All posts by Miranda Hassett

Sermon, January 17

Readings for this Sunday may be seen here. 

When our reading from First Samuel begins, Samuel is a child living in the household of Eli – who was the semi-retired priest of the holy place at Shiloh. This was before Jerusalem. While we’re only two chapters into the first book of Samuel – who as the end of our reading foreshadows, grows up to be one of the great prophets of Israel – a lot has already happened that I think is important. This coming summer, we’ll have a lot more readings from the books of Samuel – so we might as well know Samuel’s origin story. 

Samuel’s father was named Elkanah. He was prosperous enough to have two wives, which was allowed in that time and place. And he was pious enough to visit the holy place at Shiloh every year, and make a sacrifice there. Elkanah’s wife Peninnah had many children, but Hannah, his other wife, had no children, and it made her bitterly sad. Peninnah would tease her cruelly about it, as well. Elkanah loved Hannah deeply, and would try to comfort her, saying, “Why do you weep, dear heart? You have me. Aren’t I more precious to you than ten sons?” But Hannah yearned for children of her own. 

So one year when the household was at Shiloh to make sacrifice, Hannah went into the temple there by herself, and began to pray from her heart, weeping bitterly. She prayed, “O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant and give me a son, I will dedicate him to your service for the whole of his life.” 

Now Eli was sitting near the temple door. He heard and saw Hannah, and he thought she was drunk, and rebuked her. But Hannah said, “No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled! I am not drunk, but I have been pouring out my soul to the Lord.”  Then Eli – somewhat abashed, one hopes – said, “Go in peace, and may God grant you what you have asked.”

Hannah went home, her spirits lifted. And soon after that – Hannah became pregnant. When her son was born, she named him Samuel, which means, “God heard.” Because, she said, I asked God for this child – and look: here he is. 

Hannah kept her son with her as long as he was nursing, and then – probably when he was about three years old – she fulfilled her vow and took him to Shiloh. She presented him to Eli and said, “My lord, I am the woman who was standing here in your presence, praying for this child. God has granted my petition; so I am loaning him to God, for as long as he lives.” And she left him there for God. Hannah sings a song of exaltation and praise, plus a little bit of revenge, which bears a striking resemblance to the Magnificat, Mary’s song of faith, which we sang often in Advent!  – Mary, and/or Luke, surely knew the books of Samuel well. 

Hannah went on to have three more sons and two daughters. But her firstborn was always in her heart. Every year, Hannah used to make him a little linen robe and take it to him, when the family would go to Shiloh to make sacrifice.

So that is who Samuel is – and why he’s living with Eli. We don’t know how old he is when God begins to call him by night – but he could be quite young, five or six or seven. 

I love that story and I want us to have it in our hearts when we come back to Samuel the grown-up prophet in a few months. But those first two chapters of First Samuel tell us some important things about Eli, too. I said earlier that Eli was the semi-retired priest of Shiloh. He had handed on most of the work of serving at the Temple to his sons, Hophni and Phinehas. And his sons were not good people. 

In fact, the text says, they were scoundrels. They had no regard for God or the duties of the priesthood. They were only interested in taking the food people brought to offer to God. They’d send their servants to take food from people before the people had even finished making their offering. They’d also pester and assault the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting. They were rude, impious, and greedy, treating both the Temple and the people with contempt. Hophni and Phinehas did not think much of God, and God did not think much of Hophni and Phinehas.

Now, Eli knew what his sons were doing. He told them, “I hear terrible reports about you. Why do you do such things? You must not sin against God in these ways!” But of course, this doesn’t even make a dent in their behavior. “Ah, the old man, he’s so uptight.” 

Then Eli receives a prophesy. A stranger, a man of God, comes to him and tells him,  “Look, God chose your ancestors to serve God as priests – but when a family treats its holy ancestral calling with contempt, that family will lose its holy calling. Your sons are doomed; and I will raise up for myself a faithful priest.” 

When God tells Samuel, “I am going to fulfill all that I have told Eli about his house” – his family – this is what God is talking about. 

And then, not long after that, little Samuel starts to hear someone calling his name at night. 

It would be easy to look at today’s lectionary texts and preach about call. About vocation. The idea that God may at any time tap us on the shoulder – or whisper our name by night – and say, I have something I need you to do. Or, simply, Follow me. In our Gospel we see Jesus beginning to gather – to call – disciples. And I have preached this 1 Samuel story before as a text that reminds us that young children may hear God’s voice and follow God’s call. I believe that wholeheartedly!

But today I want to talk about Eli. I want to talk about being willing to hear the bad news about yourself. 

Samuel doesn’t want to tell Eli about God’s message. Probably because he loves Eli, rather than because he fears punishment – the text suggests a tenderness between them. But Eli presses the child: “Do not hide it from me!” And when Samuel tells him that God’s judgment on his household is coming, Eli speaks with what Robert Alter calls pious resignation:  “God is the Lord. Let God do what seems good to God.” 

And then there’s Psalm 139. The first few verses could sound reassuring, comforting – “You trace my journeys and my resting-places… you know every word on my lips.” But then we start to get a sense that being known so profoundly could be uncomfortable. “Where can I go from your spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” In the heights of the heavens, the depths of the underworld, the ends of the sea – Even there, says the Psalmist, your right hand will seize me. I can’t even hide myself in darkness, for to you, O God, darkness is as bright as day. The Psalmist goes on to say, You’ve known me since you were secretly weaving me together in my mother’s womb – how could I hope to hide from you? 

This psalm is attributed to King David – and that fits really well. David had some moments in his life when he might well have wished God weren’t watching. More on that in a few months. But he also seemed to find relief in coming clean with God. Like Eli, when God sends someone to tell David the bad news about himself, David listens. And then there’s this odd little conversation in our Gospel! 

Nathanael is skeptical about Jesus because he’s from Nazareth. But he comes with his friend to meet him. Jesus says, Here comes an Israelite who never tells a lie! Nathanael says, We’ve never met. How do you know me? Jesus says, I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you. And Nathanael says, Rabbi, you are the Son of God! 

Was Nathanael just impressed by Jesus’ ability to see – to see a man sitting under a tree, far out of his sight; to see into the heart of a man he hasn’t met before? Or is there more here? Is the fig tree – or whatever happened under it – significant? Is Jesus telling Nathanael that he knows the best – or the worst – about him? There’s lots of speculation out there, but we’ll never know. All we know is that Nathanael – like David, like Eli – balks a bit at being so thoroughly seen, but then accepts it with awe and gratitude. 

The past months have told us, collectively, a lot of hard truths about ourselves. The rampant spread of the pandemic has shown us how little we understand our interconnectedness, or truly value our neighbor’s lives. The broad-daylight murder of George Floyd by a police officer forced some of us to face the systemic violence against black and brown bodies that is woven into the fabric of our national life. The riot at the US Capitol last week showed us how easily violent words can become violent actions. So many of us are weary and heartsick from months of seeing with painful clarity the brokenness of our common life – on top of dealing with the logistical and emotional and financial impacts of it all. 

Hard truths are hard. But all our church’s practices of confession and repentance – individual or collective – begin with being able to name what’s amiss, what’s broken, burdensome or binding. With being able to name with some specificity how what author Francis Spufford calls the Human Propensity to Mess Things Up (or HPtFtU) is at work in my life, the life of my community, and the place where my life intersects with the life of my community. 

Being able to flee from harsh realities, to hide bitter truths in a closet, only sounds like mercy. The true mercy is in being seen, and known, with love. Spufford writes, “A consolation you could believe in would be one that … didn’t depend on some more or less tacky fantasy about ourselves… A consolation you could trust would be one that acknowledged the difficult stuff rather than being in flight from it, and then found you grounds for hope in spite of it.”

Later in his book, Unapologetic, Spufford talks about church. About worship. About prayer. And he talks about – in worship, in prayer – knowing himself seen and known by God. By a Presence that “takes no account, at all, of my illusions about myself… It knows where my kindness comes checkered with secret cruelties… It knows where my love comes with reservations .It knows where I hate, and fear, and despise. It knows what I indulge in… It knows the best of me, which may well be not what I am proud of, and the worst of me, which is not what it has occurred to me to be ashamed of… It knows all this, and it shines at me.” 

He goes on, “I can’t bear, for very long at once, to be seen like that. To be seen like that is judgment in itself…. Only, to be seen like that is forgiveness too – or at any rate, the essential beginning of forgiveness.”

After such an encounter with that gentle shining, that profound knowing, Spufford asks, “Do I feel better? It depends what you mean by ‘better’…. I don’t feel cuddled, soothed, flattered; I don’t feel distracted or entertained.… I have not been administered a cosmic antidepressant. I have not had my HPtFtU removed by magic…. Instead, I have been shown the authentic bad news about myself, in a perspective that is so different from the tight focus of my desperation that it is good news in itself; I have been shown that though I may see myself in the grim optics of sorrow and self-dislike, I am being seen all the while, if I can bring myself to believe it, with a generosity wider than oceans.” 

Believe it or not, Lent starts one month from today. (Our nation begins a new season even sooner – a season that will continue to call for our attention, our commitment, our yearning for better.) Lent is a season when the Church invites people into reflection, self-examination, repentance and amendment of life. 

Friends, it is not too early to begin thinking prayerfully about whether there is some fast or discipline, some new practice or new learning that you feel called to take on, this Lent. If the idea of keeping Lent is new to you, or if you’d welcome a conversation to think about a Lenten discipline in a fresh way, let me know – or ask a church friend to meet and talk! 

Maybe Lent in the year of our Lord 2021 is an apt season to think about – to wonder, to discern – what repentance and amendment of life might look like not just in my life, but the life of my community, and the place where my life intersects with the life of my community. 

I often think of an evocative image from the letter of James – he says: Don’t be like someone who looks in the mirror, then walks away and immediately forgets what they look like. 

Don’t look in that mirror, then walk away and forget what you look like. 

We have looked in some hard mirrors as a nation this year, dear ones. May we not look away. May we not forget. May we feel that that boundless generosity, that gentle shining, beside us – beneath, above, behind, before us – as we allow ourselves to see, and to be seen. May truth give us courage. May love give us hope. 

Sermon, Jan. 10

We receive today’s Genesis text at the Easter vigil every year and sometimes in the Sunday lectionary as well – it’s a fairly familiar story. But today I want to dwell deeply with the first few verses. Let’s look at them together in a few versions.  

1. New Revised Standard Version (the Episcopal Church’s usual translation): 

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.

2. Robert Alter’s translation: 

When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God’s breath hovering over the waters, God said, Let there be light. And there was light. 

3. Everett Fox’s translation: 

At the beginning of God’s creating of the heavens and the earth, when the earth was wild and waste, darkness over the face of Ocean, rushing-spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters – God said: Let there be light! And there was light. 

I want to spend a little time with some of the most interesting words here. First, “the Deep” – translated variously as Ocean, Waters, Abyss. The Hebrew word is tehom. The waters before Creation. An image that makes me think of finding fossils in Door County – fossils from the Silurian period, 400 million years ago, when living things were just starting to take forms complex enough to be preserved in stone. An image that makes me think, too, of the watery darkness of the womb. 

This idea of “the deep” is part of ancient cosmology – how the ancient Hebrews, and other peoples as well, thought of the world. There were the waters above the dome of the sky; the waters here on the surface with us; and the waters under the earth. 

Sometimes tehom simply means subterranean water, an important resource in a dry land, like in Deuteronomy 8: “The Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters [tehom] welling up in valleys and hills…” In the great flood in Genesis, it’s not just the endless rain that causes the flood; it’s also that “the great deep” bursts open. The waters under the earth rise up and overflow.

The Red Sea – which the people Israel cross as they flee bondage in Egypt to begin a new life as God’s people – the Red Sea is described using the word Tehom, in the song of triumph after the crossing and in Psalm 106, re-telling that sacred history centuries later: “God rebuked the Red Sea, and it became dry; God led them through the Deep as through a desert.”

Tehom is also used in many texts talking about the scope of God’s power and wisdom. In the Book of Job God asks Job how he dares to challenge God’s judgment, when God knows the very mysteries of Creation: “Have you entered into the springs of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep?” (Job 38:16)

Tehom shows up a LOT in the Psalms; here’s an example from Psalm 33:  “By your word, O God, were the heavens made…You gather up the waters of the ocean as in a water-skin and store up the depths of the sea.”

So the Deep, Tehom, is both ecological and mythological… there’s mystery and power here, and danger. The deeps are something only God has the power to comprehend and contain. 

Let’s turn to the next evocative phrase – formless void, “welter and waste” – in Hebrew, tohu vebohu, tohu and Bohu. The Complete Jewish Bible renders it as: “Astonishingly empty.” One translation of the Septuagint has: “Unsightly and unfurnished” – like a poorly-maintained apartment… 

The word tohu is used other places in the Bible, and variously translated as formless, waste (as in both wasteland and wasteful), futile, vain, useless, empty, wild, chaos, meaningless, desolate, confusion. “Bohu” is not really a word on its own. It would be like saying “turvy” without also saying “topsy.” 

This exact phrase, tohu veboho, tohu and boho, appears three times in the Old Testament. The second and third times are both intentional allusions to this, Genesis 1, the first time. In Isaiah 34, the phrase shows up in an oracle against the land of Edom, a neighboring nation who who collaborated with Babylon in the conquest of Judea: “From generation to generation it shall lie waste; no one shall pass through it for ever and ever. But the hawk and the hedgehog shall possess it; the owl and the raven shall live in it. God shall stretch over it the line of welter, the weight-stones of waste.”

The prophet foresees – and/or hopes – that this enemy nation will be given over to the creatures of the wilderness, and returned to primordial waste. Just a few verses later comes a beautiful text we sometimes read in Advent: The wilderness shall rejoice and blossom… there shall be streams in the desert. 

Then, in the book of the prophet Jeremiah, a similar word is spoken to Judea herself. Jeremiah is the prophet of the conquest of Judea and Jerusalem. He spent decades crying out that God’s people, and especially their leaders, had gone wrong in fundamental and destructive ways, and that doom was coming unless they turned back to God and to righteousness. In chapter 4 the prophet speaks: “Your ways and your doings have brought this upon you…Disaster overtakes disaster, the whole land is laid waste…. I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light. I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro. I looked, and lo, there was no human there, and all the birds of the air had fled.”

God creates humanity… but in Jeremiah’s vision, there are no humans left. God speaks light into being… but in Jeremiah’s vision, all is dark. God creates out of waste and void… and in Jeremiah’s vision, collective human willfulness and wrong turns the earth back to waste and void. Tohu and bohu. 

That passage concludes, “For thus says the Lord: The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end.” We know – because we have 26 centuries of hindsight – that Judea and Jerusalem were destroyed by the armies of Babylon. It was unspeakably terrible. And yet God did not make a full end. There was, eventually, renewal and restoration. And God’s people learned new things about God and about faithfulness during their time of exile and grief.

The Deep, Tehom, and the empty wasteland of Tohu and Bohu, are distinct, but alike. Fearful yet fruitful. Beyond comprehension, yet full of potential. In many ancient myths, Creation involves violent mastery of some primeval chaotic force. Some god or hero fights and defeats the monster of the abyss, and gains the power to make the world. 

There is no violence in our creation story. God simply invites the light into being…. Let there be light! And everything else, after it. Genesis and Jeremiah tell us that God’s ongoing creation of the world involves continually inviting tehom and tohu, all that is wild and strange, without form or meaning, into purpose and life and growth. 

But it’s a delicate balance. There’s a temptation to read this as Order versus Chaos. But it’s nowhere near that simple. There are hints in Job and Isaiah and elsewhere that the wilderness and the creatures who live there delight God, even as they terrify humans. Chaos can be fruitful, and order can be evil. The Babylonian army, for example, was VERY organized. So was the Third Reich. Order is a core value of fascism. 

Andre and Mary-Anne Rabe write this about the first verses of Genesis: “[God] is more than what is known and ordered. This God is present too in the unknown, the unordered, the unformed, the unexplained…  The kind of order in which chaos is an enemy, becomes oppressive, manipulating and ever more rigid… 

The only way in which order can retain its beauty is by embracing chaos as a friend… It is in nurturing this playful relationship that new meaning, new beauty, and renewed order is possible. … The tohu wa-bohu is more than the opposite of order – it’s a different kind of order. It is more than nothing, it’s the possibility of everything…”

My friend, Rabbi Betsy Forester, introduced me to a story from the Babylonian Talmud, a holy text of the Jewish people that comments on and expands the Hebrew Bible. On a recent Sunday we had a reading about King David’s desire to build a house for God, a great temple, in Jerusalem. Well, the Talmud says that David got as far as digging the foundations for the Temple. But he dug down so far that he allowed the Deep – Tehom – to rise up and threaten to flood the world. 

David quickly wrote the Name of God on a potsherd and threw it into the Deep… which dropped down again, sixteen thousand cubits. The very name of the Holy One had the power to contain those chaotic waters. 

BUT – then David realized that the Deep had dropped too far. Those primeval, mysterious waters have to be close to the surface of the earth in order to provide water for springs and wells. So David composed a set of songs, known as the Psalms of Ascent, and the Deep rose up fifteen thousand cubits –

to settle just one thousand cubits below the surface of the land. Where those mysterious, threatening yet life-giving waters could continue to nourish life. 

(Source: https://thelehrhaus.com/scholarship/rabbinic-creativity-and-the-waters-that-would-consume-the-world/)

Which brings us to baptism. 

John is a prophet, in the grand Old Testament tradition. Wearing funny clothes, living in a funny place, telling people that big change is coming and if they’re smart, they’ll change themselves NOW and beat the rush. This practice of baptism he introduces – dunking people in the Jordan River, as an outward sign of their repentance and commitment to turn away from sin – it’s most likely an adaptation of some Jewish customs of ritual washing, which were also ways to set yourself right with God.

Christian baptism builds on this foundation – baptism as we practice it, and to the extent that we understand it, is about repentance and cleansing; it’s also about passing through Christ’s death and into his risen life, being named as part of God’s great family, and indelibly marked by the Holy Spirit. 

Placing these verses from Genesis alongside the baptism of Jesus calls forward a connection that’s there in Scripture but that’s easy for us to miss. John and Jesus both choose to spend time in the wilderness, a wild, desolate, empty place – a tohu place. And when people come to John for baptism, he wades out into the river with them, puts his hands on their head, and pushes them down under the water. Into the deep. 

The Biblical text doesn’t use that word there but our baptismal liturgy explicitly connects the waters of baptism with the Deeps before Creation and the Deeps of the Exodus from Egypt: “We thank you, Almighty God, for the gift of water. Over it the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation. Through it you led the children of Israel out of their bondage in Egypt into the land of promise. In it your Son Jesus received the baptism of John and was anointed by the Holy Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ.” 

Placing these verses from Genesis alongside the baptism of Jesus invites us to reflect on baptism – our baptism, which Jesus’ baptism foreshadows – as an encounter with chaos, void, primordial winds and waters.. through which God carries us safely.  

What we actually *do* in a baptism is not frightening. It’s calm and contained. Very little water is involved. (Although I am VERY ready to do a baptism in Lake Mendota or the body of water of your choice!) 

But just as in the Eucharist a bit of bread and a sip of wine are in some way beyond our perception also consuming the body and blood of Jesus Christ, 

given for us as a sign of complete self-giving love – so in baptism a little water poured upon someone’s head is in some mystical sense our journey into the Deep, a dive down into the rich and terrifying depths of Tehom. 

It is our sojourn in the wilderness, wild, empty, and unformed. And it is our journey back to the land of the living, enriched and transformed by those strange and holy primeval energies which offer us the possibility of everything.

With all that in our hearts, minds, and spirits, let us renew our baptismal vows.

Andre & Mary-Anne Rabe’s essay: https://alwaysloved.net/2020/03/30/tohu-wa-bohu-gods-relationship-to-chaos/

Sermon, Dec. 20

So let’s talk about today’s Old Testament lesson, from the first book of the prophet Samuel. I’m going to go ahead and say this is the oddest Old Testament lesson in all three years of Advent lessons. The rest are all prophetic texts – about God coming to deliver, redeem, and restore. This is the only narrative text out of twelve. So let’s play “Why is this in the lectionary?”

One superficial reason is that Jesus is of David’s lineage – both by his parentage and in terms of people’s expectations about him. When folks call him “Son of David,” they’re expressing the  hope that Jesus will throw out the Romans and re-establish the kingship in Jerusalem, as in rose-tinted memories of King David’s time 1000 years earlier. 

But then, why THIS story? Why not any other of the many stories about David, Israel’s great long-ago King? And what is even going on here?… 

Let’s revisit what the Ark of God is, because while our Godly Play class covered that recently, the rest of us may be fuzzy on the subject. 

During the wilderness journey after leading God’s people out of bondage in Egypt, God gives Moses the Ten Commandments – the way they are to live as God’s people, under God’s protection. The Commandments are written on tablets of stone by the finger of God. Moses breaks the first set, after discovering that the people have started worshiping a golden calf while he was off on a mountaintop talking with God, but God instructs Moses, “Cut two tablets of stone like the former ones, and I will write on the tablets the words that were on the former tablets, which you broke.” (Exodus 34:1)

So those tablets – and eventually, other holy documents and objects – are what’s INSIDE the Ark. The Ark itself is a very special, very holy box, that is made on the wilderness journey – along with a very special, beautiful tent. In Exodus 25, God tells Moses what the Ark should look like: 

“They shall make an ark of acacia wood; it shall be two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. You shall overlay it with pure gold, inside and outside you shall overlay it, and you shall make a moulding of gold upon it all round. You shall cast four rings of gold for it and put them on its four feet, two rings on one side of it, and two rings on the other side. You shall make poles of acacia wood, and overlay them with gold. And you shall put the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark, by which to carry the ark…. You shall put into the ark the covenant that I shall give you.” (Exodus 25:10-14, 16)

Then they were commanded to make a kind of throne – a “mercy-seat” – with two gold cherubim on top of the ark; and God tells Moses, “There I will meet you, and… from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the covenant, I will deliver to you all my commands for the Israelites.”

So: The Ark is the most precious and holy thing the Israelites possess. It stands for God’s living presence among them, and their duty of faithfulness to God. They carry it on their journey; they carry it into battle with them… for example, the enemy city of Jericho is defeated when priests march around it seven times carrying the ark. 

But the Ark is not a weapon of mass destruction. It doesn’t guarantee victory. About twenty years before David became King, the Philistines, a neighboring tribe, were attacking Israel and causing trouble. So the elders of Israel said, “Let’s bring the Ark to the front lines, so that God may come among us and save us from our enemies.” But it didn’t work. There was another battle; Israel lost; thirty thousand soldiers died; and the ark of God was captured. 

I wish I had time to tell you about the ark causing mischief while it’s in enemy hands; read 1 Samuel 5 for that story. Gold mice are involved. So the Philistines give the ark BACK… it ends up in an Israelite town called Kiriath-jearim, and stays there for twenty years. 

Now we are early in the second book of Samuel. After many years of bloody civil war David finally becomes king over all Israel. The FIRST thing David does is claim the city that will become Jerusalem from the Jebusites, who live there. Then, he has a fancy house built for himself, and takes a bunch more wives and concubines – he already has a few. 

And then he decides that what his new capital city really needs is the ark of God. So he takes a group to bring the ark from Kiriath-Jearim to Jerusalem. It’s an occasion of GREAT celebration: “David and all the house of Israel were dancing before the Lord with all their might, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals.” (2 Samuel 6:5) UNTIL there’s a sobering moment that reminds the people that the Ark is not to be trifled with. The cart carrying the Ark is going over rough ground and one of the priests tending the ark reaches out his hand to steady it, and falls dead on the spot – for touching the Ark. (Those of us who remember the Indiana Jones movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark, may have some vivid mental images for this story. The Ark’s power to melt Nazis is based on some Biblical precedents.) 

SO David gets jumpy and decides maybe he DOESN’T want the ark around after all. He leaves it in the home of a fellow named Obed-edom, who lives nearby, for three months. But then he hears that things are going really great for Obed-edom with the ark at his house, and David decides to bring it to Jerusalem after all. So they have ANOTHER procession, with trumpets and dancing and celebration, and bring the Ark all the way to Jerusalem this time – to a tent that David has prepared for it.

The ark is used to tents, of course. But Israel doesn’t live in tents anymore. People live in villages, towns, and cities. They’ve ARRIVED. They’ve settled. So it starts to bother David that the ark is in a tent. Which brings us to today’s lesson. “Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, ‘See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.’ Nathan said to the king, ‘Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.’”

Nathan is the prophet of God who succeeds the great prophet Samuel. David doesn’t always like what Nathan has to say, but he trusts him, because he knows Nathan will tell him the truth. But after giving David the OK to build a grand house for the Ark, Nathan has a dream, in which God gives him a word for David. I like what the Message Bible paraphrase does with this passage: 

“Go and tell my servant David: This is God’s word on the matter: You’re going to build a ‘house’ for me to live in? Why, I haven’t lived in a ‘house’ from the time I brought the children of Israel up from Egypt till now. All that time I’ve moved about with nothing but a tent. And in all my travels with Israel, did I ever say to any of the leaders I commanded to shepherd Israel, ‘Why haven’t you built me a house of cedar?’”

God goes on to remind David that God raised him up from being a humble shepherd boy to being King of all Israel. And God explains that actually it’s GOD who is building DAVID a house – giving him the kingship, defeating his enemies, and establishing his lineage so that his son will sit upon his throne after him. 

After Nathan tells him all this, David goes to the ark and prays to God there – a long prayer of praise and gratitude, concluding, “You, O Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, have made this revelation to your servant, saying, “I will build you a house”… Therefore may it please you to bless the house of your servant, so that it may continue for ever before you.” 

It’s hard to tell any of the David stories in isolation because David is such a strong personality. ALL the David stories together tell you a lot about how to read any ONE story. This coming summer, the lectionary will bring us more texts from 1 and 2 Samuel – which might be another reason we get this text this Advent, anticipating those readings – though it’s still weird!

But maybe even if you don’t know David already, you can hear from what I’ve shared that David is a man of ambition – even hubris. His deep and genuine – though complicated – faith in God might be the only curb on his self-esteem. David is a great man, but not consistently a good man. 

When Father John and I were talking through this passage, as we do, Father John recalled a quotation form Mark Twain: “Scripture tells us that God created Man in God’s image, and Man, being a gentleman, returned the favor.” David thinks that God is like David. That God wants a fancy house, and power and riches and adulation. And David – let’s be clear – wants the glory of building that house for God. This project would have been partly about honoring God – and partly about honoring David. 

So God is displaying a lot of perceptiveness about David, here. If God allows David to build God a house, David’s sense of being God’s Special Dude might totally overwhelm him. David might really start to think of God as his pet deity, something he owns and commands. 

So God says, Slow your roll, David. Don’t get it twisted. I’m the one building a house here. YOUR house. 

It’s a terrific chapter in the saga of David’s kingship. And… it’s a really interesting story to receive here, today, right before the Gospel of the Annunciation. Of Mary’s Yes to God.

It is Solomon, David’s son, who actually builds the first great Temple in Jerusalem. But Mary, too, is a descendant of David’s lineage who is blessed with the privilege of housing God. Of being the means by which God comes to be housed, to incarnate, to dwell in the very world God created. 

Besides God’s choice about when, where, and how to pitch God’s tent among mortals, God’s rebuke to David has another theme in common with today’s Gospel: God’s refusal to align neatly with human systems of power and status. 

What David is offering and imagining is very commonplace in human history, and very dangerous: God and King as allies, with King in the driver’s seat. History has seen plenty of gods who were bound and beholden to particular human leaders or regimes. Gods used to legitimize the use or abuse of human power. 

The God of Israel – the God we know in Jesus – refuses all such arrangements. Insists on holding rulers accountable to God’s expectations – things like caring for the poor, maintaining a just social and economic order, and tending the land with respect. God says No to David, because God knows David’s rule is shaped by the desire for wealth and status. Mary says Yes to God, because she knows that God’s rule is not. 

The God who comes among us as Jesus Christ is a God who persistently holds the most powerful to account for the well-being of those with the least power. Mary sings that ancient truth in the Magnificat, her hymn of fierce hope about her son, and about what God has done and will do: “He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

We’ll now receive the Annunciation Gospel, then sing Mary’s song, in a poetic setting written by poet Rory Cooney.

Recipe book!

We usually celebrate the conclusion of the fall Giving Campaign with an all-parish pie brunch. We can’t share food this year but we can share recipes! All through November, people have been sharing recipes for favorite things to cook, bake, or throw together. Now we are bringing them together as a recipe book to share! Click below to download or print for home use. We will also have a limited number of print copies available in the next couple of weeks.

St. Dunstan’s Recipe Book, Fall 2020 (Updated!)

If the recipe book inspires you and you want to share one of your own, send it in to . We can issue an Addendum down the road!

Bulletin for live-streamed worship, Nov. 29

Here is the bulletin for our first live-streamed service, planned for 1pm on Sunday, November 29. The service will be streamed to our Facebook page. (Note: NOT our Facebook group!) You don’t need a Facebook account to view live videos on Facebook.

There will not be worship slides for this service, so please download the booklet ahead of time!  This booklet is DIFFERENT from the bulletin for our 9am Zoom worship.

Advent 1 Booklet, Live Stream

Sermon, Oct. 18

Today we are kicking off our fall giving campaign – what many churches call a pledge drive. We invite members and friends of St. Dunstan’s to make a pledge, which is a statement of your intended financial gifts to the parish over the course of the upcoming calendar year. Those pledges allow us to form a budget, since members’ pledged giving makes up the vast majority of our income. We do this every October and November; it’s a standard part of  how St. Dunstan’s, and most other Episcopal churches, function. 

Usually, on the first Sunday of the giving campaign, I preach about it, one way or another. To offer some context… some theological grounding… some reassurance and encouragement. 

There have been years when that felt hard. The year we decided to stop running $30,000 deficits and balance our budget. The year when we had just started a capital campaign – and we really didn’t know how many households were able and willing to do both. 

And then there’s this year. 

I can’t even imagine what October 2019 Miranda would have thought if I’d had the opportunity to tell her about the realities of October 2020. It was hard for me to even start thinking about this year’s giving campaign. It’s hard to imagine asking for your attention amidst the clamor of so many alarms – the pandemic, the election, the environment. Many of us feel chronically distracted and/or overwhelmed, and with good reason. It’s hard to imagine asking for your generosity amidst so much uncertainty and scarcity, when even those of us who are doing OK financially tend to add, “for now.” 

The wilderness journey stories from Exodus have been a strange blessing, over the past six weeks. We’ve listened to the Israelites, our long-ago faith ancestors, struggle with fear and frustration, hunger and thirst, boredom and weariness, uncertainty about where it’s all going and how long it will last, yearning for what they had before, struggling to trust that God is working for good through it all.

And their struggles have been our struggles, and, maybe, made us feel a little less alone – reminding us that humans have walked through many a trackless wilderness before. 

The book of Exodus took its more or less final form about 600 years before Jesus, in a time when the Jewish people had been conquered and dragged from their homeland to live among strangers. During those fifty years of exile, God’s people drew on ancient stories and traditions to create a set of holy books laying out their history and way of life. I’m sure that just as we do, those long-ago editors saw parallels between the wilderness journey and their own circumstances. 

Maybe that context can help us understand God’s sometimes-destructive anger, in these stories. Perhaps it simply reflects ancient memories of how people made sense of the hardships of their journey. And/or – for the exiles, God’s anger may have served as a reminder to stay faithful to their heritage and faith, on their own long journey. 

In today’s Exodus text, God does what every parent whose rage is spiraling out of control should do: God gives Godself a time out. Or tries to, anyway. God tells Moses, Look. You all should continue your journey; but I can’t go with you. For you are a stiff-necked people – a wonderful Hebrew idiom. Pause a moment and feel that in your body, that stiff neck; then release it, let your head fall. To bow your head in humility or to nod in agreement – both begin with releasing that stiff neck. 

God says, If I continue to travel with this people, stiff necks and all, we’re going to keep having these situations…. and one of these days I might actually destroy you all. 

If we think about it, we might find Moses’ and the people’s responses surprising. Why not take this deal? God has gotten them out of Egypt and provided food and water. Surely the onward journey would be easier without this demanding, terrifying Being traveling with them. Please note that by this time they have received the Ten Commandments; they have some idea of God’s expectations about how they’re supposed to live. Why not say, Thanks, God, it’s been great, we can take it from here? 

I don’t know why not. But that’s not what they say. The people’s reaction to the idea that God might leave them is grief. And Moses ARGUES with God –  “Oh no you don’t. These are YOUR people. And you told me that I found favor in your sight! Now you’re going to leave me to handle this on my own?”

And God relents, and agrees to stay with the people, and accompany them and protect them and provide for them as they continue their journey.

It is not all smooth sailing from here on out. Next week we’ll hear about that. But I think this is a really important moment in the long arc of the wilderness journey. It’s a moment of mutual choosing. Moses, and the people, didn’t get a lot of choice at the beginning of all this. But now, presented with an opportunity to shake hands and walk away, they choose God. They choose to keep being God’s people, even though it asks a lot from them. And God chooses to keep being their God. And they continue their holy journey together. 

Our text from 1 Thessalonians talks about choosing, too. This is the beginning of the letter, when Paul usually offers some encouragement and praise. To the church in Thessalonica, he says, Knowing of your choice…  The New Revised Standard Version, our usual Bible translation, renders that as, “knowing that Christ has chosen you.” But the syntax in the original Greek is unclear. It could be Christ’s choosing of these people, this church; or their choosing of Christ. Either – or both. But the choosing matters. 

When I’m preaching a giving campaign sermon, I usually find some thread that ties the Scripture texts to the campaign. Generosity. Commitment. Gratitude. Et cetera. This year, what jumps out at me is the choosing. 

It’s there in the texts, for sure, but maybe it stands out for me because I’ve also heard it from many of you in these months. That this has become, like it or not, a clarifying time, a season of discernment. The enforced limitations of our lives, and perhaps too the pervasive sense of risk and loss, has led to a lot re-evaluation of what matters and what we actually want.

I’ve heard about job changes and relationship changes. Changes in how people organize their time, who we stay in touch with, what commitments we keep, even our deep sense of personal direction and purpose. They are not all comfortable changes, to be clear! Some have brought a lot of anguish… even when it’s the right choice. Some of you are still hanging in the uncomfortable space between the old passing away, and the new taking shape. 

It turns out that we were all on auto-pilot about a lot of stuff. We kept doing it because we’d done it before. And when we had to stop and think, we un-chose some things. And we re-chose some other things. 

If you’re hearing my voice right now, that probably means St. Dunstan’s is one of the things you chose again. Or, in a few cases, chose for the first time – which is just amazing to me; such a blessing. 

The giving campaign is an opportunity to choose, again. To choose this faith community as one of the things that’s worth your time and resources and heart,

in this strange season and beyond. To choose to help St. Dunstan’s keep being here, for us and for others.  

Let me say just a few words about this year’s campaign. In recent years we’ve presented a detailed draft budget as part of the fall giving campaign, explaining why particular budget lines went up or down. That kind of work assumes stability. That next year will look a lot like this year, with some tweaks here and there. 

Well – 2020 blew that kind of thinking out of the water. We didn’t know what 2020 would be like. We don’t know what 2021 will be like. We know we’ve lost some beloved saints this year; we know some folks’ jobs and family circumstances have changed. So this year we’re asking for your pledges first, and then we’ll budget for 2021 when we’ve seen what we can do, together. 

This doesn’t mean your parish leadership bodies are slacking off!The Finance Committee and Vestry folks have looked at our numbers and talked about different possibilities. But it seemed both kinder and more responsible to start with what we are able to give, and build our budget from there. 

I am hopeful, beloved friends. I’m hopeful that we’ll keep broadening and deepening our practices of fellowship and prayer when we’re not in the same physical space. I’m hopeful that advances in understanding, prevention and treatment of Covid will allow us to begin to gather in person again in the coming months, in both familiar and fresh ways.

I’ve looked around at what other churches are doing, and we have done a good job of keeping being St. Dunstan’s. There have been costs to this season – no question. I know we have members who love this parish and just don’t connect with online worship. I ache for them. This long fast from Eucharist, and our beloved building, takes a toll. There have been blessings to this season, too – deepening connections within the parish family, building new habits of praying and reflecting on Scripture together, exploring ways for our kids to plan and lead worship. It has been a heavy lift. It will keep being one. But we’re doing pretty well. I’m proud of us. 

Keeping on keeping being St. Dunstan’s takes financial resources. That’s why we have to have a fall giving campaign, even though it’s hard. If you’ve pledged in the past and you’re able to sustain your pledge, please do. If you’ve pledged before and you’re able to increase your pledge, even a little, I hope you’ll consider it. If you’ve pledged before and things have changed and you can’t pledge at the same level – we understand. No shame, please! So much has changed, for so many people, this year. 

If you haven’t pledged before and you’d like to start, to help St. Dunstan’s plan ahead, that would be a tremendous blessing. New pledges are always cause for celebration – even more so this year. I also want to hold up the folks who pledged for the first time last year and plan to pledge again this year. What a time to join a church. Thanks for sticking around. 

Along with your pledge cards, we’re asking for two other things. First, please share your thoughts about what’s most important to sustain and build, with your Vestry and Finance Committee. This is a season of discernment for St. Dunstan’s, too. Let us know what matters, from where you’re standing.

Second, please share your hopes. Each pledge packet this year includes a couple of index cards. They’ll come with an explanation, but the gist is: Use a card to write or draw a hope you have for 2021. It can be a church hope or a life hope or a world hope. It can be a big hope or a little hope. It can be a general hope or a very specific hope. You can do several if you want – let us know if you need more index cards!

One of our members, Kate, suggested this, because, she said, holding hope together is one of the most important things we do as a church in a difficult and frightening time. I think there’s real wisdom in that. So, share a hope, or two, or five. Send them back with your pledge card. We’ll put them all together and share them at the end of the giving campaign. 

In the wilderness journey in Exodus, God’s people chose to keep being God’s people. God’s people in Thessalonica chose Christ and were chosen by Christ, to continue the work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope.

Beloved friends: I am so grateful that you, each and all, chose St. Dunstan’s and keep choosing St. Dunstan’s.That you chose, and keep choosing, the blessings and challenges of life together as a faith community. That you chose, and keep choosing, to walk this wilderness journey together. May the God who has brought us this far protect us, guide us, and give us wisdom and courage for the road ahead. Amen. 

Sermon, Oct. 11

If you’d prefer to watch and/or listen rather than read, here is a video version of Rev. Miranda’s sermon from Sunday, October 11! 


Before we receive today’s Gospel lesson, I’d like to remind us how this works. We have the story of Jesus’ life and teachings in four versions, the Gospels. Each have their own slant; how they understand the Gospel depends on their experiences and hopes. The Gospel text assigned for today is kind of an intense illustration of that tendency. 

It’s one of many stories and teachings of Jesus that appears in both Matthew and Luke. Most scholars believe that both these Gospel writers used a now-lost collection of Jesus’ teachings as one of their sources – in addition to the earliest Gospel, Mark, and other possible sources. 

When Matthew or Luke use one of the teachings from that lost document in their Gospels, they may put it in different places in their narrative, and sometimes they also tweak it so that Jesus’ words fit that context. Let’s look at today’s parable, the Parable of the Banquet, in Matthew and Luke. 

READ the Gospel parable in both versions: 

Matthew: https://bible.oremus.org/?ql=469184961

Luke: https://bible.oremus.org/?ql=469184916

So, Matthew’s version is a lot scarier, right? 

An obvious next question might be, Which version is closer to what Jesus actually said? I believe Luke’s version is closer to Jesus’ words. Partly because Luke’s version has a lot in common with, for example, the parable of the Foolish Bridesmaids, and other teachings about the urgency of responding to God’s call. The message is simple, really: When God calls you – invites you – be ready! Show up! Don’t get distracted or put it off. 

I think it’s really interesting that in these stories, God’s invitation is to a party! That’s worthy of its own sermon sometime… 

But the clearer case for Luke’s version being closer to Jesus’ words is that Matthew’s version is so clearly Matthew’s version. There are lots of places where Matthew is different from parallel texts in the other Gospels because Matthew adds violence and judgment. Luke’s Jesus is often inviting in those at the margins, the crippled, the blind, and the lame; Matthew’s Jesus is often consigning people to the outermost darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. 

Why is Matthew like that? The Gospel of Matthew was written after the Jewish revolt and destruction of Jerusalem by Roman armies in AD 70. Luke and John were almost certainly written after 70, as well, but Matthew seems to really carry the emotional and psychological scars of that terrible time. Think of him like a 9/11 survivor, whose PSTD and grief sometimes manifest as deep bitterness and rage. 

Matthew blames the religious leaders in Jerusalem, in part, for bringing down destruction upon the great city by not being truly faithful to their call as leaders of God’s people. Luke has Jesus tell this story at a dinner party. Matthew has Jesus tell it while he’s at the Great Temple. It immediately follows another parable about a landowner who builds a vineyard, then leaves it in the hands of tenants. The tenants are greedy; they don’t want to give the landowner his share of the money at harvest time. So when the landowner sends servants to collect the money, they beat them up and send them away.

It seems pretty clear that in that parable, the tenants represent religious leaders who get more invested in status, wealth and power than in actually leading on God’s behalf. That parable is very similar in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. And for that matter, it has some close parallels in the prophetic books of the Old Testament –  In which a vineyard is often a symbol for God’s people… and religious leaders are often accused of hypocrisy and faithlessness. 

So Matthew takes today’s parable, about somebody desperately trying to find enough guests for his dinner party, and places it in that same scene. And he makes it a parable about God’s vengeance on the Temple leadership for conspiring to kill Jesus. Matthew says, Jesus was your invitation to God’s banquet, and you not only refused to show up –  you KILLED the messenger. And the King was so angry at your negligence that he destroyed your city. Everything we lost… it’s your fault. 

I want to take a sharp right turn here and talk briefly about our Exodus lesson this morning. First, let me say that this story gets redeemed, just a few chapters later. The golden calf is in Exodus 32. In Exodus 35, Moses calls the people to bring offerings to create a sort of holy tent – a place for people to honor God and make sacrifices, as beautiful and elaborate as possible for a people traveling through the wilderness. And just as the people gave their gold earrings to Aaron to make the calf, the people give their jewelry to make the golden ornaments for the tent of meeting.

I love that the text stresses that they made these gifts with stirred hearts and willing spirits… I preached this text when we were starting our capital campaign! Right now I just want to note that the people were hungry to give their gifts, and their hearts, to something. Aaron’s calf project filled a void. But when a better, more real option came along – they were ready. 

I think the thread that connects these texts – the golden calf and Matthew’s version of the banquet parable – is the question of what kind of god we want. And especially what kind of god we want when we are under stress. 

The Israelites were hungry and thirsty, hot, tired, anxious. Sure, God had miraculously freed them from slavery in Egypt, but maybe slavery wasn’t so bad; at least we had food. Sure, God has promised that we will have a homeland of our own some day, where we can live as God’s people, but all I see right now is rocks. 

Moses is up on a mountaintop talking to God, receiving the Ten Commandments, but the people want a god that THEY can see and touch and approach. A nice golden statue, like the ones they used to see in Egypt; those were so classy!  A nice small god, a god they could take with them wherever they went, instead of a God who tells them where to go. A god who will make manageable demands, and won’t get murderously angry at them for being impatient and bored and scared. 

I mean… God is not winning any Parent of the Year awards, in these wilderness stories. You can’t really blame the Israelites for considering an alternative. 

God is big and demanding and kind of scary. Even the things God does that help the Israelites – the plagues in Egypt, splitting the Red Sea, guiding them with a pillar of fire – are terrifying. And God’s insistence that they can and WILL become God’s chosen nation, prospering in their own land and following God’s ways, is asking a lot of them. That golden calf made from their own earrings… that might be a god they can handle. 

And then there’s Matthew. Angry, grief-stricken Matthew, who needs the Gospel story of God’s redemptive love for humanity to include violent judgment upon his enemies, please. 

Matthew wants a god who hates the same people he does. Matthew wants a god who either welcomes you to the party or throws you weeping into the outermost darkness. A god who’s keeping a list of who made the great city BURN… and will make THEM burn. 

The idea of a God who yearns for the redemption of the whole world, who in Jesus Christ seeks to reconcile all humanity to Godself and one another…. That might not be exactly the God Matthew wants. And we can understand that, kindly. But we don’t have to go there with him. 

Beloved friends: We are people of faith under stress. Walking through a wilderness, hungry, restless, anxious. Watching many things we loved and trusted burn. What god do we want? What god do we need? 

We, too, might want a small, safe god we can understand and control. A god who will smite our enemies for us if we email him a list. A pocket-sized god who is just there for comfort and reassurance, instead of a god whose purposes are beyond our comprehension. A god who offers pardon without renewal, solace without strength. A god we can use like a vending machine, insert a prayer and receive a blessing, instead of a god who is working inexorably for the greater good in ways often too subtle and slow for us to perceive. 

What god do we NEED? … A God who can hold us as we rage and grieve, who can handle our anger and anguish. A God who travels with us even on the hardest parts of the journey, and will be with us as we rebuild – or build anew – when eventually, inevitably, we arrive, somewhere … A God who can heal, transform, and redeem both us AND those we see as enemies. A God whose intentions for us are more beautiful and more demanding than anything we would ever choose for ourselves. 

May we seek and follow that God, rather than any small god of our own devising. Amen. 

Sermon, Oct. 4

The man we come to know as the apostle Paul, founder of many churches and author of letters to the first Christians, was born around 5 AD – making him a few years younger than Jesus, whom he never met during his lifetime. He was born to a devout Jewish family in the city of Tarsus.  As he says in today’s reading from the letter to the church in Philippi, he was “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews.”

Elsewhere he describes himself as “a Pharisee, born of Pharisees” (Acts 23:6) – meaning that both he and his parents were His family were Pharisees, members of a movement within Judaism to recommit to the faith practices of their ancestors.  He was sent as a young child to study with Gamaliel, one of the greatest rabbis of the time – and could easily have become a rabbi himself. 

In addition to his impeccable credentials as a faithful Jew, Paul was also apparently a Roman citizen by birth.The Roman Empire did not have birthright citizenship! If you weren’t actually Roman, citizenship was a privilege that you had to either buy or be given. 

It was unusual but by no means impossible for a Jew to become a citizen. Paul’s parents might have been offered citizenship as a thanks for service to Rome or to gain their favor if they were people of influence. Their citizenship passed on to their son. 

In short, the young Saul – his Hebrew name – or Paulus, his Roman name – had plenty of social and religious standing. Many paths and possibilities were open to him. The one he chose, in his early 30s, was to help stamp out a new religious movement that sounded to him like heresy. People who claimed to be Jews were saying that this rabble-rouser who had been crucified in Jerusalem was somehow God and had risen from the dead. 

Paulus witnessed the stoning to death of a Christian convert named Stephen. He held people’s garments while they committed mob murder, so their clothes would not get bloody. And he approved of the killing. (Acts 8:1) 

In fact, it seemed to inspire him to get involved in the persecution of Christians, raiding homes and dragging people off to prison. As he says about his former life in today’s reading: “As to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”

When he ran out of people to arrest in Jerusalem, he asked the high priest for letters of introduction to the synagogues in the city of Damascus, so that he could hunt down Christians there too. Luke, the eloquent storyteller, describes Paul as “snorting out menaces and slaughter.” He gets his letters and sets out on his journey.

But as he’s approaching Damascus, a light flashes around him. He falls to the ground. A voice said, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Paul stammers out, “Who are you, Lord?” The voice replies, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”

Paul’s story unfolds from there. He becomes a Christian; he becomes a preacher and founder of churches. He is despised by those who see his teaching as heresy. He is imprisoned and beaten. He brings to bear all the privileges of his younger life on his new lifework of building the Jesus movement. 

But this, the road to Damascus, is the pivot point. This is the moment when Christ Jesus makes Paul his own. The Greek is more forceful: when Christ seizes Paul, and sets him on a new road. 

Some 11 centuries later, a baby boy was born to a prosperous silk merchant and his wife, in the Italian town of Assisi. The baby was baptized Giovanni, but early on was given the additional name Francesco, perhaps because his father’s business dealings in France were going so well. 

Francis had money, status, and indulgent parents. As a young man he was handsome, popular, and fond of fancy clothes. He loved traveling musicians and performers, and lived a carefree life…  until he joined a military expedition against a nearby town and was taken captive for a year. 

This experience led to a sense of dissatisfaction and re-examination of his former life. He began to pray for spiritual enlightenment. One day as he knelt in the ruined chapel at San Damiano, gazing upon an icon of the crucified Christ, he heard a voice. It said, “Francis, Francis, go and rebuild my house.”

At first Francis thought this spiritual charge meant simply to have the chapel at San Damiano repaired. He stole some cloth from his father and sold it, and gave the money to the priest in charge of the chapel – who refused to take it. Legal and parental wrangling ensued – culminating with Francis renouncing his father and his inheritance, and stripping himself of all his fine garments, walking naked into a new way of life. 

As Paul wrote, eleven centuries earlier, “For [Jesus’] sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as garbage, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him.” 

Francis’ story unfolds from there. My favorite picture book about Francis, by  Brian Wildsmith, the source of these images, sums it up well: “From then on, I sought out the poor. I sought out the sick. I repaired God’s ruined churches. I loved all God’s creatures and called them my sisters and brothers.” 

Francis founded an order of men committed to holy poverty, peacemaking, and service to ordinary people in the name of Christ. He worked with his childhood friend Clare to create a sister order for women.

Francis died on October 3, 1226. His feast day is October 4. We honor and remember him today. 

For both Paul and Francis, life turned on a dime when Jesus spoke to them. It’s an unusual, but by no means unique, shape for a Christian life. There have been many saints, both well-known and long-forgotten, whose life includes a sudden and dramatic call away from their former life and to a new way of living in God. Such experiences are sometimes called a “road to Damascus” moment. I guess “chapel of San Damiano moment” is too much of a mouthful? 

We’re not, exactly, talking about conversion. Neither of these men abandoned the faith they held before their call. Francis was most certainly a Christian before San Damiano, though he may not have been the most devout. Paul’s relationship with the Judaism of his young life is more complex. In today’s text he claims to regard his ancestral faith identity as rubbish. But other passages suggest Paul continued to find value and meaning in his Jewish heritage. He sees Christianity as a new branch grafted onto Judaism, and grieves that his new faith separates him from many members of his first faith-family. 

The lives of the saints – the ones with days on the calendar and portraits in stained glass windows – can inspire us. They may also make us feel small and inadequate. I have heard from God, at particular moments in my life, but I’ve never been thrown off my feet by a blinding light and the voice of Jesus. 

I look at Paul, at Francis, at some of their kin among the communion of saints, and I see people driven by a crystal-clear sense of God-given purpose. My sense of God-given purpose is maybe 40% on a good day, and I’m pretty sure that even that puts me way at one end of the normal distribution. 

Paul and Francis encourage me not because I expect my life to look like theirs… but because for them, it wasn’t all about them. Paul and Francis weren’t the kinds of saints who were called away from the world, to lives of discipline and purity, in a wilderness cave or compound. Instead, Paul and Francis were called INTO the world. Specifically, they were called to gather and form communities – communities oriented around a new, or renewed, understanding of God’s purposes for the world.

After Damascus, Paul committed the rest of his life to founding, teaching, encouraging (and sometimes rebuking) churches in cities all across the ancient world. Franciscans, followers of Francis, didn’t build monasteries; they traveled around, preaching, teaching, and serving.

My life may not be like Paul’s or like Francis’s, let alone like Jesus’. But I can aspire to be – across the millennia – one of the people they called and gathered, encouraged and taught. 

Francis invites us to regard material possessions and wealth lightly; to strive for understanding and, where possible, peace, across differences; to see God in our fellow human beings, and to love God’s creation and creatures. 

Paul invites us – well, he covers a lot of ground in his many letters. But fundamentally I think he calls us to stick with the work of figuring out what difference our faith makes in our lives… and to looking out for one another. 

And both invite us to entrust ourselves to communities of faith…  to find, and be, faithful companions for the challenging work of living this way – and of making this way of living make a difference, for our neighbors and the world.