All posts by Miranda Hassett

Sermon, Nov. 19

As I’ve wrestled with this parable this week, I keep thinking of the duck-rabbit. You’ve seen it: the classic simple image that could be one thing or could be another thing. Before I name the duck and rabbit I see here, let’s hear the parable again, and let’s make the setting a little more modern:

The CEO of MoneyCorp (note: I made up this name, but of course it turns out there actually is a MoneyCorp somewhere) is going on a business trip, maybe a long one; he needs to oversee operations in China for a while. So he calls in his three vice-presidents. (Of course a vice-president in a company is very different from a slave – but not entirely different. His position, his livelihood, even his future, depend on his boss’s goodwill.) So the three vice-presidents meet with the boss. And he tells the first one, “You’ve been doing good work; while I’m away, you’re in charge of $5 million.” He tells the second one, “You’re really growing into this role; I’m leaving you with $2 million to manage.” And he tells the third one, “…. You get $1 million.” And he leaves.

A long time later, the CEO comes back, and calls in the VPs to settle accounts with them, reclaim the company’s wealth and hear what they did with it. The first one says, “Sir, I used the $5 million to make another $5 million.” The CEO says, “Well done! You can expect a raise, and even more responsibility in the future.” And the second VP said, “Sir, I used the $2 million to make another $2 million.” And the CEO said, “Excellent! You’ll be getting a raise and a promotion too.”

And then the third VP comes forward. He says, “Sir, you left me in charge of $1 million. I know you; I know how you run MoneyCorp. I know that you’re a hard man, and that you’ve gotten wealthy by taking the profit of other people’s work. So when you put me in charge of this money, I locked the check in the drawer of my desk until your return. Here it is. Take it.” And the boss said, “You wicked and lazy man! You knew I was a hard man? You knew I profit off the work of others? Then why didn’t you at least keep the money in an interest-bearing account?! Listen, buddy, this is the way of the world:  Those who have a lot, get more, and those who don’t have much, lose the little they have. If you don’t want to play the game, maybe you don’t belong at MoneyCorp.”

Okay. The duck-rabbit. The rabbit – see the rabbit? – the rabbit is the better-known interpretation of this parable. It’s warm and fuzzy. Kind of. It says, God is our Master, and God gives us resources, and we’re supposed to use those resources to extend our Master’s domain and earn our Master’s approval.

The duck – see the duck? – the duck is loud and awkward and might bite you. The duck says, This Master is a horrible person who embodies the cruel and corrupt systems of this world.

It’s hard to see both the duck and the rabbit at the same time.You kind of have to choose.

Let’s go back to the parable – Matthew’s version, not mine – and see if we can find any clarity on the duck-rabbit issue. The narrative raises a lot of questions. How much is a talent? It’s a large amount of money. Translating it into millions isn’t unreasonable.

How would someone have used money to make money, back in Jesus’ day?Doubling your money always means you’re playing high risks, and sometimes means somebody’s getting cheated. The world of finance and investment was a lot smaller and simpler back then, but there were a couple of ways to win big. One was to put your money into the currency exchange business that happened in the court of the great Temple. The people who set the exchange rate can make sure they get a hefty profit from every transaction. We know how Jesus felt about that business. The other way was essentially high-risk mortgage lending. Historically, most ordinary Judeans were small-scale farmers. By Jesus’ day, many had lost their ancestral land due to poverty, and many more were on the edge of losing their land, due to the heavy taxes Rome demanded. When someone is desperate, you can loan them money at a high interest rate. We know how that usually works out.

As for investing money to earn interest: This parable is literally the only place in the Bible where someone suggests this as a good thing. For the entire Old Testament, taking interest income is proof that you’re an unscrupulous, greedy person. To be clear, I think it’s fine that our church gets interest on our invested funds. But Jesus had very Old Testament ethics about money. So the Master’s eagerness to earn interest is a clue to what Jesus meant by this story.

One more question: Why did the third slave bury the money? I spent a really happy couple of hours this week chasing this question deep into the Talmud. In 70 CE, about forty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the Great Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, as Roman troops crushed a Jewish rebellion against Roman rule. This was a big event for early Christians; even more so for Jews. What emerged from that great loss was Rabbinic Judaism – a way of being Jewish without the Temple as its center.

During the time of the Temple, there was a whole body of religious teaching about how to apply the laws of the Torah to all kinds of situations. That teaching had been curated and passed down at the Temple, but after the Temple, in the first and second centuries, it gets written down, so that it can circulate and spread among scattered Jewish communities. That’s the set of texts called the Talmud.

And it turns out that in the Talmud, being responsible for someone else’s property was a big legal and ethical issue. There were banks, but banking wasn’t widely accessible, and a lot of people didn’t hold their wealth as money; they had it as wine or grain or oil or sheep. If you had to travel, or if you had more than you could store, you’d leave your stuff with someone else, so it wouldn’t be stolen.  And of course being left in charge of somebody else’s stuff is a temptation. You could drink a couple of barrels of wine, and then when the owner returns, claim that they broke or went sour. So there is a lot of teaching in the Talmud about the moral obligation of looking after someone else’s property. And it turns out that when someone leaves you in charge of some money, burying it is RECOMMENDED by the Talmud. Rabbi Shmuel, who lived in the late 2nd century, said, “There is safety for money only in the ground.”

There’s even a story, kind of a case study, about a man who’s entrusted with some money by a friend. He gives the money to his mother, who puts it in a chest in their house; but a robber steals it. The question is, who is responsible for the loss? – and in the course of the discussion, the text says, Well, the man must not have told his mother that it was somebody else’s money, because if he had, she would have buried it.

Despite all this – and more; I could’t fit all my points into this sermon! – the duck-rabbit won’t fully resolve into a duck. I’ve spent a lot of time with this parable, over the years. And it just keeps being awkwardly both duck and rabbit. At least, that’s true in Matthew’s version. Luke has this story too, but his version is a lot stranger and darker. It’s not in the lectionary, so it’s less familiar. It’s in chapter 19 – check it out later. In Luke’s version, the Master is unambiguously a corrupt and cruel ruler, whose actions echo the acts of the brutal king of Judea who ruled during Jesus’ early childhood. There’s a strong case to be made that Luke records the story as Jesus told it – and that Matthew simplified it because the story made more sense to him as a story about how we should be good productive servants for Jesus.

But even though he stuck some rabbit ears on the story, Matthew retained its fierce heart, its ethical and theological core: that dialogue between the third slave and the master, which is much the same in both Gospels, and which I’m sure is much as Jesus first told it.

‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’

‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter?… Take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.’

Do you know the old joke about the pastor who calls the kids forward for a children’s sermon? And he says, I’m going to describe something, and I want you to guess what it is! It climbs around in the trees… it has a big fluffy tail… and it collects nuts and buries them! And there’s dead silence; the children just stare at him. And he says, “Come on, you must know what it is, speak up!” And finally one child says, “I know the answer must be Jesus, but it sure sounds like a squirrel.”

I feel like that’s what we’ve done with this parable. I’ve read SO many commentaries and sermons on this story. And SO many of them say, “I know the Master must be Jesus, but he sure sounds like a jerk.”

Sometimes a squirrel is a just a squirrel, and a cruel and greedy master isn’t supposed to remind us of God.

Okay. Why does it matter? Duck or rabbit? We’re committing our pledges to the life of this church today. Is it duck church or rabbit church? We’re baptizing a child into the faith and family of Jesus. Is it duck faith or rabbit faith?

The rabbit message – it’s not WRONG. The idea that we should honor what we’ve been given – resources, skills, and yes, talents – and use them, and multiply them, in ways that add to the world’s measure of hope and wholeness and delight – the Gospel says that in lots of places, and I try to live that way, and I think you all do too.

But there’s a sense in which I don’t need church to tell me that.  A capitalist culture tells me to use what I have to get more. Human decency tells me to use what I have to serve others.

What I need to hear from the Bible, from the Church, from Jesus, is that there’s a higher standard and a bigger picture, beyond and above our culture and our systems and our norms. This isn’t a parable about obedience, or resourcefulness, or, God help us, productivity.  This is a story about power and courage. About resistance. Some commentators call this the Parable of the Whistleblower. I like that. The third slave says he was afraid, but there’s nothing cowardly about what he does. He refuses to play the game. And he doesn’t just opt out and vanish; he names the boss to his face as cruel, greedy, and ruthless.

This the duck’s message: When the system is broken, or fixed – it matters to God. When the powerful use their power to benefit themselves – it matters to God. When people just take what they want because nobody dares to stop them – it matters to God.  When “more” drives our common life, instead of better, kinder, fairer – it matters to God. It matters to God so much that God in Christ became the whistleblower, teaching and arguing and healing and dying – and rising – to tell the truth about our human systems of power and gain.

When the culture tells us, The rich and powerful run the show; your best plan is to play the game – when our human decency runs low because we’re tired and jaded and frustrated – then we need duck church, duck faith. We need a community gathered around Christ the Whistleblower, to comfort and encourage us, to connect us and reorient us. May we be both rabbit church and duck church for each other, my dear ones – a church worthy of our gifts, our children, and our hearts.

Sources & Further Reading… 

“Jesus As Archelaus in the Parable of the Pounds,” Brian Schultz, Novum Testamentum, Vol. 49, Fasc. 2 (2007), pp. 105-127

David Lose on Luke’s version of the story:

http://www.davidlose.net/2013/11/luke-19-11-27/

Another sermon on this parable:

https://www.huffingtonpost.com/stan-duncan/the-parable-of-the-liferi_b_6164642.html

Explore the Talmud at sefaria.org

The part in question is Section 42 of the Bava Metzia.

https://www.sefaria.org/Bava_Metzia?lang=bi

And here’s a post that summarizes this portion of the Talmud:

https://www.torahinmotion.org/discussions-and-blogs/bava-metzia-42-where-is-my-money

Racism resource list, 11/18/17

Resources on Racism                                            

Compiled by Eliot R. Smith for a gathering to learn about racism  from the standpoint of cognitive science, held at St. Dunstan’s Church, Nov. 18, 2017

General/historical background

http://aaihs.org/resources/charlestonsyllabus/  [“Charleston syllabus,” readings and resources on the history of race relations in South Carolina and the US in general]

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/  [Ta-Nehisi Coates, historical overview]

Nonconscious bias

https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/   [demonstration; take test of your own biases]

https://www.gv.com/lib/unconscious-bias-at-work

Combating bias in various fields (academics, medicine, etc.)

http://wiseli.engr.wisc.edu/hiring.php  [list of resources; women in science & engineering]

https://www.aamc.org/download/102364/data/aibvol9no2.pdf  [literature summary; faculty and leadership recruitment]

https://www.aamc.org/initiatives/diversity/learningseries/346528/howardrossinterview.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/31/opinion/sunday/guess-who-doesnt-fit-in-at-work.html   [commentary on the danger of looking for “cultural fit” at work]

Episcopal resources

https://www.episcopalchurch.org/library/topics/state-racism-america  [Extensive video of panel discussion, Nov. 2013]

https://www.episcopalchurch.org/racial-reconciliation [links to many resources]

https://www.episcopalchurch.org/library/document/house-bishops-pastoral-letter-sin-racism  [1994 pastoral letter]

Lutheran resources

http://elca.org/webcast   August 2015 webcast with Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton; page also has links to numerous other resources on racial justice

http://download.elca.org/ELCA%20Resource%20Repository/race_ethnicity_culture_statement.pdf   1993 “Social Statement”

http://www.loveasrevolution.blogspot.com/2015/08/standing-accused-of-glory-heidelberg.html     [responses to the Charleston shootings from a Lutheran perspective]

Sermon, Nov. 12

Note: This sermon is based on Joshua 3:7-17, the Old Testament text for November 5 (Proper 26A), which we did not use last week because we celebrated the Feast of All Saints. 

What do these stones mean to you?

The people Israel, the people God has named and called to be God’s people, are at a turning point in their history. Back on September 17, the lectionary gave us the story of the Exodus, when God and Moses led the people through the Red Sea on dry land, and out of bondage in Egypt. In our schedule of Sunday readings, the Israelites have been wandering in the wilderness for about six weeks. But for the Biblical narrative, it’s been FORTY YEARS. People who left Egypt as babies have grown up, married, had children of their own, and could even be grandparents.

Just two weeks ago we shared the story of the death of Moses, at the end of the book of Deuteronomy. Now we’re beginning the book that bears Joshua’s name. This means we’re at the end of the Torah – the first five books of the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, which hold the great origin story of the people Israel and lay out how they are called to live. Moving from the Torah to the books of Joshua and Judges and beyond is a little like moving from the Revolutionary War era into early 19th century national history – if Moses is Washington and Jefferson, then Joshua is more like Monroe and Van Buren.

So Israel has survived years in the harsh, dry wilderness, and their future home lies spread out before them. Awesome. Wow. But it turns out there are people living in the Promised Land. So what comes next? A lot of war. While Moses was a prophet and spiritual leader, Joshua is a general. There’s a lot in this portion of Biblical history that we, rightly, find difficult to swallow – God’s word to Joshua is to kill everyone they meet, while God’s word through Jesus Christ is to love our enemies.

For today, though, let’s focus on this threshold moment. Listen, I’ve been to the Judean desert. It’s an incredibly harsh environment. Hot and dry and rocky, with minimal vegetation and only the most hardy and elusive animal life. And after far too many years out there, sustained only by miraculous manna, the Israelites are standing on the banks of an honest to God river. The Jordan river. Which is just a trickle in the dry season, but right now, it’s the rainy season, and the river is overflowing. The way ahead for Israel lies through a huge stretch of muddy shallow swift-flowing water. And it must have been so beautiful to them. All that water.

But the problem remains: How to get across? Israel’s journey to freedom began with a miraculous journey across a body of water; it’s time for another one. God tells Joshua, I’m going to make sure Israel respects you as the leader I have chosen. Call on the priests of the people, and have them carry the Ark of the Covenant into the Jordan River.

The Ark of the Covenant was the holiest object Israel owned. It was an elaborate golden box that held the Tablets of the Law, the Ten Commandments, written in stone by the very finger of God. It was a powerful symbol of God’s presence and God’s favor.

So the priests take the Ark and walk before the people into the Jordan, into all that muddy mess. And as their feet touch the water, the river… stops. Instead of continuing to flow downstream, the waters begin to pile up, as if a wall of glass were holding them back. The priests carrying the Ark walk ahead, into the center of the river bed, and stand there, on dry ground. And the people Israel follow them and pass them, crossing the Jordan without getting their feet wet.

Let me take the story a little farther than our lectionary text. When everyone has crossed over, God says to Joshua: Choose twelve men from the people, one from each of the twelve tribes. Have each of them find a stone, here in the middle of the Jordan, in the riverbed. Carry the stones out of the river, take them with you. And when you make camp tonight, make a pile of those stones, to help you remember this day. So Joshua summons twelve men, one from each tribe, and tells them what to do. And they take their stones; and then, finally, the priests carry the Ark out of the riverbed, and the waters of the Jordan return to their place, flowing and overflowing as they were before.

When the people made camp,  at a place called Gilgal, the twelve stones were set up as a monument. And Joshua told the Israelites, ‘When your children ask their parents in time to come, “What do these stones mean?” then you shall let your children know, The Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you crossed over, as the Lord your God did to the Red Sea,* which was dried up for us until we crossed over, so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty… These stones shall be to the Israelites a memorial for ever.’

The Israelites are on brink of a new chapter in their history. They’re uncertain what lies ahead, what they’ll be able to carry forward from their past into a new way of life, whether they are really many enough and strong enough and bold enough and faithful enough to go where God is leading. And in this moment, God gives them a saving act – that miraculous crossing of the Jordan – and says, Remember this. And build yourselves a nice pile of rocks, to make sure you remember it.

What do these stones mean to you?

There are several times in the Old Testament when people raise stones to commemorate important events. Later in the Book of Joshua, Joshua will ask the people, As you settle in this new land, are you going to stay faithful to God, or start worshipping the gods of other nations? And Israel says, We will serve our God! And Joshua raises a stone to remind them of their decision, their commitment, saying, ‘This stone shall be a witness against us, if you are unfaithful to God.’ Much earlier, in Genesis 28, Jacob raises a stone at the place where he had the dream-vision of angels going up and down a ladder from heaven – a vision of the active presence of the Divine on earth. Several generations after Joshua, the prophet Samuel raises a stone as a monument to celebrate a victory against Israel’s neighbors and perennial enemies, the Philistines. This stone is given a name, Ebenezer, meaning “Rock of Help,” for as Samuel says, Thus far has God helped us.

This practice of raising stones has several purposes. It marks a moment as significant. You don’t raise a stone for just any old thing. Raising a stone says, What has just happened, or what we have just done, is important. It matters. And raising a stone, creating a physical landmark linked to an event or moment – it proclaims something to the future. It says to the people, Remember this day. In Joshua 4, that’s made explicit: Joshua tells the people, When your children ask you, What do these stones mean?, tell them. Tell them how God stopped the river so that we could end our long wandering, and enter a new land and a new life. Raising a stone is both celebration and commitment. The stones raised in Scripture mark victory, revelation, covenant, deliverance. The stones say, Remember – and live accordingly.

The stone monument in Joshua 4 is all this, and a little more. Because unlike those other stones, this isn’t one large stone but a pile of stones, a cairn. A representative of each of the twelve tribes contributed to the cairn, choosing a rock from the riverbed and carrying it to Gilgal. The monument represents both a significant moment in salvation history, and the people’s unity in experiencing and responding to that moment.

Our Gospel story today is a provocative parable that a lot of people have questions about. I preached about it in 2014 and when I looked back at that sermon, I didn’t have much to add; if you’re worried about the girls who didn’t get to go to the party, I’d love to hand you a copy of that sermon, or point you to some other great commentaries on that text.

But I’m preaching on Joshua today because this text is speaking to me. I’m laying this story before us today – spending perhaps a surprising amount of time talking about rocks – because I feel like this year this story is a little bit about us.

What do these stones mean to you?

This story makes me think about our stones – the literal ones. Having this year’s fall giving campaign happen within the frame of our parish conversation about a capital campaign has made me particularly aware of the history inscribed in the buildings and land around us. The rocks of our walls – piled up in 1964 as the church was built – they’re rough blocky golden native stone of Wisconsin. These granite boulders – one, two, three – they’re glacial erratics, brought to Wisconsin from somewhere farther north by the Great Ice, and left when the ice melted away, about 10,000 years ago. I don’t know whether the one outside sits where the glacier left it. The two that form our altar base and our baptismal font were moved here from Turville Point, over on Lake Monona, the home of one of the founding members of this congregation. Visible signs of the generosity and commitment of Henry Turville and of all that first generation of Dunstanites, who piled stones together, both literally and metaphorically, in this place, to say, God gave us this beautiful place. God called us to be a church together here. Thanks be to God.

And this story makes me think about our metaphorical stones too. All the ways we each bring contributions and pile them up to build something together. Our pledges of financial support, sure, in this giving campaign season. We’re still in the middle of our campaign – hoping to gather in all pledges by next Sunday – but so far a whopping 68% of you have increased your pledges. I’m just staggered by that, and really hopeful about what that means for our budget and our ministries next year.

But there are so many other ways we pile our stones together, friends: All the people who will bake and decorate and set up and clean up for our much-anticipated Pie Brunch next Sunday. All the time and energy and art supplies and warmheartedness and commitment – on the part of teachers, parents, kids – that allows us to have Sunday school. All the voices of people and instruments raised in beauty and praise in our worship today. All the hopes and ideas and intentions and observations that have gone into our discernment and visioning work towards a possible capital campaign to improve our property. In so many ways, we become greater than the sum of our parts, by the alchemy of God’s grace.

I’ve said it before: In some ways this is just another year at St. Dunstan’s, and in other ways it’s a very unusual year. We’ve been growing slowly for a while but suddenly we’re at the point where some Sundays, we actually have to sit next to each other – and we might even have to start sitting in the front row! And we’re thinking big thoughts together about our identity and our future and our mission. This is a really exciting time to be rector of St. Dunstan’s. And also, a little nerve-racking.

What do these stones mean to you? We stand on the brink of a new chapter, uncertain what lies ahead, what we can carry forward from our past and what new gifts and new challenges we’ll encounter, wondering whether we are really many enough and strong enough and bold enough and faithful enough to follow where God is leading. The stones piled up by those who built this place, stone by stone, year by year, tell me, We have come this far by God’s help. And we’re still building – and building anew: piling together our contributions, literal and figurative, to mark this strange, holy, joyful moment of celebration and commitment. To remind ourselves to remember, and to tell the story of this time. And to be a sign to us that God keeps making a way.

Sermon, Nov. 5

There’s a word that shows up sixteen times in today’s Scriptures. The word is “will” – the future tense of the word “be.”  “The one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more… and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” “When he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

Will is a word that points towards a future.  Towards a fulfillment yet to be achieved. It’s affirmative, assertive: The things proclaimed ARE GOING to happen. But it also acknowledges that it hasn’t happened yet. The word – and all those sentences that hang on it – the word “will” asks us to trust. It asks us to hope. I think that hope – trusting in that future – is one of the things that defines a saint.

Somebody asked me last week, So when you say “saint,” Do you mean somebody who’s dead? It’s a great question.  The New Testament uses the word “saints”  the way we might use “members.” Saints, hagioi in Greek, Sanctum in Latin, means, Holy and set apart. People or things dedicated to God. The people in the church are saints, because they, we, are trying to follow Jesus together and live in God’s ways.

Over the centuries, the Church got pickier about who to call a saint. It started to keep the title of “Saint” for the very best, the purest, the holiest, the ones with remarkable, even miraculous deeds. The calendar filled up with days to honor and remember assorted Saints-with-a-capital-S, who had preached or healed or suffered or died for Jesus Christ. Finally the Church had so many Saints-with-a-capital-S that the calendar was FULL; so All Saints Day was created, as the overflow day, the day to celebrate ALL the saints who maybe didn’t have a day of their own.

And then the Church created All Souls Day, the day after All Saints Day, a day set aside to remember and honor the faithful departed, their beloved dead, who were NOT Saints-with-a-capital-S. Because people kept insisting that Aunt Mildred’s long life of kindness, commitment, and generosity was worthy of remembrance and honor too, even if she didn’t happen to get thrown to the lions.

What’s happened over the past few decades in the Episcopal Church, at least, is that we’re trying to get back to the New Testament sense of the word “saint.” We are trying to put All Saints Day and All Souls Day back together again. We still name and hold up certain saints, holy people who shined the light of Christ in their time and place by the way they lived, the things they said and did.

But as we hold up those named saints, we affirm the capacity for holiness, for extraordinary faithfulness, in the life of every Christian. They lived not only in ages past, friends – there are hundreds of thousands still. The world is bright with the joyous saints who love to do Jesus’ will. You can meet them in school or in lanes or at sea, in church or in trains or in shops or at tea, for the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.

So to return to the question, When you say “saint”, do you mean somebody who’s dead? – Well, yes and no. One important part of All Saints is remembrance – calling to mind and honoring those who have gone before us to be with God, and celebrating the way their lives have touched ours. But another part of All Saints is affirming our own call to holiness – that we mean to be one too. That’s why we affirm our baptismal vows today.

So when I say Saint, I mean people both living and dead; I mean people who lived extraordinary lives and ordinary lives. But there is a common thread: being called to holiness – and responding to that call, by living a life marked by love of God and love of neighbor. By being a person of justice. Of mercy. Of peace. Of hope.

I’ve been thinking about hope, lately – in fact I preached about hope just a couple of months ago. I said, Hope is different from optimism, the assumption that things will probably be fine, whether I do anything or not. Hope means that you believe some kind of good outcome is possible, and you’re going to orient your life and work and prayers towards that good. I said, Hope isn’t weak or fluffy. Hope can be solid like a rock or fierce like a flame. When the worst happens, Hope says, Oh yeah? The story isn’t over yet.

Well and good. But all these “will”s in today’s lessons – these big, bold, beautiful visions – they seem always to recede into the future. How can you draw line from present reality  to those holy and redemptive possibilities? The future of God’s promises often seems impossible, or at the very least, exceedingly improbable. There is good reason for discouragement. It’s easy to talk about hope. It’s harder, sometimes, to feel it. Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hahn has said,  Hope is important because if we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today. But what happens to hope, then, when we don’t – can’t believe that tomorrow will be better? Or that the tomorrow that will be better is a long, long way off?

Christian hope, the hope at the heart of our faith, is different from ordinary everyday hope. Christian hope insists on the long view – clings to the conviction that one day, all things WILL BE restored and redeemed. And Christian hope takes comfort and courage from that promise, even though we know full well we won’t see it in this life. Christian hope insists that there’s always something we can do, however small – even if the only difference it makes is keeping our hearts and souls pointed in the right direction. Christian hope shines on even in the face of death and loss.

I’m not claiming a firsthand understanding of the fierce tenacity of Christian hope. For all the troubles of our times, my life has been pretty good. What I know about Christian hope, I know from the witness of the saints – those I’ve met firsthand, and those I’ve read about. Saints like Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Bonhoeffer was a young priest and theologian, 27 years old, when Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. He became one of the organizers of a movement called the Confessing Church, which insisted that the charismatic Hitler was NOT the fulfillment of God’s intentions for Germany, as many German Christians believed. He was an early and vocal critic of the Nazi movement, including the persecution of the Jews, declaring that the church must not simply “bandage the victims under the wheel, but jam the spoke in the wheel itself.” Bonhoeffer’s life and writings have been an inspiration to many; I’m sure there are a few people here who know his work well – I am not among them. But I read an essay recently that contrasted how Bonhoeffer wrote about Advent – and about hope – in 1933 and 1943.

In 1933 – roughly nine months after Hitler’s election – Bonhoeffer preached an Advent sermon at a church in London, where he was serving at the time. In that sermon he evokes the image of a prison: Imagine the humiliation and punishment, the heavy forced labor, the inmates weighed down with chains and tears.  He continues, “Then suddenly a message penetrates into the prison: Very soon you will all be free, your chains will be taken away, and those who have enslaved you will be bound in chains while you are redeemed!”

Bonhoeffer is still young, still free, still placing hope in human history. His language of redemption here points towards the otherworldly and the ultimate.

That prison; the imminent approach of liberation and redemption – it’s all metaphorical, or at least spiritual rather than historical.  There’s nothing wrong with all that.  It’s the kind of thing I would say in a sermon. But it’s also the kind of preacherly language that quickly loses its power, its credibility, in the face of real evil, real suffering.

In Advent of 1943, ten years later, Bonhoeffer was in prison. He’d been arrested in April of that year, for his involvement with the German resistance movement. Back in 1933, he probably hoped it was still possible to turn the tide of fascism and violence in Germany, his home country. Back in 1933, he could still afford the luxury of metaphor.

By 1943, he has seen so much of the worst happen, in the violence and inhumanity of World War II.  So many lives lost, military and civilian. Evil is ascendant in the world. No metaphors are needed to call to mind bondage, pain, and loss. But Bonhoeffer hasn’t lost his Christian faith, his Christian hope. The focus has shifted, though. Otherworldly and ultimate hopes still matter – how could they not, when this world seems so marred and mired? But those distant, someday hopes can look thin and brittle from a prison cell. He writes about the hope of faith in a different way.

Bonhoeffer writes in a letter to a friend: “Life in a prison cell may well be compared to Advent; one waits, hopes, and does this, that, or the other… the door is shut, and can be opened only from the outside.” And looking ahead to Christmas, he wrote, “From a Christian point of view there is no special problem about Christmas in a prison cell. For many people in this building it will probably be a more sincere and genuine occasion than in places where nothing but the name is kept. That misery, suffering, poverty, loneliness, helplessness and guilt mean something quite different in the eyes of God from what they mean in the judgment of human beings – that God will approach where humans turn away – that Christ was born in a stable because there was no room in the inn – these are things that a prisoner can understand better than other people; for her they really are glad tidings, and that faith gives her a part in the community of the saints, a Christian fellowship breaking the bounds of time and space.”

The author of this essay, Jennifer McBride, actually read this text with women in prison. One of them looked at her and said, “He’s talking about us!”

(All of this quoted in McBride, Lived Theology, 220-21)

God’s redemptive love isn’t out there somewhere. It’s right here beside us, among us, in darkness and pain, in humiliation and the helplessness. And that’s where hope lives, for Bonhoeffer in his final years: Not in the shining transcendent tomorrow but in God’s imminence, God’s presence in the ache of today.

The saints the Church names as our models for holy living were not pie-in-the-sky Christians. They lived in the tension between the big picture – all will be well in the end; if it isn’t well, it’s not the end yet – and the real, nitty-gritty, demanding present. The hope that sustained them – sustains them; they lived not only in ages past! – that hope, that profound senseless Christian hope, hangs in the paradoxical space between transcendence, the holy gleam of the that distant City undimmed by human tears, and immanence, incarnation, God-with-us in all the struggle and hurt we bring upon ourselves and each other.

The word “will” asks us to trust. To hope. This All Saints Day, as we honor the faithful departed, that Christian fellowship breaking the bounds of time and space, may that profound senseless unshakeable Christian hope warm our hearts and strengthen our souls, and make us ready for the work of God’s kingdom that is always before us.

Sermon, Oct. 22

Let me tell you that story again, with a few details filled in. Because it’s a terrific story. The Pharisees are increasingly fed up with Jesus. Their movement taught that the Jewish people should return to to the traditional practices of their faith, following all the commandments, as a way to separate themselves from the unclean pagan ways of the Roman Empire and to earn God’s favor. Sometimes they’re on the same page with Jesus, who also wants ordinary people to feel they can approach God in faith, and has a healthy disdain for Rome and its ways. But Jesus is disturbingly irreverent about the Law and the Commandments. He seems to think that many of them don’t matter at all.

Meanwhile, the Herodians don’t think much of Jesus either. The Herodians would have been folks who were cozy with Herod, the king of Judea – a puppet king, supported by the Roman army, and allowed to have power on condition that he keep his people in line and make sure money keeps flowing from Judea to Rome. These are the people who are managing to get richer under Roman rule, while the rest of Judea gets poorer. Now Jesus has been saying some pretty disrespectful things about leaders who are only concerned with themselves, and he’s stirring up trouble.

The Pharisees and the Herodians don’t get along. The Herodians think the Pharisees are weird fanatics. The Pharisees think the Herodians are self-indulgent sell-outs. But sometimes the enemy of your enemy is your friend. They’d all like to take Jesus down a peg, and they stumble on a way to do it. They’re going to ask him about a hot-button issue: paying taxes to Rome.

The people of Judea were struggling under the burden of these taxes; they were wildly unpopular. And for the Pharisees and other observant Jews,  there was another problem: Paying taxes meant using Roman coins, which had an image of the Roman Emperor’s head on them, and text that named the Emperor as a god. The Emperor was very definitely NOT a god in the eyes of Jewish people, and these coins were tainted by idolatry. The question the Herodians and Pharisees pose to Jesus is a trap because either answer will get him in trouble with somebody. If he says, NO, we are God’s people and owe nothing to the Emperor, then he’s in trouble with the Romans – and maybe they’ll deal with him. If he says, YES, be a good citizen, pay your taxes, then the common people may turn against him, and the disruptive movement he’s started might lose steam.

Don’t you love their double-edged flattery? “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and you’ll always say what you believe is true no matter what the consequences might be…So tell us, IS IT LAWFUL TO PAY TAXES TO THE EMPEROR, OR NOT?”

Jesus is no fool. He sees the trap clearly, and calls them out: ‘You hypocrites! Show me one of the coins used for the tax.’ Somebody has one in their pocket, and they show him: Look, there’s the Roman emperor, probably Tiberius, with the inscription, “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus.” Jesus says, So…. Whose head is this, here on the coin? And they say, Um. The Emperor’s. And Jesus says, Okay, well, then, give the Emperor what belongs to the Emperor, and give God what belongs to God.

It’s such a good answer. He evades their trap by saying in one breath, Sure, pay your taxes, but the Emperor is a fraud. Because a crowd of Jews, no matter how religious they are, all know the answer to what belongs to God: Everything. Everything. Let the Emperor have his little bits of metal. Your lives, your souls, Judea, Rome, the whole wide earth: All God’s. And don’t you forget it.

One of the issues at the heart of this story is what money stands for.Money in itself is just a tool. It’s a way to trade one thing for another thing, at a distance of time or space. For example, money is what allows us to trade a portion of your work for electricity to heat this building. People often misquote Scripture – specifically, the first letter to Timothy – and say, Money is the root of all evil. But what that text actually says is, The love of money is the root, or source, of all kinds of evil. Some have wandered away from faith and gotten themselves into all kinds of trouble and suffering because they made money their goal and focus.  (1 Tim 6:9-10, Common English Bible, alt.)

Money in and of itself – if such a thing were possible – is pretty straightforward. It’s what money means to us that gets complicated. In this Gospel story, money is tied up with politics, with faith, with social status. That’s all true for us today, too, in various ways. How we feel about wealth, taxes, our community, our nation – all of that is bundled up with how we feel and think and talk about money. Moral assumptions about money, wealth, and poverty are at the root of our national debates over taxes, health care, and so much more. Money is also closely bound to our fears and anxieties. In uncertain times, money stands for security – and lack of money means vulnerability and struggle.

Charles LaFond, an Episcopal priest, writer, and stewardship consultant, says that despite our buying habits and reputation, it’s not true that Americans are greedy. The fact is that we’re overwhelmed and afraid, and consumerism is how we scream. I think he has a point; I know how it feels to read the news, feel my heart sink and my stomach clench, and then see an online ad for a children’s clothing company I like and think, Oh, that sounds like relief….! Let me go look at appliquéd hedgehogs for a while…

We’re coming into the heaviest shopping season of the year – when we all strive for balance between the momentary catharsis of buying a thing, and the longer-term security of clinging to our dollars –  just as St. Dunstan’s and other churches are asking their members to make financial commitments to the church for the year ahead. To give money away, getting little that is tangible in return.

Today we hand out our giving campaign packets. For those who are new to this system: during the fall giving campaign, we ask those who make St. Dunstan’s their faith community to look ahead to the next calendar year, decide how much they’d like to give to the church, and report that number to us. Those numbers – your pledges – are private; only our parish treasurers see them. But we add up all those pledges to give us an estimate of our expected income for the year ahead, which allows us to budget and plan. Nearly 90% of St. Dunstan’s annual budget comes from our members’ pledged giving.

There’s sort of an “Insert inspiring paragraph about where our church is going” slot in my sermon here. But I’m finding that this is a funny year for that kind of thing. In looking ahead to 2018, it feels like there’s simultaneously more and less to talk about, than in other years. More, because we are looking at so many possibilities. We may undertake a capital campaign, to raise funds to improve our main building and more, to better accommodate our ministries and everything else that happens here – or could happen here if we had a bit more elbow room! We will undertake a sabbatical together, using a substantial grant from the Clergy Renewal program to enable me to learn more about including children in worship, and you all to work on building intergenerational friendships. And even aside from those big, special projects, our full seats and full classrooms mean that in the year ahead, we may have to start getting creative about how to accommodate our overflowing life together as a community of faith…!

So there is a lot in the works for 2018. And yet most of it is still unfolding, still subject to our shared discernment and exploration. I can’t draw you a map; this is brand-new territory, friends. It’s not that I and your Vestry and other leaders aren’t thinking about it – we could scatter a handful of ideas and possibilities around, but other possibilities will emerge as we all walk the road together, with the Holy Spirit’s guidance. There’s so much that is simply still TBD – To Be Discerned, “discerned,” that churchy word for the shared work of wondering together, exploring possibilities, listening to each other and to God, and allowing clarity and direction to emerge.

So while there’s more to say about 2018 than an ordinary year at St. Dunstan’s – it will assuredly not be an ordinary year – there’s also less to say because we still have a lot of discerning to do. (Beginning, in a few weeks, with whether to follow this capital campaign idea another few steps along the road…!)

Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God… We actually do need some of the stuff with dead presidents on it, to pay the bills and keep this place running. That’s why we ask for your pledges and gifts. But the reason there’s a church here – a loving, lively, seeking, serving, growing church – is because people are giving God what is God’s.  If we had twice the money but nobody was giving their heart, there’d be nothing here. You are giving yourselves, your time and labor, your skills and gifts, your hearts and spirits, to this church, and to the work God is doing among us and through us here.

In today’s Epistle, Paul names the three great gifts of faith, hope, and love, but he turns them from abstractions into actions – praising the people of the church in Thessaloniki for their acts of faith, their labor of love, and their persistence in hope. Your actions of faith, friends – your work of love – your persistence in hope – that’s why new things are becoming possible here; and indeed why we’re able to keep doing some of the old things with care and faithfulness. That’s why in the face of uncertainties about the season ahead – wonderful, exciting uncertainties, but uncertainties nonetheless – I am not afraid. I’m excited, curious, and joyful, so joyful, about the people with whom I have the privilege to share this journey into God’s future for St. Dunstan’s.

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.

 

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.

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.

Sermon, Sept. 17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon, Sept. 10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some of the reasons she names:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Article cited: 

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