All posts by Miranda Hassett

Sermon, July 14

Before the first lesson, from Amos 7: 

Our first Scripture today comes from the time of the prophets, about 750 years before Jesus was born. And I want to explain something about it before we hear it. This Scripture talks about a plumb line. And not everybody knows what that is; but it’s an interesting thing to know about. This is a plumb line: [show]

It’s very simple and very ancient. It’s a heavy weight at the end of a string. The weight would usually be lead, because that’s a heavy metal. It’s called a “plumb” line  – “Plumb” with a b on the end – because that’s the ancient name for lead. (Same with the word “plumber”!)

A plumb line is a tool for builders. It tells you if something is straight up and down, using gravity, that force built into the universe that pulls us towards the center of the earth. “Up” and “Down” are based on gravity. Knowing whether something is plumb when you’re building is important because that’s how you build something strong. Let’s feel that in our bodies. Stand straight, with your hips and shoulders and head all in line with your feet… Feel how strong and stable you are? Gravity is pulling you down but your whole body is in a nice straight line so you’re not tippy. You’re plumb – straight up and down. 

What if you lean backwards or forwards? Try it…. Okay, stop trying it! Did you notice that it was harder to keep standing? When you lean forward, or backward, you get tippy! You’re not stable anymore! You’re askew – out of alignment. Well, if you were the wall of a building, it would be the same. A leaning wall is less stable. A straight-up-and-down wall is most stable and steady and safe. 

So in the story we’re about to hear about the prophet Amos, a plumb line becomes a metaphor. A metaphor is when we say something is like something else, in a way that helps us see the something else in a new way. God says to Amos, My people have turned from Me, and from My ways of justice and mercy. And so they have become like a crooked wall, a wall that isn’t plumb. It’s weak and it’s likely to fall. 

SERMON following the Gospel

The story Jesus tells in today’s Gospel is an important story. Some of us have probably heard it a lot of times; but I find that every time I read or hear it, it’s still challenging me. My guess is that none of us are finished with what this story has to say to us. So let’s go through it again, and make sure we hear and understand it – because some of us probably haven’t heard it before! Kids, listen up too, because this is a story for everybody, and in a minute you might help me tell some of it. 

Today’s Gospel begins with a man who studies the Scriptures of the Jewish people, what we call the Old Testament, to find out how best to live in God’s ways. And he wants to know what Jesus thinks about that. Teacher, he says, how can I enter into the Life of the Age that you talk about so much? And Jesus says, Well, you study the Scriptures; what do you find there? And the man says: “You shall love God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as you love yourself.”

What’s a neighbor? …. Somebody you live close to, sure. Or maybe people in your school community or workplace, or the cashier you see at the grocery store every week. If you go back to the roots of the word, “neighbor” just means a near person. And the original Greek word here, plesion, means the same thing: Somebody near. Somebody close. Somebody whose life touches your life. 

Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. We think of that as Jesus’ teaching but it’s actually a summary of Jewish law. It’s something Jesus endorsed, not something Jesus invented. So Jesus tells the law scholar, Yep. You got it. Do that. Love God, and love your neighbor! And the scholar says, Wait a minute. I have one more question. Who is my neighbor? If living in God’s ways means loving my neighbor as myself: Who counts as my neighbor? Who is near enough that I have to love them? 

And Jesus tells him a story. Listen! A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho. This was a really dangerous mountain road, with hills and caves all around – lots of places for robbers and bandits to hide. And what happened to the man?…

Right! Bandits, robbers, attacked him. They took everything he had, even his clothes; And they beat him up and left him there, lying on the side of the road, bloody, probably unconscious. It says he was “half-dead”. 

And then what happened?… Some other people come along the road. The first one is a priest, somebody who works at the great temple of God in Jerusalem. 

This is somebody whose whole life is to serve God. So what does he do? …

And then another person comes along the road. This person is a Levite. That means he belongs to a family whose job it is to work in the Temple. They weren’t priests, but they might work at the gates, or play music, or clean the floors. So this is another person whose life is to serve God. And what does he do? ….

Okay, let’s pause the story for a minute to talk about these guys, the priest and the Levite. Why do you think they didn’t stop and help that man? ….  They might have been afraid of an ambush. That’s legit. 

They might have ben afraid of becoming unclean. Let’s talk about that one. This is a little tricky to explain because we don’t think of clean and dirty in the same way they did. But let me say it this way: Have you ever seen a picture of a surgeon, all dressed up in that blue stuff, with gloves on her hands and a mask over her face? A surgeon has to be REALLY clean to do her job well. Otherwise germs will contaminate the patient. Being a priest in the Great Temple was kind of like that.  There were things you could do or touch that would make you dirty, impure; and then you wouldn’t be able to do your job. Worse, you’d bring that contamination with you into a place that was supposed to be perfectly clean and pure and holy. And touching a dead body was one of those things. So the priest and the Levite both might have been worried about becoming unclean, which would make it hard for them to do their jobs.

They might just not have wanted to. I mean, it’s upsetting to see somebody hurt, maybe dead. It’s really easy to think, “There’s nothing I can do. Just keep walking.” I can’t judge these men, because I have done what they did. There is a lot of suffering in the world, and I have absolutely walked past people visibly in pain. Because I was tired, or afraid, or busy; because I didn’t know how to help, or how much it would cost me.

But then, in the story, somebody else comes along – right? Who is the next person? …. What does it mean that this person was a Samaritan?… (Because of this story, we use the phrase “good Samaritan” to mean somebody who helps a stranger; but we need to understand that the people listening to Jesus did not like Samaritans at all. They did not think Samaritans were good.) 

But this Samaritan sees the man who has been beaten – and he is moved with pity.  He feels compassion. What does he do? …[bandages wounds; oil and wine; puts him on his donkey; takes him to an inn; gives the innkeeper money to care for him.] Did he have to do any of that? … Why do you think he did it? … 

So that’s the story that Jesus tells the scholar of the law. And then he asks him a question: Which of these three – the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan – was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers? What do you say?… 

Right! The Samaritan. The one who showed him mercy. And Jesus says, Go and do likewise.

You don’t have to say a lot about a story like this. It tells you what you’re supposed to walk away thinking about. But I’m going to say a little bit about it anyway. 

Parked out front of our church this morning is a truck that is a teaching tool for learning about solitary confinement. Sometimes people get arrested and they go to prison. Maybe because they made a bad choice; they hurt somebody. Maybe because they have a mental illness that’s out of control and nobody knew how to help them, so they put them in jail. Maybe because they’re addicted to drugs or alcohol and got into a bad situation because of their addiction. Maybe because they’re very poor and couldn’t pay a fine, or they stole something they needed. There are lots of reasons people end up in prison. 

And sometimes people who are in prison are shut up in very small cells all by themselves – to punish them, or for other reasons. That’s what solitary confinement is. It’s really hard and awful. The truck is here to help us start thinking together about who is in prison in America, and why, and whether we think that’s OK. 

If this is the part of the sermon where you tune out because this isn’t your issue, I hope you’ll listen a little longer. A couple of weeks ago, Elvice McAlpine – who’s part of the group that arranged to have Talib and the truck visit us, and that will be inviting us to read the book “Just Mercy” together in August – Elvice stood up here and talked about how she was raised by good, law-abiding people 

to think of folks in prison as a Them, not an Us. As a different kind of people who probably got what they had coming to them. A lot of us were raised to think like that, consciously or unconsciously. We trusted the system to protect the good people and lock up the bad people. That’s what it’s supposed to do, right?

But there are lots of reasons to re-examine our assumptions. One reason is that if you are older than 40, criminal justice and incarceration in America have really changed within your lifetime. And not for the better. Crime has dropped since the 1990s, but prison populations have skyrocketed, due to “tough on crime” policies and harsh sentencing laws. The graph of the prison population from 1925 to 2017 goes like this: … with a sharp increase in the mid-1980s. Today the United States has the largest prison population in the world – by far the largest in the developed world. And of course that’s an increase is in dollars as well as bodies: the cost of keeping people in prison soared from $19 billion in 1980 to $87 billion in 2015. Of the over two million Americans in prison right now, a disproportionate number are African-American; there’s a lot of data showing that racism is built into the fabric of this system. It’s very clear that something about the criminal justice system in America is askew. Out of alignment. Not plumb.

Facts like these and so many more are the reason why politicians on both the right and the left are increasingly finding common cause to call for reform. Because it’s obvious how broken – how expensively, cruelly broken – this system is. 

And because there are Christians on both the left and the right, and Jesus told us to care about prisoners. Jesus himself was arrested, incarcerated, and executed by the government. When Jesus is on trial for his life, in John’s Gospel, the Roman governor asks, What has he done? And his enemies answer,  

“If he weren’t a criminal, we wouldn’t have handed him over to you.” The fact that he has been arrested becomes proof that he is a criminal. The wrong kind of person. That same logic destroys people’s lives on a daily basis, now. 

So that’s another reason to re-examine our thinking about incarceration and about people who are or have been involved with the criminal justice system: Because of Jesus, who says, When you show mercy to those in prison, You’re showing mercy to Me. If that challenges you or stretches you, beloved ones – I sympathize! But I am not the one you need to take it up with. It really is one of the things He is clearest about.  

This parable, this story Jesus tells, about neighboring and extending mercy, comes to us through a calendar of readings shared by many churches and denominations. We did not plan to receive this parable on the same day the solitary confinement truck was here. That’s just the calendar and the Holy Spirit. 

As I was studying the story this week, I learned something new that I think is important. What Jesus actually asks at the end of the story is, Which one of the three passers-by became a neighbor to the man beaten by bandits? Not just, which one was a neighbor. Which one became a neighbor. It’s a verb of process, change, choice. 

None of the others on the road started out as neighbors to the man beaten by bandits. They didn’t know each other or live near to each other. Their kids didn’t go to the same school. They didn’t root for the same football team. Their lives did not touch. And the priest and the Levite kept it that way. They kept their distance. 

But the Samaritan chooses to go to him. To get close. To come near. To become a neighbor.

Go and do likewise. 

Some initial reading:

Trends in U.S. Corrections

https://sentencingproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Trends-in-US-Corrections.pdf

Digital Jail: How Electronic Monitoring Drives Defendants Into Debt

https://www.propublica.org/article/digital-jail-how-electronic-monitoring-drives-defendants-into-debt

Sermon, July 7

Listen: The Kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field. A man is working in the field as a hired laborer. He’s digging, turning over the soil, preparing the field for planting. And he finds the treasure. He’s overwhelmed with joy! These riches could free him from bondage, give him a whole new life, and his family too. But how can he claim the treasure? It belongs to the owner of the field, the rich man who hired him. So he covers the treasure with dirt, finishes his day’s work, and goes home, and tells his wife about it. They scrape together all their meager possessions – yes, even their tiny house – and sell them. The next day he takes the money to the landlord: Sir, I’ve decided I’d like to start farming myself. Can I buy this field? It’s small but I think I can make a go of it. The landlord sells him the field, and the treasure with it.

What does it mean to proclaim the Kingdom of God? That’s the work Jesus gives the disciples he sends forth here, the message with which he charges them. He’s inviting them to join his own mission – back in Luke chapter 4, at the beginning of his public ministry, his disciples find him praying and want him to come back to the town of Capernaum and do more wonders there. He tells them, “It is necessary for me to announce the good tidings of the Kingdom to the other cities as well, because for this I was sent forth.” In Matthew and Mark, too, Jesus begins his ministry with this core message: “Change your hearts, for the Kingdom of heaven has drawn near!” (Kingdom of God and Kingdom of Heaven are both used; they seem to be more or less interchangeable.) 

What do Christians think is our core message? For some of us, it might be: God loves you as you are. Love wins. For others: Christ died for you. Repent and be saved. 

But this is what Jesus names as the core message: The Kingdom of God has come near. A message of such urgency that the seventy sent forth are called to proclaim it whether or not they find a receptive audience. Whether those around them are curious, or hostile. Eager or indignant. Ready or unready. The Kingdom of God has come near. 

Listen: The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed that a man planted in his field. Mustard seeds are so tiny, the smallest of all the seeds. But when the plant grows, it becomes larger than all the other garden plants; it grows into a tree, and the birds of the heavens come and make nests in its great branches. 

Listen: The Kingdom of God is like this – A gardener casts seed upon the prepared ground. And then she goes on about her life; she sleeps at night, wakes in the morning, and days and weeks pass. And meanwhile the seeds do what seeds do: they sprout, first growing roots down, then a tiny shoot up towards the sun. In time the seeds grow to maturity and produce fruit, and the gardener enjoys her harvest. 

What does it mean to proclaim the Kingdom? 

When I am speaking to someone brand-new to this God stuff, and curious about it, it’s a lot easier to explain the story of Jesus as I understand it – or to talk about God’s fierce redemptive love – than it is to explain the Kingdom and what it means that it has come near. 

Part of what’s hard for us about Kingdom language is that it lacks the context and resonance for us that it had for Jesus’ original audience. 

For one thing, Kingdom language made them think about the kingdom they used to have. For first-century Judeans, the glory days of their people were the long-ago time when King David ruled a free and united Israel. Making Israel great again meant making Israel a kingdom again. So in naming God’s reality as a kingdom, Jesus is working with an image that’s familiar and meaningful, even as he tries to break it open and help them imagine a different kind of kingdom. For us, in contrast, a kingdom is something from a fairy tale; we are not nostalgic for the good old days of George the Third. 

For another thing, Kingdom language made Jesus’ first hearers think about the kingdom they have now. The Greek word translated as “kingdom” in the New Testament is basileia. The Roman Empire, the outside power that ruled Judea in Jesus’ time, would have been called by the same term: Basileia Rhomaion. So in Jesus’ time people would have heard a direct contrast here: the Kingdom of God over against the Kingdom of Rome. 

But even with that context and resonance, Jesus’ friends and followers didn’t really understand what he meant by the Kingdom of God. The Gospels show us that those closest to Jesus, those who had the opportunity to ask clarification questions, didn’t really get it; and the Gospel writers likewise struggled to put down on paper what they thought he meant with all those stories and sayings. A treasure in a field – a seed in the ground – what do those things have in common with any kind of kingdom? And why does he insist on telling all these stories, instead of just explaining things? 

The paradox and perplexity surrounding Jesus’ kingdom talk, for me, is our best proof that there’s something here that isn’t easily captured in human language, or grasped by human intellect. Something mysterious and ineffable. 

In Luke chapter 17, somebody comes right out and asks Jesus: “When is the Kingdom of God coming?” And he says, “The Kingdom doesn’t come as something you can see; people aren’t going to say, ‘Look, here it is!’ Or ‘There it is!’ Rather: the Kingdom of God is within you.” 

The Gospel of Thomas is a non-canonical gnostic text written about a century later than the Gospels of the Bible. I believe the early church leaders were correct in excluding it from the canon of Scripture – but at the same time it may preserve some sayings of Jesus that aren’t in our four Gospels. Perhaps including these sayings about the Kingdom: “If those who lead you say to you: ‘Look, the kingdom is in the sky!’ then the birds of the sky will get there first. If they say to you: ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fishes will get there first. Rather, the kingdom is inside of you and outside of you.” And, “The kingdom of the Father is spread out upon the earth, and people do not see it.” That definitely clears things right up, Jesus. 

In addition to talking about the Kingdom, Jesus talked a lot about the life of the Age, or the Age to Come, which is almost certainly another way of talking about the same thing – about some other reality or way of being that’s just beyond our perception but that tugs on us, invites us, troubles us. Our translations tend to obscure Jesus’ talk about the Age by translating the Greek word “aion” as “eternal.” But often that’s the opposite of what Jesus is saying. “Eternal” sounds like the same thing is going to last forever. Jesus is taking about a different Age or aeon. So where our translations make it sound like Jesus is promising that his followers will never die (manifestly untrue), he’s actually talking about a different order of reality that we can enter through transformation of heart and mind. David Bentley Hart’s wonderful translation of the New Testament holds the ambiguity of the original Greek much better than our usual translation, the NRSV. For example, the famous verse John 3:16 is usually rendered as “whoever believes in Jesus may have everlasting life.” Hart translates this way: “For God so loved the cosmos as to give the Son, the only one, so that everyone having faith in him might not perish, but have the life of the Age.” 

The life of the Age. The Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus uses the metaphors of time and place to talk about something that is neither a time nor a place. 

I guess where I’m going here is that this other, divine reality that’s just at the periphery of our vision, as near and as far as our next breath –  this is a really central part of what Jesus teaches, and what he calls his followers to proclaim. And yet: his followers, then, now, and in between, find it confusing and elusive. 

Listen: The Kingdom of Heaven is like yeast. Yeast looks like a powder, but it’s actually a microorganism, a tiny tiny creature. When you use it to make bread, the creature eats the sugars in the bread and emits gases that make the bread light and fluffy. There are holes in bread because of yeast. But you only need a tiny bit of yeast for each batch of bread. There’s a wonderful word for that process: leavening – meaning, to add yeast to a dough to make it rise; or, by extension: to permeate and transform something. So this is what the Kingdom is like: A woman is making bread and she mixes just a tablespoon of yeast into three cups of flour. And it’s enough: that little bit of yeast leavens all that dough. 

The Kingdom of God has come near to you! 

Jesus calls his followers to share this news – and to share it with urgency. Tell the people who want to hear it – and those who don’t. We heard some of that urgency in last week’s Gospel, too, as Jesus tells a would-be follower that if he hesitates and looks back before following Jesus, then maybe he isn’t as ready for the Kingdom as he thinks he is.  

Today’s Gospel is a really familiar text for me; I’ve read it with many groups over the past few years. I’ve found that people often take issue with the part about how to respond when the messengers are unwelcome. It feels harsh to us. We can get stuck there, unable to receive the text. 

So I want to say a couple of things about that. First: We reflected on this text together at Vestry a couple of weeks ago. Now, our junior warden, Mike Krause, is a traveler. He’s done amazing road trips all across our nation, taking back roads and camping out along the way. And while we were talking about this passage, Mike said that in his experience, when you pull into a town, you really can feel whether you’re welcome or unwelcome. Whether strangers and guests are seen as a blessing or a threat. Not every place is glad to see you. I thought that was fascinating. 

I wonder, too, whether we get stuck with this text because deep down we identify more with the people closing their doors to these grifter evangelists, than with those experiencing unwelcome. I am a nice middle-class educated neurotypical straight cisgender white lady with a credit card. There are not very many places where I am unwelcome. I wonder if folks whose lives encompass a lot more experiences of unwelcome – because of the color of their skin, or their gender presentation, or their accent, or their size, or the way they dress, or the way they engage socially – I wonder if folks who have spent their lives walking into a room and feeling the walls go up, read this text differently. If the harshness, the calling-out, the public naming of unwelcome, might feel less less petty and more prophetic to them. 

It is intended to be prophetic.The “wipe your dust off our feet” business is not privately cleansing yourself of the soil of people you don’t like; it’s a public act, trying to get the attention of people whose minds and hearts are closed. And when you have their attention, what do you do? – You proclaim the Kingdom. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near. This isn’t slamming the door in ultimate judgment. This is trying to get through to people who believe they don’t need what you have to offer. 

This is HARD. A lot of us are hesitant to talk about our faith even with a friendly audience, let alone a hostile one. It feels so vulnerable – like Jesus says: lambs among wolves! But this is what Jesus names as our good news: The Kingdom of God is so close to you right now. God’s Age is coming. Get ready. Open your heart. Free your mind. Change your life. 

Okay. But. And. Still. If I walked into Willy Street Market and started telling people, The Kingdom of God has come near! – well, not only would I probably be invited to leave the store, but folks would have no idea what I was talking about. “Kingdom” is an obscure concept for us; “God” perhaps even more so. So what words do we find to proclaim the Kingdom in our time and place? If Jesus couldn’t explain it in plain language, I sure as heck can’t. I know it’s like a treasure that can change someone’s life, hidden just out of sight. I know it’s something that grows – permeates – transforms. I know it’s hospitable and fruitful. And I know that it needs or wants just that little bit of help from us: Plant the seed. Work in the yeast. Then stand back and watch things unfold. 

How can we proclaim the Kingdom of God in our time and place? I think there are lots of ways to do it – and that we maybe are doing it already, more than we realize. I think we proclaim the Kingdom every time we point ourselves and one another up and out and away. Every time we step back and look around for the bigger picture and the greater good. Every time we remember that the world is not as it could be. That the powers and principalities of this present age, of the kingdoms of this world, do not define our worth or own our souls. Every time we say, simply, in these words or others: It doesn’t have to be like this. And then – act accordingly. 

I heard Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, back when he was just Bishop Curry, preach this message: God loves you just the way you are, but God isn’t going to leave you that way. That’s proclaiming the Kingdom: The possibility of change, of healing, of liberation.  

In Francis Spufford’s book Unapologetic, the risen Jesus says to Mary Magdalene: More can be mended than you know. That’s proclaiming the Kingdom, beloveds: More can be mended than you know. 

Walt Whitman, the poet, born 200 years ago this spring, wrote: All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses, and to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier. That’s proclaiming the Kingdom, friends: Death has no dominion over us. Which means: we don’t have to be afraid. 

This past week a few folks gathered in a noisy bar to read Wendell Berry poems to each other. Berry is a writer and a farmer who invites us to slow down and pay attention. So with soccer on the big screen over our heads and rock and roll playing over the sound system, we leaned in close to listen to poems about thewonder of a turtle, or what our souls can learn from the deaths of trees. And our friend Jonathan read one of Berry’s poems that I’ve often read here on Ash Wednesday – a poem that invites playful yet profound resistance to the logic of the kingdoms of this world. A poem that proclaims the Kingdom. 

Listen: 

So, friends, every day do something 

that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 

Love the world. Work for nothing. 

Take all that you have and be poor. 

Love someone who does not deserve it. … 

Ask the questions that have no answers. 

Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias. 

Say that your main crop is the forest 

that you did not plant, that you will not live to harvest. … 

Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 

Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful 

though you have considered all the facts.   

Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary, 

some in the wrong direction. 

Practice resurrection.

(Wendell Barry, The Mad Farmer Liberation Front)

Sermon, June 16

We boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

The apostle Paul wrote the letter to the Romans in around the year 55, give or take – twenty years or so after the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God. This letter is unlike Paul’s other letters in that Paul was a stranger to the Christian communities in Rome. He was writing to introduce himself and his understanding of the Gospel to churches that needed some guidance and encouragement. Around 50 or 51, just a few years earlier, the emperor Claudius had expelled all Jews from Rome. Some of those Jews were Christians. We know that, because the book of the Acts of the Apostles talks about some of them – Aquila and Priscilla, whom Paul met in Corinth, where they were making a new home after being forced to leave Rome. 

So Paul is writing to Christian communities confused and in distress, having lost some of their core members – the Jewish Christians who could explain the Scriptures and tradition that framed Jesus’ life and teachings.

Today’s short passage is part of a longer section in which Paul explains how being saved, belonging to God, in a new way that includes Gentiles – non-Jews – on equal terms with Jews. Through human faith and God’s grace, he says, we are all justified before God and can hope boldly. And, he says, our losses and longings aren’t challenges to faith: We boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

I bet some of you have a love-hate relationship with this passage – whether you’ve heard it many times before or are taking it in right now for the first time. It’s the kind of thing where context REALLY matters. If you’re going through something hard, and somebody outside the situation, says, Hang in there! Your suffering will make you strong and build your character! – well, you might have some uncharitable thoughts towards that person. At the very least, their words would probably not bring comfort.

On the other hand, if somebody who’s really been there and knows what it’s like tells you, Listen, this is terrible, but you can endure it, and there is hope on the other side… that’s easier to hear. And it might even help.

Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character… 

Character. It’s one of those hard-to-define words, in the way it’s used here. As in, She’s got a lot of character. Or when we tease our kids by telling them that something that annoys them “builds character.” Character, in this sense, means… strength, depth, integrity, uprightness, honor. 

This translation is making a choice. The Greek word here means, Something that’s been tested. That’s really straightforward. If you endure suffering, you become somebody who’s endured suffering. Clear. The King James Bible rendered the Greek word as “experience.” That’s actually a pretty literal translation. 

But somewhere along the line, many different Bible translations started using the word “character.” When a word that basically means “testedness” is brought into English as “character,” we’re changing the text. We are adding the moral weight of our belief that suffering is good for you. 

This is a complicated issue for Christians! The heart of our faith seems to be a story of redemptive suffering. And unpacking that is the work of many sermons, not just one. I’ll say just one thing about it right now: It’s also the heart of our faith that Jesus, who is God, chose to walk with humanity in our fragility. Chose to suffer with us, in order to heal and save us. 

Paul is talking here about the other kind of suffering, the unchosen kind. The kind that comes to you because of who or what you are, or where and when you live. 

And what he’s talking about is the best-case scenario: When suffering is a given, already baked in to your reality, then the best outcome available is that you survive, you endure; and you learn that you can endure; and you find some hope to lead you onward in spite of it all. 

I believe there is truth and grace and encouragement in these words of Paul’s. But it takes a little work to receive it. For one thing, we have to know Paul well enough to know that he’s not giving advice from the sidelines. The apostle Paul has been incarcerated, many times. He has been beaten, many times. He’s writing to communities who are struggling because they have chosen to follow Jesus; and he knows about suffering because you have chosen to follow Jesus. He is walking the talk. Everything he’s telling them, he’s lived.

We also have to know Paul well enough to understand that he is writing to communities. I think about this a lot. American Protestant individualism, our habit of thinking of health, responsibility, success, failure, everything, one human at a time, distorts our understanding of Scripture and faith. Aided and abetted by the English language itself, which doesn’t distinguish between singular and plural second person pronouns. Most of the “you”s in the New Testament are plural: guidance or encouragement or admonishment for a group of people, striving to follow Jesus together. But we are conditioned by our individualistic culture to hear them as singular. As guiding, admonishing, or encouraging me, not us. 

So to find the truth and grace in this passage, I think we have to read it against the grain of 21st century American culture.

Paul’s words here sound a lot like what we might call resilience. If you’re talking about a memory-foam pillow, resilience means that you can press on it and when you take your hand away, it bounces back to its original shape. And we mean something similar when we say it about people: that you can go through something difficult, some pressure or hardship, and bounce back. You may be changed by it, but you’re not broken, crumbled, diminished, destroyed. You’re able to withstand it. What does not kill you makes you stronger, right? Suffering produces endurance, which produces character, which produces hope. There you go. Resilience.

Resilience is a hot topic in a lot of settings these days: psychology and sociology, education research and policy, TED talks and self-help books. And we talk about it mostly as an individual characteristic. As if it’s something a person has – or ought to have. Something inside a person that helps them rise to their challenges, persist, persevere, overcome, succeed. 

Now, I’m not here to knock resilience! Resilience is a powerful and important quality. But it can also be twisted into a weapon against those who are struggling. People who’ve had the deck stacked against them since birth – by things like skin color, neurochemistry, sexual or gender identity, or the zip code in which they were born, which is a powerful predictor of “success” in 21st-century America. Or people who maybe got an OK start but then were hit hard by loss or trauma. 

For someone who’s really in pain or having a hard time, the idea of resilience may feel like yet another burden. “You should just be more resilient. Don’t let it get you down.” Great. Pick me up a pint of resilience next time you’re at the store, would you? It doesn’t work that way. Resilience, conceived of as something individuals have or don’t have, can become a tool for victim-blaming, a way for those on the sidelines to wash their hands of responsibility for the wellbeing of the person in the thick of the struggle. 

I attended an eighth grade promotion ceremony this week. And I noticed that the things the grownups said – the principal’s speech; the declarations that accompanied various awards – were full of talk about individual resilience. Follow your dreams. Don’t let any challenges stand in your way. Demonstrate the American virtues of grit, persistence, success. There was literally an award for showing “character.” 

But a couple of the kids gave speeches, too. And they both said to their class: We needed each other. We needed these relationships, this community. To handle the changes and confusions, the tensions with teachers, the drama with other kids, the core challenge of maturing from child to young adult: We needed each other to get through this. And we need each other for the new challenges ahead. 

The kids are onto something, friends. I read an article a couple of weeks ago that really made me think. It was about how our individualistic concept of resilience can become isolating and toxic. The author, Michael Ungar, a scientist who studies resilience, says that the self-help industry – broadly defined – offers many, many solutions fix your problems. And some of them are helpful to some people, to be clear! But, Ungar writes,  “Make no mistake: [In the self-help approach,] they are always your problems. You alone are responsible for them. It follows that failing to fix your problems will always be your failure, your lack of will, motivation or strength… We take upon ourselves the task of becoming motivated and subject ourselves to the heavy lifting of personal transformation. We mostly fail. We gain back the weight that we lost. Our next relationship is just as bad as the one we left. Our attitudes improve, but the boss is still a jerk…”

Ungar says the issue is that resilience is not a do-it-yourself endeavor. He writes, “The notion that your resilience is your problem alone is ideology, not science…. [We can] say with certainty that resilience depends more on what we receive than what we have within us.”

Another article I spotted recently explains that a massive meta-study of existing data shows that adults with a strong social network have 50% more longevity than those without. Like the kids said in their speeches: We need each other. A fitting theme for Trinity Sunday, when the church calendar invites us to celebrate that we know God as Three in One and One in Three. Relationship is the very nature of God – in whose image we are made.  

I really take all this to heart. Ungar’s article advises people to seek out communities and organizations and systems that will support and care for them. But as a church leader, I came away thinking, How can church become more of a community of resilience for our members? What would it look like to lean into that? To think of resilience as something we give each other? 

That is actually what Paul is talking about, friends. He’s telling the churches of Rome, these groups of believers who meet to sing and pray and share and seek and grieve and hope, he’s telling them that they have the strength to weather hard stuff together. 

I don’t think we’re terrible at that, here – at being that network of care for one another. But I think we could take it on with more intention. We step up with prayers, care, and practical help when a friend within the church or a well-known member gets a new diagnosis or suffers a loss or expands their family. But sometimes it’s hard to sustain that care over time; and sometimes when somebody is new to the community, or at the edges of the community, we don’t show up for them as well. Not from hard-heartedness but just because as humans we are wired to respond to familiarity. But what if we take seriously that church is not a place to make friends to care for each other through life’s ups and downs; but that church is a body that cares for each other through life’s ups and downs, because that’s just what we do for each other here? Friendship is great; I treasure the friendships within this parish. But looking after your friends is what everybody does. Looking after everybody should be what church does. 

A friend told me recently that while her husband was dying, people would often ask her how she was doing. And she would say, “What does not kill me… still beats the crap out of me.” She says people’s faces would fall as they realized she wasn’t going to tell them that she was fine, actually; that she was finding grace in every moment; that this gut-wrenching loss was really quite meaningful. 

We have to ask each other how we’re doing, and really want to know. We have to be ready to hold space for each other. And it’s not just the big losses and longings. My friend Craig has been really working with his church to understand their lives, and he says, Every single member of my congregation is lonely, weary, fearful and distracted. He says, That’s why they’re at church – consciously or not. They’re here because they’re looking for a community to alleviate the loneliness – to come alongside them in weariness – to bring hope and joy into conversation with fearfulness – to find common purpose amid our distractedness. 

What could it look like to be a church fundamentally organized for its members’ collective resilience? I recently heard about a new church plant that was founded in an affluent suburb … in 2008. Just before the market crash. The new congregation was full of people who had fast-paced, lucrative jobs, and were losing them; of people who had bought big, expensive new homes, and were losing those, too. And what that church became, through the insight and compassion of its members and the grace of the Holy Spirit, was a place to grieve together. People who had lost their jobs started meeting weekly to pray the psalms of lament together. When someone lost their home, church members would show up to help them move. A friend visited one Sunday and noticed a woman selling knitted goods at a table during coffee hour. She explained that the proceeds from her sales would go to fulfill her pledge to the parish. 

I want to be honest with you: That church closed. But while it existed, its members helped each other through an incredibly difficult season. Together, they defied the toxicity of shame. They told each other the truth about being broke and being unemployed and having your whole life shatter around you. They sanctified that awful season in their lives by holding it, together, up to God’s light. It takes my breath away. 

What we need, dear ones, for our individual and common wellbeing, are robust networks and infrastructure of support and care, oriented towards human safety and flourishing. I believe the Church – all churches – this church – is called to participate in and advocate for that future. Because collective resilience is at least as important as individual resilience. And so I say to you, friends: 

We boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

Some links – 

Endurance, hope, and resilience: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-put-down-the-self-help-books-resilience-is-not-a-diy-endeavour/?fbclid=IwAR0S0hJZRnKFE5wt_RwmoTUlR7JXEe-4C0KQ0J1tBCBSo8ri46MPDNlIjwA

Social networks and survival: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/relationships-boost-survival/?redirect=

Article on social networks and longevity: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/relationships-boost-survival/?redirect=1

Homily, June 9

Today is the feast of Pentecost, when we celebrate that the Holy Spirit of God came to the first Christians to comfort and inspire and guide them. 

What is the Holy Spirit? Well, over thousands of years, we have come to know God in different ways. We know God as Creator and Source, Father and Mother of all, the Ancient of Days, Beginning and End, the Silence at the center of things. We know God as Jesus Christ, the Word of God come to earth to dwell among us, Brother, Friend, Teacher, Redeemer and Liberator. And we know God as Holy Spirit, Breath of life, refining Fire, divine Wisdom. We call these the three Persons of the holy and undivided Trinity, the three in one and one in three. 

So the Holy Spirit is one of the ways we know God. We use names for the Spirit like Comforter, Advocate, Dove, Spirit of Truth, Holy Wisdom. We use symbols like wind, water, fire… things that are powerful and important, but that you can’t hold in your hand. 

Did you know you can pray to the different Persons of God? We pray to the Holy Spirit – we call on the Holy Spirit – often in church, when we ask the Spirit to make the water holy for a baptism, or to make the bread and wine into Christ’s Body and Blood for us, at Eucharist. 

But in everyday life, I pray to the Holy Spirit – I call on the Holy Spirit – pretty often too. When I need strength and wisdom for a difficult conversation. When I need my heart to soften towards someone so I can respond to them as Jesus would. When I’m confused or stuck and need insight and direction. When I just need encouragement, in the face of hard stuff. 

We have a big word for asking the Holy Spirit to help us: Invocation. It means to call on something. It’s not like magic in a book; we don’t control the Spirit with our words. But she likes to be invited. We have to make room for her instead of trying to handle it all on our own. We have to open a door inside us, to let her come in and help us. So the Church has always taught God’s people to call on the Spirit… to invoke the Spirit. No magic words, it’s one of the simplest prayers there is: Come, Holy Spirit!

Now we’re going to sing a song that invites the Holy Spirit to come among us as we celebrate today…. 

After the Acts lesson: 

One of my favorite things to do is when I get to spend some time talking about the Bible with kids. I love it; I wish I could do it even more! And I’ve noticed that a question kids often have is: Is this story true? Do you believe this story?

So let’s talk about that for the story of the Tower of Babel. I don’t believe that this happened the way the story says it happened. This is not that kind of story. It’s the kind of story that tells the truth about something big, even though the events of the story might not have happened. 

One thing the story tells the truth about is technology, and the human relationship with technology. Notice that this story is talking about a technological change: People have taken the big step from making bricks out of mud and baking them in the sun, to making bricks out of mud and baking them in a hot oven, which makes them stronger and harder. And it makes new kinds of building possible! (This is a VERY old story, y’all.) 

And the humans in the story think this is their big break.They have it all figured out now; they can be truly great. “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves.” Even though this is a very old story, it sounds familiar. We develop new technologies and we think we can use them to make ourselves great; to come close to God. 

Technology is amazing. Medical and information technology, green technology, and so on, make incredible things possible. But we’re still prone to thinking our technological achievements can make us more than human. And we’re still wrong. That is one truth this story tells. 

Another truth this story tells is about the people who told the story. This is one of the kinds of stories that offers an explanation for why things are the way they are.In this case, the thing it’s explaining is why people speak many different languages (and also have different cultures, ways of dressing, kinds of music and food, and so on). 

The people who first told this story were wondering, Why aren’t we all the same?It must be something God did. God must have given us all these different languages – made it so we can’t understand each other. So in the story, God “confuses” people’s language so they won’t be able to talk to each other: “Therefore the tower was called Babel, because there GOD confused the language of all the earth; and from there GOD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.”

Do you think the people who first told this story thought it was a good thing, that we have all different languages, or a bad thing? … 

So: This is not a true story about why we speak many languages. It’s more of a wondering story – people trying to explain something that puzzles them. And what it tells us about the people who first told the story is that they didn’t really like having all those different languages. It seemed like a problem, to them. 

We know now that language is one of the things our brains are best at. We are so good at learning language, creating and changing language, using language. It seems to me that the richness of language across humanity, the fact that as a species we are so good at generating and using words, means that this is something God wants for us. That God made us to be a people of many languages.

And the Pentecost story kind of affirms that. In this story, the Holy Spirit acts in a miraculous way to make it so that a whole group of people who speak many different languages, people from FIFTEEN different regions and countries, can all hear the good news of Jesus Christ. 

But pay attention to HOW the miracle happens. The Holy Spirit could have done it any way she wanted. She could have had the apostles preach the Gospel in their own language, and she could have reached into the ears of all those listeners from around the world, and tuned their ears so they miraculously understood the Galilean Aramaic that the apostles were speaking. 

But that’s NOT what she does. Instead, “All of the apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” The miracle here is that people are suddenly able to talk to someone else in their language – to do in an instant what would otherwise take years to learn. The miracle, the divine gift, here is not that human language is reunited, all that inconvenient diversity brought back to unity. The divine gift is being able to understand each other within that rich diversity.

Our differences can be confusing and difficult and frustrating. We might still sometimes ask the question this story asks:  Why aren’t we all the same? The answer of the Babel story is, Because we’re broken. Because God punished us with human diversity. 

But the answer of the Pentecost story is, Because it’s beautiful.It doesn’t divide us; it gives us scope for a greater, a deeper togetherness, when we learn to listen and understand and share across our differences of language and culture and experience. May the Spirit of God empower us for that work, and help us delight in the wonder of our diversity. Amen. 

Sermon, May 12

There is no violent solution.

I drive past the words most weekday mornings. They’re on the side of a garage along Lake Mendota Drive, near my son’s school. There’s an image of a dove -and these words, neatly painted: There is no violent solution. 

In our text from the Gospel of John today, Jesus is in the Great Temple in Jerusalem. In the other Gospels he comes there only in the days before his execution, but in John he visits the great city several times. It’s winter, and it’s the feast of the Dedication – you know it better as Hanukkah. And as Jesus walks through the temple, some of his adversaries circle around him – religious leaders who are suspicious of his message and mission – and they ask him: How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly!

If you know a Hanukkah story, it’s probably the story of the oil. The Great Temple had been desecrated, its holiness violated, by Judea’s enemies. When they reclaimed the Temple, cleansed it, and dedicated it once again to the God of Israel, they found that nearly all the olive oil for the lamps in the holy place had been defiled – made profane. Only one container remained sealed – enough for one day. They lit the holy lamps – and by the miraculous faithfulness of God, that oil lasted for eight whole days, long enough to press and prepare new oil.

It’s a nice manageable miracle, inspiring and not too hard to believe. But it’s not the Hanukkah story that Jesus and his adversaries would have known. The miracle of the oil first appears in print perhaps 400 years later, though it’s likely somewhat older than that. But it doesn’t appear in the books of the Maccabees, which tell the history behind Hanukkah. And the historian Josephus, writing several decades after Jesus, says this about Hanukkah: “So we celebrate this festival, and call it Lights. I suppose the reason was because this liberty beyond our hopes appeared to us; and that thence was the name given to that festival.” He’s clearly unfamiliar with the magic oil story! 

In Jesus’ time, and Josephus’ time, Hanukkah was pretty new – less than 200 years old. Think Fourth of July, not Christmas. And Hanukkah wasn’t a festival of divine generosity. It was a festival of freedom, purification, and vengeance. And its core story is a little more complicated than miraculous oil. 

Two hundred years before Jesus’ birth, Judea was under the control of the Seleucid Empire. The Seleucids were a dynasty, a lineage of leaders; their dominance basically took over the great empire established by the conquests of the Greek general Alexander the Great, and lasted in some form until the year 63 before the common era, when Rome became the ruling empire of the known world. The Seleucids were culturally Greek, or Hellenistic, and for much of their season of rule, they followed the Greek pattern of tolerating a lot of cultural and religious diversity within the empire. People put up with foreign rule a lot better if you let them keep doing their thing, you know?

But then things changed, under Antiochus Epiphanes, who became emperor in the year 175 BCE. Unlike previous Seleucid rulers, Epiphanes declared himself a god – Epiphanes means, “The One who has been Revealed.” And when there were murmurs of discontent in Judea, he cracked down, outlawing Jewish religious practices and ordering that the Greek god Zeus be worshiped as the supreme god. He had his army desecrate the Great Temple – even killing a pig, an unclean animal, on the altar of the holiest place in the world. I don’t think we can even imagine how horrific this would have been for the observant Jews of Judea.

But just in time, a hero rose up – you might even call him a savior. His name was Judas Maccabeus. There are different interpretations of his second name: It might mean “The Hammer,” because of his ferocity in battle; it might be an acronym for his Hebrew battle cry, a verse from Exodus that translates to, “Who among the gods is like you, O Adonai?” Judas Maccabeus wanted the filthy Seleucids out of his country, and he wanted the Judeans to abandon foreign habits, especially the worship of other gods, and return to the religion of their ancestors. 

The Hammer’s forces were outgunned, outmanned, outnumbered, but not outplanned – think Fourth of July again: like scruffy militias defending their homeland everywhere, the Maccabean rebels used guerrilla warfare against the Seleucid armies, and won some key victories. Go to Wikipedia for all the details! The upshot is: Judas the Hammer freed Jerusalem and the Temple from the Seleucids. The Temple was cleansed and re-dedicated to God, on the 25th day of the month Kislev – the first day of Hanukkah, even today. 

Judas Maccabeus is exactly the kind of savior, the kind of Messiah, that the people of Judea and Galilee were looking for, in Jesus’ time. The freedom won by the Maccabees had not lasted long. Now Rome was the big dog in town, demanding high taxes, bossing around their kings and priests. Rome hadn’t messed with the Temple yet but it could happen; the current emperor doesn’t want to be worshiped as a god, but what about the next guy? What we need is another Hammer, to restore the kingdom to Israel – to give us back our land, our freedom, our sovereignty. Our purity from the pollution of foreign gods, foreign ways. What we need is a Messiah, the Savior so long promised, to bring us back to the way things were under David, Israel united and free and holy under the rule of a holy king, this time forever and ever, world without end. 

Only Jesus isn’t the Hammer. Because there is no violent solution.

We love a good story of revolt against unjust rule. It’s in our cultural DNA as Americans. But Judas Maccabeus and his forces also killed a lot of other Jews. In fact, some modern scholarship now sees the violence of that time as primarily a civil war between Judeans who had adapted to Hellenistic culture – taken on Greek names, Greek clothing, Greek attitudes – and those Judeans who saw all of that as corruption, and wanted to burn it out of their land. There were likely rural/urban divides and class divisions entangled with those cultural differences, as well. 

And lest we be too inclined to root for the anti-colonialists, the defenders of traditional culture: We’re Team Hellenism, friends. The Hellenists believed in things like pluralism and progress and democracy. They thought the Maccabeans’ approach was primitive – provincial – fundamentalist. A retrenchment in an outworn way of thinking and living. One historian of this period writes that Hellenistic Jewish leaders wanted to preserve aspects of Judaism that fit within Greek thinking, like a universal God, but to remove practices that set Jews apart, like dietary laws and Sabbath observance. How… Episcopalian. 

You can see why the story of miraculous oil took hold – to tidy up the Hanukkah story. Because the real history behind the feast is decidedly messy. There were no pure motives and no clear heroes. The Temple was restored, the nation freed – for a while – but at what cost? There is no violent solution. 

And now it’s Hanukkah and people want Jesus to speak plainly – something he’s disinclined to do, especially in John’s Gospel. Are you the Messiah? It’s hard to tell from this short passage, but it’s pretty clear in context that this is a bad-faith question. The religious leaders circling Jesus like wolves, in this scene, aren’t seekers who want to believe; their goal is to get him on record as a blasphemer, one who makes claims to holiness or divinity. Later they’ll tell the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, that by their law Jesus should die because he claimed to be the Son of God. 

The question is a trap – but there may be truth in it as well. On this festival day of freedom, purification, and vengeance, there’s a challenge here, maybe even a plea: If you are the Messiah, man up and prove it.  Drive out Rome. Restore our nation. Show us some results. 

And Jesus… avoids the question. 

In all the Gospels, people talk constantly about whether Jesus is or is not the Messiah, the long-expected Savior sent by God. But he appears ambivalent about that term. He knows how laden it is with people’s expectations. He strives to invent his own vocabulary for who and what he is, in the arc of God’s plan for the cosmos. And here, now, he says: What I am is a shepherd.

He deflates those ballooning expectations with a word. A shepherd isn’t fierce. He might carry a club, a slingshot, like David, to fend off predators. But shepherds are not soldiers. A shepherd and his wooly army are not going to overthrow the lethally organized forces of Rome. 

Today’s text from Revelation goes one better, or worse: Jesus isn’t even a shepherd; he’s a sheep – and not even a full-grown sheep, a nice burly ram that might butt the Romans right of Judea; but a lamb. A lamb that has been slaughtered – evoking the ancient story of Passover, when the people of Israel marked their door posts with a lamb’s blood to protect them from the Angel of Death; evoking, too, the ritual practices described in the Torah, the Book of the Law, in which an unblemished lamb is sacrificed to cleanse people from their sins, its blood dashed upon the altar.  A dead lamb – what could be more helpless, more pathetic? Yet this is one of the early church’s core images of Jesus. Jesus is the Lamb seated on the throne of Heaven –  the Lamb who is also a shepherd, who guides his flock to the water of life. 

It’s beautiful imagery, tender and gentle. I guess what I’m noticing this year is that it’s also profoundly disappointing. Jesus isn’t the Hammer of Judea; he’s practically the Anti-Hammer. What kind of messiah lets himself be arrested? Beaten? Killed? 

It’s clear throughout the Gospels that Jesus’ friends and enemies alike were confounded and frustrated by his refusal to be a man of force. Deep down, on our dark days, maybe we are too. Maybe we long for a hero, a Hammer, a God who’ll kick ass and bash heads – whether for the cause of pluralism and progress, or for purity and tradition. 

But Jesus tells the wolves circling him in Solomon’s portico: There is no violent solution. I’m not going to fight Rome; and I’m not going to fight you. I’m just going to call my sheep – and at least some of them will hear me, and follow. That’s what I’m here to do. And it’s enough. 

I don’t always know what it means, to walk the way of peace in the face of pervasive violence. To arm ourselves with justice, mercy, and love of enemy, against the many death-dealing forces of our times. Jesus confounds and perplexes me, too.

But I hear that voice – a voice I recognize, that calls me to paths of righteousness. So I try to trust and to follow the One who is Shepherd. Who is Lamb. Who is Life.

More on Jesus and Hanukkah here: 

https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com

More on Hellenism and the ambiguity of the Maccabees: 

https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-maccabees-heroes-or-fanatics/

Sermon, May 5

Today the lectionary, our cycle of Sunday readings, brings us stories of both Peter and Paul – the two most famous leaders in the early years of Christianity. On the night of Jesus’ arrest and trial, Peter had famously denied, three times, that he knew Jesus;  now he redeems that night of fear by affirming his love for Jesus three times. And Jesus calls him to his leadership role in the early church, as feeder and tender of Christ’s sheep, the newborn Christian community. 

In the book of the Acts of the Apostles – Luke’s sequel to his Gospel – we receive the story of the conversion of Saul, known to us as Paul. Saul was a Jew and a zealous one; he wanted all God’s people to turn back to their ancient ways of holiness and righteousness. The Jesus movement was a threat – so he set out to destroy it, until one day on the road to Damascus he was blinded by the light of Christ. 

It’s really a lot to get the commissioning stories of both of these guys on one Sunday! But they do have a lot in common. Redemption and re-orientation. Purpose. Joy. And … death. Or at least: The clear expectation of death. 

In our Acts lesson, Saul – who will be Paul – is fresh from his role holding the coats of the men who stoned the apostle Stephen to death for preaching the Gospel. (People took off their coats to avoid bloodstains.) And immediately after this passage, the Jewish leaders of Damascus begin plotting to have Paul killed – for the same reasons he used to be so eager to kill Christians. He has to escape the city by being lowered over the walls in a basket by night. Paul has every reason to expect his new calling – to bring the name of Jesus before Gentiles and kings – will kill him. As it does, eventually – Paul was executed for his faith in Rome, perhaps thirty years later, during the persecution of Christians under the Emperor Nero. 

As for Peter – Jesus tells him now to expect death. “When you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” Tradition tells us that Peter, too, was executed in Rome – crucified, hands outstretched – around the same time as Paul. There’s a second-century story about it: Peter is fleeing Rome to escape his doom, when he meets Jesus, who is walking towards the city. Peter asks him, Quo vadis, Domine? Where are you going, Lord? Jesus answers, I am going to Rome to be crucified again. Peter turns around and returns to the city to face his destiny. 

Peter and Paul spent their lives preaching Christ crucified and risen, preaching a new life in God for all who believe, calling communities of believers gathered around that hope of new and abundant life – all while fully expecting to die for their faith. Not a contradiction but a paradox; not lies and delusion, but deeper truth. 

The Resurrection does not make everything OK. Jesus came back from death – still wounded. And even though his friends got to see him again, were able to find some sense of resolution and peace and purpose in his death, it wasn’t the way it was before. Things weren’t back to normal. That normal was gone. 

Becoming a Christian is not opting out of the hard stuff. Maybe it seems obvious, but there is a temptation, a slippery slope, a hope that our piety can buy us God’s favor. That the quantity or quality of our prayers might pull a beloved child or elder back from the brink of death. Prayer works; but that’s not how it works.

That our generosity might buy us out of the common human lot of pain, misfortune, and loss. Generosity works; but that’s not how it works. 

That our righteous actions will form a hedge of protection around us, shielding us from harm. We’re more likely to say it about someone else than about ourselves, perhaps – how can something like that happen to somebody like her? – but we do slip into it, sometimes. I’ve caught myself thinking it several times this past week. Righteousness works, dear ones – but that’s not how it works.

That’s why we need to be Christians together. Why Jesus commissioned Peter to leadership as care, not command; why Paul gave every day of his life to founding and nurturing communities of believers. Households of faith to bear and carry the hard stuff together. Christian writer Rachel Held Evans says, “There is a difference between curing and healing, and I believe the church is called to the slow and difficult work of healing. We are called to enter into one another’s pain, anoint it as holy, and stick around no matter the outcome.” I ran across this quotation in a post about Rachel’s illness – she’s very sick, and Christians across the spectrum are holding her in prayer. I invite your prayers, too. Because prayer DOES work – we just don’t really know how. 

Today we begin our long-planned, long-awaited renovation. And maybe the inevitability of death and suffering is not the most obvious sermon for the occasion. But Peter and Paul looked death and suffering in the face, and went out to start churches. 

Why invest money and energy and time in making a place for believers to gather? And then invest more in making it safer, more comfortable, more hospitable and beautiful and useful? Not because the building matters; but because the gathering matters. And anyone who’s ever attending a meeting in a musty church basement with ancient folding chairs and bathrooms two flights of stairs away, knows that the container for the gathering matters. 

As the bricks-and-mortar – or perhaps drywall-and-concrete – phase of the Open Door Project begins, it may be easy for us to over-focus on the building. Both the inconvenience and mess of the renovation itself, and our big shiny hopes for the results. It might be easy to feel like disrupting the building is the same thing as disrupting the church; and that renewing the building is the same thing as renewing the church. Those are both probably a little bit true – but not a lot true. 

To remind myself that the building serves the community, and not the other way round, I went way back to the focus groups we did in 2015. Two years before the series of Wondering Conversations that helped us develop the Open Door Project – yet those earlier conversations were part of the work too, naming what we think we’re about and why it matters. One of the questions was, “Does belonging to church help with areas of pain or struggle?” Your answers overwhelmed me then; they overwhelm me now. 

Listen to what some people said: “I’ve had a rough couple of years. I know there are people here who are concerned about me and who love me, regardless of where I am.”  “We share the prayer list every Sunday and very few of us know what all those names are for, but we together lift them up, and for me that’s a tremendous comfort.”  “It’s easy for me to get to feeling like I’m out there on the end of the branch, swinging all by myself, but that’s not the case at all. People who care for me are here, [and] when I don’t have sense enough to pray, somebody else is.”   “Coming here, being with other Christians who share a perspective about how the world could be, gives me hope that there’s a community of people who are committed to making the world a better place.”

“It breaks the tunnel-focus on bad stuff in your little world.”  “It’s a re-set button.”   “It’s a reminder that good exists, and that’s enough.”  “It’s the well that I come to for the water of life, in so many ways.”

Listen, I don’t want to make it sound like we’ve got this figured out. I am positive there are people in the room right now thinking, I haven’t yet found this here; I don’t feel connected in a way that is helping sustain me. I hope we’ll continue weaving that fabric of mutual care to be warm and strong and capacious, for each of us and all of us. And of course caring for one another in hard times is only one of the things a healthy church does. We also worship and sing and play and eat and wonder and make stuff and give and serve together. All of that and more.

The point is this: What we’re doing by repairing and improving the building, the container, is investing in our future gatherings; and we invest in our future gatherings because we believe that gathering matters. That our common life as people of faith, gathered and sent, matters. That what we do when we come together makes us better able to carry love and peace and beauty and justice, and, well, Jesus,  out into the world with us when we go. 

And we can undertake this audacious, impractical work – not renovating a building, but being a church – because it’s ultimately God’s work, not ours. 

This Gospel lesson was read at my ordination to the priesthood, back in February of 2009. My friend and mentor Lisa Fischbeck preached about it. And she called my attention to the pronouns in this back and forth between Jesus and Peter: “Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.” Not your sheep – Peter’s sheep. Jesus’ sheep. God’s sheep. Still. Always. Lisa told me, “Always remember that [even though you are called to be a] tender of the sheep, the Good Shepherd over all is Jesus.”   

Psalm 127 says, Unless God builds the house, the workers labor in vain. We’ve worked hard, friends, but it is God who is building this house, God who is tending this flock. Our past, present, and future belong to God. And in this moment of both fulfillment and beginning, we commend ourselves and all our undertakings to the God who raises up what has been cast down, who makes new what has grown old, and who is carrying out in tranquillity the work of salvation. 

Homily/Drama, April 28

Honoring the second Sunday of Easter as a time to affirm our youth in their wondering and seeking in faith is an idea from John Westerhoff (in Will Our Children Have Faith?, pages 101-102). We decided to try it out! Thanks to the Rev. Thomas McAlpine, the Rev. Jonathan Melton, and other conversation partners in developing these ideas. 

MIRANDA: Friends, today is sometimes called Doubting Thomas Sunday. Because our Gospel is the story about Thomas, one of Jesus’ friends, and how he came to believe that Jesus had truly risen from the dead. We get the same Gospel lesson EVERY year, even though most of our Gospels only come around every three years. It’s like our Lectionary wants to shout at us every year: DO NOT DOUBT BUT BELIEVE!

But what does it mean to doubt?  Is it OK to have questions about faith, and God, and the world? … Of course it is! Is it OK to not understand everything? …  Of course it is! But if we just say, Don’t doubt! It’s bad to doubt! – and don’t talk about what doubt really is… we might all walk around with ideas like this deep down inside:

Hold up signs: I’M A BAD CHRISTIAN, I DON’T BELONG HERE, EVERYBODY ELSE SEEMS TO GET IT; WHAT’S WRONG WITH ME?

MIRANDA: So today we’re going to talk about DOUBT. We’ll draw on several Scriptures – they’re on your Sunday Supplement if you want to take a look. What does it mean to doubt? Maybe it means there are things we think we’re supposed to believe – but don’t, really. You might think you’re a Bad Christian because the church teaches that the earth was created in seven days, and that dinosaur fossils are a trick God gave us to test our faith. But you really love science, and you just can’t swallow that.

Well, good news, Bad Christian – you don’t have to! Our church doesn’t teach that the world was created in just seven days. We understand the Creation story as telling us that God is the Source of all things, and that God made all things in love – and that we’re all in this together, humans and animals and plants and oceans and stars. And science is awesome! There are lots and lots and lots of scientists who also believe in God! 

Or you might feel like you Don’t Belong Here because you’ve heard that Jesus had to die on the cross because God was so angry about how bad and sinful humans are. God was so mad that God had to punish somebody, so Jesus took the punishment for us, to protect us from God’s anger. But, man, that story does not make you feel good about God. 

Well, that one is a doozy. It’s tough because some of our prayers could point you in that direction. But good news: Your church does not ask you to believe this! That teaching is called substitutionary atonement. It is just one way – out of many – that Christians have tried to understand Jesus’ death and resurrection. But what Jesus himself says about God is that God is merciful, and loves us, and wants to be close to us.  What a relief – that angry God was pretty scary! 

It’s OK to have questions, and to wrestle with what you think about it all! Let’s hear from someone who knows about wrestling with God. This is a story from the book of Genesis. 

JACOB: Hi, everybody. My name is Jacob. I lived a really long time ago – after Abraham, but before Moses. Is anybody here a twin? … I’m a twin. I was born second, after my brother Esau. In those days, everything went to the oldest son, even if the second son was born five minutes later. I spent my life consumed by envy of my brother. He had everything – including our father’s love. Finally I crossed a line; I did something so bad that I had to run away, or my brother might have killed me.

I spent years away from home. I got married, had children, became rich. But always, I felt the pull of home. And of unfinished business with my brother. Finally I knew it was time to go home. I gathered up my wives and children and servants and flocks, and we set out. As we got close, I was more and more terrified. My parents raised me to love and trust God. But I’d spent so much time trying to take, instead of waiting for God to give. Maybe God was done with me. Maybe I’d already gotten all the good life was going to give me. 

I sent servants on ahead with gifts for my brother – goats and sheep and camels and cattle and donkeys – did I mention I was really rich? And I sent my family off without me, so that if Esau came to kill me, they could get away. And I prayed to God: ‘God, you told me, “Return to you country and your kindred, and I will do you good.” I am not worthy of the steadfast love and faithfulness you have shown to me, all these years. Save me from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid of him!’ 

And then – someone was with me. It was pitch dark; I could not see him. But he seized me, and we began to wrestle. We struggled together all night, until daybreak. As the sky began to lighten, the stranger said, Let me go. But I said, I will not let you go unless you bless me. So the stranger blessed me, and he gave me a new name, Israel, which means: One who wrestles with God. And then the stranger disappeared. But I knew that God had been with me that night. And that day, when I met my brother, I wasn’t afraid anymore. We hugged each other, and cried, and forgave each other. 

MIRANDA: Thank you for sharing your story, Jacob! We also might think it’s Doubt when we don’t have all the answers. When there are things we don’t understand – things in the world or in our lives. Those moments when you have a friend who just found out she’s really sick, and you’re worried for her, and you just don’t understand why people get sick. Why do we have to suffer?

KING DAVID: Oh, I feel you. I remember some times when I really felt like that. 

MIRANDA: King David! My goodness! It’s an honor to meet you. You were the most famous king of Israel, and most of the Psalms were written by you or by musicians in your court.

KING DAVID: True, true.

MIRANDA: You’re telling me you had times when you were overwhelmed by suffering and confusion? But you’re famous for your deep faith. How did you talk to God, in those times? 

KING DAVID: Actually, writing poetry about it was one of the ways I handled it. Here’s a song I wrote during a tough time. You know it as Psalm 102. 

O God, hear my prayer, and let my cry come before you! Don’t hide your face from me in the day of my trouble. Turn your ear towards me; when I call, hurry and answer me. For my days drift away like smoke,  and my bones feel as hot as burning coals. My heart feels as dry and brittle as withered grass; I even forget to eat my bread; I am skin and bones. I have become like a vulture in the wilderness, like an owl among the ruins. I lie awake and groan; I am like a sparrow, lonely on a house-top. But you, O God, endure for ever, and your Name from age to age. You will arise and have compassion on your people  – for now is the time to have mercy! 

MIRANDA: Wow. Thank you. I think I should read some more of your poetry. 

KING DAVID [modestly]: I have been told that many people find it consoling. 

MIRANDA: Even in your worst moments, you turned towards God. And you weren’t afraid to tell God about it when you were hurting. So… being sad and fearful and confused, and even angry, is not the same thing as doubting God? 

KING DAVID: Not at all. If I doubted God, why would I cry out to God about my troubles? I trust God. That’s why I can complain.

MIRANDA: Wait. You just said you trust God. Jacob said that too. Don’t you mean, you believe in God? 

KING DAVID: I… don’t understand the question. 

MIRANDA: Well, in modern English, to believe means that you think something is true. Like, Cheetahs are the fastest animals. True or not true? True! Trust is different. Trust means you know that somebody is there for you, you know they are who they claim to be and will keep their commitments. You could say that belief is in your brain, and trust is in your heart – and in your relationship with somebody. 

KING DAVID: Hmmm. I see the problem. In Hebrew, the language I speak, we don’t have this… brain-only belief idea. Where you say “believe” in God, our words mean: trust God, hope in God, rely on God, seek safety in God, commit to God… How can you have a relationship with God, or anybody else, with only your brain? 

MIRANDA: That’s a good question… Thank you, O King! Hmm. But if we shift from thinking about believing in God with our brains… to trusting God with our hearts and our lives… then what do we mean by doubt?

JAMES: May I be of assistance?

MIRANDA: Excuse me – who are you?

JAMES: I am James, the brother of Jesus. I wrote a letter that’s included in the New Testament…. About what it really means to live as a person of faith. 

MIRANDA: Of course! It’s an honor to meet you. 

JAMES: I began that letter by reminding fellow Christians to stay faithful in the face of persecution – and even take joy in suffering for Christ’s sake. I said, If you need wisdom, ask God, who gives us what we need with generosity. And ask in faith, without doubting; for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind.The doubter is double-minded and unstable in every way. Double-minded – that’s what I mean by doubt. Split between too many things. Trying to believe two contradictory things at the same time, or believing one thing but acting like you believed something else.

I really started thinking about doubt this way after that time when Jesus called Peter to walk on the water. It worked fine as long as Peter stayed focused on Jesus. But when he started to let his attention wander, he got scared; he lost direction; and he started to sink. Jesus grabbed him, of course – and said, “Why did you doubt?” 

Jesus didn’t mind when we had questions. Sometimes he was annoyed when we didn’t understand – but, to be fair, we were pretty slow on the uptake. He was mostly pretty patient about explaining again, and again, and again. His call on us wasn’t to have it all figured out, but to put our heart into it. To commit. That’s why I think the real meaning of doubt is trying to live by two different, contradictory scripts at the same time. 

MIRANDA: I definitely know what double-mindedness feels like. And that’s probably my biggest struggle with faithful living. I trust in God’s goodness and love. I know God is here among us, right now. But… I get distracted by many things. I get busy. I lose focus and purpose. I get double-minded, and lose my glad singleness of heart. 

But what about Thomas? The one everybody calls Doubting Thomas. That’s why we’re talking about doubt today. What can we learn about doubt from Doubting Thomas? 

THOMAS: Please don’t call me that.

MIRANDA: Oh, hello! Are you… the apostle Thomas? 

THOMAS: Yes, that’s me. 

MIRANDA: Why don’t you tell us your story? 

THOMAS: Well, okay, it’s like this.  Jesus rose from the dead. You know that part, right?  Mary Magdalene told the disciples that she had seen him. But nobody really believed her. [shrugs]

Then one evening most of the old crowd got together. Suddenly Jesus was there among them. He showed them the wounds in his hands and his side – proof that it was really him, not an impostor, not a ghost. They were really happy to see him, of course!

I wasn’t there that night; I was visiting my mother. And when I heard about what happened, I just couldn’t believe it. My heart had been broken by Jesus’ death. I wanted to believe, do you understand? But I was afraid to hope. I told them, “Until I can touch the wounds in his hands, I just can’t believe that he’s alive.”

A week later we were all together, sharing memories. And suddenly – he was there! Jesus! In the room with us! Not an impostor, not a ghost.  And he walked right up to me and held out his hand. It was like he’d heard what I said to the others. He told me, “Here, touch the wound in my hand. Don’t be afraid, Thomas – trust: it’s really me.”

My heart felt like it might burst. I said, “My Lord! My God!” I was so glad to see him – and so grateful that he understood that I couldn’t just rely on second-hand stories. That I needed to see him myself. 

MIRANDA : Thank you for telling your story, Thomas! It reminds me a little bit of my own story. I grew up in church. I was always surrounded by people who believed in God – trusted in God. I heard their stories of times when they’d heard God’s voice or met God, in so many different ways. That was important for me, as I grew up. 

But it was also really important for me to meet God myself. To have my own times when I felt God close by, or heard God’s voice in my heart or in someone else’s words. 

What I’m saying, Thomas, is that what happened for you, and what happened for me, is what I want for all our kids and youth – and grownups, too! We should all have our own meetings with God, with Jesus, with the Holy Spirit. And we should be a community where we can tell those stories, and encourage each other – whether we’re wrestling like Jacob, or crying out to God like King David, or feeling double-minded, or seeking a clearer sense of God in our lives. 

Friends, we wonder about God and seek God at every age – but the teenage years are an especially important time for seeking your own understanding of faith and your own experiences of God. So later this morning we are trying out a new custom: of celebrating that we have young people moving into that exciting season, and committing to being their companions on that journey.

For our teens, Friday night youth group is their primary faith community. Some of them also participate in church on Sunday morning – but mostly at the 10am service. But some of you know some of them. And you may find opportunities to know them better, and be one of the faithful grownups in their lives. – faithful both in the sense of having your own faith story and faith questions to share, and faithful in sticking with them through the challenges of young adulthood. 

I ask you to make a commitment to our youth today: to be unafraid of questions; to speak honestly from our own lives and hearts, instead of saying what we think grownups are supposed to say; and to be brave enough to wonder with them. 

And if their questions and their vision stretches or challenges us, we will rise to it; because we love them, and we trust that God is at work in their lives, and, through them, in the life of this church. 

Friends, will we make this commitment to our young people today? 

WE WILL!

MIRANDA: Names, we acknowledge that as you move into young adulthood, you are thinking about what your church and your faith have offered you in new ways. As you think about God and yourself and the world, you’ll probably have new thoughts and new questions. Like Jacob, you may find yourself wrestling with God; like Thomas, you may find that second-hand faith isn’t good enough for you, and seek your own experience of the Divine. We, as your household of faith, affirm this journey and this work.  At your baptisms, your churches promised to do all in our power to support you in your life in Christ. Today, that means making space for your maturing, and all that it involves. 

What we ask of you is to trust us as companions on this journey. Trust us with the little questions, the things you think you’re probably already supposed to know. You’d be surprised how many of us wonder, too. Trust us with the big questions, knowing that we have wrestled with them too; and that even though some of those big questions don’t have easy answers, we find purpose and truth here. Seek out friends among the grownups of this household of faith, and call on us for support and wondering together. And if it ever starts to feel like this church is too small for you, I invite you to talk to me or another trusted grownup here; we may be able to show you doors into rooms you didn’t even know about. (Metaphorically speaking!) 

Friends, will you make this commitment today? I invite you respond, We will. 

We will. 

Loving God, we commit all our struggle, our lament, our double-mindedness and our seeking to you, trusting that Scripture, tradition, and community are worthy companions on the way; that God is mystery enough to keep us wondering for a lifetime; and that Jesus Christ is Friend enough to walk with us through this and every season. Amen. 

Easter Sermon, April 21

Why are you here? Seriously. There are so many reasons not to be in church. Not to own the name “Christian.” If you follow current events at all, it can often seem like Christianity is all about judgment, control, and turning back the clock on the great movements towards allowing people to be their whole, true selves in public. I have conversations with people – not often, but regularly – people who are exploring church, or not-so-churchy friends or acquaintances – conversations whose subtext seems to be: You seem smart, Miranda; why are you still a Christian? 

Why am I still a Christian? When the faith I claim has been used to confine women to home and hearth, and to silence women speaking out about abuse? To tell LGBTQ+ people that their lives, their partnerships, their bodies, are less valid, less worthy? To say the Earth is ours to use and use up, rather than a sacred responsibility? When my faith has even been used to say that the wellbeing of the homeless, the hungry, the immigrant, the asylum seeker, is none of our concern? It is really hard to make the Bible say this, folks, but some people manage… And the icing on the cake: when my faith, our faith, has been used to insist on niceness, when folks start to get uppity about calling for change? 

Christianity became the religion of institutional power seventeen hundred years ago.In the intervening years, our scriptures and teachings and liturgies have often been made instruments of control rather than wholeness; of maintenance rather than transformation; of rigidity rather than renewal; of shame rather than joy. Why would anybody still be a Christian? 

I can’t tell you why you should be – though if you come here every Sunday, I’ll try. But I can tell you why I am. There are a lot of answers to that question, but today the answer begins with Mary Magdalene. 

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed. So she ran and told Simon Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved. They all returned to the tomb together, and saw the linen cloths lying there, the ones that had been wrapped around Jesus’ body. Mary stayed there when the others left, weeping for her lost friend. Then a voice said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?…” 

The story of Jesus’ life, death, and rising again from the dead, comes to us in four different versions – the Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. They were compiled and composed at different times, by people with different sources, understandings and intentions. The four texts agree about many things, and disagree about many others. One of their clearest agreements is that Mary Magdalene was the first, or among the first, to learn that Jesus had risen from the dead. Mark, Matthew, and Luke all list Mary first among several women who went to the tomb immediately after the sabbath day of rest – when it was forbidden to handle dead bodies. They wanted to wash and anoint the body of their beloved friend, who had been buried in haste before the sabbath. Instead, they found the tomb empty, and received a mysterious and joyful message: He’s not here. He has risen! 

The Gospel of John tells the story a little differently. One of the many quirks of this gospel is its frequent mention of “the disciple whom Jesus loved” – known as John to the other Gospels. The Gospel of John makes John a central figure in the unfolding story. For example: It’s the only gospel that claims John visited Jesus’ tomb. And by this account, John is the first one to get it – he sees the empty tomb, and believes. But even the gospel of John doesn’t dare unseat Mary Magdalene; after John has left the scene, she is the one who meets the risen Christ, names him – Rabboni! My teacher! – and embraces him. 

Though they tell the story in different ways, the four Gospels are unanimous in placing Mary Magdalene as first witness to the Resurrection – the church’s big word for the raising of Jesus from death to life. Mary Magdalene’s place of honor is all the more amazing when you consider the context from which these texts emerged. First-century Jewish culture and law was patriarchal and male-dominated, while the Hellenistic cultural influence in the region was heavily sexist. To take one relevant example: Women could not be witnesses in a legal setting. You can’t trust them, you know? Their brains … 

The Gospels reflect that context in their readiness to overlook women. Mark and Matthew literally named Mary Magdalene and other women just verses earlier, as Jesus is dying… NOT because that the women just showed up; they have been there the whole time. Listen to Mark:  “There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James … and Joses, and Salome. These used to follow Jesus and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.” OH, BY THE WAY, Jesus had a bunch of female disciples too, who were supporting and looking after the whole motley crew! And it was a big deal for women to up and leave home, so their presence suggests devotion and courage at least equal to that of their male counterparts. 

In his Gospel, Luke – who takes women a little more seriously – even alludes to the sexism of the times, when he describes the male disciples’ reaction to news of the resurrection from Mary Magdalene and her companions: It “seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” 

The Gospels reflect the sexism of their context. But… not entirely. Because they are built on the foundation of the Hebrew Scriptures, from which the faces of bold and faithful women peek out, despite the overwhelming dominance of men’s voices and men’s stories: Deborah, Abigail, Tamar, Naomi, Ruth, Judith, Esther, Rahab, Miriam, Sarah, and so many others.  And because the man at the center of the Gospels was different. The great novelist and Christian writer Dorothy Sayers wrote, “It is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man… A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronised; who never made arch jokes about them [or condescended to them]; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never [told them where they belonged]; who had… no uneasy male dignity to defend.” 

No wonder Mary wept at his tomb, thinking him dead. To hear that voice silenced, to see that vision crushed. And no wonder she wept even harder when she heard his voice, saw his beloved face, and knew that not only was it not over, it was just beginning. 

Why am I still Christian? Most fundamentally, because of Jesus. I’ve been talking about women here, but there are so many ways Jesus’ teachings and actions break open our categories of clean and unclean, righteous and unrighteous, deserving and undeserving, insider and outsider. He taught and showed and lived that there is no line that divides those who do and do not deserve our compassion, our solidarity. Even though people and institutions of faith have fallen short and distorted the message, again and again and again, the Gospels – the Scriptures – carry within them the seeds of liberation, healing, and renewal. 

And – the point of Easter is not just that God has the power to bring somebody back from the dead. I mean, that’s cool, but this week scientists zapped the brains of dead pigs and got some cells to start functioning. Who knows – within the next few years, reanimation may move from miraculous to mundane. The point of all this is not that God brought somebody back to life; the point is that God brought Jesus back to life.The guy who said all those amazing things and did all those wonderful things. To use a metaphor that may be relevant: In raising Jesus from death, God endorsed Jesus’ platform and sent out an email blast inviting us all to join the movement. 

But, listen: This isn’t just about remembering that Jesus was one woke dude. The late Bishop Stephen Bayne wrote that churches often act as if they were “a sort of memorial association for a deceased clergyman named Christ, whose ideals were important.” Jesus was great; but if what we’re about is getting together to talk about how great Jesus was, then I’m out. That’s not enough. Have you looked at the world? Stories – even really beautiful, profound stories – do not equip me to live in these times. I need a living God, not a dead one. I need the witness of Mary Magdalene: The tomb is empty! He’s alive!  And I need him to call me into life – abundant life, deep, true, fierce, wholehearted life.

In icons – holy images – of the Resurrection from the Eastern Orthodox churches, 

Jesus doesn’t just wake up in the dark tomb, sit up, unwind the burial cloths. Instead, he descends to the place of the dead and frees everyone – a cosmic jailbreak. He’s shown with broken doors, shattered locks and chains, around his feet. And he’s never shown alone: He grips the hands with a man and a woman, 

Adam and Eve, representing all of humanity, freed from the bondage of death, dragged back from the place of shadow and forgetting. Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life! 

Last night we gathered here for the Easter Vigil, a liturgy that begins in the darkness of the tomb, with waiting and remembering, then celebrates the moment of Easter: Alleluia! Christ is risen! I don’t preach at the Vigil. Instead some voices from the early church speak to us across the centuries: Blessed Euthemius, the 5th century abbot, and blessed John Chrysostom, a 4th-century preacher and writer. In these ancient Easter sermons, Euthemius and Chrysostom, like the icons I described, name the Resurrection as an invitation. 

Euthemius gives Jesus these words: “I order you, O sleeper, to arise. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell… Rise up, work of my hands, created in my image. Rise up, let us leave this place! For I have died with you, and you shall rise with me.The banquet is ready, the throne of angels awaits; the Kingdom of Heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity!” 

Chrysostom preaches Easter as the invitation to a cosmic party: “Rich and poor, sing and dance together. You that are hard on yourselves, you that are easy, 

celebrate this day. You that have fasted and you that have not, make merry together. The meal is ready, come and enjoy it; you will not go away empty. There’s hospitality for all, and to spare.” 

Somewhere in the intervening centuries, we lost some of this urgency and joy. We started treating the Resurrection as Scripture, as Doctrine, as an Historical (or possibly not so Historical) Event – instead of God taking my hand and leading me into the best party ever, with food and people and joy and no awkwardness and so much music. 

This is why I’m still a Christian, and not just “still”, but fiercely, joyfully Christian: Because Easter is not just about Jesus; it’s about us. It’s not just a remembrance; it’s an invitation. To walk right out of the machinery: Rise up, let us leave this place!  To seize the brave conviction that there’s more love somewhere – as we sing in Lent – and we are gonna keep on till we find it. An invitation to transformation rather than maintenance; wholeness rather than control; renewal rather than rigidity; joy instead of shame. The Orthodox theologian Patriarch Athenagoras says, the Resurrection is not just the resuscitation of a body; it is the beginning of the transformation of the world.

Christ is risen. Join the movement. Share the feast.

This sermon is indebted to this wonderful article by Jim Friedrich: 

https://www.christiancentury.org/article/opinion/preaching-easter-sunday-isn-t-about-convincing-people?fbclid=IwAR2fJTimeZOsx9Tt0UEfkGD6Fog-J9N5_Bklkj2Rie-TSytAeht1avZJU2A

Bishop Bayne is quoted in Beyond Colonial Anglicanism, Ian Douglas & Kwok Pui-Lan (eds.), 2000.

 

The Sayers quotation is from  Are Women Human? Astute and Witty Essays on the Role of Women in Society. 

Sermon, April 7

A certain man became ill. His name was Lazarus, and he lived in the village of Bethany, in the hills just west of Jerusalem, in the region of Judea. His sisters lived there too, in the same vilalge, keeping house together – Mary and Martha. Neither of them had ever married – Mary couldn’t be bothered; she didn’t want the things other women wanted – a home of her own, children underfoot. Her mind and heart were always wandering off from the present moment to dwell with the great Mystery at the center of things. And Martha – well, somebody needed to look after Mary and Lazarus. 

People got sick a lot, in those days. And illnesses we can prevent or treat easily, often killed people. When Lazarus got sick, his sisters were worried. But they had a friend whom they hoped could help: Jesus of Nazareth. I wish we knew how they became friends, Jesus and the siblings from Bethany, but we know it was an important friendship. Luke records the famous story of Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet as Martha prepares food, while John gives us the stories I’m telling now. So the sisters write to Jesus: “Master, your friend whom you love is ill.” They’ve heard about his powers, though they may not yet have seen them firsthand. They trust that he could help Lazarus – if he came.

But he doesn’t come. He gets the message all right. And he loves Martha and Mary and Lazarus, all right. But he stays where he is – preaching and performing acts of wonder near the River Jordan – for two more days. Two long days… during which Lazarus got sicker, and died. During which his sisters washed his body, weeping, and wrapped him in linen cloths, and laid him in a tomb, and sealed the door with a great stone, and began the long hard work of figuring out how to live after the loss of a loved one. 

Then, on the third day, out of the blue, Jesus says to his disciples, “Let’s go to Judea. Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going to wake him up.” His disciples are concerned; Bethany is very close to Jerusalem, where various leaders are plotting to murder Jesus if he shows his face. They say, “If Lazarus is asleep, he’ll be fine! He doesn’t need you.” Jesus realizes he has to drop the euphemisms. He tells them, “Lazarus is dead. But all of this has happened so that God may be glorified.” Then he says some stuff about how if you walk in the light you will not stumble. The disciples look at each other, shrug. If Jesus is going to die, might as well die with him. And they all set out for Bethany. 

By the time they arrive, Lazarus has already been in the tomb for four days. Bethany is packed with people; many friends and extended family have come out from Jerusalem to mourn with Martha and Mary. Jesus and his disciples stay just outside the town, and send word quietly to the sisters that they have arrived. When the message reaches her, Martha excuses herself from a knot of anxious aunties and goes to him. 

She says, “Master. If you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now, I know that God will give you whatever you ask.” Jesus tells her, “Your brother will rise again.”  She answers, “Yes, of course, I know he will rise again when all those who have died in God rise to new life on the last day.” Jesus says, “I am the New Life, Martha. Everyone who trusts in me will live, even if they die. Do you believe this?” And Martha, trembling, says to her friend who is also her God:  “Yes. I believe that you are the Anointed One, Son of God, the One coming into the world.” 

Then Martha goes and slips into the house, and calls Mary away from those who are gathered to console her. Several of them follow her. She runs to Jesus and falls at his feet, and cries out, “Master. If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” She’s weeping, and those who came with her are weeping, and tears are contagious; Jesus starts to weep too. Maybe his God-self has been so focused on the gathering miracle that his human-self hadn’t felt the loss until that moment. But now, he weeps. Some of the onlookers say, “Look, he really loved Lazarus!” But others say, “If he cared so much, why didn’t he come heal him?”

He asks them to lead him to the tomb – a cave, sealed by a stone. They expect him to pay his respects, say his goodbyes. Instead he says, “Take away the stone.” Martha, blessed Martha, ever practical, says, “Master, his body has been there for four days. There will be a terrible smell.” Jesus says, Martha. Trust in me. So they roll away the stone. And Jesus looks up towards heaven and prays out loud: “Father, show this crowd that you have sent me.” Then he shouts into the tomb: “Lazarus, come out!”

A long, still, incredulous moment. Then – horror, wonder – sounds from within the dark of the cave. A dim shape, shuffling into the light – face, hands and feet still bound in cloth. The crowd gasps, steps back.  Jesus laughs. “Unbind the poor man,” he says, “and let him go.” 

Was there a smell, I wonder? The text does not reveal the mechanics of the miracle. Did Lazarus’ body begin the normal course of decay in a warm climate, only to be abruptly and totally reversed? Or did he wait in divine suspended animation, only mostly dead, anticipating Jesus’ call? If there was a smell, it would have been rich and rank. We’ve all smelled it – roadkill, or a dead mouse in the walls. The odor of death. 

Imagine their joy, the sisters and their beloved brother! Psalm 126 gives us words for their incredulous, dazed delight – the way you feel when the worst had happened, but then, suddenly, things turn. “When God restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream! Our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongues with shouts of joy! God has done great things for us. Those who sowed with tears will harvest with shouts of joy.”

But not everyone is joyful. There’s an anxious meeting in Jerusalem the next day. Word of this wondrous act – Jesus’ most amazing yet – has reached the chief priests, and they gather to strategize. They say, “What are we to do? This man Jesus is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him. There will be unrest among the people, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation. Surely it’s better for one man to die for the sake of the people, than to have the whole nation destroyed.”  And they give orders that anyone who sees Jesus in Jerusalem should let them know, so they can have him arrested and deal with this threat. 

Jesus and his friends leave the Jerusalem area, but not long. Just a few days later, they’re back in Bethany. Lazarus has invited Jesus to dinner – a feast in his honor. Martha, of course, does the cooking and serves the guests, but she doesn’t mind, much – this is how she can show her friend and Lord how she feels about having her brother restored to her. Mary has a plan to show her gratitude, as well. 

While Jesus is reclining at table with Lazarus and others, Mary brings some expensive ointment, made from nard, an exotic and fragrant plant from the far East. She kneels beside Jesus. She anoints Jesus’ feet, rubbing in the rich ointment. Then she looses her long hair – women wore their hair up, and covered – she unbinds her hair, and uses it to wipe Jesus’ feet. Foot-washing was a common act of hospitality; people wore sandals and streets were dusty and often filthy. But this is more, and other, than that common gesture.This is powerful, and excessive, and uncomfortably intimate. 

I imagine the people nearest noticing, falling silent. The silence spreads around the room until everyone is watching. If you come to Maundy Thursday services, maybe you know that silence, the silence that gathers around each foot-washing station even though there’s music playing and people singing elsewhere in the room. We enter that silence one by one as we come to sit and be washed; to kneel, and wash. 

The adults are hesitant, self-conscious. The kids are utterly present and utterly serious. This is big work, deep magic, and they know how to do it. The silence in the room at Bethany would have had all that woven together -awkwardness, confusion, recognition, awe. 

This time, there is a smell: the smell of the perfume. It fills the whole house, rich and heavy. It smells like pine needles baking in the sun, like the cool earth of a forest floor, like the insistent sweetness of night flowers. Mary’s using a whole POUND of the stuff; it’s almost choking, overwhelming the smells of roast meat and garlic and warm bread. It gets into your nose and stays there, like the scent of incense. The smell of humanity, urgent with gratitude and awe, offering up the best we have. The odor of devotion. Of love. 

It makes Judas’ head swim. It’s too much. Why are his eyes watering? He’s not weeping; it’s the damn perfume. It’s the excess, the shameless waste of it all. He blurts out, “That could have been sold for three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor!” 

Jesus looks at him. Imagine that gaze – compassion, grief, resignation – as he looks upon his friend, his betrayer. Leave her alone, says Jesus. She bought this ointment for the day of my burial. You will always have the opportunity to respond to the needs of the poor. But I will not always be here.

The next day, Jesus entered Jerusalem as a crowd, frenzied with joy and expectation, waved palms and shouted, Hosanna! We’ll tell that chapter together, here, next Sunday. 

A sermon is supposed to involve some combination of exegesis and explanation. Exegesis is a fancy word for unpacking a text from Scripture, explaining and clarifying – where clarity is to be had. I’ve offered exegesis today simply by telling this story in its fullness. The lectionary gives it to us broken – the raising of Lazarus will come to us on a Sunday in Lent next year, while we have Mary’s anointing of Jesus this Sunday. Those two smells, the smell of death and the smell of devotion, separated by a year instead of 20 verses. 

But as for application… This is not a text that is amenable to paring out some portable moral lesson to carry home and into our daily lives. Sometimes we turn to the Wondering question used in our Godly Play classroom downstairs: Where are you in this story? Certainly we find ourselves more readily in the story if we can recall moments when we’ve been overwhelmed with grief, or gratitude – 

Or when we’ve stood by perplexed or outraged by the depth of someone else’s emotions. That can be a wonderful way to dwell with a narrative from Scripture, let it settle into our minds and hearts, our very bones. 

But I don’t know, friends – who’s ridden a roller coaster? We’re not at the top of the big hill yet – that’s next Sunday – but we are going up, click click click click, feeling the angle pull us back against our seats, watching treetops fall behind us, gripping the bar. Soon. This story, in John’s Gospel, the raising and the feast, is a heart and a pivot: it gathers together what has already happened, it points ahead to what is coming, and it turns the story towards the cross. In this chapter and a half, we have so much that foreshadows what’s ahead: Devotion and betrayal. A feast; a death; a tomb; a stone rolled away; a resurrection. A body wrapped in cloths for burial; a body lovingly anointed with fragrant oil. A week later – only a week! – Jesus will be anointed again, with myrrh and aloes and spices, and wrapped in linen, and laid in a tomb. 

Maybe rather than trying to find ourselves in the story, right now, we should be trying to let the story find us. For this little time, these strange, demanding, aching, glorious days ahead that are the pivot of the church’s year, the heart of Christian faith, may we let the Story become the center from which we view our lives, rather than vice versa. Beloveds, it’s close now; can you feel the pull of its gravity? This is the Great Story, the Big Mystery. Interpretations falter. Explanations fail. God is about to do a new thing. 

 

 

Richard Swanson’s commentary on this text:

https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2016/03/06/a-provocation-fifth-sunday-in-lent-year-c-john-121-8/

Homily, March 24

Luke 13:1-5, paraphrased

While Jesus was teaching one day, someone asked him about a terrible thing that had happened: Some people were offering sacrifices to God, in the region of Galilee, and Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, sent his soldiers to kill them. What were those people doing wrong, that such a terrible thing happened to them? 

Jesus answered, “Do you think the suffering of these Galileans proves that they were more sinful than all the other Galileans? No! Or what about the tower that collapsed the other day, the Tower of Siloam, and killed 18 people – do you think those 18 people were the worst 18 people in Jerusalem? No! Death will come to everyone. Stop looking for scapegoats and easy explanations. You can’t get on God’s good side somehow and avoid the hurts and losses that are part of being human. Instead, change your heart and change your life, to serve God and your neighbor with the time you have.”

This is probably nobody’s favorite story about Jesus. He’s saying some hard things here. But he’s right. 

When bad things happen to people, it hurts. So we look for a way to not care. It’s far away. They’re a different kind of people than we are. They’re used to it; stuff like that happens to them all the time. They should have known better. In fact, they had it coming. Have you ever felt that inside yourself? Seen somebody in trouble, and heard some tiny nasty voice inside yourself say, Well, maybe if they’d made different choices…

Jesus says, Tell that voice to shut up. We all make bad choices sometimes. And we all hurt sometimes. Stop looking for ways not to care about your neighbor. 

But there’s another question here, right? Why do bad things happen at all? Why did those soldiers kill those people? Why did that tower fall on those people? Why would God do that? 

But let’s think about those questions a little harder. Why do you think the tower fell? Do buildings usually just fall down?… If a tower fell down today, here, in America, what would you wonder?You’d think maybe people didn’t build it very well, right? That the people who made this disaster happen were the people who wanted to build a tower as cheaply as possible – and the builders who were willing to do a sloppy, careless job – and the safety inspectors who looked the other way. You might not think about it much when you’re a kid, but we have lots and lots of ways we make sure our buildings are safe and WON’T just fall over on people. (That’s part of why it’s going to cost us $200,000 to put in an elevator – because we don’t just want an elevator; we want a SAFE elevator!)

But sometimes people get sloppy about making sure things are as safe as they should be. Usually because of money. The grownups have been reading in the news this week about a company that makes airplanes, and how the government decided mostly to let the company decide for itself whether its airplanes are safe to fly. Well, guess what? The company wants to sell airplanes, so they were maybe not quite as careful as they could have been. 

Why did that tower fall, in Jerusalem? Because of people. Not because of God. 

Okay, what about the soldiers killing those people while they were worshiping God? Was that God’s idea? Whose idea might it have been? ….  Those are some good guesses. There isn’t much about this story in other historical texts. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen; it means that it didn’t seem very important to the people who were writing history back then. So we don’t really know what these people did that upset the Romans. But I think it’s safe to say that this tragedy happened because of people. Not because of God.

God made us free. That’s really important to understand. We’re not dolls. We make choices, individually and all together. And our choices have consequences. I bet you’ve had conversations like that with your grownups! But it’s true for grownups too. 

Sometimes people make choices that result in hurtful things. We use our free will to pollute the air and the water. There’s a town in Michigan, called Flint, that had dangerous levels of lead in their water, the water that comes out of the faucet. Lead is poisonous, especially for babies and kids. The problem for the kids in Flint isn’t that God didn’t care about their safety. It’s that people didn’t care about their safety. There are so, so many examples like that.

I’m going to ask you a couple of important questions now. When humans create systems and situations that hurt somebody – like the bad water in Flint, or not building enough places for people to live, or even changing the climate of our planet so there are worse and worse storms – who is more likely to be hurt by it, poor people or rich people? 

That’s right. Usually poor people, because they don’t have the resources to get out of the situation and protect themselves. 

Here’s the second question: Does God love rich people more than God loves poor people? 

No. No, God loves people who are poor. God loves kids living in places of war. God loves families on the run from violence. God wants all God’s children to have safety, kindness, and hope.

Living the way God asks us to live, loving God and loving other people, doesn’t mean we get out of the hard stuff. It means we choose to take care of each other when we hurt – and to work to make things better. We are all in this together. And we have to work together, to change our cities, our country, our world, so that there are fewer systems and situations that hurt people. 

God made us free. We make choices, and our choices have consequences. What are some choices we can make to make things better for everybody?…. Those are all good ways we can use our freedom and our choices to join God in making the world better for all God’s children! 

When our hearts feel heavy because of hard things happening in the world or to people we care about – or to us – one thing we can do is pray about it. Hold it up to God, and ask God to take care of those people – and help us carry our heavy hearts – and show us what we can do to help. We’re going to spend some time praying now – and we’re going to try praying in a lot of different ways…. 

 

Further Reading: Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg on theodicy… https://twitter.com/TheRaDR/status/1090360431556866048