All posts by Miranda Hassett

Homily, March 19

Read John chapter 11 here. 

  1. The raising of Lazarus – next of our extended scenes from John’s Gospel. 
    1. Following Nicodemus’ visit and Photini, the woman at the well. 
    2. I learned in seminary that there’s a view that the Jesus of John’s Gospel is very unemotional, impassive – doesn’t seem to suffer or struggle, even on the cross. 
      1. I wonder if that’s true to John’s Gospel or to how we read John’s Gospel.
        1. Humor and wordplay that we easily miss because we’re not looking for it; emotion too? 
    3. But even if you see John’s Jesus as a very stoic figure, this story a big exception, because it contains what is famously the shortest verse of Scripture: Jesus wept. 
    4. So let’s talk about feelings, emotions, in this Gospel story. 
  1. Mary and Martha’s Feelings
    1. Interesting overlap between John and Luke – many differences, but both have stories about Jesus’ friendship with sisters Mary and Martha. 
      1. Luke 10: Martha is busy preparing a meal for an honored guest; Mary sits at Jesus’ feet listening.
      2. Lots to say about that story – mention it because dynamics of sisters seem to match John’s account.
        1. Martha: trying to hold it together and make sense of things, come to some sense of peace that will help her move forward.
        2. Mary: overwhelmed with emotion, weeping at Jesus’ feet. 
    1. Both sisters start their dialogue with Jesus the same way: Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 
      1. Tendency to read it backwards from resurrection – Lazarus’, and Jesus’. Sad, but calm. Anticipating grief resolved and transformed. 
      2. What if we read it as angry? Even as bitter? 
      3. (Read it a couple of times)
    1. If you attend funerals with any regularity, part of this passage may be familiar.
      1. Jesus’ dialogue with Martha is a funeral gospel.
      2. Appropriate and powerful.
        1. Martha is a lot like us, when we’re dealing with a death. 
        2. Strives to trust in resurrection. But also – like us – she grieves an immediate loss. 
        3. Swanson: “[Martha] sees to the heart of things: of course she trusts that the dead will be raised… She expects that God will regather all the faithful and balance all accounts… But she also knows that [an eventual] general resurrection has no immediate impact on the fact of bereavement.  Lazarus, her brother is dead.  Trust in God’s ultimate balancing of accounts does not dull the slicing agony of losing him.”
        4. [breath pause]
      3. Martha’s bereavement is unexpectedly reversed. But her feelings, in this moment, are so true, so real. 
      4. Jesus’ response – pointing to a life beyond this world. A life in God beyond earthly death. 
      5. Martha’s response – she doesn’t say, Yes, I believe that. She says, I believe in You, Jesus. Her trust, her hope, her comfort is not in abstract ideas or doctrinal teachings but in her friend, whom she also knows as her Messiah. 
  1. Jesus’ Feelings. 
    1. There’s a LOT about Jesus’ emotions in this passage!
      1. He loves Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. A close friendship – attested in two quite different gospels. 
      2. Other than that, through the conversation with Martha, he sounds pretty calm: Johannine impassive Jesus. 
      3. But then Mary throws herself at his feet, weeping, and the group that gathered to console the sisters are also weeping, and things get interesting. 
    2. NRSV, verse 33: “When Jesus saw [Mary] weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” [repeat]
      1. Sounds like a fancy way of saying he was really sad. 
      2. David Bentley Hart: “He groaned in his spirit and yielded himself to his turmoil.” 
      3. Richard Swanson: “Jesus snorted in disgust in breath, and shuddered.” 
        1. Quoting Swanson at length: “The word [translated as groans] … is generally translated so that the audience is given a glimpse into the tender inner workings of Jesus’ heart.  He feels bad that Lazarus is dead.  He even cries. What a guy. But the word does not refer to tender inner feelings. The word, [embrimaomai],  refers to the snorting of a warhorse. It should generally be translated as “snorted in anger.”  Inner feelings, especially in the face of bereavement, are surely difficult to express, and even harder to translate, but the word will carry with it a note of anger, disgust, even.” 
          1. (1) Suggests that translations that smooth this over are editing the Bible to match their ideas of who Jesus ought to be and what he ought to be feeling. 
          2. (2) Anybody who’s lost a loved one knows that people’s emotions around a death can be quite complicated and intense! 
        2. Swanson continues: “Jesus snorts in anger, maybe even in disgust.  Why? One possibility is that [being] scolded by Martha… drove him over the edge.  He was angry, and the storyteller shows us the anger… Another possibility is that Jesus is angry with himself.” 
          1. (1) Swanson says there’s a prefix on the word that points it inward. 
          2. (2) “Such a reading would give us a Jesus who has just now realized the real-world, real-sister impact of his choice to delay,  It is a fine thing to do things so that ‘the Son of God may be glorified.’  It is another thing to crash two sisters hard into raw grief that he could have prevented.”
    1. Circling us back to the beginning of this passage and Jesus’ decision not to rush to Bethany, upon hearing that Lazarus is ill.  
      1. Church’s teaching: Jesus fully human and fully divine. 
        1. Does that mean his knowledge, understanding, and decisions are always perfect? 
        2. Or was part of the point of becoming human, for God to understand us better by living a limited, uncertain, vulnerable life like ours? 
        3. Did being fully human mean for Jesus, as it surely does for us, that sometimes we don’t understand the implications of our choices and actions? Sometimes we regret things done and left undone? 
      2. The story invites us to assume Jesus always planned to resurrect Lazarus, to raise him from the dead. 
        1. He’s healed the sick before. Time to go big. 
        2. How to interpret his delay: Either he knows about the sisters’ grief and doesn’t care, because his agenda of escalating miracles is more important; OR … he doesn’t really understand the stakes until he’s face to face with it. Until he sees Martha’s anger and Mary’s tears. 
      1. Which Jesus do you prefer? Which Jesus is easier to love, to trust? 
        1. For me, it’s the Jesus who has a great plan… and doesn’t fully recognize its costs until he sees his friends in pain. 
        2. And I think the plain reading of this passage fits this understanding of Jesus. A Jesus who learns, changes, and grows – as fully human, and fully divine. 
        3. This is why – in that famously brief verse – Jesus weeps. The enormity, the absoluteness of loss, when experienced from the human, earthly side of things, has just dawned on him. He finally knows – finally feels – what it’s like to lose someone, for good. He weeps. 
  1. Let me say one more thing, briefly, about where this story fits in our trajectory towards Holy Week. 
    1. We have switched the order of our Gospel passages for this week and next week, so that our kids can work with the story of the Man Born Blind in All Ages Worship next week.
    2. For John, this story leans heavily towards the cross. Listen to the verses that immediately follow it: 
      1. “Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done. So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, ‘What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.’  But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, ‘You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.’ … So from that day on they planned to put him to death…” 
    3. Jesus enters Jerusalem for Passover, greeted by excited crowds, in the next chapter. We are close to the endgame. 
    4. Orthodox churches observe Lazarus Saturday, the day before Palm Sunday –  because this miracle, and the reaction against it as told by John, so clearly pivot the Gospel towards its final and necessary chapter. 
    5. I’m a little sorry to disrupt that escalation by moving this story earlier. But maybe it’s not so bad. 
      1. Palm Sunday and Good Friday can come at us fast. 
      2. Not always time to take in how quickly and completely the tide turns against Jesus. 
      3. So this year, at least, we are taking a little extra time to know where all this is leading. 
      4. Next week we’ll hear about another disruptive miracle next week, with an awareness of the deepening shadow of fear and judgment hanging over Jesus. 
      5. Let’s continue the journey, friends. 

Richard Swanson on Jesus’ snorting in anger:

Holy Week 2023

Holy Week at St. Dunstan’s, 2023

ALL ZOOM SERVICES will be on our usual Sunday Morning Worship link, available in the weekly Enews or by reaching out to Rev. Miranda at .

Palm Sunday, April 2

Palm Sunday worship at 8AM & 10AM in person; at 9AM on Zoom.

Maundy Thursday, April 6

ZOOM WORSHIP, 5:30PM: Join from the dinner table! Consider setting your table for a special occasion, with dishes you love, flowers, candles, and so on. Have bread and wine/fruit juice on hand.

IN PERSON WORSHIP, 7 – 8PM: This year’s service will include sharing an informal Eucharist (with additional food but not a full meal), gathered at tables together; an opportunity for foot washing; and the stripping of the altar.

NIGHTWATCH: Keep vigil for an hour,  at home or at church, Thursday evening or Friday morning.  It’s appropriate to pray, sing, read the Bible or spiritual texts, or just sit in silence. Sign up for an hour using this link: Nightwatch Signup Link

Good Friday, April 7

ZOOM WORSHIP, 1PM: A Zoom-adapted version of Good Friday worship, with Passion Gospel.

IN PERSON, 12PM and 7PM: We will read the Passion Gospel and pray the special prayers of this day. This liturgy does not include the Eucharist.

IN PERSON Children’s Stations of the Cross, 4:30PM: A gentle multi-sensory exploration of the Stations of the Cross, for all ages.
The Great Vigil of Easter, April 8

ZOOM WORSHIP, 6:30 – 7:30: A service of story and song that prepares us for Easter Sunday.  Gather by candlelight or dim light; bring bells or noisemakers; and have a treat ready to celebrate at the end! This service is appropriate for all ages.

IN PERSON, 8PM – 9:30PM: We’ll honor the Great Vigil, one of the Church’s most ancient rites, with fire and water, story and song, renewal of baptismal vows and the first Eucharist of Easter.  This service is appropriate for all ages, as long as they can handle a late night!

Easter Sunday, April 9

ZOOM WORSHIP, 9AM: A festive Easter liturgy.

IN PERSON, 8AM & 10AM: Gather for Easter worship with Eucharist.  All are welcome! There will be a festive reception and an egg hunt after the 10AM service.

Sermon, March 12

NOTE: Due to travel this week, my sermon is an outline rather than a full text. I know this makes it harder to read; sorry!

Read the Gospel text here. 

  1. INTRO
    1. Never really preached this
    2. Overwhelming text; lifetime of sermons
    3. Can only say one or two things today! 
  1. The Woman
    1. Foil for Nicodemus, prev chapter
    2. Man/woman
    3. Midnight/noon
    4. Insider (Jew)/outsider (Samaritan – worse than Gentile) 
      1. Dynamics of mutual dislike
    5. High status/low status
      1. What to make of her marital status. 
      2. Who divorced who? 
      3. Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe 
      4. How is she seen? How does she see herself? 
        1. “Come see this man who told me everything I’ve ever done!” 
    1. Final contrast with N: She asks questions! She pushes back! Where N shuts up/shuts down. 
      1. Commentator: Jesus kind/patient with her. 
        1. I think he likes this give and take. 
  1. LISTEN to the exchange. 
    1. DEFAULT “reading the Bible out loud in church” style. How we usually read Scripture. 
    1. Urgency. The woman is a seeker, looking for something she can’t find – big questions, deep yearnings. Jesus longs to connect with her, offer her wholeness and hope. 
    1. The third time, read it as a flirtation. Wells are places of romantic encounter.
      1. Richard Swanson names this as a possible reading, and it works. 
      2. He calls this scene part theological seminar and part flirtation. 
      3. This will be uncomfortable!  But it is NOT in fact heresy. Mystical traditions… if God is love then all forms of love are God’s.
  1. What’s the point of the exercise?… 
    1. Dialogues in John: Getting to know Jesus. 
      1. Breaking from usual church “Jesus voice” to explore. 
      2. None of these readings are outside the possibilities of the text we receive; others may well be possible as well.
  1. New idea for me: Significance of this story for the church at time when it was written down. 
    1. Specifically, for the Johannine Community. 
    2. Gospel of John – “Beloved Disciple” – John in other Gospels. 
    3. Big differences from other Gospels; diff understanding of Jesus’ teachings & mission 
    4. Community gathered around BD/John early on; shared and taught them; became a distinct group, recording a distinct witness. 
  1. So: what was the importance of this story for the Johannine Community? 
    1. BRIEF look at some big ideas; I have just scratched surface myself! 
    2. Raymond Brown: Story explains presence of Samaritan converts in Johannine community.
    3. JC might have had an earlier understanding/lived experience of Jesus’ mission to ALL people than the rest of the church – 
      1. which tied in with a higher Christology, universal/cosmic significance of Jesus – 
      2. Both early non-Jew members & early high Christology could have pushed JC away from mainstream early church understanding of Jesus and ecclesiology.
    1. LIKEWISE, story might have justified role of women as evangelists. Clues: 
      1. “Come and see!” – John 1, Jesus gathering disciples – invitation to discipleship. 
      1. “Many believed because of her testimony” – Sharing testimony that leads others to belief is a core mission for John’s Gospel. Repeated theme.  She lives it out! 
    1. SO: Perhaps JC had non-Jews & women evangelists; perhaps this story – whether recording a memory or tradition, or not – was important because it explained and justified those distinctivenesses. 
  1. Importance of story for OUR faith community?
    1. Big question!! Lots of possible directions. 
    2. Today, one thing: Jesus wants to be in conversation with us.
    3. Might sound weird and abstract. I mean it as literally as possible given that Jesus is not usually physically present in this world. 
      1. I’ve had a number of conversations with Jesus over the course of my life. (In some sense my whole life so far is one long, often very slow conversation with Jesus.)
      2. Through Scripture, prayer, often other people, sometimes signs or moments of insight, sometimes a voice within or just a deep knowing. 
      3. Not as direct as talking with another human; but not metaphorical. I’m talking about asking Jesus about the things that I struggle with and yearn for and wonder about, and getting… sometimes answers, sometimes reframing or redirection or reassurance. 
      4. Personal relationship with Jesus – one of many things we’re not going to let evangelical Xty steal from the rest of us.  
        1. Know it may be triggering idea for some, and just plain alien for others. 
        2. How can I help? … 
      1. One upshot of these intimate, personal conversations in John (Nic & the Woman, so far): Jesus cares about individual people. 
        1. Wants to hear their questions; name needs; push towards new understandings. 
        2. Not put off by challenges or questions. 
        3. Nothing about who we are or what we’ve done keeps him from wanting to talk about our big questions, daily struggles and joys. 
    1. Only one way this text might speak, but significant: Help us to imagine – to recognize – that Jesus sits down at the kitchen table in our hearts, asks us for a glass of water, and then waits to see what happens next.


Sermon, March 5

Welcome to the Gospel of John. 

Sometimes I wonder if I talk too much about which text is what and when and why. 

But the jump from Matthew’s Gospel to John’s is a significant shift – they’re very different texts. 

And I feel like if our lectionary, our calendar of Sunday readings, is going to suddenly set us down in totally different territory, it’s at least my responsibility to give you a compass and a map. 

We often hear a lot from John’s Gospel in Lent; this year we’ll have lessons from John for the rest of March. Lessons that will show us a couple of the hallmarks of John’s Gospel. 

One such hallmark is a complex mix of mystery, puns and misunderstandings; we’ll see that in today’s story. 

Another hallmark of John’s Gospel is the presence of many extended scenes involving Jesus and another person – or several people – in conversation. We’ll hear four of those, this month! 

These are texts that invite dwelling with who Jesus was and what he meant to those he met… how he changed hearts and lives. And we start with Nicodemus. 

Nicodemus was there at the beginning. 

Jesus had just broken on the scene, begun to make headlines in the Jerusalem Times. In the Gospel according to Matthew and Mark and Luke, Jesus goes to Jerusalem exactly once, and dies there. But in John’s Gospel he goes to the Great City again and again, and riles up the crowds more and more each time. 

John’s story of the Word that became flesh, the Light that shines in the darkness, begins with Jesus named by the Baptizer,  calling his first disciples, going to a wedding and changing water into wine. 

And then he visits Jerusalem for the festival of Passover – and causes a ruckus by driving the vendors and money-changers out of the Temple court. And that night, he has a visitor. 

Nicodemus is a Pharisee. That means he was a member of a movement within Judaism at that time,  that encouraged renewed faithfulness to the religious practices of the Torah, and resisted assimilation to the ways of the modern cosmopolitan world. 

Politically, the Pharisees tended to side with the people, rather than with the Jewish elites or the Roman conquerors. 

Jesus had a lot in common with the Pharisees. That’s why they argued with each other so much. 

Nicodemus is also a leader of the Jews – a member of the Sanhedrin, the Council of religious leaders who made all final decisions on matters of religious law. 

In the time of Jesus, their power was at its peak, as they legislated all aspects of Jewish religious and political life, apart from those held by the puppet king Herod and his Roman rulers. 

Nicodemus was a man of paradoxes. 

Wealthy and elite, but concerned with the welfare of his people. 

A guardian of Jewish law, but a seeker too, open to the possibility that God is doing a new thing. 

The stories of this Jesus catch his attention, and he goes to see him. But making contact with this rabble-rouser could damage his reputation, so he goes by night, under cover of darkness.

Nicodemus is in the dark, both literally and metaphorically. Perplexed, confused, and profoundly curious.He calls Jesus Rabbi, Teacher, granting him authority from his first words.

He tells him, “We know that you are a teacher who comes from God.” 

Who’s the “we” here? Who else does Nicodemus speak for? Perhaps he has Pharisee friends who share his interest in this prophet from Galilee – who were sympathetic to Jesus’ stunt at the Temple that day. 

So Nicodemus begins with affirmation, with flattery, even. What does he think will happen next? Talk of a strategic alliance? A friendly theological discussion over a cup of wine? 

He gets a theological discussion, all right, but it leaves his head spinning.

Jesus says, “No one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above.” That Greek word, Anothen, can mean “from above” or “again.” 

Two thousand years of Christianity have accustomed us to the language of rebirth, but it’s brand new to poor Nicodemus. He asks, “What’s that supposed to mean? Am I supposed to crawl back into my mother’s belly?” 

Jesus corrects him gently enough: “I’m talking about another kind of birth, birth by water and the Spirit into the kingdom of God. Don’t be so astonished. The wind blows where it will, and you hear the sound of it, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it’s going. That’s how it is, for those who have been born of the Spirit.” 

In this, their first and, as far as we know, only conversation, Nicodemus begins with the confident words, “We know,”  and Jesus immediately challenges Nicodemus to make the journey from knowledge to uncertainty. 

Hear Nicodemus’ questions, perplexed and frustrated: What do you mean? How can this be? Asking for explanations he’ll never get. Because even those who have been born of water and the Spirit, those who say Yes to the mystery and undertake the work of the Kingdom – even they, even us, the most we can hope for is to feel the wind of the Spirit blow. We’ll never know where She comes from, or where She’s going.

I imagine Nicodemus thinking, “Thanks; I’ll stick to the certainties of the religion I already have. And all this business about the Son of Man, and the Son of God – are those supposed to be the same person, and does this strange Galilean think it’s HIM? Does he think he’s the Messiah? Does he think he’s GOD? His teaching is strange and fascinating – but he’s asking me to believe a lot, and I don’t understand at all.”

John’s Gospel doesn’t tell us how the conversation ends. Nicodemus probably slipped away as he came, quiet through the dark streets, full of confusion, wonder. What else? Anger? Hope? … 

Nicodemus was there at the middle. 

Jesus’s reputation has grown to the point of danger. 

He comes to Jerusalem again, for the Festival of Booths. 

He comes in secret, walking the streets among the festive crowds, hearing himself debated: “He is a good man!” “No, he’s deceiving us!” 

Then he starts showing up at the Great Temple to preach. He speaks of being sent by God; he accuses the people and their leaders of superficial piety,  and calls them to a deeper, truer righteousness. 

He says, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me!” 

Rumors are flying around the city:  “Isn’t that Jesus of Nazareth? Why aren’t the authorities arresting him? Maybe he really IS the Messiah after all!” 

The Temple police stand around, abashed, uncertain. They’ve been given orders to seize Jesus, but they don’t. 

When the chief priests of the Temple demand an explanation, they say, sheepishly, “We’ve never heard anyone preach like that before.” 

The Temple leaders sneer – only the ignorant would take this strange country preacher seriously! – But Nicodemus gathers his courage and speaks up. 

He says, (Ahem.) “Aren’t we being hasty in our judgment? The Law of our faith says that we shouldn’t judge anyone without first giving them a hearing, to find out what they are doing…” 

But the other leaders turn on him:  “What, are you from Galilee too? Search the Scriptures, Nicodemus – there is no prophecy of a holy leader from Galilee.” 

Nicodemus does not have the courage to say more. To admit that he’s met Jesus – that he is drawn to him, almost in spite of himself.  He is silenced – a silence that lasts for twelve chapters. 

Is he there when the chief priests decide that Jesus must die?

Is he there when Annas and Caiaphas question and abuse Jesus, late one Thursday night? 

Is he there when Pilate says, Isn’t this man your king? and the chief priests answer, We have no king but Caesar!…

Is he looking on at a distance as the man he wanted to believe in, the man he wanted to save, dies on the cross under the noonday sun? 

We don’t know.

This we know, from John’s Gospel:  when Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy man and a secret follower of Jesus, gets permission to give Jesus an honorable burial, rather than leaving his body for the vultures, Nicodemus is there. He brings aloe balm and myrrh, a fragrant resin, for embalming Jesus’ body – a hundred pounds, an absurdly large amount. Nicodemus and Joseph tend to Jesus’ body, anointing it and wrapping it, giving the prophet from Galilee the devotion they never dared show while he was alive. And they lay his body in a nearby tomb, until the Sabbath has passed and they can find him a permanent place of rest. 

Nicodemus was there at the beginning, at the middle, at the end.

Hanging around the edges of the crowd, the edges of the story. 

Artists have always imagined Nicodemus as an old man, bearded and gray, forehead furrowed with age and perplexity. 

Today’s lectionary brings us another story of an old man called to something new, Abram, who will be named Abraham.  Abram was 75 years old, and quite wealthy, when God invites him to pull up stakes and do something entirely new. 

Most people, at that age and stage of life, would say, No, thanks, I’m good. Abram is different. He says Yes. 

Nicodemus? Nicodemus… says, Maybe.  Maybe. 

Today’s lectionary brings us, too, the words of another man firmly rooted in Judaism: the apostle Paul. In this portion of the letter to the Romans, he recalls Abram’s journey into the unknown as he argues that the foundation of human relationship with God is not any fixed doctrine or practice, but rather faith – trust – in a God who surprises us by calling into existence the things that do not yet exist.

Nicodemus is no Abraham. He’s unwilling to give up his security and his station to journey into the unknown, trusting God alone.

Nicodemus is no Paul.  He’s unwilling to give up his certainties,  the familiarity of the faith he practices and protects, for the tangled path of unknowing. 

Nicodemus is no hero. His loyalty, his love for Jesus is always tentative, limited. And yet… here he is, part of the story.

John’s Gospel treats him with compassion. 

Christian tradition has named him as a saint.

A person whose walk with God can teach us something about our own. 

Commentators have called Nicodemus the patron saint of seekers. The patron saint of the curious, the confused, the conflicted.  The patron saint of those who wrestle with faith for years – for a lifetime. 

We don’t know how Nicodemus’s story ends – though the fact that his name and voice are preserved in John’s Gospel suggest that he did, eventually, join the Jesus movement and share his story, his testimony, with the fellowship of believers. 

Nicodemus had so many reasons to steer clear,  but uncertain, unwilling, fearful as he was, the wind of the Spirit had caught in his sails just enough to change his course.

There are many icons and holy images of Nicodemus. At St. Dunstan’s, among our icons, we keep this copy of Henry Ossawa Tanner’s painting of the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus.

I love the play of light and dark, the colors, the way the painter gestures to both the beauty and the obscurity of this moment. 

That image is usually up above the baptismal font, among our other icons, but it’s down on our prayer table this week. 

I invite you – sometime today – to pause and take a look.  And, if you feel so moved, to light a candle for Nicodemus, the reluctant disciple, patron saint of the perplexed. 

All-Ages Worship Homily, February 26

Let’s talk about a character in this story – the Tempter. Jesus calls this figure Satan. The Hebrew word is the “shatan”, meaning adversary or accuser. Somebody who tests or tempts someone else. 

The word Devil comes from the Greek word used to translate satan. So it’s another name for the same figure or being. 

The Devil is a supernatural being, less powerful than God, whose job is to test people’s faith. That’s the role the Satan plays in both the Old and New Testaments. They are NOT the ruler of Hell – again, those are later ideas. The Satan or the Tempter doesn’t really have much to do with Hell or an underworld or afterlife. In fact, in a couple of places in the New Testament, Satan is referred to as the ruler of THIS world. 

Is the Satan, or the Devil, real? … 

I realized that this is probably our kids’ first question, and I found that it’s not that simple for me to answer. 

I can tell you that I don’t believe that there’s a supernatural being sneaking around trying to trick or trap me.

And I also don’t believe humans need much help to do evil or bad or cruel or hurtful things. Unfortunately we don’t seem to need much help with that. Nobody should be using Satan as an excuse for bad choices. “The Devil made me do it!” 

But I’m also not a person who only believes in what we can see and touch and measure and prove. 

I believe in mysteries, and things beyond what we can understand. I know that Goodness and Holiness sometimes work in mysterious ways.  Sometimes Evil does too. 

Let’s talk about evil for just a minute. Evil means much more than just ordinary bad. And everything that is hard or sad isn’t necessarily evil.

Doing without something you really wish you had can be hard, but isn’t necessarily evil. It depends!

Dealing wiht a big change or a loss … the end of a friendship, or having to move and start over … can be really hard and really sad. But those things aren’t necessarily evil.

The death of a pet or a person you love can be VERY hard and VERY sad. But again, it’s not necessarily evil. 

Evil hurts on purpose. 

Evil delights in breaking and ruining. 

Evil wants all the things, and doesn’t care what it costs. 

Evil wants to control and dominate and take, take, take. 

Evil hates healing and reconciling, redemption and mending. 

There’s a big, old debate about Good and Evil: 

Is there an active force of Evil? A power of evil, trying to make more evil in the world? Or is Evil just where there isn’t Good yet? Just the hole where there isn’t any Good right now? I don’t feel qualified to answer that question!

So I don’t know if the Devil exists. But I don’t worry about them. 

Because the Christian witness is very strong, going all the way back, that Jesus and God are stronger than the Devil. 

I belong to Jesus, and that means I can tell the Devil to go away, any time I want. 

Anytime I feel like there might be some evil lurking around, I can remember that I belong to Jesus, and I can say: 

Go away! You have no power over me!

That’s fun to say. Want to try it? …. 

Let’s look at the story of the Temptations of Jesus again. 

Temptation means when you want something, but you know it’s not right for you, so you say No. Or you try really hard to say No! 

So Jesus goes into the wilderness for some time away to really focus and pray and be in the big emptiness of nature and prepare for how hard his work and his ministry are going to be.

And after he’s been doing that for a while, the Tempter comes to him and says, Hey, Jesus, you’ve been alone in the wilderness for a long time. You seem pretty hungry. 

Why should you be hungry, Jesus? Aren’t you really God? 

I know you want to share life with human beings, and have the experiences they have, but you’re not just an ordinary person. Hunger and deprivation and discomfort are for chumps.

You’re special. You shouldn’t have to be hungry. 

Look at all these rocks. You could just turn them into bread – nice, warm, fragrant, freshly-baked bread! What do you say?…

Let’s say it together again: 


Then the Satan brings Jesus to the highest point of the biggest building in Jerusalem and says to him, 

Listen, I know you’ve got some big plans ahead. 

But if you dot he things you plan to do, it’s going to get harder and harder and worse and worse for you. Eventually you’ll be betrayed by your friends, arrested, condemned to death, nailed to a cross – and then you’ll DIE. It’s going to be awful. 

You don’t want that, do you? Suffering is for ordinary people and you are special. So to prove that you’r especial and don’t have to suffer, throw yourself off this building! God will send some angels to catch you and protected you. Probably. 

What does Jesus say? ….


THEN the Satan, the Devil shows Jesus all the nations of the world, all the peoples… all the finery, all the land, all the wealth, all the great armies with their power and their weapons… 

And the Devil says, Right now everyone thinks you’re a poor, powerless guy from a poor, powerless part of the world. 

Look, if you were in command of all this, you could do so much good! You could use all that wealth and power to make things better for everybody. Who would be a better Emperor of the World than you?

You can have it all – if you’ll just promise to worship me and do what I say, instead of God. 

What does Jesus say? … .


And the Devil left… and angels came and tended Jesus. I hope they gave him a snack! 

Thank you, actors! Thank you, everyone, for wondering about the story together! …. 

Sermon, Feb. 19

The Transfiguration of Jesus is our Gospel for the last Sunday in Epiphany every year. 

It gives us – looking on with his disciples – a glimpse of Jesus’ divinity, his God-self, as his journey turns towards the cross; and as we turn towards the journey of Lent. 

Let’s note that we’ve jumped twelve chapters in Matthew’s Gospel; the lectionary will circle us back to some of what we missed, in the summer and fall.

But for now we are suddenly fairly late in the story. 

Jesus is headed towards Jerusalem, and anticipating the part of his mission where he gets arrested, condemned, and killed. 

Just a few verses later he tells his disciples “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised.”

The disciples are greatly distressed by this… as you would be.

But Jesus is very clear that doing and saying the things he is doing and saying is going to make the powers that be seize him and crush him. 

I wonder what they were talking about, Jesus and Moses and Elijah – or whoever these mysterious beings are, whom the disciples think are the great prophets Moses and Elijah. 

In his Gospel, Luke says that they were speaking about Jesus’ departure that he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Meaning: his death. 

Which makes sense – that this is a time for Jesus to take counsel, and perhaps comfort, before facing the hardest part yet of his earthly mission. A conversation about what’s ahead, and about how to stay the course. 

I’ve had conversations a little like that – not with people who anticipate being arrested and killed, but with people getting ready to do a hard thing, and trying to prepare themselves, and work out how to do what has to be done as well as possible. 

Maybe that’s what’s happening here. 

It’s the understanding and teaching of our church that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine; and I can’t imagine that any amount of divinity makes it easy for a human to willingly face mortal danger. 

Jesus following his path towards death paved the way for a lot of other people to follow Jesus towards death. 

The apostle Stephen was the first Christian martyr, stoned to death in the seventh chapter of Acts for preaching the Gospel.

But many followed. 

There were waves of persecution that led to many Christians being imprisoned, and some killed, because they refused to participate in the Roman state religion. 

(Saint Valentine, for example!) 

The early church came to hold the martyrs in very high regard, as having made the ultimate sacrifice for Christ. 

Martyr is a funny word. M – A – R – T – Y – R. 

You may be familiar with it in secular language, meaning of someone who appears to enjoy suffering for the sake of others. 

But that’s a distortion of its earliest and simplest meaning. 

It’s a Greek legal term, meaning a witness, as in a court of law. 

It took on its religious meaning as early Christians bore witness to their faith – gave testimony to their convictions and hopes – under threat of torture and even death. 

Those early generations of our faith-ancestors understood martyrdom as a way to respond to – and even emulate – Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross. 


It became less common for Christians to die for their faith, after the year 300 or so, but it was by no means uncommon. 

Yet in the mainline churches like the Episcopal Church, we don’t tend to talk a lot about the Christian martyrs – ancient or modern. 

I’m not sure why not. 

Maybe it seems a little dramatic. A little indecorous. Excessive. 

There’s a tiny little section in our hymnal for feasts of martyrs – Hymns #236 through 241 – but I didn’t grow up singing them. 

Sometimes we talk about the martyrs of the Civil Rights movement – Jonathan Daniels, Dr. King. 

Sometimes we talk about the martyrs of World War II – Dietrich Bonhoeffer is probably the best known. 

But today I want to talk about Sophie. 

Sophie Magdalena Scholl was born in 1921, in Ulm, Germany, the fourth of six children. She was part of a lively, loving family, and was a smart, curious, loving child. 

The Scholls were not particularly religious, but were people who thought deeply about ethics and values; her father was a pacifist and had been a conscientious objector in the first world war. 

When Sophie was 11 or 12, something started to happen in her country – a new movement, with a new leader. His name was Adolf Hitler. 

At first it was exciting! Everybody was talking about a new chapter for Germany, with unity and prosperity for everyone. There were clubs for kids to join to celebrate being German. Sophie joined one, and became a leader. They marched and sang and went on outings; it was fun! Everyone felt caught up in the hope and energy of the moment. 

But this new movement in Germany wasn’t for everybody. The leaders said that only some kinds of people count as real Germans. Others don’t belong – especially the Jews. 

There had been Jews in Germany for a long, long time, and some of the best music and poetry and writing in Germany came from German Jewish musicians and poets and writers.  

But the Nazi movement said:  All of that is no good. Sophie’s brother Hans found out he wasn’t allowed to sing his favorite songs. Sophie learned that her favorite poet, Heinrich Heine, was off limits. And the young Scholls started to look more critically at this new movement. 

Deep down inside, Sophie’s heart began to turn. She couldn’t just go along with things anymore. 

Sophie finished school; by then World War II had started and Germany was deep in wartime. Hans and all her male friends had to become soldiers. Young women had to work for the German cause too, before they could start university or take another path. During those difficult years, Sophie kept in touch with a group of friends who shared thoughts and feelings about the war and the Nazi regime.  

An elderly Roman Catholic priest and scholar befriended the group and influenced their thinking, bringing Christ and faith into their reflections on how to live in such times. 

In 1942, Sophie’s brother Hans and his friends started a secret resistance network at the university where he was studying. It was called the White Rose Society. They wrote essays urging ordinary Germans to resist Nazi ideas. They printed thousands of copies of their essays, and secretly sent them all over their city and country.  

When Sophie found out, at first she was shocked – but then she asked to join them. She knew that because she was a girl, and looked young and innocent, it would be easier for her to get away with buying supplies and distributing leaflets.

It was dangerous work, but Sophie knew that. She knew that terrible things were happening – and even more terrible: ordinary people were standing by and letting them happen. Sophie and Hans knew that they were doing and saying things that might make the powers that be seize them and crush them. And they went ahead anyway. 

On February 18, 1943 – eighty years ago, yesterday – Sophie and Hans were on a university campus in Munich, leaving leaflets for students to find. Sophie had a few papers left, so she threw them over a balcony into an open area.  But a janitor saw her, and reported her to the Nazi secret police. 

Sophie and her brother Hans were arrested by the Gestapo. They were tried the following Monday, sentenced to death, and executed later the same day. Sophie was 21 years old. 

On the last day of her life, February 22nd, 1943 – eighty years ago, this Wednesday – Sophie said,  “The sun is still shining.” 

When we reflect on the lives of the blessed martyrs, we might feel like they must have been a different kind of person – a different kind of Christian – than our ordinary selves. Surely their faith was stronger, their inner vision clearer, to lead them towards the cross in such a way. 

But I’ve spent some time in the past week reading excerpts from Sophie’s letters and diary, and there’s so much that is, as we say, relatable. 

She struggled with having to live through difficult times, writing in a letter to her sister, “Sometimes, and especially of late, I’ve felt that it’s grossly unfair to have to live in an age so filled with momentous events.” (145)

She found consolation in music, as so many of us do. She writes at one point about hearing something on the radio that stirred her and helped, in her words, “distance me a little from the turmoil around me, with its resemblance to glutinous, hostile mush.” (189) She continues, “Music represents neither more nor less than the air that enables a flame to burn more brightly.” (190, winter 1942) 

She found solace and escape in nature – again, as I know many of us do. She wrote in 1942, “I’ve always felt, and I still do now, that I can hear the most consummate harmony resounding from field and forest…” (204) 

And the night before her arrest, she wrote a letter to her sister about looking forward to spring, saying, “You can’t help rejoicing and laughing, however moved or sad at heart you feel, when you see the springtime clouds in the sky and the budding branches sway, stirred by the wind.” (280)

Sophie questioned her own motives and felt like she should be doing more. As perhaps many of us do. 

In June of 1940, she wrote to her boyfriend, a soldier, about the need for clarity of conscience in complicated times – but went on to say, “Very few of my actions correspond to what I consider right… Weariness keeps me silent when I ought to speak out… I know what I’m like, and I’m too tired, lazy, and bad to change.” (75, 77, 1940, to Fritz)

In January of 1943, just a month before her arrest, she wondered whether she’d ever done anything out of truly good motives, or just to look good or keep up with others she admired. She wrote, “It’s beyond me that some people have moments of temptation only. I have moments of greater lucidity, and I’m grateful for them, but the rest of the time I’m paddling around in the dark.” (268)

Sophie struggled with prayer – as perhaps many of us do at times. Late in 1941 she wrote, “When I try to pray and reflect on whom I’m praying to, I almost go crazy, I feel so infinitely small… I get really scared, so the only emotion that can surface is fear… I can’t pray for anything except the ability to pray.” (176-77) 

In June of 1942 she wrote of praying desperately against becoming numb: “Teach me to pray… better to pray for pain, pain, and more pain, than to feel empty, and to feel so without truly feeling at all. That I mean to resist.” (207-08) 

Later that summer she wrote, “I too often forget the sufferings that ought to overwhelm me, the sufferings of mankind. I place my powerless love in your hands, that it may become powerful.” (209)

In October of 1942, four months before her arrest and death, she wrote, “Whenever I pray, the words drain out of me. The only ones I can remember are, “Help me!” I can’t offer up any other prayer….. So I pray to learn how to pray.” (249) 

She writes about feeling like she didn’t know how to approach or name God. Like she was too bad, too small, too distracted. She describes wanting to fall to her knees at an Easter service – and feeling too self-conscious and inhibited. (194) 

And yet: There is no question, reading her diary, that it was her faith and her conscience that drove her to join her brother in resisting the Nazi evil, and thus to her death. 

There is no question that Sophie Scholl is a Christian martyr. 

In my sermon last week I said: Choosing good is hard, for lots of reasons. We are often conflicted, confused, self-deluded, weak and weary. 

It can help to have a community, people in it with us.

It can help to have a season like Lent to invite us deeper into it. 

Maybe it helps, too, to have people we admire and honor to show us what it looks like to choose the good when it’s hard.

In weakness, weariness, confusion. 

Perhaps part of the work of this season – of Lent, of this season of the world – needs to be reckoning with what matters to us deeply enough to stand up for it, to work for it, even when it’s costly. 

We aren’t in the depths of World War II. But we live in profoundly uncertain times. Threats to democracy, civic strife, the deepening climate crisis… We probably feel some recognition of Sophie’s “glutinous, hostile mush.” 

I can’t help thinking about Sophie from the perspective of a parent and friend of young people. When her father, Robert Scholl, tried to get into the courtroom for Hans and Sophie’s trial, the guard told him, “You should have raised them better.”

Sophie and Hans are both a worst-case and best-case outcome for a parent: young people of courage, resourcefulness and conscience, who stood up to evil and paid the price. 

Part of me wants to urge the youth of our parish to dwell deeply with the stories of people like Sophie, to help form their hearts and souls for struggles ahead. 

Part of me wants to say, Look away. Never mind. Stay home. Stay safe. 

But it’s not up to me. 

From one perspective, the White Rose was a failure. Ordinary Germans did not rise up against the regime, as they hoped. 

Sophie believed their deaths would spur a student revolt, but it didn’t happen. People were either too comfortable or too scared.

But their lives and witness remind us that there are things we do because we have to. Because they are necessary and right, regardless of whether they work. 

That there’s always an alternative to standing by, or looking away. 

That sometimes all we can do is place our powerless love in God’s hands, and trust that somehow it will become powerful.



Diary and letter excerpts are from the book At the heart of the White Rose, edited by Inge Jens. 

Sermon, February 12

You can read today’s lessons by clicking here! 

Today’s lesson from Deuteronomy in the Old Testament is one of the parts of the Bible that makes it sound like choosing right, choosing good, is very straightforward. 

You just do the good thing and not the bad thing.

You do the thing God tells you to do and not the thing God tells you not to do.

How hard can it be? It’s simple. 

It’s not simple.

We are complicated, and the world is complicated.

We don’t fully understand ourselves, let alone others; 

and we don’t fully understand the motives or consequences of our actions and choices. 

Doing good – choosing good – is hard.

Our Psalm names that in one evocative line:

Oh, that my ways were made so direct
that I might keep your statutes, your commandments!

To paraphrase loosely:

If only my path were clear enough, and my steps steady enough, 

for me to consistently follow God’s ways!  

Deuteronomy says, Just do what’s right! 

Psalm 119 says, I wish it were that simple.

And then … there’s today’s Gospel.

Oh, Lordy. 

Believe me, if most preachers could make our peace with just skipping this chunk of the Sermon on the Mount, we would. 

The divorce stuff is extra tough but all of it is tough. 

The idea that if you hate your terrible co-worker, that has profound consequences for your soul?… 

Jesus is using hyberbole and exaggerated language to make his point, here, as he does elsewhere. 

He likes to use big images that really get people’s attention. 

I don’t think we’re being faithful to his intentions if we try to take all this literally. I’m very sure that he doesn’t really want people to cut their hands off. And I’m pretty sure he doesn’t mean that you’ll go to hell for hating your worthless jerk of a co-worker. 

Let me take a brief detour here to talk about Hell. 

The phrase Jesus actually uses here is “Gehenna of fire.” 

Gehenna or Hinnom is a valley south of Jerusalem, just outside the city. Its name in Hebrew means Valley of Lamentation. 

It seems to have been a place where the garbage of the city was thrown, over the centuries, and sometimes burned. 

By Jesus’ time the word Gehenna has taken on other meanings.  It’s not just a trash-polluted gully but a symbolic place of dread, of punishment and perhaps of purification. 

What we need to understand about Gehenna is, first, that this term does NOT mean Hell, an underworld of eternal punishment ruled over by Satan. 

That is a later idea built upon some fairly thin Scriptural foundations. 

And, second, that we don’t really know what this term meant to Jesus. He only uses it a few times. 

Bible translator and theologian David Bentley Hart says that in other writings from around the same time, Gehenna seems to have had many varied meanings – historical or cosmic; eternal or temporary; punishment or renewal. 

Given all that, we just don’t know what Jesus has in mind here, or how his original audience would have heard it. 

Hart also points out that there’s basically nothing about Gehenna, or eternal punishment in general, in our earliest Christian texts, the letters of Paul. 

He himself found that his close study of the New Testament, among other things, led him to universalism – a belief that everyone will be saved. 

That’s a sermon for another day! 

The point right now is that these references to Gehenna or hell seem to be more a way to convey the seriousness of the subject than an actual statement about ultimate destinations. 

What Jesus is talking about here, in this difficult passage, is the fact that being good is hard – and that one reason it’s hard is that insides matter just as much as outsides. 

We know this. 

We know that we are kidding ourselves if we think that hating our jerk co-worker doesn’t matter, as long as we are polite to them in public. 

Or that any other toxic or life-sapping relationship or situation is FINE as long as we all keep showing up and getting on with things. 

Hear me clearly: I am not saying that changing stuff like that is easy or light or even safe!!! 

I’m just saying what I think Jesus is saying: Insides matter.

What we’re thinking and feeling matters, even if on the surface everything looks fine or at least OK. 

Our Isaiah text from last week was about the same issue with respect to humans and God. People were complaining: God, we’re doing all the stuff we’re supposed to do, why aren’t you blessing us? And God says through the prophet: Look! You’re using your religious observances as an excuse to argue with your neighbor and oppress your workers. 

Your insides don’t match your outsides.
Your goodness, your rightness, is only skin-deep. 

Jesus knows – as Isaiah knew – that we can meet expectations about correct or appropriate behavior on the surface, while all kinds of messy or deeply corrosive stuff is going on underneath. 

Oh, that my ways were made so direct
that I might keep your commandments!

I waffled on whether to include this in the sermon but I decided a concrete example might be helpful.

A couple of weeks ago I went to a local faith-based summit on the housing crisis, to educate us and help us start to imagine ways that faith communities could help.

I knew we had a housing crisis, in Dane County, in Wisconsin, nationwide, but I learned that it’s much worse than I realized.

And of course it’s hardest for the poor, for people of color, for people with any kind of spotty employment or credit history, and for young folks who want to move into stable housing and build their lives. 

One thing I learned at the summit is that Dane County has a lot of good jobs, and people WILL move here for the jobs, whether there’s housing or not. 

If there isn’t housing close, they’ll live farther out – even in the next county – and commute. 

So to deal with that reality, we can either build more dense housing near jobs and along public transit routes; OR  there will be more and more people with long commutes – with negative impacts on their quality of life, our traffic, and the environment.

Here in Madison, the Council recently passed some new zoning that will allow construction of duplexes in formerly single-family home neighborhoods along certain transit routes. 

It’s intended to help add some more entry-level housing, and to reduce traffic and the environmental harm by making it easier for folks to use transit. 

And we heard some pushback about that. 

Some people who live in those neighborhoods were pretty upset about the way this might change the character of their neighborhoods. 

They don’t like the aesthetics, they’re worried about their property values, and I think there’s probably also some concern about who these duplex-dwellers are going to be.

As I sat in the housing summit, I thought about those folks and their discomfort and anxiety. 

I’m sure they are mostly people with genuine concerns about the wellbeing of less affluent community members. They don’t want young couples or lower income families to be unable to find homes. 

And I’m sure they are mostly people who really care about climate change, and about driving less. 

I’m not an expert on urban design or transit or real estate. 

But I do have some training in matters of soul and conscience.

And I think what those folks are facing is a difficult situation of choosing good.

They have competing values within themselves. 

Maybe they haven’t thought it all through, laid all those values and hopes and desires out on the table; but even if you do that, even if all it’s really clear in your head, sometimes the right action remains unclear. 

Sometimes – maybe often – we are conflicted. Our values and intentions and wants and needs can be at odds. 

It’s hard work to untangle it all and decide – discern – what to weigh most heavily in a given situation. 

Hard work – but such essential work. 

Doing good, choosing good, knowing good is complicated. 

If we want to be clear with God and honest with ourselves, and get things square with other human beings, let’s acknowledge that our insides and intentions matter. 

And they matter – in the words of Christian writer Kathleen Norris – not because “God is a great cosmic cop, eager to catch us in minor transgressions, but simply because God loves us.” 

God isn’t profiling us as likely sinners, looking for any excuse to pull us over. 

God loves us, and what matters to us matters to God. 

God loves us, inside and out, including our messy and conflicted intentions and needs and desires and hopes. 

Let me take another brief detour – about divorce. 

It seems like the historical Jesus took marriage pretty seriously, and didn’t like the idea of a marriage ending. 

It’s true that he was concerned with the vulnerability of abandoned women, but I don’t think that’s all that’s going on. 

It wasn’t the main thing for him by any means; he talked about other things much, much more. 

But this is heart- and life-stuff for many folks in this room, so even though it’s small in the Gospels, it may feel big to you. 

Matthew’s source here is the earliest gospel, the gospel of Mark. In Mark Jesus is talking specifically about remarriage, and this teaching reads more like a warning against leaving your spouse for somebody you like better. 

Matthew drops out the remarriage aspect, which makes this sound live more of a blanket condemnation of divorce. 

But even if we read this teaching of Jesus as, “Don’t leave your partner for somebody new,” it’s not easy to take on board.

I bet most grownups know somebody who was betrayed and deeply wounded by a partner who fell in love with someone else.

I bet most of us also know somebody who left a difficult or life-sapping relationship and eventually found a new partnership that has brought them renewal and joy. 

I definitely have some questions for Jesus about all this. 

But I also think that the main upshot of this whole passage is that we should try to live with clarity and integrity. 

And that probably means bringing our conflicts and hurts and grudges and unmet needs out into the open, and trying to deal with them as clearly and kindly and fairly as possible.

And sometimes the clearest and kindest outcome is that a relationship ends. 

My Jesus understands that. 

Oh, that my ways were made so direct
that I might keep your commandments!

Being good, doing good, choosing good is complicated. 

That’s why we named Turning as one of our core discipleship practices, back in 2016 – and in fact Turning is also one of Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s Ways of Love. 

The Way of Love materials say: “With God’s help, we can turn from the powers of sin, hatred, fear, injustice, and oppression toward the way of truth, love, hope, justice, and freedom. In turning, we reorient our lives to Jesus Christ, falling in love again, again, and again.”

Here’s what we said about turning in our discipleship practices: “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.” 

Turning is a foundational Christian practice. 

It’s like a fractal, the same shape at any scale – there are tiny opportunities on a daily basis, and great big life-transforming moments and seasons too – for individuals and institutions alike. 

Being open to repentance, transformation and call is always part of Christian life, but we are approaching the season of Lent – it begins in about a week and a half. 

And our Sunday lessons are starting to lean towards it. 

Lent is the season when the church prepares for the mystery of Easter, and it has long been observed as a season for self-examination, reflection, and intentional turning. 

Often people try on some disciplines or practices that they hope will become habits that make their lives more fully reflect their values and convictions.

Now is a good time, actually, to give that a little thought and prayer, if you feel called to take on a Lenten practice this year. 

Let me know if you would like a conversation partner. 

Choosing good – for ourselves, others, the world – often is not straightforward. 

If there’s anything I can wrestle from this difficult Gospel, it’s that we have to try to be as honest with ourselves as we can about what’s going on inside us – our sometimes-conflicting values and desires, intentions and needs. 

It can help to have a community, people who are in it with us.

Maybe it helps to have a season like Lent that invites us to acknowledge that we all have stuff we’re figuring out and working on.

And it helps to be kind – to ourselves, to one another.

In our Epistle today, Paul says: You are God’s field, God’s building.

Paul is talking about how the church in Corinth – like every Christian community, like every individual Christian – is a work in progress. A growing field that’s been planted and watered, but is still needs lots of sun and rain and time to reach maturity. 

A structure that’s being built up slowly up from the foundation – that’s in the next few verses beyond today’s text – and needs a lot more stone and mortar and work and care to be complete. 

It’s okay that we’re unfinished, imperfect, still working on it. 

We’re still growing, still being built. Each and all.  

And we belong fully to God in our incompleteness, our working-on-it-ness: God’s field, God’s building, God’s work in progress. 

Let’s hold that as we turn together towards Lent; towards wherever God is calling us. Each and all. 


Sermon, Feb. 5

Today we are celebrating Candlemas! 

Its other name is the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, which is the Gospel story we just heard.

This holy day comes deep in the winter, at a time of year when people are longing for spring and the return of longer days. 

So over the centuries – especially as Christianity moved into more northern regions with longer, darker winters – the holy day became a festival of light and a time to bless candles, to be burned in times of peril, storms, or sickness.

Candlemas is a minor feast of the church, falling on February 2. 

We bring it into Sunday church here because there’s a Candlemas story about St Dunstan, the saint of our church, and that makes it special for us.

The story goes like this… 

It happens about eleven hundred years ago! 

In the western part of England, where winters were long and cold and dark and sometimes stormy. 

And it wasn’t just the winters that were hard.

It was a time of violence, poverty, sickness, corruption, and unjust rulers. 

It was Candlemas Eve, and everyone in the village was at church. In the crowd was a young woman named Cynethrith. She was married and was expecting a child. 

She was a woman of deep faith, and she prayed every day that her child would grow up to be someone who could help her country and her people. 

So, everybody came to church for Candlemas, and they brought their candles to bless. 

This was before electricity, so they didn’t have flashlights or lamps with bulbs… just candles, and little lamps that burned oil or fat, and the fireplaces in their homes. 

Imagine a little stone church full of candlelight! It must have been beautiful. 

But! There was a big storm that night…. And suddenly, in the middle of the praying and singing, a gust of wind blew through the church and blew out everybody’s candles! Every single one! 

The church was in total darkness! Adults cried out. Children wept. The priest begged everyone to stay calm. 

Nobody had lighters or matches – they didn’t exist yet! 

But then, suddenly, there was light again. 

The candle that Cynethrith was holding had lit – all by itself. 

As if by magic. As if by a miracle. 

She shared that holy and mysterious flame to her neighbors, and the light spread until the whole church was lit up again. 

The lighting of Cynethrith’s candle was a sign of what her baby would become: Saint Dunstan, monk, friend of kings, founder of monasteries, and Archbishop of Canterbury, a leader who would share and spread Christ’s light in difficult times. 

And it was a sign of her own role as the mother of a saint, kindling God’s light in her son’s heart. 

Dunstan shined his light in the difficult times when he lived.

Just like Jesus says in our Song of Faith today: Be light! Be salt!  

This is part of a big sermon Jesus preached. 

We heard the beginning last week: A big crowd had gathered, so Jesus went up on a hill so people could see and hear him, and preached to the crowd. 

The people in that crowd weren’t rich or important or special.

They were ordinary people from the villages and countryside.

Matthew just told us that Jesus was healing people who were sick or disabled or hurt, so the crowd probably included a lot of people who were sick or disabled or hurt, and their loved ones. 

And Jesus starts his sermon off with a big surprise for everybody:

It’s not the people who are rich and important and special in their own eyes who are really on top of the world.

People who are grieving or struggling, people who feel hopeless, people who are full of frustration and yearning for a better world, people who take time to be kind instead of always pushing to get ahead, people who are bullied and bothered for doing what is right – those are the people who are especially held in God’s love.

Those are actually the people who really matter in the world, no matter how it might look on the surface.  

Then he goes on to tell this group of ordinary, unimportant people, including kids and old people and sick and disabled people and all kinds of folks – he tells them: 

You are the salt of the earth!

You are the light of the world! 

I want us to hear those words, that thing Jesus is telling us about ourselves – and I do think he’s speaking to us as well as that original crowd. 

What does it mean to be salt and light? 

Salt and light are both things where a little bit can make a big difference. 

Let’s start with salt. 

When food is flavored just right, it doesn’t just taste like salt, right?

Salt brings out the other flavors. It doesn’t dominate. 

But you can really tell the difference between food that has just the right amount of salt – or not enough – or too much! 

And this stuff Jesus says about salt losing its saltiness? 

That’s not a thing. Salt is very simple.  

It’s a sodium cation and a chloride anion. NaCl. It doesn’t go bad. 

There are two ways we can read what Jesus says here: 

Either he is surprisingly uninformed about salt,

Or he’s intentionally saying something that can’t happen. 

Like, if salt just refuses to be salt, then sure, it’s basically sand, and the best use for it is to scatter it on an icy spot. 

But it is salt’s nature to be salty.

Jesu says we can trust our God-given saltiness and just let ourselves get mixed in and spice up the world. 

A little salt can change and improve the flavor of the whole dish. 

And a room with one candle in it – or a sky with one star – is so different from total darkness. 

Who grew up with the song? 

“This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine!… 

Hide it under a bushel? NO! I’m going to let it shine!

Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine…”  

In my research this week I learned a fun fact.

Think about a lit candle in the dark. 

If you were in a wide open, dark space, and you turned around and started walking away from that candle, and looked back at it now and then, how far away do you think you could still see it? …. Two physicists studied this question, and they found that it’s about 1.6 miles. 

They did it by comparing it with the visibility of stars from earth! 

At about 1.6 miles, a candle flame is about the same brightness as some of the stars that we can just barely see from earth. 

1.6 miles is a lot farther than I would have guessed!

For those who know the local terrain: From here at St. Dunstan’s, it’s about 1.6 miles to the intersection of University Avenue and Whitney Way. 

Even a single candle can shine its light pretty far!…. 

In a commentary on today’s Gospel, The Salt Project says, “Like salt and light, God made you as a small thing that can make a big difference for a larger whole. God made you to spice things up — not to overpower the dish, but to enliven it… And likewise, God made you to shine, as only you can: a flame that can light up an entire room, or help guide a lost traveler home… But we do have to claim and embrace and live out these gifts. We do have to actually be salty and luminous…  [In the Sermon on the Mount,] Jesus does not say, Follow these instructions and you’ll be blessed.  Rather, he says, You are already blessed with gifts for blessing the world — so go and bless! Spice and shine!”

I love that. Spice and shine, dear ones!

But I want to explore one more thing before we move on. 

Light is one of the big themes of the season of Epiphany.

It’s in our songs and prayers and Scriptures all over the place. 

Over the past few years I have been trying to pay attention to how we talk about light – and especially how we talk about darkness. 

I read an article a couple of weeks ago by a Christian songwriter who’s been thinking about this too – Steve Thorngate. 

First, he lays out some of the tensions and complexities. 

He writes, “There is a long history in the church of using words like light, white, bright, and fair to [suggest] goodness in a straightforward way – and words like dark, black, shade, and dim to [mean] the opposite. Most instances… were not written for explicitly racist purposes (though some were). Still, this language has thrived alongside racism in White-dominated church contexts. And language—especially ritual language, repeated again and again—has great power among those who speak or hear it, [beyond] the intent of its creators. So there is a compelling case to simply avoid this whole family of descriptive language at church, [because] it can be and has been used to bolster White supremacy.” 

On the other hand, he says, “The Bible is chock-full of light/dark imagery, with much (though not all) of it presenting light as the positive side of the coin.”

Furthermore, he says, “[Light and dark] language, after all, is more than biblical: it’s elemental. It names a fundamental experience of all living things. The earth’s days and seasons are defined by the planet’s relationship with the sun’s rays…These cycles of darkness and light have shaped creatures, ecosystems, and communities across generations and continents, and the depth of this shared reality makes it a rich source for [Christian symbolic] language. This universal experience of time and of the created order… is fundamental to Christian [worship].” 

That’s an especially salient point here at Candlemas. 

You might know at least two other celebrations on February 2nd. 

Can anybody name one? … (Groundhog Day; Imbolc.)

February 2nd is important, is named and celebrated in all these ways, because it falls halfway between the winter solstice – the shortest day, the longest night – and the spring equinox, when the night and day are the same length; after that the days start to get longer than the nights.

So February 2nd is a human way of naming a planetary waypoint, a particular moment in the interaction of the Earth’s tilted turning in relation to the Sun. 

And we humans, observers and meaning-makers, have layered on all these feasts that are different ways of saying that we are yearning for light and spring and rebirth. 

Light and dark really do have this elemental, fundamental meaning. But that doesn’t free us from responsibility to be thoughtful in using this language, with its history of harm. 

Steve Thorngate writes that he has decided – for now – to keep using these images in his songs, but carefully, and with a few guidelines. 

For example: Think about what we mean when we talk about light. “Light can mean illumination, vision, transparency, openness, the revealing of secrets.” Those meanings stay close to the literal function of light. 

But let’s be careful about layering on more moral or value-laden meanings, like innocence, goodness, cleanness, purity. 

He also suggests that we be very cautious about using negative language for darkness – and look for opportunities to say positive things about darkness, too. He writes, “Fertile soil is dark. A dark sky without light pollution promotes healthy rest and… visibility. Secrets and mysteries aren’t always bad things.” 

And he urges us to work on broadening and diversifying the language and imagery we use in worship – the ways we talk about God and about our Christian vocation. 

I wonder what it would be like to spend a whole Epiphany exploring salt, instead of light? There would have to be lots of snacks!

Thorngate’s essay summed up a lot of things I’ve been thinking about – and I’ve been trying to follow similar guidelines for a while. But I am still thinking and wondering about it all. 

I invite you to think and wonder with me.

How we can use these images that are so central in our Scriptures and that are so natural to us as human beings who live on a planet that spins from dark to light, dark to light again; but also who live in a society with a deep and persistent history of sorting and ranking people based on their skin color, and using darkness to stand for ignorance or evil? 

I invite you to wonder and notice with me… and if you have ideas or questions or noticings, let’s talk about it. 




The Salt Project’s commentary on this Gospel:

About candle flames and distance:

Steve Thorngate on light and dark imagery:

Epiphany Pageant 2023 Gallery


Job Description: Director of Music Ministry

St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church is seeking our next part-time Director of Music Ministry. The position is 12 hours/week with initial compensation of $23 – $25/hour, depending on experience and qualifications. The only fixed hours at present are Sunday mornings (9AM – 12PM); additional hours are flexible or TBD based on availability. St. Dunstan’s is a warm, lively and inclusive congregation with both in-person and Zoom (online) worshipping congregations. The Director of Music Ministry supports our worship life by selecting music, playing piano or organ in worship to support congregational song, working with singers and musicians within the congregation to prepare special music, collaborating with the Rector to plan special liturgies, and continuing to develop our practices of shared music-making for all ages. As a staff member involved in liturgical leadership, the Director of Music Ministry contributes to an atmosphere of welcome and warmth in the life of the congregation. Our musical repertoire at St. Dunstan’s includes both the full range of the Episcopal hymnals (from medieval chant though modern hymnody), “paperless” music, and sacred music from various folk traditions and from around the world. We are striving to build a parish musical culture that makes room for everyone from the highly trained to the untrained-but-enthusiastic to participate in music-making. We are looking for someone creative, collaborative, skillful and playful to join us in this work. Our ideal candidate may or may not be a trained church musician, but will be someone collaborative and curious, who will get to know us, learn the music and ways of music-making that are important to us, and help us grow, explore, and build. 

Read the full job description here below! 

To apply, send a cover letter and CV to



Effective 2/1/23

TITLE: Director of Music Ministry

REPORTS TO: Rector, St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church 

HOURS:  12 hours/week: 9AM – 12PM every Sunday; additional 9 hours/week on average of planning, collaboration (possibly including a regular weekly practice time), and communication weekly, on average. Additional compensated hours may be negotiated for other special services, events, or trainings. 

COMPENSATION: $23-$25/hour, depending on experience & qualifications. 

STATUS: Regular Part-time, Non-exempt 


Under the supervision of the Rector, the Director of Music Ministry supports the worship life of St. Dunstan’s Church by selecting music, playing piano or organ in worship to support congregational song, working with singers and musicians within the congregation to prepare anthems and other special music, collaborating with the Rector to plan special liturgies, and continuing to develop our practices of shared music-making for all ages. As a staff member involved in liturgical leadership, the Director of Music Ministry contributes to an atmosphere of welcome and warmth in the life of the congregation. 


  1. I. Plan, Prepare & Lead Music in Worship (40%) 

The Director of Music Ministry shall: 

  1. Play the piano and/or organ* for the 10am Sunday service. The service usually includes hymns, service music, a sung or chanted psalm, and sometimes a choral anthem or other special musical offering. Music just before and after the service (sometimes called the prelude and postlude) is welcome but not our highest priority. 
  2. Prepare music for use in Sunday 9AM Zoom worship. This usually consists of one new hymn each Sunday, and one piece of service music that is used for several consecutive weeks. Music can be offered “live” on Zoom or prepared ahead of time as sound files or videos. 
  3. Select hymns, anthems and worship music, in a timely fashion, in consultation with the Rector and others involved in worship planning; and provide all necessary information, including copyright notices, to those preparing bulletins. 
  4. Prepare for and play for these seasonal services: Christmas Eve (2 services), Maundy Thursday, and the Easter Vigil; the 8am service on Easter Sunday; and on Christmas Day only when it falls on a Sunday. 
  5. By mutual agreement with the Rector, and with additional compensation as negotiated, prepare and play for additional special services and events.
  6. Arrange for a substitute in the event of absence on a Sunday or other occasion. 

* A note regarding instruments: The primary instrument used to support congregational singing and smaller ensembles at St. Dunstan’s is a grand piano. We also have a small Allen electric organ and we enjoy hearing its voice now and then, but there is latitude for someone to take some time to learn to play the organ for occasional special pieces and occasions. 

II. Work with musicians and ensembles within the congregation to prepare special music (30%) 

  1. Work with singers and instrumentalists to plan and prepare special musical offerings for worship; these may include mixed-age and mixed-ability ensembles of various sizes.
  2. Schedule and lead in-person rehearsals as needed, and when appropriate, find or prepare practice resources for those who prefer to rehearse at home or asynchronously. 
  3. Collaborate with the Rector to plan a monthly music learning and play session for children. This is not a traditional children’s choir, though preparing music to share in worship is welcome.
  4. (10) Potentially, convene and lead choir rehearsals to prepare an anthem for Sunday worship, starting on a monthly basis. A possible schedule might include two weeknights per month and one or two Sunday morning 9AM rehearsals per month. We have not had a choir that meets regularly since before the pandemic, but believe there may be sufficient interest at this time to try it out again. 
  5. (11) Coordinate with instrumental musicians in the congregation to share their gifts and enrich the musical life of the parish. 

III. Participate in Planning the Musical & Liturgical Life of the Parish (20%)

The Director of Music Ministry shall:

  1. Work collaboratively as part of a team, including the Rector, other staff, and parish volunteers, to offer seasonal, appropriate, well-presented, well-integrated music and liturgy. 
  2. Meet with the Rector monthly, at a mutually-convenient time, to review and plan the musical and liturgical life of the parish. 

IV. Maintain the parish’s Music Library, licenses, and instruments (10%)

The Director of Music Ministry shall be responsible for the following tasks, either as part of their work or in collaboration with volunteers: 

  1. Maintain the music library in an orderly and usable condition. 
  2. Maintain the necessary copyright licenses for our regularly-used music and manage any necessary usage reporting. 
  3. Oversee instrument maintenance, in collaboration with the Office Coordinator. 

Note: This description is not intended to include all responsibilities, as additional duties may be assigned and existing duties may be adjusted at any time. 

Knowledge, Skills and Abilities

  • Commitment to building and sustaining community
  • Commitment to excellence, beauty, and joy in worship music 
  • Commitment to engaging with, supporting and empowering music makers of all abilities
  • Training (formal and/or experiential) in conducting an ensemble and running a rehearsal
  • Caring and responsive; able to give feedback kindly and effectively 
  • Flexible, resourceful and creative
  • Familiar with, or willing to become familiar with, the Episcopal Hymnal and other church music and frequently-used resources
  • Familiar with, or willing to become familiar with, the “paperless music” approach 
  • Willing to follow and support parish Covid policies 
  • Demonstrated organizational skills, including calendaring, project coordination, and prioritization. Ability to effectively manage workload within compensated hours. 
  • Effective communication skills, both verbal and written 
  • Able to plan musical undertakings congruent with musicians’ energy and interests, and to identify musical gifts and skills and look for opportunities to build them into the program.
  • Collaborative; able to work well with Rector and volunteers/helpers
  • Open to exploring how music-making can be a vital part of the life of a congregation with both in-person and online members
  • Committed to helping create a welcoming and inclusive environment, including socioeconomic diversity, neurodiversity, and full welcome of LGBTQ+ people.


Previous experience supporting or leading vocal ensembles 

Accompaniment & keyboard skills 


  • Full background check (paid for by the church) 
  • Completion of Safe Church training within first six months of employment. (This training, authorized by the Episcopal Church, outlines how to recognize warning signs and minimize risks of child sexual abuse.) 

References will be required if selected for an interview.