All posts by Miranda Hassett

Sermon, September 8

That’s a tough Gospel, beloveds. One colleague suggested that preachers should invite people to take a deep breath and hold hands before we read it. Before we proclaim that unless you hate your family and give up everything you own, you can’t be a real disciple.  (This is definitely one of those passages that makes you wonder what people mean when they talk about Christian family values!) 

Sooo let’s unpack these difficult words. Part of what’s going on here is the intersection of two things: Jesus’ tendency to use hyperbole, and where this passage falls in Jesus’ journey to the cross. 

Jesus sometimes uses hyperbole in his teaching – exaggerated statements that are not meant to be taken literally, like, “I’m hungry enough to eat a horse!” Jesus never said that, as far as we know. But he did say that if your eye causes you to sin, you should pluck it out. And he did say that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is ruled by their own wealth to enter the kingdom of Heaven. (That image wasn’t unique to Jesus; the Talmud, a Jewish text from around the same time as the New Testament, talks about an elephant going to though the eye of a needle.) 

People used hyperbole sometimes back then, just as we do now, to get people’s attention and make a strong point. I think it is fair to say that when Jesus says his followers must hate their families, he is using hyperbole. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus scolds people who don’t care for their aging parents as the Law of Moses requires. And even the first Christians didn’t take Jesus’ hard words here literally. In the letters of early Christian leaders we call the Epistles, for example, followers of Jesus are advised to show faithful love towards their spouses and children.

The sharpness of this passage could also come from the fact that it comes at a moment in Jesus’ path when the stakes are rising. Luke 13 tells us that Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. He’s traveling slowly, stopping in towns and villages to teach and heal; but he is making what he knows will be his final journey. Some sympathetic Pharisees tell him, “Stay away from Jerusalem and the surrounding area; King Herod wants to kill you.” And Jesus says, This is what I’m here to do. 

Jesus is walking towards his death – a brutal, humiliating death. He has every reason to expect to be crucified. That’s what the Romans did to people who caused civic unrest, who stirred people up and caused a ruckus. Crucifixion was a slow, agonizing, public death, intended to demoralize and deter onlookers. Everyone in Jesus’ original audience would have been familiar with these horrors. They would have known how the condemned person would be forced to carry the crossbeam along the road out of the city, to the place of execution, where the upright beams were already fixed in the ground, awaiting the next victim. 

Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. A large crowd is following Jesus, as this passage begins. Jesus knows that some of them are just there for the buzz, the excitement, the thrill of the road, the rush of being part of the next big thing. So he’s telling them – warning them:  Listen. This is not a picnic in the park. Stuff is about to get real. Are you sure you’re ready for this?

That’s the purpose of these micro-parables of the builder and the general: Count the cost before you begin. Consider the stakes, and the odds. Consider yourself, your attachments and commitments – home and family, business, plans and possibilities. Are you willing to hold them lightly? Consider all of that – then decide whether to follow Jesus down this road. 

(By the way, I’m pleased to mention that the tower we are building here, for the elevator, IS completed. Thanks for your ongoing gifts to our renovation fund!)

Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. This passage is in heavy use in certain corners of Christianity. It has been misused, over the centuries, to normalize suffering and encourage acceptance of oppression: racial injustice or domestic abuse, for example, might be just somebody’s cross to bear. That is emphatically not what Jesus is talking about here. He is talking about choosing a costly walk on the way of Love. 

Suffering doesn’t automatically make you a “good” Christian, and lack of suffering doesn’t automatically make you a “bad” one. But this is true, beloveds: Being a real Christian, being serious about following where Jesus leads, means we have to be prepared for stuff to get hard. For this road, these commitments, to cost us something. 

Here’s the thing, though: Not following this road can be costly, too. I’m not talking about being consigned to hellfire. If you’re looking for a sermon about how people who don’t accept Jesus will burn forever, you are in the wrong church. 

I’m talking about what happens when people stop striving to do justice and love mercy. When people turn their backs on the strangers God calls us to welcome; close the door on the hungry God calls us to feed; dehumanize those in prison, whom God calls us to visit and care for; when people exploit the earth, which God made us to tend with love. Those actions carry their own consequences, sooner or later.  

The prophet Jeremiah lived in a time when those with power among God’s people in the land of Judea had decided, We don’t need God and God’s bossy opinions about how we should live. In the lesson assigned for last week, God speaks through Jeremiah to say, “What wrong did your ancestors find in me that made them wander so far? I brought you into a land of plenty, to enjoy its gifts and goodness, but you ruined my land; you disgraced my heritage. Your leaders rebelled against me, Your priests did not seek me. Ask anyone: Has anything this odd ever taken place? Has any other nation ever switched its gods? Yet my people have exchanged their glory for what has no value. My people have committed two crimes: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water; and they have dug wells for themselves, broken wells that can’t hold water.”

In today’s lesson, Jeremiah is saying, Look, you think you’re God’s chosen nation, and that you can do whatever you want because God favors you. But God can choose a new favorite nation anytime. God doesn’t owe you anything; it is the other way around. Hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches!

The text uses the language of God’s punishment: “Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you.”  The idea that God punishes Israel when they turn from God’s ways is an important idea in the Hebrew Scriptures – and I struggle with it, every time it comes around, because it’s at odds with how I understand God’s heart for humanity, through the witness of Jesus. But I don’t think we need the idea of divine punishment to understand what happened to Judea in Jeremiah’s time – any more than we need the idea of divine punishment to understand how our nation and world are suffering the consequences of our collective bad choices today. We have intense and destructive hurricanes in part because we’ve ignored alarms about climate change. We have violent actions in the news far too often because we’ve armed civilians with weapons of war. We have mass incarceration because we’ve criminalized poverty, addiction, and mental illness. The things we tolerate, collectively, become their own punishment. So it was in Jeremiah’s day. 

Jeremiah did not like being a prophet of doom. He was beaten, imprisoned, mocked and derided. He cries out to God: Cursed be the day on which I was born! If Jeremiah had sat down to count the cost of his call to serve God as a prophet, the total would have been astronomical. But Judea needed Jeremiah’s voice, however unwelcome it was. Speaking God’s words to God’s people was Jeremiah’s cross to bear; and he bore it. 

Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 

Disciple is a word that’s used a lot in some kinds of churches, less so in others. It really just means a student, maybe an apprentice – somebody who’s in the process of becoming a certain kind of person. Our Presiding Bishop has been trying to get Episcopalians to think about discipleship, by talking about the habits of Christian living as a Way of Love. Back in 2016, we did some work here at St. Dunstan’s to name the ways we live our faith in daily life: Welcoming, Abiding, Wondering, Proclaiming, Turning, Reconciling, and Making. It’s a good list; every time I revisit it, I think, These are great! This set of practices is a useful, substantive way to talk about how we live out our faith, in big ways and especially in the small, everyday ways that are actually so important! We should work with this more! 

And yet at the same time I feel in myself a hesitation to cross that Sunday-to-Monday boundary and flat-out tell people, Hey, here are some things you should try to do more. There are lots of reasons that telling people how their faith should shape their daily lives can feel transgressive for people formed by the Episcopal Church. I think maybe the biggest reason is that we all know about other kinds of Christianity that can be specific and intrusive in telling people what their daily lives and intimate relationships should look like. Those kinds of Christianity have hurt some of us. Are, arguably, hurting all of us.

In response, we Episcopal types tend to bend over backwards in the other direction. The church may ask things of you: Make a pledge! Cook a meal! Bring cookies! But, we hasten to say, GOD isn’t asking anything of you. Jesus said to tell you that you’re FINE. 

But here, awkwardly, we have Jesus himself, saying, Take up your cross. This Way, if you take it at all seriously, will make a difference in your life. And sometimes that difference will be joy and hope and strength and possibility. And sometimes that difference will be hard and exhausting and scary and sad. Costly. That’s what it means to be My disciple. 

So this fall we’re going to talk some more about those practices of discipleship we have named together. A year ago, as part of my sabbatical, we visited my friend James, also known as Sir Beorn, a knight in the Society for Creative Anachronism. James has a combat practice ground behind his house, and around it are the shields of various famous knights, each of which represents one of the virtues of chivalry that the people who gather there seek to practice and embody. So taking a cue from Sir Beorn, we will put up images of saints around this space, one saint for each practice. We’ll start next week with blessed Pauli Murray and the practice of Welcoming. And if you’re here at 9am, we’ll talk about the practice together, what it means, when it’s easy, when it’s hard. Because discipleship is hard, and the companionship of trustworthy friends helps a lot. 

Christian essayist John Pavlovitz writes about Christians sometimes trying to dodge our call to discipleship by saying, “It doesn’t matter what I do; God is in control”. He says, “… The truth, Christians friends: is that God is not in control of you. You are in control of you and God is asking you to be goodness and love in a way that tangibly changes the story we all find ourselves in.” May Jesus Christ, who calls us to this work, guide us, protect us, and accompany us on the Way. Amen. 

John Pavlovitz, “Christian, Stop Telling Me God Is In Control,” February 22, 2017, https://johnpavlovitz.com/2017/02/22/christian-stop-telling-me-god-is-in-control/

Sermon, Sept. 15

Jesus was traveling through the small towns near Jerusalem, and pausing to teach and heal along the way. One day he was speaking to a large crowd, and all the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. Now, Judea was under Roman rule; both the Roman colonizers, and the local government that collaborated with the Romans, demanded high taxes from the people. Tax collectors were Judeans who worked for that double-layered government, demanding payments from even the poorest, and a little on top for themselves. As for the sinners, who knows? Probably some were people whose personal lives did not meet general moral standards. Others might be petty thieves or general good-for-nothings. None of these characters were probably very welcome in their local synagogue on Saturdays, to hear the Scriptures read and interpreted. But Jesus preaches outdoors, where anybody can listen; so they gather around to see if he has any good news for them. 

Now, there are also some of the self-appointed gatekeepers of righteousness around: some Pharisees, who are part of a religious movement within Judaism to call people back to daily observance of the Old Testament Law; and some scribes or legal experts, who spend their days reading Scripture and debating how it should be understood and applied. And they start grumbling to each other about Jesus: “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Judaism has a lot of laws to do with purity and food, so eating with sinners – unclean people – is real gross.) 

So Jesus tells a little story, as he often does. In fact, he tells three stories, though we only get two today. He says, Suppose you had a hundred sheep and you lost one. Wouldn’t you do anything to find the lost one, and bring it home tenderly, and call your friends to share your rejoicing? Or suppose you had ten coins and you lost one. Wouldn’t you light your lamp and sweep the whole house until you found the lost one, and then celebrate with all your friends? In the same way, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who changes both heart and life than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need to change their hearts and lives.

The Gospels suggest that a lot of people in Jesus’ time thought there were two kinds of people in the world: righteous people and sinners. It’s the kind of harsh binary thinking to which humans are particularly prone when we are stressed and anxious: In or out. Us or them. Good or bad. But Jesus says, Nope. Nobody is worthless or irredeemable. God doesn’t write anybody off. 

The lost coin and lost sheep stories – and the prodigal son story, which follows them – are pretty familiar to many of us. And rightly so; I think these parables tell us something really important about the heart of God, made known to us through Jesus Christ’s words and witness. But this year I’m especially drawn to the thing that Jesus’ critics say about him: This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.

Let me tell you another story about a time when Jesus met a sinner. This one is in John’s Gospel. Listen. 

Jesus is preaching in the Great Temple. And some legal experts and Pharisees – the same kinds of folks criticizing Jesus in today’s Gospel – drag this woman forward. They say, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of committing adultery – having intimate relations with somebody who is not her husband. In the Law, Moses commanded us to stone women like this – to throw stones at her until she is dead. What do you say?” They said this to test him. They knew he was unlikely to say the woman should be killed – everybody knew he was a big softie about sinners! But if he went against the clear judgment of the Law of Moses, from the Book of Deuteronomy, then they would have grounds to accuse him of heresy. 

But Jesus didn’t answer right away. Instead he bent down and wrote on the ground with his finger. They kept questioning him – Should we stone her? What does the Law require, Jesus? And finally he stood up and said, “Whoever hasn’t sinned should throw the first stone.” Then he went back to writing on the ground. 

There was a little silence. Then one of the elders who was standing there, one of the ones who’d been shouting angrily a moment ago – he turned, and left, pushing his way through the crowd. Another followed. The men holding the woman – so many angry hands – first one released its grip, then another. In a moment nobody was holding her. One man awkwardly tried to straighten her dress. One by one, the accusers vanished into the crowd. Finally the woman stood alone before Jesus, in the center of all those people.

Jesus was still writing in the dirt. I can’t tell you how much I love that weird detail. There have been many hypotheses over the centuries about what he might have been writing. One early theory was that he was writing, “Earth accuses earth.” Like, we’re all dirt; why are we wasting time trying to hurt each other? I’ve also heard a modern theory that he was writing, “Where’s the man?”

Now Jesus straightens up and looks at the woman. He says to her, “Woman, where are they? Is there no one to condemn you?” She says, “No one, sir.” Jesus says, “I don’t condemn you either. Go, and from now on, don’t sin anymore.”

This story is not in our lectionary cycle. I assume that’s because modern Scripture scholarship sees it as sort of quasi-canonical. It appears in the eighth chapter of John, but our earliest and best manuscripts of John’s Gospel don’t include it; it’s first mentioned in a text from the 300s. So it seems like it was added to the Gospel fairly late. That doesn’t mean it’s not a real Jesus story, passed down by another channel and eventually pasted into John’s Gospel. The theologian Jerome, writing in the early 5th century, hypothesized that some men didn’t want this story in the Bible because it might make their wives think it was OK to mess around. Whatever the reason, this story has an ambiguous standing as Scripture, these days. The NRSV, the Bible translation used by most mainline churches, puts double brackets around it: “I dunno about this part.” 

But this story sure sounds like Jesus to me. It is part of *my* Gospel. The people bringing this woman to Jesus believe themselves to be righteous people who have identified a sinner. Jesus’ response breaks open their assumption about the two kinds of people in the world. He asks them to examine their own hearts and lives: Who here has never sinned? Step right up! Grab a rock! And – to their credit – they pause. They reflect. And somebody – bless him – dares to be the first to turn away. To acknowledge that he has no grounds to judge anybody. 

The whole concept of sin, of being a sinner, comes from religion. A sinner is somebody who breaks God’s rules, right? And yet – this whole area of how we think about sin and sinners has long been one of the biggest gulfs between Christ and His Church. The Church, through the ages, has been too wiling to accept and propagate the idea that there are two kinds of people in the world: saints or sinners, in or out, good or bad, us or them. Not only that, the Church, though the ages, has been quite selective in the sins it condemns and penalizes – reserving its harshest judgment for sins of the body and the passions. 

One of my favorite authors, the 20th century British novelist and theologian Dorothy Sayers, wrote about this phenomenon with great insight. She wrote, “Perhaps the bitterest commentary on the way in which Christian doctrine has been taught in the last few centuries is the fact that to the majority of people the word “immorality” has come to mean one thing and one thing only…. A man may be greedy and selfish; spiteful, cruel, jealous, and unjust; violent and brutal; grasping, unscrupulous, and a liar; stubborn and arrogant; stupid, morose, and dead to every noble instinct – and still we are ready to say of him that he is not an immoral man. I am reminded of a young man who once said to me with perfect simplicity: ‘I did not know there were seven deadly sins: please tell me the names of the other six.’” 

It’s not that Jesus didn’t call out sin; he definitely did. But he – like the prophets before him – saved his harshest words for the sins of power, avarice, and callouness. The worst he ever says to anyone caught in sexual sin is, Hey, do better next time. 

And – this is really important – he is always, always inviting people to change. Jesus thinks there are two kinds of people in the world, too: People who know that they need to continue the work of turning their hearts and lives towards God; and people who are in denial. Who think they already have it all figured out. 

This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them. 

Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.

The story of this woman, and the men so eager to condemn her, was on my mind because Bryan Stevenson alludes to it in his book Just Mercy, which I read recently, along with some other St. Dunstan’s folk. The book walks you relentlessly through some of the many, many ways our criminal justice system is broken. Pervasive racial bias at every level, every step. Police and DAs willing to collaborate and fabricate evidence to secure a conviction, regardless of guilt. Harsh legislation leading to more and longer prison terms. Lack of compassion for the impact of poverty, trauma, addiction and mental illness in people’s lives – especially in kids’ lives. Late in the book Stevenson wonders, in frustration and grief: “Why do we want to kill all the broken people? What is wrong with us, that we think a thing like that can be right?” (288)

A few pages later, he describes meeting an older African-American woman sitting in the courthouse where he’s just spent a draining day fighting for justice. She tells him that she comes to be present for people who need a kind word or a shoulder to cry on. She tells him, “I just started letting anybody lean on me who needed it. All these young children being sent to prison forever, all this grief and violence. Those judges throwing people away like they’re not even human, people shooting each other, hurting each other… it’s a lot of pain. I decided that I was supposed to be here to catch some of the stones people cast at each other.” (308)

Stevenson continues, “Today, our self-righteousness, our fear, and our anger have caused even… Christians to hurl stones at the people who fall down, even when we know we should forgive or show compassion… We can’t simply watch that happen… We have to be stonecatchers.” 

Stonecatchers. Not stone-throwers. Stone-catchers. People who watch for the moments when someone’s getting ready to throw a metaphorical stone – to attack, scapegoat, blame, diminish somebody because we think they’re Out and we’re In; or more likely because we hope that making them Out will help us feel In. That naming them as Bad will help us feel Good. Catch those stones. Because there is no clear line between sinners and saints, good and bad.  We are all in this together. Stevenson writes, “I do what I do because I’m broken too… Our shared brokenness [connects] us…. Simply punishing the broken – walking away from them or hiding them from sight – only ensures that they remain broken and we do, too. There is no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity.” (289-90)

The lost coin, the lost sheep, the condemned woman: all these Gospel stories tell us what Jesus has to say to sinners, to those miserable wretches who fail our tests of morality and righteousness. And what Jesus has to say to sinners is: God is seeking you with urgency and love. I don’t condemn you.  Come, share a meal. Go, and sin no more. 

Sources: 

Some excerpts from Dorothy Sayers on sin: 

http://oafak.com/category/the-other-six-deadly-sins/

Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, Spiegel & Grau, 2015. 

Financial update, Sept. 2019

At the end of the summer, our budget continues to look healthy. Overall, our income is above budget, and our expenses are below budget. Some specific expense lines are over budget, but not by large amounts. Some expenses will catch up in the final four months of the year, but we’re entering the fall on a steady financial footing. 

See the table below for an overview of where our income and expenses stand as of the end of August, relative to our budget. Please note that numbers in table are rounded to nearest $100 for ease of browsing. This means columns may not add up exactly in some cases. If you would like to see full financials or have questions about our finances, talk to Rev. Miranda, email , or call the office at 608-238-2781. 

2020 Look-Ahead

We are beginning to think about our 2020 budget. While we’re still working on the numbers, we know that some expense lines are likely to increase. 

  • Since the Parish Center will be coming back to our use (with the Foundry414 church returning as Sunday morning building users), we will be taking on expenses like utilities and cleaning for that building. These costs may be offset by donations from more groups using our new, improved spaces. 
  • Expansion in areas like our youth programs and new worship opportunities like Cookie Church require modest budget increases for things like food and materials. 
  • In addition, we anticipate the usual yearly increases in things like insurance premiums and our Outreach budget line and diocesan giving, which both increase with our annual budget. 

We are always looking for places we can pare back our expenses, as well, to keep our budget in balance and be responsible with the financial resources we share as the people of St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church. 

 

2019 Budget

(Numbers rounded to nearest $100)

2019 Budget

2019

Budget though August

2019 Actual through August

INCOME
Feast & Plate 20,000 11,500 15,300
Pledge Payments 270,000 190,000 192,600
Rent & Bldg Use 14,000 9100 9400
Misc Income 3000 1800 2600
Total 307,000 212,400 219,900
EXPENSES
Clergy (incl. salary, pension, insurance) 129,000 88,400 87,200
Lay Staff (Music, Office & Childcare) 34,000 22,800 20,000
Worship 5500 3600 3500
Outreach Budget 20,000 12,000 8800
Formation 5000 3400 3700
Fellowship, Welcome, & Leadership 4900 3000 3000
Bldgs & Grounds

(includes insurance)

52,000 28,700 22,800
Admin & Office 12,200 8700 6700
Diocesan Giving 50,000 33,200 33,200
TOTAL 313,500 203,900 189,000

History & repentance: A 4th of July sermon

The Rev. Miranda Hassett preached this sermon on June 30, 2019. 

Why do we observe the Fourth of July at church?  As a Christian and as a church leader, I’m pretty mindful of the line between my patriotism and my faith, my identity as a citizen and as a baptized follower of Jesus. But praying for our nation and our leaders is in our DNA as Christians in the Anglican tradition. So most years we take the Sunday leading up to Independence Day to pray together for our nation, that it may live up to its boldest ideals and bravest promises. 

There tends to be a lot of talk about freedom at this time of year. It’s a complicated topic, one which we collectively deploy quite selectively. Consider the recent prosecutions of people who leave water in the desert along our borders for migrants who might otherwise die of thirst. People who might well have thought they were free to exercise mercy. 

Our Galatians lesson this morning talks about freedom – Christian freedom. Paul says: Your freedom isn’t to do whatever you want, and it certainly isn’t to hurt others. When Paul is talking about freedom, his point is that the life of faith isn’t about following certain concrete practices and rites, as in Old Testament Judaism. He’s saying that the life of faith is, simply and completely, a life oriented towards loving your neighbor as yourself. And there is a freedom in that, because there are lots of ways to live out love of neighbor. But there’s also commitment in it – an un-freedom of sorts – because if we are in Christ we are NOT free to not care about the wellbeing of others. 

Our freedom in Christ, says Paul, is to strive, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to be people of love and joy, peace and patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. So that’s something to carry with you this week as our nation celebrates freedom. 

Another thing that you might hear about a lot this week is history. The Fourth of July, Independence Day, is an historical celebration. It is, to be specific, the date in 1776 when the Continental Congress, the governmental body of the original 13 colonies,  approved the final wording of the Declaration of Independence, agreeing on all the changes and edits they’d been working on for days.

But history, like freedom, is more complicated than we often think. I’ve been reading up lately on local history. Very local history. As in, the history of the ground under our feet right now. 

It’s easy to begin telling the history of this property in 1848. That’s when the Heim brothers, Joseph and Anton, left Bavaria, Germany, following a failed revolution against the oppressive ruling class. Joseph was 30, Anton was 22. Joseph’s wife Theresia traveled with them. Along with many others, they came to the United States and eventually settled in Wisconsin. They bought this land from the U.S. government, and established a farm, building that brick farmhouse in around 1858. 

This whole area was the Heim farm – from Old Middleton Road to the south up to the lakeshore, and some ways to the east and west. Heim Avenue, half a mile east, still bears the family name of our founding family. 

This is how European Americans usually tell the history of our places.  As if it begins when white people show up. But this land had history, and people, before the Heims, before the U.S. government. 

The Ho-Chunk people, known in the 19th century as the Winnebago tribe, lived in this area for thousands of years before they were largely removed to reservations in the mid-19th century.  Their ancestors, a thousand years ago, built the effigy mounds that still dot our landscape, though many have been destroyed. Effigy mounds are earthen structures that make the shape of an animal or symbol – birds, human figures, bears, and, maybe 1500 feet from where I’m standing, a fox. 

Anton’s son Ferdinand grew up in the old farmhouse we call the rectory. He lived from 1865 to 1950 – a lifespan that bridged the 19th and 20th centuries, and saw this area go from woodlands with a few tiny clusters of homes and businesses, to a bustling suburb. In 1937 Ferdinand donated the fox mound to the Wisconsin Archaeological Society, to keep it safe for posterity as he was selling off the land around it for development into the neighborhood along Mound Avenue. 

Ferdinand also shared memories of the presence of Winnebago Indians in this area during the early decades of the Heim farm. Apparently the bit of lakeshore right behind those apartments – the Swenson estate, perhaps 2000 feet away – was a very popular camping area.  Ferdinand recalled that anywhere from thirty to fifty natives might camp in the area at a time, living in wigwams and hunting, trapping, and fishing for food. He said, “They were great beggars, stopping at the farm houses at all times for food supplies, and his father [Anton Heim] was obliged to erect rough fences about his hay mows in the Middleton Beach marsh to protect them against the foraging Indian ponies.”

Clearly, the native people who had treated this area as part of their territory – a comfortable spot, a beautiful spot, a sacred spot – for centuries or maybe millennia, were trying to continue doing so, even as European settlers moved in and turned the forests into farmland. And just as clearly, the continued presence of the Natives was a significant annoyance to the settlers. 

The history of how the Ho-Chunk and other local Native groups lost this land is hard to tell. Partly because it’s complicated and partly because it’s heartbreaking.  I’ve been reading about it – the 1804 Treaty of St. Louis; the so-called Black Hawk War and the massacre at Bad Axe; President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830; the decimation of the Ho-Chunk and other Midwestern tribes by contagious diseases brought by European settlers. 

It’s not easy history to know. But I’m glad I know it. It makes my heart heavy, but I prefer it to ignorance. 

In our prayer of confession, when we hold up the evil done on our behalf, the dispossession and decimation of the native peoples of this continent is among those evils. And when we hold up the evils that enslave us, the fact that we live and work on land taken unjustly, and lack the wisdom or the will to make amends, is among those evils. 

I don’t know what amends would look like, in these circumstances. I truly don’t. But I know that the opening words of the Prayer for our Country in the Book of Common Prayer are a lie: “Almighty God, who hast given us this good land for our heritage…”

Maybe it was God’s intention, part of the ineffable plan, for the United States of America to come to be. But to claim in our prayers that this land was simply given to us by divine fiat obscures the bloody reality that our ancestors took it, by deception and by violence. 

So, this Sunday, and this Independence Day, let us remember that we are gathered on Ho-Chunk land. Let us celebrate the goodness and grace in our history, while courageously facing the unjust and the bitterly sad. And let us turn to the God who blesses our repentance and helps us to will the good, as we pray. 

O God, who created all peoples in your image, we thank you for the wonderful diversity of races and cultures in this world. Enrich our lives by ever-widening circles of fellowship, and show us your presence in those who differ most from us, until our knowledge of your love is made perfect in our love for all your children; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Lord God Almighty, you have made all the peoples of the earth for your glory, to serve you in freedom and in peace: Give to the people of our country a zeal for justice and the strength of forbearance, that we may use our liberty in accordance with your gracious will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

A little further reading: 

https://isthmus.com/news/snapshot/the-story-of-this-land/

Sermon, August 11

Richard Swanson is a Biblical scholar and commentator. I turn to him pretty often for his keen eye and thought-provoking exegesis; if you hear me preach regularly you’ve probably heard me quote him before. He spent the week before last at the Network of Biblical Storyteller’s annual gathering. My mother, who is a Biblical storyteller, was there too, actually. This year the gathering was held in Dayton, Ohio.

In his commentary on this Sunday’s Gospel, Swanson writes about leaving his hotel at 4am last Saturday morning, to catch an early flight – and learning about the tragedy – the atrocity – that had happened just a few hours earlier, and just a mile away. 

Be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. 

Swanson writes, “Events like this are sometimes made to dance with texts like the one from Luke 12, and the point is made to be: ‘You could die anytime, so be more religious.’ That is not the point, and it never was. This scene is about the arrival of the Reign of God, and the Reign of God does not come [through events like the violence in Dayton or El Paso or Gilroy or Chicago]. The scene [in this Gospel] focuses on being prepared for action, with lamps lit. The scene urges anticipation and readiness.”

Readiness for what? Not for “dying suddenly and unprepared,” as our prayer book says in the Great Litany. Readiness, rather, for the Reign of God. The Kingdom. Ready to be part of the dawning of God’s new reality. Readiness for what our faith, our conscience, asks of us in the face of violence and apathy. In the face of daily news so far from God’s dream for us. 

I like to take my first look at the upcoming Sunday readings about a week and a half ahead. When I first looked ahead at these lessons, way back on August 1, I thought, Maybe it’s time to talk a little about the prophetic literature. In Ordinary Time – the summer and fall – of this year of our Sunday lectionary cycle, all our Old Testament texts come from the prophets – people who received and spoke God’s word to God’s people in the centuries before Jesus’ birth. 

Speaking for God sounds like an important, celebrated role! It was not. The prophets were charged with telling God’s people – and especially their leaders – where they had gone wrong. Their words were unwelcome, and they often suffered for their calling. 

I was going to preach about how it can be hard to receive the prophetic texts, because we can’t relate to their urgency. We’re tempted to tone-police the prophets – “You just seem so angry. Maybe if you said it a nicer way, people would actually listen to you. Can’t you be more constructive  in your criticism?” And it’s true: Some of these are tough texts to proclaim on a sunny Sunday morning in beautiful Madison, Wisconsin, which VisitMadison.com assures me “consistently ranks as a top community in which to live, work, play, and raise a family.”  

As much as I love and honor the Old Testament, I struggle with the Prophets sometimes – with their fierce and sometimes brutal rhetoric; with their reliance on metaphors we now hear as misogynistic; with their conviction that Israel’s misfortunes are God’s punishment and not simply the natural consequences of complacency and injustice… So, way back on August 1, I started to gather some thoughts on how we can hear what the Spirit is saying to God’s people in these challenging texts. 

But between August 1 and August 6, when I began to write this sermon, there was August 3 in El Paso, and August 4 in Dayton. And many political leaders, the people with the responsibility and authority to do something about the disproportionate violence that is America’s tragedy and shame, responded as they did last time, and the time before, and the time before that: by offering thoughts and prayers. 

And suddenly it doesn’t feel so hard to relate to the prophet Isaiah… “When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” 

Your hands are full of blood. Stop your empty prayers, and cleanse yourself. 

This week a writer named Chas Gillespie wrote an essay for the online magazine McSweeney’s, with this title, more or less: “God Has Heard Your Thoughts And Prayers And [God] Thinks They Are BS.” The essay begins, “Hi. God here. I am contacting you in response to your prayers regarding the most recent and totally horrific mass shooting in a college/ high school/ elementary school/ bar/ nightclub/ park/ shopping mall/ concert/ movie theater/ parking lot/ church/ mosque/ synagogue. I have listened to your prayers, America, and I have come to the conclusion that they are cowardly, pointless, and shameful… You pray in order not to feel culpable in horrendous acts of violence. You pray in order to feel good. … If you don’t like my tone, it’s called “tough love,” America. You need to change yourself or this will keep happening and it will get worse. You have prayed for answers, and I have given you answers. You have prayed for guidance, and you have ignored it. So why are you still praying?”

Your hands are full of blood. Wash away the evil from among you. 

The kind of prayer that Isaiah and the other prophets condemn is prayer that cries out to God to fix what we’re unwilling to try to fix ourselves – and performative piety as a replacement for action. Like in today’s Psalm, which accuses God’s people of being faithful in sacrificing at the Temple – and nothing else: “O Israel, I will bear witness against you, for I am God, your God. I do not accuse you because of your sacrifices; your offerings are always before me. I will take no bull-calf from your stalls, nor he-goats out of your pens… Do you think I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats? Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving and make good your vows to the Most High.”

The psalm echoes these pithy words from the prophet Micah: “Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?… God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” 

In our public life, as in the time of the Prophets, prayer can serve as pious deflection of responsibility for the common good. And God, speaking through the prophets, says that God is not especially sympathetic to those kinds of prayers. 

Now, a word in defense of prayer: As my colleague Gary Manning wrote this week, prayer is not nothing. Gary writes, “[In addition to] contacting my elected officials (repeatedly!) and adding my voice to … others who are asking for our leaders to at least begin talking about substantive ways we can… make our society safer, [I also] pray. Not because I’m unwilling to do “real work,” but because I believe prayer is some of the real work I can do.”

Of course prayer is one of our responses to tragedy. I can’t do anything for the most recent victims – or perpetrators – but pray. For mercy. For comfort. For healing. For transformation. Prayer is my first, deep, genuine response to crisis. 

And it’s a relief to know my prayers don’t have to take the form of detailed policy plans. Sometimes our prayers are simply sighs too deep for words, as the apostle Paul wrote in the letter to the Romans. When our hearts and God’s heart are aching together, I believe that’s a kind of prayer; and I believe it matters. 

When we simply hold up our anguish and grief and rage, even our numbness and bitterness, to God – that is prayer. But I find those prayers are not enough, for me…. At best, at best, they allow me to release some of my deep and weary feelings, and leave me empty: Now what? 

What if prayer is not meant simply to empty us, to drain off our worries, griefs and regrets, but also to fill us? To turn back towards our Gospel: What if our prayers could help make us ready? 

There are a lot of hymns in our hymnal that I love deeply, but the single line in our hymnal that I mean the most, every time I sing it, is this line from hymn 594: “Save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore.” That line is a prayer, and I pray it often. It’s easy to become overwhelmed. To freeze or shut down. It’s easy to feel helpless and hopeless. Resigned. 

Sometimes hopelessness is more comfortable than hope. Andrew Greeley, a sociologist and Roman Catholic priest, wrote in 1973: “Humankind does not object to prophets of doom, for the evidence of doom is all around. We do not protest when religious leaders say there is evil in the world, for the proof of evil is all around. We do not grow angry when it is announced to us that the powers of darkness are making progress on all sides, for we have already noticed that the light is waning….

“No, the kind of leaders we really object to are those who call us to begin over again, who tell us that the light can shine brighter and that the powers of evil can be repelled. Religious and political leaders who preach a message of hope are never very welcome, for they require of us more than cynicism, more than despair, more than resignation. They require effort, activity, fidelity, commitment.” (Father Andrew Greeley, 1973, New York Times)

Effort and activity; fidelity and commitment. Those are hard to muster and hard to maintain when we are sad, afraid, angry, cynical, or just forking EXHAUSTED. One of the things the Bible, our holy book, says over and over again is: Fear not. Take courage. Take heart. I hear the strength of that theme in our Scriptures as meaning that this is one of the things God wants for us, God offers us: Courage, peace, wholeheartedness – to be ready to face what faces us. 

What could it look like to pray for readiness? There are no magic words, no One Cool Trick …  If you pray alone a lot and you feel like that’s not feeding or strengthening you, maybe try praying with friends. Talk to me if you want help gathering a group. If you pray with others a lot, maybe try praying alone more. Find a Scripture or a set prayer that gives words to what’s in your heart and use that – consistently – for a while. Or if you usually pray with other people’s words, try praying with your own words for a while – or with no words. If the only prayer you can find is, Open my heart, use that – it’s as good a prayer as any. Make time and space within yourself for God’s grace to work in you. 

Because prayer is part of the real work we do. Not a replacement for action, but the way we ground and gird ourselves for action. Not a deflection of our responsibly for the common good, our call to love of neighbor; but the way to feel deeply how my neighbor’s struggle touches me, and to know deeply how to respond. 

Because I pray, I cannot be resigned. I cannot accept language that dehumanizes and actions that terrorize my immigrant neighbors. I cannot accept our epidemic of gun violence as normal and inevitable – Wendell Barry writes, “‘Inevitable’ is a word much favored by people in positions of authority who do not wish to think about problems.”

Because I pray, because prayer is not nothing, prayer is not enough. Prayer unsettles me, shakes me loose from resignation and despair; fires me up with the discomfort of hope. Prayer plants deep inside me the foolish conviction that we could yet put our shoulders to the wheel of history and push, all together, kingdom-wards – in the direction of a world in which all God’s children can find safety, kindness, and peace. 

Light your lamps. Dress for action. Stay awake. Swanson writes,  “This is going to be difficult. But it is necessary. The Reign of God is overturning our systems.  Be ready.”

 

 

 

Gillespie’s essay in full: 

https://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/god-has-heard-your-thoughts-and-prayers-and-he-thinks-they-are-fucking-bullshit

Gary Manning’s essay on prayer:

https://medium.com/@Solwrker/prayer-is-not-nothing-d7a13f79aaff

Swanson’s essay: 

https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2019/08/05/a-provocation-9th-sunday-after-pentecost-proper-14-19-august-11-2019-luke-12-32-40/

Sermon, August 4

In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells a story about a rich man who has so much grain he doesn’t know what to do with it. He has to think and think. And then he has an idea!  What’s his idea?…  (discuss) 

What else could he have done?…  (There was money in those days, but our whole system for turning stuff into money and then keeping the money wasn’t developed yet. There were things like banks but they weren’t as safe or reliable; a lot of people would just keep their money themselves, but there were a lot of problems with thieves, too. So, “sell it and have money instead” might not have been as good an option… Anyway, that’s not what Jesus is doing with this story. The man has more than enough; turning it into money and putting it in a bank is kinda just a more sophisticated way to build a bigger barn.) 

Why might he have not wanted to give it away? (Some ideas: It might encourage people to be dependent; Maybe they don’t deserve it; they should work for their own money; maybe he doesn’t know any poor people; maybe he’s afraid of the poor people he does know…) 

So the man decides to build bigger barns! To keep his surplus, and use it to enjoy himself. Good plan! But then… he dies! His death isn’t a punishment. It’s just a thing that happens: people die. Rich people, poor people. For this man, his wealth had become the whole meaning of his life.. but as they say: You can’t take it with you.

So, Jesus tells his friends, don’t be preoccupied by the things you think you need. There’s more to life than food, and more to the body than clothing. He points to the ravens: they don’t work in the fields, but they seem to find enough to eat. And to the lilies: they don’t spin or sew, but their clothing is more beautiful than anything any human could create. 

Jesus says, Don’t chase after stuff. Chase after the Kingdom – God’s kingdom of mercy and justice, righteousness and peace. Keep your focus on what matters, and other things will fall into place. 

Now, let it be noted that Jesus was prone to wandering the countryside with nothing but the clothes on his back. So his notion of having what you need might not line up with ours. But Jesus was not an ascetic. An ascetic is someone who practices severe self-discipline, abstaining from most material comforts – with minimal shelter or no shelter; very simple clothing – even intentionally uncomfortable clothing; and likewise very simple food, and often some fasting. 

Asceticism is found in many religious and spiritual traditions around the world. John the Baptist is one familiar example for Christians. He lived in the wilderness outside Jerusalem, wearing a camel hide instead of woven garments like most people of the time, and eating what he could scavenge, including wild honey and grasshoppers. 

That was not Jesus’ jam. During the three years of his public mission, he was dependent on the kindness of strangers. He definitely traveled light. But he would absolutely enjoy a good meal when it came his way. People complained about this. People said, “John the Baptist didn’t eat or drink, and we thought that was weird – but now this Jesus fellow seems like a glutton and a drunkard, who hangs around with tax collectors because they put on lavish feasts with money stolen from the rest of us!”  When a woman pours expensive oil over Jesus’ feet, an act of devotion, some of his own disciples complain – because it would have been better to sell the ointment and give it to the poor; we don’t need these bodily indulgences anyway! 

But Jesus, God made human, likes the world. He likes things like good food, good wine, and sweet-smelling oil. He doesn’t think that stuff is bad, inherently flawed or sinful. He does, however, think that we humans are prone to letting that stuff become far, far too important to us, letting it take over our days and our hearts. He asks questions about wealth: What are you doing with it? Who is it benefiting? Who’s it hurting? What would happen if you had less? And who’s in charge here, really – you or your money? You or your stuff? 

Your life does not consist in abundance of possessions. The Greek word translated “abundance” here really means “too much.” Excess. Overflow. Surplus. Superfluity. Like in the story: the man has more grain than his barns can hold. 

I have a friend in another state who sometimes helps families clear out people’s homes after a death. She was telling me recently about how heartbreaking it can be to see how much stuff people have just accumulated. Not to enjoy; just to have. One woman kept the tags on every garment in her closet until she wore them. She could see how much each item had cost, tally her personal worth in name-brand clothing. As Jesus says elsewhere, Wherever you keep your treasure, that’s where your heart will be, too. 

It’s understandable; we tell women that their appearance and wardrobe are a big part of how people will judge them. We also tell women that shopping is an acceptable way to handle stress, anger, or pain. We normalize it, make it cute, with words like “retail therapy” and “shopaholic.” 

It’s not just a lady thing; men are subject to the same forces, the same manipulation of our desires, though it may manifest in different ways. It’s also not a rich-people thing; some people who are wealthy are incredibly level-headed and generous with their resources, and some people who don’t have much are especially vulnerable to the pull of possessions. 

Now, at the risk of sounding like a presidential candidate in a debate: I am not anti-capitalist. Capitalism can absolutely be a force for good. But it is simply objective fact that capitalism works by continuing to generate desire. If we don’t keep buying stuff, the machine grinds to a halt. Marketing, commercials, ads, are an integral part of the thing. 

That word I mentioned earlier that means excess, surplus, more than enough –  one of the things advanced capitalism does is make it really hard to identify that point. Because “enough” might mean we stay home from the mall and close the Amazon window in our browser. So marketing is always one step ahead of our desires – if you outpace the proverbial Joneses, there will be someone wealthier to measure yourself against. 

In today’s lessons, both Gospel and Epistle warn against greed. Greed is an unpleasant word. None of us want to think of ourselves as greedy. For some reason we mostly use the word “greed” in relation to food, but Jesus, whom his critics called a glutton, doesn’t seem to have any harsh words for people who enjoy a good meal. His concern is for people whose desire for wealth and material things has grown beyond their control, started to run their lives. 

The Epistle, this passage from the letter to the church in Colossae, says something really smart about it. It says that greed is a kind of idolatry. Idolatry – the great sin of the Hebrew Bible. It means worshipping something other than God. Putting something else at the center of your life and your heart – which is a double error: turning away from God, and also trusting in a thing, an inanimate object, which does not care about you.

There are some wonderful, darkly ironic passages in the Hebrew Bible criticizing people who are literally practicing idolatry. The prophet Isaiah describes a man cutting down a tree; he takes the wood and uses half of it to make a fire, to bake bread and roast some meat; with the rest of it he fashions a statue of a god, and bows down to it and worships it, saying, “Save me, for you are my god!” Isaiah says, This man is deluded; he can’t save himself and say,  “Isn’t this object in my hand a lie?”  (Isaiah 44)  

This is one of the endemic diseases of capitalism: it is so, so easy to let things that are just things become the center of our lives, the focus of our attention. They can’t answer or prayers. They don’t care what happens to us. They don’t love us back. No, not even the really *nice* things. 

Managing, mastering, our material desires is hard. It was hard in Jesus’ time. I honestly believe it’s harder in ours. Keeping our relationships with money and stuff in line with our values and intentions is one of the fundamental daily disciplines for Christians under late capitalism. (One of the appeals of asceticism has always been that some people find it easier to opt out entirely, and own NOTHING, than to stay in the system and keep making ethical and balanced choices!) 

So, what’s the good news, Miranda? Because this sounds HARD and discouraging!

I find it to be good news that Jesus sees and names this disease that is endemic in our nation. That he says, keenly but kindly: You can’t let stuff run your life. He speaks into something that so many of us wrestle with, whether it’s a manageable matter of budgeting and priorities, or a true addiction. 

I think it’s good news that God has compassion on our struggles with our impulses and desires, our misplaced priorities.Hosea, the source of our first lesson today, is a complicated book; but this is a beautiful passage. God speaking through the prophet describes Godself as a mother, raising a child in love, nurturing them, pointing them in the right direction. But people, even people we love very much, don’t always make good choices… and sometimes make very bad ones indeed. But God says to God’s child, God’s people: I can’t forget you; I keep loving you; I keep longing for you to come back. My heart and my womb ache for you. Come home. You will always be welcome. 

And I think there’s good news in today’s Epistle, though we almost missed it. The assigned lesson for this Sunday actually stops at verse 11 – that verse about how there are no fundamental differences among us in Christ. That’s good, important stuff!

But the next paragraph is this beautiful word to the church about how to share our lives as people of faith. And it’s not in the Sunday lectionary! It’s a recommended text for weddings – we used it at ours – but this is not just advice for couples; in fact that feels like missing the point in a big way. The first Christians understood churches as households – a group of people in a long-term relationship of care, who celebrate and grieve, raise children and care for elders, deal with conflicts and discern next steps, all together, as a body. 

The stuff that’s hard about daily life, then or now – we’re not supposed to be able to figure it out and manage it, all on our own. We’re supposed to have a loving, trustworthy household of faith, to wonder together, to find our direction and encourage one another. To share stories and struggles, ideas and hopes, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved; to bear with one another, and forgive one another when forgiveness is needed; to teach and admonish one another, in wisdom and with love; and to sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs to God, with gratitude in our hearts, as thankful people, who can look to the lilies and the ravens, and know deeply that what we need is here. 

Sermon, July 21

Let’s talk about Mary and Martha. 

First, listen to the story again. It’s short. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, his followers with him. This is it; he’s walking towards his final confrontation with the powers of this age, and towards his death on the cross. And he stops for the night with some friends, the sisters Martha and Mary. (We know of their friendship from John’s Gospel.) Martha, who seems to have been the head of the household, welcomes him as a guest, and sets about doing what you do for guests: providing a hot, delicious meal, and a comfortable place to sleep. Meanwhile, Jesus sits down and starts talking. Maybe teaching or preaching; maybe answering questions. And Mary, Martha’s sister, sits at Jesus’ feet, listening to his message. And Martha gets annoyed. She knows Mary won’t listen to HER, so she goes to Jesus and says, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to prepare the table all by myself? Tell her to help me.” And Jesus answers, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. One thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the better part. It will not be taken away from her.”

When I was in seminary, at the Episcopal Divinity School, my advisor was Dr. Kwok Pui-Lan – a fiercely smart scholar who works on postcolonial theology and Asian feminist theology. She preached on this text at one of our chapel services, talking about the dilemma this text poses for her.

As a feminist, she wants to rush to Martha’s defense. Women’s domestic work has been undervalued for a long, long time. Tasks like raising children; tending the sick and elderly; gathering food, farming and gardening; preparing and storing food; and making clothing to protect us from the elements – all of that work is literally why humanity still exists. But for millennia, those in power – mostly dudes – have not regarded it as “real” work, as “important” work. We are still struggling to shift that absurd mindset – aided by men who are increasingly involved in domestic labor, and are saying, Hey, you know, this IS real work, and deserves respect and support! 

It is easy to hear Jesus’ words here spoken in the voice of patriarchy. Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. Martha, you’re wasting your time on things that don’t matter – hot food and clean sheets. Martha, your domestic labor is unimportant next to the great matters that occupy great minds. Stick to your supporting role and don’t interrupt the thinkers. Maybe you should run down to Ross and see if they have a good deal on non-stick pans. 

But – said Pui-Lan in her sermon – While I want to step up and defend Martha, I am in fact a Mary. I was raised by parents whose greatest hope for me was to be able to spend my life sitting and thinking deep thoughts. So they fed me and clothed me while I spent hours on homework; they funded my education; they kept me free from mundane concerns. They worked so that I could think. Martha is burdened because Mary is free. 

I loved Pui-Lan’s sermon and still remember it, because I also feel torn about this text. I’m defensive of Martha partly because the passage seems unfair; but also, if I’m honest, because every time I read this, Jesus’ words to Martha are speaking to me. Kindly, not harshly – but he’s got my number. I am busy and distracted by many things. It would serve me well to put some stuff down and sit at Jesus’ feet for a while. 

But I think my defensiveness about Martha has kept me from seeing this text clearly – as a feminist text. I’ve been too busy empathizing with Martha to notice what Mary is doing, and what Jesus says about it.

Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening to him preach. Mary is doing what disciples do. 

The people in the Gospels who are given the title of disciple are all men. But it’s very clear that Jesus had many disciples, and a lot of them were women – women who received his teaching, supported his mission, stayed with him when the worst happened, and and went on to preach, teach, and lead churches after the Resurrection. 

Just a couple of chapters earlier, Luke writes that as Jesus traveled the countryside, proclaiming the Kingdom, “The twelve [disciples] were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.” Women are right there, traveling with the core group, supporting the mission with food and funding.

Thinking about Mary Magdala, Joanna, Susanna, and the others – the women disciples – casts Mary, and Martha, in a new light. Mary is doing what a disciple does; and Jesus is defending her right to do so, and telling Martha that she has that right, too. 

Martha is a strong, independent woman, by first century standards. She’s the head of her household. She feels free to speak her mind to friend the great rabbi. But she still feels bound by expectations about women’s work. Jesus is telling her, in effect, that if she wants to let the stew burn, and sit down with Mary, and listen to Jesus talk about the Kingdom for a while, she can do that. She doesn’t have to be the busy worker bee feeding everybody. That’s noble, important work; but it should be a choice, a calling, a joy, not an obligation imposed by gender norms. 

Mary is doing what a disciples does – and Jesus says, This will NOT be taken away from her. In fact, of course, it was. It has been – over and over again. After the first generation or so of Christian leaders, women were pushed into secondary roles, their voices, stories, and spiritual authority sidelined.

My morning routine right now includes reading a daily passage from the writings of the medieval Christian women mystics, from a wonderful book called Incadescence, compiled by Carmen Acevedo Butcher. Religious mysticism is hard to sum up simply. Mystics have special visions or experiences that reveal hidden realities or truths. Christian mystical writing, in particular, often stresses both God’s overwhelming immensity and God’s overwhelming love, dwelling in the rich paradox of divine trasncendence and intimacy. 

If you want to get the flavor of a mystical text, you could do worse than look at today’s reading from the letter to the Colossians, which sounds not unlike some of the passages I’ve been reading in the mornings. Its description of Christ overflows with meaning and mystery, giving a sense of a text written from the depth and intensity of an experience that transcends words: “[Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together…. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to Godself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of the cross.”

The letter to the Colossians is written in Paul’s name, but scholars seem genuinely divided on whether this is Paul writing in a somewhat different voice than his other letters, or somebody else, familiar with Paul’s writings, borrowing his authority. Let it be noted that it’s not uncommon over the course of history for a woman to use a man’s name to get her writings read and taken seriously.

But regardless of the authorship of Colossians, it offers us a glimpse of Christian mysticism, which has flowered in many forms and many places over the past two millennia, leaving behind theological texts, poems, hymns and art that are powerful, profound, attractive, and challenging.  

The immediacy of the mystic’s connection with the Divine can make an end-run around structures of religious authority and interpretation – so it should not be surprising that so many of the great medieval mystics were women. People like Julian of Norwich and her visions revealing God’s profound love for humanity; Catherine of Siena and her commitment to serving the poor ad advocating for peace; Hildegard of Bingen and her vision of the living Light infusing all things; the Beguine women’s monastic movement… Those medieval women mystics were fighting to reclaim their place at Jesus’ feet, and their voices as witnesses, in an entirely male-dominated church. 

This crop of medieval Mary-types met with qualified acceptance from male religious authorities…  but in the later medieval period, the pendulum swung back. Church hierarchies began to place more restriction on women’s religious lives, and to question the orthodoxy of women mystics’ teachings. In some areas, Inquisitors tried women mystics, and executed some of them. 

It’s far from the only time in human history when women who wonder, inquire, study and seek have met with resistance. In the mid-to-late 19th century, many people, including reputable scientists, believed if women went to college or did anything else that strained their brains, it would drain life force from their reproductive organs, which were of course their primary life purpose. One text warned, “Beware!! Science pronounces that the woman who studies is lost!” (Quoted in  Barbara Ehrenreich and Diedre English. For Her Own good: 150 Years of the Experts Advice to Women, p.100.)

It’s over against words and ideas like these that Jesus’ defense of Mary becomes good news. Mary belongs here, among the disciples, dwelling deeply with her Lord and his teachings. She has a right to her place at Jesus’ feet; and when the Church has driven her away, over and over again through the centuries, the Church has been wrong. 

I wish I could say that this is ancient history – that nobody is trying to keep women out of pulpits, boardrooms, and universities today. Of course that’s not true. But I hope that everyone in this room, irrespective of gender, feels that they have they have the freedom to commit themselves to study, theological or otherwise, if they so choose. So what is the good news here for us?

For one thing, Jesus’ words to Martha reminds me to resist the false idea that busy-ness equals importance. That accomplishment equals human worth. I know better – I’m sure you do too – but this is a pervasive mindset in our culture, in the very air we breathe, so it sneaks in. I need to hear Jesus’ loving words to Martha – and I do believe they are loving words – saying, You don’t have to be so driven. Your value doesn’t depend on how much you get done. 

At the same time, I think this story – when we dwell with it a little – invites us to refuse the false choice between Mary and Martha. Between enlightenment and effectiveness. The problem for Martha isn’t that she’s busy. The problem is that she doesn’t want to be doing what she’s doing, but can’t figure out how to put it down and walk away.

I have prepared a meal for others with a serene and grateful heart. I have sat at the feet of the wise and great to listen and learn with a grumpy and resentful heart – because that moment, it felt like something I had to do, instead of something I had chosen with joy. 

Jesus is inviting Martha – inviting us – to freedom from the stuff we feel like we’re supposed to do. From unchosen roles and imposed expectations. In the Kingdom of God, in the Life of the Age, there is no male nor female, slave nor free, Jew nor Greek; in God’s household, who we are does not determine what we’re allowed to do. That’s the freedom Jesus Christ is holding out to Mary and Martha alike, and to us – and it will not be taken away. 

 

More on ideas about women’s brains in the 19th century: 

http://versai.tripod.com/science/index.html#*4

Sermon, July 14

Before the first lesson, from Amos 7: 

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

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

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

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

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

SERMON following the Gospel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go and do likewise. 

Some initial reading:

Trends in U.S. Corrections

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

Digital Jail: How Electronic Monitoring Drives Defendants Into Debt

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

Sermon, July 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does it mean to proclaim the Kingdom? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Kingdom of God has come near to you! 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listen: 

So, friends, every day do something 

that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 

Love the world. Work for nothing. 

Take all that you have and be poor. 

Love someone who does not deserve it. … 

Ask the questions that have no answers. 

Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias. 

Say that your main crop is the forest 

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

Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 

Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful 

though you have considered all the facts.   

Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary, 

some in the wrong direction. 

Practice resurrection.

(Wendell Barry, The Mad Farmer Liberation Front)

Sermon, June 16

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character… 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some links – 

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

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

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