Category Archives: Church Seasons & Holy Days

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! 

Amen. 

 

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

https://medievaleurope.mrdonn.org/monks.html

A nice abbreviated overview of the Rule of Benedict: 

http://snowmassmonks.com/abbreviated-rule.html

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. 

 

 

SOURCES

The Salt Project’s commentary on this Gospel: 

https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2020/2/3/salt-and-light-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-epiphany-5

About candle flames and distance:

https://www.technologyreview.com/2015/07/31/72658/how-far-can-the-human-eye-see-a-candle-flame/

Steve Thorngate on light and dark imagery:

https://www.christiancentury.org/article/features/should-we-avoid-liturgical-language-light-and-dark

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
    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. 

Sermon, Christmas Eve, 4:30 & 9PM

A few months ago I stumbled on a book called “A Church Year-Book of Social Justice,” for the year 1919 to 1920. It was compiled by the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross, a spiritual community of lay and ordained women in the Episcopal Church. 

The book has a short reading for each day of the church year, exploring Christian thinking over the centuries and how it relates to “the great principles of social justice which preoccupy our own time.” 

As an Advent practice this year, I started posting the readings for each day on Facebook. That drew me into pondering what our siblings in faith were thinking and talking about, just over a century ago. 

1919 was a tough year. 

World War I had just ended – a shocking, brutal disruption. 

A deadly influenza pandemic closely followed the war, killing many children, healthy young adults and elders.

And then there were the ongoing struggles of poverty and unregulated industrial development. 

Upton Sinclair published his expose of the meat industry, The Jungle, in 1906.  

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, which killed 146 garment workers, was in 1911. 

The West Virginia Mine Wars, a series of violent clashes as mine workers struggled to organize for safer working conditions, began in 1912. 

There were big reasons that social justice was on the hearts and minds of people of faith and conscience in 1919. 

As I’ve posted readings from the Yearbook day by day for the past month, I’ve noticed that some don’t resonate – don’t “hold up.” But other passages have given me a vivid sense of standing with these siblings in faith a century ago. 

W. E. Orchard wrote: “In the anguish of the hour, when kingdoms are rocking to their base, the social structure of modern civilization is strained to the breaking point, and all hearts are full of fear…”

Who’s felt like that at some moment in the past few years?… 

In this era of climate change and the overwhelm of capitalism’s excesses, I feel like this text may be MORE relevant to us than it was when John Ruskin first wrote it in 1917: 

“Think you that judgment waits till the doors of the grave are opened? … The insects that we crush are our judges, the moments we fret away are our judges, the elements that feed us judge as they minister, and the pleasures that deceive us judge as they indulge.”

And then there’s this, from the great preacher Phillips Brooks: 

“The real question everywhere is whether the world, distracted and confused as everybody sees that it is, is going to be patched up and restored to what it used to be – or whether it is going forward into a quite new and different kind of life, whose exact nature nobody can pretend to foretell, but which is to be distinctly new, unlike the life of any age which the world has seen already… It is impossible that the old conditions, so shaken and broken, can ever be repaired and stand just as they stood before. The time has come when something more than mere repair and restoration of the old is necessary. The old must die and a new must come forth out of its tomb.”

I resonate with every word of that passage. 

One day, when I posted some particularly salient snippet to Facebook, I asked: Is it comforting or disconcerting to know that people living a century ago also felt like civilization was strained to the breaking point? 

And some wise soul replied: Both. 

It’s comforting not to be alone with these feelings, to have the bold and hopeful and urgent words of these siblings in faith to encourage us. 

It’s comforting to know that humanity survived another century despite it all, and that some of the great challenges they faced are actually better now, thanks in part to the efforts of bold reformers who worked and fought for change. 

But it’s also disconcerting, the resonance of these texts with our present moment. 

The 20th century is hardly a consoling tale.

We know some of the costs and struggles to come. 

The Depression. Another world war, atomic weapons, the Holocaust. 

The bitter social strife, as well as the important legislative strides, of the 1960s. 

The recognition of environmental degradation in the 1970s. 

The rapid increase in economic inequality and incarceration in the 1980s and 1990s.

Knowing that companions in faith a century ago also felt like their whole way of life was coming apart at the seams is no reassurance that our way of life is not coming apart at the seams. 

Dwelling with the 1919 Yearbook has made me think about time. 

We tend to think of time as a line that we’re moving along, in one direction. 

For example, we would draw the events I just named as tick marks along an arrow from 1900 towards 2000 and beyond. 

The Church brings another way of thinking about time alongside linear, historical time. 

Church time is all circles and cycles. Turning and returning. 

In the church’s time, it isn’t Christmas again; it’s just Christmas.

This Feast of the Incarnation is every Feast of the Incarnation.

[The Eucharist we will celebrate tonight is every Eucharist.]

We’re not recreating or re-enacting something.

We’re returning to something that has always been waiting for us. 

These are moments when we step into holy time, and meet the Divine present in our world in immediate and tangible ways. 

Thinking about the Yearbook from that perspective: It’s not just that people 100 years ago felt and thought similar things to what we might be feeling and thinking.

It’s that we’re all living Advent together. 

Brooks and Ruskin and the others are not just forebears but companions in this season of holy anticipation. 

Let me take this one step further. 

There’s everyday historical linear time and there’s the church’s cyclical time that returns and returns again. 

And then there’s God’s time.

Jesus, the baby we welcome tonight, when he grows up, will talk a lot about time. 

He will talk about two Ages, or Aeons, or Epochs, or Dispensations, or whatever fancy word you want to use for something we aren’t really equipped to comprehend. 

There’s the present Age, this messy ordinary world with all its problems; and then there’s the Age to Come, the Age of the Kingdom of God. 

The Age to Come is mysterious, distant, not yet fulfilled; and yet it’s not so far away that it’s irrelevant. 

It is, somehow, already dawning, already unfolding, within reach in small shimmering moments, in hopeful possibilities, in the thin places where grace breaks through. 

This kind of time isn’t linear time and it isn’t cyclical time. 

It’s more like, I don’t know, the before and after of a really good dream home makeover show: The way things are and the way things could be, transformed towards beauty and joy and wholeness.

In terms of the Present Age and the Age to Come, we are in the exact same Before situation not only as our early 20th century siblings from the Yearbook, but as Jesus’ first followers. 

We’re all watching and waiting and working for the coming of the Kingdom of God.

We’re all yearning for God’s great intervention in the confusion, struggle and suffering of our times.

Advent – the four-week church season that ended when the Feast of the Incarnation began at sunset this evening – Advent is a season of double anticipation. 

We anticipate Christmas; but we also anticipate the fulfillment of God’s purposes for the world. 

That holy After when Christ will return to earth and that new Age we have been taught to hope for will come to fruition. 

The theologian Fleming Rutledge writes, “In Advent, we don’t [just] pretend, as I once thought, that we are in the darkness before the birth of Christ. Rather, we take a good hard look at the darkness we are in now, facing and defining it honestly, so that we will understand with utmost clarity that our great and only hope is in Jesus’s final victorious coming.”

In Advent we pray, again and again, for the dawning of that new Age. It’s woven through our liturgies and hymns: our longing for God’s rescue, restoration, renewal. 

When we cry Come, Lord Jesus! in Advent we’re not just talking about the baby in the manger, although he is very nice indeed. 

We are praying for the end of the world, friends. 

At least, the end of the world as it is, and the beginning, in Brooks’ words, of a “quite new and different kind of life.” 

For something more than mere repair and restoration; 

For the old to die, and the new to rise up from the tomb. 

And yet when we arrive at Christmas – when we enter holy time to gather in wonder around the manger, gazing at that surprising, ordinary, luminescent child – when Christmas comes, we tend to let that second layer of our anticipation drop away. 

We act like what we were waiting for, has arrived.

And then – even if we have a really good, lovely Christmas – there will be a moment, tomorrow or Tuesday or next week, when we think, “Well, Christmas came, but we still have all the same problems. I guess all that praying and hoping and expecting didn’t really amount to anything.” 

Instead of faithful, joyful and triumphant, we may feel uncertain, weary and discouraged.

What I need from Christmas this year, and therefore what I’m offering you – because preachers are always preaching first to themselves, beloveds – is the reminder that God coming among us in love and mercy and fury is not a once-long-ago thing, friends.

It is always and it is already and it is not yet.

It is still and it is someday and it is surrounding us right now. 

We live in the world’s time, the relentless onward march of history, dates and events, wars and elections and pandemics, birthdays and graduations and deaths. 

We live in the church’s time, holy rhythms that circle and cycle and always bring us back to sacred moments and pivot points.

And we live in God’s time, as people of expectation, who know that things are not as they are meant to be. 

As people whose hopes and imaginations reach beyond the satisfactions and struggles of our present moment. 

People who believe that another world is not just possible, she is on her way. (Arundhati Roy)

And that our purposeful acts of mercy, courage, justice and generosity can help pave the path for her arrival. 

And sometimes our biggest fight is with the powers and principalities of the world as it is, and sometimes our biggest fight is within ourselves: with our own inner resignation to the broken reality around us, our honest skepticism that better is possible. 

What I want from Christmas this year as its gift to all of us is a profound sense of sacred incompleteness. 

The knowledge that what we’ve been waiting and yearning for is not here yet, and that it’s safe to say that out loud, to name that a lot of stuff still seems real bad, even on Christmas Eve.

And the knowledge, planted deep in our hearts, that the gulf between this Age and the Age to Come, between our long Before and God’s After, is itself a holy space, a space of promise. 

A space of darkness and unknowing and possibility. 

A space of birth. 

May it be so.

Amen.

Sermon, Christmas Eve, 3PM

This is a story about big and small. 

God is big. 

Not big like a whale or a tall building or the ocean. 

Big like you can’t even find the edges, where God begins and ends. 

Big like you can’t find the beginning when God wasn’t yet. 

Big like everywhere, like always. 

God is so big that nobody is more or less important to God.

God can know and love each star and every dog. 

God knows how many hairs are on your head, and still has time to be present with a parent grieving in Ukraine and an elephant giving birth in Botswana. 

God is big. 

But a baby is small. 

Who’s seen a newborn baby?

Who has held one? … 

They’re pretty small, right? 

Small and floppy and helpless. 

The heart of this story, the story we tell today, the reason it’s important, is this:

God who is big, SO big, became as small as a newborn baby. And why? To come close to us. 

It’s a big mystery, a strange thing to think about! 

It’s the kind of thing that is easier to talk about with poems and music and art, than to explain it like a lesson at school.

Let’s talk a little more about big and little. Let’s do a quiz.

Is an elephant big or little?

Is a chipmunk big or little? 

Is an ocean big or little?

Is a puddle big or little? 

Is ice cream big or little? 

Is a star big or little?

Is dawn big or little?

Is a sprouting seed big or little?… 

Has anybody ever grown a seed & watched it sprout? 

I learned something interesting a couple of weeks ago. 

The Bible wasn’t written in English. English didn’t exist yet! 

Parts of it were written in a language called Hebrew, and parts of it were written in a language called Greek.

And in Greek, there’s a word that can mean two things: 

It can mean dawn, sunrise. When the sun comes over the horizon and starts to light up the whole sky and everything under the sky.

Did we decide dawn is little or big? 

That Greek word can also mean a seed sprouting, breaking through the ground to stick up a tiny green sprout.

Did we decide that a sprouting seed is little or big? …

It says in the Bible that Jesus’ birth is like a kind of dawn.

Like the sun rising on people who have been sitting and waiting in the dark for so, so long.

And maybe Jesus’ birth is also like a sprouting seed. Like life springing up where you couldn’t see anything alive, before…

Dawn is big and a sprouting seed is tiny, but they can both be held in the same word. Pretty cool! 

The thing about dawn and a sprouting seed is that they both make you think things are going to keep happening, right?

Dawn is just the very very beginning of morning, of a new day.

And a sprouting seed is the very, very beginning of a plant. Maybe of a field, or a garden, or a forest. Who knows? 

There are so many things a sprouting seed could become.

You have to keep watching and pay attention and find out. 

In the Christmas story, when God is born as a human baby, God comes to us as something very small. 

But that’s not the only way God shows up in the little things. 

When we read the Bible and listen to the Spirit and learn from the saints and wise ones of the faith, we learn about God’s purposes, God’s intentions, how God means things to be.

Things like kindness and peace, justice and making things right, healing what hurts, building better ways and worlds, helping people have enough, helping people be their real true selves. 

When we watch and pay attention, we might notice the small ways God is nudging those things along.

And we might notice the little ways we have a chance to join in and help move the world towards kindness and justice. 

Like putting out food for the birds when it’s snowy. 

Or listening to someone who’s struggling. 

Or sharing with people who don’t have enough.

Or writing a letter to a leader to ask them to do the right thing. 

We need some big changes, too; we all now that.

But it’s important to tend to the little things.

Little things can be beginnings. 

Little things can add up.

Little things can matter in big ways. 

I like to give people a gift on Christmas Eve. My gift this year is to help you remember to tend to little things. 

It’s a little box, and inside is an even littler baby Jesus. … 

Sermon, Dec. 4

The readings for today, the second Sunday in Advent, call us to attend to the relationship between Christians, Jews and Judaism. 

While perhaps not as loaded as Holy Week, Advent and Christmas raise these questions too: do we think Jesus fulfilled Judaism, completely and finally?  If so, do we see Jews as irrelevant, spiritually extinct? And if we don’t think that: Are we using language in church that suggests that we do? 

These questions matter. The consequences range from the kind of causal Christian cultural supremacy that results in public school classrooms being decorated for Christmas – to the kind of violence that means synagogues routinely hire armed guards to watch their doors during worship. And that my rabbi colleagues are still tending to the pastoral needs of families shattered across generations by the experience of the Holocaust. 

Today each of our Scripture readings raise questions of how Christians think about Judaism – in three different ways. We’ll start with our Gospel reading, from Matthew. 

In our 3 year cycle of Sunday Scripture readings, which we share with many churches, we have readings from one primary gospel each year – with chunks of John, the fourth gospel, scattered all around. We just started a new church year on the first Sunday in Advent, last week; and our gospel for this year is Matthew. 

Let me confess right now: Matthew is my least favorite Gospel – in part because of his often violent and frightening language. 

Why is Matthew like this? About thirty years after Jesus’ death, in the year 66, some of the Jews of Judea began to rebel against Roman colonial rule. The rebels never really had a chance against Rome’s military might, and the revolt quickly turned bloody. Rome crushed the rebels and burned Jerusalem. The Great Temple was destroyed. Many people died; many lost everything. 

This earth-shaking event profoundly shaped both Christianity and Judaism, from that moment onward. All the Gospels are marked by it – but perhaps Matthew most of all. His Gospel text boils over at times with his grief and rage. He seems to blame the Jewish leadership for what happened – feeling that it’s their rejection of Jesus that brought down this destruction, rather than the predictable eruption of the tensions inherent in colonial rule always and everywhere.

Turning to today’s passage: Matthew introduces John the Baptist. The Gospels are pretty consistent in their picture of John: A preacher who separated himself from society to live in the wilderness, wearing simple clothes he made himself and eating what he could find, and proclaiming that people need to change their hearts and their lives and turn back towards God and God’s ways – and to be baptized, a ritual washing, in the Jordan River. 

To all that, Matthew adds this angry speech against the Pharisees and the Sadducees. We know this is Matthew, because later, in chapter 12 and again in chapter 23, Matthew’s Jesus says almost the exact same thing, calling groups of Pharisees and Sadducees “brood of vipers” and yelling at them: “How can you speak good things, when you are evil?” And “how can you escape being sentenced to hell?” Those passages are NOT echoed in the other Gospels. 

Who were the Pharisees and the Sadducees? The Pharisees were a reform movement within Judaism at the time of Jesus, focused primarily on the common people. The Sadducees were an elite and privileged group who more or less ran the Great Temple in Jerusalem. The Pharisees and Sadducees would not have been natural friends; I suspect it’s Matthew throwing them together as enemies of Christianity in his eyes. 

Far too much of Matthew’s hatred of these groups seeped into Christianity as a general suspicion and hatred towards Jews – which in turn has spawned unimaginable violence. I read this passage with pain and repentance. 

It’s ours, but it’s not comfortable, and it shouldn’t be. 

Then there’s our Epistle – a portion of the apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, written in the late 50s. Paul is writing here to the Christians of Rome, who included both Jewish and non-Jewish Christians, and he’s trying to help them respect one another and get along.

Before he became a Christian, Paul was not just any Jew. He had studied Jewish texts and scholarship deeply. He had become a Pharisee, a member of that reform movement that sought to spread more active and heartfelt Jewish practice among the folk of Judea. He was an up and coming young Jewish leader, when Jesus called his name and changed his life on the road to Damascus. 

Scholars have wondered, over the centuries, what to make of the fact that Paul was a Roman citizen, as we learn in the book of Acts. Maybe one of his parents was a Roman. Maybe his family was gifted citizenship, a major privilege, as thanks for service to the Empire. 

Either way, perhaps young Paul threw himself into his Jewish faith as a way to resolve the tensions of divided allegiances, of having ties to both subjects and empire. And perhaps it’s by growing up both Roman and Jew that Paul learned some of the skills of both/and living. Of holding ambiguities within yourself; of finding the value in different worlds and ways – even when they seem at odds. 

That’s the wisdom that Paul brings to this letter to the church in Rome, as he urges Jewish and non-Jewish Christians to welcome one another just as Christ has welcomed them. In today’s passage, he is trying to help the Jewish members of the Roman church see that it’s right and joyful! for God’s saving work to extend to non-Jews – without their having to first convert to Judaism. He quotes a series of texts from the Old Testament, the Jewish Scriptures, that mention God’s intentions to also bring Gentiles – the nations, the goyim – into God’s saving purposes. 

A few chapters earlier he was urging Gentiles, in turn, to feel humbled and grateful for being grafted onto the living tree of God’s covenant people, the Jews. 

He concludes this passage with this beautiful prayer for the Roman Christian community in its diversity: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

Paul is dealing here specifically with Jews who have become Christian, like himself. But Paul’s attitude towards Judaism is nuanced and interesting. He knows that he was called to something different – something more; but he honors the beauty and integrity of what he came from. He’d like other Jews to become Christians too, but I think he’d also like to see Christianity stay pretty Jewish. 

It’s complicated! But I do think a truly Pauline Christianity would have a much more open and humble heart towards Judaism than historical Christianity has had. 

For Matthew, Christianity fulfills Jewish faith – and leaves Jews behind. For Paul, it’s less clear: he loves his Jewish heritage and kin, but feels called to a new way of faith beyond Judaism.

Who’s right about God and salvation: Jews or Christians? What if it’s not up to us to decide – or even to know? 

One of the texts Paul quotes is today’s Isaiah passage: “The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.”

Back in Lent of this past year, Father Tom McAlpine led us in a study of how Christians read the book of Isaiah. We were looking specifically at a set of texts from much later in Isaiah, known as the Suffering Servant songs. Today’s passage is somewhat different – focusing on a wise and righteous leader who will bring peace to God’s people – but it raises similar questions. 

Historically, the prophet Isaiah and his eighth-century-before-Christ audience probably thought this prophecy was about King Hezekiah of Judah. Hezekiah was a young king who called his people back to exclusive and faithful worship of God.  But it’s the nature of prophetic language not to be fulfilled or exhausted by any given historical figure or event. Hezekiah did big things – but his reign did not usher in a cosmic realm of peace. It’s possible to see elements of a prophecy fulfilled, while other parts still hang in the air, waiting and shining. 

This text is here, in our Advent lectionary, because Christians have assumed for millennia that it’s about Jesus. That he is the “shoot of Jesse” – meaning, a descendant of Israel’s great king David, whose father was named Jesse. 

Now, Matthew and Luke both make a point of the fact that Jesus is born into a family with links to King David. But listen: David lived in Judea a thousand years before Jesus. And he had a lot of kids. By sheer dint of math and time, a heck of a lot of Judeans could have claimed Davidic ancestry by the time Jesus was born. 

It’s so, so hard for us not to read these Old Testament texts backwards from Christianity, as as inevitably and exclusively pointing to Jesus. In Father Tom’s class we kept tripping over that, how deeply-seated our impulse was to read these texts and think: “Well, this is obviously about Jesus; how could it not be? What else could it possibly mean?”

Texts from the Old Testament, and especially from Isaiah, shaped the language and hopes of the Jewish people for centuries. The way they thought and spoke about a coming Messiah, a holy leader sent by God to save and restore God’s people. And these texts likewise shaped the ideas and language of the first Christians, especially those steeped in the Hebrew Bible – like Matthew, like Paul. They used Isaiah and other Hebrew Scriptures to help them make sense of what they had experienced in Jesus’ life and ministry, and in his death and resurrection. 

We think we recognize Jesus in these Old Testament texts because how Christians think and talk about Jesus has been shaped by these Old Testament texts, literally from day one. 

I would rather say that everybody’s right than that everybody’s wrong. And I think that’s more faithful to the mystery of how holy texts can speak and speak again in new times and places. 

This passage is about Hezekiah and it’s about Jesus and it’s about the promised Messiah whom our Jewish siblings still await and it’s about the second coming of Christ that we still await. 

What passages like this tell us about God’s purposes for Israel and for the world can help us understand the person and work of Jesus. We can rightly treasure these texts as Christians. But we need to hold them carefully, with an awareness that they don’t only belong to us. 

At the Beth Israel Center across town, when my friend Betsy’s congregation opens the ark where the scrolls of Scripture are kept, and take out the scroll of the Nevi’im, the Prophets, and remove its silver end caps and its embroidered velvet cover and unroll it on the altar and chant it aloud in Hebrew – Isaiah’s words resonate differently in that space than they do here. 

Not entirely differently, to be sure. But importantly differently. And some of the difference is history and humanity – and some of it is holiness and mystery. 

It’s important for Christians to grapple with the anti-Judaism embedded in our history, our texts, our practices. Good citizenship and good ally-ship are part of our call to love our neighbors and serve the common good. 

But for me there’s something more here too – something a little hard to put my finger on, but I’ll try.

I find a sense of joy and freedom and possibility in the idea that God’s saving purposes are bigger and broader and honestly messier than any human mapping. We can’t pin down the meanings of ancient prophecy, or the mechanics of salvation, to fit within our categories of belonging and belief, doctrine and truth. 

This is one of the fundamental themes of Advent: The God who came among us as Jesus of Nazareth is coming again. 

We are people of expectation.

People called to expect mystery.

To expect disruption. 

To expect redemption. 

To expect, someday, whether in this world or the next, to come face to face with the Living One who both fulfills and transcends all our scriptures and theologies.  

May it be so. Come, Lord Jesus.