All posts by Miranda Hassett

Sermon, Feb. 17

Is there MORE? 

It’s one of the fundamental questions, isn’t it? I’m not talking about a human More, an earthly More. More Nordstrom Rewards points. More hours at the gym. More take-home pay. No, I mean the big More. The one we can’t see or touch, but wonder about – especially when we feel alone, when we’re grieving, or when we’re overwhelmed by joy, or awe, or gratitude. Is there a Beyond? An After? A Better? Is there More? 

In today’s Epistle, Paul is arguing with the church in Corinth about one piece of the More question – the After. He’s talking about resurrection. Will the dead rise again, in God? Paul is saying, This isn’t just one point on a list of things Christians are supposed to believe. It’s the heart of the thing. Because if there’s no resurrection of the dead – if death is, simply and universally, final – then Jesus didn’t rise from the dead. And if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, then how do we know that he was who he said he was? That his testimony about the nature of God and cosmos and humanity carried any more weight than the preaching of any of the other itinerant preacher weirdos who were wandering Judea in those days? If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile. Pointless. Empty. If our hope in Christ is only for this world, this life – then we are of all people the most to be pitied. There IS More, Paul insists. There IS After. 

One thing I find interesting in this passage is how much we have in common with the Corinthian Christians, especially if you read the whole chapter. It’s easy for modern folks to assume people in the past were more credulous, less skeptical. In fact, the Corinthians have same kinds of questions we might. They’ve seen what happens to dead bodies – more than we do. Remember the raising of Lazarus? – “Lord, he’s been in there three days; if we open the tomb, there will be a smell!” 

The idea that anybody comes back was a real stretch. I’m sure they wanted to believe it, just like we do – when we’ve lost a loved one and miss them with heart-rending urgency; when we are overwhelmed by the idea that everything, even the best things, those precious moments of joy and intimacy and awe, will pass away. We want to believe in the After, but it’s hard. Because we can’t see it, touch it. When someone’s gone, most of the time, it feels like they’re just gone. It sounds like for the Corinthians, as for some of us, a Christianity without resurrection, a Christianity of human decency and ethical living, seemed a lot easier to swallow. I get it. 

Paul, however, is not especially sympathetic to this dilemma. He writes, “But someone will ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?’” Although he’s trying to mock the question, he doesn’t have any better answers than I do. He says, I dunno! Maybe it’s like a seed! Of, of wheat or something! I’m not a farmer! You sow it in the ground and after a while something else rises up! A new life emerges! Okay? Or maybe we’ll have some whole different kind of body, then – a spiritual body instead of this earthly body, since you can’t expect an earthly body to live in Heaven, a spiritual place. Look. I don’t know, OK? I don’t KNOW. But I believe. I believe. And my believing makes a difference in my life. 

If the dead are not raised, he says, a few verses later, then hey, let’s eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die. Nothing really matters. Stop worrying an enjoy your life. Instead, says Paul, I put myself in danger every hour. I confront both human and spiritual adversaries. I die every day. Because I believe in the More. 

Is there More? Is there After? Is there Better? 

Today’s Gospel is the beginning of Jesus’ famous teachings known as the Sermon on the Mount – though actually Luke says he’s standing on level ground! In this passage, Jesus is talking about whether this is all there is. What you are, what you have right now – is this it? Or is there more? 

Let’s pause for just a minute on the word “Blessed.” I typed “#Blessed” into Instagram this week, and got over a hundred million results.  A quick perusal of the first hundred showed photos of party dresses, new haircuts, flattering selfies, vacation snapshots, cute kids, and tacos. I mean – sure. But that’s not the kind of Blessed Jesus is talking about here. The Greek word here is makarios – blessed, happy, fortunate. Christians have wrestled with, and leaned on, this Gospel passage for 2000 years because what Jesus is saying is so different from human assumptions about blessedness, or happiness, or good fortune. 

Jesus says, Blessed are you poor; the reign of God is yours. Blessed are you hungry; you will be filled. Blessed are you lamenting; you will laugh. Blessed are you hated and persecuted; you’re in good company. The future tense in these statements is open-ended. Jesus doesn’t say when, or how, people’s reality will shift. But he does say, with complete conviction, that the mess you’re in right now is not all there is for you. 

And he flips it: If you’ve got it great right now, your #blessed lifestyle is also not the end of the story. How terrible for you rich; you’ve already received your good things. How terrible for you who have plenty now; you will be hungry. How terrible for you who laugh – yes, you in the back, says Jesus, I see you laughing! Your time will come to weep. None of us get out of this alive. Unscathed. 

We are so prone, we human beings, to believing that people’s circumstances reflect their worth. We know better, but we fall into it anyway. We fawn over billionaires and criminalize the poor. And worse still, we believe it about ourselves. Our struggles, our failures, our dry times, our self-destructive spirals: in our darkest nights, we believe they’re the whole truth about us. This is it. This is all there is for me. Of me. Jesus says, No. 

Whether Jesus is talking about After, the next life, or More, a new kind of life in this world, or either, or both, Jesus says: The whole truth about you is more than your current circumstances. Good or bad. Poverty, hunger, pain, grief, addiction, illness of body, mind, or spirit; affluence and comfort too – they happen to you, they may become part of you, but they are not all of you. I see you, says Jesus. The whole you. And I tell you: Don’t take Here and Now too seriously. There’s More. 

Is there more? Some people claim to find relief and freedom in the idea that there isn’t. That this is all there is. Generations of Christian leaders are to blame for that, I think – for all the ways the Church has misrepresented what our faith teaches about More, Beyond, and After. I regret it, but here we are. 

In one of my favorite books about faith, Francis Spufford writes about how many non-believers see believers as engaged in a sort of “fluffy pretending” that shuts out the hard realities of life. And he describes a London bus with an ad on it, sponsored by the outspoken New Atheist movement in the UK. The ad on the bus says: “There’s probably no God. Stop worrying and enjoy your life.” 

He writes, “All right then: Which word here is the questionable one, the aggressive one, the one that parts company with actual recognizable human experience so fast it doesn’t even have time to wave goodbye? It isn’t ‘probably.’ [The] New Atheists aren’t claiming anything outrageous when they say there probably isn’t a God. … It’s as much a guess for them as it is for me.” 

Spufford continues, “No, the word that offends against realism here is enjoy. … Enjoyment is lovely. Enjoyment is great…. But enjoyment is one emotion.” He points out that the texture of our lives is such that sometimes we feel enjoyment, and sometimes we feel other things – “hope, boredom, curiosity, anxiety, irritation, fear,.… Life just isn’t unanimous.”  

And Spufford argues that this idea – that life, liberated from the presumed burdens of religious thinking, is simply to be enjoyed – this bit of “fluffy pretending” is not innocent, but deeply harmful.  He invites the reader to imagine different people watching that bus go by: A woman on her way home to her beloved partner who is all but lost to dementia, her weariness and grief and frustration. A young man gripped by profound congenital disability, fearful that cascading illness may take away the limited capacities he has. A woman in the grip of drug addiction, who recently tried to get clean, and failed, and hates herself. 

What does that bus sign say to them? “There’s probably no God. Stop worrying and enjoy your life.” It says, No help is coming. It says, Nobody cares. It says, You’re alone. Spufford writes, “St. Augustine called this kind of thing ‘cruel optimism’ fifteen hundred years ago, and it’s still cruel.” 

In contrast to the superficial cheer offered by the bus sign, Spufford writes, “A consolation you could believe in would be one that … didn’t depend on some more or less tacky fantasy about ourselves… A consolation you could trust would be one that acknowledged the difficult stuff rather than being in flight from it, and then found you grounds for hope in spite of it.”

Spufford goes on to talk about John Lennon, and Mozart, and to put some words around the More as he understands it: “I think the reason reality… is in some ultimate sense merciful…, is that the universe is sustained by a continual and infinitely patient act of love.” It really is a wonderful book. Let me know if you need me to buy you a copy. 

Is there More? Is there After? Is there Better? We’ll never be sure – not in this life. 

Spufford says, “I don’t know that any of it is true…. It isn’t the kind of thing you can know.” My friend and mentor Brooks Graebner said once, “We suffer from a perceptual deficit that causes us to mistake some of reality for all of reality.” Belief in More isn’t “fluffy pretending,” an escape from gritty reality; it’s a source of purpose and direction, courage and consolation, in the thick of it all. We show up here because we want to believe in the More.  We want to trust in it. And maybe, sometimes, we’ve felt glimmers of it. Seen a flash. Heard a whisper. 

It isn’t the kind of thing you can know – but it is possible to cultivate our openness to the More. Our capacity to feel, see, hear, smell, taste the traces of a Mercy, a Love, a Consolation, a Purpose beyond our daily living.

Beloveds, we are approaching Lent – a season in which Christians have often taken on a spiritual practice to draw us closer to God. Some small everyday commitment, a thing to do or not do, that helps us be more grounded, more mindful. Kinder. Simpler. Slower. 

Look back at our first two readings this morning – our Jeremiah text and our Psalm. There’s a superficial similarity: those trees planted by the water. But the Psalm does this thing that some of the Psalms do: It says that there are wicked people and good people. The good people thrive; the wicked people dry up and blow away. Spufford would say this assertion fails the reality test. 

Whereas what the prophet Jeremiah says is less moral judgment and more statement of fact: If you put your whole trust in human capacity, human strength, human intelligence, you’re going to come up short, sooner or later. Send out your roots towards the living water deep underground, the soil that stays moist even in drought, that will sustain you even in harsh seasons and dry times. You need to trust in something bigger. Something More. Something Beyond. What’s calling you as Lent approaches? Where is God inviting you into More? 


Book cited:

Francis Spufford, Unapologetic: Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense, Faber and Faber, 2012. All quotations from pages 7 – 20. 

Sermon, Feb. 10

Substitute Old Testament lesson: Tobit 6:1b – 9

The book of Tobit is part of the Apocrypha – a set of books in the Bible that were written later than the rest of the Old Testament, but just before the time of Jesus. Some churches treat them as part of the Old Testament; some don’t use them at all. We Anglicans have treated them as a sort of secondary Scripture, of some historical and theological meaning. Some of us here at St. Dunstan’s know the book of Tobit very well, because it was the core story for our Vacation Bible School back in 2016. We know that Tobit was a pious man, who took sacrifices to the Great Temple in Jerusalem even when all his neighbors had started worshiping other gods. We know that Tobit married a woman named Anna, and they had a son, Tobias. We know that when the Assyrian Army conquered the northern kingdom of Israel, this little family was taken into exile in the city of Nineveh in Assyria. 

It was a terrible time. Tobit’s family and the other Jewish exiles had lost everything, and Nineveh was a violent and heartless city. Often Tobit would find dead bodies in the street – people who had been killed by bandits or died of starvation. If the dead person was one of the people Israel, Tobit would take the body outside the city gates and bury them with prayers, according to the ways of the Jewish people. What he was doing was against the law, and risky; but Tobit was stubborn in offering that final dignity to his kinspeople. As little as his family had, they also gave food and clothing to those in worse circumstances. But then one day, through a tragic accident, Tobit became blind. He could no longer do good for his people, or even care for his own family. Anna had to work, so they could eat. 

In his grief, Tobit became bitter and angry. One day, in desperation, he prayed that God would free him from this life, because death would be better than this suffering: Blessed are You, O God of my ancestors! God, you are righteous and just in all that you do. Please, God, hear my prayer and be merciful to me. Remember me and set me free! 

Then there’s this wonderful split-screen moment, in this 2300-year-old text: JUST AS Tobit is praying for death to free him from suffering, so is a young woman named Sarah. Sarah is distant kin to Tobit; she lives in another city, with her parents. She has been married seven times, but each time, on her wedding night, a demon, Asmodeus, kills her new husband! People blame her for the deaths – and no future seems possible for her, especially in a time when family was a woman’s fulfillment. Sarah prays: God, I turn to you for help! Please hear my prayer and set me free from this terrible life!  

And Tobit’s prayers and Sarah’s prayers land on God’s desk in the same instant -and God says, I have an idea. We can fix both of these situation at once. God sends the Archangel Raphael, in disguise, to set the plan in motion. And… hijinks ensue, with young Tobias and Raphael, under the name Azariah, at the center of it all. I really can’t tell the whole story here but I hope you’ll go read it if you don’t already know it!

There are many Biblical names you might hesitate to bestow, if you actually read the stories attached to the names. But Tobias is not one of them. In the story, Tobias is plucky and good-hearted. He loves his family, but he’s up for adventures out in the world. And with Raphael’s help, he saves his father Tobit; restores the family fortunes; frees Sarah from bondage to the demon, with the help of fish guts; and of course, finds true love. We’re taking liberties with the lectionary this morning; the book of Tobit does not actually appear in the Sunday lectionary – but there IS a suggested Tobit reading in the marriage rite, Tobias and Sarah’s prayer on their wedding night: “Grant that we may find mercy and that we may grow old together.” Naturally, the story culminates with the mysteriously helpful companion Azariah revealing himself as the Archangel Raphael – who tells the family that it is God’s grace that has brought good out of their misfortunes, and charges them with blessing God and doing good for others, their whole lives long. 

I guess you could say the thread connecting the story of Tobit and Tobias with today’s Gospel is: God invites ordinary people on extraordinary journeys. 

In the other three Gospels, Jesus acquires disciples – this set of people who were his friends, followers and students – he acquires disciples by simply inviting people to follow him; and some of them do. It’s only Luke who fills out the story this way: Simon Peter, James and John have been fishing all night; they haven’t caught ANYTHING. The nets are empty. Then Jesus asks Simon to take him in his boat and take him just a little bit out from shore, so he can preach to the people without being crushed by the mob. Pretty clever! 

Simon’s fine with it; it’s not like he has fish to clean! But when Jesus finishes his speech, he has this dumb idea: Put out the nets, see if you catch anything. Simon says: “… If you say so.” And of course the nets come up so full that they’re breaking. Simon calls James and John to bring their boat, but there are so many fish the boats are nearly sinking. And it’s in this moment when it just becomes too much for Simon. He’s heard Jesus preach; he’s seen Jesus heal; and now – these fish – well, it’s terrific, of course, but it’s also almost insulting. Simon is a fisherman. He has a craft. He knows the right season and time of day, the right temperature in the air and color of the water, to maximize his catch; and Jesus comes along and says, You want fish? Here, have some fish. 

And Simon cracks. He falls to his knees among the fish in the bottom of the boat and says, Go away! This is too much for me! I’m a sinner! Which is to say, I’m ordinary! Let me stay ordinary! And Jesus says, Don’t be afraid. You’re coming with me, and you’re going to do new things. 

Don’t be afraid. In Tobit the refrain is, Take courage. People say that to each other over and over again: facing the bitter violence of the times, the uncertainty of the path ahead, demons to be vanquished, healing to be received: Take courage. Don’t be afraid. Such a little thing to say, but somehow it’s enough. Just as Tobias sets out on his journey, Simon, James and John set out on theirs, leaving boats, nets and fish alike on the shore, and following Jesus. 

Simon Peter’s holy adventure doesn’t, as far as we know, lead to true love or wealth. Tradition says he was crucified, like Jesus, his friend and Lord. On the other hand, he could have spent his whole life as a not-very-good fisherman, instead of becoming a revered saint and father of our faith. So. 

God invites ordinary people on extraordinary journeys – and it’s good to have companions on the road. Tobias has Azariah, the mysteriously knowledgeable gentleman with – are those wings, under his cloak? And Tobias and Azariah also have the comfort and companionship of the unnamed dog. 

Jesus’ disciples have each other – and Jesus has them. This is interesting: Luke puts this scene slightly later in his Gospel than the others. In Mark, Matthew and John, Jesus calls disciples to accompany him as soon as he begins his public ministry of preaching and healing. But in Luke, Jesus gives it a go on his own for a little while. Not long; but long enough to travel around a few villages, healing people and casting out demons and proclaiming God’s liberating love. And long enough that he’s starting to struggle with the overwhelming crowds that follow him and cling to him, won’t let him rest, won’t let him move on. 

THEN, already becoming famous, perhaps already becoming exhausted, Jesus calls his first disciples. I don’t know why Luke flips the story this way. Maybe he simply heard that that’s how it happened. But it does make me wonder if even Jesus, the Son of the Living God, fully divine as well as fully human, needed some friends. 

He needed people to walk with on the long dusty roads of Judea. To relax with in the evenings, to laugh over the awkward moments and unpack the hard ones. To tell the crowds to leave him alone, now and then, so he could pray, and sleep, and maybe take a shower. So he asks Peter to join him. And John. And James. And the rest. 

God invites ordinary people on extraordinary journeys – and it’s good to have companions on the road. Today we will  baptize a baby boy named Tobias.  These stories can direct our prayers for Toby, for all the young ones we are raising in this faith community and the not-so-young ones too: May Toby, may all of us, come face to face with something important, something that calls us with urgency; and may we have the courage and curiosity to answer the call. May Toby, may all of us, set our feet to the path on which our own hopes intersect with God’s purposes, for us and for others through us. May Toby, may all of us, have companions for the hard stuff, and the fun stuff too. May we have enough; may we find love; may we be guided by angels in disguise. 

In the book of Tobit, Sarah’s father prays for the young couple with gratitude and hope: ‘Blessed are you, O God, with every pure blessing; let all your chosen ones bless you for ever. Blessed are you because you have made me glad. It has not turned out as I expected, but you have dealt with us according to your great mercy. Blessed are you because you had compassion on these beloved children. Be merciful to them, O Master, and keep them safe; bring their lives to fulfilment in happiness and mercy.’  Amen.

(Tobit 8:15-17)

Sermon, Feb. 3

I’d like to ask the kids in the room to listen up. I’m going to read you something, and then I want to know what you think about it. Listen:  “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.” How does that make you feel? … 

Okay, now I’m going to read you something else. These words come from the great prophet Jeremiah. He says, “The Word of God came to me saying, “Before you were born I set you apart for a special call: I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Then I said, “Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But GOD said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Don’t be afraid of them, for I am with you.”  How does that make you feel? … 

Thank you so much for listening and sharing your thoughts! I’m going to keep talking now, the way that grownups do. Carry on coloring or drawing – I hope you’ll show me your work, later. 

Here’s what I notice about these readings. Paul isn’t actually talking about growing up, here. He’s talking about how we’re only able to see a little bit of God’s greater purposes, and we do not understand the unfolding of the reign of God. So we do best when we simply steer by Love, because that will always lead us true.

Paul is using growing up as a metaphor – saying that now we have a limited, “childlike” understanding of God and the cosmos, but one day we will understand fully – all those great mysteries will be opened to us. So he’s saying some wonderful and important things in this passage. But in the process, he reveals that he thinks kids’ words and thoughts are definitely second-best. I guess he’s forgotten the time when Jesus picked up a little child, and said to his friends, “Listen, unless you all change and become like little children, you’re never going to find your way into the Kingdom of Heaven.” 

On the other hand, we have young Jeremiah. This was our assigned Old Testament lesson today; we shared the Candlemas story instead. But I just told you most of it. Jeremiah was a boy when he was called as a prophet. And he says, God, I don’t know how to talk to important people! I’m just a kid! And God says, Don’t say, I’m just a kid! You can do this. I’ll be with you. 

Our Gospel story is kind of related to that Jeremiah story. Jesus – who is a grownup at this point – is beginning his public ministry. It’s a really important moment. He goes back to his hometown, Nazareth, where he was brought up. He goes to the synagogue, the local house of worship, where people read Scripture and talk about what it means together. And he reads these words from the prophet Isaiah, saying that he has been anointed to begin God’s great work of healing and redemption! And everyone’s staring at him wide-eyed, they’re really impressed; but what are they saying to each other?  “Isn’t this Joseph’s boy?”

They like what he’s saying, but they’re having a hard time taking him seriously, because they remember him as a child. They think he’s getting above his raising, for one thing. But also, a lot of people, if they knew someone as a child, have a hard time seeing them as a grown-up. How many of us have gone back to where we came from, one way or another, and found that the older generation there still thinks of us as who we were when we were six or ten or sixteen? They still see you as a child; and they don’t take you seriously, because we don’t take children seriously. 

We have this idea that kids’ words and thoughts are not as good, not as important, not as sophisticated. That grownup ways of doing things as better and more important. Jeremiah thought that. Who told him that kids can’t do God’s work? The grownups in his life, that’s who. And Paul thought it too. “I used to think like a child, but then I grew up and put away childish ways!” And we still think this. Our kids get this message over and over again. I would say that in the 21st century, we take kids more seriously than many previous generations of humanity did – but we still don’t take them all that seriously. If you raised your kids in an earlier generation, you might feel like kids today have the world revolving around them. But I promise you, these kids all know what it feels like to have their words and needs not listened to – not believed – even laughed at – because they’re just kids, and the grownups know better. 

 Paul is right in a way: kids are different from grownups. Kids are not short adults. Kids bring different ideas, perspectives, and needs; and of course kids aren’t all alike – different kids, and different ages of kids, have their own ways of being and thinking and participating. We’ve tried just inviting kids to be part of what the grownups like to do – churches have been trying that for generations, and it doesn’t work terribly well! (A friend once told me, Grownups like to sit around and talk about stuff; they should be in Sunday school. Kids like to march around, play with fire, tell stories, and sing – they should be in church!) 

Kids’ voices, kids’ calls, kids’ prayers, kids’ contributions may be different from those of grownups. It would be silly to expect them to be the same. Of course part of what’s different is that we learn and grow. As we get older, we have life experiences, we meet more kinds of people, we encounter different ideas, we reflect on it all; and our understanding of the world gets bigger and more complex. (Ideally!) But there’s something about the freedom and clarity and playfulness and truth of young minds that don’t have all that grownup stuff muddying them up yet – I think that’s why Jesus told his friends they needed to think more like little kids. 

So: Sure, kids are kids. They haven’t seen or read or done or thought about as much stuff as your average grownup has, yet. And: God can absolutely work in them and through them. God can absolutely strengthen and guide our fellowship of faith, though the presence and ministry of our kids. God can absolutely have a word for us grownup types, though the voices of our children. Liturgical scholar Louis Weil writes this about why kids belong in church: “It is not only that the child changes by being brought into the community of faith, but that the community itself changes as the mystery of another believer’s life unfolds in the context of community.” (Children at Worship, Congregations in Bloom, xi) And Sylvia Mutia-Miller, one of the wisest voices in the Episcopal Church on kids’ belonging in church, says that adults don’t often anticipate mutuality in relationships with kids. 

We expect those relationships to be one directional – grownups helping or teaching kids, and kids receiving. But, she says: The Spirit calls together intergenerational communities because we have gifts for each other. 

I’m not talking about romanticizing or idealizing kids. Yes, they say cute stuff and funny stuff sometimes. But kids’ dignity is important to them; they don’t want to be seen as just cute and funny. I’m talking about hearing and receiving kids’ questions, hopes, ideas, needs, and yes, sometimes, their prophetic words. 

And I’m not talking about privileging kids over adults. I know sometimes it probably feels that way – we are so used to adults being at the center of church life, and kids being off to the side somewhere, that moving kids towards the center – not TO the center, not even close, but closer – moving kids towards the center, naming them as full members of our faith community, can feel like adults are losing something. If you feel that now and then, dear ones, I ask you to try to trust that instead, we are gaining something. And bear in mind that as of right now, I believe *one* of our church committees has a kid member. Nearly every decision made in the life of this parish is made with little or no input from our 18 and younger population. I hope we’ll reexamine that together in the months ahead. Because that is what I’m talking about: Not putting kids and youth at the top of the ladder, but bringing them to their rightful place at the table, alongside the grownups. 

And let me be clear – I’ve said this before, but I think it bears repeating – that making space for kids and youth to be fully heard and fully included makes more space for many grownups, too. Here are some notable things about kids: Kids are open with their questions; they’re upfront with what they like and what they don’t; if they wonder what we’re doing or why things are the way they are, they’ll speak up about it; they usually let you know when they’re upset, and they bring their whole selves to whatever they do. 

Well: A lot Episcopal churches have a culture in which people don’t ask questions, at least not the real ones; pretend they know what’s going on even if they don’t; sure as heck don’t let people know if they’re upset;  and bring only the respectable, well-dressed, together parts of themselves to church. But kids are not the only ones who sometimes feel like they don’t have much to offer, or that they’re only welcome if they act like everybody else.

So, grownup friends in Christ, what if welcoming and including kids helps us welcome and include each other – and even ourselves! – as people who have questions! As people who have likes and dislikes, hopes and fears!  As people who wonder why things are the way they are! As people who hurt. As people who need to be able to wear their whole selves in public – here, if nowhere else in your life! – within the safety of a community of mutual flourishing and holy friendship, in which together we seek to be transformed and empowered by that Love that is patient and kind; that is never envious, or arrogant, or rude; that does not insist on its own way, and is not irritable or resentful; that never rejoices in another’s failure or misfortune. That Love that bears all things; believes all things;  hopes all things;  endures all things… and never, never ends. 

Sabbatical report, January 2019

Prepared for our Parish Annual Meeting, Sunday, January 20, 2019. 

2018 was quite a year, friends. I just want to say a few words about our OTHER big accomplishment of the year, besides a successful capital campaign:  having your rector go on sabbatical, and handling that really well. Other clergy ask me, “How was re-entry?” And I say, “It was amazing! They really did a great job!” And it’s true. There were no hot potatoes that someone was desperate to hand off to me. I was able to take my time getting up to speed and reconnecting. I’m so grateful. 

Special thanks go out to Deanna and Claudia, for working closely with Father Jonathan to keep our liturgical life running smoothly; Sharon, Krissy, and SO many others for planning and leading the many intergenerational renewal programs during my absence; Shirley, Michelle, Val, and Gloria, our wardens & treasurers, for keeping steady hands on the helm, & Sarah Stender, for getting our annual pledge drive off the ground. And to Tom, John, and Laura, for support with pastoral care. I’m always terrified of listing names, for fear I’ll forget someone who did important work. In my defense, in this case, I’m talking about stuff that happened when I was not actually here! But I know so many of you did so much while I was away, to participate in the renewal events and to help keep normal church stuff rolling along. Thank you. 

If you haven’t heard much about what I did or what the parish did, or want a refresher, I commend to you both my report on my sabbatical focused on intergenerational worship, and the report Sharon Henes wrote about the parish’s activities, which are on our website under the “Fellowship & Learning” tab. If reading on the website is a hardship, we can absolutely print them out for you. 

So what next? How will these ideas and directions continue in our parish life? Well, in worship, we’re trying a lot of little things and a few medium-sized things (like the new tables at the front of the church for older kids) to help shift the question, as Caroline Fairless puts it, from “Can the kids sit through this?” to, “How could we do this so it’s engaging and meaningful?” A next step will be gathering some folks to talk about roles in our liturgy. What do people do now as part of our liturgy (like acolytes, ushers, MCs), and are there ways to increase opportunities for participation? The gift-noticing we’re doing this Epiphany may help feed that conversation. 

We are also practicing noticing and reflecting on what happens in worship, via email, after every Sunday morning. Those “What did you notice?” emails go out to people who prepared and led worship, but if you notice something and want to share it, you can always email me. 

Outside of worship, we plan to continue regular intergenerational gatherings, including looking for ways things we already do could be more intentionally intergenerational. And of course, there are much larger questions about what it means to be an intergenerational church. Right now I and others are pretty busy with the final development of renovation plans, but when that eases off a little, it may be time for us to call a working group to assess, reflect, and imagine together. If that’s something you’d like to be part of, talk to me; to senior warden Krissy Mayer; or to Christian Formation coordinator Sharon Henes!

Thank you, each and all!


Sermon, Jan. 20

Every year, in preparation for Annual Meeting Sunday, I undertake the daring feat of trying to write something that is both a sermon AND a “state of the parish” address, of sorts. It works better some years than others. Last year the Lectionary handed me a terrific Epistle about holding the present lightly, so that we’re more able to welcome the future. That was easy to preach. 

This year… we have these beautiful texts of reassurance. A prophet tells God’s people in exile, You shall no more be called Forsaken or Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight is in Her, and your God shall rejoice over you. The Psalmist sings, How precious is your steadfast love, O God! All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings. Paul writes to the church in Corinth to say: God has gifts for each of you, by the power of the Holy Spirit; and those gifts all work together to help the fellowship of the faithful fulfill God’s intentions. And this Gospel – a story about God’s unlimited bounty. 

These are all wonderful words… But I could not find traction to preach about them. Yes, God loves us, and everything will ultimately be fine. I know all that. Most of the time. But, y’all, those words weren’t meeting me where I was. And I try really hard to start my sermons from the place where the texts are speaking truth to me, so that I can speak to you with authenticity. 

And then I read a sermon on this Gospel – by the Rev. Anne Sutherland Howard – that honed in on one of the emotional notes of this Gospel story: Anxiety. Howard begins, “’They have no wine.’ I hear a question in Mary’s voice as she points out to her son Jesus that the wedding guests have run out of wine. I hear a question that I carry deep within myself, a question familiar to many of us:  Will I have enough? Are we running out? Are we rich enough? Safe enough? Good enough? Will we go over the budget?  Can we put dinner on the table and keep the wolf from the door?” (

Think about the steward – the headwaiter – at the beginning of this story. It’s his job to keep food on the trays and wine in the cups. He’s been watching helplessly as the wine supply gets lower and lower. You can’t just TELL people to go home. Maybe they’re running short because Mary’s oldest brought all his weird scruffy friends with him, and boy, can they put it away. 

Regardless: This is a terrible situation for the steward. Any time you’re offering hospitality, you want there to be enough. More than enough: PLENTY. Both so that the guests feel welcomed and enjoy themselves – and so you come off looking good. There’s honor at stake. You don’t want to come up short. People might talk about what lousy hosts you are. People might not come, next time you invite them. People might even go online and write you a bad review. Worst of all, people who need what you offer might look around and think, There’s nothing for me here – and walk back out the door. 

Anxiety: Is there ENOUGH? In that question, this Gospel finally met me where I am. But before I talk about that, let me lay a little church growth theory on you. If you have ever read a book written by a church growth consultant, you’ll find lots of diagrams and charts and magic numbers. I take all that with a substantial grain of salt. But there is something to the notion that a church with fifty regularly-participating households, functions differently from a church with a hundred regularly-participating households. 

The church growth literature has names for churches of different sizes, based on the ways they tend to function. Churches of about our size or somewhat smaller are called pastoral-sized churches. They are fundamentally pastor-centered. People belong because they like the pastor, and they may leave because they don’t like the pastor. People expect to have a direct relationship with the pastor – and the pastor expects that too, expects to know everybody and more or less know what’s going on with everybody.  The pastor is also the information hub: if you want to know what’s going on or who’s doing what, you ask the pastor. Everybody doesn’t know everybody – that would be a family-sized church, the smallest size category – but everybody knows somebody who knows somebody. 

Churches of about our size or somewhat bigger, on the other hand, are called program-sized churches. They have a diversity of church programs, run by staff or volunteers so committed that they function like staff. Program-sized churches are big enough to have multiple social networks within the church. Alice Mann writes, “[The] larger and more diverse membership will contain a ‘critical mass’ of people from several different age and interest groups… This substantial presence of varied populations stimulates creative ministry.” (The In-Between Church, p. 5) And in a program-sized church, people’s primary connection to the church may be through a program or peer groups – rather than the pastor. The pastor is less central to parish activities, and might not know everybody. 

I don’t know about you, but I see elements of each of those categories in our current common life at St. Dunstan’s. The book I just quoted is called “The In-Between Church,” and I think we’re in an in-between zone. I think we have been for several years. In my annual meeting address for January 2013, when I’d been rector here almost exactly two years, I said that St. Dunstan’s was a pastoral-sized parish. Period. I think that was true at the time. I don’t think it’s true anymore. 

Church growth in the 21st century is tricky because the way we used to measure it doesn’t work very well anymore. The standard metric used to be Average Sunday Attendance – ASA.You knew you were growing because your ASA went up by 10, or 50. ASA still tells us something, but it’s less useful as a core metric, because the ways people participate in churches have changed. This is large-scale stuff, not specific to St. Dunstan’s. For many people, regular attendance now means 2 – 3 times a month, which can tilt ASA downward even as new members tilt it upwards, because math. And people are more likely to connect and participate in non-Sunday morning ways, which ASA does not capture. 

Our ASA has gone up somewhat since 2011. But that number doesn’t really reflect how many new people and households have become part of St. Dunstan’s in the past few years. My first year here, one member told me that she’d been here ten years and was still seen as “new.” That same person definitely counts as a long-time member, now. 

Our capital campaign last year, and the resulting renovation that’s going to dominate our life this year, are symptoms of that growth. We might not have ten kids in a Sunday school class EVERY Sunday, but we have ten kids in a Sunday school class SOME Sundays, and we need space – in our classrooms, our gathering area, our kitchen, all over! 

So here’s the thing: This in-between zone is hard. The consultants say so, and I think they’re spot on, because I’ve lived it, both here and elsewhere. I mentioned that St. Dunstan’s was a pastoral-sized parish in my first years here, but five years earlier, parish leaders were preparing for a possible transition to program size. It’s quite common for congregations to plateau, or go up and down in this in-between zone, for a number of years. Because it’s demanding to break through and develop the necessary new patterns and new culture to become stable at a new size.

The in-between zone is also called the stretch zone, because, well, it’s a stretch. In lots of ways. It demands both rethinking and restructuring. It’s the reason a smart pastor – smarter than me, probably – will be cautious about holding up church growth as an unambiguous good, because growth does not feel good to everybody, or all the time. Growth means real changes, both subtle and obvious, and change is demanding. 

In the stretch zone, some things tend to be stretched thin. Gary McIntosh, who’s written about this, says leadership, facilities, and finances can all be stretched.  We’ve got a plan to address the stretch in our facilities – we start knocking holes in the walls right after Easter! – but those other stretches are real, and we’re feeling them. 

Stretches in congregational and ministry leadership happen because there’s more going on, and more people to engage and incorporate. But newer members may not yet feel read to step into ministry or leadership roles, OR may be looking for something else from church than the opportunity to serve on a committee! We end up with a choice between asking the people in leadership already to serve longer and do more; or letting there be vacancies sometimes and seeing what happens. Here’s what that looks like right now: We have a couple of empty slots for our Vestry, our church board. Thing is, we’ve actually had a great Vestry recruitment season. We’ve had terrific conversations with a bunch of people about what it means to serve on vestry, and what we think they’d bring to that work, and a bunch of people said, That sounds great; ask me next year! So rather than twist arms, we’re sitting with some empty spots. And we are not going to try to fill them today.  Our vestry is an amazing body; it does important work and it does it well; and it’s too important for people to make snap decisions about joining it. I hope that a couple of you out there are thinking, Hey, maybe I should give Vestry a try. We want to hear from you! We do need to fill those slots! But we want that to be a process of conversation and discernment, not just a raised hand and a quick vote. We’re in the stretch zone, and we’re feeling it – but we’ll come through it better if we breathe, and trust. God’s right here with us. 

By the same token, stretches in our finances happen because we’re doing more, with more people. We see that in the parts of our budget that increase as we increase: things like kitchen supplies, youth group budget, and photocopying. This year, we’ll be adding some new expenses as we bring our second building back into use, because we need the space. And our diocesan assessment, the portion we give to the larger church, goes up as our budget goes up, just like income taxes. The upshot of all that is that our 2019 budget shows a small deficit – our first deficit budget since 2013. The deficit is around $6000, less than 2% of our total budget. Now, I hasten to say that the vast majority of our regular pledgers and givers have continued to be incredibly generous and faithful in your financial support. Many of you increased your pledges this year, even as you also made commitments to our capital campaign. Your Vestry and your Finance Committee see this small deficit not as a red flag, but as perhaps a symptom of some factors far outside our control, like new tax laws and stock market instability; and we also see it as a – very predictable! – symptom of being in the stretch zone. 

The good news is that our parish financial situation is not dire; we don’t need to panic or make sharp cuts that might starve growing ministries. We often get pledges during the course of the year, as new members decide they want to commit to helping sustain our common life. We commit to be watchful and transparent about our finances this year – as we always are! – and see how things go. We’re in the stretch zone, and we’re feeling it – but we’ll come through it better if we breathe, and trust. God’s right here with us. 

Anxiety – will there be ENOUGH? Stretched leadership and stretched finances demand my attentiveness and my prayers. But I’m not actually anxious about those things. I’ve seen God, and this church, do much bigger miracles before. Where anxiety gets traction for me is whether there’s enough me. While refreshing my memory of the church growth literature, I opened a blog post that began like this: 

“If you are sole pastor and your congregation [is moving towards program size], you probably already feel pretty stretched by:

  • Keeping up with non-crisis visitation and counseling
  • Tracking visitors and incorporating new members
  • Providing leadership for adult classes, groups, and committees
  • Managing clashing expectations [among members]
  • Stepping up to more complex processes for planning and communication.”

And I thought, Yeah. Pastoring a pastoral-size church is different from pastoring a program-sized church. We’re a little of both right now, and it’s stretching me. I have some learning and growing to do. And some letting go. Y’all did a terrific job caring for each other and making church and deepening relationships during my sabbatical last fall, a wonderful opportunity to discover that St. Dunstan’s is not as pastor-centered as we thought. It gives me so much joy when someone brings me an idea and says, We’d like to do this. OK? Unless there’s serious clash of calendar or theology, I’m going to say, GREAT! What do you need? 

I’ll probably always do a lot because, guys, I like my job, but over the years I’ve been able to move more and more towards doing stuff that’s exciting and rewarding for me, instead of stuff that has to happen because That’s What Churches Do. I’m overwhelmingly grateful for our staff and for the volunteers that function like staff, whose skill and commitment mean we can offer ministries and opportunities far beyond the limits of our budget or your pastor’s time. But it’s true that my role in the parish has changed, and is changing. It’s good. But it’s a stretch, and sometimes I feel it. 

It’s hard for me to release the idea that I’m going to know everybody. What’s going on with your job and your family and your spiritual life. I never really did, but I thought maybe I could; and these days when I look out at all of your faces, I know we’re not that kind of church anymore. I’m not going to be able to have a meaningful coffee date with everyone in the directory on a regular basis. I’m going to have to trust y’all to have meaningful coffee dates with each other. And you do, and I love that so much! 

If you’ve ever seen my desk, you know I’ve got a lot of quotations and prayers posted around it so that when my eyes wander from my computer screen, they land on something helpful. One of them has these words from a mentor, Dwight Zscheile – “Clergypersons must ask themselves, What am I doing that someone else can do, so that I can be freed up to do what God needs me particularly to do in this place?” (People of the Way, p. 124) It’s a heck of a good question, and one that’s particularly important for me to sit with, in this in-between season, this stretch zone. 

Being in-between is uncomfortable for churches. We have two choices, friends: we can lean into the stretch – trust God, trust each other, and see what happens – OR we could stop growing. Show enough inhospitality that new people stop showing up, and ideally start a big fight about something, so that some folks leave and the church can be a more comfortable size again. That’s actually a pretty common path churches take, friends.But it’s not the one I hope we’ll chose together. I hope that when we’re tempted to ask ourselves or one another that anxious question, “Will there be enough?”, we’ll be able to trust in God’s power and God’s abundance. 180 gallons is a LOT of wine, y’all.

In our Gospel story, the steward’s anxiety is relieved; the party is a resounding success. There is enough. Why? Because somebody shared their gifts. Somebody at the party had a skill that could fix the problem. It’s miraculous, because it’s Jesus – but it also happens all the time. Just like in today’s Epistle – Now, there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; there are varieties of activities, but one God who activates them in everyone, as manifestations of the Spirit for the common good. I love the awkward syntax there – the Greek word is energeo, energy! There are many energies among us, all energized by the Spirit of God.

Paul lists some possibilities – miracles, prophesies, wisdom, healing – but I’ve seen some others: To one is given the ability to build a whale out of PVC pipe; to another the willingness to bake cookies for the youth group; to another the skill to keep the white robes white; to yet another the capacity to sort the markers – a Herculean task. 

My trust in our future together is founded on God’s faithfulness and your giftedness.You have all kinds of things you’re good at, or enjoy doing – charisms, gifts given for a purpose, with God as the energizing power. Maybe you can’t name yours yet, and need friends to help. Maybe you know your gifts, but haven’t spotted where they could be useful here – or, like Jesus, you’re thinking, “What does this have to do with me?” In the weeks ahead, as part of our lean into what’s already happening among us, I’m inviting us to reflect on our gifts and skills. This box will be in the Gathering Area – it’s empty, so far! 

Next to it will be these slips. One is for sharing something YOU’RE good at or enjoy doing, that you’d be interested in bringing to our common life here. And one is for naming a gift or skill you see in somebody else here, adults or kids.  Because it’s really important to call forth each other’s gifts. I encourage everyone to take at least one of each, and do some thinking and some noticing in the weeks ahead. When you’ve got something to say, fill them out and put them in the box! I PROMISE you that I am not going to go through this box and assign people to ministries. Pinky swear. But these little slips of paper, taken all together, might point us in some new directions in our common life. Some new ways to use the gifts you bring, for the common good. 

For the common good: Symphero, in Greek – a word that can mean, To carry each other; to endure hard things together; to move forward as one. May it be so. 

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 being 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 the One 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.

(Book of Common Prayer, p. 291)

Sermon, Jan. 13

Did you notice that today’s text from the Acts of the Apostles felt kind of like one short paragraph cut out of a newspaper story? A tiny slice of events, leaving you wondering how we got here and why it matters? Well – you know me; I always like to give you the whole story.

This story begins with a disciple named Philip. A couple of chapters ago, the Twelve Apostles decided they needed some help. The Christian community was growing. One part of their ministry was sharing food with those in need – and there were arguments about whether food was being distributed fairly. So the Twelve got everyone together and said, “Listen, our mission is too important for us to spend our time waiting tables.” (Chapter 6, verse 2; I wish I was making it up.) So the group selects seven men to be in charge of distributing food: Philip, Stephen, and five others. They are set apart with prayer and the laying on of hands – what we could call ordination. Luke doesn’t use the word, but the Church soon began to name this role as deacon – one ordained to stand where church meets world. 

The deacons were supposed to run the food pantry while the Twelve Apostles focused on the Word of God. But the Holy Spirit had other plans. First, Stephen the deacon, full of grace and power, preaches the Word so well that he gets arrested. At his trial, he gives an inspired account of the Gospel, and is condemned to death by stoning – the first Christian martyr.  A time of fierce persecution of Christians in Jerusalem begins – and another deacon, Philip, flees to Samaria, to proclaim the Gospel there. 

Samaria was a region just north of Judea. Its people, the Samaritans, shared common ancestry and holy texts with the Jews of Judea, but understood and practiced their faith very differently. And by the narcissism of small differences, the Jews of Judea thought very poorly of the Samaritans, and the Samaritans though pretty poorly of the Jews. If you’ve ever heard a sermon or Sunday school lesson on the parable of the Good Samaritan, you’ve heard about all this. That parable comes to us from Luke, who also wrote the book of Acts; Luke was keenly aware of the Samaritans as people his original audience loved to hate, but among whom God was nonetheless at work. 

So Philip preaches about Jesus in Samaria – and people listen eagerly. And by the grace and power of God, amazing things start to happen. Those beset by evil spirits or illness find freedom and health. So there is great joy in the city! And many people believed what Philip told them – the good news that we are not forsaken, that God is with us and for us, and that we know the face of this Presence in Jesus Christ* – many people believed, and were baptized in the name of Jesus. 

Now, in that city was a certain man named Simon. Simon was a Samaritan; and he was a magician. Someone who used trickery, patter and sleight of hand to amaze and confound. Simon has no real power, as Luke sees it; he’s a trickster, a fraud.  The word for “magic” here is just, well, magic – mageia. It’s a form of the same word Matthew uses for the Wise Men who visit the infant Jesus – but while those were noble Eastern astrologer-wizards, Simon is just a commonplace charlatan. 

He’s got a pretty good thing going, before Philip shows up. For a long time he has amazed people with his magic, and they listen to him eagerly, because they believe he has some kind of power. He calls himself Simon the Great, and they swallow it, hook, line, and sinker – they tell each other, “This man is rightly called the Great Power of God!”

But Simon doesn’t really have God’s power. Philip does. And Simon can see right away that Philip has him beat.  The crowds turn towards Philip, whose amazing deeds don’t just dazzle their eyes, but restore their hearts. And Simon, too, believes in Philip’s message. He is baptized, and follows Philip around constantly. Luke says, The one who once amazed crowds is now himself amazed by the signs and miracles he observes. And Luke doesn’t say it in so many words, but Simon is probably also closely observing Philip’s technique – trying to figure out how exactly this stranger commands the power to do these things. 

Now, word gets back to the Twelve Apostles in Jerusalem that folks in Samaria are turning to Jesus. And Peter and John, the two great leaders of the early Church, set out for Samaria to see what’s going on. They meet with the Samaritan Christians – and they learn that while many have been baptized in the name of Jesus, they have not yet received the Holy Spirit. Now, this is a bit of an odd thing; generally the Christian Scriptures and the church understand Christian baptism to be all one thing, water and the Holy Spirit together in one sacrament. But in this instance, the Holy Spirit is given in a sort of second baptism. There are various theories to explain the anomaly. Maybe Philip – who, after all, was ordained to hand out bread – hadn’t yet learned the fullness of what he could offer, in baptism. Maybe the gulf between Jews and Samaritans was so great that Peter and John, men of indisputable authority, needed to show up in order to put the stamp of legitimacy on Philip’s mission. 

Regardless: Peter and John see that God is at work here, though Philip. They pray for the new believers, and ask that they may receive the Holy Spirit; then they lay their hands upon them, and the Holy Spirit comes. I wish I knew what that looked like – what that sounded like. Hundreds of people gathered, men, women, and children… did they line up and come before the great Apostles one by one, or did Peter and John walk among them, touching each head with loving intent? And how could they tell that the Spirit was moving among them? Did people weep and sing? Dance and shout? Give and forgive? Fall to their knees under the holy weight of divine belovedness? 

 Whatever happened – it impressed the heck out of Simon. Here, he sees plainly, is true greatness. After things had settled down, when he could approach the Apostles privately, he went up to them and offered them money, saying, “Give me this power also, so that I can lay hands on anyone and they will receive the Holy Spirit.” 

I feel sorry for Simon. He genuinely doesn’t know any better. He’s gotten this far in life through skill, bombast, and luck. In his line of work, you’re always banking on people’s credulity, and always fearful someone will ask the wrong question, or spot you slipping the marked card into the deck. People were not more gullible back in Simon’s time; trickery and fraud were well-known in the ancient world. If you want people to keep dropping coins in your hat, you have to either keep going bigger, or keep moving on before your tricks become old news – or a more impressive act comes to town. Simon knows he’s been bested – and he respects the power he sees at work. As a fake, he’s uniquely qualified to spot what’s real. And it makes perfect sense – from his standpoint – to offer money for access to this power. Magicians today still sell access to the mechanics of their tricks – the ones they’re willing to give away. 

Maybe Philip, who’d gotten to know Simon, would have answered more kindly; but Peter is furious. He says, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain God’s gift with money! You have no part or share in this, for your heart is not right before God. Repent of this wickedness, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the chains of wickedness.’ 

In his anger, Peter shows that he is quite clear about something the church has sometimes forgotten in the subsequent millennia: The Power, the Presence that hovers low over the font in baptism is not ours to command. All we can do is ask nicely – as Peter and John did when they asked the Holy Spirit to come to the new believers of Samaria. Peter tells Simon, This power isn’t OURS. I couldn’t sell it if I wanted to, because I don’t OWN it. 

Poor Simon! He says, “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may happen to me.” Then Peter and John go home, and Philip is called away to the Gaza road, where he will soon meet an Ethiopian court official. We get no resolution to Simon’s story – but I think it points in a hopeful direction. He wants to understand, to become part of what God is doing. I choose to believe that Simon’s heart was changed that day. That he made his fame, eloquence and skill available to God’s purposes from that day forward. That he sought to offer people truth instead of trickery, healing instead of humbug. 

Simon is struggling with a question that Christians still wonder about: What is baptism for? He sees it initially through the limited lens of his livelihood: Wow, this is impressive! This really draws the crowds! And he’s naturally drawn to the idea of *real* supernatural power that can actually change things… It would come in handy to be able to heal people, cast out spirits. You’d be set for life if you could do that, and people would REALLY call you Great. 

The church is prone to a misunderstanding – or limited understanding – similar to Simon’s: Thinking that the divine power present in the sacrament of baptism, the power Simon longs to be able to call or compel, is given for individual benefit – of the one baptized, and/or of the person authorized to offer baptism. 

While Simon longs for true and lasting greatness, we have more modest hopes and expectations of the fruits of this sacrament for the one to be baptized: A profound, mysterious, and indissoluble connection to God; a fundamental membership in Christ’s body the Church, with all rights and privileges appertaining thereunto; the gifts of the Holy Spirit made available as a birthright of faith. These are real and undeniable blessings for the one baptized and their family, and for the church gathered to celebrate and welcome. 

But baptism isn’t just for us. It’s for others – through us. This whole story is set in motion because God’s grace is at work in Samaria through Philip. Through God’s power manifest in his preaching the good news of God’s love made known to us through Jesus Christ; in the driving out of evil spirits, in healing and curing, and in the bubbling up of a great civic joy. Philip’s ministry reminds us that our baptism is about belonging to a power that works through us for good, to save and heal, comfort and encourage, restore and reconcile. He shows us life as a servant of that Power, listening for God’s word and following God’s nudges: Go there. Speak now. Reach out to her. Ask him what he’s reading. 

Baptism is not about a power we can use or direct. It’s about a Power that can direct and use us. 

Dorothea Mae, we baptize you with earnest prayers for your wellbeing and your flourishing. We long for God’s grace to bless and sustain you, as you grow. But we baptize you not for your greatness but for God’s; not for your good only, but for the good of the world God longs to redeem. Dorothea, we name you Gift of God, and we baptize you into a life of availability to larger purposes and greater goods than we can see or imagine. We baptize you to love others in the power of the Spirit, whose gracious Presence in our rite today will do what our words can only invite; and we send you into the world in witness to God’s love. 

Sermon, Jan. 6

Today’s Gospel – the Epiphany Gospel – isn’t telling us the full story. It ends on a cheerful note:  The Wise Ones honor the infant Jesus and give him rich and meaningful gifts. Then they return home by another road, evading King Herod’s evil intentions. All’s well that ends well, right? But that’s not actually where this part of the story ends. The story stops here, in our lectionary, because the next part of the story has its own day, the Feast of the Holy Innocents, on December 28; and because the church wants the Epiphany story to be a joyful story. To inaugurate this new season with themes of journey and discovery, light and gift. 

But it’s all one story, the Wise Ones and the Holy Innocents; so listen to what happens next, according to Matthew. After the Wise Men had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for King Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’  Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod… When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was furious, and he sent soldiers and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.’

You may be relieved to know there’s a good chance this didn’t really happen. This King Herod – a different Herod than the one in the Easter stories – did some terrible things, including killing his own grownup children for fear they were plotting against him. But no other ancient text describes an incident like this, with Herod’s soldiers killing children. This is probably a part of Matthew’s Gospel, Matthew’s account of Jesus, where Matthew is trying to show us something about Jesus, rather than tell us history as we understand it.

So what is Matthew trying to show us, with this sad, scary story? Well – a couple of things, I think. He wants to show us that God in Jesus Christ didn’t just become human; he became vulnerable. Fragile. At risk. Like any child; and especially like any poor child in a place ruled by oppression. And he wants to show us that Jesus was born to lead people out of oppression – like Moses, the great hero of the Jewish people. This story might remind you of another story, about Moses as a baby. Do you remember it? It begins like this: “Now a new king arose over Egypt, and he said to his people, ‘Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we….’” Then what happened? … 

So that ancient story about Pharaoh killing all the Israelite babies has a lot in common with this story about Herod and the babies in Bethlehem, doesn’t it?Moses, Israel’s great liberator and prophet, was once a baby who barely escaped the callous, cruel, child-killing politics of his time. And Jesus, our great liberator, prophet, and savior, was once a baby who barely escaped the callous, cruel, child-killing politics of his time. These are both stories about children at risk; about bad and fearful kings; and about brave and loving parents. 

They are also both stories about failure. About communities that failed. Neighbors and bystanders who failed. Leaders who failed. Failure is a harsh word, but think about it: By the time a child’s parent is the only one looking out for its safety, so much has gone wrong.  So many people have stepped back, looked away, chosen not to get involved. If nothing else – if NOTHING else – the whole architecture of our common way of life should protect children and give them the opportunity to grow and flourish. There is ALWAYS a better option than letting the bad guys hurt the children. Even if you feel helpless. Even if it’s dangerous. Whether it’s people in uniforms with swords or guns, or people in suits making decisions in boardrooms or legislative chambers, there is ALWAYS a better option than letting the bad guys hurt the children.

So… We’re baptizing a child, today. One of the church’s greatest occasions; one of my greatest privileges. There’s a lot to say about baptism; and I’ll get to say a little more next week, when we have another one! But as we dwell with the Epiphany Gospel, the whole story – one thing baptism should mean is that we promise never to leave Charlotte alone. We promise never to leave her parents and sister alone. We promise that when this child needs us, we’ll be there, a family of faith. As Gretchen Wolff Pritchard says, We are all the godparents of every child in this church. 

We promise to keep faith with Charlotte. To do all in our power – ALL IN OUR POWER, dear ones! – to support this tiny, adorable person in her life in Christ. That is an easy promise to make when she’s tiny and cute, and the baby-borrowers of the congregation are arm-wrestling each other to hold her. When she so evidently has competent and loving parents who are on the job, and thus doesn’t really need that much from us. It’ll be easy when she’s drawing pictures or singing in children’s choir or toddling down to Sunday school or lisping out a line in a future Christmas pageant. It’s easy to keep our promises to our children, when they’re being photogenic. And quiet. 

It gets harder when our kids ask things of us, need things from us, that stretch us. Things that we have to figure out how to give. When they grow up a little, seven or eight or ten or twelve, and tell us that our answers don’t always intersect with their questions. That they get enough sit-still-be-quiet at school, and need church to be something else, if we really want our shared practice of our faith to feed them. When they tell us that some of what we do is frankly boring.

It gets harder when we recognize that our household of faith includes kids with deeper needs and harder struggles. Kids who need more than a coloring page and a cupcake to feel safe and fed. Kids who might need us to learn something new, to better be their family of faith; kids who might need us to fight for them, someday. 

It gets harder when we realize that our accountability to the children of this faith community includes not only the ones we see every Sunday but the ones we don’t, who nonetheless belong to us. Our youth group, for example, includes kids who rarely or never come to church on Sundays. And they are our kids too. They’ve come under the wing of this parish, they have opted in, and they, too, have a claim on our love and our faithfulness. On our commitment to supporting their life in Christ. 

And it gets harder, dear ones, when our commitment to THESE kids starts to stir up in us a sense of commitment to the wellbeing of ALL kids. When we start to see Felipe and Jakelin, Carmen or Tamir, as our children. When by the perhaps-unwelcome grace of the Holy Spirit, we begin to become unable to step back, look away, choose not to get involved. When we become simply, fundamentally unable to just stand by and let the bad guys hurt the children. 

But this is what we do. We can do hard things, with God’s help. 

Charlotte’s family makes some big promises on her behalf today. To renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness, all the evil powers of this world that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God; to turn to Jesus Christ, follow him and obey him, trusting in his grace and love. Those are big promises indeed. But so are the ones we all make, today, and every time we baptize a new member into Christ’s body the church.

When we commit, with God’s help, to loving our neighbor as ourself, to striving for justice and peace among all people, to respecting the dignity of every human being. And to doing all in our power – ALL IN OUR POWER! – to support Charlotte in her life in Christ.  We promise that when this child needs us, we’ll be there. A big diverse loving family in Christ, complete with fun cousins, wise grandpas, fierce aunties, and all the rest. 

Let’s make those promises today with eyes and hearts open. Committing ourselves to do all in our power to support this little one in her growing, her exploring, her wondering, her seeking and her finding, her struggling and her flourishing. And not Charlotte only but every child we baptize, every child that Christ sets among us as ours to care for and learn from; and not these children only, but every child made in God’s image, born into this hard, beautiful, risky world of ours, as Jesus was, long ago in Bethlehem. 

Christmas Eve Sermon (9pm)

The holy occasion we celebrate tonight has several names:Christmas, from the words Christ plus Mass, or Eucharist. The Feast of the Nativity, from the Latin word nativitas, birth. And the Feast of the Incarnation – from the word Incarnate: to make flesh, to take on a body. That’s my favorite way to name this day, because it says why it matters. It’s not just a birth; it’s not just an occasion for worship; but a world-changing theological event: God became human. 

The Carn- in incarnate is the same word as in chili con carne: Meat. The Feast of the Incarnation: When the God who was before Creation, who encompasses and knows all that is, when that God became meat – in a newborn baby boy, the child of poor and ordinary parents – born in such awkward and inconvenient circumstances that his first cradle is an animal’s feeding trough. 

The poet Amit Majmudar has a wonderful poem called Incarnation that invites us to imagine divinity taking human form in concrete anatomical detail:

“Inheart yourself, immensity. Immarrow, 

Embone, enrib yourself… Enmeat 

Yourself so we can rise onto our feet 

And meet…”

A Lenten hymn from the Orthodox tradition says, “The Unapproachable became human, approachable by all, walking among us, and hearing from all, Alleluia.”

Immensity, eternity, mystery and grace, robed in flesh – the Transcendent and Immortal become finite and tangible. Hail the incarnate Deity! It’s a rich and wonderful paradox to ponder. But … why does it matter? 

Western Christianity has put a lot of emphasis on the cross, on Jesus’ willingness to die to show us the depth of God’s love, as the great redemptive moment in the Christian story. But the Eastern churches, the Orthodox, in wisdom, see the Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection all as deeply interconnected. In her book Light upon Light, Sarah Arthur writes, “For Eastern churches, the Incarnation itself is what saves us; the Cross and Resurrection are merely part of a larger whole. When a holy God touched a corrupt humanity, God’s goodness reversed our corruption, restored us to holiness. We were like a basket of rotten apples coming into contact with one good apple: not only did the good apple retain its essential goodness, but it also reversed the decay of all the rest.” (13)

If thinking of humanity as a basket of rotten apples doesn’t sit well with you, some Orthodox theologians say that even if humankind hadn’t fallen so far from God’s dream for us – even if we hadn’t been mired in violence and need – God would STILL have become human, come to live among us – out of love. 

Just to be closer to us. Just to show us how much we matter to the heart of the Divine. Just to remind us that we are made in God’s image, beloved children, always and forever.  The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins says, “I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, And this jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood,… Is immortal diamond.” 

One good apple restoring the whole rotten basket… the opposite of what we expect, what we’ve learned from our produce bins. The opposite, too, of so many toxic and fearful theologies, that seek to purify and punish their way to holiness. 

What if we took seriously the idea that holiness is contagious? That divine grace is robust, not fragile? That in this birth on this long-ago night, something was accomplished, something begun, that changed reality – even if the ripples of that great change are still playing out 2000 years later? How would we live if we believed that good is contagious? That love wins? Has already won?

Let me tell you a story. Some of you remember the time of Apartheid, in South Africa. I remember hearing about it as a child and teen. Apartheid was a brutal system of racial segregation, involving minority rule by white South Africans – those of European descent – and sharply limited opportunities for work, freedom of movement, and political participation for black South Africans, those whose ancestors were native to the land. 

A system so unjust cannot last forever. In the 1980s, other nations were increasingly pressuring the South African government to end apartheid, and a growing resistance movement within the country as well. There were bigger and bigger protests – some of them led by the Anglican bishop of Johannesburg, a small, lively man with a ready smile named Desmond Tutu. Tutu was the first black African to hold that role in our sister church in South Africa – likewise the role of Archbishop of Capetown, which he held beginning in 1986.  

The anti-apartheid protests were not welcomed by the government. Police used tear gas, water cannons, and bullets to disperse protesters. Many angry young men were killed in clashes with security forces; Tutu preached at some of their funerals, gathering crowds of thousands. 

In August of 1989, in the face of harsh repression of protests, Tutu announced that he’d hold a church service instead – an Ecumenical Defiance Service, held at St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town. Thousands of South Africans came to sing and pray for justice and freedom – and hundreds of police came too, surrounding the cathedral in a show of military intimidation.

When Archbishop Tutu began to preach, military police entered the cathedral, lining the walls, rifles in hand. I can’t even imagine that – speaking God’s words of hope and liberation, while looking out at armed men full of hate and fear. But Tutu knew that love wins. That holiness and goodness are contagious. At one point in his sermon, he came down from the pulpit and addressed the police directly.

He said, “You are very powerful, but you are not Gods and I serve a God who cannot be mocked. So, since you have already lost” – he tells the men holding big guns – “Since you have already lost, I invite you come and join the winning side. Come join the winning side.” Immediately, the congregation erupted into song and dance.

Tutu was arrested, after church. But he was right about the winning side. By 1992, Apartheid had ended. In 1994, Nelson Mandela was elected president in an election for all South Africans. 

The Feast of the Incarnation: When the God who was before Creation, who encompasses and knows all that is, when that God became flesh in a newborn baby boy. Why does it matter? Because Eternity, Immensity, Mystery, loves us enough to come and meet us – come be meat with us. Incarnate. Because it shows us that we are immortal diamond, and boundlessly beloved. Because it means that even in the face of terrible events and human cruelty, even when things seem most bitter and broken, we can face it with courage, with hope. Because Love wins. Love has already won. 



Some sources… 

The story about Tutu (with added details from other research):

Hopkins’ poem: 

Orthodox Lenten prayer quoted from here:

Majmudar’s poem and Arthur’s description of Eastern teaching about the Incarnation both come from Arthur’s book Light upon Light: A Literary Guide to Prayer for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany (Paraclete Press, 2014). 

Sermon, Dec. 16

This morning I’d like to introduce you to Luke. Our Sunday Scripture readings come to us from a cycle of readings shared by many churches, called the Revised Common Lectionary or RCL. It’s a three-year cycle, and each year we mostly use one of the Gospels, the four books of the Bible that tell the story of Jesus’ life, teachings, death, and resurrection. Year A is Matthew, Year B is Mark, and Year C, which we’re three weeks into, is Luke.  (John doesn’t get his own year but we get bits of John throughout the cycle.) 

The Gospels are fascinating in their differences and similarities. Back in seminary, one professor had us read just the first verse of each Gospel – to show that you can get a pretty good sense of their different voices from even that small a sample. Similarly, some of you saw a wonderful proposal from a friend that I shared on Facebook: that churches should have four different Christmas pageants based on what each of the four Gospels say (or don’t say) about the birth of Jesus.

So here’s a quick overview of each Gospel’s voice – and what their Christmas pageant would look like. Mark, the earliest written Gospel, tells you what he’s going to tell you: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (Mark 1:1.) Then Mark dives right into John’s preaching at the Jordan. Mark’s Christmas pageant: dead silence, then a ragged man jumping out shouting REPENT! 

Matthew is deeply interested in how Jesus fulfills Jewish history and prophesy. His Gospel begins, “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” A Matthew-based pageant would have to start with a historical lecture on every person named in Jesus’ genealogy. John’s gospel begins with theological poetry, beautiful and paradoxical, and pretty much goes on that way: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” John’s Christmas pageant would involve children running around in the dark with glow sticks…

And then we have our friend Luke. Here are the first four verses of Luke’s Gospel: “Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.” (Luke 1:1-4) 

Doesn’t that give you a strong sense of personality, right out of the gate?Someone wordy, maybe a little fussy and a little self-important, but also lovable? Luke casts himself as a historian, the one who’s going to actually offer a coherent, clear account of all these important events. Theophilus may have been a real person, but I find it more likely that the name – which means “God-lover” – is kind of a stand-in for anyone seeking God. Perhaps Luke has Gentiles, non-Jews, especially in mind – note that Luke explains Jewish customs, like John’s father Zechariah taking his turn serving in the Temple. 

Unlike the other gospels, Luke has a sequel – the book of Acts, written by the same author, which tells the story of the first Christians after Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension. From clues in the text, we can tell that Luke was educated and probably a city-dweller – but he also cared deeply for the poor, the sick, and those at the margins, including women. (Somebody a lot like many St Dunstan’s folks, in other words.) There’s even a semi-serious theory that the author we know as Luke may have been a woman. 

The Gospel of Luke was written in the late first century, but used older sources, including the gospel of Mark, the earliest of the four Gospels; the Q source, a lost document containing sayings and teachings of Jesus, which Luke and Matthew both used; and what scholars call the “L Source” – which basically means the stuff in Luke that’s not found anywhere else. That includes basically all of the first two chapters of Luke. So Luke’s Christmas pageant would include most of the usual stuff – except the three Kings or wise men; they’re in Matthew. 

Each of the four Gospels has a distinctive voice and particular themes or hallmarks that emerge, as they tell the story of Jesus. One of Luke’s hallmarks is his interest in the intersection of the cosmic and the concrete. The fulfillment of the great prophetic promises in a particular time and place, in the lives of real, ordinary people. Each of the first three chapters of his Gospel begins with anchoring events in history: Luke 1 begins, “In the days of King Herod of Judea…” Luke 2, the beloved Christmas Gospel, names Emperor Augustus and Quirinius, governor of Syria. And Luke 3 starts with another list of officials. This is the opposite of “Once upon a time” or “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” Luke wants us to know that these were real events that happened at a particular time, in a particular place. 

But the events, to be sure, transcend human history. Alongside his historical bent, Luke is deeply immersed in the Hebrew Scriptures and their promises and prophesies. He’s looking for those big themes of restoration and redemption, liberation and peace, to come to fruition in the concrete here and now. 

Another hallmark of Luke’s account is that the Gospel shows up at the margins, the edges instead of the center. The good news of God’s love gets proclaimed and manifest among the least, last, and lowly. Luke shows us divine grace among the poor, the sick, the powerless and scorned. He expects God to be at work there – both for the good of those at the margins, and also for the greater good of the whole. For Luke, the Gospel, the good news of God’s saving love, is preached to those at the fringes of society – and FROM those fringes, as well. 

The cosmic in the concrete; and the Gospel at the margins. Let’s look at how those hallmarks show up in today’s texts. In today’s liturgy we receive an interrupted chunk of Luke’s text, focused on the figure of John the Baptist. Our Gospel story covers John’s birth, and we read/chanted the Benedictus, Zechariah’s prophetic song of joy for his son. The text concludes, “The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.” 

Then we cut away to the story of Jesus’ birth and childhood, in Luke chapter 2 – then cut back to find John thirty years older and still hanging out in the wilderness. He’s begun to fulfill the mission laid out for him since before his conception, to be the Messenger, the Voice, the Forerunner. As the angel told his father in the temple, promising his birth: “He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God, and make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”  And as Zechariah sang to his infant son, “You, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;  for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.” 


In these texts, do we see the cosmic erupting into the concrete? Absolutely. The concrete jumps off the page in that list of names of public officials: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”

In her sermon on this text, Megan Castellan wrote, “For Luke’s early hearers, hearing that list… would have felt like reading the CNN headline crawl for us:  a similar sort of constant bad news, and constant disappointment in the state of things.  Recall that these weren’t popular leaders: Herod was known to be paranoid… and prone to narcissistic rages.  Pilate was fond of violent crackdowns on the local populace. The temple leaders were fine, maybe, but you couldn’t expect much from them.  There was a reason people felt hopeless…  [And] it’s in this specifically hopeless situation that God comes, and says ‘prepare the way.’  Not once upon a time… but into this definite place, populated with these specific broken people, and their problems.”

Luke balances these concrete historical details with rich metaphoric texts that draw on the poetic language of the prophets – specifically the book of Isaiah. Zechariah’s song to his newborn son draws on Isaiah chapter 60, which we sing in Epiphany: “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has dawned upon you! For behold, darkness covers the land, deep gloom enshrouds the peoples; but over you the Lord will rise!” For Zechariah, for Luke, the birth of this baby – and of another baby, his cousin – inaugurate the age when these great, ancient promises will be fulfilled. 

And when we turn the corner to John’s adulthood, Luke quotes Isaiah chapter 40. Matthew and Mark both use the same Isaiah text to describe John: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’” But Luke extends the quotation: Every valley shall be exalted, the lofty hills brought low; and all flesh shall see God’s redemption! God’s redemption for all people – beginning here, and now, with this ragged man standing beside a muddy river, telling a motley crowd of the desperate and the curious that God is about to do a new thing. 

What about Luke’s other hallmark, the Gospel at the margins? There’s much more of that ahead in Luke; our best example here is in the figure of John himself. Look back at that list of names: Tiberius, Pilate, Herod, Annas and Caiaphas – important people, powerful people – but the word of God comes to John, in the wilderness. 

Remember: John comes from a respectable family, probably middle-class by the standards of the time. Zechariah, his father, was part of the hereditary priesthood of the great Temple, established during King David’s reign. And John’s mother was of Aaron’s lineage – Aaron, the brother of Moses, the very first priest of Israel’s God, who served in the tabernacle in the wilderness after God’s people escaped from bondage in Egypt. 

When John’s parents were given the divine message that their son would be a prophet of God’s salvation, they might well have assumed that he would fulfill that vocation within the religious hierarchy, as a priest, like his daddy. I wonder what they thought when instead of fulfilling his birthright by going to seminary and getting ordained and wearing fancy vestments, John, their only child, spends all his time in the rocky Judean desert, wears a camelskin tunic, and eats whatever he can find – wild honey and grasshoppers. I’m sure they treasured his faithfulness to God’s call – but they were probably perplexed and possibly dismayed by the way he lived it out.

John started his life in the center, and chose the margins – walked right out of the machinery, like so many following a holy call, over the millennia. He knows – even as a child, it seems – that the message deep in his bones cannot be spoken from the Temple. His words are wilderness words. The Gospel of the margins. 

When I’m writing a sermon, I try to have some kind of a “So what”. Something that has a chance of reaching this text, this room, this fifteen minutes. What’s the “so what” here, Miranda? Well, we’ll be hearing texts from Luke’s Gospel for a while, nearly a year – and some from Acts as well, in Easter season. So we can remember and notice these hallmarks of Luke’s account, his understanding of what this Jesus thing is all about: the cosmic in the concrete; the Gospel at the margins. It’s worthwhile and rewarding to come to a deeper understanding of the different voices of our four Gospels, and how, together, they give us a rich, complex picture of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God. 

It’s worthwhile and rewarding – but it’s not the point. Or at least, it’s a means, not an end. The goal of church is not to make informed readers of Scripture. The goal of church is to make Christians. People who, in the words of one of our Advent prayers, hold the great hope that God’s kingdom of mercy, justice, and love, made known to us through Jesus Christ, shall come on earth; who seek the signs of its dawning, and orient our work and our lives towards that perfect Day. 

The cosmic in the concrete; the Gospel at the margins – Luke makes these things the hallmarks of his Gospel because this is how he has come to understand God. They’re not just things to look for in Luke; they’re things to look for in life. Where are God’s promises coming to fruition today? Where are restoration and redemption, liberation and peace, being born, even among the broken and the hopeless? Where is the Gospel being spoken at the margins today? Who standing far outside the halls of power, speaking God’s hope, God’s love, God’s call to new life? Where is dawn breaking? Even here? Even now? 

Credit to Scott Gunn for the Gospel-specific Christmas pageant idea. 

Megan Castellan’s sermon may be read in full here:

Sermon, Dec. 9

I’m going to explain the shape of the church’s year, and I need a couple of helpers. … See? The church’s seasons make a circle. This circle represents one calendar year. But there are bigger circles too, of course – seasons that come around in our lives, and in the life of the world. Some wise folk say that time is not a circle but a spiral: we move through similar times and seasons, but we’re different each time, because there’s greater movement too; our lives, individually or as a species, are not static, flat. We change; we are different at 50 than we were at 30; we are different in 2018 than we were in 1018. And yet we’re probably less different than we think we are. There are always echoes and resonances; past, present, and future intertwine and tangle. 

For a lot of us, church is probably one of the main places in our lives where we spend time with, you know, old stuff. Stories and symbols and images that are 1000, 2000, 3000 years old. Showing up here is, among other things, a vote that the old stuff still matters somehow, still speaks, still holds truth. (Believe me: There are many people who find this a very odd point of view!)

Fundamentally, of course, we’re here because we believe, or want to believe, that Jesus is the Son of God, and that the things he said and did tell the truth about God’s love for humanity. But there are Christians who spend a lot less time with all this old stuff – for whom ancient texts and traditions are much less central to their worship and practice. 

It’s one of the hallmarks of the kind of Christian we are, we Anglicans, shared with the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches: we take seriously what we have received from our forebears in faith, all the way back.  We expect the ancient to come alive in the present and guide us into the future. Why? Well – I think often of a study I read a couple of years ago showing that families that tell and re-tell stories of past struggle, survival, and success are more resilient in the face of difficult times in the present. Our ancestors’ perseverance encourages and strengthens us. That’s certainly one of the things we do, as a church family. 

But I believe that the way our sacred past works in us is more than psychological; it’s mystical as well. Sometimes the past simply sings within us, among us.  Sometimes the saints and holy ones stir up in us their courage, compassion, eloquence, endurance, humility, fury. If we believe – or want to believe – that more exists than we can see, measure, or prove, then all the “old stuff” we tend and treasure, our scriptures, songs, habits and symbols, are not just antiques but talismans, objects of power that might suddenly turn out to glow in the presence of evil, or to unlock a hidden door that advances our quest. 

One of the ways we carry the past into the present and future is by naming and celebrating holy days. When we set aside a holy day, we’re saying: This is worth remembering. This is worth passing down. This week, this second week of December, is rich in holy days. Let’s look at them together. 

The first one isn’t ours: Chanukkah, a Jewish festival observed from December 3 through 10, this year. But in a quirk of the lectionary, one of our texts today points towards Channukah: Baruch. The book of Baruch is part of the Apocrypha, books written later than most of the Old Testament, not long before Jesus’ time. They have sort of a “secondary Scripture” status for many Christians, but there’s lots of good stuff in there. Baruch was the assistant of the prophet Jeremiah, who lived in Jerusalem in the sixth century before Christ, at the time of the Babylonian conquest. The book of Baruch claims to be the words of Baruch, writing words of rebuke and encouragement to Jews in exile in Babylon. But the book of Baruch actually dates from several centuries later. It’s possible that fragments of older texts were used; but writing texts that borrow and expand the voice of older Scripture texts was common in the centuries just before Jesus’ time, and the book of Baruch fits that pattern. 

Some scholars think that Baruch was actually written around the time of the Maccabean revolt – a military revolt against foreign rule which was also a forceful movement against the encroachment of Greek culture in Judea, and for the return to the old ways of the Jewish people, both cultural and religious. Judas Maccabeus and his guerrilla forces fought back the armies of the Seleucid Empire, ritually cleansed the Great Temple and re-established traditional Jewish worship there. The festival of Chanukkah celebrates the re-dedication of the Temple. (The story about the oil came along later.) The message that Baruch might have had for Jews in exile in the 6th century before Christ, would have felt urgent and relevant for Jews in Judea in the second century before Christ: 

Repent! Forsake other gods! Pray for mercy! If you had walked in the way of God, says Baruch, you would be living in peace for ever. Learn where there is wisdom, where there is strength; where there is length of days, and life, and peace. 

This nameless second-century author turns to the past to find inspiration for what the present demands, writes this beautiful prophetic poetry that speaks to the people and the times, and attributes it to the long-dead Baruch. Who am I to call it a lie? Prophesy is a mystery, and time is full of tangles and echoes. Sometimes the past sings in us. 

The second feast this week isn’t exactly ours, though maybe it’s becoming more so: the feast of the Virgen de Guadalupe. Five hundred years ago, just as King Henry VIII was beginning to think about a church independent from Rome, a native Mexican farmer named Juan Deigo was working in a field outside Mexico City, a place called Tepeyac Hill, when he saw a vision of a beautiful young woman who poke to him in his native language, told him that she was the mother of the true God, and asked him to build a church there in her honor. The bishop was skeptical, but the Virgin kept appearing to Juan. Finally, thanks to miracles like the appearance of roses on Tepeyac Hill, Juan Diego’s vision was accepted as a true theophany, an encounter with the divine. Many native Mexicans became Christian because of Maria de Guadalupe – who was THEIR Mary, not a Spanish import, but God’s Mother come to them on their own soil. Over the centuries she has become a powerful symbol of Mexican faith, unity, and freedom. 

Do I believe it? I wouldn’t presume to disbelieve. I put no boundaries on the One called to wrap God in flesh. And why shouldn’t a poor, small-town, brown-skinned person like Mary choose to transcend fifteen hundred years of history to share the grace of her presence with a poor, small-town, brown-skinned person like Juan Diego? Time is flexible, in the domain of faith, of the Divine. The past can manifest in the present, and shape and bless the future. If you’d like to honor the Virgin today, take a rose and place it at her feet sometime during our worship. We have some prayer cards there as well. 

The third feast day this week is ours, though it always sneaks up on me: the feast day of St. Nicholas, a few days ago on the 6th. My strongest association with Nicholas is the cookies my mother used to make, every December. Their base was a wedge of sturdy, not-very-sweet gingerbread; the frosting of Nicholas’ read cope and mitre were colored with beet juice, because my little brother was sensitive to red dye. I loved them, as a child, but I remember friends trying them and being… nonplused. My mother’s Nicholases were more of a grownup cookie – and that fits, because Nicholas is kind of a grownup saint. 

Nicholas was a bishop, in what is now part of Turkey, back in the third century – seventeen hundred years ago. He’s remembered in many stories that are, like my mother’s cookies, nourishing but not particularly sweet. In one story, three boys on a journey stop at an inn. The innkeeper robs them, kills them, chops them up, and puts them in a pickle barrel. Nicholas, stopping by the inn, discerns the boys’ plight and resurrects them. 

In another story, Nicholas, walking the streets of his city by night, hears parents grieving: they are so poor they cannot afford to help their daughter marry, and she is doomed to a life of prostitution. Nicholas tosses a bag of gold coins down the smoke hole in the roof of their humble home – the ancient origin of the presents-down-the-chimney myth. And then there’s the story of the time Nicholas attended the Council of Nicaea, the great 3rd-century gathering of church leaders to hammer out what the church actually believed. There was a great debate with a man named Arius and his followers, who thought that Jesus was not fully one with God, not fully divine. It is said that Nicholas was so impatient with Arius’ heretical views that he slapped him – and was sent to Bishop Jail as a result. 

Dead children, vulnerable women, slapping heretics – No wonder we collectively opted for Santa Claus, instead of this cranky bishop whose life and deeds were a little too gritty. But which do we really need – a supernaturally-jolly elf who engages in invasive surveillance and  behavior control, and who replicates the dynamics of capitalism by bringing the best gifts to the most affluent kids? Or a saint, a man of God, who walked the poorest streets of his city, listening to the people’s cries of anguish? Who strove to help women in poverty, children touched by violence; and who stood up fiercely for his convictions? The pile of gifts we’re sending to families served by Middleton Outreach Ministry this year shows that the spirit of Nicholas is at work among us already. May that fierce and compassionate saint continue to inspire our generosity and our courage. 

Time is messy for church folks. Out there the calendar marches onward, linear and one-directional: 2018 will soon give way to 2019, and 2020 after that. A revolt from 2300 years ago – a saint who served his city 1700 years ago – a mother who lived and died 2000 years ago, only to show up on a new continent 500 years ago – it’s all distant past, long dead and dusty. But here, time circles and doubles back. There are echoes, resonances, and sometimes resurrections. What has happened, what is happening, what will happen, tangle and overlap. 

Which brings us to the Magnificat. Mary’s bold song of praise, rightly beloved by generations of Christians: My soul proclaims the greatness of God! My spirit rejoices in God my savior! For You have shown the strength of your arm, you have scattered the proud in their conceit. You have cast down the mighty from their thrones, and have lifted up the lowly. Later we’ll sing Rory Cooney’s song based on this text, the Canticle of the Turning, which many of us have come to love in the years we’ve been singing it. In the song, the poet has made God’s actions into future events. That makes sense – since we still wait to see these things finally, fully completed.

But in the Scripture text, Mary doesn’t speak of the future. She uses the present perfect tense: God has filled, has pulled down, has sent away. The tense indicates completion, something already brought to fulfillment.   

Mary wasn’t naive – nor was Luke, who offers us her words. They lived in times more violent, more broken, than ours. These faith-ancestors of ours were under no illusions that God had already fixed the world, once and for all. Yet Luke’s Mary has the audacity to say: God has acted. God’s future is present. Barbara Brown Taylor, writing about the Magnificat, says, “Prophets almost never get their verb tenses straight, because part of their gift is being able to see the world as God sees it – not divided into things that are already over and things that have not happened yet, but as an eternally unfolding mystery that surprises everyone.” (in Home By Another Road) 

What will happen is, somehow, happening now; has, somehow, already happened. Mary sings of a world in which God’s justice already reigns, in which Love has already, finally, won. That’s not the world I see, when I look around. And yet it doesn’t feel to me that Mary is wrong. It feels instead like time folding in on itself, future fulfillment overflowing the past, flooding the present. Time isn’t a line; time isn’t a circle; time is a glorious, complex, mysterious spiraling knot, in which a 2000-year old song strengthens us for the work of this moment, in which saints of old march and pray and struggle and give and sing beside us and within us. 

We spend our days uneasily suspended between God’s promises made and God’s promises kept; in this puzzling difficult unsatisfying in-between time, after the first coming at Bethlehem, before the second coming in glory. That’s the energy behind the most fundamental prayer of Advent, the thing we say again and again and again in these weeks, the prayer that folds time: past, the promised babe, future, the King coming in glory, and now, the urgent holy present; the prayer that gives voice to our yearning and our hope, our disappointment and our faith:  Come, Lord Jesus. O come, o come, Emmanuel, God with us. Come.