Category Archives: Big Questions

Sermon, August 13

Kol ha-olam kulo gesher tsar meod, gesher tsar meod, gesher tsar meod, Kol ha-olam kulo gesher tsar meod, gesher tsar meod. Ve ha-ikar, ha-ikar lo lifachad, lo lifachad klal. Ve ha-ikar, ha-ikar lo lifachad klal. 

The words are Hebrew, and they mean: The whole world is a very narrow bridge, But the most important thing is not to be afraid. The whole world – kol ha-olam – is a very narrow bridge, gesher tsar meod. But the most important thing is not to be afraid.

I learned this song in 1995, during the five weeks or so that I spent in Jerusalem. It was supposed to be the beginning of my junior year abroad, But a horrific bus bombing and an escalation in violence, in the long, costly war between Israel and Palestine, changed all that. Along with many students in the same program, I ended up going home; I spent my junior year in Canterbury, England, instead. But between the bombing and getting on the plane back to Indiana, I had a week-plus of living with fear, with an intimacy and intensity that was new to me. That’s probably why this song stuck – I needed it, badly. Those simple words became an anchor for me, in the storm of fear in which I found myself – along with Psalm 107, which I discovered in the little student edition of the Book of Common Prayer that my chaplain had given me before I left: Their hearts melted because of their peril, they were at their wits’ end. Then God stilled the storm to a whisper… and brought them to the harbor they were bound for.

The whole world is a very narrow bridge, but the most important thing is not to be afraid.

The disciples saw Jesus walking towards them across the water, and they thought he was a ghost; they cried out in fear. But Jesus said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Then Peter said, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you across the water.” And Jesus said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, and started walking towards Jesus, across the water. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened. And beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

Preachers often use this story to preach about faith. But I think this tiny, important story is just as much about fear. In our translation, Jesus says that Peter “doubted.” That word suggests that Peter’s faith was faltering. Yet Peter cries out to Jesus for help as he sinks. The Greek word translated as “doubt” here is pretty interesting. It doesn’t mean questioning something you believe. The word, distazo, literally means something like being of two minds, being conflicted, wavering. What’s happening inside of Peter in this moment isn’t that his faith in Jesus is faltering; it’s that something else creeps in alongside his faith, and wreaks havoc on his balance and direction. Peter notices the strong wind, and he becomes afraid. Fear comes alongside his eagerness, his sense of hopeful purpose. He wavers; he begins to sink.

Take heart, says Jesus. The words “Take heart” appear five times in the Bible. “Take courage” appears 21 times, and “Be courageous” 12 times. Do not be afraid, says Jesus. “Do not be afraid” appears in the Bible 67 times. “Have no fear” appears another 11 times. That’s 116 exhortations to resist fear – and that’s only the ones that are easy to find in a text search.

The Bible treats fear as a spiritual challenge – one of the biggest spiritual challenges. God knows – and the ancient authors who recorded the holy stories of God’s people, knew – that fear shakes us, weakens us, holds us back, Turns us against one another. Fear corrodes our ideals, our convictions, our hopes.

What does it feel like in your body, when you’re afraid? Think about it for a minute; remember. I don’t know if it feels the same for everybody, though the biological processes are basically the same. Do you hear a kind of rushing in your ears? Does your gut clench? Does your heart race?

Scientists tell us that the fear response, what happens in our bodies when we feel threatened, is a deep-seated adaptive response. Something that helped our ancient ancestors survive, long before we first stood up on two legs. The fear response pushes us towards one of three actions: Fight, flight, or freeze.

Fight: That’s clear enough. That means our little primordial mammal-selves Are going to fight that predator tooth and claw. What does that look like in “civilized” society? When someone raises an idea that threatens our worldview, or a concern that challenges our plan, we respond with anger. We attack. We try to drive away the inconvenient truth or the challenging idea, by hurting or intimidating or silencing the person who’s raising it. I’ve done this. So have you.

Flight: That’s clear enough too. That means our little primordial mammal-self RUNS AWAY. Maybe we can outrun the predator, escape the danger. In our lives, that looks like getting out of a situation when it starts to feel challenging or threatening. Walk back that thing you said, and apologize; you meant it, but you’re not prepared to deal with the reaction. Decide not to put yourself forward for that opportunity, because you probably don’t have the right qualifications. Don’t buy that swimsuit; Good Lord, what if someone takes your photo and puts it on the Internet, and people laugh at you? I experience the Flight reaction in one very specific way: when situations become a certain kind of stressful, a child’s voice – presumably mine – in the back of my head says, clear as day, “I want to go home.” What does the Flight response feel like inside of you? You’ve done this, too.

And then there’s Freeze – that means our little primordial mammal-self goes totally still: maybe the predator won’t see me, will walk on by. You’ve seen rabbits and squirrels do this. In our modern, civilized lives, that looks like: not rocking the boat. Keeping quiet when your boss makes a racist joke. Sticking with the job you hate because who knows if you could find something else. Holding your truth locked up inside you because the people closest to you might hurt you if they knew. Don’t try that hard thing, that big daring thing, because failure would be worse than not trying. Wouldn’t it? Just… hold still and keep quiet, and maybe everything will be OK. I’ve done this, and so have you.

Fight, flight, or freeze – that’s what happens inside us, when we’re afraid. What happens among us, when we’re afraid? … Leaders discovered a long, long time ago that fear is an outstanding tool for managing and manipulating large groups of people. It’s easy to scare people, and hard to un-scare them. Our brains are lousy at probability: we will readily believe that a certain risk is orders of magnitude greater than it actually is, and we’ll allow that sense of danger to shape our worldview and drive our behavior. And once we’re afraid, as a society, we’ll tolerate all kinds of things if they give us the illusion of greater safety. The limiting of our freedoms and privacies. The demonization of people in a group that’s seen as a threat. The proliferation of weapons in our homes and neighborhoods, which, the data say quite clearly, makes us less safe, not more.

The French philosopher Anne Dufourmantelle wrote and spoke extensively about all this, in her book, “In Praise of Risk,” and elsewhere. She said, Risk is part of life. Danger, loss, hardship, challenge: it’s all just a given. It will come to you, and to those you love. Certainly you can make better choices – fasten your seat belt, take your medication – but human life will never be safe. In a 2015 interview, she said that the idea of “absolute security” is a fantasy – and not an innocent fantasy: one that’s often used as a political weapon of control. And it can become a feedback cycle: the visible apparatus of security, like armed guards on street corners, can feed public fear and thus make us even more subject to manipulation through the promise of security. She said, ”To imagine an enemy ready to attack… induces a state of paralysis, a feeling of helplessness.” There’s that “freeze” response…

Dufourmantelle argued, instead, for accepting risk as part of the human condition. The human response to risk can be noble, beautiful. She told the interviewer, “When there really is a danger that must be faced in order to survive, as for example during the Blitz in London, there is a strong incentive for action, dedication, and surpassing oneself.”

I’d never heard of Anne Dufourmantelle until her name cropped up in the news a couple of weeks ago. She’d been swimming at a beach in France, when the ocean currents suddenly intensified and became dangerous. When the alert went out, she saw two children nearby, and instead of heading directly for shore, she set out to try and rescue them. The children were saved, but Dufourmantelle drowned. Living what she professed. Rising to the risk before her.

Is that supposed to be an encouraging story? I hear you asking. She wound up dead. But imagine how it could easily have ended: She saved herself, and the children were lost. Is one’s own death the worst possible outcome in every situation? What would Jesus do?

Kol ha-olam…. The whole world is a very narrow bridge…

As I look back on it, It occurs to me that those weeks in Israel, when I was 20, may have been the crucible in which one of my fundamental spiritual practices was formed: the practice of resisting fear. Because I spent a couple of weeks living in terror, and I hated how it felt. I hated being so preoccupied with my basic physical safety. It was hard to think about anything else, to enjoy, to learn. I hated how selfish it made me. I hated how it made me afraid of people.

Sometime along the road of recovering from that dark chapter, I decided I didn’t want to be ruled by fear, ever again. It wasn’t until this week that it dawned on me to think of that as a spiritual practice. But it is; it really is. I practice it imperfectly, to be sure. But I try to live as a follower of a God who says, Fear not. Take courage.

Resisting fear doesn’t mean being naive or blindly optimistic, or pretending everything is going to be OK. Scripture and God and the saints nowhere claim that being beloved of God means nothing bad will ever happen. Instead, they insist that none of those dangers can touch your fundamental life in God. It’s hard to say it better than Paul does in our recent text from the letter to the Romans: “Who can separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, illness, poverty, danger, violence? No! I am convinced that neither death nor life, angels nor rulers, things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

So if security is a dangerous illusion, what are the alternatives to fear? Well, I can name a few, from my own practice. Maybe you have others; I’d love to hear about them. These are some of ways I manage myself, when I start to feel the urge to fight, or freeze, or flee. When I start to get distazo, when fear creeps in alongside my faith, my sense of hopeful purpose.

One alternative to fear is curiosity – approaching the things that scare us with curiosity and wonder. Charles Lafond has written a lot about fear as a spiritual challenge, in general and particularly in our relationship with money. He wrote this, last year: “Choosing curiosity over fear takes no small amount of courage.  There is so much to fear. There are the many diagnoses, the possibility of plague, not getting my way in everything, the teetering economy, not getting my way in everything (it deserves saying twice), the Presidential Election, tooth decay, a melting ice cap, and my inability to smell bad salmon… But curiosity is so much more gentle than fear. It winks, for one thing.  And it seduces, which is pleasant. And curiosity is the gift that keeps on giving, making life a treasure hunt if we let it.”

Another alternative to fear is compassion. Madison is seeing almost-unprecedented levels of gun violence right now. There have been ten homicides so far this year. One of the neighborhoods affected is not far from my home; kids who are living with occasional gunfire on their street go to school with my daughter. As a concerned citizen, I could react to this in a couple of ways. I could get scared, for myself and my family, despite the vanishingly small likelihood that this violence will touch us directly. Or I could be dismayed and grieved for those affected by this violence – including the perpetrators, who surely would rather have a safer and better path in life. It’s really hard to be both compassionate towards those affected, and afraid for myself, at the same time. We’re not cut out for that. I have to choose – and I’ve chosen.

Another alternative to fear is courage. I think of both curiosity and compassion as ways to sneak around behind the fear and find a different way of engaging the situation. But courage means facing the fear head-on. Looking it right in the face. Getting to know it. Befriending it, even. How do you take courage? For me the process goes something like this. I think about the risks, as calmly as I can. What’s the worst that could happen – and how likely is it, really? I think about the resources I bring to the situation. When making that inventory, remember, always, to count the basic things that nurture and sustain you: song and prayer, fresh fruit and evening skies, the love of friends, family, pets, whatever it might be for you. And I think about the hopes or possibilities that brought me to the point where I’m facing this fear. What’s important enough to make me undertake something hard and scary? If it’s really important – and especially if I feel God calling me towards it – well, then, forward.

I am not a master at the art of resisting fear. I’ve been practicing for a while, but only haphazardly. I would love to hear about your techniques. But I know it’s an important spiritual discipline for me – and I wonder if it might be for all of us, in this moment in the life of the world, when so much fear is circling among us.

Take courage. Don’t be afraid. God is here. Jesus and God and saints and prophets and angels say it, over and over and over again. Could it be part of the message we’re entrusted with, too? Words we’re given for the welfare and hope of our neighbors?

The whole world is a very narrow bridge, but the most important thing is not to be afraid… Take heart.

Sources:

On Anne Dufourmantelle: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-40703606

Charles Lafond on curiosity: http://thedailysip.org/2016/08/18/668/

Rev. Jonathan Grieser’s recent reflection on gun violence in Madison: https://gracerector.wordpress.com/2017/08/02/murder-city-madison/

Our Immigrant Stories

As immigration has become a major topic in our national conversation, we as Christians are mindful that our holy book commands us to be kind to the stranger residing among us. You shall love the stranger living among you, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt, says Leviticus 19 – one of many places where mercy towards the outsider is mentioned.  Our Scriptures and our God call us to treat immigrants with kindness and respect – remembering that we or our ancestors were once immigrants seeking a new home. To help us understand the lives, needs, and fears of our immigrant neighbors, some members of St. Dunstan’s have been sharing their own “how I got here” stories.

Julie

My immigrant story really is my grandmother’s story. I never knew her, because she died in the mid-1930s, when my father was a teenager. But I spent most Wednesday afternoons after school with my great-aunt Frances, her sister, and she loved to talk about my grandmother to me.

My paternal grandparents emigrated from one of many German enclaves in Romania in the first decade of the 20th century, before World War I. Their entire village and the extended families of both my grandmother and grandfather immigrated to the United States together. My grandfather was possessed of a simple ambition: to own his own land, for back in Romania he never would have been allowed to do so, as he was only a peasant.

After a few years of working hard in America, he achieved his dream and bought his own dairy farm. Many members of their families and fellow villagers settled in the same area, about 60 miles north of Detroit, Michigan. My grandparents had four children, two born in Romania and two, including my dad, born in this country. They were contented on the farm. My grandfather planted roses around the house and by the barnyard fence for my grandmother, roses that still bloom by our horse paddock gate here in Wisconsin. He made the old farmhouse as pretty as possible for her, too, with wallpaper and paint and a marble-topped table in the parlor. He was one of the first farmers in the area to install an indoor bathroom in their house. All this and more to make my grandmother happy.

And she was, I think, mostly contented. But she dreaded going into town. Back then, people disliked and looked down on immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, especially if they were Catholic. When she went into town with her children, people were unfriendly, some even going so far as to cross the street to avoid the newcomers. “Why do they hate us so?” she used to ask her sister, my great-aunt Frances, tears pouring down her face. All the older German women who knew her used to tell me after mass each Sunday that she was the sweetest, gentlest soul they ever knew, and perhaps this is the reason she never grew accustomed to the prejudice she faced. One day, she laid her head down on the table at breakfast and said, “I’m so tired,” and died.

My great-aunt Frances always maintained to me that my grandma died of a broken heart, that she wore herself out pining for something that would never be given to her, no matter how spruce her home and farm, no matter how white and starched the immaculate lace dresses she put on her three young girls for town visits. She craved respect and friendship from the people among whom she settled, and she never got that. Of course, who knows whether that unrequited dream contributed to her death? But I’m certain that she felt the sadness my great aunt told me about, for they were very close.

This seems a sad story, doesn’t it? But its ending is not sad, I hope. Before I share the end of the story, though, let me first share a few facts. My German grandparents came here during a period when this country, according to the Pew Research Center, had a very high percentage of foreign-born residents. And it’s predicted that we may break the record for that percentage within the next few years. Many things about immigration have changed since my grandparents came over from eastern Europe. Here are just a few: there are now more immigrants who are Hispanic, though that also will change in the future, Pew Research analysts predict; there are more refugees in the world than at any other time in the last seventy years except right at the end of World War II; and there are many foreign-born residents here without legal authorization who have not been able to, and will not be able to, secure that authorization. One can gain legal permission to remain here through work, family ties, or for humanitarian reasons, but those exceptions don’t apply to many of the undocumented immigrants in our country. There is, at this point, no line for a large percentage of the undocumented immigrants in this country to go stand at the end of, so that they can secure permission to stay here.

It’s true that as a society today, we don’t always agree about how to address the challenges of today’s undocumented immigrants and others who arrive in our country. But I think some things about immigrants, authorized or otherwise, remain the same as when my family emigrated here. People still want to feel welcomed to our country, and accepted. And other people still feel threatened by people with a different culture and a different language, perhaps fearful that the way of life that is theirs will change.

As for my grandmother, I believe she would be happy to see that her family has thrived in America, that all her grandchildren have college degrees while many have obtained advanced professional degrees. My grandparents valued education, as well as hard work, music, and beauty. Naturally, my grandfather, being German, also valued a bottle of good beer! We feel part of the life of this country. It took about two generations for the German Catholic community from Romania to fully integrate into the small town where I grew up, but it did. Even though we are no longer strangers to this country, however, I don’t forget my grandmother’s pain. I remember Barbara Loeffler’s story.

I think about her path as a stranger to this country, and I think about my path to this church of St. Dunstan’s. My journey, nowhere near as difficult as hers, was made easy by so many people here. And I thank you all for that, and for listening to my grandmother’s story.

Nana

We were born in South Africa. At the time we emigrated in 1985 we had lived most of our lives there. This was where we grew up, were educated, had our family and worked for more than a decade. Peter grew up Methodist, I was Anglican and after our marriage, we worshipped in both communions. South Africa was also where our parents and siblings lived. Why, then, did we leave?

South Africa was an apartheid society, with power and wealth in the hands of whites (who were less than 20% of the population). As we grew up, resistance to the status quo by the subservient black population led to draconian laws that limited where black people could live, who they could marry, what jobs they could hold, and what consequences they faced if they transgressed. To manage this, the apartheid government ramped up security forces – both police and the military. After high school, all white males were conscripted for at least two years: their primary purpose was to maintain the status quo. States of emergency that suspended normal civil liberties were imposed. The polarization between white and black increased to the point that mediation efforts appeared to be withering, and outright civil war seemed a distinct possibility. Small wonder, then, that in spite of our deep roots, we decided South Africa was not a country where we wanted to spend the rest of our lives.

The next question was: Where should we go? Since both of our ancestral families were from the UK, and that is where we both went for postgraduate study and where we met, this might have seemed an obvious choice.  But 2½ years in Vancouver, Canada where Peter had a post-doctoral fellowship and I did my master’s, changed our minds: we’d have happily stayed. There were personal reasons – we look back on that time as an extended honeymoon, we made life-long friends and Fraser, our son, was born there, I completed my master’s and Peter found new professional directions. But there were no jobs. After 6 years back in South Africa, a sabbatical gave us the opportunity to spend more than a year in Ithaca, NY. This was highly influential for both of us in our professional development. Once again, we’d have happily stayed. Two in-depth, decidedly positive North American experiences convinced us that this is where we could happily live. It took, however, another 5 years back in South Africa before contacts initiated in Ithaca bore fruit with a faculty position at the UW-Madison.

We are conscious that we have been extraordinarily privileged in our lives. Our decision to leave was not forced on us by deprivation, persecution, or civil war. As white English-speaking South Africans, we had access to excellent schools that opened doors to university education in South Africa and to study-abroad opportunities after graduation. These gave us a perspective on other parts of the world beyond the borders of South Africa. Our decision to come here was also a choice that we could pursue on our terms, and do so in an orderly manner: we received a job offer at the UW-Madison where they held the position open for more than a year until our green cards were issued. To get established here we were indebted with the support we received from many quarters: professional, social and spiritual.

These two questions – Why leave? and Where to go? – faced many of our own ancestors, as they do for the vast number of migrants and refugees we see in the world today. Shortly after we were married we met an Indian physicist in Canada. He told us he was a citizen of the world, and he had a newsletter to promote this concept. We signed on, and that is what we are today: citizens of the world.

Sermon, May 28

Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith.

That’s how two verses from the fifth chapter of the first letter of Peter, today’s Epistle, are rendered in our Book of Common Prayer. Who knows where they appear? … That’s right; this is one of the short Scripture texts offered in Compline, our nighttime prayers. I didn’t grow up saying Compline with my youth group every Friday night, like our kids do. But I’ve still used the rite many, many times over the course of 42 years as an Episcopalian. And through repetition, this short passage sunk into my mind and heart, becoming one of the snippets of Scripture that I have on instant recall. (This reminds me of the joke about the Episcopalian who finally read the Bible and was surprised by how much it quotes the Prayer Book!…)

Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith. These verses stuck with me not just by virtue of repetition, but also because they’re memorable. The earnest warning, and the evocative image of the Devil as a predator prowling around the flock, waiting to catch a sheep alone, sick, weak. Vulnerable. Whether or not you believe in the Devil as a sort of CEO of global evil operations, evil is an active force in the world, and in human hearts and lives. I recognize this text as true: there are temptations, ideas, actions and inactions, that would draw me away from my sacred call to love of God and love of neighbor. Those temptations, those forces lurk around me, looking for an opportunity. They have their best chance when I’m tired and drained, or angry, or afraid, or hurting. When I don’t have my trust in God’s ultimate goodness and my own belovedness wrapped around me like a warm blanket, or like armor.

The adversary prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour… This text stuck with me too because it’s scary. Not just because of that vivid image, but because it seems to be putting a lot of pressure and responsibility on me. Be sober and disciplined. Keep alert. Resist the Devil, steadfast in your faith. Face down the lion. Me? With my puny clawless hands, my soft underbelly? It’s not the most comforting thought with which to end the day and lay oneself down to sleep.

But then, sometime in the past decade, like the archetypal Episcopalian in the joke, I actually read the Bible. And I discovered two things. First, the passage in the Compline rite is incomplete. It breaks in the middle of verse 9, which reads in full: “Resist [the Devil], steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering.” Second, the “you”s through this whole passage are PLURAL. A distinction that English doesn’t make very clearly, but Greek does. The author of this letter is addressing churches here, not individuals. The translation of the Bible that we generally use for Sunday Scriptures, the New Revised Standard Version, makes this a little clearer than the version in the prayer book – “Discipline yourselves.”

But it’s not just that the author is addressing more than one person, but that he’s addressing a community. In fact, one strong theme of this letter is to take care of each other. I found at least four times in this letter when the author tells the members of these churches, Just love each other, OK? In chapter 1: Love one another deeply from the heart. In chapter 2: Love the family of believers. In chapter 3: Have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind. And in chapter 4: Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaining.

The author of this letter – maybe the apostle Peter, maybe a later church leader writing in Peter’s name – this author has taken to heart Jesus’ prayer for his followers, in today’s Gospel: That they all may be one. He knows, as Jesus knew, that Jesus’ followers are going to need each other. That the Way to which they, and we, are called is hard to follow on your own. It’s too nuanced, too open-ended, too profound, too risky. We need a community of faith to encourage each other. To hold one another accountable. To support each other when we’re confused or hurting.

In fact, this author is actually pretty focused on that last point: the church’s response to suffering. He’s writing to Christians who are struggling with difficult times, and are wondering: If God loves us so much, if Jesus’ saving death and resurrection transformed reality, how come terrible stuff still happens? Why isn’t life easier now? How do we deal with suffering, as Christians? That is still, absolutely, one of the core questions of faithful living. And this letter offers one answer. It’s not a fully satisfying answer, because he can’t promise an end to suffering. But it’s also one of the only true and lasting answers that humanity has found, in millennia of wrestling with the reality of human pain: Don’t face it alone, and don’t leave others to face it alone. Look out for each other. As spiritual writer Anne Lamott says, It’s our job to sit with people and bring them juice, until it’s our turn to have someone sit with us and bring us juice.

To say that suffering is an enduring part of human life is not to say that all suffering is inevitable. If we lived in a world of peace, where everyone had enough to eat and access to medical care, then a substantial percentage of the world’s suffering would be eliminated. But not all suffering is avoidable, even in an ideal world. Some of it is built into the human condition. To being embodied, being mortal; to loving each other, or not loving each other enough.

And it turns out that both the wisdom of the ages and modern psychological research confirm that one of the best ways to cope with suffering is to have the support and companionship of others. Psychologists name this as the “common humanity” factor; the sense that you see your struggles as part of the human experience, not something that isolates you or sets you apart. In the words of 1 Peter, to know that “your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering.” And they have found that that awareness is a major source of resilience and comfort, for people going through a hard time. It’s really good to know it’s not just you. It’s really good to know that somebody else went through this and came out the other side. It’s really good to know that somebody understands.

But how do we find those companions, that fellowship of common experience? When we’re going through something hard – trouble at work, a loved one’s illness, family conflict, depression, infertility – we tend to keep it close. Those things are tender, personal, not public. Maybe a close friend or family member is carrying it with us. But it’s hardly a conversation for the office or the bus, the gym or the business lunch.

One of the things church can be is a place to find that fellowship. I learned this from you, friends: when we’ve talked about why church matters to you, why you keep showing up, many of you have mentioned moments in your lives when you were facing something new and hard, and you discovered there were people in your church who knew what that was like – because they’d been through something hard too, the same kind of hard thing or maybe not the same. But it gave them that sympathy, that tender heart that 1 Peter names, to be able to hear you and let you know you’re not alone. I’ve seen it happen, too – I’ve witnessed the holy moments when someone says, for example, Being a single mom is really hard, and people around the table who are five or ten or twenty years farther down that road nod and say, Yeah, it is. And we’re here for you. We’ll listen, we’ll pray, we’ll help.

Church is different from the office or the bus. We don’t always get it right, but our hope is to be place where it’s safe to name your hurts and sorrows and fears. Where you can feel and know that you’re not alone: others in your faith family have walked the road that you’re just starting down. You’re not alone: the griefs and struggles that are new to you are not new to the community of the faithful – as our Scriptures, prayers and stories bear witness. You’re not alone: God’s loving presence is always as near as your next breath, and when you can’t feel that, or believe in it, you can feel the care of the people who become the icons and vessels of God’s presence.

Friends, I’ve even pondered the idea of creating a list, with your help – a sort of “I’ve been there” list that I would keep, of the people in the parish who’ve been through cancer treatments, caregiving for a loved one, advocating for a child with special needs, infertility, addiction, the list could go on and on. So that when I find out that someone is facing one of these situations for the first time, I could help them find a friend in this household of faith – a companion, which means, a person with whom you break bread.

The author of First Peter is on to something. Suffering, whether persecution of the church as a whole or the human hurts and disappointments of its members, will always be part of the picture. It’s intrinsic in having bodies that break, lives that end, hearts and minds that love and grieve and yearn.  Be sober, be watchful. The adversary, the one who corrupts and destroys, prowls around the flock, waiting to catch a sheep alone, sick, weak. Vulnerable.

What do we do about it? We keep watch – together, not alone. We resist evil – together, not alone. We insist that suffering connects us rather that isolating us. We nurture sympathy, tender hearts and humble minds. We practice hospitality towards one another without complaining. We persist in the slow necessary life-giving work of loving each other deeply, from the heart.

Sermon, April 2

“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

Our Sunday readings are walking us towards the cross. In John’s Gospel, the raising of Lazarus from the dead stirs up the people of Bethany and nearby Jerusalem – more and more begin to believe in and follow Jesus, and the religious leaders, who think Jesus is at best a fraud and at worst a tool of the Devil,  and who are legitimately afraid that unrest among the people will bring a violent crackdown from the occupying Roman forces – the religious leaders decide that it would be a good idea if something were to happen to Jesus. The Palm Sunday Gospel, Jesus’ triumphal and confrontational march into the city, follows this story almost immediately.

Our Sunday readings are walking us towards the cross, and beyond that, towards Easter, and resurrection – the Church’s 50-cent word for rising again from the dead. Two weeks from today, we’ll be shouting, Christ is Risen! We’ll be singing about how Jesus trampled down death by death, and bestowed life upon those in the tomb. Death no longer has dominion over us! God wipes away all tears! Love wins!

Except… people still die.

So… what are we talking about?

Part of this Gospel is often chosen for funerals. And last week I realized that I often preach at funerals about what the Church teaches – and trusts – about death. I almost never do so on Sunday morning. But everybody here has someone you love on the other side of that river. We all have somebody we miss. We all have somebody we dread losing. We all wonder.

And yet the Church and her representatives, have the audacity to stand up here in our funny clothes and say it doesn’t matter. That it’s not real. That they’re in a better place now. As if that made it OK.

“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

Jesus talked a lot about eternal life – a new life in God beyond our earthly existence.  So it became Christian conviction and teaching, from the very beginning, that physical death is not an absolute end, but leads into another kind of life. The resurrection of Jesus at Easter opens the door to the resurrection of everybody.

But what does Jesus mean, when he talks about eternal life? When he tells his friends and followers that even though they die, they will live? When he promises that his beloved ones will not perish, but have life everlasting?

I think part of the struggle here is that we come to Jesus with a simple, human question: What happens after we die? And frankly Jesus is not very interested in that question. He’s human enough to weep at the death of a friend, in today’s Gospel, but he’s also God enough to know that death is smaller than we think it is. What he really wants us to think about is life, and what it means to be alive – now, and always. But still: we carry the question in our hearts. Where is my grandpa now? Your father? Your sister? Your child? Can they see us? Are they okay? Are they… at all?

The New Testament doesn’t give us a clear or consistent view of what happens to the dead. Jesus tells the thief crucified beside him that they’ll be together in paradise that very day, but other texts assume – as Martha does in today’s Gospel – that the dead will sleep until the Last Day, when they will be awakened to new life forever with God. The images of life beyond the grave are varied, too -from the city thronged with holy crowds in Revelation, to the intimate image of Jesus preparing rooms for his friends in his Father’s house, from the 14th chapter of John’s Gospel. (There is very little to support the popular image of Heaven as a place up in the clouds, where people are issued wings and harps.)

The plain fact is, the early Christians didn’t know what happens after death, and neither do we. There’s a mystery here which only time will resolve. The writer and philosopher Henry David Thoreau, while he was dying, was visited by a friend, who said to him, “You seem so near the brink of the dark river that I almost wonder how the opposite shore may appear to you.” And Thoreau replied simply, “One world at a time.”

But – if we Christians don’t offer freedom from the inevitability and grief of death – if we can’t offer proof that there’s something more, something better, on the other side – then what can the Church offer in the face of death, besides beautiful words?

Well: even though there’s no proof, there is that promise and hope of something more. Jesus seems very sure that death is not the end – though we have no clear picture of what comes after. But we have to be careful with that assurance of eternity – the Church and its people have sometimes used it to shame or shut out people’s real and profound grief. Even if your loved one IS in a better place now, free from pain and struggle, it hurts that they’re gone. If Jesus wept for Lazarus, there is no shame in weeping for our beloved dead.

Another thing the Church offers in the face of death is the consolation of community. I’ve heard from many of you, in conversations over the years, that one of the most substantive gifts of belonging to a church, to this church, has been companionship in the hardest times. Of opening up about something painful –  a broken relationship, a sick child, the death of a parent – and finding that there are three or four people in the room who have walked that road, and are willing to walk it again with you, offering solace, kindness, and help.

Yet another thing the Church offers is the sense of a bigger picture, a longer perspective. In a recent essay on this topic, Peter Wehmer wrote, “There is…, for me at least, consolation in the conviction that we are part of an unfolding drama with a purpose. …I may not have a clue as to what that precise purpose is,

but I believe… that the story has an author, that difficult chapters need not be defining chapters, and that even the broken areas of our lives can be redeemed.” His words remind me of the voice of today’s Psalm, Psalm 130, a voice of resignation, patience, hope: “Out of the depths I cry to you, O God – hear my voice!… I wait for you, O God, my soul waits for you.”

Please understand: I am not claiming, here, that everything happens for a reason, that even tragedy is God’s will for you. I do not believe that, and you’ll never hear me preach it. But I do believe in grace, in God’s patient, persistent work to weave good from evil, to heal, restore, renew. It’s not easy, or fast, or certain; but it’s possible.

What can the Church offer in the face of death, besides beautiful words? Well… actually, beautiful words can be a real gift and comfort. I don’t know if I love beautiful, holy language, prose and poetry, because I’m a lifelong Episcopalian, or if I’m a lifelong Episcopalian because I love beautiful language. But at my grandfather’s funeral two weeks ago, I found myself reflecting on how we address death, as Christians in the Episcopal tradition.

We have sister churches both Catholic and Protestant who handle the mystery of death and what comes after by developing detailed doctrines and theories. We Episcopalians tend instead to let it rest in mystery – but not a mystery we pass over in silence; rather one we dwell with, or perhaps dance with, in poetry and prose, art and song.

And two weeks ago, I found that it was the strength and grace and felt truth of those songs and Scriptures that both freed my tears, and – eventually – dried them. It was the beautiful words we say and sing that opened my heart to trust in the eternal life Jesus promises,  and reaffirmed my hope in a better beyond.

Receive them into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light.

All we go down to the dust, yet even at the grave we make our song… 

There’s a gathering of spirits, there’s a festival of friends, and we’ll take up where we left off, when we all meet again. 

And even you, most gentle Death, waiting to hush our final breath – you lead back home the child of God, for Christ our Lord that way hath trod. 

Changed from glory into glory,  till in heaven we take our place, till we cast our crowns before thee, lost in wonder, love and praise.

Sermon, March 12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon, Christmas Eve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon, Nov. 13

Today’s lessons may be read here. 

How do you know when a story has ended? When it’s over, and everything that’s going to happen has happened, and there’s no more to be told?

Maybe nine months ago at Sandbox, our Thursday evening worshipping community, I shared one of those wonderful stories from Scripture that the lectionary never gives us on a Sunday. It’s a story from the time before King David, told in the first Book of Samuel. The Israelites were at war with the Philistines, their perennial enemies. They suffered a defeat in battle, and the Philistines capture the Ark of the Covenant, the holy golden chest that contained the stone tablets on which God had written the Ten Commandments. It was their holiest object, a sign of God’s presence with them, and it was at the front with them because they believed it to be an object of great power. And they lose it, in battle.

The Philistines carry it off in triumph to city of Ashdod, and place it in the temple of the god Dagon, one of their gods. They put the Ark at Dagon’s feet, as a sign of their god’s victory over Israel’s God. It’s a terrible moment, a real low point. If the story ended there… it would not be a good ending for Israel or her God. But the story doesn’t end there, with failure and defeat. In the morning, the Dagon statue has fallen over. So they pick it up again, and think nothing of it. But the NEXT morning, Dagon has fallen again – and now both its arms broken off and flung all the way to the threshold of the temple.

And then other things started to happen in Ashdod. People start getting these horrible growths all over their bodies. And there’s also a virtual plague of mice in everyone’s houses and fields, eating everything and pooping everywhere. It sounds funny, but it’s really not – in a subsistence agriculture economy, this is the stuff of famine. Ashdod wants to get rid of the Ark, so the next town over, Gath, says, Send it here. But then the same things start happening in Gath. So they send it on to Ekron, and guess what?…

Then the five lords of the Philistines got together and said, You know what? LET’S GIVE IT BACK. Let’s send it home to the Israelites. And they ask their wise people, what should we do? Should we send an offering to make peace with its God? They answer, Yes. Send the Ark back with five gold tumours – like the growths that appeared on the people – and five gold mice – one for each lord of the Philistines.

So they load up the Ark on a wagon, and put with it five gold mice and five gold tumors, and they hitch two young cows to the wagon, and they send them off, and the cows immediately pull the wagon straight towards the land of Israel, the city of Beth-Shemesh. The people were harvesting there, and saw the Ark coming. They welcomed it with great joy, celebrated and made offerings. That’s where you’d want to end the story, if you’re looking for closure, for just deserts. The people Israel dancing and singing with joy; the Philistines looking on at a distance, relieved to be rid of the thing, and having learned that Israel’s God was serious business…

If you want a tidy ending, stop there. If you go on, another verse, another chapter, the story gets messy again. As stories do – at least, the real ones. At Sandbox I had people make little golden mouse plaques. See, here’s mine. To remind us that the story might not be over yet. When we feel defeated and lost, God might still have some golden mice up God’s sleeve. The story is still moving.

Today’s lessons from the prophet Isaiah and the book of Luke give us two moments – not even chapters, but paragraphs – from another long, sprawling story, one of the central stories of our Scriptures: the story of Jerusalem. Jerusalem was conquered by David, not too long after the story I just told; he brings the Ark there and makes it capital of his kingdom. His son Solomon builds the Temple there. Jerusalem becomes the Great City of Israel, and takes on a symbolic meaning far beyond its reality. It’s a city, a real place with real beauties and real problems; it’s also The City, the religious and political and cultural heart of a people and their faith.

Both Isaiah and the visionary John who wrote the Book of Revelation imagine God’s ultimate salvation and redemption of the world in terms of a vision of a redeemed Jerusalem, a holy city. A City of peace and plenty, of freedom and health. Jerusalem is named over 1000 times in our Bible. Sometimes those writers are talking about the literal place. Sometimes about the symbolic place, the City of God. Sometimes they mean both at once… In the book of Tobit, as in many places in the Bible, the image of the return from exile and rebuilding of Jerusalem is used as shorthand for the redemption of God’s people, the setting-right of all that has gone wrong, the restoration of everything that has been lost. So Jerusalem is Jerusalem, and also often much more than just Jerusalem.

In this short passage from the book of Isaiah, the prophet is looking from one of the bad times towards the good times. These late chapters of Isaiah were probably written around the time of the return from exile, when the people Israel were released to go home by Cyrus, the new emperor of Persia. They had a LOT of rebuilding to do, in every sense; people had been scattered for two generations. But it was a moment of hope and possibility. A few verses before today’s passage, the text describes the destruction and loss that God’s people have lived through: “Your holy cities have become a wilderness, Zion has become a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation. Our holy and beautiful house, where our ancestors praised you, has been burned by fire, and all our pleasant places have become ruins.”

If you stopped the story then, things would look pretty hopeless. But the story was still moving. That destruction and loss is the context in which the prophet offers this holy vision of the City’s future: “No more shall there be in it an infant who lives only a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime… They shall build houses and live in them; they shall plant vineyards and enjoy their fruit. They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity… They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the LORD.”

Five centuries later, Luke’s Gospel brings us Jesus talking about Jerusalem – this time, looking from one of the good times towards a bad time. At this moment, things are superficially fine – the Romans, King Herod, and the chief priests all getting along great, sharing the work of extracting wealth from the people and keeping any eruptions of dissatisfaction under control. Jesus sees how thin and tenuous it is; he sees that it’s not going to hold. How close the people are to the breaking point. He sees things with God’s eyes, yes, but to be honest any perceptive observer could probably have called this.

About thirty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Israel rebels against Roman rule; they lose. Jerusalem is destroyed, the Temple – the second great Temple, built after Cyrus sent the people home from exile – the Temple is torn down, not one stone left upon another. Luke and the other Gospel writers are writing after those events, which seemed like a terrible and final ending to many people. In the 70s and 80s and 90s, they knew that something would survive, that there was some kind of hope beyond those losses, that God still had some golden mice up God’s sleeve; but they did not know, yet, where it would lead, whether it would last. In the Epistles we hear the voices of the early Christians busting their butts to try to help write that next chapter. To make sure that neither Jesus’ crucifixion, nor Rome’s crushing of Jerusalem, would be the end of God’s people, God’s work in the world, God’s story.

Of course the story of literal Jerusalem goes on – messy and conflicted, beautiful and heart-breaking. And the story of metaphorical Jerusalem… of God’s people and our efforts to fumble our way towards that City of Isaiah’s vision, where no child is born to calamity, where everyone has a home and food – that story goes on, too. It goes on.

My dear ones. The election this week shook the country. Shook many of us, deeply. I don’t believe anyone here feels anything as simple as triumph or joy. Some of you probably feel some relief, because you trust one party’s approach to our country’s problems more than the other, and that party won.

Some of you feel deep, gut-wrenching grief and anger and fear, about what this next chapter in our country’s life will bring. I know that’s what you’re feeling, because I’ve heard from you, over the past few days.

And all of us – I’m just going to say this, because if it’s not true, it should be – all of us are deeply concerned at the widespread and well-documented reports of increased verbal and physical violence against Muslims, Latinos, GLBTQ folks, and others, perpetrated by those who see this election as legitimating hatred. Kindergarteners are bullying other kindergarteners by telling them they’re going to be deported. Young Muslim women are afraid to wear the hijab, the headscarf that is a sign of their devotion to God, for fear of being harassed or worse. A gay Episcopal priest got a note on his windshield calling him “Father Homo” and telling him that Trump will take his marriage away. However you cast your vote, as citizens and as Christians, we cannot tolerate this persecution of our fellow Americans and children of God.

There’s a lot to wonder and worry about, as we look around our country right now. There’s so much we don’t know. We’re still just trying to get our bearings in a changed landscape. Trying to stay connected, and remember to breathe.

There have been so many times in the long story of God’s people when people have thought, This is the end. The end of their people, their nation, their faith; even the end of everything. And there have been significant endings, of course – but none of them have been The End. The End, like the last page of a storybook. We’re not at that page yet. I don’t think we will be, anytime soon.

Please hear me: I’m not saying this election doesn’t matter in the big picture. I’m not saying everything will be OK. This new chapter will make new demands on each of us and all of us. Next week and next month and next year we will keep figuring out how to be the people of the story. People who work and pray for the good of the city where we dwell, faithfully and fiercely. People who stand right where Jesus told us to stand: shoulder to shoulder with those who are threatened or pushed to the margins. People who struggle to love each other and listen to each other, because we cannot afford to write each other off. We cannot.

Right now this is all I really know for sure, all I’m ready to say: This is not The End. The story is still moving. This story, our story, all our stories. The American story. The Christian story. The story of St. Dunstan’s. Still moving, still being told, being made, by our words and our choices, individually and together, and by the God whom we name as the Author of our salvation.

 

Sermon, Sept. 11

This week, as I spent time with these two parables of Jesus, the familiar stories of the lost sheep and the lost coin, I found that there were two different sermons tugging at me. So I decided to preach them both.

In the first sermon, these parables are about you. About us. About our lostness, and God’s determined love. We all have moments when we are the sheep, lost and tangled in the brambles, somewhere in the wilderness; when we are the coin, under the bed, between the floorboards, menaced by dust-bunnies. When we feel alone, and afraid, and useless, and forgotten, and… lost.

Scholar David Lose, writing about this passage, gestures to some of the many ways we might feel lost, even while seeming fine on the outside: “Might the career-minded person who has made moving up the professional ladder their only priority, be lost? Might the folks who work jobs they hate just to give their family things they never had, be lost? Might the senior who has a great pension plan but little sense of meaning since retirement, be lost? Might the teen who works so hard to be perfect and who is willing to do anything to fit in, be lost? We have lots of people in our congregations who seem to have it all together and yet, deep down, are just plain lost.”

These parables of Jesus speak comfort for those situations, those people. They offer an image of God as a patient and determined seeker, who loves each and every one of us enough to strike out into the wilderness, light the lamp and grab the broom, and seek until we are found. These parables tell us that in God’s love, we are never truly alone, never useless, never forgotten. It’s a message that is consistent with other parts of the Gospel – Jesus meets all kinds of people, in all walks of life, and sees their inward hurts and needs. And Jesus wants wholeness and joy and purpose for each and all.

But while we might be like the coin and the sheep in our lostness, we are different from them in an important way: we have the capacity to turn back towards God. After each of these short parables, Jesus says, Just so, I tell you, there is joy in heaven over one sinner who repents. The sheep and the coin don’t, can’t repent – they get found solely through the seeker’s efforts. But we humans, given intelligence, spirit, and free will, we can turn back towards God. The word “repent” here is the Greek word “metanoia,” a wonderful word for which I wish we had a better translation… As I understand it, it means something less like being sorry for one’s sins and something more like coming to a new understanding, changing one’s direction or path, turning, turning till you come round right.

These parables, the coin and the sheep, lead into the Prodigal Son parable – it’s not in the lectionary this season, but you can glance at it in the Luke booklets if you want – and that parable does have a metanoia moment: when the lost son, at his lowest point, degraded, alone, starving to death, “comes to himself” and thinks, I could go home. Repentance really isn’t a good word for what happens there. He remembers who he is, and whose he is, and that he is loved, in spite of everything, and he walks away from the mess he has made for himself, and back towards the Father who longs for him. Just so, I tell you, there is joy in heaven….!

I want to preach this sermon because some of you are in seasons of lostness. Some of you feel alone, and far from God. I want you to hear this message of God’s stubborn love, God’s ceaseless seeking for each and every lost sheep. I hope you’ll find here the comfort and courage to turn towards that loving Presence and take the first halting steps towards a sense of purpose, worthiness, and hope.

And then there’s the second sermon. In this sermon, these parables are NOT about us. This sermon begins with the context for these parables: Jesus’ pious frenemies the scribes and Pharisees are complaining that he hangs around with sinners. Now, they don’t mean casual sinners, who gossip or speak sharply to their children or don’t give away as much money as they could. They mean the obvious, bigtime sinners, the ones you can pick out in a crowd. “Tax collectors and sinners” – that phrase points to a wonderful mix of both high-ranking and low-ranking undesirables. Corrupt or scandal-ridden government officials, wealthy folks who made their millions by fraud and coercion, shoulder to shoulder with prostitutes, drug dealers, and thieves.

Jesus offers these parables in response to criticism that he is hanging out with the wrong element. The unclean, immoral and undesirable. The worst and the lowest. And friends, whatever inner hurts or struggles we bear, that just isn’t us. We’re all well-off and well and healthy enough to make it to church on Sunday. We are the 99 sheep left in the wilderness, the nine coins safely tucked away in a pocket. We’re the ones who are more or less OK.

In these two simple parables the 99 and the 9 don’t have a voice, but in the Prodigal Son parable, we hear the brother’s voice – the brother who stayed home being a good son, and is angry that his father makes such a fuss over the return of his irresponsible, reckless sibling. And what the brother says is what the 99 sheep and the 9 coins might well say: “What about ME? I didn’t get lost. I haven’t made a mess of my life. Where’s MY party?”

Over the years I’ve found that a lot of Episcopalians tend to identify with the stay-at-home brother, and thus by extension with the 99 and the 9, sheep and coins. And we tend to struggle with these parables. Just as in our civic life, we sometimes feel resentful that so many resources and so much attention go to the poorest kids in our schools, or to the neediest neighborhoods in our cities, or to the demographic groups with the lowest rates of health, opportunity, and wellbeing. It can feel unfair and disproportionate to us. Why should the lowest and the worst get so much attention, care and concern? What about us more-or-less OK folks? Where’s our party?

I get it. I was raised to believe in the middle-class white American values of fairness and rationality. But God isn’t fair or rational. It isn’t fair or rational to leave 99 sheep alone in the wilderness while you go looking for one. It isn’t fair or rational to search for a lost quarter by burning a dollar’s worth of oil in your lamp.

But if we seek to have the heart of God, if we want to be disciples of Jesus, we have to understand that a reckless love for the truly lost is fundamental to God’s character. God is disproportionately – unfairly! – concerned with the last, least, lowest and lost. And God asks us to share that concern. We learn this from the Gospels and indeed, from the witness of the Scriptures as whole. One of the Bible’s clearest themes is God’s care for those on the edges and on the very, very bottom of the economic and social structure.

In the Book of Jeremiah, our current Old Testament text, a couple of chapters on from today’s reading, Jeremiah says, “If you truly amend your ways and your doings,… if you do not oppress the immigrant, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods…, then I will dwell with you in this place.” (7:5-7) That’s just one of many, many places in the Bible in which a society’s treatment of its neediest and most vulnerable members serves as a barometer of collective righteousness. How those folks are doing tells God everything God needs to know about whether the people as a whole are living as God has called them to live.

In the parable of the sheep and the goats, in Matthew’s Gospel, the one yardstick used to measure people’s lives is, Did you care for the lost? Did you feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, visit the sick and the prisoner? Did you join in God’s disproportionate and unfair concern for those in greatest need, the lowest and the worst? It’s a question of urgency for both the world, and for our souls.

I want to preach this second sermon because this is a really important place where the rubber of our lives meets the road of discipleship. Where the orientation of heart and mind that Jesus asks of us is in tension with the way our hearts and minds have been formed by our culture and experiences. Jesus says: There is more joy in heaven over one sinner who turns back towards God, than over ninety-nine righteous people who never turned away to begin with. That is unfair. It probably really rubs some of us the wrong way. And it is a glimpse into the heart of God. God asks the 99 and the 9 to be OK with being taken for granted. And to join in the rejoicing when one of the lost is found.

Okay. Two sermons. And they’re in tension with each other. Either it’s all about us, or it really isn’t. If we focus on the hurt and lost places in our own souls and lives, we may be blind to – or even resentful of – the struggles of others. If we focus on the urgent needs of the profoundly lost, we may neglect our own legitimate needs, and spend ourselves until we are empty.

Instead of choosing whose needs matter most, might we find a way to live in the tension between the two readings of these parables? To say to ourselves, There are some ways in which I’m hurt, broken, or lost; and I can also have compassion for people in the world who are much more hurt, broken, and lost than I am?

At my seminary, the Episcopal Divinity School, we began our learning by reflecting together on how our backgrounds and biases shape how we see God and understand faith. And one of the tools we used was the concept of target and non-target identities. Bear with me; this is a new language for most of you but it’s not hard to understand. Non-target identities are what our society identifies as normal and good. It’s easy to inhabit these identities because our world is built for you, to a large extent. Some examples: White. Male. Able-bodied. Slender. Young. Straight. Cisgender. Middle-class.

Target identities are what our society identifies as other, or second-best, or even flat-out weird or bad. This is “target” in the sense of something that gets rocks thrown at it, not something that’s a goal people are aiming for! When you walk around these identities – or when you find yourself in a situation in which your target identity is in play – you may face biases and barriers. Some examples: African-American, Latino, Asian. Female. Disabled. Elderly. Fat. Gay or bi. Transgender. Working class or poor. Mentally ill. Obviously most people have a mix of target and non-target identities that intersect to make us who we are.

Here’s what my seminary does with that. The point is emphatically not to award a gold star to the most non-target member of the class, or to the person who can check the most “target” boxes and is thus gets the crown for Most Oppressed. The point is to use this simple approach as a tool for reflection and for empathy. To notice the moments when we inhabit those target identities, think about what that feels like, and use that as a window into what it might be like for those who are target in more ways, and in more profound ways.

While I was in seminary, I was also parenting a toddler. Phil was telecommuting, working full-time to help pay the bills, so I couldn’t just leave our son with him. I wanted to attend chapel worship every morning, to be part of the ongoing liturgical life of my seminary community. But it was hard with an 18-month-old, a 2-year-old. Hard to get out of the house, hard to have him with me in worship in a way that wasn’t a total distraction to myself and others. Our seminary chapel opened onto a lovely little green space, and in the spring when the weather turned nice, people liked to worship with the chapel doors wide open, breezes blowing in and trees and grass just outside.

Now, imagine trying to contain a bored two-year-old in a room with two wide open doors onto grass and trees and freedom. After trying it a couple of times, it got so that if I approached the chapel and the doors were propped open, we just wouldn’t go. There was nothing that felt like worship to me in spending forty minutes trying to keep my toddler from escaping.

Now, that was an experience of being target, as a parent encumbered by a young child. I was one of only a couple of people meeting that description, at my seminary at that time. The people planning chapel worship were unencumbered, and my and my son’s needs just didn’t cross their minds.

I am not for a moment claiming that this was a serious problem, or was hurtful in a lasting way. I do have some sense of proportion. But it did make me think about what it’s like for other parents. For single parents, or parents whose partners aren’t available or willing to share childcare, especially those who don’t have the resources to put their kids somewhere safe while they work or study. Having to drag your kid with you is inconvenient at best, and can really close doors and get you in trouble, at worst.

More broadly, those chapel experiences were a window into a common experience of folks who wear those target identities: being in a social and physical space that just wasn’t designed for you. That just doesn’t fit. My options were: complain, and be the person who complained, and made them stop doing something that everyone else enjoyed. Or – I could stop coming. Remove myself from the space, even though I wanted to be there. That was the choice I made. And it’s the kind of choice people face all the time, target folks living in a world designed for the non-target default.

As trivial as this experience was for me – so I couldn’t go to chapel all the time; so what? – as trivial as it was, it did hurt; and that hurt became for me a window into other lives, a bridge of empathy to the experiences of those who are excluded much more routinely, and with greater consequences.

I’m not recommending that, for example, you approach someone at a funeral and say, “I know what it’s like to lose your spouse, because my gerbil died once.” But, in a sheltered and lucky life, the experience of loss and sadness at a gerbil’s death might truly be a useful tool for trying to understand somebody else’s greater grief.

Earlier I said, Either it’s all about us, or it really isn’t. But maybe – it could start with us, and move towards the other. Maybe the ways in which I feel hurt, broken, or lost, instead of making me resentful of others’ needs, could help me care. We could focus on our own lostness, the moments and places in which we are in need of being found and tended and restored by God’s healing love. We could focus on the lostness of others, those who struggle daily at the margins of our status quo. Or: we could give real, prayerful, serious attention to our own moments of feeling alone, afraid, useless, forgotten – lost – and use those moments to deepen our understanding of those who bear greater burdens, our concern for their wellbeing, and our rejoicing when the lost become found.

The David Lose post referenced above is here: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2737

Sermon, July 31

God loves you. You’ve heard it before. It’s the summary of every Sunday school lesson, the gist of every progressive Christian bumper sticker, and many of the conservative ones, too. God loves you. But… how does God love us, exactly? How can we understand the love of God? Is the love of an infinite, all-powerful, eternal divine being even recognizable to little squishy short-lived hormonal bags of water like us?

Enter the prophet Hosea.

Hosea lived a little later than the prophet Amos, whom we met a couple of weeks ago. Like Amos, Hosea preached to the Northern Kingdom of Israel. But in Hosea’s time, the late 8th century before Jesus, the temporary peace had crumbled. The Assyrian Empire, remembered for its voracious cruelty and military might, had become an immediate threat. Israel had gone through several short-lived kings, and the king when Hosea began to prophesy was a vassal king for Assyria, under their thumb, committed to sending them the wealth of Israel as tribute. Ultimately, after a decade of instability, Israel was fully conquered by Assyria, and many of its people were killed or taken into exile. More on that next week, when we introduce Tobit!

Hosea, more than any other prophet, gives us a glimpse of the inner life of God. He speaks for God in a way that reveals God’s heart, the nature of God’s love for God’s people. The God we know through Hosea is not a detached and judgmental Ruler, but a Partner, a Parent, full of anger, grief, and tender, fearful love.

The Lectionary offered us a reading from Hosea last Sunday. But that text was pretty difficult to turn into a children’s homily! God speaks to Hosea for the first time, and this is God’s command: Marry a promiscuous woman, and have children by her, for the land of Israel has become promiscuous, and forsaken God. So Hosea married a woman named Gomer, who, indeed, is unfaithful to him. The text turns almost immediately from Hosea’s marriage to God’s relationship with Israel. God describes Israel as a faithless, shameless wife, who has run after her lovers, heedless of her marriage covenant. God promises to punish her, taking back all the gifts of grain, wine, and oil, of wool and flax; threatening to lay waste to her fields and vineyards, and make her festival days into times of mourning. Abraham Heschel, the great commentator on the Prophets, writes that through his marriage with Gomer, “Hosea became aware of the fact … that his sorrow echoed the sorrow of God… Only by living through in his own life what the divine [Husband] of Israel experienced, was the prophet able to attain sympathy for the divine situation.”

Gomer’s infidelity was presumably of the usual sort; the Book of Hosea doesn’t give us details. But it has a lot to say about the nature of Israel’s infidelity to God. The idea that Israel’s covenant relationship with God is like a marriage in its intimacy and seriousness is found throughout the Hebrew Bible. Adultery in that sense usually means worship of other gods. And that’s part of what’s going on in Hosea’s time – in chapter 4 God says through Hosea, “My people consult a piece of wood, and their divining-rod gives them oracles. For a spirit of whoredom has led them astray, and they have played the whore, forsaking their God. They sacrifice on the tops of the mountains, and make offerings upon the hills.” (4:12-13)

But Israel’s adultery in Hosea isn’t just religious; it’s also political. The Israelite kingship, established by God, has become purely a matter of human politics, and Israel looks for security not from her God, but from other nations, like Egypt and Assyria. Hosea says of Israel, which he calls Ephraim in this passage: “Ephraim has become like a dove, silly and without sense;    they call upon Egypt, they go to Assyria… Woe to them, for they have strayed from me! … For they have gone up to Assyria, a wild ass wandering alone;    Ephraim has bargained for lovers.” (7:8-9, 11, 13; 8:9)

Israel, covenanted to God for many generations, has been unfaithful – shamelessly so – in both religion and politics. The marriage metaphor insists that faithfulness to God is as fundamental as marital fidelity, and that violating that faithfulness is just as disgusting and distressing to God as a wife’s adultery is to her husband.

Yes, this is sexist, and prudish, and old-fashioned. Yes, it rests on ideas of women’s sexuality as dirty and dangerous. But the purpose of this metaphor, which poor Hosea – and poor Gomer! – are called to embody in their marriage and household, is to help humans understand just how much our faithful love matters to God.

God loves God’s people like a man utterly in love with his wife. So in love that when she strays, it just guts him. So in love that he wants her back. Now, this is important. You don’t have to look far today to find stories of reconciliation after infidelity, in fiction or real life. But that was not how things worked in ancient Israel. In Jewish law and custom, a husband whose wife has been unfaithful CAN’T take her back. She is permanently defiled. But God as Israel’s husband, in Hosea, doesn’t care. God passionately wants Israel back. Those threats of punishment in Chapter 2 only last five verses! – before turning towards affection and yearning. God says, “I will persuade her, and speak tenderly to her; and she shall respond, as in the days of her youth… On that day, says the Lord, you will call me, My husband!… I will abolish… war from the land, and make you like down in safety; and I will take you as my wife forever, I will take you for my wife in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy; I will take you for my wife in faithfulness.” (Hosea 2:14-19, excerpts) And God likewise calls Hosea to take back Gomer, his wife, despite her infidelity – a fact which has scandalized and perplexed many commentators over the millennia. Heschel writes: “A husband publicly betrayed by his wife is prevented by law and emotion from renewing his marital life with her. But God’s love is greater than law and emotion.” (63)

God loves us – how? Like a spouse who, no matter how badly you treat them, wants another chance at love. Who still hopes to get back the sweetness of what you once had. The first chapters of Hosea invite us to see God as the singer in every sad “I still want you back” song on iTunes.

And then there’s this week’s portion of Hosea, which gives us another metaphor drawn from human families for how God loves us. Listen again: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. I taught Ephraim to walk, and took them up in my arms; I led them with cords of kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks; I bent down to them and fed them…. Now the sword rages in their cities, and devours them because of their schemes. How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? My heart recoils within me at the thought; my womb grows warm and tender.”

Now, the text in your bulletin says, “My compassion grows warm and tender.” The oldest versions of the Hebrew text use a word there that can be translated as either “compassion” or “womb,” “uterus.” For Biblical Hebrew, compassion is womb-feeling – the deep anxious care of a mother for a child she has borne. Our translators chose to translate the word as “compassion” here, but frankly I think that’s nonsense. Here we have two parallel phrases, a common form in Hebrew poetry, and they’re both about body parts, describing the physical sensations of anguished love – My heart recoils within me, my womb grows warm and tender. And once you make that more plain-sense reading, it becomes obvious that this whole passage is describing God as a mother. Cuddling and feeding a young child, leading him toddler with what must have been the ancient equivalent of those leashes parents use in airports.

God says to Israel, You have messed up, badly, and the consequences are looming; but even though you have turned away from me, and rejected everything I taught you, I can’t stop caring about you. I can’t stop wanting better for you. I still love you, and long for you.

Let me cast just a passing glance at today’s Gospel – which I think shows us a glimpse of that same loving divine frustration with the things humans choose to worry ourselves about. This is the “You can’t take it with you” Gospel. One of the nicer memes that goes around Facebook shows a crowd sharing a meal at table, and says, “When you have more than you need, build a longer table, not a higher fence.” That’s this parable in a nutshell. What especially reminds me of God’s voice in Hosea is the moment when this young man comes to Jesus, the wise rabbi, so confident that Jesus will address this inheritance dispute he has with his brother. It’s a matter of justice, right? And Jesus is all about justice, right?

Except Jesus, God among us, really, really does not share our preoccupation with stuff. Instead of settling the dispute, Jesus addresses the crowd and says, You know, y’all, life is not about what you own. The fellow with the inheritance issue must have been mortified. But can’t you hear God the Parent in Jesus’ voice there? Saying, Honey. I know you’re upset, but it’s just not that big a deal. It really isn’t.

God loves us – how? Like a parent who, no matter what lousy choices her child makes, still and always loves and hopes and yearns. Who watches the road, and keeps the lamps lit, and prays every night for that reckless irresponsible good for nothing child whom she loves, with her whole heart, in the depths of her guts.

God loves you. You’ve heard it before. It’s the summary of every Sunday school lesson, the gist of every Christian bumper sticker. God loves you. But… how does God love us, exactly? How do we understand the love of God?

I have a hunch that for a lot of Christians, our sense of God’s love is either as something so warm and squishy and nonspecific that there’s really no there there; or else as something so conditional and judgmental that it feels like love in name only.

Hosea offers us some real, human, emotionally resonant metaphors for divine love. These metaphors are painful, for some of us. For those scarred by infidelity, their partner’s or their own. For those who carry the grief and regret of seeing a beloved child walk away from them – or of being that child. I hope you understand that neither Hosea nor I offer these images lightly. Hosea’s intention is precisely that, by evoking the very real pain of real human relationships, he might give us a glimpse into the heart of God.

Even those who haven’t borne those particular hurts know what it feels like to love someone so much, heart and mind and spirit and guts, and to come to a moment where you can’t help them. Can’t fix it for them. Maybe can’t even reach them. Francis Spufford describes the love of God as “thwarted tenderness.” I know what that feels like, thwarted tenderness. I think most of us do, one way or another.

In our 21st century wisdom, we might offer God some advice. We might tell God that God has to draw some boundaries and practice some tough love with that child who keeps taking advantage of God’s motherly love. We might tell God that God could be a healthier individual if God could let go of this relationship with a partner who can never give God the kind of faithful love God longs for. But that’s not the point. The point is to help us imagine and even feel, in a sympathetic resonance deep in our guts, God’s love and longing for us. For you. For me.

Hosea spoke these words to the people Israel to give them some sense of God’s abiding care for them in a time when their nation was literally crumbling around them. However brutal the 2016 election cycle, that is NOT actually our situation. Yet. It’s good to know we have the words and witness of the Prophets for the seasons when we need them, in our corporate life.

But in the meantime I believe Hosea’s insight into the heart of God can bless us as individuals. For Israel, belonging to God was primarily a matter of their collective chosenness and observance of God’s laws. For us, belonging to God is primarily a matter of our individual choices to become part of a community of faith and walk the path of discipleship. And our capacity for discipleship, which is living in response to the love of God, grows as we know and feel and trust the love of God. As the words “God loves me” become more than just words, but a thing we experience, and believe.

We need Hosea’s witness, Hosea’s window into the thwarted tenderness of the heart of God. We need images that help us understand, in our hearts and our guts, the love of God, beyond squishy meaningless warmth and beyond the harsh father figure who only loves you IF. We need to hear and imagine and know God as One who loves us – who loves YOU – with the hopeless devotion and adoration of a smitten spouse, with the fierce unshakable tenderness of a parent.

We need to know God as One who weeps when we weep, takes pride in our accomplishments, waits for us when we wander, misses us when we’re out of touch and treasures our time together, grieves when we hurt ourselves, hopes for our future, and always, always, always, welcomes us home.

Sermon, July 10

The parable of the Good Samaritan is one of Jesus’ best-known stories. It’s only found in the Gospel of Luke, here in chapter 10. If you pull out one of our Gospel of Luke booklets and turn to chapter 10, you’ll see that kind of seems dropped in – it doesn’t fit the flow of the narrative very well. Scholars think that this probably really is a story Jesus told – it sure sounds like him! – and that it may have been circulating independently among the early churches, so that only Luke happened to have it to include in his account of Jesus’ life and teachings. But even if it reads like a slightly sloppy cut and paste job, stuck here between Jesus doing some disciple-training and visiting some friends, I’m very glad that Luke preserved this parable for us.

Let me take you through the story itself, briefly, because baby S, whom we are baptizing today, has never heard it before, and maybe he’s not the only one. The word “lawyer” here means a scholar of Jewish law, someone who interprets the Scriptures of the Old Testament to determine how the Jews are called to live out righteousness as God’s people. Different rabbis, teachers, like Jesus, had different interpretations, so this man is asking Jesus about his interpretation, what Jesus sees as the heart of righteousness and holiness. They discuss the standard summary of the Law: love of God, love of neighbor. Clear enough… and yet not so clear. This man has a question: Who is my neighbor? Who do I have to love, to be right with God? So Jesus does what he does when people ask questions. He tells a story.

A man was on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho – a notoriously dangerous road, where robbers and bandits often lurked. And robbers attack him, take everything he has, even his clothes, beat him, and leave him for dead at the side of the road. Now, two people come down the road, one after another, and both of them pass by on the other side of the road. One is a priest, someone who serves in the great Temple; another is a Levite, a member of the Jewish tribe who were set aside to tend to the holy things and places of the God of Israel while they were still in the wilderness with Moses, so long ago. As religious functionaries, men of God, both of these men have reason to be particularly attentive to the purity laws of Judaism. There are lots of things you can do or touch that render you ritually unclean, impure, and you can’t enter the Temple or serve God in that state. You’d have to do various things, or wait a certain time, to be cleansed and able to resume your religious duties. Touching a dead body is pretty high on the list of things that can make you impure.

There are other reasons these men might have stayed away from the man who had been robbed and beaten. Maybe they were afraid the robbers were still around. Maybe they had somewhere urgent to be. Maybe they just didn’t want to get involved. But those are reasons anyone might have, and Jesus tells us that these men weren’t just anyone: they were a priest and a Levite. Men of God. Men of holiness and righteousness. And they walk by on the other side.

And then a third man comes along. He is a Samaritan. Now, the phrase “good Samaritan” has entered our language to mean, somebody who helps a stranger. So we really have to remind ourselves, every time we return to this story, that for the original audience, “Samaritan” didn’t mean a kind and generous person. “Samaritan” meant lowlife scum who think they worship the same God as us, but do it all wrong, and in the wrong places, which is of course much more offensive than worshipping some entirely different God, like the Greeks and Romans. The Jews hated and looked down upon the Samaritans, and the Samaritans resented the Jews. To really get the challenge of this story, you almost have to swap out “Samaritan” for the kind of people that you like and trust least, in the privacy of your own heart. I can’t do that for you; that’s between you and God. But try it, sometime, and think about it.

So the Samaritan, this heathen creep, finally responds to the man with mercy. He goes to him. Cleans and tends his wounds. I know the oil and wine sounds a little odd, but it was what passed for medicine back then – wine to disinfect, oil as a balm. He puts the man on his horse and takes him to an inn, continues to care for him there, and pays from his own pocket for the man to be tended there while he continues on his journey.

And Jesus asks, Which of these three men – the priest, the Levite, the Samaritan – was a neighbor to the man who was robbed? And the lawyer says, “The one who showed him mercy.” It’s possible to read that answer a couple of ways. One commentator says, the lawyer maybe just didn’t want to say, “The Samaritan.” Because, ugh. Samaritans. But the answer also names, accurately, the simple gracious thing that makes the Samaritan a neighbor: He showed mercy.

What makes a neighbor is the movement of mercy.

We all understand this story. We all, even the kids, maybe especially the kids, understand that the people who walked past without helping were wrong, and that the person who stopped and helped, without counting the risks or the costs, was right. We get it. The challenge is, the challenge has always been, living it. Applying it. Going thou and doing likewise.

We know better and yet we STILL ask, “Who is my neighbor?” Who do I have to love, to be right with God? Don’t you ask that, way deep down? I know I do, when I’m honest with myself. I keep hoping maybe there’s a line. That maybe there’s some group of people who are so wrongheaded and offensive and unlikeable that it’s OK for me not to love them.

But there’s this detail in the story Jesus tells – or rather, a lack of detail. Each of the characters gets a label that lets us imagine them: priest, Levite, Samaritan, even the innkeeper. Except the main character, the victim – the man on the road. Jesus doesn’t give us any description at all. He might have been a Jew, a Greek, a Roman, an Ethiopian or Egyptian. He might have been wealthy and well-dressed, a great haul for the bandits, or he might have been so poor that they beat him out of spite. We aren’t told if he was a good man or a bad one. A righteous follower of God or a disgusting idol-worshipper. An upstanding citizen or a thoroughgoing scoundrel. Maybe he had a criminal record as long as your arm. Maybe he was on the road because he was a bandit himself, who got crossways of another group of violent criminals. Maybe he really had this coming. There’s not a single hint, one way or the other. He’s just a man. (I’m indebted here to Alfred Nevin Sayers’ sermon “The Good Samaritan and Social Redemption.”)

Jesus doesn’t tell us who the man is, because it doesn’t matter. What makes a neighbor isn’t somebody’s identity or deeds or deserving. What makes a neighbor is the movement of mercy.

I write my sermons on Tuesday, usually. So I was working on this sermon the day after the Fourth of July. Our neighborhood, the Greentree neighborhood on Madison’s southwest side, has a little celebration every year, coordinated by some committed volunteers. And it’s lovely. It’s totally Norman Rockwell. The kids of the neighborhood all gather in front of the school with their bikes and scooters, decorated for the holiday. A fire truck comes by and leads them in two-block parade over to a nearby city park. Folks come out of their houses to watch and wave. Then at the park there are brats and ice cream sandwiches and kids’ games and conversation with neighbors. Everyone’s wearing red and white and blue. It’s wholesome and adorable and community-building.

We’ve participated, I think, every year we’ve lived here. Somehow this year for the first time something struck me. Falk School, our neighborhood school, the school my kids attend, and St. Dunstan’s Adopt-a-School partner school, is about 75% non-white. It’s a big multicolored and multicultural mix of white, African-American, Latino, and Asian immigrant kids.

But that crowd of kids and parents in front of Falk for the parade was overwhelmingly white. Because while the school district’s boundaries mix us up, the neighborhoods we name for ourselves tend to sort us back out, by income and by race. Those brown kids may live a block away. but that is a different neighborhood, and they and their families were not invited to our party.

There are a lot of layers to the formation of neighborhoods; residential segregation is a big messy challenge; there’s no tackling that issue two-thirds of the way into a summer sermon. All I know is that on Monday, with the cheerful neighborly chaos of the party in the park swirling around me, I just couldn’t shake the shadow on my heart. A sense of sadness and of cynicism at the way this happy good-spirited celebration nevertheless revealed the profound brokenness of our city.

I’m not angling for a gold star for noticing this. I don’t deserve one; it took me six years. And I still don’t know what to do about it now that I’ve noticed it. It’s nice and easy to spend time with people who are basically a lot like you. And it can be hard and demanding to spend time with people who are not a lot like you.  That’s why we have those words from Jesus in the Gospel from Matthew that we received last Sunday – when he tells his followers, Listen, it’s fine if you’re nice to the people who are nice to you, and if your love the people who love you back, and if you act brotherly and sisterly towards the people who are so much like you that they might as well be your as brothers and sisters. But let’s be clear: everybody does that. Kindness towards your own kind is not a manifestation of your call to holy love.

If the contrast between the kids who are actually in the classrooms at Falk School during the school year, and the kids on their bikes out front on the Fourth of July, tells us anything, it tells us this: Living a block apart does not make a neighbor. That’s not enough. If it were, we would all been at that party. Together.

Who is my neighbor? Who do I have to love to be right with God? Maybe the gist of the story, of Jesus’s powerful answer to our perpetual question, is that we’ve got to stop thinking of neighbor as a noun. As the name of a person, place, or thing. What if we try using ‘neighbor’ as a verb? Neighboring. Making the movement of mercy. Or receiving it – both directions matter. Neighboring as a verb has to do with curiosity, with connection, with care. Neighboring as a verb has to do with Abiding, one of our core discipleship practices we name here at St Dunstans, the one that has to do with being where you are, looking around, paying attention, belonging and becoming. Neighboring as a verb has to do with Reconciling, another of the core spiritual practices we name here at St Dunstans, the one that has to do with intentionally unmaking all the categories in our world and our heads that tell us we are different from each other. The categories that make some neighbors undesirable, and others simply invisible.

In a moment here were going to turn to the baptismal covenant, as we receive baby S into the household of God. Our Baptismal Covenant quotes the summary of the law that’s found in this passage from Luke 10: Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?

This little story is Jesus’s commentary on those words. And we really need it to play in our minds and our hearts, every time we see or say those words: love your neighbor. At least, I know I need it. Because however intentionally inclusive I am, in my ministry, in my citizenship, in my personal life, there are still neighbors who are invisible to me. There are still neighbors whom I don’t want to know better. As familiar and well-worn as the message of this parable may be, I still need to hold myself accountable to it.

A neighbor isn’t made by living next door. That’s not what Jesus means, or the Baptismal Covenant either. A neighbor is something to discover, something to become. A neighbor is made by abiding, and by reconciling. A neighbor is made by curiosity, connection, and care. A neighbor is made by love, which makes the big world little and the little world big. A neighbor is made by the movement of mercy. Go thou and do likewise.