Category Archives: Big Questions

Sermon, June 16

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character… 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some links – 

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

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

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

Homily/Drama, April 28

Honoring the second Sunday of Easter as a time to affirm our youth in their wondering and seeking in faith is an idea from John Westerhoff (in Will Our Children Have Faith?, pages 101-102). We decided to try it out! Thanks to the Rev. Thomas McAlpine, the Rev. Jonathan Melton, and other conversation partners in developing these ideas. 

MIRANDA: Friends, today is sometimes called Doubting Thomas Sunday. Because our Gospel is the story about Thomas, one of Jesus’ friends, and how he came to believe that Jesus had truly risen from the dead. We get the same Gospel lesson EVERY year, even though most of our Gospels only come around every three years. It’s like our Lectionary wants to shout at us every year: DO NOT DOUBT BUT BELIEVE!

But what does it mean to doubt?  Is it OK to have questions about faith, and God, and the world? … Of course it is! Is it OK to not understand everything? …  Of course it is! But if we just say, Don’t doubt! It’s bad to doubt! – and don’t talk about what doubt really is… we might all walk around with ideas like this deep down inside:

Hold up signs: I’M A BAD CHRISTIAN, I DON’T BELONG HERE, EVERYBODY ELSE SEEMS TO GET IT; WHAT’S WRONG WITH ME?

MIRANDA: So today we’re going to talk about DOUBT. We’ll draw on several Scriptures – they’re on your Sunday Supplement if you want to take a look. What does it mean to doubt? Maybe it means there are things we think we’re supposed to believe – but don’t, really. You might think you’re a Bad Christian because the church teaches that the earth was created in seven days, and that dinosaur fossils are a trick God gave us to test our faith. But you really love science, and you just can’t swallow that.

Well, good news, Bad Christian – you don’t have to! Our church doesn’t teach that the world was created in just seven days. We understand the Creation story as telling us that God is the Source of all things, and that God made all things in love – and that we’re all in this together, humans and animals and plants and oceans and stars. And science is awesome! There are lots and lots and lots of scientists who also believe in God! 

Or you might feel like you Don’t Belong Here because you’ve heard that Jesus had to die on the cross because God was so angry about how bad and sinful humans are. God was so mad that God had to punish somebody, so Jesus took the punishment for us, to protect us from God’s anger. But, man, that story does not make you feel good about God. 

Well, that one is a doozy. It’s tough because some of our prayers could point you in that direction. But good news: Your church does not ask you to believe this! That teaching is called substitutionary atonement. It is just one way – out of many – that Christians have tried to understand Jesus’ death and resurrection. But what Jesus himself says about God is that God is merciful, and loves us, and wants to be close to us.  What a relief – that angry God was pretty scary! 

It’s OK to have questions, and to wrestle with what you think about it all! Let’s hear from someone who knows about wrestling with God. This is a story from the book of Genesis. 

JACOB: Hi, everybody. My name is Jacob. I lived a really long time ago – after Abraham, but before Moses. Is anybody here a twin? … I’m a twin. I was born second, after my brother Esau. In those days, everything went to the oldest son, even if the second son was born five minutes later. I spent my life consumed by envy of my brother. He had everything – including our father’s love. Finally I crossed a line; I did something so bad that I had to run away, or my brother might have killed me.

I spent years away from home. I got married, had children, became rich. But always, I felt the pull of home. And of unfinished business with my brother. Finally I knew it was time to go home. I gathered up my wives and children and servants and flocks, and we set out. As we got close, I was more and more terrified. My parents raised me to love and trust God. But I’d spent so much time trying to take, instead of waiting for God to give. Maybe God was done with me. Maybe I’d already gotten all the good life was going to give me. 

I sent servants on ahead with gifts for my brother – goats and sheep and camels and cattle and donkeys – did I mention I was really rich? And I sent my family off without me, so that if Esau came to kill me, they could get away. And I prayed to God: ‘God, you told me, “Return to you country and your kindred, and I will do you good.” I am not worthy of the steadfast love and faithfulness you have shown to me, all these years. Save me from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid of him!’ 

And then – someone was with me. It was pitch dark; I could not see him. But he seized me, and we began to wrestle. We struggled together all night, until daybreak. As the sky began to lighten, the stranger said, Let me go. But I said, I will not let you go unless you bless me. So the stranger blessed me, and he gave me a new name, Israel, which means: One who wrestles with God. And then the stranger disappeared. But I knew that God had been with me that night. And that day, when I met my brother, I wasn’t afraid anymore. We hugged each other, and cried, and forgave each other. 

MIRANDA: Thank you for sharing your story, Jacob! We also might think it’s Doubt when we don’t have all the answers. When there are things we don’t understand – things in the world or in our lives. Those moments when you have a friend who just found out she’s really sick, and you’re worried for her, and you just don’t understand why people get sick. Why do we have to suffer?

KING DAVID: Oh, I feel you. I remember some times when I really felt like that. 

MIRANDA: King David! My goodness! It’s an honor to meet you. You were the most famous king of Israel, and most of the Psalms were written by you or by musicians in your court.

KING DAVID: True, true.

MIRANDA: You’re telling me you had times when you were overwhelmed by suffering and confusion? But you’re famous for your deep faith. How did you talk to God, in those times? 

KING DAVID: Actually, writing poetry about it was one of the ways I handled it. Here’s a song I wrote during a tough time. You know it as Psalm 102. 

O God, hear my prayer, and let my cry come before you! Don’t hide your face from me in the day of my trouble. Turn your ear towards me; when I call, hurry and answer me. For my days drift away like smoke,  and my bones feel as hot as burning coals. My heart feels as dry and brittle as withered grass; I even forget to eat my bread; I am skin and bones. I have become like a vulture in the wilderness, like an owl among the ruins. I lie awake and groan; I am like a sparrow, lonely on a house-top. But you, O God, endure for ever, and your Name from age to age. You will arise and have compassion on your people  – for now is the time to have mercy! 

MIRANDA: Wow. Thank you. I think I should read some more of your poetry. 

KING DAVID [modestly]: I have been told that many people find it consoling. 

MIRANDA: Even in your worst moments, you turned towards God. And you weren’t afraid to tell God about it when you were hurting. So… being sad and fearful and confused, and even angry, is not the same thing as doubting God? 

KING DAVID: Not at all. If I doubted God, why would I cry out to God about my troubles? I trust God. That’s why I can complain.

MIRANDA: Wait. You just said you trust God. Jacob said that too. Don’t you mean, you believe in God? 

KING DAVID: I… don’t understand the question. 

MIRANDA: Well, in modern English, to believe means that you think something is true. Like, Cheetahs are the fastest animals. True or not true? True! Trust is different. Trust means you know that somebody is there for you, you know they are who they claim to be and will keep their commitments. You could say that belief is in your brain, and trust is in your heart – and in your relationship with somebody. 

KING DAVID: Hmmm. I see the problem. In Hebrew, the language I speak, we don’t have this… brain-only belief idea. Where you say “believe” in God, our words mean: trust God, hope in God, rely on God, seek safety in God, commit to God… How can you have a relationship with God, or anybody else, with only your brain? 

MIRANDA: That’s a good question… Thank you, O King! Hmm. But if we shift from thinking about believing in God with our brains… to trusting God with our hearts and our lives… then what do we mean by doubt?

JAMES: May I be of assistance?

MIRANDA: Excuse me – who are you?

JAMES: I am James, the brother of Jesus. I wrote a letter that’s included in the New Testament…. About what it really means to live as a person of faith. 

MIRANDA: Of course! It’s an honor to meet you. 

JAMES: I began that letter by reminding fellow Christians to stay faithful in the face of persecution – and even take joy in suffering for Christ’s sake. I said, If you need wisdom, ask God, who gives us what we need with generosity. And ask in faith, without doubting; for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind.The doubter is double-minded and unstable in every way. Double-minded – that’s what I mean by doubt. Split between too many things. Trying to believe two contradictory things at the same time, or believing one thing but acting like you believed something else.

I really started thinking about doubt this way after that time when Jesus called Peter to walk on the water. It worked fine as long as Peter stayed focused on Jesus. But when he started to let his attention wander, he got scared; he lost direction; and he started to sink. Jesus grabbed him, of course – and said, “Why did you doubt?” 

Jesus didn’t mind when we had questions. Sometimes he was annoyed when we didn’t understand – but, to be fair, we were pretty slow on the uptake. He was mostly pretty patient about explaining again, and again, and again. His call on us wasn’t to have it all figured out, but to put our heart into it. To commit. That’s why I think the real meaning of doubt is trying to live by two different, contradictory scripts at the same time. 

MIRANDA: I definitely know what double-mindedness feels like. And that’s probably my biggest struggle with faithful living. I trust in God’s goodness and love. I know God is here among us, right now. But… I get distracted by many things. I get busy. I lose focus and purpose. I get double-minded, and lose my glad singleness of heart. 

But what about Thomas? The one everybody calls Doubting Thomas. That’s why we’re talking about doubt today. What can we learn about doubt from Doubting Thomas? 

THOMAS: Please don’t call me that.

MIRANDA: Oh, hello! Are you… the apostle Thomas? 

THOMAS: Yes, that’s me. 

MIRANDA: Why don’t you tell us your story? 

THOMAS: Well, okay, it’s like this.  Jesus rose from the dead. You know that part, right?  Mary Magdalene told the disciples that she had seen him. But nobody really believed her. [shrugs]

Then one evening most of the old crowd got together. Suddenly Jesus was there among them. He showed them the wounds in his hands and his side – proof that it was really him, not an impostor, not a ghost. They were really happy to see him, of course!

I wasn’t there that night; I was visiting my mother. And when I heard about what happened, I just couldn’t believe it. My heart had been broken by Jesus’ death. I wanted to believe, do you understand? But I was afraid to hope. I told them, “Until I can touch the wounds in his hands, I just can’t believe that he’s alive.”

A week later we were all together, sharing memories. And suddenly – he was there! Jesus! In the room with us! Not an impostor, not a ghost.  And he walked right up to me and held out his hand. It was like he’d heard what I said to the others. He told me, “Here, touch the wound in my hand. Don’t be afraid, Thomas – trust: it’s really me.”

My heart felt like it might burst. I said, “My Lord! My God!” I was so glad to see him – and so grateful that he understood that I couldn’t just rely on second-hand stories. That I needed to see him myself. 

MIRANDA : Thank you for telling your story, Thomas! It reminds me a little bit of my own story. I grew up in church. I was always surrounded by people who believed in God – trusted in God. I heard their stories of times when they’d heard God’s voice or met God, in so many different ways. That was important for me, as I grew up. 

But it was also really important for me to meet God myself. To have my own times when I felt God close by, or heard God’s voice in my heart or in someone else’s words. 

What I’m saying, Thomas, is that what happened for you, and what happened for me, is what I want for all our kids and youth – and grownups, too! We should all have our own meetings with God, with Jesus, with the Holy Spirit. And we should be a community where we can tell those stories, and encourage each other – whether we’re wrestling like Jacob, or crying out to God like King David, or feeling double-minded, or seeking a clearer sense of God in our lives. 

Friends, we wonder about God and seek God at every age – but the teenage years are an especially important time for seeking your own understanding of faith and your own experiences of God. So later this morning we are trying out a new custom: of celebrating that we have young people moving into that exciting season, and committing to being their companions on that journey.

For our teens, Friday night youth group is their primary faith community. Some of them also participate in church on Sunday morning – but mostly at the 10am service. But some of you know some of them. And you may find opportunities to know them better, and be one of the faithful grownups in their lives. – faithful both in the sense of having your own faith story and faith questions to share, and faithful in sticking with them through the challenges of young adulthood. 

I ask you to make a commitment to our youth today: to be unafraid of questions; to speak honestly from our own lives and hearts, instead of saying what we think grownups are supposed to say; and to be brave enough to wonder with them. 

And if their questions and their vision stretches or challenges us, we will rise to it; because we love them, and we trust that God is at work in their lives, and, through them, in the life of this church. 

Friends, will we make this commitment to our young people today? 

WE WILL!

MIRANDA: Names, we acknowledge that as you move into young adulthood, you are thinking about what your church and your faith have offered you in new ways. As you think about God and yourself and the world, you’ll probably have new thoughts and new questions. Like Jacob, you may find yourself wrestling with God; like Thomas, you may find that second-hand faith isn’t good enough for you, and seek your own experience of the Divine. We, as your household of faith, affirm this journey and this work.  At your baptisms, your churches promised to do all in our power to support you in your life in Christ. Today, that means making space for your maturing, and all that it involves. 

What we ask of you is to trust us as companions on this journey. Trust us with the little questions, the things you think you’re probably already supposed to know. You’d be surprised how many of us wonder, too. Trust us with the big questions, knowing that we have wrestled with them too; and that even though some of those big questions don’t have easy answers, we find purpose and truth here. Seek out friends among the grownups of this household of faith, and call on us for support and wondering together. And if it ever starts to feel like this church is too small for you, I invite you to talk to me or another trusted grownup here; we may be able to show you doors into rooms you didn’t even know about. (Metaphorically speaking!) 

Friends, will you make this commitment today? I invite you respond, We will. 

We will. 

Loving God, we commit all our struggle, our lament, our double-mindedness and our seeking to you, trusting that Scripture, tradition, and community are worthy companions on the way; that God is mystery enough to keep us wondering for a lifetime; and that Jesus Christ is Friend enough to walk with us through this and every season. Amen. 

Sermon, March 3

Adjusted Epistle text: 2 Cor 3:12-13; 3:17 – 4:2; 4:5-6

Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness, not like Moses, who put a veil over his face to keep the people of Israel from gazing at the end of the glory that was being set aside. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transfigured into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit. Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God. For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

 

It happened when he was praying: the image of his face: different;  his cloak: white, flashing.

That’s Biblical scholar Richard Swanson’s translation of verse 29 in today’s Gospel – staying closer to the original Greek syntax: 

It happened when he was praying: the image of his face: different;  his cloak: white, flashing.

And then there is the cloud – and the Voice – and the glory. The text piles on clues that point to God’s presence, ways God’s people have seen and known God for millennia. 

This Gospel story – known as the Transfiguration – always comes around in the lectionary on the last Sunday in Epiphany, the Sunday when we turn towards Lent, begin the long walk towards Good Friday and Easter. That’s where the story falls in the Gospels, too – on the cusp of Jesus’ turn towards Jerusalem. At the Transfiguration, this moment on the mountaintop, three of Jesus’ disciples get a glimpse of the Divine within Jesus – this brightness, this strangeness. They see – and we see, with them – that the man we follow on this rocky road is not just a man. Not just a wise teacher. Not just a kind healer. He is God, living among us, loving us. As Paul writes in today’s Epistle, we know the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ – a passage so rich and lovely that it’s woven into our Epiphany Eucharistic prayer, if you’re wondering why these words sound familiar!

This is the mystery and the paradox we hold together in our understanding of Jesus: He was actually and fully a particular human being living in a particular time and place. His Jesus-ness was not a costume or an avatar. And yet, Jesus was – Jesus IS – one Person of the Holy Trinity, the divine Logos by whom all things were made; the eternal Word that became flesh and dwelt among us; the Anointed One, the Messiah, the Christ, from before time and forever, sent to liberate and redeem humanity and Creation. 

So while Jesus was truly and authentically human as a first-century Jew from Nazareth, there was also something ultimately incidental about the way the Christ, the Logos, the Light that is the life of all peoples, took human form. In another time and another place, God might have worn another body and another face.

It happened when he was praying: the image of his face: different;  his cloak: white, flashing.

The theologian Soren Kierkegaard wrote a famous allegory about the Incarnation of Jesus: Suppose there was a king who loved a humble maiden. This king: he is so wealthy, so powerful, so respected, so feared. Those who come before him in his throne room tremble before his power. Yet his heart melts within him for love of this simple, poor young woman. How can he approach her and win her love? His power and glory tie his hands: If he appears to her in all his kingly might, she might agree to be his bride – but would she love him, or would she merely consent out of awe or fear or duty? Would she be happy with him, or merely obedient? He does not want to overwhelm or command. He does not want a subject, but a partner, a friend, a lover. And so, because he fears that he cannot raise the maiden to his glory without crushing her freedom, he lowers himself. He becomes ordinary and poor. Not in disguise but in truth: he sets aside his throne and crown. He puts on simple, ragged clothing – and walks the path to his beloved’s door. 

If the point of the Incarnation, of the whole Jesus project, was to be able to approach us, and tell us that we are loved, what body, what face would best suit that task? A body and a face that look like us. Whoever us might be. 

Representation matters. You might have heard someone say that. It’s shorthand for the increasing realization that seeing people who look like us, in positions of power or success, in movies and books, in schools and churches, is important. If none of the people in charge and none of the heroes of our stories look like us, deep down we’re not sure that people like us ever get to be in charge. Ever get to be heroes. That perception can operate within us even if we never think those words. In the past month I’ve had two different women my age or older say to me, “I never knew how much it mattered to me to have a woman priest until I had one.” The funny thing is, as I thought about it, I realized that was true for me too. My early life was blessed by a lot of wonderful priests, who all happened to be men. Discerning my call to ordination happened in parallel with Phil and I joining a mission church in North Carolina, the Church of the Advocate, led by our dear friend the Rev. Lisa Fischbeck. I was called before Lisa became my priest; but Lisa’s priesthood absolutely helped me find my way into my priesthood. 

God who knows us so well, both our potential and our limitations, knows that representation matters. That we needed God to be both transcendent and imminent; both beyond and among; both infinitely other and utterly familiar. And so God gave Godself to us as Jesus – a paradox and mystery that has given Christians the freedom to imagine Jesus the Christ with other bodies, other faces. 

Luke’s Gospel doesn’t use the word “transform” or “transfigure”, metamorpho, the word Mark and Matthew use, the word the Church uses to name this feast. Instead, Luke says Jesus’ face changed. His face became different. Still Jesus, but – different. Let’s look at some different Jesuses. 

This is a black Jesus – African-American. A really important 20th-century theologian, James Cone, wrote about why it’s important to imagine Jesus as black. He wrote, “Jesus Christ is not a proposition, not a theological concept which exists merely in our heads. He is an event of liberation, a happening in the lives of oppressed people struggling for political freedom. Therefore, to know him is to encounter him in the history of the weak and the helpless.” (God of the Oppressed, p. 32) And that’s why, he argues, there’s a deep truth in depicting Jesus as African-American – because if God chose to come two thousand years ago as a poor Jew in a backwards corner of the Roman Empire, God might well come today as a black child living in a neighborhood blighted by poverty and neglect. 

Here are some other ways Christians have envisioned Jesus. A Chinese Jesus, in the work of artist He Qi. A feminine Jesus, in the work of artist Janet Makenzie. Here is Jesus before his birth: his parents Mary and Joseph, reimagined as Maria y Jose, a young couple without money, without friends, without a safe place to birth their baby. This is by an artist named Everett Patterson. And there’s this image, a Good Friday image: Mary holds Jesus after his death – but they’re shown as children. Kids. 

Imagining Jesus as looking like us, whoever we are, is, I believe, a bold and faithful thing to do. We do it because we know that Jesus is more than just Jesus: 

Jesus is the Eternal one who enters time, the Universal one who becomes local. And we do it because we trust that the point of it all was to come close to us. To tell us that we are loved, and to invite us into renewed relationship with the Divine. We depict God in our image to remind ourselves that we are made in God’s image. 

I want to show you another Jesus: Jesus imagined in the image of a community that has heard again and again that God does not love them as they are. What do you notice about it? … 

The original Jesus bust, under all the colorful paint, came from a thrift store as a broken chunk of plaster. That’s where the artist found it. The artist is an acquaintance of mine; and I’m pretty sure she doesn’t have a lot of use for church. She is one of so, so many LGBTQ+ people who have gotten the message loud and clear that churches believe they don’t belong. That God’s love is conditional, and the condition is denying your own heart, soul, and body.

But the artist didn’t leave the broken Jesus bust at the Goodwill, or buy it and break it to smithereens. She took it home, and fixed it, and made it beautiful. She made it into a Jesus whom she and her friends could be safe with. A Jesus whose face shows the glory of God the way they need to see it, to know themselves beloved. Then she put it in an auction at a community event – and I bid on it till I won. (People who knew I was a pastor were shoving money at me, to help…!) 

I brought this Jesus here to St. Dunstan’s because I knew there would be people here who would find them beautiful and meaningful. One person looked at it and said to me, If I walked in the door of a church and saw this, I would know right away that I was safe here. I knew, too, that others would find it a little odd. Who might need an explanation to see how this Jesus is like these other Jesuses. And I know there are people here who will find it uncomfortable – even with the explanation. Who just can’t see this as Jesus. There are people who will see it as disrespectful – though I don’t believe that’s the artist’s intention, and it’s certainly not mine. There are people who will have a hard time seeing it as anything other than a joke, a piece of satire – which is also not the intention. Wherever you fall on that spectrum, I ask you to try to look at this as an icon – a holy image intended to help us focus on the divine. It might not be the image that works for you. That’s why churches have lots of different icons! 

I’ve begun to talk, with a few people, about where to hang this image of Jesus. We’ll probably put off the decision for a few months, because it’s fragile, and we’re about to do a lot of demolition and renovation around here. But I hope we can find a place for this Jesus – their face, different; their garment, shining and sparkling. 

In today’s Gospel, the transfiguration story leads right into a healing story. We chose to include it even though the lectionary offers us the option of dropping it – because it’s an awkward story. We want Jesus to be nice, and Jesus is not nice, here. I want to be clear, though, that Jesus isn’t yelling at the the father of the afflicted child. (The whole story is much clearer in Mark’s version!)  Jesus is yelling at the argumentative crowd. He’s fed up because he’s come from this mountaintop moment of clarity about his mission, and walked right into a big argument about whether he’s a fraud and whether his message matters and why are you bothering the Teacher with this sick kid and who do you think you are anyway?!?

Jesus’ frustration in this passage has been oddly comforting to me, this week, as many of us have watched with dismay as the United Methodist Church debated whether LGBTQ+ Methodists can be both fully themselves, and fully members of their church. And as Anglican Communion leaders – whom, I stress, have no authority over the Episcopal Church – have reminded us once again that they do not share our church’s affirmation of same-sex marriage. People have an amazing capacity to stand around arguing and trying to score points off each other, while someone vulnerable suffers in their midst. But Jesus marches in, tells them to knock it off, and heals the child.

I attended a talk a few weeks ago by Heidi Carter, a Christian sexuality educator. She said when she talks with queer kids about their churches, they say one of two things things. Either, My church loves and supports me completely, it’s one of my safe places; or else: I can’t tell my church who I really am. They might not love me anymore; they would try to change me. Matthew Swanson writes about this Gospel: “The description of the effect of… the demon is terrifying. It rips the boy to shreds. It shatters him. It crushes him.”

Jesus heals the child. Where are we, in this story? 

It is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

The knowledge of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ – a knowledge that is like a light, a knowledge that illuminates. Paul is alluding to Jesus’ transfiguration in this passage, but he’s also calling Christians to transformation –  to transfiguration, in fact; it’s that same Greek word, metamorpho. He says, Because we have seen God’s glory revealed in Jesus, because that light has shone into our hearts, we are being changed, day by day, to reflect that glory more and more ourselves, by living lives of integrity, freedom, and boldness. 

If the point of the Incarnation, of the whole Jesus project, was to be able to approach us, and tell us that we are loved – and call us to lives of integrity, freedom, and boldness – what body, what face would best suit that task? … A body and a face that look like us. Whoever us might be. 

Can you see the light of the glory of God in the face of this Jesus? I can. I see that light, that glory, in the artist’s courageous choice to reclaim Jesus from the hands of those who have hurt her. I see that light, that glory, in the reminder to look for Jesus among those pushed to the margins, those whose worth and humanity are treated as negotiable. I see that light, that glory, in the fact that beauty and holiness can take many different forms. I see light and glory in this garment, shining bright – in this beloved face, different. 

 

Richard Swanson’s commentary on this Gospel: 

https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2019/02/25/a-provocation-transfiguration-march-3-2019-luke-928-45/

Kierkegaard’s parable: 

http://www.readingtheology.com/the-king-and-the-maiden-by-søren-kierkegaard

Sermon, Feb. 17

Is there MORE? 

It’s one of the fundamental questions, isn’t it? I’m not talking about a human More, an earthly More. More Nordstrom Rewards points. More hours at the gym. More take-home pay. No, I mean the big More. The one we can’t see or touch, but wonder about – especially when we feel alone, when we’re grieving, or when we’re overwhelmed by joy, or awe, or gratitude. Is there a Beyond? An After? A Better? Is there More? 

In today’s Epistle, Paul is arguing with the church in Corinth about one piece of the More question – the After. He’s talking about resurrection. Will the dead rise again, in God? Paul is saying, This isn’t just one point on a list of things Christians are supposed to believe. It’s the heart of the thing. Because if there’s no resurrection of the dead – if death is, simply and universally, final – then Jesus didn’t rise from the dead. And if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, then how do we know that he was who he said he was? That his testimony about the nature of God and cosmos and humanity carried any more weight than the preaching of any of the other itinerant preacher weirdos who were wandering Judea in those days? If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile. Pointless. Empty. If our hope in Christ is only for this world, this life – then we are of all people the most to be pitied. There IS More, Paul insists. There IS After. 

One thing I find interesting in this passage is how much we have in common with the Corinthian Christians, especially if you read the whole chapter. It’s easy for modern folks to assume people in the past were more credulous, less skeptical. In fact, the Corinthians have same kinds of questions we might. They’ve seen what happens to dead bodies – more than we do. Remember the raising of Lazarus? – “Lord, he’s been in there three days; if we open the tomb, there will be a smell!” 

The idea that anybody comes back was a real stretch. I’m sure they wanted to believe it, just like we do – when we’ve lost a loved one and miss them with heart-rending urgency; when we are overwhelmed by the idea that everything, even the best things, those precious moments of joy and intimacy and awe, will pass away. We want to believe in the After, but it’s hard. Because we can’t see it, touch it. When someone’s gone, most of the time, it feels like they’re just gone. It sounds like for the Corinthians, as for some of us, a Christianity without resurrection, a Christianity of human decency and ethical living, seemed a lot easier to swallow. I get it. 

Paul, however, is not especially sympathetic to this dilemma. He writes, “But someone will ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?’” Although he’s trying to mock the question, he doesn’t have any better answers than I do. He says, I dunno! Maybe it’s like a seed! Of, of wheat or something! I’m not a farmer! You sow it in the ground and after a while something else rises up! A new life emerges! Okay? Or maybe we’ll have some whole different kind of body, then – a spiritual body instead of this earthly body, since you can’t expect an earthly body to live in Heaven, a spiritual place. Look. I don’t know, OK? I don’t KNOW. But I believe. I believe. And my believing makes a difference in my life. 

If the dead are not raised, he says, a few verses later, then hey, let’s eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die. Nothing really matters. Stop worrying an enjoy your life. Instead, says Paul, I put myself in danger every hour. I confront both human and spiritual adversaries. I die every day. Because I believe in the More. 

Is there More? Is there After? Is there Better? 

Today’s Gospel is the beginning of Jesus’ famous teachings known as the Sermon on the Mount – though actually Luke says he’s standing on level ground! In this passage, Jesus is talking about whether this is all there is. What you are, what you have right now – is this it? Or is there more? 

Let’s pause for just a minute on the word “Blessed.” I typed “#Blessed” into Instagram this week, and got over a hundred million results.  A quick perusal of the first hundred showed photos of party dresses, new haircuts, flattering selfies, vacation snapshots, cute kids, and tacos. I mean – sure. But that’s not the kind of Blessed Jesus is talking about here. The Greek word here is makarios – blessed, happy, fortunate. Christians have wrestled with, and leaned on, this Gospel passage for 2000 years because what Jesus is saying is so different from human assumptions about blessedness, or happiness, or good fortune. 

Jesus says, Blessed are you poor; the reign of God is yours. Blessed are you hungry; you will be filled. Blessed are you lamenting; you will laugh. Blessed are you hated and persecuted; you’re in good company. The future tense in these statements is open-ended. Jesus doesn’t say when, or how, people’s reality will shift. But he does say, with complete conviction, that the mess you’re in right now is not all there is for you. 

And he flips it: If you’ve got it great right now, your #blessed lifestyle is also not the end of the story. How terrible for you rich; you’ve already received your good things. How terrible for you who have plenty now; you will be hungry. How terrible for you who laugh – yes, you in the back, says Jesus, I see you laughing! Your time will come to weep. None of us get out of this alive. Unscathed. 

We are so prone, we human beings, to believing that people’s circumstances reflect their worth. We know better, but we fall into it anyway. We fawn over billionaires and criminalize the poor. And worse still, we believe it about ourselves. Our struggles, our failures, our dry times, our self-destructive spirals: in our darkest nights, we believe they’re the whole truth about us. This is it. This is all there is for me. Of me. Jesus says, No. 

Whether Jesus is talking about After, the next life, or More, a new kind of life in this world, or either, or both, Jesus says: The whole truth about you is more than your current circumstances. Good or bad. Poverty, hunger, pain, grief, addiction, illness of body, mind, or spirit; affluence and comfort too – they happen to you, they may become part of you, but they are not all of you. I see you, says Jesus. The whole you. And I tell you: Don’t take Here and Now too seriously. There’s More. 

Is there more? Some people claim to find relief and freedom in the idea that there isn’t. That this is all there is. Generations of Christian leaders are to blame for that, I think – for all the ways the Church has misrepresented what our faith teaches about More, Beyond, and After. I regret it, but here we are. 

In one of my favorite books about faith, Francis Spufford writes about how many non-believers see believers as engaged in a sort of “fluffy pretending” that shuts out the hard realities of life. And he describes a London bus with an ad on it, sponsored by the outspoken New Atheist movement in the UK. The ad on the bus says: “There’s probably no God. Stop worrying and enjoy your life.” 

He writes, “All right then: Which word here is the questionable one, the aggressive one, the one that parts company with actual recognizable human experience so fast it doesn’t even have time to wave goodbye? It isn’t ‘probably.’ [The] New Atheists aren’t claiming anything outrageous when they say there probably isn’t a God. … It’s as much a guess for them as it is for me.” 

Spufford continues, “No, the word that offends against realism here is enjoy. … Enjoyment is lovely. Enjoyment is great…. But enjoyment is one emotion.” He points out that the texture of our lives is such that sometimes we feel enjoyment, and sometimes we feel other things – “hope, boredom, curiosity, anxiety, irritation, fear,.… Life just isn’t unanimous.”  

And Spufford argues that this idea – that life, liberated from the presumed burdens of religious thinking, is simply to be enjoyed – this bit of “fluffy pretending” is not innocent, but deeply harmful.  He invites the reader to imagine different people watching that bus go by: A woman on her way home to her beloved partner who is all but lost to dementia, her weariness and grief and frustration. A young man gripped by profound congenital disability, fearful that cascading illness may take away the limited capacities he has. A woman in the grip of drug addiction, who recently tried to get clean, and failed, and hates herself. 

What does that bus sign say to them? “There’s probably no God. Stop worrying and enjoy your life.” It says, No help is coming. It says, Nobody cares. It says, You’re alone. Spufford writes, “St. Augustine called this kind of thing ‘cruel optimism’ fifteen hundred years ago, and it’s still cruel.” 

In contrast to the superficial cheer offered by the bus sign, Spufford writes, “A consolation you could believe in would be one that … didn’t depend on some more or less tacky fantasy about ourselves… A consolation you could trust would be one that acknowledged the difficult stuff rather than being in flight from it, and then found you grounds for hope in spite of it.”

Spufford goes on to talk about John Lennon, and Mozart, and to put some words around the More as he understands it: “I think the reason reality… is in some ultimate sense merciful…, is that the universe is sustained by a continual and infinitely patient act of love.” It really is a wonderful book. Let me know if you need me to buy you a copy. 

Is there More? Is there After? Is there Better? We’ll never be sure – not in this life. 

Spufford says, “I don’t know that any of it is true…. It isn’t the kind of thing you can know.” My friend and mentor Brooks Graebner said once, “We suffer from a perceptual deficit that causes us to mistake some of reality for all of reality.” Belief in More isn’t “fluffy pretending,” an escape from gritty reality; it’s a source of purpose and direction, courage and consolation, in the thick of it all. We show up here because we want to believe in the More.  We want to trust in it. And maybe, sometimes, we’ve felt glimmers of it. Seen a flash. Heard a whisper. 

It isn’t the kind of thing you can know – but it is possible to cultivate our openness to the More. Our capacity to feel, see, hear, smell, taste the traces of a Mercy, a Love, a Consolation, a Purpose beyond our daily living.

Beloveds, we are approaching Lent – a season in which Christians have often taken on a spiritual practice to draw us closer to God. Some small everyday commitment, a thing to do or not do, that helps us be more grounded, more mindful. Kinder. Simpler. Slower. 

Look back at our first two readings this morning – our Jeremiah text and our Psalm. There’s a superficial similarity: those trees planted by the water. But the Psalm does this thing that some of the Psalms do: It says that there are wicked people and good people. The good people thrive; the wicked people dry up and blow away. Spufford would say this assertion fails the reality test. 

Whereas what the prophet Jeremiah says is less moral judgment and more statement of fact: If you put your whole trust in human capacity, human strength, human intelligence, you’re going to come up short, sooner or later. Send out your roots towards the living water deep underground, the soil that stays moist even in drought, that will sustain you even in harsh seasons and dry times. You need to trust in something bigger. Something More. Something Beyond. What’s calling you as Lent approaches? Where is God inviting you into More? 

 

Book cited:

Francis Spufford, Unapologetic: Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense, Faber and Faber, 2012. All quotations from pages 7 – 20. 

Sermon, Dec. 9

I’m going to explain the shape of the church’s year, and I need a couple of helpers. … See? The church’s seasons make a circle. This circle represents one calendar year. But there are bigger circles too, of course – seasons that come around in our lives, and in the life of the world. Some wise folk say that time is not a circle but a spiral: we move through similar times and seasons, but we’re different each time, because there’s greater movement too; our lives, individually or as a species, are not static, flat. We change; we are different at 50 than we were at 30; we are different in 2018 than we were in 1018. And yet we’re probably less different than we think we are. There are always echoes and resonances; past, present, and future intertwine and tangle. 

For a lot of us, church is probably one of the main places in our lives where we spend time with, you know, old stuff. Stories and symbols and images that are 1000, 2000, 3000 years old. Showing up here is, among other things, a vote that the old stuff still matters somehow, still speaks, still holds truth. (Believe me: There are many people who find this a very odd point of view!)

Fundamentally, of course, we’re here because we believe, or want to believe, that Jesus is the Son of God, and that the things he said and did tell the truth about God’s love for humanity. But there are Christians who spend a lot less time with all this old stuff – for whom ancient texts and traditions are much less central to their worship and practice. 

It’s one of the hallmarks of the kind of Christian we are, we Anglicans, shared with the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches: we take seriously what we have received from our forebears in faith, all the way back.  We expect the ancient to come alive in the present and guide us into the future. Why? Well – I think often of a study I read a couple of years ago showing that families that tell and re-tell stories of past struggle, survival, and success are more resilient in the face of difficult times in the present. Our ancestors’ perseverance encourages and strengthens us. That’s certainly one of the things we do, as a church family. 

But I believe that the way our sacred past works in us is more than psychological; it’s mystical as well. Sometimes the past simply sings within us, among us.  Sometimes the saints and holy ones stir up in us their courage, compassion, eloquence, endurance, humility, fury. If we believe – or want to believe – that more exists than we can see, measure, or prove, then all the “old stuff” we tend and treasure, our scriptures, songs, habits and symbols, are not just antiques but talismans, objects of power that might suddenly turn out to glow in the presence of evil, or to unlock a hidden door that advances our quest. 

One of the ways we carry the past into the present and future is by naming and celebrating holy days. When we set aside a holy day, we’re saying: This is worth remembering. This is worth passing down. This week, this second week of December, is rich in holy days. Let’s look at them together. 

The first one isn’t ours: Chanukkah, a Jewish festival observed from December 3 through 10, this year. But in a quirk of the lectionary, one of our texts today points towards Channukah: Baruch. The book of Baruch is part of the Apocrypha, books written later than most of the Old Testament, not long before Jesus’ time. They have sort of a “secondary Scripture” status for many Christians, but there’s lots of good stuff in there. Baruch was the assistant of the prophet Jeremiah, who lived in Jerusalem in the sixth century before Christ, at the time of the Babylonian conquest. The book of Baruch claims to be the words of Baruch, writing words of rebuke and encouragement to Jews in exile in Babylon. But the book of Baruch actually dates from several centuries later. It’s possible that fragments of older texts were used; but writing texts that borrow and expand the voice of older Scripture texts was common in the centuries just before Jesus’ time, and the book of Baruch fits that pattern. 

Some scholars think that Baruch was actually written around the time of the Maccabean revolt – a military revolt against foreign rule which was also a forceful movement against the encroachment of Greek culture in Judea, and for the return to the old ways of the Jewish people, both cultural and religious. Judas Maccabeus and his guerrilla forces fought back the armies of the Seleucid Empire, ritually cleansed the Great Temple and re-established traditional Jewish worship there. The festival of Chanukkah celebrates the re-dedication of the Temple. (The story about the oil came along later.) The message that Baruch might have had for Jews in exile in the 6th century before Christ, would have felt urgent and relevant for Jews in Judea in the second century before Christ: 

Repent! Forsake other gods! Pray for mercy! If you had walked in the way of God, says Baruch, you would be living in peace for ever. Learn where there is wisdom, where there is strength; where there is length of days, and life, and peace. 

This nameless second-century author turns to the past to find inspiration for what the present demands, writes this beautiful prophetic poetry that speaks to the people and the times, and attributes it to the long-dead Baruch. Who am I to call it a lie? Prophesy is a mystery, and time is full of tangles and echoes. Sometimes the past sings in us. 

The second feast this week isn’t exactly ours, though maybe it’s becoming more so: the feast of the Virgen de Guadalupe. Five hundred years ago, just as King Henry VIII was beginning to think about a church independent from Rome, a native Mexican farmer named Juan Deigo was working in a field outside Mexico City, a place called Tepeyac Hill, when he saw a vision of a beautiful young woman who poke to him in his native language, told him that she was the mother of the true God, and asked him to build a church there in her honor. The bishop was skeptical, but the Virgin kept appearing to Juan. Finally, thanks to miracles like the appearance of roses on Tepeyac Hill, Juan Diego’s vision was accepted as a true theophany, an encounter with the divine. Many native Mexicans became Christian because of Maria de Guadalupe – who was THEIR Mary, not a Spanish import, but God’s Mother come to them on their own soil. Over the centuries she has become a powerful symbol of Mexican faith, unity, and freedom. 

Do I believe it? I wouldn’t presume to disbelieve. I put no boundaries on the One called to wrap God in flesh. And why shouldn’t a poor, small-town, brown-skinned person like Mary choose to transcend fifteen hundred years of history to share the grace of her presence with a poor, small-town, brown-skinned person like Juan Diego? Time is flexible, in the domain of faith, of the Divine. The past can manifest in the present, and shape and bless the future. If you’d like to honor the Virgin today, take a rose and place it at her feet sometime during our worship. We have some prayer cards there as well. 

The third feast day this week is ours, though it always sneaks up on me: the feast day of St. Nicholas, a few days ago on the 6th. My strongest association with Nicholas is the cookies my mother used to make, every December. Their base was a wedge of sturdy, not-very-sweet gingerbread; the frosting of Nicholas’ read cope and mitre were colored with beet juice, because my little brother was sensitive to red dye. I loved them, as a child, but I remember friends trying them and being… nonplused. My mother’s Nicholases were more of a grownup cookie – and that fits, because Nicholas is kind of a grownup saint. 

Nicholas was a bishop, in what is now part of Turkey, back in the third century – seventeen hundred years ago. He’s remembered in many stories that are, like my mother’s cookies, nourishing but not particularly sweet. In one story, three boys on a journey stop at an inn. The innkeeper robs them, kills them, chops them up, and puts them in a pickle barrel. Nicholas, stopping by the inn, discerns the boys’ plight and resurrects them. 

In another story, Nicholas, walking the streets of his city by night, hears parents grieving: they are so poor they cannot afford to help their daughter marry, and she is doomed to a life of prostitution. Nicholas tosses a bag of gold coins down the smoke hole in the roof of their humble home – the ancient origin of the presents-down-the-chimney myth. And then there’s the story of the time Nicholas attended the Council of Nicaea, the great 3rd-century gathering of church leaders to hammer out what the church actually believed. There was a great debate with a man named Arius and his followers, who thought that Jesus was not fully one with God, not fully divine. It is said that Nicholas was so impatient with Arius’ heretical views that he slapped him – and was sent to Bishop Jail as a result. 

Dead children, vulnerable women, slapping heretics – No wonder we collectively opted for Santa Claus, instead of this cranky bishop whose life and deeds were a little too gritty. But which do we really need – a supernaturally-jolly elf who engages in invasive surveillance and  behavior control, and who replicates the dynamics of capitalism by bringing the best gifts to the most affluent kids? Or a saint, a man of God, who walked the poorest streets of his city, listening to the people’s cries of anguish? Who strove to help women in poverty, children touched by violence; and who stood up fiercely for his convictions? The pile of gifts we’re sending to families served by Middleton Outreach Ministry this year shows that the spirit of Nicholas is at work among us already. May that fierce and compassionate saint continue to inspire our generosity and our courage. 

Time is messy for church folks. Out there the calendar marches onward, linear and one-directional: 2018 will soon give way to 2019, and 2020 after that. A revolt from 2300 years ago – a saint who served his city 1700 years ago – a mother who lived and died 2000 years ago, only to show up on a new continent 500 years ago – it’s all distant past, long dead and dusty. But here, time circles and doubles back. There are echoes, resonances, and sometimes resurrections. What has happened, what is happening, what will happen, tangle and overlap. 

Which brings us to the Magnificat. Mary’s bold song of praise, rightly beloved by generations of Christians: My soul proclaims the greatness of God! My spirit rejoices in God my savior! For You have shown the strength of your arm, you have scattered the proud in their conceit. You have cast down the mighty from their thrones, and have lifted up the lowly. Later we’ll sing Rory Cooney’s song based on this text, the Canticle of the Turning, which many of us have come to love in the years we’ve been singing it. In the song, the poet has made God’s actions into future events. That makes sense – since we still wait to see these things finally, fully completed.

But in the Scripture text, Mary doesn’t speak of the future. She uses the present perfect tense: God has filled, has pulled down, has sent away. The tense indicates completion, something already brought to fulfillment.   

Mary wasn’t naive – nor was Luke, who offers us her words. They lived in times more violent, more broken, than ours. These faith-ancestors of ours were under no illusions that God had already fixed the world, once and for all. Yet Luke’s Mary has the audacity to say: God has acted. God’s future is present. Barbara Brown Taylor, writing about the Magnificat, says, “Prophets almost never get their verb tenses straight, because part of their gift is being able to see the world as God sees it – not divided into things that are already over and things that have not happened yet, but as an eternally unfolding mystery that surprises everyone.” (in Home By Another Road) 

What will happen is, somehow, happening now; has, somehow, already happened. Mary sings of a world in which God’s justice already reigns, in which Love has already, finally, won. That’s not the world I see, when I look around. And yet it doesn’t feel to me that Mary is wrong. It feels instead like time folding in on itself, future fulfillment overflowing the past, flooding the present. Time isn’t a line; time isn’t a circle; time is a glorious, complex, mysterious spiraling knot, in which a 2000-year old song strengthens us for the work of this moment, in which saints of old march and pray and struggle and give and sing beside us and within us. 

We spend our days uneasily suspended between God’s promises made and God’s promises kept; in this puzzling difficult unsatisfying in-between time, after the first coming at Bethlehem, before the second coming in glory. That’s the energy behind the most fundamental prayer of Advent, the thing we say again and again and again in these weeks, the prayer that folds time: past, the promised babe, future, the King coming in glory, and now, the urgent holy present; the prayer that gives voice to our yearning and our hope, our disappointment and our faith:  Come, Lord Jesus. O come, o come, Emmanuel, God with us. Come. 

Sermon, Nov. 18

Folks, we are two Sunday out from Advent, closing in on the end of one year and the birth of a new one, by the Church’s reckoning, and we’re talking about the end of the world. Not nuclear or environmental catastrophe, those mundane human disasters, but the honest-to-God End Times, when all the structures in which we have come to trust will be thrown down, not a stone left upon stone. When humanity will be terrified and confounded by wars and rumors of wars, by messianic pronouncements, by nation rising up against nation, earthquakes, famines – and all of that is just the beginning of the birthpangs, the early contractions before labor REALLY gets underway. 

Let me pause here for a vocabulary check. You might say that Jesus is talking about the apocalypse. A word that we use to mean the sudden and catastrophic end of the current age – maybe the end of everything. “Apocalypse” comes from the Greek for “to uncover or reveal.” In its original sense it referred to teachings or writings that do what Jesus is doing here:  reveal the signs of the coming end of things. As for the end itself, Biblical scholars would call that the Eschaton: the final, fulfilling event in the divine plan. I’m not going to tell you that you’re using the word apocalypse wrong, because we’ve used it that way for so long that its meaning has shifted. But I am going to use the church’s word for the end of everything, Eschaton, to remind us that we’re talking about God’s fulfillment of history – and that we’re not talking about, say, zombies. 

We don’t know a lot about the Eschaton. The texts are complicated and unclear. But our Scriptures and our tradition tell us it’s going to happen. How do we think about that, as Christians? As Episcopalians? 

When we get into the End Times, my mind always goes to a couple of literary characters. One comes from the work of James Thurber, the great mid-20th-century humorist. In an essay in his book “My Life and Hard Times,” he recalls a colorful character from his youth in Columbus, Ohio: The Get-Ready Man. Thurber writes, ‘The Get-Ready Man was a lank unkempt elderly gentleman with wild eyes and a deep voice who used to go about shouting at people through a megaphone to prepare for the end of the world, “GET READY! GET READ-Y!” he would bellow, “THE WORLLLD IS COMING TO AN END!”’ His startling exhortations added a certain note to many civic occasions. 

On the other hand, a New Yorker cartoon some years back showed a similarly wild-eyed, gaunt, unkempt elderly man on a street corner, holding up a sign that read, “It’s just going to go on and on…”

I like to think of those gentlemen as marking out two schools of thought about the end of the world: Get Ready,  versus On and On. 

This is a significant division within contemporary Christianity. Some Christians are deeply concerned and interested in end times, spend a lot of time with Scripture texts that predict or describe, made the Left Behind series into bestsellers, and even promote policies that they believe will help bring on the Eschaton. Get ready!!

Then there are the On and On Christians, including most Episcopalians. Our chosen bestsellers are more likely to be written by Barbara Kingsolver or Bob Woodward. We worry about nuclear and environmental disaster, for sure, but the Eschaton per se is not really on our radar. We acknowledge the Eschaton and the Second Coming of Christ as teachings of the church, but don’t give it a lot of thought. I mean, it’s a weird thing to believe – that Jesus is going to float down from the sky someday and replace everything tattered and broken in this world with the living, joyful wholeness that God intended for us.  

The earliest Christians, our ancestors in faith, were mostly in the Get Ready camp. They expected that Jesus would return ANY MINUTE NOW, to usher in God’s new world. They waited and watched, expectant, impatient. Some even quit their jobs and refused to marry.

Their expectation was based on things Jesus had said – in texts like today’s Gospel, in which Jesus’ small-town-born disciples are impressed with the size of the Great Temple in Jerusalem, and Jesus says, Don’t get too attached. On the brink of the Last Supper, arrest, and death, Jesus tells his friends that big, terrifying changes are in the wind. 

As I read the text, with 2000 years’ hindsight, I think that Jesus is talking about two different things at once: the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple about forty years later, a genuinely apocalyptic event for Jews and Christians of that time. Jesus predicts that the Temple will be destroyed, as it was; that his followers will be persecuted, as they were; that there will be bitter conflict over the Gospel, as indeed there was and is; that the Gospel must be proclaimed to all nations, as indeed it has been.

But later in the same chapter, he also describes a more cosmic final ending (and beginning) that has yet to occur: “The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken… They will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from… the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.”

In a couple of weeks we’ll hear Luke’s Jesus prophesying with similar words: “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars… People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

The emotional tone of these texts, I find, is interestingly ambiguous. There is fear, certainly – even terror. In Mark 13, Jesus tells his friends, “Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! Pray that it may not be in winter. For in those days there will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the creation… until now, no, and never will be.”

These apocalyptic prophesies stir up dread, of course. But there are also hints of a kind of fierce, bitter hope.  The world as it was had not been kind to the people who became the first Christians. They had reason to find comfort in the vision of a world turned upside down, a Great Day in which God’s might would sweep over the powers and principalities of this world, leaving rubble and ashes. 

It’s fitting that the lectionary pairs Jesus’ apocalyptic words with the song of Hannah, many centuries older. Hannah was one of two wives of a good and loving man, Elkanah. Hannah had no children, while the second wife, Penninah, had many sons and daughters. And Penninah used to mock Hannah cruelly. Hannah prays fervently to God and God gives her a son, Samuel, Israel’s great prophet and kingmaker. When she dedicates Samuel to God’s service, she sings this song – so like the familiar Magnficiat, the Song of Mary, but different too, mostly because Hannah is angrier than Mary. 

Hannah sings, “My heart exults in the LORD; my strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory. Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth… The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn.”

In context, Hannah’s anger reflects her rival’s cruelty. But I hear a resonance with the combined fear and exaltation in some Christian apocalyptic texts: God’s New Day is coming, and those who made the current age a living hell for many are going to get theirs. And I hear, too, a resonance with the voices of friends and acquaintances today, who look at our brutal society, our polarized politics, our wounded environment, and say, only half kidding: Burn it all down. Even though I’m doing fine, even though my house is warm and my kids are healthy: It’s all too broken to fix. Burn it down and start fresh. 

Episcopalians tend, by history, theology, and social status, to be On and On type Christians. We build stone churches and establish endowments. We plan for the long term. But here as a dark season grows darker, as the old year decays and the new year stirs towards birth, I think there are gifts for us in the Get Ready. I find that each year, Advent’s rich brew of hope and trepidation gets more real to me. 

Beloveds, we live in an amazing time. The number of people around the globe living in extreme poverty declined sharply between 2000 and 2015. In roughly the same years, the percentage of Americans who believe that LGBTQ+ people should be able to get married rose from 35% to 62%. And I am always mindful that I could not have served this  church as a priest anytime earlier than 1976. There is so much possibility in the world, and so much to love. There are so many moments when I just pause and breathe and think, This is good. Thank you. 

But there are moments, too, when I’m so hungry for the fulfillment of these ancient prophecies. Because things are so broken. Close to 200 dead in Paradise, California, after a wildfire made worse by global climate change. A black security guard apprehends a gunman and is himself shot dead by police. My friend Dave, the priest in Baraboo, had to find words for a letter to his congregation about high school boys doing the Nazi salute in a prom photo.  

How long, O Lord? Until this world’s long labor finally births God’s new reality? Get ready! 

As we lean towards Advent, as we lean into the darkness of this season, I find that what’s most whole and most true for me is to live in the On and On with some of that spirit of Get Ready. Doing what little I can to leave things better than I found them; while trusting – hoping – fearing that God may upset the whole apple-cart at any time, and replace it with something better. 

First-century Christians thought they were living at the end of time – expecting the Eschaton to break through at any moment. It’s easy to look back and think they were wrong, 

but they weren’t, really – because what was important is the way their Get Ready mindset, their confidence in God’s transcendent purposes working inexorably towards fulfillment even through our struggle and confusion, made them live in their present as people of God’s future. 

I look to those ancestors in faith to teach us how to live in the On and On inflected by the urgent, angry hope of Get Ready: Recognize that everything is provisional. Hold lightly the ways of this age – even the things that are working pretty well for us. Expect loss. Expect grace. Expect change. Jesus says, Keep your eyes open! Stay awake! 

Get ready!

Sermon, August 13

Kol ha-olam kulo gesher tsar meod, gesher tsar meod, gesher tsar meod, Kol ha-olam kulo gesher tsar meod, gesher tsar meod. Ve ha-ikar, ha-ikar lo lifachad, lo lifachad klal. Ve ha-ikar, ha-ikar lo lifachad klal. 

The words are Hebrew, and they mean: The whole world is a very narrow bridge, But the most important thing is not to be afraid. The whole world – kol ha-olam – is a very narrow bridge, gesher tsar meod. But the most important thing is not to be afraid.

I learned this song in 1995, during the five weeks or so that I spent in Jerusalem. It was supposed to be the beginning of my junior year abroad, But a horrific bus bombing and an escalation in violence, in the long, costly war between Israel and Palestine, changed all that. Along with many students in the same program, I ended up going home; I spent my junior year in Canterbury, England, instead. But between the bombing and getting on the plane back to Indiana, I had a week-plus of living with fear, with an intimacy and intensity that was new to me. That’s probably why this song stuck – I needed it, badly. Those simple words became an anchor for me, in the storm of fear in which I found myself – along with Psalm 107, which I discovered in the little student edition of the Book of Common Prayer that my chaplain had given me before I left: Their hearts melted because of their peril, they were at their wits’ end. Then God stilled the storm to a whisper… and brought them to the harbor they were bound for.

The whole world is a very narrow bridge, but the most important thing is not to be afraid.

The disciples saw Jesus walking towards them across the water, and they thought he was a ghost; they cried out in fear. But Jesus said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Then Peter said, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you across the water.” And Jesus said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, and started walking towards Jesus, across the water. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened. And beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

Preachers often use this story to preach about faith. But I think this tiny, important story is just as much about fear. In our translation, Jesus says that Peter “doubted.” That word suggests that Peter’s faith was faltering. Yet Peter cries out to Jesus for help as he sinks. The Greek word translated as “doubt” here is pretty interesting. It doesn’t mean questioning something you believe. The word, distazo, literally means something like being of two minds, being conflicted, wavering. What’s happening inside of Peter in this moment isn’t that his faith in Jesus is faltering; it’s that something else creeps in alongside his faith, and wreaks havoc on his balance and direction. Peter notices the strong wind, and he becomes afraid. Fear comes alongside his eagerness, his sense of hopeful purpose. He wavers; he begins to sink.

Take heart, says Jesus. The words “Take heart” appear five times in the Bible. “Take courage” appears 21 times, and “Be courageous” 12 times. Do not be afraid, says Jesus. “Do not be afraid” appears in the Bible 67 times. “Have no fear” appears another 11 times. That’s 116 exhortations to resist fear – and that’s only the ones that are easy to find in a text search.

The Bible treats fear as a spiritual challenge – one of the biggest spiritual challenges. God knows – and the ancient authors who recorded the holy stories of God’s people, knew – that fear shakes us, weakens us, holds us back, Turns us against one another. Fear corrodes our ideals, our convictions, our hopes.

What does it feel like in your body, when you’re afraid? Think about it for a minute; remember. I don’t know if it feels the same for everybody, though the biological processes are basically the same. Do you hear a kind of rushing in your ears? Does your gut clench? Does your heart race?

Scientists tell us that the fear response, what happens in our bodies when we feel threatened, is a deep-seated adaptive response. Something that helped our ancient ancestors survive, long before we first stood up on two legs. The fear response pushes us towards one of three actions: Fight, flight, or freeze.

Fight: That’s clear enough. That means our little primordial mammal-selves Are going to fight that predator tooth and claw. What does that look like in “civilized” society? When someone raises an idea that threatens our worldview, or a concern that challenges our plan, we respond with anger. We attack. We try to drive away the inconvenient truth or the challenging idea, by hurting or intimidating or silencing the person who’s raising it. I’ve done this. So have you.

Flight: That’s clear enough too. That means our little primordial mammal-self RUNS AWAY. Maybe we can outrun the predator, escape the danger. In our lives, that looks like getting out of a situation when it starts to feel challenging or threatening. Walk back that thing you said, and apologize; you meant it, but you’re not prepared to deal with the reaction. Decide not to put yourself forward for that opportunity, because you probably don’t have the right qualifications. Don’t buy that swimsuit; Good Lord, what if someone takes your photo and puts it on the Internet, and people laugh at you? I experience the Flight reaction in one very specific way: when situations become a certain kind of stressful, a child’s voice – presumably mine – in the back of my head says, clear as day, “I want to go home.” What does the Flight response feel like inside of you? You’ve done this, too.

And then there’s Freeze – that means our little primordial mammal-self goes totally still: maybe the predator won’t see me, will walk on by. You’ve seen rabbits and squirrels do this. In our modern, civilized lives, that looks like: not rocking the boat. Keeping quiet when your boss makes a racist joke. Sticking with the job you hate because who knows if you could find something else. Holding your truth locked up inside you because the people closest to you might hurt you if they knew. Don’t try that hard thing, that big daring thing, because failure would be worse than not trying. Wouldn’t it? Just… hold still and keep quiet, and maybe everything will be OK. I’ve done this, and so have you.

Fight, flight, or freeze – that’s what happens inside us, when we’re afraid. What happens among us, when we’re afraid? … Leaders discovered a long, long time ago that fear is an outstanding tool for managing and manipulating large groups of people. It’s easy to scare people, and hard to un-scare them. Our brains are lousy at probability: we will readily believe that a certain risk is orders of magnitude greater than it actually is, and we’ll allow that sense of danger to shape our worldview and drive our behavior. And once we’re afraid, as a society, we’ll tolerate all kinds of things if they give us the illusion of greater safety. The limiting of our freedoms and privacies. The demonization of people in a group that’s seen as a threat. The proliferation of weapons in our homes and neighborhoods, which, the data say quite clearly, makes us less safe, not more.

The French philosopher Anne Dufourmantelle wrote and spoke extensively about all this, in her book, “In Praise of Risk,” and elsewhere. She said, Risk is part of life. Danger, loss, hardship, challenge: it’s all just a given. It will come to you, and to those you love. Certainly you can make better choices – fasten your seat belt, take your medication – but human life will never be safe. In a 2015 interview, she said that the idea of “absolute security” is a fantasy – and not an innocent fantasy: one that’s often used as a political weapon of control. And it can become a feedback cycle: the visible apparatus of security, like armed guards on street corners, can feed public fear and thus make us even more subject to manipulation through the promise of security. She said, ”To imagine an enemy ready to attack… induces a state of paralysis, a feeling of helplessness.” There’s that “freeze” response…

Dufourmantelle argued, instead, for accepting risk as part of the human condition. The human response to risk can be noble, beautiful. She told the interviewer, “When there really is a danger that must be faced in order to survive, as for example during the Blitz in London, there is a strong incentive for action, dedication, and surpassing oneself.”

I’d never heard of Anne Dufourmantelle until her name cropped up in the news a couple of weeks ago. She’d been swimming at a beach in France, when the ocean currents suddenly intensified and became dangerous. When the alert went out, she saw two children nearby, and instead of heading directly for shore, she set out to try and rescue them. The children were saved, but Dufourmantelle drowned. Living what she professed. Rising to the risk before her.

Is that supposed to be an encouraging story? I hear you asking. She wound up dead. But imagine how it could easily have ended: She saved herself, and the children were lost. Is one’s own death the worst possible outcome in every situation? What would Jesus do?

Kol ha-olam…. The whole world is a very narrow bridge…

As I look back on it, It occurs to me that those weeks in Israel, when I was 20, may have been the crucible in which one of my fundamental spiritual practices was formed: the practice of resisting fear. Because I spent a couple of weeks living in terror, and I hated how it felt. I hated being so preoccupied with my basic physical safety. It was hard to think about anything else, to enjoy, to learn. I hated how selfish it made me. I hated how it made me afraid of people.

Sometime along the road of recovering from that dark chapter, I decided I didn’t want to be ruled by fear, ever again. It wasn’t until this week that it dawned on me to think of that as a spiritual practice. But it is; it really is. I practice it imperfectly, to be sure. But I try to live as a follower of a God who says, Fear not. Take courage.

Resisting fear doesn’t mean being naive or blindly optimistic, or pretending everything is going to be OK. Scripture and God and the saints nowhere claim that being beloved of God means nothing bad will ever happen. Instead, they insist that none of those dangers can touch your fundamental life in God. It’s hard to say it better than Paul does in our recent text from the letter to the Romans: “Who can separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, illness, poverty, danger, violence? No! I am convinced that neither death nor life, angels nor rulers, things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

So if security is a dangerous illusion, what are the alternatives to fear? Well, I can name a few, from my own practice. Maybe you have others; I’d love to hear about them. These are some of ways I manage myself, when I start to feel the urge to fight, or freeze, or flee. When I start to get distazo, when fear creeps in alongside my faith, my sense of hopeful purpose.

One alternative to fear is curiosity – approaching the things that scare us with curiosity and wonder. Charles Lafond has written a lot about fear as a spiritual challenge, in general and particularly in our relationship with money. He wrote this, last year: “Choosing curiosity over fear takes no small amount of courage.  There is so much to fear. There are the many diagnoses, the possibility of plague, not getting my way in everything, the teetering economy, not getting my way in everything (it deserves saying twice), the Presidential Election, tooth decay, a melting ice cap, and my inability to smell bad salmon… But curiosity is so much more gentle than fear. It winks, for one thing.  And it seduces, which is pleasant. And curiosity is the gift that keeps on giving, making life a treasure hunt if we let it.”

Another alternative to fear is compassion. Madison is seeing almost-unprecedented levels of gun violence right now. There have been ten homicides so far this year. One of the neighborhoods affected is not far from my home; kids who are living with occasional gunfire on their street go to school with my daughter. As a concerned citizen, I could react to this in a couple of ways. I could get scared, for myself and my family, despite the vanishingly small likelihood that this violence will touch us directly. Or I could be dismayed and grieved for those affected by this violence – including the perpetrators, who surely would rather have a safer and better path in life. It’s really hard to be both compassionate towards those affected, and afraid for myself, at the same time. We’re not cut out for that. I have to choose – and I’ve chosen.

Another alternative to fear is courage. I think of both curiosity and compassion as ways to sneak around behind the fear and find a different way of engaging the situation. But courage means facing the fear head-on. Looking it right in the face. Getting to know it. Befriending it, even. How do you take courage? For me the process goes something like this. I think about the risks, as calmly as I can. What’s the worst that could happen – and how likely is it, really? I think about the resources I bring to the situation. When making that inventory, remember, always, to count the basic things that nurture and sustain you: song and prayer, fresh fruit and evening skies, the love of friends, family, pets, whatever it might be for you. And I think about the hopes or possibilities that brought me to the point where I’m facing this fear. What’s important enough to make me undertake something hard and scary? If it’s really important – and especially if I feel God calling me towards it – well, then, forward.

I am not a master at the art of resisting fear. I’ve been practicing for a while, but only haphazardly. I would love to hear about your techniques. But I know it’s an important spiritual discipline for me – and I wonder if it might be for all of us, in this moment in the life of the world, when so much fear is circling among us.

Take courage. Don’t be afraid. God is here. Jesus and God and saints and prophets and angels say it, over and over and over again. Could it be part of the message we’re entrusted with, too? Words we’re given for the welfare and hope of our neighbors?

The whole world is a very narrow bridge, but the most important thing is not to be afraid… Take heart.

Sources:

On Anne Dufourmantelle: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-40703606

Charles Lafond on curiosity: http://thedailysip.org/2016/08/18/668/

Rev. Jonathan Grieser’s recent reflection on gun violence in Madison: https://gracerector.wordpress.com/2017/08/02/murder-city-madison/

Our Immigrant Stories

As immigration has become a major topic in our national conversation, we as Christians are mindful that our holy book commands us to be kind to the stranger residing among us. You shall love the stranger living among you, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt, says Leviticus 19 – one of many places where mercy towards the outsider is mentioned.  Our Scriptures and our God call us to treat immigrants with kindness and respect – remembering that we or our ancestors were once immigrants seeking a new home. To help us understand the lives, needs, and fears of our immigrant neighbors, some members of St. Dunstan’s have been sharing their own “how I got here” stories.

Julie

My immigrant story really is my grandmother’s story. I never knew her, because she died in the mid-1930s, when my father was a teenager. But I spent most Wednesday afternoons after school with my great-aunt Frances, her sister, and she loved to talk about my grandmother to me.

My paternal grandparents emigrated from one of many German enclaves in Romania in the first decade of the 20th century, before World War I. Their entire village and the extended families of both my grandmother and grandfather immigrated to the United States together. My grandfather was possessed of a simple ambition: to own his own land, for back in Romania he never would have been allowed to do so, as he was only a peasant.

After a few years of working hard in America, he achieved his dream and bought his own dairy farm. Many members of their families and fellow villagers settled in the same area, about 60 miles north of Detroit, Michigan. My grandparents had four children, two born in Romania and two, including my dad, born in this country. They were contented on the farm. My grandfather planted roses around the house and by the barnyard fence for my grandmother, roses that still bloom by our horse paddock gate here in Wisconsin. He made the old farmhouse as pretty as possible for her, too, with wallpaper and paint and a marble-topped table in the parlor. He was one of the first farmers in the area to install an indoor bathroom in their house. All this and more to make my grandmother happy.

And she was, I think, mostly contented. But she dreaded going into town. Back then, people disliked and looked down on immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, especially if they were Catholic. When she went into town with her children, people were unfriendly, some even going so far as to cross the street to avoid the newcomers. “Why do they hate us so?” she used to ask her sister, my great-aunt Frances, tears pouring down her face. All the older German women who knew her used to tell me after mass each Sunday that she was the sweetest, gentlest soul they ever knew, and perhaps this is the reason she never grew accustomed to the prejudice she faced. One day, she laid her head down on the table at breakfast and said, “I’m so tired,” and died.

My great-aunt Frances always maintained to me that my grandma died of a broken heart, that she wore herself out pining for something that would never be given to her, no matter how spruce her home and farm, no matter how white and starched the immaculate lace dresses she put on her three young girls for town visits. She craved respect and friendship from the people among whom she settled, and she never got that. Of course, who knows whether that unrequited dream contributed to her death? But I’m certain that she felt the sadness my great aunt told me about, for they were very close.

This seems a sad story, doesn’t it? But its ending is not sad, I hope. Before I share the end of the story, though, let me first share a few facts. My German grandparents came here during a period when this country, according to the Pew Research Center, had a very high percentage of foreign-born residents. And it’s predicted that we may break the record for that percentage within the next few years. Many things about immigration have changed since my grandparents came over from eastern Europe. Here are just a few: there are now more immigrants who are Hispanic, though that also will change in the future, Pew Research analysts predict; there are more refugees in the world than at any other time in the last seventy years except right at the end of World War II; and there are many foreign-born residents here without legal authorization who have not been able to, and will not be able to, secure that authorization. One can gain legal permission to remain here through work, family ties, or for humanitarian reasons, but those exceptions don’t apply to many of the undocumented immigrants in our country. There is, at this point, no line for a large percentage of the undocumented immigrants in this country to go stand at the end of, so that they can secure permission to stay here.

It’s true that as a society today, we don’t always agree about how to address the challenges of today’s undocumented immigrants and others who arrive in our country. But I think some things about immigrants, authorized or otherwise, remain the same as when my family emigrated here. People still want to feel welcomed to our country, and accepted. And other people still feel threatened by people with a different culture and a different language, perhaps fearful that the way of life that is theirs will change.

As for my grandmother, I believe she would be happy to see that her family has thrived in America, that all her grandchildren have college degrees while many have obtained advanced professional degrees. My grandparents valued education, as well as hard work, music, and beauty. Naturally, my grandfather, being German, also valued a bottle of good beer! We feel part of the life of this country. It took about two generations for the German Catholic community from Romania to fully integrate into the small town where I grew up, but it did. Even though we are no longer strangers to this country, however, I don’t forget my grandmother’s pain. I remember Barbara Loeffler’s story.

I think about her path as a stranger to this country, and I think about my path to this church of St. Dunstan’s. My journey, nowhere near as difficult as hers, was made easy by so many people here. And I thank you all for that, and for listening to my grandmother’s story.

Nana

We were born in South Africa. At the time we emigrated in 1985 we had lived most of our lives there. This was where we grew up, were educated, had our family and worked for more than a decade. Peter grew up Methodist, I was Anglican and after our marriage, we worshipped in both communions. South Africa was also where our parents and siblings lived. Why, then, did we leave?

South Africa was an apartheid society, with power and wealth in the hands of whites (who were less than 20% of the population). As we grew up, resistance to the status quo by the subservient black population led to draconian laws that limited where black people could live, who they could marry, what jobs they could hold, and what consequences they faced if they transgressed. To manage this, the apartheid government ramped up security forces – both police and the military. After high school, all white males were conscripted for at least two years: their primary purpose was to maintain the status quo. States of emergency that suspended normal civil liberties were imposed. The polarization between white and black increased to the point that mediation efforts appeared to be withering, and outright civil war seemed a distinct possibility. Small wonder, then, that in spite of our deep roots, we decided South Africa was not a country where we wanted to spend the rest of our lives.

The next question was: Where should we go? Since both of our ancestral families were from the UK, and that is where we both went for postgraduate study and where we met, this might have seemed an obvious choice.  But 2½ years in Vancouver, Canada where Peter had a post-doctoral fellowship and I did my master’s, changed our minds: we’d have happily stayed. There were personal reasons – we look back on that time as an extended honeymoon, we made life-long friends and Fraser, our son, was born there, I completed my master’s and Peter found new professional directions. But there were no jobs. After 6 years back in South Africa, a sabbatical gave us the opportunity to spend more than a year in Ithaca, NY. This was highly influential for both of us in our professional development. Once again, we’d have happily stayed. Two in-depth, decidedly positive North American experiences convinced us that this is where we could happily live. It took, however, another 5 years back in South Africa before contacts initiated in Ithaca bore fruit with a faculty position at the UW-Madison.

We are conscious that we have been extraordinarily privileged in our lives. Our decision to leave was not forced on us by deprivation, persecution, or civil war. As white English-speaking South Africans, we had access to excellent schools that opened doors to university education in South Africa and to study-abroad opportunities after graduation. These gave us a perspective on other parts of the world beyond the borders of South Africa. Our decision to come here was also a choice that we could pursue on our terms, and do so in an orderly manner: we received a job offer at the UW-Madison where they held the position open for more than a year until our green cards were issued. To get established here we were indebted with the support we received from many quarters: professional, social and spiritual.

These two questions – Why leave? and Where to go? – faced many of our own ancestors, as they do for the vast number of migrants and refugees we see in the world today. Shortly after we were married we met an Indian physicist in Canada. He told us he was a citizen of the world, and he had a newsletter to promote this concept. We signed on, and that is what we are today: citizens of the world.

Sermon, May 28

Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith.

That’s how two verses from the fifth chapter of the first letter of Peter, today’s Epistle, are rendered in our Book of Common Prayer. Who knows where they appear? … That’s right; this is one of the short Scripture texts offered in Compline, our nighttime prayers. I didn’t grow up saying Compline with my youth group every Friday night, like our kids do. But I’ve still used the rite many, many times over the course of 42 years as an Episcopalian. And through repetition, this short passage sunk into my mind and heart, becoming one of the snippets of Scripture that I have on instant recall. (This reminds me of the joke about the Episcopalian who finally read the Bible and was surprised by how much it quotes the Prayer Book!…)

Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith. These verses stuck with me not just by virtue of repetition, but also because they’re memorable. The earnest warning, and the evocative image of the Devil as a predator prowling around the flock, waiting to catch a sheep alone, sick, weak. Vulnerable. Whether or not you believe in the Devil as a sort of CEO of global evil operations, evil is an active force in the world, and in human hearts and lives. I recognize this text as true: there are temptations, ideas, actions and inactions, that would draw me away from my sacred call to love of God and love of neighbor. Those temptations, those forces lurk around me, looking for an opportunity. They have their best chance when I’m tired and drained, or angry, or afraid, or hurting. When I don’t have my trust in God’s ultimate goodness and my own belovedness wrapped around me like a warm blanket, or like armor.

The adversary prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour… This text stuck with me too because it’s scary. Not just because of that vivid image, but because it seems to be putting a lot of pressure and responsibility on me. Be sober and disciplined. Keep alert. Resist the Devil, steadfast in your faith. Face down the lion. Me? With my puny clawless hands, my soft underbelly? It’s not the most comforting thought with which to end the day and lay oneself down to sleep.

But then, sometime in the past decade, like the archetypal Episcopalian in the joke, I actually read the Bible. And I discovered two things. First, the passage in the Compline rite is incomplete. It breaks in the middle of verse 9, which reads in full: “Resist [the Devil], steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering.” Second, the “you”s through this whole passage are PLURAL. A distinction that English doesn’t make very clearly, but Greek does. The author of this letter is addressing churches here, not individuals. The translation of the Bible that we generally use for Sunday Scriptures, the New Revised Standard Version, makes this a little clearer than the version in the prayer book – “Discipline yourselves.”

But it’s not just that the author is addressing more than one person, but that he’s addressing a community. In fact, one strong theme of this letter is to take care of each other. I found at least four times in this letter when the author tells the members of these churches, Just love each other, OK? In chapter 1: Love one another deeply from the heart. In chapter 2: Love the family of believers. In chapter 3: Have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind. And in chapter 4: Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaining.

The author of this letter – maybe the apostle Peter, maybe a later church leader writing in Peter’s name – this author has taken to heart Jesus’ prayer for his followers, in today’s Gospel: That they all may be one. He knows, as Jesus knew, that Jesus’ followers are going to need each other. That the Way to which they, and we, are called is hard to follow on your own. It’s too nuanced, too open-ended, too profound, too risky. We need a community of faith to encourage each other. To hold one another accountable. To support each other when we’re confused or hurting.

In fact, this author is actually pretty focused on that last point: the church’s response to suffering. He’s writing to Christians who are struggling with difficult times, and are wondering: If God loves us so much, if Jesus’ saving death and resurrection transformed reality, how come terrible stuff still happens? Why isn’t life easier now? How do we deal with suffering, as Christians? That is still, absolutely, one of the core questions of faithful living. And this letter offers one answer. It’s not a fully satisfying answer, because he can’t promise an end to suffering. But it’s also one of the only true and lasting answers that humanity has found, in millennia of wrestling with the reality of human pain: Don’t face it alone, and don’t leave others to face it alone. Look out for each other. As spiritual writer Anne Lamott says, It’s our job to sit with people and bring them juice, until it’s our turn to have someone sit with us and bring us juice.

To say that suffering is an enduring part of human life is not to say that all suffering is inevitable. If we lived in a world of peace, where everyone had enough to eat and access to medical care, then a substantial percentage of the world’s suffering would be eliminated. But not all suffering is avoidable, even in an ideal world. Some of it is built into the human condition. To being embodied, being mortal; to loving each other, or not loving each other enough.

And it turns out that both the wisdom of the ages and modern psychological research confirm that one of the best ways to cope with suffering is to have the support and companionship of others. Psychologists name this as the “common humanity” factor; the sense that you see your struggles as part of the human experience, not something that isolates you or sets you apart. In the words of 1 Peter, to know that “your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering.” And they have found that that awareness is a major source of resilience and comfort, for people going through a hard time. It’s really good to know it’s not just you. It’s really good to know that somebody else went through this and came out the other side. It’s really good to know that somebody understands.

But how do we find those companions, that fellowship of common experience? When we’re going through something hard – trouble at work, a loved one’s illness, family conflict, depression, infertility – we tend to keep it close. Those things are tender, personal, not public. Maybe a close friend or family member is carrying it with us. But it’s hardly a conversation for the office or the bus, the gym or the business lunch.

One of the things church can be is a place to find that fellowship. I learned this from you, friends: when we’ve talked about why church matters to you, why you keep showing up, many of you have mentioned moments in your lives when you were facing something new and hard, and you discovered there were people in your church who knew what that was like – because they’d been through something hard too, the same kind of hard thing or maybe not the same. But it gave them that sympathy, that tender heart that 1 Peter names, to be able to hear you and let you know you’re not alone. I’ve seen it happen, too – I’ve witnessed the holy moments when someone says, for example, Being a single mom is really hard, and people around the table who are five or ten or twenty years farther down that road nod and say, Yeah, it is. And we’re here for you. We’ll listen, we’ll pray, we’ll help.

Church is different from the office or the bus. We don’t always get it right, but our hope is to be place where it’s safe to name your hurts and sorrows and fears. Where you can feel and know that you’re not alone: others in your faith family have walked the road that you’re just starting down. You’re not alone: the griefs and struggles that are new to you are not new to the community of the faithful – as our Scriptures, prayers and stories bear witness. You’re not alone: God’s loving presence is always as near as your next breath, and when you can’t feel that, or believe in it, you can feel the care of the people who become the icons and vessels of God’s presence.

Friends, I’ve even pondered the idea of creating a list, with your help – a sort of “I’ve been there” list that I would keep, of the people in the parish who’ve been through cancer treatments, caregiving for a loved one, advocating for a child with special needs, infertility, addiction, the list could go on and on. So that when I find out that someone is facing one of these situations for the first time, I could help them find a friend in this household of faith – a companion, which means, a person with whom you break bread.

The author of First Peter is on to something. Suffering, whether persecution of the church as a whole or the human hurts and disappointments of its members, will always be part of the picture. It’s intrinsic in having bodies that break, lives that end, hearts and minds that love and grieve and yearn.  Be sober, be watchful. The adversary, the one who corrupts and destroys, prowls around the flock, waiting to catch a sheep alone, sick, weak. Vulnerable.

What do we do about it? We keep watch – together, not alone. We resist evil – together, not alone. We insist that suffering connects us rather that isolating us. We nurture sympathy, tender hearts and humble minds. We practice hospitality towards one another without complaining. We persist in the slow necessary life-giving work of loving each other deeply, from the heart.

Sermon, April 2

“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

Our Sunday readings are walking us towards the cross. In John’s Gospel, the raising of Lazarus from the dead stirs up the people of Bethany and nearby Jerusalem – more and more begin to believe in and follow Jesus, and the religious leaders, who think Jesus is at best a fraud and at worst a tool of the Devil,  and who are legitimately afraid that unrest among the people will bring a violent crackdown from the occupying Roman forces – the religious leaders decide that it would be a good idea if something were to happen to Jesus. The Palm Sunday Gospel, Jesus’ triumphal and confrontational march into the city, follows this story almost immediately.

Our Sunday readings are walking us towards the cross, and beyond that, towards Easter, and resurrection – the Church’s 50-cent word for rising again from the dead. Two weeks from today, we’ll be shouting, Christ is Risen! We’ll be singing about how Jesus trampled down death by death, and bestowed life upon those in the tomb. Death no longer has dominion over us! God wipes away all tears! Love wins!

Except… people still die.

So… what are we talking about?

Part of this Gospel is often chosen for funerals. And last week I realized that I often preach at funerals about what the Church teaches – and trusts – about death. I almost never do so on Sunday morning. But everybody here has someone you love on the other side of that river. We all have somebody we miss. We all have somebody we dread losing. We all wonder.

And yet the Church and her representatives, have the audacity to stand up here in our funny clothes and say it doesn’t matter. That it’s not real. That they’re in a better place now. As if that made it OK.

“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

Jesus talked a lot about eternal life – a new life in God beyond our earthly existence.  So it became Christian conviction and teaching, from the very beginning, that physical death is not an absolute end, but leads into another kind of life. The resurrection of Jesus at Easter opens the door to the resurrection of everybody.

But what does Jesus mean, when he talks about eternal life? When he tells his friends and followers that even though they die, they will live? When he promises that his beloved ones will not perish, but have life everlasting?

I think part of the struggle here is that we come to Jesus with a simple, human question: What happens after we die? And frankly Jesus is not very interested in that question. He’s human enough to weep at the death of a friend, in today’s Gospel, but he’s also God enough to know that death is smaller than we think it is. What he really wants us to think about is life, and what it means to be alive – now, and always. But still: we carry the question in our hearts. Where is my grandpa now? Your father? Your sister? Your child? Can they see us? Are they okay? Are they… at all?

The New Testament doesn’t give us a clear or consistent view of what happens to the dead. Jesus tells the thief crucified beside him that they’ll be together in paradise that very day, but other texts assume – as Martha does in today’s Gospel – that the dead will sleep until the Last Day, when they will be awakened to new life forever with God. The images of life beyond the grave are varied, too -from the city thronged with holy crowds in Revelation, to the intimate image of Jesus preparing rooms for his friends in his Father’s house, from the 14th chapter of John’s Gospel. (There is very little to support the popular image of Heaven as a place up in the clouds, where people are issued wings and harps.)

The plain fact is, the early Christians didn’t know what happens after death, and neither do we. There’s a mystery here which only time will resolve. The writer and philosopher Henry David Thoreau, while he was dying, was visited by a friend, who said to him, “You seem so near the brink of the dark river that I almost wonder how the opposite shore may appear to you.” And Thoreau replied simply, “One world at a time.”

But – if we Christians don’t offer freedom from the inevitability and grief of death – if we can’t offer proof that there’s something more, something better, on the other side – then what can the Church offer in the face of death, besides beautiful words?

Well: even though there’s no proof, there is that promise and hope of something more. Jesus seems very sure that death is not the end – though we have no clear picture of what comes after. But we have to be careful with that assurance of eternity – the Church and its people have sometimes used it to shame or shut out people’s real and profound grief. Even if your loved one IS in a better place now, free from pain and struggle, it hurts that they’re gone. If Jesus wept for Lazarus, there is no shame in weeping for our beloved dead.

Another thing the Church offers in the face of death is the consolation of community. I’ve heard from many of you, in conversations over the years, that one of the most substantive gifts of belonging to a church, to this church, has been companionship in the hardest times. Of opening up about something painful –  a broken relationship, a sick child, the death of a parent – and finding that there are three or four people in the room who have walked that road, and are willing to walk it again with you, offering solace, kindness, and help.

Yet another thing the Church offers is the sense of a bigger picture, a longer perspective. In a recent essay on this topic, Peter Wehmer wrote, “There is…, for me at least, consolation in the conviction that we are part of an unfolding drama with a purpose. …I may not have a clue as to what that precise purpose is,

but I believe… that the story has an author, that difficult chapters need not be defining chapters, and that even the broken areas of our lives can be redeemed.” His words remind me of the voice of today’s Psalm, Psalm 130, a voice of resignation, patience, hope: “Out of the depths I cry to you, O God – hear my voice!… I wait for you, O God, my soul waits for you.”

Please understand: I am not claiming, here, that everything happens for a reason, that even tragedy is God’s will for you. I do not believe that, and you’ll never hear me preach it. But I do believe in grace, in God’s patient, persistent work to weave good from evil, to heal, restore, renew. It’s not easy, or fast, or certain; but it’s possible.

What can the Church offer in the face of death, besides beautiful words? Well… actually, beautiful words can be a real gift and comfort. I don’t know if I love beautiful, holy language, prose and poetry, because I’m a lifelong Episcopalian, or if I’m a lifelong Episcopalian because I love beautiful language. But at my grandfather’s funeral two weeks ago, I found myself reflecting on how we address death, as Christians in the Episcopal tradition.

We have sister churches both Catholic and Protestant who handle the mystery of death and what comes after by developing detailed doctrines and theories. We Episcopalians tend instead to let it rest in mystery – but not a mystery we pass over in silence; rather one we dwell with, or perhaps dance with, in poetry and prose, art and song.

And two weeks ago, I found that it was the strength and grace and felt truth of those songs and Scriptures that both freed my tears, and – eventually – dried them. It was the beautiful words we say and sing that opened my heart to trust in the eternal life Jesus promises,  and reaffirmed my hope in a better beyond.

Receive them into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light.

All we go down to the dust, yet even at the grave we make our song… 

There’s a gathering of spirits, there’s a festival of friends, and we’ll take up where we left off, when we all meet again. 

And even you, most gentle Death, waiting to hush our final breath – you lead back home the child of God, for Christ our Lord that way hath trod. 

Changed from glory into glory,  till in heaven we take our place, till we cast our crowns before thee, lost in wonder, love and praise.