Category Archives: Big Questions

Homily, March 22

Read the Gospel lesson here. 

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

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

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

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

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

So, let’s just note that. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

Sermon from March 2014 – “Who sinned?…”

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

Read the Gospel lesson here. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon, Jan. 12

Note: We read the entire 10th chapter of the Book of Acts this morning in worship. 

This story from the book of the Acts of the Apostles always brings to mind a favorite memory. One summer during my grad school years, several of my college friends and I rented a house on the beach in North Carolina for a few days, to hang out and reconnect. These were my church buddies, friends from the Episcopal campus community in my college town. Several of us had arrived and were settling in when my friends Jay and Spencer drove up. Jay rushed in and demanded to see a Bible immediately. (This was before Smartphones. Sometimes you just had to wonder about things for a while.) We found one and he looked up the tenth chapter of Acts. Meanwhile Spencer explained: In a Burger King along the way, they had seen several members of a church group, all wearing T-shirts that said in big letters across the back: ARISE.  KILL.  EAT. And a Scripture citation: Acts 10, verse 13. 

Now, ARISE, KILL, EAT, didn’t sound like any summary of the good news of God in Christ that we’d ever heard. And none of us knew the Book of Acts well enough to recognize the story from those few words. But you, of course, know what those words are about. They’re part of Peter’s vision – a message from God, a revelation that the categories that had bound Peter’s thinking and behavior in the past were passing away. (I still think it’s a weird thing to put on a T-shirt!) 

This story is sometimes named as the Conversion of Cornelius. But I think it’s really more about the conversion of Peter – Peter’s realization that the God made known in Jesus Christ shows no partiality. Partiality – a funny word; we don’t use it much. Somebody might say they’re partial to chocolate ice cream. Well: What Peter discovers in today’s Acts story is that God isn’t partial to any group of people over any other group. God doesn’t play favorites. God doesn’t like this one better than that one, just because of who or what they are. 

It’s a wonderful, profoundly important insight.  And what’s just as wonderful is that Peter has it. Peter was one of Jesus’ first disciples. We know him by the name Jesus gave him – the Rock – Peter in Greek, Cephas in Aramaic. We’ll hear that story next week, actually! In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus explains the nickname this way: “On this rock will I build my church.” It makes it sound like Peter is getting this nickname because he is so steady and solid. 

Well… maybe. We know Jesus could look right into people and see their hearts.

Peter’s original name, the one his parents gave him, was Simon, which means “hearing.” Maybe Jesus looked at Simon and thought, This one hears about as well as your average rock!… And he’s about as likely as a rock to change his mind. 

Now, pig-headed – rock-headed people have their uses. Someone who holds onto an idea or a vision with great determination and faithfulness can be just the right person to do something really hard, like starting a whole new religion, in the face of persecution. Peter did become one of the foundation stones of the Church. 

But walking with Jesus wasn’t always easy for someone like Simon Peter, who is not … nimble in his thinking, and takes a while to arrive at new understandings. The Gospels are full of stories about Peter being just a little slow on the uptake. He always thinks he’s got it – and he so rarely does. When Jesus talks about how hard it is for wealthy people to enter the kingdom of heaven, Peter’s the one who says, “We’re poor, Jesus! We left everything to follow you! So what are we gonna get?….” 

When Jesus appears to the disciples walking on the water, Peter’s the one who says, “Jesus, I want to walk on water too!” And of course he ends up getting soaked…  

When Jesus talks about his coming death on the cross,  Peter’s the one who says, “You’ve got to stop talking like this! You’re bringing everybody down!” Jesus has to rebuke him:  You’re seeing things from a human point of view, not God’s.

 

Peter is the only one of the male disciples brave enough to follow Jesus to the High Priest’s house after he is arrested. But he loses his courage, afraid to follow his friend to death, and denies knowing him – three times. When he and Jesus meet again, beside a lake, after everything, Jesus asks him three times: Do you love me? And tells him three times: Tend my sheep. 

Jesus knows his friend well. He knows it’s a good idea to hammer the point home. Maybe by the third repetition, it will get through Peter’s rocky head and settle into his big, loving, faithful heart. 

And Peter does tend Jesus’ sheep. He preaches Christ crucified and risen to the crowds, to the authorities, to anyone who will listen. He becomes a great and gifted leader. He goes to jail and suffers for his faith. Simon the Rock has got an idea in his hard head: Jesus called me to lead and protect his church. And I’m going to do it. 

One of the threats to Jesus’ church – to Peter’s church – is a fellow named Paul. Paul didn’t even know Jesus; he used to persecute Christians. Now he’s going around preaching to non-Jews, telling them they can become Christians without following all the religious practices of the Jewish people. Peter is not so sure about this. Jesus was a Jew, and all the disciples were faithful Jews. Peter fears that Paul is preaching cheap grace and wishy-washy warm fuzzy inclusion, and letting just ANYBODY in. 

Then something happens to Peter. We just heard the story. He has a vision of all kinds of animals – many of which are unclean and not to be eaten, in Jewish dietary law. Peter says, God, I will not eat these things; I am a faithful Jew; I have never eaten anything unclean! And a divine Voice says, What God has made clean, you must not call unclean. 

Then the messengers from Cornelius arrive – Peter follows them to Caesaria – Cornelius and his household gather to hear Peter’s preaching – and he begins with this new insight, this new revelation: I truly understand that God shows no partiality. EVERY person everywhere, no matter who or what they are, if they honor God and live with justice, they are acceptable to God. 

(A brief word on “acceptable”: It sounds kind of minimal, right? Like, just barely good enough. It really means something more like proper or appropriate. It’s used elsewhere for things like the acceptable sacrifice to God; the acceptable time for God’s action in the world. Acceptable, here, means: Just right for God.) 

In today’s story from the book of Acts, a big new idea has finally gotten through

the apostle Peter’s rocky head: The Gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, isn’t just for Jews – it’s for everybody. God’s love isn’t just for this nation or that nation. What God has made clean, it’s not the business of the church or its leaders to call unclean. When God opens a door, it’s never our business to close it.

Today is the first Sunday in the church’s season of Epiphany. Epiphany means, Revelation. A light-bulb moment. A new understanding of faith, self, world. Our Epiphany lessons are full of big revelations: The revelation to the Magi, those eastern astrologers, that a great King was born in Judea. The revelation that Jesus is God’s beloved Son. This revelation to Peter: I truly understand that God shows no partiality. God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. 

Receiving a revelation is one thing. Living in that new way of seeing and being, is another. God shows no partiality – but humans are really good at it. We have a strong propensity to create us-es and them-s, insiders and outsiders, to draw lines and build walls. We use different standards to judge those whom we see as our kind of people, and those whom we see as other. There’s a lot of science that explores this tendency, and lots of history that illustrates it. 

And not just history, but headlines. Partiality is in the rhetoric of war: enemies and allies, winners and losers. We forget over and over again Abraham Lincoln’s wisdom: “My concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side.” 

Partiality is in what lives we allow to matter to us – Iraqi, Canadian, Honduran, Puerto Rican (which is to say, American). It’s in the antagonisms and manipulations of the election cycle. Did you know we are much more likely to fall for false or manipulative news coverage that’s in line with our biases? We’re less critical and careful readers when we are reading positive stories about those we already like, or – more commonly – negative stories about those we don’t like. 

Partiality shows up in force at public hearings about workforce housing and school zoning – folks who think they’re just concerned about their property values; who don’t understand – or don’t want to understand – how residential segregation perpetuates racial and economic inequality. 

Partiality takes one of its most monstrous forms in resurgent anti-Semitism and emboldened white supremacy. 

I truly understand that God shows no partiality. God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. 

The heart of discipleship, of faithful living, is trying to live lives that reflect God as we have come to know God,through Jesus Christ and the witness of Scripture. God tells God’s people, right from the start: Be holy, as I am holy. Peter learns that part of God’s holiness is that God loves without boundaries. God’s welcome, God’s care, God’s call are for everybody. Therefore, as Christians, we are called beyond partiality. To be a people who do not call anyone unclean, profane, unworthy, or unimportant. 

What does it mean for you to grapple with that call, in this year, this season of the world? Maybe it means coming to the Saturday Book Group this week to discuss how to talk with people with whom we disagree; or to the Witnessing Whiteness series beginning in March, for white folks to explore what our whiteness means. Maybe it means trying to listen to why somebody else’s favorite candidate is their favorite. Maybe it means pausing to grieve far-away hurts and losses – letting them touch our hearts, even though it hurts. Maybe it means something as small as looking around at coffee hour or the Peace, this morning, for the people who are standing alone.

Being anti-partiality isn’t wishy-washy or weak. It’s bold and hard, and there is a lot of work to do. But if Peter, the Rock, could overcome his biases, and rejoice in finding God among those he’d seen as outsiders – then so can we. 

May the God who calls us to holiness, grant us wisdom and courage for the living of these days. Amen. 

Sermon, Sept. 22

O God, the nations have come into your inheritance; they have defiled your holy temple; they have laid Jerusalem in ruins. They have given the bodies of your servants to the birds of the air for food, the flesh of your faithful to the wild animals of the earth. (Ps 79:1-2)

For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored? (Jer 8: 21-22)

The book of the Prophet Jeremiah and Psalm 79 are texts of conquest and exile. 

Jeremiah was born around the year 626 before the birth of Jesus. The days of the great united Kingdom of Israel under King David were long past. The Assyrian Empire had conquered the northern region in 720. Judea, the territory around Jerusalem, remained nominally free, but fell under Assyria’s authority in 700, as part of their empire, forced to pay tribute and obey their rulers. When Assyria fell and Babylon arose, Judea got tangled up in a war between Babylon and Egypt, and then became part of Babylon’s growing empire. Judah revolted against Babylon, first in 598 and then again ten years later. Both times, Babylon won. And after the second revolt, in the year 587, they made sure there wouldn’t be a third one. The city walls were torn down, the great Temple burned. Most of the people of Jerusalem and Judea were killed or exiled. Those exiles, the survivors, struggling to build new lives in Babylon, had endured a decade of active military threat, and over a century of domination by external powers.  

The book of Jeremiah and Psalm 79 are  texts of trauma.

Trauma here refers both to shocking negative events that overwhelm one’s immediate capacity to cope, but also to the ways such events affect us for the short, medium and long term. These Biblical texts bear the marks of traumatizing violence, loss and displacement, as they tell the story of an event so pivotal in Jewish history that it is described in at least five different places in the Old Testament. 

The book of Jeremiah largely dates to the years before the conquest – the prophet is warning Judah and its leaders of their approaching doom, and begging them to change course. But Jeremiah’s prophetic mission extends into exile – and as his prophetic texts were gathered into a book during and after the exile, those ancient editors may have added their memories of devastation to the prophet’s oracles of warning. As for Psalm 79 – we think of the Psalms as coming from the time of David’s court, and some of them do; but others were written centuries later, like this one, which clearly describes the fall of Jerusalem – with a vividness that makes it hard to read. 

What does it mean to call these texts of trauma? What can we read from them, through that lens? First, it helps us understand this sometimes horrific imagery. One common after-effect of trauma is intense and intrusive memories, that may overwhelm the survivor at times. When our psalm speaks of blood poured out like water, or when Jeremiah speaks again and again about dead bodies scattered in the fields, food for carrion birds and wild animals, with no one left to bury them – I think that we are hearing the memories that haunt these survivors and shatter their sleep, even years afterwards. 

Understanding these as texts of trauma also helps make sense of the strong themes of guilt and shame. Excessive guilt is a common response to trauma. It’s actually a way to try and make sense of what happened, and why it happened, by assuming responsibility. As horrible as it is to think that a tragedy was my fault, it may be easier than thinking it was nobody’s fault. The book of Jeremiah spends a lot of time explaining the violence that has fallen upon Judah by describing their collective misdeeds and failures. The word “shame” appears 34 times in the book of Jeremiah, and the word “guilt” another 13 times. Just a few verses before today’s passage, the text says, “I will give their fields to conquerors, because from the least to the greatest everyone is greedy for unjust gain; from prophet to priest everyone deals falsely. They acted shamefully, they committed abomination; yet they were not at all ashamed, they did not know how to blush. Therefore they shall fall among those who fall. (Jeremiah 8, selected verses)

Not only the idea of Judah’s guilt, but the idea of God’s punishment, are cognitive tools for making sense of disaster. Scholar Kathleen O’Connor has written about trauma in the book of Jeremiah. She argues that making God the agent in the devastation of Judah means that neither the gods of Babylon – nor random, cruel Fate – have triumphed. Even in conquest, even in exile, Judah remains, as always, under the authority of its God. 

Holding onto a sense of God’s presence and power was important because trauma can shake or shatter your worldview and sense of who you are. Clinical psychology and trauma scholar Amy Mezulis says that violent loss “breaks past that… barrier that most of us have that says ‘This isn’t how the world works’ or that life is sacred.” After trauma, the world may feel unpredictable and unsafe.  It may feel impossible to engage with normal life events, or imagine a future. Life may feel hopeless and overwhelming, long after the actual traumatic events are over. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician who can heal my people? 

And yet… Trauma does not get the last word.  With support, and love, and time, and luck, people can heal. People can grow. They will always carry the mark of what they have been through. But they may be able to integrate it into a new sense of self and  world. I’m in tender territory here, which some of you know far more intimately than I do, and I’m speaking with humility. But the literature suggests there can be good outcomes for people who come through significant traumas, whether individually or as a group. They may arrive – with support, love, time, and luck – at a  stronger sense of connection with loved ones and community; and at a new sense of meaning and purpose. We can see this happening late in the Book of Jeremiah, and other books of the post-Exile period. Watch for that in the weeks ahead!

The exiles lost SO much – but they survived, and their faith survived. They discovered that God was not left behind in the ruins of the Jerusalem Temple. They began to see that God’s presence and promise and plan were bigger than any one nation or people. Kathleen O’Connor calls the book of Jeremiah a “survival manual” for how to maintain life, faith, and hope, after profound loss. 

What will you do when the end comes? The prophet Jeremiah asks that chilling question in chapter 5. What are the gifts of these texts of trauma? What will you do when the end comes?

We live in a time of impending crisis. It has a name: the Anthropocene. The epoch in which human activity is massively altering the conditions of life on earth. It’s characterized by dramatic, short-term, localized crises; and the slow, stealthy global crisis of climate change we all share. We have always had hurricanes, floods, droughts, blizzards. But climate change makes those systems more intense and destructive, and less predictable – like the intense hurricane drowning Houston this week, or the deadly flooding in Wisconsin last August. 

At the same time, the long-term, large-scale impacts are becoming more visible, bit by bit, if we pause to notice. Dan Zak writes in the Washington Post, “There is no crisis, just an accumulation of curiosities and irritants. Your basement now floods every year instead of every five or 10 years. Your asthma has gotten worse. You grew up wearing a winter jacket under your Halloween costume in Buffalo, and now your kids don’t have to. The southern pine beetle that once made its home closer to the equator is now boring through trees on Long Island… We freak out, but go about our business. The problem is clear, but it has yet to consume us.”

I recently read a journalist who covers climate change, David Roberts, reflecting on how our nation might respond to future mass traumas. He reflects on the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and concludes that in that case, in hindsight, we did not respond terribly well. We let our rage and need for revenge – our shared trauma – lead us into endless and senseless wars; into tolerating surveillance that chipped away at our privacy and civil rights; into a demagogic and scapegoating mode of political discourse. Roberts writes, “Climate change is, above all, going to manifest as a series of traumas — storms, heat waves, food shortages, mass migrations, [and so on.] …Our only hope is to react to trauma with grace, compassion, and solidarity. That’s what I would like to tell the [teenagers] of the world: you are going to be tested, again and again. Don’t be like your parents. Don’t be small; don’t retreat behind tribal walls; don’t wallow in rage and self-righteousness. Be better. You have to be, or we’re all [screwed].” 

Today’s Gospel parable is one of the more perplexing of its kind. But it does show us one thing to do when the end is coming, when you’re about to lose everything – job, status, income, way of life all at once. The dishonest manager doesn’t despair, and he doesn’t run. Instead, he tries to build relationships, so that he isn’t facing an insecure and diminished future alone. What will you do when the end comes? 

Being a church-going Christian means a lot of things. One is that we’re in a living relationship with an ancient text. If you’ve been coming for even a few weeks and paying even some attention, you carry around inside you stories and songs and laments and advice and poetry that range from 2 to 4000 years old. That gives us a somewhat unusual historical perspective. As I told a friend this week: if NOTHING else, the Bible shows you that God’s people have been through some stuff. Our faith ancestors survived traumatic loss and epochal change. They had to come through struggle to new understandings of God and world and self. Maybe we can, too. Maybe the poetry of grief and perseverance that they left for us can give us courage to face this season in the life of the world. 

Because, writes Kate Marvel for On Being, courage is what we need for the days and years ahead. “I have no hope,” she says, “that these changes can be reversed. We are inevitably sending our children to live on an unfamiliar planet. But the opposite of hope is not despair. It is grief. Even while resolving to limit the damage, we can mourn. And here, the sheer scale of the problem provides a perverse comfort: we are in this together. The swiftness of the change, its scale and inevitability, binds us into one, broken hearts trapped together under a warming atmosphere. We need courage, not hope. Grief, after all, is the cost of being alive. We are all fated to live lives shot through with sadness, and are not worth less for it. Courage is the resolve to do well without the assurance of a happy ending….  [Because] here we are, together on a planet radiating ever more into space where there is no darkness, only light we cannot see.”

 

SOURCES

An overview of trauma: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK207191/

On mass trauma: https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.sciencenews.org/article/what-we-know-how-mass-trauma-affects-mental-health/amp

Walter Brueggemann review Kathleen O’Connor’s book on Jeremiah: https://www.christiancentury.org/reviews/2012-04/jeremiah-kathleen-m-o-connor

Dan Zak on climate change: https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/everything-is-not-going-to-be-okay-how-to-live-with-constant-reminders-that-the-earth-is-in-trouble/2019/01/24/9dd9d6e6-1e53-11e9-8b59-0a28f2191131_story.html

David Roberts’ thread on 9/11 and climate crises: https://twitter.com/drvox/status/1171915448088256512

Kate Marvel for On Being: https://onbeing.org/blog/kate-marvel-we-need-courage-not-hope-to-face-climate-change/

Sermon, August 4

In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells a story about a rich man who has so much grain he doesn’t know what to do with it. He has to think and think. And then he has an idea!  What’s his idea?…  (discuss) 

What else could he have done?…  (There was money in those days, but our whole system for turning stuff into money and then keeping the money wasn’t developed yet. There were things like banks but they weren’t as safe or reliable; a lot of people would just keep their money themselves, but there were a lot of problems with thieves, too. So, “sell it and have money instead” might not have been as good an option… Anyway, that’s not what Jesus is doing with this story. The man has more than enough; turning it into money and putting it in a bank is kinda just a more sophisticated way to build a bigger barn.) 

Why might he have not wanted to give it away? (Some ideas: It might encourage people to be dependent; Maybe they don’t deserve it; they should work for their own money; maybe he doesn’t know any poor people; maybe he’s afraid of the poor people he does know…) 

So the man decides to build bigger barns! To keep his surplus, and use it to enjoy himself. Good plan! But then… he dies! His death isn’t a punishment. It’s just a thing that happens: people die. Rich people, poor people. For this man, his wealth had become the whole meaning of his life.. but as they say: You can’t take it with you.

So, Jesus tells his friends, don’t be preoccupied by the things you think you need. There’s more to life than food, and more to the body than clothing. He points to the ravens: they don’t work in the fields, but they seem to find enough to eat. And to the lilies: they don’t spin or sew, but their clothing is more beautiful than anything any human could create. 

Jesus says, Don’t chase after stuff. Chase after the Kingdom – God’s kingdom of mercy and justice, righteousness and peace. Keep your focus on what matters, and other things will fall into place. 

Now, let it be noted that Jesus was prone to wandering the countryside with nothing but the clothes on his back. So his notion of having what you need might not line up with ours. But Jesus was not an ascetic. An ascetic is someone who practices severe self-discipline, abstaining from most material comforts – with minimal shelter or no shelter; very simple clothing – even intentionally uncomfortable clothing; and likewise very simple food, and often some fasting. 

Asceticism is found in many religious and spiritual traditions around the world. John the Baptist is one familiar example for Christians. He lived in the wilderness outside Jerusalem, wearing a camel hide instead of woven garments like most people of the time, and eating what he could scavenge, including wild honey and grasshoppers. 

That was not Jesus’ jam. During the three years of his public mission, he was dependent on the kindness of strangers. He definitely traveled light. But he would absolutely enjoy a good meal when it came his way. People complained about this. People said, “John the Baptist didn’t eat or drink, and we thought that was weird – but now this Jesus fellow seems like a glutton and a drunkard, who hangs around with tax collectors because they put on lavish feasts with money stolen from the rest of us!”  When a woman pours expensive oil over Jesus’ feet, an act of devotion, some of his own disciples complain – because it would have been better to sell the ointment and give it to the poor; we don’t need these bodily indulgences anyway! 

But Jesus, God made human, likes the world. He likes things like good food, good wine, and sweet-smelling oil. He doesn’t think that stuff is bad, inherently flawed or sinful. He does, however, think that we humans are prone to letting that stuff become far, far too important to us, letting it take over our days and our hearts. He asks questions about wealth: What are you doing with it? Who is it benefiting? Who’s it hurting? What would happen if you had less? And who’s in charge here, really – you or your money? You or your stuff? 

Your life does not consist in abundance of possessions. The Greek word translated “abundance” here really means “too much.” Excess. Overflow. Surplus. Superfluity. Like in the story: the man has more grain than his barns can hold. 

I have a friend in another state who sometimes helps families clear out people’s homes after a death. She was telling me recently about how heartbreaking it can be to see how much stuff people have just accumulated. Not to enjoy; just to have. One woman kept the tags on every garment in her closet until she wore them. She could see how much each item had cost, tally her personal worth in name-brand clothing. As Jesus says elsewhere, Wherever you keep your treasure, that’s where your heart will be, too. 

It’s understandable; we tell women that their appearance and wardrobe are a big part of how people will judge them. We also tell women that shopping is an acceptable way to handle stress, anger, or pain. We normalize it, make it cute, with words like “retail therapy” and “shopaholic.” 

It’s not just a lady thing; men are subject to the same forces, the same manipulation of our desires, though it may manifest in different ways. It’s also not a rich-people thing; some people who are wealthy are incredibly level-headed and generous with their resources, and some people who don’t have much are especially vulnerable to the pull of possessions. 

Now, at the risk of sounding like a presidential candidate in a debate: I am not anti-capitalist. Capitalism can absolutely be a force for good. But it is simply objective fact that capitalism works by continuing to generate desire. If we don’t keep buying stuff, the machine grinds to a halt. Marketing, commercials, ads, are an integral part of the thing. 

That word I mentioned earlier that means excess, surplus, more than enough –  one of the things advanced capitalism does is make it really hard to identify that point. Because “enough” might mean we stay home from the mall and close the Amazon window in our browser. So marketing is always one step ahead of our desires – if you outpace the proverbial Joneses, there will be someone wealthier to measure yourself against. 

In today’s lessons, both Gospel and Epistle warn against greed. Greed is an unpleasant word. None of us want to think of ourselves as greedy. For some reason we mostly use the word “greed” in relation to food, but Jesus, whom his critics called a glutton, doesn’t seem to have any harsh words for people who enjoy a good meal. His concern is for people whose desire for wealth and material things has grown beyond their control, started to run their lives. 

The Epistle, this passage from the letter to the church in Colossae, says something really smart about it. It says that greed is a kind of idolatry. Idolatry – the great sin of the Hebrew Bible. It means worshipping something other than God. Putting something else at the center of your life and your heart – which is a double error: turning away from God, and also trusting in a thing, an inanimate object, which does not care about you.

There are some wonderful, darkly ironic passages in the Hebrew Bible criticizing people who are literally practicing idolatry. The prophet Isaiah describes a man cutting down a tree; he takes the wood and uses half of it to make a fire, to bake bread and roast some meat; with the rest of it he fashions a statue of a god, and bows down to it and worships it, saying, “Save me, for you are my god!” Isaiah says, This man is deluded; he can’t save himself and say,  “Isn’t this object in my hand a lie?”  (Isaiah 44)  

This is one of the endemic diseases of capitalism: it is so, so easy to let things that are just things become the center of our lives, the focus of our attention. They can’t answer or prayers. They don’t care what happens to us. They don’t love us back. No, not even the really *nice* things. 

Managing, mastering, our material desires is hard. It was hard in Jesus’ time. I honestly believe it’s harder in ours. Keeping our relationships with money and stuff in line with our values and intentions is one of the fundamental daily disciplines for Christians under late capitalism. (One of the appeals of asceticism has always been that some people find it easier to opt out entirely, and own NOTHING, than to stay in the system and keep making ethical and balanced choices!) 

So, what’s the good news, Miranda? Because this sounds HARD and discouraging!

I find it to be good news that Jesus sees and names this disease that is endemic in our nation. That he says, keenly but kindly: You can’t let stuff run your life. He speaks into something that so many of us wrestle with, whether it’s a manageable matter of budgeting and priorities, or a true addiction. 

I think it’s good news that God has compassion on our struggles with our impulses and desires, our misplaced priorities.Hosea, the source of our first lesson today, is a complicated book; but this is a beautiful passage. God speaking through the prophet describes Godself as a mother, raising a child in love, nurturing them, pointing them in the right direction. But people, even people we love very much, don’t always make good choices… and sometimes make very bad ones indeed. But God says to God’s child, God’s people: I can’t forget you; I keep loving you; I keep longing for you to come back. My heart and my womb ache for you. Come home. You will always be welcome. 

And I think there’s good news in today’s Epistle, though we almost missed it. The assigned lesson for this Sunday actually stops at verse 11 – that verse about how there are no fundamental differences among us in Christ. That’s good, important stuff!

But the next paragraph is this beautiful word to the church about how to share our lives as people of faith. And it’s not in the Sunday lectionary! It’s a recommended text for weddings – we used it at ours – but this is not just advice for couples; in fact that feels like missing the point in a big way. The first Christians understood churches as households – a group of people in a long-term relationship of care, who celebrate and grieve, raise children and care for elders, deal with conflicts and discern next steps, all together, as a body. 

The stuff that’s hard about daily life, then or now – we’re not supposed to be able to figure it out and manage it, all on our own. We’re supposed to have a loving, trustworthy household of faith, to wonder together, to find our direction and encourage one another. To share stories and struggles, ideas and hopes, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved; to bear with one another, and forgive one another when forgiveness is needed; to teach and admonish one another, in wisdom and with love; and to sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs to God, with gratitude in our hearts, as thankful people, who can look to the lilies and the ravens, and know deeply that what we need is here. 

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.