Category Archives: Current Events

Sermon, Jan. 21

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

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

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

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

Well. Here goes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“In view of the impending crisis…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alastair Roberts’ post about this 1 Corinthians text:

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

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.


Racism resource list, 11/18/17

Resources on Racism                                            

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

General/historical background  [“Charleston syllabus,” readings and resources on the history of race relations in South Carolina and the US in general]  [Ta-Nehisi Coates, historical overview]

Nonconscious bias   [demonstration; take test of your own biases]

Combating bias in various fields (academics, medicine, etc.)  [list of resources; women in science & engineering]  [literature summary; faculty and leadership recruitment]   [commentary on the danger of looking for “cultural fit” at work]

Episcopal resources  [Extensive video of panel discussion, Nov. 2013] [links to many resources]  [1994 pastoral letter]

Lutheran resources   August 2015 webcast with Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton; page also has links to numerous other resources on racial justice   1993 “Social Statement”     [responses to the Charleston shootings from a Lutheran perspective]

Sermon, Sept. 3

This passage from Exodus makes me laugh every time I read it. Listen, and pay attention to the pronouns:

Then the LORD said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters.  Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”

Did you catch that? God says, I have heard the cries of my people; I know their sufferings; I am going to save them and bring them to a new land; I’m sending YOU.

And Moses says what I think any of us would say: Waitaminnit here. WHO AM I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt? Who am I to headline God’s saving work?

Moses is a fascinating character. He’s bi-cultural, like many immigrants and children of immigrants. He is a Hebrew by birth, one of God’s people Israel, and he was in touch with his birth family as he grew up. But he was raised in Pharaoh’s palace, as an adopted son of the princess of Egypt. He can fit in, in both Egyptian and Israelite society – but doesn’t fit perfectly in either. So on the one hand, Moses is a great candidate to send to Pharaoh to demand freedom for the people Israel. He knows Pharaoh. He speaks the language. But on the other hand, he’s a TERRIBLE candidate. The reason Moses is wandering around in the wilderness, looking after his father-in-law’s sheep, is that he’s a fugitive. One day, back in Egypt, he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen. And he killed the Egyptian, and buried him in the sand. He thought he’d gotten away with it, but the very next day he tried to break up a fight between two other Hebrews, and one of them said, “What are you going to do, murder me like you murdered that Egyptian?” So Moses knew he wasn’t safe. And he fled to the land of Midian, where he met a nice young woman, and settled down to help out with the family herds.  So you can see why marching right into Pharaoh’s palace sounds insane to Moses: as far as he knows, he’s wanted for murder in Egypt.

But God is not interested in Moses’ excuses. God says, Go. And tell them I AM sent you.

Moses’ situation reminds me of another Hebrew, another Jew, who got close to the seat of power, much later in the history of God’s people Israel: Queen Esther. Esther was a young Jewish woman living with her uncle in Persia, during the time of exile.  She is chosen to become queen, wife of the Persian king Ahasuerus, because of her beauty. She hides her Jewish identity, because people looked down on the Jews. But then an advisor to the King convinces him to murder all the Jews in his kingdom. Esther has to speak up, but she’s terrified – this isn’t a friendly marriage; she can’t even approach the king unless he asks for her, and to speak against his will could get her executed.  But her uncle says, Esther, if you can’t do something, who can? Perhaps you have been raised to this high station for just such a time as this.

Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh? …

Perhaps you have been placed where you are for just such a time as this…

And then there’s the dialogue between Peter and Jesus, in today’s Gospel.  “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me…” Biblical interpreter Matthew Swanson reminds us not to be too quick to take the cross as a metaphor. Crucifixion was real, brutal, and ever-present reality, in first-century Judea.  It was what happened to people who got crosswise – so to speak – of Roman interests. People who spoke out against the empty cruelty of Roman colonial rule – against the shallow, hollow religion of the great Temple, in its collusion with Herodian greed and Roman rule – against the stark, shattering poverty in which so many lived, under the harsh burden of taxation imposed jointly by the local king and the Roman governor – people who raised their voices about any and all of that, were headed towards a nasty end.

Peter wants to believe that Jesus is special, that Jesus is exempt from all that.

But Jesus says, NO.  This is the human lot. This is what I signed up for.  Pushing back against the forces that cause human suffering involves us in human suffering.

People wonder, sometimes, why Jesus is so harsh with Peter here –  Get behind me, Satan! Back off! I wonder if it’s because in Peter’s words, Jesus truly hears the Devil tempting him: Surely you can avoid this brutal end. Surely you can preach and heal and feed and serve without ending up… there. You’re special. Why should you have to suffer? Jesus responds sharply because that voice – that voice could get to him.  In one recent translation, Jesus tells Peter, “You are a stone that could make me stumble.”

Whoever wants to save their life will lose it…

Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh?

Perhaps you have been placed where you are for just such a time as this…

There’s something these three stories – Moses, Esther, Jesus – have in common: lots of suffering. In Moses’ time, the Hebrews were dealing with bitter oppression by a government that feared and hated them.  In Esther’s time, a minority that had been living in peace as part of society was now being targeted for elimination.  In Jesus’ time, everyone but the wealthiest few were struggling – poor and sick, with no one to speak for them.

We can relate. Many of us feel like the suffering and struggle around us is so intense right now.  Immigrant families live with feeling unwelcome, unwanted, and many live with the constant terror of their families being torn apart by deportation.  The floods in Texas that have taken everything from so many. GLBTQ+ folks faced another assault on their humanity and worth this week, from conservative evangelical leaders. People of color, and those of us who simply believe that diversity makes us stronger, are witnessing with dread the increased assertiveness of white supremacist groups and leaders.

It’s overwhelming. Moses was overwhelmed, Esther was overwhelmed. Peter was overwhelmed. Even Jesus seemed at least whelmed. I am sure as heck overwhelmed. Sometimes.

But there’s another thing these three stories have in common. They’re all moments when in the depths of suffering and struggle, God’s purposes are accomplished. These aren’t just stories of survival. They are stories of transformation, liberation, and triumph. Moses, with God’s help, frees the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. Esther, with God’s help, asks the King for mercy for her people, and the King hears her. Jesus… dies on the cross that Peter hoped he could avoid. But the grave cannot hold him. He rises again, and shows us, once and for all, that right, temporarily defeated, is still stronger than evil triumphant.

Moses, Esther, Jesus and Peter – they all lived in terrible times. And they all became part of God’s redeeming work, in those terrible times.

Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh?

Perhaps you have been placed where you are for just such a time as this.

What moves Moses from his fear and inadequacy?  What gets him to march into Pharaoh’s palace, into the lion’s mouth, and say, “I AM sent me”? It’s hard to say No to God, sure. But I think Moses says Yes because God invites him into hope.

Hope. It’s so different from optimism, the assumption that things will probably be fine, whether I do anything or not.  It’s different from the kind of naive privilege that says, People like me usually come out OK, so the situation can’t be that bad. Hope means that you believe some kind of good outcome is possible, and you’re going to orient your life and work and prayers towards that good. Hope means looking at our holy stories, our family stories, these and so many others, about times when things were really bad, and yet, and yet, some kind of good emerged. God’s purposes were accomplished.

Moses said Yes, even though he was afraid, because he had hope. He wanted what God wanted. Esther said Yes, even though she was afraid, because she had hope. She wanted what God wanted.  Jesus said yes, even though he was afraid, because he had hope. He wanted what God wanted.

Hope isn’t weak or fluffy. Hope can be solid like a rock or fierce like a flame. When the worst happens, Hope says, Oh yeah? The story isn’t over yet. Hope gets in its kayak to rescue neighbors and opens its mattress store to house the displaced and makes tacos to feed the recovery workers.  Hope tells us that the stories of our times can be more than just stories of survival – although survival matters! – but we dare to hope for more: for stories of transformation, liberation, and triumph.

Know your hopes, friends. Name them and feed them. Help them grow. Introduce them to your friends. As your hope gets stronger, you may find that one day your hope starts tugging on the leash, taking you somewhere you hadn’t expected to go. Don’t be shy. Go. And when you get where your hope is leading you, tell them, I AM sent me.

Sermon, August 13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


On Anne Dufourmantelle:

Charles Lafond on curiosity:

Rev. Jonathan Grieser’s recent reflection on gun violence in Madison:

Our Immigrant Stories

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Sermon, February 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon, Nov. 13

Today’s lessons may be read here. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sermon, October 16

This was a week when I wished we had that sign board out front for sermon titles, like some churches do, because I actually had a title before I had anything else: How We Know the Good. How We Know the Good – how we recognize good things, good thoughts, good choices, good paths. It’s a fundamental issue in religion and ethics – we can have the best intentions in the world to act rightly, but if we can’t somehow identify or discern what is right and good, we can’t follow through on our intentions.

Today’s lectionary texts point us at two ways that we can know the good. The first is the human conscience. Conscience is the word we give to our God-given capacity to know the good. Like a compass pointing to north, our conscience points to the right path, to what is true, and just, and good. It guides us in uncertainty, goads us when we are wrongly comfortable, and reminds us when something in our lives is amiss, in need of amendment, change, or healing. In our text from the book of the prophet Jeremiah, God speaks through the prophet to tell the people: No longer will the law of holiness, your way of living as God’s people, exist outside of you, a Law that must be written and taught. Instead I will put my law inside of you; I will engrave it on your hearts; and I will be your God, and you shall be my people. No longer shall the people have to teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD.

Jeremiah’s image of God’s law of goodness written on the hearts of God’s people, so that we simply know God’s ways without being taught – that idea becomes a central concept in Anglican theological anthropology. Theological anthropology just means, how we think about humans in light of how we think about God. And Christian traditions vary widely in their theological anthropology. For instance, it’s one of our areas of difference from our Lutheran brothers and sisters, with whom we otherwise share a great deal. Among Christian traditions, Anglicans and Episcopalians have a relatively positive view of humanity. For Anglicans, knowing good from evil is a fundamental part of human nature, one of the ways in which we were created in God’s likeness, revealed and redeemed in Jesus Christ’s incarnation as a human being. While other Reformation theologians stressed human sinfulness, the Anglican reformers saw humans as possessing reason and conscience, God-given capacities for moral knowing, which make it possible to see and choose the good. True, we see wrongly and choose badly, often; but in spite of our failings, humans are capable of acting rightly. The 16th-century Anglican theologian Richard Hooker wrote, “Reason… may rightly discerne the thing which is good.” And the 20th-century Anglican theologian Kenneth Kirk wrote, ‘”The Soul, however tainted or corrupted by sin, retains an innate power both of perceiving what is good and right, and of aspiring to it.”

Listen, talking Anglican moral theology may seem scholarly and abstruse. But I think that sense of a human capacity to know the good is in the DNA of our faith in a way that you’ll recognize once you start to look for it. Our shared conviction that the human heart is not a traitor leading us to damnation, but can actually be a faithful compass pointing us towards God’s desires, that conviction is what’s made it possible for us to re-examine and revise the the church’s historic teachings on ordaining women and gay people, for example.

So, we Episcopalians, Christians in the Anglican tradition, believe that conscience is inborn, a birthright. But conscience is also formed and nurtured by community. You might think of it like our capacity for language – we are hard-wired for it, it’s fundamental to our nature, but we still need a linguistic community to activate it. Our conscience is shaped and developed in the context of our moral communities – family, church, and society. Of course, as people of faith, we see the church as a primary site of moral formation; and of course as liturgical Christians, we see regular participation in our rites of word and sacrament as the key to our ongoing growth as moral agents.

The liturgy we’re using right now, for example, teaches us to notice and celebrate the small blessings of life – those loud-boiling test tubes! – and give thanks for them. To look to God as the Source of all things. To pray and strive for the welfare of others, near and far, and to work and pray for the good of the city where we dwell. To be mindful of our failures of love, and to seek healing and amendment of life. To be people of peace. To be people of generosity, who offer back a portion of what we are given. To hold before ourselves Jesus’ example of courageous self-giving love, and his passion for the redemption of the world. To be people of forgiveness. To trust God for what we truly need. To recognize and treasure our unity, even in our differences. And to serve God in the world with strength, courage, gladness, and singleness of heart. And that’s just the words of the liturgy, apart from the Scriptures and the sermon of the day, which occasionally makes a worthwhile point.

There is indeed some rich moral teaching in our liturgies, to be absorbed week by week, year by year, decade by decade. But it’s all rather broad-brush, isn’t it? Not a lot of specifics about how to apply these principles. Those of you who have come to the Episcopal Church from other branches of the noble tree of Christianity may have noticed that we are not real heavy on teaching particular moral rules. That’s not just 21st century Episcopal wishy-washiness. It’s actually part and parcel of that basic Anglican theological anthropology. Instead of teaching moral rules, what you ought to do in such and such a situation, we focus on forming a moral community, in which individuals develop their capacity to recognize the good and do what is right. We proclaim a few bedrock commitments, but when it comes to how we live them out in given cases, we tend to trust reason informed by conscience. As the former Archbishop of Canterbury once wrote, “Only I can answer the question, ‘What ought I to do?'” (Rowan Williams, p. 296).

Listening to your conscience takes effort. Otherwise we’d never do anything wrong. It takes mindfulness and self-knowledge. It’s easier when we’re not stressed or angry or exhausted – though sometimes clarity can strike like a lighting bolt in those moments, too. We’re apt to ignore that still small voice inside us because we’re comfortable, or busy, or anxious, or prideful, or because we feel too responsible … But if we look inside ourselves, the compass is there, needle faithfully pointing the way even as we cast about for a path.

But. But.

Let’s look at this Gospel parable. Jesus says, In a certain city there was a judge, who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.'” Luke, our Gospel writer, sees this as a story about our call to be persistent. He introduces it as “a parable about the need to pray always and not to lose heart.” And he adds a coda to the story itself – a couple of sayings of Jesus: God will grant justice to God’s chosen ones who cry to God day and night; yet when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?

This whole section of Luke, these parables and sayings, is unique to Luke’s Gospel. Bible scholars think that he had access to a collection of Jesus’ sayings and teachings that the other Gospel writers didn’t have. He had to figure out how drop them into his account of Jesus’ life, which he does, in part, by just stringing a bunch of them together here in chapters 17 and 18. It’s possible – and in some cases seems likely – that he was trying to match up parables and sayings, so that it all made sense to him and to his audience. I visualize him with a bunch of index cards on his desk…

So. Maybe this is a parable about being faithful in prayer, even when it seems like you’re not getting results. Sure. That call to holy persistence would be in keeping with the message of this portion of the second letter to Timothy: Proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. Read from that angle, the story invites us to identify with the widow. Keep making noise. Be the squeaky wheel. Don’t give up. You will be heard, and answered.

But. Part of how the parables work is that they can be read from multiple angles. I fully believe that was Jesus’ intention, and that a lot of the time, in the Gospels, when a parable comes with a little explanation about what it means, that explanation comes from the Gospel writer. I suspect Jesus mostly just told the stories and left people to puzzle over them.

So in that light, think on this story again, and ask yourself, what if I’m the judge? …

Jesus points us towards the question of conscience in the way he describes the judge: he neither feared God nor had respect for people. So in contrast with the developed conscience of a practicing Jew or Christian, this guy doesn’t care what God thinks about his actions, and he doesn’t care about what happens to other people. And he’s a person in authority; his decisions influence the lives of others on a daily basis. And he has walled up his inner moral compass. He just doesn’t care.

But the widow makes him care. Because she won’t shut up. She keeps pressing her case, insisting that there’s an injustice that needs attention, until she wears him down. He finally hears her, and responds to her call, because she is so persistent – or to put it another way, because she is so annoying.

What if I’m the judge? What if I’m the one whose ears and mind and heart are closed, until someone’s persistence wears me down so that I finally, finally listen?

We are formed and nurtured by moral communities – our families, schools, churches. They train and calibrate our consciences for compassion, understanding, empathy.

But the human world is bigger than our moral communities. There are people whose lives we don’t easily understand. The constraints that bind them, the struggles that bear down on them, the griefs and needs that exhaust and frustrate them. Sometimes we look at others’ lives and find it hard to their motives and choices. Sometimes we look at others’ lives and know we should feel pity, but instead, feel judgment. We think, in our inmost hearts, I wouldn’t have let that happen to me. Why didn’t they make better choices? He brought it on himself. She should have known better.

Those thoughts are a sign that our conscience is overwhelmed, swamped by a situation that’s outside our moral universe. The communities and experiences that formed us didn’t prepare us to understand and respond to the full scope of human lives, needs, wrongs and injustices.

This is the second way we can know the good: by listening, when a person or community is persistently telling us that something is deeply wrong. What’s banging on the door of your conscience? Coming around every day to remind you that some situation you haven’t yet begun to care about still hasn’t gone away?

Here’s something that’s been nagging at my conscience. On September 21st, five days after police in Tulsa shot Terence Crutcher, one day after police in Charlotte shot Keith Scott, a new hashtag showed up on Twitter. A hashtag is a way to link people’s comments and posts, to have a broad conversation about the same issue or event. This hashtag was, WhiteChurchQuiet. The conversation it defined was a conversation among African-American Christians about feeling unheard and uncared-about. And it felt like a punch in the gut to me, and to many other white Christians.

Here are a few of the tweets, “Do you all really want social justice, or do you just want to talk about diversity so the good Lord knows you mean well? #WhiteChurchQuiet” “We ask, How long, O Lord? Maybe God is asking us the same question. #WhiteChurchQuiet” A quotation from Martin Luther King, Jr.: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends. #WhiteChurchQuiet” A quotation from the Epistles, from 1 John: “If you don’t love the person you can see, how can you love the God you can’t see? #WhiteChurchQuiet”

The #WhiteChurchQuiet hashtag is a persistent widow for me. I’m not like the Unjust Judge; I might be worse. I do fear God and respect other people, but I’m still ignoring my brothers and sisters who are shouting for change, shouting for justice. I believe that, among the forces that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God, systemic racism is among the most vicious and powerful. My brothers and sisters, for whom Christ died, live in a very different Madison and a very different America than I do as a white person. My kids’ Black friends are growing up in the shadow of statistics about massive disparities in educational outcomes, future employment, and involvement with the criminal justice system. It’s not just and it’s not right. But talking about systemic racism has become so polarized that it’s scary to talk about it in church. I’m worried right now about who I’m upsetting. And so I become a poster child for WhiteChurchQuiet. Because I’m fearful, and because I don’t know what to say. I don’t have this figured out yet. Far from it. But I hear #WhiteChurchQuiet as the holy botheration of the indignant widow, for me. There’s something here that’s calling my conscience to re-calibrate, so that it can guide me in right response to the divisions and disparaties of our common life.

But there are plenty of persistent widows to go around. This past week a lot of American men have had a rude awakening to the commonplace realities of life as a girl and woman. Our political conversation has gone some places nobody expected or wanted it to go. And that’s uncorked the bottle of women’s stories of having their space invaded and their bodily autonomy violated. Author Kelly Oxford tweeted about her own experience of sexual assault, and invited other women to share theirs. She got millions of responses. At the peak she was receiving fifty per minute. I think women knew that these experiences are commonplace, though maybe we didn’t know just how commonplace, or how egregious they could be, or how young we are when it begins.

But a lot of men didn’t know. Most men don’t do stuff like that. And they had no idea that most women experience stuff like that. And it’s been genuinely heartening to see America’s men responding to this particular persistent widow – taking on board realities that were invisible to them before, and saying, That’s not okay. We all need to do better. We need to teach our daughters to yell, and our sons to ask, and we need to convince, rebuke, and encourage one another to treat every child of God with respect and care.

We know what’s good, what’s true, what’s just, first because God gives us the gift – and burden – of a conscience, born inside us, nestled against our beating hearts, nurtured by the people and communities around us. And when we run up against the limits of our moral knowing, of what our conscience has encountered, we can come to know the good by a second path: through the persistence of another’s voice, from outside the walls of our zone of comfort and familiarity, that breaks through the limits of our capacity for concern and compassion, and bother us into a broader view of the goodness God wants for all God’s children.

Sermon, Oct. 9

How shall we seek the good of the city where we dwell?

We use this phrase in our Prayers of the People – Work and pray for the good of the city where we dwell, for in its peace we shall find our peace. Today the lectionary brings us those words in context, late in the book of the prophet Jeremiah. Jerusalem and the whole land are conquered by Babylon, as Jeremiah had predicted, and many of the people are taken into exile in Babylon. This passage is part of a letter that Jeremiah sent to those exiles. He was writing to counter the words of false prophets, who were telling the Jewish exiles that Babylon would soon be destroyed and they would be able to go home. Instead, Jeremiah says, You’re going to be there for a while. Build houses. Plant gardens. Have families. And seek the welfare of the city where God has sent you, for in its welfare, in its peace, you will find your own.

I’m glad to have the chance to explain the text and its context. I want to make sure we understand that the city mentioned there isn’t necessarily Madison. Maybe it’s Middleton. Verona. Mount Horeb. Maybe it’s Dane County. Or Wisconsin. Or the United States. It’s … wherever we find ourselves. Where we live and work, rest and play. Where we abide. Where we know the struggles, and have the chance to be part of the solutions.

How shall we seek the good of the city where we dwell? I added these words to our weekly Prayers maybe 18 months ago. Before that we had prayers for the world and the nation, but I noticed how much our prayers and actions were focused on local issues, local needs, and I thought, We need a particular place for those prayers and intentions. These words from Jeremiah came to mind, and fit so well. I treasure this text because it holds up the paradox of belonging and not belonging that’s central to life as a person of faith. Our loyalties are first and foremost to God’s kingdom and God’s ethics, which are often in tension with the ethics and norms of the world. Yet we’re called to engagement, not disengagement; to love, not condemnation.

Jeremiah wrote these words in a very particular moment; but I think I can defend using this random snippet of Old Testament prophecy as part of our weekly intercessions in Christian worship. Because what Jeremiah says here about how the exiles should live in Babylon is a lot like the way Jesus and the Apostles direct the first Christians to think and live: Be not conformed to the world, know yourselves as a people set apart, a people whose homeland is elsewhere, not even of this world; but live in this world as Jesus did: loving, grieving, celebrating, helping, healing, feeding, showing up, speaking out.

It was pretty easy for the earliest Christians to remember this because they felt like exiles; their way of faith put them at odds with other religious groups and with the cultural and political order around them. The Old Testament tells us that the people Israel, the faith-ancestors of both today’s Christians and Jews, had times of peace and prosperity when they were tempted to forget that they were first and foremost God’s people, not as a self-made and self-sufficient nation. Times when God had to remind them that they didn’t belong where they were in any deep or lasting way. The books of the Torah remind the Jews again and again that they were aliens and slaves in the land of Egypt. And the great festivals of the Jewish calendar, Passover, Sukkoth, Purim, remind them too of their times of being outsiders, wanderers and exiles.

Jews living today carry the collective memories of millennia of living – and dying – as an oppressed minority. They are not likely to forget that their loyalties are never simply to any earthly kingdom. But we Christians, well, our faith became the religion of empire 1600 years ago. That chapter of unquestioned dominance for our way of faith is waning now, and we’re struggling, in many respects, to remember – to reconstruct from the wisdom of our faith ancestors – how not to belong. How to be outsiders, exiles, whose identities and loyalties come from somewhere else than the place in which we find ourselves, but who work and pray faithfully for the good of the city where we dwell.

I think that’s why Jesus in his wisdom gave his followers so many stories and examples of strangers and outsiders being the ones who truly recognize God’s power and mercy. Like the Samaritan in today’s Gospel. Please note, the other nine guys are all doing what Jesus told them to do – going to show themselves to the Jewish religious authorities, to be certified as healed and clean from their disease, and free to resume normal life. Familiar rites, institutions and theologies take over. We have no reason to believe that they thought much about Jesus, after that day. The Samaritan is outside of that religious system. So where does he take his gratitude? He takes it back to the man who seems to him to have brought about his healing: Jesus. It’s his very outsiderness that makes him able to see clearly how God is at work.

The theme is familiar because Jesus tells it, and shows it, again and again. Listen to those on the outside, and remember, hold onto, your own outsider-ness; you often get the broadest view from the cheapest seats.

How shall we seek the good of the city where we dwell?

It’s pretty hard sometimes, and exhausting. We’re in one of those seasons right now. There’s so much going on in the life of our nation, let alone the larger world, that makes people feel angry, fearful, confused. Overwhelmed. Outraged. Despairing. We can be tempted to disengage. To think, like the exiles in Babylon: I don’t really belong here, and this place and its problems are just not my problem.

I read a short essay on this topic a few months ago that I really, really loved. And I’m going to share a little of it with you now. It’s written by a bear, who blogs and tweets regularly. Well, okay. It’s probably actually a person, but it sure sounds like a bear. She wrote this essay in response to the Pulse nightclub shooting back in June. And she’s basically reflecting on the struggle to keep striving for the good of the forest where she dwells. Listen.

“I wish doing things to make everything better for everyone in the forest was as easy as thinking about doing things to make everything better for everyone in the forest. It is not, though. In fact, it is actually very difficult for me to do things in the forest that feel like they affect anyone or anything beyond [me] or my immediate forest surroundings…I have tried, certainly, but the things I want changed seem to stay the same, no matter how much effort and dedication I put toward the changes I want to see. That is one of the more frustrating aspects of this: the one thing I do have control of [myself and my surroundings] are the only things I can effectively change. However, changing [myself] does not make the terribleness of the bad things that can happen in the forest change, go away, or get better. What I can change does not matter for the things I want to change. Sometimes I wonder if I should mind [my own bearness] and nothing else. I wonder if it is possible that all creatures of the forest are meant to simply mind their own personal creatureness… I am a bear, and I can only control my bearness, and I just have to accept that and move on with my bearness. But… I do not like that.  Some [creatures] fight just to make others feel like their otherness is wrong, bad, and worthless… And some [creatures] actually hurt and destroy [others], which is not fair or nice or necessary… I have to be a part of all of those relationships of the forest. I cannot just tend to my own bearness while [others] are hurt or hindered or hushed… If another creature cannot be the creature it is or wants to be because it is being unfairly stopped or even hurt, how could I not intervene? … [pause] I know that not everyone can tend their everyoneness, and sometimes they need help with tending their everyoneness.”

It’s a funny phrase: Tending our everyone-ness. But it’s the phrase I’ve kept thinking about, over the months since I first read the bear’s musings. Tending our everyone-ness. Our capacity to recognize the other, the stranger, the outsider, as also a child of the forest and a child of God. In our Discipleship Practices, we call this Reconciling: living as people who know that we are all one in God’s eyes. That there is no such thing as other people.

There is a paradox here, for the exiles in Babylon and for us: it’s our otherness, our commitments as people of faith, that drive us to tend our everyone-ness, to respond to our neighbors in love. It’s the paradox of Jeremiah’s call to the exiles: Remember who you are, but don’t keep yourselves apart. Strive for the welfare of the city where you live as exiles. Be an active part of the common good, wherever you find yourselves. Tend your everyone-ness.

How shall we seek the good of the city where we dwell?

Of course, the biggest thing straining our capacity to tend our everyone-ness right now is the election season. Some of us are angry, hopeful, fearful, determined, defensive. All of us are weary. How does Jeremiah’s call speak to us right now?

Some of you probably feel tempted to say, A pox on both their houses!… You’re so fed up that you’re ready to disengage entirely. I believe that faithful stewardship of what God has given us as citizens of a democracy, however flawed, involves informing ourselves and voting. If the candidates and the process make you queasy, try thinking past the election; look at the candidates’ policy priorities, think about the vision for the country they’re promoting, and weigh that against your values and convictions as a Christian. Make your choice on that basis. People of good conscience may arrive at different conclusions. But striving for the good of the city where we dwell demands that we take the impact of our votes seriously.

Some of you are deeply engaged, and fiercely passionate, for your candidate and/or against the other candidate. Tending your everyone-ness is even harder for you, friends, than for those who are just exhausted and ready to tune out. Because for you, it means trying to keep loving those on the other side. Setting aside judgment in favor of curiosity and compassion. What brought them to stand where they stand? How is their path like and unlike the path that brought me to stand where I stand? It is hard to look at someone who holds views you find hateful and tell yourself, This is a human being whom God loves. It’s hard. But it’s not optional.

On November 9th we will be the United States. We will still have to live with each other. We are going to need a lot of active, intentional, loving tending of our everyone-ness, after this divisive and exhausting season. In times of struggle, threat, anger, fear, uncertainty, it’s tempting to pull back into ourselves. To hunker down in the places where we feel safe, with the people who’ll affirm our opinions. To mind our own bearness.

But the hopeful, the faithful response, is to keep pushing outwards. To keep reconciling. To tend our everyone-ness. To work and pray, faithfully, for the good of the city where we dwell. For in its peace, friends, someday, somehow, we shall find our peace.

The bear’s wise words may be read in full here: