All posts by Miranda Hassett

Sermon, May 20

HAND OUT PROPS: Fire: tinsel pompoms.  Wind: People blowing – same as in the Ezek story. Water: Blue ribbon sticks. Doves: paper doves. 

Today we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit to the early Church! People had known and experienced God’s Spirit at work for a long time before Jesus came. In the beginning of Creation, God’s Spirit moved across the waters of chaos. We just heard the story of Ezekiel’s vision of the Dry Bones – when a holy Wind, the breath of God, turned skeletons into living people – as a sign of how God’s Spirit would revive the people of Israel in a time of hopelessness and despair. The Hebrew Bible also speaks often of Lady Wisdom, as an aspect of God – her name is Hokmah in Hebrew, Sophia in Greek – she welcomes those who seek her and leads them in right pathways. The story of Pentecost is the story of how God’s Spirit of life and wisdom and promise came to the first Christians – when they were fearful and uncertain, missing Jesus, wondering how to go on without him – and gave them confidence and joy to undertake their mission. 

Though Pentecost was an important beginning for Christians, Pentecost existed before Christianity. Our Acts lesson begins, “When the day of Pentecost had come…” That makes it sound like there was already such thing as Pentecost – because there was! Jesus and most of his first followers were members of the Jewish people and had been formed by the Jewish faith. Pentecost is the Greek name for a Jewish religious festival, called Shavuot in Hebrew. Shavuot falls seven weeks or 50 days after Passover – Shavuot means Weeks, Pentecost means Fifty. On Shavuot, Jews celebrate the gift of the Torah, when God called the Jewish people into covenant and told them how to live as a people of holiness, mercy, and justice. It is a feast of chosenness and covenant – almost like a wedding, but between people and God. Some Jews observe Shavuot by staying up all night reading Torah together. Shavuot is also celebrated by decorating with spring flowers and eating dairy products. There’s a beautiful layering of meaning here: the first Christians, who were also Jews celebrating Shavuot, felt their new covenant relationship with God confirmed through the Divine Spirit on this holy day. But I wish early Christians had come up with their own name for this new feast, instead of borrowing the name from Judaism! 

The Holy Spirit can be pretty mysterious, so Christians have named her and described her through symbols.  In the Pentecost story, Jesus’ friends and followers say that the Holy Spirit felt like fire! Where is the fire? …. Fire is still one of the symbols we use for the Holy Spirit. The Spirit can make people feel like they’re burning up with excitement or joy! Sometimes the Spirit’s fire is frightening, too – sometimes she works in us to burn away parts of our souls that are keeping us from being our true and holy selves. Thank you, Fire! 

The Church struggled for three hundred years with how to understand the mystery of one God whom we know in three ways – God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit – and finally they just said, It’s a mystery, and we’re going to call it the Trinity – Three in One, three faces of one loving God. 

Different types of churches talk more about different aspects of God. Some churches are heavy on Jesus; some are big on the Spirit. In Episcopal churches, we tend to talk a lot about God the Creator and Source, whom Jesus names as Father, and about Jesus Christ. But we don’t know quite what to make of the Holy Spirit. We invite the Holy Spirit to show up every time we perform a sacrament – Holy Communion, baptism, confirmation – but we don’t talk much about how she might feed us or guide us or help us in our daily lives, outside of church. And that’s too bad, because she bears many gifts. 

Another symbol Christians have used to describe the Spirit is water. Where’s my water?…. The Spirit can clean people who feel dirty inside, and refresh people who feel thirsty inside – that’s how she’s like water. The waters of baptism remind us that the one being baptized is also washed in the grace of God’s spirit! Thank you, Water! 

You’ve probably noticed that sometimes I call the Holy Spirit, “she.” I don’t really think the Holy Spirit is a girl. But there are a couple of reasons that I, and others, sometimes use feminine language for the Holy Spirit. For one thing, our Scriptures and prayers usually talk about God saying “he” and “him,” as if God were a man. But we know that God is really bigger than male or female. So using “she” for the Spirit can help us remember that men and women are equally made in God’s image. Also, both of the Bible’s original languages, Hebrew and Greek, have words that are male or female – like Spanish or German.  And in Hebrew and Greek, many of the Spirit’s names are feminine – Ruah, wind; neshama, breath; hokmah and sophia, wisdom; pneuma, wind or spirit. The Spirit has always had many names, and taken many forms. So you can call the Spirit whatever you like – but do call upon her! 

Wind is both a name and a symbol for the Spirit. Let me hear the sound of the wind again!…. The Spirit is like wind because you can’t see the wind itself, but you can see what it’s doing. The wind can be refreshing; it can also sweep away the old, and bring the new! In Hebrew and Greek, wind and breath are the same word – so the Spirit is also God’s breath, that enters lifeless things and gives life to all creation. Thank you, Wind! 

Letters and sermons written by the first Christians, tell us many ways they experienced the Spirit – and Christians have been experiencing the Spirit in the same ways, ever since. Here are some ways God’s people have found that the Spirit can help us. The Spirit helps us know what to say, when we’re speaking for God! The Spirit helps us pray and cry out to God, when we’re in trouble. The Spirit gives us each gifts and skills for the common good – all activated by the same Spirit, who allots to each one just as she chooses.  The Spirit binds us together into one body, one household of faith, across our differences – we are all one through God’s Spirit. The Spirit working in a human heart, or a human community, can bring love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

The gifts we invoke for every person we baptize are gifts of the Spirit, named in Scripture: an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere; a spirit to know and to love God; and the gift of joy and wonder in all God’s works. Aren’t all of these blessings well worth receiving? 

We have one more symbol of the Spirit to share – the dove!… The Gospels tell us that God’s spirit came down upon Jesus like a dove when he was baptized. Doves are associated with purity and gentleness, and with the promise of new life – because in the Flood story, a dove brought news of dry land and growing plants to Noah on the ark. Water, wind, and fire can all be powerful and fierce, and so can the Holy Spirit; but often the Spirit is gentle as a dove –bringing us gifts of clarity, wisdom, peace, and power.

All of this sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? It makes me want the Holy Spirit to be in my life, every day. Here’s a big word for us all: Invocation. It means to call on something. It’s not like magic, in some of your books – we can’t control or manipulate God with our words or our actions. But the Spirit likes to be invited.  We have to make room for her instead of trying to handle it all on our own. We have to open a door to let her come in and help us. So the Church has always taught God’s people to call on the Spirit… to invoke the Spirit.  No magic words, it’s easy: Come, Holy Spirit!

But if you like magic words, there’s a wonderful word that early Christians used: Maranatha!

It’s in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, and it means, Come, Lord! Maranatha! 

Come, Holy Spirit! Maranatha!

Bless your church and your people; work within us and among us; heal us, connect us, encourage and empower and guide us, today and always. Amen! 

Sermon, May 13

In those days Peter stood up among the believers and said, “One of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us… must become a witness with us to his resurrection.” So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. Then they prayed and said, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles. (Acts chapter 1)

The Calling of Matthias, Movement 1: Congratulations, You Have An All-Male Panel!

Back in 2015, a Finnish scholar, Dr. Saara Sarma, started a blog called Congrats, You Have An All-Male Panel! She’d been noticing for years that panels of experts were very frequently all male – regardless of whether the field under discussion was agriculture in the Sudan, developments in the music industry, advances in chemical engineering, global banking regulation, or even women’s reproductive rights. (Source) Her blog quickly went viral as people began submitting photos of “expert” lineups that meet the All Male Panel criterion. In one recent example, a magazine asked the question, “What can the real estate industry do to better promote gender equality?”, and shared responses from… four men. 

If you go to Sarma’s blog – and you should – you’ll find that the header image at the top of the page is Leonardo da Vinci’s famous image of the Last Supper. You know the one: “We’d like a table for twenty-six.” “But there are only thirteen of you.” “That’s OK, we’re all going to sit on the same side.”  The image makes the point that Jesus’ Twelve Disciples are one of the classic All-Male Panels. 

The Gospel of Mark tells us that Jesus – overwhelmed by the crowds seeking him out for healing – calls his disciples to him and appoints twelve of them “to be with him, and to be sent out to preach and have authority to cast out demons.” (Mk 3:14-15). Matthew and Luke follow Mark’s lead in naming the Twelve. Twelve was an important number; it called to mind the Twelve Tribes of Israel, and suggested completeness and fulfillment. So after Judas’ betrayal and death, and after Jesus’ final ascension into Heaven, the remaining Eleven decide they need to fill that slot. The verses just before today’s Acts text tell us that among the 120 people present, there were many women, including Mary the mother of Jesus. And yet, when it comes time to pick candidates for the role, somehow they turn out to be men. 

Why would you expect otherwise, Miranda? In a patriarchal society and era?Well: the thing is, Jesus called women to follow him. Jesus’ inner circle included women – Mary his mother, Mary Magdalene, Salome, Joanna, Mary and Martha, and others. And women were important leaders in the early church – Lydia, Phoebe the deacon, Prisca, Junia the apostle, and more. 

Dorothy Sayers, one of my favorite writers of both mystery novels and theology, commented on this point back in the 1930s: “Perhaps it is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man – there never has been such another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronised; who never made arch jokes about them…; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend…” 

(From Are Women Human? Astute and Witty Essays on the Role of Women in Society)

I’ve often heard the question: How can someone who believes wholeheartedly in the capability and called-ness of women, be  loyal to a holy text that is so profoundly marked by sexism? I am loyal to Scripture – more, I love Scripture – because Scripture teaches me that God is not sexist. In both the Old and New Testaments, the dignity, strength, resourcefulness, intelligence, and simple humanity of women is honored. Not everywhere! But here and there, by the grace of God and the guidance of the Spirit, the Bible shows us humans living into a fuller understanding of humanity as made in God’s image, regardless of biological sex or gender. 

The calling of Matthias is not one of those times. Simon Peter, always trying to earn that gold star, reckons that since Jesus appointed twelve men, that means there should ALWAYS be twelve men. I think it’s interesting when the church turns to prayerful discernment, in this story. Not about whether it’s important to “replace” Judas and have Twelve again – that’s Peter’s idea. Not about the candidates for the open slot – Matthias and Barsabbas are suggested by an undefined “they.” Only when it comes to choosing one of those two men does the assembly open their hearts towards God before casting lots – a lot like rolling dice, only you pray first. I wonder how the outcome could have been different if those first church leaders had sought the Spirit’s guidance earlier in this process… 

A task force called to study how the Episcopal Church calls bishops, those with oversight of the church in a certain region, recently released its report.  That report shows that the current bishops of the Episcopal Church are 90% male and 90% white. Which is much closer to an all-male panel than it really ought to be, given our church’s teachings and membership. Just like in the first chapter of Acts, somehow, when it comes time to pick candidates for a leadership role, they turn out to be men. 

The Calling of Matthias, Movement II: The Deeds of the Apostle Matthias

Acts chapter 1, verse 26, says, “And they cast lots, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.” That is the last time Matthias is mentioned in Scripture. We have no idea how or whether he lived out his apostleship – a word that just means, One who is sent.  There are texts that claim that Matthias became an important evangelist, that he spread the faith in the region of Cappadocia, that he was eventually martyred there. There are also traditions that say he was stoned to death and beheaded in Jerusalem; and that he died of old age. His grave is claimed by sites in the countries of Georgia and Germany.  Many of these texts are from a thousand years after the events they claim to describe. There are some earlier texts, dating from the third century, such as one known as the Acts of Andrew and Matthias. In that story, Matthias is sent as a missionary to a city where the people eat only human flesh. He is captured and drugged, as a first step towards making him into a meal, but the drugs have no effect on him and he prays for God’s help. Meanwhile, the apostle Andrew comes to rescue him, carried on a boat piloted by Jesus Himself. It’s all quite exciting! – but I would definitely place it in the genre of fanfiction, rather than history. 

So it’s pretty hard to know if Matthias actually went on to do great things that just didn’t make it into the texts that give us our best historical record of the early church – or if Matthias just didn’t do much. He might have been kind of a dud; or he might have been a faithful, effective, kind, ordinary saint, whose acts of charity and grace were simply too everyday to be remembered. Like most of us! 

Meanwhile, the Book of the Acts of the Apostles goes on to tell us about the adventures and struggles of others who traveled the ancient world, preached the Gospel, and built up the first churches:  Paul, Barnabas, Timothy, Philip, Lydia, and others. These are the heroes that Scripture remembers. Not Matthias. 

In selecting Matthias, Peter and the rest of the Eleven were doing a very churchy thing – a very institutional thing: We have this vacancy on our board; we’d better recruit someone. Looking at this story in light of the rest of the Book of Acts, it sure looks like this bit of sacralized bureaucracy didn’t actually matter much to what God was doing in and with the church. I’ve heard this approach summed up as “filling the slot instead of fulfilling the volunteer.” – focusing on maintaining a certain way of being, rather than letting the gifts, skills, and passions of those called into our fellowship of faith lead the way, perhaps into a new way of being. 

A lot of churches do this; I think we do it less than some, but we still do it, for sure.  I carry the list in my head: who’s the next greeter, the next Sunday school teacher, the next Vestry candidate….  Sometimes I’m able to say, Well, you know, if nobody’s clamoring for the role, let’s leave it empty and see what happens, or think about how we might restructure that ministry… Let’s just trust that God is at work in the church, and that we’ll have the people we need to do what God wants us to do. But I’m a person in institutional leadership, and I get anxious about filling slots sometimes. I feel the temptation to seek out a Matthias with an arm I can twist. Gently and lovingly, of course. 

The good news is that God’s work in the world is bigger than the church – and God’s work in the church is bigger than the church’s institutional leadership. Peter thought they needed a twelfth apostle to meet God’s expectations and be the church Jesus intended. But while the church was fretting about matters of order and hierarchy, God was changing hearts and minds and lives. Matthias may or may not have helped spread the Gospel and build the church, but Philip did. Paul did. Barnabas did. Lydia did. And Luke and Timothy and Phoebe and so many others. 

The Calling of Matthias, Movement III: What About Barsabbas? 

There were two finalists for the role of Twelfth Apostle: Matthias and Joseph Barsabbas, known also as Justus.  If Scripture says little about Matthias, it says even less about Barsabbas.  All we know is that he’s loser. Not the right man for the job. 

Mike Kinman, a wonderful preacher now serving at All Saints in Pasadena, preached about Barsabbas a few years ago. Kinman observed that the matter of winners and losers, chosen and not-chosen, is one where most of us have not fully taken the teachings of our faith to heart. Jesus says things like, “the last shall be first and the first last” and “those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” And then he dies on a cross – the very image of failure, loss, rejection, shame mockery. And we name it as triumph and glory and salvation. We know all of this. But Matthias has a feast day, and Barsabbas doesn’t. 

We’d just as soon not think about somebody like Barsabbas.  Many of us live in fear of becoming a Barsabbas – or having it discovered that we’ve been Barsabbas all along. 

Losing – being not chosen – is painful. It means we miss some opportunity, yes, but there’s more to it than that.  Kinman writes, “Not being chosen, whether it be in a job, in a relationship, in the church or wherever – not being chosen taps into our deepest insecurities and triggers painful memories. Not being chosen can fill us with embarrassment and shame. It can make us feel two inches tall and want to run away and hide. Not being chosen stabs like a knife. It makes our hearts cry out “Why not me? What’s wrong with me? Why am I not good enough.”  Or even worse, it makes our hearts crumble and whisper: “See, I knew it, I’m not good enough. I was right all along.” Not being chosen is like a giant amplifier for all the voices in our head and our heart that tell us we are less than, that we are unworthy, that we are unlovable. Losing stinks. Not being chosen hurts.”

But it happens to most of us, at one time or another. Most of us – maybe all of us – have had moments like this.  And yet in the church, where we’re called to love each other, where we should know better than to measure our worth by the standards of any human institution, we still don’t handle these situations very well. Kinman observes that he’s seen church folk deal with these moments in one of three ways: We “silver lining” it – insisting that people see a bright side in the situation, even if it takes binoculars or a microscope to find one. We offer consolation prizes – “You don’t get to do that, but maybe you’d like to do this?” Or we say and do nothing. We just don’t mention it, because we fear that bringing it up will be painful. Or we just never get around to calling the not-chosen person… because you never know; failure might be contagious. All of those responses – while very human and very understandable – are basically about managing our own discomfort, rather than actually caring for the person who’s struggling with a Barsabbas moment. 

What’s the alternative? 

Being not-chosen hurts – often disproportionately to the actual opportunity lost – because it feels like a rejection of who we are as a person. It undermines our sense of worth.  Could we instead take those Barsabbas moments – ours or someone else’s – as opportunities to remind ourselves of our true and unshakeable worth in the eyes of the God who made us? In our Gospel today we see Jesus speaking to his followers’ sense of being rejected, not taken seriously, of not fitting into the world as it is. He says, You may not belong here – but you belong to God; you belong to Me. 

Mike Kinman writes, “The deepest truth of our faith that our Barsabbas Moments invite us to lean into is that our goodness and belovedness come from God and God alone… Our Barsabbas Moments are opportunities for us not to lean on the admiration… [of other humans], but in those moments where we are feeling the deepest rejection to lean back into the loving arms of a God in whose eyes we are always good and always worthy and always deeply, deeply beloved.”

So before he drops out of the story, let’s pause to name and claim and celebrate Barsabbas, who did not become the twelfth apostle. Friends, Barsabbases all, listen, hear, remember, believe: Whatever opportunities or rejections the world or the church may hand you, you are never not chosen. Never not wanted. Never not worthy. 

Some sources: 

The origins of Congrats, You Have An All Male Panel!

The Acts of Andrew and Matthia

Kinman’s sermon in full

Sermon, May 6

You are my friends if you do what I command you.

What does Jesus command us? Jesus teaches. He tells stories. He models kindness, righteous anger, self-sacrificial love. He calls people to transformation of heart and life. But does he command? 

If you can’t think of one of Jesus’ commandments at the moment, don’t feel bad. There is a fair amount of talk about commandments in the Gospels, the books of the Bible that tell about Jesus’ life and teachings, and in the Epistles, the letters of the early church.  But broadly, most of those texts are addressing a big question for the first Christians: In the new relationship with God brought about by and through Jesus Christ, do the commandments of the Old Testament still apply? Are Christians supposed to follow Jewish law? 

Jesus’ teaching about the Great Commandment was important for early Christians because it gave them a touchstone for wrestling with that question. Someone asks Jesus, What is the most important commandment, in the whole of Jewish law? The dialogue is a little different in Matthew, Mark, and Luke; Luke is my favorite because Jesus does that teacher thing: “Well, what do *you* think?” And the man says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And Jesus says, Yep. That’s it. That’s all the Law you really need. 

It took many decades, but Christians eventually resolved that this teaching – and Jesus’ other teachings that touched on law, obedience, and holiness – meant that Christians are not bound by Jewish law, the commandments of the Hebrew Bible.  

Today’s Acts lesson gives us a glimpse of the apostle Peter in a moment of epiphany: “Look, the Holy Spirit of God has come down even upon these Gentiles, non-Jews who are unholy and unclean! I guess if God will baptize them with the Spirit, we should baptize them with water!” 

So the Great Commandment is powerful stuff. Love God as hard as you can, and love your neighbor as much as you love yourself: If you carry those intentions into daily life, you’ll find plenty of opportunities to put them into practice. 

But that’s not what John’s Jesus is talking about here. The Great Commandment doesn’t appear in John’s Gospel. Yet Jesus says, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” What command does Jesus have in mind, here? 

Our Gospel and Epistle today have the same name: John. Biblical scholars talk about a Johannine community – a church that gathered around a particular teacher, identified by tradition with John, one of Jesus’ disciples. That community seems to have received and developed some distinctive memories or understandings about Jesus, which gives the Gospel and the letters that that community produced their special theological perspective. I’ll keep talking about our author here as John, because that’s the easy; but let it be noted that that is a shorthand. We don’t know that the core voice here was a disciple named John; we don’t know that the letters and the gospel were written by the same person, although there is clearly influence and overlap. 

These texts that bear John’s name have a distinctive voice in lots of ways. 

John’s Gospel overlaps with the other three – Matthew, Mark, and Luke; it’s clearly telling the same story about the same person. But it tells it very differently – with events and characters that don’t appear, or appear differently, in the other Gospels; and with Jesus making some theological speeches that have no parallel elsewhere – except in the letters that extend some of their themes. 

It’s in these texts – the Gospel of John, and the Johannine letters – that Jesus tells his disciples to obey his commandments.  Jesus doesn’t talk about following him that way, elsewhere. Sure, he tells his followers what they should do, and how they should act. He just doesn’t use that Old Testament vocabulary of obedience to a commandment, in other texts. 

So to understand what John’s Jesus means when he says, “You are my friends if you do what I command you,” we need to look at the Johannine texts and see what they say about Jesus’ commands. That is not quite as straightforward as it sounds. The Johannine texts are notoriously dense; the grammar can be hard to untangle; they’re full of cryptic and mystical sayings whose meanings are far from obvious. But fortunately, if we follow the vocabulary of command and commandment through these texts, there is a pretty strong pattern. The gist is, Love each other. 

It starts in John’s Gospel, at the Last Supper, when Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. This is how people will know you are my disciples: by your love for one another.” (13:34) Later in the same speech, we have the passage that comes to us as today’s Gospel:  “This is my commandment: love one another, as I have loved you. No one can have greater love than to lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends, if you do what I command you….  My command to you is to love one another.”  (John 15)

That core command comes up repeatedly in the first (and longest) letter of John – in the third chapter: “This is [God’s] commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.” (1 John 3:23) And again in chapter 4: “ The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters* also.”

So by the time we come to today’s passage in chapter 5, we should be pretty clear that God’s command is to love and trust in God, and, most of all, to love one another:  “We know that we love God’s children, when we love God and keep God’s commandments.” The second letter of John is only one short chapter long, but still this theme of the core commandment shows up again:  “Dear lady, I ask you, not as though I were writing you a new commandment, but one we have had from the beginning: Let us love one another.” (2 John 1:5)

If I were John’s editor, I would ask him to tidy up these texts a little. Sometimes “commandment” is singular, sometimes plural; sometimes loving God or trusting Jesus is part of the commandment too, but not always. But nevertheless there’s a solid, consistent theme: Jesus commands his followers to love one another. 

There is overlap with the Great Commandment here, for sure: Love your neighbor as yourself. But it’s pretty clear that Jesus means “neighbor” quite expansively. Your neighbor isn’t just the person standing next to you, or the person who lives next door. Your neighbor is anyone whose path crosses yours. Anyone to whom you might show – or from whom you might receive – kindness and care. 

The “love one another” command is more specific. Jesus is speaking to his gathered disciples. And the letters are addressed to churches, Christian fellowships.  This commandment has to do with how we treat each other, within a faith community. If that’s not clear from words themselves, we can look at context. The first statement of this core commandment, in the thirteenth chapter of John’s Gospel, follows Jesus’ washing his disciples’ feet – an action which, for John, is the core symbolic act of Jesus’ last evening with his friends. And it’s very clear that the action is a teaching about how Jesus’ friends should treat one another: “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

Love each other. Serve each other. This is what Jesus commands. 

I’d guess some of you feel some resistance to this idea. It sounds so inward-looking, and we want our faith to be other-oriented… rightly so. Many other Scriptures direct us to care for the wellbeing of our neighbors, expansively defined. Why does John’s Jesus, Jesus as the Johannine community remembers him and gives him voice, lean so hard into love within Christian community? 

There are hints that conflict may have an issue in John’s community or other early Christian fellowships. Like this one from First John chapter 4: “Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” (1 John 4:20; see also 2:7-10). 

But John isn’t just pushing a love agenda to try to get people to be nicer to each other, to quit their infighting and get on with the work of the church. There’s more to it than that. This isn’t just about organizational stability and effectiveness. This is ecclesiological and theological, for John. 

Ecclesiological means having to do with our understanding of the ekklesia, the church. Why did Jesus call Christians to do what they do in groups, not just follow his path individually? What is church for? You could be a Great Commandment Christian without a church – well, at least you could try. But John thinks church matters. John thinks our obedience to Christ begins with our capacity to extend faithful and generous love to one another. John sees Christian community as a practice field for mercy, kindness, repentance and righteousness. 

And that rings true to me. I have seen it at work here – though we could go much further. The more we love each other, the more we tell each other our truths. And the more we tell each other our truths, the more we discover how much scope there is to grow in wisdom and compassion, right here, right among the people in this room. 

I promise I won’t bring everything back to the capital campaign for the next six weeks, but there’s a very real sense in which that whole process has been an exercise in love and listening. I came to the conversation with my own list of stuff that bugged me about the building, like many others. Mostly the lack of storage space and the floor in this room!… 

And then, through focus groups and surveys and casual conversations, I learned about more and more things that had never been a problem for me, but are problems for people I love – the loft stairs that fascinate crawling infants and terrify parents; the heavy front doors; the oppressively small bathroom stalls; the introvert-torturing coffee hour setup; the terrible acoustics in the meeting room; and so on. We named the campaign the Open Door Project because it really became focused on making it possible for all kinds of people to come and be present here in safety and comfort and joy. 

Could talking and listening here, within this community, and coming to understand the importance of push-button doors – or gender-neutral bathrooms – or chairs with arms – or toddler-safe spaces – could carry over into our daily lives in the world? Could make us more mindful of, and compassionate towards, the comfort and safety of others whose needs may differ from our own? I think it could. I think it does.

And that’s just thinking about physical needs; the effect is so much bigger when we also talk and listen about hearts and minds and souls. Doubling down on loving one another isn’t insular or inward. It can be mind-opening and heart-changing. 

This is kind of a crazy year for me and for St. Dunstan’s. If you get our church emails, you got one on Friday reminding you that I’m taking a sabbatical later this year, starting in August. That hasn’t been a secret or anything – we announced it to the parish when we first got the grant. But we haven’t talked about it much for a while because we were focusing on the capital campaign. It’s only three months now till my sabbatical begins, so it was clearly time to remind everyone that this is happening, but the Vestry and I worried about it a little bit – not, Will St. Dunstan’s be OK?, because St. Dunstan’s will be OK, but, Will this make anybody’s anxiety shoot through the roof? Having a parish capital campaign AND a rector’s sabbatical in the same six-month period? I mean, we’re Episcopalians. Consistency is kind of our deal. 

I hope nobody’s anxiety is shooting through the roof. I see the Holy Spirit’s hand in how things are falling into place, with both of these big projects, and so I’m able to feel hopeful and curious instead of anxious. Mostly. But I’m not going to lie: it’s a lot to manage. Right now I’m trying to do all the normal church stuff I do,

Plus organize things for an extended absence, plus plan travel and study for my time away, plus help organize the parish’s renewal project, plus help run our capital campaign. 

In the moments when it starts to spin out of control – when anxiety starts to overwhelm hope – tou know what keeps me grounded? What makes it all seem possible, and worthwhile?

Loving you. That’s what anchors me, and what drives me. Loving you. 

I said earlier that this whole “love each other thing” is both ecclesiological and theological.  Meaning it has to do with both the nature of the Church, and the nature of God. John or John’s Jesus says many times that when his followers are one with each other, they – we – also approach oneness with God through Jesus Christ. The best-known example is probably from the 17th chapter of John, when Jesus prays that all his followers may be one, just as Jesus and God the Father are one. But there are lots of passages that point towards this vision of a mystical fulfillment that is achieved when our love for each other within Christian community draws us into union with the Divine. And that this is somehow the goal of the whole endeavor. 

I have no idea what that means. I can repeat John’s words – they are beautiful – but John is talking about levels of reality that are beyond our human perception and comprehension, here. 

But maybe we glimpse it, now and then. In those moments when our care for each other makes our differences into strengths instead of weaknesses.  In those moments when someone walking a new road finds a companion here who’s been that way before. In those moments when simple acts of kindness lift someone’s spirit or lighten their load. In those moments when the Spirit gives us words of peace, comfort, or encouragement, for one another. In those moments when we love each other, and God fills the space between us. 

Sermon, Jan. 21

This is what I’m saying, friends: Our time is short. From now on, married people should not be preoccupied with their partner, family and home. Those who are sad should look beyond their sadness, and those who are happy should look beyond their happiness. Everyone should not be so concerned with how they make or spend money. Those who make use of the world and its opportunities should be like people who are detached from the world. Because this world in its present form is passing away.

That’s today’s Epistle, from Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth. (1 Cor 7:29-31) A few verses earlier, leading up to this passage, Paul writes, “In view of the impending crisis…”

Those are words you really don’t want to hear from the rector of your church in her annual meeting address: “In view of the impending crisis…”

In preparing sermons, I often use a wonderful webpage called The Text This Week. It compiles and presents commentaries and reflections and sermons and liturgical resources for every reading on every Sunday, following the Revised Common Lectionary. The Text This Week has a long list of commentaries and articles on this text – but not a single sermon. So apparently people have LOTS to say about this passage, but nobody cares to preach on it.

Well. Here goes.

One of the reasons it’s a difficult text to preach is that Paul seems to expect, in this passage, that Jesus will return soon – like, next week soon – so Christians really can detach from this world, because there’s no point in saving for college or setting up autopay on your mortgage.  And we shrug off the passage because, well, Paul was wrong. We’re all still here.

But Biblical theologian Alastair Roberts says that’s missing the point. What Paul says here isn’t that the world is passing away, but that the present form of this world is passing away. The Greek word is “schema”, the shape or appearance of the world as it is. Paul wrote this letter perhaps a decade before the first Jewish revolt against Roman rule, which led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the great Temple. It was a world-changing event for early Christians – and Paul may well have seen it coming; Jesus certainly did. So: Paul wasn’t wrong. When we stop being 21st-century observers and put ourselves in the shoes of 1st-century Christians experiencing the upheavals of that time: Yeah. The schema was passing away, bigtime. As many, many schemas have passed away in the two millennia since then.

Furthermore, Roberts says, Paul’s point here isn’t just about historical changes and endings. It’s also about theology – how we see the world in light of our understanding of God. You don’t have to believe that the world is literally going to end soon, to see the world through the lens of the expected fulfillment of God’s promise to transform and renew the whole cosmos.

Roberts says that the New Testament expresses the first Christians’ sense of eschatological imminence – the sense that God’s Kingdom is just over the horizon. And that sense arises from the Church’s experience of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. The first Christians understood that reality had already been fundamentally transformed by the events of Good Friday and Easter. Roberts writes: “Life after these events is characterized by a radical relativization of the current world order and an intensified sense of its penultimacy.”

Let me try to rephrase that. Christians living after Easter and before the Second Coming should believe and know that the way things are is not the way they are meant to be – or the way they will be when God brings God’s purposes to fulfillment. “Relativization” means being able to see whatever is most familiar and seems most natural to us, as only one option among many, and not necessarily the best.

And the world as it is – even in its best and grandest moments – is not yet what it will be. Penultimate means, Next-to-last. Not final, complete, or ultimate, but whatever comes before the final, the complete, the ultimate. So: Life in the time of the church – 2000 years and counting – is marked by a sense of relativization and penultimacy: a recognition that things are not as God would have them; that we live and die, work and pray, hope and strive, in the crepuscular glimmer of God’s future, just beyond the horizon of our limited sight.

Bringing that lens to this text, Paul’s guidance to the Christians of Corinth doesn’t sound like the rantings of a prophet whose doomsday predictions missed the mark. Paul is reminding the Corinthians not to take the world-as-it-is for granted. To hold it lightly. Everything is provisional, everything is temporary – both the things you hate and the things you love. Don’t take anything too seriously; don’t lose yourself in the preoccupations of everyday life in the here-and-now.

Read in this light, Paul’s words don’t feel distant and irrelevant. They feel like good advice that I don’t really want to take,either as Miranda, a wife and mother and friend and citizen who wants a safe, stable, predictable future for those I love, or as Rev. Miranda, Rector of St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church.

Across mainline Christian denominations right now, the ethos is anxiety bordering on panic. Membership numbers have fallen sharply since their high point in the 1950s – for a variety of big, sweeping historical reasons. Mainline Protestantism’s position of cultural and institutional centrality in American life is long gone. Churches and denominations are struggling to adjust to the changed religious, economic and social landscape, making tough choices about how to use decreasing resources to maintain what they have or to cut their losses and try something new. Look up the current struggle over the Episcopal Church’s budget for a lively case in point. We all know – in our best moments – that the Church and the Gospel will outlive the forms of institutional church that took shape in the mid-20th century. But we live in those forms, and love them, so there is grief and fear and struggle in this season, across American Christianity. A schema is passing away.

But St. Dunstan’s is growing. Slowly, but surely. I don’t know why. I don’t understand it. I’m grateful, and puzzled, and sometimes overwhelmed. But here we are.

During my seven years here, the treasured, committed, active, long-time members of the church have been joined by many treasured, committed, active new members. We’ve reached the point where we actually need to bring some energy and intention to making sure people know each other – that’s the impetus behind the Neighbor Dinners you’ll hear more about later. And though we’ve lost some folks to jobs in other cities or to the nearer presence of God, there continue to be enough of us to sustain this fellowship of faith, with the needed resources of time and skill and heart and, yes, money. For each of the past three years, we’ve modestly expanded our budget, to accommodate needs and areas of growth. The Vestry and the Finance Committee ask for what we think we need, and the congregation steps up. It’s amazing. Sometimes, honestly, it’s a little hard to talk with my clergy colleagues, when my challenges are things like too-small Sunday school classrooms and improving our capacity to integrate new members.

BUT, but, but: Growth doesn’t mean we’re exempt from the changing times. That we get to keep the schema of the present world. At best our current flourishing is a temporary reprieve from having to reckon with the tectonic shifts in American religion;  at worst it may prevent us from seeing and adapting to the ways in which those tremors have already shifted our foundations.

I’m going to resist diving headlong into the sociology of 21st century American Christianity, but here’s an incomplete list of some of the ways that epochal shifts in the cultural and economic landscape have an impact on how we do church.

Let’s start with committees! In 1960 – the boom years for American mainline churches – 70% of American households had a man who worked, and a woman who stayed home. Our images and memories of churches busy day in and day out with committees and guilds and service projects and craft sales reflect that era. Most women didn’t work outside the home; they were, let’s face it, bored and lonely; church was one place to take their energy and skill. Today, over 60% of American households are dual-income households, in which both adults work. What that means for churches is that people have fewer hours to offer to church committees and ministries. People still want to commit their time and skill – but often in more specific, targeted ways.

And people are, simply, tired on the weekends. What’s more, the loss of cultural centrality for Christianity means that sports and other events happen on Sunday mornings now. For folks with kids at home, Saturday and Sunday are a jumble of activities, laundry, and trying to snatch a little rest and togetherness. I get it. I’ve become pretty protective of my Saturdays, because during the school year it is my only day home with my family. So when people whom I know are committed to this church, and love God and love this community, are not here every Sunday – I miss you, but I sympathize. Life is really full, and pretty exhausting.

And that shift in work patterns is just one factor among many. The rise of the Religious Right in the 1980s began an era in which Christianity increasingly associated with hard-line moral conservatism. I know we have members who struggle with toxic Christianity, in its public manifestations or in their own past. Being church in the 21st century means both being inevitably tainted by Christianity’s brand issues, and continuously having to remind ourselves and each other that we follow Jesus, but not in that direction.

Another big shift is in patterns of institutional loyalty and giving. People don’t join and give as a normal, default behavior anymore; a church or nonprofit has to earn peoples’ loyalty and generosity. I think that’s a good change, but it is a change.

And outside of evangelical Christianity – which is having its own struggles right now! – church has really shifted from the center of American life. Many people not only don’t belong to a church, but honestly have no idea what it’s all about, or why anyone would want that.  There’s a tendency to pin that shift on GenX or the Millennials, but it actually started with the Boomers, with the freedom they felt to walk away from inherited norms – including church attendance – and chart their own path in life. The result is that for a huge swath of the American public, we are quaint and peculiar. I recently ate lunch at a restaurant that seemed to be a re-purposed church building – a cute little white country church. You could still see organ pipes up in the loft. You see that a lot – churches that have closed being turned into cafes or condos. But my friend told me, This building is new. This is not a former church; this is a hip restaurant built to look like a former church. That’s where we are in the life of American Christianity, friends.

OH, and ALSO, the fundamental epistemological shift from modernity to postmodernity means that people are no longer certain that there’s any such thing as truth! ….

“In view of the impending crisis…”

We do church – we gather, pray, and sing, welcome, share, and nurture, feed and work and serve – we do church in a new time. In a changed and changing schema. We do church in the shadow of profound change, and profound loss, in the faith landscape of our nation. We are growing here – but even the growth comes with the ache and uncertainty of change. New members bring ideas and energy and heart; but they don’t necessarily want to put their efforts towards maintaining existing structures and habits, extending the past into the future. They didn’t come here to help us maintain the schema. They came here to find a community with whom to follow Jesus.

The gist of it all, friends, is that even though St. Dunstan’s is flourishing right now, if we are wise, we still hear Paul’s call to hold it all lightly. We still live with a sense of relativization and penultimacy. Even the most familiar or most sacred of our acts are experiments, approximations, rough drafts of God’s future. Everything we do is provisional – the things we’ve been doing for decades, or centuries, as much as the things we try for the first time.

This is a terrible Annual Meeting message. Especially for a year when we’re actively talking about a capital campaign. I am supposed to be telling you that this church could be your everlasting monument. That if you endow a brass candlestick, your grandchildren will be able to visit St. Dunstan’s in fifty years and read your name on the plaque. I’m supposed to be telling you that if you commit your time and treasure to this church, it will keep being the exact thing you love right now, forever. This sermon I’m preaching, about how everything is changing and the future is unknowable: this is opposite of the sermon I’m supposed to preach today.

I’m preaching it anyway because I think it’s true, and I don’t want to lie to you. The past half-century has brought epochal changes in American culture, society, economy, and faith. Big stuff has changed, and is changing, and will yet change.

And I’m preaching it anyway because I actually find some freedom and grace in remembering that both the church and the future belong to God. Not to us. There are choices and challenges before us at St. Dunstan’s – the good kind. The choices and challenges of growth; of wisely and lovingly integrating old and new, received and emerging; of having, for the moment, enough, and discerning how to best to use what we have to further God’s purposes among and around us.

This past week at our Vestry meeting, our senior warden Shirley Laedlein read us a prayer which says, in part, “Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us… We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.” I like that image of planting seeds, as a metaphor for the work of the church – but, friends, the seed packet is NOT labeled. We do not know what’s going to grow, nor what ecology the young plants will become part of, nor what they’ll have to withstand, nor what they will produce when they mature.  But we ARE planting seeds. And providing light, and water, and good soil. I believe that. And God gives the growth, and blesses the harvest. I believe that too.

May we have the courage and faith to experience provisionality as freedom, and uncertainty as opportunity. To commit our resources and our efforts towards God’s future with hope and trust. And when we witness the schemas of this world passing away, may we lift our eyes to the horizon, to see what holy possibilities are dawning.

Alastair Roberts’ post about this 1 Corinthians text: 

http://www.politicaltheology.com/blog/the-politics-of-eschatological-imminence-1-corinthians-729-31/

The full prayer that is the source of the excerpt about seeds:

http://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/prayers-and-devotions/prayers/prophets-of-a-future-not-our-own.cfm

Sermon, Jan. 14

It’s evening, about 3000 years ago. Before Jesus, before David, before Jerusalem. And Levi, the priest of the temple of God at Shiloh, has gone to bed. Levi is old, and tired, and his sight is going. So he leaves his young assistant, Samuel, to sleep in the temple hall. We don’t know how old Samuel was – old enough to be given some light responsibilities; young enough to confuse his master’s voice with God’s voice. Let’s say he’s about seven – the age we invite kids to start acolyting, here at St. Dunstan’s.

You’ve just heard the story of what happens next; it’s one of my favorites. Samuel is awakened by a voice calling his name: Samuel! Samuel! He runs to his master, Eli, and says, Here I am! But Eli didn’t call him. Eli says, Go back to bed. So Samuel lies down again. And again he hears the voice: Samuel! Samuel! And again he runs to Eli’s bedside: Here I am, for you called me! And Eli says, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” Samuel lies down; but the voice calls him yet a third time. SAMUEL! So he goes to Eli, and says, Here I am! You called me! And Eli understands that God is calling to the child. So he says, Go and lie down; if the Voice calls you again, say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

Samuel goes back to the Temple. He does as Eli instructed – and he becomes a prophet – one who receives God’s words, who knows God’s intentions. Samuel goes on to become one of the greatest prophets in Israel’s history, and the one who anoints the first two kings of Israel.

Samuel was an exceptional figure. But it was the work to which he was called that made him exceptional; not the fact that God spoke to him – God speaks to all of us, though we often don’t hear. Not the fact that God called him to a role in God’s purposes – God calls each of us to such roles. And – this is important – God doesn’t wait till we’re grownups. God doesn’t wait till we have 401(k)s and mortgages, or at least bachelor’s degrees, to start speaking in our hearts.

Three things made it possible for young Samuel to receive and respond to God’s call.  First, Samuel had parents who connected him with a faith community. Read the first chapter of the first book of Samuel sometime, if you don’t know the story of Elkanah and Hannah, Samuel’s parents. What you need to know is that they were both people of deep faith. And they chose to commit their son Samuel to God’s service as an act of gratitude for God’s faithfulness to them, and because they believed that there could be no better place for their son to be than in the temple, learning to love and serve God. (Side note: Samuel went to live at the temple full-time when he was perhaps three years old – please don’t do that with your children, however tempting it may be! We are not staffed for that!)

Second, Samuel had people in the faith community who gave him a meaningful role there. I’ll bet even when he was three, Eli found little jobs for him: Carry the incense – before it’s lighted. Help me finish the holy bread. Hold the dustpan while I sweep the temple every morning. Chant the prayers with me, beginning with the simplest ones. Feed the chickens. (There must have been chickens.) As he grew in knowledge and strength and responsibility, Eli would have given him more to do. That’s something I want to do well here –  have a ladder of responsibility kids can climb, a variety of ways they can use their skills and interests in service to God, our faith community, and our neighbors, as they grow and mature among us.

Third, Samuel had an adult in his faith community who took him seriously when he heard God’s voice. Eli could have said, You’re dreaming; go back to sleep. Eli could have said, I’m the senior priest at this temple; my sons run the show; why would God speak to a seven-year-old?? Eli could have said, What a wild imagination you have; maybe when you’re older, God will choose to speak to you. But Eli said, God is speaking to you, child. Keep listening. Keep listening.

Which leads me to three things can happen, if we choose to raise kids in church. (And raising kids in church is a choice we ALL make, starting, of course, with the parents who deal with shoes and coats and cars and somehow, miraculously, get them here; but from the moment they walk in the door, it’s on all of us.)

First, if we raise kids in church, it’s possible they’ll hear God’s voice. The text of this story says something interesting: “Now, Samuel did not yet know the Lord,” before God called him that night. In the context of Samuel’s vocation as a prophet, I think this means that he hadn’t heard God’s voice directly yet. But it also means something more general. Samuel had been living at the temple for several years, participating in worship, helping out, singing the songs and prayers. I don’t know if they had coloring pages or not. He knew a lot about God, but he didn’t yet know God.

Now, I believe that young children can have experiences of God, and I certainly believe that God speaks to people who haven’t been raised in a faith community (or who were raised in a faith community that did not listen to them). But being immersed in a faithful and loving worshipping community can create the conditions for a child to be able to hear God’s voice, and recognize it, and respond. And to be able to put their experience of God into words, so the Elis in their lives can hear, and affirm, and encourage.

Second, if you raise children in church, it’s possible God will give them a vocation. The church has done a lousy job with the word and concept of “vocation.”It simply means, Something to which you are called. But we’ve treated it as though only clergy and monastics have vocations – only people whose lives are visibly, officially dedicated to church and God. I believe with all my heart that God invites each of us into participation in God’s redemptive work in the world, and that God invites us – calls us – into that work in ways that are grounded in our individual stories, skills, needs, and hopes. I hope for the kids of this church, just as I hope for the youth and the grownups of this church, that we’ll have the capacity and sensitivity and patience and the courage to feel and notice the tug of call, when the holy Spirit of God is inviting us into something, large or small. Again: The reach of God’s voice is not bounded by church. But kids raised in church might be more ready to hear, and to recognize, God’s voice – and to respond with joy and purpose to God’s call.

Third, if you raise children in church, it’s possible God will give them a vocation that makes you uncomfortable. What God has to say to Samuel is not good news for Eli. His sons have been running the temple to serve their own interests instead of God; and Eli knew that, but didn’t stop them. So, in a nutshell, God’s message is that Eli’s era is ending. That natural human hope, that his children and grandchildren will have what he had, will value what he valued, will do what he did – that hope is dashed. Change is on the wind.

This passage gives me a lot of respect for Eli, despite his failures.  He seems to expect bad news; I think he knows this is coming. And he receives it in faith, saying: “God is God; God will do what God pleases. So be it.”

God’s words at work in the hearts and minds of our children may sometimes bring us uncomfortable news – even bad news. We may hear from their lips that the patterns and structures of faith that seem sacred and all-important to us, are incidental and negotiable to God. We may hear from their lips that things we had hoped would last forever, will better serve God’s future in a new form. I’ve had those moments. I expect to have many more. I pray for the grace to say, like Eli: “God is God. So be it.”

Finally, here are three things we can do, to be a church that takes children’s faith seriously. First, we can understand that kids are not short adults.Grownups have learned the cultural cues to show that we are paying respectful attention to whatever is going on: Sitting up straight, looking towards the front, trying to look interested. Kids either haven’t learned that yet – or they have to do it in school  all week, and need a break on the weekends. Some kids sit still just fine; that’s who they are. Some don’t. But every adult who’s spent time around kids knows that just because they are reading, or building with blocks, or coloring, or wandering around, or looking out the window, doesn’t mean they’re not listening.  Those little pitchers pick up a lot. And the rich language and stories and images of our faith can reach and touch them very deeply, finding fertile soil in young hearts and fresh imaginations. I’ve head so many stories about young kids who go home from church and draw pictures or make up songs or act out liturgies or ask deep theological questions – and they’re NOT all my kids. The fact is, it happens all the time. Kids take church, and God, very seriously. Serious just looks different for kids than it does for grownups.

Second, we can understand that kids are, on the other hand, NOT that different from adults. Grownups and kids like a good story well-told, and a song that feels good to sing. Grownups and kids like it when there’s something to engage our senses – sounds, images, smells. Grownups and kids like a balance of routine – things we can learn and internalize and expect – and stuff that’s more flexible and open. Grownups and kids like to have church friends. Look at how Philip gets Nathanael to come meet Jesus, in today’s Gospel: “Come and see!” Being welcomed, and loved, and invited deeper into discipleship by friends and peers is a huge thing at any age. Grownups and kids have questions. What is that thing called, anyway? Does God care when I hurt? How does prayer work, exactly? Does Rev. Miranda really think that bread turns into Jesus? And so on. I was raised Episcopalian; I was at church most Sundays. And there was a ton of stuff I didn’t learn, about the Bible and church, until I went to seminary as part of my preparation to become a priest. So I know we all have questions about what all this means and where it came from and why it matters. And grownups and kids – at least, some of us – listen better when we’re doing something with our hands. Which is why we tend to have coloring pages around.

The third thing we can do to be a church that takes children’s faith seriously is to see the kids as people. I know sometimes they’re just a blur rushing past – but try to pay attention to them as individuals. I have the huge privilege and blessing of getting to know the kids by sharing projects and ministries with them – like pageants, Vacation Bible School, our 4th and 5th grade group the AbominOwls, and so much more. I get to find out about their favorite books and songs, and what they worry about and what they’re really good at, and that they really care about animals or the environment or homeless people, and what their faces look like when they’re really interested in something, and when I ask a question in a children’s sermon, which of them will give the answer I expect and which of them will offer some next-level theological and ethical reflection that makes me have to say, Wow, let’s talk about that later, I have a sermon to finish here.

I guess I’m saying that one more way the kids of St. Dunstan’s are a lot like the grownups of St. Dunstan’s is this: They’re a bunch of really great people who are well worth getting to know. If you’ve got time and interest, there are lots of opportunities to drop in on our Christian formation programs for kids and youth. You can bring a special activity, or be a “second adult”, or help out with seasonal special events. Or you can just be church together. Learn someone’s name. Let them know when they do a good job, acting or acolyting or singing or reading. Tell them which is your favorite tree, out on the grounds, or ask them if they’ve read a good book lately. And watch for our opportunities to be like Eli: to include children in our worship and our ministries, to affirm that God is at work in their hearts and their lives, and to listen when God speaks through them.

Sermon, Jan. 7

Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has dawned upon you. For behold, darkness covers the land; deep gloom enshrouds the peoples. But over you the Lord will rise, and God’s glory will appear upon you.

This text, which the church names as Canticle 11, one of our holy songs of faith, comes from the 60th chapter of the book of the prophet Isaiah. Part of this chapter is always one of the lessons for the Feast of Epiphany, on January 6, and the canticle is often used in this season – we are using it as our Song of Praise. Isaiah’s imagery of light dawning on a people of darkness is echoed in the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke, in Zechariah’s prophetic song to his newborn son John: In the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness! And in John’s Gospel: A light shined in the darkness and the darkness could not overcome it!

More broadly, light in darkness is a central image and theme for the season of Epiphany. No doubt, that has a lot to do with how these feasts, Christmas and Epiphany, came to be set in deepest darkest winter as Christianity spread northwards in Europe. It was dark. And cold, and dismal. And everyone yearned for light.

Light shining in the darkness: The image is so familiar and seems so natural that it’s easy not to think about it. Darkness is bad; you can’t see, something could be lurking just behind you, and you might step on a Lego. Light is good, and safe, and beautiful. But there’s always always more going on with our language and our images than we realize in the front of our minds. So I spent some time this week thinking about darkness. Looking at what the Bible, our holy text, says about dark.

What does Scripture say about darkness?

The Old Testament begins in darkness. We have those verses today: God’s spirit moves over the face of the dark and chaotic waters. God creates Light, separates and names Light and Dark, Day and Night. Many Old Testament texts, not just Genesis, focus on God as Creator; and it’s clear in all of them that dark and light both belong to God. The prophet Jeremiah talks about God having a covenant with both Night and Day.

A beautiful example comes from the prophet Amos, in a text that’s used in our Evening Prayer rite: “The One who made the Pleiades and Orion, and turns deep darkness into the morning, and darkens the day into night,…. the Lord is his name.” And of course it follows that God is not troubled by the dark – in Psalm 139, the Psalmist prays, “If I say, surely the darkness shall cover me…. Even the darkness is not dark to you; darkness is as light to you.”

The darkness is God’s, and God dwells in darkness. In the book of Exodus, when Moses approaches God for one of their many conversations, God is found in a deep, dense darkness or shadow. Exodus 20:21 says, “The people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.” Later, King Solomon says, “The LORD has said that he would dwell in thick darkness.” In the Eastern tradition of iconography, holy images, this sense of darkness and mystery surrounding God is represented in shapes that get darker as you move towards the center, behind representations of Jesus or God the Father.

In the Old Testament, darkness is a rich metaphor. Humans are diurnal animals, adapted to function well in daylight, primarily because vision is our strongest sense. So the dark – the literal dark – is scary for us. We feel vulnerable, because sight, our best way of interpreting the environment around us doesn’t work. So in metaphor that’s only a half-step from reality, darkness becomes an image for those human situations that make us feel the same way literal darkness does: frightened, exposed, lost, helpless, alone or, worse, surrounded by threat. In many Old Testament texts, darkness serves as a evocative shorthand for the soul-conditions of fear, grief, and despair. It’s heavily used in the Book of Job, as Job speaks about his experience of suffering. And it’s this kind of darkness – experienced by a whole people – that the Book of Isaiah evokes with these inspired words: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light!” And, much later, “For darkness covers the land, gloom enshrouds the people – but the glory of the Lord has dawned upon you!”

The Old Testament tradition recognizes that darkness can also be useful. Those with ill intentions use dark as cover for their deeds, but so, too, dark can be protection for the righteous and the innocent. Gideon and his tiny army attack an enemy camp by dark, using sleep and confusion as weapons. The Israelites fled from Egypt by night, and Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus fled TO Egypt by night.

Think about how very dark, and how very quiet, night was, before electricity and all our modern conveniences. The Wisdom of Solomon, chapter 18, has a lovely description of night: “While gentle silence enveloped all things.” Perhaps because of that gentle silence, darkness and night are also a privileged time for prayer and contemplation. Psalm 63 says, “I meditate on you in the night watches.” Isaiah 26 says, “My soul yearns for you in the night.” David prays by night; so does Judith; so does Jesus. Dreams and holy visions come at night, too. Many theologians and mystics have dug deep in this vein of the holy potential of the dark. Of the power and grace of not-knowing, not-seeing, of releasing that (illusory) sense of mastery and control, of knowing where we are and where we’re going, that comes with light and sight.

For the Old Testament, then, darkness and night carry rich metaphorical weight.

But in some New Testament texts, they take on moral weight as well. As in: Light is Good, Dark is Evil. Darkness becomes a synonym for human wickedness, by another metaphorical step away from literal darkness: either people are wicked because they can’t see what’s good and right, or wicked people love the dark because they imagine it hides their sins.

This usage shows up here and there in the Old Testament – Proverbs, for example, uses darkness as image for wickedness. But it really becomes dominant in the New Testament, especially in the language of the Johannine texts – the gospel and letters that bear the name of John.

There’s ambiguity in John’s language. Sometimes it sounds like he’s using “darkness” much as Job and Isaiah did – darkness as suffering, lack of direction and hope. John’s Jesus says: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” (8:12) And, “I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness.” (12:46) But elsewhere in John, darkness means intentional human wickedness: “This is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” (3:19)

There’s some powerful dark/light imagery in the Epistles, as well. In the letter to the Romans, Paul calls on Christians to “cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” The letter to the Ephesians says, “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them,” and, a few verses later, “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but … against the cosmic powers of this present darkness.”

One thing that happens with texts like that one is that darkness is othered – projected outward onto someone else. Whereas for Job and Isaiah, they themselves, and people like them, struggle in darkness, darkness-as-wickedness is something that besets OTHER people, and we should separate ourselves from it, and them. The first letter to the church in Thessaloniki says, “For you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness.”

The imagery and language of Christians as “Children of Light” becomes important for early Christianity. It makes a lot of sense, historically and sociologically. Early Christians were a persecuted minority in a particularly unpleasant chapter in the life of the world, and those conditions can create strong us-them mentalities. Light and dark became the symbolic language our faith-ancestors used to set themselves apart from the chaos, violence and immorality they saw all around them. Seeing themselves as children of light, temporarily trapped in a realm of darkness, helped them feel free and safe, even in the face of terrible suffering.

But early Christianity’s investment in the Light:Good::Dark:Evil dualism has not been especially healthy for Christianity or humanity. Listen to this verse from the first letter of John:  “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in God there is no darkness at all.” Wait – remember everything in the Old Testament, about how God creates dark and light, and is at home in both? About how God dwells in deep darkness, a visual metaphor for the mystery of the divine? About how darkness – literal or metaphorical – is part of the natural order, and is the lot of every living thing; and that darkness can be a holy space for prayer, for divine encounter, and for releasing our illusion of autonomy and control? If we follow the Johannine imagery all the way towards a God of Light and Light only – and the Church has leaned that way – well: we lose a lot. We lose a lot.

Arise, shine, for your light has come!  Inevitably, we read a text like Isaiah 60, or Luke 1, through all those layers of history and meaning. Is the darkness named here a literal darkness? Of night or storm or a season when it’s dark by 4pm? A human situation in which we need, simply, light? Is this the metaphorical darkness of human pain and struggle? Something from which we need deliverance and comfort? Is this the moralized darkness of human wickedness? Something from which we need repentance?

And if it’s the last – darkness-as-wickedness – can we identify some group of people as the problem, and set ourselves apart from them as the pure children of light? That’s a really common, lasting, and destructive human impulse – to locate darkness in the other, erase it from oneself.

Maybe the biggest reason to be thoughtful about the Church’s use of the language of light and darkness is because, in the 18th and 19th centuries, Europeans made a really stupid yet effective association between darkness-as-wickedness and dark skin. The concept of darkness was racialized, as part of the rationale for European exploitation of Africa. For Europeans first enslaving, then colonizing African peoples, darkness of skin and imagined civilizational, religious, and intellectual “darkness” all got wrapped up together, in their concept of Africa as “The Dark Continent.” Europeans told themselves that Africans were a people of uncontrolled appetites and senseless violence, even as European colonizers in Africa acted with uncontrolled appetite and senseless violence. Locating darkness in the other; erasing it from yourself.

And that association of dark skin with moral and intellectual inferiority became part of the racial order and ideology in the United States. Those meanings aren’t there in Scripture; those are layers added by human sin in the intervening centuries. But we can’t just peel them away; history is sticky. A study document from the United Church of Canada reflecting on light and dark imagery in the Bible observes, “Before [the 18th century], the positive and negative aspects of light and dark were not systematically assigned to different peoples. Once this separation of peoples based on race became entrenched in education, science, economic, social, and political policies …, it [became] virtually impossible to use these terms in ways devoid of a racist agenda.”

It may sound to some folks like hypersensitivity, to say that when the Church uses Scriptural texts about darkness, we should be mindful of the racist resonances of those words. But look around this room: we are an overwhelmingly white parish, living in a culture that privileges and protects white folks. When people of color tell us, Please be careful how you use this language, we have to listen. Because it is a blind spot for us. A darkness in which we cannot see clearly. We know that our culture tells us that light and white are better than dark and brown. We know that children, including kids of color, show a preference for white-skinned dolls by the age of three. I fervently long for the church not be yet another place that reinscribes those messages and meanings.

And yet – and yet. I don’t feel ready to give up this language. Some of the most powerful images in Scripture play with light and dark: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it…. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”

So as we sing and pray and reflect on the images of light and dark in this season,  let us bear in mind that the light of Christ that we welcome, and follow, and strive to shine in our lives – the light of Christ shines harshly on the categories and structures by which we divide and exclude and impoverish one another. Following that Light means making no peace with the sin of racism in its in many forms, in our world and our hearts.

And as we sing and pray and reflect on the images of light and dark in this season, let’s get literal. Let these images work in us as the simple and profound visual metaphors they were intended to be. Imagine sitting in deep darkness, seeing the first faint hints of dawn. That’s the feeling Isaiah means to evoke. And let’s remember, too, the riches of darkness, as known to the Old Testament tradition: safety, reflection, peace, holiness, and the wisdom of unknowing.

 

References:

United Church of Canada statement:

http://www.united-church.ca/sites/default/files/resources/light-and-dark-imagery.pdf

An interesting reflection on light/dark imagery in literature:

http://shweta-narayan.livejournal.com/20698.html

Sermon, Christmas Day

The Rev. Tom McAlpine was our preacher on Christmas Day. 

Our first lesson and, in particular, the couplet “The Lord has bared his holy arm / before the eyes of all the nations” got my attention as I prepared this homily. I’d invite you to join me in rummaging around in it for a bit.

That first lesson comes from that part of Isaiah which initially addressed the Judean exiles in Babylon. Despite appearances, Yahweh, Israel’s God, has not forgotten them, and is not powerless in the face of Babylon’s many gods. Yahweh is about to display his power, bring the exiles home, bring joy to Jerusalem. ““The Lord has bared his holy arm / before the eyes of all the nations.”

So the first part of the lesson. If we tried to imagine what that might look like, we might turn to the psalm we used, Psalm 98: images of royal majesty and power, complete with “His right hand and his holy arm / have gotten him victory.” Images like this occur frequently in our Christmas carols. “Joy to the World,” with which we’ll be closing this Mass, is almost a paraphrase of Psalm 98!

But the second part of our lesson goes in a very different direction: it speaks of many being astonished and startled by the sorry appearance of Yahweh’s servant, a servant who will nevertheless finally “be exalted and lifted up.” There’s such a change in tone that we often treat the two parts separately. We read the first part at Christmas and the second part during Holy Week. But the book puts the two parts together. If we’d read one verse further, we would have encountered “Who has believed what we have heard? / And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” “The LORD has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations;” “to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” That suggests some sort of identity between that holy arm and the servant. The book doesn’t explain; it just juxtaposes the two parts as a profound riddle.

It’s not until the birth that we’re celebrating today that we’re in a position to recognize the meaning of the riddle: the Lord’s “holy arm” manifest in this baby. It’s an astonishing and counter-intuitive deployment of divine power.

We get a different expression of that counter-intuitive deployment in today’s Gospel. The evangelist starts with the logos, the personified reason that undergirds all creation, which our English translations render as “the word.”

3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (Jn. 1:3-5 NRS)

It’s hard to imagine a status more majestic. But then—from the perspective of the Hellenized world in which the evangelist is writing—he blows it:

And the Word became flesh and lived among us,

Flesh—for the Greeks—that dubious, limited, and vulnerable dimension of life from which the more optimistic philosophies and sects promised release. “And the word became flesh.” Of all the deployments of divine power we might have expected…

Christmas is traditionally a celebration. That’s good—but unless we’re careful it can sidetrack us from the astonishment it should elicit. What oppressed Jews had been fervently praying for was something like twelve legions of angels that would send the Roman legions…somewhere else. What they got was a baby.

There are hints—sometimes big hints—throughout the Old Testament that Yahweh has odd ideas about how divine power is properly deployed. At Christmas these odd ideas move to center stage.

Another example, not unrelated to the Christmas story. If we go back nine months to the Annunciation, the conversation between the angel and Mary doesn’t end until Mary says:

“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”  (Lk. 1:38 NRS)

What’s remarkable about that is that in the Greco-Roman world into which Jesus was born there are countless stories of gods impregnating human women, many of them of Zeus, head of the pantheon. Zeus doesn’t look for consent—the idea wouldn’t occur to him. Gabriel, Yahweh’s messenger, understands that the conversation isn’t over until Mary’s “let it be with me according to your word.”

Greco-Roman culture and our culture usually assume that the point of power is to enhance our security, decrease our vulnerability—maximize our pleasure. Jesus’ Father assumes that the point of power is service to the other, even when that degrades security and increases vulnerability. Depending on what slice of our lives we’re contemplating, we sometimes hear this as good news, sometimes as not-so-good news.

Christmas is about Jesus’ birth. It’s also—as I’ve been noticing—about his Father’s odd ideas about what to do with the arm of the Lord, how to properly deploy divine power. And that’s important, I think, because unless we recognize that “my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways” also applies to the use of divine power, we’ll complicate our attempts to understand God’s uses of power, and also make some dangerous assumptions about the uses of human power that please God.

We sing “What child is this?” Great song. Great question. Perhaps it might prompt an additional question: “What God is this who thinks that the best possible response to the human condition is to send this Child?”

Sermon, Advent IV

Hal Edmonson was our guest preacher on Sunday, Dec. 24, for our Advent IV liturgy. 

I remember someone saying to me before I went to college that the point of higher education was to be confronted with your ignorance. I guess for a lot of folks, that’s books they’ve never read, or experiences and background that they couldn’t possibly wrap their heads around. For me, though, I think that first epiphany that I’d missed something came in the college chapel during my Freshman year. There was a weekly Taizé service there for students, and I remember, the week before Thanksgiving, someone saying that they were really excited that Advent started on Sunday. And there was brief second where I thought through the Calendar in my head, and then was like “No, December doesn’t start until Tuesday!”

See, I wasn’t really raised in the church, and there’s things you miss that way. But we did have an Advent Calendar, and the way it was always explained to me was that it was just about the waiting for Christmas. And to that end, we had these cardboard things, with little joyful winter scenes, or tiny pieces of chocolate, or little wooden tchotchkes in them. But for reasons of, I suppose, convenience, they always just were labeled 1-24. The idea that it was just December, up until Christmas, was totally logical. It’s actually only about one year in six that our Advent Calendars actually, y’know, mark Advent.

There’s a comment to be made there about our liturgical seasons being paved over by our broader culture, and it rather makes itself. But really, I think it goes a little deeper than that: we like countdowns. It’s why we watch the same movies on Christmas, with the same overwrought plotlines, and love it, even though we know that in the end, with a swell of music, everything will turn out great. I think we look at Advent the same way. It is, we’re told, a time of expectant waiting, almost suspenseful. It’a always darkest before the dawn, and we can gaze upon the dreary, the downcast, and the downright apocalyptic, because we know the light is coming. We can savor it because we know exactly how, and when, it all ends.

And it seems like that’s what we’re getting to on this last Sunday of Advent; Finally, the Good Part! We hear the promise from Gabriel of this child, the heir to the throne of David, whose kingdom will have no end, and we can go galavanting, all joyful and triumphant, to Bethlehem.

Except, not quite.

Because first, we have this interlude, between Mary and Elizabeth when Mary says of the annunciation: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…From this day, all generations will call me blessed, for the Almighty has done great things for me.” she is quoted as saying to Elizabeth. But then? “He has shown the strength of his arm, he has scattered the proud in their conceit; he has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty”.

It’s stirring stuff. The Magnificat is part of the monastic office for a reason, has been rendered in icon after icon, stained glass window after stained glass window. If you were to look for a good summary of what all this is about, this would be a good candidate. But in context, its a little odd, no? Isn’t she getting a little ahead of herself? Who was cast down from any throne? Indeed, the Empire Mary lived under was just as sprawling and cruel as it had been before this angel showed up out of nowhere; Were there fewer hungry that day, was their hunger for justice or bread, the slightest bit sated? And what of this exaltation? The take on this story that we get in Matthew’s Gospel tells us that Joseph’s first instinct was to divorce her; Some exaltation, that.

It’s tempting, maybe, to think that it’s just a bit of sentimentality, a beautiful bit of poetry. But I think there’s something much, much, more there. I think we come to this reading at the end of Advent because with these words, Mary deeply challenges our desire for a neat, orderly progression of things. Mary doesn’t say that God will cast the mighty down from their thrones, she says that God has already done it with this act of incarnation. She doesn’t say that that the rich will be sent away empty, she says that they already have been. She’s past prophecy and waiting—it’s already as real as it’s going to get, even if almost nobody else, besides Elizabeth, realizes it. It’s like, here we are, all amped up to go into Bethlehem for the big moment, only to be told that the real moment, the real drama, was all over with, done and dusted long ago when nobody else was watching. Almost like it’s not the birth, but the incalculable, illogical boldness of incarnation itself, that ought to command our attention for a moment.

And that matters. I’m all about beholding things, and seeing things, and building things. That’s what we do as the Church. It’s that belief in putting that vision into practice, a vision not unlike the Magnificat, of inverting the ‘order of things’. This can be a blueprint, if we want it to be, that’s on us to build.

But we get into trouble when we mistake the moment of things becoming visible for the moment when it becomes real. Scripture gives us these words before any guiding star takes to the sky, before anyone else, wise or not, gets wind of it. This wasn’t just poetic hope, I don’t think. Something was already afoot.

A few months ago I had the pleasure of hearing the Rev. Fleming Rutledge, one of the first women ordained to the priesthood in this Church, speak about Advent. It was fascinating in so many respects, but what stood out was her emphasis on the idea of Advent as a season of apocalypse in the fullest sense of the term: an unveiling of the continued action of God in the world, the future that is being glimpsed before our eyes. But it’s not easy. And she made this point—oddly enough—with a military metaphor. I’m not often wild about likening any part of the Gospel to violence, but roll with it for just a moment: She liked Advent, and the Incarnation it brings, not to the light sweeping away darkness, but rather to it being parachuted in behind enemy lines. She compared it, in fact, to the last months of the Second World War: that even though the violence far from over, and much struggle lay ahead, after D-Day victory was assured, the pieces moving into position. Darkness and evil are the theme because that’s what surrounds us, and they won’t surrender without a fight. But they will not have the last word. That much is already settled. The question is, how do we participate in what has already been set in motion?

So much of what we’re called to do is to make things visible. Justice isn’t an additional bonus to the Church, its inseparable, because we are supposed to make visible a kingdom founded on that justice. To be mirrors of a love divine that is so rarely seen or spoken. In a sense, this birth, the resurrection and all the miracles in between are that, and so is what happens on this altar behind me every Sunday. I don’t know about you, but it seems like lately, its harder and harder to see some of these things. Those with thrones seem more ensconced on them than ever, the rich more filled, the hungry empty. And yet, we all know people who work out of sight, who never seem to tire from thankless, necessary work. Who keep running into one burning building after another, chasing one seemingly lost cause after another.

But you can’t make visible what’s not already there to begin with. Mary’s words don’t tell us what’s coming, they tell us that through God’s entry into the world, even unnoticed, has already changed everything. That seems like wishful thinking at best, a cruel joke at worst, but it’s neither. See, to take on power, you have to see its weakness, and stop respecting it. In order to raise those on the margins, you have to already see them as beloved and exalted. To feed those who hunger for bread, and for justice, you have to ignore all that makes you question if they are worthy of those things. In other words, you have to see things as God sees them. The courage to do the real work of the Church, in a weird sort of way, requires you to know that it is, in the fullness of time, already done in the eyes of what really matters. And with the incarnation, as Mary alone seems to know, it is.

So, we don’t get our neat, Advent Calendar ending, because this isn’t an ending. Or a beginning, even. Incarnation means that we now live with one foot in kairos, in the divine time that doesn’t quite match up with our own. While we countdown, the Magnificat reminds us of that Advent is circular, linking all the comings of Christ—in His Flesh, of Mary’s, in our hearts, on this altar and again—into one. And that’s good, because there’s a connectedness to it, a link between the hope that is so far way, and that is already here, unseen. The kingdom and the Christ are near to us even now; in our waiting; in our longing; and in our rejoicing.

Sermon, Christmas Eve

I’m going to tell you a story that happened a long time ago. It’s a story about a time when God’s people were struggling, persecuted and poor. It’s a story about how God never abandoned them, even when things seemed darkest and most hopeless. A story about someone called to set the people free, to give them new hope, new life. His name was Gideon. (We’ll come back around to that other story in a little while!)

Gideon lived a little over three thousand years ago, long before Jesus, long before the Roman Empire, even before King David. God had called this little tribe of people, called Israel, to follow God’s ways and be God’s people. But in Gideon’s time things were not going well.

Gideon’s story is in the Book of Judges, in the Bible. Judges has a pretty clear view of Israel’s history: God called the people Israel to a way of life founded on justice, mercy, and worship of God. But again and again, the people fell away; that way of life seemed too hard, or they figured they could do better by *not* being just and merciful. But when they turned from God, they got weaker. They weren’t looking out for each other, weren’t building up their common good and their shared strength. And so they were attacked by neighboring tribes and nations, again and again. And then they’d cry out to God, and God would help them, and they’d promise to do better this time… This time we’ll REALLY be the people God calls us to be! No, this time we REALLY mean it!…

Well. Those are the kinds of times when Gideon lived. When Gideon was a young man, a neighboring tribe, the Midianites, was attacking Israel. Things were bad. The Midianites had driven the Israelites out of their towns; they were living in caves in the mountains. The Midianites would destroy the fields, kill or steal all the livestock, and bring their own flocks to devour all the pasture land. So Israel was starving. And they cried out to God for help.

One day Gideon is beating out wheat, separating the grain from the chaff. He’s doing it inside his father’s wine press, to hide from the Midianites. And an angel appears to him, and says, “The Lord is with you, O mighty warrior!”

And Gideon says, “But, sir, if God is with us, why has all this bad stuff happened to us? Where are the miracles and mighty deeds that we hear in our holy stories? Why doesn’t God deliver us today, like God delivered our ancestors from Egypt? It seems like God has cast us off, and given us into the hands of Midian!”

But God didn’t strike Gideon down; apparently God wanted someone strong-minded and a little bit argumentative. The angel said, “Go in this might of yours and deliver Israel from Midian; I hereby commission you.”

Gideon says, “Sir, how can I deliver Israel? My clan is the weakest clan of my tribe, and I am the least in my family.” And the Angel of the Lord says, “Because God is with you, you will drive out the Midianites.”

Because God is with you. 

Well, that sounds good; but Gideon is not someone to be convinced by pretty words. He tells the angel, Stay here; I will bring you an offering, and you can give me a sign that you actually have holy power. Gideon hurries to prepare some meat and bread. When he brings them out, the angel says, “Put them on that rock.” And then the angel touches the food with the tip of its staff – and fire leaps up and consumes the food.

Okay, pretty convincing. But Gideon wants proof that this is actually God, and that God can actually do what God says, before he raises an army and attacks the Midianites, which could just leave everybody dead.

He starts to gather an army, calling together all the fighting men and boys of Israel. At the same time, Gideon asks God for a little more proof. He says, “In order to see whether you will actually deliver Israel by my hand, I am going to lay a fleece of wool on the threshing-floor. In the morning, if there is dew on the fleece but the ground is dry, I will know you will free Israel from the power of Midian.” And it was so; when Gideon arose in the morning, the ground was dry, but the fleece was so wet he could squeeze a bowlful of water out of it. All right! God is with Gideon! It’s time for battle! Well… maybe. Gideon is not so easily convinced. Gideon says to God, “Okay, let’s try this once more, the other way around: make the ground wet, and the fleece dry.”  And in the morning, it was so.

So finally Gideon is convinced that God is with him, and that God has the power to shape reality, to do improbable things – like defeating Midian. Because even with all Israel’s warriors, thirty-two thousand troops, the Midianites still outnumber them.

But Gideon’s willing to give it a try. He gathers his troops, near the Midianite camp, ready for attack. Maybe they have a chance, with God’s help.  But then God says to Gideon, “You have too many soldiers. If you defeat the Midianites with all these soldiers, Israel will take the credit away from me, and say, ‘We delivered ourselves.’ Speak to your troops and say, Whoever is fearful and trembling, GO HOME.”

So Gideon does that. And twenty-two thousand men … go home. Leaving Gideon with ten thousand soldiers who are itching for a fight.

Okay. Now there are a LOT more Midianites, but this is how God wants it. Fine.

But then God says to Gideon, “You STILL have too many men. Take your army down to that pool of water over there for a drink. Some of them will cup up the water in their hands, and some will kneel down and lap the water like dogs. The ones who cup the water in their hands – send them all home.”

So the men go to drink. And how many of them lap the water like dogs? Three hundred. And God says to Gideon, “With these three hundred men I will deliver you, and give the Midianites into your hands. Send the rest home.”

And Gideon does. But before they go: he takes all their water jars and their trumpets. So here’s Gideon, with three hundred men, and a bunch of jars and trumpets, looking out at the Midianite camp, with its soldiers as thick as sand on the seashore. And that night God speaks to Gideon and says, “Attack the camp. It’s time.” And he wakes his tiny army and says,  “Get up. God has given Midian into our hands.” He gives them all trumpets and jars – with torches hidden inside the jars.

They sneak into the camp under cover of darkness, and at Gideon’s signal, they all BLOW their trumpets, and SMASH their jars so the torches shine out, and they shout, “For the Lord and for Gideon!”

And the Midianites panic! They wake up to this horrible noise, and light, and fire, and shouting! Some of them start to run and others see them running and they run too, and pretty soon the whole Midianite army, tens of thousands of men, are fleeing towards home. And they’re fighting each other in the dark, in the confusion, and killing each other, without Gideon’s men even drawing their swords.

So Gideon and his three hundred crazy fearless men drove out the great army of Midian, freed their land from the invaders, with some trumpets and some torches and the power of God. Because God was with them.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light…. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. 

This reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah is always used at Christmas, because of the image of light dawning in darkness, and because of Isaiah’s prophetic words about a Savior who will come to God’s people, a child who will be born to us, for us, who will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, and Prince of Peace. Christians have long understood this text as pointing towards Jesus.

Isaiah lived about halfway between Gideon and Jesus; his words harken back to his people’s history, and lean forward into their hopes for the future.

This phrase, “As on the day of Midian” – tt’s a passing allusion to a long-ago battle – one of countless battles told in the Old Testament. And its protagonist, Gideon, didn’t make the cut for most children’s story bibles. Who remembers Gideon? But I really like story of Gideon and the defeat at Midian. And I think there’s something very timely about it.

This story is timely for us as Americans in 2017. I find Gideon really relatable. He’s skeptical, and kind of pessimistic. He hears God’s promises and looks at the world around him and says, God, I’m not sure we can get there from here. He says, God, you’re an idealist, and I’m a realist. But he enters a dialogue with God. He’s not totally cynical; there’s hope lurking under there. When God says, Things can be better, Gideon doesn’t laugh in God’s face and walk away. Gideon says, Tell me more.

So this conversation begins, and continues, all the way through the first business with the sacrifice, through the moments just before the attack, when Gideon sneaks into the Midianite camp, just to see what they’re up against, and hears one of the Midianite soldiers telling a friend that he had dreamed their army was defeated by Israel. Gideon believes: The impossible is possible. Let’s do this.

Gideon begins the story wearing skepticism as a kind of armor to protect the tenderness of hope, and of his anguish at his people’s misery. And he ends up committing himself to God’s purposes. He reaches a point where he wants what God wants, and he gives himself over to it, using his strength and his connections and his ingenuity to help bring about God’s deliverance for his people. Even to the point of risking his life.

And all of that makes Gideon a holy figure worth remembering, in these weary and jaded times. In our discouragement and our skepticism.

And I think the story of Midian is timely for Christmas. Because it’s about how something small can accomplish something big. Gideon marched on Midian with an army of 300 men. A laughably tiny force. Yet by God’s power, combined with human imagination and courage, they were successful. The power of God to do what seems impossible in human terms is what Isaiah has in mind, when he says that the burden of oppression will be cast off as on the day of Midian. It’s not just that a battle was won – but that a battle was won by the power of God. And that’s the Christmas story, the Incarnation: a tiny tiny baby, a newborn infant, poor, cold, and helpless, nevertheless – changes things.

Attacking an entire camp of enemy warriors with three hundred men is ridiculous, but confronting the entire regime of evil and greed and injustice and suffering in the world with one newborn baby – that’s even more absurd.

But that’s the kind of God, God is. That’s the heart of God, made known to us in the face of the child in the manger. Not a God of overwhelming force, to bend humanity to God’s will, but a God of hope and possibility and invitation.

Our God is a God who calls us to take heart, take courage, to lay down our skepticism and weariness and commit ourselves to God’s purposes, God’s agenda of liberation, justice, mercy, and love. To believe that better is possible, and that we can help, because God is with us.  And our God is a God who changes the world with the power of small, ordinary, beautiful, powerful things: The light of a candle, the sound of a trumpet. A few words of love. An infant’s first cry.

Amen.

Announcements, December 21

THIS WEEKEND….

NO 8AM WORSHIP ON SUNDAY, DECEMBER 24: This year, the Fourth Sunday in Advent is also Christmas Eve. After consulting with 8am worshipers, we have decided not to have our regular Eucharist at 8am that morning. There will be Advent IV worship at 10am. Christmas Eve liturgies are at 3pm and 9pm.

Guest Preacher, Sunday at 10am: We welcome Hal as our guest preacher this Sunday. Hal is currently pursuing his M.Div. at Harvard Divinity School.

Christmas Service Helpers Needed! If you would like to be a part of the Christmas services, we still need ushers for our Christmas Eve liturgies. Sign up in the Gathering Area and plan to arrive at least 20 minutes before the service where you would like to assist.

Calendar Notes: The church office will be closed from December 25 through December 29. Rev. Miranda will be taking some time off after Christmas. Father John Rasmus will be available if anyone urgently needs to speak with a priest during Rev. Miranda’s absence.

THE WEEKS AHEAD…

Call for Annual Report Submission: Every year in December/January, we invite our ministry leaders to submit a paragraph or two about what their ministry is and what they’ve done in the past year. We then compile those reports into an Annual Report, and share it with the congregation in advance of our parish Annual Meeting (9am on Sunday, January 21). This year we thought we’d cast the net more widely. If you have something you’d like to share, as a special moment, thanksgiving, or success to share, whether from a particular ministry of just something from the life of this household of faith, you’re welcome to submit it to office@stdunstans.com. The deadline for all Annual Report materials is Monday, January 15. 

Men’s Book Club, Saturday, January 6, 10am: Hillbilly Elegy is a passionate and personal analysis of that poor, white Americans. The disintegration of this group, a process that has been slowly occurring now for over forty years, has been reported with growing frequency and alarm, but has never before been written about as searingly from the inside. J.D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hanging around your neck.

Epiphany Service of Light, Thursday, January 4, 6pm: Join us as we share the story of the Wise Men who came to honor the infant Jesus, and of how the light of Christ has spread through time and space all the way to here and now! All are welcome. We’ll share a light dinner after the service; feel free to bring something to share. Talk to Rev. Miranda or Sharon Henes if you’d like to be a reader for this service.

Birthday and Anniversary blessings and Healing Prayers will be given this Sunday, January 7, as is our custom on the first Sunday of the month.

MOM Special Offering, Sunday, January 7: Next Sunday, half the cash in our offering plate and any designated checks will be given to Middleton Outreach Ministry’s food pantry. Here are the current top-ten, most needed items: low-sugar cereal; fruit (fresh, dried, canned); soup; 100% juice; herbal tea bags; holiday baking supplies; sugar & honey; prepared boxed/canned meals; meat (canned or pouches); laundry detergent; toothbrush, toothpaste, & floss. Thank you for your generous support!

Falk Friends Pantry Prep, Sunday, January 7, 11:30am: This year we continue to partner with Falk by providing toilet paper, feminine hygiene items, detergent, and other similar items for their pantry. Helper of all ages are welcome to help pack our Falk Friends Pantry bags after the 10am liturgy!

Evening Eucharist, Sunday, January 7, 6pm: Join us for a simple service before the week begins.  All are welcome.

Epiphany Pageant, Sunday, January 28: The children of St. Dunstan’s will present a pageant telling the story of Jesus’ birth and the visit of the Wise Men on Sunday, January 28. There will be a rehearsal after church on Sunday, January 21. All kids are welcome to participate!