All posts by Miranda Hassett

Sermon, Oct. 24

What matters right now? 

I have a slip of paper on the frame around my laptop screen, with those words on it. Now and then I notice it. It’s almost always a useful question. A question that invites me to pause, and re-assess. 

What matters right now?

In today’s Gospel, Jesus’ disciples have a clear idea that what matters is the journey they’re on. This is not just any old walk across the countryside. Jesus is leaving Jericho ON HIS WAY TO JERUSALEM. The Triumphal Entry – the event we remember and re-enact on Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week and Jesus’ path to the cross – is the very next thing that happens.

I don’t know exactly what the disciples think is about to happen. They definitely don’t anticipate what Jesus anticipates: his arrest, trial, and execution. They might be banking on some combination of a people’s revolution and an angelic army that will kick out the Roman occupying forces and install Jesus as a new divine King on the throne of David. So they are champing at the bit! Things are about to get exciting! Tell that beggar to shut up and not bother the Master! We’re on our way!

But then they are interrupted. Because Bartimaeus won’t shut up. And the interruption becomes the story. The thing that matters. 

I don’t know whether Jesus stops because he finally hears Bartimaeus – or because he consults his own inner slip of paper that asks, “What matters right now?” Regardless: Jesus stands still. He calls Bartimaeus to him. And Bartimaeus is healed. 

Healed, and changed. Mark says that he follows Jesus on the way, meaning both that he joined the crowd headed for Jerusalem –  AND that he became a disciple, part of the movement. Which is probably why we know his name. 

The journey continues; but for a few transformative moments, the interruption became the story. There was a pause. There was listening.  There was noticing of needs, previously ignored. There was a fresh assessment of what matters.

We have lived this, haven’t we, dear ones? Our Great Interruption is almost too familiar to talk about. Covid forced us to pause…. and in the pause, we listened. We noticed needs we had ignored – in our own lives and in the larger systems that surround us. The differing impacts of the pandemic laid bare the starkness of economic inequality in our country. Locked down in our homes with few distractions, many of us saw more clearly than we had before the naked violence against people of color that our country tolerates. Likewise, we’ve watched the terrifying impact of increasingly chaotic and extreme weather systems worldwide. Global climate change no longer seems like tomorrow’s problem. 

And now, as we slowly emerge, I’m hearing from a lot of people that they’re pretty ambivalent about “getting back to normal.” The pause – the Great Interruption – gave us time to notice that lots of thing about Beforetimes Normal were not that great. Collectively, we’d like our “new Normal” to be better, kinder, more just, more inclusive, more mindful of our fragility and our interdependence. Individually, we’d like our “new Normals” to make more room for what matters. 

Where does church fit into all that?

Why does church matter, right now? 

One answer, of course, is that church matters because we gather to worship the Creator and Source, the Word and Friend, the Breath of Life and Advocate. There’s something precious and necessary about choosing, together, to present ourselves to the Love that formed the universe. Not everyone finds that they need a community in order to regularly turn their hearts towards God. But many of us find that it helps. A lot. 

Another answer is that churches can be a way to organize people’s efforts and resources to do good in the world. We do that some, here – and we do it reasonably well, though I suspect we have the capacity for more.

But church doesn’t only matter for what we can do out there. Church matters for what we do HERE. Within, and among. 

A couple of weeks ago, Sharad Yadav, the pastor of a church in Portland, wrote up a list of reasons to commit to a church. I think he was probably inspired by the same question I’ve just asked – what’s the value of church, in this time of the Great Interruption, the Great Reassessment?

Yadav says that church, at its best, can help us stay focused on what matters. He writes: To join a church is to live in rebellion against the … forces which are brainwashing you into making your consumer desire the center of the world.

[To join] a church is to organize your life around a time to confess your limitations, culpability and imperfections – together with other people.

Joining a church is a way of maintaining healthy skepticism about human knowledge and capacities in the language of divine mystery.

So: Stepping out of our cultural currents, repenting and making amends, reminding ourselves of our place in the universe – these are important practices for keeping our minds and hearts clear and oriented. 

Church, at its best, can help us know our own worth – and our capacity to share. Yadav writes, To join a church is to cultivate an environment …where your life is not measured according to any other purpose or goal than to discover and enjoy your own humanity.  

And: To join a church is to cultivate an imagination for how your unique talents and creative potential can be offered on purpose for love instead of money.

And church, at its best, can help us develop and practice our better-tomorrow skills. It can be a space where we explore, together, how to live more fully into our hopes and intentions. Yadav writes, Joining a church organizes your financial priorities around supporting an inclusive community for vulnerable people . . . that you actually have to live with.

Joining a church is a life lesson in how to deal with [jerks] without retaliating, dehumanizing or running away…

And… Joining a church is a way of practicing –  among a small group of people over a significant period of time – what you’d like the world to be like.

What would you like the world to be like?  How could we practice that together, here? 

I was talking with a young person of this parish recently who said he’d love to see St Dunstan’s lean into becoming our own squirrelly little mutual aid network. Mutual aid is a model in which people cooperate and share resources for the good of everyone in the community.  

The first step, of course, is to break down the foolish illusion that everybody here is FINE, economically, emotionally, employment-wise, and so on. Lots of us have needs – and the assumption that we’re all middle-class, healthy, happy, and totally have our stuff together, only makes it harder to name our struggles and and extend care for one another. I see opportunities on a weekly basis – whether it’s connecting the newly-bereaved with those already walking that road; or passing on hand-me-downs; or sharing skills like canning or knitting; or connecting the bored with the lonely, or the curious with the knowledgeable; or loaning out a specialized tool; or accompanying someone to their first AA meeting.

One of my favorite pandemic phenomena here at St. Dunstan’s was the spontaneous emergence of the puzzle box. There’s a plastic tub outside the church’s front door where you can borrow a puzzle, or leave one for others to borrow. If you’re local and like puzzles, check it out! I had nothing to do with it, and I think it’s great. 

What if we did more of that… bit by bit? With stuff? With skills? With our time? With our hearts?

What if we really had each other’s backs, in substantive ways – and not just long-established members and “church friends” and people who come every week, but anyone who thinks of St. Dunstan’s as their church home – and anyone who shows up looking for meaningful community?

Because a lot of people are looking for meaningful community. For people who will learn their name, and ask how they are, and mean it. 

Church matters because it’s made of people, and people matter.

Church matters because we try to see each other with God’s eyes and love each other with God’s love, here, and sometimes we succeed. 

Church matters because we’re all seeking and struggling and wondering, and it’s less lonely when we share it. And because our seeking and wondering are deepened by one anothers’ experiences and perspectives. 

In this season when the interruption has become the story – in this season of fresh assessments of what matters right now – I am so deeply grateful for all the people who believe that St. Dunstan’s matters, and who support this church with their time and talent, resources and prayers, energy and skill. 

And I am so deeply hopeful about all the people for whom St. Dunstan’s will matter – in a whole range of ways – in the days and months and years ahead, as we continue to seek to use whatever God places in our hands to add to the world’s measure of hope, wholeness, and delight. 

 

 

List of reasons to join a church posted on Facebook by Sharad Yadav, October 7, 2021.

Sermon, October 17

We have a pear tree in our back yard. Phil planted it some years ago…. and this was the year it really matured enough to bear a full harvest of fruit.  The tree was covered with these lovely little greeny-gold pears, some with just a bit of a red blush. Phil harvested them and brought them inside to ripen, and we’ve been eating them happily for many weeks now. 

That’s our view of the pear tree situation. There are other perspectives.

Our dog, for example, also thinks of it as our pear tree, in our yard, with the our definitely including him. He likes to eat the fallen pears, and will sometimes bring them inside and leisurely eat one on the living room floor.

The local raccoons, on the other hand, question the whole concept of private property. Your yard? Your tree? Says who? Our pear tree is a destination, a point on their map of the neighborhood that’s worth a nightly visit. They seem to appreciate the pears just as much as the Hassetts, human and canine, do. 

If you predict that the canine and raccoon perspectives, the territorial predator versus the anarchic foragers, may have come into conflict, you’d be correct…  though fortunately everyone has emerged from those encounters unscathed. 

Perspective. It’s an interesting word.

Per-spect means see through. The word evokes an imaginary lens, through which you view the world. Photographers and other artists use the word literally; but it’s also used figuratively, all the time. We talk about getting perspective on a problem – meaning, to see it in context and in proportion. We talk about getting a new perspective on something – coming to understand it in a fresh way, maybe a broader way. 

Perspective is an interesting concept to bring to the Book of Job. 

The Book of Job spends two chapters dropping Job into the depths of human misery, and 35 chapters of Job demanding that God heed his suffering and give him some explanation, while his so-called friends tell him he must have had it coming somehow. 

Now, in chapter 38, God answers. And God’s answer… is complicated. 

God’s words emphasize the gulf between Job – a human being with the usual human limitations – and God, all-seeing, all-knowing, and eternal. Again and again, God asks Job questions which can only be answered, “Of course not!” – Is the wild ox willing to work for you?Did you give the horse its might, or clothe its neck with mane? Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars?  Can you catch a sea-monster with a fish-hook? 

It’s hard not to read it as mocking. God is putting Job in his place. Telling him that there’s a whole lot that he should not expect to understand. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman describes this as a massive failure of pastoral sensitivity on God’s part: “After Job relates in great detail his anguish and pain and bewilderment, [God] responds, ‘Let me tell you about my crocodile.’ Any pastoral supervisor evaluating this act of ministry would say to [God], ‘You couldn’t stand the pain and you changed the subject.’”

Fair. And yet: I love these chapters. Many people do.  

For one thing, it’s just wonderful poetry about the beauty and power and strangeness of the natural world. The passage about the ostrich is a great example: 

“The ostrich’s wings flap wildly,
though its pinions lack plumage.
For it leaves its eggs to the earth,
and lets them be warmed on the ground,
forgetting that a foot may crush them,
and that a wild animal may trample them.
It deals cruelly with its young, as if they were not its own;
though its labour should be in vain, yet it has no fear;
because God has made it forget wisdom,
and given it no share in understanding.
Yet when it spreads its plumes aloft,
it laughs at the horse and its rider.”  (Job 39:13-18)

The text holds up the absurdity, the idiocy of the ostrich – and its breathtaking speed. 

Leviathan is another favorite – God spends a whole chapter talking about this wonderful sea-monster!

“Can you put a rope in its nose, or pierce its jaw with a hook? 

Will you play with it as with a bird,
or will you put it on a leash for your little daughters?… 

I will not keep silence concerning its limbs,
or its mighty strength, or its splendid frame… 

Out of its nostrils comes smoke,
as from a boiling pot and burning rushes.
Its breath kindles coals,
and a flame comes out of its mouth.
In its neck abides strength,
and terror dances before it.”  (Job 41:2, 5, 12, 20-22)

These texts are great fun to read. But it’s more than that.  There is – somehow – a strange comfort here. Perhaps – a new perspective. 

Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis writes that it’s easy to see God’s answer to Job as no answer at all: “God… mows Job down with a stream of non sequiturs that have nothing to do with what is really at stake. If Job finally stops talking altogether, … [it’s only] because there is no point in arguing with a bully.”

But, she says, that reading misses the sense in which God is answering Job’s complaint. God offers Job “a God’s-eye view of the world” – starting with the mysteries of seas, stars, and seasons, then moving on to God’s delight in wild creatures. 

All the animals God praises in these chapters have something in common: they completely untamable. From a human point of view, they are useless at best, and terrifying at worst. If there had been raccoons in the ancient Near East, maybe God would have held forth about their dexterity and resourcefulness. The one exception – the war horse – proves the rule; it serves human purposes, yes, but the text stresses its fierce power:  “It laughs at fear and is not dismayed; it does not turn back from the sword; it cannot stand still at the sound of the trumpet.” 

Davis writes, “This God’s-eye view of the world plays havoc with Job’s notion of the way things ought to be – which is to say, sensible, well-adapted to human purposes, and above all, predictable.”

Remember how when Job’s children would get together for a party, Job would go make sacrifices just in case they had sinned? There’s so much about control – about the human illusion of control – in that single detail.  Job was invested in a model of the world in which if you checked all the boxes, everything would be OK.  Like the sons of Zebedee in today’s Gospel, Job’s relationship with God was founded on what God could do for him. 

And in these mocking, glorious chapters, God tells Job: That’s not how any of this works. Davis writes, “God’s involvement with the world expresses itself in huge, unapologetic delight in a creation whose outstanding quality is quite simply magnificence: power and freedom on a scale that is bewildering and terrifying.” She quotes spiritual writer Annie Dillard:  “Freedom is the world’s water and weather, the world’s nourishment freely given, its soil and sap; and the creator loves pizzazz.” 

God’s answer to Job is that the world – that life – is bigger and stranger, riskier and more beautiful than he has ever imagined. Davis says, “God calls this man of integrity to take his place in a ravishing but dangerous world where only those who relinquish their personal expectations can live in peace.” 

God asks Job – perhaps asks every human: Can you love what you do not control? Can you love what you can’t own? What you can’t protect? 

The world is not sensible, not well-adapted to human purposes, and certainly not predictable; can you learn to tolerate that truth? Could you learn to love it? 

I don’t think all this is answer Job was looking for. But it satisfies him. Perhaps it even changes him – heals him. Davis argues that the end of Job’s story – which we’ll hear next week – hints that Job learns to live and love more like God. 

And I think part of the lasting power of the Book of Job is that people continue to discover that same strange comfort. Holding pain, or loss, or anxiety, many of us find some peace in sitting near big water, or walking in the woods, or seeing a storm roll across the sky. In watching squirrels squabble, or gazing at the stars. Even the affection or demands of a familiar pet can take us out of ourselves just a little – into a perspective in which what’s really important is dinner and a warm lap.

Why does it comfort us, sometimes, to remember that we are simply one creature among billions on this big, old, wild world? That we are not the center of it all, but dust and ashes? 

I don’t know – but, sometimes, it does. 

And the witness of the book of Job is that it always has. 

Those raccoons stealing – sharing! – our pears – the bears who sit and gaze at scenic vistas – even the seagulls hanging around the Burger King – they remind us, quite simply, that our perspective is always limited. That there’s a bigger picture and a longer view.  Thanks be to God. 

 

Sources

Ellen Davis, “The Sufferer’s Wisdom: The Book of Job,” in Getting Involved with God, Rowman and Littlefield, 2001. 

The Annie Dillard quotation is from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

The Walter Brueggeman quotation comes from Brueggemann’s CHRISTIAN CENTURY lecture given in Chicago in September of 2005.

Budget Update, October 2021

Based on September financial reports.

INCOME

On the Income side, we are running somewhat ahead of budget, thanks to generous pledge payments that are overcoming deficits in feast and plate offerings, and rent and building use. Both of those areas were directly affected by the pandemic, and both are beginning to rebound now. We have hopes that they may continue their slow return to pre-pandemic levels in the months ahead. In the meantime, members’ generosity is keeping us on a solid footing. 

EXPENSE 

We are running close to budget overall. Our Lay Staff lines are under budget because our Office Coordinator Ann is still working reduced hours; our Music Minister Deanna is also working fewer hours this fall due to temporarily reduced availability. Formation is under budget, largely because youth were not able to take a trip this summer. Buildings and Grounds is over year-to-date budget largely due to snow removal costs early in the year. 

OVERALL… 

Year-to-date income currently exceeds year-to-date expenses. We expect some expenses that are currently under budget to catch up; for example, Outreach funds will all be sent out to do good in the world. However, if current trends continue, it seems likely that we will end the year with income and expenses very close, and possibly a slight surplus. 

Thank you so much to everyone who has made the effort to keep up your giving to St. Dunstan’s through the challenges of the past 18 months. We are carrying on and rebuilding, thanks to you, as well as to all the many ways people participate, help out, contribute, and support us in prayer. 

INCOME

2021

Budget

Actual

through Sept

Budget

through Sept

Feast & Plate 14,000 4800 8500
Pledge Payments 270,000 226,700 214,500
Rent & Bldg Use 14,600 5,800 10,800
Misc Income 2800 4300 1700
Total 301400 241600 235500

 

EXPENSE

2021

Budget

Actual

through

Sept

Budget

through

Sept

Clergy (incl. salary, pension, insurance) 132,400 100,800 100,700
Lay Staff (Music, Office & Childcare) 27,300 17,900 20,500
Worship 4200 3400 3000
Outreach Budget 21,200 14,400 16,100
Formation 9000 3500 6700
Fellowship, Welcome, & Leadership 2800 1200 1300
Bldgs & Grounds

(includes insurance)

48,700 40,900 34,500
Admin & Office 14,300 10,200 11,900
Diocesan Giving 51,300 38,300 38,500
TOTAL 311200 230600 233200

All numbers have been rounded to the nearest $100 for ease in reading.In some cases this means the totals may be slightly off from the detailed financial statements. 

Homily, October 3

Our first Scripture reading today is from the Book of Job. Job is a strange, interesting book of the Bible. It was probably written five or six hundred years before the time of Jesus. I don’t think the book is trying to tell us about a real person named Job. It’s not a biography. Instead, the story of Job is used to explore what it’s like when someone is suffering. Going through something really hard and really sad. How their community responds; and where God is, in times like that. Our first reading is the set-up for the story. You will hear God bragging about Job and how righteous he is. And then there’s this other character, the Adversary. Adversary means someone you’re arguing or fighting with. In Hebrew, the word Adversary is shatan. Satan! So we might say that this character is Satan – the Devil. But in these old, old stories, the Devil has a very special job: TESTING good people to see how good they really are. And that’s what happens here.  Let’s receive the story and our other readings, and then I’ll say some more about it. 

Job 1:1 – 2:10

So we heard the beginning of the book of Job! Notice how it made you feel. Did you smile or laugh a little? Some people did! That’s OK! I actually think it is supposed to be funny, even though the things that happen are terrible. All these bad things happen very fast because the story wants to get to what it’s really interested in  – which is how Job handles this situation; and how his friends handle it. 

I was trying to think of a good modern example that’s kind of like this, and I thought it’s a little like the TV show The Good Place. The Good Place is a show about what it means to be good person. And it’s set in some kind of afterlife. So almost all the main characters, are dead. But you’re not really supposed to be sad about that. It’s just the setup for the story. I think this first part of Job is meant to work the same way. 

I think if this was a TV show, I would probably stop watching because I didn’t really like any of the characters! The Adversary is certainly not very nice. Job himself seems kind of controlling and mean, actually. And God is TERRIBLE, here! Right? What an awful idea, that God would torture a human being just to see how faithful they are!

I don’t think the Book of Job really thinks that God is like that. I think the voice of this text thinks that God is hard to understand; and that life can be hard to understand. But the part of the story we heard today is not trying to tell us the truth about God. It’s just setting up a story. The Bible is complicated, and we’re not supposed to read all the pieces of it the same way. 

So, what happens next? … What happens next is that Job’s friends come to visit, to console and comfort him. That’s what you do when somebody suffers a tragedy, right? You come be with them. You let them know you care and that they’re not alone. 

And you know, Job’s friends start out pretty well, because they just sit with him, in silence, for seven whole days. But then they start to talk… and things go downhill fast. 

After two chapter setting up the story, the Book of Job spends 35 chapters on Job’s friends and Job talking – often arguing! – about what Job’s suffering means, and about God. 

His friends think they’re helping Job. But are they?  I want you to think about how it feels when you are really sad or really struggling, and then we’ll see if what Job’s friends have to say seems helpful to you. 

Job’s friend Eliphaz starts out. He says: Job, you say that all this tragedy just came out of the blue, but that’s not how things work. Bad things don’t happen to good people. God must be punishing you for something. You brought this on yourself in some way. So, cheer up! Your suffering isn’t meaningless; it’s happening because you’re secretly bad! 

Did that make you feel better?… 

It didn’t make Job feel better either. He said, you’re only saying this because my tragedy makes you afraid! You want to believe that this happened to me for a reason – so that you can tell yourself that nothing like this will ever happen to you.

Then Job’s friend Bildad tries to cheer Job up. 

He says, Okay, Job; maybe you ARE a righteous person. Then it must have been your CHILDREN who were sinful. That’s why God killed them. But since YOU are a good person, you’ll be fine. God will replace your lost children and your wealth, and you’ll be happy again. 

Did that make you feel better?…

Now, sometimes, it **could** be helpful to tell someone who is suffering that there may be healing and joy beyond their current situation. But it’s so easy to get that wrong, and to say it in a way that minimizes what they are going through. Also, you can’t just replace people you love with other people! Although you can trust that there will keep on being people to love.  

Job tells Bildad: You are trying so hard to make sense of this situation in human terms, but humans can’t know why God does what God does.

But then Job’s friends Zophar and Eliphaz start to scold Job. They say, You shouldn’t be talking about God like this! You keep saying you’re a good person and didn’t deserve this tragedy, but that makes God seem like a villain! Your anger is pushing you away from God. Just be quiet and accept your suffering. It is what it is. 

Did that make you feel better?…

Well, there might be some truth to the idea that sometimes we just have to learn to live with hard stuff. Sometimes there is no way to make sense of things. But Job doesn’t like being told to be quiet. He says, I have the right to cry out to God in my suffering. I don’t have to squash down my pain and my anger,  just because you’re uncomfortable. 

I am paraphrasing all of this – saying it in simpler ways than the text of the Scripture – but I want you to hear how angry Job gets! He calls his friends worthless doctors and miserable comforters! He says, If you would just shut up, that would be your wisdom!

He hears their platitudes – God doesn’t send us anything we can’t handle; everything happens for a reason;  what does not kill us makes us stronger; look on the bright side and count your blessings -Job hears all that and he calls it proverbs of ashes.

Proverbs of ashes. Empty words that carry no comfort for him. 

And even though I don’t entirely like Job – Job has a point. Bad things happen to good people all the time – and good things happen to bad people.  Sometimes what doesn’t kill us, leaves us wounded. And I don’t actually believe that everything happens for a reason – though I believe that God’s grace can often bring good out of bad situations. 

For Job, none of this means that life is meaningless and God is a fantasy. Job believes in God – and that God is good, even though sometimes it’s hard to spot God’s goodness at work until we’re looking back on something, or have some distance from it. 

Job is honest about feeling abandoned and unheard by God. He says, “I cry to you, and you do not answer me.” But Job is certain that God is there. Even in emptiness and loss.

And Job insists, again and again and again, that he’s shouting out his grief and rage to God, not because he lacks faith, but because he has faith. That there is room for these feelings in his love for God and God’s love for him. Wouldn’t it be nice if his friends could just be with him in his big feelings, too? 

A writer I like, Anne Lamott, says that in life it’s part of our job to hold someone’s hand and bring them juice, until it’s our turn to have someone hold our hand and bring us juice.  We all have times when we need comforting.  And we all have chances to be a comfort for someone else – to be a friend when things are hard or sad or scary. 

We can all learn from Job’s friends – what they get right and what they get wrong. Show up. Don’t try too hard to make it make sense. Let people feel what they’re feeling. If somebody else’s big feelings make you feel kind of funny inside, the loving thing to do is figure out how to handle that funny feeling on your own, instead of doing what Job’s friends do, telling him to stop talking about how unhappy he is because it’s making them uncomfortable. 

And remember: sometimes your silence is your wisdom.

Sermon, Sept. 19

Before I start, I want to say to the kids listening that in this sermon, I am mostly talking about you but not to you. I know that’s a little rude and I’m sorry. If you have any thoughts or ideas as you listen, I would love to hear them later! 

Alright. Let’s hear a tiny bit of our Gospel again: Jesus took a little child and put it among the disciples; and taking it in his arms, he said to them,”Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the One who sent me.”

Just 24 verses later – so close that it’s on the same pair of pages in my big study bible – we see Jesus hugging children again. This will be our Gospel in a couple of weeks but let’s hear it today. 

Mark 10, verses 13 to 16:  People were bringing children to Jesus so that he would bless them. But the disciples scolded them. When Jesus saw this, he grew angry and said to them, “Allow the children to come to me. Don’t forbid them, because God’s kingdom belongs to people like these children. I assure you that whoever doesn’t welcome God’s kingdom like a child will never enter it.” Then he hugged the children and blessed them.

I think there are a couple of core ideas in these twin passages. First, it’s the responsibility of grown-up Christians to welcome young Christians. Jesus says that – AND shows it, in his anger at the people trying to create a no-child zone around him. 

Second, grown-up Christians should not assume that children are empty containers and our job is to fill them with faith. Children have things to teach grown-ups about the Kingdom of God. There are parts of all … this … that they understand better than we do. 

Note, too, that none of this is limited to parents or family. In both of these scenes, Jesus is speaking to his disciples – his inner circle, those who will become church leaders after his death. Not to the kids’ parents or grandparents. 

In the past few decades, people studying intergenerational communities and churches have gained some insight into **why** Jesus might have stressed these things. In the mid-20th century, American churches fell hard for the idea that what churches do with kids should look a lot like public school. Age-graded classrooms, lesson plans and workbooks, attendance charts and reward stickers. All based on the idea that Christianity is a body of information that can be taught, the same way you teach long division. 

As early as the 1960s, an Episcopal priest named John Westerhoff started writing about how misguided this was. He says, Faith is caught, not taught. If we want to raise children who know and love our way of faith, we need to focus on being church together. 

Ongoing study of kids and faith have reinforced Westerhoff’s point. Being meaningfully included in faith community helps kids mature into faithful adults. Faith aside, it’s also good for kids to have grownups who know and care about them, outside their family. The reverse is probably also true!

We’re re-discovering that faith isn’t a body of knowledge but a way of living. As one recent article put it, “Congregations are not providers of religious goods and services. They are dynamic, living communities of sojourners accompanying each other in discovering a Christian way of life.” (Elton & Pinkstaff)  In such a group of fellow-travelers, it makes sense that we all – regardless of age – have experiences, skills, good ideas and fruitful questions to share. 

We’re re-discovering that liturgy is learning. Our shared worship, at its best, helps shape us, week by week, year by year, into the people God calls us to be. If our shared worship is inviting and engaging – if it is comprehensible – if what we say and do is aligned with what we believe and mean – then participation in worship is part of how kids – AND adults! – continue to grow in faith. 

We are re-learning what churches should always have known, because Jesus tells us so: that our shared life of faith is incomplete without the voices and perspectives of children. The great 20th century liturgical scholar Louis Weil says, “It is not only that the child changes by being brought into the community of faith, but that the community itself changes as the mystery of another believer’s life unfolds in the context of community.” (CAWCIB, xi) 

My friend Sylvia Miller-Mutia says, “The Spirit calls together intergenerational communities because we have gifts for each other.” 

At St. Dunstan’s, we’ve spent several years now exploring what it looks like to become an intergenerational church. To borrow words from one of the wise voices on this subject, Gretchen Wolff Pritchard, we shifted the question from “How can we keep the children from disturbing us during worship?” to, “How can we invite the children into real involvement?”

And then Covid came along, and church went online for a year. We worked hard to keep elements of all-ages participation in Zoom church – with some success. Our Scripture dramas meant a lot to kids and grownups alike. 

At the same time – we lost a lot. Some kids and households just couldn’t tolerate Zoom worship. And even with the kids who were on Zoom, the rest of the congregation couldn’t hear their chatter, or pick up a lost toy, or admire a drawing, or invite them to help with a task, in the way we could in Building Church. 

We did what we could; and we held onto hope for After. 

And now – here we are, in After. Sort of.  A tentative and emerging After, that requires continued experimentation, flexibility, discernment… and hope.  

Some of our kids won’t be back in church until kids can be fully vaccinated against Covid. And some families’ habits have changed during the pandemic, and Sunday morning church may not fit anymore. 

On the other hand: we have learned that the things we do to engage kids in worship, also work well for some grownups. Pritchard puts it this way: “I am increasingly convinced that children’s liturgical needs are not qualitatively different from those of adults.” (Offering the Gospel to Children, p. 101)

For example: as we’ve added ASL gestures to certain prayers, I’ve been tickled to discover which grownups have been itching for a chance to move and use their bodies in worship. I love it when adults take the invitation to grab a coloring page and markers – or to bring their knitting project! I love that we have both kids and grownups who really like to play the xylophones at the Eucharist. 

This fall we’re trying something new for older kids and youth – and others who may opt in: Church journals. They look like this. The idea is that kids will claim and decorate a journal. Then, every week, there will be a few questions to ponder – and answer in the journal, if you want. Some are reflective – like, What am I feeling grateful for today? Was there a time this week when I felt included – or pushed out? Some are noticing questions, like, What’s my favorite part of our Scripture story today?

There’s also a standing invitation to draw or doodle while listening or praying. I’ve always listened best while doodling, myself! 

With these journals, I’m trying to strike the delicate balance between inviting attention and making space for reflection. As I was preparing them, I remembered Father Ed Tourangeau, my priest when I was my kids’ age. Father Ed always left a little silence at the end of his sermons. He did this, he explained, because he assumed that somewhere during the course of his sermon, people would get off on their own train of thought. Something he said would lead to something they needed to think about… or maybe something else entirely would float to the surface and demand their attention. With the pause at the end of the sermon, he gave people time to wrap up their thoughts and return to the room. I love the pragmatism and generosity of that approach. 

We sometimes say that people – adults and kids – should pay attention during church. Let me be clear: I do hope you pay attention during church, beloveds. But I also hope you’re not ONLY paying attention to ME – or to whoever else happens to be leading worship at the moment. I hope that sometimes your attention will be caught by a word or phrase in a prayer or Scripture or song, and that will draw you towards something you need to think about, or something God has to say to you, deep down I your heart. I hope that sometimes your attention will drift to a loved one who’s going through a hard time, and you’ll pause to hold them in God’s light. Or you notice that some moment from the past week still feels unsettled, and you’ll dwell with whether you need to make amends, or change the situation. 

Let’s be clear: You’re not an audience or a class. And your responsibility here is neither to absorb information nor to appreciate a performance. There will  be neither quiz nor ovation. For some of you, sometimes, this set-apart time, this hour on Sunday mornings, may simply be a doorway into thanks, or a silence in which another voice may speak. (Those words come from the poet Mary Oliver.)

So with the church journals – as with many other things – planning something for our kids leads to naming something that’s true for many of us. 

Putting kids and youth at the center of our common life, alongside the grownups, rather than off to the side; and believing that we grownups can learn and practice faith with and from them – that’s one of the ways we follow Jesus, at St. Dunstan’s. 

I love these passages in Mark’s Gospel where Jesus embraces children. Jesus challenges so many assumptions in his ministry. It delights me that one of them is the idea that there are places kids don’t belong; that there are things that are too important for kids to be around.

I noticed, this week, that it’s easy to think of these stories as breaks from the urgent pace of Jesus’ march towards the cross. As warm and fuzzy “Awww!” Moments – before Jesus starts talking about crucifixion again. But thanks to re-reading the whole Gospel of Mark in Father Tom’s Bible study this summer, I’m questioning that view. Mark’s Jesus predicts his own death and resurrection three times, before he enters Jerusalem and the story begins to accelerate towards the cross. That’s where these scenes fall – among those grim predictions that confuse and frighten his disciples. 

Mark is a very careful writer. Whether that reflects the actual sequence of events or Mark’s choice: it is not an accident. These scenes are not soft-focus breaks from the urgent, building action. They’re important. As Jesus predicts that God’s Messiah must suffer and die, he’s preparing his followers for a world turned upside down: the mighty cast down, the lowly lifted up, the outsider brought in, the last made first. Old ways set aside, and new kinds of communities born. 

We don’t do what we do – our shared and ongoing work towards becoming an intergenerational faith community – because kids are cute and talented, though they are. We don’t do this because Welcoming is one of our Discipleship Practices, though it is. We don’t do this because we think it will make our church grow, though it might?

We do it because we pray every week, maybe every day, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done. And this is one of the ways we walk towards the kingdom, and live out God’s divine will. Because in some way beyond our full understanding, this becoming is part of the redemptive work that God in Christ is doing in and for and through St. Dunstan’s. 

May the God who has called us to this work, give us the wisdom and will to continue it. Amen. 

Outreach Committee Report, Late Summer 2021

The work of the St. Dunstan’s Outreach Committee in both 2020 and 2021 has been shaped by actively responding to needs presented by the global Coronavirus Pandemic.  However, the Committee’s work in 2021 looks and feels different than in 2020.  Last year demanded a fast-paced response to an avalanche of immediate economic crises emphasizing hunger and housing, and all the funds were exhausted by October.  2020 also was an eye-opening year to systemic racial and economic problems.  In 2021, the eye-opening has called for more conversation and deliberation about organizational response to the exposed systemic problems.  

To facilitate conversation and deliberation, our meetings in 2021 have added a couple types of personal sharing.  The first is through individual Committee members talking about why they do the volunteer work that they do and why their volunteer work is through particular organizations.  We are learning more about each other and more about the impact particular organizations have.  The second is through short discussions around “The State of Working Wisconsin in the COVID-19 Crisis,” a report from a nonpartisan UW think tank.  This is helping us think about exposed systemic patterns in Wisconsin.

Both the eye-opening from 2020 and our deliberations in 2021 are reflected in a slower-pace of distributions in 2021 and a more focused choice of supported programs.  

  • $1,000 for the Episcopal Network for Economic Justice,
  • $400 for MOSES’ efforts in criminal justice reform,
  • $500 for Bread for the World for hunger advocacy,
  • $500 to D.A.I.S. (Domestic Abuse Intervention Services), 
  • $200 for KIVA (micro loans),
  • $500 for the Road Home (rapid rehousing)
  • $1,000 for a Joining Forces for Families summer swim program for students at Elver Park,
  • $2,780 for Middleton Outreach Ministry’s new “Connections” Program focused on creating housing stability,
  • $1,200 was raised for St. D’s Diaper Drive.  To date $600 worth of diapers has been distributed among: 
    • Reach Out Lodi 
    • Healing House
    • Madison YWCA,
    • Allied Drive Food Pantry, and
    • Karen’s Essentials Corner
  • $1,000 for a medical clinic in the Diocese of Newala in Tanzania,
  • $500 for micro loans in developing countries through Working Capital for Community Needs (WCCN)
  • Also, in August the Committee received applications for the 2021 Outreach Endowment funds from 5 organizations, all of whom serve a multi-racial clientele.  Based on our longstanding approach of allocating 5% of the Outreach Endowment Fund’s principal each year (so as to maintain the fund in a sustainable manner), we understand that this year $5,469 is available for Endowment Grant allocations.  As in past years, we will provide a brief report at the Vestry’s September meeting that summarizes our recommendations for allocating St. D’s 2021 Outreach Endowment Grants and requests approval.

If you would like to learn more or get involved in the work of the Outreach Committee, contact the church office using the Contact Us form on this website, or call 608-238-2781 and leave a message!

Sermon, Sept. 12

Have you ever felt ashamed of Jesus?

Let’s put some context around Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel. 

Peter is arguing with Jesus about whether Jesus has to suffer and die to fulfill his role as the Messiah – the One sent by God to save God’s people.  Peter says, The Messiah is supposed to throw out the Roman forces and usher in a new era of peace and prosperity for God’s people Israel! 

But Jesus knows that his call is to something much bigger and deeper than restoring one small nation-state. So Jesus says this famous line to Peter, Get behind me, Satan! 

Why “Get behind me”? Mark’s Gospel uses images of leading, and following, a lot – along with what seems to have been the earliest name for the Jesus movement: The Way. So Mark will say things like, “He followed Jesus on the way,” and he means both that that person walked along the road after Jesus, and also that that person became a disciple – a metaphorical follower of Jesus. So, “Get behind me!” is reminding Peter to stop trying to map the route and let Jesus lead. 

Why does Jesus invoke Satan here? In Old Testament tradition, Satan’s role is to test the righteous by trying to turn them away from their path. We see that in Jesus’ temptation after his baptism. And that is kind of what Peter is doing, here. He’s thinking in terms of human hopes, human success, human glory. He doesn’t understand the divine plan Jesus is called to fulfill. Full disclosure: I’m not sure I do either. But Jesus does.  And Jesus goes on to say something I think is really important:  that the greatest good isn’t personal success or glory or comfort. You can gain the whole world, but lose your soul. Sometimes the right path, the true path, the just path, involves pain and struggle and loss.  And if you’re not ready for that, says Jesus, maybe you’re not ready to follow me on the Way. 

So the people who are ashamed of Jesus, here, are people who are put off by the idea that God Incarnate, the long-awaited Savior, would be arrested and publicly executed.  And perhaps by the idea that being a morally good person doesn’t correlate neatly with being rich, healthy, or happy. 

That’s probably not what makes any of us feel ashamed of Jesus. For one thing, we know the part of the story that comes after the execution. For another thing, we know enough about the failures of human power and pomp to be glad that that’s not God’s deal. 

But that doesn’t mean we’re never ashamed of Jesus – or more likely, of bearing his name, as Christians. 

Being a Christian is always on the table for me. If someone knows anything about me, they know that I’m a pastor, and they assume that I’m probably a Christian. It’s hard to hide your faith when it’s also your work. Though I had a clergy colleague in New Hampshire who joined the local amateur ice hockey league, and I think he managed to keep them from finding out what his day job was for about eighteen months. He was convinced that if they found out he was a pastor, a priest, then all the easy camaraderie and trash talk and so on would dry up instantly. They might be afraid to cuss in front of him. 

It’s unusual for a pastor to be able to stay closeted for that long. However, most of you have a choice – and I don’t blame you if you are choosy about if and when you disclose that you’re a Christian. I know there are folks in this congregation who easily and graciously let others know that they are people of faith. I’ve seen you do it. It’s beautiful.

But others may be more cautious.  Because you probably have friends, acquaintances and colleagues who carry assumptions about what Christians think and do that you don’t want to be associated with.  If you share that you’re a Christian, then there has to be whole conversation about what kind of Christian. 

As Christians who are not a conservative evangelicals – the most vocal and visible type of Christian in America – we wear our faith identity while knowing that others who claim the same label often promote causes and agendas that may be very far from our convictions and hopes. Christians who promote anti-science and anti-vaccine ideas. Christians who stoke anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. Christians who are striving to limit the rights and freedoms of LGBTQ+ people.  And Christians who are committed to making it more difficult for a person with an unwanted or dangerous pregnancy to have a full range of options available to them.

For the record, the Episcopal Church has long held the position that abortion should be safe, legal, rare, and, ideally, take place in the context of caring counsel from both medical and spiritual professionals. People hearing my voice right now may hold a range of views in their hearts. But I suspect the specifics of the new law in Texas, which has been getting a lot of press, cause concern and alarm for many of us. It seems like an approach that lacks compassion for people facing a life-changingly difficult situation. 

Some folks have responded to this harsh new law by referring to its proponents as the “Texas Taliban” – alluding to the Islamic fundamentalist movement in Afghanistan and suggesting an analogy between the treatment of women and girls in both contexts. 

This past week, Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg called out that quip on Twitter. She pointed out that this little “joke” implying that religious extremism “is somehow Islamic, foreign, ‘other,’” stokes fear and hatred of Muslims, and of people who are perceived as Muslim. Ruttenberg says, “These jokes influence cultural conversations and who winds up on the receiving end of them is… not the Taliban… Stop punching down, your jokes aren’t funny, [and] you are causing harm.”

The apostle James is right; the tongue can be a deadly weapon. Our jokes can carry poison, even when we don’t intend it. Our careless words can be small flames that set a whole forest ablaze. 

But Ruttenberg goes on, because the issue isn’t just the risk of our words feeding hatred towards ethnic and religious minorities. It’s also the impulse, on the part of those who think of themselves as progressive Christians, to deny and deflect. 

She writes, “Reckon with the fact that [those behind the new Texas law] are Christians… Please don’t play the ‘not real Christians’ card here. It’s a kind of gaslighting. ‘Oh, the Crusades? The… pogroms? The pro-Holocaust theology? The genocides & cultural genocides.. of colonialism? Not Real Christians.’”

She continues, “I know it’s tempting to just want to cut back to the teachings of Jesus, to St. Francis, to Merton and Dr. King and James Cone and everyone else preaching about love and justice and care for one another. I love those guys too. I know there is wonderful, powerful, liberatory Christianity. I am a big fan of many of its teachers. [But] I believe that the best and most holy of it acknowledges and grapples with [harm] perpetrated in Jesus’ name.” 

I’m working on taking this challenge to heart. I know that it’s not helpful to say of those whose convictions are different from mine, on a whole range of issues, that they are not real Christians. Because they may well think that I’m not a real Christian. 

And also: Very few people actually wake up in the morning and ask themselves how they can make other people’s lives more miserable. Those whose convictions are different from mine are also striving to follow Jesus as they understand him. 

It’s also not enough to say, Well, I’m not that kind of Christian. I’ve heard that from Episcopal church leaders a lot. I’ve preached and proclaimed it myself – and been called out on it, rightly.  Because saying what you’re not is easy. Instead, step up to the challenge of saying what you ARE, and what you’re trying to be. Including past failures and present growing edges – because being honest about that stuff is what lets people know you’re serious about the work. 

Last week St. Dunstan’s mailed out a postcard to the residents of the new apartment complex next door to the church, and others who have recently moved in nearby. I was clear that the postcard should simply introduce St. Dunstan’s as a neighbor, without pressing people to attend or join. A lot of folks are pretty allergic to being invited to church without the context of an existing relationship. 

I drafted some text that said some things about the kind of church we are, or are trying to be – under the heading “Curious about church?” I said that we value justice and mercy, cultivating members’ spiritual lives, caring for creation, intergenerational community, and unconditional welcome. 

Then, under the heading, “Not looking for a church?”, I listed some ways we could be good neighbors: offering meeting spaces, collaborating on community projects, sharing our grounds as a place of solace. 

I shared that draft text with several keen-eyed members of this congregation. They helped me trim and clarify. But the most important change they suggested was to put the “Not looking for a church?” stuff before the “Curious about church?” stuff. 

I love St. Dunstan’s and I’m proud of what we’re building together here. So my natural impulse was to lead with that. But most of our neighbors probably aren’t looking for a church… and they’re not going to read past what we want to say about ourselves, to get to the part about how we want to be good neighbors for them, too.

Any reckoning with people’s reasonable suspicion towards churches – with some people’s experiences of harm through the actions and words of Christians – has to start with our commitment to simply being good neighbors, first and foremost. With an intention to be a presence for good in our community, regardless of whether it leads to recruiting new members. Because we have bridges to build and fences to mend, in order to be witnesses to Jesus as we know him.

It’s easy to feel a little shy about Christianity, in a city that is literally the headquarters of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. But those times when the dominant public face of Christianity seems far from your hopes and beliefs are exactly why it’s important to let folks know that there are lots of kinds of Christians. 

People may wear the label Christian uneasily. Maybe you feel like there’s a secret checklist of stuff you’re supposed to believe and positions you’re supposed to hold, and you’re not sure you check all the boxes. Maybe you feel like you don’t carry your faith into daily life enough to “qualify.” Maybe you’re just uncomfortable with the term, because of all its associations. Maybe you’d rather say that you’re Episcopalian than that you’re Christian. 

I define Christian pretty expansively. People who are drawn to Jesus in some way – even if he perplexes us as much as he attracts us. People who are trying to shape our lives, even in small ways, around Jesus’ path of boundary-breaking neighbor-love. People who are on the Way, trying to move in the same general direction as Jesus… even if we’re way at the back, wandering, stumbling, sitting down to rest, pausing to look at a rock. 

We ARE Christians, beloveds. Curious and confused, doubtful and hopeful. And when we encounter the word Christian, in the news, on social media, in the public square, in a context that makes us uncomfortable – as a label within which we cannot find ourselves – I hope that doesn’t make us ashamed. 

I hope it makes us determined. 

Determined to seek deeper understanding of Jesus – through Scripture, tradition, and reason; through conversation, prayer, and occasional encounters with the living Christ. 

Determined to love our neighbors and strive for the common good, for Jesus’ sake and even – when the moment is right – in Jesus’ name. 

 

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg’s Twitter thread starts here: 

https://twitter.com/TheRaDR/status/1433544536089841664

Sermon, Sept. 5

The Letter of James is odd. 

James is one of a set of texts in the New Testament that we call Epistles – Greek for “letters.” Some of the Epistles were written to a particular church – or even a particular person – and address specific situations or questions; and some are more general teachings, probably circulated among many churches. James seems to be the second kind of Epistle. He says he’s writing “to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion” – a poetic way of saying that he’s writing to God’s scattered people, to Christians all across the ancient world. 

While fitting the general template, in other respects, James is pretty different from other Epistles. For one thing, James doesn’t have much to say about Jesus. In five chapters, James mentions Jesus exactly twice – once when the author introduces himself, and once in today’s text. Compare that with Paul who mentions Jesus seventeen times in the six chapters of his letter to the Galatians. 

James has many resonances with the Wisdom texts of the Hebrew Bible – texts that use poetic language to describe the ways of the world and offer moral guidance. Our Proverbs text this morning is a good example, and you can easily see the similarity with James. And like Proverbs and other wisdom texts, James covers a lot of ground in a few verses. James can be hard to preach because there’s so much you could unpack from any given passage!

Who wrote this text? The author introduces himself as James, “a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus.” The traditional view – held by some modern scholars as well – is that this James was Jesus’ brother, who became an important leader in the church in Jerusalem, the mother church of early Christianity.

In the letter to the Galatians – which is one of the earliest Christian texts, possibly written only fifteen years or so after Jesus – the apostle Paul mentions James, the brother of Jesus, as a church leader in Jerusalem. Non-Biblical early texts also mention a leader named James. 

This James was probably not the same person as either of the disciples named James – because the Gospels say Jesus’ immediate family did not follow him, during his lifetime. But apparently James was a fairly common name! So it’s not a stretch to assume there was another James. 

Some scholars think that the oddness of the letter of James makes it likely to be a late text, perhaps written 100 years after Jesus or more – based on similarities of language and theme with other, non-Biblical texts of that period.  

Some scholars think the oddness of James makes it more likely to be very early. If James really was a prominent leader in the Jerusalem church, and possibly Jesus’ brother – and writing as early as the late 40s when the Christian world was still quite small – he wouldn’t have felt a need to explain who he was, or justify his Christian credentials. James doesn’t refer to the Gospels at all, which would make sense if it was written before the Gospels. He doesn’t talk a lot about Jesus – but he does sound a lot like Jesus. There’s a lot in James that closely parallels, or expands on, Jesus’ teachings. Which, again, would make a lot of sense for an early church leader – who maybe knew Jesus pretty well. The ways in which James has more in common with parts of the Old Testament than with other New Testament texts also makes sense for an early date, when most followers of Jesus were Jews.

I’m not a New Testament scholar and I haven’t read all the sources – but I do find the case for James as a very early Christian text to be pretty convincing, and that’s how I think of it. 

The Letter of James covers a lot of ground, but it does have a strong central theme: The call for believers to live a transformed life, in keeping with their new orientation as followers of Jesus. Last week I talked about integrity – about having our outsides match our insides, our actions match our values and intentions. That’s one way to describe James’ core message: Live a life that matches your faith. 

And it’s a message that transcends time and context. Reading James, I feel like he’s speaking to me – to us – a lot of the time. There are parts that don’t carry over as well, but much of James’ teaching feels pretty timeless: practicing generosity; guarding our speech so we don’t harm others with our words; being considerate of those in need; not being judgmental or greedy; being watchful about where the ways of the world – the social norms of our time and place – may be at odds with the way of Jesus. And so on. 

Integrity is always aspirational, always something we’re living into, step by step. And some of James’ words are important for me personally, as part of that work. They function as holy thorns in my side, urging me to live what I say I believe. In last week’s reading we had this passage: “Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.”

I think about that text pretty often. About looking in the mirror of my faith and seeing myself honestly: where my life matches my deepest hopes and commitments, and where it does not. When I turn away from that mirror, what do I do? How do I act? What do I change? 

And then in today’s text, there’s this: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?”

That passage gives me a good sharp poke now and then. I’m very clear that my salvation in Jesus Christ is God’s free gift. Our works – our actions – cannot earn God’s favor. But we are called to live lives shaped by gratitude and mercy – to live out love, as people who know ourselves beloved. As James says here: If our faith doesn’t show up in how we live, then what difference does it make – to us, to our neighbors, to the world? 

James’ description of faith that never manifests itself in acts of justice or mercy is harsh: he says that faith is as good as dead. I wouldn’t be so sharp in my own language. Living up to our own best intentions is demanding lifelong work. But James’ challenge rings in my ears now and then: You say that you have faith? Show me. 

So James’ strongest theme is the call to live in accord with what we believe. Not just keeping it in our heads and hearts but letting it spill over into our lives. Today’s reading gives us a look at the second strongest theme in James: the rich, the poor, and how folks in the middle respond to the rich and the poor. 

James starts with the question of a church’s hospitality to someone joining them for worship. He says, Your welcome should be the same, whether someone is visibly poor or visibly wealthy. If anything, you should favor the poor, whom, says James – quoting Jesus – God has chosen to be heirs of the kingdom of God. 

Later, in chapter 5, James preaches against the wealthy who become rich by exploiting their workers: “Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire… Listen! The wages of the labourers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.” 

The Sunday lectionary tactfully skips this passage!

James’ indictment of those who gather wealth through unfair practices is also a call to concern for the welfare of workers. Tomorrow is Labor Day, a federal holiday set aside to honor the American labor movement and American workers. Labor unions are a way for workers to organize so that they have the power, together, to ask those in charge – factory owners, company leaders – for what they need. Like any human movement, the labor movement is imperfect, but I’m deeply grateful for its contributions. Some of its accomplishments include the eight-hour workday and the concept of overtime pay; the weekend; workplace safety standards and equipment; sick days; child labor laws; and the minimum wage. 

But while there are some protections for some workers – there is so much left to do. One of the realities laid bare by the Covid pandemic was that all of us depend on low-wage workers, who in many cases don’t have much protection. While many Americans relied on Amazon to meet daily needs during lockdown, Amazon warehouse workers faced a grueling pace of work that took a toll on both bodies and minds. Food workers – those who plant, harvest, process, pack,  transport, sell and serve food – were deemed essential and required to stay on the job, but with few added protections. As a result, one study found that in California – which grows a lot of food – food workers faced a 39% increase in deaths, compared to a 22% increase across all working adults. Many low-wage workers don’t have sick leave – so they come to work sick and potentially help the pandemic spread, not because they are selfish or thoughtless, but because they depend on their wages and can’t afford to risk their jobs. 

The Covid pandemic has been especially brutal for health care workers. Nearly 4000 health care workers died of Covid during the first year of the pandemic in the United States; the World Health Organization estimates that over 100,000 health care workers have died of Covid worldwide. 

Even apart from Covid illness, the past eighteen months have been exhausting and traumatic for many health care workers, especially those directly involved in care for Covid patients. Maybe you’ve seen some of their anguish, frustration, and grief in viral social media posts. A friend tells me about another friend who did a stint in Covid care last year, and now experiences what I would describe as symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder when they step back into that part of the facility. 

This week it was announced that nurses in the UW Health system are seeking to re-form a union, as a way to advocate for themselves, their families, and their patients, in the face of challenges like deteriorating staff-to-patient ratios, recruitment and retention challenges, contributing to burnout and exhaustion. As one UW doctor said, “I want the nurses I work with to have what they need because their working conditions are patients’ treatment conditions.” (Source: https://spectrumnews1.com/wi/madison/politics/2021/05/20/uw-health-workers-push-for-union-voice_ )

One of the night prayers in our prayer book asks God to watch over those who work while others sleep, and to help us never forget that our common life depends upon each other’s toil.

Our common life depends upon each other’s toil. It’s hard to put it more simply and clearly. 

There’s dignity and significance in most human work. But Labor Day and the letter of James invite us to be especially mindful of those who keep our society and economy running, for low wages and with few benefits or protections. CNAs and grocery store shelf stockers; bank clerks and mail carriers; farm and factory workers; bus drivers, first responders and child care workers; and so many others. 

May one of the lessons we carry away from the Covid pandemic be a deepened awareness of just how much our common life depends upon each other’s toil, and a renewed commitment to the wellbeing of all essential workers.

May the apostle James provoke us not only to wish our neighbors peace, and health, and food, but to do what we can, when we can, to help ensure the wellbeing of all God’s people. 

Let us pray. 

Almighty God, you have so linked our lives one with another that all we do affects, for good or ill, all other lives: So guide us in the work we do, that we may do it not for self alone, but for the common good; and, as we seek a proper return for our own labor, make us mindful of the rightful aspirations of other workers, and arouse our concern for those who are out of work; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

— Collect for Labor Day, the Book of Common Prayer, p. 261

Heavenly Father, we remember before you those who suffer want and anxiety from lack of work. Guide the people of this land so to use our public and private wealth that all may find suitable and fulfilling employment, and receive just payment for their labor; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. 

— For the Unemployed,  the Book of Common Prayer, p. 824

 

Source for figures about food workers, and more information: 

https://foodchainworkers.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/Food-Workers-Organizing-on-the-COVID-Frontlines-FINAL.pdf?link_id=1&can_id=1e3f40f0f0b23ebbd5900d42b6cdb30b&source=email-subject-line-30&email_referrer=email_1086129&email_subject=new-report-today-we-are-not-disposable-food-workers-organizing-on-the-covid-frontlines

Fall Fellowship & Learning Opportunities, 2021

This fall and winter, our adult formation and fellowship offerings focus on forming small trusted networks – whether oriented around a shared journey like grief, parenting, or discernment, or simply a small group that meets often to share and pray.  Eighteen months of pandemic life have shown many of us that we need more trusted friends to help sustain us in difficult times – and one of the most important ways people grow in faith is in conversation with other faithful folks. So I’m excited to be able to offer the opportunities below.

Besides these new offerings, there are existing groups within the church that always welcome new members, including the Wednesday and Saturday book groups, and the Monday morning art group. (All are currently meeting online, but hope to return to in-person in time.) Our youth groups also function as holy communities for those who participate. New kids are always welcome, even if they’re not otherwise involved in church or attend another church.

If you feel a tug towards gathering with a smaller group of fellow Dunstanites, but don’t see something here that feels like the right fit – or even have an interest in convening your own group – let Rev. Miranda know!

If you are interested in any of these opportunities, talk to Rev. Miranda, call the office at 608-238-2781, or use the Contact Us form on this site.

SMALL GROUP OPPORTUNITIES… 

Contemplative Prayer Group: Jamie S.  would like to convene a small group that will meet on Wednesday evenings (7:30 – 8:45) three times a month to explore and practice different approaches to contemplative prayer together. This group will get started in October. It will gather online at first, with the option to move to in-person when circumstances permit.

Weekly Fellowship Group: Marian and Chris B. will also be convening a small group to meet on Thursdays at 7pm, for regular conversation and shared prayer.

Bereavement Group: Grieving the loss of a loved one is the most difficult and painful of life’s experiences.  Maybe your grief is recent, or perhaps a long-ago grief still often comes to mind. Join a circle of companions who are going through similar experiences. Healing often begins when people are able to share their grief stories, their struggles, their questions, and what is helping them come to terms with their situation. The group will be facilitated by Gloria Alt, spiritual guide and Certified Bereavement Companion through the Grief Training Center of Wisconsin. We will meet over Zoom Thursday evenings from 6:30-8, or Saturday mornings from 9-10:30.  The groups will meet for 6 weeks beginning September 23/25.

Group Spiritual Direction: Do you ever feel you’d like to meet with others who are on a path to encounter the Holy more deeply?  Group Spiritual Direction is an opportunity for a small group (3-4 people plus facilitator) to meet on a regular basis to support one another in their spiritual lives. The unique process for Group Spiritual Direction incorporates times of silence, structured times for sharing for each individual, and group response arising out of reflection and intercessory prayer. The group would meet every other week for 4 sessions, with the possibility of going on after that if group members wish to do so. (There would be a nominal charge per session if the group continues; cost should never be a barrier to participation.)  The group will be facilitated by Gloria Alt, a trained spiritual guide. The group could be focused on Discernment and Transition, for those exploring a new season in life; on Grief and Loss; or on general reflection on life and where God is at work.

DROP-IN OPPORTUNITIES…

Spirituality of Parenting is a monthly gathering after the 10am service. People for whom parenting is part of your spiritual journey are invited to a time of sharing and mutual support. This offering will be hybrid, with the opportunity to join in person or online.

Drop-In Heart Check is a monthly opportunity for shared reflection on the week, using the tools of the Ignatian Examen. (You don’t have to be familiar with the Examen to participate!) We will gather after the 10am service. This offering will be hybrid, with the opportunity to join in person or online.

Younger Adult Gathering: There is interest in re-convening a monthly Younger Adult Gathering – for folks under 40, more or less. If you’re interested, let Rev. Miranda know! I’m especially looking for people to help plan and convene these gatherings.

FOR KIDS & YOUTH…  We’ll begin the year with outdoor Sunday school for all ages, during 10am in-person worship on Sept. 12 and 19, and continuing in October.  StoryChurch on Sunday evenings will continue as an online offering for younger children.
Take-home materials will be available for those who prefer to stay away from in-person gatherings for now.
A Scripture Drama Club will meet after 10AM church once a month to prepare a drama for the following Sunday. This gathering will be hybrid – you can join in person or online, and we welcome actors for both Zoom and in-person church.
Our Middle High Youth Group will continue to meet over Zoom this fall, while our High School Youth Group expects to start meeting in person soon.

Sermon, August 22

Put on the whole armor of God, so that you can stand your ground on the evil day… 

There’s something so satisfying about a good visual metaphor.

The “armor of God” passage in the final verses of the letter to the Ephesians seems to be based on armor of Roman soldiers, which people would have seen on a daily basis: A belt, a breastplate; shoes or rather, sturdy sandals; a big honking shield; a helmet, and a sword. This author is using a familiar image to invite believers to think about how to equip themselves for the struggles they face as a community. 

While appreciating the image, we might find ourselves tempted to hold the militarism of this passage at arm’s length. The idea of preparing ourselves for battle may not sit well. We’re Midwesterners. We’re nice.

Mennonite pastor and writer Melissa Florer-Bixler writes that one of the dominant ways we respond to conflict is by assuming that people who harm others are simply misunderstood – or maybe doing what seems best to them, in a way we could empathize with if we knew their whole story.  In this approach, writes Florer-Bixler, “The way to overcome our enmity is by creating spaces where the falsehood of being enemies is unmasked [and] we will discover that we all want the same things.”

But what if we don’t all want the same things? What if some of our differences are too consequential to overcome with a friendly chat over coffee, or a unity vigil? 

Florer-Bixler says the OTHER dominant way we respond to conflict is by assuming that anyone different is an enemy, “a threat to that for which I’ve worked and that which I love…Anyone who stands in the way of my commitments must be eliminated.”  If you believe you’ve never had those thoughts or feelings – that you’ve never experienced a flash of blind hatred towards someone who seemed to represent the opposite of all you hold dear and true – then pause and examine your conscience again. Perhaps you are the exception. But most of us, no matter how nice, have been there. 

Either the enemy is just misunderstood… or they’re an existential threat that must be removed. The first approach can lead to a naive and ineffective idealism.The second, to intractable cycles of fear, suspicion, and harm. 

Is there another way?

Florer-Bixler says there is another way. A Christian way. Her book is called How To Have An Enemy. And in it she argues that Christians can have enemies – in fact, should have enemies… but that true Christian enmity is something very particular. 

Enmity, says Florer-Bixler, is “a relationship between people… that recognizes how a person uses their power, actively or passively, to harm or dominate another.” (28) Power isn’t inherently bad; we need power to act, to change, to protect, to improve. But if our calls to unity and mutual respect ignore power and differences in power, they can only ever lead to a false and temporary peace. 

The Christian enmity that Florer-Bixler describes is not a moral failure or a sin against the call to love our neighbors. Rather, it’s a naming of reality as a necessary step towards change. “In Christianity,” she writes, “we do not resolve enmity by destroying our foes or finding middle ground with them. Instead, Jesus ushers in a different system – a new way of living that changes the order of power itself.” (91)

When Jesus tells his followers to love their enemies, that’s not a call to passivity or to accepting a harmful status quo. Nor is it the low-stakes warm and fuzzy spirituality of someone with no skin in the game. Remember, Jesus’ enemies conspired against him and killed him! 

Rather, love of enemy means calling other and self into a new order freed from those entrenched relationships of harm. Florer-Bixler writes, “We love our enemies when we extend an invitation to a form of life where those who have the power to destroy others no longer exercise the self-destruction of hatred, hoarding, and violence.” (41)

Florer-Bixler wonders provocatively whether churches could become places of cultivating shared anger. (63) She points out, “If we lack anger at injustice, we are unable to rightly discern and act in the world.” (69) Might a church hold space for people to study and talk and pray and “discover how to be angry about the same concerns, and then how to bear that anger together as a creative force to build something new”?  

Let’s be clear that none of this is easy. Accurately naming our enmities demands serious discernment – of self, society, and Scripture. The self-work is necessary because it is very easy to think that God hates what we hate.  Each of our hearts and minds have been shaped by forces and ideologies that we despise. Florer-Bixler says that when we undertake this work seriously, “we discover lingering within us our own participation in the destruction of others.” (65)

We can also be pretty bad at discerning the times, and where Jesus’ message calls us to solidarity and action in today’s world. Our judgment is clouded; many things that seem normal to us are likely outrages in God’s eyes. For example: Most of us would probably agree that the Civil Rights movement and its work for desegregation and voting rights were morally right and necessary. But during the 1960s, most American white people opposed the freedom rides and sit-ins. The urgent moral calls of our era may be no more clear to us than they were to white Christians in the 1960s. 

And finding direction in Scripture, while essential, is not easy. The Bible does not offer a clear list of where we should stand on every issue that faces us today. Instead, as Florer-Bixler says, “there is the Holy Spirit, the Bible, and us.” (138)

Discerning and naming our enmities is demanding work – yet Florer-Bixler argues that it’s essential work. Faithfully facing our enmities, she insists, is living the Gospel:  “The good news of Jesus Christ is for the redemption of the world, for victims and victimizers, for oppressed and oppressors, for the way destruction is borne in each of us… We are freed from the logic of death, from the gods of scarcity and violence, from a politics where some prosper at the expense of others, and from the fear behind power, control, and coercion that are the operational center of the old order.” (32)

That passage really resonates with our Ephesians text: “Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the Archons, against the Powers, against the Cosmic Rulers of this present darkness…” This author fully realizes that those cosmic forces of evil are manifest in human forces and systems, hearts and minds.  They join Florer-Bixler in acknowledging that the flesh-and-blood people who cause harm are just as bound as those whom they harm – by those gods of scarcity and violence, by the cosmic forces of this present darkness. 

There’s a deep generosity and clarity in suffering persecution, perpetrated by human beings, and being able to say, The true enemy here is something else. Something that also entraps my persecutor, my enemy; something from which both of us need – and deserve – deliverance. 

Jon Daniels would be 82 this year, if he were still alive. He was 26 in 1965, when he heard Dr. King’s call for allies to come to Alabama to stand with the growing civil rights movement. The Magnificat, Mary’s song of courageous hope, drove him from his seminary studies in Cambridge, to Selma, where he joined in organizing and picketing,  and tried to integrate the local Episcopal church. 

Christian enmity was at the heart of the civil rights movement, with its strong commitment to nonviolent protest. That refusal to return violence for violence was a bid for the conversion and transformation of enemies, rather than their destruction. It was an invitation to a whole new form of life where those with the power to destroy others no longer use it to harm or exclude. That movement prepared for battle after the fashion of our Ephesians reading: arming themselves with truth and justice, peace and faith, salvation and the word of God, while their enemies prepared tear gas and dogs, clubs and guns. 

On Aug 13, 1965, Jon Daniels, with about 30 others, went to a small town in Alabama to picket segregated businesses. On Aug 14, they were all arrested, and taken to the nearby Hainesville jail.  On August 20, they were released with no warning – meaning there was no one ready to pick them up and take them to safer territory. 

It was a hot bright August day. A small group – Jon Daniels, a white Roman Catholic priest, and two black protesters – approached a small store there in Haynesville, hoping to buy a cold drink. They were met at the door by Tom Coleman, a white volunteer sheriff’s deputy, wielding a shotgun.

Coleman pointed the gun at one of the black protesters, a young woman named Ruby Sales. Jon Daniels stepped between Ruby and the gun. Coleman fired – and Jon was killed instantly. 

The cosmic powers of this present darkness – the small, bitter gods of scarcity and violence – were manifest in Tom Coleman’s flesh and blood that day. And they won – temporarily. 

Coleman was acquitted by an all-white jury, on the basis of a nakedly absurd claim of self-defense. But Daniels’ death did lead to change. The Episcopal Church had been neutral at best towards the civil rights movement. But Daniels’ martyrdom and Coleman’s acquittal galvanized the church. Presiding Bishop John Hines spoke out in outrage. And a new movement – led in part by Episcopalians – worked to integrate Southern juries, a step away from the all-white juries which had long protected a racist society. 

(Source: https://www.episcopalnewsservice.org/2015/08/13/remembering-jonathan-daniels-50-years-after-his-martyrdom/) 

It’s important to me to talk about Jon in August, every few years. It’s also important to say that his is not everybody’s path. Most of us are called to live for the Gospel, not die for it. 

Jon Daniels knew his enemies. 

He discerned the times; he heard Dr. King and the Mother of God calling him to solidarity, as part of movement on behalf of others. 

He dwelt deeply with Scripture.

He did the self-work: he kept a journal. In it you can see him grappling with his own motives, mocking himself for white-savior thinking, and striving to come closer and closer to Jesus in the why and how of his presence in Alabama. 

Jon Daniels buckled on the belt of truth and the breastplate of justice, so that on that evil day he would be able to stand. To confront his enemies with the possibility of another way. 

The transformation that Jesus – that God – wants for us is a transformation that liberates oppressor and oppressed, privileged and marginalized. It’s not just flipping the script of domination to put the formerly powerless on top, but a truly new order.  Florer-Bixler writes, “We don’t need new oppressors, new wealth, or new social classes. We need a new world.” (93) 

Let us pray. 

O God of justice and compassion, you put down the proud and mighty from their place, and lift up the poor and the afflicted: we give you thanks for your faithful witness Jonathan Myrick Daniels, who, in the midst of injustice and violence, risked and gave his life for another; and we pray that we, following his example, may make no peace with oppression. Help us put on the whole armor of God, that we may stand firm on the evil day; and give us, like Jon, the wisdom to know our enemies, the courage to confront them, and the visionary love to long for a new world for everyone; through Jesus Christ the Just, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.