Category Archives: Spiritual Practices

Sermon, May 20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Come, Holy Spirit! Maranatha!

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

Sermon, Oct. 1

It was late November, 2016, about ten months ago. Our country had just been through a brutal presidential election. Many, many people were terrified. Many, many people were triumphant. Just about everybody was angry. I was just trying to keep my bearings enough to keep on pastoring, you know? One day I sat down to put together the leaflet for our little Thanksgiving service, a simple Eucharist on the Wednesday evening before the holiday. And the lectionary offered me this text as the Epistle: “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

I put the text into the Thanksgiving leaflet, and then I put it on a page by itself, and printed it out, and put it near my desk, where I could look at it. And I did look at it, often, as we all fumbled through the changed American political landscape, those first weeks and months. Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just… think about these things. 

Those words are from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, the source of today’s Epistle. They’ll roll around in the lectionary again in a couple of weeks.The letter to the church in Philippi is short, only four chapters, and it has a pretty coherent message. Philippi was a city in the Macedonian region of Greece. Paul had helped found the church there, on one of his missionary journeys.  And the Philippian church was apparently one of his successes. He speaks of them so warmly in this letter. He warns them against some bad influences, and urges resolution of a conflict, but doesn’t rebuke them for misbehavior as he does in some of his letters to other early churches. It’s clear throughout the letter that he loves this church, and is proud of them, and anxious for them, as they face struggle and persecution for their faith.

Paul was writing to the Philippians from prison. It’s not clear whether this was his final imprisonment in Rome, before he was executed, or an earlier period of jail time. But either way, he wasn’t sure whether he’d get out, this time. He says he hopes to visit them again – but he’s also clearly trying to give them some words to hold onto, to live by… just in case.  And much of Paul’s message to the Philippians could be summed up in one word: Abide.

Abiding is one of our Discipleship Practices. It’s not quite as hot today so you might not have a church fan in your hand, but maybe you remember the list from warmer Sundays! About two years ago, as a parish project, we explored how we practice our faith in daily life. The choices we make, the habits we cultivate, because we are followers of Jesus.  And we summed up all our answers with seven practices:  Welcoming, Abiding, Wondering, Proclaiming, Turning, Reconciling, and Making.

Abide is an odd, churchy word.  When’s the last time you used it in conversation? It mostly shows up in old hymns and in the Gospel of John.  Abide means Stay, but it means more than Stay. It means to hold fast with intention and love, to anchor yourself in something, even when it’s hard.  Abiding is the spiritual practice of sticking with something or someone. Committing, investing, going deeper, putting down roots. Abiding is a practice that happens both among us and within us.  Among us, abiding means building and nurturing a community of trust, solidarity, fidelity, and love. Within us, abiding means taking it all in – Scriptures and songs, symbols and sacraments, and the concerns and joys of our companions too – and letting it find a home in us, and shape us.

Paul doesn’t use the word Abide in this letter. But he does talk about Abiding a lot. He begs his friends in the church in Philippi to abide with one another – stick together, and love each other – and to abide with the Gospel as they have received it. In chapter 1: “Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents.” Chapter 2, part of today’s lesson:  “It is by your holding fast to the word of life that I can boast on the day of Christ that I did not run in vain or labour in vain.” Chapter 3:  “Let us hold fast to what we have attained…”

And chapter 4, the beautiful culmination of the letter, is a call to abiding:

“Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved…. Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”

The fourth chapter is one of Paul’s most eloquent passages, and I’m sure his hope was to give this beloved church some words to live by, to come back to again and again, to pass down to the next generation and pass on to other churches.  Words to abide with. Christians have been abiding with these words for nearly 2000 years.

The Epistles, the books that are letters to the early churches, are some of the texts in the Bible that address us most directly as Christians. And one of the ways we can use those texts, one of the ways to receive their gifts and let God speak and work through them, is by abiding with them. Finding a verse or two that touches us, or stirs something in us, and carrying it with us for a while -memorizing it or turning it into a simple song, or putting it in your smartphone, or carrying a slip of paper in your purse or pocket… Or posting it near your desk where you can see it when you look up from your work, as I did with that portion of Philippians 4.

So today, I’m going to offer us an exercise in abiding, based in Paul’s letter about abiding. I’ve taken some snippets of text from the letter to the Philippians, and printed them out. Take one when the basket comes around. There should be plenty of extras so if your first one doesn’t speak to you, you can try again later.

Take the verse or verses and, well, abide with it. Maybe it’s carrying the slip around with you, or sticking it to your mirror or your dashboard, or using it as a bookmark, or using some fancy app on your phone to set it in a nice font over an artsy photo and set it as your home screen. Whatever works for you! Just try to come back to it, now and then, for a while. Read it and notice the words, and the meaning, and the feeling.  If the Spirit of God has something to say to you through this text, try to listen. It could take time.  If you spend enough time with these words for them to settle into you, they may swim up in your mind sometime when you don’t expect them – but when you need them. That certainly happens to me, with bits of Scripture and hymn and prayer text that I’ve taken in, by dwelling with them intentionally or just by being an Episcopalian for 42 years. Take a text and abide with it. For a while. A day, a week, a month? I don’t know. That’s up to you and God.  I’d love to hear what you try, and what you find.

I want to say one more thing about abiding. Abiding sounds like it would make you more and more settled – into one way of thinking or being, one place or community, one understanding of God. And that can be true up to a point – but not always.  In fact, the opposite often happens – at least if what you’re abiding with is true and just and commendable and lovely.

Paul knew that, expected that, too: That abiding with God’s words, God’s truth, God’s purposes, doesn’t lead to getting more and more sure and settled. Abiding with the Gospel leads you new places.  Abiding leads to Turning.

Turning is another of our practices of discipleship. We follow the teaching of Jesus Christ by being open to repentance, transformation, and call. The word “turning” springs from the New Testament word “metanoia,” meaning a change of mind that bears fruit in a changed life. In the words of the old hymn, “To turn, turn, shall be our delight, till by turning, turning, we come round right.” In the words of Michael Curry, our Presiding Bishop, in a sermon I heard long ago and have never forgotten, “God loves you just the way you are, but God’s not going to leave you that way.” Our turnings aren’t always dramatic; most of them are small and everyday.  A simple choice to do what ought to be done, or not to do what ought not to be done. A choice to help bear someone’s cross. A choice to speak and act from love.

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul talks about abiding, about holding fast and standing firm and keeping on; but Paul also expects all that abiding to form and to transform the community and its people. As much as he loves this church, as much pride as he takes in them, he knows that God has only begun to work in them. Chapter 1, verse 6: I am confident that the One who has begun a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Christ Jesus, when he returns to earth.  Chapter 2, verses 12 and 13: Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you.

Yes, fear and trembling! Abiding with the living word of God is serious business. A serious commitment to the good of others will change you. A serious commitment to dwell with what is good and just and honorable and lovely will change you.  “Think upon these things” isn’t an invitation to build yourself a beautiful bubble and ignore what’s going on outside. It’s a call to keep your eyes fixed on what’s good and true and important, and trust that light to guide you.

Abiding and turning – twin practices that only seem like opposites. Holding fast and letting go, standing firm and marching on, putting down roots and developing new growth. I invite you to abide with Paul’s words, passed down to us by the faithfulness of the church and the grace of the Holy Spirit. I invite you to let the words that come to you be a tool for God’s continued good work in you, helping you to desire and to work for God’s purposes, and to shine like stars in a dark world. And may these words and their work bless you, my beloved friends, my joy and my crown.

Sermon, August 13

Kol ha-olam kulo gesher tsar meod, gesher tsar meod, gesher tsar meod, Kol ha-olam kulo gesher tsar meod, gesher tsar meod. Ve ha-ikar, ha-ikar lo lifachad, lo lifachad klal. Ve ha-ikar, ha-ikar lo lifachad klal. 

The words are Hebrew, and they mean: The whole world is a very narrow bridge, But the most important thing is not to be afraid. The whole world – kol ha-olam – is a very narrow bridge, gesher tsar meod. But the most important thing is not to be afraid.

I learned this song in 1995, during the five weeks or so that I spent in Jerusalem. It was supposed to be the beginning of my junior year abroad, But a horrific bus bombing and an escalation in violence, in the long, costly war between Israel and Palestine, changed all that. Along with many students in the same program, I ended up going home; I spent my junior year in Canterbury, England, instead. But between the bombing and getting on the plane back to Indiana, I had a week-plus of living with fear, with an intimacy and intensity that was new to me. That’s probably why this song stuck – I needed it, badly. Those simple words became an anchor for me, in the storm of fear in which I found myself – along with Psalm 107, which I discovered in the little student edition of the Book of Common Prayer that my chaplain had given me before I left: Their hearts melted because of their peril, they were at their wits’ end. Then God stilled the storm to a whisper… and brought them to the harbor they were bound for.

The whole world is a very narrow bridge, but the most important thing is not to be afraid.

The disciples saw Jesus walking towards them across the water, and they thought he was a ghost; they cried out in fear. But Jesus said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Then Peter said, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you across the water.” And Jesus said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, and started walking towards Jesus, across the water. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened. And beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

Preachers often use this story to preach about faith. But I think this tiny, important story is just as much about fear. In our translation, Jesus says that Peter “doubted.” That word suggests that Peter’s faith was faltering. Yet Peter cries out to Jesus for help as he sinks. The Greek word translated as “doubt” here is pretty interesting. It doesn’t mean questioning something you believe. The word, distazo, literally means something like being of two minds, being conflicted, wavering. What’s happening inside of Peter in this moment isn’t that his faith in Jesus is faltering; it’s that something else creeps in alongside his faith, and wreaks havoc on his balance and direction. Peter notices the strong wind, and he becomes afraid. Fear comes alongside his eagerness, his sense of hopeful purpose. He wavers; he begins to sink.

Take heart, says Jesus. The words “Take heart” appear five times in the Bible. “Take courage” appears 21 times, and “Be courageous” 12 times. Do not be afraid, says Jesus. “Do not be afraid” appears in the Bible 67 times. “Have no fear” appears another 11 times. That’s 116 exhortations to resist fear – and that’s only the ones that are easy to find in a text search.

The Bible treats fear as a spiritual challenge – one of the biggest spiritual challenges. God knows – and the ancient authors who recorded the holy stories of God’s people, knew – that fear shakes us, weakens us, holds us back, Turns us against one another. Fear corrodes our ideals, our convictions, our hopes.

What does it feel like in your body, when you’re afraid? Think about it for a minute; remember. I don’t know if it feels the same for everybody, though the biological processes are basically the same. Do you hear a kind of rushing in your ears? Does your gut clench? Does your heart race?

Scientists tell us that the fear response, what happens in our bodies when we feel threatened, is a deep-seated adaptive response. Something that helped our ancient ancestors survive, long before we first stood up on two legs. The fear response pushes us towards one of three actions: Fight, flight, or freeze.

Fight: That’s clear enough. That means our little primordial mammal-selves Are going to fight that predator tooth and claw. What does that look like in “civilized” society? When someone raises an idea that threatens our worldview, or a concern that challenges our plan, we respond with anger. We attack. We try to drive away the inconvenient truth or the challenging idea, by hurting or intimidating or silencing the person who’s raising it. I’ve done this. So have you.

Flight: That’s clear enough too. That means our little primordial mammal-self RUNS AWAY. Maybe we can outrun the predator, escape the danger. In our lives, that looks like getting out of a situation when it starts to feel challenging or threatening. Walk back that thing you said, and apologize; you meant it, but you’re not prepared to deal with the reaction. Decide not to put yourself forward for that opportunity, because you probably don’t have the right qualifications. Don’t buy that swimsuit; Good Lord, what if someone takes your photo and puts it on the Internet, and people laugh at you? I experience the Flight reaction in one very specific way: when situations become a certain kind of stressful, a child’s voice – presumably mine – in the back of my head says, clear as day, “I want to go home.” What does the Flight response feel like inside of you? You’ve done this, too.

And then there’s Freeze – that means our little primordial mammal-self goes totally still: maybe the predator won’t see me, will walk on by. You’ve seen rabbits and squirrels do this. In our modern, civilized lives, that looks like: not rocking the boat. Keeping quiet when your boss makes a racist joke. Sticking with the job you hate because who knows if you could find something else. Holding your truth locked up inside you because the people closest to you might hurt you if they knew. Don’t try that hard thing, that big daring thing, because failure would be worse than not trying. Wouldn’t it? Just… hold still and keep quiet, and maybe everything will be OK. I’ve done this, and so have you.

Fight, flight, or freeze – that’s what happens inside us, when we’re afraid. What happens among us, when we’re afraid? … Leaders discovered a long, long time ago that fear is an outstanding tool for managing and manipulating large groups of people. It’s easy to scare people, and hard to un-scare them. Our brains are lousy at probability: we will readily believe that a certain risk is orders of magnitude greater than it actually is, and we’ll allow that sense of danger to shape our worldview and drive our behavior. And once we’re afraid, as a society, we’ll tolerate all kinds of things if they give us the illusion of greater safety. The limiting of our freedoms and privacies. The demonization of people in a group that’s seen as a threat. The proliferation of weapons in our homes and neighborhoods, which, the data say quite clearly, makes us less safe, not more.

The French philosopher Anne Dufourmantelle wrote and spoke extensively about all this, in her book, “In Praise of Risk,” and elsewhere. She said, Risk is part of life. Danger, loss, hardship, challenge: it’s all just a given. It will come to you, and to those you love. Certainly you can make better choices – fasten your seat belt, take your medication – but human life will never be safe. In a 2015 interview, she said that the idea of “absolute security” is a fantasy – and not an innocent fantasy: one that’s often used as a political weapon of control. And it can become a feedback cycle: the visible apparatus of security, like armed guards on street corners, can feed public fear and thus make us even more subject to manipulation through the promise of security. She said, ”To imagine an enemy ready to attack… induces a state of paralysis, a feeling of helplessness.” There’s that “freeze” response…

Dufourmantelle argued, instead, for accepting risk as part of the human condition. The human response to risk can be noble, beautiful. She told the interviewer, “When there really is a danger that must be faced in order to survive, as for example during the Blitz in London, there is a strong incentive for action, dedication, and surpassing oneself.”

I’d never heard of Anne Dufourmantelle until her name cropped up in the news a couple of weeks ago. She’d been swimming at a beach in France, when the ocean currents suddenly intensified and became dangerous. When the alert went out, she saw two children nearby, and instead of heading directly for shore, she set out to try and rescue them. The children were saved, but Dufourmantelle drowned. Living what she professed. Rising to the risk before her.

Is that supposed to be an encouraging story? I hear you asking. She wound up dead. But imagine how it could easily have ended: She saved herself, and the children were lost. Is one’s own death the worst possible outcome in every situation? What would Jesus do?

Kol ha-olam…. The whole world is a very narrow bridge…

As I look back on it, It occurs to me that those weeks in Israel, when I was 20, may have been the crucible in which one of my fundamental spiritual practices was formed: the practice of resisting fear. Because I spent a couple of weeks living in terror, and I hated how it felt. I hated being so preoccupied with my basic physical safety. It was hard to think about anything else, to enjoy, to learn. I hated how selfish it made me. I hated how it made me afraid of people.

Sometime along the road of recovering from that dark chapter, I decided I didn’t want to be ruled by fear, ever again. It wasn’t until this week that it dawned on me to think of that as a spiritual practice. But it is; it really is. I practice it imperfectly, to be sure. But I try to live as a follower of a God who says, Fear not. Take courage.

Resisting fear doesn’t mean being naive or blindly optimistic, or pretending everything is going to be OK. Scripture and God and the saints nowhere claim that being beloved of God means nothing bad will ever happen. Instead, they insist that none of those dangers can touch your fundamental life in God. It’s hard to say it better than Paul does in our recent text from the letter to the Romans: “Who can separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, illness, poverty, danger, violence? No! I am convinced that neither death nor life, angels nor rulers, things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

So if security is a dangerous illusion, what are the alternatives to fear? Well, I can name a few, from my own practice. Maybe you have others; I’d love to hear about them. These are some of ways I manage myself, when I start to feel the urge to fight, or freeze, or flee. When I start to get distazo, when fear creeps in alongside my faith, my sense of hopeful purpose.

One alternative to fear is curiosity – approaching the things that scare us with curiosity and wonder. Charles Lafond has written a lot about fear as a spiritual challenge, in general and particularly in our relationship with money. He wrote this, last year: “Choosing curiosity over fear takes no small amount of courage.  There is so much to fear. There are the many diagnoses, the possibility of plague, not getting my way in everything, the teetering economy, not getting my way in everything (it deserves saying twice), the Presidential Election, tooth decay, a melting ice cap, and my inability to smell bad salmon… But curiosity is so much more gentle than fear. It winks, for one thing.  And it seduces, which is pleasant. And curiosity is the gift that keeps on giving, making life a treasure hunt if we let it.”

Another alternative to fear is compassion. Madison is seeing almost-unprecedented levels of gun violence right now. There have been ten homicides so far this year. One of the neighborhoods affected is not far from my home; kids who are living with occasional gunfire on their street go to school with my daughter. As a concerned citizen, I could react to this in a couple of ways. I could get scared, for myself and my family, despite the vanishingly small likelihood that this violence will touch us directly. Or I could be dismayed and grieved for those affected by this violence – including the perpetrators, who surely would rather have a safer and better path in life. It’s really hard to be both compassionate towards those affected, and afraid for myself, at the same time. We’re not cut out for that. I have to choose – and I’ve chosen.

Another alternative to fear is courage. I think of both curiosity and compassion as ways to sneak around behind the fear and find a different way of engaging the situation. But courage means facing the fear head-on. Looking it right in the face. Getting to know it. Befriending it, even. How do you take courage? For me the process goes something like this. I think about the risks, as calmly as I can. What’s the worst that could happen – and how likely is it, really? I think about the resources I bring to the situation. When making that inventory, remember, always, to count the basic things that nurture and sustain you: song and prayer, fresh fruit and evening skies, the love of friends, family, pets, whatever it might be for you. And I think about the hopes or possibilities that brought me to the point where I’m facing this fear. What’s important enough to make me undertake something hard and scary? If it’s really important – and especially if I feel God calling me towards it – well, then, forward.

I am not a master at the art of resisting fear. I’ve been practicing for a while, but only haphazardly. I would love to hear about your techniques. But I know it’s an important spiritual discipline for me – and I wonder if it might be for all of us, in this moment in the life of the world, when so much fear is circling among us.

Take courage. Don’t be afraid. God is here. Jesus and God and saints and prophets and angels say it, over and over and over again. Could it be part of the message we’re entrusted with, too? Words we’re given for the welfare and hope of our neighbors?

The whole world is a very narrow bridge, but the most important thing is not to be afraid… Take heart.

Sources:

On Anne Dufourmantelle: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-40703606

Charles Lafond on curiosity: http://thedailysip.org/2016/08/18/668/

Rev. Jonathan Grieser’s recent reflection on gun violence in Madison: https://gracerector.wordpress.com/2017/08/02/murder-city-madison/

Our Immigrant Stories

As immigration has become a major topic in our national conversation, we as Christians are mindful that our holy book commands us to be kind to the stranger residing among us. You shall love the stranger living among you, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt, says Leviticus 19 – one of many places where mercy towards the outsider is mentioned.  Our Scriptures and our God call us to treat immigrants with kindness and respect – remembering that we or our ancestors were once immigrants seeking a new home. To help us understand the lives, needs, and fears of our immigrant neighbors, some members of St. Dunstan’s have been sharing their own “how I got here” stories.

Julie

My immigrant story really is my grandmother’s story. I never knew her, because she died in the mid-1930s, when my father was a teenager. But I spent most Wednesday afternoons after school with my great-aunt Frances, her sister, and she loved to talk about my grandmother to me.

My paternal grandparents emigrated from one of many German enclaves in Romania in the first decade of the 20th century, before World War I. Their entire village and the extended families of both my grandmother and grandfather immigrated to the United States together. My grandfather was possessed of a simple ambition: to own his own land, for back in Romania he never would have been allowed to do so, as he was only a peasant.

After a few years of working hard in America, he achieved his dream and bought his own dairy farm. Many members of their families and fellow villagers settled in the same area, about 60 miles north of Detroit, Michigan. My grandparents had four children, two born in Romania and two, including my dad, born in this country. They were contented on the farm. My grandfather planted roses around the house and by the barnyard fence for my grandmother, roses that still bloom by our horse paddock gate here in Wisconsin. He made the old farmhouse as pretty as possible for her, too, with wallpaper and paint and a marble-topped table in the parlor. He was one of the first farmers in the area to install an indoor bathroom in their house. All this and more to make my grandmother happy.

And she was, I think, mostly contented. But she dreaded going into town. Back then, people disliked and looked down on immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, especially if they were Catholic. When she went into town with her children, people were unfriendly, some even going so far as to cross the street to avoid the newcomers. “Why do they hate us so?” she used to ask her sister, my great-aunt Frances, tears pouring down her face. All the older German women who knew her used to tell me after mass each Sunday that she was the sweetest, gentlest soul they ever knew, and perhaps this is the reason she never grew accustomed to the prejudice she faced. One day, she laid her head down on the table at breakfast and said, “I’m so tired,” and died.

My great-aunt Frances always maintained to me that my grandma died of a broken heart, that she wore herself out pining for something that would never be given to her, no matter how spruce her home and farm, no matter how white and starched the immaculate lace dresses she put on her three young girls for town visits. She craved respect and friendship from the people among whom she settled, and she never got that. Of course, who knows whether that unrequited dream contributed to her death? But I’m certain that she felt the sadness my great aunt told me about, for they were very close.

This seems a sad story, doesn’t it? But its ending is not sad, I hope. Before I share the end of the story, though, let me first share a few facts. My German grandparents came here during a period when this country, according to the Pew Research Center, had a very high percentage of foreign-born residents. And it’s predicted that we may break the record for that percentage within the next few years. Many things about immigration have changed since my grandparents came over from eastern Europe. Here are just a few: there are now more immigrants who are Hispanic, though that also will change in the future, Pew Research analysts predict; there are more refugees in the world than at any other time in the last seventy years except right at the end of World War II; and there are many foreign-born residents here without legal authorization who have not been able to, and will not be able to, secure that authorization. One can gain legal permission to remain here through work, family ties, or for humanitarian reasons, but those exceptions don’t apply to many of the undocumented immigrants in our country. There is, at this point, no line for a large percentage of the undocumented immigrants in this country to go stand at the end of, so that they can secure permission to stay here.

It’s true that as a society today, we don’t always agree about how to address the challenges of today’s undocumented immigrants and others who arrive in our country. But I think some things about immigrants, authorized or otherwise, remain the same as when my family emigrated here. People still want to feel welcomed to our country, and accepted. And other people still feel threatened by people with a different culture and a different language, perhaps fearful that the way of life that is theirs will change.

As for my grandmother, I believe she would be happy to see that her family has thrived in America, that all her grandchildren have college degrees while many have obtained advanced professional degrees. My grandparents valued education, as well as hard work, music, and beauty. Naturally, my grandfather, being German, also valued a bottle of good beer! We feel part of the life of this country. It took about two generations for the German Catholic community from Romania to fully integrate into the small town where I grew up, but it did. Even though we are no longer strangers to this country, however, I don’t forget my grandmother’s pain. I remember Barbara Loeffler’s story.

I think about her path as a stranger to this country, and I think about my path to this church of St. Dunstan’s. My journey, nowhere near as difficult as hers, was made easy by so many people here. And I thank you all for that, and for listening to my grandmother’s story.

Nana

We were born in South Africa. At the time we emigrated in 1985 we had lived most of our lives there. This was where we grew up, were educated, had our family and worked for more than a decade. Peter grew up Methodist, I was Anglican and after our marriage, we worshipped in both communions. South Africa was also where our parents and siblings lived. Why, then, did we leave?

South Africa was an apartheid society, with power and wealth in the hands of whites (who were less than 20% of the population). As we grew up, resistance to the status quo by the subservient black population led to draconian laws that limited where black people could live, who they could marry, what jobs they could hold, and what consequences they faced if they transgressed. To manage this, the apartheid government ramped up security forces – both police and the military. After high school, all white males were conscripted for at least two years: their primary purpose was to maintain the status quo. States of emergency that suspended normal civil liberties were imposed. The polarization between white and black increased to the point that mediation efforts appeared to be withering, and outright civil war seemed a distinct possibility. Small wonder, then, that in spite of our deep roots, we decided South Africa was not a country where we wanted to spend the rest of our lives.

The next question was: Where should we go? Since both of our ancestral families were from the UK, and that is where we both went for postgraduate study and where we met, this might have seemed an obvious choice.  But 2½ years in Vancouver, Canada where Peter had a post-doctoral fellowship and I did my master’s, changed our minds: we’d have happily stayed. There were personal reasons – we look back on that time as an extended honeymoon, we made life-long friends and Fraser, our son, was born there, I completed my master’s and Peter found new professional directions. But there were no jobs. After 6 years back in South Africa, a sabbatical gave us the opportunity to spend more than a year in Ithaca, NY. This was highly influential for both of us in our professional development. Once again, we’d have happily stayed. Two in-depth, decidedly positive North American experiences convinced us that this is where we could happily live. It took, however, another 5 years back in South Africa before contacts initiated in Ithaca bore fruit with a faculty position at the UW-Madison.

We are conscious that we have been extraordinarily privileged in our lives. Our decision to leave was not forced on us by deprivation, persecution, or civil war. As white English-speaking South Africans, we had access to excellent schools that opened doors to university education in South Africa and to study-abroad opportunities after graduation. These gave us a perspective on other parts of the world beyond the borders of South Africa. Our decision to come here was also a choice that we could pursue on our terms, and do so in an orderly manner: we received a job offer at the UW-Madison where they held the position open for more than a year until our green cards were issued. To get established here we were indebted with the support we received from many quarters: professional, social and spiritual.

These two questions – Why leave? and Where to go? – faced many of our own ancestors, as they do for the vast number of migrants and refugees we see in the world today. Shortly after we were married we met an Indian physicist in Canada. He told us he was a citizen of the world, and he had a newsletter to promote this concept. We signed on, and that is what we are today: citizens of the world.

Sermon, June 18

When have you felt welcome? What made you feel that way? In today’s passage from Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus sends out the Twelve to preach the Kingdom, to spread the good news that God is still present, still acting, still saving. The way he tells them to do it is really interesting. He says, Stay in people’s homes. Matthew says, ‘whoever is worthy,’ but in Luke’s parallel passage, Jesus says, Just stay with whoever will welcome you. Whoever lets you in, and gives you a corner to sleep in. (And honor their hospitality by staying with them until it’s time to move on; don’t move to a nicer house even if it’s offered!) Don’t bring money, or food, or even extra clothes or shoes. Don’t be self-sufficient. Depend on the kindness of strangers. Jesus knows this will be hard and scary! – “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves!” But he’s very clear about it.

We name welcoming as one of the discipleship practices of our congregation. Receiving one another, for the first or the thousandth time, with warmth and generosity. Embracing people in the fullness of who they are, the scars they carry, the gifts they bring. And we have an icon of welcome hanging near the door to our nave: this little icon, a reproduction of an icon that was painted for St. Francis house, our sister faith community over on campus. Iconographer Drazen Dupor painted that image for St. Francis House, based loosely on very famous icon of the Three Angels visiting Abraham and Sarah, today’s Old Testament passage. This story is especially significant in Christian thought because those three angels have long been seen as foreshadowing the Trinity. The scene becomes an icon of hospitality because of Abraham’s ready, no-questions-asked welcome for these three strange guests. It joins countless folktales from around the world of people who responded with kindness towards strangers who turned out to be powerful beings, and rewarded hospitality with blessings – in Abraham and Sarah’s case, their much-wanted, long-awaited child.

The artist told me something about this image that I really enjoy, a significant detail: the napkins are messy. He explained that according to Near Eastern tradition, at the end of the meal, if you’re the guest, and you fold your napkin and neatly place it on the table, it means that you still feel like a guest. Whereas if you just toss your napkin on the table any old how, it means that your hosts succeeded in making you feel like family. You felt truly welcomed. It’s hard to see in this small version, but the iconographer painted the napkins in this image as messy napkins. A detail that calls our attention to the grace and responsibility of being a guest, rather than a host.

This story from the book of Genesis is just one of many examples in Scripture when God comes to humanity as a guest. When God allows humans to set the table, and preside at the feast. Jesus is fundamentally God incarnate as a guest among us. And he’s constantly a guest at some feast or another. Even at the Last Supper, where we imagine him at the head of the table, it was not his table, not his home, not his food. Someone else prepared that meal and made that room available for Jesus and his friends, that evening. God makes Godself our guest, in Genesis, in Jesus; and in today’s Gospel Jesus tells his followers to do the same. Welcoming is well and good; a few verses later Jesus will promise God’s favor to those who practice hospitality. But here he his directions are: Go be a guest. Why?

It would be so easy to take today’s Scriptures and preach on the virtues and practices of hospitality and welcome. I feel the gravity of it, like a coin circling one of those big plastic funnels at a science museum. But this gospel is not calling us to hospitality. In the language of our Discipleship Practices – conveniently listed on our church fans – this lesson is about proclamation rather than about welcoming. About proclaiming, by word and example, the good news of God’s love and God’s hope for the world, to those outside our community of faith. Evangelism: which means that we take what this all means to us, how it’s touched our lives, given us strength or hope, whatever it is that keeps us coming back, and we carry that with us as part of the story we tell about ourselves, part of the answer we give when someone asks us, How are you? What’s giving you joy? What’s keeping you strong? Evangelism, which in its simplest shyest gentlest form simply means letting the people around you know that God has a place in your life.

Churches, at least mainline Protestant churches like the Episcopal Church, are by and large much more comfortable with welcoming than with proclamation. In fact we’d sort of like to think that the former can substitute for the latter. And for the people who actually walk up to our doors looking for a community with which to puzzle out this whole God business, maybe it can. But there are a whole lot of people wondering and seeking and struggling who are not going to walk up to these doors, for all kinds of reasons. They’ve been burned by church in the past, or simply found it boring and irrelevant. Or their lives have just never taken them close enough to church and faith for it to occur to them that they might find strength, solace, grace, purpose, in a community of faith and in relationship with the Divine. And there are people who are genuinely not in the market for a church, but who might still be looking for God.

Think about the task of evangelism that Jesus gives the disciples. It would have been much easier to go to each village, rent the Elks lodge, hold a big dinner, invite everybody, and then while they’re sitting there between dinner and dessert, and feel like they owe you their attention in exchange for the meal, that’s when you stand up and talk about Jesus.

Being the host is a position of power. Being the guest means making yourself beholden. Entering someone else’s home, and life, and story. When we are the guest – whether it’s at a meal in someone’s home, or out at a coffee shop, or hanging out at a community picnic, or any time when the setting and occasion are not our own – when we are the guest, we set aside the security of our own familiar space, and the comfort of being the people who called the meeting, with the implicit right to frame the conversation and set the agenda. When we’re the guest, we feel keenly that we can’t sit at someone’s table, eat their food, and then push back our plate and say, I’d like to tell you about Jesus. You can’t demand your host’s attention or cooperation. That’s not how hospitality works, for host or guest.

Jesus sends his disciples out to share the good news that God works for good for and around and within and among us; and to share that good news from the vulnerability, the beholden-ness, of being a guest. Just as he did. I think that approach was wise then; I think it may be even wiser now. We live in a capitalist society which has trained all of us to be keenly aware of when we are being sold something. Americans are very sensitive to being treated as marks, as potential sales. And generally speaking, we don’t much care for it. Even when I actually want to buy a sofa, having a saleswoman sidle up to me with a big smile makes me a little uncomfortable.

But if we can’t enter the conversation with our plans laid out and our speeches prepared, then what can we do? Well – we can listen to our hosts, or fellow guests. Their hopes, their hurts, their longings. We can be open to moments when we might speak God’s love into someone’s life, through relationship rather than agenda. Genuineness instead of preparedness. Presence instead of power. Small moments instead of big speeches. As Rob Chappell said last year, just saying, “I’ll pray about that,” says a lot.

It helps if you can manage to think of what you have to say about God in your life – your testimony, friends – as a gift instead of an imposition. It’s a truth you have to tell about yourself – and listen, I know y’all; I know that those stories range from “God saved my life” to “I’m not sure why I’m here or whether I believe any of this stuff but something keeps bringing me back.” All those stories are gifts; all those stories contain grace; they’re all worth telling. Trust me.

Matthew’s gospel doesn’t tell us how this mission turned out, how it all went for those disciples sent forth as sheep among wolves. But Luke does, in his telling. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus sends out not twelve but seventy disciples, empty-handed, unprepared, to find someone who’ll house them and feed them, and look for opportunities to talk about God. And Luke says, They returned with joy.

They returned with joy. Amen.

Sermon, May 7

Who’s heard of Napoleon? The French general? What if I told you that Napoleon was actually… taller than average? This week I read a thought-provoking cartoon written by artist Matthew Inman, for his site The Oatmeal. Matthew uses goofy images to share some of what cognitive scientists have learned about how people respond to new information. It turns out that the response depends on the information – specifically, whether the information challenges an existing idea that’s important to us, that feels central to our worldview. He offers some examples like the one about Napoleon that are pretty easy to take on board. We just think, “Huh. Okay.”

And then he offers a few examples that he suspects some of his readers will find more challenging or unsettling. Like, Jesus Christ was not born on December 25th. The Pledge of Allegiance was written by a socialist. Neither of those gave me much pause, but your mileage may vary. Or take a piece I read recently that revealed that Margaret Atwood, the author of the famous feminist dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, once spoke up to support a fellow writer who’d been fired from his university job for harassing female students. There’s more friction, more discomfort, in taking in facts like these.

We are not equally open to new ideas. Some are just interesting new information that maybe changes our thinking or outlook a little, but is easy to integrate. Some new ideas stretch us, make us re-examine our assumptions. It might take some inner heavy lifting to take them on board. And some new ideas are so challenging that we shut down entirely. We lock up our minds. We build a wall. It doesn’t matter how persuasive the evidence is – whether that’s evidence in the form of data and facts, or the evidence of someone else’s life experience that casts a new light on our world and our thinking. In fact when something really challenges our deep-seated beliefs, more evidence may actually make us shut down even MORE, in a phenomenon called the backfire effect.

When we encounter a new idea that really shakes up our fundamental understandings, our brains respond the same way we would respond to a physical threat. Which is not by getting more flexible or thoughtful, but by flooding our systems with adrenaline, in preparation to FIGHT off the threat – or run away! In those moments, people get confused. Conflicted. Angry. Kind of like the Pharisees in the 9th and 10th chapters of the gospel of John.

Today’s Gospel is one of the times when we really need to know what came before it. If you start at chapter 10, verse 1, it’s easy to take this as just a theological speech, with no particular context or audience. But in fact the context and the audience are really important – and you know about them, if you were here on March 26. Because we had the 9th chapter of John, that Sunday, and we acted it out, just to make sure you’d remember it! There was a young man who was born blind – his eyes didn’t work. And then Jesus came along, and healed him! And that’s when the trouble began.

The leaders in his church, his synagogue, were confused and upset. This kind of healing is so unusual that it’s clearly a miracle. But does that mean that Jesus is using God’s power? Or is he using the Devil’s power instead, or dark magic? And if he is using God’s power – what does that mean? Because we have heard about this guy Jesus, and a lot of what he teaches is different from the way we understand the faith of our God and our ancestors! And if Jesus DOES have some uniquely close relationship with God, then what does that mean for the monotheism that is the non-negotiable heart of Judaism – there is only, always, ever, ONE God!…

The fact of Jesus’ healing of this young man is new information that is way at the fight or flight end of the spectrum for these Pharisees. Matthew Inman says, There’s no magic trick to get around these moment. All you can do is understand how it works, and when you notice it happening inside yourself, ride out that stress reaction and THEN give the new information a serious look and assess whether and how it should change your thinking. He concludes, “I’m not here to… tell you what to believe. I’m just here to tell you that it’s okay to stop. To listen. To change.” And that is exactly where today’s gospel starts: with Jesus trying to talk the Pharisees down a little bit. To get them to listen. Reflect. Wonder. Change.

We get this Gospel lesson today because at some point the Church named the fourth Sunday of Easter as Good Shepherd Sunday. Every year we have one of the passages where Jesus uses this image of himself as the Shepherd (or in this case, the Gate). And preachers usually preach on the image, the metaphor, and probably I will too, next time around. But once I realized that this is the end of that other story, I got more interested in the context and purpose of the conversation than its content.

This passage, Jesus’ extended metaphor of himself as the Good Shepherd, is the moment in the story of the healing of the blind man when Jesus and the Pharisees finally talk to each other. Before that, there was a lot of talking ABOUT Jesus, who he was and what to do about him. Some of them were saying, This man is not from God, for he performed this act of healing on the Sabbath, when God’s people are commanded to rest. Others were saying, How can a sinner perform such miracles? The Pharisees, this group of local religious leaders and scholars, were divided among themselves – and likely conflicted within themselves. And as the story moves along, their anxiety ratchets up, until they become pretty shrill and angry and panicky. (I have been in that mental space, 100%. Anybody else?) They cast out the Man Born Blind – and Jesus comes back around to affirm that young man in his stubborn faith in the One who gave him sight. And he offers one of his paradoxical pronouncements: “I came into this world to bring sight to those who do not see, and blindness to those who do see.” Some of the Pharisees are hanging around – and they say, “Wait. We’re not blind…?” They’re curious about Jesus, interested enough that they care what he thinks and what he has to say, even though he also upsets and challenges them.

Jesus says, “If you were really blind” – remember, folks, we’re talking about *figuratively* blind – “If you were really blind, nobody could blame you for your failures. But since you think you can see, you are culpable.” And then he starts talking about sheep. And gates. And bandits. And stuff. Reading this passage in light of chapter 9, and noticing the cues about the interaction between Jesus and the Pharisees, has really changed how I imagine the tone of this speech. A lot of sources assume that the “thieves and bandits” are an allusion to the Pharisees themselves, and that Jesus is attacking their leadership here, slamming them. But I think he’s actually trying to reassure them.

Here’s what I think he’s saying: “You have been fierce and valiant defenders of our faith. There have been thieves and bandits, over the centuries, who have tried to change or distort or destroy the faith of our God and our ancestors. There have been false prophets and false messiahs – so many. But I’m not one of them. I am the real thing. And you can know that by the evidence of your own eyes: because you saw how I tended one of my sheep, that young man whose eyes didn’t work, and how he responded to me, following my voice like a sheep who knows its shepherd. Those false prophets did what they did for their own gain, or to sow destruction and death. But God the Gatekeeper sent me here to give life to the sheep – abundant life.”

I think Jesus is trying to win them over, or at least to help them understand. And they don’t react like people who feel attacked. They react like people who are still trying to make sense of a big, hard, challenging new idea. That verse isn’t in today’s lesson but here’s how the scene ends: “Again they were divided because of these words. Many were saying, ‘He has a demon and is out of his mind!’ But others were saying, ‘These are not the words of one who has a demon….’”

Divided. Conflicted. Challenged, but fascinated. Struggling to make sense of an unfamiliar truth. I feel for them. I have absolutely been there. It’s a difficult space, that space between the old and the new ways of thinking. A hard space – but also a holy one. This is why Turning is one of the practices of discipleship that we name and affirm here at St. Dunstan’s: We follow the teaching of Jesus Christ by being open to repentance, transformation, and call. This is why “Seek opportunities to learn, turn, and amend” is on the personal Rule of Life I read to myself every morning. Because one of the most important things that makes the Church not just an especially peculiar and anachronistic social club is our conviction that God isn’t done with us yet. That we don’t have it all figured out on our own. That in the words of one of our hymns, the Lord has yet more light and truth to break forth from his Word. That there is deeper and farther to go into the mysteries of God and of our fellow human beings. Knowing that Turning is part of the life of faith is our way of telling ourselves and each other that it’s okay to stop. To listen. To change. Sometimes a new idea or perspective or truth will confuse us and unsettle us, even make us angry; but bit by bit, if we are faithful to the work, listening and wondering and attending to what God is showing us, will transform us into the image of Christ, in whom there is no falsity, and no fear.

In a moment we’ll perform the sacrament of baptism, one of our holiest rites, one of my greatest privileges. In this sacrament we are baptized into certainty: into belonging to a faithful God, marked as Christ’s own forever; into having a loving family of faith that will always welcome and support, no questions asked. But friends, we are also baptized into uncertainty. Into curiosity. Into growth, into change. Into seeking, wondering, repenting, turning. Baptized into life in God who is not done with us yet.

Matthew Inman’s comic may be read here. Language warning! 

Sermon, Nov. 20

Today we conclude our annual Giving Campaign, the weeks in which we invite members and friends of the parish to make a pledge of financial support for the coming year, so that we can develop a budget and move ahead on a sound footing. In a few moments we’ll bless the pledges we’ve received. And we’ve celebrated with pie, which is the best way to celebrate.

But I have to say: This has been a TERRIBLE year for preaching about financial stewardship. For hitting the usual themes of generosity and gratitude and laying up treasure in heaven… First, there was an election. As your pastor and preacher, I could hardly pretend that wasn’t on everyone’s minds, including my own. And now we end the Giving Campaign with the Crucifixion? Seriously?

The lectionary does this every three years. Today is Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday in the church year – the first Sunday in Advent, next year, is our New Year’s Day. On Christ the King Sunday, our liturgy and scriptures invite us to reflect on the cosmic and paradoxical kingship of Jesus. In one year of our three-year cycle of readings, we have the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, which reminds us that we serve our King by serving those most in need. In one year we have Jesus’ conversation about kingship with Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor. And this year – Year C, the year we end today – we have the scene from today’s Gospel: Jesus on the cross, alone, defeated, dying. Not much of a king.

It’s not an easy thing, but I think it’s a good thing, that the lectionary places the Crucifixion in front of us now and then when we aren’t expecting it, when it’s not Good Friday and we don’t have jelly beans and Alleluias stashed in the cupboard, all ready for Easter right around the corner. Of course at St. Dunstan’s, the Crucifixion is always in front of us. It’s unusual for an Episcopal church to have a crucifix – an image of Jesus on the cross – as its focal point. But that’s the choice our elders made, here, back in 1963 or so. So we worship with the Crucifixion, Jesus’ moment of greatest pain and weakness, right in front of us, all the time. Some of you are OK with it, and some of you really don’t care for it – I don’t know of anyone who claims to love it? Kids notice him, and guests, but for a lot of us the image has become so familiar that we don’t really see it, let alone think about it.

Let’s think about it today – about the Crucifixion, and more to the point, about the kingship of the Cross. I’ve got a few thoughts to share – roughly in order from Things I Understand Pretty Well, to Things I Find Deeply Mysterious But Still Believe.

Thought number one: Following this King – this one, the one hanging from a cross in shame – claiming to be subjects of this King should give a certain skepticism, a kind of critical distance, to our views of any human king – or president, principal, mayor, et cetera. Really, ANY leader – the ones we like as well as the ones we fear.

On Good Friday afternoon, every year, I invite kids here to walk the Stations of the Cross with me. And when we come to the eleventh Station, Jesus is Nailed to the Cross, I tell the kids: Sometimes the people in charge are wrong. Maybe because of a mistake or a failure, maybe because their priorities or intentions are not good, but one way or another, sometimes, the people in authority, our leaders, teachers, principals, moms and dads, policemen, presidents, can be wrong. I always half-expect a parent to grab their child and march out in indignation at that part, but nobody has. We all know it’s true; it’s just hard to admit to our kids. But it should be easy for us to remember, with the Crucifix before us every week. Our God was executed as a criminal. Knowing that must help us remember to question our leaders, and the mechanisms of power and punishment in our time, holding them up to God’s standards of justice and mercy.

And let it be noted, please, that the leaders in Jesus’ day weren’t just wrong because they condemned and executed Jesus, the Son of God. They were wrong because they perpetuated a system that punished theft with brutal execution. It’s not clear from the text whether the criminals crucified with Jesus were simple burglars or violent bandits. But it is clear, from a survey of ancient sources, that crucifixion was routinely used as the punishment for theft, fraud, and other non-violent crimes, especially when committed by those of low status, the socially and economically vulnerable. The criminal justice system in Judea under Roman rule was wrong because it murdered people for minor crimes. The leaders of that time and place were unjust, because they created and reinforced a political and economic status quo that drove people into poverty and desperation, and then punished them harshly when they did the things that poor and desperate people sometimes do.

Following this King should give us a critical eye for earthly kings and leaders.

Thought number two: Jesus on the cross is God’s greatest argument against the mindset of self-preservation, of “I’ve got mine,” of looking out for Number One. Notice that three times, in Luke’s account, somebody suggests that Jesus should save himself. “Let him save himself is he is the Messiah of God.” “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”

That word “save” – Sozo in Greek – it’s the same word as the root of Soterio, Salvation. Those two words are a core concept for the New Testament. Save: rescue, deliver, free, help, heal, sustain, restore – all of that wrapped up in one word. It’s the right word for this moment, for what Jesus is doing, on the cross. But the people taunting him are pointing it in the wrong direction. Jesus will not save himself. The people mocking him think he’s powerless. “Save yourself!” is a joke because how could he? Look at him.

With the Gospel writers, we know better. We know he has chosen this. Could he have used divine power to step down off the cross? To cast himself into the arms of angels, as Satan tempted him to do, way back at the beginning? Maybe; or maybe he had laid down divine power and protection, as he turned his face towards this moment. Regardless, it’s very clear from the Gospel accounts that Jesus chose not to resist this death. Chose, even, to walk towards it. Praying in the Garden, submitting his fears to God’s purposes. Rebuking his disciples for resisting his arrest. Silent when asked to speak in his own defense. As human, and as God, he gave himself over to this. Saving himself was never the point.

Following this King means never being satisfied with our own salvation. With being safe, free, healed ourselves – as long as another is in danger, in bondage, or in pain.

Thought number three… I warned you, didn’t I, that these thoughts moved from clarity towards paradox? Thought number three: The Crucifixion, this moment when everything seems as broken as possible, points us towards reconciliation.

The early Christians used a lot of different images, metaphors, to try to capture their experience of the transformation of their lives and of the world by Jesus’ death and resurrection: Redeeming someone, buying them out of slavery. Freeing someone who’s imprisoned. Healing someone hurt, rescuing someone from danger, exonerating someone in a court of law. Cleansing and purifying someone by way of sacrifice, as in the rites of the Temple in Old Testament Judaism. Renewing a broken covenant. Reconciling the parties in a conflicted relationship, or a relationship where the parties have simply drifted apart, lost the mutuality of care, trust, and respect they once had.

Reconciliation is a key concept in Jesus’ life and teaching, as again and again he calls his followers back into a relationship of loving trust with the God who made us. And it’s a key word for the apostle Paul in his understanding of the work of the Church and its people. Jesus came to reconcile humanity to God – and to send us forth to continue the work of reconciliation. That’s how Paul sums up the Gospel, in the second letter to the Corinthians – “In Christ God was reconciling the world to Godself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message and ministry of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, [begging the world to] be reconciled to God.” And the letter to the Colossians today – written perhaps by Paul, perhaps by a disciple of Paul’s – uses that same language: “Through Jesus, God was pleased to reconcile to Godself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of the cross.”

Reconciliation is one of the core practices that we have named together, as a congregation, as a way we strive to live as disciples of Jesus. In Greek the word is katalasso, roughly translated as, Called to the side of the other. Called from our separateness into solidarity. As disciples of Jesus, we strive to live and act so as to restore unity and love among humans, between humans and God, and between humans and creation. We reconcile both by responding to the needs of our neighbors, through church ministries and everyday acts of mercy; and by working to confront and change the systems of this world that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.

Reconciliation is a powerful concept – and also sometimes a slippery one. We can fall into thinking it means the same thing as niceness. And niceness, as I mentioned in a sermon a few months ago, niceness is not a Christian virtue.

Liturgical scholar Derek Olsen wrote this week, “In this ministry of reconciliation [described in 2 Corinthians], we are not being called to be nice or pleasant, or to smooth things over with those who disagree with us. We are called to work on the reconciliation of humanity with God, and God’s vision of the world that God created… This is a vision that puts the poor, the people at the margins, the “alien in your midst,” … as the central figures for our care and concern… If we are exhorting the Christian faithful to be… reconcilers, then we need to be clear that [the call of the Gospel on us is to work] to reconcile the people and society around us to the vision of the world that God intends.”

Reconciliation, for Christians, doesn’t mean pretending things are fine, or ignoring the ways in which the world around us falls short of God’s intentions for us and for all. There is nothing nice about the cross, about a death like this. But following this King means accepting this as an icon of reconciliation: messy, ugly, painful. Necessary. Holy.

Thought number four… There’s a word in the Colossians text, in verse 19: Fulness. “In Jesus, all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell.” It’s easy to read right past it, but it turns out there’s a lot of theology packed into – and flowing out of – that word. Fulness, pleroma in Greek, is used a number of times in the Epistles, the letters of the first Christians – as is its opposite, Kenoo, which means emptiness, inadequacy, incompleteness. Those words, dancing around each other, trace the outline of a theology of the cross: In this moment, Jesus emptied himself (Phil 2:7), to make room for the fulness of God. His weakness makes room for God’s strength, his brokenness opens the way for God to restore and heal. And early Christian leaders and teachers see in this a path of discipleship – they urge one another, especially in times of struggle and fear, to empty themselves. To let God’s fulness work in them. To trust, in the words of Paul, that whenever I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Cor 12:10)

This idea is mystery and a challenge for me. When something is difficult, I respond by trying to put more of myself into it. And sometimes – I believe this – sometimes the better response would be to put less of myself in. To let my inadequacy, my weakness, my emptiness drive me to a more profound openness to God. To serving God less like an independent contractor. More like an instrument or tool.

Following this King challenges us to find grace, to find hope, even in the moments when we feel like we have nothing. Like we are nothing. Because when we are weak, God is still strong. Now, over the next few weeks, we’ll be revising and refining our church budget for next year, based on the pledges we’ve received. And I would, frankly, prefer to be talking about gracious plenty, than about the opportunities offered by inadequacy. But I’m trying to be faithful, in this as in many things….! Faithful to this King – Jesus, my King. And to the ways of his kingdom, which is so profoundly different from the kingdoms of this world. A kingdom that should give us, as its subjects, a critical eye for earthly leaders. That urges us never to settle for our own salvation. A kingdom in which emptiness can be strength, in which brokenness can reconcile, in which dying can lead to eternal life.

Derek Olsen’s essay may be read in full here: http://www.stbedeproductions.com/?p=3740

The Lord’s Prayer: Unity, not uniformity

What a difference a word makes when it’s a word you’ve known your whole life long. There is something extra-confusing about saying something where *most* of the words are familiar… but just enough are different to trip you up. Like, for example, “sins” instead of “trespasses.” (Or even “debts”!) Yes, I’m talking about how we say the Lord’s Prayer – the prayer Jesus offered as an example, when one of his disciples asked him how they should pray (Matthew 6:9-13; Luke 11:2-4).

At St. Dunstan’s, since I came to be your rector, we have used the contemporary Lord’s Prayer (“Our Father in Heaven…”). As liturgical leader, I have made that choice because the modern language makes the meaning of the prayer a little bit clearer for a child or someone brand-new to the church and its distinctive language. We don’t use “art” for “is” or “thy” for “your” in daily speech, so while that old-fashioned language is satisfying and beautiful in its own way, it can be disorienting and confusing.

Believe me: I don’t for a moment believe that the traditional-language Lord’s Prayer is dead – or wish it to be. It’s the one I learned as a child, immersed in the liturgy of the Episcopal Church, and I appreciate the grace of its language. I happily use it at weddings, funerals, and in hospital rooms – because in a mixed crowd, it’s the most familiar, and because it’s the version most people my age and older learned as children, and so it’s the version deepest in our hearts and memories.

There are parishes where they switch versions with the season – for instance, they might use the traditional language in Lent, and the modern language in Easter. I have never thought that sounded like a helpful approach; instead it sounds to me like a recipe for confusion. Many of us carry both versions in our heads, but more or less manage to pick one and stick with it, once we’ve gotten as far as, “Our Father, who art…” or “Our Father in…” I fear that alternating which version we’re using would have the effect of muddling up the versions in our heads and making it even harder to start one and follow through!

But this fall we’re trying out a different kind of muddle. The inspiration came from a couple of different places. One was my experience last summer of the liturgies at General Convention, the Episcopal Church’s great gathering of the tribes in Salt Lake City. In the daily Eucharists there, we were invited to pray the Lord’s Prayer “in the language of our hearts.” That meant that people in that giant roomful of worshippers were praying in both English versions, and in many other languages and versions. Offered that freedom, I myself tend to pray the New Zealand version that begins, “Loving God, may your name be held holy and your kingdom come!…”  My experience of those moments was that instead of the familiar rhythm of many voices saying the same thing the same way, I was paradoxically both more tuned in to my own prayer – thinking the words, meaning them – and more aware of all those voices around me, praying the same thing in beautifully different ways.

The second source of inspiration is our middle school youth group. In their weekly practice of saying Compline (BCP p. 127) together at the end of a Friday night of movies, pizza, and games, they’ve developed a preference for the traditional-language Lord’s Prayer. Several of them have a habit of sitting together in the front row at church on Sundays – and when I’m celebrating at the altar, I can hear them praying with the traditional language, as everyone else uses the modern language version printed in the booklet.

So in planning our autumn worship, I thought, Why do we all need to use the same version at the same time? Everyone here either has a version of this prayer engraved on their heart already – or is ready to choose a version and do the work of memorizing it. It doesn’t matter to me, and it most certainly doesn’t matter to God, which version you pray. Some might pray it in a language other than English – the language of your first family, or of a country you love. Some might pray it in a version that translates the Gospel’s Greek rendering of Jesus’ Aramaic words into English in a different way, as does the New Zealand version. Some might pray in silence, the prayer of the heart. We don’t need uniformity in prayer to have unity in prayer.

So this fall I invite all of us to pray the Lord’s Prayer in the language of our hearts. It will sound and feel different. I invite you to try it out. We’re printing both the traditional and modern language Prayer Book versions in the booklet, but by all means, look farther afield if you are so moved. Find (or create) another version of this simple, ancient, encompassing, gracious prayer. And let’s pray in unity of spirit, and diversity of voice.

Sermon, July 17

When I first read over these lessons, I felt torn. I wanted to give the prophet Amos his due. And this passage from Paul’s letter to the Colossians is so beautiful.  But they’re very, very different.  It seemed impossible to address them in the same sermon.

Amos and Paul lived and taught in very different settings. Amos was a prophet who spoke God’s word in the Northern kingdom of Israel, sometime in the 8th century before Christ. He calls out the king, the wealthy elite, and the religious leaders for failing to order their society in a way that reflects God’s righteousness and concern for the poor and vulnerable.

While Amos calls a whole kingdom to account, Paul speaks to a tiny group of believers trying to care for each other and grow in faith in a context of religious diversity and colonial rule. Unlike the people Amos addresses, the members of the church in Colossae have control over very little beyond themselves. Paul’s call to them is first and foremost to live their lives more fully in Christ, supporting one another in growing towards Christian maturity.

And yet – as different as the settings and messages are, there is a deep similarity. These are both texts of turning. Turning is one of the spiritual practices we named here in our work this spring. It’s shorthand for our capacity to be open to repentance, transformation, and call. Our affirmation that while God loves us just the way we are, God isn’t going to leave us that way.

The turn Amos calls for is a nationwide turn, away from an epidemic of affluenza, with the symptoms being rampant greed, indifference to the wellbeing of the poor, and superficial, perfunctory religious practice.

Amos lived in a time when David’s kingdom has been split in two, into the southern kingdom of Judah, where Jerusalem was, and the Northern Kingdom of Israel, with its capital at Samaria.Things were really good for the Northern Kingdom, under King Jeroboam: military success, wealth, peace, prosperity. For those at the top of the heap, things hadn’t been this good in generations. For ordinary folks, things were getting worse and worse, with increased inequality and exploitation of the poor.

Amos puts words to the greed of the times in today’s passage –

“We’ll use false balances and small measures when we sell wheat, and sell the trash of the threshing floor as grain, to maximize our profit, so that we can buy out the lives of the poor for the price of a pair of sandals.”

Amos himself came from a village in Judah, the southern kingdom. He worked as a shepherd and a tender of fruit trees. He wasn’t a member of one of the guilds of prophets; prophesy didn’t run in the family; he was just minding his own business when the word of God came to him and seized him: “GO, prophesy to my people Israel!”

Why might God have sent an outsider to Israel? We get a hint in Amos’ encounter with Amaziah, priest of Bethel, in last week’s lesson.  Bethel was a temple established by King Jeroboam, to make it more convenient for his subjects to fulfill their religious responsibilities without having to travel to Jerusalem.  Bethel was in theory a temple devoted to Yahweh, Israel’s God; but Amaziah’s words to Amos reveal whose power and authority are really honored there –  ‘Never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and.. a temple of the kingdom.’

I read this week that a gaffe is when someone in power accidentally says something true. Amaziah’s gaffe suggests that God’s word wasn’t being heard or preached in Bethel. And so God called Amos.

So what was Amos’ word, God’s grievance? … The book of Amos isn’t long; you could read all nine chapters in half an hour. But I think the image from last week’s reading is a powerful summary. God shows Amos the image of a plumb line. This is a plumb line. You can walk into the hardware store up the street and buy one. It’s an ancient, ancient tool of carpentry. It simply uses gravity to determine whether something is straight or not.

The plumb line: symbol of the rules that simply exist, always and everywhere. Gravity is gravity. You can build your house, or your society, all askew. You can balance a huge unwieldy class of wealthy people on the unstable base of the poor, hungry and angry.  But gravity will eventually do its thing. And so will the righteousness of God.

God says to, and through, Amos, See, I am setting a plumb-line in the midst of my people. They can’t escape the consequences of their actions any longer.  Their high places and sanctuaries will be made desolate, and I will send enemies against the house of Jeroboam. Like a shepherd trying to rescue a sheep from the mouth of a lion who only recovers perhaps a couple of legs, or a piece of an ear, so the people of Samaria will escape destruction only with the corner of a couch or part of a bed. (Amos 3)

There is a call here, if a desperate and pessimistic one. God says through Amos,  It is not yet too late! Turning is still possible! Seek the Lord, seek good and not evil, that you may live. Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will yet have mercy – and save, at least, a remnant: that leg or ear rescued from the lion’s mouth.

When we come to the Prophets in our three-year cycle of readings, I eagerly pull one book off my shelf: Abraham Heschel, The Prophets. Heschel was a Jewish scholar who grew impatient with the intellectualism of academic study, and became convinced that the prophetic works needed to be studied with attention to heart, conscience, emotion – the prophet’s emotion, God’s emotion, our emotional response to these words that can touch and stir, agitate or comfort us across three thousand years.

Heschel talks about how one of the hallmarks of a prophet is a tendency to see everyday injustices not just as the unfortunate downside of an otherwise functional society, but as an indictment of the entire social order.

Heschel writes (pages 3 – 6),

“The things that horrified the prophets are even now daily occurrences all over the world. There is no society to which Amos’ words would not apply…. Indeed, the sort of crimes… that fill the prophets of Israel with dismay do not go beyond that which we regard as normal, as typical ingredients of social dynamics. To us a single act of injustice – cheating in business, exploitation of the poor – is slight; to the prophets, a disaster….

[The prophets’] breathless impatience with injustice may strike us as hysteria. We ourselves witness continually acts of injustice, manifestations of hypocrisy, falsehood, outrage, misery, but we rarely grow indignant or overly excited. [Yet] to the prophets even a minor injustice assumes cosmic proportions…

[Yet] if such deep sensitivity to evil is to be called hysterical, what name should be given to the abysmal indifference to evil which the prophet bewails?…

Prophesy is the voice God has lent to the silent agony [of humanity].”

Elsewhere, Heschel writes:

The prophet’s words “wrench one’s conscience from the state of suspended animation…. The prophet is intent on intensifying responsibility.” (p. 8)

As a text of turning, the book of Amos bears a call to responsibility. From indifference to concern and action. A call to take the injustices we witness not as inevitable occasional failures of a basically functional system, but as urgent calls to the hard work of improving our common life. A call to measure the gulf between the straightness of the plumb line and the alarming lean of our society.

In contrast with Amos’ call to a society-wide U-turn, the turning to which Paul calls the Colossians is perhaps more like your navigation software telling you, “Proceed to the route.”

The people of the church in Colossae weren’t wrong in any big dramatic ways. They were a little confused about whose teachings to follow and how to practice their new faith. And Paul gives them guidance on those fronts, gently and lovingly. Elsewhere in his letters to the early Christian communities, Paul can be sharp and angry; but the tone of this letter is best described as tender.

Most of all, Paul simply urges them to grow in grace. To continue living more fully in response to Christ’s divine humanity. In today’s passage he writes eloquently about who Jesus was and is, and what it means for us as his people: Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible God, the one in whom all things hold together. The one in whom the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through whom God was pleased to reconcile all things to Godself. Jesus Christ has reconciled you to God, to present you holy and blameless, forgiven, loved, and free.

Paul speaks eloquently about his hopes for this young community, gathered by their faith in Christ: that they may be encouraged and united in love; that they may grow into maturity in Christ, rooted and built up in him, and abounding in thanksgiving. That they may seek the things that are above, not worrying about earthly matters.

And then there’s this passage, in chapter 3: “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

We could read that in church every week for a lifetime and still be encouraged and guided by it. Maybe we should.

As a text of turning, the letter to the Colossians bears a call to grow in grace. Paul passionately invites the people of that church to receive, with wonder and joy, the grace of Christ’s presence among them, and to live with one another as people formed by love, generosity of spirit, and gratitude.

Amos calls a kingdom to responsibility. Paul calls a church to grow in grace. Which are we? What do we hear?

I submit to you that maybe we’re a little of both. In many ways we are the little fellowship of faith in Colossae, surrounded by a pluralistic society that doesn’t share our values, uncertain about what our faith really requires of us, maybe nervous about being known as followers of Jesus. That passage from chapter 3 speaks my hope for how we will live with and care for one another in this church. We need to devote energy and time and resources and care to teaching and singing and loving and giving and forgiving. We need to cultivate our own and each other’s Christian maturity.  We are called to grow in grace.

And… in many ways we are the elites of the Northern Kingdom. We are people of voice and influence.I’m not making assumptions here about anybody’s wealth or connections. But I absolutely believe that if 50 St. Dunstanites decided that we were going to devote our energy and time and resources to changing something about the common life of our city, county, or even our state, we could move the needle.  We could contribute to meaningful change. Because we are citizens of a democracy, and showing up matters.  In the words of Margaret Mead, Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.  And there are many forces in our world, sisters and brothers, which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. We are called to responsibility.

Let us pray. Loving God, you have given us your holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may hear their message to us, and give us grace to respond to the call to grow in grace, and the call to responsibility, as your children, gathered and sent. We pray this in the name of Jesus, the One in whom we are rooted and built up. Amen.

Sermon, May 1

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being? I will, with God’s help! It’s the fifth question of our baptismal covenant, the set of questions we ask one another every time we baptize a new member into the church. These questions ask us, and remind us, how we intend to live as God’s people. And our answer to each one is, I will, with God’s help. Affirming both our commitment … and our need for divine assistance.

Today’s Gospel comes from John’s account of the life of Jesus. Unlike the other Gospels, in John’s version, Jesus visits Jerusalem several times. He’s walking near one of the great gates of the city, past a place where people go seeking healing. Scholars of the ancient world think this was probably a temple to the Greek god Asclepius, the god of medicine and healing. Asclepius was adopted by the Romans and honored all around the ancient world. His temples were, essentially, some of the world’s first hospitals. They often included a pool, for rituals of cleansing and healing. If this pool in the Gospel were part of a temple of healing, it explains why there were many sick and disabled people around, waiting, hoping, praying that Asclepius and his priests would favor them with restoration and health.

There were stories that this was an especially powerful pool – that from time to time, the waters of the pool would be mysteriously stirred up, perhaps by an unseen angel, and the first person to get into the pool after that magical stirring was practically guaranteed to be healed. Jesus is walking past this place, this pagan temple full of human agony and desperate hope. And his eye falls on one of the people lying there, a man who has been ill for thirty-eight years. Why this man? Who knows? Maybe Jesus just saw in him the potential for health, for faith.

So Jesus speaks to him. He asks, Do you want to be made well? The sick man’s response is interesting. He doesn’t say, Yes, of course I do! Please help me! Instead he explains why the approach he’s already trying hasn’t worked for him yet. “Sir, I don’t have anyone to help me into the pool when it is stirred up, and by the time I can get to it, somebody else has already jumped in and stolen the miracle.” Jesus brushes aside the explanations and excuses. He says, Stand up, take your mat and walk. And the man stands up, and walks.

This man’s illness is an individual situation. Something particular to his body and his life story. But this is also more than just an individual situation. Just like the homeless veteran whose PTSD leaves him muttering in a doorway downtown. Just like the single mom dependent on public assistance who calls to see if I can resolve her delinquent utility bill. Just like the former drug dealer who can’t find honest work because of his record. There are layers and layers of larger systems that have contributed to this individual’s need and misery.

Maybe this man’s illness or disability is just a fact of life. Even today, with all the tools of modern medicine, bodies break. Bodies fail. But there’s more to his situation than illness. He is alone. No one is tending or helping him. He is poor. If he weren’t poor, he wouldn’t be alone. And he is looking for help in the wrong place. This temple to an empty god, which has no power to help him or change his life. But it’s the only place he knows to go, so he goes there. Quite possibly he’s been going there for thirty-eight years.

Jesus, because he is Jesus, just stops by and heals him. Most of the time it’s not that simple for us. I can’t just command health back into somebody like this man. But I, or you, could address the fact that he’s alone. That he’s poor. That he doesn’t have a place to go that would welcome and care for him. It is within our reach, within our power, as citizens of goodwill in a democratic society, to address things like that.

And this brings us to the point where Baptismal Question #5 opens out from Baptismal Question #4. The fourth question, remember, is: Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? Our faithful response to that question calls us to reach out in kindness to the individual who is suffering, since we know that God can look a whole lot like a human in pain. But the fifth question, today’s question – it asks us, Will you strive for justice and peace among all peoples, and respect the dignity of every human being? That is a big ask, folks. Justice and peace among ALL PEOPLES. Dignity for EVERY human being. Phew.

If the fourth question demands our response to suffering, the fifth question demands our curiosity about suffering. It asks us to look at the big picture. The world-system that Jesus came to transform and redeem. Where does it come from? How is it created and perpetuated? Why are things like this? Why can’t they be different? Could we shift our society and systems, in ways that would lower the quota of human suffering, and add to the world’s measure of hope, wholeness, and delight? Where would we start?

Some of you are thinking, right now, There she goes again, telling us to fix the world. Doesn’t she know I already try to help all I can? Doesn’t she know how overwhelming it is? Doesn’t she know that sometimes I just need to watch Seinfeld reruns and forget it all for a while? I do, actually. I really do. Because: me too.

Sometimes – when we’re overwhelmed, weary, ashamed, angry – we struggle with whether our neighbor’s wellbeing is really our responsibility. It would be so great if that person’s misfortune were really their own fault, full stop. No layers of shared social and economic and political systems to muddy the picture. Just one person’s successes or failures. Because then we could still help if we wanted to, but when we don’t, there’s no guilt. He brought it on himself. It’s not my problem.

But as Christians, and as thoughtful people, even though those thoughts and feelings touch us sometimes, we can’t really stay there. We know better. We are all in this together. There is no such thing as other people’s children. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” may be a quotation from the Bible, but the person who says it has just, in fact, murdered his brother, and is not a model for our moral behavior.

We would all very much like it if all the ills of the world were someone else’s fault and responsibility. The sick man’s response to Jesus, that little speech about why he can never get to the pool in time, sounds familiar to me because I hear something a lot like it from nearly everyone who calls the church looking for help. Everyone has their reasons why their life has fallen short of their hopes. I lost my job and my jerk landlord won’t cut me any slack. My daughter is in prison and I’m trying to care for my grandbaby. My food stamps cover one adult and one child, and my son eats like an adult now, so we’re hungry all the time. My mother died out of state and we used our grocery money to go see her, and next month’s rent money for funeral expenses. Our apartment complex has bedbugs and we had to throw away everything we own. The employers in this town are racist and won’t give me work. Everyone has a whole list of reasons and circumstances that explain why they just can’t catch a break. Why they haven’t yet managed to stand up and walk.

Here’s the thing: regardless of whether the details of those particular stories are entirely true, the big story they add up to IS true. It IS true. Like Jesus and his contemporaries, we live in a society of deep, entrenched inequality, that does the bare minimum to care for the poor and vulnerable. If you’re not convinced of that, I invite you to do some research comparing our public systems, our safety net for the poor and sick, and our incarceration rates with those of other developed countries. That’s why even when I’m tired and jaded and skeptical, my capacity to respond clouded by compassion fatigue, I try to help, at least a little. I try at least to offer prayers.

Our texts from the book of Revelation describe John’s vision of the redeemed City, at the end of history, when God has fully restored and renewed our world. That City is clean and bright, shining with the light of God, undimmed by human tears, unmarred by pain or grief. The river of Life flows through it, and the Tree of Life grows in its heart, the tree whose leaves are for the healing of the nations.

It is, truly, a beautiful vision – and sometimes the gulf between that holy someday City and the cities of this world feels… paralyzing. It’s enough to make us start to recite our own list of reasons why our lives have fallen short of our hopes. I have to work long hours to pay the mortgage and child care; I just don’t have time to volunteer. My family is going through a rough time and I’m the one holding things together; maybe later I’ll be able to do more for others. There’s so much money in politics, it’s impossible for ordinary people like me to make a difference. I help people all day at work; by the weekend I’m drained, with nothing more to give.

We would all very much like it if the brokenness of the world were someone else’s responsibility. Here’s my good word to you, my sisters and brothers in weariness and perplexity: It is. It is somebody else’s responsibility. The redeemed City is God’s city. We are not going to get there by human efforts. It’s not up to us. The image of that City is not supposed to be like a Pinterest Fail that shames our best endeavors. It’s a vision of God’s intentions for humanity, meant to give us hope and reassurance as we struggle and strive in this world.

It’s not up to us. It’s up to God, and God is already on it. Now, that doesn’t let us off the hook entirely. The Jewish tradition gives us the phrase Tikkun Olam, which means, mending the world – very much what we mean when we talk about reconciling as a core Christian practice. And a great rabbi, Rabbi Tarfon, said this about Tikkun Olam, about the work of mending the world: It is not your obligation to finish the task. But neither are you free to stop the work entirely.

It is not your obligation to finish the task. But neither are you free to stop the work entirely.

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being – That question can feel as overwhelming as the morning headlines. Like it’s asking us to finish the task. To fix the world. To bring about the redeemed City.

Here’s what I want for you, for us, when we hear that question – I want us to feel our feet on the ground, our community standing shoulder to shoulder, the landscape of our lives stretching out around us. I want this big question to stir up another question inside us: Yes, there’s a lot of brokenness, disorder, injustice and pain. Where can I reach out and touch it? Without even trying? Without leaving the path of my everyday life, without even stretching my arm out all the way? I guarantee you that every single one of us has someplace where we can easily lay hands to the world’s brokenness.

I want this baptismal question to invite us in to the practice of reconciling, to noticing where God is at work in our city, neighborhood, school, workplace, church, family, and joining in what God is doing, wherever the lost are being found, the oppressed are finding justice, the broken are being healed, those in need are finding mercy, those in bondage are finding freedom, and enemies are making peace.

I got about this far in writing my sermon, Thursday morning, and then I went to a forum over at Fountain of Life Church on steps towards greater racial equity in Dane County. The event was a collaboration between three big local anti-racism organizations, Justified Anger, the YWCA, and Race to Equity. And what was striking for me was that those leaders said something a lot like what I just said: Racial disparities and their impact on people of color, and on our community as a whole, are a huge, hard, messy problem. And there’s no master plan to fix it all. There’s no one organization or leader that’s going to give us the perfect 5-step plan to transform Madison into the Redeemed City. Instead, they said, look around your life, your landscape. Get together with your people – your friends, your coworkers, your church folks. Have your own conversations about where you can see and touch the patterns of poverty and inequality in our community. And figure out your role, your call, your work, in common purpose and hope with the work of others across our communities. With the work of God in our communities.

Systemic racism is just one of the shadows that mars Madison, that makes us look less like the redeemed City of John’s vision. It’s just one of the evil powers of this world that corrupts and destroys the creatures of God, to borrow words from another part of our baptismal rite. The powers that sicken, impoverish, and isolate people, like that man on the ground in our Gospel story; and that demand our courageous and compassionate response.

I want this great big bold baptismal question to stir up in you the intention and hope that you, YOU, just as you are, can find a way to program or plant or knit or paint or counsel or heal or make music or care for children or report news or call politicians or visit friends or dance or learn or run a business or manage employees or teach or act or administrate or clean or sew or serve on a board or feed people or visit the sick or sell houses or keep cows healthy or solve crimes or go to rallies or write poetry or care for elders or comfort the grieving or catch babies or run a household or take care of animals or write grant proposals or do research or sell insurance or design products in the direction of justice, peace, and human dignity. AMEN.