Category Archives: Church Seasons & Holy Days

Easter Sermon, March 31

This morning we get to celebrate the baptism of two of our members! Any day is a good day to get baptized. But Easter is a really special time to be baptized, because there are such close connections between Easter and baptism.

Jesus was baptized, by his cousin John, but in the Gospels he talks about his death as another baptism – something he has to go through, to immerse himself in. The word baptism comes from a Greek word that just means “to dunk in water.” So Jesus immerses himself in the waters of death – just like someone going down into the baptismal waters – and comes out, renewed. 

A lot about baptism is mysterious. It’s one of the things we do because Jesus told us to do it, so we ultimately just don’t know what it means or what it does. But that connection with Jesus’ death and resurrection is part of the Church’s understanding: that in baptism we die with Jesus, and rise to new life in Jesus. 

For the first Christians, Easter was when they baptized people – they’d prepare for baptism in Lent, like Kai and Safa have, and then be baptized at Easter, as part of a big celebration of resurrection and new life and joy. So Easter is a very special time for baptism! 

I read something recently about how Easter is kind of like baptism for the whole church. Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann wrote, “Even though we are baptized, what we constantly lose and betray is precisely that which we received at baptism. Therefore Easter is our return every year to our own baptism, [and] Lent is our preparation for that return… Every Lent and Easter are, once again, the rediscovery and the recovery by us of what we were made through our own baptismal death and resurrection.” 

So Schmemann is saying that over time, our commitment to living in God’s ways, our clarity about our belonging and belovedness as part of God’s family, gets dented and dimmed by life. 

And Lent and Easter offer us an opportunity to come back to those things, to recover and rediscover, every year. We can’t get baptized again, but we can immerse ourselves in the heavy days of Holy Week and arrive at the fulfillment of Easter. I love that idea – that today isn’t just Kai and Safa’s baptismal day, but it’s a baptism day for all of us who are Kai and Safa’s baptismal community. 

One of the ways we act that out is by joining our baptismal candidates in recommitting ourselves to life as God’s people. Every time there’s a baptism and sometimes when there isn’t, we reaffirm the Baptismal Covenant – a responsive version of the Creed, and then those five questions where we respond, I will with God’s help! Those five questions were written for the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, and have become very beloved and important to people. They offer a good list of practices that will help us stay close to God and each other and ourselves, and be the people God calls us to be for the world. 

But there’s another part of the service we might not know as well, because it goes by fast, and because only the candidates and their families and sponsors say it, not the whole congregation. That’s the Three Renunciations and the Three Affirmations. You can see them on your Sunday supplement – in the first part of the baptismal liturgy. A bunch of questions that start with “Do you”! 

The Renunciations and Affirmations are very old; they seem to go back to pretty early in the Christian practice of baptism. Basically, before you step up to be baptized, somebody speaking for the church asks you: Do you RENOUNCE evil? … RENOUNCE is a fancy word that means, I’m done with this! I won’t have anything to do with it anymore, ever! 

And then they ask: Do you choose to follow Christ? Are you turning away from this one thing, and turning towards this other thing? … 

I want to talk a little more about those Renunciations. There have been many versions, over 1800 years or so. In the version in our prayer book the renunciations move from the cosmic, to the world we live in, to our own interior life: 

Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?

Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God? 

Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?… 

Sometime about 300 years after the time of Jesus, a church leader named Cyril of Jerusalem described what happens at a baptism – kind of explaining what it meant to somebody who has been recently baptized. Here’s part of what he said: 

“Then they told you to you raise your hand, and you renounced Satan, as if he were actually present…. This shameless, impudent demon, the source of all evil, chases you as far as the fountain of salvation. But the demon disappears in the waters of salvation.

That is why you were ordered to raise your hand and say to Satan, as if he were actually present: “I renounce you, Satan,  wicked and cruel tyrant!” … 

And you asserted: “Henceforth, I am no longer in your power. For Christ destroyed that power by sharing with me a nature of flesh and blood. He destroyed death by dying; never again shall I be enslaved to you. I renounce you, crafty serpent full of deceit! I renounce you who lurk in ambush, who pretend friendship but have been the cause of every sin! I renounce you, Satan, author and helper of every evil!”

I think we should consider adding all that! It’s pretty exciting. 

Now, listen: I don’t know if I believe in Satan – the Devil – or not. But there is sure lot of badness in the world. People who do hurtful things – and not just by accident but on purpose. 

There are bad thoughts and ideas and words and forces and systems. Things that shape people’s lives; things that get into our hearts and minds, that hurt us and hurt other people and hurt the world. There’s not really any question that there’s a lot that’s bad and hurtful – a lot that is evil – in the world. 

That’s one thing people mean when they talk about Satan or the Devil: a way to put a name on all that badness and the ways it causes pain and suffering. 

That is what we’re renouncing, when we renounce Satan. 

Schmemann writes, “To renounce Satan thus is not to reject a mythological being in whose existence one [may] not even believe. It is to reject an entire worldview made up of pride and self-affirmation… which has truly taken human life from God and made it into darkness, death and hell. And one can be sure that Satan will not forget this renunciation, this rejection, this challenge…  A war is declared!”

Cyril of Jerusalem says, “When you renounce Satan, you break off every agreement you have entered into with him, every covenant you have established with Hell…. Draw strength from the words you have spoken, and be watchful. For your adversary, the Devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.” 

In baptism, we choose sides. We state our intention to be people who are for good, and against evil. 

I saw a wonderful Facebook post earlier this week about how it’s OK to go to church even if you don’t believe. Alex Griffin, a Canadian Anglican priest, wrote, ”As a society, we are grieving and afraid as our world breaks before our eyes, but there is so much pressure to keep going and pretend that everything is fine. The rituals of church—and especially the rituals at church over the [days of Holy Week]—hold space for that grief…. 

If you’re looking for a space to grieve and be comforted, it’s okay to come… It probably won’t change your life, but you may just find the moment of solace that you need.” 

I know that for folks outside of church or on the edges of church, it can seem like all those people in the pews must have something rock-solid and clear inside of them that they call Faith. And getting from here to there might seem impossible.

The reality is, of course, that for folks who show up at church regularly, faith can be messy and murky. There are plenty of people in any congregation who are here because they feel drawn to something they don’t feel they really understand – because they’re looking for comfort and connection in community – because they want to believe, even if they feel unable to make the leap. 

There are also people here with a strong, clear faith – but even for folks like that, it’s kind of like the weather, you know? The sun is always shining, but there are plenty of hours and days when we can’t see it. And even when we can: sometimes its light creates great beauty; sometimes it feels harsh or glaring…. or faint and inadequate. 

But one of the things we can be clear about, together, even in seasons when it’s hard to see the sun, is being a community that is for good and against evil. Haphazardly, imperfectly, always learning more about our own complicity and ignorance, always working to build our capacity to show up for what matters in our community and the world… 

But: Striving to be on the side of hope, wholeness, and delight. 

Years ago, a member of our congregation – long since moved away – told me that that’s what’s important about St. Dunstan’s for him. That when the world gets heavy – politics, climate, human pain, there’s so much – when it all really starts to weigh him down, one of the things that eases the burden is knowing that he is part of this group of people that are trying to be helpers. 

I think that’s one of the most important things about church. And that’s not a step away from God at all. Right from the very first covenant between God and Abraham and Sarah, God says that God’s people are blessed to be a blessing. Called, chosen, set apart to be for the good of others, and the world. 

Wait, one more thing: Mark’s Gospel has a really strange ending. You might see some more stuff tacked onto the end of Mark’s Gospel in some Bibles, but this is how Mark ends his telling of the good news of Jesus Christ: “And they said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” The women who come to tend Jesus’ body receive the good news of the resurrection – and they run away. Of course! How strange! How terrifying! Nobody’s going to believe them! 

And yet: We know that’s not how the story ends. We know, because the Gospel of Mark exists. So, the story got told.  

I really love this kind of open-ended, paradoxical ending. Because it invites us to wonder: How did these women, Mary and Salome and Mary, find their way through fear and confusion and grief, to being able to believe that love is stronger than death? And then to sharing that news, even if a lot of people thought they were stupid or delusional? 

And that question very quickly becomes a question that isn’t just about these women in Mark’s Gospel, but about me. About us. 

And about whether those spiritual forces of wickedness, those powers that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God, are going to hold us bound by fear, by what’s sensible and rational and normal, or whether we can find the boldness to claim mystery and possibility and joy. 

[In just a moment/Later this morning] we’re going to baptize Safa and Kai. But first, let’s take just a moment to do what the prayer book doesn’t invite us to do: To say the renunciations together. Because there is something very powerful about not just claiming our positive intentions – as we will in the Baptismal Covenant – but also reminding ourselves of what we turn away from, what we reject and resist. 

It’s traditional in many places to face West for the renunciations – and to hold out your hand. You can try that out if you like! … 

When a baptismal candidate answers these questions they say, “I renounce them!” Because it’s their day to make that choice. But let’s say “We renounce them!” Right now – because this is work we continue together. 

Beloved of God! Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?

We renounce them! 

Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?

We renounce them! 

Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?

We renounce them! 

May God sustain us in these intentions, and bless, console, and empower us, as a people of courage, love, and joy, today and always. Amen. 

Sermon, March 17

  1. Fifth Sunday in Lent
    1. Last “normal” Sunday in Lent
      1. Next Sun – Palm & Passion Sunday – we will read together the Gospel account of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and execution. 
      2. And that’s our gateway into Holy Week and all its rich and varied liturgies, arriving at last at Easter. 
    2. Gospel today points us forward – but I want to pause where we are, and reflect on how we’ve been worshiping together in Lent, and particularly on the Litany of Repentance that we use at the beginning of worship in this season. 
  2. The Litany of Repentance 
    1. Longstanding practice of the Church to begin worship in the season of Lent with some kind of “penitential order” – a piece of liturgy that invites self-reflection and offering up our sins to God. 
    2. The Prayer Book invites the use of the Decalogue – the Ten Commandments. You may have done that in other places, or here in earlier years. 
      1. This year we had them in the lectionary just weeks ago – the broadest outlines of the way of life that God asks of God’s people, during their wilderness journey. 
      2. Thou shalt not make any graven image, thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not bear false witness, honor thy father and thy mother, honor the sabbath day, and so on. 
      3. Relevant and important, of course! But can also feel a little abstract. 
        1. I can always reflect on where covetousness, or bearing false witness, are part of my daily life.
        2. But I haven’t murdered anyone, or made any graven images, lately… 
    3. We use the Ash Weds litany. Written for this prayer book (the 1979) by one of the folks deeply involved in that project, Massey Shepherd. 
      1. I’ve been hearing it, praying it, it on Ash Weds my whole life, and I find it very powerful.
      2. Many of its biddings call my attention to the places where I fall short of my intentions, and God’s desires for me, in daily life. 
      3. Got permission from Bishop Miller some years back to use this at the beginning of Lent worship instead of the Decalogue. 
      4. Today I’d like to reflect on the Litany a little in light of the lectionary texts of the day. 
  3. When we pray the Litany of Penitence, and respond with recognition, acknowledgement, and repentance – visibly or inwardly – we are living in, living out, some small part of the vision of the prophet Jeremiah: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts… No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.” 
    1. This text seems to anticipate a change in the relationship between God and humanity, a movement from a law of external rules to a law of the heart. 
      1. A theme the apostle Paul develops in some of his letters, as he describes his own journey of faith. 
      2. But it is a mistake to map this onto the movement from Judaism to Christianity. 
        1. For one thing, Jeremiah is speaking 600 years before the time of Jesus. 
        2. For another thing: Judaism was also always intended to be a religion of the heart – and Christianity has often failed in the direction of acting like a religion of external rules. 
    2. Over the course of the Old Testament, God forms, and renews, covenants with God’s people over and over and over again. Again and again, God’s people fail, turn away, lose the plot; again and again, God calls them back, in anger, anguish, and love. 
    3. This is an unusually hopeful bit of the book of the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah spent his prophetic career trying to warn Judea’s rulers that they had strayed so far from God’s ways that they were facing certain doom. 
      1. That they were, in fact, about to be conquered, dragged into exile, with Jerusalem and the temple destroyed – which happens, in Jeremiah’s lifetime. 
      2. Punishment or natural consequences – splitting hairs…
    4. In today’s text God speaking through Jeremiah is addressing the reality that the Great Temple will be destroyed, and the Tablets of the Law, lost. 
      1. BUT that doesn’t mean God’s people will lose their connection, their covenant relationship, with God. Rather, they will need to take it in – and live it out – in new ways. To internalize it as a way of life that they can carry with them, in new places and circumstances. 
  1. I find it very powerful to pray the Ash Wednesday litany together, in this season. I sometimes wish we could keep doing it – though if we did it all the time I think we’d stop noticing it! 
    1. But during these Lenten weeks as we listen, reflect and respond, we are allowing ourselves to be formed by it, which is the point of liturgy, of praying in these set patterns week by week. 
    2. We hear, and receive, and respond, and become, slowly, incrementally, people who don’t have to be told God’s ways, but have them written in our hearts. 
  2. Let’s look, now, at this rather challenging text from the Gospel of John. 
    1. You may well wonder: Did those poor Greeks ever get to meet Jesus? It seems like they are left standing at the edge of the crowd, forgotten, as the story moves on. 
    2. Jesus’ response to Andrew and Philip isn’t as irrelevant as it sounds. Jesus hears the arrival of these Greeks as a sign that his earthly mission is all but fulfilled. 
      1. “Greeks” may literally mean people of Greek language and culture, here, but also, “Greek” is shorthand in the New Testament for any and all non-Jews – as in Paul’s famous text: In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek. 
      2. The hope that Israel’s God will become known and honored among all peoples of the world has a deep history in the Hebrew Scriptures.
      3. An easy example: Song of faith from Isaiah that we sang in Epiphany: Nations will stream to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawning. 
      4. The Gospels understand Jesus as a next step in the fulfillment of that ancient hope. 
        1. In Luke, Zechariah sings that Jesus will be “A light to enlighten the nations.”
        2. Matthew tells the story of the magi, wise scholars from other nations who come to honor Jesus.
        3. And in John, these Greeks come seeking him – and Jesus understands this as a cue that it’s time to turn towards the cross, towards fulfilling the holy narrative that his followers will go on to share far and wide. The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 
    3. Jesus continues: “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”
      1. An echo of what we heard several weeks ago in the 8th chapter of Mark’s Gospel: “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” 
      2. The Greek word translated as life here isn’t zoe, which simply means life. In both Mark and John, Jesus uses the word psyche (psoo-kay), a many-layered word that can mean life-force or breath, or the soul as the seat of feelings and desires, or the essence of self apart from the body. 
        1. So, for example, when George Harrison sings about “the people who gain the world but lose their soul,” that’s  also a fine translation. 
        2. We’re not talking about literal physical life here, but a more encompassing sense of who you are and your way of living. 
    1. This is a hard teaching! The idea that if we love our life – if we try to save our life – we will lose it. 
      1. Let me make this personal: I love my life! There are things I don’t love about the larger world and the times we’re living in. But overall, I love the life I am getting to live, and feel grateful for it. 
        1. Do I think God doesn’t want me to love my work as the rector of St. Dunstan’s? My roles as daughter, wife, mother? Moments of deep sharing and growth with colleagues and friends; moments of rewarding, important work; moments of joy and wonder at God’s creation? 
          1. No, I think God wants those things for me. For us.
        2. I also don’t think Jesus really wants us to hate our lives. I think he’s using some poetic hyperbole here, as he does sometimes. 
          1. I’ve known folks going through seasons of hating their lives. It does not seem to me that that state of mind makes someone more open to God’s call. 
      2. What I think Jesus does mean is that we have to be open to laying things down, letting things go – possibly including BIG things –  to follow where God leads. That we should be careful not to love the good things in our lives so much that there’s no love left for other things – things at might lead us outside the comfort and pleasure of our lives as they are now. 
        1. One of the core messages of the Gospel – especially the part of the story we’re coming up on now – is that there are things worth giving up everything for. Worth dying for. 
          1. And if we want to be followers of Jesus, we can’t close the door on the possibility of being called into those moments or movements. We have to be people with the will and capacity to choose change, growth, transformation, that may take us outside our comfort zones.
    2. The reason I find the Ash Wednesday Litany so powerful is that for me, it does a great job of pointing out some of the places where my comfort with my life as it is, and various distractions and desires, could stand in the way of my discipleship – my readiness to go where Jesus calls me. 
      1. If I imagine my life as a kind of Venn diagram, the overlap of the circles is the stuff that God and I both care about, like doing my ministry here, with and for you, well; and doing my part to care for my loved ones. 
        1. Then on one side there’s the stuff I care about more than God does. In the language of the Litany, stuff like that intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts, and self-indulgent appetites and ways. And there’s always envy of those more fortunate than ourselves. 
        2. And on the other side there’s the stuff God cares about more than I do. Again in the language of the Litany: Indifference to human need and suffering. Lack of concern for those who come after. Prejudice and contempt towards those who differ from us. 
        3. I wonder which phrases resonate with you, hit you in the heart or gut, week by week? … 
        4. I wonder what dying to those urges, attachments, habits, could look like? 
        5. I wonder: If we could lay them down – plant them in the earth, like seeds – what fruit they might bear? 
    3. When we talked about this text at Zoom Compline on Wednesday evening, one of us wondered out loud: What life do you love? 
      1. I don’t how ready I am to lay down, set aside, or even substantially change my life, to follow where Jesus leads or calls. 
      2. But the Ash Wednesday Litany gives me words to reflect on some places where I love my life – where I might fight to keep my life as it is – for reasons that matter to me and not to God. 
      3. Growth in Christ means slowly, haltingly, year by year, expanding the overlap zone in that Venn diagram. 
  1. Which brings me – briefly, I promise – to a third text. Not Hebrews; he’s doing his own thing. But this morning’s Collect. It’s on the front of your Sunday Supplement. 
    1. The Sunday Collects are a set of prayers from the prayer book, assigned to each Sunday. They are tied to the church year – this is the collect for the fifth Sunday in Lent – but not to the lectionary scriptures, since that’s on a three-year cycle.
    2. The collects vary widely in age and, frankly, quality. Some of them are pretty boring. But I rather like this one. 
    3. It’s one of the old ones – there’s a version of it in a book called the Gelasian Sacramentary, from the 8th century or earlier. Thomas Cranmer translated it from Latin for the first English Book of Common Prayer in 1549. 
    4. Here’s the version from the 1662 version of the Prayer Book – quite similar to what’s in your bulletin today: 
      1. O ALMIGHTY God, who alone canst order the unruly wills and affections of sinful men, graunt unto thy people, that they maye love the thyng, whiche thou commaundest, and desyre, that whiche thou doest promes [promise]; that emong the sondery [sundry] and manifold chaunges of the worlde, oure heartes maye surely there bee fixed, whereas true joyes are to be founde; through Christe our Lorde.
    5. God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners…  I love the word “unruly” there – perhaps this wasn’t the original sense, but to me it has almost a playful feel. It makes me think of a classroom full of kindergartners who don’t want to do the assignment. Not necessarily bad or ill intentioned, just… unruly. And yes, my inner life feels like that sometimes! How about you? 
    6. Then the prayer says, “Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise…” This is such lovely, generous language to me – not punitive; not “Bend us to your will” or “Scare us into obedience.” Instead, the prayer asks for inward transformation into people who want what God wants, for ourselves, our neighbors, the world.
    7. I love the next part too: “that… our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found.” We’re not trying to avoid the fires of hell; we’re responding to the promise of holy joy. God’s purposes are for healing, renewal, goodness, and delight, and in this collect we pray to be able to see that and be drawn towards it. 
    8. It’s a good collect for Lent. It’s a good collect, perhaps, for daily or at least weekly use. 
    1. I prayed it on my own at the beginning of worship; let’s pray it together now… 
    2. Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

The history of our collect:

WorkingPreacher commentary on Jeremiah:

Sermon, March 10

Read the lectionary texts here! 

The story of the bronze serpent on a pole, from Numbers chapter 21, is one of those weird stories from the Bible that generally get left out of the Sunday morning lectionary, our calendar of assigned readings. BUT Jesus refers to it, in the single most famous passage from the Gospel of John – possibly from any of the Gospels. So here we are. 

What is going on in this story? Last week we heard God give Moses the Ten Commandments that were to guide the Israelites in their way of life as God’s people. LITERALLY number two was: You shall not make for yourself an idol – that is, an object that looks like an animal, that you then worship or treat as holy. I guess if God tells you to break a commandment, you break a commandment??

This text is old, but the story behind it is much older. We can speculate a little about what experiences might underlie the story. God’s people have fled from Egypt and are in the wilderness, perhaps somewhere on what we now call the Sinai Peninsula. They have a long way to go before coming to the fertile region on the Mediterranean coast where they will eventually settle. And while they’re on this long, long journey, they have a run-in with some poisonous snakes. 

I expect many of us have been stung by a bee or wasp at some point. Maybe a few have even been bitten by a snake. Generally in these cases there’s a disagreement about who belongs where. 

I’ve watched a couple of seasons of the reality show Alone, where people who think of themselves as having good survival skills are dropped off in deep wilderness with minimal supplies, and compete for who can hang on the longest before tapping out or being pulled out for medical reasons. 

Both seasons I’ve watched, the contestants are in serious bear country. And while – spoiler! – there hasn’t been a dangerous bear encounter, if there were – you couldn’t really blame the bear. The humans are the ones out of place, in that situation. 

The wilderness is, by definition, a wild place where people don’t usually go. Inhabited by wild creatures adapted to that environment – whether that’s far northern forest or the rocky desert of the Sinai. 

Remember the triangular covenant – the relationship between humans and the land, including its creatures, is tied up with the relationship between humans and God. So: It is not surprising that during this wilderness time, God’s people stumble into an area that some local snakes reasonably regard as THEIR territory. There’s a disruption here, an ecological dislocation, and it has consequences. 

The story could have been: The wilderness was really terrible; we were hungry and thirsty and hot and cold and tired and miserable; there’s clearly a REASON nobody lives out here. And then we came into a region with a lot of poisonous snakes, and they were NOT happy to see us, and it got even worse. 

Instead, the text makes sense of this experience through the lens of punishment. Maybe because the people are so unhappy, they assume these snakebites are proof of God’s anger at them. 

Why bad things happen is not a one-sermon question. 

But this story offers an opportunity to talk about a piece of it. 

The idea that the bad things that happen are God’s punishment for things we’ve done wrong sounds pretty awful and frightening. But it has a lasting appeal. 

It’s a strong theme in big chunks of the Old Testament – although there can be some real nuance to whether the various bad things that befall God’s people are described truly as punishments, or as the natural consequences of various bad choices. 

I’m not bold enough to say that significant parts of Old Testament theology are simply wrong to understand God as deliberately sending harm to God’s people as a punishment for their misdeeds. But I do think there’s a gradual shift within the Hebrew Bible towards understanding God’s purposes for humanity as redemptive rather than retributive. 

And it’s definitely hard to square the idea of divine punishment with what Jesus has to say about God – including right here in chapter 3 of John’s Gospel: “For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Of course John’s Jesus goes on to say that those who don’t believe in him are judged – but the emphasis is on human choices, not divine retribution. Some people don’t want to follow Jesus because they don’t want to face, or change, their own harmful actions.

There are several times in the Gospels when people ask Jesus right out: Is this bad thing that happened, a punishment because somebody sinned? And Jesus says: That’s not how things work. 

Still: the idea of God punishing humanity has real staying power. It has an obvious appeal when we’re talking about our enemies or those with whom we disagree. Of course they had it coming, whatever “it” is! 

But it also has an appeal even for ourselves. 

The idea of punishment gives us an explanation for bad things that happen. I brought this on myself because I did X. And it gives us a sense of agency, of control. If this happened because of what I did, maybe I can make it stop happening, or prevent it from happening again, by what I do. 

A sense that there’s a reason for why this terrible thing is happening, and of agency or control, can feel really important when we’re facing big tragedies or struggles. I can definitely see the appeal, when the alternative is: Sometimes really bad stuff just happens, and there’s no good reason for it, and nothing you can do about it. 

As spiritual writer Annie Dillard puts it, You can live as a particle crashing about and colliding in a welter of materials with God, or you can live as a particle crashing about and colliding in a welter of materials without God. But you cannot live outside the welter of colliding materials.”

There’s no opting out of the hurts and struggles and losses of life in this beautiful, broken world. I think often about a quotation from one of Sir Terry Pratchett’s books, A Hat Full of Sky. Speaking about a particular case of human suffering, the main character, Tiffany, says, “It shouldn’t be like this.” And an older, wiser character responds: “There isn’t a way things should be. There’s just what happens, and what we do.”

There isn’t a way things should be. There’s just what happens, and what we do. It’s not that Sir Terry didn’t have a sense of the good, the right, the just. He was a deeply thoughtful and compassionate person; his ethics shine through his goofy books, which is why so many people love them.

I think what he’s calling out here, in the voice of this character, is a tendency to spend our energy on outrage at the gap between what is and what we think should be. Instead of accepting what is, and focusing our energy on how to respond in a way that edges reality towards better. 

There’s an overlap here with contemplative spirituality. I preached a few weeks ago about my learning and new practices in that realm. “There’s just what happens, and what we do” is a call to attention, to listening to what is – and then discerning our response, from a place of clarity. 

This is probably not an everybody thing, but I also don’t think it’s just me: I do notice a real difference within myself when I shift my focus from arguing with the situation, whatever it may be, to accepting the situation and reflecting on my response. What is mine to do, here. 

There’s an overlap, too, with what some of us are reading in Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg’s book On Repentance and Repair. In the framework of the great Jewish thinker Maimonides, step one in the work of repentance is to acknowledge that you have caused harm. Ruttenberg points out that there’s also a step zero: coming to understand that you have caused harm. That can be a big journey in itself. It can demand open-hearted listening, deep emotional work, learning new perspectives, and more, to arrive at a place where you’re able to hear someone’s feedback or rebuke or invitation to amend something you have said or done. 

There’s a lot more to say about this book, but for now: The path onward isn’t arguing with the situation. It’s accepting the situation, and discerning what to do next.

Given this: what now? 

It is no picnic to live in this welter of colliding materials. To gaze unflinchingly on the wonder and ache of life in this world and know that purpose and meaning are shrouded in more mystery than we might prefer. To accept that humanity’s freedom and creation’s freedom and millennia of accumulated ideas and ways of being mean that we wake up each morning to an immensely complex muddle of fault and favor, consequence and possibility, inclination and choice, loss and belonging. 

Maybe it’s no coincidence that the church’s ancient posture of prayer is also, essentially, a shrug. 

The transactional, mechanistic mindset of punishment and reward makes a lot of sense. It doesn’t fix anything, and arguably makes some things worse, but it tells you where you stand. 

Maybe that’s why the Israelites kept the bronze snake. Much later, in the second book of the Kings of Israel, we hear that King Hezekiah undertook a big renovation of the Temple in Jerusalem. He had it repaired, and hauled out a bunch of junk, and re-established regular worship there. (2 Kings 18; 2 Chron 29). 

Among the things that were hauled out was the bronze serpent: “[Hezekiah] broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it; it was called Nehushtan.” 

Nehushtan’s removal seems to have been part of a movement to  centralize religious practice at the Jerusalem temple and focus exclusively on Israel’s God, getting rid of other minor deities and cults. 

I find that interesting for its historical and anthropological aspects… but there’s also something here that makes deep sense spiritually and psychologically, if I may venture to speak outside my expertise! 

Keeping Nehushtan, worshipping Nehushtan, isn’t just worshiping a symbol of a time when God saved us. It’s holding on to a symbol of a time when we were really bad and God had to punish us. 

I can see how holding on to Nehushtan could appeal to a people trying to make sense of their history, the ups and downs, struggles and successes, in light of their understanding of themselves as God’s chosen people. 

I can also see how the things Nehushtan stands for could have an appeal for somebody at an individual level. 

There are lots of ways people may carry deep shame or a sense of deserving whatever hardship comes their way. People who’ve been scapegoated by a family system, people who’ve been treated in certain ways by a parent or partner, people who’ve been through particular kinds of suffering or struggle – may find a kind of safe haven in the idea that these things happened to them because they’re bad. The meaning and agency of the punishment paradigm can offer a kind of uncomfortable comfort. 

For folks marked by that kind of history, it can be real work to begin to take on board that you deserve grace and healing, and that a love worth having – human or holy – does not intentionally cause harm. 

I want to say one more thing about the bronze snake, our friend Nehushtan, and that’s to circle back to the analogy Jesus is making in our Gospel reading. When he talks about being lifted up like the serpent on the pole, he’s talking about his crucifixion – about the cross. 

A lot of Christianity tells the story of the cross in a way that’s actually pretty similar to the story about the snake. Humanity was and is a bunch of horrible, ungrateful wretches. So God sent the poisonous serpents of sin among us to chomp on us and make our lives even worse.

In order to appease God’s righteous anger, Jesus had to die on the cross. So we worship the cross, much like the bronze serpent. 

Christians wouldn’t say we worship the cross – rather, what it stands for – but that can be a fine line, let’s be honest! The cross is unarguably central to Christian symbolism and worship.

There are churches that really dwell on Jesus’ death on the cross as their core story, the place where they find meaning and truth.

There are churches that are really more comfortable with the empty tomb, the happy ending of Easter morning, and don’t want to think too much about the hard stuff before – or after. 

I like to think that at St. Dunstan’s, and in the Episcopal Church in general, we strike a pretty good balance of taking both Good Friday and Easter Sunday very seriously indeed. 

While the cross is perhaps less overwhelmingly central for us than for some other kinds of churches, it is central for us too. I mean – there it is. 

I would like the story of Nehushtan to lead us to reflect on what we think, what we feel, when we look at cross, or wear a cross, or sign the cross. 

Does the cross tell us that we are miserable wretches who only deserve God’s anger?

Does it remind us of moments when we have felt amazing grace? 

Does it tell us that we matter so much to God that God would pay any price to show us how beloved we are? 

Does it tell us that no matter the depths of pain, suffering, struggle, God is in it with us?

Does it tell us, in the words of Paul, that God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength?

Does it tell us, in the words of Dr. King, that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality – that right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant? 

Does it tell us that love wins?

I invite us to wonder and notice together, as we turn towards the cross in these final weeks of Lent. Amen. 

Homily, Oct. 1

Today we celebrate the Feast of St Francis of Assisi. 

St Francis’ feast day – commemorating his death in the year 1226 – is part of WHY churches are increasingly celebrating a Season of Creation in late September and early October. 

Francis is a widely-beloved saint, and a strong voice within Christian tradition for honoring God through love of Creation. 

Many churches around the world observe the feast of Francis with a service of blessing animals – as we do. 

I have heard criticism of pet blessings as a superficial engagement, almost a trivialization of Francis’ life and message – of turning something cute that was actually radical and important.

I think pet blessings are important too – but I take the point.

So who was Francis, and what was he about? 

Francis’ life and witness have “held up” remarkably well for someone who died just under 800 years ago. There are lots of ways in which he pointed towards values and ideas that are more mainstream within Christianity or culture today. 

Francis was born into comfort, the son of a wealthy cloth merchant in the Italian city of Assisi. Even as a young man he felt conflicted between enjoying fine clothes and a carefree life, and compassion towards the poor. After a season of spiritual seeking, one day, while praying in an abandoned chapel called San Damiano, he had a vision of Jesus Christ and heard Jesus tell him, “Francis, go repair my church, which lies in ruins.”

At first Francis thought Jesus’ words referred to the decrepit chapel where he was praying, and he sold some of his father’s cloth to repair the building. This led to conflict with his father, which ended when Francis renounced his family and inheritance. 

He started dressing like the poorest peasants of his region, in a coarse brown wool tunic tied at the waist with rope. 

Intentional poverty would become a cornerstone of his movement and way of life – to prevent being compromised or distracted by worldly wealth and luxuries. 

Francis began preaching to the ordinary people he met – a message of caring for one another, making amends for one’s wrong deeds, and seeking peace among all. 

He proclaimed respect and care for every human being, saying, “Your God is of your flesh; God lives in your nearest neighbor, in every person.”

People started to follow and emulate him. A young noblewoman, Clare, was drawn to Francis and his teaching, and Francis supported her in forming a religious order for women – a counterpart to his group of male followers, who came to be called Franciscans. 

Francis lived during the time of the Crusades – a series of military conflicts between Christian and Muslim powers. Yet in 1219 he undertook a peaceful mission to meet with a Muslim leader in Egypt, securing the right for Franciscans to live and travel in the Middle East for centuries to come. 

Francis invented the Nativity scene, using real people and animals to create a sort of living diorama of the original story of the birth of Christ, in order to help common – and illiterate – people imagine and contemplate that great event more fully.

And Francis believed that nature was a mirror of God, calling all living things his brothers and sisters, preaching to birds, and making peace between a fierce wolf and the town of Gubbio. 

In this season, we’ve been opening our 10AM worship with part of a hymn or poem that Francis wrote, best known as the Canticle of the Sun, which praises God by praising parts of God’s Creation, like Brother Fire, Sister Water, and Sister Mother Earth.

In his 2015 letter Laudato Si, calling Roman Catholics to care and advocate for creation, Pope Francis wrote, “[Francis] was a mystic and a pilgrim who lived in simplicity and in wonderful harmony with God, with others, with nature and with himself. He shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace.” 

I think Pope Francis is right to point to Saint Francis as a model for the necessary integration of care for humanity, care for creation, personal self-discipline and spiritual growth, and peace and justice work. 

Today I’d like to take another step in thinking about how it informs and enlarges our theology when we take other living things seriously as our brothers, sisters, and siblings. 

We know it’s important to many of our members that St. Dunstan’s strives to be fully inclusive of LGBTQ+ people. When we ask folks why they chose this church, it comes up a lot – that we are open about our commitments and that we’re working to move beyond mere words, to becoming a community that is safe, affirming, able to learn and improve, and willing to stand up and speak up when our members and their loved ones are at risk. 

Often, in the public square, people who are opposed to or suspicious of LGBTQ+ equality will talk about Nature as part of their case. Whether that’s about sexual orientation and assumptions about how people are “supposed to” use their organs – or about gender identity and what someone’s DNA or body parts mean about how they should live in the world. 

Either way: the message is that being affirming of LGBTQ+ people is against Nature – and therefore against God’s intentions, as the Creator and Author of nature. 

The thing is: that’s a very limited view of Nature. When we approach God’s creation with loving attention and respect – as Francis did – we find that it’s often more complex, messy, and interesting than these deterministic binaries. 

During our Creation Care Camp week with our middle school youth this summer, one of our most exciting outings was to Heartland Farm Sanctuary, in Stoughton. 

We knew that our group would learn about the treatment of animals used for meat, eggs, and milk, and about humane alternatives. We didn’t know that we’d also learn more about what’s “natural” in terms of sex and gender. 

The kids’ eyes got very big when we met Daisy the dairy cow. Daisy was born intersex, with both male and female organs. 

She was sent for slaughter, since she was judged to be unlikely to produce much milk. She escaped, which led her eventually to Heartland, where she is well-loved and well-cared for.  

Our group was surprised to learn that the biology of sex assignment can be complicated and can lead to problems, even for non-human animals!

And then we met Cream Puff the goose. Cream Puff is a domestic goose who was rescued from a pond after the Canada geese they had been hanging out with flew south for the winter, leaving them alone and lonely. 

At rescue, Cream Puff was examined and determined to be a female goose, and was acting like a female goose. But as they settled into their new environment at Heartland, Cream Puff started to show some of the distinctive behaviors of a gander – a male goose. It turns out it’s not unusual for some kinds of birds to spontaneously change their gender behavior and even biology! 

Is it appropriate to apply the human concept of “transgender” to Cream Puff? Probably not.

But is it appropriate to look to Nature to justify rigid identities and categories of sex and gender? Not really! 

Looking to science – and particularly to biology – to help us understand the complexity of human gender and sexuality isn’t necessarily a helpful path. That can lead us into other tangles. 

We are, all of us, more than our genes or our body parts, just as we are more than what our culture and history tell us to be. 

But what science CAN show us is that Nature is not on the side of simple, limited, or unchanging ideas about sex and gender. 

Today, three days out from the feast of St. Francis, and ten days out from National Coming Out Day on October 11, I want to call us to join Francis in seeing Creation as a mirror of God, and taking seriously our kinship with all living things. 

Our parish Creation Care Mission Statement begins, “In response to the creative love of God made known to us in the beauty, complexity, and holiness of the created order…” then lays out our hopes and intentions – cultivating love of creation, serving as caretakers and advocates, and so on.

Our commitment to being an inclusive parish – to the growing and learning and stretching that that entails – is one of the things we do in response to the creative love of God made known to us in the beauty, complexity, and holiness of the created order. 

Being affirming IS celebrating Nature in all its diversity, ambiguity, and mystery. Thanks be to God. 

Let us pray. 

Most high, omnipotent, good Lord, grant your people grace to renounce gladly the vanities of this world; that, following the way of blessed Francis, we may, for love of you, delight in your whole creation with perfectness of joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Homily, May 21

Saint Dunstan was a Benedictine monk, and a big part of his life’s work was establishing Benedictine monastic communities. Let me explain what all that means! 

A monk or a nun  is a person who has chosen to devote their life to God by living in a special place called a monastery or convent, with a group of other monks or nuns, and following a very set pattern of prayer and work in daily life. 

Usually, monks and nuns don’t have families of their own, and they live at least somewhat apart from the community around them. They usually have a special way of dressing – like the brown robe that Benedictines wear.

Each monastery has a specific schedule of daily prayer times, meals, and work times. The work depends on the season, on what each monk is good at, and on what they do at that particular monastery. At monasteries and convents, people would usually grow their own food, care for livestock and bees, weave cloth, make candles, beer, or wine, make Bibles and books of prayer and spiritual readings, and much more. 

About 500 years after the time of Jesus, a man named Benedict started a monastery in Italy. The way of life that developed there became a movement that spread all over Europe and, eventually, all over the world. 

To become a Benedictine monk or nun, you had to make three vows. A vow is like a great big promise that you plan to keep for your whole life!

The vows were: Poverty – you had to give away everything you owned, and have nothing of your own. 

Chastity – which meant that you wouldn’t seek out romantic relationships or get married and start a family. 

And obedience – you had to vow that you would obey the leaders of the church and of your monastery. 

But those vows were just the beginning. Once you joined the Benedictine order, you had to live under the Benedictine Rule.  

That’s Rule with a capital R and it’s actually lots of rules all bundled together, to describe how these Benedictine monks were supposed to try to live. 

A monastic Rule of Life is a set of guidelines that cover everything from prayer to meals to sleep to work to prayer again. It lays out how to live in community and how to focus your life on God. The Benedictine Rule is only one Rule of Life; there are other monastic traditions with their own Rules that have developed through history, and still follow their patterns of prayer and work together. 

The Benedictine Rule is long – more than seventy chapters! It covers a lot of things. 

Some parts of the Rule have to do with helping people keep their focus on God. 

For example: There could be as many as SEVEN daily prayer times, depending on the community. Some of them were named after the hour, using the Latin names for numbers – like Terce, recited at 9 a.m. or “the third hour”; sext, read at noon or “the sixth hour”, and None (nohn), read at 3PM or the ninth hour. The Benedictine Rule says that those times of shared prayer are to reverent, pure of heart, full of honest feeling, and SHORT. Otherwise how would all the work get done? 

There’s a rule about not talking after Compline, the prayers late in the evening before bedtime, so that after Compline everybody can just wind down for rest. 

There’s a whole chapter on the practice of humility – how to focus on God, not your own will or desires, and not setting yourself above others. 

And monks weren’t supposed to have their own possessions, to help them not get too attached to objects instead of God. Each monk should have their own robe and shoes, that are comfortable and fit them well, and a mat, blanket and pillow for sleeping. But that’s about it! 

Some other parts of the Rule have to do with the strains of living in community with other people! 

There are rules about “restraint of speech” – not talking a lot in daily life – talking gets us into trouble sometimes, doesn’t it?

Instead of conversation at mealtimes, somebody reads out loud and everybody is silent and listens. 

Monks are discouraged from drinking more than half a bottle of wine per day.

Monks are supposed to be obedient to the abbot, the head monk, but the abbot is also supposed to lead with patience and understanding, not by bossing everyone around. 

Everyone’s needs should be provided for within the community, respecting that some have different needs and capacities. 

If a rich family sends their child to become a monk or nun, they have to understand that they can’t secretly send their kid extra clothes or other luxuries. He has to live like all the other monks.

What do you think of all that? 

Would you be interested in living like that?… 

There are some things about it that I like and some things that I think would be really hard! 

Dunstan lived in a difficult time. Most people were very poor and there was a lot of illness around that nobody knew how to treat. There were bandits who would raid and steal, and there wasn’t really a stable government to look out for people and make things better. Ordinary people’s lives were pretty hard and uncertain. 

Dunstan wanted to help make things better. He did that partly by being an advisor for a lot of different kings, encouraging them to do things that would improve life for the people.

But he also believed that founding more Benedictine monastic houses could be a tool for making things better. 

Even though monasteries and convents keep some separation from the community around them, they can have a big influence. People who were sick or starving, or in trouble in other ways, could come to the monks or nuns for help. Monastic houses were like hospitals, in Dunstan’s time. Most people couldn’t read, so they might come to the monastery to learn and study, or for help with a legal document. 

Hospitality is an important value for Benedictines and other monastic traditions too. All guests are to be received with prayer and generosity, and with special care for the poor and for pilgrims making a holy journey. 

The monasteries also trained monks who went out to be priests in local churches. Before that, a lot of the priests were just somebody who was picked out for the job by the local rich family. The monk-priests were better trained and more committed to God, and they could do more to teach, help, and guide the people of their congregation. 

The changes Dunstan worked for did help things get better for ordinary people. That’s why people started honoring Dunstan as a saint, not long after his death. 

Now, a church like our church is really different from a monastic community. We don’t live together all the time. We don’t have a Rule of Life that tells us how to spend each hour of our days. 

But I think even in the few hours we spend together, week by week, we are training ourselves and each other to be people who can make a difference in our communities too. Sharing worship and learning, and the ways we practice generosity and kindness and caring for one another here –  and the ways we play together and create and celebrate and share our gifts too – I hope, I believe, that all of that helps shape us into people who can do good for our neighbors and in the world around us. 

And I’m sure that it makes Saint Dunstan proud! 



A website with some info about medieval monasticism for interested kids:

A nice abbreviated overview of the Rule of Benedict:

Easter Sermon, 2023

This is the day when the church proclaims most boldly and joyfully its most absurd and improbable convictions: That Jesus, murdered by the state, came back to life; and that this unlikelihood points towards an exponentially greater unlikelihood: That Love has conquered Death. That Death no longer has dominion over us – in some mysterious and ultimate sense, since people continue to die on a regular basis. 

I know that people have questions about it all. Not just little questions but big questions. And not just visitors or seekers, but people who worship here every week. Is this true? Does it matter? Does the church take this seriously? Does Rev. Miranda really believe it? Am I supposed to really believe it – and if so, which parts are most important?  And what does it mean if I don’t, or can’t? Or if I have to cross my fingers or edit the Creed a little, when we read that ancient statement of faith together on Sundays? 

There are people here, too, who do believe, at a deep level, even though a lot of it is hard and weird. We have the full range in the room today. We have the full range in the room every Sunday. 

And that’s fine! Nobody has to believe anything; that’s not how Episcopal and Anglican churches work. By design, we are a way of faith that defines membership and belonging by what we do together – by our participation in common worship. If you find meaning, comfort, peace, insight, purpose, beauty, connection, truth, joy in what we do together when we gather for worship, enough that you come back, regularly or when you can, then congratulations! You’re Episcopalian. 

But that doesn’t mean your questions and struggles don’t matter. And there is a particular kind of pressure on Easter Sunday. When the church preaches Christ crucified and risen – which is, as the apostle Paul noted two thousand years ago, a scandal and foolishness to those who don’t or can’t believe it. 

I mean, that’s just facts. It’s not news that this is hard to swallow. It was hard to swallow for the first Christians and those around them, too. 

People sometimes ask me if I believe it. And the answer is: Yes, I do. Partly, the miracles just have never bothered me that much. It’s not that I’m not a scientific thinker. But I guess … my brain just doesn’t catch on that. I don’t have a hard time believing that the God who invented DNA could reverse decay, for example.The fact that my faith doesn’t trip over the notion of a literal bodily resurrection, or the other miracles of the Gospels, doesn’t mean my faith is stronger than anybody else’s. I think that’s more a matter of personality and wiring. 

But actually: Whether or not I find this particular physical process credible is… not that central for me? Religious faith is not intellectual agreement with a list of doctrinal statements. One issue is with the word “believe”, as used in English. We use that word both in a religious sense and in a more everyday sense, meaning that we think something is true, factually speaking. That’s a confusing conflation of two rather different things. Many scholars say that the “belief” of the Bible is better translated as trust, loyalty, solidarity. Choosing your allegiances for the work and struggle of life. The word “belief” points too much towards the head, and not enough towards the heart and the gut. 

I resonate with what Francis Spufford says in his book Unapologetic: “I am a fairly orthodox Christian. Every Sunday I say and do my best to mean the whole of the Creed, which is a series of propositions… But it is… a mistake to suppose that it is assent to the propositions that makes you a believer. It is the feelings that are primary. I assent to the ideas because I have the feelings; I don’t have the feelings because I’ve assented to the ideas…” 

My faith is made up of a lot of things, and the fact that I’m able to tolerate the mystery of the resurrection flows out of those other things, rather than the reverse. My faith is made of the times when I’ve heard God speak to me to guide, challenge, or affirm, and the times when I have experienced divine mercy – consolation – clarity. My faith is made of my own lifelong experience of being embraced, cared for, raised up by faith community. Made of the witness of the church and the saints, living and dead; of my ongoing conversation with Scripture, loving and lively and contentious. 

My faith is made of the moments when I can look at the world around me and see that, in the words of a favorite prayer, God is working through our struggle and confusion to accomplish God’s purposes on earth. There is much cause for dismay, anxiety, grief in the world today. I am never one to downplay the seriousness of our shared circumstances. AND: I am 48 years old, beloveds. When I was born, women couldn’t yet legally be priests in the Episcopal Church. In my not quite half a century, so much has changed. When I hang out with our youth group, I’m staggered by everything they know about neurodiversity, mental illness, diversity of gender expression and sexual orientation, racial diversity and systemic oppression…  They know so much more about all the different ways to be human, and what we owe to one another, than I did at their age. If you believe, as I do, that one of God’s purposes on earth is for people to be able to be fully themselves in public, and to share their voices and gifts and skills, and access the things that help them flourish – then God IS working through our struggle and confusion – a LOT of struggle, a LOT of confusion, to be sure – but God IS working through it to accomplish God’s purposes.

My faith is made up of lots of things. And the fact that I can tolerate the perplexing idea of Christ’s victory over death flows out of all these things, rather than being the precondition for them. 

But I cannot talk you into that in three more pages of sermon.  Faith can’t be transplanted. Each of us is on their own path. 

And how do I know that my capacity to have faith – to believe that we are held in love, that an active power of good works in and through us – isn’t fundamentally because I was born into a family where I was able to form secure attachments? Because I’ve always had enough money to be able to feed myself and my children? Because I’m white and middle class and most doors have opened for me, over the course of my life? How can I know that my capacity to have faith isn’t simply a symptom of my privilege? Why should you take my word for it? 

Those are great questions! I’ve wondered about them myself. And the fact is that I don’t fully take my own word for it. The witness of a lot of other people is really important for me. Some are living individuals whose faith and way of being in the world sustain and inspire me. People who’ve lived through loss, pain, struggle, and need, and bear witness that God was in it with them; people who have spent far more time in contemplation, prayer, study and seeking than I have, and have found that the Holy met them on that terrain. I trust their testimony. 

Others are more public property – names you might know. Jon Daniels of blessed memory, a bright, complicated young man from New Hampshire who grappled his way into faith, then heard Martin Luther King Jr. and Mary the Mother of God calling him to join the protests in Selma in 1965. His journals of his time in Alabama show him second-guessing his own motives, mocking his own white-saviorism, learning, growing, seeking, submitting himself more and more fully and finally to God’s purposes. That path led him to death on a dusty road on a hot August day when he stepped between a young black friend and a racist’s gun. 

King himself, who delivered the famous Mountaintop speech 55 years ago this past Monday. He wasn’t scheduled to speak that night, and was exhausted and ill. He spoke frequently of death, that evening; he knew how much danger he was in, moment by moment. Evoking the story of Moses’ death, he told the crowd that he’d been to the mountaintop and seen the promised land; that their journey would continue even if he didn’t get there with them. That his eyes had seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. King was assassinated the next day; he was 39 years old. 

Sophie Scholl, whom I preached about a few weeks ago, and another martyr of the Nazi regime, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer’s resistance to white supremacist thought was shaped by the experience of studying with African-American theologians and worshipping with a Black church. Bonhoeffer thought deeply about grace, purpose, right and wrong. His faith led him to active resistance to the Nazi government – resulting in his execution as a threat to the state, just like Jesus. 

And it’s not just people who died for their faith, though their witness bears a particular weight; but people who live for their faith also encourage and ground my faith. 

Desmond Tutu – the first black African bishop in the church in South Africa during Apartheid – who embodied holy joy and holy courage for so many. Once, in August of 1989, Tutu held an Ecumenical Defiance service at the Capetown cathedral, a church counterpart to the anti-apartheid protests outside. When military police entered the cathedral and lined the walls, weapons in hand, Tutu addressed them directly: “You are very powerful, but you are not gods and I serve a God who cannot be mocked. So, since you have already lost, come join the winning side!” 

Pauli Murray, born black, poor, female-bodied and queer in North Carolina in 1910, who fought their way to a distinguished legal career and important work advocating against both racial and sex-based discrimination— and then, late in life, felt a call to the priesthood, becoming the first female-bodied African-American to be ordained in the Episcopal Church. 

Core to both Pauli’s activism and their priesthood was a commitment to reconciliation among humans and between humans and God, with the goal of transforming the world. 

Our own Martina Rippon, who went on ahead last fall. Blocked from pursuing her chosen career as a doctor, Martina spent her life nonetheless in service to others – disaster relief, chaplaincy work, and community organizing. Martina had that Jesus-like quality of being able to talk with anybody – and not just superficially but about the real stuff. She told me, near the end, that she didn’t need anybody with her when she died. That was between her and God, and she was ready, and not afraid. 

When I second-guess myself and wonder if I have faith because my life has been easy, or because I’ve just never really thought it all through, I look to the saints I’ve named here and others. They were able to place their trust in the life and love made known to us in Jesus Christ because of their experiences of divine consolation, clarity, and courage. 

And in thinking of these people, naming these people – I’m not marshaling examples to prove some point to myself or others, as you would in an academic paper.  I’m calling my faith community around me. Just as when it’s been a long time since I last had a clear word from God, or a strong sense of that bedrock of love under my feet, or of the tug of a purpose larger than my own… then a friend, or a colleague, or sharing worship with this community, sustains me and keeps me on the path. Because not only is faith not really a head thing; it’s also not really an individual person thing.

Your struggles and questions – and mine – they do matter, but they also… don’t? This whole – thing – what we do and proclaim today, and every Sunday – does not depend on your personal capacity to assent to a list of propositions. Or mine! It doesn’t depend on it because in the Episcopal Church believing is something we do together. The Creed, the church’s statement of faith, begins, WE believe. (Though for some reason the version in the baptismal liturgy we’ll use today says “I believe” – breathe through it! It’s OK!) We place our trust, our loyalty, in this holy story and what it says about humanity and God and the world, together. As a body. That’s deep in our way of faith as Christians in the Anglican way. It’s why Episcopalians don’t do altar calls, beloveds. Because we don’t believe one by one, like that. We believe together. We trust, we claim, we commit, together.

And the other reason not to be too weighed down by whether you can say a hearty Yes to any given line of the Creed, beloveds, is that if any of us are right about any of it, it doesn’t depend on our believing, on our knowing. This holy story, and the One at the center of it, doesn’t need us to be fully clear and fully convinced to be able to offer us grace, joy, consolation, purpose or possibility through the story and its work within and among us. 

Sixteen hundred years ago or so, the theologian and bishop John Chrysostom wrote a sermon for Easter.  Orthodox churches read it every year; we read parts of it at the Easter Vigil. It’s a wonderful, playful text about how the Easter celebration is for everyone. You who have been part of the community for a long time, and you who showed up at the last possible minute – You who are hard on yourselves, and you who are easy – You who have kept a Lenten fast faithfully, and you who have not –  Celebrate! Rejoice in this glorious feast of feasts! You are an invited and honored guest. 

That’s what I want to say, dear ones. The things the Church proclaims today – the absurd, beautiful Easter Gospel: Christ is arisen, Death is defeated, Love wins – the things we sing and shout, with joy and hope, today, are for everybody. Not forced on you or drummed into you, but offered with welcome and delight. 

You for whom this is so familiar, your umpteenth Episcopal Easter, that you struggle to find refreshment here; and you for whom it’s all so new and strange that it’s hard to keep your feet under you –

You who have seen resurrection enough times that it doesn’t faze you in the least, and you that have seen so much death and loss that the Alleluias come heavy – 

You that came here driven by memory, seeking the past, and you that came here looking for hope, seeking the future – 

You that came here for the music or the sound of voices raised together, and you that came here in hope of a little holy silence – 

You who haven’t been to church for a while and are disappointed by how much has changed, and you who haven’t been to church for a while and are delighted by how much has changed – 

You that want to believe and can’t quite get there, and you that believe almost in spite of yourself –

You that find faith easy but church hard, and you that find church easy but faith hard –

All of you, all of us, nevertheless: Welcome! Rejoice! The banquet is prepared and you are invited! The Kingdom belongs to us all! Christ is risen and Love reigns! Alleluia! 

Holy Week 2023

Holy Week at St. Dunstan’s, 2023

ALL ZOOM SERVICES will be on our usual Sunday Morning Worship link, available in the weekly Enews or by reaching out to Rev. Miranda at .

Palm Sunday, April 2

Palm Sunday worship at 8AM & 10AM in person; at 9AM on Zoom.

Maundy Thursday, April 6

ZOOM WORSHIP, 5:30PM: Join from the dinner table! Consider setting your table for a special occasion, with dishes you love, flowers, candles, and so on. Have bread and wine/fruit juice on hand.

IN PERSON WORSHIP, 7 – 8PM: This year’s service will include sharing an informal Eucharist (with additional food but not a full meal), gathered at tables together; an opportunity for foot washing; and the stripping of the altar.

NIGHTWATCH: Keep vigil for an hour,  at home or at church, Thursday evening or Friday morning.  It’s appropriate to pray, sing, read the Bible or spiritual texts, or just sit in silence. Sign up for an hour using this link: Nightwatch Signup Link

Good Friday, April 7

ZOOM WORSHIP, 1PM: A Zoom-adapted version of Good Friday worship, with Passion Gospel.

IN PERSON, 12PM and 7PM: We will read the Passion Gospel and pray the special prayers of this day. This liturgy does not include the Eucharist.

IN PERSON Children’s Stations of the Cross, 4:30PM: A gentle multi-sensory exploration of the Stations of the Cross, for all ages.
The Great Vigil of Easter, April 8

ZOOM WORSHIP, 6:30 – 7:30: A service of story and song that prepares us for Easter Sunday.  Gather by candlelight or dim light; bring bells or noisemakers; and have a treat ready to celebrate at the end! This service is appropriate for all ages.

IN PERSON, 8PM – 9:30PM: We’ll honor the Great Vigil, one of the Church’s most ancient rites, with fire and water, story and song, renewal of baptismal vows and the first Eucharist of Easter.  This service is appropriate for all ages, as long as they can handle a late night!

Easter Sunday, April 9

ZOOM WORSHIP, 9AM: A festive Easter liturgy.

IN PERSON, 8AM & 10AM: Gather for Easter worship with Eucharist.  All are welcome! There will be a festive reception and an egg hunt after the 10AM service.

Sermon, Feb. 5

Today we are celebrating Candlemas! 

Its other name is the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, which is the Gospel story we just heard.

This holy day comes deep in the winter, at a time of year when people are longing for spring and the return of longer days. 

So over the centuries – especially as Christianity moved into more northern regions with longer, darker winters – the holy day became a festival of light and a time to bless candles, to be burned in times of peril, storms, or sickness.

Candlemas is a minor feast of the church, falling on February 2. 

We bring it into Sunday church here because there’s a Candlemas story about St Dunstan, the saint of our church, and that makes it special for us.

The story goes like this… 

It happens about eleven hundred years ago! 

In the western part of England, where winters were long and cold and dark and sometimes stormy. 

And it wasn’t just the winters that were hard.

It was a time of violence, poverty, sickness, corruption, and unjust rulers. 

It was Candlemas Eve, and everyone in the village was at church. In the crowd was a young woman named Cynethrith. She was married and was expecting a child. 

She was a woman of deep faith, and she prayed every day that her child would grow up to be someone who could help her country and her people. 

So, everybody came to church for Candlemas, and they brought their candles to bless. 

This was before electricity, so they didn’t have flashlights or lamps with bulbs… just candles, and little lamps that burned oil or fat, and the fireplaces in their homes. 

Imagine a little stone church full of candlelight! It must have been beautiful. 

But! There was a big storm that night…. And suddenly, in the middle of the praying and singing, a gust of wind blew through the church and blew out everybody’s candles! Every single one! 

The church was in total darkness! Adults cried out. Children wept. The priest begged everyone to stay calm. 

Nobody had lighters or matches – they didn’t exist yet! 

But then, suddenly, there was light again. 

The candle that Cynethrith was holding had lit – all by itself. 

As if by magic. As if by a miracle. 

She shared that holy and mysterious flame to her neighbors, and the light spread until the whole church was lit up again. 

The lighting of Cynethrith’s candle was a sign of what her baby would become: Saint Dunstan, monk, friend of kings, founder of monasteries, and Archbishop of Canterbury, a leader who would share and spread Christ’s light in difficult times. 

And it was a sign of her own role as the mother of a saint, kindling God’s light in her son’s heart. 

Dunstan shined his light in the difficult times when he lived.

Just like Jesus says in our Song of Faith today: Be light! Be salt!  

This is part of a big sermon Jesus preached. 

We heard the beginning last week: A big crowd had gathered, so Jesus went up on a hill so people could see and hear him, and preached to the crowd. 

The people in that crowd weren’t rich or important or special.

They were ordinary people from the villages and countryside.

Matthew just told us that Jesus was healing people who were sick or disabled or hurt, so the crowd probably included a lot of people who were sick or disabled or hurt, and their loved ones. 

And Jesus starts his sermon off with a big surprise for everybody:

It’s not the people who are rich and important and special in their own eyes who are really on top of the world.

People who are grieving or struggling, people who feel hopeless, people who are full of frustration and yearning for a better world, people who take time to be kind instead of always pushing to get ahead, people who are bullied and bothered for doing what is right – those are the people who are especially held in God’s love.

Those are actually the people who really matter in the world, no matter how it might look on the surface.  

Then he goes on to tell this group of ordinary, unimportant people, including kids and old people and sick and disabled people and all kinds of folks – he tells them: 

You are the salt of the earth!

You are the light of the world! 

I want us to hear those words, that thing Jesus is telling us about ourselves – and I do think he’s speaking to us as well as that original crowd. 

What does it mean to be salt and light? 

Salt and light are both things where a little bit can make a big difference. 

Let’s start with salt. 

When food is flavored just right, it doesn’t just taste like salt, right?

Salt brings out the other flavors. It doesn’t dominate. 

But you can really tell the difference between food that has just the right amount of salt – or not enough – or too much! 

And this stuff Jesus says about salt losing its saltiness? 

That’s not a thing. Salt is very simple.  

It’s a sodium cation and a chloride anion. NaCl. It doesn’t go bad. 

There are two ways we can read what Jesus says here: 

Either he is surprisingly uninformed about salt,

Or he’s intentionally saying something that can’t happen. 

Like, if salt just refuses to be salt, then sure, it’s basically sand, and the best use for it is to scatter it on an icy spot. 

But it is salt’s nature to be salty.

Jesu says we can trust our God-given saltiness and just let ourselves get mixed in and spice up the world. 

A little salt can change and improve the flavor of the whole dish. 

And a room with one candle in it – or a sky with one star – is so different from total darkness. 

Who grew up with the song? 

“This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine!… 

Hide it under a bushel? NO! I’m going to let it shine!

Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine…”  

In my research this week I learned a fun fact.

Think about a lit candle in the dark. 

If you were in a wide open, dark space, and you turned around and started walking away from that candle, and looked back at it now and then, how far away do you think you could still see it? …. Two physicists studied this question, and they found that it’s about 1.6 miles. 

They did it by comparing it with the visibility of stars from earth! 

At about 1.6 miles, a candle flame is about the same brightness as some of the stars that we can just barely see from earth. 

1.6 miles is a lot farther than I would have guessed!

For those who know the local terrain: From here at St. Dunstan’s, it’s about 1.6 miles to the intersection of University Avenue and Whitney Way. 

Even a single candle can shine its light pretty far!…. 

In a commentary on today’s Gospel, The Salt Project says, “Like salt and light, God made you as a small thing that can make a big difference for a larger whole. God made you to spice things up — not to overpower the dish, but to enliven it… And likewise, God made you to shine, as only you can: a flame that can light up an entire room, or help guide a lost traveler home… But we do have to claim and embrace and live out these gifts. We do have to actually be salty and luminous…  [In the Sermon on the Mount,] Jesus does not say, Follow these instructions and you’ll be blessed.  Rather, he says, You are already blessed with gifts for blessing the world — so go and bless! Spice and shine!”

I love that. Spice and shine, dear ones!

But I want to explore one more thing before we move on. 

Light is one of the big themes of the season of Epiphany.

It’s in our songs and prayers and Scriptures all over the place. 

Over the past few years I have been trying to pay attention to how we talk about light – and especially how we talk about darkness. 

I read an article a couple of weeks ago by a Christian songwriter who’s been thinking about this too – Steve Thorngate. 

First, he lays out some of the tensions and complexities. 

He writes, “There is a long history in the church of using words like light, white, bright, and fair to [suggest] goodness in a straightforward way – and words like dark, black, shade, and dim to [mean] the opposite. Most instances… were not written for explicitly racist purposes (though some were). Still, this language has thrived alongside racism in White-dominated church contexts. And language—especially ritual language, repeated again and again—has great power among those who speak or hear it, [beyond] the intent of its creators. So there is a compelling case to simply avoid this whole family of descriptive language at church, [because] it can be and has been used to bolster White supremacy.” 

On the other hand, he says, “The Bible is chock-full of light/dark imagery, with much (though not all) of it presenting light as the positive side of the coin.”

Furthermore, he says, “[Light and dark] language, after all, is more than biblical: it’s elemental. It names a fundamental experience of all living things. The earth’s days and seasons are defined by the planet’s relationship with the sun’s rays…These cycles of darkness and light have shaped creatures, ecosystems, and communities across generations and continents, and the depth of this shared reality makes it a rich source for [Christian symbolic] language. This universal experience of time and of the created order… is fundamental to Christian [worship].” 

That’s an especially salient point here at Candlemas. 

You might know at least two other celebrations on February 2nd. 

Can anybody name one? … (Groundhog Day; Imbolc.)

February 2nd is important, is named and celebrated in all these ways, because it falls halfway between the winter solstice – the shortest day, the longest night – and the spring equinox, when the night and day are the same length; after that the days start to get longer than the nights.

So February 2nd is a human way of naming a planetary waypoint, a particular moment in the interaction of the Earth’s tilted turning in relation to the Sun. 

And we humans, observers and meaning-makers, have layered on all these feasts that are different ways of saying that we are yearning for light and spring and rebirth. 

Light and dark really do have this elemental, fundamental meaning. But that doesn’t free us from responsibility to be thoughtful in using this language, with its history of harm. 

Steve Thorngate writes that he has decided – for now – to keep using these images in his songs, but carefully, and with a few guidelines. 

For example: Think about what we mean when we talk about light. “Light can mean illumination, vision, transparency, openness, the revealing of secrets.” Those meanings stay close to the literal function of light. 

But let’s be careful about layering on more moral or value-laden meanings, like innocence, goodness, cleanness, purity. 

He also suggests that we be very cautious about using negative language for darkness – and look for opportunities to say positive things about darkness, too. He writes, “Fertile soil is dark. A dark sky without light pollution promotes healthy rest and… visibility. Secrets and mysteries aren’t always bad things.” 

And he urges us to work on broadening and diversifying the language and imagery we use in worship – the ways we talk about God and about our Christian vocation. 

I wonder what it would be like to spend a whole Epiphany exploring salt, instead of light? There would have to be lots of snacks!

Thorngate’s essay summed up a lot of things I’ve been thinking about – and I’ve been trying to follow similar guidelines for a while. But I am still thinking and wondering about it all. 

I invite you to think and wonder with me.

How we can use these images that are so central in our Scriptures and that are so natural to us as human beings who live on a planet that spins from dark to light, dark to light again; but also who live in a society with a deep and persistent history of sorting and ranking people based on their skin color, and using darkness to stand for ignorance or evil? 

I invite you to wonder and notice with me… and if you have ideas or questions or noticings, let’s talk about it. 




The Salt Project’s commentary on this Gospel:

About candle flames and distance:

Steve Thorngate on light and dark imagery:

Epiphany Pageant 2023 Gallery


Sermon, January 8

  1. About the Gospels.
    1. Start with basics; bear with me
      1. Bible – a collection of many kinds of texts spanning over a thousand years that, together, tell the story of God’s relationship with God’s people. 
      2. Old Testament – before Jesus, scripture we share with the Jews; New Testament – foundational texts of Christianity. 
      3. New Testament includes letters, sermons, prophetic texts, a chronicle of the early church, and four different accounts of the life, teaching, works, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. = Gospels. 
      4. Sunday lectionary (calendar of readings) – three of these get their own “year”. 
    2. Some folks find those many voices confounding. If all this Jesus stuff was real, why don’t we have one clear account of it? Why, instead, four, that differ on many details & some big stuff too? 
      1. I find the four voices of the Gospels very human, very real, and very reassuring. I’d go so far as to say that it’s one of the anchors of my faith. 
      2. An analogy for us: Imagine a funeral, or a gathering before or after. 
        1. People share memories, stories, what that person was like and what they meant to them. 
        2. Some things – big events, oft-repeated stories – will be told much the same by everyone, though perhaps some differences – how you understood that person, your relationship with them, your own personality and perspective. 
        3. Other memories or impressions aren’t shared as widely – part of someone’s particular relationship with the deceased, or an experience that only a couple of people shared. 
        4. When you put it all together, you get a sense of who that person was. But no one person has the whole picture. And often people’s impressions don’t all line up neatly. 
        5. If you asked four people to write down that person’s life, those four versions would be pretty different. 
      1. Now, in our funeral analogy, those four people probably all knew the deceased. It’s unclear whether any of our Gospel writers knew Jesus directly. 
        1. The Gospels seem to have been written down between thirty and sixty years after Jesus’ death. 
        2. But let me clear up a minor pet peeve. You might have heard that the life expectancy in Jesus’ time was around forty. That does not mean that people dropped dead at forty! 
          1. Numbers like that are an average that includes infant mortality, which was really really high right up to the mid-20th century. 
          2. Most people who survived early childhood might easily live to 55 or older; and many lived to seventy, eighty, or ninety. 
          3. Many of Jesus’ followers were younger than him. The Gospel writers seem to have used earlier written sources, now lost; but they could also easily have known people who did know Jesus and were present at the events they describe. 
          4. And talking with people with different memories and interpretations could be part of why the Gospels are different. 
  1. Let’s talk about the voices of the Gospels.
    1. Seminary exercise: read the first verse of all four Gospels – gives you a good sense of their voices and agendas. 
    2. Baptism of Jesus kind of does too. 
      1. It’s in all four, which doesn’t go without saying. 
      2. Look at your sheet. Vaguely chronological order, though Matthew and Luke may have been written around the same time, or Luke may be a little later than Matthew. 
        1. How John the Baptist is introduced, and whatever is said about Jesus’ actual baptism, in all four. (There’s more about John in all four, and there are interesting differences – but beyond our scope!) 
  2. First, and briefly: what is happening here? 
      1. John was a prophet and religious ascetic – meaning he chose simplicity and poverty – who hung out in the wilderness outside Jerusalem. He preached a message of metanoia, to use the Greek word. I dislike the translation of metanoia as “repentance”; it feels limiting to me. 
        1. Fave translator, David Bentley Hart: “a baptism of the heart’s transformation”; John: “Change your hearts, for the kingdom of the heavens has come near!” 
      2. Baptism – an adaptation of Jewish practices of ritual washing or bathing. Greek word baptizo just means to immerse or dunk. 
      3. There’s a whole thing about how John’s baptism was just a water baptism, but Christian baptism is with water and the Holy Spirit. That is important but we will not go down that rabbit hole today. 
      4. In all four Gospels, Jesus’ baptism by John is the beginning of his public ministry. Apart from the birth stories and one childhood story, he has been invisible for thirty years, presumably living an ordinary life and waiting for the right time. 
  1. MARK
    1. First written Gospel, perhaps as early as 66 – soon after the death of the apostle Paul, whose letters are our earliest window into the beliefs and life of the early church. 
    2. (When we say 66, by the way, the Zero that we’re counting from is in theory the year Jesus was born. And he would have died around the year 33, give or take.) 
    3. Mark dives right into the story – Jesus is baptized by John in the ninth verse – the sixth sentence – of his Gospel. 
    4. Jesus is coming from Nazareth of Galilee – his hometown and region. About 30 miles to the Jordan River, depending on where exactly John was baptizing. Not just a casual day trip, or stopping by on his way somewhere else. 
    5. As he is baptized, Jesus has a vision, hears a voice: “YOU ARE my Son, the Beloved.” Affirmation and comfort. And then – immediately – the divine Spirit drives him into the wilderness. We get that story at the beginning of Lent, late in February!
    6. What’s Markan about it? Brisk, clear, no nonsense. Purposeful. It happens and the story moves on. 
    1. Matthew and Luke both knew Mark’s Gospel and used it as a source. 
    2. Matthew follows Mark pretty closely here, but adds this dialogue between John and Jesus: “John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’ Then John consented.”
      1. Maybe this happened; maybe Matthew is capturing the testimony of an eyewitness that Mark didn’t have.
      2. But maybe Matthew adds this to address a discomfort that all the Gospels besides Mark seem to share. 
        1. Why would Jesus, God’s Son, the Beloved, need this weird wilderness preacher to shove him down in the water of this muddy river, as a sign of repentance? 
        1. Furthermore: There are hints in the Gospels that John had followers, disciples, and that his movement continued at least for a while beyond his death – which probably happened just a few months after Jesus’ baptism. 
          1. Some of John’s followers came to follow Jesus instead, but others may have felt like John was the real deal. The fact that Jesus came to John for baptism could seem to seal their guy’s position. 
        2. Jesus’ answer in Matthew is vague: Let it be so, to fulfill all righteousness. Okay, boss. John does as he is told. And again, Jesus has a vision – heavens open, dove-like Spirit, voice. 
          1. But this time the voice says, THIS IS my Son, the Beloved. Not YOU ARE. Implies a broader audience – not just Jesus hearing, but others receiving this revelation of Jesus’ true identity. 
      1. What’s Matthean about this? Not the most distinctive; John calling people a brood of vipers, a few verses earlier, is more on brand. 
        1. Emphasis on fulfillment – though usually Matthew has a specific passage from the Hebrew Bible that he describes Jesus as fulfilling. 
  1. LUKE
    1. Luke does not actually describe John baptizing Jesus. He says, “When all the people had been baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized…” I think that’s how Luke manifests his discomfort about this baptism – by kind of rushing past it. 
      1. Again, the heavens open, there’s a dove, there’s a voice. But this isn’t just Jesus’ vision anymore – the words “he saw” drop out. And the Holy Spirit descends IN BODILY FORM like a dove. Maybe Luke is trying to make sense of Mark’s metaphorical language and decides there must have been an ACTUAL REAL HOLY DOVE. 
      2. What’s Lukan about this? 
        1. “John son of Zechariah” – Luke is the Gospel that gives John a backstory. 
        2. Also: Luke doing this very Lukan thing of naming a bunch of government officials. He likes historical details, though he sometimes gets them wrong, and he likes contrasting the big global-empire scale stuff with the very local events he’s describing, which secretly have cosmic significance. 
  2. JOHN
    1. Confusing that this is another John. And the John of Revelation is yet another John. What can you do? 
    2. John’s language is cosmic and poetic right from the start. The first verse of his Gospel is, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” That sets the tone! 
    3. What’s Johannine – John-ish – about this? Lots. 
      1. One of John’s themes: bearing witness. The role of the Church and her members – to bear witness or testify to what we have seen and experienced, and how God has acted in our lives. 
      2. John describes the Baptist’s mission: to testify to the Light, which is Jesus.
        1. Luke’s birth story for John the Baptist has a similar upshot – he is destined from before his birth to prepare the way for God’s Messiah. This is just John’s very Johannine way of saying the same thing. 
      3. John goes a step further than Luke and doesn’t “show” Jesus’ baptism at all; it happens offscreen, so to speak. 
        1. This is another John thing. I think John – the latest-written Gospel – assumes people have read one of the others and know the basic plot. So sometimes he doesn’t tell about the big events, but comments on them instead.
        2. The biggest example: the Last Supper. John’s Jesus has a long farewell speech that evening, but he does not describe the meal itself. He assumes you know. 
        3. Here – John’s John the Baptist tells about baptizing Jesus, bears witness to what he has seen and heard:  God’s Spirit descending on Jesus, marking him as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
    4. So there we have it. The baptism of Jesus, the beginning of his public ministry, refracted through the lenses of four different Gospel voices. 
  1. VIII. The baptism of Christ – the Gospel event that the church always celebrates on the first Sunday of the season of Epiphany – raises a kind of riddle for the church. Jesus was baptized; Jesus told his followers to baptize people; but Jesus did not baptize people. Why not?
    1. One possibility: Jesus’ insight into how best to build his movement. In the early phases, you just need people to follow and listen and spread the word. 
      1. It’s later in the process of movement-building and eventually institution-building that you need a boundary rite, something to mark who’s fully committed, and who’s an outsider or inquirer.
    2. Second – there’s a cranky bit in one of Paul’s letters where it sounds like people are arguing about who’s most important, based on who baptized them. (Paul is disgusted and wants none of it.) 
      1. I can imagine that Jesus knew that kind of thing would happen, and that it would be counter to his hopes for equity and mutual service within the church. 
      2. He never baptized anyone so that there could not be people who would try to set themselves apart as having been baptized by Christ himself. 
    3. I think those are both good reasons. But it’s completely possible that there are other reasons we cannot know. It’s definitely on my list of questions to ask someday!
  2. What our baptism, the church’s practice of baptism, means for US is another sermon, or several. But let’s wonder briefly what Jesus’ baptism means to us. Why DID Jesus need – or choose – to be baptized by John? As John says in Matthew: Why are you coming to me? 
    1. There’s much of mystery here too – no clear or complete answers on this side of things. But when I put these four accounts side by side, I noticed something I hadn’t thought about before.
      1. In three of the Gospels, Jesus’ baptism follows some kind of birth story. 
        1. Luke has the one we all know best, with Caesar Augustus and the stable and the shepherds. 
        2. Matthew has the angel telling Joseph in a dream that he should take Mary as his wife despite her mysterious pregnancy; and he has the wise men, the astrologers, who come to visit the child, and King Herod trying to kill him, forcing the family to flee. 
        3. John’s birth story is very different, but it’s there. He names Jesus as the Word, and the Light; he tells us that from the beginning of everything, Jesus was with God, and was God. And then in the fulness of time, the true Light came into the world; the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. 
        4. And then there’s Mark. The only thing Mark says about where Jesus comes from is Nazareth. There is no birth story in Mark.
      2. Or is there? 
        1. When I’m talking with families about baptism, I like to say that baptism is, among other things, a symbolic birth. There’s water and mess and crying and joy and naming and welcome. 
        1. What if Jesus’ baptism is Mark’s birth story? 
          1. There is water, and there is rending open.  
          2. There is naming, and beginning. 
          3. There is a Voice crying out with joy: My Son! I am delighted with you! 
        2. I like thinking of Jesus’ baptism as another birth story. It helps ease the sudden jump in the church’s calendar from the babe in the manger to the full-grown man standing in the river. 
      1. Just as the other Gospels tell us that God chose to be born among us as a baby, Mark tells us that God chose to join that crowd gathered by the Jordan – the desperate, the confused, the curious, the skeptical, dusty and poor and weary and wary.  God chose to join that crowd, and then to step out from among them, and into the waters, to be born among us and for us. Amen.