Sermon, Oct. 15

I spend a lot of time trying to rehabilitate God in people’s eyes.  People who have heard about this God character – but what they’ve heard about Him makes Him sound like an angry, judgmental psychopath. And they can’t imagine why anyone would want to hang around with somebody like that. I spend a lot of time trying to explain that that’s not the God I know. That the destructive anger of God in many parts of the Bible reflects human understandings, and our sinful tendency to assume God hates whom we hate. That the God I follow is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, as the Bible says over and over again. That the God I follow understands, accepts, forgives, comforts, heals. That God is love.

But you know what? Sometimes love gets angry. As a preacher, as a Christian, I have to take God’s anger seriously.

Our lectionary texts today show us an angry God. In the book of Exodus, the people Israel are on their long wilderness journey. Moses is up on a mountaintop, having an extended conversation with God. And the people get bored and impatient. This God that Moses keeps talking about is too big and powerful and mysterious to even see. They want gods they can see and touch. Like the golden statues of gods they saw in Egypt. So they beg Aaron, Moses’ brother, whom he left in charge: “Make a god for us!” And Aaron gives the people what they want. Aaron tries to fudge things a bit – maybe the golden calf just *represents* the real god? – but he knows what he’s doing. When Moses comes down the mountain and demands to know what he’s done, here’s his explanation, straight out of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible:

Aaron said, ‘Do not let the anger of my lord burn hot; you know the people, that they are bent on evil. They said to me, “Make us gods, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” So I said to them, “Whoever has gold, take it off;” so they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!’

It’s hard to recognize because we get the stories in bits & pieces, and because we have this assumption that the Bible is Very Serious, but there’s a lot of humor in the wilderness stories. I think they were campfire tales told to a lot of laughter, for many generations, before they were written down. One recurring gag is that Moses and God do a lot of Parents-On-A-Road-Trip stuff throughout these chapters. For example, notice in today’s text, God says, “Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely…” And Moses comes right back with, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?” God is saying, YOUR CHILDREN are driving me CRAZY, And Moses says, YOUR CHILDREN are just HUNGRY, maybe if you’d stop at Burger King…!

But like the best funny stories, the humor in Exodus has a real point. And the point of this story is to highlight how eager humans are to decide the whole God business is really too complicated, too strange, too much trouble. The name for the sin of the golden calf is idolatry – putting something else, something made and controlled by humans, in the place of God. Substituting a relationship with a thing for a relationship with a Person. Relationships with things are predicable, safe; relationships with people are alive, dynamic, demanding, especially if the Person happens to be God. Idolatry is a fundamental theme in the Old Testament – Israel’s proclivity for it, and God’s anger and dismay about it.

I’ve been trying to think of how to explain the problem. It sounds like this is about God’s ego, God’s jealousy – God flips out if Israel even gets a text from another god, right? But listen, I think this is a fair analogy for what’s happening here: Imagine a six-year-old child. She’s dissatisfied with her actual parents, she feels like they’re too demanding and she doesn’t always understand why they want her to do certain things, and they’re not always as nice as she would like them to be. So she makes herself a new parent. She tells her human parents, “Thanks, but I’m done with you guys. My new parent here will always buy me ice cream, and let me wear whatever I want, and ride my bike in the street, and never clean my room or do homework.” That six-year-old would learn pretty quickly that the parent she made was an inadequate parent; it wouldn’t do anything she didn’t like for simple reason that it can’t do anything at all. The same would happen with the golden calf, to be sure. But somehow the unresponsiveness of our idols has never really made a dent in the impulse towards idolatry.

God is angry in this story because the people God has chosen, freed, and called, want to opt out of the relationship. They don’t have the gratitude or the patience or the discipline to commit to being God’s people and see how that forms them and blesses them. They’d really rather make their own parent, thanks.

And then there’s the Parable of the Banquet. I’ve been talking about how Matthew’s Gospel often adds a layer of violence, compared to similar texts in Luke and Mark. This is a text where that’s particularly evident. Matthew understands Jesus’ life and witness through the lens of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Great Temple by the Romans in AD 70, as part of the brutal suppression of a Jewish rebellion against Roman rule. Hundreds of thousands of people died.The author we call Matthew probably composed his version of the Gospel between 10 and 20 years later.  The trauma, the violence and loss were very much still with him. In this parable, when the king sends an army to kill people and burn down a city – that’s Matthew working over what happened to Jerusalem.

This parable as told in Luke’s Gospel lacks the military images, and the perplexing attack on the inappropriately-dressed guest. Here’s the story as Luke tells it: Someone gave a great dinner, and invited many. When dinner was ready, he sent his slave to tell those who had been invited, “Come, everything is ready.” But they all began to make excuses. One said, “I’ve bought some land and I need to go see it; please accept my apologies.”  Another said, “I just bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my apologies.” Another said, “I just got married, so I can’t come.”

So the slave returned and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, “Go out at once into the streets of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” And the slave said, “Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room in the banquet hall.” Then the master said to the slave,  “Go out to the roads beyond the city, and make people come in, so that my house may be filled! For none of those who were invited shall taste my dinner.”

That’s a very different story, isn’t it? It’s a story about people who have been honored with an invitation, and have a delicious meal waiting for them – free! – but they can’t be bothered. They’ve got other stuff going on. But the host is determined to feed someone. So the host gathers in all the people who were seen as lowly and dirty and unimportant, to be guests at the banquet. It’s one of many parables and Gospel stories about how the people who think they’re close to God, the people who assume they’re on God’s guest list, don’t actually show up for God, while those in the streets, those at the margins, do. The host’s anger isn’t murderous military might, as in Matthew’s account. It’s frustrated hospitality. Thwarted grace. The host wants to celebrate with friends, and the friends don’t show.

God gets angry sometimes. We shouldn’t make God so warm and fuzzy that we forget that. But we also have to be really careful about distinguishing God’s anger from our anger. Humans like to think we know what God is angry about. I find it really upsetting – as a preacher, as a Christian – when I see people attributing terrible events to God’s anger.  Earthquakes, hurricanes, wildfires, mass shootings: NOT GOD’S ANGER.

Look, how to make sense of that stuff is another whole sermon. Here’s the shortest possible version of how I understand it: Humanity is free and Creation is free. God couldn’t give us freedom and simultaneously protect us from the world and ourselves and each other – that’s not how freedom works. So bad stuff happens but God promises, promises, that God is with us in the bad stuff, and that the bad stuff is never the last word.

The destruction wrought by humans and nature is not God’s punishment.  And when people with authority name it as such, people who’d like to believe in God, people who’ve tried to believe in God, are apt to get right off that train, because with a God like that, who needs enemies? And I can’t blame them. But I can blame those who blame God for human actions…!

If God’s anger doesn’t look like wildfire or a hurricane wiping a whole town off the map, then what does God’s anger look like? Thwarted grace. Frustrated love. A banquet table lovingly prepared, dishes overflowing – and nobody there to eat and celebrate. The common thread between the Golden Calf and the Banquet parable is that God is angry when people walk away from relationship. Choose something else instead. Spending some time with the Gospels and the Prophets will quickly show you some of the other things that really get God’s goat. God gets pretty mad about leaders who shirk their responsibilities to those under their care. God gets pretty mad about those who enrich themselves at the cost of the poor. God gets pretty mad at those who judge others harshly without taking an honest look at themselves.

You know, I looked ahead at these lessons probably a month ago, and thought, Wow, the obvious theme here is the anger of God. And then about a week ago, I finally put two and two together, and realized, Oh, we’re doing a baptism today! Divine rage – a classic subject for a baptismal sermon.

But you know, it’s actually true that our relationships with the children and young people whom we love are one of the best windows we have into God’s anger.  The Bible and our liturgical texts name God as a parent Because God is a lot like a parent, or anyone who’s helping raise and teach and form a child. God doesn’t want us to do the right thing from fear of anger or punishment, but because we know what’s right and good, and we choose to do it. And God gets angry when God wants better for us, or from us.

Our fiercest loves give birth to our fiercest anger. And the angriest we get at the people we love is when they do something that puts them in danger, or when they do something that goes against our hopes for them, the person we believe them to be or want them to become. I remember that vividly from my own childhood; I see it in my own parenthood. And it helps me understand God.

Hear me: I’m not saying parental anger is pure and holy. Anger is important, powerful, and risky. Anger for good reason, expressed in healthy and constructive ways, can be a force for personal or public repentance,  amendment of life, and movement towards justice and righteousness.  But anger is often selfish or fearful as much as it is righteous, and we are, frankly, terrible at telling the difference. And anger can so easily become destructive, and have widespread and long-lasting consequences. Anger is like fire and water – necessary and life-giving, but also capable of terrible damage when misplaced or out of control.

Anger – or own or someone else’s – can be uncomfortable at best, and terrifying at worst. But we can’t simply say that anger is bad, is to be avoided. We can’t separate anger from hope, from justice, from love. Sometimes love gets angry.

And when we extend grace to a loved one and they don’t show up, when we seek relationship and the one we love turns away, the disappointment and frustration and grief we feel – the anger we feel – is a window into the loving, yearning, aching heart of God, the Parent of each of us and all of us.

 

Announcements, October 12

THIS WEEKEND…

Diocesan Convention, Saturday, October 14, 9am – 4:30pm at St. John’s Northwestern Military Academy in Delafield, Wisconsin:  Please hold our delegates and all delegates in prayer as we gather for prayer, sharing, and the legislative work of our diocese.

Eucharist with Holy Baptism, Sunday, October 15, 10am:  We will celebrate the baptism of a new member of Christ’s Kingdom, John Christopher Outrakis. We rejoice with Christina, JB, and brother Nicholas!

Sunday School, Sunday, October 15, 10am: This Sunday, our 3 year olds to kindergarten class will learn about the Exodus, while our Elementary classes will explore the story of the Golden Calf.

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/Race/34896/Donate/kWxUi9YS2zd7i5Wr

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.

Rector’s Discretionary Fund Offering, Sunday, October 15: 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.

Spirituality of Parenting Lunch, Sunday, October 15, 11:30am: 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.

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. NOTE: If you cannot attend, but have a name you would like to have read at the liturgy, please email Rev. Miranda.

Young Adult Meetup at the Vintage, Sunday, October 15, 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.

Helpers Wanted for our Pie Brunch (November 19)! We’ll celebrate the conclusion of our fall Giving Campaign with a potluck pie brunch at 9am, between our two Sunday services. This is always delicious and fun! This year we are looking for a few new helpers who can assist with decorating, set-up and clean-up. If you’d like to help, sign up in the Gathering Area or contact Laura Bloomenkranz. 

THE WEEKS AHEAD…

Ladies’ Night Out, Friday, October 27, 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 Pasqual’s Cantina, 702 N. Midvale Blvd. in the Hilldale Shopping Center. For more information or to arrange a ride, please contact Kathy Whitt or Debra Martinez.

Giving Campaign Kickoff and Parish Talent Show Sunday, October 22, 11:30-1pm: Our fall Giving Campaign starts with a Talent Show, at which members of St. Dunstan’s will have the opportunity to share their skills. A light lunch will be served. Come see the accomplishments of fellow parishioners and enjoy the show!

Last Sunday All-Ages Worship, Sunday, October 29, 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.

All Saints’ Day, Sunday, Nov. 5: We will celebrate this holy day with an opportunity to remember the faithful departed; renewal of our baptismal vows; and, at our 10am service, a kids’ saint procession.

Remembrance Station: Consider bringing in a token of one of those saints whom you remember with love and respect, as an extension of our All Saints commemorations. Our Remembrance Station this year will include a place to hang pictures or notes, and a table where you may place a photo or other memento. Please don’t bring in anything precious or irreplaceable. On Sunday, November 26, we will commend these faithful departed to Christ our King.

Math Help: We believe that church should be a place where people can bring the questions they’re wrestling with. For some people, that might be, what on earth is going on in my child’s math homework? We have some willing, math-literate adults in the congregation who’d like to help you and your child make sense of math. If this would be helpful to you, please email me at office@stdunstans.com, and we’ll work on scheduling a Math Night at St. Dunstan’s.

Online Giving Options: If you’d like to make a gift online, visit donate.stdunstans.com on your smartphone or computer to make a donation in any amount. We use Square, a widely-used secure service, to process online donations.  If you’d like to put something in the offering plate to represent your gift, you can pick up an “I Gave Online” card on the way into church. Thanks to all those who contribute financially and in so many other ways to sustain and grow our ministry together here at St. Dunstan’s!

IN THE COMMUNITY….

PFLAG Madison meeting, Sunday, October 15, 2-4pm: Parents, families, friends and allies united with LGBTQ people are welcome to come to our monthly meeting at the Friends Meeting House, 1704 Roberts Court in Madison. The topic is “Our Lives”. For more information, go to www.pflag-madison.org.

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.

 

 

St. Dunstan’s receives Clergy Renewal Grant

We got this news in late August, and announced it in church at the time. But at that point, the granting agency hadn’t yet publicly announced this year’s recipients, so we were asked not to share widely. Now we can celebrate more openly!  – MKH+

Dear friends,

Back in the spring, we shared with the congregation that we were writing a grant application to the Clergy Renewal grant program. That program makes large grants to support clergy and congregations during the clergyperson’s sabbatical. A sabbatical is a time of rest and exploration away from the parish for a clergy person who’s been in one parish for seven or more years.

Here’s the summary statement from our application – it’s written in first person, but many of you helped develop the idea or encourage the process:

“For my sabbatical, I want to develop my approach to including children in the worship of my Episcopal parish, by visiting four churches that are integrating children into worship in transformative, life-giving ways.  I will use these site visits, supported by reading and interviews, to both glean new ideas and to develop and articulate a fuller sense of the possibilities and purpose of including children in the weekly worship of a congregation. On our travels, my family will join me as participant observers and partners in the project. While I’m  away, my parish will undertake a renewal project of their own: a season of activities focused on deepening cross-generational friendships within the parish. Their work will dovetail with my project to help us grow further as a meaningfully and joyfully age-diverse worshipping community.”

Well, friends – we got the grant.

What that means is that sometime in the next 18 months, I will take about three months away, with my family, for study and rest and travel and play. You’ll do your part too, then we’ll come back together to share what we’ve discovered and see how our experiences shape our ongoing ministry together.

While working on this grant proposal, we came to really appreciate how this program sees the sabbatical as a mutual good for the clergyperson and the congregation. We were invited to think concretely about how I’d bring my learnings home, and how the congregation could do something playful and renewing too, during my time away. It won’t just be pressing “pause” here. We’ll make sure we have really good leadership in place, both clergy and laypeople, and I expect it’ll be a joyful and productive season all around.

I know all this may cause a little anxiety for some people. You may miss me; I know I’ll miss you. You may worry about leadership in my absence. You may have seen a clergyperson use a sabbatical as a step towards leaving. You may wonder how this intersects with the timing of our proposed capital campaign (the short answer there is, I’m not going anywhere until we’re at a point where it’s OK for me to leave!).

All I can offer is that I’m not really worried about any of that. There’s lots to figure out, but we have plenty of time, and we have terrific leadership in this parish, and we’re going to figure it out and do it well.

I wasn’t at all sure whether we’d get the grant, but I always thought we were good candidates, because the application says that the best candidates are churches where there’s a strong, trusting partnership between parish and clergy. And I think we have that.

So: thank you for your support, your ideas, and your prayers. There probably won’t be any more news about this for a while, because we can’t start making concrete plans until we’re a little clearer on whether and when the capital campaign is moving forward. But feel free to ask questions, and if you’d like to read the whole grant proposal, let me know.

In gratitude,

Rev. Miranda

Here’s a little more about the grant program:

St. Dunstan’s is one of 146 congregations across the United States selected to participate in this competitive grant program, which is funded by Lilly Endowment Inc. and administered by Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis. Established by the Endowment in 2000, the program’s grants allow Christian congregations to support their pastors with the gift of extended time away from their ministerial duties and responsibilities. Ministers whose congregations are awarded the grants use their time away from the demands of daily ministry to engage in reflection and renewal. The approach respects the “Sabbath time” concept, offering ministers a carefully considered respite that may include travel, study, rest, immersive arts and cultural experiences, and prayer.

Announcements, October 5

THIS WEEKEND…

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!

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

Helpers Wanted for our Pie Brunch (November 19)! We’ll celebrate the conclusion of our fall Giving Campaign with a potluck pie brunch at 9am, between our two Sunday services. This is always delicious and fun! This year we are looking for a few new helpers who can assist with decorating, set-up and clean-up. If you’d like to help, sign up in the Gathering Area or contact Laura Bloomenkranz.

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. Signup sheet is in the Gathering Area.

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 WEEKS AHEAD…

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.

Sunday School, Sunday, October 15, 10am: Next Sunday, our 3 year olds to kindergarten class will learn about the Exodus, while our Elementary classes will explore the story of the Golden Calf.

Rector’s Discretionary Fund Offering, Sunday, October 15: 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.

Spirituality of Parenting Lunch, Sunday, October 15, 11:30am: 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.

Young Adult Meetup at the Vintage, Sunday, October 15, 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.

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.

NOTE: If you cannot attend, but have a name you would like to have read at the liturgy, please email Rev. Miranda at office@stdunstans.com.

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, Oct. 1

It was late November, 2016, about ten months ago. Our country had just been through a brutal presidential election. Many, many people were terrified. Many, many people were triumphant. Just about everybody was angry. I was just trying to keep my bearings enough to keep on pastoring, you know? One day I sat down to put together the leaflet for our little Thanksgiving service, a simple Eucharist on the Wednesday evening before the holiday. And the lectionary offered me this text as the Epistle: “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

I put the text into the Thanksgiving leaflet, and then I put it on a page by itself, and printed it out, and put it near my desk, where I could look at it. And I did look at it, often, as we all fumbled through the changed American political landscape, those first weeks and months. Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just… think about these things. 

Those words are from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, the source of today’s Epistle. They’ll roll around in the lectionary again in a couple of weeks.The letter to the church in Philippi is short, only four chapters, and it has a pretty coherent message. Philippi was a city in the Macedonian region of Greece. Paul had helped found the church there, on one of his missionary journeys.  And the Philippian church was apparently one of his successes. He speaks of them so warmly in this letter. He warns them against some bad influences, and urges resolution of a conflict, but doesn’t rebuke them for misbehavior as he does in some of his letters to other early churches. It’s clear throughout the letter that he loves this church, and is proud of them, and anxious for them, as they face struggle and persecution for their faith.

Paul was writing to the Philippians from prison. It’s not clear whether this was his final imprisonment in Rome, before he was executed, or an earlier period of jail time. But either way, he wasn’t sure whether he’d get out, this time. He says he hopes to visit them again – but he’s also clearly trying to give them some words to hold onto, to live by… just in case.  And much of Paul’s message to the Philippians could be summed up in one word: Abide.

Abiding is one of our Discipleship Practices. It’s not quite as hot today so you might not have a church fan in your hand, but maybe you remember the list from warmer Sundays! About two years ago, as a parish project, we explored how we practice our faith in daily life. The choices we make, the habits we cultivate, because we are followers of Jesus.  And we summed up all our answers with seven practices:  Welcoming, Abiding, Wondering, Proclaiming, Turning, Reconciling, and Making.

Abide is an odd, churchy word.  When’s the last time you used it in conversation? It mostly shows up in old hymns and in the Gospel of John.  Abide means Stay, but it means more than Stay. It means to hold fast with intention and love, to anchor yourself in something, even when it’s hard.  Abiding is the spiritual practice of sticking with something or someone. Committing, investing, going deeper, putting down roots. Abiding is a practice that happens both among us and within us.  Among us, abiding means building and nurturing a community of trust, solidarity, fidelity, and love. Within us, abiding means taking it all in – Scriptures and songs, symbols and sacraments, and the concerns and joys of our companions too – and letting it find a home in us, and shape us.

Paul doesn’t use the word Abide in this letter. But he does talk about Abiding a lot. He begs his friends in the church in Philippi to abide with one another – stick together, and love each other – and to abide with the Gospel as they have received it. In chapter 1: “Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents.” Chapter 2, part of today’s lesson:  “It is by your holding fast to the word of life that I can boast on the day of Christ that I did not run in vain or labour in vain.” Chapter 3:  “Let us hold fast to what we have attained…”

And chapter 4, the beautiful culmination of the letter, is a call to abiding:

“Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved…. Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”

The fourth chapter is one of Paul’s most eloquent passages, and I’m sure his hope was to give this beloved church some words to live by, to come back to again and again, to pass down to the next generation and pass on to other churches.  Words to abide with. Christians have been abiding with these words for nearly 2000 years.

The Epistles, the books that are letters to the early churches, are some of the texts in the Bible that address us most directly as Christians. And one of the ways we can use those texts, one of the ways to receive their gifts and let God speak and work through them, is by abiding with them. Finding a verse or two that touches us, or stirs something in us, and carrying it with us for a while -memorizing it or turning it into a simple song, or putting it in your smartphone, or carrying a slip of paper in your purse or pocket… Or posting it near your desk where you can see it when you look up from your work, as I did with that portion of Philippians 4.

So today, I’m going to offer us an exercise in abiding, based in Paul’s letter about abiding. I’ve taken some snippets of text from the letter to the Philippians, and printed them out. Take one when the basket comes around. There should be plenty of extras so if your first one doesn’t speak to you, you can try again later.

Take the verse or verses and, well, abide with it. Maybe it’s carrying the slip around with you, or sticking it to your mirror or your dashboard, or using it as a bookmark, or using some fancy app on your phone to set it in a nice font over an artsy photo and set it as your home screen. Whatever works for you! Just try to come back to it, now and then, for a while. Read it and notice the words, and the meaning, and the feeling.  If the Spirit of God has something to say to you through this text, try to listen. It could take time.  If you spend enough time with these words for them to settle into you, they may swim up in your mind sometime when you don’t expect them – but when you need them. That certainly happens to me, with bits of Scripture and hymn and prayer text that I’ve taken in, by dwelling with them intentionally or just by being an Episcopalian for 42 years. Take a text and abide with it. For a while. A day, a week, a month? I don’t know. That’s up to you and God.  I’d love to hear what you try, and what you find.

I want to say one more thing about abiding. Abiding sounds like it would make you more and more settled – into one way of thinking or being, one place or community, one understanding of God. And that can be true up to a point – but not always.  In fact, the opposite often happens – at least if what you’re abiding with is true and just and commendable and lovely.

Paul knew that, expected that, too: That abiding with God’s words, God’s truth, God’s purposes, doesn’t lead to getting more and more sure and settled. Abiding with the Gospel leads you new places.  Abiding leads to Turning.

Turning is another of our practices of discipleship. We follow the teaching of Jesus Christ by being open to repentance, transformation, and call. The word “turning” springs from the New Testament word “metanoia,” meaning a change of mind that bears fruit in a changed life. In the words of the old hymn, “To turn, turn, shall be our delight, till by turning, turning, we come round right.” In the words of Michael Curry, our Presiding Bishop, in a sermon I heard long ago and have never forgotten, “God loves you just the way you are, but God’s not going to leave you that way.” Our turnings aren’t always dramatic; most of them are small and everyday.  A simple choice to do what ought to be done, or not to do what ought not to be done. A choice to help bear someone’s cross. A choice to speak and act from love.

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul talks about abiding, about holding fast and standing firm and keeping on; but Paul also expects all that abiding to form and to transform the community and its people. As much as he loves this church, as much pride as he takes in them, he knows that God has only begun to work in them. Chapter 1, verse 6: I am confident that the One who has begun a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Christ Jesus, when he returns to earth.  Chapter 2, verses 12 and 13: Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you.

Yes, fear and trembling! Abiding with the living word of God is serious business. A serious commitment to the good of others will change you. A serious commitment to dwell with what is good and just and honorable and lovely will change you.  “Think upon these things” isn’t an invitation to build yourself a beautiful bubble and ignore what’s going on outside. It’s a call to keep your eyes fixed on what’s good and true and important, and trust that light to guide you.

Abiding and turning – twin practices that only seem like opposites. Holding fast and letting go, standing firm and marching on, putting down roots and developing new growth. I invite you to abide with Paul’s words, passed down to us by the faithfulness of the church and the grace of the Holy Spirit. I invite you to let the words that come to you be a tool for God’s continued good work in you, helping you to desire and to work for God’s purposes, and to shine like stars in a dark world. And may these words and their work bless you, my beloved friends, my joy and my crown.