Category Archives: Sermons

Sermon, October 14

Trust, Entitlement, & the Terrifying Possibility of the Second-Best Taco

Dev and Arnold are friends in a Netflix series I enjoy called Master of None. In an early episode, the two friends are shown wondering what to do next. Tacos, they decide. They’re going to go eat tacos for lunch. But there’s a big problem. An exasperated Dev explains the situation: “There’re so many taco places, we’ve gotta make sure we go to the best one! Let’s research.”

“Great,” says Arnold. “I’ll sit here and do nothing.”

Hours pass in a dramatic, condensed time-lapse scene in which we see a series of images from the “research”: Yelp reviews, Instagram posts, photos and hashtags, desperate texts to friends, “Yo! Where the best tacos at?” The agony is palpable and real. Dez cannot imagine not eating the best taco for lunch. Finally, satisfied that he’s found it, Dev wakes his napping friend to announce the verdict.

“Great, let’s do it,” says Arnold.

But tragically, by the time the friends arrive, the taco truck is closed.

Dev protests to the food cart owner who is in the process of closing up shop: “What are we supposed to do, huh? Eat the second best tacos in New York?

The struggle is real.

And not just for Arnold and Dev.

It’s seemingly part and parcel of the information age: that you and I can see and know and potentially have the best, like never before in history. There’s an app for everything, true, and, more specifically, most of the apps exist to help us purchase different aspects of our lives more efficiently. There are even websites that allow students to scope out and rate the best professors, maximizing experience, living your best life, your perfect life. Because what else are you supposed to do? Enjoy the second best taco? And if you can’t enjoy the second best taco, if you can’t be sure there’s not a better taco truck than the one you’re at, how can you be expected to be present, really present, to anything at all?

Poor Dev and Arnold. Poor us. But also, poor rich man today in Mark’s gospel; rich man who is in a lot of ways a prototype of our ourselves; rich man who is our forbearer in following and all its difficulties; rich man who is our ancestor in acquisition and all its attending anxieties. He’s asking Jesus about eternal life, but from the get go we sense that something about the conversation is off. He’s asking about eternal life, but the conversation reads like a checklist confirmation, like he’s providing appropriate documentation at the DMV in order to receive a license he plans to pick up on the way home from work or proving his qualifications to the bank, in order to secure the mortgage to finance his next venture, operating under the assumption that there is some combination of deeds or depository of reputation and respectability that would make him deserving of eternal life. That is, he’s bringing his righteousness with the expectation of a successful transaction. Now, he’s open to the possibility that he might not have enough (yet), but he is also confident that there’s nothing out there that Jesus might add that he can’t yet acquire and later contribute to the equation. But what combination of deeds is equal to life with God? It’s not just that the math won’t square, but also that the rich man’s attempts to solve the puzzle this way reveal that he can’t imagine eternal life as anything other than yet another material good to add to the ones he already has. Conceiving of life with God this way, as a prize to win from God for behavior, rather than a life to live with God, and – God forbid – supposing he’s denied this transaction, what’s the man supposed to do? Live his second best life now?

But what if eternal life, life with God, is not something acquired by grasping?

Jesus looks at the man, loves him in the midst of all that’s rattling on inside him, and invites him to acquire the one thing he doesn’t have: awareness of his own lacking or, put better, a sense of God’s overwhelming goodness. Trust this, Jesus says, and live your trust in God toward your neighbor by a generosity that is a kind of grateful echo of God’s own. Let your gratitude be manifest in generosity and so make space in yourself, in your soul, for the possibility of a living trust of the Kingdom of God.

Give away what you have. Not just the things, but with them the admiration and affirmation of others who conflate your wealth with your deserving. Give up your standing. Hold nothing tightly. Forsake false guarantees that isolate you from other members and other parts of the Body of Christ. Be generous, and be open. Risk needing help and risk being helped, both by God and those around you in the community of faith. Make room to be loved, even on the days you are sure you are a fraud. Do not be afraid to celebrate the riches and gifts of others, for they do not condemn you. Eternal life is not a game to win or lose but a gift to be received.

“You lack one thing,” Jesus says. “Namely, you don’t lack anything yet. There’s no room for gifts or grace or surprises of God in you. But wait, I have an idea: go, sell what you own, give the money to the poor, you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

The rich man’s response is uncomfortably predictable. All silence. “How terribly shocking,” observes Sarah Hinlicky Wilson, “to discover that, after all, you love [something] more than you love eternal life.”

How difficult to discover that the thing you lack is all you have.

The man is crestfallen, and the disciples are terrified. Once they’ve gotten out of earshot of the rich man they ask Jesus, “If not this dude, Lord, who can be saved?” Jesus’ answer gives hope, but it’s not a hope that backs away from the difficulty presented by wealth and his earlier invitation to leave it: “With God all things are possible.” Trust God, then, and not these other things. Trust God, then, and live your trust in God toward your neighbor by a generosity that is a kind of grateful echo of God’s own. Let your gratitude be manifest in generosity. Let your love be sourced in God’s. Rest in the love of him who, though he was in the form of God did not count equality with God as something to be grasped but emptied himself. Breathe this love. Receive this love. Let it be your balm and greatest confidence, that this love is for you. Walk in this love. St. Paul puts the invitation this way, in words so familiar you know them by heart: Walk in love, as Christ loved us, and gave himself for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard liked to tell the story of a man who owned a shop, like a general store. One day, it’s late, and the shopkeeper puts things in order and calls it a day. He closes shop and goes home. But sometime that evening, or maybe even deeper into the night, some thieves break into the shopkeeper’s store. Bizarrely, the thieves don’t steal anything. Instead, they meticulously rearrange all the labels, the price labels, on every item in the store. So cheap things now have four digit tags. And really precious things are made to look cheap. The next day, the shopkeeper arrives at the store and doesn’t notice the hoax. Nothing appears any less in order than it had the night before. From the shopkeeper’s perspective, protected from critical reflection by the mundaneness, the ordinariness, of the rhythms of life, it’s just another day. Then the customers start arriving. They, too, don’t notice anything out of the ordinary. Instead, all of them begin interacting, shopping, purchasing, exactly as they had on the previous day, but with the labels as they now are, as if the mislabeled labels reflect the true values of things. And they’re still doing this thing, misjudging the true worth of things, to this very day, still shopping in the store not knowing that none of the labels are true.

“You lack one thing,” Jesus says. “Go, sell what you own, give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

Amen.

Sermon, September 16

Discerning the Good after Conversation with the Philosopher Barber

My barber is a philosopher. (I know, I know, aren’t they all?) At least he struck me as particularly philosophical the day I sat down in his chair and asked for his help with my beard. This was a couple of years ago and I’d grown what was my first significant beard for charity. Charitably, I didn’t know what I was doing and desperately needed help. Now that the money had been raised, the parameters of the agreement followed for the allotted length of time (namely abiding an alarming degree of hygienic negligence), I needed the beard trimmed into respectability. The barber nodded knowingly as he listened, taking in my situation. When he finally picked up his scissors and began to go to work, he broke a thoughtful silence with this truth:

“Beards,” he said, “are remarkable achievements of inaction. You did a thing by not doing a thing, am I right? People gave you money not to shave. But,” he went on, “the verb is active. That’s the madness. We say you grew a beard because of this thing you stopped doing. And we notice. We say to people with beards, ‘I see you grew a beard.’ But we never say to the clean-shaven folks, ‘I see you decided not to grow a beard today.’ Every day we should say to the clean-shaven folks, ‘I see you opted yet again not to grow a beard. How interesting. Well done.’ They’re the ones day in and day out giving honest time to their invisible decisions.”

There was no judgment in my barber’s words, although had they been intended to communicate humility to me, they certainly would have been effective.

I marveled at the barber/philosopher’s consideration of the matter, but then decided that this was not really that surprising. Hair and hair cutting are kind of his thing. Still, as a good Episcopalian, his words stayed with me. After all, in the list of all-time favorite and famous phrases of the liturgy, right up there with “The Lord be with you” and maybe also “Guide us waking, O Lord,” from Compline, is that line from the corporate confession of sin. We name “things done and left undone.” That line has always struck me as beautiful and true, calling me to a more fulsome imagination for what might have been done and how I might have lived. Now, though, post conversation with the philosopher barber, I was haunted. While not a sin, maybe, which was a beard? A thing done or left undone? Was it both? And what about other similarly ambiguous acts of inaction? When someone talks about turning the other cheek, for example, the cheek may have been turned, but the real accomplishment was the retaliatory punch not thrown. Similarly, to make space for another’s pain is a very active thing facilitated, in large part, by certain words not spoken. When John the Baptist looked at Jesus and said, “He must increase, but I must decrease,” we can recognize decreasing as an action that definitionally doesn’t take much action, even if in a peculiar sense John’s is a difficult and intentional action to take.

An especially relevant contemporary application appears in Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s remarkable book, “Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion,” in which he astutely observes that “‘Just shut up and listen’ might be the most important instruction for anyone committed to unlearning whiteness.” Sometimes to act is to roll up your sleeves and throw your hat the ring. Sometimes to act is to grow the beard.

The complication is that it’s not enough to fall back on sayings like, “Don’t just stand there, do something!” because, the line between action and non-action is difficult to spot, if it exists at all. If I say that to you – “Don’t just stand there, do something!” – it’s actually not possible for me to know that you were not doing something by standing there. It would probably be more honest then for me to say, “I don’t like what you’re doing. Do something else.” In other words, many times we call on people to act when we simply don’t like how they are acting. But precisely for all its reliance on these arbitrary judgments, parsing action from non-action is an insufficient and reductive way to tell if we’re doing the right thing.

Was the thing I did done or left undone? It depends on what you’re trying to do and therefore also on what you recognize as the good for which you’re aiming. For Christians, the good is not an abstract judgment made for the purposes of filling out the scorecard of faith. Ten points and you’re in. For Christians, goodness has to do with discerning where God is, what God is doing, and tending to God’s presence with our own. So Christians gather around the table to discern the Body. Having been gathered by God in this way, we continue from this place in the baptismal promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons, with God’s help. In this way, our worship of God and our care for one another are inextricably bound up in each other. So in the letter that bears his name James can ask a question that appears to blur moral and theological categories, the question he asked in his letter last week, “Do you, by your acts of favoritism, really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” James can question his hearers’ belief in our Lord Jesus Christ on the basis of their treatment of each other and the stranger because James sees that goodness is not a dry application of an arbitrary assessment but has everything to do with where and in whom they believe the living God will show up. Goodness has everything to do with employing the discernment they receive as gifts of this table as they leave from this table and encounter all of those who bear the image of God.

In today’s lesson, James is still talking favoritism, partiality, that thing that God does not have that makes God so generous, but he’s writing about speech and the ways people sometimes talk poorly about the ones who are not their favorites. “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!” James writes. “And the tongue is a fire…a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My sisters and brothers, it should not be so.” Now, if it sounds to you like James is channeling Ralphie from A Christmas Story, threatening to wash our mouths out with soap until we go blind if we don’t watch our speech, you can be forgiven the impression. “Only I didn’t say fudge,” Ralphie memorably confesses some decades later. But the context is more insidious than bad words; the context is cursing others; the context is the tendency in followers of Jesus to separate love of God from love of those God also loves; the context is an indefensible separation of the discernment of Body at the table from the care with which we speak of about people we have learned to despise and in whom we do not acknowledge the image of God. James doesn’t say what Dorothy Day would later say, but you get the sense he would have very much approved when she confessed, “I only really love God as much as the person I love least.”

It is really easy to imagine morality as the things we do to impress God apart from God for the approval of God. James will have none of it. Instead, James presents a sacramental world in which goodness only finds substance and direction and meaning as it attends to the presence of God and in which the people who fill our ordinary days bear the image of God, as we give one another by our being opportunities to honor the goodness of the God we have discerned in worship here. So James invites us to consider that the mouths that sing God’s praises here might well consider these prayers and praises to be our mouths’ true vocations for all the other days as well. In other words, how might the ways we have learned to speak to God and, maybe most importantly, the ways we have heard God speak to us, inform the ways we speak to one another? I think for myself that works like gratitude, encouragement, generosity, and forgiveness might find new prominence in my day to day vocabulary. In any case, this is James’ question for us. Our answers are free to take the shape of words and silence, both, because the answer is not in the words alone. Remember, there is no logic to things done or left undone apart from God’s first call to us and the good work of tending to where and with whom God is. Our answer to James lies in the discernment that is God’s loving gift, in the discernment of where God is, what God is doing, and, with God’s good help, tending to God’s gracious presence there, and here, with our own.

Amen.

Sermon, September 2

“Don’t Wash Your Hands!” And Other Things My Kids Are Delighted Jesus Said

A homily for Proper 17, Year B. These are the scriptures appointed for the day. When asked why his disciples do not wash their hands before eating, Jesus replies to his accusers, quoting Isaiah, “Don’t you see how you have abandoned the commandment of God to hold on to a human tradition?”

One way to hear what Jesus says this morning is that it’s not what you do that matters. As long as your heart is clean, you don’t need to wash your hands. To make this interpretation of Jesus’ words the basis of your regular hygienic practice at public restrooms and highway rest stops across the country would be really, really gross. Candidly, you might lose friends. You would almost certainly contract myriad of otherwise completely avoidable diseases. This is not what Jesus has in mind.

Jesus is talking about what makes people unclean in the ritual sense and, even beyond that, in the “worthy to stand before God” sense. The traditions of Jesus’ day had a long list ready of things that would make you unclean for admittance in the worship of God’s people. Some uncleanliness could be remedied. Some couldn’t. This is why the story, for example, of the good Samaritan in Luke’s gospel is so powerful and poignant: the religious leaders literally step over the body of a traveler left for dead, in part because to have touched him would have made them unclean and unable to perform their duties in worship. Interestingly, interaction with a Samaritan was also on the list of things that would make a person unclean. And yet is is from the Samaritan traveler that the broken body on the road finds reception, love, and healing.

You and I live in an age that, to put it mildly, does not like to be commanded, and so it is easy, perhaps, to hear the whole struggle over commandments and cleanliness as the maybe necessary, but embarrassingly rudimentary, progress of an archaic, ancient time. How sad, we think, that once upon a time people believed those kinds of things. How unfortunate, we think, that people ever allowed themselves to be commanded. A bit like watching somebody else rescued from a trap we know better than to step in. But that is also to miss the point that Jesus is making. The point is that Jesus is drawing a line of distinction between the commandments and the tradition, clearly delineating them as separate realities, alleging conflation and abuses by religious authorities, and, finally, Jesus is remembering for the whole people of Israel that these commandments had been given by God in order to shape the people as a people, to keep them ordered, connected, aware of the ways they belonged to God and, belonging to God, to keep them mindful of the ways they therefore belonged to each other. The point is that invoking the commandments that connect the people of God to God and each other in order to divide the people into the haves and have nots is maybe the worst abuse of the commandments, to Jesus’ mind, imaginable. All while pointing to themselves as exemplars of holiness. Like the churchgoers in Corinth, showing up to the feast, gorging themselves, not noticing that some at the table have nothing to eat, the Pharisees who take offense that the disciples don’t wash their hands cannot see how what they believe to be their saving grace is actually their sin, because it turns out there’s not much grace at all in ritual purity that requires distance from the dirty ones. The point is the calling out of an emerging market, even a religious market, for being well regarded by others, a piety production line that skips over the hassle and mess of actually belonging to one another. So, for example, in the verses that immediately follow this passage, Jesus observes that adult children are using the law in ways that allow them to shirk their responsibilities to their aging parents.

Twenty-first century western culture may no longer stress cleanliness in the same sorts of ways as ancient Judaism (though, to be sure, our society possesses its own modern variations on the theme), but we do very much share the plight of people who would like to do life without belonging to others, without living life in such a way that others can make claims on us. Conversations about how to care – and who should care – for aging parents or children with exceptionalities or those without homes are still difficult conversations to have. What’s worse, like the ones Jesus calls hypocrites this morning, we sometimes use religion to protect ourselves from, and turn a blind eye to, the claims other people might make on our lives, our money, our time.

Now, to be clear, to use religion in this way – in such a way as to protect oneself from the claims of other people, to make it look as if love of God and love of neighbor play for opposite teams or, maybe better, to somehow communicate that the two are different sports entirely – you have to twist it some. Almost to the point of breaking. But it can be done. And there are plenty of examples from which to learn this dreadful art, plenty of examples from history in which Christians have exchanged belonging to each other as one Body for the appearance of individual goodness, over against or sometimes simply indifferent to the unclean, even the unclean we are subsequently happy to help. In describing what he calls “the insufficiency of goodness,” Rowan Williams puts it this way:

So much work and (even) ministry…had been predicated on the assumption that it was about good people doing good for other people. Goodness is the problem. We do things in order to be good, or perhaps to seem to be good. We do things knowing who we are to those we define as different from us. And the result very often with the best and most generous will in the world is that people’s sense of isolation, powerlessness, and rejection is intensified rather than healed.

Nevermind the problem of evil, the religious leaders in Mark’s gospel confront us with the problem of goodness, of reputation and self-regard, and it is a problem, a dynamic, with which people in our time are more than familiar, even if, in a particularly challenging moment, that the problem is goodness sometimes escapes us. Of course we want to be good. It’s what good people do! Goodness, though, can be a way by which we assure ourselves that we are doing this thing called life in a way that matters. But playing for goodness, so understood, underwrites the lie, the fiction, that our lives are games to win.

Do you remember that time in the gospels when Jesus and his disciples are watching people put their money in the box outside the temple? Rich folks dropping bank. A widow with a coin. And some preacher one time shared that story as the basis for understanding God’s preference for percentile giving. It might have been stewardship season. But that only makes sense if our lives are games to win, if holiness comes in points to accrue and hold over others. Record high scores. But did you ever notice in that story that Jesus never calls the widow the winner? He simply makes the observation of what transpires and lets the irony that the money box outside the temple had been instituted to support the widow and orphan hang in the air like a stench with the potential to wake people up.

It’s like the smugness I sometimes feel when I take my extra clothes to Good Will, proud of my generosity, when I’ve forgotten the words of saints like Basil who say that, when I find myself with coats to give it’s only because I have stolen the extra coat in my closet from the one who has none that I have some to give. Because life is not a game to win. Because belonging, for the faithful, comes first.

But it’s tricky, right? Tricky because it’s as easy to become self-righteous about belonging as it is to be self-righteous about anything else. It’s very, very easy to find oneself perpetually wondering out loud why the other guy didn’t wash his or her hands or do the right thing. But the belonging doesn’t come from the washing of hands, yours, mine, or others. It comes from the love of the One who, on the night before he died, washed the feet of his friends, and whose love for us, as well as his love for the ones we despise, remains the truest thing about us all. This belonging names the truth about God’s love. This One feeds us here at this table; this One who is the food we are fed. And so we who are many are one body, we belong to each other, for we all partake of the one bread.

Amen.

Sermon, August 12th

A homily preached at St. Dunstan’s, Madison. Proper 14, Year B, Track 1.

Good morning! My name is Jonathan Melton (still). I’m the chaplain at St. Francis House Episcopal Student Center at UW-Madson, with you through October in this sabbatical season both for Mother Miranda and St. Dunstan’s. Still delighted to be so invited. And equally delighted to be with you as we worship the living God this morning. Are you glad to be here? Turn and tell a neighbor – I’m glad to be here! Presiding Bishop Michael Curry calls this evangelism 101 – turn and tell someone something about something.

In the gospel today, the people are put off that Jesus calls himself bread from God. For many of the people listening to Jesus, his claim is more than illogical; this bread rises to the level of blasphemy. Some Wonder, Bread from God? This is Mary’s boy. They’ve watched him grow up. And now he’s God’s bread, come down from heaven? Some of the people, let’s call them the upper crust, like the Pharisees, suspect that something is a rye. Kneading to get to the bottom of it, to drive Jesus oat, they press in on the crowds. But then, in the moment of crisis, in the heat of the oven, Jesus doubles down on his claim, that’s right, just now, in the story before us – when his antagonists yeast expect it.

And how could he not? The disciples, like Pita, loaf around on the sidelines. We search the scene for someone willing to go against the grain, to speak up for Jesus, but alas we find naan. So Jesus speaks for himself. In words grilled deep into the heart of faith through generations, he speaks up. “I am the bread of life,” Jesus says.

You’re safe, I’m done.

The offense the people take at Jesus’ divine bread-ness may surprise you. It’s honest and maybe necessary to ask, what’s the big deal behind this claim to be bread? You and I are familiar with this bread that offended the people. We probably take it for granted. Of course there’ll be bread when we come to this space. We may take as a matter of course that this bread and holy meal stand at the center of our common life and all that we are in Christ. Or, conversely, for all the familiarity, we may forget from time to time what the bread is about, why it matters, what it’s for. For example, St. Paul one time said that we who are many are one body, because we partake of the one bread; and yet, it is easy to come to the table simply to satisfy an individual need. And God knows we have our individual needs. One of them, it turns out, is to be saved from being left as individuals. But it is easy to forget what this bread is about.

There are reminders, of course. Reminders that we are being made into one body by this bread. Reminders like the breaking of the bread at the end of the Eucharistic prayer: the priest holding up the bread and saying, “Behold the Body of Christ!” And the Assembly (that’s y’all), channeling Augustine, replies, “May we become what we receive.”

Martin Luther put it in a typically Martin Luther way; he said we are baked into one cake with Christ. My Granny one time explained to me that there’s just no un-caking a cake. We are made a part of one another in Christ, by this bread. This bread, the bread Jesus gives us, the bread that Jesus is, stands at the heart of our common life. But then what does it mean in 2018 to have a common life?

Enter the book of Ephesians. In it, you’ll find Unusual Reasons, capital U, capital R. Not unusual things, but Unusual Reasons for alarmingly usual things. Usual things like not lying, telling the truth. Unusual Reasons like, because we belong to each other. Not because you might get caught. Not because it will further your good name, your reputation, or your prospects for the future. Unusual Reasons like we belong to each other.

If all we had to go on was the part of the letter we read today, the Unusual Reason for telling the truth might have been harder to spot. Sure, there’s the initial line about being members of each other, but apart from that today’s reading looks a lot like one of the long list of rules you and I have come to expect from the Bible. If you go back a chapter, though, to chapter 4, there you’ll find the words our prayer book uses to mark the mystery of the cake we have become. In the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, they are the words that begin our worship whenever someone is baptized. These are the words that you already know:

There is one body and one Spirit; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.

Page 299. All of the rules that follow these words are not rules at all in the traditional sense; they are invitations to live the gift the Ephesians have been given, which is membership in the one Body of Christ. It’s a body chock full of people who all claim significant differences. Gentiles and Jews. Rich and poor. Misers and spendthrifts. Quiet and loud. Snarky and sincere. People with homes and people without them. Wisconsinites and Texans. People who floss and people who brace themselves for the hygienist’s bi-annual lecture. Folks who belong to the correct political party and those who subscribe to the side that inexplicably lacks all real sense. People who’ve got it together and people like me. We who are many are one body, because we partake of the one bread.

Ephesians gives more Unusual Reasons. Unusual Reasons for things like not stealing. Unusual reasons like making sure you can earn enough to give away some goods to those in need. How wonderfully odd. No mention here of respecting personal property or the upholding of constitutional property rights. No, the moral logic of the letter takes as its starting point the waters of baptism and that pesky, transformative bread. Waters and bread that break down fences and walls and give us again to each other as gifts; waters and bread that invite us into a love that is learning not to fear and is willing, even looking, to be surprised. If you’re not careful, Unusual Reasons for usual things can give you a new imagination for what is possible and what is real.

Parenthetically, have you wondered how the thieves that Paul addresses could have found themselves needing to steal apart from the body’s failure to be as generous toward the thieves as Paul hopes the thieves can learns to become toward the others in need? It’s beautiful, I think, how Paul hides within his words to thieves an injunction that, in singling out the thief does not single out the thief at all, but calls out the community, too, uprooting any judgements we might have apart from our own realization, again, that we belong to each other. Put another way, maybe we are all of us thieves. Maybe we are all thieves invited to trust God to share what we had thought was ours alone to possess. As we do so, we discover that our fears of not being enough for the other people in the life of this body were unfounded. Even better, in the vulnerable offering of ourselves to God and one another, imitating Christ’s self-giving love for us, this is where we have know the belonging made possible in Jesus, for even on our worst days, when we are sure there is nothing of value in us to give, there is forgiveness in the cup.

“I am the bread of life,” Jesus says. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” This bread is Good News. But is easy to forget what this bread is about. There are reminders, of course. Ephesians whispers some of them. Reminders that we are being made into one body by this bread.

Amen.

Sermon, August 5

Outrage, Secrets, and Bread

A homily preached at St. Dunstan’s, Madison. Proper 13, Year B, Track 1.

Good morning! My name is Jonathan. I am a priest, the chaplain at SFH, the 103 year old Episcopal Student Center at UW-Madison. Go Badgers. I am Mother Miranda’s friend. Put better, she is my good friend. Wonderfully, I am blessed to count many of you as friends, too. And the ones I don’t know yet, I hope to count as future friends – it’s been my happy discovery that God is generous like that. Miranda has invited me and my family – my wife, Rebekah, our 3 kids, Annie, Jude, and Dorothea – to journey with y’all during this sabbatical time, and I can’t tell you how honored we are to be invited to walk with you like this. There are opportunities for get-to-know-you times between the services today and after the second service next week, there will likely be other times, too, and I hope you’ll risk friendship. It’s one of the many good gifts God means to give us. It’s a gift for me, Bek, our family, to worship the living God with you in this season.

So, uh, yeah, right. Next order of business. David and Bathsheba. I thought all week and finally gave up hope for finding a good segue.

Can I be honest? I said that once to my therapist and he looked at me with a kind of disbelief, like, “Why else are you here?” Can I be honest? There are a bunch of things that bother me about this story, which is maybe an awkward first story with which to begin three months together. First, as my dear friend Mother Dorota has powerfully preached, Bathsheba was not somebody else’s pet, or sheep, or any other kind of property, which is confusing given that when Nathan comes on the scene today to set David right, this is exactly what he seems to say, not entirely surprising given the cultural norms of the time, but today we would not hesitate to say, and absolutely should make clear, that the power differential between Bathsheba and the king of Israel is so great as to make a consensual relationship impossible. This was rape. Not only a violation of Uriah’s marriage, but a violation of Bathsheba’s person.

Second, David is a fool. You might be thinking, David is a lot of other things in this story, too, but let’s not miss also that David is a fool. He doesn’t have Uriah killed in order to run away with Bathsheba for the rest of their lives. That’s a little too forward thinking for David. David has Uriah killed only after several attempts to keep his secret one night stand fail; excruciatingly, David’s attempts to keep his secret fail exactly because Uriah is such a loyal friend.

David is not the first or last politician to remind us that the powerful are often every bit as frightened as the powerless. David kills to hide. He kills to hide from the truth; to protect his reputation; to run from what is real. On the one hand, this is not surprising. The one with the most to lose in the story goes to the greatest lengths to protect what he has. On the other hand, the most powerful person in the story hides from anyone and everyone around him, manipulates conversations and behaviors, leaves no room for laughter or other surprises of grace. Everything is scripted, and the world must act his script. Meanwhile, the king is the one who cowers and lives in a perpetual fear that turns even the loyalty of his friends into a thing he learns to despise. The pressure he feels to hide his failures causes him to hate his people. His world, his relationships, and his deepest hopes for both of these things are distorted, twisted, and mangled by his devotion to the secrets he must guard. But David is the king. If another way were possible, an alternative to this hiding, this hiding which is crippling his way of being in the world, surely it would be possible for him. But fear rejects all possibilities except mistrust and isolation. David of all people has the power – I would think – to live differently and yet he fears all but his own shadow. Maybe there are some things even power cannot change. Maybe David is a fool.

A third thing that bothers me about this story: David’s story stokes outrage in me. I am appalled by David. But then Nathan shows up and tells David a story that outrages David. A story so outrageous even David is appalled. Nathan tells David that, surprise!, David is really outraged at a picture of himself. Suddenly, I feel nervous about my own outrage. What I had mistaken as a two dimensional text that doesn’t care that you and I are looking in, that you and I are listening, now seems to be aware of our presence in the room, daring us, you and me, to be as oblivious as David, sitting there ready to yell to us, “Surprise, it’s you!”

It’s the allure of outrage, in every age. Hate the other in order to distance yourself from that brand of evil. To assure yourself of your difference. Prop yourself up. Subsequently be confronted with your own not unrelated wrongdoing and now take your pick between two doors: door number one, Rationalization and Denial, or door number two, Shame that leads to the isolation and self-loathing of David.

None of this is to say that we cannot speak out with confidence when power is abused, misused, etc. Indeed, we must. To spot the story’s invitation to see ourselves in the pattern of outrage is not to make the case for moral equivalencies. It is to say that secrets that must be held at all costs – get this – will cost us, and those around us, depriving us of the world in which God first planted us, in which we were first gifts and not threats to one another. A world in which we did not need to hide. Think of Adam and Eve before their meetup with the snake.

But such is no longer our world. Like David, like Adam, like Eve, my life has come to be determined by secrets that threaten to distort my relationship with God, my neighbors, and the world around me. My life is determined by secrets I am still learning to speak. Not so secret secrets like white privilege. Not so secret secrets like my nation’s indebtedness to and dependence on the military industrial complex. No nation in the history of the world has ever spent more to produce peace through mastery of war. Not so secret secrets like I don’t have all the answers. Or even many of them. Not so secret secrets like my consumer practices do not reflect a willingness or ability to fully act upon my understanding of my consumptive impact on this world or the generations that will come after me. Not so secret secrets like I sometimes substitute selfishness that mimics love for real love. Sometimes I do this by mistake. Sometimes I don’t. My life is determined by secrets I am still learning to speak.

So David is a fool. I am not David, but I am sometimes also a fool. Taking good gifts of God and imagining them into threats, still protecting some fantasy idea of myself. And maybe you are familiar with this experience.

David is an important figure in the New Testament. The New Testament authors want to emphasize that Jesus comes from the line of David. But the really Good News is not just that Jesus comes from, but that Jesus comes to, people like David whose lives have been twisted by the lies they live out toward others, themselves, and God. Knowing everything about me, David says, the living God sets a table before me. Psalm 23, one of David’s greatest hits. That we are here today is a sign that we have learned to sing David’s psalm; we are learning to trust the One who sets the table before us and insists on God’s love for us.

The bread that Jesus offers, and is, at the table set by God becomes the feast that makes us the Beloved Community in which we find space and grace to become untangled, untwisted, and made whole. Space to discover God’s love for us as the most true and determinative thing about us. Space to begin to trust this love and to grow in trust of this love, with God and one another, even to the point of being able to speak more truthfully about ourselves and the world and God. No more secrets! No more hiding. Instead, the generous exchange of mercy and forgiveness, given and received. Worship of the true God begins and generates this true speech in us. Likewise, worship of the God who is our judge begins and generates the heart of true justice in us. From this bread we receive all we need to become God’s bread for others.

“I am the bread of life,” Jesus says. “All who come to me will never be hungry.”

Gracious God, give us this bread. Today and always.

Amen.

Sermon, July 22

Today our church has the privilege, blessing and joy of celebrating  the baptisms of A and M. So let me start right out by saying that I don’t understand baptism and don’t anticipate that I ever will, at least not in this life. (I hope God offers some kind of seminar in liturgical theology in the Great Beyond!…) 

Baptism, like Eucharist, comes to us as a convergence of human symbol and divine action. As human symbol, it is conditioned by history and culture in ways that can be difficult to unpack. As divine action, its intention and efficacy are mysterious to us. I believe that baptism does something. But I’m darned if I can tell you what. 

However, by the grace of God, our cycle of Sunday Scripture readings has brought us one of the best baptismal texts there is: the second chapter of the letter to the Ephesians. Those verses – along with the preceding chapter – tell us a couple of things about baptism, about being part of this thing we call the Church. It’s about being chosen, and it’s about being sent. 

It’s about being chosen, and it’s about being sent. 

Way back last winter, I read something online and immediately tucked it away for my next baptism sermon. If you don’t use Twitter, you’re probably aware of it as a social media platform used for live commentary on major public events like the World Cup or the Episcopal Church’s General Convention; for presidential proclamations, bot attacks, and goofy humor. One of the other things Twitter is good for is micro-fiction – tiny, tiny stories that make you pause or wonder or laugh, in 144 characters or less. Here’s the one I saved, last December – a snippet of conversation, from the Micro Science Fiction & Fantasy account: 

“You’ve been chosen,” the spirit said. 

“What?”

“Save the world, make it kinder, cleaner, safer.” 

“Me?” 

“Yes.” 

“Alone?”

“We chose everyone.”

(@MicroSFF, Dec 31, 2017)

We chose everyone. 

Let’s talk about being chosen. 

The author to the letter to the Ephesians – some scholars say it’s Paul, some scholars say it’s obviously not Paul, some scholars say it’s Paul’s thoughts recorded by someone with a strong stylistic hand – in any case: this author dives right into chosenness, as soon as he’s finished saying hello: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as They chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before Them in love.” (1:3) 

God chose us in Christ, before the foundation of the world. God destined us to become God’s children. And a few verses later (Hart’s translation): We were marked out in advance according to the purpose of the One who enacts all things according to the counsel of Their will. 

Our chosenness comes with gracious gifts, says the first chapter of Ephesians: We have been bought out of bondage to the world; we are forgiven all our mistakes and failures; and we are given a glimpse of God’s great plan for the fulness of time: a plan to gather all things together in God, both heavenly and earthly things, in one capacious and beautiful harmony. 

Today’s passage from the second chapter of Ephesians returns to the theme of chosenness, with one of my very favorite passages of the Bible: “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints, the holy ones, and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God.”

The preceding verses tell us more about the context for this letter: the author is addressing Gentiles – non-Jews. In Jesus’ time and the time of the early Church, the distinction between Jews and Gentiles was a huge social and religious divide. In the book of the Acts of the Apostles we see early Christians wrestling with whether their message and mission should be extended to Gentiles – and God leading them to an emphatic Yes. Ephesians affirms that joyful Yes: the Way of Jesus Christ is for people of both Jewish and Gentile backgrounds. And indeed, the unity of those formerly-divided groups is a sign of what God is up to in the world. “For Christ is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, the hostility, between us… creating in himself one new humanity in place of the two.” 

The situation is specific but the message, I think, transcends it: God chooses us for community, for what we can be and do together – even across the differences that feel most fundamental. God chooses us to call us out of our alienation -whether we ourselves feel other and outside-of, or whether we cast that shadow on someone else. God chooses us as citizens of a new society; as members of a household with an unshakable foundation; as building blocks for a holy temple, a dwelling-place for God. 

Being chosen could imply that there’s also a group of not-chosen. One of the things I love about this text from Ephesians is that it’s not at all interested in that issue. It’s all invitation and no exclusion, all celebration and no disparagement, all door and no wall. We chose everyone. 

The choosing is beyond our power to understand or influence. The author says, This is grace, a gift from God – not our accomplishment. But all the same, it is not passive. Citizens shape their society; members share in the common life of the household; even stones of a building have their share of the weight to bear. We are chosen, and we are sent. 

“You’ve been chosen,” the spirit said. 

“What?”

“Save the world, make it kinder, cleaner, safer.” 

“Me?” 

“Yes.” 

“Alone?”

“We chose everyone.”

The verse just before today’s passage says, “We are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” Those who have spent some time with Rite I may remember these words from that liturgy: “And we humbly beseech thee, O heavenly Father, so to assist us with thy grace, that we may continue in that holy fellowship, and do all such good works as thou hast prepared for us to walk in.” 

What kind of good works? Well – the overarching theme of the letter to the Ephesians is unity and reconciliation – not only of Jews and Gentiles, but of the whole creation – the cosmos, system, created order. The reconciliation of the whole creation, through the agency of the church, the people of God, chosen and sent. 

We are given that precious, heartbreaking gift of a glimpse of God’s great plan to gather all things together one day, things in heaven and things on earth. And we as God’s people, we ourselves have been put back together – reunited with God and neighbor, re-gifted our birthright of belonging and belovedness. And our mission, should we choose to accept it, is to go out and put more things back together. A hope that some theologians call the Great Restoration.

Nature writer, poet and theologian Wendell Barry speaks about it – listen: “We all come from [brokenness]. Things that have come together are taken apart. You can’t put it all back together again. What you do is the only thing you can do. You take two things that belong together and you put them back together. Two things, not all things. That’s the way the work has to go. So that the made thing becomes a kind of earnest — of your faith in, and your affection for, the great coherence that we miss and would like to have again. That’s what we do, people who make things. Whether it’s a [chair] or a film or a poem or an essay or a novel or a musical composition. It’s all about finding how it fits together and fitting it together.” (Wendell Berry, in the documentary “Look & See”) 

The Great Coherence…I love that word because it captures not just fitting together what is broken or separated, but also becoming comprehensible and meaningful. That stirs up my deep yearning, in a time when so much seems incomprehensible and meaningless. 

Coherence. Unity. Restoration. Reconciliation.  Making whole what is divided, scattered, riven. Ilia Delio, writing about the Jesuit monk and scientist Teilhard de Chardin, writes about his insight: “Those who follow Jesus are to become wholemakers, uniting what is scattered, creating a deeper unity in love.”

We name reconciliation as one of our practices of discipleship here at St. Dunstan’s – it’s on the fans! – “We follow the teaching of Jesus Christ by living as ambassadors of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:20), seeking to restore unity among humans, between humans and God, and between humans and creation.”

Like all of our discipleship practices, there are countless ways to live it out. There are people in this congregation who live their vocation of wholemaking, of coherence-creation, by helping preschoolers learn the tools of friendship and peace. By designing technological solutions to human problems. By communicating what really matters, building bridges between hearts and minds, through journalism, design, music, art, poetry, prose. By caring for creation, and teaching others to do the same. By patient loving presence with teenagers, elders, those who struggle, so that nobody has to feel alone. 

Now, I’m speaking about this ministry of reconciling as the call of the church, a core practice for those who seek to follow the way of Jesus. It would be easier to make that case if we could look around us and see Christians consistently striving for the wellbeing of neighbor and world. Such is not remotely the case. And many of those who do strive faithfully for wholeness are people of other faiths, or ambiguous faith, or no faith. 

What I can say is this: At its best, the church – this church, any church – is a community that names itself as called and sent. A community that provokes one another to good deeds, in my favorite verse from the letter to the Hebrews. That acknowledges and holds up our mission of reconciliation, coherence, whole-making, and seeks to live it out in big, small, and middle-sized ways, each and all. 

Friends, you’ve been chosen. To save the world. To make it kinder, cleaner, safer. To make it more whole. But don’t worry. You don’t have to do it alone. God chose everyone. 

Homily, June 17

My daughter and I have a little early-summer routine, a special mother-daughter ritual. We watch for our gooseberry and currant bushes to leaf out and begin to set fruit. We look for signs that the plants are being attacked by the larva of the gooseberry sawfly – tiny green caterpillars that will devour the leaves, laying a whole plant bare, if they get the chance. We find a time and go outside together, pluck the larva off the bushes, and murder them by drowning them in a container of soapy water. I treasure these shared moments. 

The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.

If you’ve ever soaked a bean and tucked it in to sleep in a Dixie cup of potting soil, you have seen the mystery of growth. How does a plant that spreads and climbs as tall as me emerge from a bean the size of the tip of my pinky finger? How does something little get big? How does something simple and unformed become complex and complete? The seed sprouts and grows, he does not know how. 

Growth is a mystery and a wonder. Even if you understand the processes at work, it’s still amazing that it works. That’s what Jesus wants us to notice, with this parable. But if you plant something hoping for a particular outcome, you don’t just sit on your hands.You don’t just sleep and rise night and day, and look out your window at the garden now and then. 

You pick off the sawfly caterpillars. You mend your irrigation system that some creature has nibbled over the winter. You break off some of the green fruit so the young tree won’t fruit too heavily and break itself. Maybe you even take a Q-tip and patiently pollinate the flowers, as I did with our church kumquat tree last week. You help and direct the growth; you give the growing plant what it needs, and protect it from pests and other threats. 

With the best care in the world, there are no guarantees. A late frost, an early blight, a bad batch of seed, a hungry and ambitious rabbit – anything can happen. But sometimes it all comes together –  our care and efforts, and the living force of growth – that dearest freshness that lives deep down things, in the words of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. It all comes together, and something flourishes. Something matures.  Something bears fruit. 

Of course, we are not simply talking about plants. Human processes are similar – both within us and among us. Fulfillment is slow and uncertain. In today’s text from First Samuel, young David is anointed king. He doesn’t actually become king for another fifteen years – after serving in King Saul’s court, having to flee and hide from Saul and his armies, and leading a rebellion against Saul. Sometimes it takes a while for something to come to fruition. 

Tomorrow we will declare the fundraising phase of our capital campaign complete. This is a fulfillment that has been a long time coming. People were talking about the need for a capital campaign when I came here, at the beginning of 2011. The idea lay fallow for a long time – because renewing a sense of hope and direction in the congregation, and getting our finances stabilized, were the immediate priorities. We started to explore the process more seriously in 2015. We took our time, even when that was hard – even when it was tempting to rush, to cut short a conversation, to jump to a conclusion. We let things emerge. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.

And here we are. You – we – have pledged over a million dollars to the Open Door Project, our capital campaign to renovate and improve our church buildings and grounds. Early on our consultant thought we should aim for $600,000, maybe $700,000, based on their experience and expectations. We said, “That’s not enough to do what we feel called to do. Let’s follow this vision a little further, and see what happens.” 

The seed sprouts and grows, I don’t know how. 

Well: I know some of how. We’ve worked and prayed hard to do this well. So many of you have participated, in so many different ways. We’ve picked off the sawfly larva and fixed the irrigation system and shooed away the rabbits. We’ve nurtured the growth of this project and everything it means for our church. 

But even at our busiest, we’ve stayed mindful that we are not the only ones at work in the garden. That in and with and under and behind us and our efforts is the living force of growth, that freshness deep down things, the buoyant fidelity of the Holy One, whose purposes we strive to serve. We are, of course, not done yet. In a certain sense we’re just getting started. We’ll gather in the final pledges – reconcile our pledged total with our project list, and set priorities – talk to architects and contractors – collect bids, develop timelines – get rid of unnecessary stuff so we have room to put away the necessary stuff while renovation is taking place… Things will be busy, and inconvenient, and exciting, for many months ahead. 

And even when the final truck drives away and we vacuum up the last plaster dust – we’ll still just be getting started. We said we wanted to do all these things so we’d have capacity to grow our ministries; accessibility and welcome for all; more engagement with our grounds; more space and resources to share with our community.  When the dust settles, it’ll be time to follow through on those hopes and intentions. We’ll be busy with the Open Door Project and where it leads us for years come. 

It takes time for things to mature and bear fruit. But I’m not worried, friends. The soil is good; there’s water and sun aplenty; there are many faithful hands at work; and the One who gives growth is blessing us and urging us on. 

Let’s listen to the Gospel again, and let it sink into our hearts. I’m using a different translation this time – The Gospel according to Ruth Krauss and Crockett Johnson. 

Read The Carrot Seed, a story about a little boy who plants a carrot seed and takes care of it though nobody around him believes it will ever come up, and at the end, a HUGE carrot grows. 

Sermon, June 10

We are halfway through the third chapter of the Gospel of Mark, and already there are crowds mobbing Jesus; religious officials sent out from Jerusalem to inspect him, and rumors circulating that he’s out of his mind. How did we get here? 

Mark is the oldest and the shortest of the four Gospels, the books of the Bible that tell about the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus. Mark is also my favorite Gospel. I’m drawn in by his skillful and efficient storytelling. In the Revised Common Lectionary, the three-year cycle of Sunday readings that we follow, we’ll be in Mark’s Gospel for much of this summer and fall. So it’s a good moment to pause and introduce Mark, get a sense of the voice that will be telling us the Good News of God in Christ in the weeks ahead. 

Today’s lesson starts 92 verses into Mark’s Gospel, but a LOT has already happened. Mark’s introduction to his Gospel is famously brief, compared to the other three: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Then he introduces John the Baptist, with a quotation from the prophet Isaiah. John appears in the wilderness, oddly dressed and preaching an odd message of repentance and ritual washing. And then Jesus appears – “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan River.” The Spirit of God descends upon Jesus and calls him Son and Beloved. He fasts in the desert for forty days, and is tempted by Satan, and tended by angels. Then he comes back to Galilee and begins proclaiming that the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near, and calls people to change their hearts and trust the good news. 

He calls his first disciples, Simon, Andrew, James and John – four fishermen he finds on the shores of the sea of Galilee, who think, Well, following this guy seems more interesting than mending nets for my dad. The little group heads to the town of Capernaum – where in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus seems to have a home base of some sort. Maybe it’s a home of his own – he was thirty years old, after all; maybe it’s Simon and Andrew’s home, where Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law from a fever, so she could make them dinner. 

Jesus is teaching in the synagogue when a man who is possessed with an unclean spirit cries out and names him as the Holy One of God. Jesus sends out the spirit, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” People are amazed and start talking about Jesus: “What is this? A new teaching – and this man doesn’t just have words; he also has power and authority!” And his fame begins to spread. 

That evening, people gather at the house where he’s staying – practically the whole city. They bring him the sick and the demon-possessed, and he heals them. Early in the morning, he sneaks out to go pray by himself. But his friends soon track him down and say, “Everyone is looking for you!” And Jesus says, Let’s go on to the neighboring towns. We need to spread the message around. 

So they travel around Galilee, proclaiming the message and casting out demons. In one town, he cures a man afflicted by leprosy, and asks him please not to say anything to anyone, but the man is so joyful about his healing that he tells EVERYONE about it. The crowds become so great that Jesus can’t even go into towns anymore. He stays out in the countryside, and crowds come to him, from all over the place. 

That’s chapter 1. 

After this healing tour, Jesus goes home to Capernaum for a break – but people hear that he’s back, and quickly a crowd gathers again, packed in front of the house. Jesus stands in the doorway, teaching them. Some people bring a man who is paralyzed, carrying him on his mat; they can’t get through the crowd so they somehow get themselves, and the paralyzed man, onto the roof of the house, break through the roof tiles and beams, and lower the man down to Jesus. Jesus tells the paralyzed man, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” 

Now, some scribes are among the crowd – maybe even towards the front, either as recognition of their status or because they were chumming it up and talking Scripture with Jesus. These scribes were probably the local Scripture scholars, people who had studied the Torah and taught at the local synagogue. Jesus scandalizes them when he says this man’s sins are forgiven, because in Judaism, that’s not something people can do; that’s something only God can do. Jesus perceives their doubt and indignation – and demonstrates his power by giving the paralyzed man healing of body as well as spirit. Stand up, take your mat and go home, he says; and the man does. 

The people are amazed and glorify God. But the scribes start to worry about whether Jesus’ teachings are compatible with their faith as they understand it. Is he a prophet – or a problem? 

Then Jesus makes things worse by starting to keep notably bad company. He calls a tax-collector to join his followers.  Everyone knows those guys collaborate with the Romans, the despised foreign power that controls Judea; and they line their own pockets by taking too much from people already desperately poor. Jesus goes to dinner at this man’s house, sitting among tax collectors and sinners. No doubt it was a wonderful meal, paid for by the wages of the penniless!

This time Mark names the people questioning Jesus as Pharisees. The Pharisees were a movement within Judaism at this time. They wanted all Jews to return to faithful practice of the laws and traditions of Judaism, rather than losing their distinctive identity and faith and assimilating to the Greco-Roman cultural context. In the Book of Acts, the apostle Paul talks about being a Pharisee before he became a Christian and calls it, “The most exacting sect of our religion.” 

For the Pharisees, things like food purity practices and Sabbath observance – keeping Saturdays as a day of rest, as commanded by God – were really important. Not because they were superficial or legalistic but because they believed that the heart of Judaism was faithfulness to a distinctive way of life that God had given them through Moses. For the Pharisees, if you are a rabbi, a teacher of God’s ways, you’ve go to walk the talk, and that means you do NOT share a meal with a tax collectors. And you observe certain days of fasting – which Jesus and his disciples did not do. And you don’t do any work on the Sabbath, including picking grain – which Jesus and his disciples did.

Jesus’ perspective is that the Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath. Sabbath-keeping is a tool to help us rest and re-center on God. This difference of perspectives on Sabbath-keeping is an honest disagreement between people of faith. But at the beginning of chapter 3, things come to a head on another Sabbath. 

Jesus is again at the synagogue. And a man approaches him who has a withered hand – an old injury or a birth defect. And the Pharisees watch him to see what he’ll do. 

This is a bit of an edge case in terms of Sabbath-keeping. Jewish law has a robust and ancient teaching that preserving life is always the overriding value. For example: If a wall collapses on a child on the Sabbath, of course you do the work of lifting the bricks to save the child. However, by the same teaching, if the situation is not life-threatening, then Sabbath observance should prevail. This withered hand isn’t life-threatening, so Jesus is actually stretching the law here – from saving life to alleviating suffering. You can be sympathetic to that move – I am – but the Pharisees see it as a slippery slope. Jesus heals this man’s hand today, on the Sabbath, when he could just as well have healed it tomorrow. In their eyes, he’s undercutting the ancient, holy patterns of life that they’re trying to renew. 

Mark tells us, The Pharisees went out and immediately began to conspire against Jesus with the Herodians – those in the inner circle of King Herod, the ruling class who were collaborating with Roman colonial rule of Judea. The Herodians and the Pharisees do not have a lot of interests in common. But Mark wants us to understand that Jesus was becoming a threat to people who were invested in the status quo in many different ways. 

Jesus leaves town with his disciples but a crowd follows – and others gather from all over the place, even as far as Jerusalem, Tyre and Sidon. He has his disciples have a boat ready, in case he needs them to take him out on the lake so he can preach without being crushed. And he continues to heal people and send out demons, who frequently shout out, “You are the Son of God!” He sternly orders them not to talk about him – but we can see how well that’s working. 

After preaching by the lake, he somehow escapes up a hill and calls his closest friends and followers to join him there. He names twelve of them to be sent out to proclaim and send out demons, in his name – a way to try and spread the ministry around and manage the crowds! But it doesn’t work; everybody wants Jesus. He comes home to Capernaum and a crowd gathers AGAIN – so packed that they can’t even eat. 

That brings us to today’s Gospel. Jesus’ family hears that he’s back in town. And they go out to try and restrain him – that’s a physical word: to take hold of him, to seize him. Because he’s in danger. People are saying he’s out of his mind. He’s disrespecting the community’s religious leaders. And look at these crowds! Things could go wrong in an instant. 

Now, as his mother and brothers and sisters are marching across town to fetch him, Jesus gets into a lively little dispute with some scribes, Scripture scholars, who have come down from Jerusalem, the Holy City, to evaluate his teaching. Their assessment? He certainly can cast out demons – but they think he’s doing it by using the power of a stronger demon. Namely Beelzebul, who was thought to be a prince of demons, second only to Satan himself. 

Jesus overhears – or reads their minds – and says, “Really? Satan is casting out Satan, now? Well, I guess our work here is finished, because if Satan’s realm is divided and fighting itself, then his end has come. But we all know that’s not what’s going on here. Look, if you want to plunder goods from the home of a strong man, the first thing you have to do is tie up the strong man himself. Then you can can take whatever you want. That’s what I’m doing: stealing from Satan’s house, freeing people whom Satan has held in bondage. You have said that I’m possessed by an unclean spirit, that it’s by demonic power that I heal and cast out demons. Listen: I assure you that human beings will be forgiven for everything, for all sins and insults of every kind. But whoever insults the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven. That person is guilty of a sin with consequences that last forever.”

Jesus tells these experts in Jewish law from the Great Temple in the Holy City that they are so blind to God’s presence that they see the Holy Spirit of God at work and they name it as a demon… and God is not amused. 

Then his mother and his brothers and sisters show up. They can’t get through the crowd but they stand at the edge and call his name. Jesus! JESUS! Jesus BarJoseph, YOU COME OUT HERE RIGHT NOW!  Word passes through the crowd, as it does, and the people near him tell him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside asking for you.” And he replies, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’  And he looks around at them and says, ‘You are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’ This would have been an even bigger insult in Jesus’ time and place, where family loyalty was core cultural value. 

I find that there’s a duck/rabbit quality to this scene for me. Sometimes it just sounds like some archetypal cult leader smarminess. “All of you are my family now!” … But then I look at again and see something hopeful and liberative: We are not bound by who we have been in the past. If where you came from doesn’t fit who you are, you’re not lost. You don’t have to be alone. We can choose new families, when we need to.  

That’s the first three chapters of Mark’s Gospel, friends. Many of the things that scholars name as characteristic of Mark have shown up already in the text. It’s a text that marches at a breakneck pace towards the Cross. Mark’s Gospel is only sixteen chapters long, and by the beginning of the third chapter, people are already plotting to have Jesus killed. There’s a sense of urgency in the text- “immediately” is one of Mark’s keywords; listen for it in the weeks ahead. 

Another hallmark of this Gospel is what scholars call the “Messianic secret”: Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, but he keeps telling people (and demons) NOT TO TALK ABOUT IT – whether because the time for full revelation has not yet come, or because he’s just tired of dealing with the crowds. Mark’s narrative style is direct and simple – but not simplistic. People thought of Mark as the least sophisticated Gospel for a long time – but Biblical scholars have come to recognize that there is a LOT going on here, narratively and theologically. That’s one of the things I really like about Mark’s Gospel – he’ll tell you the story and leave you to think about what it means, instead of trying to explain it to you. 

This is, by many standards, a terrible sermon. I’m supposed to draw something out from the assigned text that we can apply to our lives in the contemporary world. But I looked at this Gospel and I thought, I just want us to receive this story. To understand how it fits into Mark’s fast-building narrative, and what it tells us about Jesus. 

Because I like Jesus. I’m drawn to him. That’s one of the touchstones of my faith: I find Jesus compelling. I find Mark’s portrayal of Jesus compelling.

In our Godly Play classroom downstairs, the Jesus stories begin, Once there was a man who said such amazing things and did such wonderful things that people followed him. That’s what we see here, in these first chapters of Mark. And it still happens. I know because I’m one of those people. Amazed, and wondering, and following. 

Our Godly Play stories end with questions, like: I wonder where you are in this story? I love that wherever I place myself in this story, Jesus has something for me. When I’m coming to him with pain, my own or that of a loved one, he sees and offers the touch of healing love. When I’m facing him as a religious leader who feels defensive of my understanding and my way of doing things, he’s there to challenge and liberate me. If I’m feeling anxious about respectability and order and not being too “out there,” he’s there to remind me that the movement of the Spirit and the will of God matter more than human expectations.  And when I’m just one of the crowd, showing up to see and hear and talk about it with friends, well, I’m in the story too. Showing up to hear – once more, and always – that the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. 

Sermon, June 3

It is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. – 2 Cor 4:6-7

Several years ago I attended an event called the Festival of Homiletics, an annual gathering at which clergy from a wide range of denominations gather to hear sermons and talks by some of the greatest preachers and teachers of our time. I heard a lot of good things, but the one that stuck with me the most was a talk by Walter Brueggeman, one of the greatest living scholars of Scripture. He happened to be speaking on today’s Epistle, this portion of Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth.

He began by inviting us to imagine the apostle Paul, leafing through the prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible, looking for a sermon text to support what he wants to say to the Corinthians. The Corinthians are majoring in the minors, and Paul wants to remind them about what really matters. And he finds this bit about the clay pots, which we used as our Old Testament reading this morning. As preachers do, he takes that text, this image of God as Divine Potter, and he does something new with it – thinking about the purpose of that clay pot, what it’s meant to hold. 

The church in Corinth, the church Paul is addressing, is afflicted and perplexed and persecuted and struck down. We 21st-century mainline Christians can relate! Our budgets and membership rolls are shrinking. Our faith is associated with policies we do not recognize. In the eyes of many, our convictions appear irrelevant at best, oppressive at worst. The temptation for the church, whether long ago or today, when it is afflicted, perplexed, persecuted and struck down, is to give in to being crushed, forsaken, and destroyed. We may feel hopeful about St. Dunstan’s – but there’s plenty of cause to feel helplessness, frustration or despair about the state and future of the larger church. 

But when we do that, say Brueggeman and Paul, we are taking our clay pot too seriously, and confusing the pot with the treasure. Paul says, We have confused the container and the stuff contained. As Christians, as church folks, we often start to think our ministry, our mission, is the point. We think that WE’RE the treasure… but we’re really the pot. The container for something much more important – and much less fragile – than anything we can make or do. 

The treasure is the good news of God in Christ. It is forgiveness in a society that holds grudges forever. It is generosity that overcomes lack in a society of scarcity and selfishness. It is hospitality in a society that closes doors to the immigrant. It is justice that protects the vulnerable in an unjust society. It is the old old story of God giving Godself for love of God’s creatures. THAT is the treasure. Everything else is clay pots. Fragile. Likely to break. Never able to fully and reliably contain the treasure. 

It’s easy for people like me – pastors, but not just pastors; church folk, people who just love the church – it’s easy for us to worry about the pot. But when we think about it, we know the pot is not the treasure. At the Festival, Brueggeman stood at the podium in front of a giant hall full of pastors and preachers and said, NOBODY thought our hymnal would last forever, or our prayer book, or our favorite seminary, or our diocese, or  … And I laughed to myself, because I knew, and he knew, that the room was FULL of people who thought exactly that. 

Myself included.

But in our most honest moments, we know that no form of the church will last. Because clay pots don’t last. They wear out, they chip, they break. Sometimes they shatter. The church is not durable, not eternal, in any form or manifestation, even the ones that we value the most.

But Paul says, If we keep our focus on the treasure – that should prevent us from taking the vessels so seriously. The value and beauty of the treasure should help us avoid getting too invested in the longevity of any given clay pot. It is the treasure, the Gospel, the very light of God shining forth in the face of Jesus Christ, that lets us say, with Paul: We are afflicted in every way,  BUT NOT crushed; perplexed,  BUT NOT driven to despair; persecuted,  BUT NOT forsaken; struck down, BUT NOT destroyed. It is the “but not” that matters. When we fall into despair and cynicism, when we spend our energy and resources arguing trivialities – I say this as someone who will soon spend ten days at our church’s national convention, God help me! – When we are seized by the urgency of keeping church the way it used to be – or the hubris of creating our own maps of the church of the future! – then we have made the pot more important than its contents. We have forgotten that the Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath. 

And our over-investment in our particular clay pot is often tied up with a certain egotism. Brueggeman said, We have been seduced by the American can-do attitude to trust too much in our own skill and our own work. But transcendent power, the power to change hearts and transform the world, that power does not come from good planning or good scholarship. It certainly doesn’t come from watching the right webinars or hiring the right consultants. It comes from vulnerable self-giving. It comes from trusting in the treasure. 

This is a hard time to be Christian in public. Some awful stuff is being said and done in the name of Jesus. There’s cause to worry about how all that will affect our clay pots. I know there are people in this household of faith who find that the toxicity of public Christianity right now makes it hard for them to come to church, even though they know that’s not what we’re about here. I’m sure there are people whose faith and commitment to this body remain strong, but who are more hesitant to speak about those things to friends or acquaintances. Because we wouldn’t want people to get the wrong impression. 

But the value of the treasure is not diminished, the light of God’s glory is not dimmed, by prominent people mispreaching a Gospel of prosperity, exclusion, callousness and judgment. The Bible shows us that when people are speaking falsely about God, God sends prophets to speak truly about God – like our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, who told a worldwide audience that Love is God’s way, and then marched his convictions right to the White House as part of the Reclaiming Jesus vigil last week – a vigil proclaiming that the God of Scripture, the God made known to us in Jesus Christ, calls us to reject racism and sexism, nationalism and authoritarianism, xenophobia and neglect of the poor. 

After that Royal Wedding sermon, lots of clergy I know posted on social media to say, Hey, if you liked what that guy had to say, come check out your local Episcopal church! Friends, I would love it if some folks came to our doors seeking a Gospel of love and justice, and found it preached and lived here. But Bishop Curry isn’t doing what he’s doing to make more Episcopalians. To save and strengthen our particular clay pot. He’s bearing witness to the treasure. He’s letting the light shine. 

This conflicted, scary, vulnerable moment for the historic churches, here in the early 21st century, this may be a moment when we need to focus on the treasure and let God take care of the container. Brueggeman said: People in institutional leadership, pastors, treasurers, vestries, are often exhausted and perplexed… The good news is, More is going on than us. In and with and under and behind us and our efforts is this bouyant fidelity – Brueggeman’s words, I love them – this buoyant fidelity that abides and sustains, no matter what.

So we are watching the clay pots being smashed, like Jeremiah imagines old Jerusalem being smashed, for being disobedient and complacent, too comfortable with national ideology and middle-class morality. The pots are being smashed on behalf of Jesus, so the treasure can break loose in the world. 

We like our clay pots to be just so. The handles and the shape and the color. The prophet Isaiah names this human tendency to question the potter: What are you making? Where are the handles? A pot has to have handles, you know!… (Isaiah 45:9) We like church just so, and all its trappings, buildings and books and committees and ministries. 

But what if, what if, in our days, before our eyes, the pot is being remade because it no longer pleases the potter? Because it’s not the right vessel for the treasure, in this season of the life of the world? 

Brueggeman said, This is my word to you, as a white, male, tenured, retired guy who has no risks to run:  Care more for the treasure. Because here’s the truth: There is not any single person anywhere who does not eagerly hope for the news of God’s reconciling, liberating love. Not one. That treasure breaks free and fills some new containers, some of which will surprise us, some of which will make us anxious. 

For me as a pastor, the clay pot we currently inhabit includes my salary and health care coverage, and my family’s security. For all of us as church people, that clay pot includes our beloved buildings, our denominational structures, our Books of Common Prayer. We worry about all that stuff, we care about it, for some good reasons, but those things are not the treasure. The treasure is not at risk. 

We are indeed afflicted… but we are not crushed. We are indeed perplexed… but we are not driven to despair. We are indeed struck down… but we are not destroyed. And because of the treasure, because of the Light shining forth in the face of Jesus, we do not lose heart. 

Full text of Brueggeman’s talk:

http://time.com/110732/sermon-series-getting-smashed-for-jesus/

The Reclaiming Jesus statement:

http://www.reclaimingjesus.org

Sermon, May 20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Come, Holy Spirit! Maranatha!

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