Category Archives: Sermons

Sermon, Jan. 13

Did you notice that today’s text from the Acts of the Apostles felt kind of like one short paragraph cut out of a newspaper story? A tiny slice of events, leaving you wondering how we got here and why it matters? Well – you know me; I always like to give you the whole story.

This story begins with a disciple named Philip. A couple of chapters ago, the Twelve Apostles decided they needed some help. The Christian community was growing. One part of their ministry was sharing food with those in need – and there were arguments about whether food was being distributed fairly. So the Twelve got everyone together and said, “Listen, our mission is too important for us to spend our time waiting tables.” (Chapter 6, verse 2; I wish I was making it up.) So the group selects seven men to be in charge of distributing food: Philip, Stephen, and five others. They are set apart with prayer and the laying on of hands – what we could call ordination. Luke doesn’t use the word, but the Church soon began to name this role as deacon – one ordained to stand where church meets world. 

The deacons were supposed to run the food pantry while the Twelve Apostles focused on the Word of God. But the Holy Spirit had other plans. First, Stephen the deacon, full of grace and power, preaches the Word so well that he gets arrested. At his trial, he gives an inspired account of the Gospel, and is condemned to death by stoning – the first Christian martyr.  A time of fierce persecution of Christians in Jerusalem begins – and another deacon, Philip, flees to Samaria, to proclaim the Gospel there. 

Samaria was a region just north of Judea. Its people, the Samaritans, shared common ancestry and holy texts with the Jews of Judea, but understood and practiced their faith very differently. And by the narcissism of small differences, the Jews of Judea thought very poorly of the Samaritans, and the Samaritans though pretty poorly of the Jews. If you’ve ever heard a sermon or Sunday school lesson on the parable of the Good Samaritan, you’ve heard about all this. That parable comes to us from Luke, who also wrote the book of Acts; Luke was keenly aware of the Samaritans as people his original audience loved to hate, but among whom God was nonetheless at work. 

So Philip preaches about Jesus in Samaria – and people listen eagerly. And by the grace and power of God, amazing things start to happen. Those beset by evil spirits or illness find freedom and health. So there is great joy in the city! And many people believed what Philip told them – the good news that we are not forsaken, that God is with us and for us, and that we know the face of this Presence in Jesus Christ* – many people believed, and were baptized in the name of Jesus. 

Now, in that city was a certain man named Simon. Simon was a Samaritan; and he was a magician. Someone who used trickery, patter and sleight of hand to amaze and confound. Simon has no real power, as Luke sees it; he’s a trickster, a fraud.  The word for “magic” here is just, well, magic – mageia. It’s a form of the same word Matthew uses for the Wise Men who visit the infant Jesus – but while those were noble Eastern astrologer-wizards, Simon is just a commonplace charlatan. 

He’s got a pretty good thing going, before Philip shows up. For a long time he has amazed people with his magic, and they listen to him eagerly, because they believe he has some kind of power. He calls himself Simon the Great, and they swallow it, hook, line, and sinker – they tell each other, “This man is rightly called the Great Power of God!”

But Simon doesn’t really have God’s power. Philip does. And Simon can see right away that Philip has him beat.  The crowds turn towards Philip, whose amazing deeds don’t just dazzle their eyes, but restore their hearts. And Simon, too, believes in Philip’s message. He is baptized, and follows Philip around constantly. Luke says, The one who once amazed crowds is now himself amazed by the signs and miracles he observes. And Luke doesn’t say it in so many words, but Simon is probably also closely observing Philip’s technique – trying to figure out how exactly this stranger commands the power to do these things. 

Now, word gets back to the Twelve Apostles in Jerusalem that folks in Samaria are turning to Jesus. And Peter and John, the two great leaders of the early Church, set out for Samaria to see what’s going on. They meet with the Samaritan Christians – and they learn that while many have been baptized in the name of Jesus, they have not yet received the Holy Spirit. Now, this is a bit of an odd thing; generally the Christian Scriptures and the church understand Christian baptism to be all one thing, water and the Holy Spirit together in one sacrament. But in this instance, the Holy Spirit is given in a sort of second baptism. There are various theories to explain the anomaly. Maybe Philip – who, after all, was ordained to hand out bread – hadn’t yet learned the fullness of what he could offer, in baptism. Maybe the gulf between Jews and Samaritans was so great that Peter and John, men of indisputable authority, needed to show up in order to put the stamp of legitimacy on Philip’s mission. 

Regardless: Peter and John see that God is at work here, though Philip. They pray for the new believers, and ask that they may receive the Holy Spirit; then they lay their hands upon them, and the Holy Spirit comes. I wish I knew what that looked like – what that sounded like. Hundreds of people gathered, men, women, and children… did they line up and come before the great Apostles one by one, or did Peter and John walk among them, touching each head with loving intent? And how could they tell that the Spirit was moving among them? Did people weep and sing? Dance and shout? Give and forgive? Fall to their knees under the holy weight of divine belovedness? 

 Whatever happened – it impressed the heck out of Simon. Here, he sees plainly, is true greatness. After things had settled down, when he could approach the Apostles privately, he went up to them and offered them money, saying, “Give me this power also, so that I can lay hands on anyone and they will receive the Holy Spirit.” 

I feel sorry for Simon. He genuinely doesn’t know any better. He’s gotten this far in life through skill, bombast, and luck. In his line of work, you’re always banking on people’s credulity, and always fearful someone will ask the wrong question, or spot you slipping the marked card into the deck. People were not more gullible back in Simon’s time; trickery and fraud were well-known in the ancient world. If you want people to keep dropping coins in your hat, you have to either keep going bigger, or keep moving on before your tricks become old news – or a more impressive act comes to town. Simon knows he’s been bested – and he respects the power he sees at work. As a fake, he’s uniquely qualified to spot what’s real. And it makes perfect sense – from his standpoint – to offer money for access to this power. Magicians today still sell access to the mechanics of their tricks – the ones they’re willing to give away. 

Maybe Philip, who’d gotten to know Simon, would have answered more kindly; but Peter is furious. He says, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain God’s gift with money! You have no part or share in this, for your heart is not right before God. Repent of this wickedness, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the chains of wickedness.’ 

In his anger, Peter shows that he is quite clear about something the church has sometimes forgotten in the subsequent millennia: The Power, the Presence that hovers low over the font in baptism is not ours to command. All we can do is ask nicely – as Peter and John did when they asked the Holy Spirit to come to the new believers of Samaria. Peter tells Simon, This power isn’t OURS. I couldn’t sell it if I wanted to, because I don’t OWN it. 

Poor Simon! He says, “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may happen to me.” Then Peter and John go home, and Philip is called away to the Gaza road, where he will soon meet an Ethiopian court official. We get no resolution to Simon’s story – but I think it points in a hopeful direction. He wants to understand, to become part of what God is doing. I choose to believe that Simon’s heart was changed that day. That he made his fame, eloquence and skill available to God’s purposes from that day forward. That he sought to offer people truth instead of trickery, healing instead of humbug. 

Simon is struggling with a question that Christians still wonder about: What is baptism for? He sees it initially through the limited lens of his livelihood: Wow, this is impressive! This really draws the crowds! And he’s naturally drawn to the idea of *real* supernatural power that can actually change things… It would come in handy to be able to heal people, cast out spirits. You’d be set for life if you could do that, and people would REALLY call you Great. 

The church is prone to a misunderstanding – or limited understanding – similar to Simon’s: Thinking that the divine power present in the sacrament of baptism, the power Simon longs to be able to call or compel, is given for individual benefit – of the one baptized, and/or of the person authorized to offer baptism. 

While Simon longs for true and lasting greatness, we have more modest hopes and expectations of the fruits of this sacrament for the one to be baptized: A profound, mysterious, and indissoluble connection to God; a fundamental membership in Christ’s body the Church, with all rights and privileges appertaining thereunto; the gifts of the Holy Spirit made available as a birthright of faith. These are real and undeniable blessings for the one baptized and their family, and for the church gathered to celebrate and welcome. 

But baptism isn’t just for us. It’s for others – through us. This whole story is set in motion because God’s grace is at work in Samaria through Philip. Through God’s power manifest in his preaching the good news of God’s love made known to us through Jesus Christ; in the driving out of evil spirits, in healing and curing, and in the bubbling up of a great civic joy. Philip’s ministry reminds us that our baptism is about belonging to a power that works through us for good, to save and heal, comfort and encourage, restore and reconcile. He shows us life as a servant of that Power, listening for God’s word and following God’s nudges: Go there. Speak now. Reach out to her. Ask him what he’s reading. 

Baptism is not about a power we can use or direct. It’s about a Power that can direct and use us. 

Dorothea Mae, we baptize you with earnest prayers for your wellbeing and your flourishing. We long for God’s grace to bless and sustain you, as you grow. But we baptize you not for your greatness but for God’s; not for your good only, but for the good of the world God longs to redeem. Dorothea, we name you Gift of God, and we baptize you into a life of availability to larger purposes and greater goods than we can see or imagine. We baptize you to love others in the power of the Spirit, whose gracious Presence in our rite today will do what our words can only invite; and we send you into the world in witness to God’s love. 

Sermon, Jan. 6

Today’s Gospel – the Epiphany Gospel – isn’t telling us the full story. It ends on a cheerful note:  The Wise Ones honor the infant Jesus and give him rich and meaningful gifts. Then they return home by another road, evading King Herod’s evil intentions. All’s well that ends well, right? But that’s not actually where this part of the story ends. The story stops here, in our lectionary, because the next part of the story has its own day, the Feast of the Holy Innocents, on December 28; and because the church wants the Epiphany story to be a joyful story. To inaugurate this new season with themes of journey and discovery, light and gift. 

But it’s all one story, the Wise Ones and the Holy Innocents; so listen to what happens next, according to Matthew. After the Wise Men had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for King Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’  Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod… When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was furious, and he sent soldiers and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.’

You may be relieved to know there’s a good chance this didn’t really happen. This King Herod – a different Herod than the one in the Easter stories – did some terrible things, including killing his own grownup children for fear they were plotting against him. But no other ancient text describes an incident like this, with Herod’s soldiers killing children. This is probably a part of Matthew’s Gospel, Matthew’s account of Jesus, where Matthew is trying to show us something about Jesus, rather than tell us history as we understand it.

So what is Matthew trying to show us, with this sad, scary story? Well – a couple of things, I think. He wants to show us that God in Jesus Christ didn’t just become human; he became vulnerable. Fragile. At risk. Like any child; and especially like any poor child in a place ruled by oppression. And he wants to show us that Jesus was born to lead people out of oppression – like Moses, the great hero of the Jewish people. This story might remind you of another story, about Moses as a baby. Do you remember it? It begins like this: “Now a new king arose over Egypt, and he said to his people, ‘Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we….’” Then what happened? … 

So that ancient story about Pharaoh killing all the Israelite babies has a lot in common with this story about Herod and the babies in Bethlehem, doesn’t it?Moses, Israel’s great liberator and prophet, was once a baby who barely escaped the callous, cruel, child-killing politics of his time. And Jesus, our great liberator, prophet, and savior, was once a baby who barely escaped the callous, cruel, child-killing politics of his time. These are both stories about children at risk; about bad and fearful kings; and about brave and loving parents. 

They are also both stories about failure. About communities that failed. Neighbors and bystanders who failed. Leaders who failed. Failure is a harsh word, but think about it: By the time a child’s parent is the only one looking out for its safety, so much has gone wrong.  So many people have stepped back, looked away, chosen not to get involved. If nothing else – if NOTHING else – the whole architecture of our common way of life should protect children and give them the opportunity to grow and flourish. There is ALWAYS a better option than letting the bad guys hurt the children. Even if you feel helpless. Even if it’s dangerous. Whether it’s people in uniforms with swords or guns, or people in suits making decisions in boardrooms or legislative chambers, there is ALWAYS a better option than letting the bad guys hurt the children.

So… We’re baptizing a child, today. One of the church’s greatest occasions; one of my greatest privileges. There’s a lot to say about baptism; and I’ll get to say a little more next week, when we have another one! But as we dwell with the Epiphany Gospel, the whole story – one thing baptism should mean is that we promise never to leave Charlotte alone. We promise never to leave her parents and sister alone. We promise that when this child needs us, we’ll be there, a family of faith. As Gretchen Wolff Pritchard says, We are all the godparents of every child in this church. 

We promise to keep faith with Charlotte. To do all in our power – ALL IN OUR POWER, dear ones! – to support this tiny, adorable person in her life in Christ. That is an easy promise to make when she’s tiny and cute, and the baby-borrowers of the congregation are arm-wrestling each other to hold her. When she so evidently has competent and loving parents who are on the job, and thus doesn’t really need that much from us. It’ll be easy when she’s drawing pictures or singing in children’s choir or toddling down to Sunday school or lisping out a line in a future Christmas pageant. It’s easy to keep our promises to our children, when they’re being photogenic. And quiet. 

It gets harder when our kids ask things of us, need things from us, that stretch us. Things that we have to figure out how to give. When they grow up a little, seven or eight or ten or twelve, and tell us that our answers don’t always intersect with their questions. That they get enough sit-still-be-quiet at school, and need church to be something else, if we really want our shared practice of our faith to feed them. When they tell us that some of what we do is frankly boring.

It gets harder when we recognize that our household of faith includes kids with deeper needs and harder struggles. Kids who need more than a coloring page and a cupcake to feel safe and fed. Kids who might need us to learn something new, to better be their family of faith; kids who might need us to fight for them, someday. 

It gets harder when we realize that our accountability to the children of this faith community includes not only the ones we see every Sunday but the ones we don’t, who nonetheless belong to us. Our youth group, for example, includes kids who rarely or never come to church on Sundays. And they are our kids too. They’ve come under the wing of this parish, they have opted in, and they, too, have a claim on our love and our faithfulness. On our commitment to supporting their life in Christ. 

And it gets harder, dear ones, when our commitment to THESE kids starts to stir up in us a sense of commitment to the wellbeing of ALL kids. When we start to see Felipe and Jakelin, Carmen or Tamir, as our children. When by the perhaps-unwelcome grace of the Holy Spirit, we begin to become unable to step back, look away, choose not to get involved. When we become simply, fundamentally unable to just stand by and let the bad guys hurt the children. 

But this is what we do. We can do hard things, with God’s help. 

Charlotte’s family makes some big promises on her behalf today. To renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness, all the evil powers of this world that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God; to turn to Jesus Christ, follow him and obey him, trusting in his grace and love. Those are big promises indeed. But so are the ones we all make, today, and every time we baptize a new member into Christ’s body the church.

When we commit, with God’s help, to loving our neighbor as ourself, to striving for justice and peace among all people, to respecting the dignity of every human being. And to doing all in our power – ALL IN OUR POWER! – to support Charlotte in her life in Christ.  We promise that when this child needs us, we’ll be there. A big diverse loving family in Christ, complete with fun cousins, wise grandpas, fierce aunties, and all the rest. 

Let’s make those promises today with eyes and hearts open. Committing ourselves to do all in our power to support this little one in her growing, her exploring, her wondering, her seeking and her finding, her struggling and her flourishing. And not Charlotte only but every child we baptize, every child that Christ sets among us as ours to care for and learn from; and not these children only, but every child made in God’s image, born into this hard, beautiful, risky world of ours, as Jesus was, long ago in Bethlehem. 

Christmas Eve Sermon (9pm)

The holy occasion we celebrate tonight has several names:Christmas, from the words Christ plus Mass, or Eucharist. The Feast of the Nativity, from the Latin word nativitas, birth. And the Feast of the Incarnation – from the word Incarnate: to make flesh, to take on a body. That’s my favorite way to name this day, because it says why it matters. It’s not just a birth; it’s not just an occasion for worship; but a world-changing theological event: God became human. 

The Carn- in incarnate is the same word as in chili con carne: Meat. The Feast of the Incarnation: When the God who was before Creation, who encompasses and knows all that is, when that God became meat – in a newborn baby boy, the child of poor and ordinary parents – born in such awkward and inconvenient circumstances that his first cradle is an animal’s feeding trough. 

The poet Amit Majmudar has a wonderful poem called Incarnation that invites us to imagine divinity taking human form in concrete anatomical detail:

“Inheart yourself, immensity. Immarrow, 

Embone, enrib yourself… Enmeat 

Yourself so we can rise onto our feet 

And meet…”

A Lenten hymn from the Orthodox tradition says, “The Unapproachable became human, approachable by all, walking among us, and hearing from all, Alleluia.”

Immensity, eternity, mystery and grace, robed in flesh – the Transcendent and Immortal become finite and tangible. Hail the incarnate Deity! It’s a rich and wonderful paradox to ponder. But … why does it matter? 

Western Christianity has put a lot of emphasis on the cross, on Jesus’ willingness to die to show us the depth of God’s love, as the great redemptive moment in the Christian story. But the Eastern churches, the Orthodox, in wisdom, see the Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection all as deeply interconnected. In her book Light upon Light, Sarah Arthur writes, “For Eastern churches, the Incarnation itself is what saves us; the Cross and Resurrection are merely part of a larger whole. When a holy God touched a corrupt humanity, God’s goodness reversed our corruption, restored us to holiness. We were like a basket of rotten apples coming into contact with one good apple: not only did the good apple retain its essential goodness, but it also reversed the decay of all the rest.” (13)

If thinking of humanity as a basket of rotten apples doesn’t sit well with you, some Orthodox theologians say that even if humankind hadn’t fallen so far from God’s dream for us – even if we hadn’t been mired in violence and need – God would STILL have become human, come to live among us – out of love. 

Just to be closer to us. Just to show us how much we matter to the heart of the Divine. Just to remind us that we are made in God’s image, beloved children, always and forever.  The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins says, “I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, And this jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood,… Is immortal diamond.” 

One good apple restoring the whole rotten basket… the opposite of what we expect, what we’ve learned from our produce bins. The opposite, too, of so many toxic and fearful theologies, that seek to purify and punish their way to holiness. 

What if we took seriously the idea that holiness is contagious? That divine grace is robust, not fragile? That in this birth on this long-ago night, something was accomplished, something begun, that changed reality – even if the ripples of that great change are still playing out 2000 years later? How would we live if we believed that good is contagious? That love wins? Has already won?

Let me tell you a story. Some of you remember the time of Apartheid, in South Africa. I remember hearing about it as a child and teen. Apartheid was a brutal system of racial segregation, involving minority rule by white South Africans – those of European descent – and sharply limited opportunities for work, freedom of movement, and political participation for black South Africans, those whose ancestors were native to the land. 

A system so unjust cannot last forever. In the 1980s, other nations were increasingly pressuring the South African government to end apartheid, and a growing resistance movement within the country as well. There were bigger and bigger protests – some of them led by the Anglican bishop of Johannesburg, a small, lively man with a ready smile named Desmond Tutu. Tutu was the first black African to hold that role in our sister church in South Africa – likewise the role of Archbishop of Capetown, which he held beginning in 1986.  

The anti-apartheid protests were not welcomed by the government. Police used tear gas, water cannons, and bullets to disperse protesters. Many angry young men were killed in clashes with security forces; Tutu preached at some of their funerals, gathering crowds of thousands. 

In August of 1989, in the face of harsh repression of protests, Tutu announced that he’d hold a church service instead – an Ecumenical Defiance Service, held at St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town. Thousands of South Africans came to sing and pray for justice and freedom – and hundreds of police came too, surrounding the cathedral in a show of military intimidation.

When Archbishop Tutu began to preach, military police entered the cathedral, lining the walls, rifles in hand. I can’t even imagine that – speaking God’s words of hope and liberation, while looking out at armed men full of hate and fear. But Tutu knew that love wins. That holiness and goodness are contagious. At one point in his sermon, he came down from the pulpit and addressed the police directly.

He said, “You are very powerful, but you are not Gods and I serve a God who cannot be mocked. So, since you have already lost” – he tells the men holding big guns – “Since you have already lost, I invite you come and join the winning side. Come join the winning side.” Immediately, the congregation erupted into song and dance.

Tutu was arrested, after church. But he was right about the winning side. By 1992, Apartheid had ended. In 1994, Nelson Mandela was elected president in an election for all South Africans. 

The Feast of the Incarnation: When the God who was before Creation, who encompasses and knows all that is, when that God became flesh in a newborn baby boy. Why does it matter? Because Eternity, Immensity, Mystery, loves us enough to come and meet us – come be meat with us. Incarnate. Because it shows us that we are immortal diamond, and boundlessly beloved. Because it means that even in the face of terrible events and human cruelty, even when things seem most bitter and broken, we can face it with courage, with hope. Because Love wins. Love has already won. 

 

 

Some sources… 

The story about Tutu (with added details from other research): 

https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3898

Hopkins’ poem:

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44397/that-nature-is-a-heraclitean-fire-and-of-the-comfort-of-the-resurrection 

Orthodox Lenten prayer quoted from here: 

https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/orthodoxbridge/taking-the-incarnation-seriously/

Majmudar’s poem and Arthur’s description of Eastern teaching about the Incarnation both come from Arthur’s book Light upon Light: A Literary Guide to Prayer for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany (Paraclete Press, 2014). 

Sermon, Dec. 16

This morning I’d like to introduce you to Luke. Our Sunday Scripture readings come to us from a cycle of readings shared by many churches, called the Revised Common Lectionary or RCL. It’s a three-year cycle, and each year we mostly use one of the Gospels, the four books of the Bible that tell the story of Jesus’ life, teachings, death, and resurrection. Year A is Matthew, Year B is Mark, and Year C, which we’re three weeks into, is Luke.  (John doesn’t get his own year but we get bits of John throughout the cycle.) 

The Gospels are fascinating in their differences and similarities. Back in seminary, one professor had us read just the first verse of each Gospel – to show that you can get a pretty good sense of their different voices from even that small a sample. Similarly, some of you saw a wonderful proposal from a friend that I shared on Facebook: that churches should have four different Christmas pageants based on what each of the four Gospels say (or don’t say) about the birth of Jesus.

So here’s a quick overview of each Gospel’s voice – and what their Christmas pageant would look like. Mark, the earliest written Gospel, tells you what he’s going to tell you: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (Mark 1:1.) Then Mark dives right into John’s preaching at the Jordan. Mark’s Christmas pageant: dead silence, then a ragged man jumping out shouting REPENT! 

Matthew is deeply interested in how Jesus fulfills Jewish history and prophesy. His Gospel begins, “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” A Matthew-based pageant would have to start with a historical lecture on every person named in Jesus’ genealogy. John’s gospel begins with theological poetry, beautiful and paradoxical, and pretty much goes on that way: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” John’s Christmas pageant would involve children running around in the dark with glow sticks…

And then we have our friend Luke. Here are the first four verses of Luke’s Gospel: “Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.” (Luke 1:1-4) 

Doesn’t that give you a strong sense of personality, right out of the gate?Someone wordy, maybe a little fussy and a little self-important, but also lovable? Luke casts himself as a historian, the one who’s going to actually offer a coherent, clear account of all these important events. Theophilus may have been a real person, but I find it more likely that the name – which means “God-lover” – is kind of a stand-in for anyone seeking God. Perhaps Luke has Gentiles, non-Jews, especially in mind – note that Luke explains Jewish customs, like John’s father Zechariah taking his turn serving in the Temple. 

Unlike the other gospels, Luke has a sequel – the book of Acts, written by the same author, which tells the story of the first Christians after Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension. From clues in the text, we can tell that Luke was educated and probably a city-dweller – but he also cared deeply for the poor, the sick, and those at the margins, including women. (Somebody a lot like many St Dunstan’s folks, in other words.) There’s even a semi-serious theory that the author we know as Luke may have been a woman. 

The Gospel of Luke was written in the late first century, but used older sources, including the gospel of Mark, the earliest of the four Gospels; the Q source, a lost document containing sayings and teachings of Jesus, which Luke and Matthew both used; and what scholars call the “L Source” – which basically means the stuff in Luke that’s not found anywhere else. That includes basically all of the first two chapters of Luke. So Luke’s Christmas pageant would include most of the usual stuff – except the three Kings or wise men; they’re in Matthew. 

Each of the four Gospels has a distinctive voice and particular themes or hallmarks that emerge, as they tell the story of Jesus. One of Luke’s hallmarks is his interest in the intersection of the cosmic and the concrete. The fulfillment of the great prophetic promises in a particular time and place, in the lives of real, ordinary people. Each of the first three chapters of his Gospel begins with anchoring events in history: Luke 1 begins, “In the days of King Herod of Judea…” Luke 2, the beloved Christmas Gospel, names Emperor Augustus and Quirinius, governor of Syria. And Luke 3 starts with another list of officials. This is the opposite of “Once upon a time” or “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” Luke wants us to know that these were real events that happened at a particular time, in a particular place. 

But the events, to be sure, transcend human history. Alongside his historical bent, Luke is deeply immersed in the Hebrew Scriptures and their promises and prophesies. He’s looking for those big themes of restoration and redemption, liberation and peace, to come to fruition in the concrete here and now. 

Another hallmark of Luke’s account is that the Gospel shows up at the margins, the edges instead of the center. The good news of God’s love gets proclaimed and manifest among the least, last, and lowly. Luke shows us divine grace among the poor, the sick, the powerless and scorned. He expects God to be at work there – both for the good of those at the margins, and also for the greater good of the whole. For Luke, the Gospel, the good news of God’s saving love, is preached to those at the fringes of society – and FROM those fringes, as well. 

The cosmic in the concrete; and the Gospel at the margins. Let’s look at how those hallmarks show up in today’s texts. In today’s liturgy we receive an interrupted chunk of Luke’s text, focused on the figure of John the Baptist. Our Gospel story covers John’s birth, and we read/chanted the Benedictus, Zechariah’s prophetic song of joy for his son. The text concludes, “The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.” 

Then we cut away to the story of Jesus’ birth and childhood, in Luke chapter 2 – then cut back to find John thirty years older and still hanging out in the wilderness. He’s begun to fulfill the mission laid out for him since before his conception, to be the Messenger, the Voice, the Forerunner. As the angel told his father in the temple, promising his birth: “He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God, and make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”  And as Zechariah sang to his infant son, “You, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;  for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.” 

 

In these texts, do we see the cosmic erupting into the concrete? Absolutely. The concrete jumps off the page in that list of names of public officials: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”

In her sermon on this text, Megan Castellan wrote, “For Luke’s early hearers, hearing that list… would have felt like reading the CNN headline crawl for us:  a similar sort of constant bad news, and constant disappointment in the state of things.  Recall that these weren’t popular leaders: Herod was known to be paranoid… and prone to narcissistic rages.  Pilate was fond of violent crackdowns on the local populace. The temple leaders were fine, maybe, but you couldn’t expect much from them.  There was a reason people felt hopeless…  [And] it’s in this specifically hopeless situation that God comes, and says ‘prepare the way.’  Not once upon a time… but into this definite place, populated with these specific broken people, and their problems.”

Luke balances these concrete historical details with rich metaphoric texts that draw on the poetic language of the prophets – specifically the book of Isaiah. Zechariah’s song to his newborn son draws on Isaiah chapter 60, which we sing in Epiphany: “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has dawned upon you! For behold, darkness covers the land, deep gloom enshrouds the peoples; but over you the Lord will rise!” For Zechariah, for Luke, the birth of this baby – and of another baby, his cousin – inaugurate the age when these great, ancient promises will be fulfilled. 

And when we turn the corner to John’s adulthood, Luke quotes Isaiah chapter 40. Matthew and Mark both use the same Isaiah text to describe John: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’” But Luke extends the quotation: Every valley shall be exalted, the lofty hills brought low; and all flesh shall see God’s redemption! God’s redemption for all people – beginning here, and now, with this ragged man standing beside a muddy river, telling a motley crowd of the desperate and the curious that God is about to do a new thing. 

What about Luke’s other hallmark, the Gospel at the margins? There’s much more of that ahead in Luke; our best example here is in the figure of John himself. Look back at that list of names: Tiberius, Pilate, Herod, Annas and Caiaphas – important people, powerful people – but the word of God comes to John, in the wilderness. 

Remember: John comes from a respectable family, probably middle-class by the standards of the time. Zechariah, his father, was part of the hereditary priesthood of the great Temple, established during King David’s reign. And John’s mother was of Aaron’s lineage – Aaron, the brother of Moses, the very first priest of Israel’s God, who served in the tabernacle in the wilderness after God’s people escaped from bondage in Egypt. 

When John’s parents were given the divine message that their son would be a prophet of God’s salvation, they might well have assumed that he would fulfill that vocation within the religious hierarchy, as a priest, like his daddy. I wonder what they thought when instead of fulfilling his birthright by going to seminary and getting ordained and wearing fancy vestments, John, their only child, spends all his time in the rocky Judean desert, wears a camelskin tunic, and eats whatever he can find – wild honey and grasshoppers. I’m sure they treasured his faithfulness to God’s call – but they were probably perplexed and possibly dismayed by the way he lived it out.

John started his life in the center, and chose the margins – walked right out of the machinery, like so many following a holy call, over the millennia. He knows – even as a child, it seems – that the message deep in his bones cannot be spoken from the Temple. His words are wilderness words. The Gospel of the margins. 

When I’m writing a sermon, I try to have some kind of a “So what”. Something that has a chance of reaching this text, this room, this fifteen minutes. What’s the “so what” here, Miranda? Well, we’ll be hearing texts from Luke’s Gospel for a while, nearly a year – and some from Acts as well, in Easter season. So we can remember and notice these hallmarks of Luke’s account, his understanding of what this Jesus thing is all about: the cosmic in the concrete; the Gospel at the margins. It’s worthwhile and rewarding to come to a deeper understanding of the different voices of our four Gospels, and how, together, they give us a rich, complex picture of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God. 

It’s worthwhile and rewarding – but it’s not the point. Or at least, it’s a means, not an end. The goal of church is not to make informed readers of Scripture. The goal of church is to make Christians. People who, in the words of one of our Advent prayers, hold the great hope that God’s kingdom of mercy, justice, and love, made known to us through Jesus Christ, shall come on earth; who seek the signs of its dawning, and orient our work and our lives towards that perfect Day. 

The cosmic in the concrete; the Gospel at the margins – Luke makes these things the hallmarks of his Gospel because this is how he has come to understand God. They’re not just things to look for in Luke; they’re things to look for in life. Where are God’s promises coming to fruition today? Where are restoration and redemption, liberation and peace, being born, even among the broken and the hopeless? Where is the Gospel being spoken at the margins today? Who standing far outside the halls of power, speaking God’s hope, God’s love, God’s call to new life? Where is dawn breaking? Even here? Even now? 

Credit to Scott Gunn for the Gospel-specific Christmas pageant idea. 

Megan Castellan’s sermon may be read in full here:

https://redshoesfunnyshirt.com/2018/12/10/whos-who-in-the-ancient-world/

Sermon, Dec. 9

I’m going to explain the shape of the church’s year, and I need a couple of helpers. … See? The church’s seasons make a circle. This circle represents one calendar year. But there are bigger circles too, of course – seasons that come around in our lives, and in the life of the world. Some wise folk say that time is not a circle but a spiral: we move through similar times and seasons, but we’re different each time, because there’s greater movement too; our lives, individually or as a species, are not static, flat. We change; we are different at 50 than we were at 30; we are different in 2018 than we were in 1018. And yet we’re probably less different than we think we are. There are always echoes and resonances; past, present, and future intertwine and tangle. 

For a lot of us, church is probably one of the main places in our lives where we spend time with, you know, old stuff. Stories and symbols and images that are 1000, 2000, 3000 years old. Showing up here is, among other things, a vote that the old stuff still matters somehow, still speaks, still holds truth. (Believe me: There are many people who find this a very odd point of view!)

Fundamentally, of course, we’re here because we believe, or want to believe, that Jesus is the Son of God, and that the things he said and did tell the truth about God’s love for humanity. But there are Christians who spend a lot less time with all this old stuff – for whom ancient texts and traditions are much less central to their worship and practice. 

It’s one of the hallmarks of the kind of Christian we are, we Anglicans, shared with the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches: we take seriously what we have received from our forebears in faith, all the way back.  We expect the ancient to come alive in the present and guide us into the future. Why? Well – I think often of a study I read a couple of years ago showing that families that tell and re-tell stories of past struggle, survival, and success are more resilient in the face of difficult times in the present. Our ancestors’ perseverance encourages and strengthens us. That’s certainly one of the things we do, as a church family. 

But I believe that the way our sacred past works in us is more than psychological; it’s mystical as well. Sometimes the past simply sings within us, among us.  Sometimes the saints and holy ones stir up in us their courage, compassion, eloquence, endurance, humility, fury. If we believe – or want to believe – that more exists than we can see, measure, or prove, then all the “old stuff” we tend and treasure, our scriptures, songs, habits and symbols, are not just antiques but talismans, objects of power that might suddenly turn out to glow in the presence of evil, or to unlock a hidden door that advances our quest. 

One of the ways we carry the past into the present and future is by naming and celebrating holy days. When we set aside a holy day, we’re saying: This is worth remembering. This is worth passing down. This week, this second week of December, is rich in holy days. Let’s look at them together. 

The first one isn’t ours: Chanukkah, a Jewish festival observed from December 3 through 10, this year. But in a quirk of the lectionary, one of our texts today points towards Channukah: Baruch. The book of Baruch is part of the Apocrypha, books written later than most of the Old Testament, not long before Jesus’ time. They have sort of a “secondary Scripture” status for many Christians, but there’s lots of good stuff in there. Baruch was the assistant of the prophet Jeremiah, who lived in Jerusalem in the sixth century before Christ, at the time of the Babylonian conquest. The book of Baruch claims to be the words of Baruch, writing words of rebuke and encouragement to Jews in exile in Babylon. But the book of Baruch actually dates from several centuries later. It’s possible that fragments of older texts were used; but writing texts that borrow and expand the voice of older Scripture texts was common in the centuries just before Jesus’ time, and the book of Baruch fits that pattern. 

Some scholars think that Baruch was actually written around the time of the Maccabean revolt – a military revolt against foreign rule which was also a forceful movement against the encroachment of Greek culture in Judea, and for the return to the old ways of the Jewish people, both cultural and religious. Judas Maccabeus and his guerrilla forces fought back the armies of the Seleucid Empire, ritually cleansed the Great Temple and re-established traditional Jewish worship there. The festival of Chanukkah celebrates the re-dedication of the Temple. (The story about the oil came along later.) The message that Baruch might have had for Jews in exile in the 6th century before Christ, would have felt urgent and relevant for Jews in Judea in the second century before Christ: 

Repent! Forsake other gods! Pray for mercy! If you had walked in the way of God, says Baruch, you would be living in peace for ever. Learn where there is wisdom, where there is strength; where there is length of days, and life, and peace. 

This nameless second-century author turns to the past to find inspiration for what the present demands, writes this beautiful prophetic poetry that speaks to the people and the times, and attributes it to the long-dead Baruch. Who am I to call it a lie? Prophesy is a mystery, and time is full of tangles and echoes. Sometimes the past sings in us. 

The second feast this week isn’t exactly ours, though maybe it’s becoming more so: the feast of the Virgen de Guadalupe. Five hundred years ago, just as King Henry VIII was beginning to think about a church independent from Rome, a native Mexican farmer named Juan Deigo was working in a field outside Mexico City, a place called Tepeyac Hill, when he saw a vision of a beautiful young woman who poke to him in his native language, told him that she was the mother of the true God, and asked him to build a church there in her honor. The bishop was skeptical, but the Virgin kept appearing to Juan. Finally, thanks to miracles like the appearance of roses on Tepeyac Hill, Juan Diego’s vision was accepted as a true theophany, an encounter with the divine. Many native Mexicans became Christian because of Maria de Guadalupe – who was THEIR Mary, not a Spanish import, but God’s Mother come to them on their own soil. Over the centuries she has become a powerful symbol of Mexican faith, unity, and freedom. 

Do I believe it? I wouldn’t presume to disbelieve. I put no boundaries on the One called to wrap God in flesh. And why shouldn’t a poor, small-town, brown-skinned person like Mary choose to transcend fifteen hundred years of history to share the grace of her presence with a poor, small-town, brown-skinned person like Juan Diego? Time is flexible, in the domain of faith, of the Divine. The past can manifest in the present, and shape and bless the future. If you’d like to honor the Virgin today, take a rose and place it at her feet sometime during our worship. We have some prayer cards there as well. 

The third feast day this week is ours, though it always sneaks up on me: the feast day of St. Nicholas, a few days ago on the 6th. My strongest association with Nicholas is the cookies my mother used to make, every December. Their base was a wedge of sturdy, not-very-sweet gingerbread; the frosting of Nicholas’ read cope and mitre were colored with beet juice, because my little brother was sensitive to red dye. I loved them, as a child, but I remember friends trying them and being… nonplused. My mother’s Nicholases were more of a grownup cookie – and that fits, because Nicholas is kind of a grownup saint. 

Nicholas was a bishop, in what is now part of Turkey, back in the third century – seventeen hundred years ago. He’s remembered in many stories that are, like my mother’s cookies, nourishing but not particularly sweet. In one story, three boys on a journey stop at an inn. The innkeeper robs them, kills them, chops them up, and puts them in a pickle barrel. Nicholas, stopping by the inn, discerns the boys’ plight and resurrects them. 

In another story, Nicholas, walking the streets of his city by night, hears parents grieving: they are so poor they cannot afford to help their daughter marry, and she is doomed to a life of prostitution. Nicholas tosses a bag of gold coins down the smoke hole in the roof of their humble home – the ancient origin of the presents-down-the-chimney myth. And then there’s the story of the time Nicholas attended the Council of Nicaea, the great 3rd-century gathering of church leaders to hammer out what the church actually believed. There was a great debate with a man named Arius and his followers, who thought that Jesus was not fully one with God, not fully divine. It is said that Nicholas was so impatient with Arius’ heretical views that he slapped him – and was sent to Bishop Jail as a result. 

Dead children, vulnerable women, slapping heretics – No wonder we collectively opted for Santa Claus, instead of this cranky bishop whose life and deeds were a little too gritty. But which do we really need – a supernaturally-jolly elf who engages in invasive surveillance and  behavior control, and who replicates the dynamics of capitalism by bringing the best gifts to the most affluent kids? Or a saint, a man of God, who walked the poorest streets of his city, listening to the people’s cries of anguish? Who strove to help women in poverty, children touched by violence; and who stood up fiercely for his convictions? The pile of gifts we’re sending to families served by Middleton Outreach Ministry this year shows that the spirit of Nicholas is at work among us already. May that fierce and compassionate saint continue to inspire our generosity and our courage. 

Time is messy for church folks. Out there the calendar marches onward, linear and one-directional: 2018 will soon give way to 2019, and 2020 after that. A revolt from 2300 years ago – a saint who served his city 1700 years ago – a mother who lived and died 2000 years ago, only to show up on a new continent 500 years ago – it’s all distant past, long dead and dusty. But here, time circles and doubles back. There are echoes, resonances, and sometimes resurrections. What has happened, what is happening, what will happen, tangle and overlap. 

Which brings us to the Magnificat. Mary’s bold song of praise, rightly beloved by generations of Christians: My soul proclaims the greatness of God! My spirit rejoices in God my savior! For You have shown the strength of your arm, you have scattered the proud in their conceit. You have cast down the mighty from their thrones, and have lifted up the lowly. Later we’ll sing Rory Cooney’s song based on this text, the Canticle of the Turning, which many of us have come to love in the years we’ve been singing it. In the song, the poet has made God’s actions into future events. That makes sense – since we still wait to see these things finally, fully completed.

But in the Scripture text, Mary doesn’t speak of the future. She uses the present perfect tense: God has filled, has pulled down, has sent away. The tense indicates completion, something already brought to fulfillment.   

Mary wasn’t naive – nor was Luke, who offers us her words. They lived in times more violent, more broken, than ours. These faith-ancestors of ours were under no illusions that God had already fixed the world, once and for all. Yet Luke’s Mary has the audacity to say: God has acted. God’s future is present. Barbara Brown Taylor, writing about the Magnificat, says, “Prophets almost never get their verb tenses straight, because part of their gift is being able to see the world as God sees it – not divided into things that are already over and things that have not happened yet, but as an eternally unfolding mystery that surprises everyone.” (in Home By Another Road) 

What will happen is, somehow, happening now; has, somehow, already happened. Mary sings of a world in which God’s justice already reigns, in which Love has already, finally, won. That’s not the world I see, when I look around. And yet it doesn’t feel to me that Mary is wrong. It feels instead like time folding in on itself, future fulfillment overflowing the past, flooding the present. Time isn’t a line; time isn’t a circle; time is a glorious, complex, mysterious spiraling knot, in which a 2000-year old song strengthens us for the work of this moment, in which saints of old march and pray and struggle and give and sing beside us and within us. 

We spend our days uneasily suspended between God’s promises made and God’s promises kept; in this puzzling difficult unsatisfying in-between time, after the first coming at Bethlehem, before the second coming in glory. That’s the energy behind the most fundamental prayer of Advent, the thing we say again and again and again in these weeks, the prayer that folds time: past, the promised babe, future, the King coming in glory, and now, the urgent holy present; the prayer that gives voice to our yearning and our hope, our disappointment and our faith:  Come, Lord Jesus. O come, o come, Emmanuel, God with us. Come. 

Sermon, Dec. 2

Advent is a season in the church’s year – the season of preparing for Christmas, the feast of the Incarnation. But Advent is more than a season. Advent is also a practice. A practice is something you do because you want to become what the practice will make you. Someone who’s good at soccer, or piano, or hula hooping, or mindfulness. If you want to get better at something, you practice regularly.

The Church practices Advent for four Sundays every year. And we invite people to practice it at home, too, for about a month, lighting the candles, saying the prayers. We dwell with the songs and prayers and readings that are full of hope and warning, intertwined. That point towards ending, loss, and renewal. 

A practice is something you do because you want to become what the practice will make you. What does the practice of Advent make us? I think Advent is supposed to make us people who are not shattered by the idea that everything will change. People who expect God to be at work even in terrifying times. Jesus says, When you see terrible things happening, things that make it feel like the world is about to end, stand up straight. Lift up your head. Keep your eyes peeled for redemption – God’s purposes erupting into human reality. 

Because even among the flames – even among the ashes – there is purpose. There is grace. 

Jeremiah, the source of one of our readings today, lived in the last days of Jerusalem, before it was torn down and burned by the invading armies of Babylon, about six hundred years before Jesus’ birth. God called Jeremiah as a prophet, to speak God’s words to the leaders and people of Jerusalem and Judea. Jeremiah told them, You have turned from the ways of holiness and justice, to which God called your ancestors.  You are neither worshiping God, nor treating each other right. Instead, there is injustice, cruelty, and corruption. The wealthy have taken their own neighbors as slaves, because of their poverty; and when the Law of God commanded them to set them free, they released them – then turned around and brought them again into subjection as slaves. (Jeremiah 34)

Jeremiah says, In the past, when you followed God’s ways, you were strong. Now, with corrupt leaders and suffering people, you are weak. Your doom is at the threshold. 

Jeremiah’s prophetic warnings were true – and unwelcome. The powerful and comfortable did not want to hear it.  Jeremiah was beaten and imprisoned. He was thrown into an underground cistern, a water storage chamber, to starve to death – but someone rescued him. At one point, God told Jeremiah: Look, maybe if you write all My prophesies on a scroll, and take that to the King, and he sees it all in black and white, he will pay attention and repent. So Jeremiah’s helper Baruch wrote it all down on a scroll, and took it to the officials of the King’s court. They read the scroll and said, This is terrible! We must take this to the King! And they took it to the king, and read it to him. And as they read it, every time they finished reading part of the scroll, the king cut it off with his knife, and burned it. 

But Jeremiah was right. Jerusalem was destroyed. Many people died. Others were taken into exile, to live as outsiders in Babylon. They learned, there, that even though the Temple they thought was God’s house was in ruins, even though they were far from their homeland, God was still with them. 

Eventually they were sent home; Jerusalem was rebuilt; the great Temple was grander than ever. And six hundred years after Jeremiah’s time, Jesus looks out on Jerusalem – Jerusalem, the city that murders the prophets whom God sends with warnings! – Jesus looks at Jerusalem and says, The armies are coming. Again. The great Temple will be reduced to rubble. Again. People will die. People will be enslaved. The most vulnerable – women, children, the poor, the elderly – will bear the worst of it, as they always do. 

Jesus sees with God’s eyes, but you didn’t have to be God to see trouble coming for Jerusalem in those days. Corrupt leaders and deepening inequality meant that unrest, rebellion and violence were in the wind. But the warnings were once again unwelcome, and unheard. Forty years after Jesus died and rose from the dead, a revolt against Roman rule led to a brutal war. Jerusalem was destroyed – again. 

We’re not much better now at listening to the warnings of the prophets of our age – be they saints or scientists, activists or administrators. 

Back in August, my family traveled to Chico, California, as part of my sabbatical. We spent a couple of days there with our friend James and his community. Chico is in northern California. While we were there, the sky was dull and smoky frothe Redding fire, seventy miles away. We Midwesterners are used to tornado watches, but Chico was under fire watch – a “red flag” warning. It was fascinating and terrifying to read the rules for avoiding fire in those dry and windy conditions – for example: don’t pull your car over on the edge of the road, because dry grasses could touch the hot parts on the underside of your car and ignite. 

The risk of fire in northern California is well known. There have been forest fires as long as there have been forests, but climate change due to human activity has increased the intensity and damage of fires, as seasonal rainfall becomes increasingly irregular. Scientists and activists have been sounding that alarm for years. This summer and fall, the forests near Chico were extremely dry. The big electrical utility in the region knew its poorly maintained power lines could add to fire risk. The town of Paradise, in the hills above Chico, has few roads out of town, following narrow ridges down the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains – a situation town leaders recognized as risky. 

There were plenty of warnings at every level – nation, state, city. But it’s hard to change course in a situation so big and so complex. People are bad at risk assessment – we often overreact to small risks, and underreact to big ones. And it’s usually true that the people with the most power are also the people most insulated from risk, and most reluctant to invest in change.

Elsewhere in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says, “When you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” 

On the morning of November 8, the worst happened. The Camp Fire was probably started by a power line fault. Extreme dry weather fueled a fire so fast and intense that the tops of trees didn’t even have time to burn. Over 10,000 households lost their homes, in the towns of Paradise, Magalia, and Concow, not far from Chico. Many died. They’re still counting. We’ve watched, and donated, and prayed, as refugees from the fire camped out in the parking lot of the Chico Walmart, where the Hassett family stopped in August to buy an extra water bottle.

The prophets of Scripture – including Jesus – speak about the Big Ending, the time when Christ will return and God will replace everything tattered and broken in this world with the living, joyful wholeness intended from the beginning of Time. 

But they speak, too, of the smaller endings of human life and human history – the ones that only *feel* like the end of the world. Jerusalem torn down, Paradise burned to the ground…  the earth keeps turning on its axis, but many lives are ended, and many others changed forever. The counsel offered by Jesus and the prophets works for those situations too. Jesus says: Pay attention, don’t get distracted or numb. Be ready. Don’t get too invested, too comfortable, in the way things are. And try not be shaken; God is with you. Jeremiah says: Turn back towards justice. Do what you know is right. It’s never too late. It always matters. Our friend Tobit – remember Tobit? – living in cruel and chaotic times, says: Keep praying; give to those in need; take care of those entrusted to you. And don’t lose your capacity for compassion; keep caring, so you’ll keep helping. 

The poet and playwright Berthold Brecht, a 20th-century prophet, wrote: “In the dark times, will there also be singing?  Yes, there will also be singing. About the dark times.”

We sing one of my favorite Advent hymns this morning: “Can it be that from our endings, new beginnings you create? Life from death, and from our rendings, Realms of wholeness generate? Take our fears then, Lord, and turn them into hopes for life anew; Fading light and dying season sing their Glorias to you.” 

A practice is something you do because you want to become what the practice will make you. What does the practice of Advent make us? This season of dwelling with songs and prayers and readings full of hope and warning, that point towards ending, loss, and renewal?

Advent makes us people who are not shattered by the idea that everything will change. People who expect God to be at work even in terrifying times. Because even among the flames – even among the ashes – there is purpose. There is grace. 

There are opportunities to be like Jeff Evans.

Jeff lives in the tiny mountain town of Concow, California, outside Paradise. His property backs up on a reservoir. He can catch a 6-pound bass in his own backyard. Amazing. About a year ago he moved his elderly parents to live with him. His 91-year-old father Chuck chops wood and cleans the gutters. Chuck says Jeff told him he could move there and retire and not do anything – “That was a crock!”

Early on the morning of November 8, Jeff and Chuck stepped outside and saw flames in the distance, smoke filling the sky. They quickly learned that the one road out of their neighborhood was already blocked. They were trapped. They didn’t have a boat to take refuge on the reservoir. So they spent hours frantically defending the house: cutting firebreaks, putting out spot fires. 

It worked. Their house was saved – leaving Jeff and his parents alone, for days and weeks. Those who had fled weren’t allowed to come back to the ashes of their homes. And so Jeff became the caretaker of Concow. Specifically, of Concow’s animals.

Many people didn’t have time to take pets and livestock, or had to flee in vehicles without room for animal family members. In the days following the fire, Jeff collected eight dogs, in addition to his own three. They crowd his kitchen, tails wagging, or curled up together sleeping. They’ve all managed to get along – Jeff thinks they get it. He posts their pictures on Facebook and the owners contact him, weeping with joy to know their pet is safe. He’s been putting food out for cats in the neighborhood, too. And then there are the pigs, the ducks, the chickens, and the goats. One day a group of donkeys wandered into Jeff’s yard. He gave them some peppermint candies and they decided he was their friend and stuck around.

Jeff borrows food and fuel from undamaged houses to keep his menagerie fed, keeping careful track so he can repay later if the people ever return. Firefighters and recovery workers bring him supplies, too, from abandoned homes. Among the ashes, beyond the end of the world, Jeff takes care of the creatures, keeping them safe until their owners can reclaim them when the chaos is past. 

Utility workers have warned Jeff that it will be weeks until electricity is restored to his property – maybe not before Christmas. Jeff’s not worried about it. He says the dark isn’t so bad, up here in the mountains. You can see the stars.

More about Jeff Evans: 

https://ktla.com/2018/11/18/man-in-camp-fire-evacuation-zone-keeps-busy-by-caring-for-animals/

Sermon, Nov. 18

Folks, we are two Sunday out from Advent, closing in on the end of one year and the birth of a new one, by the Church’s reckoning, and we’re talking about the end of the world. Not nuclear or environmental catastrophe, those mundane human disasters, but the honest-to-God End Times, when all the structures in which we have come to trust will be thrown down, not a stone left upon stone. When humanity will be terrified and confounded by wars and rumors of wars, by messianic pronouncements, by nation rising up against nation, earthquakes, famines – and all of that is just the beginning of the birthpangs, the early contractions before labor REALLY gets underway. 

Let me pause here for a vocabulary check. You might say that Jesus is talking about the apocalypse. A word that we use to mean the sudden and catastrophic end of the current age – maybe the end of everything. “Apocalypse” comes from the Greek for “to uncover or reveal.” In its original sense it referred to teachings or writings that do what Jesus is doing here:  reveal the signs of the coming end of things. As for the end itself, Biblical scholars would call that the Eschaton: the final, fulfilling event in the divine plan. I’m not going to tell you that you’re using the word apocalypse wrong, because we’ve used it that way for so long that its meaning has shifted. But I am going to use the church’s word for the end of everything, Eschaton, to remind us that we’re talking about God’s fulfillment of history – and that we’re not talking about, say, zombies. 

We don’t know a lot about the Eschaton. The texts are complicated and unclear. But our Scriptures and our tradition tell us it’s going to happen. How do we think about that, as Christians? As Episcopalians? 

When we get into the End Times, my mind always goes to a couple of literary characters. One comes from the work of James Thurber, the great mid-20th-century humorist. In an essay in his book “My Life and Hard Times,” he recalls a colorful character from his youth in Columbus, Ohio: The Get-Ready Man. Thurber writes, ‘The Get-Ready Man was a lank unkempt elderly gentleman with wild eyes and a deep voice who used to go about shouting at people through a megaphone to prepare for the end of the world, “GET READY! GET READ-Y!” he would bellow, “THE WORLLLD IS COMING TO AN END!”’ His startling exhortations added a certain note to many civic occasions. 

On the other hand, a New Yorker cartoon some years back showed a similarly wild-eyed, gaunt, unkempt elderly man on a street corner, holding up a sign that read, “It’s just going to go on and on…”

I like to think of those gentlemen as marking out two schools of thought about the end of the world: Get Ready,  versus On and On. 

This is a significant division within contemporary Christianity. Some Christians are deeply concerned and interested in end times, spend a lot of time with Scripture texts that predict or describe, made the Left Behind series into bestsellers, and even promote policies that they believe will help bring on the Eschaton. Get ready!!

Then there are the On and On Christians, including most Episcopalians. Our chosen bestsellers are more likely to be written by Barbara Kingsolver or Bob Woodward. We worry about nuclear and environmental disaster, for sure, but the Eschaton per se is not really on our radar. We acknowledge the Eschaton and the Second Coming of Christ as teachings of the church, but don’t give it a lot of thought. I mean, it’s a weird thing to believe – that Jesus is going to float down from the sky someday and replace everything tattered and broken in this world with the living, joyful wholeness that God intended for us.  

The earliest Christians, our ancestors in faith, were mostly in the Get Ready camp. They expected that Jesus would return ANY MINUTE NOW, to usher in God’s new world. They waited and watched, expectant, impatient. Some even quit their jobs and refused to marry.

Their expectation was based on things Jesus had said – in texts like today’s Gospel, in which Jesus’ small-town-born disciples are impressed with the size of the Great Temple in Jerusalem, and Jesus says, Don’t get too attached. On the brink of the Last Supper, arrest, and death, Jesus tells his friends that big, terrifying changes are in the wind. 

As I read the text, with 2000 years’ hindsight, I think that Jesus is talking about two different things at once: the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple about forty years later, a genuinely apocalyptic event for Jews and Christians of that time. Jesus predicts that the Temple will be destroyed, as it was; that his followers will be persecuted, as they were; that there will be bitter conflict over the Gospel, as indeed there was and is; that the Gospel must be proclaimed to all nations, as indeed it has been.

But later in the same chapter, he also describes a more cosmic final ending (and beginning) that has yet to occur: “The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken… They will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from… the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.”

In a couple of weeks we’ll hear Luke’s Jesus prophesying with similar words: “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars… People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

The emotional tone of these texts, I find, is interestingly ambiguous. There is fear, certainly – even terror. In Mark 13, Jesus tells his friends, “Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! Pray that it may not be in winter. For in those days there will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the creation… until now, no, and never will be.”

These apocalyptic prophesies stir up dread, of course. But there are also hints of a kind of fierce, bitter hope.  The world as it was had not been kind to the people who became the first Christians. They had reason to find comfort in the vision of a world turned upside down, a Great Day in which God’s might would sweep over the powers and principalities of this world, leaving rubble and ashes. 

It’s fitting that the lectionary pairs Jesus’ apocalyptic words with the song of Hannah, many centuries older. Hannah was one of two wives of a good and loving man, Elkanah. Hannah had no children, while the second wife, Penninah, had many sons and daughters. And Penninah used to mock Hannah cruelly. Hannah prays fervently to God and God gives her a son, Samuel, Israel’s great prophet and kingmaker. When she dedicates Samuel to God’s service, she sings this song – so like the familiar Magnficiat, the Song of Mary, but different too, mostly because Hannah is angrier than Mary. 

Hannah sings, “My heart exults in the LORD; my strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory. Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth… The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn.”

In context, Hannah’s anger reflects her rival’s cruelty. But I hear a resonance with the combined fear and exaltation in some Christian apocalyptic texts: God’s New Day is coming, and those who made the current age a living hell for many are going to get theirs. And I hear, too, a resonance with the voices of friends and acquaintances today, who look at our brutal society, our polarized politics, our wounded environment, and say, only half kidding: Burn it all down. Even though I’m doing fine, even though my house is warm and my kids are healthy: It’s all too broken to fix. Burn it down and start fresh. 

Episcopalians tend, by history, theology, and social status, to be On and On type Christians. We build stone churches and establish endowments. We plan for the long term. But here as a dark season grows darker, as the old year decays and the new year stirs towards birth, I think there are gifts for us in the Get Ready. I find that each year, Advent’s rich brew of hope and trepidation gets more real to me. 

Beloveds, we live in an amazing time. The number of people around the globe living in extreme poverty declined sharply between 2000 and 2015. In roughly the same years, the percentage of Americans who believe that LGBTQ+ people should be able to get married rose from 35% to 62%. And I am always mindful that I could not have served this  church as a priest anytime earlier than 1976. There is so much possibility in the world, and so much to love. There are so many moments when I just pause and breathe and think, This is good. Thank you. 

But there are moments, too, when I’m so hungry for the fulfillment of these ancient prophecies. Because things are so broken. Close to 200 dead in Paradise, California, after a wildfire made worse by global climate change. A black security guard apprehends a gunman and is himself shot dead by police. My friend Dave, the priest in Baraboo, had to find words for a letter to his congregation about high school boys doing the Nazi salute in a prom photo.  

How long, O Lord? Until this world’s long labor finally births God’s new reality? Get ready! 

As we lean towards Advent, as we lean into the darkness of this season, I find that what’s most whole and most true for me is to live in the On and On with some of that spirit of Get Ready. Doing what little I can to leave things better than I found them; while trusting – hoping – fearing that God may upset the whole apple-cart at any time, and replace it with something better. 

First-century Christians thought they were living at the end of time – expecting the Eschaton to break through at any moment. It’s easy to look back and think they were wrong, 

but they weren’t, really – because what was important is the way their Get Ready mindset, their confidence in God’s transcendent purposes working inexorably towards fulfillment even through our struggle and confusion, made them live in their present as people of God’s future. 

I look to those ancestors in faith to teach us how to live in the On and On inflected by the urgent, angry hope of Get Ready: Recognize that everything is provisional. Hold lightly the ways of this age – even the things that are working pretty well for us. Expect loss. Expect grace. Expect change. Jesus says, Keep your eyes open! Stay awake! 

Get ready!

Sermon, Nov. 11

Rut was born in a small town in northern Honduras, in central America. It wasn’t so bad, growing up – they didn’t have much, but her parents made sure she was fed and went to school. But as Rut became a young woman, life in Honduras was getting worse and worse. It seemed like everyone was involved in the drug business – big money and big risks. And gangs started to fight each other. 

And there was more and more violence against women. Honduras is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman. Assault, domestic violence, and murder are commonplace. Ninety percent of murders of women are unsolved, unpunished. In 2014, a young woman named Maria Jose Alvarado, from a town not far from Rut’s hometown, was selected as the Honduran candidate for the Miss World contest. A week before she was to fly to London for the big event, Maria Jose was murdered, along with her sister, by her sister’s boyfriend.

Rut took note. She had a boyfriend herself, but he wasn’t good to her. He hit her, like a lot of men hit their women. She wondered if he would really hurt her someday – and if she ever had a child, how could she keep it safe? Then came the drought. Crops failed across Central America, including Rut’s home region. People began to starve. Men who had been cruel and angry before, were now cruel, angry and hungry. 

Rut’s boyfriend was involved in some bad stuff. Almost everybody was. Then a deal went wrong, some money went missing, and he disappeared. They found his body days later, full of bullets. Rut wondered if they’d come after her too, even though she didn’t know anything about his business. 

Tia Noemi told Rut, You should get out. Now. Tia Noemi wasn’t really Rut’s aunt. In fact she was the aunt of Rut’s boyfriend – but she liked Rut, looked out for her. Tia Noemi lived in Arizona. She’d married an American, an older man she’d met while cleaning his house. He was dead now, but she had her green card; she could stay.  She told Rut, Come. It’s not so hard. I’ll help you out. There’s work here. They need people like us. Here, you won’t starve. Here, you won’t be murdered. Here, you have a chance. 

Rut still wasn’t sure. It was so far to go! But Tia Noemi said, You have to trust God. God is working for you.  Rut had never thought much about God. But she could hear that for Noemi, God was real. God was good. Noemi trusted God, so Rut decided she would, too. 

It was hard to leave home, but Rut knew she had no future in Honduras. Tia Noemi sent her a little money, and her mother and a couple of friends gave her a little more. She paid a coyote to help her on her way, made the 2000-mile journey from Honduras to the border between the U.S. and Mexico. 

She crossed the Rio Grande by night, wading and swimming, grateful that the water was low. She helped another woman who was traveling with three young children, carrying a two-year-old in her arms, struggling to swim with that warm frightened weight. 

On the far side, as dawn broke, she talked with others who were making the same journey. Rut had planned to seek out American border patrol – she wanted to claim asylum. She’d heard you could do that: that if you were almost certain to starve, if you were almost certain to be murdered, in your home country, then the United States would take you in. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me! Everyone knows young women die in Honduras. Surely that was grounds for a claim of asylum.

But an older woman, crossing the border a second time after being deported, laughed in her face. You’re not an endangered minority, she said. You’re not being persecuted by your government. You’re just a woman. You’re disposable. 

In 2014, the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals ruled that women who were at risk because of domestic violence and gang violence had grounds to claim asylum in the United States. In June of 2018, the Trump administration overturned those protections. Rut had no grounds for an asylum claim.

The older woman told her what would happen if she found border patrol. They’ll put you in the hielera, the freezer, she said – the brutally cold detention cells. Later they move you to the perreras – the kennels – chain-link cells, no privacy, no quiet. You’ll get a foil blanket to sleep with. No mat, no pillow. No soap. No toothpaste. Everybody is sick – the women, the children. If you ask for medical attention they tell you to drink water and rest. You’ll be there for months, and when you finally get an asylum hearing, they’ll say no, and deport you. Don’t turn yourself in. Better to hide. 

Rut found her way to Tia Noemi. She was out of money, and she had to do some things she didn’t like to get people to help her. But she made it.

Noemi’s apartment was tiny. She had a little money from her husband, but she’d hurt her shoulder and couldn’t clean houses anymore. She could barely afford groceries for herself, and sometimes had to go around to churches and community centers asking for money to keep the electricity and water on. But she let Rut sleep on the sofa – she was tired, so tired; she slept for two whole days. 

On the third day Noemi sat down and said, You can stay here, but you have to work. I can’t feed myself, let alone both of us. There’s a place nearby where they pick up workers for day labor in the orchards. They don’t pay much because they know you’re illegal, but it’s something. And sometimes you can bring home some fruit that’s damaged – Americans only like perfect fruit. While you’re working, you have to be careful, stay near other women; some of the workers will assault you if they have a chance. And wear a handkerchief on your face, so you don’t breathe too much of the chemicals they spray on the fruit. 

So Rut went out early the next morning and stood with other men and women, waiting for the trucks. She climbed into one, and rode to an orchard, packed in shoulder to shoulder with other undocumented workers. Climbing out of the truck, she didn’t notice the man who stood nearby watching the workers arrive – but he noticed her. His name was Boas, and he owned the orchard. He could see that Rut was new here, and that she was young. He took the men who oversaw the workers aside, told them: Keep an eye on her. She’s new. Don’t let the boys bother her. 

Rut picked fruit all day. By sundown, her shoulders hurt and her eyes burned from pesticides, but she had cash in her pocket and a heavy bag of damaged fruit to take home. As she climbed into the truck to ride back to town, someone pushed another bag into her hands: tomatoes, bruised and bursting but usable; potatoes, still dirty from the ground. Food. She clutched her bags tightly on the ride back to town.

Back at the apartment, Tia Noemi was delighted at what Rut had brought home. She demanded to know where Rut had been working. Rut hadn’t seen the farm’s name, but it was printed on one of the bags. Noemi said, I know about the man who owns this place, Boas. His parents were Honduran. He’s better than most. His father was cousin to my father. I’ve met him a couple of times, though he’s too important for me. His wife died a couple of years ago. He must be lonely. Listen, Rut: This is your chance to claim a new life here. Tomorrow is Friday – sometimes the owners and overseers drink with the workers on Friday nights. Stay for the party. Watch Boas. When he’s had a few drinks, get close to him. Show him you like him. He’s old, older than me, but that doesn’t matter. He’s an honorable man. If you become his girlfriend, he will make sure you don’t go hungry. Shower tonight. I have a blouse that will look good on you, and some makeup. 

Rut said, I will do everything you tell me. 

The next morning Rut waited with the other workers, feeling self-conscious in the low-cut blouse. But again, the other workers left her alone. And at the end of the day, she brought her bag of damaged fruit to the place where the workers gathered to drink together. Sure enough, Boas was there. 

Rut took one beer, drank it slowly; she wasn’t used to drinking. She talked with other women, and fended off a few men, and kept an eye on Boas, who drank one beer, two, three.

Finally she saw him leave the group, headed into a nearby shed, and she followed him, tugging her blouse lower. It was dim in the shed, and quiet. Boas heard her steps behind him and turned. She came close and looked up at him, making her eyes big; She said, Senor, how can I ever thank you for your kindness to me? Boas looked at her, long and hard. He said, You’re from Honduras. She said, Si. Si, Senor. He said, Do you have family here? She said, Only my Tia Noemi. He said, How long have you been here? She said, Five days. He said, What’s your name? And she said, Me llama Rut. 

Boas reached for her. Rut braced herself; she knew what she had to do, but she was afraid. But Boas only put his hand on her shoulder. He said, Rut, you don’t have to do this. You deserve better. I know Noemi. She’s a good woman. I’m glad you’re with her. And I know how hard it is, where you came from. Listen: There are a hundred handsome, strong young men out there, drinking beer and looking for a good time. If it’s companionship you want, pick one of them. Don’t come to me just because you’re poor, just because you’re hungry, just because you’re afraid. But if you can really have eyes for an old man like me, I’ll take you to dinner tomorrow, and we can see how things go. Now, go back out there quickly, before everyone thinks something happened in here.

Later that night, Noemi asked: WELL? Did something happen? And Rut said: No. But… maybe. He was kind. He didn’t touch me. He wants to take me out for dinner tomorrow night. 

The next night Rut wore an old dress of Tia Noemi’s, and brushed out her long glossy hair.  Boas picked her up and took her to dinner at a Mexican place, friendly, not too fancy. Over the chips he told her, I spoke to your father today. It took a while, but I got him on the phone. They’re doing OK. He sends his love. I’m going to help him out with some debts. 

Boas said, Rut, if you want safety here, if you want stability, I can give you that, if you marry me. I’m an American citizen; as your husband, I can protect you. You can have your own room and your own life. Maybe we can even try to bring your family here. I know I’m an old man. I’m not pushing myself on you. I just want to help you. You deserve better. 

Rut looked at Boas. She could see that he meant what he said. She could see that his eyes were kind, that the lines on his face were from laughter. She said, What if I want a real marriage? What if I want a husband who loves me? What if I want a house full of children? With you?

Boas and Rut were married two months later. Noemi danced at the wedding. And when Rut bore her first child, a son, named Obed, Noemi held the baby close and wept for joy. She said, I have no children or grandchildren of my own, but this baby shall be like a son to me. The women of the neighborhood would tease Noemi as she walked the stroller around every morning: How’s your son, Noemi? How’s your boy, old lady? And Noemi would smile. 

You’ll find a whole story of Ruth tucked into your Sunday supplement today – the one from the Bible, not the version I just told you. It’s a story about immigrants, asylum seekers. It’s a story about poverty and sexual vulnerability. It’s a story about chain migration and anchor babies. I hope you’ll read it.

In the Bible story, Ruth’s son, Obed, grows up and has a son, Jesse. And Jesse has a son, named David. David becomes the greatest king of Israel. And generations and generations later, another baby boy is born to Jesse’s lineage, a boy named Jesus. The Gospel of Matthew begins with Jesus’ genealogy, fathers and grandfathers and great grandfathers all the way back – and a few grandmothers too. Ruth is one of them. Named. Remembered. Honored.

Ruth’s story, the story of the Moabite woman who became the great-grandmother of King David, is one instance of one of the most pervasive and emphatic themes of the Bible, Hebrew and Christian scriptures alike: Be kind to the outsider, for there are no outsiders in God’s eyes. Your ancestors were strangers and wanderers once; therefore always extend grace to the stranger and wanderer, for they have a unique claim on our conscience and hospitality. 

Some voices in America today are spreading hatred and fear about immigrants, about those fleeing violence and desperate poverty, seeking safety and a better life for their children here. Last year we shared some stories of our own immigrant parents and grandparents, who set out on the same journey, and faced some of the same struggles; we remembered that we are here because of their hope and courage. But God knows that remembering our forebears’ journeys isn’t enough,  because humans have a tragic capacity to say, I’ve got mine, and slam the door behind us. That’s why God makes kindness to the stranger a central command and call in the holy texts at the heart of our faith.  

Let me be clear: I’m not saying that America is or should be a Christian nation. And I’m certainly not saying that Scripture offers a clear map for a reasonable and humane immigration policy. I’m saying that if we call ourselves Christians, then care for the stranger has to be a hallmark of our way of being: from the words we use to the news we watch, our votes, our giving, our letters to our leaders, our helping and hoping, our meeting and marching – it all has to begin here. With a people wandering forty years in hope of a homeland. With a young woman in a strange country, offering her body to escape starvation. With a baby born homeless in Bethlehem. 

A list of Scripture passages about welcoming strangers:

https://www.openbible.info/topics/welcoming_strangers

About violence against women in Honduras: 

https://abcnews.go.com/International/men-women-honduras-inside-dangerous-places-earth-woman/story?id=47135328

Sermon, All Saints Sunday

Welcome and peace to all of you, people of St Dunstan’s! Welcome to guests and to those returning from afar; it is so good to be with you. Welcome to that fellowship divine of the faithful departed, who are always with us but whom we call to mind especially today. The household of God includes people who left this earth centuries ago; people whose passed from among us recently, like Lou, Ginny, George, Jeff; and people who have just begun their life in this world – like the babies  whom we have the blessing of baptizing this morning. 

Not all churches baptize babies! Some churches teach that it doesn’t make sense to baptize a baby who can’t believe what our church teaches or even understand it. I respect that position, but it’s not how our church does things. We confess in all humility that if a real Christian is someone who can diagram the Trinity, comprehend the Incarnation, or explain the Eucharist… then none of us belong here. As Episcopalians, Christians in the Anglican way, we follow the church’s ancient pattern and baptize infants – as well as kids or adults who seek to join Christ’s Body the Church.

Our church thinks of baptism a lot like birth. There’s a completeness to it – a newborn baby is a whole person. And yet, obviously, it’s also just a beginning. That baby still has to be loved and fed and sheltered and taught and raised to maturity. That nurture and growth might happen in the family that shares the baby’s genetic material, or it might turn out that another household is the best place for that child’s flourishing – and the same is true with churches: some of us come to maturity in the church that birthed us, some find a new faith home. But either way, somebody’s got to raise that baby. Baptism, which is birth into God’s household, is just a start. When we, as a church, baptize babies – when I ask, “Will all of you do everything in your power to support this person in his life in Christ?” and you shout, “WE WILL!” – we are taking on the responsibility, together, along with their parents, godparents, and siblings, of raising that child to know and love God, and to find comfort and courage in a community of faith, throughout their lives. 

Let’s be honest, though: Churches are inconsistent at best in following through on that commitment. I’ve gone looking, friends, and from what I’ve seen, 

churches that understand nurturing faith in their children as a core part of their common life are few and far between. (I’m proud that St Dunstan’s is one of them – though we’ve got lots of room to grow!) Our prayer book clearly states that baptism is our church’s rite of full initiation by water and the holy spirit: a baptized baby is a full member of the church! Yet churches find so many ways to tell kids that they are only “junior” members. That their presence is disruptive or unwelcome; that their needs are secondary. 

What does it take for a church to live deeply into its commitment to raise its children in faith? I came back from my sabbatical, focused on intergenerational worship, with some thoughts. Here are few of them.

First, we grownups need to be extra mindful about kids’ dignity. Dignity – like in the baptismal covenant: “Will you respect the dignity of every human being?” And like in the song: “And we’ll guard each one’s dignity and save each one’s pride, and they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” Dignity is a tough word to define, though we all know what it feels like when our dignity takes a hit. Adults can sometimes forget that kids need their dignity tended just as much as grownups do – maybe even more. One weekend during my sabbatical, Iona and I visited a church in a big city that advertised a Sunday morning service where children “actively engage in the readings, sermon, and Communion.” The service began with a responsive prayer led by a child, a boy, maybe 7 years old. The only problem was, the microphone was attached to a lectern, like this, and it was too tall for him. So his mom had to hold him up around his waist while he led the prayer. At first I thought, Awwww. What a nice icon of an adult supporting a child’s ministry. But then, after the prayer, the boy and his mom walked past us on their way back to their seat, and I could see that he was furious. That was humiliating and uncomfortable for him. He was given a role, but he wasn’t given a way to do it that honored his dignity. 

This dignity thing is a big, broad general principal; it’ll take a while, and probably lots of talking and listening, to figure out all its implications. For example: I’m trying to get out of the habit of patting kids on the head. It’s hard because their heads are RIGHT THERE. But they’re not dogs; they’re people. And even with a dog, I’d give the dog a chance to show me whether it wanted me to touch it or not. Grownups and kids are different in important ways, but it can still be helpful to ask yourself, Would I do this to a grownup? If not, is there a reason to make a different decision with a child? 

Respecting kids’ dignity leads to a second core way churches can live into our commitment to our kids: By taking kids’ belonging and participation here as seriously as we take grownups’. One of the people I interviewed who really thinks deeply about kids and church, Sylvia Mutia-Miller, said, “The best way we can honor any person is to believe they are capable of things.” Kids have particular gifts and skills to contribute to our common life, just like grownups do. Our friend Sir Bjorn, who is a knight, talked about how in his organization, the Society for Creative Anachronism, they try to match jobs for kids to what the kids are good at and like to do. LOUD kids make good heralds. FAST kids make good messengers and gophers. KIDS WHO LIKE TO DO STUFF WITH THEIR HANDS make good Duct Tape Pages, going around to fix broken weaponry and such. 

Yet in churches we often assign kids jobs based only on age: When you’re seven, you can be an acolyte. If acolyting isn’t really your jam, or if acolyting is fine but you’d like to do more… sorry! This is something I really want your help to think about here, friends – kids and grownups. We can ask kids: What are you good at that you think would help our church and be a gift to us all? What could we do differently that would give you more chance to participate and contribute? That’s a good question for grownups who would like to be more involved, too! 

Finally, we raise faithful kids by filling their hearts and minds and imaginations with holy stories of justice and mercy, hope and courage. Gretchen Wolff Prichard, the amazing Christian educator who creates the “Sunday Papers” we use, says we have to avoid the temptation to offer children a “kiddie Gospel” of “Everything is fine.” Kids know everything isn’t fine, and pretending it is, is much scarier than talking about the truth. Writing about All Saints Day, Gretchen challenges churches to go beyond the message that we’re all saints, chosen, called, and sanctified – which is true! – and point out that living a holy life and resisting evil is hard, sometimes scary work. We need stories of someone small but brave, who prevails against evil with the help of friends and of a mysterious Power of Good. That reminded me of our Christmas pageant last year – who remembers it? Was the Devil involved? … What was he trying to do? He was trying to keep Joseph and Mary from getting to a safe place to have the baby, and to keep the shepherds from coming to welcome and honor the baby! (And who’s the baby?) And how was the Devil defeated? Yes – the people recognized him, and the Angel drove him away! Writer Boze Herrington says: “As much as kids need food and shelter, they also need stories to teach them that there are monsters that need fighting, and good worth fighting for.” The Church has stories like that – so many. Let’s keep telling them to each other. 

Who knows what a simile is? It’s when you show that one thing is like another thing, to help you look at the first thing in a new way. My friend Father John has a wonderful simile about baptism: He says it’s like making pickles. Can you just go pick a pickle? …So, then, where do pickles come from? You take a cucumber and you dunk it in brine – salty water, with maybe some peppers or herbs in it too. Maybe that’s like baptism! And then… you WAIT. It takes a while, but slowly, over time, the brine gets inside the cucumber and it changes. It becomes something else. It becomes… a pickle. Maybe that’s like growing up in church! Pickling each other, over weeks and months and years, by guarding each one’s dignity, and raising up each one’s gifts, and sharing holy stories that give us courage for the hard work of justice and mercy in our time and place. 

Poet Russell Brand says, “If we become the kind of people that can change the world, then the world will change.” May it be so. Amen.

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.