the fun of helping to make people feel welcome and contact Janet Bybee for more information.

THE WEEKS AHEAD…

Sunday School Special Guest, Heidi Ropa, Sunday, October 8, 10am: Heidi is the chair of the Haiti Project, a partnership between the Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee and the church and school of St. Marc’s in Jeannette, Haiti. Heidi will visit our elementary Sunday school classes to tell them about St. Marc’s School, then greet the conversation at Announcements during the 10am service. Learn more about the Haiti Project at haitiproject.org. Our Godly Play class will meet as usual. Their story will be the Great Family.

Falk Friends Pantry Prep, Sunday, October 8, 11:30am: Our partner school, Falk Elementary School on the southwest side of Madison, now has its own food pantry which is serving families well! However, cleaning supplies and personal hygiene items are still in need, as in most pantries. This year we’ll partner with Falk by providing toilet paper, feminine hygiene items, detergent, and other similar items for their pantry. Helpers of all ages are welcome to help pack our Falk Friends Pantry bags after the 10am liturgy!

Blessing of the Animals Service, Sunday, October 8, 3pm: People and creatures are invited to a short service of song, story, and prayer.  Animals should be on a leash or in a carrier. Stuffed animals are welcome as well. Spread the word and invite a friend!

Madison-Area Julian Gathering, Wednesday, October 11, 1:00 – 2:45pm: Little is known about Julian’s life, but she wrote a book, as far as we know the first in English written by a woman, about a series of revelations which opened her to the depths of God’s unconditional love for us in Jesus Christ. Nearly forgotten for 600 years, Julian’s insights and gentle wisdom are becoming ever more widely known and appreciated. Each Julian Gathering meeting includes time for contemplative prayer, fellowship, and reading/discussion of Julian’s book.  We meet the second Wednesday of each month.  For additional information, contact Susan Fiore.

Just Mercy – A Conversation, Wednesday, October 11, 7pm at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, 4011 Major Avenue, Madison: A great opportunity at our sister parish on the east side, to learn more about systemic racism and criminal justice. A representative of MOSES and a special guest, Cecelia Klingele, UW Law professor and lawyer, will also be present to add their perspectives. Our Bishop has invited the people of this diocese to read and discuss the book Just Mercy, as part of a church-wide commitment to anti-racist learning and action. But you don’t have to read the book to attend this event!

Diocesan Convention, Saturday, October 14, 9am – 4:30pm at St. John’s Northwestern Military Academy in Delafield, Wisconsin:  All are welcome to attend all or part of the convention! The morning will be devoted to worship and book discussion based on “Just Mercy.” The afternoon session will be the ‘business’ session. Visitors are asked to register. To learn more and register, go to http://www.diomil.org/about-us/diocesan-convention/. There will be a Pre-Convention informational meeting at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church on the East side, on Wednesday, October 4, at 7:30pm.

Bread for the World Sunday, October 15: We are invited to participate in Bread for the Word’s annual Offering of Letters, to advocate to our politicians for programs that will reduce hunger in the United States and around the world. This year’s legislative focus is our national budget.

Candle-Lighting Service to Honor Infertility, Pregnancy & Infant Loss, Sunday, October 15, 6pm: October 15 is widely observed as Pregnancy & Infant Loss Remembrance Day. We will hold a simple liturgy, with Eucharist and candle-lighting, to mark the day. All are welcome; feel free to invite a friend.

LECTURE SERIES: The Legacies of the Reformation— The Continuing Relevance of the Protestant Reformation for Contemporary Christianity & Culture, 4pm, Grace Church: In this year when we commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, traditionally dated as beginning with Martin Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses on October 31, 1517, Grace Church is sponsoring a lecture series at 4pm on Oct. 1, 8, and 29 reflecting on the continuing relevance of the Protestant Reformation for contemporary Christianity and culture. The lectures will be held in the Cornelia Vilas Guild Hall at Grace Church, and the series will conclude with a Choral Evensong at 5pm on Nov. 5 in the church. For more information, contact Peggy Frain at togracechurchcommunications@gmail.com.

 

 

Sermon, Sept. 17

So last week in my sermon I said some big, warm, fuzzy things about church, and the grace of being part of a faith community. But let’s get real. Churches are called by God, but made of people, and we don’t always get it right. Sometimes we hurt each other. Sometimes we piss each other off. Sometimes we disagree, about important things or dumb things.

Our Sunday lectionary seems eager to call our attention to all this. In both the Gospel and the Epistle, we’re smack in the middle of passages addressing conflict within faith communities. In the 18th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, Matthew’s Jesus is teaching the disciples how to deal with offenses within the church community, while the 14th chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans is all about how to handle differences of conviction among Christians.

As I read both of these passages, I found myself thinking of our church Community Covenant. About a year ago, the Vestry, our church board, began work on a document stating how we want to be with each other, when we disagree. The Vestry voted to adopt that Covenant, and then offered it to the whole church, to guide our life together. It includes guidelines like: Keep in mind the bigger picture and what we are trying to accomplish together. Remember that our differences of perspective are a blessing and an opportunity to learn. Stay faithful to practices that build our sense of community.

Both Matthew and Paul are undertaking similar work, offering some guiding principles and practices for situations of disagreement, misunderstanding, or hurt. Peter’s question about forgiveness, in this week’s Gospel passage, flows directly out of the preceding verses, last week’s reading, in which Matthew’s Jesus talks about church conflict. I’m saying “Matthew’s Jesus” very intentionally here. The bit about forgiving someone seven times, or even seventy times seven – that’s probably really Jesus; it sounds like him, and it shows up in several ancient texts.

But Matthew expands it into a recommended process for addressing grievances within the church community – here it is, we heard it in last week’s Gospel:  “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

All of that is only in Matthew’s Gospel – which not always, but sometimes, is a clue that what we have here is the Gospel writer expanding and interpreting what they’ve received. And I can well understand how Matthew might be tempted to expand Jesus’ teachings in this way. He’s writing maybe fifty years after Jesus’ death, which means Christians have had fifty years to discover the ways that being church together can get difficult or awkward. He might well feel that he wishes Jesus had offered a little more concrete guidance.

And so Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness becomes this process: Matthew says, First raise the issue in private, then bring two witnesses to back you up; then if the offender still doesn’t apologize, tell the whole church what they did – and treat them as a Gentile and a tax collector, which given that Jesus ministered to both Gentiles and tax collectors, means – I think, I hope – that you just start the relationship fresh. Start over.

It sounds really sensible and practical. Like the kind of thing you might add to a community covenant. Until you think about it. To begin with, Matthew frames this as a process for what to do if another member of the church sins against you. Now, if I try, I can think of a few times in my nearly seven years at St. Dunstan’s’s when I could say somebody sinned against me – did or said something unfair or unkind towards me.  But the VAST majority of the times when something bubbles up that needs handling, among us, that’s NOT what’s going on. People have different visions or priorities; or there’s a misunderstanding, or people just irritate each other. Whatever’s going on, it is not helpfully addressed by the question,

“Who sinned?”  So for one thing, Matthew’s process here is limited in application.

For another thing, Matthew’s process is very open to abuse. I think something’s always made me a little uneasy about this – Biblical commentator Richard Swanson puts his finger right on it. Consider the move to involve witnesses. Swanson asks, Humans being humans, who are going to ask to come with you, to confront someone you’re upset with? He writes, “When we have been hurt, we generally talk to close friends who will commiserate with us, and then we talk to not-so-close friends who will agree with us.” So our witnesses are likely to be people who are in our corner.

And even if the witnesses are impartial, they may read the power dynamics of the situation, and choose sides on that basis, rather than on the basis of truth. Swanson writes, “Dominators of every sort exert their power (and do their damage) by creating a system in which subordinates believe that it is to their advantage to take the side of [the] abuser.”

Think about Matthew’s process again; think about how easily it could become a tool of power, a process to silence someone raising a legitimate concern. Person A raises a concern about Person B: He has done something that upset her or caused her harm. Person B sees this complaint as a sin against him. He didn’t mean anything by it. She’s too sensitive. It was just a joke. And anyway, it didn’t happen; she’s lying.He follows Matthew’s first step: He goes to her alone, and says, You know, you should drop this. She refuses. She knows what happened, and she’s going to speak. So Person B comes back with a couple of friends. Step two.  They meet with her together, and tell her, If you don’t let this go, We’re just going to have to tell everyone all about you. All… about… you. Your family background. Your relationships. Your history of mental illness or addiction. That’s the next step: Go public. Tell everybody all about it.

By the time Step 3 is over, Person A is gone. Driven out of the community. Her life torn apart. The sin of naming Person B’s misbehavior has been duly punished. Swanson says, “When peace is broken, even the protocol that is set for making peace can be a tool used by oppressors.”

I don’t blame Matthew for outlining a process so ripe for abuse. He was naive. I envy him his blissful ignorance. And his process could certainly be helpful, in the best of circumstances, assuming good motives and a level field of play. At base, I think he just wants people to address issues directly, instead of gossiping about them. And quite right. But he just doesn’t seem to realize that disagreements and grievances within a community are rarely as simple as, A sinned against B. Most of the time, it’s just that we see things differently.

Which brings us to Romans 14, and to the apostle Paul. Paul has been traveling around visiting churches, founding churches, encouraging churches, dealing with difficulties and disputes in churches, for a while, by the time he writes his great letter to the church in Rome. He’s seen some stuff. He knows that churches can get messy. He knows that, as Swanson puts it, “People disagree and people hurt each other, even when all the people involved are good-hearted and aiming to do right.”

I actually really love Romans 14. I wrote a paper on it in seminary – I think it caught my attention at first because I’m a vegetarian. “The weak [of conscience] eat only vegetables” – ouch! But spending time with this passage – with the whole chapter – gave me a lot of respect for the ethic of community that Paul is trying to develop here.

Paul is addressing a reality of the first century church: there was a lot of diversity of conviction and practice. Christianity was still firmly rooted in Judaism at that time, and the church was still working out where Jewish ritual practices – holy days, food laws, and much more – fit into this new way of faith. At the same time, many new Christians had converted from other religions or no religion. And people reached different conclusions about what it looked like to be an observant Christian. There were people who kept holy days and food restrictions, and there were people who thought all that was nonsense, because we have this wonderful freedom in Christ, in which none of that prescribed piety matters anymore. And those two parties could be prone to clashing and looking down on each other. The observant think the non-observant are lazy spiritual slackers. The non-observant think the observant are superficial and faithless.

Eating meat wasn’t by any means the only issue, but it seems to of been a recurring issue. Meat might come from animals were sacrificed to other gods, and/or the animal might not have been killed in accordance with the practices of kosher. So either way, for those keeping Jewish food rules, the meat would be tainted. People who were trying to follow those food-related piety practices, in a multi-religious urban setting, might simply choose to be vegetarian and avoid the issue.

Paul addresses these kinds of divisions within faith communities by naming two parties: the Strong and Weak of conscience. The Strong of conscience are the non-observant: those who are convinced that the holy days and kosher laws and all that were part of an old order that has come to an end. The Weak in conscience are those who feel, deep inside themselves, that these practices and habits are still part of the texture of their life of faith, still part of the way they honor God in daily life.

Paul identifies with the Strong. He believes, with them, that Christians are not bound to any particular set of ritual practices – certainly not those associated with Judaism. And in this text, Paul is addressing the Strong. What he says to them is, essentially: You’re right. But: Don’t be jerks about it.

Because being right isn’t enough. Being right can break community. Paul takes seriously both the unity of the body of Christ, and the consciences and convictions of the Weak. He understands, maybe because he was once an observant Jew, that when people have deep-seated habits of faith, you can’t just tell them that stuff doesn’t matter anymore, and expect them to get over it instantly. Those practices are deeply imprinted in their souls. For example, pressuring them to eat meat, or even just eating meat in front of them, could injure their faith – because it feels wrong; it feels to them like an affront to God, even if they’re trying to think about it differently. Food choices might seem unimportant to the Strong, but they’re very important to the Weak, and the Strong need to hear that, and take it seriously. In the verses following today’s lesson, Paul explains this: “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself. But it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died. Do not let your good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit… Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for you to make others fall by what you eat.”

And at the beginning of today’s text, Paul even says to the Strong, Don’t argue with the Weak about all this. Even if you change their minds, you can’t change their hearts. Don’t be a stumbling block for their faith. Instead, create breadth within the faith community for a variety of practices, because people experience and live out their faith in many ways. And don’t judge each other: Those who eat meat must not look down on those who don’t, and vice versa, for God has welcomed ALL of you.

Now if I thought that Paul was advocating that we should let people cling to an overly rigid sense of rulebound faith indefinitely, then I might find this more troubling. But I don’t believe that. I’m reading out from Paul a little here but I think I’m solid ground: Paul sees this as a temporary and evolving state of affairs. His endgame is to hold the community together, across their differences, so that over time they learn from each other and shape each other.

After I graduated from seminary, I spent a couple of years in New Hampshire, serving as the assistant to the rector in a church there. This was 2008 – 2010, but even then, five-plus years after the fact, people there were still processing their experiences of electing Gene Robinson as their bishop, and the worldwide response to that election. Back in 2003, the tiny Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire was suddenly thrust into the worldwide limelight, because their newly-elected bishop was an openly gay man, who had a partner.

People from New Hampshire are not attention seekers; they did not set out to make a splash, to make history or to make their new bishop a target. New Hampshire is a small diocese; everybody knows Gene, and lots of people had been part of the bishop search and election. What people told me, again and again, is, We elected Gene because we knew Gene. We knew his family. He’d been serving in the diocese for years. The unfolding understanding of whom God calls to ordained ministry, in the Diocese of New Hampshire, didn’t happen because of cogent theological or biblical argumentation on the part of the Strong of Conscience. It happened through people being church together, and recognizing the witness of a good life, and bearing with the discomfort of coming to a new understanding together.

I think that’s exactly what Paul was counting on, with the Strong/Weak division back in his day. Paul believed the Strong would, eventually, win – not because of arguments or pressuring the Weak, but by staying in community and showing, by their words and actions, that they’re faithful servants of God even though they eat meat of dubious origin. Paul believed that time was on the side of the Strong, and he was right.

Matthew wants there to be situations in which there’s a right, and a wrong, and a resolution. His prescription for those situations, built on Jesus’ call to forgiveness, is fine.  But those situations aren’t actually that common. Paul offers a much more generalizable and durable approach to the many times when people within a community just aren’t all on the same page about something. That’s ultimately why I’m so drawn to this chapter of Romans: because even though meat-eating and holy days may not be the issues, life in the Church is full of situations when something matters to me, but not to you, or vice versa.

And having Paul talk about this, so clearly and so kindly, feels like having a wise elder church leader, who’s walked closely with God and who’s lived through so many church conflicts, tell me what what happens in my church, in all our churches, is normal – and even holy.

Sometimes there will be a group that feels very clear about what God wants and where we should be going, and they’ll feel impatient that everybody else hasn’t caught the vision yet. I’ve been in that group. Sometimes there will be a group that feels very clear about the integrity and beauty of what we have already, and the risks and costs of change, and they’ll feel anxious and stretched by new possibilities. I have been in that group too. Sometimes I feel like I’m in both at once. Paul says, here, Yeah. That’s just how churches are. Don’t expect unanimity or uniformity. The diversity among you leaves space for the Spirit to play. Get comfortable with the discomfort of being impatient, or stretched, or both at once. And work on loving each other, and trusting God, enough to follow that discomfort where it leads you, together.

Sermon, Sept. 10

Happy Lammastide! Lammastide is a harvest festival celebrating the first wheat harvest of late summer – hence the focus on bread. We borrowed this feast from the Church of England a few years ago because we needed a way to mark and celebrate the beginning of a new program year.

The church’s calendar, in terms of our formation programs and many of our ministries, follows the secular school year, because that’s convenient. That’s the rhythm of our weekday lives, so we roll with it. We need a break sometime to rest and plan, and summer is when it’s easiest to take that break.

But the church’s New Year is the first Sunday in Advent – not until December. In terms of the church calendar we are in the most undistinguished possible part of the year – late in the Season After Pentecost. There are NO major feasts between late May and early November.

Some churches call this Welcome Back Sunday. But that’s a little insulting, frankly – it implies you’ve all been gone. And you haven’t.

The English church, our mother church, has a number of agricultural festivals as part of its calendar and culture, like Rogation Day and Lammastide.

So in the interests of having a way to mark a new beginning, and to remind us to attend to the cycles of the natural world, we have borrowed this harvest festival, Lammastide, and are making it part of our calendar and practice here.

Bread is a really powerful symbol. It stands for “food”, and even more broadly, for that which sustains us – in the Lord’s Prayer, for example, and in the name of the organization “Bread for the World,” to which our church belongs.

Bread has ritual and sacramental and symbolic meaning and use in many faiths and cultures. Today’s Exodus lesson is about the Passover meal, the great holy meal of Judaism. That meal has two key parts: the lamb and the unleavened bread.  This passage is a lot like our Eucharistic prayers, which in turn are based on passages from the Gospels. It tells a story that explains why we are eating this bread, what it means to us and how it makes us a people. And it tells us, Keep doing this.

That’s not an incidental connection. It’s easy for us to forget, but the Gospel writers cast the Last Supper as either a Passover meal or Passover-adjacent. The holy, people-making bread of Exodus is part of the foundation for the holy, people-making bread of the Eucharist.

Bread, then, is not just food, not just sustenance, but also unity and identity.  As we will say at the Eucharist this morning: We who are many are one body, for we all share in the one bread. In the Didache, the oldest know Christian liturgy, the Eucharistic prayer includes these words: “Just as this broken bread was scattered as grain on top of the hills and was gathered together and became one, in the same way let your people be gathered together from the remotest parts of the land into your kingdom.”

Scattered and gathered, many made one. In sharing the Eucharist, in sharing all the other ways we eat together, we become companions – a beautiful word that literally means, People who share bread. Com, with. Pan, bread. Companion. The word has a sense too of a fellow-traveler, of pausing on a long journey to share what you have in your bags.

Look around you: You all just shared a little bread. And in a little while we’ll share bread again, in the Eucharist.  We are all companions. Fellow-travelers, sharing bread.

This new beginning, this moment of looking back with gratitude and forward with purpose, this feast of bread seems to me like a good time to talk a little about why church.

Being part of a church isn’t the cultural norm anymore. That means you’re all doing this on purpose. You’re choosing this, when there are so many other ways we could be spending our time, energy, and resources.

To begin with, let’s be clear that, even though we often talk about it that way, church isn’t a place we go;  it’s a thing we make, a thing we become. I read a piece earlier this summer that argued that people participating in their churches’ ministries shouldn’t be called “volunteers,”  any more than a father caring for his children is “babysitting.”  The article argued that you “volunteer” for an organization at which you’re an outsider, a guest.  Whereas this church is YOURS. Your baby. Church happens because you come, and do, and give.

There are plenty of reasons NOT to choose church. A writer and scholar named Marylin McEntyre outlined some of them in an essay published this week.

Here are some of the reasons she names:

First, “Churches can be clubby and exclusionary.” Sometimes you just feel that there’s no room for you – either you don’t fit the demographics, you’re not wearing the uniform; or the church simply isn’t really interested in new people. I don’t believe this is true at St. Dunstan’s, but I am mindful that as we grow, we need to step up our culture and practices of welcome to make sure people coming here the first and fifth and tenth time feel welcomed and connected.

That was easier when we had five new households a year instead of fifteen. But we’re so excited to be challenged by growth; we are going to figure this out and keep improving our welcome.

Another reason not to go to church that McEntyre points out that some churches are boring. Now, this one can be a touchy topic for liturgical churches, where doing and saying the same thing week after week is just part of what we do. But repetition isn’t intrinsically boring. Before I was ordained, and the question of boringness or non-boringness became ultimately my responsibility, I worshiped at Episcopal churches where their liturgy was repetitive, yes, but alive, intentional, gracious. And I worshiped at Episcopal churches where the liturgy was just boring. Of course, churches can be boring beyond their worship, too. McEntyre points out that sermons, websites, and church ministries can also all lean towards the safe, the predictable, the lukewarm. I gotta tell you, even when I talk with people who don’t love what we’re doing at St. Dunstan’s, I rarely hear that we’re boring…!

And finally, some churches elevate something above the Gospel. What McEntyre actually says is, Some churches are partisan – they hold some political leader or ideology above the witness and teaching of Jesus Christ. They’re not reflecting on society and current events in light of the Gospel, but simply holding up a party line borrowed from the surrounding culture.

But churches can also risk making an idol not just out of a particular political ideology, but out of peace – not the kind of peace that comes from God, the peace that passes all understanding, but the shallow peace of avoiding the difficult subjects, and never talking about what really matters to us.  In fact, there’s recently been a significant movement calling people to leave churches, primarily evangelical churches, where the leaders don’t shine the Gospel’s light on today’s challenges.

It can feel risky to talk about the big stuff; that’s why we hold tight to the Gospel when we do it. But the point is that both political partisanship, and political silence, can be ways to hold Jesus at arm’s length, and keep church as a social club instead of a community of grace and transformation.

I want to add a reason that’s not on McEntyre’s list, but that I’ve been thinking about lately. Sometimes people quit church because so much wrong is done in the name of Christianity. Evil things – things that the opposite of what Jesus Christ taught and lived – are proclaimed in the name of Jesus, by people who see themselves as Christians. The deep divisions in Christianity – and in American public life – are beyond the scope of this sermon. But I know there are people who just can’t take it anymore. They know that not all Christians are like that. They know that what they’re hearing is a distortion of the Gospel. But it’s just become too poisonous. The very name of Jesus feels tarnished to them, because of how some Christians have used it. I find that terribly sad, but I understand it. I can’t blame them.

Nobody’s left yet, so I guess I haven’t convinced you to quit church yet. So let’s turn to the reasons FOR church that McEntyre names.

Some of the reasons have to do with the way a healthy church meets us where we are, and addresses our deep needs. For example:

A healthy church will allow you to acknowledge guilt and experience forgiveness. McEntyre writes, “It may not seem that acknowledging guilt would be a particularly attractive reason to attend church, but you find, if you do it, that it’s amazingly restorative. Most of us carry around guilt like a stone in a pocket. Sometimes you get so used to its weight you stop even noticing it. So it can take a long time, if you’re leading what seems to be a decent and innocuous life, to get to a place where guilt becomes pain and you long for forgiveness. When you do get there, a healthy church is a good place to go.”

Of course there are other ways to address guilt or pain or anger that we carry from the past. But there is something distinctive and gracious about the church’s language and practice of confession and forgiveness – whether the weekly words of confession we share, or the Rite of Reconciliation for an individual. McEntyre says, “[In church,] we can afford to confess because confession doesn’t mire us in shame, but lifts us into sure and certain hope and a life of gratitude.”

Another reason to choose church is that being part of a church gives you access – immerses you – in a rich heritage of words, music, symbols and holy stories. It connects us with a centuries-long conversation about how to live as followers of Jesus. It enlarges and enriches our imagination, imprints words of prayer and Scripture and song in our hearts as resources for moments of need.

And in healthy churches, the riches of Scripture and tradition aren’t seen as something fragile that we have to protect behind glass like a museum exhibit, but as robust and living gifts. As McEntyre says about the Bible, “Healthy churches wrestle, working out their salvation over coffee and concordances, knowing there is nothing pat or simple about the living Word, but that it invites us into subtle, supple, resilient relationship with the Word made flesh who dwells, still, among us.”

Which brings us to a third reason to choose church: You might find God here. In McEntyre’s words: “[A healthy church is a place] of divine encounter… It provides a place, a way, an invitation, and a sacred space in which, if you come with an open heart, you may find yourself, in spite of yourself, practicing the presence of God.”

We use many practices: silence; music and song; art and story; hearing sacred texts read aloud, and reflecting on them, in community or alone, but always with the Holy Spirit’s breath at our ear. And then there are our sacraments – all of them, but especially the Eucharist, our weekly practice of assent, of saying Yes, again, to being part of this body, part of Christ’s body, part of what God is doing in the world.

McEntyre is realistic about this: We don’t have big experiences of God’s presence every week, or every year. We often come to church distracted, reluctant, confused, or weary. And I’m keenly aware that church isn’t “perfect” every Sunday, or any Sunday. But, as she writes, “underneath the distractions and irritations runs a current so strong it carries me in spite of myself. I float in mighty waters.”

Naming our guilt and experiencing forgiveness; being blessed by our heritage of music, prayer, and Scripture; and feeling, now and then, that God is here, with us, with you.  These are all gifts that may be healing and inspiring for the individual.

But as I said before: church isn’t a place we go because we enjoy the services it provides. It’s a thing we make, a thing we become, together. It’s a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Forgiveness and grace, song and story and sacrament, are all doorways into something bigger that ourselves. And paradoxically, coming to see ourselves as part of something bigger can help make our individual lives more bearable and more meaningful.

McEntyre writes, “A healthy church will help you get over yourself. God loves you with infinite, unconditional love…, but to experience that love fully, you have to get over yourself—excessive concern with your own welfare, your own family, your own ambitions or failures.”

I think that’s probably true for some people – that we struggle with a spiritual myopia that keeps us overly focused on what’s right in front of us. But I know we have people in this congregation, too, who have more or less the opposite problem – call it spiritual vertigo: that sense that you’re standing in the middle of something huge and unstable and dizzying. Some of us are so aware of the big picture that it’s paralyzing. We feel stuck, helpless, overwhelmed.

Either way – whether what ails us is myopia or vertigo – I believe that a healthy church can help us back towards seeing ourselves in relation to the world in a way that’s both realistic and hopeful. What we do together here, our prayers and songs and Scriptures and sacraments, our holy conversations about how to live and act and serve, and just being together in the power of the Spirit – all of that, all of it helps us recalibrate our sense of self and of agency, of our capacity to act.

Doing church helps us look at the world in light of the Gospel. McEntyre writes, “A healthy church will look at [cultural] norms with a critical eye, holding them up to the light of Christ, which involves deep reading of Scripture and deep engagement with biblical ethics… A healthy church will have the conversation and invite you into it. It will [show you where the work is happening, and] teach you to pray as you go.”

And doing church helps us realize that we have something to offer, however weak or small or poor or busy we may feel. She writes, “In a healthy church you begin to recognize yourself as someone with gifts to give—time, money, energy, expertise—and you begin to want to give them, because the grace that comes with giving is suddenly so startlingly apparent.”

I hope, I believe, that St. Dunstan’s is a healthy church. I hope, I believe, that being part of a healthy church will be good for you. I want that, for you. But I also hope and believe that all of us being church together is good for our community, our world.

To borrow words from our baptismal covenant, we can resist the forces of evil the corrupt and destroy the creatures of God more effectively when we’re resisting them together, whether that’s acting as one body, or encouraging one another in our separate vocations of justice, kindness, and generosity.

And there are evils done by churches, in the name of Jesus, that are best undone by churches, in the name of Jesus.

So that’s what’s in my heart, and in my prayers, as we celebrate our companionship today. As we share bread, and become, always and again, the body of Christ, given to us and for us, to bless and heal and redeem each of us, all of us, and the whole world.

Article cited: 

“Choosing Church,” Marilyn McEntyre.  https://www.cardus.ca/comment/article/5114/choosing-church/#.WaHKdBKVu-4.facebook

Sermon, July 23

LORD, you have searched me out and known me; * you know my sitting down and my rising up; you discern my thoughts from afar.

You trace my journeys and my resting-places and are acquainted with all my ways.

Indeed, there is not a word on my lips,  but you, O LORD, know it altogether.

You press upon me behind and before and lay your hand upon me.

Once there was a little bunny who wanted to run away. So he said to his mother, “I am running away.” “If you run away,” said his mother, “I will run after you. For you are my little bunny.”

Where can I go then from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?

“If you run after me,” said the little bunny, “I will become a fish in a trout stream, and I will swim away from you.” “If you become a fish in a trout stream,” said his mother, “I will become a fisherman and I will fish for you.”

If I climb up to heaven, you are there. If I make the grave my bed, you are there also….

Margaret Wise Brown published The Runaway Bunny in 1942. How many people here heard that book in their childhood, or read it to kids in their family? …

How many of you really love it? ….

How many of you find it deeply unsettling? …

I haven’t been able to discover, with some casual poking around, whether Brown was intentionally riffing on Psalm 139 or not.  (If you’d like to look at the Prayer book version of the Psalm, instead of the verse setting we sang, it’s on page 794.)

Regardless of whether Brown intended it or not, the parallel is there. Not just the superficial similarity of content – but Brown nails the emotional ambivalence of being loved so relentlessly. There’s just no other word for it. Relentless.

Some people who find the book – and the Psalm – unsettling do so because it’s grounded in parent images, and their experience of parenting has not been so great. Maybe they were parented by someone whose love was conditional, intermittent, or who didn’t have a lot of capacity for love at all,  in which case these images of relentless love may simply feel unrealistic at a deep level. Maybe they were parented by someone whose love was controlling or manipulative, in which case these images of relentless love might feel realistic in the worst possible way.

People whose experiences of human parenting have been deeply flawed or damaging may find more solace and hope in other ways to imagine God, of which there are many.

But God as the persistent Mama Bunny is emotionally ambivalent even for people like me, who have been loved well by their parents and first family . Accept the premise that the Parent in storybook and psalm is a good parent, who knows and loves the child deeply and desires the child’s wellbeing. This is still a complicated little story.

The child – the bunny and the Psalmist – wants to run away. Seeks distance, space, freedom, autonomy. And the Parent – God, our Mama Bunny – says, Fine. Run. Go where you need to go, do what you need to do. But I’ll be there when you stop running.

The line between reassurance and threat is – very unclear. Our prayer book Psalter renders verse 4 of the Psalm this way: “You press upon me behind and before.” That verb in Hebrew is “besiege.”  Like someone surrounding a city to conquer it.  You besiege me on all sides, God.  No wonder the Psalmist goes on to say, How can I run away from you? Where can I go to escape this Presence, this scrutiny? …

I know that feeling, the hot prickly tight feeling of the push-pull between attachment and autonomy.  I think everyone who’s been either a child or a parent knows that feeling. The feeling when you run to your room and slam the door, and sit in there alternately hating your parents and hoping they’ll come check on you. The feeling when your child runs to their room and slams the door, and you stand there letting your blood pressure come down, remembering to breathe, remembering that the reason that little monster can make you so angry is because you love them so freaking much, and eventually, once you can trust yourself, once you’ve found one true, kind thing to say, you go knock on their door, and ask if you can come in.

It’s hard to know someone that well, as well as you know your child. Your parent. Your spouse. Your sibling or best friend.  It hurts to know and love someone deeply, and see them struggling – dealing with hardship, or making lousy choices. It hurts to know someone so well that you understand exactly why something is so hard for her, exactly why he’s making that particular lousy choice. And yet your love and your understanding can’t always save or spare them. The poignancy, the pathos of those moments, when we’re swamped with pity and fear and even anger for someone we love so much, and cannot save from themselves – that poignancy and pathos is one of our purest glimpses into the heart of God. Who knows each of us that well. Who loves each of us that much.

Being deeply known and deeply loved is a huge blessing, compared to any alternative. But it can feel stifling or overwhelming at times. That’s simply a human truth – and the source of the impulse to escape, in both storybook and psalm. And yet even in the frustration, the door slamming, the running away, there is deep trust. That’s why we can afford to struggle, to push away, to shout anger and defiance. Because we know that parent, that friend, will still love us afterwards.  We know there is something unbreakable there. Something steadfast. Something, yes, relentless.

Bunny and Psalmist both come to some resolution. The Psalmist lands at awe and gratitude, towards a God who knew him even when he was being formed in the womb, who numbered his days before his life began. The bunny ends at resignation, at acceptance: Aw, shucks. The dialogue between mother and child seems to defuse whatever conflict sparked the child’s initial desire to run away. Mother and child are reconciled, and carrots are shared, because the mother’s love was bigger than the child’s anger.

This morning we will baptize baby B, naming her as a member of God’s one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, and affirming her as a child of God. B is blessed with a human family that loves her deeply, with parents and brothers and a sister who will always have her back, who will honor her growth and need for self-determination, even as they continue hold her in safety and steadfast love. I hope the church will be another such family for her, and for all the children growing up among us.

But human families and human love are finite and imperfect. Sometimes parents aren’t equipped to love the way a child needs. Sometimes children run farther than a parent can reach.  Sometimes a person goes through a season in life in which it feels like there’s no person that can give them that fierce, trustworthy, unbreakable love we all need. But there is a Love that we will never wear out, never outrun, never outlive. There is a Love that will be the wind that blows us where we need to go, the tree that we fly home to. There’s a Love that is beside us in our darkest nights, That goes before us even into the depths of the grave. That is the Love in whose name we name B today, the Love that will encompass her growing, seeking, and striving,  all the days of her life.

Announcements, September 21

THIS WEEKEND…

Ladies’ Night Out, Friday, September 22, 6pm: Come join us for good food and good conversation among women of all ages from St. Dunstan’s. This month we will meet at Nani’s, 518 Grand Canyon Drive in Madison. For more information, contact Kathy Whitt or  Debra Martinez.

Outreach Committee Meeting, Saturday 23, 8-10am: All are welcome to join our conversations about how St. Dunstan’s can best serve the world with our resources and our hands. We begin with an optional potluck breakfast at 8am.

Last Sunday All-Ages Worship, Sunday, September 24, 10am: Our last Sunday worship is intended especially to help kids (and grownups who are new to our pattern of worship) to engage and participate fully. NOTE: Our 8am service always follows our regular order of worship.

Young Adult Meetup at the Vintage, Sunday, September 24, 7pm: The younger adults of St. Dunstan’s are invited to join us for conversation and the beverage of your choice, at the Vintage Brewpub on South Whitney Way. Friends and partners welcome too.

Grace Shelter Dinner, Sunday, September 24, 7pm: Every fourth Sunday, a loyal group of St. Dunstan’s folk provides dinner for residents at the Grace Church shelter, and breakfast the next morning. See the signup sheet in the Gathering Area to help out. To learn more, talk with Rose Mueller.

Kitchen Helper Needed for our Clean-Up Day Lunch, Sunday, Oct. 1! We have a simple meal planned but need 1 or 2 folks who can set food out towards the end of the 10am service, and make sure cleanup happens. If you can help, talk to Rev. Miranda or George Ott, or email office@stdunstans.com.

Sign up now for our Parish Talent Show on Sunday, October 22! The Talent Show follows the 10am liturgy; lunch is included. What will you share? A poem, a song, a dramatic monologue, a unique skill, a dance? A sample of art, craft, tinkering, building, study or science? Group acts are encouraged. Start planning now, and look for a signup in late September!

Sanctuary Task Force: Hospitality towards others is one of the clearest mandates in Scripture. Rev. Miranda is gathering a small group to discern together about how that call speaks to us in this time, by learning more about the new Dane Sanctuary network. If you’re interested, contact Rev. Miranda at 238-2781.

Altar Flowers: fall dates available! We are back to our regular Altar Flower process: flowers will be ordered from the church’s florist. Honor a loved one or a special event with altar flowers. Reserve your special date by writing your dedication on the sign-up sheet. Suggested donation is $35. Write “flowers” on the memo line of your check or on envelope containing cash, or donate online at donate.stdunstans.com.

Coffee Hosts Needed in October: Please consider being a coffee host! Contact Janet Bybee for more information.

THE WEEKS AHEAD…

Men’s Book Club, Saturday, September 30, 10am-12pm: The Politics of Resentment by Katherine J. Cramer uncovers an oft-overlooked piece of the political puzzle: rural political consciousness and the resentment of the “liberal elite.” What can look like disagreements about basic political principles are rooted in something even more fundamental: who we are as people and how closely a candidate’s social identity matches our own. Have a good read.

Birthday and Anniversary blessings and Healing Prayers will be given next Sunday, October 1, as is our custom on the first Sunday of the month.

New Members’ Forum, Sunday, October 1, 9am: If you’ve started attending St. Dunstan’s recently and would like to ask questions or just chat and get connected,  come to the Meeting Room (all the way to the right, once you come in the main doors to the building) to visit with Rev. Miranda between our 8am and 10am liturgies.

Evening Eucharist, Sunday, October 1, 6pm: Join us for a simple service as the week begins. All are welcome.

MOM Special Offer, Sunday, October 1: Next Sunday, half the cash in our offering plate and any designated checks will be given to Middleton Outreach Ministry’s food pantry. Here are some current most needed items: canned chicken, pork (meat other than fish); boxed meals or soup; toilet paper; baking supplies all types; sugar and honey. Thank you for your generous support!

Fall Clean-up Sunday, October 1, 11:30-1pm: Wear your work clothes to church and stay after with 10am service for a simple lunch (with an overview of tasks to complete while we’re eating), followed by time to work on our grounds. We’ll wrap up by 1:30pm, but you can leave any time you’ve completed your tasks.

Special Guest, Heidi Ropa, Haiti Project, Sunday, October 8, 10am: Heidi is the chair of the Haiti Project, a partnership between the Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee and the church and school of St. Marc’s in Jeannette, Haiti. Heidi will visit our elementary Sunday school classes to tell them about St. Marc’s School, then greet the conversation at Announcements during the 10am service. Learn more about the Haiti Project at haitiproject.org.

Blessing of the Animals Service, Sunday, October 8, 3pm: People and creatures are invited to a short service of song, story, and prayer.  Animals should be on a leash or in a carrier. Stuffed animals are welcome as well. Spread the word and invite a friend!

Madison-Area Julian Gathering, Wednesday, October 11, 1:00 – 2:45pm: Little is known about Julian’s life, but she wrote a book, as far as we know the first in English written by a woman, about a series of revelations which opened her to the depths of God’s unconditional love for us in Jesus Christ. Nearly forgotten for 600 years, Julian’s insights and gentle wisdom are becoming ever more widely known and appreciated. Each Julian Gathering meeting includes time for contemplative prayer, fellowship, and reading/discussion of Julian’s book.  We meet the second Wednesday of each month.  For additional information, contact Susan Fiore.

Diocesan Convention, Saturday, October 14, 9am – 4:30pm at St. John’s Northwestern Military Academy in Delafield, Wisconsin:  All are welcome to attend all or part of the convention! The morning will be devoted to worship and book discussion based on “Just Mercy.” The afternoon session will be the ‘business’ session. Visitors are asked to register. To learn more and register, go to http://www.diomil.org/about-us/diocesan-convention/. There will be a Pre-Convention informational meeting at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church on the East side, on Wednesday, October 4, at 7:30pm.

Candle-Lighting Service to Honor Infertility, Pregnancy & Infant Loss, Sunday, October 15, 6pm: October 15 is widely observed as Pregnancy & Infant Loss Remembrance Day. We will hold a simple liturgy, with Eucharist and candle-lighting, to mark the day. All are welcome; feel free to invite a friend.

Sermon, Sept. 3

This passage from Exodus makes me laugh every time I read it. Listen, and pay attention to the pronouns:

Then the LORD said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters.  Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”

Did you catch that? God says, I have heard the cries of my people; I know their sufferings; I am going to save them and bring them to a new land; I’m sending YOU.

And Moses says what I think any of us would say: Waitaminnit here. WHO AM I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt? Who am I to headline God’s saving work?

Moses is a fascinating character. He’s bi-cultural, like many immigrants and children of immigrants. He is a Hebrew by birth, one of God’s people Israel, and he was in touch with his birth family as he grew up. But he was raised in Pharaoh’s palace, as an adopted son of the princess of Egypt. He can fit in, in both Egyptian and Israelite society – but doesn’t fit perfectly in either. So on the one hand, Moses is a great candidate to send to Pharaoh to demand freedom for the people Israel. He knows Pharaoh. He speaks the language. But on the other hand, he’s a TERRIBLE candidate. The reason Moses is wandering around in the wilderness, looking after his father-in-law’s sheep, is that he’s a fugitive. One day, back in Egypt, he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen. And he killed the Egyptian, and buried him in the sand. He thought he’d gotten away with it, but the very next day he tried to break up a fight between two other Hebrews, and one of them said, “What are you going to do, murder me like you murdered that Egyptian?” So Moses knew he wasn’t safe. And he fled to the land of Midian, where he met a nice young woman, and settled down to help out with the family herds.  So you can see why marching right into Pharaoh’s palace sounds insane to Moses: as far as he knows, he’s wanted for murder in Egypt.

But God is not interested in Moses’ excuses. God says, Go. And tell them I AM sent you.

Moses’ situation reminds me of another Hebrew, another Jew, who got close to the seat of power, much later in the history of God’s people Israel: Queen Esther. Esther was a young Jewish woman living with her uncle in Persia, during the time of exile.  She is chosen to become queen, wife of the Persian king Ahasuerus, because of her beauty. She hides her Jewish identity, because people looked down on the Jews. But then an advisor to the King convinces him to murder all the Jews in his kingdom. Esther has to speak up, but she’s terrified – this isn’t a friendly marriage; she can’t even approach the king unless he asks for her, and to speak against his will could get her executed.  But her uncle says, Esther, if you can’t do something, who can? Perhaps you have been raised to this high station for just such a time as this.

Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh? …

Perhaps you have been placed where you are for just such a time as this…

And then there’s the dialogue between Peter and Jesus, in today’s Gospel.  “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me…” Biblical interpreter Matthew Swanson reminds us not to be too quick to take the cross as a metaphor. Crucifixion was real, brutal, and ever-present reality, in first-century Judea.  It was what happened to people who got crosswise – so to speak – of Roman interests. People who spoke out against the empty cruelty of Roman colonial rule – against the shallow, hollow religion of the great Temple, in its collusion with Herodian greed and Roman rule – against the stark, shattering poverty in which so many lived, under the harsh burden of taxation imposed jointly by the local king and the Roman governor – people who raised their voices about any and all of that, were headed towards a nasty end.

Peter wants to believe that Jesus is special, that Jesus is exempt from all that.

But Jesus says, NO.  This is the human lot. This is what I signed up for.  Pushing back against the forces that cause human suffering involves us in human suffering.

People wonder, sometimes, why Jesus is so harsh with Peter here –  Get behind me, Satan! Back off! I wonder if it’s because in Peter’s words, Jesus truly hears the Devil tempting him: Surely you can avoid this brutal end. Surely you can preach and heal and feed and serve without ending up… there. You’re special. Why should you have to suffer? Jesus responds sharply because that voice – that voice could get to him.  In one recent translation, Jesus tells Peter, “You are a stone that could make me stumble.”

Whoever wants to save their life will lose it…

Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh?

Perhaps you have been placed where you are for just such a time as this…

There’s something these three stories – Moses, Esther, Jesus – have in common: lots of suffering. In Moses’ time, the Hebrews were dealing with bitter oppression by a government that feared and hated them.  In Esther’s time, a minority that had been living in peace as part of society was now being targeted for elimination.  In Jesus’ time, everyone but the wealthiest few were struggling – poor and sick, with no one to speak for them.

We can relate. Many of us feel like the suffering and struggle around us is so intense right now.  Immigrant families live with feeling unwelcome, unwanted, and many live with the constant terror of their families being torn apart by deportation.  The floods in Texas that have taken everything from so many. GLBTQ+ folks faced another assault on their humanity and worth this week, from conservative evangelical leaders. People of color, and those of us who simply believe that diversity makes us stronger, are witnessing with dread the increased assertiveness of white supremacist groups and leaders.

It’s overwhelming. Moses was overwhelmed, Esther was overwhelmed. Peter was overwhelmed. Even Jesus seemed at least whelmed. I am sure as heck overwhelmed. Sometimes.

But there’s another thing these three stories have in common. They’re all moments when in the depths of suffering and struggle, God’s purposes are accomplished. These aren’t just stories of survival. They are stories of transformation, liberation, and triumph. Moses, with God’s help, frees the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. Esther, with God’s help, asks the King for mercy for her people, and the King hears her. Jesus… dies on the cross that Peter hoped he could avoid. But the grave cannot hold him. He rises again, and shows us, once and for all, that right, temporarily defeated, is still stronger than evil triumphant.

Moses, Esther, Jesus and Peter – they all lived in terrible times. And they all became part of God’s redeeming work, in those terrible times.

Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh?

Perhaps you have been placed where you are for just such a time as this.

What moves Moses from his fear and inadequacy?  What gets him to march into Pharaoh’s palace, into the lion’s mouth, and say, “I AM sent me”? It’s hard to say No to God, sure. But I think Moses says Yes because God invites him into hope.

Hope. It’s so different from optimism, the assumption that things will probably be fine, whether I do anything or not.  It’s different from the kind of naive privilege that says, People like me usually come out OK, so the situation can’t be that bad. Hope means that you believe some kind of good outcome is possible, and you’re going to orient your life and work and prayers towards that good. Hope means looking at our holy stories, our family stories, these and so many others, about times when things were really bad, and yet, and yet, some kind of good emerged. God’s purposes were accomplished.

Moses said Yes, even though he was afraid, because he had hope. He wanted what God wanted. Esther said Yes, even though she was afraid, because she had hope. She wanted what God wanted.  Jesus said yes, even though he was afraid, because he had hope. He wanted what God wanted.

Hope isn’t weak or fluffy. Hope can be solid like a rock or fierce like a flame. When the worst happens, Hope says, Oh yeah? The story isn’t over yet. Hope gets in its kayak to rescue neighbors and opens its mattress store to house the displaced and makes tacos to feed the recovery workers.  Hope tells us that the stories of our times can be more than just stories of survival – although survival matters! – but we dare to hope for more: for stories of transformation, liberation, and triumph.

Know your hopes, friends. Name them and feed them. Help them grow. Introduce them to your friends. As your hope gets stronger, you may find that one day your hope starts tugging on the leash, taking you somewhere you hadn’t expected to go. Don’t be shy. Go. And when you get where your hope is leading you, tell them, I AM sent me.

Sermon, August 13

Kol ha-olam kulo gesher tsar meod, gesher tsar meod, gesher tsar meod, Kol ha-olam kulo gesher tsar meod, gesher tsar meod. Ve ha-ikar, ha-ikar lo lifachad, lo lifachad klal. Ve ha-ikar, ha-ikar lo lifachad klal. 

The words are Hebrew, and they mean: The whole world is a very narrow bridge, But the most important thing is not to be afraid. The whole world – kol ha-olam – is a very narrow bridge, gesher tsar meod. But the most important thing is not to be afraid.

I learned this song in 1995, during the five weeks or so that I spent in Jerusalem. It was supposed to be the beginning of my junior year abroad, But a horrific bus bombing and an escalation in violence, in the long, costly war between Israel and Palestine, changed all that. Along with many students in the same program, I ended up going home; I spent my junior year in Canterbury, England, instead. But between the bombing and getting on the plane back to Indiana, I had a week-plus of living with fear, with an intimacy and intensity that was new to me. That’s probably why this song stuck – I needed it, badly. Those simple words became an anchor for me, in the storm of fear in which I found myself – along with Psalm 107, which I discovered in the little student edition of the Book of Common Prayer that my chaplain had given me before I left: Their hearts melted because of their peril, they were at their wits’ end. Then God stilled the storm to a whisper… and brought them to the harbor they were bound for.

The whole world is a very narrow bridge, but the most important thing is not to be afraid.

The disciples saw Jesus walking towards them across the water, and they thought he was a ghost; they cried out in fear. But Jesus said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Then Peter said, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you across the water.” And Jesus said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, and started walking towards Jesus, across the water. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened. And beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

Preachers often use this story to preach about faith. But I think this tiny, important story is just as much about fear. In our translation, Jesus says that Peter “doubted.” That word suggests that Peter’s faith was faltering. Yet Peter cries out to Jesus for help as he sinks. The Greek word translated as “doubt” here is pretty interesting. It doesn’t mean questioning something you believe. The word, distazo, literally means something like being of two minds, being conflicted, wavering. What’s happening inside of Peter in this moment isn’t that his faith in Jesus is faltering; it’s that something else creeps in alongside his faith, and wreaks havoc on his balance and direction. Peter notices the strong wind, and he becomes afraid. Fear comes alongside his eagerness, his sense of hopeful purpose. He wavers; he begins to sink.

Take heart, says Jesus. The words “Take heart” appear five times in the Bible. “Take courage” appears 21 times, and “Be courageous” 12 times. Do not be afraid, says Jesus. “Do not be afraid” appears in the Bible 67 times. “Have no fear” appears another 11 times. That’s 116 exhortations to resist fear – and that’s only the ones that are easy to find in a text search.

The Bible treats fear as a spiritual challenge – one of the biggest spiritual challenges. God knows – and the ancient authors who recorded the holy stories of God’s people, knew – that fear shakes us, weakens us, holds us back, Turns us against one another. Fear corrodes our ideals, our convictions, our hopes.

What does it feel like in your body, when you’re afraid? Think about it for a minute; remember. I don’t know if it feels the same for everybody, though the biological processes are basically the same. Do you hear a kind of rushing in your ears? Does your gut clench? Does your heart race?

Scientists tell us that the fear response, what happens in our bodies when we feel threatened, is a deep-seated adaptive response. Something that helped our ancient ancestors survive, long before we first stood up on two legs. The fear response pushes us towards one of three actions: Fight, flight, or freeze.

Fight: That’s clear enough. That means our little primordial mammal-selves Are going to fight that predator tooth and claw. What does that look like in “civilized” society? When someone raises an idea that threatens our worldview, or a concern that challenges our plan, we respond with anger. We attack. We try to drive away the inconvenient truth or the challenging idea, by hurting or intimidating or silencing the person who’s raising it. I’ve done this. So have you.

Flight: That’s clear enough too. That means our little primordial mammal-self RUNS AWAY. Maybe we can outrun the predator, escape the danger. In our lives, that looks like getting out of a situation when it starts to feel challenging or threatening. Walk back that thing you said, and apologize; you meant it, but you’re not prepared to deal with the reaction. Decide not to put yourself forward for that opportunity, because you probably don’t have the right qualifications. Don’t buy that swimsuit; Good Lord, what if someone takes your photo and puts it on the Internet, and people laugh at you? I experience the Flight reaction in one very specific way: when situations become a certain kind of stressful, a child’s voice – presumably mine – in the back of my head says, clear as day, “I want to go home.” What does the Flight response feel like inside of you? You’ve done this, too.

And then there’s Freeze – that means our little primordial mammal-self goes totally still: maybe the predator won’t see me, will walk on by. You’ve seen rabbits and squirrels do this. In our modern, civilized lives, that looks like: not rocking the boat. Keeping quiet when your boss makes a racist joke. Sticking with the job you hate because who knows if you could find something else. Holding your truth locked up inside you because the people closest to you might hurt you if they knew. Don’t try that hard thing, that big daring thing, because failure would be worse than not trying. Wouldn’t it? Just… hold still and keep quiet, and maybe everything will be OK. I’ve done this, and so have you.

Fight, flight, or freeze – that’s what happens inside us, when we’re afraid. What happens among us, when we’re afraid? … Leaders discovered a long, long time ago that fear is an outstanding tool for managing and manipulating large groups of people. It’s easy to scare people, and hard to un-scare them. Our brains are lousy at probability: we will readily believe that a certain risk is orders of magnitude greater than it actually is, and we’ll allow that sense of danger to shape our worldview and drive our behavior. And once we’re afraid, as a society, we’ll tolerate all kinds of things if they give us the illusion of greater safety. The limiting of our freedoms and privacies. The demonization of people in a group that’s seen as a threat. The proliferation of weapons in our homes and neighborhoods, which, the data say quite clearly, makes us less safe, not more.

The French philosopher Anne Dufourmantelle wrote and spoke extensively about all this, in her book, “In Praise of Risk,” and elsewhere. She said, Risk is part of life. Danger, loss, hardship, challenge: it’s all just a given. It will come to you, and to those you love. Certainly you can make better choices – fasten your seat belt, take your medication – but human life will never be safe. In a 2015 interview, she said that the idea of “absolute security” is a fantasy – and not an innocent fantasy: one that’s often used as a political weapon of control. And it can become a feedback cycle: the visible apparatus of security, like armed guards on street corners, can feed public fear and thus make us even more subject to manipulation through the promise of security. She said, ”To imagine an enemy ready to attack… induces a state of paralysis, a feeling of helplessness.” There’s that “freeze” response…

Dufourmantelle argued, instead, for accepting risk as part of the human condition. The human response to risk can be noble, beautiful. She told the interviewer, “When there really is a danger that must be faced in order to survive, as for example during the Blitz in London, there is a strong incentive for action, dedication, and surpassing oneself.”

I’d never heard of Anne Dufourmantelle until her name cropped up in the news a couple of weeks ago. She’d been swimming at a beach in France, when the ocean currents suddenly intensified and became dangerous. When the alert went out, she saw two children nearby, and instead of heading directly for shore, she set out to try and rescue them. The children were saved, but Dufourmantelle drowned. Living what she professed. Rising to the risk before her.

Is that supposed to be an encouraging story? I hear you asking. She wound up dead. But imagine how it could easily have ended: She saved herself, and the children were lost. Is one’s own death the worst possible outcome in every situation? What would Jesus do?

Kol ha-olam…. The whole world is a very narrow bridge…

As I look back on it, It occurs to me that those weeks in Israel, when I was 20, may have been the crucible in which one of my fundamental spiritual practices was formed: the practice of resisting fear. Because I spent a couple of weeks living in terror, and I hated how it felt. I hated being so preoccupied with my basic physical safety. It was hard to think about anything else, to enjoy, to learn. I hated how selfish it made me. I hated how it made me afraid of people.

Sometime along the road of recovering from that dark chapter, I decided I didn’t want to be ruled by fear, ever again. It wasn’t until this week that it dawned on me to think of that as a spiritual practice. But it is; it really is. I practice it imperfectly, to be sure. But I try to live as a follower of a God who says, Fear not. Take courage.

Resisting fear doesn’t mean being naive or blindly optimistic, or pretending everything is going to be OK. Scripture and God and the saints nowhere claim that being beloved of God means nothing bad will ever happen. Instead, they insist that none of those dangers can touch your fundamental life in God. It’s hard to say it better than Paul does in our recent text from the letter to the Romans: “Who can separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, illness, poverty, danger, violence? No! I am convinced that neither death nor life, angels nor rulers, things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

So if security is a dangerous illusion, what are the alternatives to fear? Well, I can name a few, from my own practice. Maybe you have others; I’d love to hear about them. These are some of ways I manage myself, when I start to feel the urge to fight, or freeze, or flee. When I start to get distazo, when fear creeps in alongside my faith, my sense of hopeful purpose.

One alternative to fear is curiosity – approaching the things that scare us with curiosity and wonder. Charles Lafond has written a lot about fear as a spiritual challenge, in general and particularly in our relationship with money. He wrote this, last year: “Choosing curiosity over fear takes no small amount of courage.  There is so much to fear. There are the many diagnoses, the possibility of plague, not getting my way in everything, the teetering economy, not getting my way in everything (it deserves saying twice), the Presidential Election, tooth decay, a melting ice cap, and my inability to smell bad salmon… But curiosity is so much more gentle than fear. It winks, for one thing.  And it seduces, which is pleasant. And curiosity is the gift that keeps on giving, making life a treasure hunt if we let it.”

Another alternative to fear is compassion. Madison is seeing almost-unprecedented levels of gun violence right now. There have been ten homicides so far this year. One of the neighborhoods affected is not far from my home; kids who are living with occasional gunfire on their street go to school with my daughter. As a concerned citizen, I could react to this in a couple of ways. I could get scared, for myself and my family, despite the vanishingly small likelihood that this violence will touch us directly. Or I could be dismayed and grieved for those affected by this violence – including the perpetrators, who surely would rather have a safer and better path in life. It’s really hard to be both compassionate towards those affected, and afraid for myself, at the same time. We’re not cut out for that. I have to choose – and I’ve chosen.

Another alternative to fear is courage. I think of both curiosity and compassion as ways to sneak around behind the fear and find a different way of engaging the situation. But courage means facing the fear head-on. Looking it right in the face. Getting to know it. Befriending it, even. How do you take courage? For me the process goes something like this. I think about the risks, as calmly as I can. What’s the worst that could happen – and how likely is it, really? I think about the resources I bring to the situation. When making that inventory, remember, always, to count the basic things that nurture and sustain you: song and prayer, fresh fruit and evening skies, the love of friends, family, pets, whatever it might be for you. And I think about the hopes or possibilities that brought me to the point where I’m facing this fear. What’s important enough to make me undertake something hard and scary? If it’s really important – and especially if I feel God calling me towards it – well, then, forward.

I am not a master at the art of resisting fear. I’ve been practicing for a while, but only haphazardly. I would love to hear about your techniques. But I know it’s an important spiritual discipline for me – and I wonder if it might be for all of us, in this moment in the life of the world, when so much fear is circling among us.

Take courage. Don’t be afraid. God is here. Jesus and God and saints and prophets and angels say it, over and over and over again. Could it be part of the message we’re entrusted with, too? Words we’re given for the welfare and hope of our neighbors?

The whole world is a very narrow bridge, but the most important thing is not to be afraid… Take heart.

Sources:

On Anne Dufourmantelle: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-40703606

Charles Lafond on curiosity: http://thedailysip.org/2016/08/18/668/

Rev. Jonathan Grieser’s recent reflection on gun violence in Madison: https://gracerector.wordpress.com/2017/08/02/murder-city-madison/

Sermon, July 23

BunnyWind

LORD, you have searched me out and known me;  you know my sitting down and my rising up; you discern my thoughts from afar.

You trace my journeys and my resting-places and are acquainted with all my ways.

Indeed, there is not a word on my lips, but you, O LORD, know it altogether.

You press upon me behind and before  and lay your hand upon me.

Once there was a little bunny who wanted to run away. So he said to his mother, “I am running away.” “If you run away,” said his mother, “I will run after you. For you are my little bunny.”

Where can I go then from your Spirit? where can I flee from your presence?

“If you run after me,” said the little bunny, “I will become a fish in a trout stream, and I will swim away from you.” “If you become a fish in a trout stream,” said his mother, “I will become a fisherman and I will fish for you.”

If I climb up to heaven, you are there.  If I make the grave my bed, you are there also….

“If you become a fisherman,” said the little bunny, “I will become a rock on the mountain, high above you.” “If you become a rock on the mountain high above me,” said his mother, “I will be a mountain climber, and I will climb to where you are.”

Margaret Wise Brown published The Runaway Bunny in 1942. How many people here heard that book in their childhood, or read it to kids in their family? …  How many of you really love it? …. How many of you find it deeply unsettling? …

I haven’t been able to discover, with some casual poking around, whether Brown was intentionally riffing on Psalm 139 or not.  (If you’d like to look at the Prayer book version of the Psalm, instead of the verse setting we sang, it’s on page 794.)  Regardless of whether Brown intended it or not, the parallel is there.  Not just the superficial similarity of content – but Brown nails the emotional ambivalence of being loved so relentlessly.  There’s just no other word for it. Relentless.

Some people who find the book – and the Psalm – unsettling do so because it’s grounded in parent images, and their experience of parenting has not been so great.  Maybe they were parented by someone whose love was conditional, intermittent, or who didn’t have a lot of capacity for love at all,  in which case these images of relentless love may simply feel unrealistic at a deep level.  Maybe they were parented by someone whose love was controlling or manipulative, in which case these images of relentless love might feel realistic in the worst possible way. People whose experiences of human parenting have been deeply flawed or damaging may find more solace and hope in other ways to imagine God, of which there are many.

But God as the persistent Mama Bunny is emotionally ambivalent even for people like me, who have been loved well by their parents and first family. Accept the premise that the Parent in storybook and psalm is a good parent, who knows and loves the child deeply and desires the child’s wellbeing.  This is still a complicated little story.

The child – the bunny and the Psalmist – wants to run away. Seeks distance, space, freedom, autonomy. And the Parent – God, our Mama Bunny – says, Fine. Run. Go where you need to go, do what you need to do. But I’ll be there when you stop running.

The line between reassurance and threat is – very unclear.  Our prayer book Psalter renders verse 4 of the Psalm this way: “You press upon me behind and before.” That verb in Hebrew is “besiege.”  Like someone surrounding a city to conquer it.  You besiege me on all sides, God. No wonder the Psalmist goes on to say, How can I run away from you? Where can I go to escape this Presence, this scrutiny? …

I know that feeling, the hot prickly tight feeling of the push-pull between attachment and autonomy.  I think everyone who’s been either a child or a parent knows that feeling. The feeling when you run to your room and slam the door, and sit in there alternately hating your parents and hoping they’ll come check on you. The feeling when your child runs to their room and slams the door, and you stand there letting your blood pressure come down, remembering to breathe, remembering that the reason that little monster can make you so angry is because you love them so freaking much. And eventually, once you can trust yourself, once you’ve found one true, kind thing to say, you go knock on their door, and ask if you can come in.

It’s hard to know someone that well, as well as you know your child. Your parent. Your spouse. Your sibling or best friend. It hurts to know and love someone deeply, and see them struggling – dealing with hardship, or making lousy choices.

It hurts to know someone so well that you understand exactly why something is so hard for her, exactly why he’s making that particular lousy choice. And yet your love and your understanding can’t always save or spare them. The poignancy, the pathos of those moments, when we’re swamped with pity and fear and even anger for someone we love so much, and cannot save from themselves – that poignancy and pathos is one of our purest glimpses into the heart of God. Who knows each of us that well. Who loves each of us that much.

Being deeply known and deeply loved is a huge blessing, compared to any alternative.  But it can feel stifling or overwhelming at times. That’s simply a human truth –  and the source of the impulse to escape, in both storybook and psalm. And yet even in the frustration, the door slamming, the running away,  there is deep trust. That’s why we can afford to struggle, to push away, to shout anger and defiance. Because we know that parent, that friend, will still love us afterwards.  We know there is something unbreakable there. Something steadfast. Something, yes, relentless.

Bunny and Psalmist both come to some resolution. The Psalmist lands at awe and gratitude, towards a God who knew him even when he was being formed in the womb, who numbered his days before his life began. The bunny ends at resignation, at acceptance: Aw, shucks. The dialogue between mother and child seems to defuse whatever conflict sparked the child’s initial desire to run away. Mother and child are reconciled, and carrots are shared, because the mother’s love was bigger than the child’s anger.

This morning we will baptize baby B, naming her as a member of God’s one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, and affirming her as a child of God. B is blessed with a human family that loves her deeply, with parents and brothers and a sister who will always have her back, who will honor her growth and need for self-determination, even as they continue hold her in safety and steadfast love. I hope the church will be another such family for her, and for all the children growing up among us.

But human families and human love are finite and imperfect. Sometimes parents aren’t equipped to love the way a child needs. Sometimes children run farther than a parent can reach.  Sometimes a person goes through a season in life in which it feels like there’s no person that can give them that fierce, trustworthy, unbreakable love we all need.

But there is a Love that we will never wear out, never outrun, never outlive. There is a Love that will be the wind that blows us where we need to go, the tree that we fly home to. There’s a Love that is beside us in our darkest nights, that goes before us even into the depths of the grave. That is the Love in whose name we name B today, the Love that will encompass her growing, seeking, and striving, all the days of her life.

Sermon, July 9

Children’s sermon

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

Who knows what a yoke is? … [show pictures] Something an animal wears when it’s working, pulling or carrying a heavy load. It’s not fun. It’s hard and uncomfortable.

So why is Jesus talking about yokes? Well, he’s not talking about yokes LITERALLY, he’s talking about yokes FIGURATIVELY.

Jesus was one of the Jewish people, God’s first people, the people Israel. The Jewish people and their faith had existed for a couple of thousand years already by the time Jesus was born. Their holy book was the first part of our holy book: the Torah, the five books of the Law, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. And in those books there were 613 commandments: Laws or rules God gave God’s people about how they should live. You know some of those laws as the Ten Best Ways. But there were lots of others too!  They covered things like special holy festivals, foods they shouldn’t eat, how they should treat the land, business deals, and keeping the day of rest to honor God.

613 is a lot of laws. And by Jesus’ time, there were many religious teachers who had studied the Torah deeply, and decided which part of the Law was the most important. Those teachers, called rabbis, would tell their followers, THIS is the way to follow our faith, THESE are the most important practices. And it would be different – different rabbis would put importance on different practices, because of how they understood God and the Torah.  And people called that the rabbi’s “yoke.” The rabbi’s teaching about how people should live in God’s ways, which of those 613 laws they should focus on – that was the rabbi’s “yoke,” the burden of faithfulness they put on their followers.

Now, Jesus was God’s Son, but he was also a rabbi – a person who knows the Scriptures deeply and teaches people how to follow them. Once someone came to Jesus to ask him which commandments he thinks are most important. He’s treating Jesus like a rabbi; he’s basically asking him, Rabbi, what is your yoke? And Jesus says, Love God with your whole self, and love your neighbor as much as you love yourself.

That’s Jesus’s yoke. That’s the heart of the law, for Jesus and those who want to follow him. The Sabbath and particular foods and so on aren’t a big deal. This is the heart of it all: Love God, love your neighbor. So this is Jesus’ yoke, his teaching as a rabbi.  When he says, Come to me, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light, THIS is what he means. He means, If you take me as your rabbi and follow me, this is what I ask you to: Love God, and love your neighbor as you love yourself.

Now, is it EASY to love God and love your neighbor, all the time? With your whole heart? (No!….) So why would Jesus say, My yoke is easy and my burden is light? Well, I think one thing he means is, it’s SIMPLE. Jesus’ yoke is not complicated. Other rabbis might have given their followers much more complicated, difficult sets of rules to follow. With Jesus’ yoke, you have to think about it and live it out every day; but it’s not hard to remember that we’re supposed to love God and love other people. So it is simple. 

For another thing, “easy” might not be the right word. Remember Jesus didn’t speak English. He spoke Aramaic, and this part of the Bible was first written down in Greek, and then it was translated into English. So “easy” might really not be the right word. I looked up the Greek word a little bit to see what it means. And it doesn’t mean “easy” like, oh, it’s a snap. Like “Easy as falling of a log.” The Greek word – chrestos – means something more like, appropriate, manageable. Something it’s reasonable to ask you to do. It also means helpful and kind. I like the idea that Jesus is asking us to live in a way that is helpful and kind.

So we could hear Jesus saying, My yoke, my way following God, is manageable, and helpful, and kind. It’s not supposed to be impossible. It’s supposed to be something you can remember easily and carry in your heart, and try to follow, day by day.

Grownups’ Sermon

Now, I’d like to say a few words about our Genesis story.

Our lectionary readings this summer take us through the great stories of Genesis, the beginning of God’s covenant with humanity. Last Sunday, with our 4th of July readings, we skipped an important chapter: the binding of Isaac.

When I said I didn’t want to write a sermon on vacation, I DEFINITELY didn’t want to write a sermon on one of the harder stories in the Old Testament. – at least one of the hardest ones the lectionary gives us! …  But instead of taking opportunity to ignore it, I’m going back to it, a little bit, today.

I know the story of the Binding of Isaac is a least favorite for some of you, and I don’t blame you; it’s an awful story. Why would God promise Abraham and Sarah a son, fulfill their deep and lifelong hopes with a baby, and then order Abraham to kill the child to prove his devotion to God? The fact that God, at the last possible moment, stops Abraham and tells him to sacrifice a ram instead, doesn’t fix the story at all. It just makes God seem manipulative and capricious.

I’ve spent some time digging into how people of faith, both Christians and Jews, have made sense of this difficult story over the ages. And while I don’t think there’s any way to tie a pretty bow on it, I do have a few thoughts.

I think one of the big challenges in our engagement with this text is that there is a huge gulf between our cultural and religious world, and the world of the text’s original audience. I believe that one of the core issues being worked out here is that the religion of Israel, the religion of Yahweh, did NOT demand child-sacrifice.

Some of the religions practiced by neighboring peoples DID sacrifice children, so this was a really important line to draw, early in the story of Yahweh’s covenant relationship with Abraham and his descendants. And as you can imagine, that was a BIG deal for the Israelites. To them, this story said, This God DOES NOT want you to kill your children. To US, this story says, God might play weird head games with you about killing your children! So we are just a long way from the people who needed this story. I don’t know what to do about that, besides remind us about it.

Another thing I think is important to say about this text – and about other stories from Scripture in which awful things happen – is that the text does not think this is OK. That’s why I don’t want to try to talk you out of your revulsion: the AUTHOR of the text wants you to be revolted. I am certain of that. Because the story emphasizes how much Abraham loves his son; and because of the moment in the story when little Isaac looks up at his father and asks, “Father, where is the ram for the sacrifice?” If a modern author wrote that scene, we would understand that they were trying to elicit our gut response to the complete terrible wrongness of what is happening here. So is the author of this text.  I am sure of it. 

And I’d say that the same applies to a lot of the more cruel and horrific stories in the Hebrew Bible. The voice of the author doesn’t think those things are OK. Again, if we read a modern novel about the horrors of World War II, we know that the fact that the author describes those events doesn’t mean they approve of them. But when we read about dismemberments and mass executions in the Bible, we think, Oh, because it’s in the Bible, that must mean it’s OK with God and with the people who wrote about it.

I don’t know how much of that is because the lectionary gives us the Biblical text in little choppy pieces that make it hard to understand what’s really going on, and how much of it is because of our modernist bias that makes it hard for us to recognize that the people who compiled and edited the Hebrew Scriptures were actually pretty damn astute. But next time you read the Binding of Isaac or another awful story from Scripture, try reading it from the assumption that the person who wrote it down also thought it was horrible, and see where that leads you.

Which brings me to the final thing I want to say: The Binding of Isaac is part of a longer arc of story, and much of its meaning is tied up in those longer narrative arcs. There’s a narrative context that sets up this story: Abraham and Sarah are elderly and childless; they long for a son; God promises a son, if they will trust God and enter a new covenant; there’s the whole Hagar and Ishmael story; and so on. And the narrative continues beyond the binding of Isaac. The lesson we have today, about Rebecca, is in many ways the resolution of Isaac’s story.

Isaac walks away from Mount Moriah, from the Binding story, with his relationship with his father broken. The text of Genesis 22 has Abraham leave the mountain alone. It doesn’t say what Isaac did, but he’s not there. And just a couple of verses after the end of the Binding story, Sarah, Isaac’s mother, dies. Jewish interpreters of scripture have long assumed that Sarah died because she heard what her husband, Abraham, had done.

Whether her death was immediate or not, the text DOES imply that Abraham was not living with Sarah when she died. Abraham comes from somewhere else to mourn her, and to negotiate buying a piece of land to bury her. (Read the bargaining scene in chapter 23 sometime, it’s amazing.)

So the Binding of Isaac shattered this family. Abraham’s relationships with both wife and son were broken, because God asked him to do something unthinkable, and he said yes. At the beginning of chapter 24, anticipating death,  Abraham makes one last bid to provide for – or control? – his estranged son. He makes his servant promise to go find Isaac a wife from his homeland, from among his kin. Even in that scene, Isaac isn’t there. Abraham is doing this for him – or to him? – in his absence.  Imagine a father who did something so awful that his son left home! Moved out, cut off communications! And now on his deathbed that father wants to make sure his son marries the right kind of girl? How welcome do you think that would be?

And yet, and yet – God uses it for good. Abraham’s servant takes his task very seriously. Arriving outside the town of Nahor, he makes his camels kneel down near the well.  He knows that women and young girls will come out to get water in the evening, and he prays: Lord God, let the girl who offers to give me water, and to water my camels – let that girl be the girl you have chosen for Isaac.  And it happens – just so.

Rebecca is young, and lovely, and is distant kin to Abraham. She’s the kind of girl who would get water for a stranger’s camels. And she’s kind of girl who would say Yes to a husband, sight unseen, because it seems to be God’s will … or maybe because she’s desperately bored of her hometown and ready for a change. The text implies, I think, that she was not displeased with her husband when she met him – “Who is that man over there?…” And Isaac loves her, and finds comfort in his wife and his marriage. If a friend told you, ‘My new wife really fills the hole in my life that my mother left,’ you might worry about that a little bit – but you’d also understand. Isaac was alone, and grieving. With no one to care for him, or for him to care for. Rebecca does fill that hole. His marriage, his family, comfort him, and give him a fresh start, after the brokenness of his family of origin.

These chapters of Genesis show us broken relationships in a family; grief at the loss of a parent;  solace and hope in a new relationship. Father Tom gave us a image last week: God’s story; my story; one story. It puts me in mind of my favorite saying about reading: We read to know that we are not alone. Books can tell us that other people have shared our experiences. And when we find our experiences echoed in Scripture, we know that our experiences aren’t just part of other human stories; they’re part of God’s story. That’s why even in the darkest or saddest stories of Scripture, we may find a glimmer of grace.

Announcements, September 14

THIS WEEKEND…

Rector’s Discretionary Fund Offering, Sunday, September 17: Half the cash in our collection plate, and any designated checks will go towards the Rector’s Discretionary Fund this day and on every third Sunday. This fund is a way to quietly help people with direct financial needs, in the parish and the wider community. Please give generously.

Sunday School, Sunday, September 17, 10am: This Sunday, our 3 year olds to kindergarten class will explore the story of the Flood and the Ark, while our Elementary classes will continue exploring God’s grace present in Creation.

Spirituality of Parenting Lunch, Sunday, September 17, 11:45am: All who seek meaning in the journey of parenthood (at any age or stage) are welcome to come for food and conversation. Child care and a simple meal provided.

Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee Haiti Project Fundraiser, Verona, Sunday, September 17, 1-4pm: Come to the Wisconsin Brewing Company at 1079 American Way in Verona to enjoy live music, shop for Haitian art and jewelry, and to help support our diocesan partnership with St. Mark’s School in Haiti. Suggested donation of $20 includes one free beverage ticket.  If you are unable to attend but would like to contribute, go to https://haitiproject.org/donate/

Evening Eucharist, Sunday, September 17, 6pm: Join us for a simple service as the week begins. All are welcome.

Big Blue Bibles: We are trying out a new way for kids to follow along in worship. Take a Blue Bible from the pile on the way into church. Each Bible has a bookmark that indicates where you can find a storybook version of one of the day’s assigned readings. Kids can read along at their own pace. Rev. Miranda welcomes feedback or further ideas!

This year’s Parish Talent Show will be Sunday, October 22! The Talent Show follows the 10am liturgy; lunch is included. What will you share? A poem, a song, a dramatic monologue, a unique skill, a dance? A sample of art, craft, tinkering, building, study or science? Group acts are encouraged. Start planning now, and look for a signup in late September!

Sanctuary Task Force: Hospitality towards others is one of the clearest mandates in Scripture. Rev. Miranda is gathering a small group to discern together about how that call speaks to us in this time, by learning more about the new Dane Sanctuary network. If you’re interested, contact Rev. Miranda at  238-2781.

Altar Flowers: fall dates available! We are back to our regular Altar Flower process: flowers will be ordered from the church’s florist. Honor a loved one or a special event with altar flowers. Reserve your special date by writing your dedication on the sign-up sheet. Suggested donation is $35. Write “flowers” on the memo line of your check or on envelope containing cash, or donate online at donate.stdunstans.com.

THE WEEK AHEAD & BEYOND…

Ladies’ Night Out, Friday, September 22, 6pm: Come join us for good food and good conversation among women of all ages from St. Dunstan’s. This month we will meet at Nani’s, 518 Grand Canyon Drive in Madison. For more information, please contact Kathy Whitt  or Debra Martinez.

Outreach Committee Meeting, Saturday 23, 8-10am: All are welcome to join our conversations about how St. Dunstan’s can best serve the world with our resources and our hands. We begin with an optional potluck breakfast at 8am.

Last Sunday All-Ages Worship, Sunday, September 24, 10am: Our last Sunday worship is intended especially to help kids (and grownups who are new to our pattern of worship) to engage and participate fully. NOTE: Our 8am service always follows our regular order of worship. 

Young Adult Meetup at the Vintage, Sunday, September 24, 7pm: The younger adults of St. Dunstan’s are invited to join us for conversation and the beverage of your choice, at the Vintage Brewpub on South Whitney Way. Friends and partners welcome too.

Grace Shelter Dinner, Sunday, September 24, 7pm: Every fourth Sunday, a loyal group of St. Dunstan’s folk provides dinner for residents at the Grace Church shelter, and breakfast the next morning. See the signup sheet in the Gathering Area to help out. To learn more, talk with Rose Mueller.

Men’s Book Club, Saturday, September 30, 10am-12pm: Since the election of Scott Walker, Wisconsin has been ground zero for debates about the appropriate role of government in the wake of the Great Recession. With The Politics of Resentment, Katherine J. Cramer uncovers an oft-overlooked piece of the puzzle: rural political consciousness and the resentment of the “liberal elite.” Rural voters are distrustful that politicians will respect the distinct values of the communities and allocate a fair share of resources. What can look like disagreements about basic political principles are therefore actually rooted in something even more fundamental: who we are as people and how closely a candidate’s social identity matches our own. Have a good read.

Blessing of the Animals Service, Sunday, October 1, 3pm: People and creatures are invited to a short service of song, story, and prayer.  Animals should be on a leash or in a carrier. Stuffed animals are welcome as well. Spread the word and invite a friend!

Fall Clean-up Sunday, October 1, 11:30-1pm: Wear your work clothes to church and stay after with 10am service for a simple lunch (with an overview of tasks to complete while we’re eating), followed by time to work on our grounds. We’ll wrap up by 1:30pm, but you can leave any time you’ve completed your tasks.

IN THE COMMUNITY…

PFLAG Madison meeting, Sunday, September 17, 2-4pm at Friends Meeting House at 1704 Roberts Court in Madison: Parents, families, friends and allies with LGBTQ people are welcome to attend the monthly meeting (every 3rd Sunday of the month). This month Andrea Johnson from American Family Insurance will speak to their LGBTQ policies. For more information, go to http://www.pflag-madison.org.