All posts by Miranda Hassett

Sermon, Feb. 4

Many of you know that this year I’m participating in something called the Clergy Contemplative Renewal program, based at Holy Wisdom Monastery, the ecumenical Benedictine monastery six minutes away on County M. (It seems odd to just call it a monastery; I don’t know if it’s a monastery with a prairie or a prairie with a monastery, but the land is a huge part of the place and its spirit and mission.) 

Anyway: I was there for a week last July, when the program began. I was just there for six days recently, and I’ll be there for a final, shorter gathering with my cohort and our leaders in June. 

There are 18 of us – clergy from around the Midwest and various denominations: Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, UCC, Methodist, Mennonite. 

The program is relatively new; we’re the fourth cohort.

The goal is to help clergy explore contemplative practices, to tend to our spiritual wellbeing, our capacity to rest, to listen, to grow.

For the benefit of our churches, but also for us as human beings beloved by God. 

People in the parish have not really asked me what “contemplative” means. Maybe you all know all about it already! 

Maybe some of you have the same impression I did before I started this program: That it has something to do with a lot of sitting still, and with an attitude of vague, kindly disapproval towards busyness, bustle and noise. 

It was hard for me to make up my mind to apply to this program.

I don’t sit still easily. I like things busy. 

People tell me sometimes, “I read the Enews and there’s just so much going on!!” – I worry that that means, “You exhaust me!” 

In my defense, everything in the Enews isn’t me. But it’s true that I always have more ideas and projects than I do time and capacity. 

It took me a long time to decide to apply for this program. I was afraid of it. Afraid of being shamed for being a priest wrong. 

And when I did apply, and got in, I dreaded it. I dreaded it right up to the first day, last July, when one of our leaders, Winton Boyd, told us, “You may have been on other clergy renewal programs where they get you together and tell you you’re doing it wrong. This isn’t going to be that.”

And it’s true. It hasn’t been that. It has been about listening, and noticing, and, yes, changing; but it has been so gentle, so kind. It’s one of the best things I’ve done, as a priest and as a human being. 

There are definitions of contemplative spirituality, offered by various noted figures in that world.

I thought about finding and sharing some of their words, today. But then I decided it might be more helpful – and more authentic – to share my own fumbling, half-formed impressions with you. 

The word contemplative comes from the word contemplate, which sort of means, to look at something reflectively. To spend time really paying attention to something. 

And in many ways that is the heart of it. But how the heck does that become a whole way of life – a whole spiritual path? 

Today’s Scripture lessons connect with three threads or themes in contemplative spirituality. The first thread has to do with Creation-consciousness. The Psalmist praises God by naming some of the wonders of the created world: “You count the number of the stars and call them all by their names… You cover the heavens with clouds and prepare rain for the earth… You provide food for flocks and herds, and for the young ravens when they cry.” 

In our Isaiah text, too, the author looks to the stars in wonder: 

“Lift up your eyes on high and see:  Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name.” 

I don’t know that Creation-consciousness is essential to contemplative spirituality, but it is a big part of it for many contemplative teachers and traditions, and certainly for the way of contemplation shared and taught at Holy Wisdom on the prairie.

The idea of finding some sense of renewal in Nature is so commonplace that it’s a cliché. Consider the saying “Stop and smell the flowers” – or the phrase “touch grass,” which in some corners of the Internet has become a way of telling someone that they’re too wrapped up in whatever is happening online and need to take a break and check in with the physical world.  

There’s nothing wrong with pausing to appreciate a flower, or to step outside after a long day on a screen. But the underlying assumption is that a little bit of Nature can help us dive back in to business as usual – rather than deeply reorient us, and change our sense of what really matters. 

Many of us – maybe most of us here – enjoy Nature. In my experience, contemplative Creation-consciousness isn’t fundamentally different from that enjoyment; it is, perhaps, just deeper, and wider. I’ve spoken about this before, but I genuinely thought prairies were secretly kind of boring until I had several days with not much to do except walk the prairie at Holy Wisdom and pay attention. I met coneflowers, baptisia, lead plant, several types of clover, compass plant, butterfly weed, wild quinine, shooting star, cinquefoil, rattlesnake master, plantain, hoary vervain, coreopsis, and many others. 

And then there were the many insects, birds, and creatures who are also part of the prairie ecosystem. It is so alive, and so diverse; anywhere you look there is something worth noticing. I can’t wait to start watching spring arrive on the prairie, with these new eyes. 

Paying deeper and wider attention to Creation – wherever we are, whatever landscape or non-human neighbors are close at hand – shows us lots of things. The Psalmist and other voices in Scripture find that contemplation of Creation points them toward God, the creator, in gratitude and awe. That’s true for me too – but I find that reflective dwelling with Creation shows me lots of things besides the glory of the Creator. 

When we spend time in contemplation of the natural world, we see the subtle ways light changes hour by hour, and seasons change day by day. We see cycles: rest and renewal; death, decay, and new life. We see beauty, and strangeness, and beauty in strangeness. We see the focus of the bee at the flower, the tree’s clarity of purpose. We see that there is always, always change. We see that there is so much more than us.  

At Holy Wisdom last month we were invited to write our Rule of Life – a set of intentions about how we think God is inviting us to live, to be most fully our holy and beloved selves. 

In my Rule of Life, I call myself to cultivate my relationship with land, place, and creation. I have come to see this as something that I need, something that feeds me. Even the grief of loving Creation in a time of climate crisis is essential to my full humanity. 

For the second thread of contemplative spirituality in our readings today, let’s turn to the Gospel. “In the morning, while it was still very dark, Jesus got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.”

This is something Jesus does repeatedly in the Gospels – going off by himself to pray, when he can. Even Jesus, who was God as well as human, did not have an inexhaustible well of energy, kindness, insight, and healing power. 

He knew he had to get away, now and then, to re-center and recharge. To come back to the God he named as Father, and back to himself. 

Part of my Rule of Life involves sitting in quiet for seven minutes, every morning… ideally as the first thing I do. 

There’s nothing magic about seven minutes. I used to do five and it felt like not quite enough, but I’m not sure I can commit to ten. So I’m trying seven. 

Our leader in this program, Nancy Enderle, says there’s no such thing as a bad sit, and I’m coming to believe that this is true.

Sometimes – often – I spend most of the seven minutes just trying to gently clear away the thoughts that rise up, and get to a little bit of inner quiet. 

Rarely: something else happens. Maybe an insight rises to the surface, or I feel a connection with deep peace and love. 

But even if all that happens is that I manage to spend thirty seconds out of that seven minutes paying attention to my own breath and just being: I still start my day from a better place than if I hadn’t done that. 

Let me tell you, nobody is more surprised than I am that this has become part of my life. Something I hunger for, and miss when I don’t do it. 

But set-apart times to sit in quiet aren’t the only way to step away. I remember learning about contemplative prayer in seminary and feeling deeply frustrated: I was a full-time student and a full-time mom of a toddler – there was no “away” for me. 

Instead I started working on a practice of presence – having a few minutes each day when I was just fully there, in the moment, with my kid, in my messy living room. No agenda, no thinking about the next thing that needs doing. 

That, too, is a kind of quiet – a little space of inward peace. 

I’m opening myself to those kinds of moments again now, too. Seeking inner quiet, presence, stillness, even among the clamor of needs and tasks and priorities that fill my days.

Notice, in the Gospel, that Jesus gets called back. His disciples seek him out and say, “Hey, what are you doing here? People need you!” I don’t think Jesus ever gets as much away time, as much quiet, prayerful time, as he wants and needs. But, apparently, he gets enough to be able to keep going, to know what matters. So can we, I think. I hope. 

To get to the third thread of contemplative spirituality, I want to look at part of our text from Isaiah. The young and strong will grow weary and exhausted, but those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength. It’s a passage that suggests a resilience, a capacity for perseverance and renewal, that has nothing to do with age or physical wellbeing. 

Those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength – shall rise up like a young eagle testing the strength of her wings. 

It’s a famous verse; while preparing for this sermon I stumbled on some of the many Amazon products that feature Isaiah 40:31. But it’s also a somewhat cryptic verse. What does “wait for the Lord” mean, here? 

I don’t know for sure. But I think that waiting for the Lord has something to do with trusting that God is present – in your life, in your situation. 

And it has something to do with attention – with openness to how God may be present, and what God may be doing.

About ten chapters earlier in Isaiah, there’s another well-known passage about the true source of strength: “For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel: In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” (Isaiah 30:15) If you recognize those words it’s likely because they’re woven into one of the most beloved prayers in our prayer book – it concludes: “Lift us, we pray, to your presence, where we may be still and know that You are God.” 

Return and rest, quiet and trust, waiting on God. All these phrases and words resonate with the theme of seeking quiet times of prayer that I just talked about. But there’s more here, too. We’re not talking about quiet for quiet’s sake, like the relief when a too-loud TV is finally turned off. We need that relief sometimes, for certain. But the quiet, the rest, the waiting here is to help us be awake to the world around us, to God, even to ourselves. It’s a quietness that gives us space to notice. To listen.

Listen is a core word in contemplative spirituality. It’s often noted that it’s the first word in the Rule of St. Benedict; Benedictine monasticism is one of the wellsprings of contemplative spirituality. I came home after my first retreat at Holy Wisdom with a plan to get the word “listen” tattooed on one of my hands. I still might. 

I hope it’s obvious, but this listening isn’t just about ears and sound. The listening of contemplative spirituality is about openness and non-judgmental attention. 

A release of preconceptions, distractions, outcomes, and plans, to be present to what is.

Attending deeply to what is doesn’t mean we release our agency, our capacity to act, our hopes and concerns. Listening doesn’t mean becoming passive. It means that we are able to exercise our agency more wisely, in the direction of futures that want to become true. Not fighting with intractable reality.

There’s a lot that’s still mysterious to me here, and a lot that’s hard to put into words, but I think that this is part of how waiting for the LORD renews our strength. Because when we listen well, to the situation, to others, to ourselves, to God, we are able to discern how best to use the strength and capacity we have.

Creation-consciousness. Time apart for prayerful quietness. Waiting for God – listening, with the ears of the heart. These are some of the core practices of contemplative spirituality, as I am coming to know it – as I am coming, fumblingly, to practice it.

This sermon resists an ending, because I am a beginner. I can’t tell you where I think this path leads. I can’t promise you results. All I know is that I’m finding nourishment here, and grace. If anyone wants a conversation partner, or just to walk on the prairie together, I would love to do that. Maybe there’s something here that sparks reflection about a Lenten practice for you. 

Someone in the congregation is thinking about starting a centering prayer group; let me know if you are curious about what that would feel like. 

And let me offer, in closing, a prayer we often use at Holy Wisdom – the Prayer for Presence. Let us pray. 

In the gift of this new day

In the gift of the present moment

In the gift of time and eternity intertwined

Let us be grateful

Let us be attentive

Let us be open to what has never happened before 

In the gift of this new day

In the gift of the present moment

In the gift of time and eternity intertwined

 

Annual Meeting Address, January 28, 2024

This year, my Annual Meeting address is a preliminary report on the Wondering Together conversations we’ve been having.

  • Context: Awareness of need to work on medium- and longer-term financial sustainability for our life together here
  • We have been advised that any serious work along those lines needs to start from a clear sense of who we are and what we’re about, as a church
  • We’ve asked ourselves those kinds of questions before – most recently in prep for 2018 capital campaign & renovation 
  • But we’ve been through a lot and changed a lot since then.
  • Time for a renewed season of wondering together about how God is shaping us and where God is leading us. 

Wondering Conversation process 

  • Started in late summer; most recent in December
  • Have probably included about 50 people so far – in person and online, kids, youth, adults & elders, a pretty good range. 
  • I would still like to gather more input! Possible online version; maybe another couple of group conversations if people would enjoy that – it’s really rich, holy space. Let me know!

Going through the notes, SO FAR… pulling out big topics & themes. This isn’t a full report! Just some observations… 

Cluster of responses about how we worship & engage with the Bible and faith. 

Being an intergenerational church, with scope for meaningful involvement for kids & youth. 

Liturgical playfulness & intentionality

Hands-on participation & our Scripture dramas

People’s liturgical and personal quirks are welcomed 

Peaceful quiet & holy noise – God can be in both 

Someone said, “I am not comfortably bored. Ever.” 

In terms of theology and beliefs: 

Scope to question, wonder, explore, rebuild, play

Listening & learning from one another – “The Bible is in all of us” 

“Christ cares about liberation, here and now, for all people.” 

An awareness that good theology can happen on the floor 

 

A cluster of responses about the other things we do, besides worship. 

Creation care commitments. 

Caring for and enjoying our grounds; respecting our non—human neighbors like the bats. 

Our commitment to youth ministry. In one conversation folks wondered out loud whether we have a call to serve queer and unchurched youth. 

Outreach giving and volunteer opportunities to serve others. 

Someone said, “We are most ourselves when we are reaching out.” One of our young folks said, “Madison and Middleton are better because of St. Dunstan’s and I’m proud of that.” 

Our ongoing work around voluntary land tax and restorative actions with respect to the Native peoples of this place. 

 

The BIGGEST set of responses – fullest pages of tick marks and notes – had to do with how we *are* as a community, to and for each other. 

People talked about inclusive welcome.

Meaning everything from welcoming LGBTQ+ folks, to welcoming folks of no church background, to welcoming folks of all ages in the fulness of who they are. 

People said, “We allow children to be children.” And: “St. Dunstan’s listens to children.” 

One of our youth, re: inclusive welcome at youth group: “Are you part of this church? We don’t care. Are you part of any church? We don’t care. Do you play board games?  You’ll learn.”  

Many people spoke in various ways about mutual care. 

Safety, trust, respect, kindness, shared prayer. 

Someone said, “We love each other through the changes.” 

Someone said, “It’s OK to bring your feelings to church.”

Several folks talked about valuing our commitment to Zoom church: the ways it keeps people connected; the intimacy of face-to-face worship and shared prayer on that platform. 

People value a sense of room and opportunity to share their gifts and skills. One person mentioned the “non-hierarchical use of people” – if you want to lead something or help shape something, there’s probably room for that. 

Reflecting on the many ways people stepped up to make music last summer, one person described St. Dunstan’s as “this amazing thing that creates what it needs.” 

People talked about resilience and capacity to change. That we’re a church that’s dynamic, not rigid. 

Folks described a balance of comfort and growth, support and renewal, “not living in the status quo.” 

“The casualness and the messiness and the constant evolution.”

Someone said that our church at its best is “compassionate, honest, joyful, and hopeful.”

Someone said that she chose our church, and stays at our church, because it’s a place of fierce love. Fierce love. 

People are super clear that we’re not perfect! There’s a lot for us to keep growing into.  But there’s also a lot that is hope-filled and holy. 

As your pastor: I think I know this church pretty well. But there were some things in all this that surprised me! Some stuff that seems distinctive about St. Dunstan’s — the grounds and Creation Care commitments, land acknowledgment work, even our strong commitment to outreach – were mentioned often, but were not the biggest themes. 

I don’t think that’s because they’re not important to people. Maybe instead it’s because we understand that those things flow out of more fundamental things about the kind of faith community we’re striving to be, together. 

Another thing I’m learning from these data is that folks with no kids or grown kids do understand and value what we are doing in creating a community of welcome and nurture for kids and youth. It’s a big encouragement to me, to hear that. 

I want to come back to that phrase fierce love. It came up in our very first conversation; I had forgotten it. But once I read it again, it stuck in my mind. 

It was rattling around in my brain as I read a book about the Rule of St. Benedict, the week before last, in preparation for my clergy retreat. Benedict lived in the 6th century, and founded a monastic order, the Benedictines. His Rule of Life laid out how community life in Benedictine monasteries should be ordered, but Christians – and non-Christians! – who are not monastics have found wisdom and value in the Rule, as a pattern for Christian living, for fifteen hundred years now. (By the way, Dunstan was a Benedictine monk and founded many Benedictine monasteries!) 

The book I was reading quoted this from Benedict’s Rule: “Try to be the first to show respect to one another, supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behavior… This zeal the [community members] should practice with fervent love.” 

Try to be the first to show respect to one another… 

Supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behavior. Now, listen: For Benedict’s time, it was a big deal to propose that community should embrace those who were different in various ways and help them participate and belong.  

I don’t love the language of “weaknesses,” but if we shift just a little to supporting one another in our differences of body and behavior, then we’re getting really close to some things people say they value at St. Dunstan’s. 

This zeal the [community members] should practice with fervent love. When I read this, fervent love caught my attention because it sounded a lot like fierce love. 

I looked up Benedict’s original Latin for this passage. Fervent is a Latin word; it comes from the word for boiling – it has to do with heat and intensity. But in the original text, it’s not just fervent love. It’s ferventissimo love. 

Our music folks will know that means not just fervent but SUPER FERVENT. THE FERVENTEST. 

Fervent and fierce have a lot in common. They point to an intensity of love, a love that digs in and holds on; a love that’s willing to bare its teeth when necessary. 

And what Benedict names here as part of the work of community – striving to be the first to show respect to one another, supporting with the greatest patience our differences of body and behavior, with fervent love – that reminds me of a lot of what is coming up in these wondering conversations. 

I’m not saying that we should declare fierce love our new mission statement, or start printing it on T-shirts. 

I just found it to be a phrase that captures a lot of what people say they love about this church, and a lot of what you all hope, for this church. 

Fierce love is a simple phrase, but not a simple reality. 

  • On a weekly basis, I have to work to figure out where to spend my limited time and energy nurturing fierce love among us. 
  • Sometimes we need to discern, together, about direction and season, projects and priorities. 
  • And of course we don’t all see eye to eye. There can be conflicting needs and hopes, for all kinds of reasons. 
  • The Society of St. John the Evangelist, another monastic community, includes this early on in their Rule of Life: “The first challenge of community life is to accept whole-heartedly the authority of Christ to call whom he will. Our community is not formed by the natural attraction of like-minded people. We are given to one another by Christ and he calls us to accept one another as we are.”
  • Look, if something shows up in a monastic Rule of Life, it’s because it’s hard, OK? 

Fierce love isn’t simple; it also isn’t easy. 

  • We have many growing edges. Ask me and I can name a few; maybe you can too. 
  • Our resources – human, financial, strategic – are often stretched thin, and we have to make hard choices, let some things go, and live with uncertainty. 
  • I don’t think everybody here feels loved fiercely. We have ongoing work to do fully welcoming and integrating newer members, and listening to the needs of longer-term members. 
  • And let’s be honest, some folks just want to come to church. It’s OK if you’re not looking for a community of fierce love! 

Are we are fierce as we mean to be?  As we need to be, for each other, for the world? 

  • Are we ready to support our youth group making Pride signs for our lawn again this June, even if it means another month of being vigilant for potential vandalism? 
  • Are we ready to take creation care beyond solar panels and composting, to talking about how we can be advocates for, and participants in, big, systemic change? 
  • Are we ready to have hard, bold conversations about where our convictions as people of faith meet the issues at stake in the elections this year?

Fierce love isn’t simple.  Fierce love isn’t easy.  Fierce love can be hard, messy work.

But I think fierce love, fervent love, ferventissimo love, is important. Is holy. 

Might be a thing that makes a church worth people’s time and care and investment, in a season of so much struggle and change in the world around us. 

I’ll close with a favorite prayer, composed by William Temple, who was the Archbishop of Canterbury during World War II. 

 O God of love, we pray thee to give us love:  Love in our thinking, love in our speaking,  Love in our doing, and love in the hidden places of our souls;  Love of our neighbours near and far;  Love of our friends, old and new;  Love of those with whom we find it hard to bear, and love of those who find it hard to bear with us;  Love of those with whom we work,  And love of those with whom we take our ease; Love in joy, love in sorrow; love in life and love in death; That so at length we may be worthy to dwell with thee, Who art eternal love. Amen.

Sermon, January 14

Let’s start with some context for today’s Gospel.  First: Where we are in John. We’re about 25 *verses* after the theological prologue we heard two weeks ago: “In the beginning was the Word… And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” 

In verses 19 – 34: John the Baptist talks about how he is preparing the way for the Messiah, and who Jesus is: the Son of God, the One who baptizes with the Holy Spirit, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. 

Then a couple of John’s disciples – men, probably young men, who are hanging around John to listen to his teaching – decide to go follow Jesus instead. One of them, Andrew, goes to get his brother, Simon, telling him, “We have found the Messiah!” Simon  Peter will become one of Jesus’ closest friends, and a core leader of the early church. 

That brings us up to today’s text! But I want to bring in another piece of context by turning back to Genesis, to a story we had in the lectionary last summer – the story of Jacob. Jacob and his twin brother Esau are the grandsons of Abraham and Sarah, the couple with whom God first forms a covenant. Jacob becomes an important figure too – he is later given the name Israel, which becomes the name of God’s first people and nation.  

Jacob is the second-born of the twins, and he resents it. As a young man he and his mother trick his father into giving Jacob the special blessing for a first-born son. Jacob then has to run away to escape his brother’s fury. He falls in love – but his father-in-law tricks him into marrying the wrong woman. Then he tricks his father-in-law into taking most of their herd of sheep and goats. Deceit is a big theme in Jacob’s life! 

But God finds a way to make Jacob part of the ineffable plan, despite his complicated story. When Jacob is first running away from home, he spends the night sleeping in the wilderness, using a rock for a pillow. And he has a dream. He sees “a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God ascending and descending on it.” And God speaks and assures him that God will protect him, bring him home, and bring good out of his story.

With that fresh in our minds, let’s look again at today’s Gospel. 

Jesus is continuing to call and gather his first followers – now Philip, who’s from the same hometown as Andrew and Simon Peter. It’s natural that word spreads about Jesus through networks of friendship or acquaintanceship. And here it happens again: Philip runs to tell his friend Nathanael about Jesus. 

Philip has already reached some big conclusions about who and what Jesus is: the fulfillment of God’s people’s long wait for a Savior who will free their people, restore their nation, and transform the world. He says, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote: Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” 

But Nathanael has questions! He says, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” It’s obvious that Nathanael doesn’t think much of Nazareth, or people from Nazareth. But why not? We don’t entirely know, but there are some hints from history and archaeology. 

The region of Galilee had a more mixed population than Judea to the south – there were folks there of all different backgrounds and beliefs – so Judeans tended to look down on Galilean Jews. 

But  Philip, Andrew, Peter, and probably Nathanael are all from Galilee too, so that’s not the issue here. 

Nazareth in particular seems to have been a very small town indeed. An archaeologist who works there says that Nazareth wasn’t on a roadway, so nobody went there unless they really meant to go there. A true backwater, of probably just a few extended families.

(Link – interesting stuff! https://www.timesofisrael.com/listen-what-do-we-know-about-nazareth-in-jesus-time-an-archaeologist-explains/ ) 

We just don’t know whether Nathanael’s scorn or doubt come from the fact that Nazareth was just a complete nothing of a town, or whether there was more – some particular bad reputation that is simply lost to history, outside of this hint in John’s Gospel. 

Nazareth was built on soft, chalky rock, and archaeology shows that the residents of Nazareth were good at digging pits under their homes – for storage, but also perhaps to hide goods from Roman taxation. Maybe it was a hotbed of smuggling, or some other kind of hive of scum and villainy!

Regardless: Philip gets Nathanael to come meet Jesus. And that’s where this little passage really gets interesting. Jesus greets Nathanael cheerfully: “‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”

That’s a weird thing to say. Say your friend is bringing you to meet somebody that they think is really amazing. And that person sees you coming and says, “Here comes an American who does not commit fraud!” Or, “Here comes somebody from Wisconsin who is not involved in any secret plots!”

You’d react in one of two ways, right? If you in fact do not commit fraud and are not involved in any secret plots, you’d just be like, What the heck, man??? 

On the other hand, if that greeting was somehow not entirely off the mark, you might say, “…. Who are you? Have we met? What have you heard?” And that’s what Nathanael does. He says, “How do you know me?” 

The plot only thickens with Jesus’ response. He says, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 

What was going on under that fig tree? 

There is a face-value reading possible here: that Jesus is simply revealing that he has the ability to see things that aren’t within sight for a normal human, and that that impressed Nathanael so much that he immediately believes that Jesus is the Messiah.

But. But. This interaction is already weirder than that. And we’re in John’s Gospel. John’s Gospel is weird. John tells a distinctive version of Jesus’ story. And John also uses language in a distinctive way, often using words or phrases to point towards bigger or deeper ideas. If something in John’s Gospel feels odd in a way that makes you wonder if more is going on, the answer is Yes. 

So what happened under that fig tree?? We don’t know. We don’t know anything else about Nathanael. John’s Gospel is the only one that names one of the disciples as Nathanael. It’s possible he’s the same person as Bartholomew, named as a disciple in the other Gospels. Bartholomew is what’s called a patronym; “Bar” means “son of.” So, he could have been Nathanael, son of Talmai. Kind of a first name/last name thing. 

But even that doesn’t help us because the other Gospels have nothing to say about Bartholomew, other than that he was one of the twelve that Jesus chose as his inner circle. This is the most we ever hear about Nathanael as an individual.

There’s a funny kind of hint in the things Jesus says to Nathanael. First, calling him an Israelite in whom there is no deceit. That’s just half-step away from saying, Here’s a Jacob who’s not full of trickery.  And then there’s the last thing Jesus says in this passage – about how if Nathanael sticks with Jesus, he’ll see some amazing things – as amazing as angels ascending and descending from Heaven. Jesus is clearly gesturing to the Jacob story, here. But why? 

In the book some of us read for Advent, “The First Advent in Palestine,” the author, Kelly Nikondeha, sometimes takes the Biblical text, puts it together with some information from history, archaeology, culture – and then uses her imagination to expand the story. What if we do that with Nathanael and the fig tree? 

We know that there was a lot of resentment of both the Herodian and Roman rulers in Galilee in Jesus’ time. It’s pretty clear in the Gospels that people’s double subjugation and its daily impact was on everyone’s minds. And there were various attempted revolts. 

Andrew was one of John the Baptist’s disciples, which suggests he was somebody who was looking for change. Willing to follow this weird wilderness prophet in the hope that his preaching might point towards something better than the status quo. None of the other first four disciples are named as followers of John. But they probably all knew each other. Andrew and Simon are brothers; Philip’s from the same small town, and he knows Nathanael. 

It’s easy to imagine the four of them sitting together in the evening, after a hard day’s fishing, and talking – quietly – about how bad it is. How much they hate Herod and Rome. How they long for freedom from political oppression and grinding poverty. 

Now imagine Nathanael, the day after one of those conversations, sitting under a fig tree to take a break in the hot afternoon sun. He’s thinking about how heavy and frustrating and hopeless it all seems. And maybe he’s wondering what can be done. Maybe somebody has asked him to help with… something. Something deceitful. Maybe to strike a blow against the Romans; maybe just to put one over on them in some way. 

Or maybe Jesus’ allusions to Jacob suggest that Nathanael’s temptation to deceit has more to do with getting what’s coming to him, as he sees it. Some matter of inheritance or a share in somebody’s wealth that he thinks is rightfully his – but will have to claim by trickery. 

Maybe, as he sits under the fig tree, Nathanael is weighing his response. Is he willing to do… whatever it is? Can he square it with his faith, his ethics, the kind of person he means to be? Maybe he decides he can’t – won’t – do this thing, whatever it is.  

And then, a day later or two days, this stranger from Nazareth says, Hey! Look at this Israelite! There’s no deception in this guy! And when Nathanael says, What gives? – the stranger says: I saw you. Under the fig tree. 

That’s the kind of thing that might really make an impression on you. That might make you say, Rabbi: You are the Son of God. 

That might make you decide to follow that man wherever he leads you, and make his teaching, his life and death and resurrection, the focus of the rest of your life. Which Nathanael did.

This Gospel is a call story. The story of Nathanael’s call to discipleship, to becoming a follower of Jesus. “Call” is an ordinary word that we use in lots of ways, but here I’m using it in a particular, churchy way. “Call” in this sense is a moment when somebody hears or sees or experiences something that invites them out of their life as they have been living it, and into something new. A new understanding, commitment or community; a new path or direction. 

If you asked Nathanael for his call story, he’d probably tell you about this conversation with Jesus. If you ask me for my call story, I would ask, as a Christian or as a priest? As a Christian, I’d tell you I was raised in the church, but that there was an important moment for me during my freshman year of college where I kind of chose to be an Episcopalian Christian for myself. As a priest, I’d tell you about a day in Uganda in 2002. 

But the truth is that those were just starting points – for Nathanael, for me. There keep being forks in the road. You have to keep deciding, seeking, choosing. 

After Jesus’ death, after the Ascension, I’m sure some of the folks who had been following him decided it was all over and went home. But some of them stuck around, stuck together, to see if there would be a next chapter to this great story. And it turns out there was. We don’t know anything about how Nathanael Bartholomew was part of the story of the early church, but we know that he was. His name is on the list of the ones who kept following the call, even as it led in new directions. 

Tomorrow our community and our country honor the life, witness, and death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Having a national holiday for Dr. King is a mixed blessing. There’s a risk that at some level folks will say, “Hey, look at what we did, racism is over.” 

The fullest potential of this day, it seems to me, is as a time to recall the costs of the struggle for civil rights and human liberation in our country, so far; and to recommit ourselves to the ongoing work – inner work as well as civic and political work. 

As I prepared this sermon, I got curious about Dr. King’s call story, as a Christian, a pastor, an activist and leader.

Somebody asked him about his call, in 1959, and he wrote about it, saying, “My call to the ministry was neither dramatic nor spectacular. It came neither by some miraculous vision nor by some blinding light experience on the road of life. Moreover, it did not come as a sudden realization. Rather, it was a response to an inner urge that gradually came upon me… a desire to serve God and humanity, and the feeling that my talent and my commitment could best be expressed through the ministry.” 

But that gentle emergence of a sense of vocational direction was just the beginning, for Dr. King. I’m sure there were many moments of call, of choice, in his life. He later shared the story of one that was particularly pivotal. 

King had accepted a job as a pastor in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1954. He didn’t plan to get involved in civil rights work, but when the bus boycott began in late 1955, he got involved with the group of pastors that were leading the boycott. One late night in January of 1956 – soon after King arrived home from his first night in jail – the phone rang. A voice on the other end of the line told him, “By next week you’ll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery.” 

King had received his share of threatening phone calls before, but somehow this one shook him. He was alone; his wife and young daughter were asleep. He made a pot of coffee and sat down at the kitchen table. 

“I felt myself faltering,” he said, telling the story of that night – and wondering if there was a way to get himself and his family out of this danger without harming the movement. He felt trapped and frightened.

He bowed his head and began to pray – calling on the Power that can make a way out of no way. He prayed, “Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I still think I’m right… But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now… I’m losing my courage. Now, I am afraid. And I can’t let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”

And in response he heard a voice say, “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you. Even until the end of the world.” King recalled that moment as a profound experience of the presence of the Divine. His fears and uncertainty began to ease, and he felt ready to face anything. 

Call – to a new thing or a next thing – can take all kinds of forms, from an actual voice speaking to you as you sit at your kitchen table with your head in your hands, to a sense of clarity and direction emerging from the way the pieces of your life add up. 

Maybe you meet someone who speaks truth to you in a way that changes your heart. 

You know the feeling when you’re trying to screw on a lid and it’s not sitting right on the threads, so you take it off and try again and this time it’s right? Sometimes call is like that. Something just feels right, that wasn’t right before. 

Calls come in all different sizes. We tend to talk about the big ones, the life-changing ones, but in my experience there are plenty of little ones too. Pay attention to this. Say yes to that opportunity. Ask her how she’s doing. Let your mind be changed. 

Calls find us in all kinds of moments and states of mind. Ready and willing; confused and defensive; reluctant or resentful. Next week we’ll have a snippet of the story of Jonah in the lectionary; Jonah gets a call from God and straight up runs away from it. Relatable! 

My prayer for all of us is that when the Holy speaks your name, you’ll be able to hear, and to respond with wonder, curiosity, and courage. Amen. 

Sources: 

https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/my-call-ministry

https://www.beliefnet.com/faiths/christianity/2005/01/receiving-the-call.aspx

CPF Proposal #4: The Road Home’s Heart Room program

St. Dunstan’s Community Project Fund: Housing Grants

In early 2024, St. Dunstan’s will be giving away $70,000 in grants to help address the housing crisis in Dane County and beyond. These funds were set aside to serve those outside our parish, during our capital campaign for a major renovation in 2018-2019. Read more about this process in last week’s special Enews mailing about it.

We have received four grant applications for these funds. This is the fourth and final proposal we are sharing. Soon we’ll ask members of the congregation to respond to a poll about your preferences among these four organizations. We’ll use ranked choice voting to gather your opinions, and a small team of folks from Vestry, Outreach, and the wider congregation will weigh those data alongside other considerations (like stated congregational values and goals, how much we want to split up the funds, etc.) to finalize recommendations to the Vestry by the end of January. Grants will be announced on February 1st.

Fourth Application: Helping a Family Move into Stable Housing 

Organization: The Road Home 

Project title: Heart Room Program

From the Road Home’s website: 
The Road Home Dane County is committed to ending the issue of family homelessness in our community. We do this by developing long-term relationships with homeless families with children that change lives. We work with families, not only to relieve the immediate crisis of homelessness, but also to build skills, resources and relationships that set the stage for long-term success. To accomplish our mission, we rely on the help and support of individuals, congregations and businesses throughout Madison and beyond. We believe that for the greater good of our city and for human kind, we can and should join together to make a difference because every child deserves a home.

The Road Home provides a variety of types and levels of supportive services and stable housing programs that best fit families’ needs and help them be successful. Over 90% of our families who could reach one year in stable housing do so. We also seek to decrease racial housing disparities that exist in our community. We work together with partners such as other nonprofits, government agencies, United Way of Dane County, people with lived experiences of homelessness, volunteers, businesses, congregations and donors to create solutions that work.

Our History
The Road Home Dane County (then known as Interfaith Hospitality Network of the Madison Area) opened our doors on April 26th, 1999 as an overflow shelter for families who could not be served by the existing shelters. In the years that followed, The Road Home played a growing role in securing funds and support for affordable housing and providing case management to help families find and maintain that housing. In 2018, we phased out shelter to focus on housing and support services. A 501(c)(3) organization, we currently operate ten housing programs and serve over 200 families with children in Dane County each year.

The Need 

(Text from The Road Home’s application) 

Heart Room is specifically designed to support families that other housing programs in our community typically do not. The vast majority of supportive housing programs in our community enroll individuals and families through a uniform screening and prioritization process. Unfortunately, the eligibility criteria underlying this process excludes many families at high risk of homelessness from receiving support. Families with young children living in precarious “doubled-up” housing arrangements and those with mixed immigration status are particularly underserved by the current system.

Heart Room was intentionally designed to fill this gap in our community. It is also important to note that Heart Room is at the very forefront of the faith group-nonprofit partnership strategy identified as a priority for expansion and replication in the current Dane County Community Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness.

Families served in Heart Room are low-income or extremely low-income, and upon enrollment they are experiencing homelessness, at high risk of falling into homelessness, or severely burdened by their current housing costs. Relative to the Madison population, families also are much more likely to be BIPOC/non-white, have limited English proficiency, have mixed immigration status, have a caregiver with a long-term disability, and have a caregiver or child with a serious mental health concern. To date, Heart Room has served 24 families including 70 children.

Read a Heart Room story from 2019 here!

The Program 

Heart Room is a three-year supportive housing program that provides flexible rental subsidies and wraparound case management services to families with young children experiencing homelessness or severe housing instability. Heart Room began on a pilot basis in 2018 as a partnership between Orchard Ridge United Church of Christ, The Road Home Dane County, Joining Forces For Families, and RISE Wisconsin’s Early Childhood Initiative. Heart Room currently serves eleven (11) families living in Madison’s South and Southwest neighborhoods.

The Road Home Dane County provides housing case management to families for their three years in the program. This includes housing search, assistance with housing applications, lease support, and ongoing case management once the family is stably housed. RISE Wisconsin and Joining Forces for Families provide ongoing support regarding early childhood development, parent/child relationships, and other needed community resources. We wholeheartedly believe that this collaborative model is essential in helping families move from homelessness to safe, stable housing.

As families complete the three years in Heart Room and phase out of the program, this creates openings for new families to join Heart Room. All referrals for Heart Room come directly from our partners at Joining Forces for Families and RISE Wisconsin.

Heart Room provides financial resources to prevent vulnerable families from experiencing homelessness, but the program also provides wraparound support that empowers families to achieve self-identified goals and become self-sufficient. Core goals include increasing family earned income, improving parental financial literacy, increasing children’s engagement in school and community resources, expanding job opportunities through workforce training programs, and even home ownership. Moreover, the majority of families served by Heart Room to date have mixed immigration status, which creates additional – and discriminatory – barriers to economic opportunity and access to public resources.

Grant Request: $21,000

In 2024, there are three families who will be graduating from the program. In order to fill these openings upon graduation, we are working to secure funding to provide three years of rental assistance to families who will enroll in the program next year. The full three years of rental assistance per family is $21,000 ($7,000 per family per year, over three years). Thus, the Heart Room team is aiming to raise $63,000 to support three new families in the program. Our requested grant amount of $21,000 will allow us to provide three years of rental subsidy to support one new family.

CPF Proposal #3: WayForward Resources Housing Stability Program

St. Dunstan’s Community Project Fund: Housing Grants

In early 2024, St. Dunstan’s will be giving away $70,000 in grants to help address the housing crisis in Dane County and beyond. These funds were set aside to serve those outside our parish, during our capital campaign for a major renovation in 2018-2019. Read more about this process in last week’s special Enews mailing about it.

We have received four grant applications for these funds, and we’ll be sharing about the projects and organizations over the weeks ahead. In mid-January we will begin a parish feedback project where members and friends of St. Dunstan’s can share their thoughts about where you would most like to see our funding go. Please read, reflect, and take notes! (And if you haven’t taken a good look already, look back at our first two applications, from the Ho-Chunk Community Housing Authority and Own It! Building Black Wealth!)

Third Application: Housing Stability in Middleton & Beyond

Organization: WayForward Resources (formerly MOM)

Project title: Housing Stability Program

WayForward Resources’ mission is to bring our community together to create food and housing security through action and advocacy. Our vision is a community where everyone has the stability to thrive. WayForward Resources has more than 40 years of experience in creating food and housing security through action and advocacy. We help over 6,500 people annually access food and remain in housing. 60% of the households we serve are families with children. The community using our services is diverse: 29% Black, 27% white, 23% Latinx, 8% multi-race, and 14% other or unreported.

WayForward Resources (formerly Middleton Outreach Ministry) was established in 1980 by members of local  churches, including St. Dunstan’s. St. Dunstan’s continues to support WayForward on a regular basis, and many members are active volunteers.

At WayForward Resources, leadership and staff acknowledge the ongoing structural disparities caused by racism in our country and community. Structural racism creates barriers to well-being and progress, experiences of racial trauma, and decreased access to food and housing. This is intensified for people who are English language learners. We work to reduce harm and enact change by fulfilling an immediate need for food and housing, including voices of lived experience, and advocating for racial equity in these areas. We envision a strong community where race-based barriers to opportunity do not exist, and race no longer predicts someone’s stability.

Read a recent guest column by WayForward Resources Executive Director Ellen Carlson about the increased demand on food pantries.

The Need 

(Text from WayForward Resource’s application) 

Families and individuals are challenged to find housing they can afford, maintain that housing and meet food and other basic needs, in turn increasing the challenges for WayForward and other nonprofits to keep up with the demand. In the last year, WayForward provided 603 households in West Madison, Middleton and Cross Plains with an average of $650 for rent, utilities, and transportation assistance to stay in their homes and out of the shelter system. Those households include almost 1,000 children.

The cost of housing locally continues to rise at record levels. A recent national study found that rent prices in Madison jumped 30% since March 2020 – the fastest-rising rent of any major city in the United States. 44% of renters in Dane County pay more than 30% of their monthly income in rent.

Now more than ever, WayForward programs are what allow people in our community to stay in their homes. Nearly all households WayForward serves are below 200% of the federal poverty guidelines.

The Program 

Our Housing Stability Program is one of the few homelessness prevention programs in the area, filling a gap in services for families and individuals currently in housing who are at risk of eviction. WayForward offers rent assistance and case management before families and individuals become homeless, helping them avoid the trauma and well-documented negative outcomes associated with homelessness, especially for children.

(Note that WayForward Resources also runs the Connections housing program, which focuses on families who are experiencing “doubled-up” homelessness.) 

The expiration this year of federal food and housing assistance programs has directly impacted the numbers we see using our services every day including those people in our community who must devote large portions of their monthly income to rent. We project a 10% increase in the number of households receiving direct housing assistance this year.

Your support will help sustain and expand our housing stability efforts, continuing to provide an average of $650 per household with the option to increase the amount given to more families as needed as they work with our case managers to develop a long-term housing plan.

Grant Request: $35,000

$35,000 will provide case management and housing assistance for about 30 families. This estimate includes both case management costs and direct financial support to households.

Read more about WayForward’s impact here!

CPF Proposal 2: Own It! Building Black Wealth Educational Materials

St. Dunstan’s Community Project Fund: Housing Grants

In early 2024, St. Dunstan’s will be giving away $70,000 in grants to help address the housing crisis in Dane County and beyond. These funds were set aside to serve those outside our parish, during our capital campaign for a major renovation in 2018-2019. Read more about this process in last week’s special Enews mailing about it.

We have received four grant applications for these funds, and we’ll be sharing about the projects and organizations over the weeks ahead. In mid-January we will begin a parish feedback project where members and friends of St. Dunstan’s can share their thoughts about where you would most like to see our funding go. Please read, reflect, and take notes!

Second Application: Education for Home Ownership 

Organization: Own It: Building Black Wealth

Project title: Own It: Building Black Wealth Education Program Expansion

Own It: Building Black Wealth is a collaboration between Madison-area real estate, banking, and financial professionals to break down systemic barriers to homeownership for Madison’s Black and brown communities.

In Madison, about 15% of Black families own their home, compared to .30% of Hispanic families and over 50% of white families in Madison own their home. The national average for homeownership for Black families is about 45%.

Homeownership rates are a major reason for the large disparity in family wealth between white and Black families, and access to money is one of the biggest barriers to homeownership. This feedback loop prevents families of color from building generational wealth.

To learn a little more about home ownership and the racial wealth gap, here is some information from the US Treasury Department, and an article from the American Civil Liberties Union. There’s lots more to learn if you are interested!

Click on the picture below to watch a 2-minute video about the Own It! program. And read some Own It! success stories here!

The Own It: Building Black Wealth Education Program has two key components:

  1. Education:  Own It’s Wealth Building and Homeownership courses improve financial literacy and understanding of homeownership as it relates to building wealth. Their website states, “We are able to offer a personal finance course and homeownership course that is rooted in social justice and includes: understanding credit, a cohort to build credit, real estate and home ownership education, plus post closing support and a network to provide continued education around refinancing, home maintenance, building equity, and more.” The program provides families with continued guidance, mentorship, and support after completion of the initial coursework.
  2. Down-Payment Grants: Upon completion of the courses, families can apply for an $18,000 grant for down payment funds (the 2024 federal gift tax limit). These funds are non-restrictive and remove a barrier to homeownership, especially given that the real estate market is competitive and having access to cash makes an offer stronger.

Much of Own It’s funding comes directly from real estate, bank, and financial professionals who believe in this initiative and give a portion of their commissions to make it possible for Black and brown families to own homes!

Since starting as a pilot project in 2021, Own It has enrolled 281 participants in its courses, awarded 14 down payment grants of $15,000 each, and made it possible for 10 families to become first time homeowners.

Currently, the beneficiaries of this program are the families and staff of One City Schools. One City is an independent charter school in Dane County. Their student population is 90% non-white, with nearly 80% of students identifying as Black or multi-racial.

What We Need Funds For:

Based on participant feedback, Own It! wants to offer self-paced, online courses (rather than in-person) for the busy families they serve.

Grant funding from St. Dunstan’s would go directly toward redesigning the curriculum for online use, and would free up volunteer time (which is already stretched thin!) while allowing us to serve more families by expanding beyond One City School families to other organizations.

We estimate the cost of this expansion, including consultant fees, online course creation, and software, to be $26,800.

You can learn more about Own It: Building Black Wealth at the following links:

Madison365.com article

CapTimes article

CPF Proposal 1: Ho-Chunk Supportive Housing

St. Dunstan’s Community Project Fund: Housing Grants

In early 2024, St. Dunstan’s will be giving away $70,000 in grants to help address the housing crisis in Dane County and beyond. These funds were set aside to serve those outside our parish, during our capital campaign for a major renovation in 2018-2019. Read more about this process in last week’s special Enews mailing about it.

We have received four grant applications for these funds, and we’ll be sharing about the projects and organizations over the weeks ahead. In mid-January we will begin a parish feedback project where members and friends of St. Dunstan’s can share their thoughts about where you would most like to see our funding go. Please read, reflect, and take notes!

First Application: Supportive Housing for Young Ho-Chunk Families 

Organization: Ho-chunk Housing and Community Development Authority (HHCDA)

Project title: HHCDA Young Family Supportive Housing Project

Who are the Ho-Chunk? 

St. Dunstan’s has been working to deepen our awareness of the history of our land for several years, starting in earnest with a Lenten series in 2021. We have learned that the land where our church stands, which was given to St. Dunstan’s, was taken from the Ho-Chunk people – the native peoples of this land – 125 years earlier by the U.S. government, though coercive treaties and forced removal. We have developed a parish land acknowledgement, have begun to pay an annual voluntary land tax, and continue to look for other restorative actions, such as helping tend the mounds at nearby Governor Nelson State Park.

As our land acknowledgement states, “The ability to gather, worship, learn, and establish our presence as a church came at a great expense of the original inhabitants of this land, the Ho-chunk people, the People of the Sacred Voice… Two hundred years ago, the land where St. Dunstan’s now stands was the outskirts of a Ho-Chunk town, presided over by Chief Kau-kish-ka-ka or White Crow. The residents were caretakers of a sacred landscape, including the fox effigy mound that remains nearby… St Dunstan’s now stands on this land, seeking a new relationship of truth-telling, honor and respect.” (Read the full working draft of St. Dunstan’s land acknowledgement here.)

At the bottom of this message we’ll include a few links to learn more about the Ho-Chunk, their culture and history.

 

The Proposal: Supportive Housing for Young Ho-Chunk Families 

Grant Request: $35,000 to assist with furnishings  

In order to provide stable, comfortable homes and skills training for these families, HHCDA requests $35,000 from St. Dunstan’s Housing Project grant program to assist with some furnishing of the apartment units, the activity room in the community space, and educational materials.

Mission of the project

The application states, “The Young Families Supportive Housing (YFSH) project embodies HHCDA’s mission “to foster a strong, healthy community of which Ho-Chunk Nation members can be proud, by providing quality, affordable housing and programs that meet social, cultural, and community needs. This mission is similar to the goals of St. Dunstan’s outreach guiding principles, particularly ‘activities and advocacy that serve those in our larger community who need food, clothing, health care, shelter, safety, justice, and love.’”

This is a new project, started in June 2023. The building is currently under construction (with help from a state grant). It should be completed in May, and families will move in in late summer 2024. The HHCDA expects to fund operations through Ho-Chunk Nation resources, state and federal grants, and ongoing fundraising.

 

Who the project will serve

HHCDA developed this program to help young Ho-Chunk Nation families who need a second chance and do not qualify for traditional housing services. The application explains, “What makes HHCDA’s YFSH unique is the population we will serve. Traditional permanent supportive housing programs like those offered in Madison provide studio apartments, whereas the YFSH will offer a mix of two and three bedroom units for families. This project will benefit ten young Ho- Chunk families by offering stable housing and supportive services. YFSH will have a housing manager and a case manager who will meet young families “where they’re at” regarding the families’ unique life challenges.The persons assisted will be enrolled Ho-Chunk members who are near homeless or homeless, with a head of household 18 years of age or older, who qualify as a family, and have completed all appropriate forms and applications. This facility will help these families by providing a safe, secure home and supportive services including culturally appropriate approaches to holistic healing and health. For example, residents will use the commercial kitchen to prepare the healthy food and healing herbs that they have grown in the community garden.”

This facility will be in Black River Falls, Wisconsin, which is a significant center for the Ho-Chunk Nation. The other applications we will consider are more local, but our grant application process was open to any project addressing housing needs in the state of Wisconsin. An HHCDA representative explained that while the Ho-Chunk population is spread across western, central and southern Wisconsin, anything that helps anyone in the tribe helps the whole tribe. In addition, the supportive housing will be open to Ho-Chunk living anywhere in the state. A family living in Madison could apply for housing once the facility is operational.

 

Why supportive housing? 

The Young Family Supportive Housing (YFSH) project will help ten young Ho-Chunk Nation (HCN) families by providing stable housing and supportive services. The application states, “It is the goal of YFSH to help these families ‘as they are,’ by removing barriers that may exclude them from traditional housing programs. Some barriers these families face may include addiction/transitioning from recovery programs, lack of childcare, transportation, and employment. The YFSH project will follow the “Housing First” model, utilized by successful permanent supportive housing projects in the Madison area…. The “Housing First” model indicates establishing trust between families and housing providers is the first step to creating lasting connections. Families who feel safe and cared for will be more likely to utilize supportive services. Some supportive services provided will include mental health and substance abuse, life-skills training, child-care assistance and parenting programs, and job skills training.”

 

More about the Ho-chunk Housing and Community Development Authority

The mission of the Ho-Chunk Housing and Community Development Agencyis to foster a strong, healthy community of which Ho-Chunk Nation members can be proud – through providing members with quality, affordable housing and programs that help meet the Ho-Chunk Nation’s social, cultural, and community needs.

At HHCDA, we serve low-income Ho-Chunk families and communities who do not live on a traditional reservation. Instead, the communities are located on trust lands over a number of counties (Dane county included) in Wisconsin.

The programs of the HHCDA include:

  • Community buildings in different areas, to help meet the Ho-Chunk Nation’s social, cultural, and community needs.
  • Down payment assistance program, inspection cost reimbursement program, and homebuyer education programming for Ho-Chunk or other Native people in their area of service to help them move into homeownership. Forgivable loans for home repairs are also available.
  • Rental assistance for low- to moderate-income Ho-Chunk living in urban areas like Chicago, Dane County, and the Twin Cities, for Ho-Chunk attending college full time, and for low-income Ho-Chunk.
  • Supportive housing for Ho-Chunk veterans: “The Ho-Chunk way of life holds veterans in high regard, and in response to those veterans’ needs, the Legislature appropriated funds for the construction and operation of a 10-unit Veterans Supportive Housing facility… serving homeless and at-risk-of homeless Ho-Chunk [and other Native] veterans,” outside Black River Falls, WI.

 

Links to Learn More about the Ho-Chunk

A couple of historical overviews that seem in line with how Ho-Chunk leaders talk about their history:

https://mymonona.com/1166/Native-Culture-and-History-in-the-Monona

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

Some facts and figures from the state Department of Public Instruction:

https://dpi.wi.gov/amind/tribalnationswi/ho-chunk

A Ho-Chunk Nation elder tells his people’s oral history:

https://pbswisconsin.org/watch/tribal-histories/wpt-documentaries-ho-chunk-history/

Community Project Fund proposals & voting process, January 2024

Here are quick links to the four organizations/proposals! Scroll down to read about the funds we’re giving away and how we got here.  To see the complete proposals, contact Rev. Miranda or call the church office. 

Ho-Chunk Supportive Housing for Young Families

Own It! Building Black Wealth Educational Materials

WayForward Resources Housing Stability Program

The Road Home’s Heart Room Program

St. Dunstan’s Community Project Fund: Housing Grants
In 2018, as part of Saint Dunstan’s capital campaign for a major renovation (called The Open Door Project), we recognized that our parish is committed to loving our neighbors in response to Jesus’ call. In this spirit, St. Dunstan’s committed a portion of the Open Door Project funds raised to serve the wider community after the renovation had been completed. These funds – amounting to $70,000 – were intended to be used to develop a new project to address a local need, and offer our members opportunities to learn, engage, and serve.

Following long delay in implementing this project due to the Covid pandemic, in 2023 St. Dunstan’s has discerned that these Community Project Funds are to be allocated to help address the housing crisis in Dane County. We anticipate awarding 2 to 4 one-time grants, each ranging from $10,000 to $25,000.

Why housing? 
In almost any conversation about issues and challenges affecting vulnerable communities, in Dane County and nationwide, housing comes up as a core issue. We are facing a housing crisis both nationwide and in Dane County. And housing ties in with lots of other issues: poverty, academic success and employment, transit (and therefore pollution and climate), and much more. To learn more, use the link below to access some articles (additional resources welcome!).
https://docs.google.com/document/d/1aXpovWIGn6ZtjPw-iIgi9X-N4Rrkh-g5PdQZyeoXkTg/edit?usp=sharing

What happens next? 
We have received four applications from local organizations that are doing work around affordable housing, reducing homelessness, and keeping people housed. In the weeks ahead, we plan to roll out information about each of these organizations and their specific projects. Please read about these groups as information comes out, in the coming weeks!

In mid-January, we will invite members of the parish to vote on which organizations and projects they would most like to fund. The congregation’s preferences will help the Vestry decide how to allocate the funds and send out the grants. We are committed to making that decision and announcing grants on February 1.

Finally: Because of the long Covid delay, our Vestry has decided that our priority is to get these funds out into the community. But we continue to hope that the Community Project Fund will lead to new opportunities for the people of St. Dunstan’s to learn, engage, and serve. We hope that everyone will take some time in the next two months to learn more about the housing crisis – whether here in Dane County, or where you live, for those in other areas. Many of housing solutions are deep in the weeds of local politics, and it matters to simply have more people who understand what’s at stake. New ways to get involved or help out may emerge out of our shared learning.

I’m new here. What’s this all about? 

The Open Door Project was a capital campaign and renovation project to make our buildings better serve our common life and mission. The extensive renovations of our main building and the Parish Center, the building at the end of the parking lot,  increased safety, accessibility, and comfort, and gave us more usable and flexible spaces for ourselves and community groups. You can read more here.

Sermon, Jan. 7

Today is the first Sunday of the season of Epiphany – and the day when we honor the Baptism of Jesus (who in the lectionary has grown very suddenly from a baby to a grown man). And we are celebrating the baptism of one of our members today! So it’s a good day to talk a little about baptism.

There is something fundamentally mysterious about baptism. Like the Eucharist, it’s something the church does because Jesus told us to do it, so however many thousands of book are written about it, we will never really know what it means or how it works, on this side of the veil. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t things to talk and wonder about. 

The word “baptism” comes from the Greek word that means to immerse or dunk into water. Baptism has its roots in some of the ritual practices of Judaism, that included washing yourself at certain times for purposes of religious purification. John the Baptist seems to be riffing on those traditions when he starts dunking people in the Jordan River and telling them this is a path to forgiveness of sins and a new way of living. 

Christian baptism takes John’s practice a step further. Our Acts lesson today highlights an interesting moment in the spread of the Christian movement. Paul, the great missionary of the early church, encounters a little group in Ephesus who have heard about Jesus and become believers. But they have only received “John’s baptism” – water baptism for the forgiveness of sins. 

Paul sees baptism as more than that. In his letters he talks about baptism as washing away our differences – we are baptized into one body, Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female. 

He also talks about baptism as a kind of death and resurrection: your old self drowns in the baptismal waters, and your new self rises with Christ to new life. 

And then there’s this idea of baptism with water and the Holy Spirit. For the early church, baptism by the Holy Spirit seems to have been both a ritual practice – something someone like Paul could do to and for people – and also a religious experience of being overwhelmed by the power of the Holy. In stories from the Book of Acts, sometimes baptism in water and Spirit are separate. With these folks in Ephesus, they’ve already received water baptism, but Paul baptizes them with the Holy Spirit. There’s another time when a group receives the Holy Spirit while listening to Peter preach, and Peter baptizes them with water too. 

But pretty early on the Church comes to understand our practice of baptism as including both water and the Holy Spirit in one ritual act. We can see and feel the water; the action of the Holy Spirit is more mysterious. But we trust that She shows up, and does something that – invisibly, ineffably – marks the newly baptized as Christ’s own forever. 

I want to take us back, now, to around the year 200. It’s about 150 years after Paul’s visit to Ephesus. Christianity has grown and spread, becoming its own religion distinct from Judaism. But it is still very much a minority religion. It has fans and supporters; it also has detractors, and believers face occasional and local bouts of persecution. 

People accused Christians of some weird things. For example, maybe because of the practice of the Eucharist – Take, eat, this is my body – some people thought Christians were prone to cannibalism. Some even thought that Christians stole, murdered, and ate babies. 

But other people disdained Christianity just because it was kind of boring, in comparison with available alternatives. 

In the Roman Empire, everyone was supposed to participate in the imperial religion, worshipping various Romans gods and honoring the Emperor as part of civic life. It was a little like saying the Pledge! Christians got into trouble for refusing to participate in all that, at times. But Christians were not the only group with their own set of beliefs and devotional practices – and Roman civic religion wasn’t Christianity’s main competition. 

The Roman Empire connected large areas of the ancient world, and it was fertile soil for new religious movements to rise and spread – including a wide range of what religion scholars call “mystery cults.” 

Mystery here means that you weren’t allowed to know very much about the group’s practices and beliefs unless you joined. Cult here just means a specific, minority religious group; it doesn’t necessarily carry the implications that word does in popular usage today. 

Spencer McDaniel writes, “Joining a mystery cult was optional. People who were members of mystery cults were members of those cults because they chose to be, because they wanted something more than what traditional public religion had to offer.”

He explains that joining a mystery cult connected you with a community that would gather regularly for worship. It had scope for personal devotional practices, and a sense of deepening knowledge and relationship with a particular god or divine being – and also of perhaps having favors or benefits conferred, like personal renewal or even eternal life. Does that sound familiar?

But mystery cults were a lot more interesting than Christianity. To begin with, there was the element of mystery itself. 

These groups didn’t have evangelists handing out pamphlets in the public square. It was more of the kind of thing where a friend takes you aside to say, Hey, I’m in this thing… you should come to a meeting sometime. 

Meanwhile, the successors to Peter and Paul, Christian missionaries, are walking all over the Empire telling everybody all about their god and his teachings and how to join their movement. 

The gods at the center of the mystery cults were exciting and exotic. Some of them were Greek gods, who had fun stories and myths to build your cultic practices, like Dionysios. Some were imported and adapted from the edges of the empire, like the cult of the Egyptian goddess Isis, or the Syrian sun-god Elagabalus, or the Person god Mithras. In all these cases, the Roman mystery cult’s practices were pretty different from the way those gods were honored in their original context. 

In comparison, the Jesus cult was built on the foundation of Jewish religion, and their god was notoriously cantankerous. He didn’t like people making statues or murals of him, and he didn’t like being one among the many gods honored across the Empire – maintaining instead a ridiculous insistence on being the one true God. So cringe! 

Finally, many mystery cults had some kind of framework for moving to higher – or deeper – levels of involvement and secret knowledge. Let’s look at Mithraism as a specific example. Roman Mithraism started to get popular in the late first century, and spread around the Empire in the second and third centuries – meaning, it was moving into the religious marketplace very much at the same time as Christianity. 

We don’t always know a lot about the beliefs and practices of the mystery cults because they were kept secret, but a few credible sources about Mithraism have survived. 

Mithraic groups were all male; they usually met in an underground cave, decorated with images of the god Mithras killing a bull; and feasting was a regular part of their gatherings.

It seems there were seven grades of initiation: after you joined the cult at the Raven level, you could aspire to achieve the Bridegroom level, then the Soldier level, the Lion level, and so on, all the way up to the Pater or Father level. 

There are also hints that moving up this ladder involved tests or ordeals – feats of strength or endurance. Frescoes from a Mithraeum – a site of worship – in Capua show a man blindfolded and naked, with his hands bound behind him. Whatever is happening in that scene is what gives you access to the next title and set of mysterious  teachings. 

In comparison, mainstream Christianity had just one rite of initiation: baptism. One and done! And it was such a simple rite, using water, and maybe a little oil. True, early Christian baptismal fonts were big enough for a person to walk down into and fully submerge, but it was hardly dangerous or exciting. Couldn’t they at least add some mind-altering herbs or a little bull’s blood, to spice things up?

Early Christians were aware that their faith seemed a little boring and simplistic in comparison with Mithraism and other cults. And one of them, named Tertullian, wrote a whole treatise about Christian baptism, addressing some of these objections. Tertullian lived from about 155 to 220 CE, in Carthage, in modern-day Tunisia in north Africa. He was a prolific writer, writing sermons and essays on a number of topics – explaining, and arguing for, Christianity in this context of religious diversity. 

Tertullian held some unpopular opinions over the course of his life, and was thus never named as a saint. But many of his writings are eloquent defenses of the mainstream theology of the church, and people still read and value his work today. 

I first read some Tertullian during my seminary studies – and I love some of his writing about baptism. I’ve always been tickled by this line: “We are little fishes, as Jesus Christ is our great Fish. And as little fishes we begin our life in water, and only while we abide in water are we safe and sound.”

Tertullian goes on at length about the virtues of water, justifying the use of such a simple and everyday substance in this sacred rite. He concludes that in baptism, water, “the substance which gives us earthly life, likewise becomes the agent of our obtaining spiritual and eternal life. 

In baptism, human ingenuity has been permitted to summon [the Holy] Spirit to combine with water,… to rest upon the waters of baptism as though revisiting the Spirit’s first resting-place [at Creation]. 

Being thus sanctified, made holy, the waters obtain the power of sanctifying and making holy, 

so that the spirit may be bodily washed in the waters,

and the body spiritually cleansed.” 

But my favorite part of Tertullian’s essay on baptism is the way he takes the comparative simplicity of Christian baptism and uses that as a springboard to talk about how our faith is a faith of God present in the simple and the everyday, the familiar and the immediate. He writes: 

“There is nothing which so hardens people’s minds as the simplicity of God’s works as they are observed in action, in comparison with the magnificence of what we promise they do. 

And so it is with baptism – 

for with such complete simplicity, without display, 

without any unusual equipment, 

and (not least) without having to pay for it,

a man or a woman or a child is sent down into the water, 

is washed to the accompaniment of very few words,  

and comes up little or no cleaner than they were – 

because it is all so simple, 

some cannot believe that these acts bear the gift of eternal life.

Other idolatrous religious groups build up belief in themselves by their secret and complicated rites, and by the fees that are charged!

O, that poverty-stricken unbelief, which denies to God his characteristic attributes, simplicity and power! 

Well then, is it not a marvel that by bathing, death is washed away? 

Because it is a marvel, is that a reason for not believing it? 

No – rather it is so much the more to be believed – for God’s works are always marvelous!

We marvel because we believe.

Unbelief, however, marvels and refuses to believe; 

it regards simple things as ineffective, 

and sublime things as impossible.”

Baptism IS simple. Over the millennia the church has added to the rite until it fills up two full pages of your Sunday supplement in 12-point type, but at its core it is what Tertullian describes – there is water, and a little oil, and a few words; and the person baptized ends up not particularly cleaner than they were before.

And yet it’s one of the holiest things we do.

Perhaps it can be simple because it’s not something we do, really; it’s something God does. We just choose it and invite it. 

Today CJ is choosing it. And the rest of us join him in affirming the faith of the church. We pray for him, and we welcome him as a full member of God’s household, this quirky ancient worldwide family. 

 

 

Sources:

McDaniel’s blog post:

https://talesoftimesforgotten.com/2020/03/27/is-christianity-a-mystery-cult/

Some stuff about Mithraism:

https://www.tertullian.org/rpearse/mithras/display.php?page=main#Initiation_into_the_mysteries_of_Mithras

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mithraism

 

Our Song of Faith today is the Magnificat. It’s a little out of place because this text is associated with Mary, the mother of Jesus, and none of our readings today are about Mary. Our Advent readings usually don’t get to Mary’s story until the fourth Sunday in Advent. This year that’s the morning of Christmas Eve! But the lectionary always gives us the option of using the Magnificat on the third Sunday. So we’re using it – and I am preaching it – today. 

What is the Magnificat? That name is given to this text based on its first word in Latin, the language the church used in liturgy for 1000 years or so. “My soul magnifies the Lord…”

This song comes from Luke’s Gospel. If you know a Nativity story, you know Luke’s story: he has the baby in the manger, the shepherds and the angel choir; and so on. 

In Luke chapter 1, after the angel Gabriel invites Mary to become the mother of God and she agrees, she goes to visit an older relative, Elizabeth. Elizabeth is also miraculously pregnant, after yearning for a child for decades. When Elizabeth hears Mary’s greeting, the child in her womb – the baby who will grow up to be John the Baptist – leaps for joy! Elizabeth says to Mary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” 

And in response, Mary speaks – or sings – the Magnificat. Luke’s text doesn’t identify it as a song, but it clearly borrows language and structure from the psalms and other ancient hymns of Israel, and the church started treating it as a song and chanting or singing it very early – so I think it’s reasonable to assume it was a song, right from the start. 

The Magnificat is one of the best-known Christian texts. It’s been spoken and sung all over the world for nearly 2000 years. It’s deeply important to many, many people. Let’s spend a little time getting to know it better, today. 

In Luke’s Gospel, Mary proclaims these words spontaneously. But the book we’re reading for our Advent book study, The First Advent in Palestine, Kelly Nikondeha imagines Mary and Elizabeth spending days and weeks together, walking and talking and wondering what their pregnancies mean, and Mary’s song taking shape during that time. 

Nikondeha calls our attention to the ways the Magnificat alludes to earlier Scriptural songs. She invites us to imagine Mary growing up as a child and young woman living in Galilee under Roman occupation, with all the poverty, struggle, vulnerability and simmering potential for violence that that entails. Nikondeha suggests that perhaps Mary grew up hearing and singing the holy resistance songs of her people and her faith – and specifically the songs of four fierce foremothers, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, and Judith. 

One of the things that fascinates and delights me about the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, is that in these ancient texts from a very patriarchal society, we hear women speak relatively often. Their voices and visions matter – even as the text itself shows us how little power or autonomy they were given at the time. 

The earliest woman whose song resonates with Mary’s Magnificat is Miriam, the sister of Moses. 

Miriam is the wily older sister who, as a child, helped save her baby brother’s life – watching over him as he lay in a basket among the bulrushes in the river Nile. As an adult she is part of the leadership team for the Israelites on their wilderness journey, along with her brothers Moses and Aaron. 

Exodus 15 names her as a prophet, describing her musical leadership after the Israelites pass through the Red Sea to freedom: “Then the prophet Miriam… took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing… 

And Miriam sang to them: ‘Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.’

Over a thousand years later Mary will sing, 

“God has shown the strength of his arm!”

The echo is faint, it’s true. But in Miriam’s song we see our earliest example of a Biblical woman singing a song of triumph and hope. And: Mary’s name, in Hebrew? Maryam. 

She bears her foremother’s name. 

The second song that echoes in the Magnificat comes from the Book of Judges. We had this story earlier this fall! 

Deborah, a fiery woman, is Israel’s leader during a time when they have been conquered by a neighboring nation, Jabin.

God has Deborah call a man named Barak to lead Israel’s army and throw out the invaders. With God’s help, the attack is successful; Jabin’s soldiers scatter and flee the country. 

Their general – Sisera – runs away seeking safety. He comes to the tent of a man named Heber, a neutral party in the current war. Heber’s wife, Yael, welcomes Sisera. She gives him some milk and a blanket, and promises to keep watch while he takes a nap.

Then, while he sleeps, she hammers a tent peg through his head, killing him. When Barak comes by, she shows him the man he seeks. 

This story is told in the fourth chapter of Judges, then told again in the fifth chapter of Judges, in the form of a victory song attributed to Deborah and Barak. Biblical scholars think the song is likely very old, passed down through generations, and that the narrative version may have been written based on the song. 

This song retells the battle and Sisera’s death; there is not much overlap with the words of the Magnificat. But! 

In the song, Yael is named “Most blessed of women.” Almost exactly what Elizabeth calls Mary – and a phrase only used three times in the whole Bible. 

Yael, most blessed of women, using her feminine gentleness to soothe a general to his death! 

Mary, most blessed of women, accepting risk and stigma to carry God in her womb! 

The echo calls to the fore the courage of Mary’s choice. 

The third song – the one the Magnificat echoes most closely – is the song of Hannah, found early in the first book of the prophet Samuel. Hannah is one of two wives of a man named Elkanah. Hannah has no children, and it makes her deeply sad, even though Elkahah loves her tenderly. And the other wife, Peninnah, has many children, and is mean to Hannah, adding to her sadness and anger.  

One day while the family is visiting a holy place, Shiloh, to make sacrifices to God, Hannah goes to pray privately that God will grant her a son. Her prayer is granted, and she becomes pregnant at last. She names her son Samuel: God has heard. When her child is old enough to leave home, she gives him to the priest of Shiloh to serve at the holy place. 

Samuel grows up to become one of Israel’s greatest prophets. 

Committing her son to God’s service, Hannah prays, “My heart exults in the LORD; my strength is exalted in my God!”

There are many close parallels between Hannah’s song and Mary’s. Hannah sings, “Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry have plenty… The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts. He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap.” 

But there are also significant differences. Hannah’s song is angry. It reflects the bitterness of her rivalry with Peninnah: 

“Talk no more so very proudly,
let not arrogance come from your mouth… 

The barren has borne seven,
but she who has many children is forlorn.”

Hannah and Mary’s songs are the most similar, in many ways. Hannah, like Mary, is an ordinary woman, not a leader; a pregnancy is part of the story; and there’s no military context at stake. But the similarities only make the differences stand out more.

Hannah’s song does that very human thing where our prayers spring from our own personal gratitudes and grievances. The Magnificat, somehow, is more universal, more able to transcend its original context to travel the world and the centuries. 

That phrase Most blessed of women! points us toward the fourth song that hums as a harmony line under Mary’s melody, the song of Judith, from the book that bears her name.

The book of Judith is in the Apocrypha, a set of late pre-Christian texts, most originally written in Greek, that are set apart from the rest of the Old Testament. Many of us don’t know it well, but there are some great stories in there.

Judith is a pious widow who lives in a town called Bethulia. She was once a famous beauty, but now lives a very simple life of prayer. However, the town is under siege. The Assyrian army is marching across Judea towards Jerusalem, which has just been rebuilt after the Babylonian Exile. Everyone is terrified that the Assyrians will destroy the city and loot the Temple again. Bethulia lies in their path, but it’s just an ordinary small town; how could they stop this terrible army? 

Judith decides to take matters into her own hands. She dresses in her finest clothes and goes out to befriend the Assyrian general, Holofernes. She tells him that she’s defecting from the town because they’re clearly doomed, and isn’t he a nice handsome general? 

It’s a great story – one of these years we’ll do it as a Scripture drama! – but eventually, she gets him drunk and cuts off his head. The Assyrians flee, and Jerusalem is saved. 

And when Judith returns to the city with the head in a bag, one of the leaders of the town says, “O daughter, you are blessed by the Most High God above all other women on earth!” 

Like Miriam and Deborah before her, Judith sings a victory song: “Begin a song to my God with tambourines, sing to my Lord with cymbals. For the Lord is a God who crushes wars…” 

Her song re-tells her story, then ends with a hymn of praise:“O Lord, you are great and glorious… you have mercy on those who fear you.” 

Judith and Mary might both be quoting Psalm 103, where there’s a similar phrase; or maybe Mary is quoting Judith, when she includes these words in her holy song. 

The Magnificat adds a few more words: 

“You have mercy on those who fear you in every generation” – 

From Judith to Hannah; Deborah and Yael to Miriam; and beyond. 

Nikondeha writes, “Grafted into generations of women practicing liberation through subversive songs and solidarity, Mary was formed by song, and then she composed song, creating a legacy, weaving herself into the unwritten genealogy of women who birthed the sons and daughters of Israel…. Hers was… a prophetic chorus born of solidarity with many matriarchs.” (66) 

Why does the Magnificat matter? Why has it been so important to so many people, for so long? That’s a big question, and you could probably fill a library with books about this text. 

But I can say a little about why the Magnificat is important to ME – at least the reasons that I can put into words. 

I like that the Magnificat gives us a look at Mary. There are bits about her in various places in the Gospels, but this is the most we ever hear from her directly.

There are various ways to imagine how this song got written: maybe Mary composed it herself, maybe Luke wrote it for her, maybe some combination of the two – Luke receiving something passed on from Mary, who was part of the Christian community after Jesus’ death, and then expanding it based on his own poetic standards. 

Regardless: This text tells us who the early church knew Mary to have been. 

And bringing that other chorus of older voices to sing their harmonies under the Magnificat reminds us what a fierce and powerful song it is. 

Mary was not chosen by God for sweetness, meekness, or compliance. Mary was chosen, perhaps, because she was someone who could envision a better world. Who believed that God would collaborate with humanity to bring that better world into being. Who was willing to put her reputation, her family, her very body on the line to be part of it. 

I value the Magnificat because, like the later chapters in Isaiah – with their oracles of binding up the broken-hearted, liberty for captives, comfort for those who mourn, and rebuilding ruined cities – this text envisions God’s mercy, God’s salvation, God’s justice, for everyone who needs it, and not just for God’s people Israel. 

This isn’t a song celebrating military victory and the destruction of enemies. Instead Mary sings of the hungry fed and the lowly lifted up – and yes, those who have more than their share brought down to a more human level. When she does name her hope for her people, it’s a hope for rescue and redemption. 

I have heard from folks that it can be hard right now to read Scriptures that talk about God’s salvation for Israel, and even more so God’s vengeance for Israel – when a modern country also called Israel is bombing a civilian population on our daily news.  I understand; I’m struggling with some of the more militaristic psalms these days, myself. 

It is good for us to remember that none of these are the same thing: Ancient Israel, culturally and politically; God’s people Israel, religiously and theologically;  the Jewish people, past and present; the modern nation-state of Israel; and the Netanyahu government currently ruling that state. 

It’s not that there aren’t relationships and overlaps among these things. Of course there are. But it’s complex and nuanced. And unless we have the will and capacity to really dig in, it’s best to simply tell ourselves, It’s complicated, and try to be careful about our assumptions. 

The Israel of Mary’s song and Mary’s hopes is different in many ways from the Israel of today’s news. It is not incidental to the Nativity story that Israel – Judea – was under Roman occupation when Jesus was born. 

In fact it seems to be pretty central to how God intended the whole business: to come among us as a child born into poverty, born as a member of a misunderstood and often persecuted religious minority, born into the constrained and humiliating life of a conquered people. 

Empire, occupation, and domination are the context for Mary’s yearning for the redemption of Israel. In that light this song carries hope for anyone living under those burdens today. 

I love the Magnificat because it sits squarely in the tension between the already and the not yet of Christian life and faith. “Already/not yet” is a way some Christian thinkers talk about the idea that in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God’s new, transformed reality has already begun. The Kingdom of God has come near. Yet there is also a sense of a fulfillment yet to come: the Eschaton, the Second Coming, that new heaven and new earth where righteousness will be at home. And in the meantime we live with the painful reality that despite Mary’s bold proclamation, the mighty still dominate the lowly, many still live with hunger, and so on. 

But that somehow doesn’t make the Magnificat seem false or wrong. Instead, for millennia, people have sung and prayed it as a way of leaning into the already/not yet, with urgency and hope. 

Finally, I love the Magnificat because it’s a song. I also make up songs sometimes, and I respect the power of song. I like reading the Magnificat, but I really like singing the Magnificat. 

And I especially like singing the Magnificat in a way that brings forward that urgency and yearning, the fierce hope embedded in this text. A few years ago St. Dunstan’s discovered the Canticle of the Turning, a paraphrase of the Magnificat written in 1990 by a poet named Rory Cooney, and set to a traditional Irish tune. It’s become, I think, an important song for many of us – one that gives voice to our own yearnings for God’s future. We’ll sing it at the end of our worship this morning. 

When we use the words of the Magnificat, in public worship or private prayer, whether we sing it or shout it or sigh it – may it continue to unite us with Mary, with Luke; with our faith-ancestors back to the time of Miriam and Moses, and beyond, and with the millions who have shared these words in the intervening centuries. 

And may it continue to form us as God’s people dwelling in the tension between struggle and hope, fury and faith, grief and promise. Amen.