All posts by Miranda Hassett

Seeking a Director of Music Ministry

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

Skills and Knowledge Required:

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

Skills and Knowledge Preferred:

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

Qualities Sought:

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

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

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

Sermon, March 12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

http://kwokpuilan.blogspot.com/2017/03/a-rich-past-for-positive-future-for.html

A reflection on generosity…

By Rev. Miranda, February 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miranda+

Sermon, Feb. 19

1 Cor 3: 9-11

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

You are God’s field, God’s building.

You are God’s field, God’s building.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon, February 5

The word of the Lord came to the prophet Ezekiel: Mortal, say to them: You are a land that is not cleansed. Its princes within it are like a roaring lion tearing the prey; they have devoured human lives; they have taken treasure and precious things. Its priests have done violence to my teaching and have profaned my holy things. Its officials within it are like wolves tearing the prey, shedding blood, destroying lives to get dishonest gain. Its prophets have smeared whitewash on their behalf, saying, ‘Thus says the Lord God’, when the Lord has not spoken. The people of the land have practiced extortion and committed robbery; they have oppressed the poor and needy, and have extorted from the alien without redress. And I sought for anyone among them who would repair the wall and stand in the breach before me on behalf of the land, so that I would not destroy it; but I found no one. (Ezekiel 22, selected verses)

And I sought for anyone who would stand in the breach, but I found no one.

Ezekiel is the great prophet of the fall of Jerusalem. He told the leaders and people of Judah that they were doomed to conquest, destruction, and exile; and he told them why. He reminds them of how completely they have fallen away from God’s intentions for them, the holy ways of the ancient Covenant. No one remembers, no one cares, that they were chosen by God to be a people set apart to live with justice and compassion. No one will stand in the breach, and call the leaders and people back to what they’re meant to be.

The breach. It’s an evocative image for the Old Testament writers, and an unfamiliar one for us. Imagine the landscape of the ancient Near East: dry, rocky, rural, studded with small towns and cities – enclosed by walls. Civic architecture was also defensive architecture, as in parts of medieval Europe. Cities and towns were built so you could gather everyone in from the countryside and hunker down for a while, when a neighboring tribe or nation came to pillage or conquer. When the enemies approach, you shoot at them from the top of the wall, or drop things on them, and drive them away. City walls kept the enemies out. Kept people and livestock safe from arrow and sword, from becoming casualties or spoils of war.

At least, the city walls kept people safe if the attacking enemy wasn’t very motivated. If the enemy was motivated, they would lay siege. They’d camp out around the city, outside the walls, and wait. Nobody can go in, nobody can come out. How long will the food last? The water? How long will the city’s rulers hold out as their people starve? Once the city and is defenders are weak and demoralized, the enemy might get around to attacking the wall. Ezekiel mentions siege towers, ramps, battering rams. Eventually, one way or another, they’ll get over or through. Eventually the city wall will be broken – breached. The enemy soldiers will stream in, all tramping boots and flashing swords.

The breach in the wall means you’ve lost. It means your whole way of life, everything you value, is about to go up in flames. If you see a city in ruins, chances are it has a breach in its wall. If you see a city with a breach in its wall, chances are it’s in ruins. And if you want to rebuild, if you want that ruin to become a city again, if you want to renew your people and your way of life – you’ve got to restore that breach. You’ve got to fill it in.

Late in the book of the prophet Isaiah, in the chapters written as Israel returned from their time of exile, to reclaim their land and rebuild Jerusalem, a prophet who wrote in Isaiah’s name uses the image of the breach. I think he knows the Ezekiel text; I think he’s alluding to it, as he speaks hopefully about renewal for God’s people, about the possibilities ahead as they return and rebuild:

“If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday… Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”

The repairer of the breach. I hope you can hear, already, that that image means much more than just using rubble and mortar to fill in a hole. The breach is more than just the breach. When Ezekiel issued his fierce indictment, the city wall was still solid, the enemy still far off, but the people were already compromised, vulnerable, because of their sin. Because they cared more about wealth and power than about humanity or holiness. The city wall might as well be broken already.

Likewise for Isaiah, repairing the breach is so much more than just fixing the wall. It’s restoring a whole way of life, grounded in faithful love for God and neighbor. The city wall isn’t an image of exclusion or insularity, here – elsewhere in the same passage, the prophet speaks of city gates that are always open, day and night; of all the nations of the world streaming into the holy city. This is not a wall to keep people out. It’s a symbol of wholeness and integrity.

Friends, we’re in a time of rapid change, of tumult and struggle, confusion and fierce clarity. Our new president has a very different vision for our country than the previous administration, and a lot is happening very fast. In this congregation, many of you feel like we’re under attack. Like everything you value is about to go up in flames. Some of you wanted big changes in our government, but now you’re questioning whether these are the changes that you hoped for. Others may be satisfied, even pleased with the events of the past two weeks – but feel like you can’t talk about it with your friends. This is Madison, after all.

I need to confess that there have been many moments in the past weeks when I have felt like a resident of Jerusalem, watching the city wall crumble before the force of a battering ram while Ezekiel says, I TOLD YOU SO. Comfortable white folks who think of ourselves as justice- and mercy-minded have had some real eye-opening moments. We’ve been alarmed by the idea of an increased crackdown on undocumented immigrants – and the immigrant community has said, Where have you been all these years, while the legal paths for immigration were narrowed to near-impossiblity, and our families lived in fear of detention and deportation? We’ve been alarmed by overtly racist speech becoming more mainstream – and people of color have told us, I’ve been hearing this my whole life. We’ve been alarmed by restrictions on the number of refugees allowed to build new lives in our nation – and advocates have pointed out that the U.S. has always accepted very few refugees, considering our size, wealth, and the witness of that tall green lady in New York Harbor. The voice of the prophet in my ear says, If you haven’t been outraged, it’s because you haven’t been paying attention.

Waking up, like this – it’s humbling. And disheartening. It makes my heart ache to realize that not only is our nation not living up to our biggest boldest brightest ideals – but that it never has. Not even close. Not if we’re honest. Not if we’re paying attention.

It’s tempting to sink into the bitterness and anger and despair of the prophet Ezekiel, who sees so much around him that is profoundly broken, and no one who cares enough to respond. No one. But Ezekiel isn’t our text for today. Isaiah is. The prophet who wrote in Isaiah’s name, who takes up Ezekiel’s image of the breach and turns it from destruction towards restoration. And where Ezekiel gives voice to anguish, Isaiah offers – hope. Conditional hope. We have, always, unconditional hope in the saving grace of God in Jesus Christ; but our hopes for this world, this life – require our commitment, our engagement. We can’t assume that things will get better on their own. But if – if. If people undertake, together, to stop pointing fingers and speaking evil, to share our bread with the hungry, to house the homeless poor, to break every yoke that weighs people down, then … then our light shall rise in the darkness, and our gloom be like the noonday. Then we shall be called repairers of the breach.

Ezekiel tells us that the breach has always been there; Isaiah tells us that we always have the capacity to repair it. To carry what we can, boulder or mortar or pebble, to pile in that space, the gap between the world as it is and the world as God made it to be. To build our way together towards a whole way of life, grounded in faithful love for God and neighbor.

Sermon, January 22

Nadia Bolz-Weber is a pastor. She’s also an author and a celebrity, at least the closest thing to a real celebrity we have in mainline Protestantism. Her books and writing and conference talks have made her beloved by many, and her church, the House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, sounds like truly remarkable place. As you might guess from all that, they get a lot of visitors and new members. I mean, really a lot. People who think maybe this church, this spiritual leader, is finally the Right Thing for them, home after a long journey, solace after a long struggle.

So Nadia has developed a little talk she gives to those seekers, those new members. She tells them, Look, we’re not perfect. Churches are made of human beings. Someday, we will disappoint you or hurt you. Someday, I will disappoint you or hurt you. It’s a matter of when, not if. The church, this church, WILL let you down. And then she says, Please decide, right now, right up front, that you’ll stick around when that happens, and let God’s grace do its work in the cracks left by the brokenness of human communities.

I admire the honesty of that approach. And it seems to me that it neatly captures the tension between our New Testament readings this morning. In Matthew, we see the enthusiastic, ready response of the newly-called: Immediately they left their nets and followed him! And in 1 Corinthians we get a glimpse of a church community, a group of people who know each other well – maybe too well – who are in conflict. Divided. Forming factions and judging each other. Not a compelling witness to the gospel of Christ.

At first glance those readings seem to grate against each other, a mismatch; but really they’re just different moments in the lifetime of faith. There’s the moment of call, claim, curiosity or conversion, the moment when we first say, Yes. Yes to Jesus, God, and/or church. When we say, This is for me. I want to be part of this. And then there’s the ongoing life of discipleship and community, which gets messy. Even within a broadly unified and loving fellowship of faith, people have different understandings and priorities. They always have.

In 1 Corinthians, Paul is writing a letter to a community that’s struggling with conflict. Those of us who make a vocation of tending a church are often encouraged to reflect on the ways in which a church functions as a system, and we would name this as disequilibrium.

Equilibrium is a scientific term. It refers to a state in which the forces acting on something – an object or a system – are balanced. The thing isn’t static or still, there’s stuff happening inside and/or around it, but the stuff all adds up to keep the the thing pretty much the same. A push this way is balanced by another push that way, and so the thing stays in a kind of dynamic stability. Make sense? Okay.

So, disequilibrium is – not that. It’s when one of the forces in or around the thing gets stronger or weaker, or a new dynamic enters the system, and the system is no longer in equilibrium. No longer settled, balanced. That doesn’t mean that the new factor, whatever it is, is going to win – is going to shift the system in its direction. Systems are complex; the other forces acting on and in the system will respond to the change; you’d have to understand the system very thoroughly indeed to be able to accurately predict the eventual outcome. But the point is, there was equilibrium, and now there isn’t. Instead, there’s change.

Paul is addressing a situation of factionalism and conflict. But conflict is only one kind of disequilibrium. There are others. And many of them are things we think we want. Growth causes disequilibrium. Stretching ourselves to be and do more causes disequilibrium. Positive change is still disequilibrium. It unsettles our stability, our balance. Even though it’s a good thing in the abstract, it’s uncomfortable, stressful. It creates anxiety in the system. It can lead to conflict, which is often a symptom, rather than a cause, of disequilibrium.

That’s why your vestry spent several meetings last year developing our Community Covenant document, a statement of how we want to treat one another when we disagree, or when conversations get intense. We didn’t do that work because we were in conflict, or because there was conflict in the parish. We did it because when you shake up a system, anxiety can erupt in surprising ways, and it’s best to be ready for that, instead of being blindsided.

And we are shaking up our system, friends. We are talking about a capital campaign. We are choosing disequilibrium, taking it on intentionally, by asking ourselves what calls and charisms – remember, a charism is a gift given for a purpose – what calls and charisms God has bestowed upon us, and in what ways our building and our property reflect and accommodate all that, and in what ways they don’t.

I believe we are ready. I believe we can handle this. I believe that because I trust God, and I trust you. And because we have really taken our time getting here, talking and listening and noticing. Waiting for the moment to ripen, for the opportune time. I have literally been thinking about a capital campaign here for five years. Not because I came here as your new rector thinking, Boy, I can’t wait to lead a capital campaign!… Yeah, no. But because within my first year here, I already heard and felt – from you, among you – the places where the building chafed, didn’t fit who we are and what we do.

Your Vestry, your elected board, has literally been talking and thinking and praying about a capital campaign for two solid years. It took us eight months to choose a consulting firm to lead us through this work. I’m sure there are folks here who feel like this has come out of nowhere; I ask you believe me: we have really, really taken our time, letting this possibility emerge and mature. We have not taken a single step forward without a unanimous Yes among your leaders – the Vestry and Finance Committee. And we’ve floated the idea out to the congregation, and listened, as part that discernment, too. And so far, those Yeses have come, easily, and clearly. Yes, let’s take the next step down this road. Let’s keep exploring. Let’s keep wondering. Let’s see where this leads. We may still come to a No, or a Not yet. But so far, the Spirit among and within us has led us to Yes.

All those Yeses make me hopeful, and excited, for the prayerful conversations and work ahead. But I’m also bracing myself to deal with the stresses of disequilibrium. To take an example deliberately chosen for its triviality: The microwave in our church kitchen, built-in over the stove, is TERRIBLE. It’s so old it doesn’t even have a turntable; you end up with one lukewarm spot in your bowl of food…. We either use it and curse it, or avoid it. It’s easy to limp along with this inadequate piece of equipment. Replacing it is another whole story. That means assessing our needs; looking at how the whole kitchen functions; who uses it, and when, and for what; while we’re replacing the built-in, should we do something about the cabinets, which are also starting to fall apart; you get the idea.

Tolerating something less than ideal is easier than making it better. It just is.

I feel some anxiety in our parish system already. Not about the microwave, but about the possibility of a capital campaign. It’s not a lot of anxiety, it’s not intense, but it’s there. It’s there because money worries people. It’s there because we have both amazing, gifted, engaged newer members and amazing, gifted, engaged long-time members participating in this work, and not everybody knows and trusts each other yet. It’s there because the congregation’s memory of the last big building project here, in the 1990s, is that decisions were made from the top, without truly taking the parish’s needs and desires into account.

There’s anxiety about transparency – will everyone be heard? will decisions be made fairly and collaboratively? There’s anxiety about scale – are we going to set overly ambitious goals, and either end up disappointing ourselves, or overreaching our capacity? There’s anxiety about how to plan and design for the future, which is always and inevitably unknown. There’s anxiety about doing this NOW, when things seem so right in the life of our parish, but so uncertain in the life of our community, nation and world.

One of the things that happens in an anxious system is that the thing is never just the thing. Small issues take on disproportionate emotional energy. That conversation about the microwave is a conversation about how we gather; the conversation about how we gather is a conversation about who we are; the conversation about who we are is a conversation about whether we are who we’re supposed to be, and whether there’s room in that “we” for others who need to be here; the conversation about whether there’s room for others – and which others? – is a conversation about the survival of mainline Protestantism in the 21st century. So the microwave can become a big deal, fast.

How do we handle the anxiety? Well: your leaders can offer some assurances. We WILL give everyone a chance to be heard. We WILL do our utmost to make reasonable and sustainable decisions. We WILL do our best to follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit as we discern our path forward into the unknowable future. I absolutely mean all of that. But I also know I could say those things till I’m blue in the face and folks will still be anxious, because the system will still be anxious. Unsettled, both literally and figuratively.

Then there’s prayer. You could do worse than today’s Psalm, Psalm 27, a psalm of trust and assurance. “God is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” “Your face, Lord, will I seek.” “Surely I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” “Wait for the Lord. Be strong, and let your heart take courage.” I spent some time this week collecting some prayers about seeking God’s will and trusting God in a time of uncertainty. I posted a few on our parish website; take a look sometime, if that would be helpful to you.

Another way to handle the anxiety is remind ourselves and each other of the touchstone of who we are, together. That’s the approach taken by the Apostle Paul, addressing the conflicted Corinthians: Be united in the same mind and the same purpose. In a way Paul is calling the Corinthians to think back to that first Yes moment. He asks them to step back from the tangled messy present and remember the fresh joyful urgency of the initial call. To remind themselves why they became part of a community that strives to follows Jesus together.

Be united in the same mind and the same purpose. What’s the mind, the purpose, the intention, that unites us? Recently I happened to look back at a document from 2012 – five years ago! How many of you weren’t even here yet? – A document about who we are, at St. Dunstan’s, and what we’re good at, gathered from the congregation. And what astonished and honestly delighted me is how familiar it felt. The things we named back then were things that we’ve grown into even more, in the intervening five years.

We love music, and singing together. We love drama, and a good story well told. We love to make stuff, to craft, tinker, build, and fix. We love our grounds, and we’re continually working to care for them and learn from them more faithfully. We love to do things for others, together. We love to feed each other and to eat together. We love to learn and wonder and reflect together. We love our kids. In fact, that sentence doesn’t even work, because at St. Dunstan’s, kids are part of the We. Not some separate group that we do things for, but full members of this household of faith. We love the holy moments when we’re able to be companions for one another in times of pain or struggle; when we’re able to sing and pray and preach courage in the face of the world’s hurt. We love being a place of welcome, of safety, for those who’ve been bruised or battered by other churches, or by the world; and we’re committed to maintaining and broadening that welcome. We love it when people can offer the things they’re good at and the things they love to do as their ministries here, and we trust that the capacities and enthusiasms of our members are leading us somewhere together – are indeed charisms, gifts given for a purpose.

Be united in the same mind and the same purpose. Well: I’m not sure we’re ever all going to be of the same mind, here, exactly. Too many opinions! But the same purpose, the same intention, the same heart, the same sense of direction, the same love and longings for this place, this fellowship – I think we really do share a lot, there. I think there’s a core that will hold us together, and lead us forward. Help us manage the anxiety of disequilibrium, and keep loving and striving and building together, even when we don’t see eye to eye.

Remember Nadia Bolz-Weber’s speech to new members? Well, most of you aren’t brand-new here – though a few are. The newness in our midst is a project – this project of discerning possibilities, and then, perhaps, of actually following through to make it so.

But I’d like to say what Nadia says. Right now, this new thing among us is kind of exciting. So far it’s all possibility, and no reality; what’s not to like? But. But. You will be disappointed or hurt, at some point in this process. There will be moments when people’s priorities or preferences are at odds. Someone will think your pet project is unimportant, or flat-out stupid. (Though I think we’d get a LOT of use out of a climbing wall!) Cruel financial realities will kill a possibility that you’d built hopes around. This work will – at some point – piss you off.

I am asking you: Decide, now, to stick around. Decide, now, to bear with it. To bear with us. To bear with God, in what God is doing here among us. To remind yourself why you’re here to begin with, and of the common purpose and heart that unites us, even if we sometimes feel divided. To trust in God’s good and gracious intentions for this outpost of the Kingdom here at the corner of University and Allen. And to let the Holy Spirit work through the spaces left by our inadequacy, short-sightedness, and anxiety, to accomplish God’s purposes on earth.

Homily, January 15

This sermon accompanies the lessons for the Feast of the Epiphany, to correspond with our Epiphany Pageant, offered on this date. 

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, an empire feared for its power.

For a lot of people my age and younger, the word Empire may bring to mind images of Darth Vader and the ominous sameness of the Storm Troopers, in their white armor. But of course Star Wars has always been an allegory. George Lucas’ imagined Empire is the science-fiction version of something that’s been a feature of human politics for five thousand years or more.

An empire is a group of nations or people ruled over by an emperor or other powerful ruler and government. An empire begins when the king in one nation decides that they have the power to take over their next-door neighbor, and succeeds in doing so, and thinks, “Well, that went pretty well; now we have more territory, and we have control of more people, and we make them give us stuff; let’s keep going.”

By definition, many of those nations and peoples who are part of an empire are not willing participants. Even if their leaders decide that cooperating with the empire is in their best interest – like King Herod, who ruled Judea under the authority of the Roman empire – the people feel the rub of outside rule.

Therefore also, by definition, empires rule by force. Military, political, economic, cultural. In the great span of human history, there have been more and less humane empires; there have been good outcomes of empire – the Romans built roads and water systems everywhere they went. But empire always means dominion and subjugation. It always means that the person with authority over you is more interested in your cooperation than in your wellbeing.

Empires are always insecure. Always anxious. Their forces are always stretched; their presence and power is always resented. And so empires have tendency to use excessive force. To make an example of those that challenge their power, in hopes of intimidating and discouraging any other would-be resisters. The Empire in Star Wars built a Death Star, a weapon that could literally destroy a planet in an instant. The Empire in Matthew’s Gospel sends soldiers to murder the baby boys of a whole village, lest one of them spark a popular movement that would upset the apple cart of Herod’s cozy relationship with the Roman occupying forces. (A quick aside with some good news: that particular massacre probably never really happened… but empires do terrible things, to protect their power, whether that particular terrible thing is history or myth.)

Empire is a political form. But it’s also a mindset. A mindset of uniformity and control. A mindset that fears difference and dissent, seeing them as threats to its power. A mindset that fears the freedom of people or ideas. A mindset that demands submission, and acceptance of its norms and truths. And that responds with violence – verbal or physical – to any perceived threat.

We love stories about rebels thwarting the brutal power of empire. Whether it’s Luke Skywalker and Jyn Erso, Paul Revere and George Washington, Jesus and Paul, Martin Luther King Jr. leading that march across the Pettus Bridge towards a line of policemen ready to beat back their dreams, or the ragtag bunch of misfits in detention in the Breakfast Club, pushing back against the divide-and-conquer regime of a public high school and a sadistic assistant principal.

We root for the little guys, the scrappy underdogs. We root for the freedom of people and ideas. We root for dissent and difference… at least, in our stories. At least, when the empire in question is a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.

In the latest Star Wars movie, Rogue One, the characters face a great moral choice in the face of an empire’s dominating power: whether to keep your head down and just try to survive, or to risk, and even to sacrifice, yourself in the hope of destabilizing the oppressive power of empire.

In the Gospels, and in the first centuries of Christianity taking root under Roman rule, Jesus and those who followed his Way faced a great moral choice: whether to keep your head down and just try to survive, or to risk, and even to sacrifice, yourself in the hope of destabilizing the oppressive power of empire.

What will we do when we hear the tramping boots of Herod’s soldiers? What will we do when the mindset of empire demands our compliance?

Christmas Day Sermon

Preached by the Rev. Thomas McAlpine. 

“Be not afraid” the angel of the Lord tells the shepherds. “Be not afraid,” for by all accounts the appearance of the angel of the Lord and the glory of the Lord “around them” would fill anyone with fear. “Be not afraid” also speaks to us as hearers, for after the first two readings and the psalm, so full of joy and good news, our Gospel reading opened “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus…” and we fear that the party’s over before it started. We’re back—we fear—to the real world of governments, bureaucracies, taxes. (Those of us looking at our year-end financial situation with an eye on April 15 are participating in a not entirely welcome way in the Christmas story!) But no: God’s plan continues, and it turns out that God has used Caesar’s decree to place Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem—to make good on that promise through the prophet Micah. “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus…” but that year is soon remembered not as the twenty-somethingeth year of Augustus’ reign, but as the first year of our Lord Jesus the Messiah. Back then the smart money would have been on Augustus rather than on that Jewish couple and their yet unborn child en route from Nazareth to Bethlehem. We may periodically fear that God’s promises are too weak to survive what we’re taught to call “the real world.” At such moments we can remember and be strengthened by the beginning of this Gospel.

Luke doesn’t tell us much about what Mary and Joseph made of all of this. But if they had their share of normal human hopes, fears, and doubts, then it was probably all a bit much. It was enough to deal with Mary’s premarital pregnancy. Would they have even tried to explain it to any of their neighbors? Then there was Caesar’s decree, so they’d be traveling in Mary’s ninth month. They arrive in Bethlehem and of course all the inns are full. The imperial census takers and their assistants need to stay somewhere, of course! So Mary gives birth in a barn. I suspect that she and Joseph looked at each other at multiple points and wondered if they were both delusional. That’s one of the reasons, I suspect, that God sent the shepherds to the barn. No, Mary and Joseph, you’re not delusional. You’re both tired from the journey, Mary beyond exhausted from giving birth, you’re in a barn, and God is more than well-pleased with your faithfulness. We sometimes look at our circumstances to determine whether God’s well-pleased with us. We need to remember tonight’s Gospel: they’re tired from the journey, who knows when they’d last bathed, any motel would be a step up, and God’s pleased enough to have sent out the whole heavenly host to celebrate.

We’re gathered here because of what happened some 2,000 years ago. It happened once—and forever changed our world. But the patterns in the story: these reflect the God we serve and the world we live in, and there’s more than a little to learn.

One more example, this time with the shepherds. Did you notice the seemingly extraneous phrases Luke throws into his story? “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” Luke could have left that last bit out and we would never have missed it. Or at the end: “And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.” Luke wants us to notice, I think, how the life of faith works. It’s not a spectator sport. The shepherds are given the news—and they have to act on it. When they act, they see—as promised—and are in a position to glorify and praise God. Many times it’s like that with us. God’s word comes to us. We’re not sure what to make of it. It calls on us to act. The action may sound odd: Look for a babe wrapped in cloths and lying in a feed bin! Love your enemies! But if we do it, we discover reason to glorify and praise God—to rejoice.

So rejoice. This day is more than a match for the Roman Empire, for any empire. Whatever our circumstances we are not alone, and God will mobilize the entire heavenly host if needed. As with the shepherds—as with Mary and Joseph—the faith we’re called to is not a spectator sport. Hear the word, act on it, and you set yourself and the world on a trajectory that ends in joy. The most merry of Christmases to you.

Sermon, January 8

Here in the church it’s been the new year for six weeks now – but out there it’s still just a week into the New Year. It’s a season when many people spend a little time in self-examination and reflection, and set some goals or intentions – wise or foolish – for how they want to live and who they want to be in the world. As Christians, of course, we often take our cues from Jesus. From his actions and teaching, made known to us in the Gospels. We claim him both as a Rabbi, a Teacher, who has shown us a life-giving Way; and as a Savior who has called us out of bondage to the world as it is, and into the hopeful mystery of the world as it could be. But let’s be honest: sometimes trying to follow Jesus feels like a tall order. He could heal people with a touch. He could bring a dead child back to life, and give her back to her parents. He shared a heart with God the Creator, Source of all things. When I think about all of that, it becomes abundantly clear to me that, however committed I am to following him, I am not and never will be Jesus.

You know who else wasn’t Jesus? John the Baptist. He said so, in the Gospel of John: (1:20) “He did not deny it but confessed it freely: I AM NOT THE MESSIAH.”  I’m overdue to give John a little attention. He’s always present in our Advent readings, hanging out by the Jordan River and hollering about repentance and preparation. And this year the liturgical calendars we order for people to take home feature John’s story: … John is a significant figure in the Gospels; putting together the pieces from all four books, we actually know a lot about him – his teaching, his followers, his practice of baptism. From Luke, we know his parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth; that his birth and prophetic calling were foretold by an angel; and that he was Jesus’ cousin. From Mark we have the story of his untimely, senseless death – imprisoned by an insecure king, murdered as an act of vengeance by the will of someone fearful of his truth-telling.

Today’s Gospel brings us Matthew’s account of John baptizing Jesus. This is John’s big moment, as far as the Gospels are concerned – when Jesus chooses to begin his public ministry by receiving this rite of cleansing and renewal from John’s hands. An event that becomes the foundation of the church’s practice of baptism as our rite of full belonging. What cues can we take from John the Baptist, for our life as people of faith and conscience and courage? In this season of setting intentions for the year ahead?

The first thing I appreciate about John the Baptist is his sense of perspective. His sense of his role in the story. I’d call it humility but we tend to think of humility as timid, quiet, and John was not timid or quiet. He had something to say: Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand. Change your hearts. Change your lives. John raised his voice. He shared his message, loudly and assertively. But he also knew that it wasn’t about him. I’m not the Messiah, John says. I’m nobody’s savior. He tells Jesus, YOU should be baptizing ME. He tells his followers, Somebody greater than me is coming soon. He must increase, and I must decrease.

In modern jargon we might talk about John as an example of decentering. The concept of decentering originally comes from developmental psychology: it refers to the capacity, developed in late childhood or young adulthood, to conceptualize multiple perspectives at once. To understand that one’s own view isn’t the only view, or the truth. Today the word “decentering” is often used in the broad movement for racial equity: white folks like me are asked to decenter our opinions, our needs, our priorities, to make space for people of color to take the lead and set the agenda. Decentering involves accepting that this is not about me. That there’s something big going on here, and sometimes I may be called to a supporting role.

John the Baptist willingly de-centers himself. He has a clear vision of what’s broken in society, and some ideas about how to begin to fix it. But he keeps the focus on the message, not on himself; and when another leader, a new message come along, he points people towards Jesus. He says, This is bigger than me; go learn from that guy. May we be blessed by John’s wisdom as we use our voices and pursue the work that calls us in today’s world.

The second thing I appreciate about John the Baptist is his integrity. He was the real deal. He didn’t just tell people to turn their backs on the corrupt systems of the status quo; he did it himself, and proved it was possible. By living in the wilderness, wearing a camel-hide tunic instead of proper woven clothing, and living on grasshoppers and honey and whatever else he could find to eat in the rocky waste outside Jerusalem. Traditional icons of John show him with wild hair, to emphasize his uncivilized, unbound way of life. John was off the grid.

In the eleventh chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus talks about John the Baptist. He says, What did you all go out to the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind, fragile, momentary, meaningless? Someone dressed in fine clothes? Nope, that’s not John’s style, he didn’t go into the crazy preacher business to get rich quick. What then did you go to see? A prophet, and more than a prophet. One who speaks God’s truth, regardless of how it will be received. In John’s case, it eventually got him killed. It happens, with prophets.

Whatever you think of the camel-hide outfit, you can’t claim John didn’t practice what he preached. May we, like John, live what we believe, and what we hope. May we strive to be the change – or in some cases, the stability – that we want to see in the world. We don’t have to have it all figured out. But we need to try.

The third thing I appreciate about John the Baptist is that he kept it real. (Maybe this is only relevant to me as a preacher!…) He had a big overarching message: Repent. Terrible times are coming. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the tree. Turn your hearts and your lives towards righteousness, towards God. NOW. Pretty scary stuff!

But in Luke’s Gospel there’s more – the people ask him, what do we do? And he said, Well, if you have two coats, give one of them to somebody who has none. And if you have extra food, share it with the hungry. If you handle other people’s money, do so fairly. If you have authority over other people, don’t use your power to take from them, and be satisfied with what you have. He gives people seeking guidance some real, concrete, achievable things they can do, NOW, to start turning their daily lives towards justice and mercy.

I get the sense that despite his big fierce words – Repent! Brood of Vipers! Unquenchable Fire! – despite all that, by Luke’s account at least, John was a pragmatist, not a purist. He wouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. He’s telling people, Look, just start somewhere. Look around your house, think about the things you do every day, and find a way to help somebody.

May we, like John, stay grounded. May we live gracefully in the tension between the big picture and the small action, the epochal and the everyday, knowing that it’s by the small and the everyday that the great and epochal are formed. Whatever calls, challenges, or confronts us in the year ahead, whether in our career or vocation, in our personal life or our civic sphere, may we see our way clear to a place to simply begin.

Sermon, Christmas Eve

It’s good to be with you, this Christmas night – all of you: visitors and guests and familiar faces too, whether you’re here to recapture the feeling of childhood Christmases, or wondering if the Church has anything to say in these times, or you’re just here to make Grandma happy. Welcome, everyone.

It’s Christmas, finally, but I’m going to rewind a little to the season of Advent, in which the Church and her people prepare for Christmas, the season we’ve just completed, or fulfilled. Advent comes from Latin words – Ad plus Venire, meaning, To come towards. And that really is the keyword of Advent: Come, Lord Jesus. Our hymns and prayers and Scriptures say it again. O come, O come, Emmanuel. Come, thou long-expected Jesus. Stir up your power, O Lord, and come to help us. Be patient, beloved ones, until the coming of the Lord. Veni, veni, Emmanuel.

What are we invoking, inviting, calling for, in all those Scriptures and songs and prayers? What arrival or fulfillment are we anticipating, and yearning for, in the season of Advent? Well, first and most obviously: Christmas. Our yearly celebration of God coming to us, among us, as a human infant, humble and vulnerable. Jesus, born of Mary, God with us.

Second: we are praying for the Second Coming, for Christ’s promised return to earth in glory, at the end of history. I think we tend to forget or set aside this aspect of Advent because it’s a little uncomfortable for a churchful of modern enlightened people like ourselves to be actively praying for the end of the world. But what the Church invites us to pray towards, in Advent, isn’t some Left Behind nightmare or zombie apocalypse. Instead, our Scriptures teach us to anticipate a day when this world will pass away, and God’s new world will be born. An ending that’s also a new beginning, a time of transformation and renewal, when God will restore the world to the way it was meant to be, full of beauty and kindness and wholeness. A new world of peace and plenty. A new world in which no child goes hungry, no elder dies alone. A new world in which God wipes away all tears. I won’t claim it doesn’t scare me a little to pray for that world; there’s a lot that’s good for me in the world as it is. But in faith, and in hope for a better world for all God’s children, I pray the prayer of Advent. I pray for Christ to come again. For the dawning of God’s new world.

And I would say there’s a third thing, too: when we pray, Come, Lord Jesus, in Advent, we are asking for God to show up in our individual lives. We’re praying to see and feel God’s presence not in the past or the future but NOW. We give voice to our need and longing for reconciliation in situations of conflict and division; for hope in situations of despair; for peace and joy in situations of grief; for trust and clarity in situations of fear and uncertainty. We pray for light and grace and hope and peace to show up already! – or maybe for our eyes and hearts to open, to see the holy possibilities that are already there.

So the prayer of Advent – Come, Lord Jesus! – it can be weighted with real yearning. We long for the reassuring sweetness of the Nativity story. We long for God’s promised renewal of all that’s tarnished and broken in our world. And we long for God’s grace to show up in the sadnesses and struggles of our lives, right now.

And then it’s Christmas. December 24 rolls around, as it always does. And the Church says, The waiting is over! Jesus is here! God has arrived! Celebrate! But: there’s an incompleteness here. Let’s name that. Christmas offers us, again, the story of God’s arrival in the past. But we’re still waiting on the fulfillment of God’s future. And we are still waiting on God’s grace in so many shadowed places of our lives, and our present world.

Maybe, if you’re lucky, tonight, and tomorrow, will be a time of peace and warmth. With family and friends wrapped around you like a cozy blanket, sharing happy memories and making new ones. But that’s not what tomorrow holds for everyone here. Some of you will be alone. Some of you will be struggling with family dynamics that make you wish you were alone. For some of you, the happy memories cast the shadow of loved ones lost, and good times gone by.

And even for those who are going to have a lovely Christmas Day, the next day, or the day after that, you’ll wake up and read the news, or get phone call or email from somebody angry or in pain, or someone close to you will hit a rough patch in life, and all the brokenness will flood back in.

I was looking for Christmas cards, a few weeks ago. The kind where you upload your photo and they put a pretty frame around it, with some peppy seasonal message. I looked a couple of different sites, and scrolled through pages and pages of designs. And it was the same words over and over again: Merry. Peace. Joy. Jolly. Happy. Bright. Fun. Cheer. And it just started to seem …. so false. Cruelly false.

I am absolutely one of the lucky ones. I have a healthy loving family and good friends and a job I love. And even I didn’t want to order any of those cards. How can I declare happiness when so many are hurting? How can I proclaim peace when so many are afraid? How can I trumpet merriness and cheer when what I really want for my loved ones and congregation is just to take good enough care of ourselves and each other that we’re able to keep doing the work of grace in our shadowed and weary world?

Now, I’m picking unfairly on the Christmas card industry. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with sending out wishes for joy and peace to your friends and family. Just like there is absolutely nothing wrong with claiming the next couple of days for happiness and warmth and fun, if you are able to do so. Do it. Absolutely do it.

But when the brokenness floods back in – when a health problem or a loss or a jerk coworker or a news story pops that bright bubble – when that happens, and it will, I don’t want our faith in God who loves us enough to come down and live among us to end up like the pretty Christmas cards that say Merry and Joy and Bright and Cheer in the recycling bin on December 30th.

It’s easy to suspect Christians of being delusional, or in denial. What are Christians – especially preachers – talking about, when we claim the event we celebrate tonight changed anything? It happened 2000 years ago; there’s been plenty of evil and pain in those two millennia. Come, Lord Jesus! Well – he came. Here we are; it’s Christmas. We told the story, and put the wooden baby in the wooden manger, and sang the carols, and sent the cards. But then what? What do we carry away into the week, the year, that follows? How can we say that the baby in the manger fixed the world? How can we claim that this story matters?

But it does. It does matter. Christmas matters. The Church sometimes gives it another name – the Feast of the Incarnation. Incarnation means, becoming a body. Becoming flesh. This is the sacred story of the moment when God became a human being. God became a human being to walk among us, and teach us and show us that there’s a better way. That we don’t have to live by the selfish cruel zero-sum rules of the world; that we can afford to be people of grace and mercy and justice, because God has our backs, and that the better way is the way of life. And God became a human being to share our lives, our experiences. To be footsore and weary, hungry and afraid and in pain. To eat a good meal, embrace a friend, walk on a beach. And by sharing our experiences, to show us once and for all that God is with us in all that we experience.

Stanley Hauerwas, one of the great theologians of our time, writes that the Church “is a gathering of a people who are able to sustain one another through the inevitable tragedies of our lives. They are able to do so because they have been formed by a narrative, [a story], … that claims nothing less than that God has taken the tragic character of our existence into God’s very life.” We are a people formed by a holy story – this story, and all the stories that lead up to it and flow from it – that claims nothing less than that God has taken the pain and grief and struggle of human existence into God’s very life. (Stanley Hauerwas, “A Community of Character”) 

We are not the material creatures of a spiritual god, who looks down at us across some cosmic gulf, who feels disinterested in, or contemptuous of, our bodily needs and experiences, hurts and delights. God is right here in this world with us.

So what we can carry away from Christmas is the trust that we are not alone. When we look at the great sweep of the world’s needs, or the smaller span of our own difficulties and griefs, and cry out for help, for solace, for guidance: Someone hears. Someone is with us, even if we can’t always feel the presence. Someone responds, even if it’s not always in the way we hoped.

In Advent, we pray, Come, Lord Jesus! Come in the beloved holy story of the babe in Bethlehem. Come in your might to transform and renew the whole world. And come in the here and now, because we need you. I need you. We are able to pray those prayers of urgent hope and trust because God IS with us, in the thick of it all. The witness of millennia of people of faith, including me, is that God shows up. That there’s a that gentle shining, a relentless love behind and beneath and above everything; and that it breaks through our distraction and self-importance, sometimes the crack in everything lets the light shine in. And not just in warm fuzzy ways either – hope and love and mercy and all that – but in the fierceness of spurring us to seek justice, which is always right up there with mercy on God’s priority list; in pushing us towards the strange awkward vulnerable places where we tell each other our truths and find new paths towards recognition and reconciliation; in the moments when we think we have given all we have to give, and then something calls to us, a need or a possibility, so bright and urgent that we find we have the strength to stand, after all.

Christmas, the Feast of the Incarnation, means that God has arrived. The Church sets aside the prayer of Advent, Come, Lord Jesus!, for another year. But Feast of the Incarnation means, too, that we can carry that prayer with us. We can keep right on seeking and demanding and expecting that God will show up, as we go forth from this feast as a people formed by a story that matters.