Category Archives: Sermons

April 8

“Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.”

So we’re doing a capital campaign, y’all. 

It’s been a long time coming.  First, we had to stabilize our annual budget; we were running big deficits when I first came, in early 2011. We did hard work on that back in 2013. Then, with our finances on a firmer footing, we spent couple of years just living into our mission, seeing things start to grow and flourish among us. 

But it was always there – the awareness that our physical surroundings didn’t fully reflect the welcome and comfort and beauty we found here in worship and community. The chairs, oh, the chairs! Patti Brennan, who left us to head the world’s largest biomedical library in Washington, DC, committed some of her very valuable time to inventing and producing those covers, just to camouflage the shabbiness a little. The kitchen! Our infamous two-butt kitchen – too small to share the holy work of preparing food together. The parking lot! Every year we’d toss more gravel and asphalt into another new round of potholes. The parish center! The musty smell; the fifty-year-old appliances; what are we going to do with that place, anyway? … 

In 2015, we finally started to get serious. We interviewed consultants. We learned about how the process works. In the summer of 2016, almost two years ago, we decided to begin a process of discernment: Is it time for us to undertake a capital campaign, to address the things that need repair at costs beyond the scope of annual budget, and, perhaps, some of the ways our buildings are a poor fit for what we actually do? 

Some churches do this top-down, or maybe cart-before-horse: A leadership group decides what the church needs, commissions a design, and then asks the congregation to support it. That is NOT how we have done it – and as a result, it’s taken us a while to get here. For example, last summer we basically had to press Pause on our process for several months to give us time to develop a couple of different approaches with our architects. Because we didn’t start with the architects, friends – we started with the congregation. Every step of the way, our plans and priorities have reflected what campaign leadership has heard from you. 

It’s been a long time coming – but because we did the way we did it,  I’m so proud and hopeful about the vision we’re presenting, and about how engaged and excited people are. The plans have gotten even better since they were last shared with the congregation. The plans we’re working with now give us enhanced and enlarged spaces for learning and fellowship; AND make all levels of our building accessible to all with an elevator: AND enhance our access to the outdoors, AND makes our beloved nave even more beautiful, AND makes the main floor bathrooms accessible and spacious, AND – even make the kitchen a little bigger. The Vestry meets TODAY to finalize exactly what will be included in the campaign, and then we’re going to tell you ALL about it!  I can’t wait! 

But it’s a big project.  And it will involve some change, some disruption. There’s anxiety about it – understandably. 

In the Feasibility Study, back in February, people named some of their concerns. Some people wondered: Can we handle this? Financially? Logistically? Thinking about the stretches and strains involved is important. But I can tell you that your Vestry, capital campaign leadership, and your Rector would not be moving ahead with this if we didn’t believe heartily that we’re strong and resilient enough to handle it. We are financially stable; we’ve had balanced annual budgets for five years now – and have even successfully increased our budget, though your support and commitment.  

Logistically – Yeah, it will be a disruption! Moving walls! Redoing floors! Putting in an ELEVATOR! But I see this as a tradeoff between a big short-term disruption, versus the small, long-term disruption and friction and constraint of living with the status quo. Having our parking lot full of potholes, our basement prone to flooding, rearranging the chairs for special events so guests won’t see the worst ones. I know young healthy people who actively avoid using the bathrooms at church. 

We are a flexible, creative, playful, loving congregation. If we have to get creative with where we worship for a few weeks, we can do that. If we have to try something different with Sunday school or Music for a season while building is in process, we can do that. We’ll take time to grieve changes and acknowledge struggles, as well as celebrate possibilities.  This will be a journey. A shared adventure. I believe we have what we need to set out. 

Some people wondered: Do we really need this? I think there are a couple of different things people mean, when they ask this question – or things that boil down to this question. 

Some people simply don’t feel the need.  Maybe you’ve been here so long that it all just feels normal. Maybe your presence at the church, the things you do or places you go, does not bring you into any of the places where others feel pinch, discomfort or struggle. The answer there – as with so many things – is just to listen and take others’ needs and experiences seriously. What is fine for you might not be fine for others. That’s a fundamental lesson we all need to re-learn often. 

I’ve also found that when I talk with people who wonder if we really need a capital campaign, pretty soon we get to things they think could be better. I think just about everybody here can think of something around here that needs replacing or updating or re-arranging. Maybe some of those seem small to you – why don’t we just do it? Why do we need a campaign? – but they are actually not so small. The minimum fix for the parking lot is $38,000. Estimates for re-upholstering the chairs started around $30,000. That’s why organizations do capital campaigns: to put some of those medium-to-large projects together into a plan that has things in it that everybody can get excited about, so we can focus our energy and our resources for a season on getting a lot of stuff dealt with all at once.  So I think part of what’s behind the “Do we really need this?” question is that some folks just haven’t fully taken in the needs, and why it makes sense to address them this way. 

But there’s a deeper layer here too, I think – for some, at least, the question of, “Do we really need this?” Comes from a place of fear that the growth in members and activities and energy here, won’t last.  We have members contributing time and energy, kids who need room to learn and grow, a lively common life that stretches our buildings’ capacity, right NOW –  but what if five years from now, ten years from now, we don’t? Will we feel like this investment was wasted?

Look: The future is unknowable. I’ve talked about that. I cannot promise you that five years from now, or ten, we’ll have still have a lively crop of kids and youth using the rooms we plan to renovate and expand. But I can tell you that if we DON’T renovate and expand – if we keep trying to cram growing programs into too-small and actively unpleasant spaces – we will NOT have a lively crop of of kids and youth in ten years. 

But listen, folks: It’s our spaces that are inadequate, not our parish. St. Dunstan’s is a great church. This is important for you to hear. Somebody wrote this concern on their Feasibility study: “What if Miranda leaves?” I’ve heard that less directly from others, as well. I need to address that at a couple of different levels.

First, some of you you want to hear something that I can’t tell you. I don’t have any plans to leave. I am really happy here, my family is happy here, I’m still learning and growing, I’m NOT bored. I’m going to go on sabbatical soon and come back with fresh ideas that we can explore together in the years to come. But in this vocation, no door is ever locked. 

I can’t look you in the eye and say, I will be here for another X years. It’s not entirely up to me. At some point, God may have other ideas. I probably don’t like that any more than you do, but it’s part of the deal. 

But the question of how many years Miranda will spend at St. Dunstan’s is actually beside the point. The point is that some of you think that the good stuff happening around here is all about me. It’s not. St. Dunstan’s has formed me. You called me as a young priest with two years as an assistant under my belt, planning Sunday school and preaching every other week. I have grown up as a priest here. With you. From day one, the mutuality and curiosity and honesty and affection and joy of our relationship has been remarkable. You – all of you – have blessed me and taught me and challenged me and loved me. I regularly think, How did I get lucky enough to serve a church that so many of my favorite people in the world go to? I regularly get a little teary while I’m giving out Communion, because I love you so much. Each and all. 

When I leave – and I will leave, someday – when I leave, St. Dunstan’s can and will call a remarkable priest. This is a church any smart, creative, passionate priest would be delighted to serve. It’s not all about me. 

Let’s circle back around to that Acts lesson, and talk about church fundraising in Scripture. There are a few examples. Which will be our capital campaign story? 

Our text this morning tells us that in that first, beautiful season of the church’s life, the believers shared everything with each other. People who were wealthy, who had extra property, would sell it and give the money to the church so the poor within the fellowship would have what they needed. This was before Christian churches had buildings of their own – but it’s a striking vision of collective generosity, for the good of the whole. And if somebody has an extra house or piece of land they’d like to sell in order to contribute to our church, we’d be happy to talk!

But listen – there’s more to that story from Acts; and it’s dishonest to only tell the nice part. Just a couple of verses later, we get a cautionary tale: A couple named Ananias and Sapphira sell a piece of property, as the church has encouraged them to do. Say, for $10,000. But they don’t feel like giving ALL the proceeds to the church. They decide they’re going to keep half the money for themselves. Ananias takes part of the money and lays it at the apostles’ feet as an offering. He says, Here you are! $5000! Exactly what our land was worth! But Peter sees into Ananias’ heart – or maybe he’s just heard something. Peter says, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? Look, it’s your land, your money, and your choice what to do with it. Why are you lying to the church and to God, by pretending to give all when you’re only giving some?” Now when Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died! They wrap him up and haul his body away.  And then, about three hours later, his wife, Sapphira, comes to the church looking for him. And Peter asks her, “So, you and your husband sold some land for $5000?” And she says, “Yes, that’s right.”  Then Peter said to her, ‘Why did you conspire together to test God? Your husband is dead, and you will soon follow.” And Sapphira falls down at his feet, and dies. 

I do not want this to be our capital campaign story. Not just because it’s awkward when people keel over in church. But because of what’s going on here: Fear of judgment about how much you give. A concern that some gifts will be more honored than others, that only those with a lot of resources will “count.”  That we’ll push people to give from shame,  rather than hope and joy. Let’s leave this story, and look for another. 

How about 2 Kings 12? This is in the time of King Joash. The Great Temple to Yahweh in Jerusalem, built by King Solomon about a hundred years earlier, has fallen into disrepair.

People give financial gifts at the Temple all the time, when they go there to worship and make sacrifices, but it turns out the priests of the temple are just keeping those gifts. They are not interested in fixing up the place. A king built it; let a king maintain it. 

So King Joash says, Well, OK, people’s donations are going to go to a fund to fix up the temple.  And that works out. They take a chest and make a hole in the lid – I love that detail – and people give generously. The king hires workers and pays them, and they repair the Temple and restore it to its former glory.

There’s some good in this story – a desire to restore a beloved holy building; the people’s generosity; and the text makes a point that the workers were particularly skilled and trustworthy – always a good thing! But there’s a separation here between the spiritual and the material. The priests don’t want to be involved. We’re all about worshipping God; the leaky roof or the broken steps are not our problem. I wish they’d seen it differently. We come to God as whole selves, body and spirit; we honor God with the beauty, and the safety, and the comfort, of the space we create to gather in worship as a household of faith. 

Here’s my favorite story of a capital campaign in Scripture.  The story I hope our story will be the most like. It’s an early story, from the Wilderness time, Exodus chapters 35 and 36. God’s people are creating a holy place to worship God for the first time: the Tabernacle, the fanciest tent in human history, the portable Temple long before Solomon’s Temple.  Moses says to all the congregation of the Israelites: This is the thing that the Lord has commanded: Take from among you an offering to the Lord; let whoever is of a generous heart bring the Lord’s offering: gold, silver, and bronze; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and fine linen; goats’ hair, tanned rams’ skins, and fine leather; acacia wood, oil, spices, and gems. And let all who are skillful among you come and make all that the Lord has commanded:  the tent and its supports, metalwork, vessels, pillars, candlesticks, vestments, and so much more. 

And the people respond to Moses’ call:  They came, everyone whose heart was stirred, and everyone whose spirit was willing, and brought the Lord’s offering to be used for the tent of meeting, and for all its service. They came, both men and women; all who were of a willing heart brought jewelry and gold objects as an offering to the Lord. And everyone who possessed blue or purple or crimson yarn, or linen or goats’ hair or leather, or silver or bronze or wood that could be of use in the work, brought it. All the women whose hearts moved them to use their skill spun the yarn and the goats’ hair. And all the Israelite men and women whose hearts made them willing to bring anything for the work that the Lord had commanded, brought it as a freewill-offering to the Lord. 

They brought their gifts and kept bringing them, every day, so that all the artisans who were working on the project came to Moses and said,‘The people are bringing much more than enough for doing the work that the Lord has commanded us to do.’ So Moses had to put the word out that no more offerings were needed. Because what the people had already brought was more than enough to do all the work. 

Here’s what I love about this story – why I hope this will be our story:  People give from what they have.  Gifts of all kinds and sizes are welcomed and honored. People with skills contribute too – their time and work and skill is needed and valued as part of the work. People give from joy and love and willingness – this passage stresses that again and again: people giving from generous and willing hearts. And they end up with MORE than enough, more than they need.  

May we, like our long-ago ancestors, take delight in being invited into building up God’s house. May we honor every gift, of money, material, time or skill. May our hearts be willing. And may we go forward with confidence that there will be enough for the work God has laid before us.

Let us pray. 

Gracious God, we thank you for the growth of our community in numbers and in spirit. As we now seek to renew our church home, give our Vestry, Campaign volunteers, and all members of this parish  wisdom, discernment and a spirit of generosity, so that we may renew not only the buildings, but but also our commitment to your mission of restoring all people to unity with God and each other in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Easter Sermon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Easter.

Sermon, March 18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Florin Paulet’s piece:

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

Sermon, Mar. 11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 29a)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon, Feb. 18

“The Lord said to Noah, there’s gonna be a floody, floody…”

Somewhere along the line, people decided Noah’s Ark is a good story for children… I’m not even sure it’s a good story for grownups.

Let me remind you how this story begins: “God saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And God was sorry that God had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved God’s heart. So God said, ‘I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.’” (Gen 6:5-7)

And then, in the next chapter, here comes the floody-floody: “The waters swelled so mightily on the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered… And all flesh died that moved on the earth… God blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, human beings and animals and creeping things and birds of the air; they were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those that were with him in the ark.” (Gen 7:19-23)

Sure, we get to a rainbow at the end, but – this is a horrible story. As people who would like to believe in a loving God, how do we make sense of an account of divine genocide?

Here’s how I make theological sense of the flood story. I make a couple of assumptions. First, maybe there really was a flood. Now, for many Christians, that goes without saying. But as an Episcopalian, my hermeneutical relationship with the Bible is not literalist – my faith does not bind me to believe everything happened just as the text says it did.

So it’s fair to ask, Was there a flood? And I think maybe there was. Not a worldwide flood, as the story suggests. But big enough to feel universally destructive, for those who survived and remembered. (Imagine life in Houston, Texas, last August, if people didn’t have televisions, radio, internet – might that not have felt as if the entire world were washing away?)

Stories about ancient floods are found in the mythology and scriptures of many Ancient Near Eastern people – as well as in China and North and South America!Which points, not to a worldwide flood – we’d expect some clear geological and archaeological traces of such an event – but to the fact that floods are not uncommon. At a time scale of thousands of years, people are going to experience floods – due to storms, earthquakes, changing water systems, even rising sea levels. It’s entirely possible that ancient peoples living in many corners of the globe had flood experiences lodged deep in their cultural memory that became part of the story they told themselves about the world, the gods, and humanity.

So, assumption #1 is that maybe there really was a flood, sometime in the early prehistory of the ancient Near East, which killed a lot of people and animals, devastated and transformed the landscape, and was so shattering an experience that it became part of the deep story of many peoples of that region.

Assumption #2 is that natural disasters are not expressions of God’s will. I don’t believe that God wasn’t angry at Houston, or Puerto Rico, or New Orleans – or the people of Noah’s time and place. Just as humans were made free, able to will, to wonder, and to choose – well or poorly – so too is Creation free. Scientist and theologian John Polkinghorne writes, “We understand an evolving universe as a creation that is allowed by its Creator ‘to make itself’, to explore and realize its God-given potentiality in its own way. Such a creation seems a greater good than a ready-made world. It is a most fitting creation of the God of love, whose creation could never be just a divine puppet theatre. Yet such a creation has a cost…. [For example,] the anguishing fact that there is cancer in creation is not gratuitous, something that a more compassionate or competent Creator could easily have remedied. It is the necessary cost of a creation allowed to make itself.”

https://www.faraday.st-edmunds.cam.ac.uk/CIS/polkinghorne/lecture6.html

Natural disasters – floods, volcanoes, earthquakes – are, well, natural. They are the result of processes that are intrinsic to the systems of this planet – coming to a point of crisis or excess that causes damage and destruction to humans, animals and plants living within those systems. To be sure, human action is currently intensifying and distorting some of those natural systems. But there were natural disasters before the Industrial Revolution, too.

So what we have, then, in the Flood narratives in Genesis, is a people taking an ancient regional memory and trying to make sense of it in light of their evolving understanding  of God.  They are trying to make a fearsome memory tell a hopeful story. So for me, the interesting question about the Flood is: what do our long-ago Jewish ancestors do with this story? What do they make it say about the God they are coming to know?

They make it say a number of distinctive things that make the Genesis story different from other flood stories from that part of the world. The flood in Genesis says that there is only one God, who is present and active in the world. This story would be easier to tell if you could believe that one god made people, and another god decided to wipe them out as an act of spite. But the ancient Jews, unlike their neighbors, believed there was only one God. So we have a story in which God changes God’s mind, and is sorry God made humans.

The flood story in Genesis says that God is in relationship with humanity. Our reading this morning has God initiating a covenantal relationship with Noah and his descendants, and thereby, according to the story, all of humanity. Covenant is a really important concept for the Bible, both Old and New Testament. A covenant could be a legal arrangement, a contract, a peace treaty, in the days before systems and institutions existed to enforce any of those things.  A covenant was a matter of honor and ethics, and a deep-seated moral and religious obligation. The Old Testament shows us lots of covenants between people and groups – and also a series of covenants between humanity and God; next week we’ll hear about the covenant with Abraham.

But this covenant – the first covenant – is unusual, because instead of outlining mutual obligations, it’s one-sided. Given how the Flood story begins, you might well expect the post-Flood covenant to look like this: IF humans AREN’T wicked and evil in their thoughts and deeds, then I, God, will not destroy you all again. But that’s NOT what this covenant says. God says, I promise never to destroy humanity and all living creatures again. And because I know you’ll really made me mad sometimes, I’m going to make a rainbow, to remind me of my promise. The flood story says that God is not capricious. God makes commitments to us.

And finally, the Genesis flood story says that animals matter too. This is WHY people treat the Flood story as a children’s story: because the boat is full of animals! So cute! So smelly! The story tells us that animals matter in two ways: Noah is charged with rescuing animals from the flood, a breeding pair of every species. And here, at the end of the story, God says, “I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark… When the rainbow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.”

This story tells us something we have forgotten, again and again, to our shame and our loss: God is not only God for humans. God is God of and for ALL living things, and all of Creation.

Which brings me to today’s Gospel. You might easily think, today, “Wait, didn’t we just have this Gospel?” Because just last week we had the Transfiguration Gospel, from Mark 9, when God ALSO says, “This is my Son, the Beloved.” And also, earlier in Epiphany, just a month ago, we had Gospel lessons that overlap both the beginning and the end of this passage. The only verses in this text that we haven’t heard in the past six weeks are verses 12 and 13. “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” It’s not a lot of fresh material for a sermon – but on the other hand, Mark packs a lot into a few words, as always.

Listen to one phrase in particular: He was with the wild beasts. 

There are lots of animals in the Old Testament, but not many in the New Testament. Lots of fish, and some metaphorical lambs; a donkey, and possibly her colt. But with this little phrase Mark invites our imaginations to something not unlike the scene from Disney’s classic Snow White, where she goes into the forest and her purity and sweetness are such that the forest creatures all gather round and befriend her – birds, squirrels, rabbits, turtles, deer and raccoons.

Only for Jesus, imagine him sitting on a rock, in a dry desert landscape, surrounded by gazelles, hedgehogs, foxes, wild goats, hyraxes – a guinea-pig like creature; a wide variety of lizards and snakes, and maybe a friendly vulture or two.

He was with the wild beasts. This phrase is only in Mark’s Gospel. But it evokes images from elsewhere in Scripture – Places where a restored relationship between humanity and creation is a sign of God’s work. The best-known is the poem known as the Peaceable Kingdom, from chapter 11 in the book of the prophet Isaiah:

“The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them… The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”

In the book of Hosea, the prophet speaks of Israel’s broken covenant with God, but then turns with hope towards images of restoration, repentance and reconciliation, including this divine promise: “I will make for you a covenant on that day with the wild animals, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground; and I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land; and I will make you lie down in safety.” (Hosea 2:18)

He was with the wild beasts. I believe that with this little phrase, Mark internally evokes these prophetic images. Here, at the very beginning of his ministry and mission, Jesus, in whom God and humanity are reconciled, also embodies the reconciliation of humanity and creation that God promises and intends – and specifically, the reconciliation of humans and non-human animals.

The framers of the Lectionary wanted me to talk about baptism today. Flood, water, baptism, etcetera. But what I notice in these texts are the animals. The ancient, foundational stories of the Hebrew Bible – Eden and the Flood – tell us that all of Creation and all living things were made by God, and that God is committed – covenanted – to protect and preserve them. And the Gospel of Mark reminds us – so briefly but so provocatively – that God’s intention is to restore that primeval peace and unity.

Where does that point us? Well, where it’s pointing me, this Lent and this spring, is to a renewed attention to love of my neighbors – the ones with feathers, fur, wings or jointed feet, as well as the ones with two legs and opposable thumbs.

Saint Augustine, the great 4th century theologian, wrote: “Some people, in order to discover God, read books. But there is a great book: the very appearance of created things. Look above you! Look below you! Note it. Read it. God, whom you want to discover, never wrote that book with ink. Instead God set before your eyes the things and creatures that God has made. Can you ask for a louder voice than that?”

I hope you’ll join me in taking this season to read that book of Nature with interest, love, and respect. We love our plants, here at St. Dunstan’s –  we’ve very attuned to the budding of magnolia and crabapples, the first glimpse of squill or crocus.  But let the rainbow covenant and Jesus’ Snow White moment remind us of our kinship with all living things with breath in them. That we, too, are with the wild beasts – created by one God, sharing one world; what affects their well-being, affects ours. We are all in this together. Let us strive to discover God, to seek traces of God’s creativity and God’s delight, in all creation and all creatures; and let us remember that even the stink bug creeping unwelcome across the church carpet is our kin.

Sermon, Feb. 11

Let us pray in silence.

Amen.

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

Keep silent.  Another translation says: Hush you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

{Pause}

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

{Pause}

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

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

Be still. Hush you.

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

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

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

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

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

Still.

Sermon, Feb. 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But then he says: But not me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sermon, Jan. 21

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

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

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

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

Well. Here goes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“In view of the impending crisis…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alastair Roberts’ post about this 1 Corinthians text: 

http://www.politicaltheology.com/blog/the-politics-of-eschatological-imminence-1-corinthians-729-31/

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

http://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/prayers-and-devotions/prayers/prophets-of-a-future-not-our-own.cfm

Sermon, Jan. 14

It’s evening, about 3000 years ago. Before Jesus, before David, before Jerusalem. And Levi, the priest of the temple of God at Shiloh, has gone to bed. Levi is old, and tired, and his sight is going. So he leaves his young assistant, Samuel, to sleep in the temple hall. We don’t know how old Samuel was – old enough to be given some light responsibilities; young enough to confuse his master’s voice with God’s voice. Let’s say he’s about seven – the age we invite kids to start acolyting, here at St. Dunstan’s.

You’ve just heard the story of what happens next; it’s one of my favorites. Samuel is awakened by a voice calling his name: Samuel! Samuel! He runs to his master, Eli, and says, Here I am! But Eli didn’t call him. Eli says, Go back to bed. So Samuel lies down again. And again he hears the voice: Samuel! Samuel! And again he runs to Eli’s bedside: Here I am, for you called me! And Eli says, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” Samuel lies down; but the voice calls him yet a third time. SAMUEL! So he goes to Eli, and says, Here I am! You called me! And Eli understands that God is calling to the child. So he says, Go and lie down; if the Voice calls you again, say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

Samuel goes back to the Temple. He does as Eli instructed – and he becomes a prophet – one who receives God’s words, who knows God’s intentions. Samuel goes on to become one of the greatest prophets in Israel’s history, and the one who anoints the first two kings of Israel.

Samuel was an exceptional figure. But it was the work to which he was called that made him exceptional; not the fact that God spoke to him – God speaks to all of us, though we often don’t hear. Not the fact that God called him to a role in God’s purposes – God calls each of us to such roles. And – this is important – God doesn’t wait till we’re grownups. God doesn’t wait till we have 401(k)s and mortgages, or at least bachelor’s degrees, to start speaking in our hearts.

Three things made it possible for young Samuel to receive and respond to God’s call.  First, Samuel had parents who connected him with a faith community. Read the first chapter of the first book of Samuel sometime, if you don’t know the story of Elkanah and Hannah, Samuel’s parents. What you need to know is that they were both people of deep faith. And they chose to commit their son Samuel to God’s service as an act of gratitude for God’s faithfulness to them, and because they believed that there could be no better place for their son to be than in the temple, learning to love and serve God. (Side note: Samuel went to live at the temple full-time when he was perhaps three years old – please don’t do that with your children, however tempting it may be! We are not staffed for that!)

Second, Samuel had people in the faith community who gave him a meaningful role there. I’ll bet even when he was three, Eli found little jobs for him: Carry the incense – before it’s lighted. Help me finish the holy bread. Hold the dustpan while I sweep the temple every morning. Chant the prayers with me, beginning with the simplest ones. Feed the chickens. (There must have been chickens.) As he grew in knowledge and strength and responsibility, Eli would have given him more to do. That’s something I want to do well here –  have a ladder of responsibility kids can climb, a variety of ways they can use their skills and interests in service to God, our faith community, and our neighbors, as they grow and mature among us.

Third, Samuel had an adult in his faith community who took him seriously when he heard God’s voice. Eli could have said, You’re dreaming; go back to sleep. Eli could have said, I’m the senior priest at this temple; my sons run the show; why would God speak to a seven-year-old?? Eli could have said, What a wild imagination you have; maybe when you’re older, God will choose to speak to you. But Eli said, God is speaking to you, child. Keep listening. Keep listening.

Which leads me to three things can happen, if we choose to raise kids in church. (And raising kids in church is a choice we ALL make, starting, of course, with the parents who deal with shoes and coats and cars and somehow, miraculously, get them here; but from the moment they walk in the door, it’s on all of us.)

First, if we raise kids in church, it’s possible they’ll hear God’s voice. The text of this story says something interesting: “Now, Samuel did not yet know the Lord,” before God called him that night. In the context of Samuel’s vocation as a prophet, I think this means that he hadn’t heard God’s voice directly yet. But it also means something more general. Samuel had been living at the temple for several years, participating in worship, helping out, singing the songs and prayers. I don’t know if they had coloring pages or not. He knew a lot about God, but he didn’t yet know God.

Now, I believe that young children can have experiences of God, and I certainly believe that God speaks to people who haven’t been raised in a faith community (or who were raised in a faith community that did not listen to them). But being immersed in a faithful and loving worshipping community can create the conditions for a child to be able to hear God’s voice, and recognize it, and respond. And to be able to put their experience of God into words, so the Elis in their lives can hear, and affirm, and encourage.

Second, if you raise children in church, it’s possible God will give them a vocation. The church has done a lousy job with the word and concept of “vocation.”It simply means, Something to which you are called. But we’ve treated it as though only clergy and monastics have vocations – only people whose lives are visibly, officially dedicated to church and God. I believe with all my heart that God invites each of us into participation in God’s redemptive work in the world, and that God invites us – calls us – into that work in ways that are grounded in our individual stories, skills, needs, and hopes. I hope for the kids of this church, just as I hope for the youth and the grownups of this church, that we’ll have the capacity and sensitivity and patience and the courage to feel and notice the tug of call, when the holy Spirit of God is inviting us into something, large or small. Again: The reach of God’s voice is not bounded by church. But kids raised in church might be more ready to hear, and to recognize, God’s voice – and to respond with joy and purpose to God’s call.

Third, if you raise children in church, it’s possible God will give them a vocation that makes you uncomfortable. What God has to say to Samuel is not good news for Eli. His sons have been running the temple to serve their own interests instead of God; and Eli knew that, but didn’t stop them. So, in a nutshell, God’s message is that Eli’s era is ending. That natural human hope, that his children and grandchildren will have what he had, will value what he valued, will do what he did – that hope is dashed. Change is on the wind.

This passage gives me a lot of respect for Eli, despite his failures.  He seems to expect bad news; I think he knows this is coming. And he receives it in faith, saying: “God is God; God will do what God pleases. So be it.”

God’s words at work in the hearts and minds of our children may sometimes bring us uncomfortable news – even bad news. We may hear from their lips that the patterns and structures of faith that seem sacred and all-important to us, are incidental and negotiable to God. We may hear from their lips that things we had hoped would last forever, will better serve God’s future in a new form. I’ve had those moments. I expect to have many more. I pray for the grace to say, like Eli: “God is God. So be it.”

Finally, here are three things we can do, to be a church that takes children’s faith seriously. First, we can understand that kids are not short adults.Grownups have learned the cultural cues to show that we are paying respectful attention to whatever is going on: Sitting up straight, looking towards the front, trying to look interested. Kids either haven’t learned that yet – or they have to do it in school  all week, and need a break on the weekends. Some kids sit still just fine; that’s who they are. Some don’t. But every adult who’s spent time around kids knows that just because they are reading, or building with blocks, or coloring, or wandering around, or looking out the window, doesn’t mean they’re not listening.  Those little pitchers pick up a lot. And the rich language and stories and images of our faith can reach and touch them very deeply, finding fertile soil in young hearts and fresh imaginations. I’ve head so many stories about young kids who go home from church and draw pictures or make up songs or act out liturgies or ask deep theological questions – and they’re NOT all my kids. The fact is, it happens all the time. Kids take church, and God, very seriously. Serious just looks different for kids than it does for grownups.

Second, we can understand that kids are, on the other hand, NOT that different from adults. Grownups and kids like a good story well-told, and a song that feels good to sing. Grownups and kids like it when there’s something to engage our senses – sounds, images, smells. Grownups and kids like a balance of routine – things we can learn and internalize and expect – and stuff that’s more flexible and open. Grownups and kids like to have church friends. Look at how Philip gets Nathanael to come meet Jesus, in today’s Gospel: “Come and see!” Being welcomed, and loved, and invited deeper into discipleship by friends and peers is a huge thing at any age. Grownups and kids have questions. What is that thing called, anyway? Does God care when I hurt? How does prayer work, exactly? Does Rev. Miranda really think that bread turns into Jesus? And so on. I was raised Episcopalian; I was at church most Sundays. And there was a ton of stuff I didn’t learn, about the Bible and church, until I went to seminary as part of my preparation to become a priest. So I know we all have questions about what all this means and where it came from and why it matters. And grownups and kids – at least, some of us – listen better when we’re doing something with our hands. Which is why we tend to have coloring pages around.

The third thing we can do to be a church that takes children’s faith seriously is to see the kids as people. I know sometimes they’re just a blur rushing past – but try to pay attention to them as individuals. I have the huge privilege and blessing of getting to know the kids by sharing projects and ministries with them – like pageants, Vacation Bible School, our 4th and 5th grade group the AbominOwls, and so much more. I get to find out about their favorite books and songs, and what they worry about and what they’re really good at, and that they really care about animals or the environment or homeless people, and what their faces look like when they’re really interested in something, and when I ask a question in a children’s sermon, which of them will give the answer I expect and which of them will offer some next-level theological and ethical reflection that makes me have to say, Wow, let’s talk about that later, I have a sermon to finish here.

I guess I’m saying that one more way the kids of St. Dunstan’s are a lot like the grownups of St. Dunstan’s is this: They’re a bunch of really great people who are well worth getting to know. If you’ve got time and interest, there are lots of opportunities to drop in on our Christian formation programs for kids and youth. You can bring a special activity, or be a “second adult”, or help out with seasonal special events. Or you can just be church together. Learn someone’s name. Let them know when they do a good job, acting or acolyting or singing or reading. Tell them which is your favorite tree, out on the grounds, or ask them if they’ve read a good book lately. And watch for our opportunities to be like Eli: to include children in our worship and our ministries, to affirm that God is at work in their hearts and their lives, and to listen when God speaks through them.

Sermon, Jan. 7

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, and God’s glory will appear upon you.

This text, which the church names as Canticle 11, one of our holy songs of faith, comes from the 60th chapter of the book of the prophet Isaiah. Part of this chapter is always one of the lessons for the Feast of Epiphany, on January 6, and the canticle is often used in this season – we are using it as our Song of Praise. Isaiah’s imagery of light dawning on a people of darkness is echoed in the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke, in Zechariah’s prophetic song to his newborn son John: In the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness! And in John’s Gospel: A light shined in the darkness and the darkness could not overcome it!

More broadly, light in darkness is a central image and theme for the season of Epiphany. No doubt, that has a lot to do with how these feasts, Christmas and Epiphany, came to be set in deepest darkest winter as Christianity spread northwards in Europe. It was dark. And cold, and dismal. And everyone yearned for light.

Light shining in the darkness: The image is so familiar and seems so natural that it’s easy not to think about it. Darkness is bad; you can’t see, something could be lurking just behind you, and you might step on a Lego. Light is good, and safe, and beautiful. But there’s always always more going on with our language and our images than we realize in the front of our minds. So I spent some time this week thinking about darkness. Looking at what the Bible, our holy text, says about dark.

What does Scripture say about darkness?

The Old Testament begins in darkness. We have those verses today: God’s spirit moves over the face of the dark and chaotic waters. God creates Light, separates and names Light and Dark, Day and Night. Many Old Testament texts, not just Genesis, focus on God as Creator; and it’s clear in all of them that dark and light both belong to God. The prophet Jeremiah talks about God having a covenant with both Night and Day.

A beautiful example comes from the prophet Amos, in a text that’s used in our Evening Prayer rite: “The One who made the Pleiades and Orion, and turns deep darkness into the morning, and darkens the day into night,…. the Lord is his name.” And of course it follows that God is not troubled by the dark – in Psalm 139, the Psalmist prays, “If I say, surely the darkness shall cover me…. Even the darkness is not dark to you; darkness is as light to you.”

The darkness is God’s, and God dwells in darkness. In the book of Exodus, when Moses approaches God for one of their many conversations, God is found in a deep, dense darkness or shadow. Exodus 20:21 says, “The people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.” Later, King Solomon says, “The LORD has said that he would dwell in thick darkness.” In the Eastern tradition of iconography, holy images, this sense of darkness and mystery surrounding God is represented in shapes that get darker as you move towards the center, behind representations of Jesus or God the Father.

In the Old Testament, darkness is a rich metaphor. Humans are diurnal animals, adapted to function well in daylight, primarily because vision is our strongest sense. So the dark – the literal dark – is scary for us. We feel vulnerable, because sight, our best way of interpreting the environment around us doesn’t work. So in metaphor that’s only a half-step from reality, darkness becomes an image for those human situations that make us feel the same way literal darkness does: frightened, exposed, lost, helpless, alone or, worse, surrounded by threat. In many Old Testament texts, darkness serves as a evocative shorthand for the soul-conditions of fear, grief, and despair. It’s heavily used in the Book of Job, as Job speaks about his experience of suffering. And it’s this kind of darkness – experienced by a whole people – that the Book of Isaiah evokes with these inspired words: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light!” And, much later, “For darkness covers the land, gloom enshrouds the people – but the glory of the Lord has dawned upon you!”

The Old Testament tradition recognizes that darkness can also be useful. Those with ill intentions use dark as cover for their deeds, but so, too, dark can be protection for the righteous and the innocent. Gideon and his tiny army attack an enemy camp by dark, using sleep and confusion as weapons. The Israelites fled from Egypt by night, and Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus fled TO Egypt by night.

Think about how very dark, and how very quiet, night was, before electricity and all our modern conveniences. The Wisdom of Solomon, chapter 18, has a lovely description of night: “While gentle silence enveloped all things.” Perhaps because of that gentle silence, darkness and night are also a privileged time for prayer and contemplation. Psalm 63 says, “I meditate on you in the night watches.” Isaiah 26 says, “My soul yearns for you in the night.” David prays by night; so does Judith; so does Jesus. Dreams and holy visions come at night, too. Many theologians and mystics have dug deep in this vein of the holy potential of the dark. Of the power and grace of not-knowing, not-seeing, of releasing that (illusory) sense of mastery and control, of knowing where we are and where we’re going, that comes with light and sight.

For the Old Testament, then, darkness and night carry rich metaphorical weight.

But in some New Testament texts, they take on moral weight as well. As in: Light is Good, Dark is Evil. Darkness becomes a synonym for human wickedness, by another metaphorical step away from literal darkness: either people are wicked because they can’t see what’s good and right, or wicked people love the dark because they imagine it hides their sins.

This usage shows up here and there in the Old Testament – Proverbs, for example, uses darkness as image for wickedness. But it really becomes dominant in the New Testament, especially in the language of the Johannine texts – the gospel and letters that bear the name of John.

There’s ambiguity in John’s language. Sometimes it sounds like he’s using “darkness” much as Job and Isaiah did – darkness as suffering, lack of direction and hope. John’s Jesus says: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” (8:12) And, “I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness.” (12:46) But elsewhere in John, darkness means intentional human wickedness: “This is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” (3:19)

There’s some powerful dark/light imagery in the Epistles, as well. In the letter to the Romans, Paul calls on Christians to “cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” The letter to the Ephesians says, “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them,” and, a few verses later, “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but … against the cosmic powers of this present darkness.”

One thing that happens with texts like that one is that darkness is othered – projected outward onto someone else. Whereas for Job and Isaiah, they themselves, and people like them, struggle in darkness, darkness-as-wickedness is something that besets OTHER people, and we should separate ourselves from it, and them. The first letter to the church in Thessaloniki says, “For you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness.”

The imagery and language of Christians as “Children of Light” becomes important for early Christianity. It makes a lot of sense, historically and sociologically. Early Christians were a persecuted minority in a particularly unpleasant chapter in the life of the world, and those conditions can create strong us-them mentalities. Light and dark became the symbolic language our faith-ancestors used to set themselves apart from the chaos, violence and immorality they saw all around them. Seeing themselves as children of light, temporarily trapped in a realm of darkness, helped them feel free and safe, even in the face of terrible suffering.

But early Christianity’s investment in the Light:Good::Dark:Evil dualism has not been especially healthy for Christianity or humanity. Listen to this verse from the first letter of John:  “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in God there is no darkness at all.” Wait – remember everything in the Old Testament, about how God creates dark and light, and is at home in both? About how God dwells in deep darkness, a visual metaphor for the mystery of the divine? About how darkness – literal or metaphorical – is part of the natural order, and is the lot of every living thing; and that darkness can be a holy space for prayer, for divine encounter, and for releasing our illusion of autonomy and control? If we follow the Johannine imagery all the way towards a God of Light and Light only – and the Church has leaned that way – well: we lose a lot. We lose a lot.

Arise, shine, for your light has come!  Inevitably, we read a text like Isaiah 60, or Luke 1, through all those layers of history and meaning. Is the darkness named here a literal darkness? Of night or storm or a season when it’s dark by 4pm? A human situation in which we need, simply, light? Is this the metaphorical darkness of human pain and struggle? Something from which we need deliverance and comfort? Is this the moralized darkness of human wickedness? Something from which we need repentance?

And if it’s the last – darkness-as-wickedness – can we identify some group of people as the problem, and set ourselves apart from them as the pure children of light? That’s a really common, lasting, and destructive human impulse – to locate darkness in the other, erase it from oneself.

Maybe the biggest reason to be thoughtful about the Church’s use of the language of light and darkness is because, in the 18th and 19th centuries, Europeans made a really stupid yet effective association between darkness-as-wickedness and dark skin. The concept of darkness was racialized, as part of the rationale for European exploitation of Africa. For Europeans first enslaving, then colonizing African peoples, darkness of skin and imagined civilizational, religious, and intellectual “darkness” all got wrapped up together, in their concept of Africa as “The Dark Continent.” Europeans told themselves that Africans were a people of uncontrolled appetites and senseless violence, even as European colonizers in Africa acted with uncontrolled appetite and senseless violence. Locating darkness in the other; erasing it from yourself.

And that association of dark skin with moral and intellectual inferiority became part of the racial order and ideology in the United States. Those meanings aren’t there in Scripture; those are layers added by human sin in the intervening centuries. But we can’t just peel them away; history is sticky. A study document from the United Church of Canada reflecting on light and dark imagery in the Bible observes, “Before [the 18th century], the positive and negative aspects of light and dark were not systematically assigned to different peoples. Once this separation of peoples based on race became entrenched in education, science, economic, social, and political policies …, it [became] virtually impossible to use these terms in ways devoid of a racist agenda.”

It may sound to some folks like hypersensitivity, to say that when the Church uses Scriptural texts about darkness, we should be mindful of the racist resonances of those words. But look around this room: we are an overwhelmingly white parish, living in a culture that privileges and protects white folks. When people of color tell us, Please be careful how you use this language, we have to listen. Because it is a blind spot for us. A darkness in which we cannot see clearly. We know that our culture tells us that light and white are better than dark and brown. We know that children, including kids of color, show a preference for white-skinned dolls by the age of three. I fervently long for the church not be yet another place that reinscribes those messages and meanings.

And yet – and yet. I don’t feel ready to give up this language. Some of the most powerful images in Scripture play with light and dark: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it…. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”

So as we sing and pray and reflect on the images of light and dark in this season,  let us bear in mind that the light of Christ that we welcome, and follow, and strive to shine in our lives – the light of Christ shines harshly on the categories and structures by which we divide and exclude and impoverish one another. Following that Light means making no peace with the sin of racism in its in many forms, in our world and our hearts.

And as we sing and pray and reflect on the images of light and dark in this season, let’s get literal. Let these images work in us as the simple and profound visual metaphors they were intended to be. Imagine sitting in deep darkness, seeing the first faint hints of dawn. That’s the feeling Isaiah means to evoke. And let’s remember, too, the riches of darkness, as known to the Old Testament tradition: safety, reflection, peace, holiness, and the wisdom of unknowing.

 

References:

United Church of Canada statement:

http://www.united-church.ca/sites/default/files/resources/light-and-dark-imagery.pdf

An interesting reflection on light/dark imagery in literature:

http://shweta-narayan.livejournal.com/20698.html