All posts by Miranda Hassett

Sermon, May 12

There is no violent solution.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Jesus… avoids the question. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More on Jesus and Hanukkah here: 

https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com

More on Hellenism and the ambiguity of the Maccabees: 

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

Sermon, May 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Homily/Drama, April 28

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

KING DAVID: True, true.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JAMES: May I be of assistance?

MIRANDA: Excuse me – who are you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THOMAS: Please don’t call me that.

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

THOMAS: Yes, that’s me. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WE WILL!

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

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

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

We will. 

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

Easter Sermon, April 21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Sermon, April 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Richard Swanson’s commentary on this text:

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

Homily, March 24

Luke 13:1-5, paraphrased

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Sermon, March 10

The word is very near you, on your lips and in your heart. 

The apostle Paul, in the letter to the Romans, is hitting one of his core themes here: that it’s equally possible for Jews or Gentiles to become Christians, because it’s a religion of heart, not of background or ethnicity – of being a particular kind of person. He’s quoting the Old Testament Book of Deuteronomy, from a passage that is saying something a little bit different – this text is telling the people Israel, LOOK, you know what it means to live in God’s ways… just STICK TO IT.  The book of Deuteronomy places itself on the brink of a new chapter in Israel’s life, as they enter the Promised Land. It calls them to stay faithful to God and God’s commandments, as they leave their wilderness time to become a settled nation. 

Here’s that passage from the 30th chapter of Deuteronomy:  “Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.” (Deut 30:11-14) Yes, the sarcasm is there in the text! The ancient Jews had many specific practices as part of their faith, but the heart of it was simple: Be faithful to God; live with justice and mercy as God has called you. The book of Deuteronomy says again and again: Choose life. Choose faithfulness. Choose righteousness. Choose the things that give you life. 

The word is very near you; it is in your heart for you to observe.

This is the first Sunday in the season of Lent, a season of preparation leading up to Easter. For centuries, Lent has been observed as a special time of self-examination and penitence – meaning, reflecting on where I have not lived up to God’s intentions for me and my intentions for myself; making amends and trying to do better. Christians often take on particular practices in Lent, focusing especially on fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. Fasting means setting something aside for the season, and offering the space it leaves to God. It might be giving up a particular food like sweets or meat, but it can be other things too. You might want to ask yourself, Is there something in my life that has more hold over me than I want it to? And commit to quitting or reducing that for a season. I’m quitting Twitter for Lent this year – and I’m saying that in front of all of you because I expect it to be hard, and I need the accountability! But I want to reclaim that time in my daily life, and spent it with my loved ones, myself, and God. 

Almsgiving is a wonderful old-fashioned word that just means, sharing with those in need. A lot of you do that on a regular basis already. But maybe there’s an opportunity to do more, this season. Some people link a Lenten fast to a practice of giving.For example, students at Virginia Theological Seminary invented “Menstrual Madness” last March. People fasted from things that cost money, like eating out or espresso drinks, and used the money saved to buy feminine hygiene products for local food pantries. 

And then there’s prayer. Turning our hearts towards God. Saying whatever we need to say – be it, Help! Thanks! Or Sorry! And listening to what God might have to say to us. The word is very near you; it is in your heart…

I encourage you to consider taking on a Lenten practice of some kind. It’s not too late; Lent is still just beginning!  The first Sunday or Monday in Lent are great times to start a Lenten discipline.  And I’d like to offer you a practice – a practice of prayer that trusts that God’s word is very near us, in our hearts. 

This practice of prayer was developed by a young man named Inigo. (Not the one you’re thinking of!) Inigo was born in the year 1491, the youngest son of a noble Spanish family.  As a young man, he became a knight, a soldier. One biography describes him as “a fancy dresser, an expert dancer, a womanizer, sensitive to insult, and a rough punkish swordsman who used his privileged status to escape prosecution” when he committed crimes. (Traub & Mooney via Wikipedia) Writing later in life, Inigo described his young self as “a man given to the vanities of the world, whose chief delight consisted in martial exercises, with a great and vain desire to win renown.”

Now, in 1521, when he was 30 years old, Inigo was helping defend a fortress from French soldiers when he was struck by a cannonball, breaking both his legs. He ended up confined to his rooms for many weeks of recovery. During that time he had access to only two books, one on the life of Christ, and one on the lives of the saints. Sometimes he would read this edifying material and reflect on it. And sometimes he would daydream about the life he’d left behind, his glory days of wine, women, and war. 

Over the weeks, Inigo noticed something. The daydreams about his former life were exciting. But they left him feeling exhausted, dissatisfied, and sad. Whereas when he dwelt with the stories of Jesus and the saints, and imagined making his own pilgrimage to Jerusalem someday to see where Jesus had walked – well, those kinds of thoughts left him feeling cheerful, calm, and hopeful. 

He began to think that this could be a spiritual tool – to notice what you feel within yourself, in relation to particular thoughts, actions, or events; and to use those feelings as teachers and guides. The feelings of weariness, sadness, or dissatisfaction, he called desolation; the feelings of peace, joy, and hope, he called   consolation. When he was well, Inigo – known to history as Ignatius of Loyola – visited a shrine to the Virgin Mary, and there hung up his sword for good. He became a pilgrim, a scholar, and a priest. He wrote about consolation and desolation in a book called the Spiritual Exercises; and he founded the Jesuit order. (He’s one of the Lent Madness saints this year, so you can learn more about him by picking up one of those booklets or following the Lent Madness website!) 

Inigo’s approach to reflecting on our lives and noticing our moments of consolation and desolation is known as the Examen. And that’s the practice of prayer I’d like to invite you to try. It has the great advantage of being both simple, and powerful. 

A core premise of the Examen is that God speaks within us. That, indeed, the divine Word is very near you – not up in the sky or beyond the sea, but dwelling in your heart of hearts. That listening attentively to ourselves, to our deepest yearnings, joys, and struggles, is also a way of listening for God. In their wonderful book about the Examen, called Sleeping with Bread, Dennis, Shiela, and Matthew Linn write, “As you do the examen, you are listening to both God and yourself, since God speaks within your deepest experience.” 

The practice of the Examen is very simple. (You don’t have to take notes, I have a guide for you!) People usually do it towards the end of the day – after dinner, or as people prepare for bedtime, or even right before turning off the lights. Find a time that fits the shape of your day and the rhythms of your household. Light a candle.  This helps mark that you’re setting aside a few moments of special time; and the flame represents the light of divine revelation in our everyday experience. (Linn, p. 19) Take a little silence – maybe three deep breaths in and out – to let some clutter clear out of your mind. It might help you to put your hand on your heart. Ask yourself (or each other) two questions. For what moment today am I most grateful? For what moment today am I least grateful? When you’ve spent time with the questions, wrap up your time in prayer. It can be as simple as, “God, thank you for the good things, and help us with the hard things. Amen.” 

There are other ways to frame the two questions: When was I most able to give and receive love today? When was I least able to give or receive love today? When did I feel most alive today? When did I feel life draining out of me today?What was today’s high point? What was today’s low point? 

For some of us, listening to our bodies could be an important part of this practice.  I know that for me, I often realize that I’m stressed or upset or sad because I feel it in my body. My brain is busy saying, Okay, okay, this is fine, I got this, we can cope. But I also get that feeling like there’s a big ball of ice in my stomach, or my chest tightens up. I need to listen to my body to know how I feel, because I can’t always trust my brain. Or have you had the experience of talking about something and, suddenly, there’s a lump in your throat or tears in your eyes? It might be something bad or good – I’ve had it happen in both directions. You had no idea it was affecting you so much. But your deeper self knew. This is pretty common; lots of us can’t trust our brains and need to pay attention to our whole self, including our body, to know how we really are. 

The practice of the Examen has gifts and challenges for everyone. Someone who is pessimistic, negative or stressed needs the invitation to notice joys and blessings – the consolations. But there is meaning in the hard moments, the desolations, too! In Sleeping with Bread, one of the authors says, “My addiction (which I call ‘Peace at Any Price’) is always be grateful and happy and never rock the boat. Thus I need the Examen to help me acknowledge feelings of sadness and pain and hear how God is speaking through them.” (11) 

Dwelling with our desolations can be hard. The Examen invites us to simply acknowledge our worst moments, without judgment, breathing in God’s love. (30) Ignatius teaches that when we’re reflecting on a moment when we acted in a way we wish we hadn’t, we should try to understand the story of that moment. How did it begin? How did you get there? And… what would it look like for that story to be resolved? (49) Here’s an example: Many of us end up snapping at friends or  loved ones, when we are tired or stressed. So the story of those moments might include some kind of strain in the relationship that could be examined and resolved – but it also includes our exhaustion, another real spiritual burden. 

Being gentle with yourself is important. If something really hard is coming up, it’s OK to dwell with it a little at a time, and then tell it kindly that you’ll spend more time with it tomorrow. And if something’s emerging that you need help with, look for help! But dwelling with the hard moments – even the trivial, everyday hard moments – is a crucial first step. 

Dwelling with joy can be hard too. Some of us have internalized deeply that happiness isn’t for us, that the right thing to do is always the hard thing to do. But the Examen assumes that, like our desolations, our consolations have something important to tell us. Those moments when we feel deeply joyful or profoundly peaceful, fully alive, fully engaged – that’s not frivolous, those aren’t just moments of escape from gritty reality. They matter, and they mean something. 

The Examen is fundamentally a daily practice of reflecting back on the past twelve hours or so. But over time, engaged faithfully, it can become much more. It can guide our choices and our lives. If we sustain the practice, we may start to notice patterns. If you spot many similar moments of joy, is there a call or invitation there? Could you shift things so there’s more of that in your life? And likewise, if similar desolations surface often, they may point us towards the need to undertake some change in our lives. Sleeping with Bread says, “Insignificant moments when looked at each day become significant because they form a pattern that often points the way to how God wants to give us more life.” (17) Choose the things that give you life….  

And when taken on as a habit over time, the Examen can just make it easier to be in touch with our own hearts, our own deeper selves. And to trust your own sense of what feels right or not-right. Knowing ourselves helps us say No to things that aren’t right for us – and Yes to things that are. Just like Jesus in today’s Gospel – he had the clarity and courage to say No to the temptations that Satan set before him. They were things he wanted! Bread – he was hungry!Power and authority – he wanted to change the world! Proof of God’s protection – he knew his work was dangerous! But Jesus knew his own soul; he knew the Father’s purposes for him. And he was able to say, This is not for me. The Examen can help us face temptations and tough decisions – the big ones, but also the small ones we face every day. 

As with any spiritual practice, the biggest challenge is making it routine, finding a way to just weave it into the texture of life. We’ve been doing a very simple version of this as our family prayers before Iona goes to bed, on the evenings when everybody is home. We share our Ups and Downs, borrowed from the youth group’s practice of prayer. I hope that in this season we’ll lean into it a little more. 

But what about the evenings when we’re not all home? I need the Examen on those days too. But I’m usually the one who’s out, and I come home tired. I worry that thinking back over the day – especially a hard day – will upset me or get my mind whirling as I’m trying to wind down. But having read more about how the Examen works, I’m going to give it a try, even on those nights. To see if I can sit in the gentle light of holy truth, even when I’m weary or anxious or frustrated.

The Examen works well alone. It also works well with others. And it’s intergenerational – it works with kids, youth, and adults. When members of a household share this practice, it may not only benefit the individuals, but could help with mutual understanding within the household. The book Sleeping with Bread offers the example of one family’s evening Examen: one child’s BEST moment is when he sprayed his sister with the hose. It turns out that was his sister’s WORST moment. Some reconciliation was necessary! 

When I first started thinking about offering the Examen as a spiritual practice to all of you this Lent, I thought I could do it with a little talk at the announcements, as I handed out our handy-dandy Examen Sheets. But I read more about it, and thought more about it, I became convinced that there was more to say. 

Maybe God has already handed you a Lenten practice for this season – that happens. Or maybe your life right now is such that committing to a practice feels impossible. I’ve been there. If that’s you, maybe you can just try it out once or twice in the weeks ahead, with a friend or just with yourself: What was good today? What was hard? But I do invite you to try it, one way or another. Because tuning in to ourselves and to God speaking within us is, simply, foundational – and especially in light of the Lenten call to self-examination, penitence, and amendment of life. It can be all too easy to accept other people’s definitions of what’s wrong with us, what we need to fix about ourselves. But a lot of what we receive from others and from our culture, about how to be good or valued, is shallow or disordered. Or even if there’s some truth to it, it might not be the direction your life is leading you. The practice of the Examen is a tool for seeking what your own daily life is telling you about where God wants to give you more more wholeness. More direction. More joy. 

And that’s why, in this season, I invite you to a practice of observing the consolations and desolations of your daily life, a practice of holy listening to your deepest self. Because the Word is very near you;  it dwells in your heart, to help you choose the things that give you life.

Sleeping with Bread: Holding what Gives you Life, Dennis Linn, Sheila Fabricant Linn, and Matthew Linn, Paulist Press, 1995.

Sermon, March 3

Adjusted Epistle text: 2 Cor 3:12-13; 3:17 – 4:2; 4:5-6

Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness, not like Moses, who put a veil over his face to keep the people of Israel from gazing at the end of the glory that was being set aside. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transfigured into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit. Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God. For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

 

It happened when he was praying: the image of his face: different;  his cloak: white, flashing.

That’s Biblical scholar Richard Swanson’s translation of verse 29 in today’s Gospel – staying closer to the original Greek syntax: 

It happened when he was praying: the image of his face: different;  his cloak: white, flashing.

And then there is the cloud – and the Voice – and the glory. The text piles on clues that point to God’s presence, ways God’s people have seen and known God for millennia. 

This Gospel story – known as the Transfiguration – always comes around in the lectionary on the last Sunday in Epiphany, the Sunday when we turn towards Lent, begin the long walk towards Good Friday and Easter. That’s where the story falls in the Gospels, too – on the cusp of Jesus’ turn towards Jerusalem. At the Transfiguration, this moment on the mountaintop, three of Jesus’ disciples get a glimpse of the Divine within Jesus – this brightness, this strangeness. They see – and we see, with them – that the man we follow on this rocky road is not just a man. Not just a wise teacher. Not just a kind healer. He is God, living among us, loving us. As Paul writes in today’s Epistle, we know the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ – a passage so rich and lovely that it’s woven into our Epiphany Eucharistic prayer, if you’re wondering why these words sound familiar!

This is the mystery and the paradox we hold together in our understanding of Jesus: He was actually and fully a particular human being living in a particular time and place. His Jesus-ness was not a costume or an avatar. And yet, Jesus was – Jesus IS – one Person of the Holy Trinity, the divine Logos by whom all things were made; the eternal Word that became flesh and dwelt among us; the Anointed One, the Messiah, the Christ, from before time and forever, sent to liberate and redeem humanity and Creation. 

So while Jesus was truly and authentically human as a first-century Jew from Nazareth, there was also something ultimately incidental about the way the Christ, the Logos, the Light that is the life of all peoples, took human form. In another time and another place, God might have worn another body and another face.

It happened when he was praying: the image of his face: different;  his cloak: white, flashing.

The theologian Soren Kierkegaard wrote a famous allegory about the Incarnation of Jesus: Suppose there was a king who loved a humble maiden. This king: he is so wealthy, so powerful, so respected, so feared. Those who come before him in his throne room tremble before his power. Yet his heart melts within him for love of this simple, poor young woman. How can he approach her and win her love? His power and glory tie his hands: If he appears to her in all his kingly might, she might agree to be his bride – but would she love him, or would she merely consent out of awe or fear or duty? Would she be happy with him, or merely obedient? He does not want to overwhelm or command. He does not want a subject, but a partner, a friend, a lover. And so, because he fears that he cannot raise the maiden to his glory without crushing her freedom, he lowers himself. He becomes ordinary and poor. Not in disguise but in truth: he sets aside his throne and crown. He puts on simple, ragged clothing – and walks the path to his beloved’s door. 

If the point of the Incarnation, of the whole Jesus project, was to be able to approach us, and tell us that we are loved, what body, what face would best suit that task? A body and a face that look like us. Whoever us might be. 

Representation matters. You might have heard someone say that. It’s shorthand for the increasing realization that seeing people who look like us, in positions of power or success, in movies and books, in schools and churches, is important. If none of the people in charge and none of the heroes of our stories look like us, deep down we’re not sure that people like us ever get to be in charge. Ever get to be heroes. That perception can operate within us even if we never think those words. In the past month I’ve had two different women my age or older say to me, “I never knew how much it mattered to me to have a woman priest until I had one.” The funny thing is, as I thought about it, I realized that was true for me too. My early life was blessed by a lot of wonderful priests, who all happened to be men. Discerning my call to ordination happened in parallel with Phil and I joining a mission church in North Carolina, the Church of the Advocate, led by our dear friend the Rev. Lisa Fischbeck. I was called before Lisa became my priest; but Lisa’s priesthood absolutely helped me find my way into my priesthood. 

God who knows us so well, both our potential and our limitations, knows that representation matters. That we needed God to be both transcendent and imminent; both beyond and among; both infinitely other and utterly familiar. And so God gave Godself to us as Jesus – a paradox and mystery that has given Christians the freedom to imagine Jesus the Christ with other bodies, other faces. 

Luke’s Gospel doesn’t use the word “transform” or “transfigure”, metamorpho, the word Mark and Matthew use, the word the Church uses to name this feast. Instead, Luke says Jesus’ face changed. His face became different. Still Jesus, but – different. Let’s look at some different Jesuses. 

This is a black Jesus – African-American. A really important 20th-century theologian, James Cone, wrote about why it’s important to imagine Jesus as black. He wrote, “Jesus Christ is not a proposition, not a theological concept which exists merely in our heads. He is an event of liberation, a happening in the lives of oppressed people struggling for political freedom. Therefore, to know him is to encounter him in the history of the weak and the helpless.” (God of the Oppressed, p. 32) And that’s why, he argues, there’s a deep truth in depicting Jesus as African-American – because if God chose to come two thousand years ago as a poor Jew in a backwards corner of the Roman Empire, God might well come today as a black child living in a neighborhood blighted by poverty and neglect. 

Here are some other ways Christians have envisioned Jesus. A Chinese Jesus, in the work of artist He Qi. A feminine Jesus, in the work of artist Janet Makenzie. Here is Jesus before his birth: his parents Mary and Joseph, reimagined as Maria y Jose, a young couple without money, without friends, without a safe place to birth their baby. This is by an artist named Everett Patterson. And there’s this image, a Good Friday image: Mary holds Jesus after his death – but they’re shown as children. Kids. 

Imagining Jesus as looking like us, whoever we are, is, I believe, a bold and faithful thing to do. We do it because we know that Jesus is more than just Jesus: 

Jesus is the Eternal one who enters time, the Universal one who becomes local. And we do it because we trust that the point of it all was to come close to us. To tell us that we are loved, and to invite us into renewed relationship with the Divine. We depict God in our image to remind ourselves that we are made in God’s image. 

I want to show you another Jesus: Jesus imagined in the image of a community that has heard again and again that God does not love them as they are. What do you notice about it? … 

The original Jesus bust, under all the colorful paint, came from a thrift store as a broken chunk of plaster. That’s where the artist found it. The artist is an acquaintance of mine; and I’m pretty sure she doesn’t have a lot of use for church. She is one of so, so many LGBTQ+ people who have gotten the message loud and clear that churches believe they don’t belong. That God’s love is conditional, and the condition is denying your own heart, soul, and body.

But the artist didn’t leave the broken Jesus bust at the Goodwill, or buy it and break it to smithereens. She took it home, and fixed it, and made it beautiful. She made it into a Jesus whom she and her friends could be safe with. A Jesus whose face shows the glory of God the way they need to see it, to know themselves beloved. Then she put it in an auction at a community event – and I bid on it till I won. (People who knew I was a pastor were shoving money at me, to help…!) 

I brought this Jesus here to St. Dunstan’s because I knew there would be people here who would find them beautiful and meaningful. One person looked at it and said to me, If I walked in the door of a church and saw this, I would know right away that I was safe here. I knew, too, that others would find it a little odd. Who might need an explanation to see how this Jesus is like these other Jesuses. And I know there are people here who will find it uncomfortable – even with the explanation. Who just can’t see this as Jesus. There are people who will see it as disrespectful – though I don’t believe that’s the artist’s intention, and it’s certainly not mine. There are people who will have a hard time seeing it as anything other than a joke, a piece of satire – which is also not the intention. Wherever you fall on that spectrum, I ask you to try to look at this as an icon – a holy image intended to help us focus on the divine. It might not be the image that works for you. That’s why churches have lots of different icons! 

I’ve begun to talk, with a few people, about where to hang this image of Jesus. We’ll probably put off the decision for a few months, because it’s fragile, and we’re about to do a lot of demolition and renovation around here. But I hope we can find a place for this Jesus – their face, different; their garment, shining and sparkling. 

In today’s Gospel, the transfiguration story leads right into a healing story. We chose to include it even though the lectionary offers us the option of dropping it – because it’s an awkward story. We want Jesus to be nice, and Jesus is not nice, here. I want to be clear, though, that Jesus isn’t yelling at the the father of the afflicted child. (The whole story is much clearer in Mark’s version!)  Jesus is yelling at the argumentative crowd. He’s fed up because he’s come from this mountaintop moment of clarity about his mission, and walked right into a big argument about whether he’s a fraud and whether his message matters and why are you bothering the Teacher with this sick kid and who do you think you are anyway?!?

Jesus’ frustration in this passage has been oddly comforting to me, this week, as many of us have watched with dismay as the United Methodist Church debated whether LGBTQ+ Methodists can be both fully themselves, and fully members of their church. And as Anglican Communion leaders – whom, I stress, have no authority over the Episcopal Church – have reminded us once again that they do not share our church’s affirmation of same-sex marriage. People have an amazing capacity to stand around arguing and trying to score points off each other, while someone vulnerable suffers in their midst. But Jesus marches in, tells them to knock it off, and heals the child.

I attended a talk a few weeks ago by Heidi Carter, a Christian sexuality educator. She said when she talks with queer kids about their churches, they say one of two things things. Either, My church loves and supports me completely, it’s one of my safe places; or else: I can’t tell my church who I really am. They might not love me anymore; they would try to change me. Matthew Swanson writes about this Gospel: “The description of the effect of… the demon is terrifying. It rips the boy to shreds. It shatters him. It crushes him.”

Jesus heals the child. Where are we, in this story? 

It is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

The knowledge of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ – a knowledge that is like a light, a knowledge that illuminates. Paul is alluding to Jesus’ transfiguration in this passage, but he’s also calling Christians to transformation –  to transfiguration, in fact; it’s that same Greek word, metamorpho. He says, Because we have seen God’s glory revealed in Jesus, because that light has shone into our hearts, we are being changed, day by day, to reflect that glory more and more ourselves, by living lives of integrity, freedom, and boldness. 

If the point of the Incarnation, of the whole Jesus project, was to be able to approach us, and tell us that we are loved – and call us to lives of integrity, freedom, and boldness – what body, what face would best suit that task? … A body and a face that look like us. Whoever us might be. 

Can you see the light of the glory of God in the face of this Jesus? I can. I see that light, that glory, in the artist’s courageous choice to reclaim Jesus from the hands of those who have hurt her. I see that light, that glory, in the reminder to look for Jesus among those pushed to the margins, those whose worth and humanity are treated as negotiable. I see that light, that glory, in the fact that beauty and holiness can take many different forms. I see light and glory in this garment, shining bright – in this beloved face, different. 

 

Richard Swanson’s commentary on this Gospel: 

https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2019/02/25/a-provocation-transfiguration-march-3-2019-luke-928-45/

Kierkegaard’s parable: 

http://www.readingtheology.com/the-king-and-the-maiden-by-søren-kierkegaard

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)