Category Archives: Church Seasons & Holy Days

Sermon, July 4

David is Israel’s most famous king – remembered as Israel’s greatest king. But he wasn’t Israel’s first king. The first king was Saul. 

It’s easy to focus on David. We all know he’s the main character here. The great king of Israel, whom God favors. Whose kingship is long remembered as Israel’s greatest era, which people in Jesus’ time yearn to restore. But today, as David is crowned king in our Scripture reading, I want to pause and talk about Saul. 

In the eighth chapter of the first book of Samuel, the people of Israel demanded a king. The prophet Samuel warned them that having a king will cost them; but they insisted. Immediately, in chapter nine, a man named Kish sends his son Saul to go look for some lost donkeys. Having no luck, he hears that there’s a prophet in a nearby town and determines to ask him where the donkeys are. He finds Samuel – who tells him that he is the chosen king of Israel. (And also that the donkeys have been found.) 

Why Saul? Well, honestly, the usual reasons, it seems. He’s tall and handsome. He’s the son of a wealthy father and belongs to the right kind of family – in this case, a Benjaminite. We still put guys like that in charge of things a lot.

The accounts of Saul’s kingship are SO SHORT. He becomes king in first Samuel chapter 10. Then he has one good chapter, where he wins a battle against his people’s enemies – kings were military leaders in this time – and everyone is excited about him. Then, almost immediately, he does something that upsets Samuel and/or God, and starts to lose favor. In chapter 14, Saul’s own son Jonathan starts to undermine his leadership by being more bold and successful in a raid on the enemy than Saul.  Saul has a few more military victories – but in chapter 15, God tells Samuel that God regrets choosing Saul as king, and in chapter 16, God sends Samuel to find and anoint David as God’s choice for the next king. Chapter 17 is the David and Goliath story, where we see hints that this bold shepherd boy has more going for him than Saul, King of Israel.

At this point God has un-chosen Saul and chosen David, but there are still FOURTEEN CHAPTERS before Saul’s death. For most of that time David is living in the wilderness with a little band of 600 malcontents, running away from King Saul and his army as they try to seek them out and squash them. 

We don’t know how long Saul was king. Chapter 13, verse 1, reads: “Saul was blank years old when he began to reign, and he reigned blank and two years over Israel.” The numbers that should be there were lost so long ago that nobody can even guess. We don’t know whether Saul’s kingship was really short, as it seems, or whether it was longer and the Biblical text just doesn’t really care about Saul. 

What went wrong with Saul? The first incident that causes Saul to lose God’s favor happens in chapter 13 – very soon after he becomes king. The Philistine army is preparing to attack Israel. They are superior in both numbers and equipment, and Israel’s troops are terrified. The prophet Samuel promised Saul that he would come within seven days and present an offering to God that would secure God’s help during the battle ahead. So Saul waited seven days; but Samuel didn’t come. Meanwhile more and more of his fighters were slipping away, day by day, afraid of death at the hands of the Philistines. Israel’s odds, already poor, are getting worse by the hour. 

So Saul makes the offering to God himself, to ask God’s favor and help. And the moment he’s finished, Samuel walks up and yells at him. “You have done foolishly! The LORD would have established your kingdom for ever; but now your kingdom will not continue.”

Here we only have God’s rejection of Saul in Samuel’s words. Maybe Samuel was just mad. A couple of chapters later, in chapter 15, Samuel is still addressing Saul as King, and sending him to destroy the people of Amalek, avenging a grievance from the time of Moses. Saul is specifically charged to kill EVERYBODY – men, women, children, and livestock. Saul and his army fight the Amalekites and win – but they spare the best of the livestock, and keep other valuables as well. 

Then God speaks to Samuel: “I regret that I made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me, and has not carried out my commands.” Samuel confronts Saul, who insists at first that the only spared the best of the livestock so that they could sacrifice them to God… but eventually confesses that did it because he listened to the voice of the people, who wanted to keep the animals instead of killing them. Saul is distraught; he seizes the hem of Samuel’s cloak and it tears. Samuel looks him in the face and says: “Just so has God torn the kingdom of Israel from you, and given it to another.”

Saul’s failures are not great. But they’re also not terrible. They’re kind of boring, honestly. Commonplace. Impatience. Anxiety. A little ordinary human weakness and greed. And listen: Saul didn’t ask to be king. It’s not like he put himself forward as the best man for the job. In fact, back in chapter 10, when Samuel first gathers the people to present and anoint Saul as their king, Saul hides. 

If we take the text at its word that Saul was God’s choice: Why would God have chosen Saul?  It’s an interesting question. Maybe God knew the people, who had this very fixed idea about their future king, would only accept someone who fit those ideas.  (The text stresses that Saul was VERY tall.) Maybe God knew Saul wouldn’t be able to carry the burden of leadership – and felt that that would be a valuable learning experience for the people. Maybe Saul was genuinely the best candidate Israel had to offer at the time.

Or maybe God’s choosing and rejecting of Saul is simply part of how those composing this text are making sense of the messiness of this chapter of their people’s history. 

Saul probably would have lived a reasonably happy life if he hadn’t become king. It’s that role and its pressures that start to break him. And he does break. David comes along and he’s younger and cuter and braver and more successful in battle and more favored by God… Saul’s own children, his son Jonathan and daughter Michal, both fall in love with David… and Saul can’t take it. He can’t say, “Hey, good for him! I’m lucky to have him around!” His jealously and insecurity spiral into hatred and paranoia. I wish I could tell you the whole story! 

Saul failed as king. There’s no question about it. But he is a tragic figure, not a villain. I pity Saul. 

Like every historical document, First Samuel tells its story with a particular viewpoint and agenda. And this text’s perspective is not actually that Saul was a bad king and David was a great one – but that kings in general are maybe not as great as you might think. 

The Fourth of July is an interesting time to think about history. And I don’t mean just history as “things that happened in the past,” but history as a human process. History as a way of making meaning of both past and present. History as a human process often simplifies events, or tells them with a particular slant.

Lots of things that seem glorious were actually really messy. Lots of things that seem predestined, inevitable, could easily have gone otherwise. Lots of people who seem like noble heroes were actually deeply flawed… and some of the people who seem like villains – or nobodies – are really interesting, and worth our understanding and compassion.

In today’s Gospel when Jesus says that prophets aren’t honored in their hometown, he’s pointing at an aspect of this truth. When you know someone well, you know the whole picture, for better or worse. It’s harder to idealize or romanticize.

Many churches don’t mark the Fourth of July, Independence Day, our chief national holiday. I have deep respect for that choice. Better to ignore it completely than to engage it shallowly. At St. Dunstan’s we often to share a few readings from American history, as our observance of the day – as an exercise in living with the ambiguity of history. 

Facing that ambiguity can be uncomfortable. We see that in the current wave of pushback over schools teaching American history with greater attention to the voices and experiences of different groups, and to our nation’s many failures to live up to our boldest ideals and aspirations. Many folks have a real visceral reaction to the idea that our national history is not as glorious and inevitable – that our great men were not perhaps as great – as we learned in elementary school in decades past. 

How do we cope with that ambiguity and discomfort? Well, for me, one big answer is my faith – my identity as a Christian, which is a higher loyalty than my citizenship as an American. Using my understanding of God’s intentions for humanity – things like mutual care, justice, and wellbeing for all – using that as a yardstick, I can measure the successes and failures of my city, state, and nation. I can look for the places where movement towards better is happening, or could happen – and strive to support it, with my time and voice and resources. 

When we hold up the realities of our common life agains our shared values and aspirations, and find ourselves yearning and crying out for better, we join a chorus that spans nearly 250 years. 

Let’s share a few such voices now, and pray that their words may inspire us to deeper commitment to the ideals of freedom, equality, and democracy that are the foundation stones of this nation, and to God’s dream of mutual care, justice, and wellbeing for all. 

Homily, Pentecost, May 23

This homily follows a short play based on the life of Symeon the Holy Fool. 

Symeon the Holy Fool first came to my attention because the middle school youth group chose him as their favorite, in this year’s Lent Madness saint popularity contest. When we needed a story to share in May – I looked up Symeon, and found his biography, written by Leontius, who was a bishop in Greece in the 7th century. We’re sharing that story today, on Pentecost, because Leontius tells us repeatedly that Symeon’s strange behavior was guided by the Holy Spirit at work within him. 

What is the Holy Spirit? In the early years of Christianity, Christians began to talk about God as having three different ways of being. Those three aspects are separate. For example: Jesus talks about both God the Father, and the Holy Spirit, as being different from himself. Yet they are also all part of the One God. 

We use the word “Trinity” for that three-ness in one-ness. It is a mystery that may stretch our minds, but the church has come to know it as truth: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Source, Word, and Power;  The One who creates, the One who befriends, the One who empowers – the Holy and Undivided Trinity.

So: the Holy Spirit is part of God.  But somehow different from God the Parent and Source, and from Jesus, God the Friend. 

The idea that God’s Spirit was at work in the world was not something that came along with Christianity.  In the beginning of Creation, God’s Spirit moved across the waters of chaos. The Old Testament talks about Lady Wisdom as an aspect of God, who welcomes and guides those who seek her.

In today’s Pentecost story, the early Christians receive the Spirit of God in a new way.  The Holy Spirit helps them speak God’s good news in a way that others can understand. The Epistles, letters and sermons from the early decades of Christianity, tell us some of the other ways our faith-ancestors experienced the Spirit: The Spirit helps us know what to say, when we speak for God. The Spirit helps us pray, when we can’t find our own words. The Spirit gives us gifts and skills to use for the common good. The Spirit binds us together into one household of faith across our differences. The Spirit working in a human heart, or a human community, can bring love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

You might have noticed that I sometimes use “She” when I’m talking about the Holy Spirit. I don’t really think the Holy Spirit is a girl. But the church has used “He” for God for so long, in so many ways, when we know that God isn’t really a boy either. Using “She” for the Holy Spirit can help us remember that God is bigger than male or female as we know them. And that all kinds of humans are made in God’s image. 

The Church has some special things we do together where we invite the Holy Spirit to join us and make something happen, though what we are doing. Those things are called sacraments. 

The Eucharist is a sacrament. I ask God, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to take ordinary bread and wine and set them apart and make them holy, so that they can be Jesus’ body and blood for us. 

Baptism is a sacrament. When we baptize baby Dahlia this afternoon, we’ll ask the Holy Spirit to make the baptismal water holy, and to mark her as belonging to God forever. 

Marriage is a sacrament. Yesterday at Natalie and Howie’s wedding, we prayed for their spirits to be knit together in God’s spirit.

Confirmation is a sacrament. When some of our youth were confirmed last fall, and when Bishop Lee visits us this summer to confirm some people, he will pray over them and ask that the Holy Spirit will increase in them more and more. 

Those sacraments, those rites, are very special – even the ones we do often like Eucharist! But the Holy Spirit is willing to show up at not so special times too. The Holy Spirit is meant to be a friend and helper in daily life. And I have found that when I remember to call on her, she is. 

She can help us discern – choose a path well and wisely. She can help us find words of comfort, encouragement, and truth. She can give us courage to do what’s right even when it’s hard. She can help us notice what we might not notice on our own – when that noticing might be a gift to us or to others. 

And yes, like Symeon, if we’re really listening to the Spirit, she might sometimes nudge us to do something surprising, even something that seems foolish – if that surprising or foolish thing will help someone, or do good in the world. 

Here’s a big word for us all: Invocation. It means to call on something. The Church has always taught God’s people to call on the Spirit… to invoke the Spirit.  It’s not magic – we can’t control or manipulate God. But the Holy Spirit likes to be invited. We have to open a door to let her come in and help us. It can be as simple as saying, out loud or in your heart: Come, Holy Spirit! – and then, paying attention, patiently. Holding an open space inside yourself. 

If you like magic words, though, there’s a wonderful word that early Christians used: Maranatha! It’s in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, and it means, Come, Lord! Maranatha! 

Try saying that with me: Maranatha! 

Come, Holy Spirit! Maranatha! Bless your church and your people; work within us and among us; heal us, connect us, encourage and empower and guide us, today and always. Amen! 

Easter Sermon, April 4

This homily makes reference to the Paschal Homily of St. John Chrysostom, which may be read here. 

John Chrysostom was a bishop who lived about 1600 years ago – a rough contemporary of Egeria, as it happens. He was one of the great speakers and writers of the early centuries of Christianity – “Chrysostom” means “golden tongue,” a commentary on his eloquence. This particular text is read every Easter in Orthodox churches. Some non-Orthodox churches have started adding it to our practice as well.

In the first part, Chrysostom is drawing on one of Jesus’ parables – the one where God is the owner of a vineyard, and it’s time for the harvest. And God starts hiring workers – some first thing in the morning, some at noon, some almost at sunset. And at the end of the day they are all paid the usual wage for a day’s work. And the ones who worked all day are a little cranky about it; they feel like they deserved more than those who only worked an hour. But God the Vineyard owner tells them, “Friends, I have done you no wrong.  Are you envious because I am generous?”

Chrysostom takes that parable and playfully re-casts it to talk about arriving at Easter after the disciplines of Lent.

If you’ve been fasting like crazy for the whole 40 days – congratulations! You made it!

If you only tuned in two days ago, and barely know what this is all about: wonderful! Welcome! Easter is for you too!

The reward, the grace, the gift is the same for all: Jesus’ triumph over death and hell, opening for us the way of life and peace. 

Of course that parable isn’t today’s Gospel. Today’s Gospel is the Easter Gospel – Mark’s version. Which has perplexed people for a long time. Mark’s story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection ends with what we just heard: “And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” 

Mark’s abrupt ending bothered people, back when the New Testament was first being put together. People kept trying to add on more verses, to make it match the other Gospels. Mark knew about the times when the risen Jesus appeared to his friends; he hints at them elsewhere. But this is where he chose to end his text.

I think there were several reasons for that choice – but one of them is that Mark wanted no human heroes in his Gospel. The brave, loving women, who stayed at the foot of the cross and later came to tend Jesus’ body – now, like their male counterparts earlier in the story, they too are defeated and scattered by fear. 

For Mark, everyone fails, in this story. Everyone except God. But it doesn’t matter. Because God is generous. Did you bail out at the first sign of trouble? Have no fear, God’s mercy is abundant!

Did you follow Jesus to the judgment hall, before denying you knew him? God honors the deed and praises the intention! 

Did you watch at the foot of the cross and go to the tomb early in the morning, before an angel’s words terrified you into silence? No more bewailing your failings;  forgiveness comes from the grave!

Mercy, reassurance, welcome are central to the message of the risen Jesus, as he meets with his friends in the texts we’ll hear in the coming weeks. 

Jesus says: It’s OK. I know it was hard, and frightening. But now it’s time to move forward, together. Because the gift, the grace of the resurrection isn’t only for a select few who earned it. It’s for everybody. No, really: EVERYBODY.

There’s a real sense in which today is both Easter 2020 and Easter 2021. Do you remember people saying, a year ago,  “It will be Easter when we can gather in person again”? Well. Today we will celebrate the Eucharist, with a congregation present, on St. Dunstan’s grounds. Still limited, still distanced, and yet: our first true step towards re-gathering in person. 

I hasten to say that St. Dunstan’s never stopped gathering.  Early on I started using the term “Building Church” to mean the way we worshipped in our nave – because I didn’t want to keep saying “real church”. Zoom church IS real church. But Zoom church has not worked for everybody – just like building church does not work for everybody.  

People’s experiences of the past year have been all over the map. Folks’ needs and struggles have been very different. Some have found all kinds of silver linings. Some have suffered brutal losses. Some were thrown into the depths, alone. Some were overwhelmed; some were numb; some were fine. Some just kept on keeping on. What it felt like for you is real and valid.  What it felt like for others is also real and valid. 

Likewise with people’s faith, in this season. Some continued your faith practices; some deepened them. Some felt pretty adrift from any kind of regular prayer or practice of faith, during this chaotic, lonely, frightening time. Some felt more connected with their church than ever – some felt completely disconnected and alone. 

The congregations on the lawn at St. Dunstan’s today include folks who’ve worshipped together regularly over Zoom, and folks who have never connected with Zoom church – for a variety of reasons, which I hear and understand! They’ll include folks who’ve been members for decades, and folks who are just getting connected – or still figuring out of St. Dunstan’s is their church. 

As we gather, on Zoom and in person, in the weeks and months ahead: I want to invite us to be universally and unconditionally glad to see one another. If you feel tempted to ask, “Why didn’t you come to Zoom Church?”, how about asking, “How was the past year, for you?” If you feel tempted to say, “Have I seen you here before?”, how about saying, “I’m so glad to be here with you!” 

For those who haven’t been able to connect much with online church: please know you were missed, and you matter. You are an essential part of the rebuilding we will do together in the weeks and months ahead. 

Collectively, through ALL our experiences, we’ve learned so much about church and community, commitment and struggle, faith and faithfulness, in the past year. We have so much wondering and listening, experimenting and celebrating to do together, dear ones.  

And so, this Easter, whatever year it is, I say to you: Were you on Zoom every Sunday, and never missed a Compline? Come and celebrate, the feast is for you!

Did you spend fifty hours a week on a screen for work or school, and couldn’t face attending church that way too? God welcomes all with equal joy on this holy feast of feasts! 

Did your kids attend Zoom Sunday school and StoryChurch; did you patiently work through every activity Miranda sent home; or were you just glad to keep them mostly fed and clothed? God gives to the one and gives to the other, honors the deed and praises the intention.

Did you spend the year mastering sourdough or planning the perfect garden? Or did you re-watch The Good Place… three times? You that are hard on yourselves, you that are easy, celebrate together! There’s hospitality for all, and to spare.

Have you deepened your life of prayer? Is your commitment to the common good stronger than ever?  Is your great accomplishment that you are still alive today? I am so proud of you, and so is God. 

This Easter morning, Jesus comes to us in the sunlit garden and says: It’s OK.  It’s been hard, and frightening. It still is. But it’s time to move forward, together. 

Because the gift, the grace of this resurrection season isn’t only for people who somehow earned it, by how they spent the past thirteen months. It’s for everybody. 

I’m so glad to be here with you. To have arrived at Easter, with each of you and all of you. I can’t wait to see what we’ll do together, in this resurrection season.

Alleluia. Christ is risen. 

The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia. 

Homily, March 28

Today we begin the most important week of the church’s year – Jonathan Melton, friend of St. Dunstan’s, calls it “the Best Week.” It’s demanding and exhausting and I love it. The weeks leading up to it, preparing for it, are always some of the busiest of the year, the longest hours… and that’s OK. Because this is the heart of it all. 

The liturgies, or worship services, of Holy Week go back to the early centuries of Christianity. We have a wonderful description of these liturgies as they were practiced in Jerusalem in the late 300s, thanks to the journal of a traveller named Egeria, an affluent and pious woman who took a journey to the Holy Land.

We learn from Egeria that a procession with palms, on the Sunday before Easter, became a custom early on. Egeria describes the palm procession in Jerusalem delightfully:  “They all go on foot from the top of the Mount of Olives, all the people walking with hymns and antiphons, calling to one another: Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord! And all the children in the neighborhood, even those who are too young to walk, are carried by their parents on their shoulders, all of them bearing branches, some of palms and some of olives.  All, even those of rank, both matrons and men, make the procession on foot in this manner.” 

On Maundy Thursday, the Christians of Jerusalem, 1600 years ago, would gather at a particular cave which was then believed to be the place where Jesus shared his last meal with his disciples. There they would read the Gospel accounts of the Last Supper, and sing together until late at night. Early, early in the morning they would walk together in procession – slowly, by candlelight – to the Garden of Gethsemane, where someone would read the Gospel of Jesus’ arrest. Egeria writes, “And when this passage has been read there is so great a moaning and groaning of all the people, together with weeping, that their lamentation may be heard perhaps as far as the city.”

On Good Friday, our liturgies remember and honor Jesus’ death. The basic elements of our Good Friday observance go back to the early church: lessons and prayers, sharing the Passion gospel of St. John, and honoring the cross. In the Jerusalem church in Egeria’s time, they would bring out a piece of wood believed to come from the True Cross, the cross on which Jesus was crucified. Egeria tells us that certain security measures were necessary: “The bishop, as he sits, holds… the sacred wood firmly in his hands, while the deacons who stand around guard it. It is guarded thus because the custom is that the people come one by one and, bowing down, kiss the sacred wood. And because, once, someone is said to have bitten off and stolen some of the sacred wood, it is thus guarded.” 

Our Good Friday liturgies invite us into the grief and shock of Jesus’ friends and followers. So it was in Egeria’s day – she writes, “The emotion shown and the mourning by all the people at every lesson and prayer is wonderful; for there is none, either great or small, does not lament more than can be conceived, that the Lord… suffered those things for us.”

On Saturday night, we gather for one of Christianity’s most ancient liturgies, the Easter Vigil. The liturgy places us in the darkness and uncertainty of awaiting Jesus’ resurrection. We light the new flame of Paschal hope, passing the light from person to person. In candle-lit dimness we hear the stories of God’s faithful love for humanity through the ages. And then we arrive at the holy moment, the once and always moment of resurrection, when Christ burst the bonds of death, freeing all humanity from its tethers once and for all. Egeria assures us that we keep this vigil with nearly two millennia of our forebears – she describes the Christian community in Jerusalem staying up late, sharing sacred stories and songs; baptizing those new to the faith; and sharing the Gospel of the Resurrection. 

Ever since I learned about Egeria’s liturgical travel journal, I’ve loved the fact that we can look back over so many centuries and know that we are doing what our faith-ancestors have done. This year, particularly, it moves me to reflect on the resilience of these faith practices. 

Christians have been doing versions of these liturgies for seventeen, eighteen, nineteen centuries. They’ve survived the rise and fall of empires, a minor ice age, and massive cultural, economic, and technological changes. The observances of Holy Week have been maintained through times of war, of hunger, of natural disaster, of pandemic illness. These practices of holding holy story together and letting it shape us anew – they’ve come through fire and flood to belong to us, right now, along with so many other churches around the world. 

And whatever the next year or the next decade or the next century may bring, I have every confidence that these liturgies will still be held and honored. Not just because of human resilience and determination, though we are a resilient and determined species. But because our God is a God of life. 

Because this central story – the story that love is stronger than death – is a story that the world is always going to need, and God is always going to keep telling it to us… and through us. 

Take a look at the schedule for how we will be honoring Holy Week together in the days ahead. If you haven’t already made decisions about which services to attend, and how, I hope you’ll do so. There are still a few slots for the in-person Palm Procession later today. It overlaps with this service but it’s not entirely the same – and of course the big difference is that it’s in person!… 

If you want to make bread with me, you can meet me on Zoom on Wednesday evening.  Maundy Thursday we’ll gather on Zoom at 6:30; try to be near the end of your evening meal… and if possible, set your table as if you were hosting beloved friends for a special meal!  And have some bread and wine, or equivalents, set aside. You can pick up soap and oil at church for the foot or hand-washing part of that service. 

Our Good Friday liturgies are on Zoom at noon and 7pm, or a kids’ version at 4pm. The church will also be open during the day if you want to come by, pray the Stations, honor the cross, and spend a little time in prayer. 

Holy Saturday morning at 10 there will be a Zoom service. We haven’t done a Holy Saturday service in the past. It’s a liturgy that pauses to dwell with Jesus’ death, Jesus’ absence, and this year we’ll use it as a time of prayer for all the pandemic dead. 

Our All-Ages Easter Vigil will be on Zoom at 7pm. We’ll save most of our Easter celebration for the next day, this year; the Vigil will mostly be a time of sharing holy story. There are also a couple of spots left for a late-night in-person gathering around the fire at church. 

And Easter Sunday we’ll meet on Zoom at 9am for a festive gathering with special Easter music and a Gospel drama prepared by our young folks – then there will be two in-person Eucharists on the grounds at 11am and 1pm. 11am is almost full; 1pm still has plenty of room… 

As we embark on this journey, I pray once more: Holy God, mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. 

Sermon, Feb. 21

Today’s Genesis lesson is the end of a story that’s at least casually familiar to just about everyone. Somebody at some point decided that the story of Noah and the Ark was a great story for children – because kids like animals, and boats, right? But it’s actually a pretty scary and theologically difficult story…. 

The Flood story is hard to understand fully on its own because it  is in conversation with other ancient Near Eastern texts and beliefs. It is pretty clearly a re-working of other ancient flood stories, to make that core narrative fit and advance the monotheistic beliefs of the people who will become Israel. Probably all these stories began with trying to make sense of some actual flood of the deep past – back when humans were first starting to make meaning through story. 

This is also one of the parts of the Bible where you can really see the seams where different received traditions were stitched together. For example, we know that Noah was supposed to bring a breeding pair of every kind of animal into the ark, but in some places the text also mentions seven pairs of certain animals. This is an old, strange, chewy part of the Bible. 

The story begins in Genesis chapter 6: “The Lord saw that the evil of the human creature was great on the earth and that every scheme of his heart’s devising was only perpetually evil. And the Lord regretted having made the human on earth and was grieved to the heart. And the Lord said, ‘I will wipe out the human race I created from the face of the earth, from human to cattle to crawling thing to the fowl of the heavens, for I regret that I have made them.’ But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.” 

The verses just before this are part of the setup, as well. Some godlike figures are wandering around the earth having children with human women. Those demigod children, the Nefilim, become the heroes of yore. If you’ve studied Greek mythology or the works of Rick Riordan, this might sound familiar. So part of what’s happening here is also that God is putting the kibosh on all that. 

Our 1 Peter text is actually talking about those troublesome Nefilim. Stories about those demigod figures, who were chaotic neutral at best, had really taken off during the centuries just before the time of Jesus. The Book of Enoch, written in this time, is one source. It describes how the Nefilim caused trouble on earth, teaching humans how to do sorcery and make weapons. So God confined these troublesome beings in darkness under the earth – though some of them could still walk the earth in spirit form and, among other things, play the role of an Accuser, one who tempts and tests people. In Hebrew the word is a shatan – or Satan, in the Anglicized version. 

So the cryptic middle part of our 1 Peter text seems to be talking about Jesus, after the Resurrection, going on some kind of errand of mercy to those imprisoned Nefilim – perhaps letting them know the good news and the bad news: they are now free, but they are also under his authority, forever! 

Anyway. So: Humans are terrible, constantly plotting evil against one another, and the Nefilim are only making it worse, giving humans more tools and more power to do evil, so God decides to wipe the slate clean. 

Then comes the part everybody knows. “The Lord said to Noah, you’re gonna build an arky, arky… The animals, they came in, they came in by twosies, twosies… It rained, and rained, for forty daysies, daysies…”

Most children’s versions of this story tend to glide right over the fact that this flood was understood as God intentionally wiping out all of humanity because they were so awful to each other. 

The story begins to end in Genesis chapter 8. The ark has been afloat for 150 days, when God sends a wind over the earth and the waters begin to subside. It takes a while for that much water to drain away. But eventually the dove that Noah sends out brings back a twig with a green leaf on it: a sign that somewhere, the land is dry enough for plants to grow again. 

More weeks go by, and finally, finally, Noah and his family and all the creatures are able to leave the ark. And first thing, Noah builds an altar and makes an offering to the Lord. And God says to Godself, “I will not again damn the soil on humankind’s account. For the devisings of the human heart are evil from youth. And I will not again strike down all living things as I did. As long as all the days of the earth: Seedtime and harvest and cold and heat and summer and winter and day and night shall not cease.”

Compare that with what God says out loud to Noah in our text today: “I will establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the Flood, and never again shall there be a Flood to destroy the earth.” 

Taken on its own it sounds like mercy, even repentance on God’s part. With the addition of God’s inner monologue, we get an element of … resignation? Humans are what they are: capable of both great good and great evil. Having made us in God’s own image, creative, curious, and free, God is stuck with us. 

God seems to see that it’s both unfair and pointless to harm the earth and its creatures in order to try to discipline humanity. It’s not a very effective deterrent!

The promise God makes to humans and creatures here is called the Noahic Covenant – which is hard to say, so I’m going to say, the Covenant of Noah. This year the Sunday lectionary in Lent gives us a series of covenants in our Old Testament readings. We’ll break the pattern next week, but after that we’ll explore covenant with Abraham, Moses, and Jeremiah.

The Covenant of Noah is the broadest and simplest of all the Old Testament covenants. It’s more or less unconditional. And it’s made with all humans and indeed all living things. And the promise is simple: God will never again use a flood to wipe everyone out. (Note that God definitely leaves some wiggle room. As the old song says: God gave Noah the rainbow sign; no more water, fire next time!)

This whole story is definitely part of the early history of God. While Biblical scholars increasingly believe that many Old Testament texts were actually written down around the time of the Babylonian Exile, six centuries before the birth of Jesus, give or take, they contain material that is much older – and in the case of the Flood stories, probably much, much older. This bit about God having a bow, for example – this is a very anthropomorphic God, who has human weapons. It is certainly in tension with how God is described in later Old Testament texts. 

It is OK to choose to hold this story at arm’s length. To say, What’s interesting about this story is how it shows the ancient Israelites beginning to define their understanding of the Divine over against the beliefs of neighboring peoples. To take it, in other words, not as a story of divine genocide but as a story of a people on a journey to a new understanding of the Holy – a journey whose LATER chapters we may find much more recognizable as the God we know in Jesus Christ. 

But I think there could be something for us, something we need to hear and receive, in the Covenant of Noah. 

First, I love that this covenant is with all living things. Reading the Flood story start to finish: there’s a strong sense that whatever we’re facing, we’re all in it together. Survival and flourishing is for all, if it’s for any. Even when God gives Noah and his descendants permission to use some animals for food, there are conditions on that – conditions that point to the unity and the sacredness of all life. 

There’s just the hint of a gesture towards the covenant of Noah in today’s Gospel. I love Mark’s account of Jesus’ wilderness time. It’s so spare and yet so evocative. “He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by the Accuser;  and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”

He was with the wild beasts. The Greek word is Therion. It really means beasts, with similar associations to those in English. “Wild animals” would’t capture the implications of danger, fear, savagery. Other uses of the same word in the New Testament are neutral or negative: a poisonous snake who bites Paul; a slur against people from Crete; and the many terrifying apocalyptic metaphorical beasts of the book of Revelation. 

But here: Jesus is with the wild beasts. Not metaphorical or apocalyptic but just the creatures of the Judean wilderness. Snakes and lizards, raptors and rodents. There’s no sense of danger in the text. Artists who have depicted Mark’s version of Jesus in the wilderness tend to imagine the animals just the way I do: kind of keeping Jesus company, in this long lonely difficult time of wrestling with vocation and destiny. 

There’s certainly an evoking of Eden, here – of the time when everything was new, and humans and animals had not yet learned to hate or fear or use one another. But God’s promise to Noah hovers over this scene too. Any deliverance, any renewal that God offers to humanity, God offers to other living things too.  We are all in this together. Salvation is for all, if it’s for any. 

And then… there’s reading this story in a time of pandemic illness. We might well feel as if we’re living through another purge of human life. Another cleansing of the earth through mass destruction. God gave Noah the rainbow sign; No more water – virus next time. 

I want to take a little detour here into legal language and discuss the term “Act of God.” Legally speaking, an Act of God is one of a category of events that may mean that someone can fail to fulfill a legal contract without consequence. Here’s one list, from a very useful page on the subject: “[Neither party] shall be responsible for any loss or damage, or delay or failure in performing hereunder arising from: act of God, act of war, act of public enemies, pirates or thieves, arrest or restraint of princes, rulers, dictators, or people…. [etc., etc.]… or riot or civil commotion.”

An Act of God specifically is used to refer to catastrophic natural events. Hurricanes, earthquakes, floods. Possibly pandemics. Basically: any large-scale disaster that people could not reasonably have foreseen or prevented. 

There is and will doubtless continue to be very active exploration of the limits of “act of God” language in the legal world, with respect to both pandemic and climate disasters. 

But let’s turn back towards theology now. Act of God is a legal term. But it’s also crossed over into how people casually talk and think about big, catastrophic events. A lot of us implicitly think of, say, a shattering winter storm that paralyzes the southern United States, or a pandemic illness that has killed nearly half a million Americans, as an Act of God. 

But in fact, BOTH climate change AND the massive human and economic impact of the Covid pandemic were things that could reasonably have been foreseen and prevented, or at least minimized and mitigated. In both cases, there are people who have been predicting them for decades and offering concrete proposals about how we could blunt their impact and cost – and they’ve largely being ignored. Because humans, and especially governments, are not great about investing resources to prepare for future risks. 

And once it became clear that both of these large-scale disasters were happening, there have been many smart people speaking up about how we could make them less bad. How fewer people and creatures and systems could be harmed. And again, many of those with the power to implement those ideas, have not. 

God promises Noah that God will not destroy humanity. No matter how bad we are. No matter how persistent our tendency to harm one another. 

What if we just took God at God’s word? What if we took seriously that this ancient, fundamental covenant is still in effect? God is not here to hurt us. God wants us to live. God wants us to flourish. Jesus tells us: I came that you may have life, and have it abundantly. 

If we really believed that, right down to our toes, we might ask different questions about the so-called acts of God that dominate the news. Instead of asking, What did we do to make God angry?, or Why doesn’t God seem to care?, we might ask, What people and systems are opposing God’s will for life for all God’s children and creatures? And, Where is God already at work in people and systems working for better? Working for life? 

To take as a given that God is on the side of life and flourishing might shape not only how we view the great events of the day, but our own daily lives. It might mean, for example, that we choose a Lenten practice that enlarges us rather than diminishing us.

That still might mean giving something up – if the something we give up (or work towards giving up) is something that binds and burdens us, that drains or constrains us, that distorts our relationships or limits our choices. 

It might mean that instead of giving something up, we take something on: a practice or habit that calls to us, that has something to give us. Something we’ve been wanting to do but just haven’t managed to make space. Maybe this season is time to make that space. 

It might mean that we look at the state of our hearts and souls right now and decide that our Lenten discipline in the year of our Lord 2021 is to keep surviving this. Just keep watching the days getting longer, the average temperature increasing, the birds starting to return. If that’s what you can do in Lent this year: do that, beloveds. 

The church’s observance of Lent is heavy with language of self-examination and repentance, of fasting and self-denial. That is important work. Taking a good hard look at ourselves and discerning where it’s time for us to change or heal or grow is part of the core of Christian living. 

But let us undertake that work knowing that we do so in the hands of a loving God who wants life for us – abundant life. 

Lenten Plans 2021

While many people will choose to observe Lent in their own way – and while a strong case can be made that one’s Lenten practice this year should be continuing to live through everything that’s difficult about this season in the life of the world – we have several offerings and opportunities for the people and friends of St. Dunstan’s. To get more information about any of these programs, use the Contact Us box on the left side of the page or subscribe to our weekly E-news. 

Mapping Repentance: A Lenten series, Tuesdays at 7pm OR at your own pace, Feb. 23 – Mar. 23: Mapping Repentance is an exploration of how injustice is embedded in our landscape. We’ll learn about the history of how Native peoples were moved off the land where we worship and live, and we’ll also learn about redlining and the radicalized housing landscape. We’ll meet on Tuesdays at 7pm on Zoom; we will also make resources available for people to watch, read, and reflect on their own schedule.

A Lenten Opportunity: Learning to Listen. Listening – to others, to yourself, to God – is an important spiritual practice. A Lenten resource prepared by Living Compass offers daily reflections and prompts to develop our practice of intentional listening this Lent. If this sounds like a good Lenten discipline for you, there are three ways to participate! First, you can sign up to get the daily reflections and questions every day by email. Second, you can join a Facebook group with others around the country to share your reflections throughout the season. Sign up for the daily emails or join the Facebook group at this link: https://www.livingcompass.org/lent-signup . (Note: Living Compass is an ecumenical resource, but most of its writers and readers are Episcopalian.) Third, we’re working on plans for a weekly Zoom gathering to reflect on these materials together. You can download the booklet here: https://shop.livingcompass.org/products/living-well-through-lent-2021-pdf-download . Put it in your cart and check out – it is free and you will not be charged anything, but will receive a download link in your email.

Lent Words:
 Lent Words is a simple daily invitation to reflection. View or print the calendar here (with thanks to St. Sephen’s Church, Orinda, CA). During the season of Lent, you’re invited to prayerfully consider each of the words, and respond with visually with a photograph, drawing, or pinging – or with a poem or prose reflection, or music, or any other medium you like. You can respond every day or just when it strikes your fancy. Share your Lent Words images on Facebook or Instagram (tag @stdunstansmadcity), or email or text them to Rev. Miranda (608-469-7085), and if it’s OK with you, we’ll your images in Zoom worship!

Lent Madness 2021 – Featuring Our Patron Saint! Lent Madness is a long-running program that encourages people to learn about the lives of the saints every Lent by offering a “bracket” of 32 saints. Every day in Lent, people can vote for their favorite of two saints; the ultimate favorite saint at the end of the season is crowned with the “Golden Halo” for that year. This year, our patronal saint Dunstan is on the list! He’ll be up for voting first on March 3.  Over my years at St. Dunstan’s, I’ve learned a lot about him and come to have a great affection and respect for him. He was a person of stubborn faithfulness who worked hard to reform and renew religious institutions and improve life for ordinary people, in a fractured and desperate time. I hope more folks will come to know him through Lent Madness this year. Vote for Dunstan on March 3 at lentmadness.org – and the Middle School youth group would also like you vote for Simeon the Holy Fool on March 4! If you’re interested in following along, you can subscribe to get daily updates by email, on the right side of the Lent Madness page; like Lent Madness on Facebook; or follow on Twitter. We also have a few Lent Madness booklets available for pickup at church; tell Rev. Miranda know or email  if you’d like one.

AuDivina, Feb. 28 and Mar. 28, 10:15AM:  AuDivina is a practice of listening to non-churchy music and reflecting on how it enriches or reflects on church themes and stories. You don’t have to be an expert in either music or the Bible to participate and enjoy! For February 28, our theme is Out Of The Depths. We’re looking for songs written from the lowest points of human experience. Send suggestions to Rev. Miranda or Deanna (). Our March theme will be love songs – more on that when it gets closer. We gather on the same link as Sunday morning Zoom worship.

Sermon, Oct. 4

The man we come to know as the apostle Paul, founder of many churches and author of letters to the first Christians, was born around 5 AD – making him a few years younger than Jesus, whom he never met during his lifetime. He was born to a devout Jewish family in the city of Tarsus.  As he says in today’s reading from the letter to the church in Philippi, he was “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews.”

Elsewhere he describes himself as “a Pharisee, born of Pharisees” (Acts 23:6) – meaning that both he and his parents were His family were Pharisees, members of a movement within Judaism to recommit to the faith practices of their ancestors.  He was sent as a young child to study with Gamaliel, one of the greatest rabbis of the time – and could easily have become a rabbi himself. 

In addition to his impeccable credentials as a faithful Jew, Paul was also apparently a Roman citizen by birth.The Roman Empire did not have birthright citizenship! If you weren’t actually Roman, citizenship was a privilege that you had to either buy or be given. 

It was unusual but by no means impossible for a Jew to become a citizen. Paul’s parents might have been offered citizenship as a thanks for service to Rome or to gain their favor if they were people of influence. Their citizenship passed on to their son. 

In short, the young Saul – his Hebrew name – or Paulus, his Roman name – had plenty of social and religious standing. Many paths and possibilities were open to him. The one he chose, in his early 30s, was to help stamp out a new religious movement that sounded to him like heresy. People who claimed to be Jews were saying that this rabble-rouser who had been crucified in Jerusalem was somehow God and had risen from the dead. 

Paulus witnessed the stoning to death of a Christian convert named Stephen. He held people’s garments while they committed mob murder, so their clothes would not get bloody. And he approved of the killing. (Acts 8:1) 

In fact, it seemed to inspire him to get involved in the persecution of Christians, raiding homes and dragging people off to prison. As he says about his former life in today’s reading: “As to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”

When he ran out of people to arrest in Jerusalem, he asked the high priest for letters of introduction to the synagogues in the city of Damascus, so that he could hunt down Christians there too. Luke, the eloquent storyteller, describes Paul as “snorting out menaces and slaughter.” He gets his letters and sets out on his journey.

But as he’s approaching Damascus, a light flashes around him. He falls to the ground. A voice said, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Paul stammers out, “Who are you, Lord?” The voice replies, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”

Paul’s story unfolds from there. He becomes a Christian; he becomes a preacher and founder of churches. He is despised by those who see his teaching as heresy. He is imprisoned and beaten. He brings to bear all the privileges of his younger life on his new lifework of building the Jesus movement. 

But this, the road to Damascus, is the pivot point. This is the moment when Christ Jesus makes Paul his own. The Greek is more forceful: when Christ seizes Paul, and sets him on a new road. 

Some 11 centuries later, a baby boy was born to a prosperous silk merchant and his wife, in the Italian town of Assisi. The baby was baptized Giovanni, but early on was given the additional name Francesco, perhaps because his father’s business dealings in France were going so well. 

Francis had money, status, and indulgent parents. As a young man he was handsome, popular, and fond of fancy clothes. He loved traveling musicians and performers, and lived a carefree life…  until he joined a military expedition against a nearby town and was taken captive for a year. 

This experience led to a sense of dissatisfaction and re-examination of his former life. He began to pray for spiritual enlightenment. One day as he knelt in the ruined chapel at San Damiano, gazing upon an icon of the crucified Christ, he heard a voice. It said, “Francis, Francis, go and rebuild my house.”

At first Francis thought this spiritual charge meant simply to have the chapel at San Damiano repaired. He stole some cloth from his father and sold it, and gave the money to the priest in charge of the chapel – who refused to take it. Legal and parental wrangling ensued – culminating with Francis renouncing his father and his inheritance, and stripping himself of all his fine garments, walking naked into a new way of life. 

As Paul wrote, eleven centuries earlier, “For [Jesus’] sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as garbage, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him.” 

Francis’ story unfolds from there. My favorite picture book about Francis, by  Brian Wildsmith, the source of these images, sums it up well: “From then on, I sought out the poor. I sought out the sick. I repaired God’s ruined churches. I loved all God’s creatures and called them my sisters and brothers.” 

Francis founded an order of men committed to holy poverty, peacemaking, and service to ordinary people in the name of Christ. He worked with his childhood friend Clare to create a sister order for women.

Francis died on October 3, 1226. His feast day is October 4. We honor and remember him today. 

For both Paul and Francis, life turned on a dime when Jesus spoke to them. It’s an unusual, but by no means unique, shape for a Christian life. There have been many saints, both well-known and long-forgotten, whose life includes a sudden and dramatic call away from their former life and to a new way of living in God. Such experiences are sometimes called a “road to Damascus” moment. I guess “chapel of San Damiano moment” is too much of a mouthful? 

We’re not, exactly, talking about conversion. Neither of these men abandoned the faith they held before their call. Francis was most certainly a Christian before San Damiano, though he may not have been the most devout. Paul’s relationship with the Judaism of his young life is more complex. In today’s text he claims to regard his ancestral faith identity as rubbish. But other passages suggest Paul continued to find value and meaning in his Jewish heritage. He sees Christianity as a new branch grafted onto Judaism, and grieves that his new faith separates him from many members of his first faith-family. 

The lives of the saints – the ones with days on the calendar and portraits in stained glass windows – can inspire us. They may also make us feel small and inadequate. I have heard from God, at particular moments in my life, but I’ve never been thrown off my feet by a blinding light and the voice of Jesus. 

I look at Paul, at Francis, at some of their kin among the communion of saints, and I see people driven by a crystal-clear sense of God-given purpose. My sense of God-given purpose is maybe 40% on a good day, and I’m pretty sure that even that puts me way at one end of the normal distribution. 

Paul and Francis encourage me not because I expect my life to look like theirs… but because for them, it wasn’t all about them. Paul and Francis weren’t the kinds of saints who were called away from the world, to lives of discipline and purity, in a wilderness cave or compound. Instead, Paul and Francis were called INTO the world. Specifically, they were called to gather and form communities – communities oriented around a new, or renewed, understanding of God’s purposes for the world.

After Damascus, Paul committed the rest of his life to founding, teaching, encouraging (and sometimes rebuking) churches in cities all across the ancient world. Franciscans, followers of Francis, didn’t build monasteries; they traveled around, preaching, teaching, and serving.

My life may not be like Paul’s or like Francis’s, let alone like Jesus’. But I can aspire to be – across the millennia – one of the people they called and gathered, encouraged and taught. 

Francis invites us to regard material possessions and wealth lightly; to strive for understanding and, where possible, peace, across differences; to see God in our fellow human beings, and to love God’s creation and creatures. 

Paul invites us – well, he covers a lot of ground in his many letters. But fundamentally I think he calls us to stick with the work of figuring out what difference our faith makes in our lives… and to looking out for one another. 

And both invite us to entrust ourselves to communities of faith…  to find, and be, faithful companions for the challenging work of living this way – and of making this way of living make a difference, for our neighbors and the world.

Sermon, June 7

When Bishop Miller invited me to preach on Trinity Sunday, I was both honored and alarmed. It was and is a daunting assignment! Every year, in Episcopal circles on Twitter and Facebook, there’s a little flutter before and after this feast over which preachers commit heresy in the course of explaining the Trinity.  I hope to avoid that pitfall because I am under no illusion that I understand the Trinity. 

When I can’t avoid talking about it, I like to turn to the fourth-century theologians who thought and wrote about the Trinity back when that was the central theological debate of the age. The Nicene Creed which we say every Sunday, and the Church’s formal doctrinal language, can make the idea of the Trinity feel rigid and dry. But those long-ago thinkers were keenly aware that they were fumbling to put words to a mystery that is, as Gregory of Nyssa writes, “beyond a certain point ineffable and inconceivable.”

One of my favorite ideas from these fourth-century writers comes from Gregory’s brother Basil, on the math of the Trinity. He wrote, “The Unapproachable One is beyond numbers, wisest sirs … Count if you must, but do not malign the truth…There is one God and Father, one Only-Begotten Son, and one Holy Spirit. We declare each Person to be unique, and if we must use numbers, we will not let a stupid arithmetic lead us astray to the idea of many gods.” (On the Holy Spirit) Basil goes on to explain that because of this distinctiveness, yet unity, of the Persons of the Trinity, the proper way to count the Trinity is not one plus one plus one makes Three, but but One, One, One… makes One.

One idea that was important in thinking and writing about the Trinity during this formative time and the following centuries is perichoresis – a wonderful Greek word that means something like, Moving around in a circle. Scholars have tried to render the concept into English in many ways:  relational co-inherence, co-indwelling, dynamic reciprocity, interpenetration, fellowship, intimacy, sharing, mutual belonging…. No one term or phrase captures it, but I think you get the idea!

Gregory of Nyssa wrote that because of this profound interconnectedness of the Persons of the Trinity, it’s impossible, for example, to think or talk about just the Holy Spirit. He writes, “Since the Spirit is of Christ (Rom 8.9) and from God (1 Cor 2.12)…, then just as anyone who catches hold of one end of a chain pulls also on the other end, so one who draws the Spirit (Ps 118.131) as the prophet says, also draws through him the Son and the Father.” (Epistle to Peter)

What these great-grandparents of our faith are telling us is: Within Godself, there is multiplicity – the Persons named as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and there is relationship. Relationship is not something secondary to the Divine, something added on to a fundamental completeness; but is in the very being and heart of the Holy, from the beginning. C.S. Lewis writes, “‘God is love’ is a way of saying that the living, dynamic activity of love has always been going on within God, and has created everything else.”

And we, humans, made in the image and likeness of God, we too are relational, in our very being. Made to belong to one another – and to the ecology in which we are placed, though that’s a sermon for another day! We were made for connection, for fellowship, for sharing, for love. That’s not just throw-pillow philosophy. It’s also the conclusion of quite a number of scientific fields. 

That connectedness is fundamental to God’s nature, and ours, is a challenge of sorts to Western thought – to the idea that the fundamental unit of humanity is the autonomous individual. We are prone to think of ourselves as much more separate from those around us, much more self-determined in our opinions and choices, than we actually are. Despite being reminded otherwise regularly over the millennia!

St. Paul wrote, “All the members of the body, though many, are one body… The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’” (1 Cor 12)

John Donne, in the 1620s, another time of plague, wrote, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less…  Any [person]’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in [hu]mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

In the late 20th century, Archbishop Desmond Tutu introduced us in the American church to the idea of ubuntu, explaining: “We believe that a person is a person through another person, that my humanity is caught up, bound up, inextricably, with yours.” Ubuntu means, “We belong in a bundle of life.” 

(from his memoir No Future Without Forgiveness) 

Writer and human rights activist Glennon Doyle calls us to look at the crises of our times through the lens of knowing that there is no such thing as other people’s children. 

We need each other. No person is an island. We belong in a bundle of life. There is no such thing as other people’s children. We know all this – but we forget, so easily. We fall back into the illusion that I am an independent Self. That my skin and my skull bound my being. That what makes me and matters about me are my own, singular tastes, choices, possessions, experiences and moods – and not my connections and my context. 

Except that there’s this pandemic going on.

A few weeks ago, in a piece about life during coronavirus, I read a line that said something like this: We are thinking more socially than ever before. I didn’t make note of the source at the time; I should have, because I’ve thought about that idea, again and again. 

It started with those diagrams or animations that were circulating in the early days, when social distancing was a new idea: Remember – you’d be invited to visualize yourself as a dot. And lo and behold, that dot is connected to other dots. Not just the people you’d readily name as being in your network – family members, co-workers, friends – but people you didn’t think much about before: Your grocery store clerk, your postal worker. The receptionist at your hair salon. Your child’s teacher. Your child’s teacher’s child’s teacher. 

No man is an island. 

Our fresh recognition of the degree to which interaction and connection are part of our daily lives came at first with a lot of fear. Trips to the grocery store became fraught because we were newly mindful of touching what someone else has touched; of inhaling air that someone else just exhaled. 

But as our new awareness settled in, many of us started to think about our fundamental interconnectedness in more measured and altruistic ways. The people who deliver my mail and my packages: Are they OK? Are they staying healthy? Are they afraid? Does their employer provide masks? Do they have paid sick leave if they need it? Perhaps we start wondering because we’re estimating the risk of virus on our Amazon boxes – but then we keep wondering because those people too are part of my network. Their wellbeing should matter to me. Does matter to me.

In a recent essay, Anne Helen Peterson writes about the nationwide drop in consumption – partially because of job losses and fears of even worse economic times ahead, but also, she argues, because of “a newfound awareness (and attention to) the human cost of each purchase: For everything you buy online, there are people in factories packaging it, others in warehouses distributing it, and still more in trucks delivering it.” Some of those people have some protections provided by employers; others do not. One person told Peterson, “The calculus for every decision is: Do I need to put an essential worker in harm’s way to get this? [Or] can I do without it?” 

Likewise, we’re slowly getting used to the idea that masking is primarily to protect OTHERS from us. As the Bishop says so well, the mask is a sign of love of neighbor. Putting on a mask is a physical act that acknowledges our mutual vulnerability and responsibility. We belong in a bundle of life – and we mask to preserve life. 

As protests continue against our nation’s long and entrenched history of excessive use of force against black and brown bodies, I’m seeing more of my white friends and colleagues than ever before saying, I see. I hear. I’m going to start this work. We are realizing that systems that make us feel comfortable and safe, often have the exact opposite impact for our neighbors of color. We’re coming to understand more deeply, more urgently, that our lives are embedded in a shared fabric that lifts some kinds of people and presses down on others. 

May we hold onto that newfound knowledge, even though it hurts – and not be like the person described by the apostle James who looks in the mirror, then walks away and immediately forgets what they look like. 

This newfound, deeper awareness of our mutual interconnectedness that I think I see is certainly not universal. For every person considering afresh the wellbeing of those touched by their choices and actions, there is a person angry that their hair salon isn’t open yet… a person who has not understood, or does not care, that the risk is MUCH higher for the staff, who come into contact with many customers, than for the client. 

But I think more of us are carrying those dot and line diagrams in our heads these days, one way or another. We are aware in fresh and vivid ways of the human networks that lead to us, and out from us. 

Where do we go from here? Will it stick? Does it matter? The podcast 99 Percent Invisible had an episode recently about the strange opportunities the pandemic has offered – like, ecologists are able to listen to how whales communicate when they’re not competing with the noise of commercial shipping. The hosts observed, “We don’t want to talk about silver linings when so much bad is happening. But… I don’t think it diminishes the moment to treat [it] as having lessons for us… It would be a double tragedy if we went through this and learned nothing.”  [Emmett Fitzgerald, Roman Mars]

It would be a double tragedy if we went through this, and learned nothing. 

What could it look like to carry forward our new social – or epidemiological – patterns of thinking? Disease is not the only thing that is contagious – that spreads through social contact. Information is contagious – and so is misinformation and disinformation, lies spread deliberately to sow confusion and mistrust. Just as it’s incumbent on us as children of a God of wholeness to strive to avoid spreading disease, so it is incumbent on us as children of a God of truth to strive to avoid becoming vectors of falsehood. Take responsibility for what you pass along, in real life and especially on social media, and remember that we’re most likely to be fooled by lies that lean into our existing biases. 

Ideologies spread socially. In recent years white supremacist ideologies have spread rapidly in online spaces and beyond. When we find ourselves in the presence of racist or hateful speech, it’s on us to break that chain of transmission. All you have to say is, “I don’t like that kind of joke,” or, “Talking about people that way makes me uncomfortable.” That can feel hard – but it’s a lot easier than not leaving your home for two months!

There are things we don’t want to spread – and there are things we DO. We are social animals; we are shaped by the attitudes and behaviors of the people around us, and we shape others in turn. Rightly deployed, that’s a powerful force. 

Faith is contagious, of course – and like the coronavirus, it’s unlikely to be caught by casual contact; it’s much more likely to make the jump from one person to another when you spend time in close proximity, breathing the same air. 

Kindness is contagious. Again: That sounds like a throw pillow, but there is science behind it. When people witness someone else doing a kind act, they’re more likely to do something kind for others. One study suggested that a person who sees an act of altruism may go on to do as many as four kind acts in response. 

Moral courage is contagious – the courage to do or stand up for what is right, even when there are significant risks. Both social norms – the spoken and unspoken messages we get from the people and culture around us – AND particular people who model costly courage, make us more likely to do what is right even when it scares us. Having others in our network who are standing up and speaking up for justice and mercy literally encourages us – puts courage into us – to stand up too. 

My skin is not the boundary of my self. My humanity is inextricably bound up with others – in tiny everyday ways and in big, world-changing ways too. The mutual belonging and interdependence within the very heart of God, the Holy and undivided Trinity, is at the heart of my being as well – and yours.  May a fresh, fierce, hopeful knowledge that no one is an island, that we belong in a bundle of life, that every death diminishes me and there is no such thing as other people’s children – may that knowledge shape our choices and our lives, from this day forward. May it be the blessing we carry away from this season of bitter and costly wrestling with disease and injustice. 

Some sources… 

Basil and bad Trinity math: 

https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2012/12/02/st-basil-and-the-stupid-arithmetic-of-the-trinity/

Gregory of Nyssa:

https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2018/05/01/st-gregory-of-nyssa-perichoretic-trinity-2/

BuzzFeed piece:

https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/annehelenpetersen/recession-unemployment-covid-19-economy-consumer-spending?fbclid=IwAR0KVivjzZAbshRYv64zn_F50Kqf5MA00YegrHC_Qq92MieS2sQ7pd5H0dc

99 Percent Invisible, Episode 401: The Natural Experiment –

https://99percentinvisible.org/episode/the-natural-experiment/

A starting point on the contagion of altruism – 

https://ethicalleadership.nd.edu/news/harnessing-the-power-of-elevation-how-a-little-known-emotion-makes-ethical-leadership-work/

A wonderful piece that didn’t make the cut but that you should read – “The Pandemic is a portal” 

https://www.ft.com/content/10d8f5e8-74eb-11ea-95fe-fcd274e920ca

Homily, May 17

We begin by watching a short film about the life of St. Dunstan. 

Wonder together some: 

What was your favorite part?…

What was the most important part? … 

Let’s look at an image of Dunstan together. 

It’s interesting to study Dunstan. He is a figure of holy folklore, a man who is said to have miraculously levitated a falling beam. But he is, too,  an actual figure of historical significance – the great libraries of Britain hold manuscripts that bear Dunstan’s actual handwriting. Here is a page from a manuscript known as the Glastonbury Classbook, currently in the collection of the Bodleian Library in Oxford. The big central figure is Jesus Christ, depicted as a king. But what you should notice is this little monk in his habit, down here in the corner, kneeling at Christ’s feet. This might be an actual self-portrait of, by, Dunstan. He’s known to have written manuscripts of this period, he began his career at Glastonbury, and he was an artist and craftsman. This is the image of Dunstan we keep in our icon corner at church – not an icon that makes Dunstan central, but this image that perhaps shows him the way he pictured himself: kneeling at the feet of Christ. 

(What it says:  Dunstanum memet clemens rogo, Christe, tuere / Tenarias me non sinas sorbsisse procellas  – ‘I ask, merciful Christ, that you protect me, Dunstan; do not permit the Taenarian storms to swallow me’).

There’s a lot to say about Dunstan, who lived an interesting life in interesting times. But today I want to focus on Dunstan the reformer.  Dunstan’s faith led him to a life of civic engagement that left Britain better than he found it. 

The Britain into which Dunstan was born was fractured, chaotic, and dangerous. It was only thirty years before his birth that Alfred the Great had begun to unify many small kingdoms into something resembling a nation – and that work was ongoing during Dunstan’s lifetime. 

Besides political divisions and frequent wars and skirmishes, for most people life was brutish and short. In Dunstan’s time the common people were uneducated, poor, harassed by bandits, cheated by merchants, and oppressed by the landed aristocracy. Rule of law and civil society were almost nonexistent.

Dunstan committed his long life to supporting the project of a unified, orderly Britain, with education more widely available; common systems for money and commerce; and a fair and equally-applied judicial system. 

He is rightly remembered as a founder of monasteries & proponent of Benedictine monasticism; but for Dunstan, monasteries were a tool for reform. Dunstan and the other great bishops of his time believed deeply that the flourishing of the English people would be best served by the cultivation of monastic centers, whose prayers, teaching, and care for the common folk would be a stabilizing and improving force.

Dunstan was a consummate pragmatist. His lifetime and work spanned the reigns of eight kings. He was exiled by some, elevated to higher and higher positions of honor and influence by others. He pursued his vision with the help of friendly kings, and against the opposition of unfriendly ones. Dunstan’s life reminds us that while human political agendas and God’s agenda can overlap, those overlaps are always temporary and partial. If we can keep that in mind, then maybe our civic and political engagement can be as clear-sighted and stubborn as Dunstan’s was. 

And over the course of Dunstan’s long, determined, faithful life, England did become a little more ordered, a little more just, a little safer. Something worked – and Dunstan’s role in those changes was honored, as he became celebrated as a saint within decades of his death. 

I think Dunstan the reformer stands out for me right now because I think we may be tempted to think that reform, the work of making things better for more, the work – as we see it as Christians – of making the community and world around us better reflect God’s intentions of justice, mercy, peace, and wholeness, needs to start from a place of stability. It’s something people – usually people in authority – sometimes say: Now isn’t the time. Things need to be more  settled before we can work for improvement. 

But Dunstan and those who worked alongside him, did what they did in chaotic, violent, unsettled times.  As the great rabbi Hillel once said: If not now, when? 

In a few months, or weeks, we will be under immense pressure to get Back To Normal. It’s already starting, to some extent.  I hope that we will demand a better Normal than the one we had before. I hope that we will have the insight and courage to be choosy about what we want back in our lives, individually and especially collectively. 

What would we like to see better, on the other side of all this?

What will we to work and fight and vote and pray and give to build into the new Normal? 

I’d like our new Normal to value our health care workers, from janitors to surgeons, more.

And to better respect and better compensate the work of teachers and child care workers more.

I’d like our new Normal to recognize that minimum-wage hourly work is essential work, and makes those jobs more sustainable and livable. 

A society that listens when scientists tell us about the risks of how we’re living now, and responds by changing our behavior. What if we did that with climate change?….

I’d like our new Normal to extend our realization that we are connected. And that we need one another. 

What would you like to see become part of the emergent Normal, friends?…