All posts by Miranda Hassett

Easter Sermon, April 4

This homily makes reference to the Paschal Homily of St. John Chrysostom, which may be read here. 

John Chrysostom was a bishop who lived about 1600 years ago – a rough contemporary of Egeria, as it happens. He was one of the great speakers and writers of the early centuries of Christianity – “Chrysostom” means “golden tongue,” a commentary on his eloquence. This particular text is read every Easter in Orthodox churches. Some non-Orthodox churches have started adding it to our practice as well.

In the first part, Chrysostom is drawing on one of Jesus’ parables – the one where God is the owner of a vineyard, and it’s time for the harvest. And God starts hiring workers – some first thing in the morning, some at noon, some almost at sunset. And at the end of the day they are all paid the usual wage for a day’s work. And the ones who worked all day are a little cranky about it; they feel like they deserved more than those who only worked an hour. But God the Vineyard owner tells them, “Friends, I have done you no wrong.  Are you envious because I am generous?”

Chrysostom takes that parable and playfully re-casts it to talk about arriving at Easter after the disciplines of Lent.

If you’ve been fasting like crazy for the whole 40 days – congratulations! You made it!

If you only tuned in two days ago, and barely know what this is all about: wonderful! Welcome! Easter is for you too!

The reward, the grace, the gift is the same for all: Jesus’ triumph over death and hell, opening for us the way of life and peace. 

Of course that parable isn’t today’s Gospel. Today’s Gospel is the Easter Gospel – Mark’s version. Which has perplexed people for a long time. Mark’s story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection ends with what we just heard: “And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” 

Mark’s abrupt ending bothered people, back when the New Testament was first being put together. People kept trying to add on more verses, to make it match the other Gospels. Mark knew about the times when the risen Jesus appeared to his friends; he hints at them elsewhere. But this is where he chose to end his text.

I think there were several reasons for that choice – but one of them is that Mark wanted no human heroes in his Gospel. The brave, loving women, who stayed at the foot of the cross and later came to tend Jesus’ body – now, like their male counterparts earlier in the story, they too are defeated and scattered by fear. 

For Mark, everyone fails, in this story. Everyone except God. But it doesn’t matter. Because God is generous. Did you bail out at the first sign of trouble? Have no fear, God’s mercy is abundant!

Did you follow Jesus to the judgment hall, before denying you knew him? God honors the deed and praises the intention! 

Did you watch at the foot of the cross and go to the tomb early in the morning, before an angel’s words terrified you into silence? No more bewailing your failings;  forgiveness comes from the grave!

Mercy, reassurance, welcome are central to the message of the risen Jesus, as he meets with his friends in the texts we’ll hear in the coming weeks. 

Jesus says: It’s OK. I know it was hard, and frightening. But now it’s time to move forward, together. Because the gift, the grace of the resurrection isn’t only for a select few who earned it. It’s for everybody. No, really: EVERYBODY.

There’s a real sense in which today is both Easter 2020 and Easter 2021. Do you remember people saying, a year ago,  “It will be Easter when we can gather in person again”? Well. Today we will celebrate the Eucharist, with a congregation present, on St. Dunstan’s grounds. Still limited, still distanced, and yet: our first true step towards re-gathering in person. 

I hasten to say that St. Dunstan’s never stopped gathering.  Early on I started using the term “Building Church” to mean the way we worshipped in our nave – because I didn’t want to keep saying “real church”. Zoom church IS real church. But Zoom church has not worked for everybody – just like building church does not work for everybody.  

People’s experiences of the past year have been all over the map. Folks’ needs and struggles have been very different. Some have found all kinds of silver linings. Some have suffered brutal losses. Some were thrown into the depths, alone. Some were overwhelmed; some were numb; some were fine. Some just kept on keeping on. What it felt like for you is real and valid.  What it felt like for others is also real and valid. 

Likewise with people’s faith, in this season. Some continued your faith practices; some deepened them. Some felt pretty adrift from any kind of regular prayer or practice of faith, during this chaotic, lonely, frightening time. Some felt more connected with their church than ever – some felt completely disconnected and alone. 

The congregations on the lawn at St. Dunstan’s today include folks who’ve worshipped together regularly over Zoom, and folks who have never connected with Zoom church – for a variety of reasons, which I hear and understand! They’ll include folks who’ve been members for decades, and folks who are just getting connected – or still figuring out of St. Dunstan’s is their church. 

As we gather, on Zoom and in person, in the weeks and months ahead: I want to invite us to be universally and unconditionally glad to see one another. If you feel tempted to ask, “Why didn’t you come to Zoom Church?”, how about asking, “How was the past year, for you?” If you feel tempted to say, “Have I seen you here before?”, how about saying, “I’m so glad to be here with you!” 

For those who haven’t been able to connect much with online church: please know you were missed, and you matter. You are an essential part of the rebuilding we will do together in the weeks and months ahead. 

Collectively, through ALL our experiences, we’ve learned so much about church and community, commitment and struggle, faith and faithfulness, in the past year. We have so much wondering and listening, experimenting and celebrating to do together, dear ones.  

And so, this Easter, whatever year it is, I say to you: Were you on Zoom every Sunday, and never missed a Compline? Come and celebrate, the feast is for you!

Did you spend fifty hours a week on a screen for work or school, and couldn’t face attending church that way too? God welcomes all with equal joy on this holy feast of feasts! 

Did your kids attend Zoom Sunday school and StoryChurch; did you patiently work through every activity Miranda sent home; or were you just glad to keep them mostly fed and clothed? God gives to the one and gives to the other, honors the deed and praises the intention.

Did you spend the year mastering sourdough or planning the perfect garden? Or did you re-watch The Good Place… three times? You that are hard on yourselves, you that are easy, celebrate together! There’s hospitality for all, and to spare.

Have you deepened your life of prayer? Is your commitment to the common good stronger than ever?  Is your great accomplishment that you are still alive today? I am so proud of you, and so is God. 

This Easter morning, Jesus comes to us in the sunlit garden and says: It’s OK.  It’s been hard, and frightening. It still is. But it’s time to move forward, together. 

Because the gift, the grace of this resurrection season isn’t only for people who somehow earned it, by how they spent the past thirteen months. It’s for everybody. 

I’m so glad to be here with you. To have arrived at Easter, with each of you and all of you. I can’t wait to see what we’ll do together, in this resurrection season.

Alleluia. Christ is risen. 

The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia. 

Homily, March 28

Today we begin the most important week of the church’s year – Jonathan Melton, friend of St. Dunstan’s, calls it “the Best Week.” It’s demanding and exhausting and I love it. The weeks leading up to it, preparing for it, are always some of the busiest of the year, the longest hours… and that’s OK. Because this is the heart of it all. 

The liturgies, or worship services, of Holy Week go back to the early centuries of Christianity. We have a wonderful description of these liturgies as they were practiced in Jerusalem in the late 300s, thanks to the journal of a traveller named Egeria, an affluent and pious woman who took a journey to the Holy Land.

We learn from Egeria that a procession with palms, on the Sunday before Easter, became a custom early on. Egeria describes the palm procession in Jerusalem delightfully:  “They all go on foot from the top of the Mount of Olives, all the people walking with hymns and antiphons, calling to one another: Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord! And all the children in the neighborhood, even those who are too young to walk, are carried by their parents on their shoulders, all of them bearing branches, some of palms and some of olives.  All, even those of rank, both matrons and men, make the procession on foot in this manner.” 

On Maundy Thursday, the Christians of Jerusalem, 1600 years ago, would gather at a particular cave which was then believed to be the place where Jesus shared his last meal with his disciples. There they would read the Gospel accounts of the Last Supper, and sing together until late at night. Early, early in the morning they would walk together in procession – slowly, by candlelight – to the Garden of Gethsemane, where someone would read the Gospel of Jesus’ arrest. Egeria writes, “And when this passage has been read there is so great a moaning and groaning of all the people, together with weeping, that their lamentation may be heard perhaps as far as the city.”

On Good Friday, our liturgies remember and honor Jesus’ death. The basic elements of our Good Friday observance go back to the early church: lessons and prayers, sharing the Passion gospel of St. John, and honoring the cross. In the Jerusalem church in Egeria’s time, they would bring out a piece of wood believed to come from the True Cross, the cross on which Jesus was crucified. Egeria tells us that certain security measures were necessary: “The bishop, as he sits, holds… the sacred wood firmly in his hands, while the deacons who stand around guard it. It is guarded thus because the custom is that the people come one by one and, bowing down, kiss the sacred wood. And because, once, someone is said to have bitten off and stolen some of the sacred wood, it is thus guarded.” 

Our Good Friday liturgies invite us into the grief and shock of Jesus’ friends and followers. So it was in Egeria’s day – she writes, “The emotion shown and the mourning by all the people at every lesson and prayer is wonderful; for there is none, either great or small, does not lament more than can be conceived, that the Lord… suffered those things for us.”

On Saturday night, we gather for one of Christianity’s most ancient liturgies, the Easter Vigil. The liturgy places us in the darkness and uncertainty of awaiting Jesus’ resurrection. We light the new flame of Paschal hope, passing the light from person to person. In candle-lit dimness we hear the stories of God’s faithful love for humanity through the ages. And then we arrive at the holy moment, the once and always moment of resurrection, when Christ burst the bonds of death, freeing all humanity from its tethers once and for all. Egeria assures us that we keep this vigil with nearly two millennia of our forebears – she describes the Christian community in Jerusalem staying up late, sharing sacred stories and songs; baptizing those new to the faith; and sharing the Gospel of the Resurrection. 

Ever since I learned about Egeria’s liturgical travel journal, I’ve loved the fact that we can look back over so many centuries and know that we are doing what our faith-ancestors have done. This year, particularly, it moves me to reflect on the resilience of these faith practices. 

Christians have been doing versions of these liturgies for seventeen, eighteen, nineteen centuries. They’ve survived the rise and fall of empires, a minor ice age, and massive cultural, economic, and technological changes. The observances of Holy Week have been maintained through times of war, of hunger, of natural disaster, of pandemic illness. These practices of holding holy story together and letting it shape us anew – they’ve come through fire and flood to belong to us, right now, along with so many other churches around the world. 

And whatever the next year or the next decade or the next century may bring, I have every confidence that these liturgies will still be held and honored. Not just because of human resilience and determination, though we are a resilient and determined species. But because our God is a God of life. 

Because this central story – the story that love is stronger than death – is a story that the world is always going to need, and God is always going to keep telling it to us… and through us. 

Take a look at the schedule for how we will be honoring Holy Week together in the days ahead. If you haven’t already made decisions about which services to attend, and how, I hope you’ll do so. There are still a few slots for the in-person Palm Procession later today. It overlaps with this service but it’s not entirely the same – and of course the big difference is that it’s in person!… 

If you want to make bread with me, you can meet me on Zoom on Wednesday evening.  Maundy Thursday we’ll gather on Zoom at 6:30; try to be near the end of your evening meal… and if possible, set your table as if you were hosting beloved friends for a special meal!  And have some bread and wine, or equivalents, set aside. You can pick up soap and oil at church for the foot or hand-washing part of that service. 

Our Good Friday liturgies are on Zoom at noon and 7pm, or a kids’ version at 4pm. The church will also be open during the day if you want to come by, pray the Stations, honor the cross, and spend a little time in prayer. 

Holy Saturday morning at 10 there will be a Zoom service. We haven’t done a Holy Saturday service in the past. It’s a liturgy that pauses to dwell with Jesus’ death, Jesus’ absence, and this year we’ll use it as a time of prayer for all the pandemic dead. 

Our All-Ages Easter Vigil will be on Zoom at 7pm. We’ll save most of our Easter celebration for the next day, this year; the Vigil will mostly be a time of sharing holy story. There are also a couple of spots left for a late-night in-person gathering around the fire at church. 

And Easter Sunday we’ll meet on Zoom at 9am for a festive gathering with special Easter music and a Gospel drama prepared by our young folks – then there will be two in-person Eucharists on the grounds at 11am and 1pm. 11am is almost full; 1pm still has plenty of room… 

As we embark on this journey, I pray once more: Holy God, mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. 

Homily, March 21

What do you hope for?

What do we – as St. Dunstan’s – hope for? 

Jeremiah’s career as a prophet begins with warning people of the coming destruction and calling them to return to God’s ways, as Judea was increasingly threatened by the empire of Babylon.  Then, once the worst has happened – once Judea had been conquered, the Temple destroyed, the people dragged into exile – Jeremiah’s prophetic words and actions turn towards hope. Towards the promise that there is a future beyond this terrible time, this unimaginable loss and dislocation. 

The old covenant – at least, the part that said, “Be faithful to God and you shall live in the land God has given you” – lies shattered among the ruins of Jerusalem. God’s people were faithless, and here is the result. But Jeremiah insists that God’s faithfulness can build a new covenant among those ruins. 

Listen to God’s words to Israel through Jeremiah: “I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you. Again I will build you, and you shall be built, O daughter Israel! Again you shall take your tambourines, and go forth in the dance of the merrymakers. See, I am going to bring [my people] from the land of the north, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame,  those with child and those in labour, together; a great company, they shall return here. With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back… I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow…This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”

A prophecy of return, renewal and rebirth. Words of hope beyond terrible loss and suffering…

Today’s Gospel reading marks a pivot point in John’s Gospel. These poor Greeks just want to meet Jesus… But their arrival is a sign, for Jesus, that his hour has come. The mission to the Gentiles is the apostles’ work, not his. It’s time for the story to turn towards the cross. Time for him to complete his work – by dying. 

And so he speaks a little about his death, and about what this next chapter will demand from those who follow him. His soul is troubled; it’s clear he feels the weight of what’s ahead. And yet, there is hope here.  “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

Unless a seed falls into the earth and dies, it remains a single seed. But if it is buried, it may bear much fruit. 

In one of my visits to my office at church a few weeks ago, I rediscovered this book – a theological handbook of Old Testament themes, by Walter Brueggeman. Brueggeman is one of the greatest living Old Testament scholars. I used this book to help me think about covenant, as we’ve dwelt with covenant-focused texts in the lectionary this season. And this week I looked up the entry on Hope.

Brueggeman says that for the Old Testament, hope is fundamentally connected with the idea of covenant – and with the very nature of God. “Israel’s hope is based on the character of [God], who utters promises and whose promises Israel has found to be reliable.” 

He continues: “The hope articulated in ancient Israel is not a vague optimism or a generic good idea about the future; but a precise and concrete confidence in and expectation for the future that is rooted explicitly in [God’s] promises to Israel. In those promises,…  [God] has sworn to effect futures of well-being that are beyond the present condition of the world, and that cannot, in any credible way, be extrapolated from the present.”

About the prophetic promises, the promises spoken in times of disruption and loss, like Jeremiah’s words of consolation, Brueggeman writes, “The prophetic promises look beyond the present and anticipate a new arrangement of the world ‘in the days to come.’ These promises are not predictions but are rather acts of faithful imagination that dare to anticipate new futures on the basis of what [God] has done in the past.” (Brueggeman, 100-102)

Hope. I’ve been hearing people say: I finally feel hopeful again. Spring is in the air. Vaccination is moving along much faster than it seemed like it would, just a few weeks ago. Emergence, reconnection, recovery seem increasingly possible. 

The hopefulness to which we are called as people of faith is not quite the same as that general ambient optimism. The faithful hope of God’s people is not just that things will improve incrementally from the status quo. Such a hope has a hard time surviving profound disruptions and great losses. 

Our Biblical faith-ancestors show us the kind of resilient and faithful hope that trusts in God’s capacity to create new futures.  This is hope as a conviction that God is at work in history, such that new ways of being are possible which we cannot imagine from where we’re standing in the present. 

God’s people did survive exile and return to their homeland. But it wasn’t just the way it had been before. Jesus rose from the dead, appeared to his grieving friends. But it wasn’t just the way it had been before. The future that is being born right now, for us as Americans, as Wisconsinites, as our individual selves, as the people of St. Dunstan’s, will not be just the way it was before. 

It’s okay to grieve that. In fact, it’s important to make space to grieve what has been lost. 

But it’s also important to hold hope, together.

The holy hope that God is making a new future for us – as Americans, as Wisconsinites, as our individual selves, as the people of St. Dunstan’s – and that we are called as co-creators to join that work. 

Almost exactly a year after we closed our building to public worship, we are starting to make plans – tentative, careful plans – to begin to gather in person once again. There’s always the chance of pulling back if cases start to rise again; and it will be a while yet before we’re gathering indoors comfortably, or singing together on a regular basis. But maybe, just maybe, we are starting to feel a little resonance with Jeremiah’s song of return from exile:  “See, I am going gather them from the farthest parts of the earth; a great company, they shall return; with consolations I will lead them back…”

At the same time, I know that many of us feel like we spent a year confined. Entombed, buried, like the seed in Jesus’ saying. Now, warming weather and spring rains invite new growth…. what will this new seedling look like? What fruit will it eventually bear? 

I want to spend the rest of this time in some shared reflection on a few questions. I can guess at some answers, and I’ve had conversations like this with some groups, like the Vestry.  But I want to hear from this broader group. 

A few notes before we begin: I am going to ask the questions one at a time; please ANSWER them as they are asked, for clarity’s sake. But I’m showing them all to you now in case that helps your thought process. 

You can share a response by unmuting and speaking out loud, or by typing in the chat. If you speak, please keep your remarks brief – one sentence – so that we can share the time well. If you want to write a paragraph in the chat, knock yourself out. :-)

Let’s be intentional about holding this as an open space. We will undoubtedly have some different answers, even some answers that are at odds. That’s not surprising – and it’s OK. Be kind and practice good listening. 

I’m most interested in thoughts about church and faith. But I understand that our lives are all one thing; there aren’t clear lines. Whatever comes to mind for you is fine to share. 

1. What things from the Beforetimes do you suspect (or hope) are gone for good? … 

2. What things from the Beforetimes do you hope to find a way to bring back – or reimagine in some new form? 

3. What new things from this season do you hope to carry forward?…

4. As we look ahead to the next few months: 

– What are you worried about?

– What are you hopeful about?

– What are you curious about? 

Thank you all for this time of wondering. 

There’s no tidy way to wrap all that up. But I believe that shared reflection, and naming our losses, ambivalences, and hopes, will help us with the work of faithful imagination that Brueggeman mentions – and help us discern and discover how God is inviting us to move forward together.

Let us pray. 

O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquillity the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

 

Some things have died.

Some things have been born.

What do we want to resurrect? What do we want to leave behind?

Is there anything that died in this time, that can fertilize new life and growth? 

ALSO USE THIS TIME TO TALK ABOUT SOME OF THIS. We are not the same church, not the same group of people, that we were a year ago.

When we can be together in person again, ** remember to be there for the newcomer. ** It will be exciting to see friends from the Beforetimes, whether those you’ve only seen online for months or those you haven’t seen much at all for a year or more. Celebrating being together is right and good! We just also need to make space to welcome and celebrate those who have become part of our fellowship DURING the pandemic, and those who – believe it or not – will find their way to us for the first time in the weeks and months ahead. 

Our yearning to re-connect is natural and lovely. I’m just inviting us to prepare our hearts with joy to welcome new connections, as well.

ALSO NEED TO SAY: There’s a group that has stayed connected and to some extent deepened connection through online worship during this time. 

What do we say when we come back together? …

It’s good to be together; how has it been for you; what are you looking forward to ?… 

There’ll probably be a few months when we’re re-integrating – seeing which of our Zoom church habits become building church habit, and EXPLAINING them, because not everybody was there. 

Invitation to think and talk about what we MISS and DON’T MISS about building church…

And what we want to KEEP or LET GO from Zoom Church. 

“A strong case has been made that a defining mark of a postindustrial, technological world is despair, the inability to trust in any new or good future that is promised and may yet  be given. Insofar as despair marks the current social environment of faith, to that extent hope is a distinctive mark of faith with dangerous and revolutionary social potential.” (Brueggeman, p. 102)

Sermon, March 14

Today our Exodus lesson offers us the Ten Commandments. They break down into basically two chunks. There are the ones that have to do with how this people are supposed to worship and honor God: 

  • No other gods (monotheism)
  • No idols (use of images or statues in worship)
  • Restrictions on use of God’s name, to show respect
  • Sabbath-keeping – a day of rest to honor God

Then there are some commandments that have to do with civic order and ethics within community. 

  • Honor your parents
  • Don’t commit murder
  • Don’t commit adultery 
  • Don’t steal
  • Don’t bear false witness 
  • Don’t wish for what isn’t yours

The Ten Commandments are a core text, but there is a whole lot more in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy that lays out how God’s people Israel are called to live – including things like the kosher food rules; leaving the corners of the field un-harvested for the poor; and the jubilee year when people who have lost land and freedom due to poverty are restored. 

The Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman writes, “All the commandments given at Sinai, in their rich variation, are taken as a single corpus of obligation for Israel in [agreeing] to be the people of God.” 

The Torah – which means Law or Instruction – lays out Israel’s way of life under the covenant – a way of living distinct from neighboring peoples; a way of purity and of justice. (A side note: The word “Torah” also refers to the first five books of the Bible – Genesis through Deuteronomy, which include a lot of narrative material as well as the content of the Law. )

What is the Christian relationship with Torah law? It’s complicated. As Christians we are not bound by the letter of the Law – the New Testament is clear about that. But we are called by God in Christ to love of God and love of neighbor, and to practicing mercy and justice, as a people set apart for the sake of others. 

Jesus himself says that he came to “fulfill” the Law. (Matt. 5:17)  Brueggeman writes, “We may understand that [Jesus’] work was received as an expression of the Torah’s life-giving power… Christians in the end are, like Jews, about the business of glad obedience to God’s disclosed purposes.” (220)

“God’s disclosed purposes” – I love that phrase.  Disclosed here means revealed – what’s been shown to us, knowing that much remains mysterious. In teaching confirmation classes, I like to ask: What do we know about God’s intentions for the world? What does Scripture tell us about what God wants for us and from us? 

Today’s Gospel brings us one core statement, in these famous words from John’s Jesus – “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:16-17)

(Or in an alternate translation: God didn’t send the Son into the system to condemn the system, but that the system might be saved through him.) 

God’s ULTIMATE disclosed purpose for the world isn’t condemnation or destruction. It’s deliverance, salvation – healing, helping, restoring, redeeming.  And – to circle back to being a blessing – God’s purpose for God’s people is to both receive God’s saving help, and extend it to others. 

It’s in that light that I want to look back at the three Covenant-receivers we’ve met recently: Moses, Abraham, and Noah. 

Let’s start with Moses – who led the people Israel out of bondage in Egypt, to a new home in the Promised Land. But they spent forty years in the wilderness in between! And the people were pretty crabby about it. (In fact, it was BECAUSE of their complaining that God made them spend a full forty years in the wilderness!)

 Along the way, there were many points at which either God or Moses were ready to pull the van over and just get out and start walking. Or… worse. One of those moments comes as Moses is on Mount Sinai, receiving the Ten Commandments and other instructions from God. Meanwhile the people ask Moses’ brother Aaron to give them a new god to worship – and Aaron makes a statue of a golden calf. God is not pleased, and tells Moses: I’m going to destroy this people! Don’t worry, Moses, I’ll make another nation for you… 

But Moses argues with God. Moses reminds God that this people is God’s people, whom God brought out of Egypt; and that it would not reflect well on God if the people are destroyed in the wilderness. Moses also reminds God of God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to make their descendants into a great nation. And God… relents. The people Israel get another chance. (And another, and another, after that.)   (Exodus 32)

That story echoes an earlier story which you probably don’t know, because it’s not in the lectionary. It’s a story about Abraham. It’s through Abraham that God first calls a particular people into covenant relationship. (We’re moving backwards through time here – it’s Abraham’s great-grandson Joseph who brings God’s people into Egypt. We have videos about that if you need a refresher!) 

When God first calls Abraham, Abraham’s nephew Lot is living with him. But soon afterwards Abraham and Lot separate; they both have too many flocks and herds to keep traveling together. So Lot heads out and settles in a town called Sodom. 

A few chapters later, three angels visit Abraham and Sarah to tell them that soon they’ll have their long-awaited son.  And as they’re leaving, the angels tell Abraham, We’re going to visit Sodom, and its neighboring town Gomorrah, for we have heard that they are terribly sinful. And if that turns out to be true, God will destroy those cities.

I want to pause and name here that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah has long been used as a “text of terror” against LGBTQ+ people. I decry that reading and that usage, and as a church leader I repent of the harm that churches have caused by preaching condemnation. My repentance of that harm is not something I can accomplish in one sermon, but something I’m striving to make part of my life’s work. 

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is difficult for lots of reasons. Let me say one thing clearly: It is not a story of God’s punishment for homosexuality. That is NOT what is happening here. If it would help you to read it and unpack it together, let me know. 

What I want to talk about is what Abraham does after the angels disclose the plan to destroy the cities. Because Abraham – like Moses – tries to talk God out of destruction. Let’s hear their dialogue – straight out of the Bible. 

ABRAHAM:  Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous people within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?

GOD:  If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.

ABRAHAM: Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?

GOD:  I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.

ABRAHAM: Suppose forty are found there.

GOD: For the sake of forty I will not do it.

ABRAHAM: Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak. Suppose thirty are found there.

GOD:  I will not do it, if I find thirty there

ABRAHAM:  Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.

GOD: For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.

ABRAHAM:  Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose ten are found there.

GOD: For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.

Alas, God does not find even ten righteous people in the city.  But I love Abraham’s boldness here in bargaining God down towards mercy. It’s a different approach than Moses’ appeal to past covenants and acts of mercy and saving grace. But both Moses and Abraham confront God with one core idea: You’re supposed to be merciful and just. If you do this, are people going to believe that you are what you claim to be? 

And now… let’s look back at Noah, ten generations before Abraham. Genesis 6, verses 12 – 14, 22:  “And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth. And God said to Noah, ‘I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth. Make yourself an ark of cypress wood….’ Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him.”

When we read these texts in order, it’s easy NOT to notice that Noah doesn’t argue with God. But when we look back… it should catch our attention. It has caught the attention of Jewish Scripture scholars for many, many generations. There’s a lot in the Talmud and Rabbinic literature reflecting on Noah. 

Some texts argue that Noah tried to convince the people of his generation to repent. In one story, Noah takes a whole fifty years to build the ark, an impressive work slowdown, in the hopes that people will have time to repent and change their hearts and lives. But: No luck. People mock Noah, and refuse to listen to his warnings. So, the flood comes, as promised – as threatened. 

Another story, from a text called the Zohar Hadash, concerns what happened when Noah finally left the Ark, after the flood had destroyed all life on earth, and the waters had finally receded. Noah sees the destruction and begins to weep. He cries out, “Lord of the world, You are merciful; why have You not pitied Your children?”

And God answers, “Foolish shepherd! Now you implore My mercy. Had you done so when I announced to you the Flood, it would not have come to pass. You knew that you would be rescued, and therefore did not care for others; now you pray.”

Okay, Miranda: how is any of this good news? Frankly it’s kind of messed up for God to need humans to talk God out of destroying people – and even more so for God to tell Noah, “Too late – shoulda spoken up sooner!”

I have said before that I’m agnostic about whether God uses natural disasters to punish or discipline God’s people. God made the Earth alive and free, just as God made humans alive and free. And the Earth, alive and free, sometimes does things that are inconvenient or catastrophic for humans. There were certainly big floods in ancient times, as there are now. And the Bible says that Sodom and Gomorrah were built in an area with many tar pits – indications of crude oil beneath the surface. Combined with seismic activity, that could get exciting. I tend to read these stories as people who were growing in relationship with God, trying to make theological sense of current and past events. 

We can’t know, for now, whether conversations like the ones between God and Abraham or Moses ever really happened. But we DO know that they’re here in our holy text.  We know that they tell us something – I think, something pretty important – about our faith-ancestors’ understanding of the relationship between humanity and the Divine. 

Jew and Christian alike receive from Scripture a lot of guidance and instruction – a lot of Torah – about what it looks like to live in God’s ways as God’s people. But right alongside it we also receive the message that what God wants from us is not a meek or passive obedience. This is a relationship with push and pull, a relationship of dynamism and possibility. 

It’s literally RIGHT after Moses receives the Ten Commandments from God that Moses turns around and says to God, more or less: “Hey, what happened to ‘Thou shalt not killl?’”And God doesn’t strike Moses dead. God listens. 

That’s the insight Abraham and Moses found in their long and profound walks with God, that they passed on to their people and that eventually comes to us encoded in these texts:  God likes it when we argue with God. God is the kind of Parent who loves it when her kids can change her mind. God is the kind of Parent who loves it when we collaborate with him on a project. 

And the project is the continued outworking of God’s disclosed purposes for the world, resisting letting anyone be a lost cause or collateral damage, and always pushing wider the circle of mercy and belonging.  

May it be so. 

Sermon, Mar. 7

What was the Jerusalem Temple and why was it a big deal?

In Jesus’ time many people would have gathered regularly for Scripture study and prayer in local synagogues. But if you needed to *do* something in your relationship with God – make an offering to atone for a wrong action, or give thanks for a blessing – you would go to the Great Temple, if you could. We saw that a few weeks ago with the story of Jesus’ parents going to the Temple to make an offering to present their firstborn son to God, and to restore Mary to ritual purity after childbirth. 

I was going to say, It’s hard for us to imagine doing the regular teaching and prayer of the community in one place, and ritual and sacramental actions in another – but maybe it isn’t. Maybe this year we can understand that in a way we couldn’t in other years.  The Temple was where you’d do the kinds of things we can’t do very well, or at all, over Zoom. Things that involve fire and water and bread and blood and movement and mess. 

So, why the livestock and money changers in the Temple courtyard? People visited the Temple from all over, bringing with them all kinds of currencies. They had to change their money into Jewish shekels to be able to make offerings at the Temple. And the animals were there for people to buy, to use as offerings and sacrifices. Like Jesus’ parents offering two doves. 

Of course there’d be a fee for the exchanging your money. And of course if you buy your goat at the Temple instead of in the normal marketplace, there’s probably a markup. Anyone who’s bought gum in an airport is familiar with how that works. 

So, functionally, the outer court of the Temple – a new-ish addition – was kind of a holy marketplace where people wanting to visit the Temple could get the things they felt they needed to approach God… for a price. 

It was one of those things where people say, “I know it’s not ideal but it just has to be that way”. There are a lot of things like that, right? 

But Jesus is not having it. 

The whip of cords is only in John’s version of this story and it caught my attention.  I did a little research. It’s a pretty standard, and ancient, type of whip used in driving livestock, made from leather cord elaborately braided into a tapering tube. 

It’s the sharp cracking sound made by the end of the whip breaking the sound barrier that actually gets the animals to move.  Out of curiosity, I looked for tutorials – which stressed that making such a whip is NOT a beginner project. I’d always sort of imagined Jesus just, I don’t know, twisting some stuff together. Now, instead, I’m picturing him buying the cords several days earlier…  or maybe someone just gave them to him, the way people just gave him what he needed. And he spent a few evenings quietly braiding them into this stock whip. His friends would ask him what he was doing and he’d just smile.

And then he uses the whip to drive the livestock out of the temple court. He does not – let’s be clear – use the whip on the people. But he absolutely does make a significant mess – not only with the animals, but also pouring out coins and turning over tables, and yelling at people.

Jesus is modeling non-violent protest here: making a ruckus and causing some property damage, but not actually harming people. He focuses on attacking the symbols of a religious system that has become commercial and exploitative. That distances people from God, instead of bringing them closer. 

Jesus does not seem to be a big fan of the Temple overall. When he says “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up,” it’s both a prediction of his execution and resurrection – and a de-centering, even a dismissing, of the actual Temple. People’s indignation at his remark highlights how important the Temple was, for many Jews. 

The first Great Temple, built in the time of King Solomon, David’s son, was the pride and joy of the people Israel. They saw Jerusalem as the heart of the world, and the Temple as the heart of Jerusalem. When Solomon’s Temple was destroyed by the armies of Babylon, in 587 BCE, that heart was ripped out. It took a couple of generations in exile for the people to learn they could still be God’s people even without the Temple. And then when they were set free and sent back to their homeland, right away they built ANOTHER Temple. The temple Jesus visits, about five and a half centuries later… (Though there were some renovations underway during Jesus’ time – hence the laugh line: “This Temple has been under construction for forty-six years!…”)

That Temple – the Second Temple – is destroyed in 70 CE, about forty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. The Romans crush and burn it, in the process of putting down a revolt in Judea. It’s a violent and tragic event; traces of that trauma can be seen all over the Gospels and Epistles. The Temple has not been rebuilt.

God’s people spent a number of generations seeing the Temple as the heart of their faith and practice. Let me be clear: As Episcopalians, we have zero grounds to question or criticize that mindset. We belong to a denomination that is struggling mightily against changing its established institutional and bureaucratic ways of being. We should have empathy aplenty for another way of faith that was deeply invested, to the point of myopia, in stability and grandeur. 

But Judaism survived the loss of the Temple. Not every kind of Judaism. Ways of being Jewish that were centered on the Temple fell by the wayside. Ways of being Jewish that were focused on learning and praying together in a synagogue, and on everyday faith practices, survived – and eventually became the many kinds of Judaism in the world today. 

Meanwhile, Christianity was taking shape and becoming its own way of faith, rooted in Judaism but increasingly distinct. One thing early Christians did was wonder: what is our Jewish faith heritage – beyond the Temple? Before the Temple? And one of the places they go is Abraham.

The Epistles talk about Abraham a lot. It makes sense. They were looking for a pre-Temple Judaism – a pre-Moses Judaism, before Exodus and Leviticus laid out a way of living as God’s people.  I think early Christians liked Abraham because he, too, was called to follow a God he didn’t fully know or understand… to respond to that call with faith and hope, even thought it meant walking away from everything he’d ever known. Both Jewish and Gentile Christians in the early generations could resonate with that. 

God invites Abraham into covenant – a new relationship between God and a people who are called to live in God’s ways. Today’s lesson from Genesis is one of several times when God has to re-affirm the Abrahamic covenant – there will be more! Abraham had a hard time fully believing – or keeping believing –  that God would fulfill God’s promises. 

The first statement of the covenant with Abraham is back in Genesis chapter 12. God says to Abraham, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

Follow me and I will bless you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. That’s the heart of it, the deepest foundation stone of Judaism and Christianity alike. Respond to God’s call, commit to life as God’s people; and through you, God will bless all the peoples of the earth. 

But what does that mean? Blessing is one of those church words that’s hard to unpack, hard to define adequately with other words. Most of us are pretty good at naming the blessings in our lives – things that bring us joy or peace or clarity or connection. But it might be a little harder to get our heads and hearts around what it looks like to be a blessing to others. As a calling. As a way of life. 

A couple of weeks ago, On Being, an interview program focused on matters of spirituality and faith, featured Ariel Burger, a rabbi who studied extensively with Holocaust survivor, writer and teacher Elie Wiesel. Burger has also founded a program to train people to use the resources of faith and wisdom traditions to help build a more moral world. He believes that there are core ideas in our religious traditions that our society and world need, right now, to repair and renew. 

It’s a wonderful interview; I commend it to you. Burger and Krista Tippett, the interviewer, explore a number of big faith ideas. Bearing witness. Lamentation. Redemption. And blessing. 

Burger said, “… The fundamental principle, for me… of all of Jewish tradition, is three words: Be a blessing. Be a blessing… But what’s so fascinating is that the Hebrew language is very profound, and the word for “blessing” is related [to] the word … for the knees. The knees and the way that you bend your knees… There’s a way that a blessing is heavy to carry.”

Burger shared a story – about a friend of his son, whose grandparents had survived Auschwitz. The grandmother had been transferred to a rabbit farm on the outskirts of the camp. The Nazis were doing experiments on the rabbits, trying to find a cure for typhus. The farm was run by a Polish man who noticed that the rabbits were getting better food and care than the Jewish prisoners who were forced to work there. So he started to sneak in food for the workers. 

Then the grandmother cut her arm on barbed wire, and the cut became infected. That’s not dangerous if you have antibiotics – but an infected wound can kill you, without modern medicine. And the Nazis were not giving out antibiotics to the Jewish prisoners. They didn’t care. 

So the Polish man who ran the rabbit farm cut his own arm. He placed his wound on her wound so it would also get infected. Then he told the Nazis, “Look, I’m one of your best managers, you’d better get me some antibiotics if you want me to keep running this farm.” And they gave him antibiotics. And he shared them with the woman, who would survive and become Burger’s son’s friend’s grandmother. 

Burger said, “What does it take to be the kind of person who will share someone else’s wound, in spite of all the pressure to see them as less valuable than a rabbit? What does it take to push against all that pressure and do the right thing, with courage and moral clarity, and to see another person as a person, when everything around you is telling you not to?”

The covenant of Abraham is God’s first, foundational invitation to humanity to be in partnership with God. And it’s not about the temple or the cathedral. It’s not about grandeur and status or stability.  It’s about being blessed to be a blessing. Blessed to share other’s wounds. Blessed to bend our knees as we help bear the load. Blessed to love and serve. 

Burger concluded the interview this way: “We’re being asked to carry a lot right now. We’re being asked to carry our own lives; that’s heavy enough, with everything that we’re all going through as individuals, our families, our communities, … the suffering of the world and people around the world. We’re asked to carry all of that. It’s hard. It’s daunting…. But a blessing is something that’s heavy, and at the same time, it lifts us up. It’s liberating to live for something bigger than myself. It frees me of my own smallness, my self-consciousness, my anxieties. Compassion is the greatest medicine for anxiety, the greatest medicine for small-mindedness. And so there’s a way that we can be a blessing to each other… and really get in there with one another with a lot of openness. And that will lift us up. That’s what a blessing really is.”

Amen, amen. 

https://onbeing.org/programs/ariel-burger-be-a-blessing/

Bulletins & Script, Feb. 28

Here are the bulletins for this Sunday!

9AM Zoom online gathering:  We use slides during worship  that contain most of this information, but some prefer to follow along on paper.

Bulletin for February 28

This Sunday we will also receive a Zoom drama of the story of the prophet Micaiah. If you’d like to follow along with the script, you can do that here.

Micaiah Prophet Script

Livestream Bulletin for February 28

The link for the Zoom gatherings is available in our weekly E-news, in our Facebook group St. Dunstan’s MadCity, or by emailing Rev. Miranda:  .

THREE WAYS TO USE AN ONLINE BULLETIN…

  1. Print it out!

2. Open the bulletin on one device (smartphone or tablet) while joining Zoom worship on another device (tablet or computer).

3. On a computer, open the bulletin in a separate browser window or download and open separately, and view it next to your Zoom window.

Sermon, Feb. 21

Today’s Genesis lesson is the end of a story that’s at least casually familiar to just about everyone. Somebody at some point decided that the story of Noah and the Ark was a great story for children – because kids like animals, and boats, right? But it’s actually a pretty scary and theologically difficult story…. 

The Flood story is hard to understand fully on its own because it  is in conversation with other ancient Near Eastern texts and beliefs. It is pretty clearly a re-working of other ancient flood stories, to make that core narrative fit and advance the monotheistic beliefs of the people who will become Israel. Probably all these stories began with trying to make sense of some actual flood of the deep past – back when humans were first starting to make meaning through story. 

This is also one of the parts of the Bible where you can really see the seams where different received traditions were stitched together. For example, we know that Noah was supposed to bring a breeding pair of every kind of animal into the ark, but in some places the text also mentions seven pairs of certain animals. This is an old, strange, chewy part of the Bible. 

The story begins in Genesis chapter 6: “The Lord saw that the evil of the human creature was great on the earth and that every scheme of his heart’s devising was only perpetually evil. And the Lord regretted having made the human on earth and was grieved to the heart. And the Lord said, ‘I will wipe out the human race I created from the face of the earth, from human to cattle to crawling thing to the fowl of the heavens, for I regret that I have made them.’ But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.” 

The verses just before this are part of the setup, as well. Some godlike figures are wandering around the earth having children with human women. Those demigod children, the Nefilim, become the heroes of yore. If you’ve studied Greek mythology or the works of Rick Riordan, this might sound familiar. So part of what’s happening here is also that God is putting the kibosh on all that. 

Our 1 Peter text is actually talking about those troublesome Nefilim. Stories about those demigod figures, who were chaotic neutral at best, had really taken off during the centuries just before the time of Jesus. The Book of Enoch, written in this time, is one source. It describes how the Nefilim caused trouble on earth, teaching humans how to do sorcery and make weapons. So God confined these troublesome beings in darkness under the earth – though some of them could still walk the earth in spirit form and, among other things, play the role of an Accuser, one who tempts and tests people. In Hebrew the word is a shatan – or Satan, in the Anglicized version. 

So the cryptic middle part of our 1 Peter text seems to be talking about Jesus, after the Resurrection, going on some kind of errand of mercy to those imprisoned Nefilim – perhaps letting them know the good news and the bad news: they are now free, but they are also under his authority, forever! 

Anyway. So: Humans are terrible, constantly plotting evil against one another, and the Nefilim are only making it worse, giving humans more tools and more power to do evil, so God decides to wipe the slate clean. 

Then comes the part everybody knows. “The Lord said to Noah, you’re gonna build an arky, arky… The animals, they came in, they came in by twosies, twosies… It rained, and rained, for forty daysies, daysies…”

Most children’s versions of this story tend to glide right over the fact that this flood was understood as God intentionally wiping out all of humanity because they were so awful to each other. 

The story begins to end in Genesis chapter 8. The ark has been afloat for 150 days, when God sends a wind over the earth and the waters begin to subside. It takes a while for that much water to drain away. But eventually the dove that Noah sends out brings back a twig with a green leaf on it: a sign that somewhere, the land is dry enough for plants to grow again. 

More weeks go by, and finally, finally, Noah and his family and all the creatures are able to leave the ark. And first thing, Noah builds an altar and makes an offering to the Lord. And God says to Godself, “I will not again damn the soil on humankind’s account. For the devisings of the human heart are evil from youth. And I will not again strike down all living things as I did. As long as all the days of the earth: Seedtime and harvest and cold and heat and summer and winter and day and night shall not cease.”

Compare that with what God says out loud to Noah in our text today: “I will establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the Flood, and never again shall there be a Flood to destroy the earth.” 

Taken on its own it sounds like mercy, even repentance on God’s part. With the addition of God’s inner monologue, we get an element of … resignation? Humans are what they are: capable of both great good and great evil. Having made us in God’s own image, creative, curious, and free, God is stuck with us. 

God seems to see that it’s both unfair and pointless to harm the earth and its creatures in order to try to discipline humanity. It’s not a very effective deterrent!

The promise God makes to humans and creatures here is called the Noahic Covenant – which is hard to say, so I’m going to say, the Covenant of Noah. This year the Sunday lectionary in Lent gives us a series of covenants in our Old Testament readings. We’ll break the pattern next week, but after that we’ll explore covenant with Abraham, Moses, and Jeremiah.

The Covenant of Noah is the broadest and simplest of all the Old Testament covenants. It’s more or less unconditional. And it’s made with all humans and indeed all living things. And the promise is simple: God will never again use a flood to wipe everyone out. (Note that God definitely leaves some wiggle room. As the old song says: God gave Noah the rainbow sign; no more water, fire next time!)

This whole story is definitely part of the early history of God. While Biblical scholars increasingly believe that many Old Testament texts were actually written down around the time of the Babylonian Exile, six centuries before the birth of Jesus, give or take, they contain material that is much older – and in the case of the Flood stories, probably much, much older. This bit about God having a bow, for example – this is a very anthropomorphic God, who has human weapons. It is certainly in tension with how God is described in later Old Testament texts. 

It is OK to choose to hold this story at arm’s length. To say, What’s interesting about this story is how it shows the ancient Israelites beginning to define their understanding of the Divine over against the beliefs of neighboring peoples. To take it, in other words, not as a story of divine genocide but as a story of a people on a journey to a new understanding of the Holy – a journey whose LATER chapters we may find much more recognizable as the God we know in Jesus Christ. 

But I think there could be something for us, something we need to hear and receive, in the Covenant of Noah. 

First, I love that this covenant is with all living things. Reading the Flood story start to finish: there’s a strong sense that whatever we’re facing, we’re all in it together. Survival and flourishing is for all, if it’s for any. Even when God gives Noah and his descendants permission to use some animals for food, there are conditions on that – conditions that point to the unity and the sacredness of all life. 

There’s just the hint of a gesture towards the covenant of Noah in today’s Gospel. I love Mark’s account of Jesus’ wilderness time. It’s so spare and yet so evocative. “He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by the Accuser;  and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”

He was with the wild beasts. The Greek word is Therion. It really means beasts, with similar associations to those in English. “Wild animals” would’t capture the implications of danger, fear, savagery. Other uses of the same word in the New Testament are neutral or negative: a poisonous snake who bites Paul; a slur against people from Crete; and the many terrifying apocalyptic metaphorical beasts of the book of Revelation. 

But here: Jesus is with the wild beasts. Not metaphorical or apocalyptic but just the creatures of the Judean wilderness. Snakes and lizards, raptors and rodents. There’s no sense of danger in the text. Artists who have depicted Mark’s version of Jesus in the wilderness tend to imagine the animals just the way I do: kind of keeping Jesus company, in this long lonely difficult time of wrestling with vocation and destiny. 

There’s certainly an evoking of Eden, here – of the time when everything was new, and humans and animals had not yet learned to hate or fear or use one another. But God’s promise to Noah hovers over this scene too. Any deliverance, any renewal that God offers to humanity, God offers to other living things too.  We are all in this together. Salvation is for all, if it’s for any. 

And then… there’s reading this story in a time of pandemic illness. We might well feel as if we’re living through another purge of human life. Another cleansing of the earth through mass destruction. God gave Noah the rainbow sign; No more water – virus next time. 

I want to take a little detour here into legal language and discuss the term “Act of God.” Legally speaking, an Act of God is one of a category of events that may mean that someone can fail to fulfill a legal contract without consequence. Here’s one list, from a very useful page on the subject: “[Neither party] shall be responsible for any loss or damage, or delay or failure in performing hereunder arising from: act of God, act of war, act of public enemies, pirates or thieves, arrest or restraint of princes, rulers, dictators, or people…. [etc., etc.]… or riot or civil commotion.”

An Act of God specifically is used to refer to catastrophic natural events. Hurricanes, earthquakes, floods. Possibly pandemics. Basically: any large-scale disaster that people could not reasonably have foreseen or prevented. 

There is and will doubtless continue to be very active exploration of the limits of “act of God” language in the legal world, with respect to both pandemic and climate disasters. 

But let’s turn back towards theology now. Act of God is a legal term. But it’s also crossed over into how people casually talk and think about big, catastrophic events. A lot of us implicitly think of, say, a shattering winter storm that paralyzes the southern United States, or a pandemic illness that has killed nearly half a million Americans, as an Act of God. 

But in fact, BOTH climate change AND the massive human and economic impact of the Covid pandemic were things that could reasonably have been foreseen and prevented, or at least minimized and mitigated. In both cases, there are people who have been predicting them for decades and offering concrete proposals about how we could blunt their impact and cost – and they’ve largely being ignored. Because humans, and especially governments, are not great about investing resources to prepare for future risks. 

And once it became clear that both of these large-scale disasters were happening, there have been many smart people speaking up about how we could make them less bad. How fewer people and creatures and systems could be harmed. And again, many of those with the power to implement those ideas, have not. 

God promises Noah that God will not destroy humanity. No matter how bad we are. No matter how persistent our tendency to harm one another. 

What if we just took God at God’s word? What if we took seriously that this ancient, fundamental covenant is still in effect? God is not here to hurt us. God wants us to live. God wants us to flourish. Jesus tells us: I came that you may have life, and have it abundantly. 

If we really believed that, right down to our toes, we might ask different questions about the so-called acts of God that dominate the news. Instead of asking, What did we do to make God angry?, or Why doesn’t God seem to care?, we might ask, What people and systems are opposing God’s will for life for all God’s children and creatures? And, Where is God already at work in people and systems working for better? Working for life? 

To take as a given that God is on the side of life and flourishing might shape not only how we view the great events of the day, but our own daily lives. It might mean, for example, that we choose a Lenten practice that enlarges us rather than diminishing us.

That still might mean giving something up – if the something we give up (or work towards giving up) is something that binds and burdens us, that drains or constrains us, that distorts our relationships or limits our choices. 

It might mean that instead of giving something up, we take something on: a practice or habit that calls to us, that has something to give us. Something we’ve been wanting to do but just haven’t managed to make space. Maybe this season is time to make that space. 

It might mean that we look at the state of our hearts and souls right now and decide that our Lenten discipline in the year of our Lord 2021 is to keep surviving this. Just keep watching the days getting longer, the average temperature increasing, the birds starting to return. If that’s what you can do in Lent this year: do that, beloveds. 

The church’s observance of Lent is heavy with language of self-examination and repentance, of fasting and self-denial. That is important work. Taking a good hard look at ourselves and discerning where it’s time for us to change or heal or grow is part of the core of Christian living. 

But let us undertake that work knowing that we do so in the hands of a loving God who wants life for us – abundant life. 

Sermon, Feb. 14

The lectionary gives us this bit from Kings to tell us who Elijah is, why he’s in this scene and why Jesus is talking about him. It invites a preacher to do what I’m about to do: talk about who these people were, and why they mattered. What does it mean that the scribes said Elijah must come first?… 

Elijah was one of the great Old Testament prophets, who lived in the time when David’s ancient kingdom had split into two kingdoms. Elijah’s words are encompassed in the historical books, Kings and Chronicles, rather than in a separate book bearing his name, like Isaiah or Jeremiah or Micah. 

Today’s lesson gives us the end of Elijah’s time on earth. His story begins in 1 Kings 17, when the word of God first comes to Elijah and he is sent to King Ahab of Israel. In the passage introducing King Ahab, the Bible says, “Ahab did more to provoke the anger of the Lord, the God of Israel, than had all the kings of Israel who were before him.” Notably, he worshipped Baal, the god of a neighboring nation. So Elijah goes to Ahab and tells him that God is punishing Ahab with a drought. (Which seems a little hard on everyone else!)… 

The story unfolds from there. Elijah has several run-ins with Ahab and his queen Jezebel. In between, he hides out in the wilderness or neighboring countries. Ahab has a nickname for Elijah: “Troubler of Israel” – because he always seems to have something critical to say. Ahab does not truly understand or perhaps care that Elijah is speaking for God.

Elijah’s prophetic vocation takes a lot out of him. Finally he tries to run away from it all. He literally lies down under a tree and wishes out loud that he were dead… does that remind us of anyone?… Then he journeys on to Mount Horeb, the Mountain of God. And there God appears to Elijah – not in powerful forces like wind or earthquake or fire, but in the sound of utter silence.  And the voice that speaks in that silence tells him that he is to anoint Israel’s next king, Jehu, and Israel’s next prophet – Elisha. Elijah’s successor. In other words: You’re going to get your wish soon, Elijah. Your work is almost finished. But not yet. 

Going forth from Mount Horeb, Elijah encounters Elisha almost immediately, plowing a field. Elijah throws his mantle – his cloak or outer garment – upon Elisha. And Elisha become his student and servant. 

Today’s lesson offers the moment when Elijah is taken up to God, and Elisha succeeds Elijah as prophet. At a basic level, the Jews of Jesus’ time – and today – anticipated Elijah’s return because Elijah didn’t die. Instead, he was taken up to God in some mysterious way. At some point the idea that Elijah might return became the teaching that Elijah WOULD return, just before the coming of the Messiah. The book of Malachi, written relatively late in the Old Testament, contains this prophesy:  “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.” (Malachi 4:5)

There’s a great deal of Jewish folklore about Elijah. Themes in the stories echo those in the Biblical texts about him: a helper of those in need and zealous prophet of God’s truth.  Though I was delighted to learn that there’s also an idea that when dogs are happy for no reason, it’s because Elijah is in the neighborhood.

In addition to the folklore, Elijah is an  important figure in Rabbinic literature and Jewish religious practice. At Passover Seders many Jews leave an empty chair and cup for Elijah – a sign of expectation and future redemption of God’s people. Some follow a custom of opening the door of the house and inviting Elijah in.

At the end of the Sabbath celebration, one of the prayers calls on God to send Elijah: “”Elijah the Prophet, Elijah the Tishbite, Elijah from Gilead. Let him come quickly, in our day with the messiah, the son of David.” You might hear a resonance with some of our liturgical texts that call for Christ to come again – soon! 

So: Expecting Elijah’s return, as a sign that God was about to act decisively in human history, was a pretty normal idea in Jesus’ time. That’s our context for today’s Gospel, the Transfiguration story. 

Notice that Elijah appears in this story in two ways. There’s the literal Elijah, visiting and talking with Jesus. (How did they know it was Moses and Elijah, anyway? Did they assume it, because those were two figures who were widely expected to return in some way? Or did they just KNOW in the way you sometimes just know things?…) 

Regardless: The text seems clear that the two figures talking with Jesus were actually Elijah and Moses. Incidentally, although the book of Deuteronomy tells of Moses’ death, there were later traditions that Moses also had been taken up to God while still living.

But in addition to an appearance by Elijah himself, Jesus also talks about a different Elijah: “Elijah is indeed coming first to restore all things… I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written about him.” What is Jesus talking about here? Well – he’s talking about John the Baptist. 

Jesus’ cousin, according to Luke; the wilderness prophet who proclaimed that God was about to do a new thing, and that people should prepare by changing their hearts and their lives. John the Baptist, who – like Elijah – got in trouble with the king for saying things the king didn’t want to hear. John the Baptist, who by this point in the Gospel had been executed by Herod. 

Jesus – and the Gospels – don’t think that John was literally Elijah, but that he fulfilled Elijah’s role in some sense: in his prophetic work, in preparing the way for Messiah, and even in his imprisonment and death. 

The dual appearance of Elijah in today’s Gospel works as a kind of icon of the Christian relationship with the Old Testament. There are things we receive directly, just as they are offered, such as the importance of Elijah as a holy figure; things we do not carry with us, such as continued expectation of Elijah’s coming; things we adapt and re-interpret, like seeing John the Baptist as a second Elijah. 

You may have noticed that I usually use the expression “Old Testament” rather than “Hebrew Bible.” I’m not entirely consistent about it, because to be frank, a lot of clergy use “Hebrew Bible” and there’s some amount of peer pressure at work!  

The intention in that terminology is to get away from describing the compendium of canonical holy texts from before the time of Jesus as if it were incomplete on its own, or has been replaced by the New Testament. I understand all that and basically agree with it. But. 

There are a couple of issues with the term “Hebrew Bible.” One is that some of the later texts of the Old Testament were originally written in Greek, like the New Testament. But that’s a detail, really. Fundamentally, I use the term Old Testament because Ellen Davis uses the term Old Testament.

Ellen Davis was my Old Testament professor at Duke Divinity School. She’s one of the great living professors of the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible. Her class introduced me to Jewish Biblical scholarship. Dr. Davis works closely with Jewish Biblical scholars. She often helped us see the texts we were studying through Jewish eyes. She never let us forget for one moment that we shared these holy texts with another living tradition – and that we needed to read and study with curiosity and humility.  And: She uses the term Old Testament. (At least, she did in 2005.) 

Because, she explained, we are reading it as Christians. We can’t set that aside. It’s always part of our interpretive framework. Her assessment was that there’s something false and even appropriative about Christians using the term “Hebrew Bible.” So, even though there are real issues with the term “Old Testament,” I follow Dr. Davis’ practice. I trust her judgment on this matter. 

We DO read the Old Testament as Christians. We can’t help looking for the ways it seems to anticipate Jesus, for the undergirding principles and texts of our own faith. The New Testament is built on the foundation of the Old Testament, in so many more ways than most Christians realize. 

But I, we, also try to read and study the Old Testament for its own sake. Not just to collect the bits that seem like they might really be about Jesus and press them between the pages of our New Testaments like dried flowers. But to hear its voice and receive it as part of the great story of God and God’s people. 

If we were only reading the Old Testament for what it brings to the Jesus story, this is all we’d need: Elijah was a great prophet who was expend to return, thereby foretelling the coming of God’s Messiah. But if that’s all we took from this story, we would miss SO MUCH. 

This chapter about Elijah’s departure is so beautifully crafted. The repetition of the prophetic guilds addressing Elisha – “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?” – and Elisha’s response: “Yes, I know; keep silent.” The crossing of the Jordan – doubly evocative: Crossing the Jordan stands for entering a new chapter, new territory; and the parting of the waters reminds us of Moses at the Red Sea. Elisha’s passionate cries as he watches his master taken from him are heartbreaking – there’s no questioning the depth of his devotion and grief. Elisha’s taking up Elijah’s mantle recalls Elijah’s initial calling of Elisha by casting his mantle over him. 

And the story continues, beyond what we heard. The prophets want to send out some men to search the surrounding territory, in case Elijah fell to earth somewhere. Elisha says there’s no point. But the text says, They urged him until he was ashamed, and finally he said, Fine. Send them. Of course they don’t find Elijah, and he says, I told you so.

Then Elisha begins his work as a prophet. First he purifies the water for a nearby town. 

Then, as he’s on his way to Bethel, some children come out and mock him, saying, “Go away, Baldy! Go away, Baldy!” Elisha becomes so angry that he curses them, and bears come out of the forest and maul forty-two children. So, right out of the gate, the authors of this text want us to know that Elisha is not Elijah. Elijah was kind of cranky in the classic prophetic style, but not cruel or vengeful. 

Did you notice that Elisha asks for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit?Maybe it’s not because he’s greedy or ambitious. Maybe it’s because he’s desperately afraid that he’ll never be the prophet Elijah was. 

This is a story about devotion. It’s a story about loss, and grief. It’s a story about trying to step up to a responsibility that’s been handed to you. About aspiring to live up to someone you admire… and failing. Sometimes failing badly. But sometimes managing to do some good anyway. It’s a story at once deeply human and deeply holy. And that’s just this tiny slice – there’s so much more, even just in the surrounding chapters.  So many other stories I’d like to share… (We’ll get another one in a couple of weeks – you won’t want to miss it!) 

In gratitude for the gift of Scripture, let us pray… Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may recognize ourselves and our times in ancient stories; know ourselves not alone; and learn to see God at work even in times of struggle and grief; through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Lenten Plans 2021

While many people will choose to observe Lent in their own way – and while a strong case can be made that one’s Lenten practice this year should be continuing to live through everything that’s difficult about this season in the life of the world – we have several offerings and opportunities for the people and friends of St. Dunstan’s. To get more information about any of these programs, use the Contact Us box on the left side of the page or subscribe to our weekly E-news. 

Mapping Repentance: A Lenten series, Tuesdays at 7pm OR at your own pace, Feb. 23 – Mar. 23: Mapping Repentance is an exploration of how injustice is embedded in our landscape. We’ll learn about the history of how Native peoples were moved off the land where we worship and live, and we’ll also learn about redlining and the radicalized housing landscape. We’ll meet on Tuesdays at 7pm on Zoom; we will also make resources available for people to watch, read, and reflect on their own schedule.

A Lenten Opportunity: Learning to Listen. Listening – to others, to yourself, to God – is an important spiritual practice. A Lenten resource prepared by Living Compass offers daily reflections and prompts to develop our practice of intentional listening this Lent. If this sounds like a good Lenten discipline for you, there are three ways to participate! First, you can sign up to get the daily reflections and questions every day by email. Second, you can join a Facebook group with others around the country to share your reflections throughout the season. Sign up for the daily emails or join the Facebook group at this link: https://www.livingcompass.org/lent-signup . (Note: Living Compass is an ecumenical resource, but most of its writers and readers are Episcopalian.) Third, we’re working on plans for a weekly Zoom gathering to reflect on these materials together. You can download the booklet here: https://shop.livingcompass.org/products/living-well-through-lent-2021-pdf-download . Put it in your cart and check out – it is free and you will not be charged anything, but will receive a download link in your email.

Lent Words:
 Lent Words is a simple daily invitation to reflection. View or print the calendar here (with thanks to St. Sephen’s Church, Orinda, CA). During the season of Lent, you’re invited to prayerfully consider each of the words, and respond with visually with a photograph, drawing, or pinging – or with a poem or prose reflection, or music, or any other medium you like. You can respond every day or just when it strikes your fancy. Share your Lent Words images on Facebook or Instagram (tag @stdunstansmadcity), or email or text them to Rev. Miranda (608-469-7085), and if it’s OK with you, we’ll your images in Zoom worship!

Lent Madness 2021 – Featuring Our Patron Saint! Lent Madness is a long-running program that encourages people to learn about the lives of the saints every Lent by offering a “bracket” of 32 saints. Every day in Lent, people can vote for their favorite of two saints; the ultimate favorite saint at the end of the season is crowned with the “Golden Halo” for that year. This year, our patronal saint Dunstan is on the list! He’ll be up for voting first on March 3.  Over my years at St. Dunstan’s, I’ve learned a lot about him and come to have a great affection and respect for him. He was a person of stubborn faithfulness who worked hard to reform and renew religious institutions and improve life for ordinary people, in a fractured and desperate time. I hope more folks will come to know him through Lent Madness this year. Vote for Dunstan on March 3 at lentmadness.org – and the Middle School youth group would also like you vote for Simeon the Holy Fool on March 4! If you’re interested in following along, you can subscribe to get daily updates by email, on the right side of the Lent Madness page; like Lent Madness on Facebook; or follow on Twitter. We also have a few Lent Madness booklets available for pickup at church; tell Rev. Miranda know or email  if you’d like one.

AuDivina, Feb. 28 and Mar. 28, 10:15AM:  AuDivina is a practice of listening to non-churchy music and reflecting on how it enriches or reflects on church themes and stories. You don’t have to be an expert in either music or the Bible to participate and enjoy! For February 28, our theme is Out Of The Depths. We’re looking for songs written from the lowest points of human experience. Send suggestions to Rev. Miranda or Deanna (). Our March theme will be love songs – more on that when it gets closer. We gather on the same link as Sunday morning Zoom worship.