Category Archives: Big Questions

Sermon, July 10

The parable of the Good Samaritan is one of Jesus’ best-known stories. It’s only found in the Gospel of Luke, here in chapter 10. If you pull out one of our Gospel of Luke booklets and turn to chapter 10, you’ll see that kind of seems dropped in – it doesn’t fit the flow of the narrative very well. Scholars think that this probably really is a story Jesus told – it sure sounds like him! – and that it may have been circulating independently among the early churches, so that only Luke happened to have it to include in his account of Jesus’ life and teachings. But even if it reads like a slightly sloppy cut and paste job, stuck here between Jesus doing some disciple-training and visiting some friends, I’m very glad that Luke preserved this parable for us.

Let me take you through the story itself, briefly, because baby S, whom we are baptizing today, has never heard it before, and maybe he’s not the only one. The word “lawyer” here means a scholar of Jewish law, someone who interprets the Scriptures of the Old Testament to determine how the Jews are called to live out righteousness as God’s people. Different rabbis, teachers, like Jesus, had different interpretations, so this man is asking Jesus about his interpretation, what Jesus sees as the heart of righteousness and holiness. They discuss the standard summary of the Law: love of God, love of neighbor. Clear enough… and yet not so clear. This man has a question: Who is my neighbor? Who do I have to love, to be right with God? So Jesus does what he does when people ask questions. He tells a story.

A man was on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho – a notoriously dangerous road, where robbers and bandits often lurked. And robbers attack him, take everything he has, even his clothes, beat him, and leave him for dead at the side of the road. Now, two people come down the road, one after another, and both of them pass by on the other side of the road. One is a priest, someone who serves in the great Temple; another is a Levite, a member of the Jewish tribe who were set aside to tend to the holy things and places of the God of Israel while they were still in the wilderness with Moses, so long ago. As religious functionaries, men of God, both of these men have reason to be particularly attentive to the purity laws of Judaism. There are lots of things you can do or touch that render you ritually unclean, impure, and you can’t enter the Temple or serve God in that state. You’d have to do various things, or wait a certain time, to be cleansed and able to resume your religious duties. Touching a dead body is pretty high on the list of things that can make you impure.

There are other reasons these men might have stayed away from the man who had been robbed and beaten. Maybe they were afraid the robbers were still around. Maybe they had somewhere urgent to be. Maybe they just didn’t want to get involved. But those are reasons anyone might have, and Jesus tells us that these men weren’t just anyone: they were a priest and a Levite. Men of God. Men of holiness and righteousness. And they walk by on the other side.

And then a third man comes along. He is a Samaritan. Now, the phrase “good Samaritan” has entered our language to mean, somebody who helps a stranger. So we really have to remind ourselves, every time we return to this story, that for the original audience, “Samaritan” didn’t mean a kind and generous person. “Samaritan” meant lowlife scum who think they worship the same God as us, but do it all wrong, and in the wrong places, which is of course much more offensive than worshipping some entirely different God, like the Greeks and Romans. The Jews hated and looked down upon the Samaritans, and the Samaritans resented the Jews. To really get the challenge of this story, you almost have to swap out “Samaritan” for the kind of people that you like and trust least, in the privacy of your own heart. I can’t do that for you; that’s between you and God. But try it, sometime, and think about it.

So the Samaritan, this heathen creep, finally responds to the man with mercy. He goes to him. Cleans and tends his wounds. I know the oil and wine sounds a little odd, but it was what passed for medicine back then – wine to disinfect, oil as a balm. He puts the man on his horse and takes him to an inn, continues to care for him there, and pays from his own pocket for the man to be tended there while he continues on his journey.

And Jesus asks, Which of these three men – the priest, the Levite, the Samaritan – was a neighbor to the man who was robbed? And the lawyer says, “The one who showed him mercy.” It’s possible to read that answer a couple of ways. One commentator says, the lawyer maybe just didn’t want to say, “The Samaritan.” Because, ugh. Samaritans. But the answer also names, accurately, the simple gracious thing that makes the Samaritan a neighbor: He showed mercy.

What makes a neighbor is the movement of mercy.

We all understand this story. We all, even the kids, maybe especially the kids, understand that the people who walked past without helping were wrong, and that the person who stopped and helped, without counting the risks or the costs, was right. We get it. The challenge is, the challenge has always been, living it. Applying it. Going thou and doing likewise.

We know better and yet we STILL ask, “Who is my neighbor?” Who do I have to love, to be right with God? Don’t you ask that, way deep down? I know I do, when I’m honest with myself. I keep hoping maybe there’s a line. That maybe there’s some group of people who are so wrongheaded and offensive and unlikeable that it’s OK for me not to love them.

But there’s this detail in the story Jesus tells – or rather, a lack of detail. Each of the characters gets a label that lets us imagine them: priest, Levite, Samaritan, even the innkeeper. Except the main character, the victim – the man on the road. Jesus doesn’t give us any description at all. He might have been a Jew, a Greek, a Roman, an Ethiopian or Egyptian. He might have been wealthy and well-dressed, a great haul for the bandits, or he might have been so poor that they beat him out of spite. We aren’t told if he was a good man or a bad one. A righteous follower of God or a disgusting idol-worshipper. An upstanding citizen or a thoroughgoing scoundrel. Maybe he had a criminal record as long as your arm. Maybe he was on the road because he was a bandit himself, who got crossways of another group of violent criminals. Maybe he really had this coming. There’s not a single hint, one way or the other. He’s just a man. (I’m indebted here to Alfred Nevin Sayers’ sermon “The Good Samaritan and Social Redemption.”)

Jesus doesn’t tell us who the man is, because it doesn’t matter. What makes a neighbor isn’t somebody’s identity or deeds or deserving. What makes a neighbor is the movement of mercy.

I write my sermons on Tuesday, usually. So I was working on this sermon the day after the Fourth of July. Our neighborhood, the Greentree neighborhood on Madison’s southwest side, has a little celebration every year, coordinated by some committed volunteers. And it’s lovely. It’s totally Norman Rockwell. The kids of the neighborhood all gather in front of the school with their bikes and scooters, decorated for the holiday. A fire truck comes by and leads them in two-block parade over to a nearby city park. Folks come out of their houses to watch and wave. Then at the park there are brats and ice cream sandwiches and kids’ games and conversation with neighbors. Everyone’s wearing red and white and blue. It’s wholesome and adorable and community-building.

We’ve participated, I think, every year we’ve lived here. Somehow this year for the first time something struck me. Falk School, our neighborhood school, the school my kids attend, and St. Dunstan’s Adopt-a-School partner school, is about 75% non-white. It’s a big multicolored and multicultural mix of white, African-American, Latino, and Asian immigrant kids.

But that crowd of kids and parents in front of Falk for the parade was overwhelmingly white. Because while the school district’s boundaries mix us up, the neighborhoods we name for ourselves tend to sort us back out, by income and by race. Those brown kids may live a block away. but that is a different neighborhood, and they and their families were not invited to our party.

There are a lot of layers to the formation of neighborhoods; residential segregation is a big messy challenge; there’s no tackling that issue two-thirds of the way into a summer sermon. All I know is that on Monday, with the cheerful neighborly chaos of the party in the park swirling around me, I just couldn’t shake the shadow on my heart. A sense of sadness and of cynicism at the way this happy good-spirited celebration nevertheless revealed the profound brokenness of our city.

I’m not angling for a gold star for noticing this. I don’t deserve one; it took me six years. And I still don’t know what to do about it now that I’ve noticed it. It’s nice and easy to spend time with people who are basically a lot like you. And it can be hard and demanding to spend time with people who are not a lot like you.  That’s why we have those words from Jesus in the Gospel from Matthew that we received last Sunday – when he tells his followers, Listen, it’s fine if you’re nice to the people who are nice to you, and if your love the people who love you back, and if you act brotherly and sisterly towards the people who are so much like you that they might as well be your as brothers and sisters. But let’s be clear: everybody does that. Kindness towards your own kind is not a manifestation of your call to holy love.

If the contrast between the kids who are actually in the classrooms at Falk School during the school year, and the kids on their bikes out front on the Fourth of July, tells us anything, it tells us this: Living a block apart does not make a neighbor. That’s not enough. If it were, we would all been at that party. Together.

Who is my neighbor? Who do I have to love to be right with God? Maybe the gist of the story, of Jesus’s powerful answer to our perpetual question, is that we’ve got to stop thinking of neighbor as a noun. As the name of a person, place, or thing. What if we try using ‘neighbor’ as a verb? Neighboring. Making the movement of mercy. Or receiving it – both directions matter. Neighboring as a verb has to do with curiosity, with connection, with care. Neighboring as a verb has to do with Abiding, one of our core discipleship practices we name here at St Dunstans, the one that has to do with being where you are, looking around, paying attention, belonging and becoming. Neighboring as a verb has to do with Reconciling, another of the core spiritual practices we name here at St Dunstans, the one that has to do with intentionally unmaking all the categories in our world and our heads that tell us we are different from each other. The categories that make some neighbors undesirable, and others simply invisible.

In a moment here were going to turn to the baptismal covenant, as we receive baby S into the household of God. Our Baptismal Covenant quotes the summary of the law that’s found in this passage from Luke 10: Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?

This little story is Jesus’s commentary on those words. And we really need it to play in our minds and our hearts, every time we see or say those words: love your neighbor. At least, I know I need it. Because however intentionally inclusive I am, in my ministry, in my citizenship, in my personal life, there are still neighbors who are invisible to me. There are still neighbors whom I don’t want to know better. As familiar and well-worn as the message of this parable may be, I still need to hold myself accountable to it.

A neighbor isn’t made by living next door. That’s not what Jesus means, or the Baptismal Covenant either. A neighbor is something to discover, something to become. A neighbor is made by abiding, and by reconciling. A neighbor is made by curiosity, connection, and care. A neighbor is made by love, which makes the big world little and the little world big. A neighbor is made by the movement of mercy. Go thou and do likewise.

Sermon, July 3

So this isn’t really a proper sermon, folks – I got back from vacation yesterday…! But as I planned this service I found I had a train of thought that seemed to want sharing.

We live in a cultural context in which religion and politics are understood as different things. That division is NOT intrinsic to the nature of things; in the vast majority of human history and cultures, there has been no clear distinction between religion and politics. But the cultural conditions to draw that distinction arose during the Enlightenment and it became a foundational principal of our nation.

There are really good things about the way religion and politics are legally separated in the United States. It makes it possible to be a pluralistic society, in which Christians and Jews and Muslims and Hindus and Sikhs and agnostics and atheists can all help vision and build the common good.

But I think that distinction can trip us up when it tricks us into thinking that religion is a private thing that only belongs in this 90 minutes on a Sunday morning. That it’s somehow inappropriate to have our faith convictions shape our civic and political engagement, and even more inappropriate to TALK about it – either out there or in here.

I believe that it’s not only appropriate to talk about faith in light of politics and vice versa; it’s necessary, in order for us to be truly faithful.

A couple of years ago I shared with you a sermon by one of the great early 20th century preachers, Harry Emerson Fosdick. It’s a powerful sermon; I re-read it about once a year. But there’s one point in particular that I think about often.

Fosdick, writing in the early years of the Great Depression, speaks to those who say that churches, and preachers, should stick to the spiritual needs of individual souls, and leave the social situation to the politicians and the public square. He is convinced that to talk about the Christian gospel as merely individual and not social is “dangerous nonsense” (his words).

But, he says, up to a point, those who criticize talk about political issues in church have a point. Fosdick writes, “If they mean that when people come to church on Sunday, having lived another week in the hurly-burly of the world, their ears tired with boistrous debate, they are seeking something other than a continuation of the secular dispute, then we had better agree with that. The church has lost its function which forgets how deeply people… need spiritual renewal. [Churches] do sometimes continue the secular debate which the newspapers conduct a great deal better through the week.”

Fosdick’s point is this: We as Christians, we as the Church, have to talk about the same issues being discussed in the public square. But we need to talk about them in a different way, not “continue the newspapers’ secular debate.”

The language we use to talk about any of the big issues affecting the common good and the welfare of our neighbors needs to be different from the language used in the newspapers, or in a flyer someone presses into your hand on a street corner, and, please God, it needs to be different from the way people talk about it in the nastier corners of social media.

In the past few months I’ve had conversations with two of our newer households, people who have come to St. Dunstan’s within the past year.

And they’ve both said that one of the things that’s really important about church for them is that it be a place where people who maybe vote differently, or who maybe vote the same way but for different reasons, people driven by different core concerns, people with different understandings of how best to get from where we are now to where we hope to be –

that all those people can be in genuine fellowship.

Nobody silenced. Nobody ashamed.

I’ve heard those conversations as a nudge from the Holy Spirit – a timely nudge in this election year. I hear a call to passionate nonpartisanship.  Not to avoiding the issues that are so much on our minds and hearts, but to talking about them here DIFFERENTLY than we talk about them at home, or among our circle of friends who all share our views, or on Facebook where you either FORGET that your racist uncle will read that post, or secretly hope he will and think it serves him right if he gets upset.

When other clergy ask me, So what’s the political leaning at St. Dustan’s?, I say, well, it’s probably about 90% progressive, left, liberal, whatever word you choose. And that means two things.

First, it means that that 10% of folks who see some issues in a different light are really really important, so that we don’t become an echo chamber. So that our political and religious views don’t completely collapse into each other. So that we remember to have a different kind of conversation here.

Second, it means that it can be hard to remember that that 10% is here. It can be hard to hold a space where people can ask questions, share experiences, talk about our deep-seated values and how they have been formed.

A call to passionate nonpartisanship. I’m trying to hold that in my mind and my heart, and now I’m passing it on to you, too.

What does that mean? What does it look like? I think that’s something to be discovered in the doing, to an extent.

It might look like gently encouraging ourselves and each other to talk less about what we’re against – which is far too easy – and more about what we’re for.

It might look like gently encouraging ourselves and each other to listen. To ask each other, Where do faith and life and politics intersect, for you?

I dare to hope that listening and reflection, on our own and others’ experiences and convictions, might actually help us feel less overwhelmed, less despairing. Might actually lead us towards more focused and energized action as God’s people in the world.

And above all, passionate nonpartisanship has to look like coming back to the Gospel, again and again and again. Coming back to what we share as disciples of Jesus Christ. As people called to be ambassadors of God’s reconciling love in the world around us.

Sermon, May 1

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being? I will, with God’s help! It’s the fifth question of our baptismal covenant, the set of questions we ask one another every time we baptize a new member into the church. These questions ask us, and remind us, how we intend to live as God’s people. And our answer to each one is, I will, with God’s help. Affirming both our commitment … and our need for divine assistance.

Today’s Gospel comes from John’s account of the life of Jesus. Unlike the other Gospels, in John’s version, Jesus visits Jerusalem several times. He’s walking near one of the great gates of the city, past a place where people go seeking healing. Scholars of the ancient world think this was probably a temple to the Greek god Asclepius, the god of medicine and healing. Asclepius was adopted by the Romans and honored all around the ancient world. His temples were, essentially, some of the world’s first hospitals. They often included a pool, for rituals of cleansing and healing. If this pool in the Gospel were part of a temple of healing, it explains why there were many sick and disabled people around, waiting, hoping, praying that Asclepius and his priests would favor them with restoration and health.

There were stories that this was an especially powerful pool – that from time to time, the waters of the pool would be mysteriously stirred up, perhaps by an unseen angel, and the first person to get into the pool after that magical stirring was practically guaranteed to be healed. Jesus is walking past this place, this pagan temple full of human agony and desperate hope. And his eye falls on one of the people lying there, a man who has been ill for thirty-eight years. Why this man? Who knows? Maybe Jesus just saw in him the potential for health, for faith.

So Jesus speaks to him. He asks, Do you want to be made well? The sick man’s response is interesting. He doesn’t say, Yes, of course I do! Please help me! Instead he explains why the approach he’s already trying hasn’t worked for him yet. “Sir, I don’t have anyone to help me into the pool when it is stirred up, and by the time I can get to it, somebody else has already jumped in and stolen the miracle.” Jesus brushes aside the explanations and excuses. He says, Stand up, take your mat and walk. And the man stands up, and walks.

This man’s illness is an individual situation. Something particular to his body and his life story. But this is also more than just an individual situation. Just like the homeless veteran whose PTSD leaves him muttering in a doorway downtown. Just like the single mom dependent on public assistance who calls to see if I can resolve her delinquent utility bill. Just like the former drug dealer who can’t find honest work because of his record. There are layers and layers of larger systems that have contributed to this individual’s need and misery.

Maybe this man’s illness or disability is just a fact of life. Even today, with all the tools of modern medicine, bodies break. Bodies fail. But there’s more to his situation than illness. He is alone. No one is tending or helping him. He is poor. If he weren’t poor, he wouldn’t be alone. And he is looking for help in the wrong place. This temple to an empty god, which has no power to help him or change his life. But it’s the only place he knows to go, so he goes there. Quite possibly he’s been going there for thirty-eight years.

Jesus, because he is Jesus, just stops by and heals him. Most of the time it’s not that simple for us. I can’t just command health back into somebody like this man. But I, or you, could address the fact that he’s alone. That he’s poor. That he doesn’t have a place to go that would welcome and care for him. It is within our reach, within our power, as citizens of goodwill in a democratic society, to address things like that.

And this brings us to the point where Baptismal Question #5 opens out from Baptismal Question #4. The fourth question, remember, is: Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? Our faithful response to that question calls us to reach out in kindness to the individual who is suffering, since we know that God can look a whole lot like a human in pain. But the fifth question, today’s question – it asks us, Will you strive for justice and peace among all peoples, and respect the dignity of every human being? That is a big ask, folks. Justice and peace among ALL PEOPLES. Dignity for EVERY human being. Phew.

If the fourth question demands our response to suffering, the fifth question demands our curiosity about suffering. It asks us to look at the big picture. The world-system that Jesus came to transform and redeem. Where does it come from? How is it created and perpetuated? Why are things like this? Why can’t they be different? Could we shift our society and systems, in ways that would lower the quota of human suffering, and add to the world’s measure of hope, wholeness, and delight? Where would we start?

Some of you are thinking, right now, There she goes again, telling us to fix the world. Doesn’t she know I already try to help all I can? Doesn’t she know how overwhelming it is? Doesn’t she know that sometimes I just need to watch Seinfeld reruns and forget it all for a while? I do, actually. I really do. Because: me too.

Sometimes – when we’re overwhelmed, weary, ashamed, angry – we struggle with whether our neighbor’s wellbeing is really our responsibility. It would be so great if that person’s misfortune were really their own fault, full stop. No layers of shared social and economic and political systems to muddy the picture. Just one person’s successes or failures. Because then we could still help if we wanted to, but when we don’t, there’s no guilt. He brought it on himself. It’s not my problem.

But as Christians, and as thoughtful people, even though those thoughts and feelings touch us sometimes, we can’t really stay there. We know better. We are all in this together. There is no such thing as other people’s children. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” may be a quotation from the Bible, but the person who says it has just, in fact, murdered his brother, and is not a model for our moral behavior.

We would all very much like it if all the ills of the world were someone else’s fault and responsibility. The sick man’s response to Jesus, that little speech about why he can never get to the pool in time, sounds familiar to me because I hear something a lot like it from nearly everyone who calls the church looking for help. Everyone has their reasons why their life has fallen short of their hopes. I lost my job and my jerk landlord won’t cut me any slack. My daughter is in prison and I’m trying to care for my grandbaby. My food stamps cover one adult and one child, and my son eats like an adult now, so we’re hungry all the time. My mother died out of state and we used our grocery money to go see her, and next month’s rent money for funeral expenses. Our apartment complex has bedbugs and we had to throw away everything we own. The employers in this town are racist and won’t give me work. Everyone has a whole list of reasons and circumstances that explain why they just can’t catch a break. Why they haven’t yet managed to stand up and walk.

Here’s the thing: regardless of whether the details of those particular stories are entirely true, the big story they add up to IS true. It IS true. Like Jesus and his contemporaries, we live in a society of deep, entrenched inequality, that does the bare minimum to care for the poor and vulnerable. If you’re not convinced of that, I invite you to do some research comparing our public systems, our safety net for the poor and sick, and our incarceration rates with those of other developed countries. That’s why even when I’m tired and jaded and skeptical, my capacity to respond clouded by compassion fatigue, I try to help, at least a little. I try at least to offer prayers.

Our texts from the book of Revelation describe John’s vision of the redeemed City, at the end of history, when God has fully restored and renewed our world. That City is clean and bright, shining with the light of God, undimmed by human tears, unmarred by pain or grief. The river of Life flows through it, and the Tree of Life grows in its heart, the tree whose leaves are for the healing of the nations.

It is, truly, a beautiful vision – and sometimes the gulf between that holy someday City and the cities of this world feels… paralyzing. It’s enough to make us start to recite our own list of reasons why our lives have fallen short of our hopes. I have to work long hours to pay the mortgage and child care; I just don’t have time to volunteer. My family is going through a rough time and I’m the one holding things together; maybe later I’ll be able to do more for others. There’s so much money in politics, it’s impossible for ordinary people like me to make a difference. I help people all day at work; by the weekend I’m drained, with nothing more to give.

We would all very much like it if the brokenness of the world were someone else’s responsibility. Here’s my good word to you, my sisters and brothers in weariness and perplexity: It is. It is somebody else’s responsibility. The redeemed City is God’s city. We are not going to get there by human efforts. It’s not up to us. The image of that City is not supposed to be like a Pinterest Fail that shames our best endeavors. It’s a vision of God’s intentions for humanity, meant to give us hope and reassurance as we struggle and strive in this world.

It’s not up to us. It’s up to God, and God is already on it. Now, that doesn’t let us off the hook entirely. The Jewish tradition gives us the phrase Tikkun Olam, which means, mending the world – very much what we mean when we talk about reconciling as a core Christian practice. And a great rabbi, Rabbi Tarfon, said this about Tikkun Olam, about the work of mending the world: It is not your obligation to finish the task. But neither are you free to stop the work entirely.

It is not your obligation to finish the task. But neither are you free to stop the work entirely.

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being – That question can feel as overwhelming as the morning headlines. Like it’s asking us to finish the task. To fix the world. To bring about the redeemed City.

Here’s what I want for you, for us, when we hear that question – I want us to feel our feet on the ground, our community standing shoulder to shoulder, the landscape of our lives stretching out around us. I want this big question to stir up another question inside us: Yes, there’s a lot of brokenness, disorder, injustice and pain. Where can I reach out and touch it? Without even trying? Without leaving the path of my everyday life, without even stretching my arm out all the way? I guarantee you that every single one of us has someplace where we can easily lay hands to the world’s brokenness.

I want this baptismal question to invite us in to the practice of reconciling, to noticing where God is at work in our city, neighborhood, school, workplace, church, family, and joining in what God is doing, wherever the lost are being found, the oppressed are finding justice, the broken are being healed, those in need are finding mercy, those in bondage are finding freedom, and enemies are making peace.

I got about this far in writing my sermon, Thursday morning, and then I went to a forum over at Fountain of Life Church on steps towards greater racial equity in Dane County. The event was a collaboration between three big local anti-racism organizations, Justified Anger, the YWCA, and Race to Equity. And what was striking for me was that those leaders said something a lot like what I just said: Racial disparities and their impact on people of color, and on our community as a whole, are a huge, hard, messy problem. And there’s no master plan to fix it all. There’s no one organization or leader that’s going to give us the perfect 5-step plan to transform Madison into the Redeemed City. Instead, they said, look around your life, your landscape. Get together with your people – your friends, your coworkers, your church folks. Have your own conversations about where you can see and touch the patterns of poverty and inequality in our community. And figure out your role, your call, your work, in common purpose and hope with the work of others across our communities. With the work of God in our communities.

Systemic racism is just one of the shadows that mars Madison, that makes us look less like the redeemed City of John’s vision. It’s just one of the evil powers of this world that corrupts and destroys the creatures of God, to borrow words from another part of our baptismal rite. The powers that sicken, impoverish, and isolate people, like that man on the ground in our Gospel story; and that demand our courageous and compassionate response.

I want this great big bold baptismal question to stir up in you the intention and hope that you, YOU, just as you are, can find a way to program or plant or knit or paint or counsel or heal or make music or care for children or report news or call politicians or visit friends or dance or learn or run a business or manage employees or teach or act or administrate or clean or sew or serve on a board or feed people or visit the sick or sell houses or keep cows healthy or solve crimes or go to rallies or write poetry or care for elders or comfort the grieving or catch babies or run a household or take care of animals or write grant proposals or do research or sell insurance or design products in the direction of justice, peace, and human dignity. AMEN.

Sermon, April 24

A homily for our All-Ages service on April 24, 2016.

Who remembers a baptism? What do we do?…

Another part of what we do is that we say some things together. We say some things that remind us of who we are, and what we believe, and how we try to live, as God’s people. It’s called the Baptismal Covenant.  A covenant is kind of like a promise. It has five questions in it that all start “Will you?” They ask if we will keep being faithful to our church family, if we’ll turn back to God when we go wrong, if we’ll share God’s good news in our lives, if we’ll love other people and try to help them, and if we’ll work to build a better world. And what we say when we answer all those questions is, I WILL, WITH GOD’S HELP! Because those are all important and also hard; so we say, Yes, we will do it, but we need your help, God.

Today I want to talk a little bit about the fourth question. Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?

Who’s your neighbor? … Jesus means, anybody whose life crosses paths with your life. Friends, family, strangers, enemies, all are our neighbors. Even people who live around the world from us are our neighbors in God’s eyes. So we’re talking about, how we treat other people.

At your school, do they talk about the Golden Rule? What’s the Golden Rule? … Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Treat other people the way you want to be treated. Do your parents or teachers sometimes ask you, “How would you feel if somebody did that to you?” Like if you don’t feel like sharing, or you get upset and hit somebody. You have to think about how it feels when somebody doesn’t share with you, or when somebody gets mad and hits you.

The Golden Rule is a good way to think about how to treat people, because it helps us think about how things feel for somebody else.  But Jesus says something different here, in today’s Gospel story. He says something more. He says, Love each other the way I love you. Love each other the way Jesus loves you. The way God loves you.

Let’s try out an example to explain this… What do you like to eat for breakfast?… Okay. So, if you’re in charge of breakfast, if you get to choose, you’ll have waffles. Now, what if you had a guest and you were making breakfast for them too? And you made them waffles, because it’s your favorite? You are trying to be kind and loving. You are making them the thing that you really like. You are loving your neighbor as yourself.

But what if your guest doesn’t like waffles? It’s just not their favorite. Maybe it even tastes bad to them. Or maybe they’re even allergic to it, (or they’re vegetarian). Then even you were trying to be kind, the breakfast you made for them isn’t meeting their needs. So what could you do differently? …

Yeah! If you really wanted to make your guest happy, make them feel welcome and loved, you would ask them what they like best for breakfast, and then, if you can, that’s what you would make for them.

Jesus says, Love each other the way I love you. Jesus didn’t treat everybody the same. He looked into people and saw who they were and what they needed, and that’s how he responded to them. That’s the kind of love Jesus and God show us, the kind of love that sees that our neighbors are sometimes different from us. What they need and want and hope for might be different too.

We had a little story about that earlier today, in the story about Peter the apostle. Peter and Midamos had a way of following Jesus, that included keeping the practices of Judaism. And they thought that was the right way for everybody who follows Jesus. But God showed Peter that he was wrong. God showed Peter that Gentiles, people who didn’t follow Jewish practices, were called to follow Jesus and become Christians, too.

For Peter, to love those new Christians the way he loved himself, would be to say, Here are the rules for being a Christian. Instead, God helped Peter to love these new Christians the way God loved them, so he was able to just say, Welcome to God’s family! I am glad you’re here!

Our Baptismal Covenant asks us to love our neighbors as ourselves. But let’s remember that that’s just the beginning, and that, with God’s help, we can try to love our neighbors with God’s love, which is bigger and broader and brighter than our love.

I’m going to ask the question now, and I want to hear a nice loud answer: I will, with God’s help!

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? …

Sermon, March 13

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:10-11)

These are the words of the apostle Paul, preacher, theologian, traveler, church-starter, letter-writer, and martyr. He wrote the letter to the church in Philippi while he was in prison, though we’re not sure which time – he was imprisoned a number of times for disturbing the peace by preaching the Gospel of Christ. There are hints throughout this letter that he thought his current imprisonment might well be his last; he writes with tenderness and urgency of someone setting down his last words. Chapter 4, verse 1, summarizes the tone of the whole letter: “My brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord, my beloved ones.”

In today’s passage, from chapter 3, Paul lays out how he thinks about his own dire circumstances, probably both to ease his friends’ minds about his suffering and to encourage them when they encounter persecution and struggle. He’s also touching on one of the hotbutton issues of the mid-1st century: did non-Jewish converts to Christianity have to become Jews first, and in particular, did they have to be circumcised? Paul’s answer is an emphatic No.

That’s where he starts here: I did everything right, as a Jew – I have the right lineage, I was circumcised as a baby, I was zealous and faithful in practicing my beliefs, I even persecuted Christians. But when I turned to Christ, I realized that none of that mattered. All those ways that I measured my righteousness before now look to me like what you wash down the sewer. (That word, “rubbish,” in our translation, is cleaner than the word Paul really uses.) Paul says, The righteousness I have now isn’t even mine. It’s Christ’s, living in me, through faith.

And then he says this bold, fierce thing: I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Becoming like Christ in suffering, in death, in the hope of becoming like him, too, in life beyond death.

This in on Paul’s mind because he anticipates his own death, perhaps soon. But this idea of participating in Christ’s death is a bigger idea for him, too – it’s part of his ecclesiology, his understanding of what makes us the Church, the people of God. Christians are people who have died to self and been reborn, remade, resurrected, in Christ. In the second letter to the Corinthians, for example, Paul

writes, “For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.” And in the portion of the letter to the Romans that is always read at the Easter Vigil, Paul says, “Don’t you know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? By baptism, we have been buried with him, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”

Paul’s language and theology of participating in Christ’s death is woven into the language and theology of our sacraments. It’s in our baptismal rite, when we thank God for the water of Baptism, in which we are buried with Christ in his death, and by which we share in his resurrection. It’s in our Eucharistic rites too, as we offer the sacrifice of our lives to God, as we accept the bread and wine that are, in some mysterious way, the body and blood of Christ, and become one with Christ, in death and in life.

Why would you choose this? Why would you want to be part of a religion that talks so much about dying? Whose founder was brutally murdered by the civil authorities? And that invites us to join him in suffering and death?  A religion whose initiation ritual – according to our ritual language if not our actual practice – involves drowning babies?

What does Paul mean, what does the Church mean, by this idea, this image, of participating in the suffering and death of Jesus? In the immediate context of today’s passage, Paul is looking at the possibility of dying for his faith. He quite literally means that he hopes to have the courage to die like Jesus, and looks forward in hope to rising with Jesus. But he’s also saying something more universal about life and death, about suffering and faith, in the Christian way. I think one thing he’s saying, maybe even the central thing, is that our suffering and God’s suffering interpenetrate. We suffer with Christ because Christ suffered with us. We die with Christ because Christ died with us. In the artful words of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, “I am all at once what Christ is since he was what I am.”

Why would you want to be part of a religion that talks so much about dying? That invites us to join our God in suffering and death?  Because we suffer, and we die. And so we badly need a God who suffers like us, who suffers with us. Our psalm today, Psalm 126, keenly reminds us that both struggle and joy are part of the human story: “May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.”  And our Gospel today – which I promise to preach about properly in June – gives us this moment of tenderness and poignancy, as Mary washes Jesus’ feet. It’s one of those moments we know in our own lives, when the sweetness of the present is flavored by our keen awareness that the moment won’t last. That things are always changing, and often ending. As the Dread Pirate Roberts puts it in The Princess Bride, Life IS pain; and anyone who says otherwise is selling something.

And that’s the thing about Christianity, about our faith. Christianity isn’t selling something; it’s telling the truth about human life.  In the first chapter of Unapologetic, author Francis Spufford talks about an ad campaign run by the New Atheist movement on London buses. The buses say in big letters: “There’s probably no God. Now, stop worrying and enjoy your life.” Spufford says, the part of this that offends his faith isn’t “there’s probably no God” – fine, fair enough, God is not provable. The part of this that offends his faith is the word “enjoy.” As in, “Stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

Spufford writes, “Enjoyment is lovely. Enjoyment is great. The more enjoyment the better. But enjoyment is one emotion… Only sometimes… will you stand in a relationship to what’s happening to you where you’ll gaze at it with warm, approving satisfaction. The rest of the time you’ll be busy feeling hope, boredom, curiosity, anxiety, irritation, fear, joy, bewilderment, hate, tenderness, despair, relief, exhaustion, and the rest.” (8) The slogan on the bus endorses an idea of human life centered on enjoyment, an idea borrowed wholesale from advertising. If all you knew about humanity came from commercials, you might indeed think that human life was all about enjoyment – and also that most people are attractive 18- to 30-year-olds.

Spufford invites us to imagine people watching that bus go by whose lives are mired deep in suffering. In pain or illness, in grief, in addiction and desperation. What does that bus with its message of enjoyment say to them? Nothing, and worse than nothing. It says that they are invisible. It says that they are alone. There’s no comfort, no consolation, in those peppy words.

In contrast, writes Spufford, “A consolation you could believe in would be one that didn’t have to be kept apart from awkward areas of reality. One that didn’t depend on some more or less tacky fantasy about ourselves, one that wasn’t in danger of popping like a soap bubble upon contact with the ordinary truths about us… 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, or even because of it.” (p. 14)

Another of my favorite faith writers, Gretchen Wolf Pritchard, who creates the “Sunday Papers” we use for our kids, likewise writes about why we need the cross – and the suffering and death it stands for – in our story of faith, even in the story of faith we tell to our children. She writes, “The cross is a mystery and a terror; we feel we would gladly shield our children from it. … [But] children know that the world is full of terror, that no answers are easy, that no comfort comes without cost, pain, and mystery. It is not the cross that terrifies children, but the false gospel that bypasses the cross and leaves us forever alone with our pain and guilt.” (Offering the Gospel to Chilcen, p. 4)

Why would you want to be part of a religion that talks so much about dying? That invites us to join our God in suffering and death? Because we suffer, and we die. We struggle with pain, anxiety, guilt, loneliness, betrayal, grief. And our faith tells us, shows us, that we’re not alone, never alone, in any of that. It offers us a consolation we can trust, because it accommodates the truth about us, about our lives. We suffer with Christ and Christ suffers with us and nothing, really nothing at all, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

That’s why we can’t, shouldn’t, skip to Easter, however tempting it is, the eggs and fluffy bunnies and pretty butterflies, the joyful Alleluias and the relief of the empty tomb. Don’t skip to Easter. The stuff in between is so very, very important.  This Sunday feels a little to me like that pause at the top of the roller coaster. When you catch your breath, and think, Here goes. Hold on tight. Hope I don’t lose my cookies.

This coming Friday we walk the Way of the Cross in downtown Madison, in a public even that’s become a gateway into Holy Week for me. Saturday morning we welcome the kids of the parish and beyond to receive the whole story of Jesus’ final week, his death and resurrection. Next Sunday we recall Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, greeted with palms and shouts of Hosanna! … and then his betrayal, arrest, trial, and execution. On Maundy Thursday, we’ll tell and enact his final meal.

On Good Friday, we will tell – once more – the holy solemn story of his death. We’ll bow before the cross, the instrument of shame and redemption. We’ll linger round an icon on Christ in the tomb, letting grief and loss be part of the story, letting ourselves weep and wonder. Then in the deep dark of Saturday night we’ll retell our ancient stories of salvation and liberation, and then SHOUT with joy as we mark the moment when Christ bursts forth from the tomb into new life. I know not everybody can handle the late night, but I gotta tell you, the Easter Vigil is about a hundred times cooler than Easter Sunday. But Easter Sunday is great too! – music and flowers and food and kids getting grass stains on their best clothes running around looking for plastic eggs.

We need it, all of it, the whole arc, all those moods and moments. If you’re away from your home church, as you may well be, I hope you’ll find another church with whom to walk this path, or spend your own time in prayer with each day, each chapter. We need the whole story because we need a God, a faith, that isn’t selling something. That tells the truth about our lives, and meets us there. That is the gift of God in Christ, and this is the time in the church’s year when that gift comes to us most fully and vividly, in all its messy prickly grace-filled complexity and completeness. Catch your breath, and hold on tight.

Sermon, March 6

It’s hard to preach on this Gospel, because this story of Jesus, the story we know as the parable of the Prodigal Son, is itself one of the best sermons ever preached. I’m going to start by just telling the story again, with a few details added or explained. I invite you to listen, notice, imagine, whether you’re hearing this for first time or the hundredth.

Jesus was making his way slowly towards Jerusalem, preaching and teaching and healing along the way. And among the people who gathered to hear him and be near him were the lowest of the low. The scum of the earth. Prostitutes. Tax collectors. People rendered unclean by illness or work or sin. Now, there were also religious people, even religious leaders, who were drawn to Jesus’ teaching. And they grumbled about having to share space with those other  folks. They said, “This Jesus fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So Jesus told them a parable. He told them three, actually; the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and this one.

There was a man who had two sons. He was a landowner and farmer, and reasonably prosperous. His two sons were grown, young adults, maybe in their 20s or 30s. In that place, as in the traditional American farm, adult children would stick around and help run the farm, eventually taking it over when the patriarch retires or dies. The oldest son would inherit most of the property, but the younger son had a share coming to him too.

However. The younger son didn’t want to help tend the farm. He wanted to see the world and taste its delights. He wanted that so much that he did something pretty unthinkable. He went to his father and said, I want my inheritance now. Imagine that happening in any family that you know well. Really imagine. It’s almost as if the son is saying, I can’t wait for you to die. He is definitely saying, I don’t want to be part of this way of life we share as a family anymore.

And here the father’s gracious nature first reveals itself. He doesn’t say, You are no longer my son, you selfish ungrateful twerp. He doesn’t even say, Nope, sorry, no can do, you’ll just have to wait. He finds a way to give his son what he asks, perhaps selling some land to turn it into cash. Breaking up the family estate, diminishing the land that supported the household. Our translation says he divided the property, but the Greek noun there is “bion” – the life, the livelihood of the family.

It probably didn’t surprise anybody when a few days later, the younger son packed up his newfound wealth and cut out.  He makes his way to a far-off country, someplace where his family can’t find him, where he can live his own life, make his own way. And he proceeds to blow his inheritance on dissolute living.

Dissolute – profligate – prodigal. That word – asotos in Greek – is where this parable gets its name. Prodigal is a wonderful old word, rarely used now beyond this parable. Its first meaning is: Wastefully extravagant. Reckless, spendthrift, imprudent. The text allows us to draw our own conclusions about the specific nature of this young man’s dissolution. I think we can assume that it involved wine, rich food, gambling, and the kinds of friends – male and female – that you make by throwing a lot of money around.

I’m sure it was fun while it lasted. But it didn’t last. It never does. He ran out of money. And about that time, a severe famine took place in that country. And he began to be in need. All those friends he’d made weren’t returning his calls. His favorite restaurants and wine bars wouldn’t let him in the door. So, desperate, he took a job working for a local farmer, feeding the pigs. He’d been raised a practicing Jew, believing pigs were unclean, impure; but now he has no choice but to spend his time in their company.

The situation is so bad that he’s actually jealous of the pigs. Even though he has work, the pay is so low and food is so expensive, due to the famine, that he’s starving. He watches the pigs scarfing down carob pods and plant husks and thinks, I wish I could eat that. And no one gave him anything. Because nobody cared whether he lived or died.

Imagine a morning, another morning of this grinding, awful life. His once-fine clothes are filthy and tattered, and they hang on him, he’s lost so much weight. His skin is grey with hunger and poor health, his hair is matted and dirty. He’s tossing out the pods for the pigs as the sun rises, beginning to soften the dawn chill. And he comes to himself. I love that phrase so much: He comes to himself. He remembers who he is, and who he once was. He sees that he can’t go on like this, and he sees – maybe, just maybe – a way out.  A way home.

He says – out loud – My father’s hired hands have plenty of bread, and here I am, dying of hunger! I will stand up and go to my father. He has no reason to welcome me home, after everything I’ve done. So I’ll apologize, and ask for mercy. I’ll say, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”‘ Then maybe he’ll have mercy and take me in as a worker, and at least I’ll have food and a place to sleep.

He set off at once, leaving the pigs to their pods, and walked the long journey home to his father. I like to imagine him practicing his little speech on the road: “Father, I have sinned against you,” etcetera.

But while he was still far off, his father saw him. Give that detail a moment’s thought. His son had been gone for months, at least – maybe longer. How many times, during his absence, had his father checked the road? Cast his eyes into the distance to see whether, by any merciful chance, his son was coming home yet?  This time – he sees a figure in the distance. And somehow he knows that it is his son, his lost son. And the father is filled with compassion. He runs to meet him. Listen, grown men don’t run; it’s undignified. But this father runs. And he throws his arms around his son’s neck, embraces him, filthy clothes and all, and kisses his dirty, beloved face.

The son begins his speech, the one he planned out among the pigs: ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son….” But his father doesn’t let him finish.  A crowd has gathered, the slaves and servants of the house gathering round, and he tells them, Quickly, bring a robe, the best one, and put it on him, to cover his rags with dignity! Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet, so that he looks like a child of this house again. And kill the fatted calf, the one we keep ready for a special occasion. We will eat and celebrate! For this son of mine” – Notice, he refuses, refutes his son’s words, I am no longer worthy to be called your son – “This son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”

So they began to celebrate. But somehow nobody thought to tell the older brother. Or maybe lots of people thought it, but nobody wanted to do it. So he knows nothing of the homecoming and the party until he’s headed in from the fields, where he’s been working, and he hears… music. He calls a slave and asks what’s going on, and is told, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” The older brother is furious. A party? For that loser? After all the trouble and grief he has caused? After his selfishness nearly killed their father? A party? He refuses to go inside. So his father comes out to plead with him.

The older son lays out his grievance: LISTEN. For all these years I have worked for you like a slave. I’ve always done what you wanted. But you’ve never even given me a young goat for a party with my friends. But this son of yours comes back, after wasting your property on prostitutes, and you kill the fatted calf as if he were an honored guest!  Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours – and he is still your brother – this brother of yours was dead, and has come to life. He was lost, and has been found.”

Jesus leaves the story hanging right there – it’s up to the religious leaders in the crowd to decide: does the older son, the good son who follows all the rules, does he find it in himself to celebrate the return and restoration of his reckless, thoughtless, sinful little brother?

The word “prodigal” has a second meaning, related to, but distinct from, the first. It can also mean giving lavishly, generously. Prodigal: abundant, unstinting, unsparing. Who’s prodigal in this story, the younger son or the father?

I don’t want to explain this story, so rich in meaning and beauty, so like and yet unlike our real lives and families. I don’t want to reduce it to any simple moral lesson. Instead I want to reach out and grab our Epistle for today, and bring it up alongside this Gospel parable.

Our Epistle comes from Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth. Paul is talking here about what 20th century theologians call the missio Dei. The mission of God. This idea arose as an alternative to the older idea that the Church as God’s people was primarily responsible for carrying out God’s mission in the world. The theology of missio Dei says, Actually, God is already in the world, carrying out God’s mission, doing the things God does. In the words of one of my favorite prayers, working through our struggle and confusion to accomplish God’s purposes on earth.

Our job, as the Church, God’s people gathered and sent, is to notice where God is at work in our world, our city, our neighborhood or school or workplace or family, and join in. Help it along. Become allies, partners, co-conspirators with God. This theology invites us to seek God’s action in the world by looking for the kinds of things God does – known to us from Scripture, tradition, and our own walks of faith. God works in minds and hearts, in families and communities and institutions, to heal. Restore. Renew. Liberate. Transform. And to reconcile.

Paul says, in today’s text,  “All these gifts of grace and renewal are from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation. In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their sins against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal to the world through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”

To reconcile means, simply, to bring back together. To restore relationship. The re- prefix assumes an original unity or connection that has been lost – whether particular to a situation, or the fragmentation that besets us all, as children of one God and one planet who forget those facts so easily.  To reconcile is to re-establish or mend a relationship, to create harmony or compatibility. I was interested to learn that in Greek as in English, reconcile has a monetary meaning too – I stumbled on this definition: “To reconcile is to make one account consistent with another, especially by allowing for transactions begun but not yet completed.” I like that: the idea that sometimes you have to get numbers or people to match up somehow, even knowing that everything isn’t settled yet, that there are still bills to be paid, balances to be resolved.

Turn your mind and heart back to the parable – to the father’s embrace, his reckless loving welcome, his refusal of his son’s effort to write himself out of the family. This parable gives us a bright, full-color, finely drawn image of God’s reconciling heart. Everything isn’t settled yet; there are debts to resolve; we don’t know whether the older son will be reconciled, soon or ever. But this parable, the prodigal hug on the road, shows us in story what Paul tells us in theory: that God longs to reconcile the world to Godself, to embrace and welcome home, regardless of sins, mistakes and failures.

Reconciliation is one of the core activities of God. A sign of God’s presence we can seek; a gift of God’s grace we can receive, and not just receive: encourage, help along, initiate. God is working to reconcile humans to God, to each other, to the cosmos. And God calls us to be ambassadors of reconciliation, to carry the ministry and message of reconciliation. To join God’s movement to heal the many brokennesses that divide and separate us. In the words of somebody who was probably not St. Francis, we are instruments of God’s peace – God’s reconciliation – invited to participate in God’s quiet persistent loving work of sowing love where there is hatred, pardon where there is injury, trust where there is doubt or fear, hope where there is despair.

Now, just about every week when I’m working on my sermon, I ask myself, will people be able to connect this with their lives? Because if it’s all too abstract, if you can’t reach and touch what I’m talking about, then I have failed. And this is a thing we’re trying to learn to do, here – to talk about our daily lives and work and relationships through the lens of the Gospel, the lens of faith.

SO. Today you’re going to finish this sermon. First, take a moment to think of a time in the past week when you saw God’s reconciliation at work – perhaps when you were able to help it along; or perhaps a moment when you wish you’d taken that “ambassador for reconciliation” role, but you didn’t. Recognizing both successes and missed opportunities is really important! So, in silence, think back, find a moment…

NOW, Turn to a reasonably friendly-looking stranger sitting nearby. Let’s do this in threes. Kids too!… And I invite you to share about that moment you thought of, as you’re comfortable. There’s no pressure to share anything overly private. I’m going to give you two minutes, so keep it simple, and whoever goes first, please leave some time for others too! Start by sharing your names, then tell each other about what being an ambassador for reconciliation could look like in your daily life.

Sermon, Dec. 6

There are probably a dozen or more people in this congregation who have had this experience in the past 18 months:  getting into a conversation with me about matters of faith… suffering… God… Jesus…  and having me thrust a book into your hands: always the same book – Francis Spufford’s book Unapologetic. The subtitle is, “Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense.”

One of the things I really love about Spufford’s take on faith is that he immediately moves the conversation away from belief, and towards emotion. He diagnoses – accurately, I believe – that in our post-Enlightenment cultural context, we think belief is something that happens in your brain. That to believe something means that we agree with it intellectually. Sure, the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides of the triangle. Sure, Jesus Christ rose from the dead and ascended to a heavenly throne.

Spufford says, that’s not really what’s going on inside a Christian. It’s not that our doctrines, our teachings don’t matter, but the heart of our faith is really about… well, about the heart. About emotion, the ways we experience and respond to the world and other people. That really rings true for me – and I heard it in our focus group conversations about faith in daily life last summer, too. We know ourselves most as people of faith in our frustrated patience as we struggle to deal with difficult people; in our grief and anger in the face of catastrophe and injustice in the world; in the love we give and receive in this community, and the other communities which we call home.

Today’s Scripture lessons point us towards one of the key Christian emotions, an orientation of the heart that makes us and marks us as God’s people: Hope.

Hope. From the German root, hoffen. Meaning, Confidence in the future; expectation of something desired; trust in God. The Latin verb is spero, meaning to hope, expect, assume, await, anticipate.  Our English words despair and desperate both come from that Latin root, spero… to despair, to be desperate, is to have fallen from hope, lost hope.

People often name hope as one of the themes of Advent as a season. Let’s look at what today’s Scripture lessons say about hope, this quality of the heart that I think is one of our hallmarks as people of faith.

The book of Baruch is written in the name of Baruch, who was the assistant of the prophet Jeremiah. Its premise is that it contains the proclamations of Baruch, now become a prophet in his own right, to the people Israel during their exile in Babylon. It’s possible that some parts of the text go back that far, but most of it seems to have been composed much later, perhaps about 150 years before Jesus’ birth. During the brief period when Israel was again an independent kingdom, a time of religious and political renewal, before Rome conquered Judea in 63 BCE. The minds and hearts that composed and edited this text, then, were seeking meaning in the cycle of loss and restoration that Israel had experienced, again and again. Conquest, then freedom. Exile, then return. Destruction, then restoration. Perhaps these words were written in one of the good times, to hold close when the bad times roll around again, as they will, as they do.

The voice of the text explains Israel’s struggles and losses as the result of their failure to stay faithful to their God. Baruch says, You were conquered and taken away into exile because you worshipped other gods and forgot to live with mercy and justice. But then the text turns towards consolation – towards hope. Your God, the God who called you into covenant and made you God’s people,  has not forgotten you, still loves you, and will bring you home and restore you.

Chapter 4, just before today’s passage, has a wonderful refrain: “Take courage, my children, cry to God, and God will deliver you from the power and hand of the enemy. For I have put my hope in the Everlasting to save you, and joy has come to me from the Holy One… Take courage, my children, and cry to God, for you will be remembered by the one who brought this upon you. … Take courage, O Jerusalem, for the one who named you will comfort you. …”

Today’s passage concludes this message of hope: “Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God…. Arise, O Jerusalem, stand upon the height; look toward the east, and see your children gathered from west and east at the word of the Holy One, rejoicing that God has remembered them…. God will lead Israel with joy, in the light of divine glory, with the mercy and righteousness that come from God.”

That image of looking to the east for the dawn of God’s salvation shows up again in another text we use in this season –  the Song of Zechariah from the Gospel of Luke, which our Church names as a canticle, a holy song of faith. We’ll hear it next week as we hear the story of Zechariah, Elizabeth, and their son, John the Baptist; and it’s quoted into the bidding to the Peace that we use in this season – “In the tender mercy of our God, the Dawn from on high shall break upon us, to give light to those who dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

The hope of the Bible, the hope of Advent, isn’t the happy-go-lucky hope of someone who assumes good things will happen because good things always happen. It’s the hard-won, courageous, improbable hope of people who have seen their soldiers cut down, their children starve, who’ve been marched away from their homeland in chains. The hope of people living under unjust and corrupt rule. Dwelling in darkness and the shadow of death, indeed, yet still looking to the east, awaiting the dawn of grace.

The introduction to the letter to the Philippians is another text of hope. Paul was in prison when he wrote this letter – and possibly on his final journey to Rome, anticipating his trial and execution for preaching Christianity. He’s upfront about his circumstances, but with typical Pauline badassery, he expresses confidence that his struggles will only inspire more believers – here are the verses that immediately follow today’s text: “I want you to know, beloved ones, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear.” And a little later, in chapter 2: “Even if I am being poured out, like oil or wine poured over a sacrificial offering on the altar, I am glad and rejoice with all of you.”

He reminds the people of the church in Philippi to stay faithful. To take care of each other.  To hold fast to the word of Life. To rejoice in the Lord always, and not worry about anything, but offer up their needs in prayer. In short… to keep on keeping on, as people of hope.

And then there’s today’s Gospel. We’ll focus on John next Sunday – John the Baptist, the prophet, the forerunner. I want to point instead to the first couple of verses – the verses which locate this story in time and place. “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”

Those verses are easy to overlook – let the Bible scholars worry about all that! But I think there’s something important here, as Luke anchors the Gospel he proclaims in a particular moment, a particular situation. God’s word arrives … NOW. God’s dawn breaks… HERE.

And here we are, right here, right now, in the seventh year of the reign of President Obama, when Scott Walker was Governor of Wisconsin, and Michael Curry was Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. Where is hope showing up, now? What does hope look like, here? Where are you looking to spot the first rays of God’s dawn?

Our scriptures, our liturgies, our creeds and seasons seek to shape us as people of hope. To plant and nurture hope within us, as one of the fundamental marks of God’s people, a defining and necessary Christian emotion. What does hope feel like, inside of you? What keeps your feet on the ground, what keeps your heart from flying into bits, in the face of the latest piece of bad news, and the ongoing grinding bitter realities of life in these times?

I meant to preach a more concrete sermon than this. I meant to tell you what hope is and how to have it. But when I set out to write, I found that harder than I expected. Hope is hard to define; it resists being packaged or sold.

The early Christian theologian Tertullian said, Hope is patience with the lamp lit. Hope is patience with the lamp lit. Patience… plus something bright, burning, urgent. I like that.

The fictional spaceship pilot Han Solo said, Never tell me the odds. I like that, too.

The 19th century poet Emily Dickinson said, Hope is a thing with feathers that perches in the soul –  and sings the tune without the words – and never stops – at all – And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard – And sore must be the storm that could abash the little Bird that kept so many warm.

What helps you have hope? Most of us have been through seasons of life when hope was a struggle. Maybe some of us are in a season like that now. Do you, like the Book of Baruch, take notes in the good times, when you’ve come through the storm, to hold close when the bad times roll around again? As they will, as they do?

What helps you have hope? I hope that this place – these people – what we do here – is on your list. Helping you have hope is part of my calling, my work, and the work of this community of faith.

I watched something this week – I bet some of you saw it too – that put it into words so beautifully. It’s a conversation between a man named Angel, and his son, Brandon, who is six. They were interviewed a day after the Paris attacks, near one of the sites of the violence.

Little Brandon told the reporter, ‘We have to be really careful and maybe move away…’ and his father, Angel, spoke up gently to say, ‘We don’t have to move out. France is our home.’

Brandon said, ‘But there’s bad guys, daddy. They have guns, they can shoot us.’

And Angel replied, ‘It’s OK, they might have guns but we have flowers.’

Brandon was not reassured; he said, ‘But flowers don’t do anything.’

And Angle answered, ‘Of course they do, look, everyone is putting flowers over there. It’s to fight against guns.’

Brandon said, ‘It’s to protect us?’

Angel said, ‘Exactly.’

Brandon asked, ‘And the candles too?’

And Angel said, ‘The flowers and the candles are here to protect us.’

The flowers and the candles are here to protect us. Not from bad guys but from fear, which is more destructive than any bad guy could ever be.  The flowers and the candles are here to give hope, to sustain hope. So are the bells, and beautiful colors. The songs, and the way it feels to raise our voices together, that’s to protect us too. The bread and the wine, and that solemn beautiful face up there. They’re here to protect us. We’re here to protect each other from despair and desperation, which both mean, loss of hope. We’re here to be made and remade as people who watch and wait for the first beams of God’s dawn, breaking over the here and now. We’re here to be, and become, people of hope.

Take courage, children!

Sermon, Oct. 11

Last Sunday, we meet Job. He’s a blameless and upright man, who worshipped God faithfully, ran his household well and wisely, and lived with justice and generosity. And he is wealthy and prosperous –  as our story begins, he owns 7000 sheep, 3000 camels, 500 yoke of oxen, and more. He was known as “the greatest of all the people of the east.”

Now, Satan, the Accuser, has been strolling around taking a look at humanity. And God says, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil.” And Satan says, Well, yeah! Look how good he has it. How long would his piety last if he lost all these good things? And God says, You’re on. But don’t hurt Job himself.

Satan does his worst. On one terrible day, one messenger after another comes to Job. His slaves and oxen are lost to raiders. His camels are seized by an enemy army. His sheep are struck by lighting. And a great wind shakes the house where his sons and daughters are gathered – the roof falls upon them, and all are killed instantly. Job says,  “The Lord gave, and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”  God is very proud of Job’s pious stoicism, and brags about it to Satan. And Satan says, “Skin for skin! People will tolerate a lot as long as they remain unharmed. Let me afflict Job’s body too, and we’ll see how his piety stands up.” And God says, You’re on. So Satan covers Job’s body with oozing sores.

The book of Job was probably written roughly 500 years before the life of Jesus, by one dominant voice, perhaps weaving together older sources. The author starts with this set-up of a sort of pissing context between Satan and God, then launches into 35 chapters of a profound theological exploration of suffering in the context of faithfulness. It’s an amazing book.

How do I, personally, read the Book of Job as Scripture? I don’t know if there was ever a Job. If there was, this chronicle of his suffering was written long after he lived and died. I do believe, very much, in the wisdom and divine inspiration of this author, this text.  Every time I revisit Job, I find inspiration and delight in the many passages that describe God’s power in the beauty and wonder of the natural world. Some of the loveliest nature poetry in the Bible is found in Job. And every time I revisit Job, I am reminded of the wisdom it carries about what to do, and what not to do, in the presence of suffering. Job is a master treatise on that topic.

One way to read the Book of Job is as an extended poetic debate over the idea that good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad people.

We know better, just like the Biblical tradition knew better. But still, so easily, we fall into that way of thinking, when we’re not paying attention, or when we’re anxious or sad or uncomfortable or struggling to make sense of something difficult. Our inner six-year-old wants order and justice and reason. We slip into the Bad Things Happen To Bad People mindset when we blame victims. When we worship and justify the successful. When we feel unworthy of good things that come our way, or try to figure out what we did to deserve the bad stuff. When we tell the person staring tragedy in the face that everything happens for a reason – which when you scrape it down a layer, either means that you had it coming, or that this tragedy is just a blessing you haven’t recognized yet.  Because you are a good person, and bad things shouldn’t happen to good people. We KNOW that’s not the deal – that, rather than an ordered, balanced, cause-and-effect world, we live in a world that is messy, confused, broken.  And yet.

Job stubbornly, angrily, faithfully, refuses this logic, the logic of good following good, bad following bad. He says, again and again: I am a good person, and bad things happened to me. He says, again and again: God is God, God is great, all-powerful and transcendent. I won’t quit God, I’m not abandoning my faith; but I’m also not just going to accept this crap. I have the right to cry out to God in my anger and dismay, even though I don’t expect God to answer.

So all this terrible stuff happens to Job. And some friends hear of his misfortunes, and they travel to come and visit with him, in his time of need. At first they just sit silently with him for seven days. They should have stuck with that approach… because once they start talking, their presence is less helpful.

His friend Eliphaz starts off:  Job, you must have sinned in some way that you didn’t realize, because bad things don’t happen to good people. So these misfortunes are God’s punishment, to set you right again.  He says, “How happy is the one whom God corrects! Therefore do not despise the discipline of the Almighty.”  (5:17)  Later in the book his friend Bildad tries another tack: if Job isn’t particularly sinful, then some universal human sinfulness must be to blame. “How can a mortal be righteous before God? If even the stars are not pure in God’s sight, how much less a mortal, who is a maggot, and a human being, who is a worm!…”  (Job 25:5-6)

And Job says, You guys are really crappy friends, and you’re speaking from your own fear and discomfort. “You see my calamity, and are afraid” (6:21).  And also, if God is watching us that closely and judgmentally, and won’t even “let me alone so that I may swallow my spittle,” then I’d rather be dead, thanks. (Job 7:16-19)

Bildad has another explanation to try out: Okay, Job, so you say that YOU’RE righteous. Maybe it was your children who sinned, then, and that’s why God killed them. So your kids were the problem. And since you are a pure and upright person, you’ll be fine. God will restore you. “See, God will not reject the blameless person… he will yet fill your mouth with laughter, and your lips with shouts of joy.” (Job 8:20-21)

Now, it’s not necessarily wrong to tell someone that there may be healing and joy beyond their current suffering. But it’s a matter of timing and tone. Bildad is speaking to Job in the absolute depth of his suffering and grief, so his words come across as dismissive. Also Bildad has seriously missed the boat on Job’s grief about his lost children. “They probably weren’t very good children anyway.” Seriously…

Job says, You’re trying so hard to make human sense of this situation, but look, we’re talking about GOD, here. God who alone stretched out the heavens; who made the Great Bear, Orion and the Pleiades; who does magnificent things beyond understanding. Your human moral logic doesn’t apply to God. (chapter 9)

So then Job’s friend Zophar chimes in:  SHAME ON YOU for talking about God like this! God knows best. If you weren’t guilty before, you are now, for being so demanding and presumptuous towards God the Almighty.  Eliphaz chimes in on the same note – he accuses Job of doing away with the fear of God.  “Your own lips testify against you!”  (15:1-6) Both friends are saying, You shouldn’t be talking back to God like this.  You’re just a human. Forget your grievance, and repent.  “Agree with God, and be at peace; in this way good will come to you… [Then] you will pray to him, and he will hear you.” (22:21) “[Then] You will forget your misery; you will remember it as waters that have passed away.” (11:13-16) If you just accept your suffering, everything will be fine. It’s your anger that’s keeping you away from God. Also, says Zophar, WHY ARE YOU SO MAD? (15:12-13) – “Why does your heart carry you away, and why do your eyes flash?”  We’re just trying to help. Jeez, Job, we’re your friends!…

Job is getting PISSED now.  “Look, my eye has seen all this; my ear has heard and understood it. What you know, I also know. I am not inferior to you. But I would speak to the Almighty, and I desire to argue my case with God.  As for you, you whitewash with lies;  all of you are worthless doctors!  If you would only keep silence, that would be your wisdom!…” (chapter 13) “Miserable comforters are you all! Have windy words no limit? or what provokes you to keep on talking?  I also could talk as you do, if you were in my place; I could join words together against you, and shake my head at you.” (16:2-3)

Job sees very clearly that his friends – his “friends” – are struggling to make sense of his suffering in ways that will let them hold it at arm’s length. That will let them reassure themselves that Job somehow brought all this upon himself, meaning they don’t have to accept the fear and uncertainty of disordered moral universe.  He nails their lack of empathy with one pithy remark: “Those at ease have contempt for misfortune.”  (12:5) Yeah. That rings true, doesn’t it? Job sees it in his friends’ words and behavior. I see it in all the heartless words words we say and policies we put in place directed at most vulnerable among us. Those at ease have contempt for misfortune.

And Job accuses his so-called friends of misrepresenting God in their efforts to defend God from Job’s anger:  “Will you speak falsely for God?… Do you think God is going to appreciate that? … Your platitudes are proverbs of ashes.” (13:7-9, 12)

Your platitudes are proverbs of ashes. Everything happens for a reason. God doesn’t send us anything we can’t handle. How happy is the one whom God punishes. Humans are maggots; shit happens; just accept it. Don’t let it bother you so much. Everybody has their cross to bear. It’ll make you stronger in the end. Just look on the bright side, shake it off, move on.

Proverbs. Of. Ashes. Empty of compassion or comfort.

Also, says Job, your Good Things Happen To Good People logic is crap because the wicked prosper ALL THE TIME. “Why do the wicked live on, reach old age, and grow mighty in power? Their houses are safe from fear, and their children dance around.”(21:7, 9, 11).  Job says, Look, what happened to me is not a fluke. Your whole premise is flawed.  All you have to do is look around to see that the idea that good things happen to good people, and bad to bad, is intellectually and morally untenable.

In the course of arguing with his friends’ wrongheaded assurances,  Job has a few unshakeable convictions of his own.

First: there is a God. And God is good, even though God’s goodness may sometimes be too big and slow and mysterious for us to understand.  Job is honest about feeling alone, abandoned, unheard by God: “I cry to you, and you do not answer me; I stand, and you merely look at me.” (30:20; see also 21:8-9; 9:11) But Job is certain that God is there, even in the darkness and emptiness.

Second: Job won’t accept the idea that he somehow had this coming – because of secret sins, or unconscious sins, or just general human wormyness.  Job says, I’m a good man. I have lived a righteous, generous life.  “My heart does not reproach me for any of my days” (27:6). I don’t deserve this, and I’m not going to make what happened to my family OK by fitting it into somebody’s comfortable moral scheme.

Third: Job insists that his relationship with God is strong enough that he can cry out to God, protest, and demand an answer.  He says, “I will NOT restrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.” (7:11; 10:2 & elsewhere)

Job wishes for a third party mediator – an umpire, in one verse! – who might help him take his case to God. But there isn’t anyone who can take that role and hold God accountable: “Who can say to God, ‘What are you doing?’” (9:12)

But despite the massive asymmetry of the relationship, Job keeps asking, seeking, demanding an answer.  He says, “Would God, in the greatness of divine power, come down and argue a case with me? No. But he would give heed to me.” (ch 23) He would hear me. That’s all I need. I just want to know that God hears.

The debate between Job and his who-needs-enemies friends rages on until it is suddenly and dramatically ended when God appears, and answers Job. God’s answer is … complicated. It’s full of images of nature and vivid descriptions of monsters. That’s another whole sermon – maybe in another three years.

But God does address Job’s friends and all their “good advice.” God makes Job’s friends apologize for being such jerks and for speaking wrongly about God. God says, Job was right. Job was right to cry out to God in grief and anger. Job was right to insist that God was all-powerful, but – and – that divine order doesn’t conform to our human understandings. Job was right to hold fast to righteousness, even when everything fell apart.

What can we carry away from the Book of Job? For one thing, lots of good advice on how NOT to talk to your friends in hard times. Avoid those platitudes of ashes!  In chapter 30 Job talks about what he did in such situations:  “Did I not weep for those whose day was hard? Was not my soul grieved for the poor?” (30:25) So simple: Just be present to the suffering. Stop trying to distance it or make sense of it,  and share the pain.

For another thing, the book has a clear message on how to to talk to God, in your own hard times. The text stresses that Job was right, all along. He blames God, rages at God for the unfairness and bitter pain of his situation; and his pious friends condemn him for it, but God does not.

He speaks of feeling distant from God, abandoned; he wishes he had never been born, or that he would fall over dead on the spot; and his pious friends condemn him for it, but God does not.

He expresses a confidence in his own righteousness that borders on arrogance, and questions God’s righteousness – I mean, look at the world! – and his pious friends condemn him for speaking in this way, but God does not. God justifies Job.

I think there’s a strange and profound comfort here. There are no easy answers to the why of human suffering. But there is a God who hears. A God who lets us weep and rage and throw things, when that’s what we need to do. A God who, like a loving parent, when we have finally wept ourselves quiet, can gently remind us of the big picture beyond our current distress.

Job trusted in that God, even in grief, even in despair, even in bitter anger.  May we, too, be sustained by such a paradoxical and unshakable trust, in our days of loss and struggle.