Worship printout for Sunday, March 29

We will gather at 8am and 12pm on Sunday, March 29, to discuss the Gospel story, sing, and pray together. Our primary worship will be our participation in the service offered by the Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee at 10am, available on Youtube or Facebook Live.

Our gatherings will both be on the Zoom platform. To join our 8am gathering, use this link: https://zoom.us/j/790561248

To join our 12pm gathering, use this link: https://zoom.us/j/723242591

We plan to record the 12pm gathering so that others can watch, pray, and sing along later.

Print out this four-page document ahead of time to sing, read, and pray along with the service!

Handout for Sunday, March 29, 2020

How Not To Freak Out

Dear ones, as I walk through these days, I’ve been really noticing the wisdom of folks for whom, for various reasons, this strange season is at least somewhat familiar territory. Here are some things I’ve gathered that I think may be helpful to others as well. I’d love to hear what’s been helping you – or what’s especially hard.  – Rev. Miranda+

On life during a crisis…  

Wisdom from Emily Scott, who was pastoring in New York City during and after Hurricane Sandy, and learned some things from that experience that may be more broadly helpful now. 

1. Your brain won’t work as well. This week I’ve forgotten what I was doing a thousand times. Stress messes with your sequencing, and ordering your thoughts gets hard. Try to do one thing at a time.

2. Touch down once a day for the big picture, but focus on the tasks in front of you most of the day. There’s a lot to take in about how our world has changed. Take in news and new information once during the day, to make sure the work you’re doing in is in line with the new reality. But the rest of the time, focus on your work. Having something to focus on always gives me a sense of agency.

3. Pause to assess your gifts and your vocation, and how they might meet the need in this current moment. We’ll all have to adapt in this new time, but lean on gifts God gave you, and take a breath to decide how to focus your time.

4. Savor the sweet spots. It might be snuggling down under the covers when you first wake up or a cup of tea each night on the porch, but linger in the moments that give you comfort as long as you can. 

5. Do less. Our capacity has changed; we are able to do about 50-75% of what we did before this crisis hit. Let extra stuff fall away and streamline what you can. Extend grace to yourself and others. 

6. Adapt and pivot. Be as nimble as you can. We’re in a world that looks very different. I know I said “do less” above, but also, it’s a time to “do differently” as well.  What resources can you or your organization offer to the work of taking care of our neighbors and community at this time? 

7. Don’t be surprised if past trauma shows up. Under stress, we can expect past traumas to influence our reactions and our days. Notice the signals your body’s sending you, and plan in time and energy for caring for yourself. 

8. Rituals and structures of self care are key. Meditation or a set pattern of prayer at the beginning and end of the day. A long walk. A regular talk with a dear friend. Set up structures that will hold you through this time.

9. You’re not God. If you’re the kind who thinks you have to rescue the whole world, remember that we’re in this together, and God is still here. There are people working for good in every setting — hospitals, libraries, schools, grocery stores. You can trust them to do their job, while you do yours.

What’s going on inside of us: Grief… 

Wisdom from an expert on grief and grieving. I found this article really helpful. Here’s an excerpt: “With a virus, this kind of grief is so confusing for people. Our primitive mind knows something bad is happening, but you can’t see it. This breaks our sense of safety. We’re feeling that loss of safety. I don’t think we’ve collectively lost our sense of general safety like this. Individually or as smaller groups, people have felt this. But all together, this is new. We are grieving on a micro and a macro level.” Read the whole article here: That discomfort you are feeling is grief

What’s going on inside of us: Anxiety…  

Wisdom from a friend who has lived with anxiety for a decade & learned many coping strategies. Catastrophizing is the psychology term for “when your brain runs away with you and tells you that the worst case scenario is about to happen.” 

Avoiding it: Gently notice if certain kinds of information tend to activate this reaction for you. Be selective about what information you take in, and when. Remember: what you *need* to know is only the information that will impact how you act. Everything else is optional and it’s OK to avoid it. 

Countering it: Firstly, get mental health support if it’s really crippling. (Yes, you can still get that kind of help even in these times. Start by calling your primary care doctor if your don’t know where else to start.) But if it’s not crippling, there are many coping strategies you can try, like: 

  • Distraction. Take your mind off of it, and let it fade out.
  • Exercise. Intense exercise, even for 1 minute, can help dissipate your anxiety hormones so you can relax. 
  • Relaxation exercises: Sometimes you can trick yourself out of your anxious thoughts by relaxing your body enough. This works best if you do it often, and not just when you are feeling anxious. 
  • Shift focus to things you *can* do and control. 
  • Check the facts. Sometimes, seeking more (better!) information can help you pull back from spiraling anxiety. 

Read the whole article here:  Fighting Anxiety – What I Learned

Responding to others…

Wisdom from Sarah Knoll Sweeney, an Episcopal priest and hospital chaplain, whose vocation is to accompany people going through hard and frightening experiences.

Compassion rather than empathy…  Lots of us – not just pastors! – are being asked to help others manage their anxiety or struggle right now. Friends or family members may be reaching out and leaning on us. Sarah advises us to think in terms of compassion rather than empathy. Empathy means feeling what someone else is feeling – which can add to our own anxiety, and drain our capacity to respond or even care for ourselves. Compassion, Sarah writes, is different. “Taking a [pause] to send our loving-kindness to those we serve is a renewable resource, and moves us to caring action rather than burnout…. [Between phone calls, or while washing your hands,] visualize the care-seeker you just encountered. In silence, send them loving-kindness. Then, send it to the next person who will encounter them… As you rinse off your blessed hands, send one more push of kindness to [someone else –  maybe someone you struggle with or find difficult.]”

Letting others have their distress…  More from Sarah Knoll Sweeney: “I haven’t talked with a single person who is not in some form of distress, [physical, moral, spiritual…]. In your current distress, whatever it looks and sounds like, which helps more: someone who says, “Don’t worry, it’ll be over soon,” or someone who listens intently, capturing and reflecting that they actually heard you, and doesn’t try to put a lid on it, dismiss it, or minimize it?… You have no power to take away physical illness, to solve moral dilemma, or to spin lament into joy. [But] if we say, “Oh! I’m sure you don’t have it, you’ll see,” or “Calm down, you’re all worked up over nothing,” we tell the person, your distress is wrong. Your distress is invalid. Your distress isn’t worth hearing. That’s a toxic message in any encounter, but right now, we all have to let our distress be real and keep going anyway. If you want to be allowed to have the distress you feel right now, please, [let others] have theirs… Don’t reassure it or invalidate it. Reflect it: “You’re at your wits’ end.” “This doesn’t feel right to you.” “You need some relief.” See how you’re not even in that sentence? In not insisting on solving it, you have held an actual moment of space for the other person. Right now, this kind of encounter is priceless. That kind of moment is gold. [Offer this to others, and seek out] someone who can do this for you.”

Extending grace, lowering expectations… Sarah writes, “When we’re under pressure, our oldest roles try to take over because in our lizard brains, we still believe these will get us through (for better or worse, they did!). Those with whom you’re working closely are wrestling their own.” Try to be self-aware about how you may be reacting from your own deep patterns, more so than in “normal” times, and realize others around you are doing the same. “People are going to be deeply entrenched in their favorite ways of coping right now.”

Leaning on faith & the tools and heritage of faith…

As Christians, we strive to trust that God is with us in all circumstances; and we know that God’s people have been through many hard times in the past. The apostle Paul wrote to a church assembly whom he could not be with, loved, and missed, in the letter to the Philippians. Julian of Norwich, one of the saints we hold in special honor in our congregation, lived in a time of plague and chaos  (here’s a wonderful short paper about Julian & some ideas for reflecting on and praying with Julian, from the bishop of one of our neighboring dioceses). Many of the Psalms speak of distress, longing, and seeking – and sometimes finding – peace. Here are a couple of starting points: Psalm 90 and 130 are cries for God’s help; Psalms 121 and 131 are psalms of trust. If you would like more suggestions for praying with the Psalms, let me know!

Setting aside time for daily prayer – even a simple, short practice – can help anchor you as well. Daily prayer both gives us routine and structure, and offers us a chance to rest in God’s presence and perhaps hear God speaking to us. One very simple practice is this shortened Compline – prayers at bedtime. If you are using this on your own, simply read both the leader & response parts.

Music is a touchstone for many of us – both familiar songs (hymns and church songs, and not so churchy songs too!) and, sometimes, new songs that help us face the present moment. Deanna, our music director, and I are working on plans to continue offering music to our congregation in this time. If there’s a song you really miss and want help finding, so you can sing it at home, please let us know. Here is a song by Martha Burford, based on prayer #59 in our prayer book (p. 832), and performed by friend of the congregation Paul Vasile, that speaks to our need to rest in God in this time.

Finally, remember to do things you enjoy.  

On that subject, I really love this video (OK to watch with kids!): https://vimeo.com/58659769

Bonus resource: One of the priests in our diocese is also a counsellor and has started posting short videos about how to deal with these times. You can find them here: https://www.facebook.com/pg/JDKCounseling/videos/?ref=page_internal

Compline Pages to Download

Use the links below to download PDF versions of the Order for Compline.  There are two versions. One follows the Book of Common Prayer (basically what you’d get by turning to page 127 in a prayer book). The second form has been adapted, including using materials from the St. Helena Psalter (used by permission), to avoid masculine language for God. You can use either – even when you are praying along with a Compline leader who is using the other form. Sometimes the rhythms of the words are a little different, but they’re really close.

You can use these documents by:

  • Downloading and printing them, and reading along on paper when joining an online Compline
  • Or, join Compline on your computer, then open the document on a Smartphone or tablet, and read along that way.

Compline, Prayer Book Form

Compline, Gender-Neutral Language

Homily, March 22

Read the Gospel lesson here. 

Watch a video of the Gospel lesson, prepared for the Sunday school students, here. 

“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, in order that he was born blind?” 

Before we really talk about this story, I want to pause and say that it’s important to note that in this story, blindness is clearly seen as a deficiency. This man’s blindness is there to be healed. 

We need to understand that in this context, there were really limited opportunities for anyone blind or otherwise disabled. For many, begging was the only option – a life, probably a short life, of poverty and dependence on the kindness of strangers. Today, many disabled folks would say that they’d prefer not to be seen as less-than, as people just waiting to be fixed. 

We used to have a member of this congregation who was blind. His name was Jerry. And once when we had this story about the blind man, I asked him: Does it bother you when the Bible talks about being blind like it’s a terrible thing? And he said, No, it doesn’t bother me. Being blind is just part of who I am. I met my wife because I was blind. I spent my life helping other blind people learn how to care for themselves. Being blind isn’t a burden for me, so I don’t mind how people talk about it. 

So, let’s just note that. 

But then let’s turn back to the disciples’ question. Rabbi, who sinned?…  It doesn’t really matter whether we’re talking about blindness, or dementia, or cancer, or infertility, or COVID-19. When we’re faced by something inexplicable – especially something that makes us frightened or sad – we look for a way to make sense of it, to understand why it’s happening. 

The disciples think – as many did at the time – that this physical misfortune must be somebody’s fault. A punishment for bad behavior. Did this guy mess up? If he brought this on himself, we don’t have to care… Or did the parents mess up? They usually do…

Jesus stops this logic in its tracks: Nobody sinned. This man’s blindness isn’t a clue about his or his parents’ behavior, purity or worthiness. That’s not how things work. 

Back in 2014, when I preached on this story, I walked through a lot of the ways people try to make sense of suffering, given our belief in a loving God. I’ve re-posted that sermon on our website and I invite you to read it, if you think that would be helpful. It’s pretty indebted to Francis Spufford’s chapter, from the book Unapologetic, about why bad stuff happens, because I think he does a good job of walking through the various explanations that we try on – the work they do, and their pitfalls. 

But in that sermon, I end up – as Spufford ends up – kind of saying that the question – why did this bad thing happen? – is a question that we move past. As Jesus moves past it, in our Gospel story: he doesn’t explain how congenital blindness fits into the created order. He just heals this man, and wanders off. 

Richard Swanson, a Biblical scholar to whom I often turn, wrote about this passage this week. And he, too, felt dissatisfied with how he’d handled it in previous years. 

He says, it’s not enough to just say the disciples’ question is misguided. 

Because while their framing is wrong – this man’s blindness is not due to anyone’s sin – their desire to understand isn’t wrong. Seeking causes is important. That’s how we’ve beaten the diseases we’ve beaten. That’s how we’ve dramatically reduced infant and child mortality within the past hundred years. How we beat back polio and measles and diphtheria. 

Asking why is part of how God made us, and it’s important. It’s one of our superpowers, as a species – our curiosity, our intelligence, our capacity for collaboration in pooling knowledge and developing solutions. 

Like many of our superpowers, we can take it in unhealthy and even hurtful directions. Like the folks who think this illness is a judgment on our nation or our world, a punishment for our collective sins. Like the folks spinning and circulating conspiracy theories, feeding our fear and mistrust of one another, when what we need most to survive this time is our connectedness. 

There is no tidy answer to the question of why there are things in Nature that can hurt us – earthquakes, hurricanes, broken genes, viruses. The best I can offer is a combination of a couple of ideas. First, Creation isn’t about us. The Scriptural tradition has known this for a long time; the strange, fierce nature poetry of the Book of Job says as much. The earth is not a garden to feed, tend, and protect us. We are not the center, the purpose, of it all. 

And second – a related but separate point – Creation, like humanity, is free, and dynamic, and alive. God isn’t controlling every tweak of viral DNA or creak of the tectonic plates, any more than God controls our every choice and action. God’s action as Creator is to make, and then to give us to ourselves – humans and oceans, bacteria and birds alike… 

That’s the best I can do, for the question of why a harmful virus can emerge. 

We’ll all have to ask God about it, when we get the chance. But there’s another great big category of Why that we can actively wonder about and grapple with. 

Swanson writes that in the face of our current crisis, “I do find myself asking “Who sinned…?” Just like the disciples, just like all people, I am driven to understand this situation and I want to understand how this novel virus works and how we can counteract it. And I want to know what we have done that has allowed it to spread so fast and so far.”

We can see the value of our human desire to ask Why, in the many good things that are happening right now. The virus’s DNA was sequenced really quickly. Scientists and medical professionals are exploring treatments to slow and mitigate the illness. And they’re working as fast as they can on potential vaccines – but vaccines take time to develop. Still, it gives me hope to know that literally, many of the smartest people in the world are working – working together – on beating the novel coronavirus right now. And we do have a head start; it’s not some alien, brand-new bug; we have dealt with other coronaviruses; there’s a lot they already know about this guy. Human curiosity, human intelligence, human collaboration will beat this bug. Eventually. 

But – and – some of the reasons it is so disruptive right now, why it has made many sick and will make many more sick, have to do with human actions too. 

I suspect there’s lots of blame to spread around, but certainly the slow pace of making widespread testing available in our country – something that could have been otherwise – is part of the landscape we’re living with now. We have to investigate all those causes too, eventually – to ask Why, and seek answers – so that we know how to respond better as a nation and world, next time. 

Our human impulse to question, to seek understanding, is driving us in addressing the human aspects of this moment, as well as the medical aspects. So many of us are asking:  What can we do to make the best of the situation we have? What choices and sacrifices can we make that will lead towards the least worst outcomes for everyone? What can we do to help those most affected – whether by illness or by the financial and logistical shocks of this situation? What can we do – down the road – to make sure this never happens again?

Swanson writes that the disciples’ question – “Who sinned?” – may be misguided, but the questions “of what we did wrong, of how we can design and maintain systems that will improve our response next time, those questions are basic to human nature. That is what we do. That is our real strength.”

There are no clear and satisfying answers to the things we’re all wondering right now.  But I’m finding hope and grace in these strange hard days nonetheless. 

In watching health care providers and scientists and public health professionals and political, civic, business and organizational leaders doing their absolute best to limit and mitigate the impact of this virus. In watching our collective readiness to do what we must, suffer what we must – and let’s not kid ourselves; this shelter-in-place life involves some suffering for ALL of us – for the good of those most at risk and our community as a whole. In seeing how much we are looking out for one another, checking in with one another, sharing with one another. 

I’m not trying to sugarcoat. Things are not OK and will not be OK for a while. But  the resilience, generosity, courage and grace I’m seeing day by day is sustaining me, and helping me remember that even in struggle, sickness, confusion, and loneliness, God sticks with us, and God made us to stick with each other. 

 

 

Read Swanson’s full commentary here: https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com

Sunday Worship, March 22

Our online worship for Sunday, March 22, will have slides that allow you to follow along with the service. However, you will want the lyrics to the songs. If you have a hymnal at home, they are hymns #470 and #676.

If you don’t, here is a sheet with just the song lyrics that you can print:

Songs for Sunday, March 22

If you’d prefer to follow along on paper instead of watching the slides, download and print this file for our Sunday worship. It has all prayer & reading texts, as well as song lyrics.

Complete Worship for Sunday, March 22

You can join worship at 10am (or anytime after 9:45) at this link, from a computer or smartphone: https://zoom.us/j/165872564

The service will also be live-streamed to Facebook, so you can join it on our church Facebook page, St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church:

St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church Facebook Page

Sermon from March 2014 – “Who sinned?…”

This sermon was composed and preached six years ago. I am re-posting it in case it is helpful to anyone else in these times. 

Read the Gospel lesson here. 

Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind? It’s such a human question.  Why is this person suffering? Is it his fault? Can we blame the victim? You’d think we’d be over that, but it’s such an attractive idea that it keeps coming back – after all, if the person in pain brought the suffering on herself, then we don’t have to care, right?…

Well, if it’s not the victim’s fault, then whose is it? It must be somebody’s. Did the parents mess up? They usually do. Is Society at fault? The schools? Vaccines? Environmental pollutants? The President? God? … 

Suffering is the great problem of human existence, and oh, how we would like to be able to understand it, to explain it, once and for all.  If we can’t opt out of it, we would at least like to know what it means, why it happens. 

The 50-cent seminary word for this is Theodicy. Theodicy: the effort to explain why a loving God permits evil and suffering. If God is all-loving and all-powerful, then why do bad things happen? And especially, why do bad things happen to the innocent and the good? 

People of faith have tried out many, many explanations, whether trying to make sense of suffering far away or close to home. In his book Unapologetic – the one I keep telling you to read – Francis Spufford runs through some of the more popular theodicies, the ways people have tried to reconcile the reality of a cruel world with their experience of being cherished by a loving God. Spufford says, “Theodicies try to justify God by justifying the cruel world. They vary, but they have one thing in common: None of them quite work. None of them fare well enough against the challenge of experience… to let us lay the issue [of suffering] to rest,  to let us file it under ‘solved.’ Each tends to find some useful elements of truth to grip on to, but end up failing…by drawing a picture of the God of everything which is incompatible with love.” 

Explanation number one: People get what they have coming to them. Good things happen to good people. This illusion has a certain appeal if you lead a comfortable life, if you’ve never dealt with a serious crisis or loss, and if you can manage to disregard the extensive evidence, both in Scripture and in the voluminous text of human history, that innocent people – starting with infants and children – suffer and die ALL. THE. TIME. 

Living a good life, a just and ethical and loving life,  day by day and year by year – that is utterly and completely worth doing, for the well-being of your soul and of the world. But the world is not a gumball machine; dropping your good life like a quarter into the slot won’t get you the sweet sweet reward of easy living. It just doesn’t work that way. What looks like the simplest, cleanest, fairest explanation fails as soon as we hold it up to the harsh light of a single child’s suffering. 

Okay. So. We move on to other explanations. How about this one: We suffer because God is refining us.  Making us stronger, purer. Spufford says,  “The element of truth… here is that there are virtues which, quite genuinely, can only be developed by endurance. There truly are ways in which we need to experience bad things… in order to have selves which are strongly made.” 

We know this is true  because we have heard it affirmed by the only people with the authority to speak to it: people who have suffered greatly, and who say,  ‘I am who I am because of that suffering. I am braver, more compassionate, more thoughtful,  more focused, more faithful, because of what I have endured.’

But, Spufford notes, the idea that suffering might be distributed by God for pedagogical and character-building purposes cracks open and falls apart when we consider the distribution of suffering. Spufford writes,  “The ills of the world are not all neatly sized so that we can cope with them. It is not true that we are never tested beyond our power to endure.”

Suffering does not always help us grow, or make us noble. Sometimes it distorts and debases us. Sometimes it makes us into people who want others to suffer. Sometimes suffering makes us more;  just as often it makes us less. And sometimes, of course, it destroys us. When suffering does bring growth or deepening, I see that as evidence of divine grace at work, of God’s capacity and desire to bring good out of pain and loss. That doesn’t mean that God intends the suffering; only that, sometimes, God can redeem it. 

Here’s another one, Explanation Number Three: We suffer because God has a plan in which our suffering is necessary. The idea here is that God has some vast, profound, wise cosmic plan, and while we can’t see how this loss or that misfortune fits into that divine strategy, it’s only because our perspective is so limited. The helpful truth here is that God cannot be confined in time as we are; God’s perspective is unimaginably other than ours. God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, God’s ways not our ways. 

But again, if we understand God’s love as being at all similar to human love – then this explanation doesn’t carry us very far. I have a friend in another state who, years ago, suffered the miscarriage of a very-much-wanted pregnancy. Twin girls. She and her husband have three living children now, a houseful of noise and happiness. Does the loss she suffered make her a better parent now? Does she treasure her living children more, having suffered that loss? I don’t know. Maybe. Does that mean that God planned for her to lose those babies, knowing that eventually good things would come to her? … 

Spufford writes,  “If love is love, [if God’s love is like human love,] it can’t manipulate. It can’t treat those it loves as means to an end. Love is love because it sees the loved ones as ends in themselves, not tools or instruments to achieve some further goal. Suffering can’t be vindicated by a pay-off elsewhere.” 

How about this one? We suffer, but it doesn’t matter, because life is only a brief prelude to heaven. What you might call the pie-in-the-sky theodicy. Spufford deals with this one briskly:  “[This is] a comprehensive and instant fail, because whether or not you believe that heaven is real, this life certainly is, and so is the suffering it contains. …The only useful element [in this explanation] is a hope you can hang onto, that love with outlast trouble.” Beyond that, this explanation turns God into an emergency-room doctor who thinks it’s OK to take his time,  because you’ll get the morphine eventually.

The common element in all the explanations so far is that human suffering is in some way intended by God. Many Christians believe that, deeply; and I would never tell someone who finds comfort in the idea that there is a purpose for their suffering, that their mindset is theologically untenable. 

But it makes me worried, and sad, to see someone in pain who believes that pain is God’s intention, God’s desire. I can, I do believe in a God who brings good out of evil, wherever and whenever and however that is possible. I cannot believe in a God who intends evil, in order to break us down and break us open. 

Scripture teaches us to think of God as a parent, in order, I think, to teach us about God’s love through our own experiences of human love. Think of your own love for your child, your partner, your dear friend. When bad things happen, you support and comfort; you try to help them survive, and if possible, to learn from the experience, to grow and change. But you would never plan bad things for someone you love. To paraphrase Jesus, if even we, in our human limitations, know how to treat our children with love, then how much more so does God, our loving Parent. 

Which brings us to the explanations, the theodicies, in which suffering is NOT God’s intent. These explanations get more mysterious. More paradoxical. More slippery, perhaps. Perhaps less satisfying. There’s this one:  Suffering is the flip side of free will. God made us to be fully ourselves, wholly free, able to choose good and evil, so that we might choose relationship with God, instead of simply being dolls in God’s divine dollhouse.  

Again, our experiences of human love offer insight: We see those we love make bad choices, sometimes. We try to guide, encourage, support, comfort. But their choices are their own. Love does not coerce or manipulate. Does God watch us sometimes with the same thwarted tenderness we feel for one we love,  who is plainly taking a wrong turn? … 

But what, then, about suffering not caused by human choices? Earthquakes, plagues, typhoons, droughts? Leave aside global warming for a moment; these things have happened 

since long before humans began our complicated and destructive dance with our environment. The only possible answer is this: that the world is not entirely as God intended it to be. Perhaps, like us, Creation is free, to turn unfortunate corners, to make destructive choices. There are scientist-theologians who explore these possibilities and paradoxes. 

The important element of truth in this theodicy is the reminder that the creation is not the same as the creator. Spufford writes,  “God may sustain it all, God may be its bright backing, … but Creation is not God, it is in some utterly mysterious sense what happens where God isn’t.” 

It’s helpful to remember that… but, in truth, all of this only brings us back to the original question: Why does God permit suffering? Why doesn’t God fix the world, kick butt and take names, straighten the whole business out, once and for all? … 

How, then, do we deal with suffering? How do we deal with the heartbreaking contradiction between a loving God and a cruel world? How do we understand the unfairness of a child born blind, or whatever lack or grief or hurt troubles our hearts? Well… ultimately, we don’t. 

Spufford writes,  “[For many believers,] the question of suffering proves to be one of those questions which is replaced by other questions, rather than being answered. We move on from it without abolishing the mystery. … We don’t ask for a Creator who can explain himself. We ask for a friend in time of grief, a true judge in time of perplexity, a wider hope than we can manage in time of despair.”

In the face of those things that break us down, break us open, explanations don’t help much anyway – neither good ones nor bad ones ease our rage or sorrow. The only comfort that can really touch us is the comfort of feeling that we are loved. Spufford wraps up his survey of theodicies here: Given the cruel world,  it’s God’s love song we need most, to help us bear what we must; and, if we can, to go on loving.

But Spufford has one more thing to say. Every faith that trusts in a loving God deals with the problem of suffering. Each faith has its distinctive answers. Our distinctive answer, as Christians, is a person, and a story. He writes, “[As Christians,] we don’t say that God’s in his heaven and all’s well with the world. We say: all is not well with the world, but at least God is here in it, with us. We don’t have an argument that solves the problem, but we have a story.” The story of God wearing a human face, sharing in human experience, human love, human pain.

In these weeks of Lent,  we prepare ourselves to tell that story again, to receive it in all its grueling beauty. Whatever suffering you carry, great or small, near or far, bring it with you as we walk together towards the cross, and towards what lies beyond. 

Francis Spufford, Unapologetic: Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense,  Faber and Faber, 2012. 

Sermon, March 15

Read the lessons for this Sunday here: https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=26

A NOTE FROM REV. MIRANDA…  This isn’t a sermon about coronavirus. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing! Instead, it’s an invitation to reflect on our accountability to God’s Creation, as we enact it through our relationship with our church grounds. There’s an invitation here into some shared wondering that may help us look towards a future beyond the current public health crisis. Eventually spring will turn into summer; eventually we’ll be able to gather freely again; eventually we’ll be able to joyfully undertake shared work and song and prayer. Walk with me in that faith, friends. – Rev. Miranda+

 

“If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” (John 4:10) 

Living water. It’s a beautiful phrase. It had a concrete meaning as well as a spiritual meaning. Living water, for the Biblical texts, meant water that moves. Running water in a stream or river, but also water falling as rain or bubbling up as a spring. 

People living in an arid environment – as the people of the Bible largely did – were dependent for much of the time on still, stale water in cisterns and wells. For them, the attraction of living water would have been obvious. People have long understood that moving water is cleaner and clearer and tastes better. It doesn’t just slake thirst and allow life to continue, but offers beauty, delight, and satisfaction. 

Jesus is speaking metaphorically rather than ecologically, here. He is drawing a contrast between physical and spiritual realities, as John’s Jesus often does. The “living water” he offers this unnamed woman isn’t literal water, any more than the new birth he described to Nicodemus in last week’s Gospel is a literal second birth. Instead it’s a way of describing an inner state of being tapped in to something that sustains and refreshes you deeply – irrespective of physical circumstances. He’s offering this woman that kind of deep connectedness with the Divine, with grace, with Love. “Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to the life of the Age.”

The Gospels are some of the least ecological texts in the Bible.They don’t say much about our relationship with the land and the whole created order. That’s somewhat unusual – pretty much anywhere you look in the Old Testament, you trip over ecological texts. (For just one example, consider our psalm today. It was chosen for the lectionary because it alludes to the Exodus story; but it also speaks about how all Creation belongs to God and how we humans are part of that divine created order, God’s sheep living in God’s pasture.) There are some significant creation-focused texts elsewhere in the New Testament as well – including later in Paul’s letter to the Romans; we’ll get to that this summer! 

We don’t necessarily notice the strong ecological themes in the Bible because generations of Protestant Christianity have taught us to think about faith as a matter between humans and God. But for the Old Testament, right relationship with God and neighbor and land are all inextricably linked. Justice and righteousness in society cannot be accomplished without a just and righteous relationship with the land – including sharing the produce of the land fairly, treating the land with respect and care by letting it rest and renew itself, and so on. 

This year, St Dunstan’s is part of a program called ChurchLands.It’s a pilot program inviting Episcopal churches and church leaders to explore and discern ways to reconnect faith and land in their parish context. It is specifically for churches that have land holdings of some sort – inviting us to reflect on how we might integrate our relationship with our land into our shared life as a community of faith. 

Our land is not especially well integrated right now. I wouldn’t be surprised if many newer members don’t even know about it. So let me tell you about it! St. Dunstan’s sits on about seven acres, in total. It was once part of the territory of the Ho-Chunk people. The U.S. government seized it after the Blackhawk War, and sold it off in parcels to settler farmers. In the late 1850s, the Heim brothers, immigrants from Bavaria, bought this land & built the farmhouse that still stands. It changed hands over the course of a century & eventually was given to the Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee, which then gave it to a mission congregation who wanted to start a new church on the west side of Madison. And here we are. 

The church building sits near the northeastern corner of the lot. Behind the farmhouse and the Parish Center, our grounds continue down to Old Middleton Road, with about three acres of woodland, mostly black walnut with some oak trees and pines. That’s the part that it’s easy for us to forget about; to just have, year after year, without any real sense of purpose or engagement. Now and then we walk through it, or wander down to pick a few black raspberries. But mostly – even for me – it’s out of sight, out of mind. 

Three acres of woods – and a couple more acres if you count the grassy area around the church, the Pine Island out front, and so on – it’s not a lot. There are folks in the ChurchLands program who are trying to figure out what to do with ten acres, or more. But it’s here, and it’s ours; and we have named ourselves, from the earliest years of this parish, as a church that cares about God’s creation. So the ChurchLands program offers a great opportunity to wonder together about our grounds. 

The structure of the program itself is pretty simple. Two of us attended a retreat in Michigan in late January, where we and other program participants dug deep into some foundational values and questions. There will be a second, concluding retreat in December. In between, there are monthly online meetings for learning and check-in. Meanwhile, we’re supposed do… something, here. Some kind of project or initiative. I’ll come back to that in a moment. 

On that retreat back in January, we did a lot of Bible study – looking at some familiar and unfamiliar stories through the lens of human relationship with the land. One was the story told in Genesis chapters 41 and 47. Joseph – great-grandson of the patriarch Abraham – is in Egypt, in jail. (It’s a long story!) Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, has a strange and troubling dream. Joseph has a knack for interpreting dreams – and someone mentions that to Pharaoh, so Joseph is called to the throne room. And he interprets Pharaoh’s dream as a message from God: The seven fat cows in your dream mean there will be seven good years of harvest. The seven lean and ugly cows in your dream, who eat up the fat cows, mean that after the seven good years, there will be seven years of famine, that will devour all the surplus from the good years. Joseph goes on to suggest that for the next seven years, one-fifth of each year’s harvest should be gathered and stored as a reserve against the famine; and that Pharaoh should fin somebody discerning and wise to put in charge of that endeavor. 

(Let me say here that Joseph is right up there with King David on the list of people that your children’s Bible called a righteous hero favored by God – but whose story turns out to be a lot more complicated than that when you actually read it.)

Naturally Pharaoh puts Joseph in charge, and it all happens just as the dreams predicted: seven years of bounteous harvests – and then, the famine begins. And Joseph shares the stored food among the people of the land so that everyone survives, as God intended in sending the dream. 

Hah… no. That’s not what happens. Joseph makes people buy the food. First with money, until they run out of money. Genesis 47:14: “Joseph collected all the money to be found in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, in exchange for the grain that they bought; and Joseph brought the money into Pharaoh’s house.” Now, THAT is Employee of the Month. Then, when people are out of money, Joseph gives them food in exchange for their livestock, their flocks and herds. All of that ends up as Pharaoh’s property too – and incidentally, it’s Joseph’s family that has the job of tending all those animals. 

And the next step is inevitable – the people come to Joseph and say, “Buy us and our land in exchange for food. We with our land will become slaves to Pharaoh; just give us grain, so that we may live and not die.’… So Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh… As for the people, he made slaves of them from one end of Egypt to the other.” (Genesis 47:19-21)

I think this is an interesting story for us to dwell with, because it’s a story about preparing for ecological crisis. Joseph and Pharaoh receive an insight from God – and they decide to use this privileged knowledge, and the power they already have, to further consolidate wealth and power, and to take away people’s freedom and livelihoods.

We face impending ecological crisis today. There’s no secret about it, no mysterious dreams to interpret; many, many people are sounding the alarm. And there are absolutely people of wealth and power today who plan to use the years ahead just as Joseph and Pharaoh did. 

How can we face our frightening future with a commitment to  building relationships and sharing strategies and resources, instead of hardening social lines and deepening inequalities? How can we resist the quarreling and division that comes with scarcity and fear, as we see in the Exodus lesson today? 

Those are great big questions. The invitation of the ChurchLands program is to dwell with questions like that as we discern how to live more fully into our values on this land, our four-plus acres of woods and grass. The work is motivated by a conviction that reconnecting with Creation, with land, in very local, small-scale ways DOES matter, IS a step towards our hopes in the face of these frightening larger realities. 

This week I read about a beautiful example – at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Annapolis, Maryland. Like St. Dunstan’s, St. Luke’s had about four acres of woodland behind their church. Unlike our site, their woods back up to a creek, a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay. The land had been originally intended for a larger sanctuary, back when folks thought churches would keep growing forever. But a few years ago, the church began to envision another way to reclaim the land as sacred space. With help from a couple of grants, they undertook a project to turn those four acres back into wetlands, including restoring a stream that had been buried when the area was developed.

The project wasn’t driven by a naive desire to return the land to its original condition, but by current need. Climate change is raising sea levels and causing more frequent extreme weather. Along the Maryland coast, flooding is becoming more common, with seawater breaching sea walls to flood parking lots, roads, homes and businesses. In 1960, four such events were recorded; in 2017, 63. 

The marshland restored by St. Luke’s Church helps absorb extra water. Avery Davis Lamb writes, “By restoring their land to serve its intended purpose, the church created a climate sanctuary: absorbing higher tides, filtering polluted stormwater from extreme rain events, [as well as] hosting displaced [wildlife] and drawing carbon out of the air.” St. Luke’s itself sits high enough to avoid flooding, but their wetland restoration project serves their neighbors by absorbing water their houses cannot. 

The restored stream flows gently down the property towards the creek, surrounded by wet-loving native plants. Living water. 

St. Luke’s solution is obviously not our solution. But there are things we can learn. The people of St. Luke’s studied their land and how it fit into local systems. They paid attention to how climate change was harming their neighbors and neighborhood. They found non-church agencies to help them learn, fund, and do. And they held fast to their conviction that a restored landscape can manifest justice, wholeness, and holiness. 

At our initial retreat in January, we were invited to set goals. Carrie’s goal was to understand better what’s growing on our grounds, and how we might get to know those resources, as way to be in touch with the land and engage with it. My goal was just to get people together. Specifically, I wrote down an intention to gather at least at least 5 to 8 people, at least 3 times, between February and August, to bounce ideas around and come up with one or two specific things to do or try. 

It’s hard for me to come before you without a project, a plan; to have this be so open-ended. But in my nine years here, we have had lots of ideas for our grounds; what we’ve lacked has been follow-through. So I believe God means for me to come to this with my mind and hands open, and wait for ideas and directions to emerge and gather energy from among us. 

I invite you to consider whether you’d like to be part of those conversations – and/or part of the work, once we’re working on something. Even if you don’t feel called to that, maybe you have a connection or idea to offer. Please do! This is wide open! As Sharon Bloodgood used to say, it’s easier to tame a wild idea than to spruce up a dull one. 

Jesus uses the image of living water, this ecological image, because it is so evocative and so important in his context. Living, running, fresh, clear, satisfying water… Deeply meaningful, deeply attractive, to a desert people. 

What can we think of that’s not only life-sustaining but also delightful and satisfying for us? A strawberry still warm from the sun; the intoxicating scent of basil fresh from the garden; the color and detail of a flower in bloom; the smell of the earth just after a rainfall. What if things like these aren’t mere physical pleasures, but ways to tap into something that sustains and refreshes us deeply – means of connectedness with grace, with love, with the Divine? What could a landscape of justice, wholeness, and holiness look like here? Let’s wonder together. 

 

Read about St. Luke’s, Annapolis, and other examples here:

https://sojo.net/magazine/april-2020/how-three-coastal-churches-became-hubs-climate-resilience

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