Category Archives: Sermons

Sermon, Jan. 21

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

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

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

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

Well. Here goes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“In view of the impending crisis…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alastair Roberts’ post about this 1 Corinthians text: 

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

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

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

Sermon, Jan. 14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon, Jan. 7

Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has dawned upon you. For behold, darkness covers the land; deep gloom enshrouds the peoples. But over you the Lord will rise, and God’s glory will appear upon you.

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

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

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

What does Scripture say about darkness?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

References:

United Church of Canada statement:

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

An interesting reflection on light/dark imagery in literature:

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

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?”

Sermon, Advent IV

Hal Edmonson was our guest preacher on Sunday, Dec. 24, for our Advent IV liturgy. 

I remember someone saying to me before I went to college that the point of higher education was to be confronted with your ignorance. I guess for a lot of folks, that’s books they’ve never read, or experiences and background that they couldn’t possibly wrap their heads around. For me, though, I think that first epiphany that I’d missed something came in the college chapel during my Freshman year. There was a weekly Taizé service there for students, and I remember, the week before Thanksgiving, someone saying that they were really excited that Advent started on Sunday. And there was brief second where I thought through the Calendar in my head, and then was like “No, December doesn’t start until Tuesday!”

See, I wasn’t really raised in the church, and there’s things you miss that way. But we did have an Advent Calendar, and the way it was always explained to me was that it was just about the waiting for Christmas. And to that end, we had these cardboard things, with little joyful winter scenes, or tiny pieces of chocolate, or little wooden tchotchkes in them. But for reasons of, I suppose, convenience, they always just were labeled 1-24. The idea that it was just December, up until Christmas, was totally logical. It’s actually only about one year in six that our Advent Calendars actually, y’know, mark Advent.

There’s a comment to be made there about our liturgical seasons being paved over by our broader culture, and it rather makes itself. But really, I think it goes a little deeper than that: we like countdowns. It’s why we watch the same movies on Christmas, with the same overwrought plotlines, and love it, even though we know that in the end, with a swell of music, everything will turn out great. I think we look at Advent the same way. It is, we’re told, a time of expectant waiting, almost suspenseful. It’a always darkest before the dawn, and we can gaze upon the dreary, the downcast, and the downright apocalyptic, because we know the light is coming. We can savor it because we know exactly how, and when, it all ends.

And it seems like that’s what we’re getting to on this last Sunday of Advent; Finally, the Good Part! We hear the promise from Gabriel of this child, the heir to the throne of David, whose kingdom will have no end, and we can go galavanting, all joyful and triumphant, to Bethlehem.

Except, not quite.

Because first, we have this interlude, between Mary and Elizabeth when Mary says of the annunciation: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…From this day, all generations will call me blessed, for the Almighty has done great things for me.” she is quoted as saying to Elizabeth. But then? “He has shown the strength of his arm, he has scattered the proud in their conceit; he has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty”.

It’s stirring stuff. The Magnificat is part of the monastic office for a reason, has been rendered in icon after icon, stained glass window after stained glass window. If you were to look for a good summary of what all this is about, this would be a good candidate. But in context, its a little odd, no? Isn’t she getting a little ahead of herself? Who was cast down from any throne? Indeed, the Empire Mary lived under was just as sprawling and cruel as it had been before this angel showed up out of nowhere; Were there fewer hungry that day, was their hunger for justice or bread, the slightest bit sated? And what of this exaltation? The take on this story that we get in Matthew’s Gospel tells us that Joseph’s first instinct was to divorce her; Some exaltation, that.

It’s tempting, maybe, to think that it’s just a bit of sentimentality, a beautiful bit of poetry. But I think there’s something much, much, more there. I think we come to this reading at the end of Advent because with these words, Mary deeply challenges our desire for a neat, orderly progression of things. Mary doesn’t say that God will cast the mighty down from their thrones, she says that God has already done it with this act of incarnation. She doesn’t say that that the rich will be sent away empty, she says that they already have been. She’s past prophecy and waiting—it’s already as real as it’s going to get, even if almost nobody else, besides Elizabeth, realizes it. It’s like, here we are, all amped up to go into Bethlehem for the big moment, only to be told that the real moment, the real drama, was all over with, done and dusted long ago when nobody else was watching. Almost like it’s not the birth, but the incalculable, illogical boldness of incarnation itself, that ought to command our attention for a moment.

And that matters. I’m all about beholding things, and seeing things, and building things. That’s what we do as the Church. It’s that belief in putting that vision into practice, a vision not unlike the Magnificat, of inverting the ‘order of things’. This can be a blueprint, if we want it to be, that’s on us to build.

But we get into trouble when we mistake the moment of things becoming visible for the moment when it becomes real. Scripture gives us these words before any guiding star takes to the sky, before anyone else, wise or not, gets wind of it. This wasn’t just poetic hope, I don’t think. Something was already afoot.

A few months ago I had the pleasure of hearing the Rev. Fleming Rutledge, one of the first women ordained to the priesthood in this Church, speak about Advent. It was fascinating in so many respects, but what stood out was her emphasis on the idea of Advent as a season of apocalypse in the fullest sense of the term: an unveiling of the continued action of God in the world, the future that is being glimpsed before our eyes. But it’s not easy. And she made this point—oddly enough—with a military metaphor. I’m not often wild about likening any part of the Gospel to violence, but roll with it for just a moment: She liked Advent, and the Incarnation it brings, not to the light sweeping away darkness, but rather to it being parachuted in behind enemy lines. She compared it, in fact, to the last months of the Second World War: that even though the violence far from over, and much struggle lay ahead, after D-Day victory was assured, the pieces moving into position. Darkness and evil are the theme because that’s what surrounds us, and they won’t surrender without a fight. But they will not have the last word. That much is already settled. The question is, how do we participate in what has already been set in motion?

So much of what we’re called to do is to make things visible. Justice isn’t an additional bonus to the Church, its inseparable, because we are supposed to make visible a kingdom founded on that justice. To be mirrors of a love divine that is so rarely seen or spoken. In a sense, this birth, the resurrection and all the miracles in between are that, and so is what happens on this altar behind me every Sunday. I don’t know about you, but it seems like lately, its harder and harder to see some of these things. Those with thrones seem more ensconced on them than ever, the rich more filled, the hungry empty. And yet, we all know people who work out of sight, who never seem to tire from thankless, necessary work. Who keep running into one burning building after another, chasing one seemingly lost cause after another.

But you can’t make visible what’s not already there to begin with. Mary’s words don’t tell us what’s coming, they tell us that through God’s entry into the world, even unnoticed, has already changed everything. That seems like wishful thinking at best, a cruel joke at worst, but it’s neither. See, to take on power, you have to see its weakness, and stop respecting it. In order to raise those on the margins, you have to already see them as beloved and exalted. To feed those who hunger for bread, and for justice, you have to ignore all that makes you question if they are worthy of those things. In other words, you have to see things as God sees them. The courage to do the real work of the Church, in a weird sort of way, requires you to know that it is, in the fullness of time, already done in the eyes of what really matters. And with the incarnation, as Mary alone seems to know, it is.

So, we don’t get our neat, Advent Calendar ending, because this isn’t an ending. Or a beginning, even. Incarnation means that we now live with one foot in kairos, in the divine time that doesn’t quite match up with our own. While we countdown, the Magnificat reminds us of that Advent is circular, linking all the comings of Christ—in His Flesh, of Mary’s, in our hearts, on this altar and again—into one. And that’s good, because there’s a connectedness to it, a link between the hope that is so far way, and that is already here, unseen. The kingdom and the Christ are near to us even now; in our waiting; in our longing; and in our rejoicing.

Sermon, Christmas Eve

I’m going to tell you a story that happened a long time ago. It’s a story about a time when God’s people were struggling, persecuted and poor. It’s a story about how God never abandoned them, even when things seemed darkest and most hopeless. A story about someone called to set the people free, to give them new hope, new life. His name was Gideon. (We’ll come back around to that other story in a little while!)

Gideon lived a little over three thousand years ago, long before Jesus, long before the Roman Empire, even before King David. God had called this little tribe of people, called Israel, to follow God’s ways and be God’s people. But in Gideon’s time things were not going well.

Gideon’s story is in the Book of Judges, in the Bible. Judges has a pretty clear view of Israel’s history: God called the people Israel to a way of life founded on justice, mercy, and worship of God. But again and again, the people fell away; that way of life seemed too hard, or they figured they could do better by *not* being just and merciful. But when they turned from God, they got weaker. They weren’t looking out for each other, weren’t building up their common good and their shared strength. And so they were attacked by neighboring tribes and nations, again and again. And then they’d cry out to God, and God would help them, and they’d promise to do better this time… This time we’ll REALLY be the people God calls us to be! No, this time we REALLY mean it!…

Well. Those are the kinds of times when Gideon lived. When Gideon was a young man, a neighboring tribe, the Midianites, was attacking Israel. Things were bad. The Midianites had driven the Israelites out of their towns; they were living in caves in the mountains. The Midianites would destroy the fields, kill or steal all the livestock, and bring their own flocks to devour all the pasture land. So Israel was starving. And they cried out to God for help.

One day Gideon is beating out wheat, separating the grain from the chaff. He’s doing it inside his father’s wine press, to hide from the Midianites. And an angel appears to him, and says, “The Lord is with you, O mighty warrior!”

And Gideon says, “But, sir, if God is with us, why has all this bad stuff happened to us? Where are the miracles and mighty deeds that we hear in our holy stories? Why doesn’t God deliver us today, like God delivered our ancestors from Egypt? It seems like God has cast us off, and given us into the hands of Midian!”

But God didn’t strike Gideon down; apparently God wanted someone strong-minded and a little bit argumentative. The angel said, “Go in this might of yours and deliver Israel from Midian; I hereby commission you.”

Gideon says, “Sir, how can I deliver Israel? My clan is the weakest clan of my tribe, and I am the least in my family.” And the Angel of the Lord says, “Because God is with you, you will drive out the Midianites.”

Because God is with you. 

Well, that sounds good; but Gideon is not someone to be convinced by pretty words. He tells the angel, Stay here; I will bring you an offering, and you can give me a sign that you actually have holy power. Gideon hurries to prepare some meat and bread. When he brings them out, the angel says, “Put them on that rock.” And then the angel touches the food with the tip of its staff – and fire leaps up and consumes the food.

Okay, pretty convincing. But Gideon wants proof that this is actually God, and that God can actually do what God says, before he raises an army and attacks the Midianites, which could just leave everybody dead.

He starts to gather an army, calling together all the fighting men and boys of Israel. At the same time, Gideon asks God for a little more proof. He says, “In order to see whether you will actually deliver Israel by my hand, I am going to lay a fleece of wool on the threshing-floor. In the morning, if there is dew on the fleece but the ground is dry, I will know you will free Israel from the power of Midian.” And it was so; when Gideon arose in the morning, the ground was dry, but the fleece was so wet he could squeeze a bowlful of water out of it. All right! God is with Gideon! It’s time for battle! Well… maybe. Gideon is not so easily convinced. Gideon says to God, “Okay, let’s try this once more, the other way around: make the ground wet, and the fleece dry.”  And in the morning, it was so.

So finally Gideon is convinced that God is with him, and that God has the power to shape reality, to do improbable things – like defeating Midian. Because even with all Israel’s warriors, thirty-two thousand troops, the Midianites still outnumber them.

But Gideon’s willing to give it a try. He gathers his troops, near the Midianite camp, ready for attack. Maybe they have a chance, with God’s help.  But then God says to Gideon, “You have too many soldiers. If you defeat the Midianites with all these soldiers, Israel will take the credit away from me, and say, ‘We delivered ourselves.’ Speak to your troops and say, Whoever is fearful and trembling, GO HOME.”

So Gideon does that. And twenty-two thousand men … go home. Leaving Gideon with ten thousand soldiers who are itching for a fight.

Okay. Now there are a LOT more Midianites, but this is how God wants it. Fine.

But then God says to Gideon, “You STILL have too many men. Take your army down to that pool of water over there for a drink. Some of them will cup up the water in their hands, and some will kneel down and lap the water like dogs. The ones who cup the water in their hands – send them all home.”

So the men go to drink. And how many of them lap the water like dogs? Three hundred. And God says to Gideon, “With these three hundred men I will deliver you, and give the Midianites into your hands. Send the rest home.”

And Gideon does. But before they go: he takes all their water jars and their trumpets. So here’s Gideon, with three hundred men, and a bunch of jars and trumpets, looking out at the Midianite camp, with its soldiers as thick as sand on the seashore. And that night God speaks to Gideon and says, “Attack the camp. It’s time.” And he wakes his tiny army and says,  “Get up. God has given Midian into our hands.” He gives them all trumpets and jars – with torches hidden inside the jars.

They sneak into the camp under cover of darkness, and at Gideon’s signal, they all BLOW their trumpets, and SMASH their jars so the torches shine out, and they shout, “For the Lord and for Gideon!”

And the Midianites panic! They wake up to this horrible noise, and light, and fire, and shouting! Some of them start to run and others see them running and they run too, and pretty soon the whole Midianite army, tens of thousands of men, are fleeing towards home. And they’re fighting each other in the dark, in the confusion, and killing each other, without Gideon’s men even drawing their swords.

So Gideon and his three hundred crazy fearless men drove out the great army of Midian, freed their land from the invaders, with some trumpets and some torches and the power of God. Because God was with them.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light…. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. 

This reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah is always used at Christmas, because of the image of light dawning in darkness, and because of Isaiah’s prophetic words about a Savior who will come to God’s people, a child who will be born to us, for us, who will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, and Prince of Peace. Christians have long understood this text as pointing towards Jesus.

Isaiah lived about halfway between Gideon and Jesus; his words harken back to his people’s history, and lean forward into their hopes for the future.

This phrase, “As on the day of Midian” – tt’s a passing allusion to a long-ago battle – one of countless battles told in the Old Testament. And its protagonist, Gideon, didn’t make the cut for most children’s story bibles. Who remembers Gideon? But I really like story of Gideon and the defeat at Midian. And I think there’s something very timely about it.

This story is timely for us as Americans in 2017. I find Gideon really relatable. He’s skeptical, and kind of pessimistic. He hears God’s promises and looks at the world around him and says, God, I’m not sure we can get there from here. He says, God, you’re an idealist, and I’m a realist. But he enters a dialogue with God. He’s not totally cynical; there’s hope lurking under there. When God says, Things can be better, Gideon doesn’t laugh in God’s face and walk away. Gideon says, Tell me more.

So this conversation begins, and continues, all the way through the first business with the sacrifice, through the moments just before the attack, when Gideon sneaks into the Midianite camp, just to see what they’re up against, and hears one of the Midianite soldiers telling a friend that he had dreamed their army was defeated by Israel. Gideon believes: The impossible is possible. Let’s do this.

Gideon begins the story wearing skepticism as a kind of armor to protect the tenderness of hope, and of his anguish at his people’s misery. And he ends up committing himself to God’s purposes. He reaches a point where he wants what God wants, and he gives himself over to it, using his strength and his connections and his ingenuity to help bring about God’s deliverance for his people. Even to the point of risking his life.

And all of that makes Gideon a holy figure worth remembering, in these weary and jaded times. In our discouragement and our skepticism.

And I think the story of Midian is timely for Christmas. Because it’s about how something small can accomplish something big. Gideon marched on Midian with an army of 300 men. A laughably tiny force. Yet by God’s power, combined with human imagination and courage, they were successful. The power of God to do what seems impossible in human terms is what Isaiah has in mind, when he says that the burden of oppression will be cast off as on the day of Midian. It’s not just that a battle was won – but that a battle was won by the power of God. And that’s the Christmas story, the Incarnation: a tiny tiny baby, a newborn infant, poor, cold, and helpless, nevertheless – changes things.

Attacking an entire camp of enemy warriors with three hundred men is ridiculous, but confronting the entire regime of evil and greed and injustice and suffering in the world with one newborn baby – that’s even more absurd.

But that’s the kind of God, God is. That’s the heart of God, made known to us in the face of the child in the manger. Not a God of overwhelming force, to bend humanity to God’s will, but a God of hope and possibility and invitation.

Our God is a God who calls us to take heart, take courage, to lay down our skepticism and weariness and commit ourselves to God’s purposes, God’s agenda of liberation, justice, mercy, and love. To believe that better is possible, and that we can help, because God is with us.  And our God is a God who changes the world with the power of small, ordinary, beautiful, powerful things: The light of a candle, the sound of a trumpet. A few words of love. An infant’s first cry.

Amen.

Sermon, Dec. 3

Note: The beginning of this sermon is based on the Godly Play story, The Circle of the Church Year. 

What do you know about time? What are some of the times in your life? Like bedtime, work time, play time… We know all about time because we live inside it. But what is time, really?….

Some people say time is a line. Here, this rope can help us think about time being a line. Here is the beginning. It is the newest part. It is just being born. Now, look…. Take this beginning and walk over there with it, OK?  Slowly. Look, time is passing. The beginning that was new is getting older. I wonder how long time goes on? Does it go on forever? Can there ever be an ending? … Look – it ended. There’s the end. The beginning that was so new, is old now. – and the ending is new. We have a beginning that is like an ending, and an ending that is like a beginning.

Do you know what the Church did? They took the ending that was like a beginning, and the beginning that was like an ending, and they tied them together. They made time into a circle. So that we would always remember that for every ending there is a beginning, and for every beginning there is an ending.

Let’s look at it a different way. Instead of the rope, let’s use this cloth. These colors show us the circle of the church year. This blue is the beginning. It is the color of Advent, the season that begins today. Today is the Church’s New Year’s Day! Happy New Year!

After blue Advent comes white Christmas –  then green Epiphany –  then purple Lent – then white Easter – then red Pentecost – careful, it’s hot! – then the long green season of summer and fall, the great green growing season. There is the beginning – and there is the end. But they aren’t a line. They are a circle. So let’s fasten the end to the beginning.

Now let’s think some more about endings and beginnings. Think for a moment about some of the beginnings you have experienced. Times when you have started something new. Think about the things you feel, when there’s a new beginning. Happy? Excited? Hopeful? Determined? Afraid? Eager?

Now think for a moment about endings. Times when something has come to an end. When something is over. Think about the things you feel, when there’s an ending. Sad? Quiet? Full of memories? Relieved? Peaceful? …

Today we begin the season of Advent. Advent is a season that is about beginnings, and endings.  It is the beginning of a new church year.

And it is about getting ready for a Great Beginning: the Great Beginning of Jesus being born. The beginning of a new relationship between human beings and God, through Jesus’ life and the things he showed us and taught us.

But Advent is also about endings. Even though it’s the beginning of the year in the church, we feel and see that it’s the end of the year in the world. It’s getting colder. It’s getting darker. All the living things out there are dying or going to sleep or flying away. It feels like an ending. That’s why we light one more candle every Sunday of Advent – to help us count the four Sundays, but also because at this season it gets darker and darker, week by week. The days are getting shorter and shorter.

And Advent is about another ending, a big ending. Jesus taught his friends was that he would come back someday. He’s talking about that in our Gospel lesson today – he’s telling them,  After I die, and rise from the dead, and go to be with God, I will come again – someday. And when I come again, all God’s children will be gathered together, the living and the dead, and there won’t be any suffering anymore. And the world will be changed, too – the world that groans as it waits for God’s redemption. Maybe it will be like a garden, like the garden at the very beginning, where everybody has everything they need, and the fierce animals are friends with the gentle animals, and nobody hurts or kills anybody else. Maybe it will be like a city where there is a home for everybody, where there is plenty to eat and never any war, where people sing together day and night, and where God tenderly wipes away the tears of our grief and weariness. We don’t know what it will be like, but Jesus and the church teach us that that time is coming.

And it’s a little bit scary, to think of everything changing and ending. But it’s hopeful, too. It’s another ending that’s also a beginning, isn’t it? And God’s people have yearned for it, for so long, since long before Jesus’ birth. The book of the prophet Isaiah gives us these words: Oh, that you would tear open the heavens and come down! Say that with me: Oh! That you would tear open the heavens and come down! 

Psalm 80 gives us these words: Stir up your strength, O God, and come to help us! Say that with me: Stir up your strength, O God, and come to help us! And the songs and prayers of Advent say, Come, Lord Jesus! Say that with me: Come, Lord Jesus! 

We don’t know when that time will come. People have been waiting for it and wondering about it for a long time.  That’s part of what Jesus is talking about in today’s lesson. He’s saying: You won’t know when it’s coming. It’s a mystery. So be ready, always. Live so that you’re always prepared to meet God and walk into that new beginning that is also an ending.

We don’t think about it a lot, that ending-beginning, most of the time. We try to live our lives well, and love each other, and love God, and take care of the world. Most of the time we don’t think much about it at all, because it’s such a big mystery and it’s probably still a long, long way away.

But in Advent the church thinks about it. About that ending/beginning that will come someday. We get ready for the story about Jesus coming as the baby in the stable, the story that has already happened, and we also share the story about Jesus coming again and the whole world changing, the story that hasn’t happened yet.

Those stories are all mixed together in Advent, in the Scriptures and hymns and prayers of the season. Beginnings and endings all tangled up together. And all the feelings we have about beginnings and endings might be tangled up together too: happiness and sadness, excitement and fear, hope and remembering, gratitude and urgency. That’s Advent.

You can hear that in the songs we sing today. The song we gather with is a joyful song: People, look East! And sing today: Love the Lord is on the way! And we’ll sing another familiar Advent hymn that sounds very cheerful: Come, thou long-expected Jesus, born to set thy people free, from all fears and sins release us, let us fund our rest in thee!

But we’ll also sing a song that feels solemn and urgent: Signs of endings all around us, darkness, death, and winter days, shroud our lives with fear and sadness, numbing mouths that long to praise… Later the song says, Give us hope and faith and gladness! Show us what there yet can be! It’s a song of yearning, a song of struggling to hold hope.

And then we have some songs that I think invite us to slow down, to pay attention to how it feels to wait and wonder: O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel… Lullaby, lullaby, wait till tomorrow… Come now, O Prince of Peace, make us one body; come now, O Lord of life, reconcile all peoples.

And there’s one more – we sang it just now, at the Gospel proclamation. It is a song that was made by people who were suffering, and that story that hasn’t happened yet, about Jesus coming back and the whole world changing, gave them hope that their suffering wouldn’t last forever. It’s partly happy and hopeful, and partly sad and serious – just like Advent. It goes like this – sing it with me: “My Lord, what a morning, My Lord, what a morning, My Lord, what a morning, when the stars begin to fall.”

Welcome to Advent.

Sermon, Nov. 12

Note: This sermon is based on Joshua 3:7-17, the Old Testament text for November 5 (Proper 26A), which we did not use last week because we celebrated the Feast of All Saints. 

What do these stones mean to you?

The people Israel, the people God has named and called to be God’s people, are at a turning point in their history. Back on September 17, the lectionary gave us the story of the Exodus, when God and Moses led the people through the Red Sea on dry land, and out of bondage in Egypt. In our schedule of Sunday readings, the Israelites have been wandering in the wilderness for about six weeks. But for the Biblical narrative, it’s been FORTY YEARS. People who left Egypt as babies have grown up, married, had children of their own, and could even be grandparents.

Just two weeks ago we shared the story of the death of Moses, at the end of the book of Deuteronomy. Now we’re beginning the book that bears Joshua’s name. This means we’re at the end of the Torah – the first five books of the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, which hold the great origin story of the people Israel and lay out how they are called to live. Moving from the Torah to the books of Joshua and Judges and beyond is a little like moving from the Revolutionary War era into early 19th century national history – if Moses is Washington and Jefferson, then Joshua is more like Monroe and Van Buren.

So Israel has survived years in the harsh, dry wilderness, and their future home lies spread out before them. Awesome. Wow. But it turns out there are people living in the Promised Land. So what comes next? A lot of war. While Moses was a prophet and spiritual leader, Joshua is a general. There’s a lot in this portion of Biblical history that we, rightly, find difficult to swallow – God’s word to Joshua is to kill everyone they meet, while God’s word through Jesus Christ is to love our enemies.

For today, though, let’s focus on this threshold moment. Listen, I’ve been to the Judean desert. It’s an incredibly harsh environment. Hot and dry and rocky, with minimal vegetation and only the most hardy and elusive animal life. And after far too many years out there, sustained only by miraculous manna, the Israelites are standing on the banks of an honest to God river. The Jordan river. Which is just a trickle in the dry season, but right now, it’s the rainy season, and the river is overflowing. The way ahead for Israel lies through a huge stretch of muddy shallow swift-flowing water. And it must have been so beautiful to them. All that water.

But the problem remains: How to get across? Israel’s journey to freedom began with a miraculous journey across a body of water; it’s time for another one. God tells Joshua, I’m going to make sure Israel respects you as the leader I have chosen. Call on the priests of the people, and have them carry the Ark of the Covenant into the Jordan River.

The Ark of the Covenant was the holiest object Israel owned. It was an elaborate golden box that held the Tablets of the Law, the Ten Commandments, written in stone by the very finger of God. It was a powerful symbol of God’s presence and God’s favor.

So the priests take the Ark and walk before the people into the Jordan, into all that muddy mess. And as their feet touch the water, the river… stops. Instead of continuing to flow downstream, the waters begin to pile up, as if a wall of glass were holding them back. The priests carrying the Ark walk ahead, into the center of the river bed, and stand there, on dry ground. And the people Israel follow them and pass them, crossing the Jordan without getting their feet wet.

Let me take the story a little farther than our lectionary text. When everyone has crossed over, God says to Joshua: Choose twelve men from the people, one from each of the twelve tribes. Have each of them find a stone, here in the middle of the Jordan, in the riverbed. Carry the stones out of the river, take them with you. And when you make camp tonight, make a pile of those stones, to help you remember this day. So Joshua summons twelve men, one from each tribe, and tells them what to do. And they take their stones; and then, finally, the priests carry the Ark out of the riverbed, and the waters of the Jordan return to their place, flowing and overflowing as they were before.

When the people made camp,  at a place called Gilgal, the twelve stones were set up as a monument. And Joshua told the Israelites, ‘When your children ask their parents in time to come, “What do these stones mean?” then you shall let your children know, The Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you crossed over, as the Lord your God did to the Red Sea,* which was dried up for us until we crossed over, so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty… These stones shall be to the Israelites a memorial for ever.’

The Israelites are on brink of a new chapter in their history. They’re uncertain what lies ahead, what they’ll be able to carry forward from their past into a new way of life, whether they are really many enough and strong enough and bold enough and faithful enough to go where God is leading. And in this moment, God gives them a saving act – that miraculous crossing of the Jordan – and says, Remember this. And build yourselves a nice pile of rocks, to make sure you remember it.

What do these stones mean to you?

There are several times in the Old Testament when people raise stones to commemorate important events. Later in the Book of Joshua, Joshua will ask the people, As you settle in this new land, are you going to stay faithful to God, or start worshipping the gods of other nations? And Israel says, We will serve our God! And Joshua raises a stone to remind them of their decision, their commitment, saying, ‘This stone shall be a witness against us, if you are unfaithful to God.’ Much earlier, in Genesis 28, Jacob raises a stone at the place where he had the dream-vision of angels going up and down a ladder from heaven – a vision of the active presence of the Divine on earth. Several generations after Joshua, the prophet Samuel raises a stone as a monument to celebrate a victory against Israel’s neighbors and perennial enemies, the Philistines. This stone is given a name, Ebenezer, meaning “Rock of Help,” for as Samuel says, Thus far has God helped us.

This practice of raising stones has several purposes. It marks a moment as significant. You don’t raise a stone for just any old thing. Raising a stone says, What has just happened, or what we have just done, is important. It matters. And raising a stone, creating a physical landmark linked to an event or moment – it proclaims something to the future. It says to the people, Remember this day. In Joshua 4, that’s made explicit: Joshua tells the people, When your children ask you, What do these stones mean?, tell them. Tell them how God stopped the river so that we could end our long wandering, and enter a new land and a new life. Raising a stone is both celebration and commitment. The stones raised in Scripture mark victory, revelation, covenant, deliverance. The stones say, Remember – and live accordingly.

The stone monument in Joshua 4 is all this, and a little more. Because unlike those other stones, this isn’t one large stone but a pile of stones, a cairn. A representative of each of the twelve tribes contributed to the cairn, choosing a rock from the riverbed and carrying it to Gilgal. The monument represents both a significant moment in salvation history, and the people’s unity in experiencing and responding to that moment.

Our Gospel story today is a provocative parable that a lot of people have questions about. I preached about it in 2014 and when I looked back at that sermon, I didn’t have much to add; if you’re worried about the girls who didn’t get to go to the party, I’d love to hand you a copy of that sermon, or point you to some other great commentaries on that text.

But I’m preaching on Joshua today because this text is speaking to me. I’m laying this story before us today – spending perhaps a surprising amount of time talking about rocks – because I feel like this year this story is a little bit about us.

What do these stones mean to you?

This story makes me think about our stones – the literal ones. Having this year’s fall giving campaign happen within the frame of our parish conversation about a capital campaign has made me particularly aware of the history inscribed in the buildings and land around us. The rocks of our walls – piled up in 1964 as the church was built – they’re rough blocky golden native stone of Wisconsin. These granite boulders – one, two, three – they’re glacial erratics, brought to Wisconsin from somewhere farther north by the Great Ice, and left when the ice melted away, about 10,000 years ago. I don’t know whether the one outside sits where the glacier left it. The two that form our altar base and our baptismal font were moved here from Turville Point, over on Lake Monona, the home of one of the founding members of this congregation. Visible signs of the generosity and commitment of Henry Turville and of all that first generation of Dunstanites, who piled stones together, both literally and metaphorically, in this place, to say, God gave us this beautiful place. God called us to be a church together here. Thanks be to God.

And this story makes me think about our metaphorical stones too. All the ways we each bring contributions and pile them up to build something together. Our pledges of financial support, sure, in this giving campaign season. We’re still in the middle of our campaign – hoping to gather in all pledges by next Sunday – but so far a whopping 68% of you have increased your pledges. I’m just staggered by that, and really hopeful about what that means for our budget and our ministries next year.

But there are so many other ways we pile our stones together, friends: All the people who will bake and decorate and set up and clean up for our much-anticipated Pie Brunch next Sunday. All the time and energy and art supplies and warmheartedness and commitment – on the part of teachers, parents, kids – that allows us to have Sunday school. All the voices of people and instruments raised in beauty and praise in our worship today. All the hopes and ideas and intentions and observations that have gone into our discernment and visioning work towards a possible capital campaign to improve our property. In so many ways, we become greater than the sum of our parts, by the alchemy of God’s grace.

I’ve said it before: In some ways this is just another year at St. Dunstan’s, and in other ways it’s a very unusual year. We’ve been growing slowly for a while but suddenly we’re at the point where some Sundays, we actually have to sit next to each other – and we might even have to start sitting in the front row! And we’re thinking big thoughts together about our identity and our future and our mission. This is a really exciting time to be rector of St. Dunstan’s. And also, a little nerve-racking.

What do these stones mean to you? We stand on the brink of a new chapter, uncertain what lies ahead, what we can carry forward from our past and what new gifts and new challenges we’ll encounter, wondering whether we are really many enough and strong enough and bold enough and faithful enough to follow where God is leading. The stones piled up by those who built this place, stone by stone, year by year, tell me, We have come this far by God’s help. And we’re still building – and building anew: piling together our contributions, literal and figurative, to mark this strange, holy, joyful moment of celebration and commitment. To remind ourselves to remember, and to tell the story of this time. And to be a sign to us that God keeps making a way.

Sermon, Nov. 5

There’s a word that shows up sixteen times in today’s Scriptures. The word is “will” – the future tense of the word “be.”  “The one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more… and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” “When he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

Will is a word that points towards a future.  Towards a fulfillment yet to be achieved. It’s affirmative, assertive: The things proclaimed ARE GOING to happen. But it also acknowledges that it hasn’t happened yet. The word – and all those sentences that hang on it – the word “will” asks us to trust. It asks us to hope. I think that hope – trusting in that future – is one of the things that defines a saint.

Somebody asked me last week, So when you say “saint,” Do you mean somebody who’s dead? It’s a great question.  The New Testament uses the word “saints”  the way we might use “members.” Saints, hagioi in Greek, Sanctum in Latin, means, Holy and set apart. People or things dedicated to God. The people in the church are saints, because they, we, are trying to follow Jesus together and live in God’s ways.

Over the centuries, the Church got pickier about who to call a saint. It started to keep the title of “Saint” for the very best, the purest, the holiest, the ones with remarkable, even miraculous deeds. The calendar filled up with days to honor and remember assorted Saints-with-a-capital-S, who had preached or healed or suffered or died for Jesus Christ. Finally the Church had so many Saints-with-a-capital-S that the calendar was FULL; so All Saints Day was created, as the overflow day, the day to celebrate ALL the saints who maybe didn’t have a day of their own.

And then the Church created All Souls Day, the day after All Saints Day, a day set aside to remember and honor the faithful departed, their beloved dead, who were NOT Saints-with-a-capital-S. Because people kept insisting that Aunt Mildred’s long life of kindness, commitment, and generosity was worthy of remembrance and honor too, even if she didn’t happen to get thrown to the lions.

What’s happened over the past few decades in the Episcopal Church, at least, is that we’re trying to get back to the New Testament sense of the word “saint.” We are trying to put All Saints Day and All Souls Day back together again. We still name and hold up certain saints, holy people who shined the light of Christ in their time and place by the way they lived, the things they said and did.

But as we hold up those named saints, we affirm the capacity for holiness, for extraordinary faithfulness, in the life of every Christian. They lived not only in ages past, friends – there are hundreds of thousands still. The world is bright with the joyous saints who love to do Jesus’ will. You can meet them in school or in lanes or at sea, in church or in trains or in shops or at tea, for the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.

So to return to the question, When you say “saint”, do you mean somebody who’s dead? – Well, yes and no. One important part of All Saints is remembrance – calling to mind and honoring those who have gone before us to be with God, and celebrating the way their lives have touched ours. But another part of All Saints is affirming our own call to holiness – that we mean to be one too. That’s why we affirm our baptismal vows today.

So when I say Saint, I mean people both living and dead; I mean people who lived extraordinary lives and ordinary lives. But there is a common thread: being called to holiness – and responding to that call, by living a life marked by love of God and love of neighbor. By being a person of justice. Of mercy. Of peace. Of hope.

I’ve been thinking about hope, lately – in fact I preached about hope just a couple of months ago. I said, Hope is different from optimism, the assumption that things will probably be fine, whether I do anything or not. Hope means that you believe some kind of good outcome is possible, and you’re going to orient your life and work and prayers towards that good. I said, Hope isn’t weak or fluffy. Hope can be solid like a rock or fierce like a flame. When the worst happens, Hope says, Oh yeah? The story isn’t over yet.

Well and good. But all these “will”s in today’s lessons – these big, bold, beautiful visions – they seem always to recede into the future. How can you draw line from present reality  to those holy and redemptive possibilities? The future of God’s promises often seems impossible, or at the very least, exceedingly improbable. There is good reason for discouragement. It’s easy to talk about hope. It’s harder, sometimes, to feel it. Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hahn has said,  Hope is important because if we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today. But what happens to hope, then, when we don’t – can’t believe that tomorrow will be better? Or that the tomorrow that will be better is a long, long way off?

Christian hope, the hope at the heart of our faith, is different from ordinary everyday hope. Christian hope insists on the long view – clings to the conviction that one day, all things WILL BE restored and redeemed. And Christian hope takes comfort and courage from that promise, even though we know full well we won’t see it in this life. Christian hope insists that there’s always something we can do, however small – even if the only difference it makes is keeping our hearts and souls pointed in the right direction. Christian hope shines on even in the face of death and loss.

I’m not claiming a firsthand understanding of the fierce tenacity of Christian hope. For all the troubles of our times, my life has been pretty good. What I know about Christian hope, I know from the witness of the saints – those I’ve met firsthand, and those I’ve read about. Saints like Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Bonhoeffer was a young priest and theologian, 27 years old, when Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. He became one of the organizers of a movement called the Confessing Church, which insisted that the charismatic Hitler was NOT the fulfillment of God’s intentions for Germany, as many German Christians believed. He was an early and vocal critic of the Nazi movement, including the persecution of the Jews, declaring that the church must not simply “bandage the victims under the wheel, but jam the spoke in the wheel itself.” Bonhoeffer’s life and writings have been an inspiration to many; I’m sure there are a few people here who know his work well – I am not among them. But I read an essay recently that contrasted how Bonhoeffer wrote about Advent – and about hope – in 1933 and 1943.

In 1933 – roughly nine months after Hitler’s election – Bonhoeffer preached an Advent sermon at a church in London, where he was serving at the time. In that sermon he evokes the image of a prison: Imagine the humiliation and punishment, the heavy forced labor, the inmates weighed down with chains and tears.  He continues, “Then suddenly a message penetrates into the prison: Very soon you will all be free, your chains will be taken away, and those who have enslaved you will be bound in chains while you are redeemed!”

Bonhoeffer is still young, still free, still placing hope in human history. His language of redemption here points towards the otherworldly and the ultimate.

That prison; the imminent approach of liberation and redemption – it’s all metaphorical, or at least spiritual rather than historical.  There’s nothing wrong with all that.  It’s the kind of thing I would say in a sermon. But it’s also the kind of preacherly language that quickly loses its power, its credibility, in the face of real evil, real suffering.

In Advent of 1943, ten years later, Bonhoeffer was in prison. He’d been arrested in April of that year, for his involvement with the German resistance movement. Back in 1933, he probably hoped it was still possible to turn the tide of fascism and violence in Germany, his home country. Back in 1933, he could still afford the luxury of metaphor.

By 1943, he has seen so much of the worst happen, in the violence and inhumanity of World War II.  So many lives lost, military and civilian. Evil is ascendant in the world. No metaphors are needed to call to mind bondage, pain, and loss. But Bonhoeffer hasn’t lost his Christian faith, his Christian hope. The focus has shifted, though. Otherworldly and ultimate hopes still matter – how could they not, when this world seems so marred and mired? But those distant, someday hopes can look thin and brittle from a prison cell. He writes about the hope of faith in a different way.

Bonhoeffer writes in a letter to a friend: “Life in a prison cell may well be compared to Advent; one waits, hopes, and does this, that, or the other… the door is shut, and can be opened only from the outside.” And looking ahead to Christmas, he wrote, “From a Christian point of view there is no special problem about Christmas in a prison cell. For many people in this building it will probably be a more sincere and genuine occasion than in places where nothing but the name is kept. That misery, suffering, poverty, loneliness, helplessness and guilt mean something quite different in the eyes of God from what they mean in the judgment of human beings – that God will approach where humans turn away – that Christ was born in a stable because there was no room in the inn – these are things that a prisoner can understand better than other people; for her they really are glad tidings, and that faith gives her a part in the community of the saints, a Christian fellowship breaking the bounds of time and space.”

The author of this essay, Jennifer McBride, actually read this text with women in prison. One of them looked at her and said, “He’s talking about us!”

(All of this quoted in McBride, Lived Theology, 220-21)

God’s redemptive love isn’t out there somewhere. It’s right here beside us, among us, in darkness and pain, in humiliation and the helplessness. And that’s where hope lives, for Bonhoeffer in his final years: Not in the shining transcendent tomorrow but in God’s imminence, God’s presence in the ache of today.

The saints the Church names as our models for holy living were not pie-in-the-sky Christians. They lived in the tension between the big picture – all will be well in the end; if it isn’t well, it’s not the end yet – and the real, nitty-gritty, demanding present. The hope that sustained them – sustains them; they lived not only in ages past! – that hope, that profound senseless Christian hope, hangs in the paradoxical space between transcendence, the holy gleam of the that distant City undimmed by human tears, and immanence, incarnation, God-with-us in all the struggle and hurt we bring upon ourselves and each other.

The word “will” asks us to trust. To hope. This All Saints Day, as we honor the faithful departed, that Christian fellowship breaking the bounds of time and space, may that profound senseless unshakeable Christian hope warm our hearts and strengthen our souls, and make us ready for the work of God’s kingdom that is always before us.

Sermon, Oct. 15

I spend a lot of time trying to rehabilitate God in people’s eyes.  People who have heard about this God character – but what they’ve heard about Him makes Him sound like an angry, judgmental psychopath. And they can’t imagine why anyone would want to hang around with somebody like that. I spend a lot of time trying to explain that that’s not the God I know. That the destructive anger of God in many parts of the Bible reflects human understandings, and our sinful tendency to assume God hates whom we hate. That the God I follow is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, as the Bible says over and over again. That the God I follow understands, accepts, forgives, comforts, heals. That God is love.

But you know what? Sometimes love gets angry. As a preacher, as a Christian, I have to take God’s anger seriously.

Our lectionary texts today show us an angry God. In the book of Exodus, the people Israel are on their long wilderness journey. Moses is up on a mountaintop, having an extended conversation with God. And the people get bored and impatient. This God that Moses keeps talking about is too big and powerful and mysterious to even see. They want gods they can see and touch. Like the golden statues of gods they saw in Egypt. So they beg Aaron, Moses’ brother, whom he left in charge: “Make a god for us!” And Aaron gives the people what they want. Aaron tries to fudge things a bit – maybe the golden calf just *represents* the real god? – but he knows what he’s doing. When Moses comes down the mountain and demands to know what he’s done, here’s his explanation, straight out of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible:

Aaron said, ‘Do not let the anger of my lord burn hot; you know the people, that they are bent on evil. They said to me, “Make us gods, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” So I said to them, “Whoever has gold, take it off;” so they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!’

It’s hard to recognize because we get the stories in bits & pieces, and because we have this assumption that the Bible is Very Serious, but there’s a lot of humor in the wilderness stories. I think they were campfire tales told to a lot of laughter, for many generations, before they were written down. One recurring gag is that Moses and God do a lot of Parents-On-A-Road-Trip stuff throughout these chapters. For example, notice in today’s text, God says, “Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely…” And Moses comes right back with, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?” God is saying, YOUR CHILDREN are driving me CRAZY, And Moses says, YOUR CHILDREN are just HUNGRY, maybe if you’d stop at Burger King…!

But like the best funny stories, the humor in Exodus has a real point. And the point of this story is to highlight how eager humans are to decide the whole God business is really too complicated, too strange, too much trouble. The name for the sin of the golden calf is idolatry – putting something else, something made and controlled by humans, in the place of God. Substituting a relationship with a thing for a relationship with a Person. Relationships with things are predicable, safe; relationships with people are alive, dynamic, demanding, especially if the Person happens to be God. Idolatry is a fundamental theme in the Old Testament – Israel’s proclivity for it, and God’s anger and dismay about it.

I’ve been trying to think of how to explain the problem. It sounds like this is about God’s ego, God’s jealousy – God flips out if Israel even gets a text from another god, right? But listen, I think this is a fair analogy for what’s happening here: Imagine a six-year-old child. She’s dissatisfied with her actual parents, she feels like they’re too demanding and she doesn’t always understand why they want her to do certain things, and they’re not always as nice as she would like them to be. So she makes herself a new parent. She tells her human parents, “Thanks, but I’m done with you guys. My new parent here will always buy me ice cream, and let me wear whatever I want, and ride my bike in the street, and never clean my room or do homework.” That six-year-old would learn pretty quickly that the parent she made was an inadequate parent; it wouldn’t do anything she didn’t like for simple reason that it can’t do anything at all. The same would happen with the golden calf, to be sure. But somehow the unresponsiveness of our idols has never really made a dent in the impulse towards idolatry.

God is angry in this story because the people God has chosen, freed, and called, want to opt out of the relationship. They don’t have the gratitude or the patience or the discipline to commit to being God’s people and see how that forms them and blesses them. They’d really rather make their own parent, thanks.

And then there’s the Parable of the Banquet. I’ve been talking about how Matthew’s Gospel often adds a layer of violence, compared to similar texts in Luke and Mark. This is a text where that’s particularly evident. Matthew understands Jesus’ life and witness through the lens of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Great Temple by the Romans in AD 70, as part of the brutal suppression of a Jewish rebellion against Roman rule. Hundreds of thousands of people died.The author we call Matthew probably composed his version of the Gospel between 10 and 20 years later.  The trauma, the violence and loss were very much still with him. In this parable, when the king sends an army to kill people and burn down a city – that’s Matthew working over what happened to Jerusalem.

This parable as told in Luke’s Gospel lacks the military images, and the perplexing attack on the inappropriately-dressed guest. Here’s the story as Luke tells it: Someone gave a great dinner, and invited many. When dinner was ready, he sent his slave to tell those who had been invited, “Come, everything is ready.” But they all began to make excuses. One said, “I’ve bought some land and I need to go see it; please accept my apologies.”  Another said, “I just bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my apologies.” Another said, “I just got married, so I can’t come.”

So the slave returned and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, “Go out at once into the streets of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” And the slave said, “Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room in the banquet hall.” Then the master said to the slave,  “Go out to the roads beyond the city, and make people come in, so that my house may be filled! For none of those who were invited shall taste my dinner.”

That’s a very different story, isn’t it? It’s a story about people who have been honored with an invitation, and have a delicious meal waiting for them – free! – but they can’t be bothered. They’ve got other stuff going on. But the host is determined to feed someone. So the host gathers in all the people who were seen as lowly and dirty and unimportant, to be guests at the banquet. It’s one of many parables and Gospel stories about how the people who think they’re close to God, the people who assume they’re on God’s guest list, don’t actually show up for God, while those in the streets, those at the margins, do. The host’s anger isn’t murderous military might, as in Matthew’s account. It’s frustrated hospitality. Thwarted grace. The host wants to celebrate with friends, and the friends don’t show.

God gets angry sometimes. We shouldn’t make God so warm and fuzzy that we forget that. But we also have to be really careful about distinguishing God’s anger from our anger. Humans like to think we know what God is angry about. I find it really upsetting – as a preacher, as a Christian – when I see people attributing terrible events to God’s anger.  Earthquakes, hurricanes, wildfires, mass shootings: NOT GOD’S ANGER.

Look, how to make sense of that stuff is another whole sermon. Here’s the shortest possible version of how I understand it: Humanity is free and Creation is free. God couldn’t give us freedom and simultaneously protect us from the world and ourselves and each other – that’s not how freedom works. So bad stuff happens but God promises, promises, that God is with us in the bad stuff, and that the bad stuff is never the last word.

The destruction wrought by humans and nature is not God’s punishment.  And when people with authority name it as such, people who’d like to believe in God, people who’ve tried to believe in God, are apt to get right off that train, because with a God like that, who needs enemies? And I can’t blame them. But I can blame those who blame God for human actions…!

If God’s anger doesn’t look like wildfire or a hurricane wiping a whole town off the map, then what does God’s anger look like? Thwarted grace. Frustrated love. A banquet table lovingly prepared, dishes overflowing – and nobody there to eat and celebrate. The common thread between the Golden Calf and the Banquet parable is that God is angry when people walk away from relationship. Choose something else instead. Spending some time with the Gospels and the Prophets will quickly show you some of the other things that really get God’s goat. God gets pretty mad about leaders who shirk their responsibilities to those under their care. God gets pretty mad about those who enrich themselves at the cost of the poor. God gets pretty mad at those who judge others harshly without taking an honest look at themselves.

You know, I looked ahead at these lessons probably a month ago, and thought, Wow, the obvious theme here is the anger of God. And then about a week ago, I finally put two and two together, and realized, Oh, we’re doing a baptism today! Divine rage – a classic subject for a baptismal sermon.

But you know, it’s actually true that our relationships with the children and young people whom we love are one of the best windows we have into God’s anger.  The Bible and our liturgical texts name God as a parent Because God is a lot like a parent, or anyone who’s helping raise and teach and form a child. God doesn’t want us to do the right thing from fear of anger or punishment, but because we know what’s right and good, and we choose to do it. And God gets angry when God wants better for us, or from us.

Our fiercest loves give birth to our fiercest anger. And the angriest we get at the people we love is when they do something that puts them in danger, or when they do something that goes against our hopes for them, the person we believe them to be or want them to become. I remember that vividly from my own childhood; I see it in my own parenthood. And it helps me understand God.

Hear me: I’m not saying parental anger is pure and holy. Anger is important, powerful, and risky. Anger for good reason, expressed in healthy and constructive ways, can be a force for personal or public repentance,  amendment of life, and movement towards justice and righteousness.  But anger is often selfish or fearful as much as it is righteous, and we are, frankly, terrible at telling the difference. And anger can so easily become destructive, and have widespread and long-lasting consequences. Anger is like fire and water – necessary and life-giving, but also capable of terrible damage when misplaced or out of control.

Anger – or own or someone else’s – can be uncomfortable at best, and terrifying at worst. But we can’t simply say that anger is bad, is to be avoided. We can’t separate anger from hope, from justice, from love. Sometimes love gets angry.

And when we extend grace to a loved one and they don’t show up, when we seek relationship and the one we love turns away, the disappointment and frustration and grief we feel – the anger we feel – is a window into the loving, yearning, aching heart of God, the Parent of each of us and all of us.