Category Archives: Church Seasons & Holy Days

Easter Sermon

“So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid.”

The end of the Gospel of Mark has been bothering people for a long time. It bothered someone so much in the late second century that they wrote a longer ending that included appearances of the risen Christ, a commissioning of the disciples, and an account of the Ascension.

It bothered someone else so much that, perhaps in the fourth century, they wrote another alternative ending, just one sentence long, correcting the women’s silence – they pass on the message as commanded, and salvation is preached from east to west.

It bothered Biblical scholars of the 19th and 20th century so much that they developed hypotheses about a lost ending. They could see that the added endings weren’t original, but surely Mark hadn’t meant to end it here! Perhaps the final section of Mark’s original document was torn off and lost?

The best modern scholarship, though, says, This is how Mark ends his Gospel. Right here. With fear and flight and silence. And that leaves us to struggle to make sense of it. Why end like this??…

The Bible contains four Gospels, the books that tell of the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  Mark is my favorite of the four. Mark’s Gospel is the shortest, and the oldest. For a long time it wasn’t given a lot of scholarly attention – it was seen as a cruder form of the more literary and developed Gospels, Matthew and Luke.

But Mark is actually a master storyteller. There are all kinds of complex and subtle literary devices embedded in Mark’s text, in the way he shapes the story. I have come to trust Mark’s craft, Mark’s voice. When he gives me this ending – what some scholars call the “abrupt” ending – I trust that he has a purpose, a point.

It’s not that Mark didn’t know about the resurrection appearances, all the stories of the risen Jesus meeting with his friends that are told in the other three Gospels. Mark hints at those stories, elsewhere in the book. But he chooses not to tell them here. He chooses to end – abruptly – and I think he does it with his readers in mind. In this he is a strikingly modern writer, thinking of how his text will work on the minds and hearts of his future readers.

Mark, the earliest Gospel writer, doesn’t know that there will be other Gospels. For all he knows, he will be the only one to ever set down these events for all to read. He’s keenly conscious of crafting a text that will change minds and, even more importantly, change hearts.  He wants to draw people into this story that he witnessed, the story that changed his whole life. And with all of this in mind, he chooses to end his Gospel with the women running away, terrified into speechlessness.

I think this abrupt ending does three things. And I think Mark, the canny storyteller, intends all of them.

First, this ending sends us back to the beginning. Think of books and movies with a surprise twist towards the end, a reveal that sends you back, wanting to watch the whole thing or read the whole thing again. Citizen Kane. The Crying Game. The Sixth Sense. Arrival. You leave the theater saying to your friends, “Whoa! So when this happened… ! And when she said that … ! Right. I need to watch that again!” You rethink everything that happened before the twist, the revelation – because you see it in a new light now.

That’s what Mark is doing. The angel at the empty tomb tells the women, Jesus will meet you again in Galilee; go find him there! Funny – that sounds a lot like the beginning of Mark’s Gospel. Chapter one, verse 14:  “Jesus came into Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God.”  That that’s not a coincidence. It’s the kind of thing Mark does – subtle parallels and connections within the text that send the careful reader bouncing around, here and there, reading across and between instead of straight through.

At Mark chapter 16, verse 8,  Mark intends to send his reader back to Mark chapter 1, verse 1. Because, like the disciples, we didn’t understand it all the first time through. We will read it differently the second time, now that we know how it ends – and who the main character really is.

The second thing Mark intends, by ending his Gospel this way, is to affirm that this is a story about God’s power, not human goodness. He does that in two ways. First, there are a couple of places in this text where Mark uses what scholars call “the divine passive.”A passive-voice verb, an act without a doer, meant to point to God as the unnamed actor. The stone had been rolled away. By whom? Jesus has been raised. By whom? By the power of God.

The second way Mark points us to God’s power is a little harder to take, because we want these women to be heroes. These women – Mark first introduced them just a couple of paragraphs earlier, in 15:40. Jesus is already dead, and Mark finally gets around to saying, By the way….  a whole group of women were also there, watching from a distance. Women who had travelled with Jesus, and cared for him, and supported him, and listened to his preaching… In fact, disciples – though Mark never calls them by that name.

The male disciples all fled the scene back in chapter 14, when Jesus was arrested in the Garden. Peter followed him a little farther, but then is caught in fear and denial, and vanishes from the story. We love these women the moment we meet them – such courage, such devotion! Staying near their beloved teacher in his dying hours. Watching where his body is laid. Setting out, as soon as the sabbath law permitted,  to tend to his body. Determined to do what is needful, to wash and anoint, even though it’s been nearly two days in a warm climate. Even though they have no idea how they’ll even get to him, sealed behind that great stone.

We honor their devotion. We want them to win. To finally get the credit they deserve by being the first to spread the good news of the risen Christ.

And, in fact, they were. The other Gospels ALL testify that the women who followed Jesus were the first to discover the empty tomb and to receive and share the Resurrection message. Mark knows this too! He knows the women did tell what they had seen and heard. Otherwise there would be no Gospel – and no church! He chooses to end the story – to freeze the story – in the moment when they are so full of fear and awe and confusion that their lips are sealed.

Mark wants no human heroes in his Gospel. The Resurrection happens, the Word is spread,  the Good News takes root and grows, not because of human obedience or courage or strength – but in spite of human weakness. The women are courageous, yes, up to a point – but then they, like their male counterparts, take flight in fear. Everyone fails, in this story. Everyone except God. Humbling – but also encouraging,  for generations of Christians all too familiar with our own failings. Our weakness does not diminish or limit God’s strength.

The third thing Mark does, by ending his Gospel in this way, is resist closure. I don’t think Mark cares much for happy endings. Because a happy ending lets you put the book down. Smile, sigh, tuck it back onto the shelf.

In the other Gospels, Jesus meets the disciples again, they are forgiven, relieved of their grief and guilt. He gives them their marching orders and then vanishes into the sky. There’s room for a sequel, sure, but the loose ends are all tied up. The story has an ending.

Mark’s Gospel… doesn’t. Mark holds to the school of thought that says that a good story leaves you asking, “And *then* what happened?” He intentionally leaves his reader with a head full of questions. But did the women ever tell? Did the disciples meet Jesus in Galilee? Did they speak? Did they go? What happened?” And Mark’s answer is: That’s their story. What about yours? Will you speak? Will you go? …

That’s why this is my favorite Easter Gospel. Because it’s not just Jesus’ story, or the first disciples’ story. It’s our story. It is unfinished, it is incomplete – because the story keeps going.

Mark begins his Gospel with these words:  “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God.” When you first read it, you think Chapter 1 is the beginning. Looking back from chapter 16, though,  perhaps the whole book … is the beginning.  The whole book, all sixteen chapters…  just the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.

Everything that’s happened since, in thirty or forty years for Mark, in nearly two thousand for us, that’s the continuation. The middle. The unfolding of that good news in history. Sometimes up and sometimes down. Sometimes working powerfully for peace and justice, sometimes in the hands of those who use it to bind and to hurt.Sometimes in the mouths of the powerful, sometimes on the lips and in the hearts of those on the margins. Sometimes stirring up revolutions. Sometimes simply helping people keep on keeping on, day by day, year by year.

The Good News keeps unfolding – in spite of human weakness. The power of God, the power of the living Christ, is not contained by the walls of the tomb or the pages of the book.

The end of Mark’s gospel gapes open like the empty tomb. Any happy ending, any closure pushed aside, like that heavy stone.We’re left to peer into the dimness and wonder –  and we’re left with the angel’s promise, to the women, to the world, that beyond the story, beyond the text, beyond human failure, beyond the tendency of all Jesus’ followers to miss the point, then as now, beyond the numbing familiarity of the narrative, beyond busyness and weariness and fear and everything that keeps the good news from taking root in our hearts and lives, beyond all of that, Jesus waits to meet us, again, and again, and again.

Happy Easter.

Sermon, March 18

Friends, it’s almost Palm Sunday, when we sing Hosannas and then shout, Crucify him! We’re coming to a part where it all gets ragged and hard and strange. And this is a ragged, hard, strange Gospel text.

So rather than try to digest it down to a nice pithy take-away, today I’m going to share my grappling with the text. John’s Gospel is a challenging book, and I do not know it – understand it – love it – as well as Mark or Luke, or even Matthew. So let’s chew through this together, and see what we find. Open your Sunday supplement to the Gospel, if it helps you to look at the text as we go along.

The first few verses of this text often make people chuckle. Those poor Greeks! Did they ever get their meeting? So these Greeks – they probably are actually Greeks, as in, people of Greek origin, though more on that in a bit. They are already attracted to Judaism – perhaps seekers, perhaps even converts. We know this because they are coming to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, the great feast of the salvation of the Jews from bondage in Egypt. They’ve heard about Jesus and they want to see him. So they approach Philip; Philip approaches Andrew; and they both go to Jesus.

Why these details about the approach to Jesus? Maybe that’s just how it was in Jesus’ inner circle – Philip did public relations, Andrew kept Jesus’ appointment calendar. But I think John is also intentionally reminding us of the beginning of his Gospel. In John’s Gospel, Philip and Andrew, along with Andrew’s brother Simon Peter, are the first three disciples to be called to follow Jesus. They’re Jesus’ Hercules Mulligan, John Laurens, and Marquis de Lafayette. My hunch is that by name-checking Philip and Andrew here, John wants to make us think back to the beginning of the story: there’s a sense of coming full circle, of arriving at a culminating moment.

And by the same token, Jesus’ response is not actually a non sequitur. He doesn’t say, “Sorry, busy right now,” or, “Sure, bring ‘em over.” He says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” But that proclamation IS a response to the Greeks wanting to meet him. Jesus recognizes that this is a moment of prophetic fulfillment. The Greeks are more than just Greeks.They represent the whole non-Jewish world. In Jesus’ time and place, the word “Greeks” functioned as a kind of shorthand for “non-Jews.” We see this over and over again in the Epistles and the Book of Acts: the formula “both Jews and Greeks” is used to mean, well, everybody. Consider a well-known verse from the letter to the Galatians: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)

So this isn’t just a few business travelers who want to meet a celebrity. This is the moment when the nations come to honor the God of Israel, as the prophets have long foretold. We sang about that our Epiphany Song of Praise, a portion of the 60th chapter of the book of the prophet Isaiah: “Nations shall stream to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawning.” Israel had long ago come to understand that Yahweh God was not just the God of their nation, their people, but the God of everything. And they looked with hope towards a day when the whole world would turn to God and God’s ways of righteousness and mercy. And here are these Greeks, seeking Jesus, the Son of Man who is also the Son of God. It’s even clearer that this is what’s going on if you look at the verses that immediately precede this passage: a group of religious leaders are talking about what to do about Jesus. They are afraid he’ll confuse the credulous and desperate – and worse, perhaps bring about a violent crackdown from Rome –  but they conclude:  “What can we do about him? The whole world has gone after him!”

So when Jesus says, “The hour has come,” he is responding to the approach of the Greeks. It’s happening, right now: the whole world turning towards God’s light, shining forth in Jesus. Whether Jesus ever met these Greeks or not is irrelevant; what matters is they came looking for him. It means his mission of teaching and healing is finished; it’s time to begin the mission of dying and rising.

“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” Let’s talk about “Son of Man.” In all four Gospels, Jesus uses this phrase to talk about himself when he’s speaking theologically or cosmically. The Common English Bible renders it as “The Human One.” You can read a lot about what this phrase might mean – but I don’t think we really know. I think it’s probably really a thing Jesus said, rather than a theological gloss the gospel writers added. To me it feels like a funny little piece of evidence that Jesus was what he claimed to be. If you were a human trying to elevate yourself and claim godhood, wouldn’t you call yourself the Son of God? Likewise, if you were part of a divine being, who was sent to be embodied as a human on earth in order to reconcile humanity and God, might you not think of yourself as “the Human One”? Imagine God the Creator and the Holy Spirit at the dinner table: “Where’s the Human One? Is he coming?”

“The Son of Man will be glorified.”Glorified – the word appears here in verse 23, and a little later, in Jesus’ dialog with the heavenly Voice. Like “Son of Man,” I can just kind of read past the word without really thinking about it – but if I think about it at all, I realize I’m not really sure what it means here. Studying the text, I did a thing I do pretty often: I used an online interlinear Greek New Testament to look at what the word is in Greek, then looked that up in an online concordance – a sort of database of every word used in the Bible – to see a definition of the Greek word and how it’s used across Biblical texts. The Greek word for “glorify” is doxazo. It’s heavily used throughout the New Testament, but especially so in John’s Gospel – in keeping with what scholars call John’s “high Christology,” his keen sense of Jesus’ divinity. Theologian Florin Paulet explains this well:

“Compared with [Jesus as found in the Synoptic Gospels, Mark, Matthew, and Luke], [John’s] Christ does not belong to this world at all: he enters the world with the purpose of leaving it, or descends in order to ascend. He is a pre-existent divine being, whose real home is in heaven. He knows precisely who he is.”  (Florin Paulet, SJ, in Studia theologica, 2004) 

So the emphasis on glory – Jesus’s, God’s – in John’s gospel represents the moments when the power and mystery and dazzle of divinity breaks through. But what does it mean to say, The Son of Man will be glorified? Or, Glorify God’s name? My online concordance gave a handy list of definitions for Doxazo: to honor, to praise, to celebrate, to render excellent or glorious, to cause the dignity and worth of something to be made known and acknowledged.

(https://studybible.info/strongs/G1392) I can come to grips with all that. Sure, Jesus’ death and resurrection caused God’s love, grace, and power to be known better and more broadly. But I also think these definitions are… limited. They reflect Enlightenment and Protestant thinking: it’s all about people’s capacity to know, perceive, understand. That’s all fine – but when we’re talking about God’s glory, there’s also something deeper and stranger going on, something beyond our capacity to understand. “Glory” in the New Testament echoes a keyword in the Hebrew Bible, kabod, most often translated as God’s glory. For example, in the wilderness time, “the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel.” (Ex 24:17)

I think all of this – doxazo, kabod – is an instance of human language struggling to eff the ineffable. It’s hard to put words to the encounter with Divinity. And to come back to our passage, consider the context: the glorification in question here is death on a cross – a moment that is far from glorious in human terms, yet which the Gospels understand to be of transformative cosmic significance. I guess I’m saying that “glorify” should be a word we don’t quite understand, that we keep wondering about.

Turning to the next verses… In John’s Gospel, we don’t get Jesus’ hour of anguished prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. Overall, John’s Jesus seems fairly calm in the face of his violent and humiliating death. But here, we seem to see Jesus struggling a little: “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say–‘ Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.” Jesus is reminding himself why he’s going through this: because the grain of wheat cannot yield a plenteous crop unless it first dies and is buried in the earth. Because those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

I’m unhappy with our translation here. The word “life” appears three times in that verse – but those are actually two different words. The first two are “psuche,” which means something more like your essential being, not just your physical life. It’s the same word as psyche or psychology. You might translate that verse this way: Whoever hates what this world does to their soul, will preserve their soul for life in the Age to come. 

Hate is a strong word. I think Jesus did love life in this world – friends; good food; being able to share grace and healing; quiet moments by the seashore. These are the words of someone steeling himself to face death: None of that matters next to what I am called to do. 

And then we come to the Mystery Voice from Heaven. It might well remind you of Jesus’ baptism or his Transfiguration – both times when a Voice from heaven names Jesus as beloved.  The interesting thing is, neither of those events happen in John’s Gospel. John knows the other Gospels, or at least one of them. There are events he chooses to leave out – but assumes the reader knows about. There’s a kind of meta-textuality here – John couldn’t be your only Gospel; you’d need one of the others too. The biggest, strangest example is that there is no institution of the Eucharist in John. There is a last supper, at which Jesus talks for four chapters about what it all means. And he washes his disciples’ feet. But there is no bread, no wine, no “Do this.”

Another example: In John’s Gospel, we don’t see John the Baptist baptize Jesus, but John the Baptist tells someone else about seeing the Spirit descend on Jesus like a dove – which according to the other Gospels happened at his baptism. So this Heavenly Voice, this mystery thunderclap – John may well be telling about an incident unknown to the other gospels, but I think he is also gesturing towards to those other moments when a divine Voice spoke to and about Jesus. Like baptism, like transfiguration, this is a significant moment, another turn towards the story’s culmination.

Jesus returns to the significance of this moment, in the final verses of this passage. “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.” I’ve been using a new translation of the New Testament by a scholar named David Bentley Hart. Hart thinks that other translations sometimes make the New Testament less weird than it should be – they smooth out the language and make it seem like we know what people are talking about.  Here’s how he renders this verse: “Now is the judgment of this cosmos; now shall the Archon of this cosmos be driven out.”

The Archon of this cosmos! Wow. Archon means ruler, chief, prince. It’s a common word in New Testament Greek. But THIS Archon, this unnamed Ruler of this Cosmos – cosmos, world or system – is only mentioned in John’s Gospel. This is the first time. Later, in that farewell speech over dinner, Jesus says,

“I will no longer talk much with you, for the Archon of this cosmos is coming. He has no power over me; but I do as the Father has commanded me.” (John 14:30-31) And later in the same speech:  “The Archon of this cosmos has been condemned.” (16:11) This Archon, whatever it is: It thinks it’s won, it thinks it’s got Jesus now, but in fact God has already triumphed. The Archon’s power is already broken; it just doesn’t know it yet.

It’s easy to come up with hypotheses about who Jesus means. Could it be Satan? But this Archon is the ruler of THIS world, and Satan is a supernatural being. And that isn’t really how the Bible talks about Satan, anyway.

A better hypothesis would look to the Book of Revelation. Revelation was probably written before the Gospel of John, and there were probably ties of some kind between the authors or communities of those two texts, although most modern scholars don’t think there was a single author for both books. The Book of Revelation presents a very clear and fully-developed image of an earthly ruler who embodies and serves the cosmic powers of evil. Scholars think that for the original community receiving that text, that Ruler probably represented a Roman emperor who was persecuting Christians. The Emperor in Rome would surely be an Archon of this cosmos for John and his community – so perhaps that’s what John’s Jesus has in mind.

But you know what? I don’t know. I don’t know what Jesus means here. I’m positive there are libraries full of hypotheses. But Jesus is speaking about great big mysteries – power and obedience, good and evil, life and death. The closest parallel outside of John’s Gospel comes from the letter to the Ephesians: “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers (archons), against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (6:12) I like what Hart does, by keeping it weird:  The Archon of this cosmos shall be driven out.

“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” Well, this is actually pretty straightforward, in light of last week’s readings. Jesus is alluding back to that conversation with Nicodemus in chapter 3, when he spoke about being raised up from the earth like the bronze serpent Moses made, to save the people Israel from death by snakebite. It’s a weird story – look up my sermon if you missed it – but the upshot is clear. Jesus expects death by crucifixion – a way of dying that, notably, involves being raised up from the ground, on a pole. He uses the image of the bronze serpent as an example of something salvific, something with saving and healing power, that was lifted up in the sight of the people.

What have we accomplished here? Well, I’ve made the case that some things make more sense than they seem to at first glance – the Philip/Andrew bit, Jesus’ response to the Greeks, the voice from heaven. I’ve also made the case that some things make less sense if we pause to think. Son of Man? Glorify? Archon of this cosmos? Add here, subtract here, and on average we probably all understand this text exactly as well as we did fifteen minutes ago.

What I hoped to accomplish was to give you permission to wonder about and wrestle with Biblical texts. To dig in and seek answers – and sometimes fail to find them. A week from right now, we’ll be reading the Passion Gospel. We read a LOT of Scripture during Holy Week – chapters and chapters of Mark and John, psalms, Old Testament stories, so much. For some of us, it’s too familiar; for others, it’s new and strange. I invite you to be attentive to our holy scriptures, in the days ahead. Listen, wonder, argue, hypothesize, connect, reflect. And may both the moments when we come to new understanding – and the moments when we realize the limits of our understanding – speak to us of God’s glory, mystery, power and love.

Florin Paulet’s piece:

http://www.studiatheologica.cnet.ro/pdf/200401art3.pdf

Sermon, Mar. 11

Happy Snake Sunday! This story from the Book of Numbers is one of the stranger Scripture stories that appears in the Sunday lectionary. There are LOTS of strange stories in Scripture, but the lectionary avoids many of them!This one made the cut because Jesus alludes to it, in his conversation with Nicodemus in the Gospel of John.Nicodemus is a religious leader who has come to Jesus by night, to learn what this strange prophet from Galilee has to say.

We keep an image of Nicodemus and Jesus’ nighttime talk in a central place in our icon wall, because I know that there are many in this congregation who feel akin to Nicodemus – perplexed, almost embarrassed by being drawn to Jesus, and yet showing up, to sit at his feet and puzzle over his words.

In John’s Gospel today, we are still early in Jesus’ ministry. He has gathered his first disciples. He’s performed – unwillingly – his first public miracle, the changing of water into wine at a family wedding. He’s come to Jerusalem at Passover, the great festival of the Jewish people – and was so offended by the commerce in the Temple court that he set loose the animals and attacked the vendors. It’s during that visit to Jerusalem that Nicodemus seeks him out, for a conversation that probably leaves Nicodemus more confused than ever. I must be born anew? How can a person be born a second time? The wind blows where it chooses and nobody knows where it comes from or where it goes? What does that mean? And who is the Son of Man, and how will he be “lifted up” like the bronze serpent in the ancient story? …

The story of the bronze serpent falls late in the wilderness time, the forty years the people Israel spent wandering in desert wastes between their escape, their exodus, from Egypt, and their arrival in the land where they would settle as their new home. As the Godly Play desert stories remind us, very little grows in the desert. It’s very hard to find food. So God has sustained the people on their long journey with manna – this strange food like sweet wafers that appears on the ground each morning. Bread from heaven. The Hebrew word “manna” means, “What’s that?” A miracle and a mystery. But the Israelites have a tendency to grumble – they started as soon as soon as they left Egypt – and it’s been a long journey now, and frankly, they’re pretty tired of manna. “Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food!”

I like to say this is not one of God’s best parenting moments, as the story tells it. God sent poisonous – literally, “fiery” – serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many died. Why serpents – snakes? Well – there ARE poisonous snakes in that region, so it’s a hazard the people might reasonably have encountered on their journey. But within the terms of the story, the snake made a different kind of sense: in the Garden of Eden, in the story of the Fall, the serpent was the first creature to propagate fake news and stir up discontent – urging Eve and Adam to do what God had forbidden. So perhaps people understood the proliferation of venomous snake bites as a fitting punishment from God for complaining in the face of divine providence.

The people repent: “We have sinned by speaking against Yahweh  God and against you; pray to Yahweh to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prays for the people, and God relents – but not simply by healing the snakebites. Instead, God orders Moses to create a bronze serpent on a pole, and hold it up where people can see it. The people still get bitten by the snakes – the danger remains.  But God offers healing IF they look for it – if they choose it. The choice is theirs – life or death.

I’ve talked a little about the Mishnah before. It’s a body of Jewish commentary on the Old Testament scriptures. Much of it was written down in the first two centuries of the common era – the same time our New Testament was being written – but many of the ideas and teachings of the Mishnah are older, passed down from rabbi to rabbi. It’s fascinating and informative to study – not least because Jesus may well have been familiar with these teachings, and so studying the Mishnah may help us understand how Jesus interpreted the Old Testament. The Mishnah says this about the bronze serpent in Numbers: “Did the serpent kill, or did the serpent preserve life? Rather, when the Jewish people turned their eyes upward and subjected their hearts to their Father in heaven, they were healed.”

(Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 29a)

I think that’s very much the sense in which Jesus uses the image of the bronze serpent. Martha Gillette, a friend from seminary whose wonderful sermon on these texts informs my words today, summed it up this way:

“The point Jesus is making to Nicodemus is that as God offered God’s people the means to attain physical life in the midst of the sinful reality of the physical world by raising up the bronze serpent, so God will offer God’s people the means to attain spiritual life in the midst of the sinful reality of the spiritual world by raising up God’s own Son.The choice still remains theirs – and ours – salvation or condemnation, life or death, coming into the light, or remaining in the darkness.”

The point of the serpent – the point of the Cross – is to lift our eyes and hearts and minds towards God. But the afterlife of the bronze serpent reminds us how bad we are at remembering that.

Moses – or somebody – kept the bronze serpent. The people carried it into the Promised Land, and eventually it joined other sacred artifacts as an object of devotion for the people.They care for it and honor it for centuries – until King Hezekiah breaks it.

King Hezekiah was the 14th king of Judah, in the late 8th and early 7th century before Jesus. A couple of hundred years earlier, King David’s once-unified kingdom had split into the Northern Kingdom of Israel, with its capital at Samaria, and the southern kingdom of Judah, with its capital in Jerusalem. Hezekiah witnessed the fall of Israel, conquered by the Assyrians, its people killed or exiled. He feared a similar fate for his kingdom, Judah – and he feared that God was not protecting Judah, because the people were not faithful to God. Hezekiah called the people back to worship only Yahweh, the God of Abraham and Moses and David, the God of Deborah and Naomi and Hannah.

Hezekiah enacted wide-ranging religious reforms: forbidding the worship of other gods, tearing down idols and hilltop shrines, destroying the objects that were worshipped even in the Temple in Jerusalem – and breaking in pieces the bronze snake that Moses had made.

Wait a minute! This is not some foreign idol! This is an ancient holy object made by Moses himself, AT GOD’S COMMAND, to save the people! Why would the King of Judah, a king loyal to God, break this beloved, revered, symbol of God’s healing and saving power?

Because the people were worshipping it. The text says, “[Hezekiah] broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it; it was called Nehushtan.”

The people were making offerings to it – as if it were a god. It even had a name – as if it were a god. People had begun to worship the thing – instead of the God for whom the thing was only a tool. Second Kings suggests that far from being cross about the destruction of the bronze snake, God was quite pleased.

Chapter 18 says,  “[Hezekiah] did what was right in the sight of the Lord just as his ancestor David had done… He trusted in the Lord the God of Israel; so that there was no one like him among all the kings of Judah after him, or among those who were before him. For he held fast to the Lord; he did not depart from following him but kept the commandments that the Lord commanded Moses. The Lord was with him; wherever he went, he prospered.”

When it was first made, the bronze serpent was raised high, that the people might turn, and look towards God, and find salvation and healing. But over time, the serpent itself became the focus of veneration and prayer. People forgot that, like all holy objects, it was only a symbol, a gesture, towards something else. They gave their hope, their faith, their loyalty to the thing, instead of the greater reality the thing pointed towards.

Well, what can you do? Ancient people were superstitious and ignorant. It’s not a mistake we sophisticated modern people would make. Is it? …

The Old Testament has a number of wonderful diatribes against idolatry – worshiping false gods. And I tell you, friends, some of those passages ring so true to me. You make a thing and you forget that you have made it! You believe it has power to help you, you trust in it, you LOVE it –  even though it’s made of wood and stone, silicone and plastic – even though it will break, fail, become obsolete, shatter on the sidewalk.

We have bronze snakes of our own, friends. Even in the Episcopal Church. Beloved, hallowed objects and habits, passed down to us from Moses Himself (probably), that were meant to point us towards God – to open a window to the Divine – but become the focus of our attention instead.

The Episcopal Church is currently talking about prayer book revision. This one is forty years old, and there’s some stuff that could be better. I’ve been reading some of the conversations and commentary about it – and the idea of changing the prayer book stirs up so much fear and rage for some people.

And then there’s the Hymnal. We’re planning Easter music right now; I warn Deanna, our music director, about the songs we HAVE TO SING or it won’t really be Easter.I joke about it as if I weren’t subject to the same yearnings – as if I didn’t have my own inner must-sing lists.

People visiting St. Dunstan’s say, now and then, Oh, do you ever worship in the round, with an altar in the middle? And I say, Oh, that would be nice, I really like the theology of worship in the round, but our high altar is so beautiful; people would really miss it if we weren’t using it…

This is one of the many things Jesus is trying to tell Nicodemus:

The tools God gave the people to show the way, to help, heal, guide – the Law and the Prophets, the covenants and the codes – they’ve become ends in themselves, rather than means to an end.

As humans, we seem prone to let the thing become as important – more important – than what it points to. And suddenly we’re burning incense to a metal snake. Anytime we put more emphasis on preserving customs, traditions, things, than on praising, thanking, loving, seeking God. Even the Bible itself is supposed to lead us to what’s beyond it. To be the map, not the territory. The door, not the palace.

We’ve turned the corner in the season of Lent, friends. The Sunday after next is Palm Sunday – when we turn our attention to the Cross, and to Jesus raised upon it. It’s a good moment to think about our bronze snakes – those things to which we cling, because they seem familiar, and concrete, and safe. Those things to which we look for life, rather than looking towards the God who is the Source of life.

As we look towards the Cross, in the weeks ahead, may our eyes not linger there too long, but look beyond, to the gracious mystery towards which it points, the God who is our hope and our healing.  Amen.

Sermon, Feb. 11

Let us pray in silence.

Amen.

The company of prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha, and said to him, Do you know that today the LORD will take your master away from you? And Elisha said, Yes, I know; keep silent.

Keep silent.  Another translation says: Hush you.

Why does Elisha hush the other prophets? It seems that Elijah wants to spare Elisha the pain of witnessing his departure, but Elisha is not leaving his side. He hushes the other prophets because they threaten the careful loving lie that Elijah and Elisha are telling each other, on this fateful day: that Elijah is just going on a little errand to Jericho, and Elisha is just coming along for company.

But Elisha also hushes the other prophets because even though they see the truth of the situation, they don’t know what they’re talking about. They don’t understand the weight of the moment. They think they understand; Elijah is famous, one of the greatest prophets of Israel, who challenged kings in the name of God. His loss is significant for everyone. But it’s especially significant for Elisha, for whom Elijah is more than a prophet; for whom he is master, friend, and father figure. With their questions, the prophets of Jericho and Bethel are intruding on heartbreaking and holy ground. They are like every bystander a step or two outside the situation, who only thinks they’re being helpful. I KNOW, says Elisha. Keep silent. Hush you.

The Gospel of the day, the story of Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountaintop, contains an admonition to silence too: “As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.”

This call to silence is in keeping with a pattern in the gospel of Mark, which scholars call the Messianic Secret. Jesus often told followers, strangers, even demons, not to talk about him, in all the Gospels but especially in Mark. There are many reasons he might have done so. To avoid being mobbed by people seeking his help. To evade his enemies long enough to complete his work. To let the full meaning of his life and teachings emerge after his death and resurrection, to be understood in light of those events.

But there’s an element of “Hush you!” in today’s Gospel, too. Peter, James and John were confronted with an overwhelming holy vision: their friend and master, transfigured, transformed, ablaze with holy light, conversing with Moses and Elijah, Israel’s greatest prophets. And they were terrified, and they did not know what to say.  They do understand the weight of the moment – and it confounds them. The wise person might, therefore, keep silent. But Peter always has an idea or a plan or a question. He comes up with this idea about building three little houses. It’s so off the mark that Yahweh God, the Father, the Source, speaks into the moment to say: THIS IS MY BELOVED SON; LISTEN TO HIM. Hush you.

I recognize myself in Peter, here and elsewhere. My impulse is always to start figuring out how to wrap words and ideas around something. I come by it honestly – my grandmothers both taught writing. My grandfathers were a professor and a preacher. My father is a professor, my mother is a poet and storyteller. I come from word people. I like words. Most of the time, I know what to do with them. My words have served me well, over the years.

But sometimes – I know – sometimes we need to stop talking. Sometimes I need to stop talking.

I’ve learned, over the years, that sometimes silence, presence, simply receiving the moment, is the better path. In silence I can listen and notice. Maybe there’s something I need to hear or receive. But silence is an end in itself, too. It doesn’t always have to a message. Sometimes there’s grace in just ….

{Pause}

Awesome, definition: In popular use: Extremely good or excellent. A more formal definition: Extremely impressive or daunting. Inspiring admiration or apprehension. Origin: Awe plus Some. Meaning, Causing one to be filled with awe.

Awful, definition: Disgusting, horrible, terrible, nasty, vile, repugnant, dreadful. Origin: Awe plus Full. Meaning, Causing one to be filled with awe.

Some things are so big and strange that they break language.

Ineffable, definition:  That which cannot be spoken or captured in words or, That which must not be spoken or captured in words. The unnameable, the unspeakable. That which breaks language, or transcends it, or escapes it.

The philosopher Wittgenstein wrote, What we cannot speak about, we must pass over in silence. There are things words can’t do.

For God alone my soul in silence waits. (Psalm 62)

A time to keep, and a time to throw away;  a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.  (Ecclesiastes 3)

Now there was a great wind, but GOD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but GOD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but GOD was not in the fire; and after the fire, a sound of sheer silence. (1 Kings 19)

When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. (Revelation 8)

Let all mortal flesh keep silence, and with fear and trembling stand. Now the silence, now the peace, now the empty hands uplifted. How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given. O hush your noise and cease your strife, and hear the angels sing!

The words of the prophets are whispered in the sounds of silence. Words are very unnecessary, they can only do harm.

Dave Walker is an English church cartoonist.  His cartoons often explain aspects of church life and worship. My all-time favorite is a cartoon called The Liturgical Pause. You can read it here.

{Pause}

Be still and know that I am God. Psalm 46, verse 10.

I dug into that Hebrew verb, Be still. Raphah. It can mean a lot of things. Relax. Become helpless. Collapse. Drop down. Go limp. Be idle or lazy.  Put something off. Fail. Let it go.

Be still. Hush you.

I read once in some sermon or seasonal reflection that Lent and lento were the same word. Lento is a musical term, from Italian, meaning, Slow. So, Lent is a season for slowing down.

It’s not true. It’s a coincidence. The words have different etymologies, all the way back to Indo-European. Lento comes from a root meaning soft, pliable, flexible. Gracious and pleasant.  Also, Moist. Lent is actually related to Lengthen, and Long. It basically means, Spring – The time when the days are getting longer again. Finally.

And here’s another coincidence: The Lent in siLent is also unrelated.

It’s from an ancient root that means, Still, windless. Quiet. Slow.

Whether there’s a deeply-buried common root back there, or it’s all convergent linguistic evolution, there’s something all these words are clustering around, pointing towards: Long. Slow. Flexible. Gracious.

Still.

Sermon, Feb. 4

Ten days from now – a Wednesday – I’ll stand right here and say these words: “Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent … was a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church… I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”

Self-examination – repentance – self-denial. Penitence and fasting. Notorious sins! These are big, weighty words for a weighty truth: God loves us just the way we are, but God isn’t going to leave us that way. While the life of faith always calls us to seek God’s will for us, Lent is the season in which the Church invites us to reckon with the place of sin in our lives.

Sin. The outline of the faith in the back of the prayer book says, Sin is when we do and say and choose things that distort our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation. I wish they’d added self there, because many of our sins harm ourselves, first and foremost. The Greek word often translated as “sin” in the New Testament means something like, To miss the mark. To fall short. When I talk about sin, I like to offer author Francis Spufford’s alternative term: The Human Propensity to Eff Things Up, or, The HPtFTU.

Contrary to popular belief, Episcopalians actually take sin pretty seriously. You won’t hear a lot of hell and damnation sermons here, true; but every Sunday, our liturgy has us acknowledge that we are sinners, and ask God to forgive us, restore us, help us. And we have this whole season, six weeks, when we try to look frankly at ourselves, and ask, Where is God calling me to amendment of life?

One important tool is taking on a Lenten discipline or fast. A fast means you’re giving something up – not necessarily a food; you can fast from social media, or video games, or whatever. Discipline is a broader term – it could mean giving something up and/or taking on a practice. Either way – fast or discipline – it’s not an end in itself but should serve a purpose: To strengthen you in all goodness, as our prayer of absolution says.

Sometimes a Lenten discipline is a set thing, like giving up sweets for the season. The sugar in your coffee might not be a destructive habit. But you’re changing a small daily practice, taking on a small deprivation, and using that to remind yourself daily of God’s role in your life and your commitment to doing what God asks of you. Think of it as training, of a sort, for following through on larger commitments.

But what I’d like to focus on today are the kinds of Lenten disciplines that are more individual, more particular to your circumstances, your struggles. The kind of disciplines intended to help you come to grips with the things that distort your relationship with God, neighbor, creation, self. And I’ll talk about that through the lens of Paul’s writings in the text we know as First Corinthians – our epistle for the last few weeks.

Today’s passage comes from a chapter that is very specifically about Paul – his call to ministry, and how he chooses to live it out. But he does – parenthetically and provocatively – dip into one of his big themes: Christian freedom. He says he’s not under the Law – meaning, Jewish law. But then he says he IS under the law – God’s law, Christ’s Law. Make up your mind, Paul! Law or no law??

This paradox is a big focus in Paul’s writings: what the ethical and holy life looks like, in the absence of the old Law. That was a contentious question in the early churches. On one side, there was a push for Christians to keep elements of Jewish law. For example, some felt that Gentile converts to Christianity should be circumcised, and that Christians should keep Jewish food laws. The practices of holiness inherited from Judaism were so integral to some peoples’ sense of what it meant to be God’s holy people that was really hard to set that aside.

At the other end of the spectrum were people who thought that as Christians, ANYTHING GOES. That Jesus’ ministry and teaching began a new era of Christian freedom that transcended the narrow constrains of human morality and decency. Earlier in this letter, in chapter 5, Paul rebukes the church in Corinth because there is someone in the church who has shacked up with his widowed stepmother – and the community is PROUD of it, as a sign of how free and non-judgmental they are. Paul is unimpressed. He says, Our freedom in Christ should not mean that sexual license or drunkenness or greed are to be celebrated as proof of our liberation!

In addition to the legalists and the hedonists, there’s one more camp Paul is worried about – those for whom becoming Christian seems to have made no difference whatsoever. We heard about that a couple of weeks ago, in a portion of chapter 6, about Christians taking each other to court. Paul says, Listen: God appointed us to judge the whole WORLD, and you still get into legal tangles with each other??The other part of that chapter says people shouldn’t be going to prostitutes, because that isn’t showing respect for their own and other’s bodies. Paul’s making the same point with both issues: You shouldn’t do tawdry, soul-staining, hurtful stuff just because it’s normal, because everybody does it. Your life should show that you belong to God.

In this letter, and elsewhere, Paul tries to define an ethic of Christian moral behavior that isn’t legalism – it’s not the old Law of Judaism, or anything like it;

that isn’t “anything goes”; and that still marks the lives of Christians as a people set apart to love and serve. And he does that by developing a kind of Christian situational ethics, based on context and conscience.

There’s a thing he says twice in this letter, a core concept: In chapter 6: “’All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be dominated by anything.” And again in chapter 10:   “‘All things are lawful’, but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful’, but not all things build up.”

“All things are lawful” – Our translation puts that phrase in quotation marks. Paul is repeating a saying here – and it seems likely that it’s one of his own teachings. He preached a sermon once on how Jesus had abolished the old Law and we are FREE in Christ – and people have taken him a little too literally, and now he define some limits.

“All things are lawful” – this is a core part of the Gospel message: Christianity does not have a holiness code, a set of practices and behaviors proscribed as off-limits, and prescribed as necessary, in order to know you’re right with God. Jesus tells us, Love God, love your neighbor as yourself, and share the Gospel. There are a few other specifics – gather to share Eucharist; feed the hungry – but it’s not a long list. The “rules” of Christianity, while often difficult, are not complicated.

Which is why Paul qualifies the “All things are lawful” teaching: All things are lawful – but not everything is beneficial, good for me or others. All things are lawful – but not all things build up. Not all all things are constructive or healthy.  All things are lawful – but I will not be dominated by anything, and lose my freedom to habit or compulsion.

Liberty in Christ, Christian freedom, comes with the responsibility of Christian discipline. With self-examination, and penitence, and sometimes self-denial. Because the things we choose to do with our freedom can begin to rule us instead of serve us.

Although he was writing nearly 2000 years ago, at the very beginning of the Christian era, I find that Paul puts his finger on something that remains one of the perplexing cores of Christian life. We may all be striving to follow Jesus and live out God’s intentions for us, as we best understand them; but what that looks like in our lives is very individual. There’s not just one template or map. I can listen and learn from the experiences and wisdom of others, but ultimately I have to know my own mind, my own heart. I have to know what in my life is beneficial – or not. What in my life is building up – and what is not. What in my life is dominating me.

In the verses just before today’s Epistle text, Paul gives us an example of a personal discipline in his own life. He’s talking about a hot-button issue of his time: whether traveling preachers and apostles like himself should be financially supported by the churches they visit. And Paul’s answer is, ABSOLUTELY. He calls up examples from Scripture and real life: Do you plant a vineyard and not benefit from what it produces? Do people serve in the military for free? Of course apostles should be compensated for their service.

But then he says: But not me.

Paul worked, everywhere he went, so that he wouldn’t have to rely on the generosity of the churches he visited. He offers this amazing humblebrag – he says, I don’t have any choice about preaching the Gospel; God TOLD me to do that; I get no credit. But I can choose how I do it, and I choose to do it this way: giving up my right for people like YOU, Corinthians, to pay my way.

He doesn’t really explain why, but I can imagine a couple of reasons that seem in keeping with what we know of Paul’s heart. I think he never wants to feel beholden – tempted to soften his message to keep a generous donor happy. And I think he wants to know deep in his heart that he’s doing what he’s doing for the right reason, for love of God, and not because it provides a comfortable living. (Paul would sneer at my benefit and pension package!…)

It would have been fine for Paul to be supported by the churches. Only his enemies would have criticized him for it, and they criticized him anyway.  But this is between Paul and God. And Paul feels in his heart that this a discipline he needs, to keep his motives and his message pure. He’s very clear that this policy isn’t for everyone; but it IS for him. Friend of the parish Jonathan Melton has written an essay about giving up his smartphone, which you’re invited to read this week. In it, he says: Some people can have a healthy relationship with their smartphone. I can’t. Paul says something similar here, in effect: Some apostles can be financially supported by churches and not have it distort or undermine their ministry. I can’t. He feels a temptation, a risk; and he chooses a way of living to keep that temptation at bay. To resist being dominated.

Paul doesn’t have the vocabulary of addiction, but that’s a big part of what he’s talking about in this letter.  Addiction, broadly defined – not just substance abuse, but all the things in our lives where we say, “It’s not that important to me,” or “I could stop anytime I want,” and know we’re lying. The impulses or habits or things in our lives that we feel powerless to change. Some people wrestle with their relationship with food. With online shopping, or social media, or just the act of picking up your smartphone to fill every quiet moment. With an unhealthy relationship. With the adrenaline rush of conflict or danger or outrage. There are so many things that will dominate us, if we let them. If sin is what disrupts love of God, love of neighbor, love of creation, love of self – addictions do that. They become the center of our lives. Or, just as insidiously, the background of our lives, the thing we fall back to whenever we’re not doing something else.

In today’s Gospel we see Jesus casting out some demons. Apparently he did that a lot. There are a couple of ways to make sense of these stories. One is that 1st century Palestinian Jews understood some things we’d call biological illness, as demon possession. So what we might see as a healing, they would see as exorcism. On the other hand: Maybe demons were really around, back then. There are some pretty great demon stories in the Bible.

I am personally agnostic about evil spirits and such. But I know this: Addiction acts a lot like a demon. It makes someone act like something other than their true self. It take away their control over their actions, their lives. It can cause them to endanger themselves. And it’s Jesus’ desire to free us from their grasp.

I’ve learned so much from my recovery community friends, for whom the Twelve Steps are a core spiritual practice. They know that recovery from addiction is ongoing, lifelong work. You don’t quit whatever it is, and just walk away. You have to keep choosing not to be dominated. And you need the help of a higher power, and ideally of an understanding community, to keep making that choice – because it’s hard. But life in recovery is better than life as an addict. Being addicted can feel like freedom, but it’s a lie.

The Invitation to a Holy Lent from the prayer book that I quoted earlier makes mention of “notorious sins” – that always tempts me to giggle. We are all sinners, friends – but if any of you are notorious sinners, I must have missed the headline. Sin usually takes pretty mundane forms: the things in our lives that diminish our capacity for love – given or received; that confuse our purpose, that numb our conscience, that dim our light, which is really God’s light shining through us. If we’re honest with ourselves, if we’re listening to God, we know what those things are. If addiction is too heavy a word, think about your habits instead. Habits of action or of thought.

We need to undertake this work – to approach these heavy words, self-discipline, self-denial – holding firmly in mind that Jesus’ Great Commandment calls us to love ourselves, as well as God and neighbor. Don’t let your self-reflection become a weapon of self-harm. Practice your self-awareness with compassion!

But there is – there has to be – a place in our faith for asking ourselves these powerful questions Paul gives us: What in my life is hurting instead of helping? What in my life is undermining instead of building up? What in my life is dominating me? And for undertaking the work of change. Of recovery. Of liberation.

Lent begins in ten days. Often it sneaks up on me, which means that it probably also sneaks up on most of you. But this year, Paul has given us notice. He’s called us to examine how we’re living our freedom in Christ – and where that freedom may be compromised by the things we allow to have power over us. So I invite you, today, to begin noticing, and reflecting, and praying about taking on a Lenten discipline or fast. Have a real honest conversation with God about something you’d like to do differently – at least a little bit. Lent is a good length; six weeks isn’t an overwhelming amount of time to commit to something, but it’s also long enough to perhaps establish a new habit, or release an old one. Practice self-compassion and set realistic intentions: don’t aim too high and disappoint yourself right away. And remember the wisdom of the recovery community: One day at a time.

I invite you, friends, in the name of the Church, to begin your preparation for the observance of a holy Lent.

 

Sermon, Christmas Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the Word became flesh and lived among us,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon, Advent IV

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

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

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

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

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

Except, not quite.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon, Christmas Eve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because God is with you. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Sermon, Dec. 3

Note: The beginning of this sermon is based on the Godly Play story, The Circle of the Church Year. 

What do you know about time? What are some of the times in your life? Like bedtime, work time, play time… We know all about time because we live inside it. But what is time, really?….

Some people say time is a line. Here, this rope can help us think about time being a line. Here is the beginning. It is the newest part. It is just being born. Now, look…. Take this beginning and walk over there with it, OK?  Slowly. Look, time is passing. The beginning that was new is getting older. I wonder how long time goes on? Does it go on forever? Can there ever be an ending? … Look – it ended. There’s the end. The beginning that was so new, is old now. – and the ending is new. We have a beginning that is like an ending, and an ending that is like a beginning.

Do you know what the Church did? They took the ending that was like a beginning, and the beginning that was like an ending, and they tied them together. They made time into a circle. So that we would always remember that for every ending there is a beginning, and for every beginning there is an ending.

Let’s look at it a different way. Instead of the rope, let’s use this cloth. These colors show us the circle of the church year. This blue is the beginning. It is the color of Advent, the season that begins today. Today is the Church’s New Year’s Day! Happy New Year!

After blue Advent comes white Christmas –  then green Epiphany –  then purple Lent – then white Easter – then red Pentecost – careful, it’s hot! – then the long green season of summer and fall, the great green growing season. There is the beginning – and there is the end. But they aren’t a line. They are a circle. So let’s fasten the end to the beginning.

Now let’s think some more about endings and beginnings. Think for a moment about some of the beginnings you have experienced. Times when you have started something new. Think about the things you feel, when there’s a new beginning. Happy? Excited? Hopeful? Determined? Afraid? Eager?

Now think for a moment about endings. Times when something has come to an end. When something is over. Think about the things you feel, when there’s an ending. Sad? Quiet? Full of memories? Relieved? Peaceful? …

Today we begin the season of Advent. Advent is a season that is about beginnings, and endings.  It is the beginning of a new church year.

And it is about getting ready for a Great Beginning: the Great Beginning of Jesus being born. The beginning of a new relationship between human beings and God, through Jesus’ life and the things he showed us and taught us.

But Advent is also about endings. Even though it’s the beginning of the year in the church, we feel and see that it’s the end of the year in the world. It’s getting colder. It’s getting darker. All the living things out there are dying or going to sleep or flying away. It feels like an ending. That’s why we light one more candle every Sunday of Advent – to help us count the four Sundays, but also because at this season it gets darker and darker, week by week. The days are getting shorter and shorter.

And Advent is about another ending, a big ending. Jesus taught his friends was that he would come back someday. He’s talking about that in our Gospel lesson today – he’s telling them,  After I die, and rise from the dead, and go to be with God, I will come again – someday. And when I come again, all God’s children will be gathered together, the living and the dead, and there won’t be any suffering anymore. And the world will be changed, too – the world that groans as it waits for God’s redemption. Maybe it will be like a garden, like the garden at the very beginning, where everybody has everything they need, and the fierce animals are friends with the gentle animals, and nobody hurts or kills anybody else. Maybe it will be like a city where there is a home for everybody, where there is plenty to eat and never any war, where people sing together day and night, and where God tenderly wipes away the tears of our grief and weariness. We don’t know what it will be like, but Jesus and the church teach us that that time is coming.

And it’s a little bit scary, to think of everything changing and ending. But it’s hopeful, too. It’s another ending that’s also a beginning, isn’t it? And God’s people have yearned for it, for so long, since long before Jesus’ birth. The book of the prophet Isaiah gives us these words: Oh, that you would tear open the heavens and come down! Say that with me: Oh! That you would tear open the heavens and come down! 

Psalm 80 gives us these words: Stir up your strength, O God, and come to help us! Say that with me: Stir up your strength, O God, and come to help us! And the songs and prayers of Advent say, Come, Lord Jesus! Say that with me: Come, Lord Jesus! 

We don’t know when that time will come. People have been waiting for it and wondering about it for a long time.  That’s part of what Jesus is talking about in today’s lesson. He’s saying: You won’t know when it’s coming. It’s a mystery. So be ready, always. Live so that you’re always prepared to meet God and walk into that new beginning that is also an ending.

We don’t think about it a lot, that ending-beginning, most of the time. We try to live our lives well, and love each other, and love God, and take care of the world. Most of the time we don’t think much about it at all, because it’s such a big mystery and it’s probably still a long, long way away.

But in Advent the church thinks about it. About that ending/beginning that will come someday. We get ready for the story about Jesus coming as the baby in the stable, the story that has already happened, and we also share the story about Jesus coming again and the whole world changing, the story that hasn’t happened yet.

Those stories are all mixed together in Advent, in the Scriptures and hymns and prayers of the season. Beginnings and endings all tangled up together. And all the feelings we have about beginnings and endings might be tangled up together too: happiness and sadness, excitement and fear, hope and remembering, gratitude and urgency. That’s Advent.

You can hear that in the songs we sing today. The song we gather with is a joyful song: People, look East! And sing today: Love the Lord is on the way! And we’ll sing another familiar Advent hymn that sounds very cheerful: Come, thou long-expected Jesus, born to set thy people free, from all fears and sins release us, let us fund our rest in thee!

But we’ll also sing a song that feels solemn and urgent: Signs of endings all around us, darkness, death, and winter days, shroud our lives with fear and sadness, numbing mouths that long to praise… Later the song says, Give us hope and faith and gladness! Show us what there yet can be! It’s a song of yearning, a song of struggling to hold hope.

And then we have some songs that I think invite us to slow down, to pay attention to how it feels to wait and wonder: O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel… Lullaby, lullaby, wait till tomorrow… Come now, O Prince of Peace, make us one body; come now, O Lord of life, reconcile all peoples.

And there’s one more – we sang it just now, at the Gospel proclamation. It is a song that was made by people who were suffering, and that story that hasn’t happened yet, about Jesus coming back and the whole world changing, gave them hope that their suffering wouldn’t last forever. It’s partly happy and hopeful, and partly sad and serious – just like Advent. It goes like this – sing it with me: “My Lord, what a morning, My Lord, what a morning, My Lord, what a morning, when the stars begin to fall.”

Welcome to Advent.

Sermon, June 11

Today churches around the world – Anglican and Episcopal, Orthodox, Catholic, and others – celebrate the feast day dedicated to the Holy Trinity. To celebrating and – often – attempting some explanation of our Christian doctrine that God is One but also Three: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The setting-aside of the Sunday after Pentecost to honor the Trinity goes back at least a thousand years. If you Google it, the simple historical explanation that everyone’s church websites have is that the observance of Trinity Sunday was instituted by Archbishop Thomas Becket of Canterbury in the 12th century. That seemed both too tidy and incomplete, so I tried to dig a little deeper online and found this sentence in a book review in a 1954 religion journal: “Much is made of the alleged origin of the feast of Trinity Sunday at Canterbury under Thomas Becket. Actually, the office… had been followed in the English monasteries (and doubtless elsewhere) from the time of St. Dunstan.”

Our hymnal is full of hymns to the Trinity that poetically explore the mystery of God in three persons. We’ll sing several of them today. The fact is, the Trinity is really a better subject for poetry than for exposition. It’s notoriously hard to explain clearly. Every year amongst my clergy acquaintances on Facebook, there’s a round of finger-shaking: “Make sure you don’t commit heresy!” I can’t get too worked up about it, myself. Both heresy and doctrine are creations of the Church, a human institution. And the words we use – Trinity, Father, Son, Holy Spirit – they’re just words. The doctrine of the Trinity is an effort to capture the mystery of God in human language and concepts. To eff the ineffable, if you will.

But that’s not to say I think the truth behind the words is unimportant. I think it’s very important – so important that we should be mindful of how the words we use can obscure the truth we’re trying to name. What do Christians mean when we name God as a Trinity? Christians have come to understand God as One, and yet also Three.

And the Three are not interchangeable but have distinct personhoods: God, the Creator of Heaven and Earth, the Ground of all being, the One who holds all time, all space, in the palm of their hand…. God at God’s biggest, beyond all knowledge and all thought.

God, the Incarnate, the Immanent. The movement of Divine thought into substance, who was with God in the beginning, by whom all things were made. Emmanuel, God-With-Us, who comes into the immediacy and mess of human life, walks with us, eats with us, shares the experience of being embodied, limited, breakable. Is broken. But not ended, because although one of us he is also still God.

God, the Spirit, breath, wind, flame, wisdom, whisper, shout. The still small voice. The presence gentle as a dove. The Wind that moved over the face of the waters, when as yet there was nothing but that primordial sea. The Holy Spirit: how we name the Divine When it stirs something within or among us, Inspiring, converting, healing, transforming, making possible.

Creator, Incarnate One, Divine Breath. Father, Son, Spirit. Two of our Scriptures today use that set of names, what’s called the Trinitarian formula: The Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. A huge part of the conflict between early Christianity and Judaism was the notion that Jesus was somehow also God, which challenged Judaism’s deep belief in only one God. Early Christians had to wrestle with their language, to make room in monotheism for a God who is somehow, mysteriously, more than One. By the 50s or 60s, when Paul wrote the second letter to the Corinthians, early church leaders had worked out this way of naming God as Three in One. (The Gospel of Matthew was likely written down a couple of decades later. It’s hard to know whether Jesus actually spoke the Trinitarian formula himself, or whether Matthew gives him those words that had become central to Christian baptism and teaching by the time Matthew is writing.)

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit… The terms Father and Son come to us directly from Jesus. Interestingly, Father was not a dominant metaphor for God in the Old Testament. God is named as a Father a few times, but God is much more often a husband, sometimes a mother, sometimes a master. It’s Jesus who gives Father language to Christianity, by naming God as his Father and teaching his followers to do the same. There’s a sticky translation issue here – Jesus used an Aramaic word for Father, Abba. That was a familiar word, not a formal word – You’d actually call your father “Abba,” Whereas to call your father “Father” sounds odd to most of us. But we don’t have a good equivalent to “Abba” in American English. “Daddy” is a little too childish, “Dad” maybe a little too informal, though it may be our best option. In any event, the term “Father” in our cultural context carries some sense of formality and distance, and that’s a pity, because that wasn’t Jesus’ intention in giving us this way to name God. He wants us to think of ourselves as children of a loving father – a loving daddy? – who cares for each of us, is always ready to hear our concerns and share our celebrations, always waiting for us to wander home.

The Father; the Son. That’s straightforward enough; the Gospels name Jesus as the Son of God – though not in the way of Greek mythology, for example, that led to many half-gods wandering around the earth. Jesus is God’s Son is a less literal, and a more eternal and fundamental, way. The first chapter of the Gospel of John picks up the threads of the Creation story, as John tries to describe who and what Jesus is:  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son.” Gazing into the mystery that John’s Gospel poetry evokes, it becomes clear that the Sonship and the Fatherhood that we name in the Trinity are only the best effort humanity and divinity could make together, at a certain moment in our shared story, to describe what’s going on inside of God.

And then there’s the Holy Spirit, which has the benefit of seeming elusive and confusing right up front, unlike Father and Son, which sound misleadingly concrete. The Spirit is announced and named by Jesus, but Pentecost is not the Spirit’s first appearance; there are times in the Old Testament too when the Spirit of God is named as an agent or an aspect of God.

That’s the question, really – always has been. What are these different things that we name with these clumsy terms, Father, Son, Holy Spirit? Are they manifestations, avatars? Are they different colorful masks worn by one God? That would be much simpler than what Christians came to understand, and have struggled to believe ever since: This isn’t just one God wearing different costumes. These are three distinct Persons within One God. If you’d like a glimpse at the historical struggle to define and defend that paradox, read the Athanasian Creed sometime; it’s on page 864 in the Book of Common Prayer.

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The truth behind the words matters: the truth that relationship is at the core of everything. That Divinity is community. That the heart of God is not a oneness sufficient to itself, but a plurality dancing with itself. So we, created in God’s image, are made for diversity, for relationship, for belonging. That is a truth that matters deeply right now. Always does, really.

The truth behind the words is powerful, paradoxical, and gracious. The words themselves… have their limitations. Human concepts come with human baggage. Few serious theologians would assert that God is actually male, but our language has led us to imagine God as an old guy with a beard, for millennia. Using the language of a patriarchal society to name God has served to reinforce patriarchy, for a long, long time. In addition to those big-picture issues, naming God as Father is really hard for some people because of their family history. We are simple animals, really; if the father we have known in real life was unloving or even abusive, then when we hear God named as Father, we cannot help having our experiences contaminate God.

I can’t see abandoning the Trinitarian formula, Father, Son, and Holy Spirt, because it’s so deeply rooted in Scripture and tradition. But when we recognize that those terms were just one attempt to wrap human language around divine mystery, it frees us up to try other formulas, other language. You’ll sometimes hear Trinitarian formulas that focus on how humans have experienced those three Persons. Maker, Redeemer, Sustainer. The One who creates, the One who befriends, the One who inspires. The anti-heresy brigade frets about modalism: the heresy that the Trinity is after all only one God acting in three different ways, as one human being might cook dinner, do the laundry, and feed the dog. What I like about those formulas, Maker, Redeemer, Sustainer, and others, is that they remind us of the kinds of things God does. They remind me to give thanks for, and look for, God’s ongoing presence and action in the world. So maybe we could all just promise not to commit the modalist heresy and to remember that there are three Persons in the Trinity? Okay?

Just the other day, my son Griffin and I were talking about pronouns. We both have friends who prefer the use of the non-gendered pronoun “they”, and we’re working to get used to that, because we respect our friends. And it dawned on us both that if you met God at the GSAFE banquet, where your name tag says both your name and your preferred pronouns, God’s name tag would say “they/theirs.” Because God is gender non-binary – not a boy or a girl – and God is plural. I’m trying that on, using “they” as my God-pronoun. It breaks open my thinking a little, makes me notice and wonder, and that’s a good thing.

The Trinity is beautiful, and holy, and true, and we really don’t understand it at all. But we celebrate it, with gratitude – the mystery and the truth of community in the heart of God, who is our Source, our Grace, our Love, our Table, our Food, our Host, our Light, our Tree, our Treasure, Our Life, our Truth, our Way. Amen.

The quotation about Dunstan came from this article:

Review: Algemene Geschiedenis der Nederlanden Deel VI, De Tachtigjarige Oorlog 1609-1648.  Reviewed Work: Algemene Geschiedenis der Nederlanden Deel VI, De Tachtigjarige Oorlog 1609-1648. Review by: G. N. Clark, The English Historical Review Vol. 69, No. 271 (Apr., 1954), pp. 318-320