Category Archives: Sermons

Homily, June 17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon, June 10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s chapter 1. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon, June 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Myself included.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Full text of Brueggeman’s talk:

The Reclaiming Jesus statement:

Sermon, May 20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Come, Holy Spirit! Maranatha!

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

Sermon, May 13

In those days Peter stood up among the believers and said, “One of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us… must become a witness with us to his resurrection.” So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. Then they prayed and said, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles. (Acts chapter 1)

The Calling of Matthias, Movement 1: Congratulations, You Have An All-Male Panel!

Back in 2015, a Finnish scholar, Dr. Saara Sarma, started a blog called Congrats, You Have An All-Male Panel! She’d been noticing for years that panels of experts were very frequently all male – regardless of whether the field under discussion was agriculture in the Sudan, developments in the music industry, advances in chemical engineering, global banking regulation, or even women’s reproductive rights. (Source) Her blog quickly went viral as people began submitting photos of “expert” lineups that meet the All Male Panel criterion. In one recent example, a magazine asked the question, “What can the real estate industry do to better promote gender equality?”, and shared responses from… four men. 

If you go to Sarma’s blog – and you should – you’ll find that the header image at the top of the page is Leonardo da Vinci’s famous image of the Last Supper. You know the one: “We’d like a table for twenty-six.” “But there are only thirteen of you.” “That’s OK, we’re all going to sit on the same side.”  The image makes the point that Jesus’ Twelve Disciples are one of the classic All-Male Panels. 

The Gospel of Mark tells us that Jesus – overwhelmed by the crowds seeking him out for healing – calls his disciples to him and appoints twelve of them “to be with him, and to be sent out to preach and have authority to cast out demons.” (Mk 3:14-15). Matthew and Luke follow Mark’s lead in naming the Twelve. Twelve was an important number; it called to mind the Twelve Tribes of Israel, and suggested completeness and fulfillment. So after Judas’ betrayal and death, and after Jesus’ final ascension into Heaven, the remaining Eleven decide they need to fill that slot. The verses just before today’s Acts text tell us that among the 120 people present, there were many women, including Mary the mother of Jesus. And yet, when it comes time to pick candidates for the role, somehow they turn out to be men. 

Why would you expect otherwise, Miranda? In a patriarchal society and era?Well: the thing is, Jesus called women to follow him. Jesus’ inner circle included women – Mary his mother, Mary Magdalene, Salome, Joanna, Mary and Martha, and others. And women were important leaders in the early church – Lydia, Phoebe the deacon, Prisca, Junia the apostle, and more. 

Dorothy Sayers, one of my favorite writers of both mystery novels and theology, commented on this point back in the 1930s: “Perhaps it is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man – there never has been such another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronised; who never made arch jokes about them…; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend…” 

(From Are Women Human? Astute and Witty Essays on the Role of Women in Society)

I’ve often heard the question: How can someone who believes wholeheartedly in the capability and called-ness of women, be  loyal to a holy text that is so profoundly marked by sexism? I am loyal to Scripture – more, I love Scripture – because Scripture teaches me that God is not sexist. In both the Old and New Testaments, the dignity, strength, resourcefulness, intelligence, and simple humanity of women is honored. Not everywhere! But here and there, by the grace of God and the guidance of the Spirit, the Bible shows us humans living into a fuller understanding of humanity as made in God’s image, regardless of biological sex or gender. 

The calling of Matthias is not one of those times. Simon Peter, always trying to earn that gold star, reckons that since Jesus appointed twelve men, that means there should ALWAYS be twelve men. I think it’s interesting when the church turns to prayerful discernment, in this story. Not about whether it’s important to “replace” Judas and have Twelve again – that’s Peter’s idea. Not about the candidates for the open slot – Matthias and Barsabbas are suggested by an undefined “they.” Only when it comes to choosing one of those two men does the assembly open their hearts towards God before casting lots – a lot like rolling dice, only you pray first. I wonder how the outcome could have been different if those first church leaders had sought the Spirit’s guidance earlier in this process… 

A task force called to study how the Episcopal Church calls bishops, those with oversight of the church in a certain region, recently released its report.  That report shows that the current bishops of the Episcopal Church are 90% male and 90% white. Which is much closer to an all-male panel than it really ought to be, given our church’s teachings and membership. Just like in the first chapter of Acts, somehow, when it comes time to pick candidates for a leadership role, they turn out to be men. 

The Calling of Matthias, Movement II: The Deeds of the Apostle Matthias

Acts chapter 1, verse 26, says, “And they cast lots, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.” That is the last time Matthias is mentioned in Scripture. We have no idea how or whether he lived out his apostleship – a word that just means, One who is sent.  There are texts that claim that Matthias became an important evangelist, that he spread the faith in the region of Cappadocia, that he was eventually martyred there. There are also traditions that say he was stoned to death and beheaded in Jerusalem; and that he died of old age. His grave is claimed by sites in the countries of Georgia and Germany.  Many of these texts are from a thousand years after the events they claim to describe. There are some earlier texts, dating from the third century, such as one known as the Acts of Andrew and Matthias. In that story, Matthias is sent as a missionary to a city where the people eat only human flesh. He is captured and drugged, as a first step towards making him into a meal, but the drugs have no effect on him and he prays for God’s help. Meanwhile, the apostle Andrew comes to rescue him, carried on a boat piloted by Jesus Himself. It’s all quite exciting! – but I would definitely place it in the genre of fanfiction, rather than history. 

So it’s pretty hard to know if Matthias actually went on to do great things that just didn’t make it into the texts that give us our best historical record of the early church – or if Matthias just didn’t do much. He might have been kind of a dud; or he might have been a faithful, effective, kind, ordinary saint, whose acts of charity and grace were simply too everyday to be remembered. Like most of us! 

Meanwhile, the Book of the Acts of the Apostles goes on to tell us about the adventures and struggles of others who traveled the ancient world, preached the Gospel, and built up the first churches:  Paul, Barnabas, Timothy, Philip, Lydia, and others. These are the heroes that Scripture remembers. Not Matthias. 

In selecting Matthias, Peter and the rest of the Eleven were doing a very churchy thing – a very institutional thing: We have this vacancy on our board; we’d better recruit someone. Looking at this story in light of the rest of the Book of Acts, it sure looks like this bit of sacralized bureaucracy didn’t actually matter much to what God was doing in and with the church. I’ve heard this approach summed up as “filling the slot instead of fulfilling the volunteer.” – focusing on maintaining a certain way of being, rather than letting the gifts, skills, and passions of those called into our fellowship of faith lead the way, perhaps into a new way of being. 

A lot of churches do this; I think we do it less than some, but we still do it, for sure.  I carry the list in my head: who’s the next greeter, the next Sunday school teacher, the next Vestry candidate….  Sometimes I’m able to say, Well, you know, if nobody’s clamoring for the role, let’s leave it empty and see what happens, or think about how we might restructure that ministry… Let’s just trust that God is at work in the church, and that we’ll have the people we need to do what God wants us to do. But I’m a person in institutional leadership, and I get anxious about filling slots sometimes. I feel the temptation to seek out a Matthias with an arm I can twist. Gently and lovingly, of course. 

The good news is that God’s work in the world is bigger than the church – and God’s work in the church is bigger than the church’s institutional leadership. Peter thought they needed a twelfth apostle to meet God’s expectations and be the church Jesus intended. But while the church was fretting about matters of order and hierarchy, God was changing hearts and minds and lives. Matthias may or may not have helped spread the Gospel and build the church, but Philip did. Paul did. Barnabas did. Lydia did. And Luke and Timothy and Phoebe and so many others. 

The Calling of Matthias, Movement III: What About Barsabbas? 

There were two finalists for the role of Twelfth Apostle: Matthias and Joseph Barsabbas, known also as Justus.  If Scripture says little about Matthias, it says even less about Barsabbas.  All we know is that he’s loser. Not the right man for the job. 

Mike Kinman, a wonderful preacher now serving at All Saints in Pasadena, preached about Barsabbas a few years ago. Kinman observed that the matter of winners and losers, chosen and not-chosen, is one where most of us have not fully taken the teachings of our faith to heart. Jesus says things like, “the last shall be first and the first last” and “those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” And then he dies on a cross – the very image of failure, loss, rejection, shame mockery. And we name it as triumph and glory and salvation. We know all of this. But Matthias has a feast day, and Barsabbas doesn’t. 

We’d just as soon not think about somebody like Barsabbas.  Many of us live in fear of becoming a Barsabbas – or having it discovered that we’ve been Barsabbas all along. 

Losing – being not chosen – is painful. It means we miss some opportunity, yes, but there’s more to it than that.  Kinman writes, “Not being chosen, whether it be in a job, in a relationship, in the church or wherever – not being chosen taps into our deepest insecurities and triggers painful memories. Not being chosen can fill us with embarrassment and shame. It can make us feel two inches tall and want to run away and hide. Not being chosen stabs like a knife. It makes our hearts cry out “Why not me? What’s wrong with me? Why am I not good enough.”  Or even worse, it makes our hearts crumble and whisper: “See, I knew it, I’m not good enough. I was right all along.” Not being chosen is like a giant amplifier for all the voices in our head and our heart that tell us we are less than, that we are unworthy, that we are unlovable. Losing stinks. Not being chosen hurts.”

But it happens to most of us, at one time or another. Most of us – maybe all of us – have had moments like this.  And yet in the church, where we’re called to love each other, where we should know better than to measure our worth by the standards of any human institution, we still don’t handle these situations very well. Kinman observes that he’s seen church folk deal with these moments in one of three ways: We “silver lining” it – insisting that people see a bright side in the situation, even if it takes binoculars or a microscope to find one. We offer consolation prizes – “You don’t get to do that, but maybe you’d like to do this?” Or we say and do nothing. We just don’t mention it, because we fear that bringing it up will be painful. Or we just never get around to calling the not-chosen person… because you never know; failure might be contagious. All of those responses – while very human and very understandable – are basically about managing our own discomfort, rather than actually caring for the person who’s struggling with a Barsabbas moment. 

What’s the alternative? 

Being not-chosen hurts – often disproportionately to the actual opportunity lost – because it feels like a rejection of who we are as a person. It undermines our sense of worth.  Could we instead take those Barsabbas moments – ours or someone else’s – as opportunities to remind ourselves of our true and unshakeable worth in the eyes of the God who made us? In our Gospel today we see Jesus speaking to his followers’ sense of being rejected, not taken seriously, of not fitting into the world as it is. He says, You may not belong here – but you belong to God; you belong to Me. 

Mike Kinman writes, “The deepest truth of our faith that our Barsabbas Moments invite us to lean into is that our goodness and belovedness come from God and God alone… Our Barsabbas Moments are opportunities for us not to lean on the admiration… [of other humans], but in those moments where we are feeling the deepest rejection to lean back into the loving arms of a God in whose eyes we are always good and always worthy and always deeply, deeply beloved.”

So before he drops out of the story, let’s pause to name and claim and celebrate Barsabbas, who did not become the twelfth apostle. Friends, Barsabbases all, listen, hear, remember, believe: Whatever opportunities or rejections the world or the church may hand you, you are never not chosen. Never not wanted. Never not worthy. 

Some sources: 

The origins of Congrats, You Have An All Male Panel!

The Acts of Andrew and Matthia

Kinman’s sermon in full

Sermon, May 6

You are my friends if you do what I command you.

What does Jesus command us? Jesus teaches. He tells stories. He models kindness, righteous anger, self-sacrificial love. He calls people to transformation of heart and life. But does he command? 

If you can’t think of one of Jesus’ commandments at the moment, don’t feel bad. There is a fair amount of talk about commandments in the Gospels, the books of the Bible that tell about Jesus’ life and teachings, and in the Epistles, the letters of the early church.  But broadly, most of those texts are addressing a big question for the first Christians: In the new relationship with God brought about by and through Jesus Christ, do the commandments of the Old Testament still apply? Are Christians supposed to follow Jewish law? 

Jesus’ teaching about the Great Commandment was important for early Christians because it gave them a touchstone for wrestling with that question. Someone asks Jesus, What is the most important commandment, in the whole of Jewish law? The dialogue is a little different in Matthew, Mark, and Luke; Luke is my favorite because Jesus does that teacher thing: “Well, what do *you* think?” And the man says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And Jesus says, Yep. That’s it. That’s all the Law you really need. 

It took many decades, but Christians eventually resolved that this teaching – and Jesus’ other teachings that touched on law, obedience, and holiness – meant that Christians are not bound by Jewish law, the commandments of the Hebrew Bible.  

Today’s Acts lesson gives us a glimpse of the apostle Peter in a moment of epiphany: “Look, the Holy Spirit of God has come down even upon these Gentiles, non-Jews who are unholy and unclean! I guess if God will baptize them with the Spirit, we should baptize them with water!” 

So the Great Commandment is powerful stuff. Love God as hard as you can, and love your neighbor as much as you love yourself: If you carry those intentions into daily life, you’ll find plenty of opportunities to put them into practice. 

But that’s not what John’s Jesus is talking about here. The Great Commandment doesn’t appear in John’s Gospel. Yet Jesus says, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” What command does Jesus have in mind, here? 

Our Gospel and Epistle today have the same name: John. Biblical scholars talk about a Johannine community – a church that gathered around a particular teacher, identified by tradition with John, one of Jesus’ disciples. That community seems to have received and developed some distinctive memories or understandings about Jesus, which gives the Gospel and the letters that that community produced their special theological perspective. I’ll keep talking about our author here as John, because that’s the easy; but let it be noted that that is a shorthand. We don’t know that the core voice here was a disciple named John; we don’t know that the letters and the gospel were written by the same person, although there is clearly influence and overlap. 

These texts that bear John’s name have a distinctive voice in lots of ways. 

John’s Gospel overlaps with the other three – Matthew, Mark, and Luke; it’s clearly telling the same story about the same person. But it tells it very differently – with events and characters that don’t appear, or appear differently, in the other Gospels; and with Jesus making some theological speeches that have no parallel elsewhere – except in the letters that extend some of their themes. 

It’s in these texts – the Gospel of John, and the Johannine letters – that Jesus tells his disciples to obey his commandments.  Jesus doesn’t talk about following him that way, elsewhere. Sure, he tells his followers what they should do, and how they should act. He just doesn’t use that Old Testament vocabulary of obedience to a commandment, in other texts. 

So to understand what John’s Jesus means when he says, “You are my friends if you do what I command you,” we need to look at the Johannine texts and see what they say about Jesus’ commands. That is not quite as straightforward as it sounds. The Johannine texts are notoriously dense; the grammar can be hard to untangle; they’re full of cryptic and mystical sayings whose meanings are far from obvious. But fortunately, if we follow the vocabulary of command and commandment through these texts, there is a pretty strong pattern. The gist is, Love each other. 

It starts in John’s Gospel, at the Last Supper, when Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. This is how people will know you are my disciples: by your love for one another.” (13:34) Later in the same speech, we have the passage that comes to us as today’s Gospel:  “This is my commandment: love one another, as I have loved you. No one can have greater love than to lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends, if you do what I command you….  My command to you is to love one another.”  (John 15)

That core command comes up repeatedly in the first (and longest) letter of John – in the third chapter: “This is [God’s] commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.” (1 John 3:23) And again in chapter 4: “ The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters* also.”

So by the time we come to today’s passage in chapter 5, we should be pretty clear that God’s command is to love and trust in God, and, most of all, to love one another:  “We know that we love God’s children, when we love God and keep God’s commandments.” The second letter of John is only one short chapter long, but still this theme of the core commandment shows up again:  “Dear lady, I ask you, not as though I were writing you a new commandment, but one we have had from the beginning: Let us love one another.” (2 John 1:5)

If I were John’s editor, I would ask him to tidy up these texts a little. Sometimes “commandment” is singular, sometimes plural; sometimes loving God or trusting Jesus is part of the commandment too, but not always. But nevertheless there’s a solid, consistent theme: Jesus commands his followers to love one another. 

There is overlap with the Great Commandment here, for sure: Love your neighbor as yourself. But it’s pretty clear that Jesus means “neighbor” quite expansively. Your neighbor isn’t just the person standing next to you, or the person who lives next door. Your neighbor is anyone whose path crosses yours. Anyone to whom you might show – or from whom you might receive – kindness and care. 

The “love one another” command is more specific. Jesus is speaking to his gathered disciples. And the letters are addressed to churches, Christian fellowships.  This commandment has to do with how we treat each other, within a faith community. If that’s not clear from words themselves, we can look at context. The first statement of this core commandment, in the thirteenth chapter of John’s Gospel, follows Jesus’ washing his disciples’ feet – an action which, for John, is the core symbolic act of Jesus’ last evening with his friends. And it’s very clear that the action is a teaching about how Jesus’ friends should treat one another: “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

Love each other. Serve each other. This is what Jesus commands. 

I’d guess some of you feel some resistance to this idea. It sounds so inward-looking, and we want our faith to be other-oriented… rightly so. Many other Scriptures direct us to care for the wellbeing of our neighbors, expansively defined. Why does John’s Jesus, Jesus as the Johannine community remembers him and gives him voice, lean so hard into love within Christian community? 

There are hints that conflict may have an issue in John’s community or other early Christian fellowships. Like this one from First John chapter 4: “Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” (1 John 4:20; see also 2:7-10). 

But John isn’t just pushing a love agenda to try to get people to be nicer to each other, to quit their infighting and get on with the work of the church. There’s more to it than that. This isn’t just about organizational stability and effectiveness. This is ecclesiological and theological, for John. 

Ecclesiological means having to do with our understanding of the ekklesia, the church. Why did Jesus call Christians to do what they do in groups, not just follow his path individually? What is church for? You could be a Great Commandment Christian without a church – well, at least you could try. But John thinks church matters. John thinks our obedience to Christ begins with our capacity to extend faithful and generous love to one another. John sees Christian community as a practice field for mercy, kindness, repentance and righteousness. 

And that rings true to me. I have seen it at work here – though we could go much further. The more we love each other, the more we tell each other our truths. And the more we tell each other our truths, the more we discover how much scope there is to grow in wisdom and compassion, right here, right among the people in this room. 

I promise I won’t bring everything back to the capital campaign for the next six weeks, but there’s a very real sense in which that whole process has been an exercise in love and listening. I came to the conversation with my own list of stuff that bugged me about the building, like many others. Mostly the lack of storage space and the floor in this room!… 

And then, through focus groups and surveys and casual conversations, I learned about more and more things that had never been a problem for me, but are problems for people I love – the loft stairs that fascinate crawling infants and terrify parents; the heavy front doors; the oppressively small bathroom stalls; the introvert-torturing coffee hour setup; the terrible acoustics in the meeting room; and so on. We named the campaign the Open Door Project because it really became focused on making it possible for all kinds of people to come and be present here in safety and comfort and joy. 

Could talking and listening here, within this community, and coming to understand the importance of push-button doors – or gender-neutral bathrooms – or chairs with arms – or toddler-safe spaces – could carry over into our daily lives in the world? Could make us more mindful of, and compassionate towards, the comfort and safety of others whose needs may differ from our own? I think it could. I think it does.

And that’s just thinking about physical needs; the effect is so much bigger when we also talk and listen about hearts and minds and souls. Doubling down on loving one another isn’t insular or inward. It can be mind-opening and heart-changing. 

This is kind of a crazy year for me and for St. Dunstan’s. If you get our church emails, you got one on Friday reminding you that I’m taking a sabbatical later this year, starting in August. That hasn’t been a secret or anything – we announced it to the parish when we first got the grant. But we haven’t talked about it much for a while because we were focusing on the capital campaign. It’s only three months now till my sabbatical begins, so it was clearly time to remind everyone that this is happening, but the Vestry and I worried about it a little bit – not, Will St. Dunstan’s be OK?, because St. Dunstan’s will be OK, but, Will this make anybody’s anxiety shoot through the roof? Having a parish capital campaign AND a rector’s sabbatical in the same six-month period? I mean, we’re Episcopalians. Consistency is kind of our deal. 

I hope nobody’s anxiety is shooting through the roof. I see the Holy Spirit’s hand in how things are falling into place, with both of these big projects, and so I’m able to feel hopeful and curious instead of anxious. Mostly. But I’m not going to lie: it’s a lot to manage. Right now I’m trying to do all the normal church stuff I do,

Plus organize things for an extended absence, plus plan travel and study for my time away, plus help organize the parish’s renewal project, plus help run our capital campaign. 

In the moments when it starts to spin out of control – when anxiety starts to overwhelm hope – tou know what keeps me grounded? What makes it all seem possible, and worthwhile?

Loving you. That’s what anchors me, and what drives me. Loving you. 

I said earlier that this whole “love each other thing” is both ecclesiological and theological.  Meaning it has to do with both the nature of the Church, and the nature of God. John or John’s Jesus says many times that when his followers are one with each other, they – we – also approach oneness with God through Jesus Christ. The best-known example is probably from the 17th chapter of John, when Jesus prays that all his followers may be one, just as Jesus and God the Father are one. But there are lots of passages that point towards this vision of a mystical fulfillment that is achieved when our love for each other within Christian community draws us into union with the Divine. And that this is somehow the goal of the whole endeavor. 

I have no idea what that means. I can repeat John’s words – they are beautiful – but John is talking about levels of reality that are beyond our human perception and comprehension, here. 

But maybe we glimpse it, now and then. In those moments when our care for each other makes our differences into strengths instead of weaknesses.  In those moments when someone walking a new road finds a companion here who’s been that way before. In those moments when simple acts of kindness lift someone’s spirit or lighten their load. In those moments when the Spirit gives us words of peace, comfort, or encouragement, for one another. In those moments when we love each other, and God fills the space between us. 

Sermon, Jan. 21

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

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

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

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

Well. Here goes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“In view of the impending crisis…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alastair Roberts’ post about this 1 Corinthians text:

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

Sermon, 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.



United Church of Canada statement:

An interesting reflection on light/dark imagery in literature:

Sermon, Christmas Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the Word became flesh and lived among us,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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