All posts by Miranda Hassett

Readings from American History, July 2

Abigail Adams, writing to her husband, Founding Father John Adams, 1776:

“I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation. That your sex are naturally tyrannical is a truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute; but such of you as wish to be happy [should] willingly give up the harsh title of ‘master’ for the more tender and endearing one of ‘friend.’ Why, then, not put it out of the power of the vicious and the lawless to use us with cruelty and commit indignity with impunity? Men of sense in all ages abhor those customs which treat us only as the (servants) of your sex; regard us then as being placed by Providence under your protection, and in imitation of the Supreme Being make use of that power only for our happiness.”

Chief Seattle, in response to a government official’s offer to purchase the remaining Seattle land, 1845:

Our good father in Washington–for I presume he is now our father as well as yours–our great and good father, I say, sends us word that if we do as he desires he will protect us. His brave warriors will be to us a bristling wall of strength, and his wonderful ships of war will fill our harbors, so that our ancient enemies far to the northward will cease to frighten our women, children, and old men. Then in reality he will be our father and we his children. But can that ever be? Your God is not our God! Your God loves your people and hates mine! He folds his strong protecting arms lovingly about the paleface and leads him by the hand as a father leads an infant son. But, He has forsaken His Red children, if they really are His. Our God, the Great Spirit, seems also to have forsaken us. Your God makes your people [grow] stronger every day. Soon they will fill all the land. Our people are ebbing away like a rapidly receding tide that will never return. The white man’s God cannot love our people or He would protect them. They seem to be orphans who can look nowhere for help. How then can we be brothers? How can your God become our God and renew our prosperity and awaken in us dreams of returning greatness?

Sojourner Truth, 1851:

That little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him. If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back , and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.

African-American orator Frederick Douglass, 1852:

This, for the purpose of this celebration, is the 4th of July. It is the birthday of your National Independence, and of your political freedom. This, to you, is what the Passover was to the emancipated people of God. It carries your minds back to the clay, and to the act of your great deliverance; and to the signs, and to the wonders, associated with that act that day. …  I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary!  Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not be me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This fourth of July is yours, not mine.  You may rejoice, I must mourn.

Women’s rights activist Amelia Bloomer, 1854:

We see no reason why it should be considered disreputable for a woman to be usefully employed… [Women] eat, they drink, they sleep, they dress, they dance and at last die, without having accomplished the great purposes of their creation. Can woman be content with this aimless, frivolous life?…While all other things both animals and vegetable perform their allotted parts in the universe of being, shall woman, a being created in God’s own image, endowed with reason and intellect, capable of the highest attainments and destined to an immortal existence, alone be an idler, a drone, and pervert the noble faculties of her being from the great purposes for which they were given? It will not always be thus; the public mind is undergoing a rapid change in its opinion of woman and is beginning to regard her sphere, rights and duties in altogether a different light from that which she has been viewed in the past ages. Woman herself is doing much to rend asunder the dark veil of error and prejudice which has so long blinded the world in regard to her true position; and we feel assured that, when a more thorough education is given to her and she is recognized as an intelligent being capable of self-government, and in all rights, responsibilities and duties man’s equal, we shall have a generation of women who will blush over the ignorance and folly of the present day.

President Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, 1865:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Cuban activist and writer Jose Marti, Our America, 1891:

One must have faith in the best in men and distrust the worst. One must allow the best to be shown so that it reveals and prevails over the worst. Nations should have a pillory for whoever stirs up useless hate, and another for whoever fails to tell them the truth in time.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1932:

This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.

Martin Luther King, Jr., from his Letter from the Birmingham Jail, 1963:

I have not said to my people: “Get rid of your discontent.” Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist. But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . .” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?

Sermon, June 25

Preached by the Rev. Thomas McAlpine, a priest associate at St. Dunstan’s. 

Sam Kamaleson, a pastor from the Indian subcontinent with whom I worked at World Vision, used to talk about God’s story (one hand) and my story (the other hand) becoming one story (fingers interlaced). Much easier said than done; today’s lessons give us an opportunity to think about it.

God’s story. Two weeks ago (Trinity Sunday) our first lesson was the creation story, seven days of God declaring this is good, that is good, the whole thing very good. It’s a very different perspective than the Babylonian (creation itself and humans in particular formed from the corpses of defeated gods of chaos) or the Greek (only a second-rate deity would be fool enough to deal with matter). No: creation is good, the material world is good.

We can pick up the story in Eucharistic Prayer C (BCP 370): “From the primal elements you brought forth the human race, and blessed us with memory, reason, and skill. You made us the rulers of creation. But we turned against you, and betrayed your trust; and we turned against one another.”

We should be, I think, surprised that the prayer doesn’t continue with “And so You pulled the plug on the whole thing” or “And so You decided to hang out with the dolphins for the next few thousand years.” Surprisingly, God calls Abraham and Sarah to be the beginning of a pilot project aimed at what the Jews call tikkun olam, repairing the world. God comes to Abraham and Sarah: what might we do together? God’s story + their story becoming one story. That’s the story contained in the Old Testament, the story rebooted when God takes on human flesh in Jesus, the story we enter with our baptism.

It’s probably fair to say that from Sarah’s perspective the project didn’t start out well. She had not borne Abraham an heir, to the point that, bowing to custom, she presented Abraham with her Egyptian slave Hagar so that she might produce an heir by proxy. Hagar conceived, and, understandably, passed up no chance to remind everyone that she was the birth mother of Abraham’s heir. So Sarah had an enemy, and there wasn’t a lot she could do about it. (I’m not sure ‘enemy’ is quite the right word. I’m using it broadly, to include, for example, the people whose posts we hide—or unfriend—on Facebook.) Until, finally, God promised her a son (last week’s reading), and delivered on that promise (just before this week’s reading). Now Sarah can do something about her enemy. Foreshadowing the treatment her people will receive from the Egyptians some generations later, she demands that Abraham expel Hagar and Ishmael. And Abraham does so—only after receiving God’s promise to look after Hagar and Ishmael.

And in the story we’ve just heard God keeps that promise to Hagar, preserving Ishmael’s imperiled life as God will preserve Isaac’s imperiled life in the next story. “Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him fast with your hand; for I will make him a great nation.”

The Jews, descended from Isaac, and the Arabs, descended from Ishmael, already in the OT are often at odds. And here Sarah’s God is providing a well for Ishmael. The Jews have a legend about that: “the angels appeared against Ishmael before God. They said, ‘Wilt Thou cause a well of water to spring up for him whose descendants will let Thy children of Israel perish with thirst?’ And God: “well, yes.”

God’s story + my story = one story. For Sarah in this episode, not so much, because she’s hit one of the really difficult bits: that someone is my enemy doesn’t mean they’re God’s enemy, that God listens to me when I pray Ps 86 (today’s psalm) and listens to my enemy when they pray Ps 86.

This is a difficult enough bit that the OT keeps coming back to it. Here are a couple more stories.

Some generations later Moses has led Israel out of Egypt, and Joshua has just brought the people across the Jordan to take possession of the promised land. Reading from the fifth chapter of Joshua:

Once when Joshua was by Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing before him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went to him and said to him, “Are you one of us, or one of our adversaries?” He replied, “Neither; but as commander of the army of the LORD I have now come.” (Jos 5:13-14 NRS)

“Are you one of us, or one of our adversaries?” “Neither.”

Some centuries later the Northern Kingdom of Israel and Aram (modern Syria) are at war. In a legend from that period, the king of Aram learns that his recent raids have been unsuccessful because the prophet Elisha has been warning the Israelite king about them. He sends out a large force to surround Elisha’s city and capture Elisha. Elisha sees the force, and asks God to blind the soldiers. God does so, and Elisha leads them to the Israelite capital. At this point the Israelite king enters. Reading from the sixth chapter of 2 Kings:

When the king of Israel saw them he said to Elisha, “Father, shall I kill them? Shall I kill them?” He answered, “No! Did you capture with your sword and your bow those whom you want to kill? Set food and water before them so that they may eat and drink; and let them go to their master.” So he prepared for them a great feast; after they ate and drank, he sent them on their way, and they went to their master. And the Arameans no longer came raiding into the land of Israel. (2Ki 6:21-23 NRS)

So when Jesus talks about loving one’s enemies as an integral part of what God’s kingdom is about, this isn’t new. Jesus is simply reporting how he’s observed the Father acting “for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous”—not to mention Hagar, the reply to Joshua, Elisha’s treatment of the Aramean raiders.

So when Jesus sends his disciples out to announce this kingdom, he understandably anticipates opposition, because everyone knows that right-thinking people try to help their friends and hurt their enemies. Right-thinking people will take Barabbas over Jesus any day.

“But this love of enemies business can’t be that important to God. If it were, God would impose it.” But that takes us back to the creation story. God thinks that human freedom is good. God thinks that the church’s freedom is good. So God does what God can do, like the woman in one of Jesus’ parables, putting leaven in the dough in the hope of the whole thing rising. God continues to stretch out the now nail-pierced hand to us: how can we make My story and your story one story?

God’s story; my story; one story. There are many ways that invitation will come to us in the coming week. Some of them may have to do with how we choose to respond to our enemies. May our choices bring God joy.

Sermon, May 14

Our guest preacher, Hal Edmonson, is a native of Madison and an M.Div. student at Harvard Divinity School. His sermon is entitled, “Seeing and Believing, or, Why Jesus is Like a Moonwalking Bear.”

It was about an hour into the protest when I first saw Jesus. I was standing on the steps of Trinity Episcopal Church in Boston on a January morning. Twenty-thousand or so people crowded into Copley Square, demonstrating against the order banning citizens of six predominantly-Muslim countries, and effectively ending refugee resettlement in this country. The rage was palpable. The signs were witty, maybe, but the knuckles that held them were white hot with fury. And there, held aloft by someone a few feet ahead of me, I never found out who, was Christ. An icon, The Christ of Maryknoll. Jesus is there, on the other side of a barbed-wire fence. His mouth is hidden behind the wires, leaving only his eyes truly visible; His hands rest on the tangle of metal, and though the steel talons have left stigmata of their own, his fingers yet curl their way around them—not a spasm of agony, but an embrace; a sign, almost, of blessing. Providentially, perhaps, in the crowd that left almost no room to breathe, Christ stayed in front of me; when speakers thundered their denunciation, when chants got into some very not-safe-for-church language, and when the crowd tried to make space in the middle of those twenty-thousand for some of the Muslim organizers to pray, there He was, staring at me. Wondering.

He hasn’t stopped. It’s an image I can’t seem to shake. He’s there, floating into my field of vision whenever I’m watching the news, in prayer, in reading, even on my long runs along the Charles River. Which, for me, is really rather strange. I’m in seminary and not art school for a reason: I like words. A lot. I encounter God in the syntax of things, and trust the power of the word to wind its way down in to the dusty corners of the human heart, dwelling there until it is needed most. But I’m not an image guy —I still have nightmares about a particular Art History final in Junior Year of college.

Don’t get me wrong, I find art beautiful. But images don’t stick with me the same way that a line of poetry does. There is always something intolerably ambiguous about images. They lack clarity, for there are always details that I miss. Take this icon, for instance: you can’t see Jesus’ mouth. There’s so much there that could change the whole picture. Or, what do I make of those eyes? Are they convicting? Pitying? Crying out for help? Uttering words of comfort? There is too much uncertainty, defying my desire to pick apart the motivation until I decode it all. That, I think, is why this particular image has been haunting me: I want certainty. And it won’t give it to me.

Our readings for today, and the Gospel in particular, are among the most often quoted in the New Testament—and if we can be real for a moment, also probably among the ones that make we Episcopalians most uncomfortable—because these passages, too, seem to be all about certainty. “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” Jesus says. “None come to the Father but by me.” These are the words that launched a thousand missionary ships, used as the proof that salvation is beyond the hands of those who don’t see their place in the universe quite the same way. And what, for good or for ill, has come to define faith for many, many Christians—including, in the past or right now, probably a good number of us in this room: Belief, pure certainty, to the point that—like Stephen—we’d able to suffer and endure death on the strength of our conviction alone.

But the image of Christ in that icon has me wondering what it is that Jesus is really asking the disciples for, here. Remember that there weren’t really “Christians” yet. What we now consider to be truths, the distillation of them that we recite in the Nicene Creed, nobody had bothered to put together. Notice that Jesus doesn’t say what to believe in, as far as intellectual concepts. He’s a lot more cryptic. He says, “Believe in ME.” He doesn’t tell them the way, he says “I am the way.” I. Me. Myself. Jesus isn’t talking about all the theology and creeds that would eventually come to represent those things, or the scriptures that would tell about him. ’I’ doesn’t mean just what I do, or what I say, or what is accomplished on a cross, or in a tomb. It’s an all-of-the-above-and-then-some sort of situation. When Jesus says ‘I’, he means, well, that. He resists a reduction to some essence that is easier to digest. All of it, all of it, together, matters. Being the Incarnate Word of God is to defy simplification. Just as each of us have a core to our being that defies our worst moments, our most thoughtless words, and our greatest accomplishments, Jesus isn’t going to let himself be easily defined. Incarnation is to take on all the complexity, ambiguity, and irreducible beauty of humanity. To take any of that away is to take away the gift of incarnation itself. He is the way, accomplishing by the mere fact of his being a relationship between humanity and God that is inseparable. Following instructions isn’t quite enough. People are complicated, you see, even if you are, quite literally, God.

Which is a bummer, for the disciples, because they really want simple instructions. Thomas is hung up on this whole ‘way’ thing, and a number of commentators on the Greek point out that he’s confused by Jesus’ words—he’s picturing an actual road, going to a physical place, and probably thinking that if he’d had Google Maps, he could have skipped the whole following-Jesus-around-a-desert-thing. Phillip, meanwhile, wants Jesus to show him the Father, like, now, and that would satisfy him.

But instead, Jesus says you already have these things, in me—together in my words, in my works, and in the work of death and resurrection that is yet to come. None of them make sense without the others. They’ve missed the desert for the sand. What Jesus wants from them, in the end, isn’t their obedience, or their intellectual assent (though there are times when Jesus might have taken those too!). It’s their sight. It’s their willingness to see, look at the image right in front of them—the only image that can convey the fullness of Incarnation, to see what God’s mercy has wrought upon the earth, and the vision of the Kingdom that is coming, and is already here. Seeing, at least this time, is believing.

The trouble is, believing isn’t always seeing. There are these psychology test videos, maybe you’ve seen them, where there are two teams of people passing a ball back and forth, and you’re asked to count how many passes are completed. After about thirty seconds, the video freezes, and the narrator asks you how many passes were made, and then shows the correct answer. Then, she asks whether you noticed the moonwalking bear. And then you go back, and watch it slowly, and sure enough, there’s someone in a bear suit grooving their way across the floor. Our brains can only take in so much information, so we prioritize what to look for; we get the information we think we need, and filter out the rest. We’ve “succeeded” in the task before us, maybe, but if we failed to notice a moonwalking bear, what did we really see? It’s kind of the same with trying to believe in Jesus now. The world, same as it ever was, is overflowing with injustice. The demands on us to feed, to shelter, and to console are great. And it’s oh-so-easy to pray for just the things we think we need to do them, or to read the parts of scripture that seem to touch on them perfectly, that assure us we’re right, and doing our part, and so on. We’re much like the disciples, in that respect: we want the most efficient route possible. We want to know that we’ve done all we could, and followed our instructions.

But we miss things. We always do. We miss how easily, for instance, Christ-like compassion can slide into only showing compassion to those who are most Christ- like. We can miss the moments of weakness, and pain, and grief. We can get so caught up in the work of the world that it starts to become an idol in its own right. We can forget that we are called to a Christian life not on account of our own righteousness, but because we, too, are entangled with sin, and dependent upon God’s mercy.

That’s what happened to me, standing in that crowd in Copley Square, seething with anger and grief at the thought of families days away from being able to leave refugee camps only to be thrust back into limbo. I wanted to hold people accountable, to defeat them, to humiliate them with caustic poster-board signs. And there was this face of Christ staring back at me—not egging me on, just watching. Vanquish all your enemies, His eyes said; there will be new ones. Right all the wrongs; they won’t stay that way. Fortify your convictions as much as you want; God has a way of eluding your logic. I am the Way. I am the truth. I am the life.

It’s much easier to hate error than it is to love that truth. (I paraphrase here one of my favorite quotes from Michael Oakshotte, from his essay “Introduction to Leviathan”.)  Error is a lot more comprehensible, at least. But it matters that we keep this vision of our truth, of the whole person of Christ before us. Icons, obviously, are something I’ve gained a little appreciation for over the past couple of months, and I recommend you try praying with one if you never have. There are things to be learned from crucifixes, out of fashion though they are these days, or from paintings, or books that have been written imagining the bodies that Christ might have called His own. Precisely how one does this matters a lot less than that we keep looking, keep one eye on the image whenever we get caught up in words. It’s a discipline, you see. It takes practice. But one, I believe, that keeps us grounded. There will always be more work, more injustice, more pain. And in the moments of inevitable discouragement, when the certainty of prevailing is long gone, maybe what sustains isn’t inspiring words of scripture, or prayer, or self-care, but simply the image of the Word: the human form of Christ— limited, and frail, and broken, and because it is all these things, the reminder that God has already entered, irrevocably and fully, into our lives, is with us still, and that our salvation will not be on our own terms. Precisely the thing that frustrates me about images is their power: they keep teaching, keep drawing you out of yourself, inviting you to notice things that you never did before. Remember, in the work ahead, that in Christ, flesh is word, and word is flesh. Remember that image, even when it is unclear. Keep looking. You never know what you might have missed.

Sermon, May 7

Who’s heard of Napoleon? The French general? What if I told you that Napoleon was actually… taller than average? This week I read a thought-provoking cartoon written by artist Matthew Inman, for his site The Oatmeal. Matthew uses goofy images to share some of what cognitive scientists have learned about how people respond to new information. It turns out that the response depends on the information – specifically, whether the information challenges an existing idea that’s important to us, that feels central to our worldview. He offers some examples like the one about Napoleon that are pretty easy to take on board. We just think, “Huh. Okay.”

And then he offers a few examples that he suspects some of his readers will find more challenging or unsettling. Like, Jesus Christ was not born on December 25th. The Pledge of Allegiance was written by a socialist. Neither of those gave me much pause, but your mileage may vary. Or take a piece I read recently that revealed that Margaret Atwood, the author of the famous feminist dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, once spoke up to support a fellow writer who’d been fired from his university job for harassing female students. There’s more friction, more discomfort, in taking in facts like these.

We are not equally open to new ideas. Some are just interesting new information that maybe changes our thinking or outlook a little, but is easy to integrate. Some new ideas stretch us, make us re-examine our assumptions. It might take some inner heavy lifting to take them on board. And some new ideas are so challenging that we shut down entirely. We lock up our minds. We build a wall. It doesn’t matter how persuasive the evidence is – whether that’s evidence in the form of data and facts, or the evidence of someone else’s life experience that casts a new light on our world and our thinking. In fact when something really challenges our deep-seated beliefs, more evidence may actually make us shut down even MORE, in a phenomenon called the backfire effect.

When we encounter a new idea that really shakes up our fundamental understandings, our brains respond the same way we would respond to a physical threat. Which is not by getting more flexible or thoughtful, but by flooding our systems with adrenaline, in preparation to FIGHT off the threat – or run away! In those moments, people get confused. Conflicted. Angry. Kind of like the Pharisees in the 9th and 10th chapters of the gospel of John.

Today’s Gospel is one of the times when we really need to know what came before it. If you start at chapter 10, verse 1, it’s easy to take this as just a theological speech, with no particular context or audience. But in fact the context and the audience are really important – and you know about them, if you were here on March 26. Because we had the 9th chapter of John, that Sunday, and we acted it out, just to make sure you’d remember it! There was a young man who was born blind – his eyes didn’t work. And then Jesus came along, and healed him! And that’s when the trouble began.

The leaders in his church, his synagogue, were confused and upset. This kind of healing is so unusual that it’s clearly a miracle. But does that mean that Jesus is using God’s power? Or is he using the Devil’s power instead, or dark magic? And if he is using God’s power – what does that mean? Because we have heard about this guy Jesus, and a lot of what he teaches is different from the way we understand the faith of our God and our ancestors! And if Jesus DOES have some uniquely close relationship with God, then what does that mean for the monotheism that is the non-negotiable heart of Judaism – there is only, always, ever, ONE God!…

The fact of Jesus’ healing of this young man is new information that is way at the fight or flight end of the spectrum for these Pharisees. Matthew Inman says, There’s no magic trick to get around these moment. All you can do is understand how it works, and when you notice it happening inside yourself, ride out that stress reaction and THEN give the new information a serious look and assess whether and how it should change your thinking. He concludes, “I’m not here to… tell you what to believe. I’m just here to tell you that it’s okay to stop. To listen. To change.” And that is exactly where today’s gospel starts: with Jesus trying to talk the Pharisees down a little bit. To get them to listen. Reflect. Wonder. Change.

We get this Gospel lesson today because at some point the Church named the fourth Sunday of Easter as Good Shepherd Sunday. Every year we have one of the passages where Jesus uses this image of himself as the Shepherd (or in this case, the Gate). And preachers usually preach on the image, the metaphor, and probably I will too, next time around. But once I realized that this is the end of that other story, I got more interested in the context and purpose of the conversation than its content.

This passage, Jesus’ extended metaphor of himself as the Good Shepherd, is the moment in the story of the healing of the blind man when Jesus and the Pharisees finally talk to each other. Before that, there was a lot of talking ABOUT Jesus, who he was and what to do about him. Some of them were saying, This man is not from God, for he performed this act of healing on the Sabbath, when God’s people are commanded to rest. Others were saying, How can a sinner perform such miracles? The Pharisees, this group of local religious leaders and scholars, were divided among themselves – and likely conflicted within themselves. And as the story moves along, their anxiety ratchets up, until they become pretty shrill and angry and panicky. (I have been in that mental space, 100%. Anybody else?) They cast out the Man Born Blind – and Jesus comes back around to affirm that young man in his stubborn faith in the One who gave him sight. And he offers one of his paradoxical pronouncements: “I came into this world to bring sight to those who do not see, and blindness to those who do see.” Some of the Pharisees are hanging around – and they say, “Wait. We’re not blind…?” They’re curious about Jesus, interested enough that they care what he thinks and what he has to say, even though he also upsets and challenges them.

Jesus says, “If you were really blind” – remember, folks, we’re talking about *figuratively* blind – “If you were really blind, nobody could blame you for your failures. But since you think you can see, you are culpable.” And then he starts talking about sheep. And gates. And bandits. And stuff. Reading this passage in light of chapter 9, and noticing the cues about the interaction between Jesus and the Pharisees, has really changed how I imagine the tone of this speech. A lot of sources assume that the “thieves and bandits” are an allusion to the Pharisees themselves, and that Jesus is attacking their leadership here, slamming them. But I think he’s actually trying to reassure them.

Here’s what I think he’s saying: “You have been fierce and valiant defenders of our faith. There have been thieves and bandits, over the centuries, who have tried to change or distort or destroy the faith of our God and our ancestors. There have been false prophets and false messiahs – so many. But I’m not one of them. I am the real thing. And you can know that by the evidence of your own eyes: because you saw how I tended one of my sheep, that young man whose eyes didn’t work, and how he responded to me, following my voice like a sheep who knows its shepherd. Those false prophets did what they did for their own gain, or to sow destruction and death. But God the Gatekeeper sent me here to give life to the sheep – abundant life.”

I think Jesus is trying to win them over, or at least to help them understand. And they don’t react like people who feel attacked. They react like people who are still trying to make sense of a big, hard, challenging new idea. That verse isn’t in today’s lesson but here’s how the scene ends: “Again they were divided because of these words. Many were saying, ‘He has a demon and is out of his mind!’ But others were saying, ‘These are not the words of one who has a demon….’”

Divided. Conflicted. Challenged, but fascinated. Struggling to make sense of an unfamiliar truth. I feel for them. I have absolutely been there. It’s a difficult space, that space between the old and the new ways of thinking. A hard space – but also a holy one. This is why Turning is one of the practices of discipleship that we name and affirm here at St. Dunstan’s: We follow the teaching of Jesus Christ by being open to repentance, transformation, and call. This is why “Seek opportunities to learn, turn, and amend” is on the personal Rule of Life I read to myself every morning. Because one of the most important things that makes the Church not just an especially peculiar and anachronistic social club is our conviction that God isn’t done with us yet. That we don’t have it all figured out on our own. That in the words of one of our hymns, the Lord has yet more light and truth to break forth from his Word. That there is deeper and farther to go into the mysteries of God and of our fellow human beings. Knowing that Turning is part of the life of faith is our way of telling ourselves and each other that it’s okay to stop. To listen. To change. Sometimes a new idea or perspective or truth will confuse us and unsettle us, even make us angry; but bit by bit, if we are faithful to the work, listening and wondering and attending to what God is showing us, will transform us into the image of Christ, in whom there is no falsity, and no fear.

In a moment we’ll perform the sacrament of baptism, one of our holiest rites, one of my greatest privileges. In this sacrament we are baptized into certainty: into belonging to a faithful God, marked as Christ’s own forever; into having a loving family of faith that will always welcome and support, no questions asked. But friends, we are also baptized into uncertainty. Into curiosity. Into growth, into change. Into seeking, wondering, repenting, turning. Baptized into life in God who is not done with us yet.

Matthew Inman’s comic may be read here. Language warning! 

Rev. Miranda Reflects on a Week Away

IMG_4646May 4, 2017
Dear friends,
I’m writing, first and foremost, to thank you for being so supportive of my post-Easter trip. It was great to feel that you were encouraging me in this opportunity to spend a little time away, and that there were many able and willing folks who would keep church running smoothly in my absence.
Thanks to a small grant from our diocese (and to my parents’ kindness in staying with our kids!), Phil and I spent a week at Penland School of Crafts, in the mountains of western North Carolina. Phil took a class on paper-cutting, and I took a pottery class. It was wonderful – demanding, refreshing, fun. Spending a week making messy, colorful art in a warm, friendly environment was probably more renewing than any clergy retreat could be!
Penland is just as wonderful as I always imagined it would be. Check out its website to learn more about the place and what happens there.  As we drove (sadly) down the mountain the final day, I found that I had some observations and thoughts to carry home. I think I noticed these things about Penland because they reminded me a little of St. Dunstan’s… but experiencing them at Penland made me think about them in a new way, and wonder whether we could live into them more fully. I’m sharing these thoughts with you (along with a few photos) as a sort of “What I Did On Vacation” report!
1. Hospitality in a porous community. 

I was a little bit worried about being a first-timer at Penland, and a relative beginner at my craft. In fact, it was very easy to be there, to learn, connect, find what we needed, and have fun. Penland’s hospitality isn’t the structured kind, of the sign-the-book-and-we’ll-show-you-around variety – perhaps because that kind of hospitality works best when there’s a fairly defined outsider/insider line, and that line doesn’t seem to be in Penland’s mindset. Instead there was a general culture or ethos of expecting newcomers. People – teachers, students, and staff, though there too the lines are fine and flexible – might be there for years, or months, or days, but everyone is there for love of the craft and the place, and it seemed like everyone loved to share about what they do. The big chalkboard in the dining hall outlining each day’s opportunities helped, and so did the maps, but what helped most was just the sense of a community that understands itself to be porous, to have fuzzy edges, and a general readiness to smile at someone and say, “Hey, we’re about to unload the wood-fired kiln, want to come watch?”

I wonder what that could look like in a church?

2. Collaboration and cross-fertilization.
Classes at Penland are taught by visiting artists who may be there for 18 months, 8 weeks, or just a week or so. The artists teaching and assisting during our session did slideshows during the week about their work, and I noticed that they consistently talked about their influences – artists or artistic traditions that had inspired them and shaped their work. And I also noticed experiments in collaboration among the artists at Penland – two potters decorating a mug together; someone in the print studio creating a poster for an event in the metal shop. There was no sense of “turf” or trespass, but rather a wonderful sense of curiosity and possibility. What someone else is doing – even in a totally different area or medium – could connect with what you’re doing to make something remarkable, or give you an idea that could take your work in a new direction.

I wonder what that could look like in a church?

IMG_48053. Place, community practice, and inner life as a united whole. 

While we were at Penland, my mother posted this quotation on Facebook:

“… I found myself thinking in new ways about monastic life as a whole, about how spiritual thought and practice are shaped by landscape and how the experience and perception of living in a place can be deepened through spiritual practice… the ancient Christian contemplative idea of weaving the inner and outer worlds into an integrated vision of the whole had the potential to offer something important to us in the contemporary moment.” – Douglas Christie, The Blue Sapphire of the Mind

Penland seems to have achieved a high degree of integration of sense of place and landscape, of community practice, and of inner life. The inner life is your focus on creativity and craft, your own engagement with matters of skill, beauty, and meaning; the community life is the rhythms of work, mealtime, and fellowship; and then there’s the loveliness of a green valley on a Blue Ridge mountainside. All work together to form a whole that is encompassing, effective, and gracious.

I wonder what that could look like in a church?

Thank you again, friends! And if any of my musings have sparked thoughts for you and you’d like to chat… let me know!

In gratitude and with affection,


Sermon, April 23

The Rev. Thomas McAlpine preached on Sunday, April 23. The lessons are here. 

Alleluia. Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.

Today’s Gospel sets before us a rich feast; here we’ll only be able to sample a little of it.

The first thing we might notice is that the Evangelist describes a scene that’s heavy with fear. The doors are locked “for fear of the Jews.” Fear permeated all of what we call Holy Week: the Jewish leadership fearful of things getting out of hand, Pilate fearful of how it will look if he lets Jesus go, the disciples fleeing in fear at Jesus’ arrest…

And this lethal stew of fears is one of our obvious connections with the text. Today there is plenty to be afraid of, and plenty more that various voices are trying to make us afraid of. But in contrast to the emcee in Cabaret, the Church’s invitation is not to leave the troubles and fears outside, but to bring them in—and see what Jesus might do with them.

And in the Gospel Jesus appears. Not a ghost or a resuscitated carcass, his body is…unique. He eats, invites his friends to touch him, goes through locked doors, and often isn’t recognized at first glance. N. T. Wright makes the intriguing suggestion that this body isn’t less physical but more. Jesus walks through locked doors with the same naturalness that we walk through the mists.

There are hints in this first encounter of a new creation: he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit…” As in creation God breathed into our nostrils the breath of life, so here Jesus breaths the beginning of a new creation.

New creation: In the world that Scripture portrays there are two Big Bangs. The first at the beginning of creation: “Let there be light.” The second: that Easter morning.

But it doesn’t stop with new creation. Here’s where it’s important to let each Gospel writer tell their own story. Our Church Year follows Luke’s chronology: the Holy Spirit’s given on Pentecost, 50 days after Easter, & at that point the disciples engage in mission. In John’s chronology, it’s Easter that morning and Pentecost that evening. This Jesus wastes no time: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

By the end of that encounter it looks like Jesus has done pretty much all he needs to do, and there’s no reason to think that he’ll show up again. And this creates a problem, because Thomas, one of the Twelve, was absent, and unwilling to accept the others’ testimony: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

So there’s a whole week in which the other disciples are all “Alleluia” and Thomas is holding out for some evidence. And no one has reason to think that this difference is going to be resolved anytime soon.

So it looks to me as though there are two sorts of miracles in today’s Gospel: Jesus’ appearances and the Twelve still being together at the end of that week. It would have been so easy for Thomas to have been excluded. In the midst of that lethal stew of fears it would have been even easier. And everyone would have been the poorer: Thomas, not encountering the risen Jesus, the others not learning from Thomas’ striking confession “My Lord and my God!”

So here’s our other obvious connection with the text, for pretty much in every age there are issues that threaten to divide Christians. We all—in Paul’s language—“see through a glass, darkly,” and nevertheless find it quite easy to communicate—usually nonverbally—if you think or feel that you don’t belong here. The fears in our environment make that even easier.

Well—it’s hard to think of an issue more basic than whether Jesus is alive or still in the tomb. Yet there Thomas is with the other disciples at the end of the week.

I wish the Evangelist had spelled out how that happened. But I think the Evangelist has given us some clues. Here are three; you may see others.

·         Just a few days ago Jesus had washed the disciples’ feet and said “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” My sister’s or brother’s feet matter more than my dignity, my perceptions. So perhaps that had something to do with the disciples’ being together at the end of the week.

·         Later Jesus had said “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Love is easy and natural when we’re in agreement on the important stuff… So perhaps the disciples actually heard some of what Jesus was saying and so stayed together.

·         And later Jesus had said “You did not choose me but I chose you.” The disciples aren’t together because they chose to be together but because what they have in common is that Jesus chose them. (What if that’s true today? Take a look around the sanctuary. What if we’re together because the fundamental thing we have in common is that Jesus chose us?) So, perhaps they’re still together at the end of the week because it’s sunk in that being together is not a matter of their choice.

Whatever the combination of reasons, a week later they’re together, and Jesus again appears. Jesus gives Thomas what he needs; Thomas’ confession is a gift to that and subsequent generations.

One of the questions these stories of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances deal with is how Jesus may be encountered by the readers, by us. So Luke’s story of the road to Emmaus presents a sort of mini-Eucharist, with Jesus explaining the Word, and then breaking bread at the Table. Word and Table. So John here suggests that encountering the risen Jesus has something to do with staying together—Thomas and all.

One final thing to notice: that last verse in our reading. It uses the plural, and so the KJV: “that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.” And the story we’ve just heard may suggest what believing together might mean in the midst of disagreements: washing each other’s feet, loving each other, recognizing that we are together because what we finally have in common is that Jesus has called us.

Seeking a Director of Music Ministry

St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church in Madison, WI, seeks a Director of Music Ministry whose skill, enthusiasm, and collaborative spirit will help us develop the musical aspect of our worship and life as a faith community. Our Sunday worship is eclectic and lively, while deeply grounded in our traditions and patterns of liturgical and sacramental worship; we also strive to be intentionally inclusive of children and youth. We love to sing together, and have many members who are interested in sharing skills as vocal or instrumental musicians. We love the core music of our Episcopal tradition, both hymnody and choral anthems, but we also sing and enjoy music from other churches and traditions, including gospel, Taize, and “paperless” song.

Skills and Knowledge Required:

  • Proficiency at piano/keyboard
  • Choral conducting, including from the keyboard
  • Familiarity with liturgical worship
  • Effective time management and communication
  • Collaborative musical leadership for choir, children’s choir, and congregational singing

Skills and Knowledge Preferred:

  • Organ skills
  • Familiar with Episcopal hymnody and liturgical music
  • Prior experience working in a faith-based setting

Qualities Sought:

  • Inviting and approachable demeanor toward staff and volunteers
  • Encouraging and joyful, able to build excitement around our musical programming
  • Collaborative and interested in helping develop our music ministry
  • Flexible; willing to try new approaches
  • Able to work with musicians of all ages and abilities

This is a part-time position, 12 hours/week, $12,000 – 14,000/year depending on education and experience. Position open until filled. All applicants are welcome, as we are an inclusive parish.

Send a cover letter or statement of interest, and your resume, to .  Questions? Call 608-298-7381.

Sermon, March 12

There’s so much I love in this Gospel story about Nicodemus, this man of wealth and status and learning who wondered if he was missing something, who snuck out to visit Jesus by night so as not to compromise his reputation. We have a picture of Nicodemus and Jesus, among our icons,  to make space among those passionate saints for those who are almost embarrassed by their belief, their longing to come close to the living God.

But today I’m going to leave our friend Nicodemus to your reflection, and focus instead on one phrase of this Gospel –  a snippet of verse 17, which alongside its more famous brother John 3:16 is one of the best-known texts in the Bible. And rightly so; John offers us here a simple, beautiful statement of what he understands as the point of the whole business: For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son, so that everyone who trusts in him may not perish, but may have eternal life.  Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but so that through him, the world might be saved.

Saved. The world might be saved. Sothe, in Greek – a conditional future tense – the “maybe someday” tense – of the Greek verb sozo.

The verb, sozo, to save, and its related noun, soterio, salvation, are used throughout the New Testament, and beyond, in a wide range of ways with a common thread of meaning. Sozo can mean to save from a dangerous situation. To heal. To recover from illness or injury. To be restored. To survive an ordeal. To be rescued, to escape, to be freed. To keep, preserve, or protect. In the New Testament, the situations in which sozo is used run the gamut from real-world illness, danger, or bondage, to the metaphorical and spiritual conditions that mirror those outward realities. And the witness of the New Testament is that Sozo is the word for what God does, in us, for us. Sozo: the name for the central thrust and purpose of God’s action in human history and human lives. To free, heal, make well, rescue, deliver.  To save.

But. While the Church assures us that God’s saving grace has already seized us, marked us indelibly with love –  while we have seen God’s salvation at work in particular lives and situations –  While we may catch glimpses of God’s grace in human history, working among us to bend the long arc towards justice – we still feel ourselves to live in that conditional future space, in the “maybe someday” tense of salvation. The world might be saved.

I believe myself to be saved, but I wonder what it looks like in my daily life. I believe the world to be in the grip of God’s saving power, but I wonder how to cooperate, collude, conspire with God in working towards the salvation of everybody and everything.

Salvation isn’t everyday vocabulary for a lot of us; Episcopalians aren’t that kind of Christians, for better or worse. But there’s another word that I am hearing from many of you, and from brothers and sisters in faith, far and wide, these days: Resist. Resist.

Resist is a buzzword, a hashtag, a t-shirt right now, but Christianity has always been about resistance. As my seminary professor Kwok Pui-Lan recently wrote,  “We must recover that the Jesus movement  was a resistance movement against [the so-called] Pax Romana. Jesus was not a passive religious leader, but took an uncompromising stance against the Roman Empire.”

And while resistance to empire and political oppression is foundational to Christianity, the resistance to which Christ calls us is both broader and deeper. The Gospel of the Temptations of Christ, which we always receive on the first Sunday in Lent, shows us Jesus rejecting the motivations and aspirations of the world:  Seek power and esteem, Satan suggests. Seek self-fulfillment. Seek security. Instead, Jesus tells us: Seek the kingdom of God – which is profoundly different from the kingdoms of this world. Jesus’ teachings – like the Jewish faith which formed him – consistently stress that belonging to God means living by a different set of rules, and resisting the zero-sum, us-them, might-makes-right logic of the human world.

The last shall be first. The least shall be honored. Ninety-nine sheep abandoned to seek the one that wanders. The sin-stained and broken treasured above the righteous. The outsider named a member of God’s household. The stories of the first Christians, the stories of the saints, are stories of people called by God to push back against the injustices, divisions, and casual cruelties of their time and place.

Resistance is intrinsic to salvation. Salvation is what God does for us, beyond our power or even our understanding; resistance is how we live as people chosen, named, and called. We are baptized into God’s insistence that the world could be otherwise. It’s right there in our baptismal vows: We renounce – Renounce: synonyms – deny, reject, repudiate, resist – We renounce all spiritual forces of wickedness, and the evil powers of this world that corrupt and destroy God’s creatures; and we promise, with God’s help, to persevere in resisting evil.

Salvation and resistance go together like a horse and carriage. Salvation and resistance are both against oppression and bondage – the obvious and the subtle forms.Salvation and resistance are both about discovering your value and your freedom – and passing on that knowledge to others. Salvation and resistance are both about knowing, deep-down heart knowledge, that the world could be, should be otherwise. That another, better way is possible – for me, for all of us.

Salvation and resistance are closely linked – which makes sense, because I have the same question about both: How do I live this? How can we take salvation, our saved-ness, from something we say in church to something we carry into each day as a fierce and living hope? How can we take resistance from hashtag territory, from Facebook virtue-signaling and ritualized outrage, to a daily way of being in which our habits, acts, and choices lean in to God’s dream for the world?

I read something last week about resistance, about what it means, what it can look like –  and then when I looked at today’s Gospel, I thought, It’s the same. The ways we live it, let it shape us and shine out of us – the same. Listen – these words come from activist Brittany Packnett, on Twitter. She writes,

“I’ve been thinking about [all the] social justice buzzwords… Are we examining what they really mean? and if we measure up? We so often use words we don’t mean –  or worse yet, say words we aren’t willing to or don’t know how to live. I’ve been thinking a lot about what resistance means. We have an archetype of resistance. Loud. Brash. Confrontational. Those things matter. But resistance is so much more. Resistance requires that we confound the status quo, challenge acceptable norms through our actions.

“Joy is resistance. Oppression doesn’t actually have room for your happiness. You resist it when you find joy anyhow. Love is resistance. Think about the need to protect [transgender] kids. In a world that too often shows them hate, love pushes that status quo… Hope is resistance. If you let it, this fight will destroy the hope you have in our ability to change things. But change is fueled by hope. Rest is resistance. Music is resistance.Culture is resistance…. We have to give words meaning through our actions, not our rhetoric.”

We live in “maybe someday” time – striving to trust that God’s salvation is already accomplished, even as we search the headlines and the landscapes of our lives for glimmers of hope and possibility. In this conditional future space, salvation and resistance overlap, intermingle, flow out of each other. One is God’s work and one is ours, but they’re so deeply intertwined that it’s hard to draw the line.

God didn’t send Jesus into the world to condemn the world, as ugly and painful as it was, as it is. God sent Jesus to redeem, to rescue, to heal, to free. To save. And when we live as people whose lives and hopes are shaped by God’s salvation, it looks like resistance. It looks like… joy. Joy anyhow. It looks like love. Love that stands with, and stands for. It looks like hope. Like persistence and courage. It looks like rest, the radical work of caring for yourself. It looks like music, poetry, art, like creative or constructive work shared, like hard stories heard and honored, like learning even when it hurts, like remembering what’s easier to forget, like simple small kindnesses woven into our days. You’re already doing it. Already saved. Already resisting. And it’s always, always, calling you onward, farther, deeper, into the maybe-someday of God’s dream.

Kwok Pui-Lan’s blog post on theology in the 21st century:

A reflection on generosity…

By Rev. Miranda, February 2017

I sometimes hear people in our church  wondering if we do enough to live into our mission and intention to be an outreach parish – a parish that strives to serve and advocate for our neighbors in need. It’s always a good question. Clearly the needs are huge, and we should prayerfully check in now and then and ask God and each other and ourselves if there’s a direction in which we’re called to do more, go deeper, or walk more closely with our neighbors.

But it occurred to me recently to wonder if part of the reason we feel like we’re not doing enough is that we don’t notice how much we’re already doing, because it’s so woven into our life together as a parish.

So here’s a quick tally of what we’ve done together, in December and January. (Yes, these are two months in which we do some extra year-end giving; but they’re not by any means extraordinary in the life of our parish.)

  • Fulfilled the Christmas wish lists of five households through MOM’s Sharing Christmas program
  • Filled four backpacks for homeless teens, to be distributed through school social workers via the Transition Education Program
  • Developed a list and shopped for the items to make up fifteen small household medical kits for families of students at Falk School
  • Delivered a batch of grocery bags to Falk School to help families without stable housing eat well over the weekends
  • Sent out three checks to help families of Falk students stay in their housing, through the Eviction Prevention Fund established by our Outreach Committee in coordination with the Falk social worker last fall
  • Sent 100+ Christmas cards to be distributed to people in the Dane County Jail
  • Raised over $500 for a child’s school fees in Haiti, in response to a call from our Sunday school kids
  • Celebrated the almost-but-not-quite-final round of diapers going out to food pantries all over Dane County, thanks to our Diaper Drive
  • Helped several people out with phone bills, car repairs, and rent via the Rector’s Discretionary Fund
  • Gave away over $1500 to support nonprofits that serve our neighbors, by allocating our Outreach budget funds
  • Adopted an annual operating budget for 2017 that has a larger line item for Outreach giving than the budget of our entire diocese
  • And then there’s all the “usual” stuff, like serving at Grace Church and sending groceries over to the MOM food pantry.

And THEN there are all the acts of kindness, mercy, and standing up for others that you all do in your daily lives. I believe – hopefully – that your church community and your faith are resources that help sustain your capacity to see, care, and respond.

The thing that really stands out to me, dear ones, about outreach projects like the MOM Christmas gifts, the items for the backpacks for homeless kids, and the funds raised for Haiti through our bake sale, is how easily they happen. Whoever is extending the invitation barely has to ask, and:  The cookies show up, and the money appears in the basket. The gift tags and the slips that say WARM BLANKET or FLASHLIGHT disappear, and a couple of weeks later the items show up, readily, faithfully. The author of the letter to the Hebrews advises the church, “Provoke one another to good deeds,” but here, very little provoking is necessary. You just do it.

I think we really are a community that holds generosity close to the heart of who we are together. Maybe we don’t always notice it because it’s so central to who we are – the way you don’t think about breathing, most of the time.

And I believe one result of having generosity at the heart of our parish life is that it’s easy for people to bring ideas for ways to be better neighbors to the parish, to find companions and support. Hey, what if we held a basketball tournament to raise money for Briarpatch Youth Services? What if we held a diaper drive, so that a few parents in poverty don’t have to worry about  the cost of diapers on top of everything else? What if we looked for ways to step across the color lines that segregate our community and our daily lives? We listen, and we respond, and we see where it leads us together.

May the Holy Spirit continue to strengthen us that in this, and in all things, we may do God’s will in the service of the kingdom of Christ. Amen.


Sermon, Feb. 19

1 Cor 3: 9-11

For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building. According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. 

You are God’s field, God’s building.

You are God’s field, God’s building.

I’m going to preach briefly today, because I want to give time to our guest speaker, Crystal Plummer of the Episcopal Church Foundation. Crystal is our guide as we walk together through a process of discerning whether this is the moment for a capital campaign to raise funds for some updates and improvements of our building and grounds; and if so, which projects and possibilities should be the focus of that campaign. And in a few moments she’ll talk us through that process, what it means and where it goes from here.

But the lectionary, our cycle of readings, gave me a good text for leading into Crystal’s words, and reminding us why we ask questions like this – what is God calling us to become, and how could our buildings, our property, better accommodate and support that growth?

You are God’s field, God’s building. I’m not a Greek scholar; I fumble around with online resources and pretend I know what I’m talking about. But I got curious about those words, field and building. They seemed suspiciously generic. I wondered if the Greek nouns, the words originally used by the apostle Paul in this letter to the church in Corinth, were more specific and perhaps carried a bit more meaning. So I poked around a bit, and my hunch was correct.

Let’s start with “building.” Turns out the Greek word is oikodome. It’s a compound of two other words – oikos and dome. We’ve talked about the word “oikos” here before – it means a household, a group of people living together under the same roof, functioning as a system. It’s broader and messier and has fuzzier edges than “family,” which is why I like it as a metaphor for a church. Then there’s Doma. We’ve got words based on that – who can guess what it means? Yes – house or home. As in “domestic.” For the language geeks, this turns out to be an Indo-European root, which means it’s really old and really widespread – I was surprised and fascinated to learn that the English word “timber” shares the same root, by way of Old Norse, and originally meant “building”, or, “to build.”

Okay, so, back to Paul: the building here isn’t just any building. It’s a home. A place where people live together. But there’s more: my online source claimed that this word isn’t exactly a noun – more of a gerund: it implies the building process, not a finished product. A home under construction.

So what about the field? It turns out this Greek noun is only used here. There are LOTS of fields in the New Testament, but they’re all named with the noun agro, root of our word “agriculture.” But this field is “georgion.” I was stumped; I thought, Paul used this word for a reason, but I can’t find anything that tells me what this noun implies, that’s different from agro.

Then I saw that another form of this word is used a LOT – the form that means a kind of person, or a kind of worker: someone who tends a vineyard. Someone with the particular skills to care for, prune, support, and encourage a grape vine, so that it will grow strong and healthy, and yield plenty of good-tasting grapes. In that form, this word all over the place – like in the parable in which the landowner rents out his vineyard to vine-keepers, or in John chapter 15, verse 1, when Jesus says, I am the true vine, and my father is the vinedresser. Georgos.

It’s not quite that Paul is calling the church a vineyard – that’s still another Greek noun – but he’s calling the church something that God tends, as one would tend a vineyard. So what’s the biggest difference between a vineyard and a field? With a field, you plant; the plants grow; you harvest; then you till the waste back into the ground and leave it for the next growing season. Every year it’s wiped clean, and the farmer starts over.

But a vineyard is perennial. It takes a long time and a lot of care for the grapevines to mature. That’s why you’d build a wall around a vineyard, and not around a field – a vineyard is a significant investment of resources, time, and care. Thinking about that image, my mind goes to our work slowly adding perennial food-bearing plants on our property here – hazelnuts, currants, fruit trees. It’s a long-term project that will yield results years or decades in the future – and only if we think ahead now, and put in the time and effort to nurture that potential.

You are God’s field, God’s building. You are God’s vines to be tended, God’s home under construction. Paul is writing to a particular church, in this letter, and he sees a particular need for growth in that church – a few verses earlier, in last week’s text, you may remember that he called them spiritual BABIES, not ready for solid food, because they were devolving into trivial factionalism instead of staying focused on Jesus Christ. But, while that’s the context for Paul’s words here, images like this – of cultivation, tending, and building – are used for the Church and for God’s people throughout the Bible, both Old Testament and New. God expects God’s people to be always becoming. Never finished. Another season of growth, rightly tended, will yield more fruit. Another day’s work with brick and mortar, rightly planned, will make more room for an expanding household.

In the conversations we’ve already begun, about possibilities for our capital campaign, we’re talking about things: walls, carpets, fixtures, pavement. But we’re always, really, talking about who we are, as an oikos, a household of God, and where we feel the tug of becoming. As we continue those conversations, we will encourage each other always not just to name what we’d like to do, but why we’d like to do it – What constraints would be eased, what possibilities could be accommodated, by the changes we imagine?

As we walk farther into this season together, I’ve found some grounding in the words of the Jesuit scientist and mystic Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. His words echo and amplify Paul’s invitation to the church in Corinth to make themselves available to God’s ongoing work among and within them, and to trust their becoming to God, the Master Architect and Vinedresser. Here are Teilhard’s words:

Above all, trust in the slow work of God. We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay. We should like to skip the intermediate stages. We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new. And yet it is the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability— and that it may take a very long time…. Only God could say what this new spirit gradually forming within you will be. Give Our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you, and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.