I have been experimenting with preaching from an outline in this season. Apologies to those who read online – I know this is harder to read than a complete sermon text!
Annual Meeting Sunday
Happens every January (though some churches do it in the late fall)
Business – presenting budget, electing representatives, ministry updates
I usually take invitation to do a “State of the Parish” sermon, to best of my ability
Last year: Jesus at the Wedding at Cana, & anxiety about whether there will be enough. & being in the “stretch zone” as the parish changes and as my role changes too.
Helpful to me to re-read, because honestly, dealing with the renovation last year sucked up a lot of my capacity to think and pray and practice my way into those changes… if you want to re-read it too, I have some copies in the sermon basket!
Year before that: Preached on an Epistle about holding the present lightly, so that we’re more able to welcome God’s future. That was an easy one!
Ask myself: What’s the word that needs speaking? Where am I catching a glimpse of God’s next work among us, that I can name and hold up?
Coming up blank.
Not a bad blank. Not lost, lonely, anxious blank.
Blank page in an artist’s pad, with colored pencils and markers and paints at hand…
Which makes a lot of sense, when I think about where we are in our common life at St. D’s…
CAP CAM TRAJECTORY
I came to St. D’s in Jan 2011. First document that mentions preparing for a cap cam dates from March 2011.
Not because I came here itching to do one, but because folks here had some things they felt could be better.
Budget issues – put it off; good thing!
We began in earnest in 2015. Five years ago.
Open Door Project – make bldgs more accessible, flexible, comfortable and beautiful.
And here we are.
ODP is NOT OVER.
More on that in a bit!
But: Over the hump.
Renovation was the largest part, both financially and logistically; and it’s more or less over.
Still collecting pledge payments for the next couple of years; still some interesting and important pieces to undertake.
And still a lot of closets and cabinets and corners with stuff that doesn’t belong there… I’m telling myself it will be OK if some of the sorting and settling waits till the summer!
But I find there’s also starting to be room to breathe… and wonder, what now?
Back to that blank page…!
Lectionary readings for today frame this wondering space.
Sunday readings come from 3-year calendar used by many churches
Epiph: dropped one lesson, extended another, but still working with assigned texts
Lots of kinds of churches where preachers choose texts; I like the discipline & challenge of hearing what the Spirit is saying to the church though the texts that the lectionary places before us.
Today: Prophetic text from Isaiah; portion of early part of John’s Gospel.
Prophet. Godly Play: “a prophet is someone who comes so close to God, and God comes so close to them, that they know what is most important.”
First 39 chaps attrib to OG Isaiah. Later, another prophet’s voice continues and extends Isaiah’s prophecies. Different, but also consistent – it IS one book.
This is Second Isaiah – chap 49.
People of Judea conquered, many killed, others taken away to live in exile.
Prophetic text points towards return to homeland, and restoration of what they have lost, for God’s people.
Israel not forgotten or abandoned; God remembers; God has a future for them.
BUT NOT JUST return and rebuilding: a new mission.
You’ll be honored by foreign kings; you’ll set captives free; your cities will be so full you’ll be saying, “Where did all these children come from?”
MOST OF ALL: Sign of God’s power and redeeming love to the whole world. “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
Echoes – Song of Praise this season – Isaiah 60: “Nations will stream to your light, kings to the brightness of your dawning…” A city of peace and plenty and light for the whole world.
Import msg for people in exile: temptation to just want what they had before. God says: OK – but I have bigger plans for you.
Now, all that speaks to me pretty directly.
Renovation is not conquest and exile. But there was chaos and confusion and dislocation, and some struggle, and some grief.
And now we can settle in to renewed spaces & return to normal. It would be easy to let that be enough.
Since Xmas: I’ve been able to notice & enjoy. Hearing that from others, too. Things look nice and feel good!
BUT: God through Isaiah: It’s too light a thing to just move back in, tidy up, get back to how things were before all the mess.
God says to God’s people: I have work for you that extends beyond the gates of your city, the doors of your church.
Your renewal has a purpose beyond yourselves.
Return, rebuilding and restoring is not just for our comfort or convenience, but for God’s glory and God’s work in the world.
I don’t know yet what that will look like.
But I believe that’s what we’ll be discerning in the months and years ahead.
What’s waiting to be drawn or painted on that blank page … or maybe several blank pages.
If this makes you uncomfortable – if you were enjoying getting back to normal, and the idea that our new “normal” includes opening our hearts and minds to God’s unfolding purpose for our parish, sounds like more than you’re up for at the moment – then you are not alone.
That’s where our Gospel today comes in – and it is good news.
We are back and forth between the Gospels of Matthew and John a lot in this season, for some reason.
We’re back in John this Sunday, soon after Jesus’ baptism (which we had in Matthew last week), and John the Baptist is telling people about Jesus: “That man over there? He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God!”
John had his own disciples – followers and students – from among the many, many seekers who came to him to hear his preaching & perhaps be baptized.
Here he is pointing away from himself, towards Jesus: That’s who this is all about. That’s who you really need to follow.
Just a few verses before this passage, a verse I treasure:
V. 19-20: “This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ John confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’”
Something I read a few years ago called this the Confession of John the Baptist – as in, his confession of faith. Only half a joke.
I AM NOT THE MESSIAH. Not the One Sent by God to Save and Restore. I just point at him. Look, there he is!
VIII. Putting the Confession of John in conversation with Isaiah….
It is too light a thing for God’s people to simply have what they had before, restored to them; God intends them to be a light to all peoples, so that God’s saving power can reach to the ends of the earth.
But – and – We are not the Messiah.
Reassurance: Whatever comes next for us does not have to be Messiah-scale.
Nobody, least of all God, expects St. Dunstan’s to fix what ails the world or our nation or even just Madison or Middleton.
Offering ourselves to God’s purposes not the same as being the SAVIOR of the WORLD. That’s a relief!
But just as important: We are not called to be the Savior; but we are called to point towards him.
That IS our job, individually and together – to live lives that point in word and deed towards a loving and redeeming God, made known to us in Jesus Christ.
Picture that blank page. Close your eyes if it helps.
A nice chunky notebook; good brushes; cup of clean water; the colored pencils are sharp and ready…
If art stuff makes you anxious, feel free to pick another image. Wood and tools? An empty garden plot? An image of joyous potential.
We have some praying and wondering and discerning to do, in this season.
I am looking for some prayer partners to pray with me about the next chapter in our common life here at St. Dunstan’s. I don’t know exactly what that looks like either but I know I need it. If you think that might be you, talk to me.
There’s no hurry in all this; we’re still unpacking, and still recovering, from the renovation.
But I think the time is right to begin patient, prayerful preparation for the next thing – remembering that it won’t be OUR thing, but God’s.
The purpose, the plan, and the power – all God’s.
If we listen with open minds and hearts, God will show us the way. I really believe that.
Let us pray.
O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquillity the plan of salvation; let the whole world
see and know that things which were being cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by the One through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Our Annual Parish Meeting will be on Sunday, January 19, at 9am. The 2020 parish budget will be presented. To look at the budget and other financial reports, click the link below. You may want to download or print the document to look at it in detail.
Some notes on reading these materials… The middle pages of this document, headed “St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church 2019 Income and Expense Report – 2020 Proposed Budget,” are the annual budget materials and are the most important to review. Here’s a little about how to read them. The column labeled “YTD” is the total actual income or expense for 2019, while the column labeled “Annual Budget” tells you the 2019 budget for each budget line item. Comparing those two columns will give you an idea of how the actual finances of the year played out relative to the budget we adopted last January. The final column, “Proposed 2020 Budget,” is what the Vestry has approved for our 2020 annual parish budget.
Overall, there are three sections to this document:
The balance sheet, an overview of parish assets, funds, and liabilities
The 2019 Income & Expense Report & 2020 Budget
The Designated Funds Report, an overview of some special set-aside and pass-through funds committed for certain purposes. These are separate from the annual budget. This report contains some of the same information as the balance sheet.
As part of the preparation for our Annual Parish Meeting, many ministries prepare reports about their activities in the past year. Here are this year’s Ministry Reports!
Please Note: No contact information is included in the online version of this document. The print version available at church does have contact information. If you want to get in touch and learn more about any of these ministries, just contact the church office at or 608-238-2781 and we will put you in touch!
Ministers of Ceremony : A Minister of Ceremony (MC) assists the clergy with the details of the service. He or she leads the Prayers of the People and usually acts as Lay Eucharistic Minister for the Eucharist at which he or she serves. If there is not an acolyte for the service, the MC also performs the duties of acolyte.For the 8:00 a.m. service, MCs are Sharon Bloodgood, Eric Brown, Sharon Henes, Barbara Karst, Mike Miller, David Segura and Joanne Reis.At 10:00 a.m., MCs are Judi Janowski, Peter Hewson, Claudia Miran, John Laedlein and Heidi Anderson. Joanne Reis acts as the coordinator/scheduler for the 8:00 a.m. ministers. Claudia Berry Miran serves as coordinator/scheduler for the 10:00 a.m. ministers. If you are interested in this ministry, talk to any of the MCs listed for more information. Written by Joanne Reis and Claudia Berry Miran
Lay Eucharistic Ministry: Lay Eucharistic Ministers (LEMs) at St Dunstan’s support the Celebrant and MC at all Sunday 10:00 AM services, and at Holy Week and Christmas Eve services.Lynn Bybee, John Ertl, Evy Gildrie-Voyles, Sharon Henes, Peter Hewson, Judi Janowski, Bonnie Magnuson, Mark Rooney, Jess Viste, Tracy Wentz, and Gail Wickman served as LEMs in 2019. Peter Hewson serves as the LEM coordinator. Please speak to him or any LEM if you’d like to know more about the ministry, and/or are interested in serving. – Submitted by Peter Hewson
Altar Guild: The members of the Altar Guild are responsible for preparing the altar for worship services, cleaning up after worship and caring for the vessels, linens, candles, frontals and banners used to make worship beautiful and appropriate for the season. At St. Dunstan’s we have one person assigned per week to be responsible for services during that week, setting up for Sunday morning and cleaning up after the 10 AM service, plus any midweek services.We also have a dedicated group from the 8 AM service who clean up after that service and set up for 10 AM every week.Our 10 AM group includes Evy Gildrie-Voyles, Gretchen Caballero, Betty Enters, Shirley Laedlein and Helen Lackore.The 8 AM group consists of Susan Trudell, Laura Norby and Gail Jordan.Gail also coordinates our flowers through a locally owned floral service.
We are always happy to welcome new people who are interested in learning about this ministry, and need not commit to serving more than one weekend a month. We especially could use more help at our 8AM service. Feel free to talk to any of the members for more information.
This year we again are especially inviting families with children to join us for a single Sunday, or a monthly rotation.It is a great way to learn about the seasons of the church and for kids to have a chance to handle the items used in worship.If your family would be interested in this, please contact Shirley Laedlein. – Submitted by Shirley Laedlein, Altar Guild chair
Prayer Ministry at St. Dunstan’s: The St. Dunstan’s prayer ministry is an active group of about 50 individuals who include prayer requests and concerns from our community in their own private prayers. Sometimes requests come directly from the Rector as well. The prayer requests are shared via email with the prayer group unless a person asks for the details to be private. We also regularly monitor the St. Dunstan’s prayer box on Old Middleton Road where neighbors can share their own concerns. Those requests are put on the St. Dunstan’s Mad City Facebook site.
Only what a person wishes to include will be shared in the prayers. If you are submitting a request for a person other than yourself, we ask you to be sensitive to what that individual would want to have known.
The names appear each week in the Prayers of the People, and they stay on the list for a reasonable length of time. If a name comes off the list and you want it to go back on, please make that known via the email address above.
And if you would like to participate in this ministry, please be in touch! This usually amounts to a couple of prayer request emails per week. – Submitted by Celia Fine
Evening Church Camp, August 2019: This year we decided to have our Evening Church Camp be for all ages again – and since the building was in the process of renovation, we decided to take it outside! We came up with no-kitchen dinners, and ate at tables in the Nave. Every night we had a different Scripture reading – ranging from Genesis to Revelation – exploring the relationships among God, humanity, and Creation. Father Tom, Father John, and Cecilie Ballard helped adults, middle kids, and little kids engage with the stories and themes in age-appropriate ways. Our outside actives were amazing and lots of people helped out! Some favorites were meeting chickens, making giant bubbles, helping build a beautiful wood structure behind the Parish Center, and Predator Tag on the pine island. Thanks to all who helped out and participated!
Sunday School: This past spring we decided it was finally time to shift from a curriculum we’ve been using for many years for our Elementary classes and design our own curriculum, based on the activities our kids most enjoy and that seem most fruitful for encouraging understanding of and reflection on the day’s Scripture text or theme. (For example, we have learned that many of our kids really enjoy acting out a Scripture story & then talking about it, and the curriculum we used to use only offered that option occasionally.
Over the summer, Rev. Miranda mapped out focus texts for the Sundays of the coming year, based on the Revised Common Lectionary, and interested folks met to talk about how best to engage with those texts. Those notes were turned into simple lesson plans. We have been using our homegrown curriculum since September and it seems to be going well! We are still learning and adjusting, but the teachers say the materials are easy to use and the kids are responding well.Several of our youth help out in the Sunday school classrooms regularly, assisting with Bible study and drama.Our youngest classroom continues to use the Godly Play curriculum, sometimes enriched with other materials. That story-based curriculum works well for the preschool and kindergarten age group.
Thanks so much to all our Sunday school teachers! If you’d like to help out sometime as a helper or guest, talk to Rev. Miranda or Sharon Henes. – Submitted by Rev. Miranda
Below is the text of a display about Cookie Church that Rev. Miranda prepared for the Church Innovation Summit in St. Paul last summer. It explains what it is and the ideas behind it. So far we have done three “seasons” of Cookie Church. Look for another to come early in 2020. Rev. Miranda will survey parents of young children who might like to participate for the best time to gather, and we are thinking about how to structure the next season to meet some of our young kids’ enthusiasm about making music!
What is Cookie Church?Here’s our announcement text: “Cookie Church is simple bedtime church. It is child-centered but not just for kids; we find that youth and grownups like it too! We will share singing, story, Eucharist, and a snack. (Yes, there will be cookies.) We end with bedtime prayers and it’s OK to come in your pajamas!”
Here’s the welcome script: “Welcome to Cookie Church! What will we do? There will be singing. There will be a story. There will be Eucharist. And there will be cookies! At Cookie Church we make church together, and one of the ways we do that is by singing together….”
Parents of Cookie Church:
St. Gregory of Nyssa, San Francisco. St. Gregory’s is very intentional about supporting liturgical participation. We take special inspiration from the especially the Supper Service that the Rev. Sylvia Mutia-Miller led during her tenure there, to explore kids’ interest in and capacity for liturgical leadership in various roles.
Waffle Church, St. Lydia’s Dinner Church, Brooklyn: Waffle Church is a monthly child-centered liturgy featuring Eucharist, waffles, and shared clean-up.
Music that Makes Community: Music that Makes Community is an organization committed to renewing the practice and spirituality of shared song, especially paperless song. Singing without books or screens is a relational and human way to sing that builds community and helps us listen and enjoy each other.
Why Cookie Church?St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church in Madison, WI, is enthusiastically welcoming of children, but our Sunday worship doesn’t have a lot of different jobs for kids. So we needed a space to explore what kids could do, and liked to do, in liturgy. Thus was born Cookie Church.Cookie Church is a child-centered-but-not-just-for-kids, mostly child-led evening liturgy. Its purpose is not to shift kids out of the Sunday morning worship of the whole assembly. Instead, we want to invite kids deeper into our shared worship by discovering together their capacity for liturgical leadership in a rage of tasks and roles.
Core Principles: Sunday Morning Doesn’t Work For Everybody. We’re a pastoral-sized church with one clergy person on staff, and we’re committed to intergenerational worship and community. We are not seeking to create a separate worshiping community for young children and their parents.At the same time, it’s simply true that Sunday morning is hard for some people, such as toddlers with midmorning naps, teenagers with sporting events, and some older adults who may move slowly in the morning.One goal of Cookie Church is to offer an alternative time and type of worship, to meet some of these needs. As we continue to experiment, we’ll be thinking about how to keep Cookie Church sustainable in terms of clergy/staff time and energy; and how to keep it in living relationship with Sunday morning worship.
Core Principles: Kids Need Jobs. In the fall of 2018, I went on sabbatical to learn from Episcopal churches that include kids in worship well. I came back with some core principles. One core principle is: Kids need jobs – and not just acolyting. There is dignity and delight in choosing a job you want, that fits your capacities and interests. We let adults chose roles they enjoy; why not do the same for kids and youth?At Cookie Church, kids can do everything except celebrate the Eucharist. When folks arrive, laminated slips naming the jobs are laid out on a table: Leader, Bell Ringer, Bread Minister, Lector, Crucifer, Song Leader, Candle Lighter, and more. The jobs represent a range of responsibility and skill, and suggested ages are on the cards. Arriving, kids immediately start choosing the job they want, recruiting friends, and inviting newcomers.When we held a feedback session after our first five-week run of Cookie Church, the kids told us unanimously and clearly: We like the jobs!
Core Principles: Paperless Worship Includes Everybod. At Cookie Church, the only people with something in their hands are the Presider and Leader. We use paperless music, including a call-and-response sung Eucharist. This equalizes participation for people of all ages, and for “regulars” and newcomers.
Core Principles: Experiment & Get Feedback. We started Cookie Church with a five-week run on Sunday nights in Lent, to see how it went and what we could learn. I asked for feedback at the end of worship every night, and we made tweaks as we went along. Some tweaks were small, like switching in an easier song; some were larger, like adding the Leader role when it became clear there were kids ready to help lead worship. After Easter, we held a feedback session to ask people who’d come to Cookie Church, What did you like? (The jobs! The stories! The cookies!) What would we do differently next time? (More interactive prayers! Easier song at the Peace!) And should we do it again? (YES!) That feedback fed plans for Cookie Church in July.
What Next for Cookie Church?Cookie Church will probably come back as a regular offering in the fall; a core group really enjoys it, and we’re interested to advertise it beyond our regular members. Our two short runs of Cookie Church, in March and July, helped us test and improve the liturgy, and learn who it serves.We’re also beginning to explore how we can extend some of this approach into Sunday mornings, to offer more ways kids and youth can participate and lead in regular Sunday worship.
Creation Care Task Force: Caring for God’s Creation has long been a part of St. Dunstan’s identity, and is reflected in our parish’s Mission Statement, which includes a call for “care for the environment.” In connection with this aspect of our parish’s mission, in 2016 a group of interested parishioners formed a Creation Care Task Force to explore what the Bible says about the importance of respecting and caring for God’s Creation, and to identify ways to help us live out this theme in our lives as individuals and as a parish. In 2017 and 2018 we held Creation Care Open Meetings in which interested members of the parish identified and elaborated on ways to advance the four goals of St. Dunstan’s Creation Care Mission Statement:
Cultivate love of Creation
Pattern our daily lives as stewards of Creation
Manage the environmental footprint of our parish, and
Broaden our perspective and participation.
Although the Task Force is not a permanent Committee of St. Dunstan’s and does not meet on a regular schedule, members remain interested in engaging with the congregation from time to time.
In 2019, we held a series of brief (15-20 minute) “Bite Sized” Climate Change intergenerational learning opportunities after 10am services, with grownups, kids and youth invited and welcome. During each session, we watched a short video together examining an aspect of the climate conversation, discussed the video briefly, and then closed in prayer.
St. Dunstan’s Summer 2019 Green Habits Challenge invited parishioners, individually or as a household, to try out various green habits during the summer months – small but significant actions as ways to pattern our daily lives as caretakers of God’s creation (e.g., reduce use of disposables; participate in a Spirituality in Nature gathering at St. Dunstan’s; reduce the impact of your diet). Members completing at least 5 of the 11 Challenges were awarded badges in early October.
In 2020, St. Dunstan’s has been invited to join a year-long pilot program called Churchlands, which is an opportunity to explore how Episcopal churches that own land can begin to relate to land holdings in a way that is more faithful to the Gospel: integrating discipleship, ecology, justice, and health. Rev. Miranda and Carrie Tolejano will attend a kickoff retreat in late January, then there will be monthly online meetings for much of the year. If you’re interested in attending a meeting, talk with Rev. Miranda! Submitted by John Laedlein.
Ladies’ Night Out: Ladies of St. Dunstan’s and some friends have been eating dinner together one Friday evening each month at restaurants of their choice. During 2019 we have had up to eight people enjoying dinner and companionship each time. Kathy Whitt coordinated the details during the year, and Marian Barnes has taken charge since December. Women are welcome to take part by contacting the person in charge, and she makes the reservations. Submitted by Kathy Whitt
Coffee Hour: The weekly Coffee Hour following our Sunday 10:00 a.m. service is a wonderful way to extend the ministry of fellowship to everyone.This time provides an opportunity to visit with friends, greet visitors, and enjoy coffee, juice, and treats.Coffee Hour hosts can sign up to host on specific Sundays during each month. Tablecloths and napkins can be found in storage bins in the Gathering Space, and serving items are located in the kitchen cabinets.
During the summer months of 2019 while the kitchen was undergoing renovation and water wasn’t readily accessible, we had what I like to call, “The Mobile Coffee Hour”.Everyone seemed to accept the fact that the main beverage typically served (COFFEE) wasn’t available!Coffee Hour hosts now have the advantage of working in our beautifully enlarged kitchen space with convenient storage, more prep area, new appliances, and awesome lighting.It’s amazing!
In our spacious gathering area, Coffee Hour also gives us a chance to observe some special celebrations throughout the year, such as cakes to honor the newly baptized and those with birthdays and anniversaries. In November we celebrated the intake of our yearly pledges with a delicious “Piece Be With You” coffee hour, featuring pies of all types.
Many families host Coffee Hour regularly, and we are thankful for their dedicated service to this ministry of fellowship.Volunteers are always needed and very welcome – the monthly sign-up sheets are located in the Gathering Space. If you have questions or would like more information about volunteering for Coffee Hour, please contact Janet Bybee.
Greeters Ministry: This is a fun ministry if you like to meet people. We use one Greeter each Sunday which means you only have to serve once a month. We are always in need of substitutes or replacements. So, if this interests you, please see me, Bernice Mason, the lady with the hat, and I’ll sign you up. See you in Church.Submitted by Bernice Mason
St. Dunstan’s Church Library: Our church library now is located where people can see and use it. Prior to the renovations it was shelved in the lower level. The books were in storage during construction, and now they are in the first floor classroom. We have books about the church and the faith, as well as some fiction and some about our outdoor environment. They are arranged alphabetically by author’s last name for easy browsing. To check one out, put your name and the name of the book on the checkout paper, and cross your name off when you return it. This library is not the same as the Little Free Library outside in the woods. Submitted by Kathy Whitt, church librarian.
Wednesday Book Group: The Book Group continues to meet each Wednesday morning, having coffee, discussing the various subjects evoked by the books we read and sharing some of our life stories. This year we have read together: Unsheltered, by Barbara Kingsolver; Almost Everything, Notes on Hope, by Anne Lamott; Why Religion, by Elaine Pagels; The Second Mountain, by David Brooks;and The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, by Margareta Magnusson. (It’s not as dreary as it sounds!)The current book is Quiet, The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain. Come have a cup of coffee, a little bite of something sweet and discuss the book. Actually reading the book is not a prerequisite. For more information please contact Valerie McAuliffe.Peace.
Saturday Book Club: Formerly known as the Men’s Book Club, we are now the Saturday Book Group; all are welcome! The Saturday Book Group meets on Saturday mornings at St Dunstan’s every 6-8 weeks except during the summer. We generally alternate between fiction and non-fiction books. For the January session, we each brought a favorite short story. Conversation about books and other things that come to mind flow freely, depending on who is there.
Books we read in 2019 were: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah, The Death and Life of the Great Lakes by Dan Egan, The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life after Warming by David Wallace-Wells, A Good American Family by David, Maraniss, and Manhattan Beach by Jenifer Egan.
Some things have changed. Jim Hindle served as the coordinator of the club for many years, but stepped down in the spring. Thanks, Jim, for keeping us informed!Please speak to Peter Hewson if you’d like to know more. We welcome new members.
Music Ministries: St. Dunstan’s music ministries includes the choirs (children’s and adult’s); the musician’s collective (a loose conglomeration of both vocalists and instrumentalists) and all those who do help us do everything that goes into doing music together. This work includes singing and playing music for service; writing special hymn lyrics; composing, arranging, and engraving psalms, hymns, and original music; providing special music on- and off-site in collaboration with wider church events; handling music library, technological, and licensing logistics; providing second-adult presences for children’s choir rehearsals; organizing fellowship and planning events; publicizing off-site music events; and providing financial and material resources.
This year involved learning to use the new space we have from the much appreciated work for the Open Door Project (the elevator is awesome!); honoring beloved fellow musicians who have gone before us into the great cloud of witnesses; and experimenting with ways to make music more nimbly and inclusively together. To all the members of our regular ensembles; guest musicians; folks who manage the library and technology behind-the-scenes; donors; and the congregation: thank you for your continued support! – Submitted by Deanna Clement
Monday Art Group: Monday Art Group meets from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. It’s a great way to start the work week, especially if you don’t work Monday mornings! We gather in the Meeting Room which has wonderful natural light throughout the year. We are an informal group that enjoys friendship and conversation. We work on our own individual projects that have included acrylic and watercolor painting, drawing, colored pencil blending, card making, needle felting, and Zentangle. We often listen to classical or jazz music as we work. We welcome any artists, would-be artists and crafters who would like to join us but request that your choice of projects have minimal fumes. Hope to see you soon! Submitted by Judy Kellner
Acolytes: St. Dunstan’s has approximately 15 young people who serve at the altar.Our acolytes display a high level of teamwork with the more experienced acolytes taking the initiative to help and mentor our less experienced acolytes.Their ministry is greatly appreciated. Submitted by Sharon Henes
Youth Group: The first half of 2019, our youth group consisted of 6th – 9th graders and average weekly attendance was approximately 10 kids (our “membership” consisted of 16 youth).Our highlights from the end of Season 4 included a middle school retreat based upon the Way of Love.Our retreat service project was researching and providing loans through KIVA.
During the summer of 2019, 15 youth and 4 adults went on a mission trip in southern Wisconsin. Each day consisted of prayer, travel to the next site, Bible study, service project, swimming, games and worship.We began the trip by going to Oconomowoc where we did landscaping.Our next day we went to Racine where we got to know guests of The Hospitality Center, served food and learned more about the neighborhood surrounding the church.Our last location was Watertown where we sorted clothes in Mary’s Room, painted a garage, landscaped and sorted props for their drama program.The last day was a fun day consisting of a mini-golf tournament (we had the place to ourselves), a painting lesson and a water park.The mission trip provides an opportunity to provide service, grow in faith and strengthen our community.
In addition, we sent one adult and one youth member on the last Mishpack trip.This mission trip consisted of working with Habitat for Humanity in Bozeman, Montana followed by hiking in the mountains.
The fall of 2019 highlights include:
We now have both a high school and middle school youth groups!
Our middle school youth group (consisting of 5th – 8th graders) started Season 5 and meets every Friday night from 5:00 p.m. – 7:30 p.m. for fellowship, games and worship.They also come together once a month on the weekend for an activity.
Our high school youth group (consisting of 9th and 10th graders) started Season 1 and meets every Friday night from 7:00 – 9:30 p.m. for fellowship, games and worship.They also come together about every other month for an activity.
We have 24 youth (5th – 10th graders) who have come to at least one youth group meeting or activity this fall.(One Friday night we had 19 youth attend youth group!) Looking around on a Sunday morning you may notice that we don’t have that many middle schoolers and high schoolers and you would be right.About a third of our youth group members attend other churches or no church at all!
We have a new home – the lower level of the parish center!This space is greatly appreciated by all as we were really crowded in our old space.We are planning an event which will allow everyone to come and see the space!
In October, 4 youth and 3 adults attended the Revival in Appleton and met the Presiding Bishop!
Our youth groups walked in the GSAFE Trick or Trot and sent out care packages to college students and military members.
Looking ahead in 2020…
Our middle school youth group will have a retreat in March.
Our high school youth group will be participating in the Province V Youth Event.
We have two youth members attending the national Episcopal Church Event in the Washington DC area in the beginning of July.
Our high school youth group will be joining a youth group from Hudson to go on a 9 day mission trip to do urban ministry in Denver, Colorado.
Our middle school youth group will be going on a 5 day mission trip in southern Wisconsin.
We would like to thank our team of adults who serve as a “third adult” at our middle school youth group weekly gatherings.These individuals join us for a Friday night approximately 6-8 times during the program year.Thank you to those who surprise us by leaving homemade treats!Also thank you to the Outreach Committee for allocating funds to ensure our mission trip could take place!
Finally thank you to the parish for supporting this growing ministry!We appreciate the prayers, our new space, and financial support this year!
UTO and Episcopal Church Women: United Thank Offering and Episcopal Church Women (UTO and ECW). Things have been quiet this year for several reasons. Regarding UTO, because we have been in the throes of the capital campaign this year I felt like there was no good time or way to add another fundraising effort to the women of the parish. I’m hoping to set a date for an ingathering preceded by some conversation regarding UTO– it’s history and it’s philosophy.
In regards to ECW, I have had some conversations with women in the parish and some ideas have been shared as to things we might provide from a program point of view for women of the parish. They have included the day away which we have had in the past in the fall with trips to nearby communities that have interesting shopping venues. There has also been discussion of going to a movie every once in a while (monthly?) that would be of interest to women with coffee and discussion following in the restaurant at Point Cinema. There has also been discussion regarding a birthday lunch every couple of months to celebrate the birthdays of those 2 months with cards to share. (This was an activity we had a long time ago).Please contact me if any of this appeals to you and also if you would like to be part of a small group to plan any activities of interest. In the same vein – women are always welcome to join the Wednesday Morning Book Group either as an ongoing participant or because the book being read appeals to you – see Val McAuliffe for more info on this.
Blessings for all that you do as the women of the church, both within the parish and in your work outside the parish. May the start of the decade bring you blessings, joy and peace in your life and for those whom you love. – Submitted by Connie Ott
Outreach Ministries Report
St. Dunstan’s Outreach Ministries are many and varied, including gifts of time, service, and monetary donations.We gratefully acknowledge the many gifts of human and financial resources in support of Outreach from other individuals and ministries within the St. Dunstan’s family.
Outreach Vision Statement: We seek to act in response to Christ’s words, “Whatever you do for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you do for me.”
Outreach Mission Statement: We act as the steward of the human and financial parish resources for Outreach, to serve those in need who work and live beyond the physical borders of the church and its grounds.
In 2020, the Outreach Committee used monetary donations and in person volunteer hours to address the following concerns: Disaster Relief, Support for victims of Domestic Violence, Eviction Prevention/Housing, Refugees/Immigrant’s Rights/Safety, LGBTQ+ Rights/Safety, Criminal Justice Reform, and Hunger/Poverty.
The Outreach Ministries Committee holds meetings on the last Saturday of the Month.We welcome new voices and new concerns; please consider joining us! Contact Evy Gildrie-Voyles if you would like to be added to the Outreach e-mail distribution list we use to keep members informed about upcoming Outreach meetings and related activities.
St. Dunstan’s Outreach Allocations in 2019
Every year, St. Dunstan’s sets aside a percentage of the budgeted pledged income to be allocated to organizations locally and internationality that serve those in need.In 2018 St. Dunstan’s Outreach Committee allocated$17954 to the following organizations and projects:
Episcopal Relief and Development Community Immigration Law Center
Bread for the World MOSES (Criminal Justice Reform)
Middleton Outreach Ministry Dane Sanctuary Coalition
Agrace Hospice Care Episcopal Migration Ministry
KIVA Micro Loans Episcopal Network for Economic Justice
Falk School Domestic Abuse Intervention Services
Bus Passes for Homeless Students Joining Forces For Families
GSAFE (Creating Safe Schools for LGBTQ+ youth) Middleton Youth Center
St. Duntan’s Youth Outreach Mission Trip RISE (Respite Care For Families)
Briar Patch (Services for Homeless Youth)
St. Dunstan’s Outreach Endowment 2019
Each year the Outreach Committee solicits grant requests from the “endowment” portion of the investments at the diocesan Trustees of Funds and Endowments. This year the amount to be distributed was $5000.Grants of $2,500 each were given to Hope Haven North Bay Lodge, a residential addiction treatment facility and Madison Urban Ministry for emergency needs of members of their Family Connections program, a program for families with at least one incarcerated parent.
As always, we are looking for other locations and programs to support with our endowment grant money. Please contact Evy Gildrie-Voyles or Connie Ott with suggestions.
Core Ministries: There are several core ministries that St. Dunstan’s invests volunteer time and resources in on a continual basis.These are just a few of them.
Falk Pantry & Falk Grant: Our outreach efforts for the Falk Elementary School Pantry have continued to provide much needed support of non-food items not covered by food stamps. Our annual budget for these items is $1000 and we make sure to shop wisely to stretch it far! During the winter and spring, the Owls youth group collaborated on monthly packs of feminine hygiene products, toilet paper, and diapers. The outreach committee also provided $400 last spring to be used for some greatly needed teaching materials and supplies for the sensory room. In the fall, we were asked to focus on full sized items like lotion, deodorants, dish soap & laundry detergent while still supplying diapers and toilet paper. We finished off the year by providing 16 Wal-Mart gift cards in small denominations for the social worker to distribute to families with emergencies. They are also extremely grateful for the Falk Grant St Dunstan’s provides to assist families facing a housing crisis. The social worker shared one recent story of how a small portion of the grant was used to help a family realize their dream of buying their first home after they came up a little short on the earnest money. Submitted by Krissy Mayer
MIDDLETON OUTREACH MINISTRY: This past year MOM has been focusing on increasing the capacity of its Housing Stability Program to serve a growing need in the community it serves.MOM strives to emphasize eviction prevention to help individuals and families with evictions on their records to find stable housing in the future. The Food Pantry continues to assist thousands in the community to access nourishing food.Around 100,000 pounds of food continue to be distributed each month with offerings of nutritious foods and produce. The Clothing Closet offers high quality clothing, helping clients extend their budgets as the seasons change.In any given month, more than 10,000 pounds of clothing are provided. The Seniors Program assists with rides to and from appointments as well as providing light household indoor and outdoor chores.
St. Dunstan’s continues to be a generous contributor to the success of the MOM organization.Consistently we donate monetarily to the MOM Second Harvest account and provide in-kind donations of food, household items, and clothing. The congregation contributed generously to the Back to School program as well as providing gifts for four families through the Winter Wishes program.Most significantly, the Outreach Committee has generously allocated monies from its Operating Budget for MOM to use as needed.Also, several members of the congregation volunteer time at the Pantry, Clothing Closet, and as drivers for seniors.
Thank you for continuing to support the efforts of Middleton Outreach Ministry to help our neighbors and our community.Together we can bring hope and security when it is most needed. – Submitted by Janet Bybee
St. Dunstan’s Diaper Drive: A child needs approximately 6500 diapers between birth and potty training. Many families in our area are struggling financially, and they have to make tough decisions about whether to buy much-needed diapers or groceries or pay their rent. The Wisconsin Food Share program (food stamps) does not cover diapers, other personal care items, or household cleaners. Decisions must be made all the time about how to spend the small amount of money coming in. Imagine wanting and needing to change your baby’s diaper because you know it’s dirty, but you only have a couple left and no money with which to buy more diapers. Furthermore, families often don’t have the money to buy economy-sized boxes or the time to watch for sales.
In 2019, we have received $455 in donations and gotten $1,000 from the outreach committee. We have spent $442.68 which represents more than 3000 diapers given for those that need them! We are continuing to look for sales to provide the largest about of diapers with our funds.Thank you for your generosity. Submitted by Mary Rowe
BREAD FOR THE WORLD: More than 1 in 5 children in the United States live in low-income families that must struggle every month to obtain enough food to eat. How do these low-income families get enough food? Our federal government supplies almost all of it. In fact, more than 90% of hunger relief food comes from the feds. Charitable organizations such as churches and service clubs supply less than 10% of what is needed. These voluntary sources cannot provide all the food that is needed. It would be economically impossible for them to do much more, even if they wanted to.
The Christian Organization BREAD FOR THE World recognizes how crucial the government’s food programs are. It works to coordinate and encourage Christians of all denominations (and anybody else), to contact their elected representatives and ask them to be sure that federal food-support funds such as food stamps (SNAP) are adequate for the needs of low-income people. The hundreds and thousands of letters and emails from all over the country that we send to our elected politicians have had really important positive impacts on federal food programs over the years.
We at St. Dunstan’s support these food-relief efforts. Those who attended St Dunstan’s on Bread for the World Sunday in early November received the names and addresses (snail-mail and Facebook) of all of our Senators and Congressional Representatives. All of you who communicated with your elected officials have helped to make a positive difference in the allocation of funds to alleviate hunger. We never know how many contacts are made. We only know that last year a Congress divided on almost every other issue stood together in shaping legislation that fed hungry people in this country and abroad. Submitted by Peg and Dan Geisler
Healing House: Healing House, located at 303 Lathrop Street in Madison, is an 8 bed facility, providing 24/7 recuperative care for homeless families who have been released from the hospital or who need care to prepare for a surgery or medical procedure. Families are cared for by medically trained staff and volunteers and can stay for up to 28 days. The Healing House provides clients with three meals a day, child care assistance, and case management to end the cycle of homelessness.St. Dunstan’s is a part of group of organizations brought together by The Road Home to provide meals to families staying at the Healing House. The next week St. Dunstan’s will be supplying food for Healing House is March 29th through April 4 of 2020.If you would like to join this ministry please contact Evy Gildrie-Voyles.
Grace Shelter: Grace Shelter began 30 years ago.Thank you to Sue Lloyd and Rose Mueller who have served as coordinators for this ministry.St. Dunstan’s envolvement with Grace Shelter was revised this past summer to enable us to continue helping to serve the homeless men in downtown Madison.Our schedule is serving dinner on the 4th Sunday of 4 months during the year (September, December, March and June).Depending on the time of year we may serve from 50-150.There are 12 volunteers that cook and/ or serve and 4/5 families that provide the cereal, milk, juice and fruit for the morning meal the next day.
We were heartened by church members’ response to our request for dessert for the Holiday meal as we could have been serving over 140. Thanks to all who have given their time and energy to continue our commitment to Grace Shelter.
MOSES (Madison Organizing in Strength, Equality, and Solidarity): MOSES is a Madison-area ecumenical group with a multi-year track record of successful work for criminal justice reform in Wisconsin. St. Duntan’s is a participating member of MOSES.MOSES meetings are held different member churches on the 1st Sunday of each month.Anyone who is interested in criminal justice reform is encouraged to attend.Please contact Elvice McAlpine or Bonnie Magnuson for more information.
In 2019 the MOSES sponsored Solitary Confinement Truck, which contains a reconstruction of a solitary confinement cell came to St. Dunstan’s as part of our August Parish Read Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. The Parish Read was organized by Bonnie, Elvice, and Pam Witzig. Here are some of the highlights of the Just Mercy Parish read.There was good attention from the congregation during verbal announcements.A large percentage of members (of all ages) from both the 8:00 and 10:00 services interacted with Talib and the Solitary Confinement Cell Truck.11 people regularly followed the on-line discussion.9 people participated in one or more of the four section by section discussions. 10 people participated in the whole book discussion. Others said they read the book but didn’t participate in a discussion and others paid attention to the posters. Submitted by Elvice McAlpine
Note: We read the entire 10th chapter of the Book of Acts this morning in worship.
This story from the book of the Acts of the Apostles always brings to mind a favorite memory. One summer during my grad school years, several of my college friends and I rented a house on the beach in North Carolina for a few days, to hang out and reconnect. These were my church buddies, friends from the Episcopal campus community in my college town. Several of us had arrived and were settling in when my friends Jay and Spencer drove up. Jay rushed in and demanded to see a Bible immediately. (This was before Smartphones. Sometimes you just had to wonder about things for a while.) We found one and he looked up the tenth chapter of Acts. Meanwhile Spencer explained: In a Burger King along the way, they had seen several members of a church group, all wearing T-shirts that said in big letters across the back: ARISE.KILL.EAT. And a Scripture citation: Acts 10, verse 13.
Now, ARISE, KILL, EAT, didn’t sound like any summary of the good news of God in Christ that we’d ever heard. And none of us knew the Book of Acts well enough to recognize the story from those few words. But you, of course, know what those words are about. They’re part of Peter’s vision – a message from God, a revelation that the categories that had bound Peter’s thinking and behavior in the past were passing away. (I still think it’s a weird thing to put on a T-shirt!)
This story is sometimes named as the Conversion of Cornelius. But I think it’s really more about the conversion of Peter – Peter’s realization that the God made known in Jesus Christ shows no partiality. Partiality – a funny word; we don’t use it much. Somebody might say they’re partial to chocolate ice cream. Well: What Peter discovers in today’s Acts story is that God isn’t partial to any group of people over any other group. God doesn’t play favorites. God doesn’t like this one better than that one, just because of who or what they are.
It’s a wonderful, profoundly important insight.And what’s just as wonderful is that Peter has it. Peter was one of Jesus’ first disciples. We know him by the name Jesus gave him – the Rock – Peter in Greek, Cephas in Aramaic. We’ll hear that story next week, actually! In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus explains the nickname this way: “On this rock will I build my church.” It makes it sound like Peter is getting this nickname because he is so steady and solid.
Well… maybe. We know Jesus could look right into people and see their hearts.
Peter’s original name, the one his parents gave him, was Simon, which means “hearing.” Maybe Jesus looked at Simon and thought, This one hears about as well as your average rock!… And he’s about as likely as a rock to change his mind.
Now, pig-headed – rock-headed people have their uses. Someone who holds onto an idea or a vision with great determination and faithfulness can be just the right person to do something really hard, like starting a whole new religion, in the face of persecution. Peter did become one of the foundation stones of the Church.
But walking with Jesus wasn’t always easy for someone like Simon Peter, who is not … nimble in his thinking, and takes a while to arrive at new understandings. The Gospels are full of stories about Peter being just a little slow on the uptake. He always thinks he’s got it – and he so rarely does. When Jesus talks about how hard it is for wealthy people to enter the kingdom of heaven, Peter’s the one who says, “We’re poor, Jesus! We left everything to follow you! So what are we gonna get?….”
When Jesus appears to the disciples walking on the water, Peter’s the one who says, “Jesus, I want to walk on water too!” And of course he ends up getting soaked…
When Jesus talks about his coming death on the cross,Peter’s the one who says, “You’ve got to stop talking like this! You’re bringing everybody down!” Jesus has to rebuke him:You’re seeing things from a human point of view, not God’s.
Peter is the only one of the male disciples brave enough to follow Jesus to the High Priest’s house after he is arrested. But he loses his courage, afraid to follow his friend to death, and denies knowing him – three times. When he and Jesus meet again, beside a lake, after everything, Jesus asks him three times: Do you love me? And tells him three times: Tend my sheep.
Jesus knows his friend well. He knows it’s a good idea to hammer the point home. Maybe by the third repetition, it will get through Peter’s rocky head and settle into his big, loving, faithful heart.
And Peter does tend Jesus’ sheep. He preaches Christ crucified and risen to the crowds, to the authorities, to anyone who will listen. He becomes a great and gifted leader. He goes to jail and suffers for his faith. Simon the Rock has got an idea in his hard head: Jesus called me to lead and protect his church. And I’m going to do it.
One of the threats to Jesus’ church – to Peter’s church – is a fellow named Paul. Paul didn’t even know Jesus; he used to persecute Christians. Now he’s going around preaching to non-Jews, telling them they can become Christians without following all the religious practices of the Jewish people. Peter is not so sure about this. Jesus was a Jew, and all the disciples were faithful Jews. Peter fears that Paul is preaching cheap grace and wishy-washy warm fuzzy inclusion, and letting just ANYBODY in.
Then something happens to Peter. We just heard the story. He has a vision of all kinds of animals – many of which are unclean and not to be eaten, in Jewish dietary law. Peter says, God, I will not eat these things; I am a faithful Jew; I have never eaten anything unclean! And a divine Voice says, What God has made clean, you must not call unclean.
Then the messengers from Cornelius arrive – Peter follows them to Caesaria – Cornelius and his household gather to hear Peter’s preaching – and he begins with this new insight, this new revelation: I truly understand that God shows no partiality. EVERY person everywhere, no matter who or what they are, if they honor God and live with justice, they are acceptable to God.
(A brief word on “acceptable”: It sounds kind of minimal, right? Like, just barely good enough. It really means something more like proper or appropriate. It’s used elsewhere for things like the acceptable sacrifice to God; the acceptable time for God’s action in the world. Acceptable, here, means: Just right for God.)
In today’s story from the book of Acts, a big new idea has finally gotten through
the apostle Peter’s rocky head: The Gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, isn’t just for Jews – it’s for everybody. God’s love isn’t just for this nation or that nation. What God has made clean, it’s not the business of the church or its leaders to call unclean. When God opens a door, it’s never our business to close it.
Today is the first Sunday in the church’s season of Epiphany. Epiphany means, Revelation. A light-bulb moment. A new understanding of faith, self, world. Our Epiphany lessons are full of big revelations: The revelation to the Magi, those eastern astrologers, that a great King was born in Judea. The revelation that Jesus is God’s beloved Son. This revelation to Peter: I truly understand that God shows no partiality. God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.
Receiving a revelation is one thing. Living in that new way of seeing and being, is another. God shows no partiality – but humans are really good at it. We have a strong propensity to create us-es and them-s, insiders and outsiders, to draw lines and build walls. We use different standards to judge those whom we see as our kind of people, and those whom we see as other. There’s a lot of science that explores this tendency, and lots of history that illustrates it.
And not just history, but headlines. Partiality is in the rhetoric of war: enemies and allies, winners and losers. We forget over and over again Abraham Lincoln’s wisdom: “My concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side.”
Partiality is in what lives we allow to matter to us – Iraqi, Canadian, Honduran, Puerto Rican (which is to say, American). It’s in the antagonisms and manipulations of the election cycle. Did you know we are much more likely to fall for false or manipulative news coverage that’s in line with our biases? We’re less critical and careful readers when we are reading positive stories about those we already like, or – more commonly – negative stories about those we don’t like.
Partiality shows up in force at public hearings about workforce housing and school zoning – folks who think they’re just concerned about their property values; who don’t understand – or don’t want to understand – how residential segregation perpetuates racial and economic inequality.
Partiality takes one of its most monstrous forms in resurgent anti-Semitism and emboldened white supremacy.
I truly understand that God shows no partiality. God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.
The heart of discipleship, of faithful living, is trying to live lives that reflect God as we have come to know God,through Jesus Christ and the witness of Scripture. God tells God’s people, right from the start: Be holy, as I am holy. Peter learns that part of God’s holiness is that God loves without boundaries. God’s welcome, God’s care, God’s call are for everybody. Therefore, as Christians, we are called beyond partiality. To be a people who do not call anyone unclean, profane, unworthy, or unimportant.
What does it mean for you to grapple with that call, in this year, this season of the world? Maybe it means coming to the Saturday Book Group this week to discuss how to talk with people with whom we disagree; or to the Witnessing Whiteness series beginning in March, for white folks to explore what our whiteness means. Maybe it means trying to listen to why somebody else’s favorite candidate is their favorite. Maybe it means pausing to grieve far-away hurts and losses – letting them touch our hearts, even though it hurts. Maybe it means something as small as looking around at coffee hour or the Peace, this morning, for the people who are standing alone.
Being anti-partiality isn’t wishy-washy or weak. It’s bold and hard, and there is a lot of work to do. But if Peter, the Rock, could overcome his biases, and rejoice in finding God among those he’d seen as outsiders – then so can we.
May the God who calls us to holiness, grant us wisdom and courage for the living of these days. Amen.
Merry Christmas! We made it!All the preparation, all the waiting… it’s finally fulfilled. Christmas is here, and Jesus is born! Joy to the world! Peace on earth!
I wish joy – I wish peace – for every single person here, and all those whom you love. But I know it’s a hopeful wish. If you’re one of the lucky ones, tonight and tomorrow will be a time of goodness and warmth. With family and friends wrapped around you like a cozy blanket, sharing happy memories and making new ones.
But that’s not what Christmas holds for everyone here. Some of you will be alone. Some of you will be struggling with family dynamics that make you wish you were alone. For some, happy memories cast the shadow of loved ones lost, and good times gone by. Some have to work; not everybody gets Christmas off. Some will just be weary or out of sorts. The gifts we give or receive won’t be quite right. The matching pajamas won’t quite match. Christmas won’t live up to the hype.
It can be uncomfortable – the gulf between our realities and the Hallmark-movie vision of what Christmas is “supposed” to be. All those words printed in gold foil on Christmas cards: Merry. Peace. Joy. Jolly. Happy. Bright. Fun. Cheer. Social media can make it even harder, because it’s not just the people in the movies and advertisements who seem to be having a perfect Christmas; it’s also our friends and acquaintances. Their smiling pictures can seem so much brighter than our own unfiltered realities.
Sometimes I wish we could tease apart what we celebrate here at church – the feast of the Nativity, the feast of the Incarnation, in which the only gift that matters is God coming among us as a helpless infant to show the depth of divine love—
Sometimes I wish we could tease that apart from cultural and capitalist Christmas.
But I can’t; we can’t. They’re all tangled up together. We’ve all collected a lifetimes’ worth of ideas about how Christmas is supposed to look and feel, sound and taste. We arrive at Dec. 24 laden with memories and expectations. Will the hours and days ahead fulfill our hopes? Will this Christmas be Instagram-happy and Pinterest-perfect? Will it be memorable in a GOOD way? …
Who here remembers watching Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood?…
It was a children’s television show, with this man who talked to the TV as if he were talking to a child, and invited us into adventures with his puppet friends. Sing it with me, folks: “Let’s make the most of this beautiful day; since we’re together, we might as well say, Would you be my, could you be my, won’t you be my neighbor?”
I watched some of it, as a child. During my teens and young adulthood, Mr. Rogers was punchline. We made a joke of his weird puppets, his gentle voice and careful words, his cardigans, his deliberateness, his overwhelming kindness.
But sometime in the past couple of decades, we all started to get it. Maybe it was his death in 2003 that finally made us all re-assess. Maybe it’s the quotations that circulate on Facebook. Maybe the rest of the world just finally caught up with his profound, ahead-of-his-time understanding of kids’ social and emotional needs. Something made us all take a better look and realize that Fred Rogers was the real thing, an honest-to-God saint walking among us, preaching basic human decency on syndicated television.
This year has seen a new biography of Rogers and a movie about him. And some of you may have seen an article in the Washington Post a few weeks ago, by writer D. L. Mayfield, reflecting on what Rogers has to offer us this Christmas season.
Mayfield points out that Rogers wasn’t just nice. He held some deep principles that put him at odds with the society around him, on many occasions. He loved television because of its potential for learning and connection – and was dismayed to see it increasingly used as a tool for marketing, to kids and adults alike.
Mayfield writes, “[Rogers’ ideology] was a well-thought-out war against a culture that needed kids to feel inadequate to become good consumers.”Think about it: If you believe you’re OK and you have enough, you won’t whine to your parents about that toy that you NEED, that toy that ALL THE OTHER KIDS are getting; and then how will the toy companies make any money?
In the early 1970s, when the TV show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was first becoming well known, the Hallmark Company decided to have different celebrities do each of the windows of their flagship store in downtown Manhattan. And they asked Fred Rogers to design one of the windows.
Now, big, bright, glamorous holiday window displays have been a thing in New York City – and other big cities – for a long time. I haven’t been able to find any pictures from the year Mr. Rogers designed a window, but I found a website that describes some of the “most brilliant” displays this year. Maybe that can set the tone.
At American Girl New York, a large window is “seriously blinged out” with “200 Swarovski crystal strands and 130 pounds of crystal star dust.” Bergdorf-Goodman’s display “is always opulent and over the top, and 2019 is no exception… Each window depicts an aspect of holiday revelry illustrated in avant-garde opulence. We loved the sequined chess scene and the neon pinball machine!” At Bloomingdale’s, “a touch button… allows visitors to bring a robotic orchestra to life and hear classic Christmas carols… There’s plenty of glitz and glam, and a pretty impressive rocket ship seemingly blasts over your head and onto Lexington Avenue.” At Macy’s, interactive displays allow you to “power a neon light show, scratch a dreaming dog’s nose, drive [a] truck while trying to smash presents in an Asteroid-like video game, and pose for a selfie to see yourself in the windows.” Not gonna lie – the dog sounds awesome. Nordstrom’s holiday decorations are more understated, featuring a mere“253,000 twinkling lights.”
Now, that all sounds like a lot of fun to walk around and look at! But maybe all that glitz and glam might make our own lives seem a little… dull and dark? And of course all those stores put on this amazing show because they want you to come in and buy stuff.
So. Rogers and a friend traveled to New York to scope things out and think about what Rogers would like to do for his window. And after taking a look at that year’s array of star dust and robot orchestras, Rogers went back to his home in Pittsburgh and came up with a design. His window display looked like this: A simple setting – no lights, no fake wrapped gifts. In the center: A small pine tree, the height of a four-year-old child. No ornaments or decorations – just the tree itself, planted in a clear glass Lucite cube so you could see its roots – see that it was real, and alive. And in front of the tree was a sign that said, “I like you just the way you are.”
One of the things Fred Rogers said often, to kids and adults, friends and strangers, speaking or singing: I like you just the way you are.
D. L. Mayfield writes, “A tree just [a child’s] height, reinforcing the message Rogers most desperately wanted his young neighbors to hear. Working to combat shame, isolation, trauma; working to help build resilience in the lives of kids he could never hope to reach one by one… The small bare tree in the Hallmark store window was a radical gesture designed to expose the hypocrisy of holidays intended to sell products, while centering the emotional well-being of children… It was a countercultural art project in a world of companies that exploited nostalgia for profit. And it was the refusal to accept a world that needed children to feel ashamed of themselves to buy more goods.”
I like you just the way you are. Fred Rogers was, among other things, a Presbyterian minister. His Christian faith was one of the deep roots of his work. I’m sure it’s no accident that these words resonate with the message of the Incarnation. In God becoming human, embodied; the infinite becoming finite, the cosmic becoming specific, the eternal born into time.
What God says to us by becoming human, by coming to live among us, to share our struggles and triumphs, needs and pleasures, joys and griefs – what God says to us in the Incarnation, to all of us and each of us, by name, is a lot like what Mr. Rogers said, in a song that goes like this:
It’s you I like, it’s not the things you wear,
It’s not the way you do your hair, but it’s you I like.
The way you are right now, the way down deep inside you,
Not the things that hide you; not your toys – they’re just beside you.
But it’s you I like, every part of you.
Your skin, your eyes, your feelings, whether old or new.
I hope that you’ll remember even when you’re feeling blue
That it’s you I like, it’s you yourself, it’s you. It’s you I like.
The Gospel of John says it this way: God so loved the world that God gave Godself to us, not to judge and condemn the world, but to save it.
To say all that is not to say God doesn’t invite us to change, to renewal, to turning away from some things and towards others. I once heard our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry preach that God loves you just the way you are, but God isn’t going to leave you that way. I think about that a lot. The life of faith means opening ourselves, day by day, year by year, to what God wants to do in us and through us. It means making ourselves available to God’s gracious work in our lives, our relationships, our communities, and our world.
But we do not have have our sh*t together before God shows up. God’s longing to be welcomed into our hearts and our lives – God’s grace ready to shine through the cracks in everything – does not need us to be Instagram-happy or Pinterest-perfect. God does not care if our pajamas match.
God’s birth into the world God made, God’s dawning in our lives, asks us to trust that we are seen and known and cherished. Tells us that God reaches out for us in love and yearning, not in condemnation and shame.
“Do not be afraid; for see–I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”
I like to remind people, around this time of year, that we have the story of Jesus – his birth, life, teachings, acts, death and resurrection – in four voices, which we call the Gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John is the traditional order, though actually Mark was written first. Our Sunday Gospel readings each year come mostly from one of the four – specifically, Matthew, Mark, and Luke; John is scattered around in pieces for some reason. The Church’s new year is the first Sunday in Advent, so we are just a few weeks into getting re-acquainted with the gospel of Matthew.
Each Gospel has its own voice, its own lens on the shared story. These authors – writing thirty to sixty years after Jesus’ death – are working with different memories – their own or others’ – of what Jesus did and said. And they have somewhat different understandings of who he was, and what his life, death, and rising meant for the world.
In each Gospel, you get a sense of its voice and priorities in the very first chapter – and that’s certainly true for Matthew. One of Matthew’s big themes is that Jesus is the completion of the Old Testament – the Hebrew Bible. He quotes the prophetic literature often – like the bit of Isaiah in today’s text. He uses these quotations to say, Jesus is the fulfillment of these ancient prophecies. But it’s not just the prophecies: for Matthew, Jesus fulfills and completes all of Jewish history and tradition. That’s obvious in the first seventeen verses of his Gospel – which are printed on the back of your Sunday Supplement, if you’d like to take a look!
Matthew’s Gospel begins with a genealogy of Jesus. In first-century Palestine, as in many human cultures, who you are depends a lot on who you come from. In a patriarchal society, that’s generally reckoned by naming fathers and grandfathers and great-great-great-grandfathers. And that’s exactly what Matthew does here. He starts with Abraham – the first Jew, the founder and father of it all, in human terms. And he works his way down through the centuries: Isaac, Jacob, Judah, Perez, Hezron, AND so on. He keeps going through King David and his lineage, and through the exile and return.
And he ends in verse 17 with some interesting math: By his count, there are fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen generations from David to exile, and fourteen generations from exile to Jesus. That might just seem odd to you, but numbers were a big deal in Jewish thought, including interpretation of Scripture. For Matthew, those fourteens are part of his case that Jesus is the fulfillment of all of this history, the Messiah – the Savior sent by God – at whom everything that went before has pointed.
The Sunday lectionary never gives us these verses, and maybe that’s wise; it does take a little explaining to understand their significance for Matthew. But they are an important preface for the text we do receive today. I said, a minute ago, that in a patriarchal context, like Biblical Judaism, genealogies are generally lists of fathers, grandfathers, and so on.
But this list… has some grandmothers in it too. Did you notice that? Do you remember them, from meeting them three years ago? Their names are Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba – though Matthew calls her the wife of Uriah.
Tamar is the first of these interesting grandmothers of Jesus. Her story is in the book of Genesis – chapter 38. She married one of the sons of Judah – a great-grandson of Abraham. But her husband dies before they have children. Now, if a man died childless, his brother was supposed to take on his wife and raise children for his dead brother’s sake. But apparently not everybody was on board with this idea.
Judah orders his second son to “perform the duty of a brother-in-law”, but that son, Onan, refuses to give Tamar a child. Then Onan dies too. In classic victim-blaming style, Judah starts to think maybe Tamar is the problem. He tells her, “Go live with your father as a widow until my younger son is old enough to marry,” and sends her away. Now, in this time and place, without a husband and children, Tamar has nothing. No social standing. No security. No future. So. She waits. And waits. And waits. And then she decides to take matters into her own hands. I don’t have time for the full story – it’s Genesis 38; look it up! – but she tricks Judah himself into getting her pregnant – and into admitting that he was wrong in his treatment of her.
Then there’s Rahab. Her story is in the book of Joshua, chapter 2. The Israelites understand that God has given them a new home, a land of milk and honey. Only trouble is, there are people already living there – Canaanites, whom they’ll have to violently displace. Rahab is a Canaanite, living the city of Jericho. And she practices what is sometimes called the oldest profession. The Israelites send out a couple of spies into Canaan, to figure out how hard it’s going to be to conquer this territory.
The spies go to Jericho and decide to spend a night with Rahab. The local leader hears there are two strangers in town and demands that Rahab present them. But she sends them up on her roof to hide, and tells the men who came to find them, “Oh, yes, they were here, but they just left! If you hurry I bet you can catch them!” Then she goes up on the roof and tells the spies, “Listen: I know that God has given this land to your people. I can feel it. The people of Canaan are terrified. Your God is indeed the Lord of heaven and earth, and we cannot stand against God. So, because I saved you, please save me in turn. When your people come to conquer this city, spare me, and my parents and brothers and sisters and their families. Let us live.”
And the spies agreed. Rahab helped them escape the city – and when Jericho was conquered, she and all her family were saved, and lived among the people Israel from that time forward.According to Matthew, Rahab marries an Israelite named Salmon. Their son Boaz grows up to marry Ruth – perhaps the best-known of the grandmothers named by Matthew. Ruth, like Rahab, is an outsider who marries into an Israelite family – she’s from the land of Moab. And like Tamar, her first husband dies before they have children. But she’s become so attached to her Israelite mother-in-law, Naomi, that she refuses to go home to her own family. She more or less vows herself to become Naomi’s daughter: Your people shall be my people, and your God my god.
I love Ruth’s story too – read the book of Ruth! It’s only four chapters long! Spoiler alert: Through the connivance of Naomi, the decency of Boaz, and the grace of God, Ruth becomes a wife and mother – and the grandmother of David. David, the shepherd boy chosen by God to be Israel’s king; David, the poet so in love with God that he danced in the streets; David, the scrappy military leader who led his band of misfits to defeat King Saul; David the ladies’ man, David of the wandering eyes… who’s gazing out his window one morning and spots a beautiful woman, taking a ritual bath on her rooftop, and decides he has to have her. Her name is Bathsheba, and she never has the chance to say no. She gets pregnant with David’s child. Did I mention that she’s married, and her husband, Uriah, is a general in David’s army? David arranges to have him “accidentally” killed in combat. It’s not David’s best chapter. Bathsheba becomes one of David’s wives – and much later, she advocates for David to choose her son Solomon to become king after his death, reminding him:You owe me.
These are all amazing stories; it’s painful for me to tell the nutshell versions! But it’s also important to hold them up together, as Matthew does in his genealogy.
He knew all these stories – and he calls them to his readers’ minds intentionally.
Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba: These are women whose histories of sexuality and child-bearing do not meet ideal patriarchal standards. None of them had the life course their parents would have chosen for them. And yet, they all become part of God’s story.
And not just because they have babies; but because of their insight, their courage, their determination and faithfulness, their refusal to settle.
Matthew names these women – and their sons – to set the stage for telling us about Mary and her son. Look at verse 16: “… Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.” Matthew is saying, YES, this is another irregular hop in the genealogy. YES, this is another place where parentage is not quite as tidy as everybody would like it to be. But it’s not like it’s the first time. This is part of God’s MO.
And lest we miss the point, Matthew makes it clear that Mary’s pregnancy was awkward. “Mary was found to be with child – pregnant – by the Holy Spirit.” Notice that passive voice – “found to be with child.” This is not a version of the story in which Mary meets an angel, agrees to become the mother of God, and then runs to her friends, family, and fiancé to say, “Hey, everybody! A wonderful thing just happened! God has looked with favor on me, and all generations shall call me blessed!” This is a version in which she keeps it to herself as long as she can, until some nosy neighbor spots the curve of her belly under her robe, and sounds the alarm: A young woman has crossed the line.
In the year of our Lord 2019, many families would still find it a source of dismay and shame for a daughter to become pregnant without a socially-sanctioned partnership. How much more so, in Mary and Joseph’s time! The consequences for a young woman found pregnant without a man willing to claim the child could range from ostracism to death. No wonder Mary kept her mouth shut. She knew this angel story wasn’t going to convince everybody. And indeed, the person she most needs to believe her – her fiance, Joseph – is not on board.
In his book Ladies and Gentlemen: The Bible!, Jonathan Goldstein re-tells today’s Gospel from Joseph’s point of view. I love how he fleshes out the emotional subtext of the spare Gospel narrative. Listen to Joseph’s words, per Goldstein:“Being chosen by the Lord is an honor. I’m not saying it’s not… It’s flattering to think that your girlfriend is good enough for God, and on some days I can convince myself well enough that it is an honor indeed, but if the guys at work don’t act like it’s an honor, and none of your friends or family act like it’s an honor, then it doesn’t feel so much like an honor.”… ‘How’s the holy baby?’ Ezekiel, my foreman at work asks me, like, ten times a day, and I have no choice but to bite it. It’s either that or be out of a job…”
A couple of pages later Joseph describes his own angelic encounter: “Mary had never lied to me before and I knew her heart like I knew my own, but when she told me this business about being visited by an angel, I had an honest-to-God conniption… After a whole night of screaming and crying,… I went outside to try and cool off. Sitting on a tree stump, I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned around and there he was: an angel. The whole bit. Wings and everything, just squatting there….’Are you the one… with Mary?’ I asked, not looking at him. ‘No,’ he said softly. ‘I just came here to tell you that what Mary tells you is the truth.’ ‘This is a lot to digest,’ I said. The angel withdrew his hand from my shoulder and left me sitting there outside my house, digesting until morning.”
I appreciate that Goldstein’s retelling makes clear that while Joseph agrees to stay with Mary, the angel’s reassurance wouldn’t have made it all fine. Whatever people assumed about Mary’s untimely pregnancy, there would have been winks and sneers and cutting remarks.There would have been a shadow of shame cast over this couple before they even fully began their life together.
That’s why Matthew reminds us of Jesus’ grandmothers. Reminds us that God’s purposes are bigger than human propriety. That redemption matters more than respectability. Matthew tells us that Joseph is a righteous man – with an ambiguity I suspect is intentional: Joseph’s righteousness is shown by the fact that he doesn’t want to ruin Mary’s life, but it’s the same righteousness that makes him decide he can’t possibly go on with the wedding, either. Pregnant with a mystery baby, she is no longer an appropriate wife for a righteous man.
Biblical commentator Richard Swanson writes, “The word dikaios, in this scene, means that Joseph has a good name that he will defend any way he can. He has a good reputation…By putting Mary away quietly, he preserves his good name. He is willing to say publicly (if silently) that HE has had NOTHING to do with making Mary pregnant. Not a thing. And that leaves Mary alone and exposed, whether he does it publicly or privately. What a guy.”
But the angel’s visit calls Joseph to a deeper and truer righteousness: the righteousness of going along with God’s purposes even when it’s confusing and painful. Even though it exposes him to sneers and winks; even though it commits him to a fatherhood that wasn’t his hope or his choice.
Mary, like Tamar and Rahab and Ruth and Bathsheba, doesn’t have the life most parents would choose for their daughters. Her trajectory from maiden to mother is not clear and tidy. And yet, like those holy grandmothers, she becomes part of God’s story – and so does Joseph, confused, resentful, tender Joseph.
Matthew is my least favorite Gospel – let me say that right now. There are things I really struggle with about his voice. But I love this first chapter – I love what he does, here.This genealogy is structured and clean; it does what genealogies tend to do: create an artificially tidy picture of family and history. Father begets son, generation succeeds to generation.
But when he names Tamar, and Rahab, and Ruth, and Bathsheba, he reminds us that life and love, family and belonging, respectability and redemption, are not tidy. Indeed, they can be pretty messy. And God shows up in that mess – working, always, through our struggle and confusion, our shame and our yearning, our hurts and our healing, to accomplish holy purposes on earth.
Swanson’s thoughts on Mary’s pregnancy and Joseph’s reaction:
Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the Kingdom of Heaven!
That’s how our Sunday school classes are hearing the message of John the Baptist. A loose translation, but not an unfaithful one. Did you expect him to holler “Repent!”? That’s the more familiar translation for many of us. The Greek word there is “metanoia”, which means, Changing your mind. Reflecting back on things in a way that changes how you move forward. Coming to a new understanding.
The Scripture in your leaflet this week is a hybrid of our usual Bible translation, the New Revised Standard Version, and David Bentley Hart’s New Testament, which strives to be a fairly direct translation of the Greek. It’s Hart who renders John’s call this way: Change your hearts! And then, to those whom the Baptist suspects of superficial repentance: Bear fruit worthy of a change of heart!
Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the Kingdom of Heaven!
New Testament scholar Sarah Dylan Breuer – who lived downstairs from us when I was in seminary – reminds us that ritual washing, like the baptism of John, was – and is – a practice for non-Jews converting to Judaism. It was a symbolic washing away of the old identity before taking on a new one; a cleansing from past actions that would no longer be part of the new faithful life. A sign of death and rebirth. If that all sounds kind of familiar, it should.
What was new about John’s practice of baptism, and then Jesus’, and then the church’s, was the assertion that everybody needed it. That’s the context for John’s snark about how being descendants of Abraham – in other words, REAL Jews – doesn’t make you right with God. Everybody needs cleansing. Everybody needs renewal. Everybody needs a change of heart.
The call to repentance – the call to a changed heart – is a core theme of Advent, this season when we prepare to celebrate God who has come and is coming again. But it’s difficult to reconcile with Advent as we experience it. I learned in my first few years here not to try to schedule much extra stuff at church in December, because people are SO busy. Concerts… Holiday fairs… Work and school deadlines… Family gatherings, and perhaps complex negotiations related to same… Travel plans … Decorations… Baking… Volunteering… and SO much shopping…
In a wonderful essay about the REAL war on Christmas by the Dean of Yale Divinity School, Andrew McGowan, he points out that Black Friday’s irresistible deals and urgent demands immediately wipes out Thanksgiving – we turn on a dime from giving thanks for all that we have, to a barrage of messages that wDO NOT HAVE ENOUGH, and we need MORE, MORE, MORE.
So: we have a gulf – at least, many of us do – between the church’s invitation to Advent as a season of quiet, of reflection. Of sober acknowledgment of what is amiss in the world, and our ongoing need for God’s presence among us. A season when the church prays urgently: Come, Lord Jesus! – And the month of December in the world out there.
Does it help to think of John’s call to a change of heart as a matter of re-orientation? Turning from; turning towards? Recalibrating what we’re doing with our time and energy and resources, to point in the same direction as our inner compass, our deep desires?
We’re going to try something now – an exercise suggested by David Lose of the website Working Preacher. Does everyone have a piece of paper and a pencil? Good. Now, start making the list of everything you have to do, in the next two weeks plus. What’s on your to-do list between now and Christmas? What are others expecting of you? What are you expecting of yourself?
You don’t have to turn this in. It’s OK to use abbreviations or keywords, as long as you know what you mean. Take a few minutes with this. It’s OK if you don’t catch everything; some of our lists are long. Stick to one side – if you fill it, you can stop.
Okay! Let’s take a moment and just breathe through any anxiety that might have stirred up!
Now, here’s the second step. Turn over your page so that list isn’t staring at you. Don’t start writing until I tell you to.
I want you to daydream about what you want this Christmas to be like. I mean that as broadly as possible. How do you want Christmas to feel in your heart, this year? How do you want it to feel in your home? Among your friends and family? In your community? Our nation? Our world?
What kind of day do you want to have? How do you want to be, with the people who share your life? What news would you love to wake up to, on Christmas morning?
Now, take up your pencil again. Write a few words or even draw something on the blank side of your paper, to capture some of your hopes for your life and the world this Christmas. This doesn’t have to be comprehensive. Trust what rises to the surface first in your heart.
Okay! Finish what you’re writing. Look at your page for a minute. Hold that yearning and hope.
Now, here’s our third step. Turn your paper over, back to your to-do list. I want you to review that list and notice which of the things on THIS side of the paper, point towards things that you wrote down on the OTHER side of the paper. Circle the things that contribute directly to your deep hopes and longings about your life and the world.
There might be things where you have a choice about how you do them, right?Maybe you could put a star, an asterisk, by those. Like buying a gift for someone you usually exchange gifts with. It could be a hurried resentful “This will do” purchase. Or it could be five minutes’ loving thought about that person and what they enjoy. Or – if there’s no getting the gift right, because sometimes there isn’t – then add some grace to the situation by making the getting of the gift a blessing to somebody. Go to the craft fair at Middleton Outreach Ministry after church today – just for example – and buy something lovingly handmade that will benefit their food pantry!
I’m going to offer everybody a freebie right now: if “rest” isn’t on your to-do list in some form, please put it there. And circle it. Rest is holy. Literally. It makes us able to discern, to choose, to do well.
There will be lots of things on your list that are important in the short run, or for purely practical reasons, that don’t really feed into your bigger hopes and dreams. That’s OK. I’m not about to suggest you shouldn’t do those things. I, too, live in the real world. But maybe there are little choices you can make, as you steward your time and energy in these days and weeks. To give a little more of yourself to the things that matter deeply, and a little less of yourself to the things that don’t.
Because it feels good to give ourselves to things that matter. To lean in to our hopes for our lives and our world. To bear fruit worthy of a changed heart, as the Kingdom of Heaven draws near.
Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. Chapter seven, verse fourteen, of the book of the prophet Isaiah.Maybe the King James language is more familiar:Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. When the Gospel writer Matthew quotes this text – already seven hundred years old – in his telling of the birth of Jesus, he adds a translation: Emmanuel, which means, God with us.
Growing up in the Episcopal church, I heard a lot of the prophet Isaiah every Advent and Christmas. Our cycle of readings is heavy on Isaiah this season, and our hymns and prayers – even our Gospel readings – quote Isaiah too. The book of Isaiah is an Old Testament book, one of the books we share with God’s first people, the Jews. The prophesies and events it contains happened hundreds of years before Jesus’ birth. But right from the start, followers of Jesus have heard certain texts from Isaiah as pointing towards Jesus. This is most certainly one of them.
We start a new year in church today, and that means we also start a new Gospel. We’ll be primarily reading the Gospel of Matthew in the months ahead – with some chunks of John now and then. One of Matthew’s hallmarks is connecting Jesus to Old Testament texts and traditions. He’s really interested in making the case that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Hebrew Bible. And he sometimes stretches a point to get there. Take this text from Isaiah 7. The context here, as you heard in our reading, is that two of Judea’s neighboring countries have ganged up on Judea, and King Ahaz is scared. That information isn’t actually part of the assigned text; the Revised Common Lectionary follows Matthew’s lead in taking this passage out of context.Anyway: King Ahaz is scared, and God is telling the king, though the prophet Isaiah, to calm down. And God carries the message through three prophetic names. The first is the name of Isaiah’s son Shear-jashub, meaning, A remnant shall remain. God tells Isaiah to take little SJ with him when he goes out to meet the King and tell him that his fears are unfounded.
But Ahaz is still anxious. God says, Ask me for a sign, to prove to you that this is really My word and not just Isaiah telling you what you want to hear. Ahaz says, No, sir, I will not put God to the test. God speaks through Isaiah to say, Oh, for Pete’s sake. HERE’S THE SIGN YOU WON’T ASK FOR. Look: that young woman is pregnant. The son she will bear will be named Emmanuel. And by the time that child is old enough to know the difference between good and bad, he’ll be eating curds and honey – good, rich food that signifies prosperity and stability.
A few verses later, Isaiah elaborates: “On that day one will keep alive a young cow and two sheep – [such wealth!] – and will eat curds because of the abundance of milk that they give; for everyone that is left in the land shall eat curds and honey.” (By the way, these wouldn’t be Wisconsin-style cheese curds. Probably something more like a thick fresh yoghurt. Still sounds pretty good, especially with honey!)
There’s one more prophetic child name just a few verses later. The news is less good this time: God warns Judea of the rise of the Assyrian Empire, the new great power in the region. Isaiah “goes to” a woman named as the prophetess, apparently his wife – they have so much in common! – and she conceives and has a son. God says, Name him Maher-shalal-hash-baz (which means, He makes haste to plunder); for before the child knows how to say ‘My father’ or ‘My mother’, Assyria will be looting your neighboring nations.
All these names – Shear-jashub, Immanuel, Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz – are prophetic signs that indicate God’s intentions for Judea.The point of little Emmanuel is not that the child himself is someone special. The point is that Judea’s current enemies will be gone within a few years – the time it takes a baby to grow up enough to know bad from good. For Isaiah, the name “Immanuel” is a reassurance that God is with God’s people. It doesn’t mean that the child himself is God. That’s Matthew’s interpretation, woven into the Christmas Gospel and Christian thinking.
Now, hear me: I’m not saying that Matthew is wrong. Prophetic language is rich and strange, and can carry meaning and truth across centuries and context. It’s reasonable to read Isaiah 7 as a text that casts light on Jesus, as long as we understand that it was not originally, and is not only, a text that casts light on Jesus.
All that said: Emmanuel isn’t the word I want to talk about today. I want to talk about the word “virgin.” In fact – true confessions – I actually swapped this lesson with the another Isaiah lesson in this season, because I wanted to talk about this now, as we dive into Advent.
We use this word at least once, often twice, every Sunday – both times talking about Jesus’ mother, Mary. It’s in the Creed – “he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary” – and our autumn Eucharistic prayer contains the same phrase. As we move into Advent and towards Christmas, it’ll show up more and more, in our prayers and hymns.
And – I gotta tell you – this year, I’m not looking forward to it. In fact, I’m kind of bracing myself.
Before anybody starts composing angry emails: I am not about to argue that Jesus was not miraculously conceived by the power of God. That’s the witness of both Luke and Matthew. I personally am not especially hung up on whether such a thing is physically possible or not. Compared to rising from the dead, it seems fairly mundane. It’s actually not uncommon in the animal kingdom – Google “parthenogenesis” sometime.
No: It’s not the church’s teaching that troubles me. It’s the church’s language.
I was raised in the Episcopal Church. All this language – “incarnate from the Virgin Mary,” “round yon Virgin,” “Lo, he abhors not the Virgin’s womb” – it was just part of the wallpaper, you know? I don’t think I ever thought about it, just like our kids have probably never really thought about it. The first time I remember examining the phrase was in seminary, when it dawned on me that it’s kind of… weird? interesting? telling? … that this is the one thing we say over and over and over again about Mary. Every time we mention her name.
We know several things about Mary. God chose her to bear Godself as a human infant. God respected her enough to ask her permission. She was bold enough to say Yes. In the song of faith we call the Magnificat, she celebrates the honor bestowed on her – meek and mild, my butt! She says, God has looked favorably on me! All generations shall call me blessed, for the Holy One has done great things for me! And she continues with this powerful prophetic text that the Church has chanted and sung down through the ages – about the mighty cast down, the hungry fed, the world redeemed.
She bears her son, names him, loves him, raises him. Celebrates his giftedness. Harangues him into doing miracles at parties. Struggles with his mission; fears for him. Follows him to the cross. Watches him die. Goes on to be one of those who tells his story.
And, yes, at the moment when the Angel Gabriel invites her into this great, lifelong work, she is a young woman who has not yet experienced physical intimacy.A virgin. She says so herself in Luke’s Gospel:“How exactly am I going to get pregnant with this special baby, when I have not done anything that leads to getting pregnant?”
Orthodox Christians call Mary the Theotokos, the God-Bearer. They liken her to the Burning Bush in Exodus, that holds God’s presence and yet is not consumed. That’s a title much more worthy of Mary. But the Western church settled on Virgin. Our faith fathers chose to focus on her mint-condition reproductive system.
Thinking all this through in seminary, it seemed to me to be just one of many ways in which the church needs to reconsider its language. But it has started to actively trouble me now that I’m involved in raising kids – in my home and my church – whom I very much want to have a happy relationship with their own bodies and a healthy capacity for intimacy.
We tread lightly around the word, in churches like ours. A kid in this church might easily think it just means a young woman – maybe a young man – who hasn’t been married yet. But that’s not how our ancestor churches and some of our sibling churches treat it. And that’s not how popular culture treats it.
Behold, a virgin shall conceive… The Hebrew word in Isaiah’s original text is almah, which just means a young woman of childbearing age. It’s not quite clear from context but it seems that the young woman of Isaiah 7:14 is actually Isaiah’s wife. Emmanuel isn’t even her first child. When Matthew quotes Isaiah, he uses a Greek word – parthenos – that can carry the implication of what we mean by virginity. That comes into Latin – the language of church and Scripture for a thousand years and more – as virgo, the same word as virgin.
But it isn’t even Bible translation that’s the issue. The Bible says this about Mary twice, once in Matthew, once in Luke. Rather, it was the Church’s choice to exalt and enshrine this focus on one very narrow aspect of Mary’s significance, and tangle it up with policing the behavior of women and girls. Putting on my anthropologist hat for a moment: Virginity is a concept with a lot of cultural weight in highly patriarchal societies, where what matters about a young woman is whether she can bear children that are clearly related to one man. It’s ironic, actually, that the Church managed to make Mary the epitome of purity, when in Matthew’s Gospel, Joseph very nearly abandons Mary because he doesn’t know who fathered her child! That shame, that struggle, is part of what Mary agreed to face, when she said Yes to the angel’s request.
Many of our sibling churches still put a heavy emphasis on virginity for young people. I’m not talking about encouraging kids to wait till you’re ready, besafe, choose someone you really care about. I’m talking about telling youth groups that a young woman’s purity is like chewing gum. Nobody wants it after it’s already been chewed. There’s a whole movement out there of young adults struggling to recover healthy intimacy after being raised in churches like that.
And broken, destructive thinking about virginity isn’t just in churches. If you watch ‘80s teen movies, ‘90s TV, or read the comments in many corners of the Internet, you’ll find it there too. In addition to its classic use to police young women, the word is used as an insult against young men – the implication being that they’re unworthy of romantic attention. A teenager might well get the message that girls are bad if they’re not virgins and boys are bad if they are – which is a heck of a double-bind, especially for the straight kids.
Physical intimacy, ideally, is something you explore when you are ready, as a free choice, with joy and curiosity and safety, and with somebody who is just as into you as you are into them. That’s what I want for youth and young adults today. I would like to live in a society where young people are not shamed for being OR not being virgins. And I would like to serve in a church that finds better, richer ways to praise and honor Mary, Theotokos, Prophetess, and Mother of God.
Even though the lectionary does not get around to her for a couple more weeks, Mary is rightfully a central figure in this season. What I would really like our young people and indeed all of us to hear when we talk about Mary is not that our holiness, our merit, our worthiness, our potential for becoming an agent of God’s work in the world, depends on what we have or have not done with our bodies. What I would like us to hear when we talk about Mary is that each of us, all of us, and maybe especially the young and hopeful and bold among us, can say Yes to God. Can become part of the unfolding of God’s redemptive purposes on earth.
So even as we use inherited and often beloved language about Mary in the weeks ahead, I invite you to try on some alternatives, out loud or in your heart.
Where the Church says Virgin Mary, you might say: Prophet Mary. Mother Mary. Blessed Mary. Gracious Mary. Helper Mary. Chosen Mary. Holy Mary. Wisest Mary. Sorrowing Mary. Loving Mary. God-Bearing Mary, Theotokos.Ark of the Covenant. Burning Bush. Morning Star. Life-giving Spring. Our Lady of Guidance. Mother of Mercy. Stella Maris, Star of the Sea. Help of the Afflicted. Untier of Knots. Mother of the Disappeared. Refuge of Sinners. Mother of Ransom – Pray for us. Amen.
They will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name…. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death.You will be hated by all because of my name.But not a hair of your head will perish.By your endurance you will gain your souls.
These words of Jesus’ would have been remembered and treasured during the decades that followed, as the first generations of Christians dealt with social and religious ostracism, and then with periods of violent political persecution. Jesus speaks to his disciples about the chaotic times ahead, for them and for their whole nation and people; and he assures them that no matter what happens, even if some of his followers are killed for their faith in him, they will be, in some deeper sense, safe in God’s hands.
Modern mainline churches don’t talk much about the martyrs – those who have died for their Christian faith. There is a martyr section in the Hymnal – numbers 236 through 241 – but we rarely sing them. The feasts of Stephen, the first martyr, and the Holy Innocents, tend to be tactfully lost in the shuffle after Christmas. (It’s unusual that St. Dunstan’s does sometimes honor the latter.)
But the faithfulness and courage of the martyrs in the face of death was of tremendous importance to our early faith ancestors. Tertulllian, the great 2nd-century Christian writer, declared,“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”Martyrs were remembered and celebrated with stories both inspiring and gruesome. We have a few on the church’s calendar in this season – November 24 is the feast day of Catherine of Alexandria, Barbara of Nicomedia, and Margaret of Antioch. Margaret is my favorite of the three. The was the daughter of a pagan priest, as a baby she was entrusted to the care of a nurse, who happened to be Christian. As she grew up, Margaret became a Christian as well. When this was discovered, she was subjected to many trials of her faith, including being swallowed by the Devil in the form of a dragon. However, the cross she was holding irritated the dragon’s stomach, causing it to explode and freeing Margaret. She was eventually executed for her Christian beliefs.
There’s another name on our calendar of commemorations this week. Tomorrow is the feast day of Samuel Seabury. Who’s heard of Samuel Seabury?… Who’s heard of him as the first Bishop of the Episcopal Church?… Who’s heard of him as an opponent of Alexander Hamilton?… “Heed not the rabble that scream revolution!”
Seabury’s story is more complicated than the stories of the early martyrs – though it has some moments of drama. He was born in Connecticut in 1729, the son of a priest of the Church of England. He grew up among the educated English upper class of the Colonies, became a priest himself and served parishes in New Jersey and New York
Then there started to be talk, around the Colonies. About no taxation without representation. About liberty. About revolution. Tensions rose between those who named themselves Patriots – those who wanted their own country – and those loyal to the English crown. In 1770 there was a skirmish in Boston which killed five patriots. In 1773 Patriots threw crates of tea into Boston Harbor.
In 1774, Patriots gathered to set up their own government, forming the first Continental Congress. In April of 1775 came the first real battle of the Revolutionary War, at Lexington and Concord.
I don’t know how you were taught about the American Revolution. I don’t remember being taught that people were divided. That lots of people thought all this independence nonsense was chaotic, risky, and foolish. That the Continental Congress was controversial; that some people saw it as tyranny. I learned that King George was the tyrant! I certainly don’t remember being taught that the Episcopal Church’s venerated first bishop, Samuel Seabury, fought tooth and nail against our becoming an independent republic.
The official church biography of Seabury sums it up this way: “During the American Revolution, [Seabury] remained loyal to the British crown and served as a chaplain in the British army.” Well. That’s one way to put it. Another way would be to say that Seabury was vocally, publicly, and fiercely opposed to the Continental Congress, revolution, and independence. Seabury wrote four pamphlets under the pseudonym of “A Westchester Farmer,” making the case to the farmers, merchants, and other ordinary folk of New York – city and state – that this path towards revolution was foolish and dangerous, and would be disastrous to their economic interests.
The first Letter, published in 1774, begins, “The American Colonies are unhappily involved in a scene of confusion and discord. The bands of civil society are broken; the authority of government weakened, and in some instances taken away: individuals are deprived of their liberty; their property is frequently invaded by violence, and not a single Magistrate has had courage or virtue enough to interpose….”
Seabury absolutely believed that British rule was best for the colonies. In that first letter, he protests the rampant smuggling of tea to avoid British taxes: “In this trade the laws of our country are trampled upon. The nation [that would be Great Britain] is defrauded of its revenues.” And he concludes his lengthy appeal with some dramatic words about what may lie ahead:“Think me not too severe. Anarchy and Confusion, Violence and Oppression, distress my country; and I must, and will speak. … Let me intreat you, my Friends, to have nothing to do with these [revolutionaries]…Peace and quietness suit you best. Confusion, and Discord, and Violence, and War, are sure destruction to the farmer.”
In his third letter, Seabury railed agains the Continental Congress: “[This] Congress… was founded in sedition; its decisions are supported by tyranny… The manner in which [the delegates] were chosen was subversive of all law, and of the very constitution of the province… Liberty under the supreme authority and protection of Great-Britain, is infinitely preferable to slavery under an American Congress.”
Seabury’s letters became a vituperous public debate with an 18-year-old student at King’s College in New York, an eloquent young upstart named Alexander Hamilton, whose writing Seabury describes at one point as “superlatively arrogant and impudent.” If you’re not familiar with the musical “Hamilton,” check out the song “Farmer Refuted” for a musical version of their debate.
Seabury’s pamphlets were popular, but not popular enough. The revolution was already underway. Seabury had his opportunity to be hated by all. During the war, he was arrested and imprisoned by Patriots; his home was plundered and his children beaten. When the war was over, he lived quietly with a community of other Loyalist sympathizers in New York… until he received word in 1783 that a gathering of priests in Connecticut wanted him to become the first bishop of an independent American branch of the Church of England. There were only fourteen priests in Connecticut at the time – and since it takes bishops to make more priests, and since the Church of England would presumably not be sending them any more priests after the Recent Unpleasantness, they were concerned with the very survival of their way of faith in the new nation.
Seabury accepted their nomination and traveled to England to seek consecration as a bishop, along with a letter from the group explaining in part, “This part of America is… dismembered from the British Empire; but, notwithstanding the dissolution of our civil connection with the parent state, we still hope to retain the religious polity …. [of] the Church of England.” But despite this appeal, and despite Seabury’s well-documented opposition to the Revolution, the Church of England bishops declined the request. Being consecrated as a Bishop in the Church of England involved an oath of loyalty to the British crown… an oath Seabury, as an American, could not make. However, bishops in the Episcopal Church of Scotland were less concerned with such matters; they consecrated Seabury as bishop on November 14, 1784, 235 years ago last Thursday, and he returned to Connecticut to begin his work.
Why did Seabury decide to do this? To be a core figure in the founding an independent church, after opposing the founding of an independent nation? Maybe the status associated with being a bishop appealed to him; but I don’t believe he had any illusions that it would be an easy or comfortable life. One of his letters in 1786 complains that he had no settled salary as Bishop of Connecticut, because the populace was so poor in the aftermath of the Revolution.
I think Seabury must have just loved the church and really wanted to do whatever he could to sustain it and build it. He spent the rest of his life working very hard to do just that. He developed and published the first American liturgy. Between 1791 and 1795, he administered eighteen hundred confirmations. During his eleven years as bishop, he ordained 93 deacons and priests. For much of that time, he was effectively the bishop of all of New England, and traveled the rough roads in all weather to visit churches and clergy in Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and New York.
The grueling pace took its toll. On Feb 25, 1796, at the age of 67, Seabury suffered a heart attack and died. Not a dramatic death like those early martyrs. But nonetheless, a life given for the Church and for God’s work in and through the Church.
What can we take from Seabury’s life? Well, there’s the reminder that if we look back on history, it turns out that it has often felt like civil society, politics, and the Church were in crisis, dying, and/or devolving into chaos. I find something oddly comforting about that.
Which leads us to a second point to ponder in relation to the complicated witness of blessed Samuel Seabury. In our youth confirmation class this afternoon, we’re going to talk about one of the Big Questions: Why is the world so broken?
Why are so many things other than how God intends, to the best that we understand God’s intentions? There’s no one easy answer to that question, but there are a lot of hard answers that are interesting and important. And one of them is: People are fearful about change. People are fearful about losing what they’re used to. I think that’s what Jesus is addressing in our Gospel today when he tells the disciples, You’re going to hear about terrible things – wars and earthquakes, famines and plagues and portents. None of that actually means the world is ending. It’s just history.
Humans scare easy, and once scared, our judgment is lousy. It’s hard for us to see that the things that we’re invested in, the things that seem natural and good and right and proper to us, are often not the end of God’s story for humanity. In his famous letter from a Birmingham Jail, written in 1963, blessed Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that [African-Americans’] great stumbling block in [the] stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; … who constantly advises [African-Americans] to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’”
I think most of us are glad that the Revolution happened, despite Seabury’s best efforts; that the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, despite the cautions of those white moderates. But if we’re honest, many of us probably have something where we resonate with that anxiety about changes that seem to undermine the very foundations of the world as we know it. Where deep down we’d like to raise our hand and say, Slower, please. Just… a little slower.
The third thing, the hopeful thing, I think we can receive from blessed Samuel is that he came through what was, for him, a world-shattering change – and he didn’t just survive; he re-oriented his life and ministry towards what God was doing in this new nation, this new reality. Sometimes it’s not your life you’re asked to give, but your living. The drama of martyrdom might be easy compared to living through big change, living FOR change, offering yourself to the new thing God is doing even when you feel deep ambivalence or grief about what is being left behind.
As far as we know, Seabury’s faith in God never wavered or changed – nor his love for the church. Rather, his faith and commitment held him steady while the world turned upside down around him – so that he eventually found himself working and praying for the welfare of the nation where he dwelt, like it or not.The official prayer for Samuel Seabury in the Episcopal Church’s calendar of commemorations invites us to give thanks that our church has bishops, and to join with our bishops in proclaiming the Gospel with missionary zeal. Sure! Amen! But I pray, too,that blessed Samuel’s life, told in its fulness, will help us find courage and purpose in the face of the changes of our season in the life of the world.
In Seabury’s diary, in an entry written in the last years of his life, he records a prayer he used every day – the prayer of a man who has learned to trust God’s judgment more than his own; a prayer of self-dedication, committing himself to God’s purposes. Let us pray in Samuel Seabury’s words:
May God Almighty, who has ever been gracious to me, protect me in this journey; dispose my heart to fear and serve him; enable me to do my duty to his Church with uprightness of heart; and bless this ministers and people under my care with his grace and Holy Spirit. Amen.
SOURCES & FURTHER READING
A short biography of Seabury from the Episcopal Church in Connecticut: