All posts by Miranda Hassett

Sermon, July 11

Today the lectionary introduces us to Michal, first wife of King David. This is the end of Michal’s story; she is not mentioned again. And if this is all you knew, you might think of her as jealous and judgmental. 

But we know more about Michal, daughter of King Saul. That’s the richness of the books of Samuel and Kings: with many of these characters, we learn enough to see, at least a little, who they are, and how their experiences shape them.

So to do Michal justice, let’s go back to when the *text* first introduces her, back in First Samuel chapter 18. 

Michal’s relationship with David begins with hero-worship. David has just killed Goliath, the Philistine giant, and then joined her father’s household. Sometimes he plays music for Saul when Saul’s dark moods seize him. But more often he’s leading Saul’s army into battle – successfully! The women of the land sing, “Saul has killed his thousands, and David his tens of thousands.” 

Michal’s brother Jonathan has sworn fealty to David, offering him his armor and sword as a gesture of loyalty and love – for Jonathan loved David as his own soul. It wasn’t just Jonathan; the text tells us, “All Israel and Judah loved David.” And Michal, too, loves David – this handsome young warrior poet. 

Saul likes the idea of binding David to him through a strategic marriage… but he also kind of likes the idea of having David be killed by the Philistines, Israel’s enemies. So Saul lets it be known that he’d be very glad for David to marry his daughter, if David can bring him 100 Philistine foreskins. He hopes this challenge might get David out of his hair for good… but of course David, being David, simply goes and does it. 

This only deeps Saul’s fear and hatred, and he makes up his mind to get rid of David. But Jonathan and Michal are determined to save their beloved. Jonathan pleads with Saul to have mercy on David, and Saul relents – but later, in a dark mood, he changes his mind again, and sends killers to David’s home. 

This time it’s Michal who saves David; she helps him escape out the window, then creates a “dummy” David in the bed, the classic pillow-under-the-covers, plus some goatskin for hair. She used the “dummy” to put off the assassins – claiming David couldn’t come out because he was sick. It delays them long enough for David to get well away. When her father asked why she helped David, choosing her husband over her father, she claimed that David had threatened to kill her. 

The Bible tells us far more about the love between David and Jonathan than David and Michal. The text tells us twice that she loved him; it never claims that he loved her. He flees their home apparently without a backward glance, though he has a heart-wrenching farewell scene with Jonathan before escaping to the wilderness.  

David flees to one neighboring land, then another; and as he travels, he gathers followers. And Saul takes poor abandoned Michal and gives her as a wife to another man, named Palti. 

Here’s how David finally becomes king, years later: Saul and Israel’s army are fighting the Philistines, again. And the Philistines win. Most of Saul’s sons are killed – including Jonathan. Saul throws himself on his own sword to avoid the shame of being killed by the enemy. 

David and his little personal army aren’t at this battle; they’re busy chasing down some raiders who had attacked their village. When David hears of Saul and Jonathan’s deaths, he sings a great song of grief about the death of these valiant warriors. Soon thereafter, the people of Judah,  the southern part of the land of God’s people, anoint David as their king. 

But the last of Saul’s sons, Ishbaal, survives the battle and becomes king of Israel, the northern part of the land.  More years of war follow, with David’s house growing stronger and Saul’s house growing weaker. Sometime during those years, in a moment of tentative peace, David asks Ishbaal to give him back Michal as his wife. 

I can imagine a couple of reasons for the request. Maybe David rankled at the dishonor of having his wife – one of his wives; he’s collected several more – given to another man. Maybe for the possibility of a son who would combine Saul and David’s lines, and be the next king of a united nation. Sadly, it probably wasn’t because he loved her or missed her. 

Ishbaal agrees to David’s demand, and Michal is taken from her second husband, Palti. The text tells us, “Her husband went with her, weeping as he walked behind her,” until Ishbaal’s general ordered Palti to go home. So Michal is given away a third time, taken from a husband who apparently loved her, and given – again – to David, who, like her father, sees her only as a pawn. 

Finally, a couple of enterprising warriors assassinate King Ishbaal. This is a pattern with David: People conveniently kill his enemies for him, and he has the luxury of keeping his hands clean and being outraged and grief-stricken, while still reaping the benefits of their actions. David has the assassins publicly executed… and then when the tribes of Israel come to him and say, “Now you can be our King too,” he says, Well, OK. 

So the kingdoms of Judah and Israel are united, with David as their great King. A great King who takes more and more wives and concubines, and begets a great many children. 

And as kind of a gesture of national pride and unity, David and his army set out to bring the Ark of the Covenant to his new capital city, Jerusalem. This isn’t the ark Noah built, though it’s the same word in Hebrew. This ark was built during the wilderness years, by Israel’s finest craftsman, to hold the stone tablets on which Moses had received the Law of God. A holy box to hold the world’s holiest treasure. A box so holy that if someone has not prepared themselves to approach it, and simply reaches out a hand to steady it on uneven ground – that person might get zapped to ashes. 

And as they enter Jerusalem in triumphal procession with the Ark, David and those with him are so filled with holy joy that they dance wildly to the music of lyres and harps, tambourines and castanets and cymbals. And David danced and leaped the most wildly, the most fervently of them all, dressed only in a simple linen skirt. 

I think we can take it that the linen skirt was pretty skimpy, and that David was putting on quite a show – and probably really didn’t care. After all, if being King doesn’t mean you can dance naked in the streets, what’s the point?… 

Michal daughter of Saul looks out of the window, and sees David leaping and dancing before the Lord. The New Revised Standard translation says, she despised him in her heart. The Common English Bible says, she lost all respect for him. Either translation gets the idea across. 

What’s going on here for Michal, as her heart turns against a man whom she once loved? She has been through years of coldness, betrayal, loss, and never having what she actually wanted. Of course she’s jealous – the remark about the servant girls hints at how much she minds all David’s dalliances. She’s also contrasting her husband with her father, Saul’s dignity with David’s extravagance. David is one of those people who is just – very. He has great big feelings: those flares of anger, joy, grief, desire. He has great big ambitions. He has great big piety, devotion to God.  Michal just wishes he would act like a king. And David says, Deal with it. I am who I am, and God likes it. 

The text says that from that time on, Michal had no children. I think what we are to understand is that their relationship – never strong – is irrevocably broken, in this moment. Maybe this is the last time David and Michal speak to each other. Maybe Michal lives out the rest of her lonely life unloved and untouched in some corner of David’s household, watching the rest of his wives and concubines talk and laugh and fight and nurse their children. 

So why tell Michal’s story?… Well, at the most superficial level: to fix the lectionary. If you only hear the Sunday texts, Michal comes off pretty badly. If you know her whole story, it’s different. 

Let’s go a little deeper and wonder why the Bible tells us Michal’s story. If all that mattered was the end of Saul’s royal line, the text could have told us much less about Michal. But instead it gives us enough to trace the contours of her life and the ache of her heart. I think that’s because the larger story that this part of the Bible is telling is about how people lose control of their own lives, suffer and struggle, because those with power, and those seeking power, don’t count the costs – or don’t care. About the way that ordinary people, and even not so ordinary people, get caught up – and ground up – in the machinations of the powerful and the ambitious. 

So why do I tell Michal’s story? Why make space on a Sunday, every few years when it rolls around in the lectionary, for this ultimately rather sad story? There are a couple of reasons I think it’s important. For one thing, often people look at the awful stuff that happens in the Bible and they are put off, because they think that if it’s in the Bible, that means the Bible – and those whose faith is grounded in the Bible – think that awful stuff is OK. 

But the voice of the text doesn’t think that stuff is OK. I think the Biblical text pities Michal, just as we do. That’s a really really important point for our engagement with the Bible in general and the Old Testament in particular: Yes, there is some terrible stuff in there: senseless violence and bitter injustice and cruel betrayal and so on. The thing is, the text KNOWS that stuff is terrible. The Bible has much more complexity and narrative sophistication than a lot of folks realize. Michal’s story is a good example. 

For another thing: Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis says that there are two kinds of Christians. One kind sees us as profoundly separated from the Old Testament. In this view, the Old Testament is interesting but also quite strange, and not really relevant to Christian faith or life. Lots of folks take that view, consciously or unconsciously – including many Episcopalians. 

The other kind of Christians, says Davis, see the Old Testament as “an urgent and speaking presence”, a compendium of stories of human and divine relationships that have never lost their power and relevance. From this perspective: The reason Michal’s story is compelling is that it’s not so strange or unthinkable. The stories of women who get to make few of their own choices, controlled by the men around them – those stories still happen. The machinations of those seeking political power, and those victimized by their ambition – those stories still happen. The stories of relationships that start out sweet, then turn first sour, then bitter – those stories still happen. 

The Bible tells the story of Michal, among so many others, to show us that kings aren’t the only people that matter – to history or to God. To call us to pay attention to those struggling in the brutal currents of human history, and to care what happens to their lives and their hearts. And that, beloveds, is deeply congruent with the life and witness of Jesus Christ – who taught us to seek God and serve God among those the world sees as unimportant.

Bulletin for July 11

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

Sunday, July 11 Bulletin

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

THREE WAYS TO USE AN ONLINE BULLETIN…
1. Print it out!

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

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

Sermon, July 4

David is Israel’s most famous king – remembered as Israel’s greatest king. But he wasn’t Israel’s first king. The first king was Saul. 

It’s easy to focus on David. We all know he’s the main character here. The great king of Israel, whom God favors. Whose kingship is long remembered as Israel’s greatest era, which people in Jesus’ time yearn to restore. But today, as David is crowned king in our Scripture reading, I want to pause and talk about Saul. 

In the eighth chapter of the first book of Samuel, the people of Israel demanded a king. The prophet Samuel warned them that having a king will cost them; but they insisted. Immediately, in chapter nine, a man named Kish sends his son Saul to go look for some lost donkeys. Having no luck, he hears that there’s a prophet in a nearby town and determines to ask him where the donkeys are. He finds Samuel – who tells him that he is the chosen king of Israel. (And also that the donkeys have been found.) 

Why Saul? Well, honestly, the usual reasons, it seems. He’s tall and handsome. He’s the son of a wealthy father and belongs to the right kind of family – in this case, a Benjaminite. We still put guys like that in charge of things a lot.

The accounts of Saul’s kingship are SO SHORT. He becomes king in first Samuel chapter 10. Then he has one good chapter, where he wins a battle against his people’s enemies – kings were military leaders in this time – and everyone is excited about him. Then, almost immediately, he does something that upsets Samuel and/or God, and starts to lose favor. In chapter 14, Saul’s own son Jonathan starts to undermine his leadership by being more bold and successful in a raid on the enemy than Saul.  Saul has a few more military victories – but in chapter 15, God tells Samuel that God regrets choosing Saul as king, and in chapter 16, God sends Samuel to find and anoint David as God’s choice for the next king. Chapter 17 is the David and Goliath story, where we see hints that this bold shepherd boy has more going for him than Saul, King of Israel.

At this point God has un-chosen Saul and chosen David, but there are still FOURTEEN CHAPTERS before Saul’s death. For most of that time David is living in the wilderness with a little band of 600 malcontents, running away from King Saul and his army as they try to seek them out and squash them. 

We don’t know how long Saul was king. Chapter 13, verse 1, reads: “Saul was blank years old when he began to reign, and he reigned blank and two years over Israel.” The numbers that should be there were lost so long ago that nobody can even guess. We don’t know whether Saul’s kingship was really short, as it seems, or whether it was longer and the Biblical text just doesn’t really care about Saul. 

What went wrong with Saul? The first incident that causes Saul to lose God’s favor happens in chapter 13 – very soon after he becomes king. The Philistine army is preparing to attack Israel. They are superior in both numbers and equipment, and Israel’s troops are terrified. The prophet Samuel promised Saul that he would come within seven days and present an offering to God that would secure God’s help during the battle ahead. So Saul waited seven days; but Samuel didn’t come. Meanwhile more and more of his fighters were slipping away, day by day, afraid of death at the hands of the Philistines. Israel’s odds, already poor, are getting worse by the hour. 

So Saul makes the offering to God himself, to ask God’s favor and help. And the moment he’s finished, Samuel walks up and yells at him. “You have done foolishly! The LORD would have established your kingdom for ever; but now your kingdom will not continue.”

Here we only have God’s rejection of Saul in Samuel’s words. Maybe Samuel was just mad. A couple of chapters later, in chapter 15, Samuel is still addressing Saul as King, and sending him to destroy the people of Amalek, avenging a grievance from the time of Moses. Saul is specifically charged to kill EVERYBODY – men, women, children, and livestock. Saul and his army fight the Amalekites and win – but they spare the best of the livestock, and keep other valuables as well. 

Then God speaks to Samuel: “I regret that I made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me, and has not carried out my commands.” Samuel confronts Saul, who insists at first that the only spared the best of the livestock so that they could sacrifice them to God… but eventually confesses that did it because he listened to the voice of the people, who wanted to keep the animals instead of killing them. Saul is distraught; he seizes the hem of Samuel’s cloak and it tears. Samuel looks him in the face and says: “Just so has God torn the kingdom of Israel from you, and given it to another.”

Saul’s failures are not great. But they’re also not terrible. They’re kind of boring, honestly. Commonplace. Impatience. Anxiety. A little ordinary human weakness and greed. And listen: Saul didn’t ask to be king. It’s not like he put himself forward as the best man for the job. In fact, back in chapter 10, when Samuel first gathers the people to present and anoint Saul as their king, Saul hides. 

If we take the text at its word that Saul was God’s choice: Why would God have chosen Saul?  It’s an interesting question. Maybe God knew the people, who had this very fixed idea about their future king, would only accept someone who fit those ideas.  (The text stresses that Saul was VERY tall.) Maybe God knew Saul wouldn’t be able to carry the burden of leadership – and felt that that would be a valuable learning experience for the people. Maybe Saul was genuinely the best candidate Israel had to offer at the time.

Or maybe God’s choosing and rejecting of Saul is simply part of how those composing this text are making sense of the messiness of this chapter of their people’s history. 

Saul probably would have lived a reasonably happy life if he hadn’t become king. It’s that role and its pressures that start to break him. And he does break. David comes along and he’s younger and cuter and braver and more successful in battle and more favored by God… Saul’s own children, his son Jonathan and daughter Michal, both fall in love with David… and Saul can’t take it. He can’t say, “Hey, good for him! I’m lucky to have him around!” His jealously and insecurity spiral into hatred and paranoia. I wish I could tell you the whole story! 

Saul failed as king. There’s no question about it. But he is a tragic figure, not a villain. I pity Saul. 

Like every historical document, First Samuel tells its story with a particular viewpoint and agenda. And this text’s perspective is not actually that Saul was a bad king and David was a great one – but that kings in general are maybe not as great as you might think. 

The Fourth of July is an interesting time to think about history. And I don’t mean just history as “things that happened in the past,” but history as a human process. History as a way of making meaning of both past and present. History as a human process often simplifies events, or tells them with a particular slant.

Lots of things that seem glorious were actually really messy. Lots of things that seem predestined, inevitable, could easily have gone otherwise. Lots of people who seem like noble heroes were actually deeply flawed… and some of the people who seem like villains – or nobodies – are really interesting, and worth our understanding and compassion.

In today’s Gospel when Jesus says that prophets aren’t honored in their hometown, he’s pointing at an aspect of this truth. When you know someone well, you know the whole picture, for better or worse. It’s harder to idealize or romanticize.

Many churches don’t mark the Fourth of July, Independence Day, our chief national holiday. I have deep respect for that choice. Better to ignore it completely than to engage it shallowly. At St. Dunstan’s we often to share a few readings from American history, as our observance of the day – as an exercise in living with the ambiguity of history. 

Facing that ambiguity can be uncomfortable. We see that in the current wave of pushback over schools teaching American history with greater attention to the voices and experiences of different groups, and to our nation’s many failures to live up to our boldest ideals and aspirations. Many folks have a real visceral reaction to the idea that our national history is not as glorious and inevitable – that our great men were not perhaps as great – as we learned in elementary school in decades past. 

How do we cope with that ambiguity and discomfort? Well, for me, one big answer is my faith – my identity as a Christian, which is a higher loyalty than my citizenship as an American. Using my understanding of God’s intentions for humanity – things like mutual care, justice, and wellbeing for all – using that as a yardstick, I can measure the successes and failures of my city, state, and nation. I can look for the places where movement towards better is happening, or could happen – and strive to support it, with my time and voice and resources. 

When we hold up the realities of our common life agains our shared values and aspirations, and find ourselves yearning and crying out for better, we join a chorus that spans nearly 250 years. 

Let’s share a few such voices now, and pray that their words may inspire us to deeper commitment to the ideals of freedom, equality, and democracy that are the foundation stones of this nation, and to God’s dream of mutual care, justice, and wellbeing for all. 

Sermon, June 6

The readings for this Sunday are here. 

Notice how early this passage is, in Mark’s Gospel. It’s the second half of chapter 3. We are not very far into the story, here. Jesus has done some healing and teaching. He’s drawn some crowds, gathered some followers. He’s scandalized religious leaders by holding the Sabbath lightly.  And done some exorcisms, driving evil spirits out of people – important context for this passage. 

Some religious scholars from Jerusalem have come to Capernaum, the city where Jesus lives in Mark’s Gospel, to check out this new rabbi. And this is their assessment: He is possessed by Beelzebul, and he exorcises demons by the power of the ruler of the demons. 

Beelzebul is a great demon name, right? It’s probably adapted from the name of a Philistine god. Sometimes it meant a particular major demon; sometimes it’s just another name for Satan, the Accuser, understood in this time to be the ultimate ruler of the forces of evil. 

So, people are accusing Jesus of using demonic power to cast out demons, and Jesus says: That doesn’t even make sense. A kingdom divided against itself cannot stand. And then he offers some hints about who and what he really is: “No one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man.” Satan, or Beelzebul, is the strong man here – and Jesus is the one plundering his house, freeing people from their bondage to evil spirits.

And then Jesus says this: “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.”

This saying has perplexed and alarmed people for a long time. Dorothy Sayers, mystery novelist and theologian, wrote a satirical piece in 1939 about shallow Christian teaching, including this line: “There is a sin against [the Holy Spirit] which damns you for ever, but nobody knows what it is.” No-one wants to commit an unforgivable sin – but what does it mean to blaspheme against the Holy Spirit, and how is one to avoid it??

Thankfully, when you read the whole passage, it’s pretty clear what the sin is. Blasphemy is a fine old-fashioned chewy church word; it means to speak falsely, with ill intent, about God or holy things. The blasphemy against the Holy Spirit here is that people see Jesus healing and casting out demons by the Holy Spirit’s power, and call it evil. They see God at work and cry out, “Satan!” – failing to recognize God doing what God does: mending, liberating and restoring. 

Biblical scholar Richard Swanson writes, “Their claim is sinful because it imagines that they understand God so thoroughly that anyone who disagrees with them must be animated by a foreign force.  Their principle is simple: if I don’t understand it, it must be evil…. In the face of the complexity of real life, [such] certainty is blasphemy… a blasphemy that we mistake for faithfulness.”

I’d like to turn to our passage from First Samuel, for a bit. This is one of my favorite texts in the Old Testament. I love it because Samuel is spot on, here, anthropologically speaking. 

It’s absolutely true that in human prehistory and history, increases in centralized power have usually come with an increase in inequality, and loss of autonomy and increased extraction of wealth from ordinary people. There are benefits too – but there are real tradeoffs in becoming a more complex and hierarchical society. Samuel names that, in this eloquent warning. 

With this passage, we begin our walk through the books of Samuel and Kings this summer. The narrative here is building on the book of Judges, which precedes it, as the chronicle of how God’s people lived during the first few generations in the promised land. Their leaders were judges who spoke and acted on behalf of God. The judges didn’t have a lot of power – people came to them with disputes, and looked to them in times of war. And the judges were a real mixed bag. We’ve encountered Deborah and Gideon in our Scripture dramas, and you may remember Samson from Sunday school stories. From the standpoint of the Biblical text: Deborah was pretty good, Gideon had his ups and downs, and Samson was not great. There are others whose stories are not fit for Sunday sharing. Samuel is a pivotal figure. He’s the last judge of Israel, and the first great prophet since Moses, who anoints Israel’s first and second kings.

God’s people should have learned from the time of the judges that human power is profoundly imperfect. Leaders will not always be wise or good or effective. Yet now they’re asking for a human leader with MORE power, MORE ways to make their lives difficult.  And they insist on it. They really want it. They want a king to govern them and fight for them, and to be like the other nations,

So Samuel, and God, give them a king. And then another king, and more kings after them. It’s a wonderful, complicated, ambiguous saga, which we’ll explore in the months ahead. 

There is, I think, a thread that connects this text with our Gospel. Let me try to put words around it. It has to do with our human resistance to new understandings, especially when they complicate things that we want to be simple. 

We often resist and struggle with new understandings and ideas, especially when they complicate things that we want to be simple.

But God is often at work in the new, the strange, the complicated. As God tells the prophet Isaiah: My thoughts are not your thoughts; my ways are not your ways. 

Samuel is trying to help God’s people think more broadly and deeply about this big change – but they will not listen. Their idea of what a king is and does is fixed and clear. Our king will be exactly the kind of king we want. Hush with your nuances and ambiguities.

Jesus is trying to help this crowd understand that something big is happening here – that the goodness at work in the world is wilder and stranger and stronger than they think. But many of the things Jesus does and says fall outside the bounds of expected religious behavior. So he must be evil and/or mentally ill – “beside himself,” in the language of the text. Anything that doesn’t fit in our boxes can’t possibly be good. 

A lot of the people around Jesus can’t – won’t – really see what he’s doing or hear what he’s saying. But some of them DO. That’s crucial. Human short-sightedness and bias, lack of imagination and empathy, rigidity and fear of new ideas – those are big barriers. But sometimes our minds and hearts do open. Sometimes we’re able to come to grips with the complicated truth. Sometimes we manage to recognize the holy at work outside the expected boxes. 

June is observed as Pride Month, around the world. It’s a time to celebrate lesbian, gay, bisexual and pansexual, transgender, queer, non-binary people, and the full continuum of gender and sexual expression, in all its variety. It’s a time for people like me, heterosexual and cisgender, to listen, and learn, and strive to keep broadening and deepening our understanding and our allyship. It’s also a time when many communities hold memorial services – for those lost to AIDS, to hate crimes, to self-harm. 

The lives and witnesses and friendships of LGBTQ+ people have been absolutely central in my own life of faith and ministry. My intention to be an ally is personal; it’s a commitment to stand with people I love. But it’s not just personal. It’s also theological. Sharing friendship and ministry and study with LGBTQ+ people has deepened my understanding of God and God’s work in human hearts and human history. As my friend Eric likes to say: God is bigger. Bigger than our boxes, our categories, our expectations. 

Right now there’s a coordinated effort across the country to stigmatize transgender people and constrain their choices. There have already been over 100 bills introduced in state legislatures this year. Many prohibit transgender kids, youth and young adults from participating in sports consistent with their gender identity; others limit transgender youth from accessing appropriate medical care. So far, seventeen bills have become law.

What’s behind all this? For some people there’s a real sense of anxiety in the idea that something that seems natural and fixed – biological sex at birth – could turn out to be less clear-cut and more changeable. The existence of transgender people complicates something that they want to be simple. If you’ve studied humanity and the natural world, complexity and diversity are not surprises; but not everyone has that framework. 

For others, there’s a misguided sense that broadening the space for transgender people to be on the outside who they are on the inside is somehow a threat to women and girls. And for still others, there’s a cynical calculation that those kinds of doubts and fears can be used to drum up anxiety and mobilize voters. 

Our congregation includes the parents and grandparents of transgender people. I have transgender colleagues. Our kids have transgender friends. If you’re hearing my words right now, your extended family of faith includes transgender people and their families. 

Today’s text from Mark is a powerful Gospel for Pride month. The LGBTQ+ community knows all about authority figures labeling what they don’t understand as evil. This text warns us in no uncertain terms against the kind of certainty that refuses to see God at work in people and places that don’t fit certain preconceptions. And Jesus shares the experience of many LGBTQ+ people of finding that the family that raised him can’t fully be his family anymore; that he needs to find and gather a new family, who can hear him, and love him, and walk with him. 

The Episcopal Church has committed to the full inclusion of LGBTQ+ people. But we still have work to do – plenty of it. I wonder what work we have here, at St. Dunstan’s? I wonder what steps, small or large, would help us live up to that rainbow sticker by our front door? Not because it’s trendy – not because it’s good marketing – but because we have seen and known God, healing and mending, liberating and restoring, in the lives and vocations and partnerships of LGBTQ+ people. 

I had almost finished this sermon when I had a moment of doubt. I realized that, for some, this will feel like the second week in a row that my sermon has asked you to care about something that might not have fully been on your radar before. 

It’s not something I would think twice about in another time, but we are deep in the awkward phase of re-emergence, friends. People’s needs and hopes and concerns are all over the map. People are bruised and fearful and yearning – people out there, and people in this church community. Your parish leaders are trying to listen well and wisely. Somebody said on Twitter, We all need gentleness, and we’re all too tired to be gentle. I keep thinking about that. 

I read this sermon over and asked myself if I could make it say something else. Go a different direction. And I couldn’t. This is what was there for me to preach. But this is what I can offer.  

I’m asking us to think about greater awareness and stronger allyship – for those of us who have the luxury to choose to be allies – as part of our re-emergence. Back when all this started, we said: You know, this is TERRIBLE –  but normal was’t that great either. Back when all this started, we said: When we rebuild, after, let’s rebuild better. Back when all this started, I preached a sermon to our whole diocese about how surely, surely, we would come out of all this with a more profound and lasting understanding of our human interconnectedness. 

So: This is rebuilding, better. This is following through. This is returning to community, to common life, with a broader sense of who community includes, and why community matters. 

And like everything else about our re-emergence and rebuilding, it’s going to be slow and stepwise. Everyone will take it at their own pace.  Everyone will participate and contribute as they can, when they can. And that’s OK. 

Let our slow steps be guided by the kind of nation and community and church that we long for in our best and boldest moments.  

Let our rebuilding be renovation, which literally means making new – a new “normal” that includes redress of past wrongs and care for the vulnerable and welcoming each as they are. 

And let the God whose thoughts are not our thoughts, whose ways are not our ways, help us see and trust goodness at work in the world, wilder and stranger and stronger than we can imagine. 

Amen. 

 

SOME LINKS…

Dorothy Sayers, “The Dogma Is the Drama” –

https://www.gutenberg.ca/ebooks/sayers-strong/sayers-strong-00-h.html#toc02dogma

Richard Swanson on this Gospel:

https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2018/06/06/a-provocation-third-sunday-after-pentecost-june-10-2018-mark-320-35/

On anti-transgender bills:

https://www.wxyz.com/news/2021-is-a-record-year-for-anti-transgender-bills-including-one-in-michigan

Sermon, May 30

Lectionary texts for today are here. 

Today’s Scripture texts are full of the mystery and awe of God. We hear Isaiah’s vision of the divine throne, surrounded by the seraphim with their six mighty wings, the very floor trembling with the might of their voices as they cry out God’s praise, the air hazy with incense smoke. 

Our Psalm echoes that sense of the power and wonder, even terror, of God enthroned in might… The voice of God shakes the wilderness! 

And then we have poor confused Nicodemus, who has every reason to stay away from Jesus, and yet comes to him by night, drawn to him like a moth to a candle… Here’s my favorite image of Nicodemus and Jesus, by Henry Ossawa Tanner.  It’s actually a study, not a finished piece, but I love the quality of twilight and mystery here. It fits the conversation in our Gospel text, in which Jesus tells Nicodemus: if I speak of heavenly things, you simply won’t be able to understand. 

Awe and mystery. Flame and smoke and trembling earth. God is bigger and stranger than we can perceive or understand. 

But we have been given glimpses, fragments and hints. And we know this: that God’s ineffable unity, God’s one-ness, also somehow contains multiplicity. God holds community, relationship, within Godself – Father, Son, and Spirit; Source, Word, and Breath; Wisdom, Love, Might. The Holy and Undivided Trinity. 

And then there’s our passage from Romans: All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God… who cry out “Abba! Father!” by the spirit of adoption that God has given us. It’s a provocative and beautiful contrast with the other texts. Paul sees us called into relationship with the awe-inspiring Mystery at the center of things. He sees that figure on the heavenly throne, shrouded in smoke, and suggests that we climb up on its lap. Because that God, mighty and mysterious, has named us as their children. 

God’s Threeness within Oneness teaches us to understand that relationship is at the very heart of the Holy. And we are invited into relationship with that divine Mystery. God loves us, and calls us into love. What does that look like? 

Elsewhere, in his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul offers this well-known reflection on holy love – “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. Or as Presiding Bishop Michael Curry put it in a sermon a couple of decades ago that I’ve never forgotten: God loves you just the way you are, but He isn’t going to leave you that way.

That aspect of love – the part of love that calls us to better and clearer and truer – makes me think of my friends in the recovery community and some of the things I’ve learned from them. In the Twelve Steps, steps 4 through 6 call for making a fearless personal inventory. Admitting your wrongs to God, yourself, and others, and becoming ready for God to help you change. Eventually, if you keep up the work, you arrive at Step 9 – which involves making amends, fixing what you’ve broken and setting things right, as much as may be possible. 

Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 

Your own fearless personal inventory is your work do – though I am glad to be a companion in that work. But I’m speaking here about our vocation as God’s people – together. Our collective examination of where wrongdoing weighs upon us, and where there is truth that needs to be told – and rejoiced in. 

This past Friday was the anniversary of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, signed by President Andrew Jackson, not quite two hundred years ago. It’s one of many dates when the U.S. government took steps against the Native peoples of this continent – but it’s perhaps the most famous such date, leading to the displacement of the Cherokee people and the Trail of Tears. 

There are other dates of local significance to us. September 15, 1832, when a treaty with the Ho-Chunk people, then known as the Winnebago, forced them to cede all their land south of the Wisconsin River, including where we now live and worship. Later, November 1, 1837, another treaty formally removed the Ho-Chunk entirely from Wisconsin – though many refused to leave, and had to be rounded up and driven out in 1840. 

The tribes were paid for the land. But the payments and terms were quite limited. And the tribes were not given a choice about these treaties. They were made an offer they literally could not refuse. 

Ancient Ho-Chunk stories tell of their birth as a people at a place near Green Bay, called Red Banks. As best as anyone can tell, the ancestors of the Ho-Chunk have known and roamed ten million acres of south central and western Wisconsin, for as long as there have been people here at all. Until.

Until population growth in the new European settler nation to the east led to inexorable westward expansion. Until land speculation made the removal of Native peoples profitable.  Until lead ore was found in southwestern Wisconsin, drawing a flood miners into Ho-Chunk territory. 

We know that this area, the region around the lakes, was very special to the Ho-chunk and their ancestors, who called it Teejop. We know that because of documents from the contact period, because of the passed-down memories shared by Ho-Chunk today, and because of the mounds – because over hundreds of years, people marked this sacred landscape by creating images of birds and bears, deer and frogs, out of the earth itself. The closest surviving mound is about half a mile away – a fox.

The ground on which St Dunstan’s stands became the property of the US Government in the 1830s, through treaties and the removal of the Ho-Chunk. It was eventually sold to the Heim brothers, Joseph and Anton,  immigrants from Germany. They settled here in 1848, with Joseph’s fiancé Theresia; built the brick farmhouse we call the Rectory, and cleared and farmed the land. 

Anton’s son Ferdinand lived a very long life – born, probably in the rectory, in 1865, he lived until 1950. As far as I can tell, he lived on the family property his whole life, though in the 1930s he started selling parcels off for development. 

In a 1915 interview, Ferdinand recalled his father Anton’s stories about how, long after their official removal, the Ho-Chunk were still coming around. They would camp on the shore of Lake Mendota, probably right around where Marshall Park is now. There they would hunt, trap, and fish, as they had for generations. 

Ferdinand added that they were great beggars, stopping at the farms to ask for food constantly, and that his father had had to put fences around his hay mows to keep their ponies from eating his hay.

For the Heim family, the persistence of the Ho-Chunk in returning seasonally to this beloved place was an annoyance. Governor Dodge – who governed the Wisconsin Territory for much of the 1840s, after being involved with the massacre of the Sauk tribe at Bad Axe – saw it in the same light. In a speech in 1840 he observed that “the presence of these Indians had given the pioneer settlers great annoyance, and their peaceable removal west of the Mississippi River was a subject of congratulations among the settlers.” 

But even some contemporaries saw the displacement with different eyes. John de la Ronde was a French-Canadian trader who knew the Ho-Chunk well. He served as an interpreter for a group of United States soldiers who were breaking up and clearing out Ho-Chunk settlements in 1840. His account is heartbreaking. 

In one case, he describes a group of Natives who asked to “bid goodbye to their fathers, mothers, and children,” before being forced to leave their camp. When de la Ronde and his companions followed them, they found them on their knees, kissing the ground where their loved ones were buried, and weeping. The captain of the party exclaimed, “Good God! What harm could these poor Indians do among the rocks?” 

It is interesting and complicated to think about all this on the weekend of Memorial Day – a day when we’re invited to remember and honor those who have died in battle. In northern Indiana where I grew up, a frequent field trip destination was Battleground, the site of the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811 – where William Henry Harrison and his troops defeated the Shawnee leader Tecumseh and the alliance of tribes fighting with him to push back white settlers’ incursions. (Harrison later leveraged that victory into a successful presidential bid, then promptly died of pneumonia.) 

There’s a great big marble monument at Battleground to the white soldiers who died in that conflict. But I don’t think there’s any monument to the Native fighters who died there for their people and their land. 

Who counts as American? Who do we consider our war dead? And does honoring them mean that we endorse their causes or celebrate their victories? … 

Removal did not really work, on the HoChunk. They kept coming back. (Much to Anton Heim’s annoyance.) 

When it became possible for them to buy land, they bought land. Though it’s a tiny percentage of the area their ancestors once knew and loved and lived on. 

The Ho-Chunk are still here. Striving to pass on their language and culture to their children; striving to protect their young and their vulnerable from the impacts of systemic racism and poverty. 

The land that I/we are sitting on right now was beloved to a people from whom it was taken,160 years ago. 110 years later, it was given to a little group of Episcopalians who wanted to start a new church on the west side of Madison. 

Can we love these grounds – as we do – without taking in and taking on the history of how they came to be ours? Can we love the sacred earth of this place without asking what love requires of us, with respect to the people who first knew it as sacred? 

Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 

Telling and receiving this story – these difficult truths – is the very beginning of that fearless inventory I mentioned earlier. It is heavy work, which is why it needs to be shared work. (If you feel called to share it, let me know.) 

But I think it’s essential work… that it is the work of love. We respond to the holy interconnectedness and mutuality within the heart of God by striving to name and restore what has been rent asunder and lost. The God of mystery and awe calls us from comfort, to learn, and change, and mend. The God who loves us like a parent will be with us every step of the way, to encourage and guide us.

Knowing this history – and seeking the Spirit’s guidance as we wonder what it might look like to make amends – this is part of our faithful response to the three-fold Mystery that knows each of us by name, that knows every tree and wildflower of this place, and that calls us, always, deeper into love. 

A concise history of Ho-Chunk displacement:

https://www.mpm.edu/content/wirp/ICW-105

A little about the Ho-Chunk:

https://wisconsinfirstnations.org/ho-chunk-nation/

De la Ronde’s account is one of the primary sources linked here: 

oursharedfuture.wisc.edu/primary-sources/

Homily, Pentecost, May 23

This homily follows a short play based on the life of Symeon the Holy Fool. 

Symeon the Holy Fool first came to my attention because the middle school youth group chose him as their favorite, in this year’s Lent Madness saint popularity contest. When we needed a story to share in May – I looked up Symeon, and found his biography, written by Leontius, who was a bishop in Greece in the 7th century. We’re sharing that story today, on Pentecost, because Leontius tells us repeatedly that Symeon’s strange behavior was guided by the Holy Spirit at work within him. 

What is the Holy Spirit? In the early years of Christianity, Christians began to talk about God as having three different ways of being. Those three aspects are separate. For example: Jesus talks about both God the Father, and the Holy Spirit, as being different from himself. Yet they are also all part of the One God. 

We use the word “Trinity” for that three-ness in one-ness. It is a mystery that may stretch our minds, but the church has come to know it as truth: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Source, Word, and Power;  The One who creates, the One who befriends, the One who empowers – the Holy and Undivided Trinity.

So: the Holy Spirit is part of God.  But somehow different from God the Parent and Source, and from Jesus, God the Friend. 

The idea that God’s Spirit was at work in the world was not something that came along with Christianity.  In the beginning of Creation, God’s Spirit moved across the waters of chaos. The Old Testament talks about Lady Wisdom as an aspect of God, who welcomes and guides those who seek her.

In today’s Pentecost story, the early Christians receive the Spirit of God in a new way.  The Holy Spirit helps them speak God’s good news in a way that others can understand. The Epistles, letters and sermons from the early decades of Christianity, tell us some of the other ways our faith-ancestors experienced the Spirit: The Spirit helps us know what to say, when we speak for God. The Spirit helps us pray, when we can’t find our own words. The Spirit gives us gifts and skills to use for the common good. The Spirit binds us together into one household of faith across our differences. The Spirit working in a human heart, or a human community, can bring love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

You might have noticed that I sometimes use “She” when I’m talking about the Holy Spirit. I don’t really think the Holy Spirit is a girl. But the church has used “He” for God for so long, in so many ways, when we know that God isn’t really a boy either. Using “She” for the Holy Spirit can help us remember that God is bigger than male or female as we know them. And that all kinds of humans are made in God’s image. 

The Church has some special things we do together where we invite the Holy Spirit to join us and make something happen, though what we are doing. Those things are called sacraments. 

The Eucharist is a sacrament. I ask God, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to take ordinary bread and wine and set them apart and make them holy, so that they can be Jesus’ body and blood for us. 

Baptism is a sacrament. When we baptize baby Dahlia this afternoon, we’ll ask the Holy Spirit to make the baptismal water holy, and to mark her as belonging to God forever. 

Marriage is a sacrament. Yesterday at Natalie and Howie’s wedding, we prayed for their spirits to be knit together in God’s spirit.

Confirmation is a sacrament. When some of our youth were confirmed last fall, and when Bishop Lee visits us this summer to confirm some people, he will pray over them and ask that the Holy Spirit will increase in them more and more. 

Those sacraments, those rites, are very special – even the ones we do often like Eucharist! But the Holy Spirit is willing to show up at not so special times too. The Holy Spirit is meant to be a friend and helper in daily life. And I have found that when I remember to call on her, she is. 

She can help us discern – choose a path well and wisely. She can help us find words of comfort, encouragement, and truth. She can give us courage to do what’s right even when it’s hard. She can help us notice what we might not notice on our own – when that noticing might be a gift to us or to others. 

And yes, like Symeon, if we’re really listening to the Spirit, she might sometimes nudge us to do something surprising, even something that seems foolish – if that surprising or foolish thing will help someone, or do good in the world. 

Here’s a big word for us all: Invocation. It means to call on something. The Church has always taught God’s people to call on the Spirit… to invoke the Spirit.  It’s not magic – we can’t control or manipulate God. But the Holy Spirit likes to be invited. We have to open a door to let her come in and help us. It can be as simple as saying, out loud or in your heart: Come, Holy Spirit! – and then, paying attention, patiently. Holding an open space inside yourself. 

If you like magic words, though, there’s a wonderful word that early Christians used: Maranatha! It’s in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, and it means, Come, Lord! Maranatha! 

Try saying that with me: Maranatha! 

Come, Holy Spirit! Maranatha! Bless your church and your people; work within us and among us; heal us, connect us, encourage and empower and guide us, today and always. Amen! 

Sermon, May 9

Today the lectionary offers us two texts from the Johannine literature: a portion of the first letter of John, and a passage from John’s Gospel. Let me start with a little explanation – beginning with a word I just used: Johannine. It’s based on a form the name John – the name associated with the fourth Gospel, the fourth of the four books in the Bible that tell the story of Jesus’ life. There are also three epistles, three letters or documents of the early church, in the Bible that bear John’s name – First, Second, and Third John. There’s a lot of overlap in language and themes between these letters and John’s Gospel – which is itself quite distinct from the other three Gospels. Many scholars think that the primary author of the Gospel, and the writer or writers of the letters, were different people, but that they were all part of a part of a particular community within the early church – a Johannine community, with a particular understanding of Jesus and Jesus’ message and what that means for Christians living out their faith. So today’s two texts, while most likely not the same voice, have a lot in common. It’s easy to read them together.  

Though this is our first sermon on it, we’ve been reading our way through 1 John for a few weeks now. We’ve heard that the world does not know us because it did not know Jesus. We’ve heard the call to love one another, for love is from God, and those who abide in love abide in God. And we heard, today, that whatever is born from God conquers the world. Even those few snippets are enough to point us towards the two central themes of this letter, woven through all five chapters:  Love each other, even when it’s hard; and: Keep the world at a distance. 

David Bentley Hart’s translation of the New Testament uses the Greek word “cosmos” instead of translating it into “world.” Hart explains that he does this in the hope of helping us hear the expansiveness of what’s being named. In this letter’s original time and place, “cosmos” would have encompassed the human, natural, and supernatural worlds. And it’s clear that for the author of First John, the cosmos is dangerous – aligned against the believers. Do not be astonished if the world hates you, says chapter 3, verse 13.  Further, this author believes that an evil power is at work in the world, the cosmos. “You are from God, little children… [and] the one that is in you is greater than the one that is in the cosmos.” (4:4)  And right at the end of the letter – “We know that we are of God, and that the whole cosmos rests entirely upon the wicked one.” (5:19)

The looming dangers of the cosmos are precisely why it’s so important for Christians to love one another; how else could they survive and stay faithful? 

Hart is probably right that we lack the cosmic sensibility of this letter’s original audience. But we can still hear the phrase “the world” in a context like this and make some sense of it. We can gesture to the surrounding culture and society, outside of the church and its worldview and commitments. 

Some of you, I know, have spent part of your lives in evangelical churches – and most of us are at least passingly familiar with evangelical Christianity. One defining characteristic of that family of churches is a sense of a very clear line between church and world. Like the author of letters of John, evangelical Christians have a clear sense that there’s a way the World does things, and a way Christians do things – and that they are and must be different. That’s why there’s so much stuff that’s kind of an evangelical alternative to trends in the surrounding culture. Christian alternatives to Harry Potter; Christian raves; Christian skateboarding. Who remembers pogs? … I don’t know why this came to mind when I was working on this sermon, but Google confirmed my hunch: YES, there were Christian pogs. 

And of course plenty of Christian rock and roll… which I mostly don’t know, because I was raised in the Episcopal church, and Episcopalians just let their kids listen to regular rock and roll.

Episcopal and Anglican relationships with “the world” have always been more nuanced – or maybe just messier. We are Christians who believe God is at work in the world outside the walls of the church – a mindset that probably springs from our origins as a national church. It’s in our DNA as a family of faith to believe that God’s purposes can be fulfilled and even revealed by wholly secular institutions and movements. 

There are many moments and choices in Anglican history that illustrate that tendency. In the late 20th century, both the ordination of women and the full sacramental inclusion of LGBTQ+ people followed in large part from new understandings emerging in the wider society. I hasten to say that our church did not, as critics sometimes claim, simply take on whatever had become the prevailing cultural idea. These things were matters of profound discernment and struggle. Those advocating for change and those with the power to make change studied Scripture, sought direction from the Holy Spirit, and wondered together as a body, on the way to clarity. 

I hasten to say that sexism and homophobia remain realities in the life of our institutional church. We have not fully lived up to our intentions.  But it’s nonetheless important that those intentions have been clearly named. It gives us something to measure our failures against, something to strive to live out more truly. Right now, the fresh reckoning with racism in our wider society is spurring a renewed exploration and re-commitment to change within the Episcopal Church as well. If you’re interested in knowing more about that, let me know. Overall: Our church has often found “the world” to be a source of revelation about God’s hopes for humanity and creation.

At the same time: There is something I recognize in 1 John’s call to caution about the world. In the letter of James, which we’re reading in Compline, James says: Keep yourself uncontaminated by the world. Not 1 John’s words, but very much their sentiment. And, you know: I get it. Not everything about our surrounding society is great. In fact, a lot of it is pretty messed up. Contamination – or staining, in some translations of that verse from James – is an apt image. Consider racism. Fears and assumptions about African-American people live in my head. I didn’t choose that stuff, or seek it out; I work to fight and transform it within myself; but it has leached in from the culture. Many other examples are possible. 

So: As Christians in the Episcopal way, our relationship with the world – with the cultural, social, economic and political landscape in which we live – is complicated. It’s certainly not all bad. It’s certainly not all good. Discernment is required. Thoughtfulness and prayerfulness are required. 

Today’s Johannine texts offer us a couple of tools for that work.One, of course, is love. The Johannine texts are crystal clear that love is a hallmark of God’s people. To abide in love is to abide in God. This is my commandment: Love one another as I have loved you. 

It’s easy to name love as a tool for assessing what happens in the world around us, and our right response. Applying it is not always so easy. 

Today, the city of Madison will evict homeless people who have been camping together, as a community, at Reindahl Park, over near the airport.  Neighbors and other park users don’t like having them there, and the city would rather have them in the shelter system. It’s a complicated issue with a lot of perspectives to consider. St. Dunstan’s is far from the areas where Madison’s unhoused population is concentrated. But I’ve met and talked with a few unhoused folks over the years who were staying in this part of town, precisely BECAUSE we’re far away.  I’ve heard from them about some of the reasons people choose not to enter the shelter system. The crowding and lack of privacy can be tough for some. Especially for moms with young children, or for people with PTSD or other reasons to just need their space. They may have substance abuse challenges that make it really difficult to work with the shelter’s requirements. They may just really dislike being thrown together with a lot of people whose company they didn’t choose. I think the decision to camp in a park instead of living in a shelter is especially understandable during a pandemic! 

What I’ve learned from these conversations is that some people will tolerate a LOT of discomfort and inconvenience, to avoid the shelter system. I understand why the city would like to simply bring all these folks into shelter. But it seems to me as if their needs and concerns have not been truly heard and addressed. I don’t know what the right answer is. But I believe more loving solution should be possible. 

The loving path, the loving choice, isn’t always obvious. It certainly isn’t always easy. But it’s always important. It’s always worth seeking. 

And then there’s another tool for discernment that today’s Gospel offers us: Joy. Jesus tells his friends, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” Pause and take that in. Where churches have long spoken of God’s anger and human shame, Jesus speaks of inviting us into holy joy. 

What moments come to mind when you think about joy? What does joy feel like in your body? Joy is different from happiness. You can choose to do things that will probably make you happy. Joy shows up on its own. You can’t force it.  J.D. Salinger wrote that happiness is a solid and joy is a liquid. C. S. Lewis wrote that joy “dashes in with the agility of a hummingbird claiming its nectar from the flower, and then zips away… leaving a wake of mystery and longing behind it.”

Here are some times when I feel joy – always only sometimes: When I’m learning something new. When I’m sharing experiences with those I love best. When I’m doing my work and can feel that I’m doing it well, serving you well, serving God well. 

Joy is an elusive tool for discerning where God may be at work in the cosmos around us. But I think it’s a valuable tool nonetheless. When you experience joy – well, when you experience joy, just be present to it! But later, when you recall and savor that moment, you could ask yourself: Does that joy have something to teach me? Does this joy point me towards anything? For myself? For others? 

Joy and love are holy gifts to us – and holy calls upon us. With hearts and minds open to both blessing and brokenness, opportunity and challenge – may love and joy guide us, as God’s people in the world. Amen. 

 

AuDivina, April 2021

AuDivina is short for “Audientia Divina” – Holy Listening. It’s a practice we developed during Coronatide to invite music into our faith gatherings in a different way, while we have been limited in some of the familiar ways. We listen to not-so-churchy music alongside texts or themes from Scripture and faith, and see what we notice and how they cast light on one another.

This month we had an Easter-y theme: Fresh Starts and New Beginnings. There are lots of ways to talk about those themes in Easter season, but here are a couple of Scriptures we began with:

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!  2 Cor 5:17

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, 3for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God…. you have stripped off the old self with its practices 10and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. 11In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all! Colossians 3:1-3, 9b – 11

Then we listened to some songs, read their lyrics, and talked about what we noticed! You can do the same. Our song list came mostly from people’s suggestions via Facebook and email – Rev. Miranda settled on final choices. Use Google to find lyrics, and more information about the song if you want it!

“Light of a clear blue morning” – Dolly Parton (1976)

 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3BaVb8LTooU

“Feeling Good” – Nina Simone (1965)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D5Y11hwjMNs

“O-o-h child” – Five Stairsteps (1970)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dguz0IsCuKU

“Come on up to the house” – Tom Waits (1999)

 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-GugzLSbOQE

“Solsbury Hill” – Peter Gabriel (1977)

 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_OO2PuGz-H8

“Return home” – killedmyself (2016)

https://killedmyself.bandcamp.com/track/return-home-2

Honorable Mention:

“Take up your spade” – Sara Watkins (2012)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eLpBPiGt248

“Complicated Creation – Cloud Cult (2013)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b8RXwy_inBs

Sermon, April 18

Today’s Gospel: Luke 24:36b-48

In the Gospel stories about the risen Jesus meeting with his friends, there’s a fascinating paradox about the nature of his body. It’s clear that there is something beyond ordinary embodiment here. The risen Jesus can pass through locked doors, and turn up in unexpected locations. He has a habit of not looking like himself until, quite suddenly, he does. It’s tempting to read all this through the lens of science fiction and hypothesize that the risen Jesus gained the power to rearrange his own atoms at will. 

On the other hand, the witnesses to the Resurrection take care to tell us that what they saw isn’t some intangible spirit.  He can be held and touched. You could put your finger in his wounds, if you felt the need to do so. He eats food. I love the specificity of the boiled fish, here!

The resurrected body of Jesus is not entirely like our bodies, but it also *is* a lot like our bodies. It was important to Jesus to show that to his friends and followers, and it was important to them to pass it on to us. Ghosts and spirits were familiar concepts in that time and place; there’s a story in Acts where someone sees Paul and thinks she’s seeing Paul’s ghost. But the witnesses to the resurrection are clear that that’s not what this is. 

Presbyterian pastor, blogger and Bible scholar Mark Davis writes, “It would be so easy just to say that death releases us from the confines of the body and allows our spirits to be free as the wind. That would have been compatible with the popular Greek notions of the mind/body or spirit/body relationship. It would give credence to popular current notions about the body as some kind of shell with which we are stuck for a time, to be released one day. But, that’s not what the gospels say. The risen Christ is the embodied Christ.”

The witnesses tell us: we touched him. We embraced him. We shared a meal with him. We felt his breath on our faces. We were joyful, and doubtful, and we had so many questions. But there he was. He was there. 

I enjoy the hint in today’s Gospel that Jesus was actually kind of hungry. And that the disciples just stood around and gaped at him while he ate! And then – he wants to talk to them about the Bible. He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures. He wants to help them know that – as he says in Mark’s Gospel – our God is a God of the living. That God has always been bringing life from death. 

Davis writes, “The rise and fall of kingdoms, the suffering and return of exiles, the despair of the suffering servant, the hope of the one “coming in clouds,” the expectation of Elijah’s return—all are stories of how inasmuch as God lives, so do God’s promises. Resurrection makes all the difference between seeing the Scriptures as accounts of things that happened but are not happening any more; and accounts of things that happened and marvelously continue to be happening because God lives.”

Jesus wants to help his friends understand that the new faith being born in their hearts and minds is compatible with the faith of their ancestors, with God’s work with and through God’s chosen people Israel. After all, at every Easter Vigil, we hear the prophet Ezekiel sharing God’s promise to bring Israel up out of their graves and give them new life!

But there’s more here. Because Resurrection faith isn’t just about God; it’s also about us – and the world we live in. Richard Swanson writes, “The Resurrected Messiah eats.  That implies that Resurrection works out its meaning in the real world, not in heaven. Stop and think about that.  The Resurrected Messiah engages the real, physical, earthly, social, political, economic, complicated world.”

That’s not always how we think and speak about resurrection – about life after death. Often Christians speak as if life beyond the grave lessens the value, the importance, of life before the grave. Life on this earth becomes nothing more than a pilgrimage or a passageway to that ultimate destination. At its most extreme, this mindset leads to the idea that things like environmental crisis and systemic injustice don’t matter. Because this world is not the point. 

But that mindset – I believe – is unfaithful to the God who created this world, in its beauty and complexity. To the God who spoke to Moses from a burning bush and did NOT  say, “Tell my people to put up with their enslavement; it doesn’t matter, because they’ll be free and happy after they die.” It’s unfaithful to Jesus, who healed. And fed. And ate. 

Davis writes, “[Seeing Scripture and world through the lens of] resurrection is not a fatalistic capitulation to the inevitable death of all things. It increases the value of life—life of the earth, life of the community, even life of the enemy—because where there is life, there is God.”

Thinking about life from death as a theme throughout Scripture makes me think of another thread woven through the whole Bible, Old and New Testaments alike: the many repetitions of the words, Don’t be afraid. Fear not. Or sometimes: Take courage. Take heart. In today’s Gospel, Jesus says: Why are you frightened? 

If God’s purposes in the world consistently involve bringing life from death, turning endings into beginnings, then it makes sense that one of God’s core messages for humanity is: It’s going to be OK. You don’t have to be so afraid. 

Where does fear hold us back from new possibilities for rebirth and renewal? 

Fear of a diverse and multiethnic America drives white supremacist violence, and keeps refugee children imprisoned at our southern border.

Fear of changing understandings of gender, biology, and self are feeding anti-transgender legislation in many states that will wound and kill. 

Fear of what people like me, historically privileged by virtue of our whiteness, might lose, holds us back from a real reckoning with the past and work towards meaningful reparations. 

Fear of having to radically change our way of life, our constant casual consumption, keeps us paralyzed in the face of climate disaster. 

Fear and failure of imagination about other ways to order our common life hold us bound to models of policing that consistently inflict senseless violence on black and brown bodies. George, Breonna, Duante, Tony… so many. 

I’m not shaming anyone for having those fears. I share many of them. 

Psalm 4 speaks truly:  Many are saying, “Oh, that we might see better times!” What if we believed that where there is life, there is God? Really believed it? What if God has the power, working with and through and among us, to bring about better futures? Futures of possibility beyond the fears that bind and burden us? 

Why are you frightened? asks Jesus, and then, Do you have anything here to eat? His friends give him some fish and he bites, and chews, and swallows. And they stand around and watch: joyful, half-disbelieving, still wondering. He is real and impossible, familiar and strange. He is alive, a living body in the same real, physical, earthly, social, political, economic, complicated world that we share. And his triumph over death which is also our triumph over death is not to free us from the complicated world, beloveds, but to free us for it. 

Fear not. 

Alleluia! Christ is risen! 

The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia! 

 

SOURCES

Mark Davis, “The Politics of Resurrection Hermeneutics” 

https://politicaltheology.com/the-politics-of-resurrection-hermeneutics-luke-2436-48/

Mark Davis, “Opening their minds to the Scriptures,” https://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2015/04/opening-their-minds-to-scriptures.html

Richard Swanson, “A Provocation: Third Sunday of Easter,” https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2018/04/09/a-provocation-third-sunday-of-easter-april-15-2018-luke-2436b-48/