Category Archives: Church Seasons & Holy Days

Sermon, June 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(from his memoir No Future Without Forgiveness) 

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

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

Except that there’s this pandemic going on.

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

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

No man is an island. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some sources… 

Basil and bad Trinity math: 

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

Gregory of Nyssa:

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

BuzzFeed piece:

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

99 Percent Invisible, Episode 401: The Natural Experiment –

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

A starting point on the contagion of altruism – 

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

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

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

Homily, May 17

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

Wonder together some: 

What was your favorite part?…

What was the most important part? … 

Let’s look at an image of Dunstan together. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holy Week Homilies

HOLY WEEK HOMILIES for Worshiping in Place

The Rev. Miranda Hassett, St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church, Madison, WI 

Maundy Thursday – Homily for the Anointing of Hands

So, let’s talk about footwashing. That’s usually the “special thing” we do tonight. Footwashing was a significant gesture of service in the ancient Near East, because people’s feet needed care. My daughter and I recently read an article about Roman sewers that contained this line:  “The streets of a Roman city would have been cluttered with dung, vomit, [human waste], garbage, filthy water, rotting vegetables, animal skins and guts, and other refuse from various shops that lined the sidewalks. 

Feet were dirty. And because people mostly wore sandals, feet also took a beating – dry & cracked, often small cuts or injuries. Tending someone’s feet was a real act of humility – usually for those of lowly stature, considering what you’d be washing off. That’s why Peter resists it – he doesn’t want Jesus, his honored friend and teacher, to do this for him. But Jesus says, I need to do this. Because foot washing was a true act of service. Imagine how good it would feel to have your dirty, beaten-up feet gently washed & dried & perhaps anointed with some balm or oil. 

I think foot washing as a church custom is really holy and precious. Even though the context has changed a lot – our streets are pretty clean, and we mostly wear shoes – it’s still powerful and intimate and humbling. But it’s also pretty hard to do as part of a Zoom liturgy. It takes time; it takes setup; it excludes those who are joining us on their own. I encourage you, if you’d like, to wash your feet or one another’s feet after the end of our service tonight, perhaps as kind of a bedtime ritual. It’s a tender, holy gesture.

But what we will do now, as we are gathered, is something different – but I think it’s a fair analogue, for this year, this moment in the life of the world. I’m going to invite you to anoint your hands. Or if you’re here with others, to anoint one another’s hands. Don’t start yet! I’m still talking! 

Anointing hands is different from washing feet. Feet were dirty, and had shameful cultural connotations. Hands are not seen as shameful in our culture, and our hands are all probably REALLY clean. But they may also be dry. Sore. Chapped or cracked. Our hands are bearing the burden of our carefulness. 

In Matthew’s Gospel, almost the last thing that happens before the Last Supper, is that a woman anoints Jesus with scented oil. It’s a gesture of honor – something you do for somebody special – and also a gesture of care. 

So let’s carry all that into this gesture of anointing our hands. Make it a mediation, a sacred pause. Whether you’re tending your own hands or someone else’s… take your time. Be gentle. Be thorough. Thank these hands for their work. Thank them for what they are sacrificing every day, by being washed and washed again until they are dry and scratchy and maybe painful. Thank them for helping keep you safe; helping keep your loved ones safe; helping keep everyone safe. 

There’s a simple prayer you can say – to yourself or to whomever’s hands you are anointing: [Name], I anoint your hands in the name of the One who made you, loves you, and sustains you. 

 

Maundy Thursday – Homily for the Stripping of the Altar 

Let’s remember what we usually do at this time… and describe it for people who haven’t seen it at St. Dunstan’s before.… 

One of the things we do is empty the tabernacle and take the consecrated bread and wine to the Altar of Repose. It’s a place we set aside holy things that we aren’t going to use for a while. Usually a pretty short while – Thursday evening to Saturday evening!

I was talking about Maundy Thursday with a friend, Michael, and she said: Maundy Thursday, and specifically the stripping of the altar, is going to be hard this year because so many people are living through that experience of having things stripped away from them. When we are putting away beautiful, special things that give us delight, Michael said, people will look at that this year and think, That’s not just a symbol. That’s my life. 

Dear ones: What we are doing now is hard, and costly, and important. This thing we are doing together, that’s making us worship through computer screens – It may help keep us safer – my household, your household. That’s certainly one big goal. But It is definitely helping keep our whole community safer. 

It’s hard for us to to see it, but the people who are modeling this epidemic tell us there’s a really direct line between our setting aside all these things for a season, our self-isolation – what a weighty phrase – and saving lives. Lives of people we may know but also lives of people we don’t, because we are all in a web of connection, in ways we maybe didn’t think about a lot before coronavirus. You’ll never know the names of the people who are alive in June because of what you are setting aside right now. But they have names, and lives, and people who love them. 

Staying home, minimizing our contact with others and the outside world, is one of the most Christlike things we may be called upon to do. 

So in few minutes I will strip our symbolic altar. But first, I’d like to take some time for you to create your own Altar of Repose for the things you have set aside for this season. There’s a fancy word for this – renunciation. Things set aside or stop doing for a reason. We have been asked and told to stay home – but we still have a choice about whether & how fully we comply. We do have agency, and we’re using it. 

Take your pens & slips of paper & write or draw some of the things you’re NOT doing right now… your renunciations. Some of the things we miss & are longing to return to. Please include the things that feel trivial, like stopping by a favorite coffeeshop or petting your neighbor’s dog when you meet on a walk! You can just write a word or two;  you’ll know what you mean. Then gather all those slips into your envelope or special container, and set them aside in some special place. We are setting aside beautiful things, lovely things, things that delight and fulfill us. But we will bring them forth again, when the time is right. We will. 

 

Good Friday Homily

This liturgy is hard because it leans into suffering, loss, struggle, and death. This year we are all in that together in a (I hope) unique way. It’s humbling for me as a pastor because I know that Good Friday always hits some people hard. Maybe every year; maybe only in some particular year – it’s all just too close to the bone, this story of betrayal, abuse, indifference, despair, and a lonely, brutal death. 

This year it’s close to the bone for all of us, collectively. And that is strange and raw and hard and holy. This is a day to acknowledge grief at suffering and loss. It’s also a day when the Church says two bold, insistent things: You’re never alone; and death is not the end of the story. You’re never alone because in Jesus Christ, God entered into human experience, even into its darkest depths. God can always find us there, walk with us there. 

My prayer for people in times of profound struggle or pain is not that God will be with them – I believe deeply that God is always as near as our next breath – but that they may have a clear and present sense of God’s presence with them. 

The other thing the church says on Good Friday is that death is not the end of the story. But we mostly say that by saying: Come back tomorrow. This is not the final chapter – as final as those last verses may sound. So: Come back tomorrow. Easter is still coming. 

This is also a day to acknowledge anger. Anger at our common circumstances and all that they are demanding from us, costing us; and anger at those who could have helped it be otherwise. The virus, a product of Nature’s freedom to change and diversify, kills. Human greed, dishonesty, arrogance, short-sightedness and indifference have made its impact, its death toll, so much worse. 

I’ve heard from several members of the parish that you’re really struggling with anger. The process that resulted in going ahead with this week’s election, against all public health advice, was a focal point – but it’s not just that, by any means. 

Many of us have been taught that anger is bad or dangerous – or unChristian. But there’s plenty of anger in the Gospels, and throughout our scriptures. Anger is tricky; it’s easy to deceive ourselves when we’re angry. I know within myself that my capacity to see a just and loving resolution to a situation is not as good when I am angry. But it doesn’t follow that anger is bad. Anger is both natural and necessary. Anger is energy. Energy is good. Anger is willingness to act. Action is good. God loves justice more than we do – and God loves those who will suffer needlessly because of this disease more than we do. Just as we’re not alone in grief, so we are not alone in anger. 

Let’s join our voice with the voice of King David who, three millennia ago, wrote or had written a powerful psalm of indignation, Psalm 10… 

 

Easter Vigil Homily

Does it feel like Easter? Show me with hand motions!  Yes? No? Sorta? Not really? ….  On a scale of one to ten? … 

It’s a strange Easter, for sure. We can’t make a big noise ringing our bells all together.  We can’t share chocolates and fizzy juice after the end of this service. We can’t look at all the beautiful plants around the altar.  We can’t hide and find easter eggs on the church grounds. We can’t prepare beautiful anthems by our singers and instrumental musicians. (Well, we did one last week – but it took some doing! It’s harder to make music together when you can’t BE together!) We can’t cook a big meal to share with guests from near and far. 

Easter could feel kind of small, this year. 

But it helps me to remember that the first Easter was pretty small too. Only a few people knew, at first – and for kind of a while! Jesus rising from the dead didn’t change the world overnight – at least, not in ways most people noticed.  The change was deep and slow and mysterious, beneath the surface of things. We’re still living into that big, slow, deep change, the change in everything made by the first Easter. 

Way back at the beginning of all this, when things were just starting to go quiet, I remember thinking that it felt like Holy Saturday. The Saturday after Good Friday. That’s a time of waiting and preparing, in church….  of quietness and anticipation. We’re still carrying the sadness of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday… but we’re getting ready for the big joy of the Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday. I always feel kind of still inside, on Holy Saturday. And when I would drive around town on that day, it often seemed like kind of a quiet day for everybody. 

That’s why I thought of Holy Saturday, back when things were just starting to be canceled, when people were just starting to stay home. And here we still are – in a really, really long Holy Saturday….! 

There are different ideas about what happened on Holy Saturday, the first Holy Saturday, between when Jesus was laid in the tomb and when his friends found the tomb empty on Sunday morning. 

Some people and some churches imagine Jesus just … resting. Like a child sleeping in their bed or a seed sleeping in the earth. After all, he’d been through a few really hard, demanding days. Resting and healing so that sometime in the early early hours of Easter Morning he … got up. Folded up the grave cloths like a blanket, and walked away… 

Some people and some churches imagine what was happening on Holy Saturday very differently. They don’t picture Jesus lying there quietly. They picture him basically doing a jailbreak. Freeing those who have been held captive in the realm of Death, starting with Adam and Eve, understood as the ancestors of all human beings. Breaking down doors; shattering chains and locks.  This idea is called the Harrowing of Hell. There are lots of images of it – let me show you a good one, from a 12th or 13th century manuscript… 

The big green monster there, that’s Hell or the realm of the dead, imagined as a monster that’s holding all the dead people inside it. The Devil lies tied up at Jesus’ feet. And Jesus, with the help of an angel, is leading Adam and Eve to freedom, to new life in God, and the others will follow them!…. So in this version, Jesus isn’t resting; he’s fighting evil and death, for the sake of new life for all humanity. 

I’ve been thinking about how in this long Holy Saturday we are living through, both of these things are happening.  A lot of us feel a little entombed… like we’re closed up somewhere, just waiting for the right moment to emerge into new life. It might be restful, it might be restless, but we’re closed up, like Jesus in the tomb, like Noah and all the animals in the ark, and we wait. 

But in the meanwhile – others are doing battle with death itself, for the sake of life. Our friends who are health care providers are doing that. Doctors and nurses and hospital staff and all kinds of health care workers – mental and spiritual health too! – all over the country, all over the world, are fighting death, fiercely, day and night, as hard as they can. 

And biologists and epidemiologists and geneticists and statisticians and public health people and all kinds of scholars are putting together information as fast as they can, seeking more and more ways to keep people from getting sick and keep people who DO get sick from getting REALLY sick. 

And then there are mayors and governors and journalists and pastors and public health officials and university administrators and teachers and all kinds of other people who are working so, so hard right now, to make the best decisions they can to keep people safe, and to tell people the best things to do to keep themselves and each other safe.  

There are a LOT of people fighting death! Fighting for life! Right now! They are so brave, and they help me be brave. Even when I’m bored or restless or sad or weary or lonely. 

It is Easter tonight. But it’s also Holy Saturday, the waiting time. It will be Holy Saturday as long as some of us are waiting to come out of our tombs… and some of us are battling the powers of death. We know, tonight, that Jesus is with us, whether we are resting or fighting. 

And whenever we are able to be together again, in the same space: We will have a great big Easter party. No matter when it is! We will celebrate resurrection and new life! We will celebrate that death does not have the last word! We will celebrate release from our confinement! We will celebrate that nothing can separate us from God’s love! I’m looking forward to that party so much, friends. 

Before we continue with the Renewal of baptismal vows, let us pause to hold in prayer all the people, places and situations who are waiting to be able to come forth for a new chapter, like the people and animals on the ark; who are longing for freedom, like God’s people in Egypt; who need God’s healing breath, like the bones in Ezekiel’s vision… Whom are we holding in prayer this Easter night? …. 

Palm Liturgy, April 5

Here is the sheet to download for our Palm Worship, Sunday at 9:15am. We will also use some of this material at our Palm Sunday Vespers, an evening gathering (6:30pm)  for those who can’t join us in the morning.

Palm Liturgy Page 2020

PREPARE:  Sign or banner (on paper, fabric, whatever) proclaiming what you hope God’s new King will do! (Friend of St. Dunstan’s Father Jonathan Melton shares an idea for making a “palm” sign – this is a great option too; watch his video and follow along here!) You could also cut flowers or small branches to wave. The people of Jerusalem used palms because palms grew there. It’s appropriate to use whatever grows in plenty in your environment!

SERVICES
St. Dunstan’s Palm Procession, Zoom, 9:15AM: We’ll gather for the Palm Gospel & some music before our diocesan liturgy. Bring your Palm Sunday banners, signs, and palms (see below)!

Diocesan Worship with Passion Gospel, 10AM: Follow along on Facebook or Youtube. A link to download the bulletin will be sent out later this week.

St. Dunstan’s Palm Sunday Vespers, Zoom, 6:30PM: A simple evening gathering with sharing of palm banners (for those who couldn’t join the morning “virtual procession”) and time to pray together.

Need Zoom links to join our worship? Email Rev. Miranda at or ask to join our parish Facebook group, St. Dunstan’s MadCity. 

Holy Week Worship, 2020

This week is Holy Week, the most important week on the Christian calendar! We WILL hold Holy Week services, online. Scroll down for plans and times. Here are some ideas about preparing for Holy Week.

1. Gather and prepare some things to help you participate in our online liturgies. For each service, below, I suggest some items you might gather or prepare. These suggestions are not meant to feel like an assignment or a burden! Rather, I want us all to feel that we can create holy space wherever we are, and know that we are participants in, rather than viewers of, these special liturgies. Here’s the abbreviated list: Banners/signs & boughs; bread, wine or juice; ointment or balm; envelope, paper, & writing utensils; a cross; a special candle; a bowl of water; snacks and treats; bells & noisemakers. See list of liturgies for more detail.

2. Pray the Stations of the Cross. The Stations of the Cross are a practice of prayer that dwells with Jesus’ journey from his sentencing, until his body was laid in the tomb. You could sit in a quiet place and read and pray the Stations, or you might call them up on a smartphone and take them on a walk with you, pausing to read and pray as you move around your neighborhood. There are many online versions of the Stations. Here is the version we have used in recent years. 

3. With younger children, share the whole story. It’s important for younger kids to be reminded of the whole story before we begin Holy Week – so they know that it eventually has a joyful, triumphant ending. That’s more important than ever, this year! Here are some ways to do that:

HOLY WEEK LITURGIES

MAUNDY THURSDAY, April 9, 6PM
Try to be at the end of your dinner, more or less, at 6pm as we gather online for this service. (But it’s OK if you’re still finishing up!) Consider setting your table nicely and making this a special meal, whatever that means for you right now.  PREPARE:  Please have some bread and some red wine, grape juice, or another special drink set aside on your table, to use in our worship. Please have some ointment or balm for dry skin nearby.*  Please have an envelope (or special box or container), slips of paper that will fit in envelope or container, & writing utensils on hand.

Download the Maundy Thursday bulletin here.

GOOD FRIDAY, April 10, 12PM & 7PM 
PREPARE: Find a cross, or make one; it can be as simple as two sticks and some twine.

Download the Good Friday bulletin here.

GOOD FRIDAY STATIONS for KIDS, April 10, 4PM 
Nothing to gather; just join Rev. Miranda on Zoom! 

EASTER VIGIL, Saturday, April 11, 7PM
We are starting our Vigil early this year so that our younger members can join in the sharing of holy stories. The Vigil should be finished by around 8:30PM.  PREPARE: A special candle to light; a bowl of water (maybe a special bowl?); a special place prepared for listening to holy stories (cozy blankets? snacks? A fire in a fireplace?); Alleluia signs or banners; something that rattles (a container with pebbles or dry beans); bells & noisemakers (keyrings work well); perhaps some treat foods for a feast.

Download the Easter Vigil bulletin here. 

EASTER SUNDAY, April 12
Diocesan Easter liturgy, 10AM, on Youtube and Facebook.

Think about doing something on Easter Sunday that gives you joy and leans into the future. Plant something. Make a time capsule. Watch the sun rise, or set. Go someplace with water and celebrate your baptism. Blow some bubbles!

Christmas Eve, 2019

Merry Christmas! We made it!  All the preparation, all the waiting… it’s finally fulfilled. Christmas is here, and Jesus is born! Joy to the world! Peace on earth!

I wish joy – I wish peace – for every single person here, and all those whom you love. But I know it’s a hopeful wish. If you’re one of the lucky ones, tonight and tomorrow will be a time of goodness and warmth. With family and friends wrapped around you like a cozy blanket, sharing happy memories and making new ones. 

But that’s not what Christmas holds for everyone here. Some of you will be alone. Some of you will be struggling with family dynamics that make you wish you were alone. For some, happy memories cast the shadow of loved ones lost, and good times gone by. Some have to work; not everybody gets Christmas off. Some will just be weary or out of sorts. The gifts we give or receive won’t be quite right. The matching pajamas won’t quite match. Christmas won’t live up to the hype. 

It can be uncomfortable – the gulf between our realities and the Hallmark-movie vision of what Christmas is “supposed” to be. All those words printed in gold foil on Christmas cards: Merry. Peace. Joy. Jolly. Happy. Bright. Fun. Cheer. Social media can make it even harder, because it’s not just the people in the movies and advertisements who seem to be having a perfect Christmas; it’s also our friends and acquaintances. Their smiling pictures can seem so much brighter than our own unfiltered realities. 

Sometimes I wish we could tease apart what we celebrate here at church – the feast of the Nativity, the feast of the Incarnation, in which the only gift that matters is God coming among us as a helpless infant to show the depth of divine love— 

Sometimes I wish we could tease that apart from cultural and capitalist Christmas. 

But I can’t; we can’t. They’re all tangled up together. We’ve all collected a lifetimes’ worth of ideas about how Christmas is supposed to look and feel, sound and taste. We arrive at Dec. 24 laden with memories and expectations. Will the hours and days ahead fulfill our hopes? Will this Christmas be Instagram-happy and Pinterest-perfect? Will it be memorable in a GOOD way? … 

Who here remembers watching Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood?… 

It was a children’s television show, with this man who talked to the TV as if he were talking to a child, and invited us into adventures with his puppet friends. Sing it with me, folks: “Let’s make the most of this beautiful day; since we’re together, we might as well say, Would you be my, could you be my, won’t you be my neighbor?” 

I watched some of it, as a child. During my teens and young adulthood, Mr. Rogers was punchline. We made a joke of his weird puppets, his gentle voice and careful words, his cardigans, his deliberateness, his overwhelming kindness. 

But sometime in the past couple of decades, we all started to get it. Maybe it was his death in 2003 that finally made us all re-assess. Maybe it’s the quotations that circulate on Facebook. Maybe the rest of the world just finally caught up with his profound, ahead-of-his-time understanding of kids’ social and emotional needs. Something made us all take a better look and realize that Fred Rogers was the real thing, an honest-to-God saint walking among us, preaching basic human decency on syndicated television.

This year has seen a new biography of Rogers and a movie about him. And some of you may have seen an article in the Washington Post a few weeks ago, by writer D. L. Mayfield, reflecting on what Rogers has to offer us this Christmas season. 

Mayfield points out that Rogers wasn’t just nice. He held some deep principles that put him at odds with the society around him, on many occasions. He loved television because of its potential for learning and connection – and was dismayed to see it increasingly used as a tool for marketing, to kids and adults alike. 

Mayfield writes, “[Rogers’ ideology] was a well-thought-out war against a culture that needed kids to feel inadequate to become good consumers.”  Think about it: If you believe you’re OK and you have enough, you won’t whine to your parents about that toy that you NEED, that toy that ALL THE OTHER KIDS are getting; and then how will the toy companies make any money? 

In the early 1970s, when the TV show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was first becoming well known, the Hallmark Company decided to have different celebrities do each of the windows of their flagship store in downtown Manhattan. And they asked Fred Rogers to design one of the windows. 

Now, big, bright, glamorous holiday window displays have been a thing in New York City – and other big cities – for a long time. I haven’t been able to find any pictures from the year Mr. Rogers designed a window, but I found a website that describes some of the “most brilliant” displays this year. Maybe that can set the tone. 

At American Girl New York, a large window is “seriously blinged out” with “200 Swarovski crystal strands and 130 pounds of crystal star dust.” Bergdorf-Goodman’s display “is always opulent and over the top, and 2019 is no exception… Each window depicts an aspect of holiday revelry illustrated in avant-garde opulence. We loved the sequined chess scene and the neon pinball machine!” At Bloomingdale’s, “a touch button… allows visitors to bring a robotic orchestra to life and hear classic Christmas carols… There’s plenty of glitz and glam, and a pretty impressive rocket ship seemingly blasts over your head and onto Lexington Avenue.” At Macy’s, interactive displays allow you to “power a neon light show, scratch a dreaming dog’s nose, drive [a] truck while trying to smash presents in an Asteroid-like video game, and pose for a selfie to see yourself in the windows.” Not gonna lie – the dog sounds awesome. Nordstrom’s holiday decorations are more understated, featuring a mere  “253,000 twinkling lights.” 

Now, that all sounds like a lot of fun to walk around and look at! But maybe all that glitz and glam might make our own lives seem a little… dull and dark? And of course all those stores put on this amazing show because they want you to come in and buy stuff. 

So. Rogers and a friend traveled to New York to scope things out and think about what Rogers would like to do for his window. And after taking a look at that year’s array of star dust and robot orchestras, Rogers went back to his home in Pittsburgh and came up with a design. His window display looked like this: A simple setting – no lights, no fake wrapped gifts. In the center: A small pine tree, the height of a four-year-old child. No ornaments or decorations – just the tree itself, planted in a clear glass Lucite cube so you could see its roots – see that it was real, and alive. And in front of the tree was a sign that said, “I like you just the way you are.”

One of the things Fred Rogers said often, to kids and adults, friends and strangers, speaking or singing: I like you just the way you are. 

D. L. Mayfield writes, “A tree just [a child’s] height, reinforcing the message Rogers most desperately wanted his young neighbors to hear. Working to combat shame, isolation, trauma; working to help build resilience in the lives of kids he could never hope to reach one by one… The small bare tree in the Hallmark store window was a radical gesture designed to expose the hypocrisy of holidays intended to sell products, while centering the emotional well-being of children… It was a countercultural art project in a world of companies that exploited nostalgia for profit. And it was the refusal to accept a world that needed children to feel ashamed of themselves to buy more goods.” 

 

I like you just the way you are. Fred Rogers was, among other things, a Presbyterian minister. His Christian faith was one of the deep roots of his work. I’m sure it’s no accident that these words resonate with the message of the Incarnation. In God becoming human, embodied; the infinite becoming finite, the cosmic becoming specific, the eternal born into time. 

What God says to us by becoming human, by coming to live among us, to share our struggles and triumphs, needs and pleasures, joys and griefs – what God says to us in the Incarnation, to all of us and each of us, by name, is a lot like what Mr. Rogers said, in a song that goes like this:

It’s you I like, it’s not the things you wear,

It’s not the way you do your hair, but it’s you I like.

The way you are right now, the way down deep inside you,

Not the things that hide you; not your toys – they’re just beside you.

But it’s you I like, every part of you.

Your skin, your eyes, your feelings, whether old or new.

I hope that you’ll remember even when you’re feeling blue

That it’s you I like, it’s you yourself, it’s you. It’s you I like.

The Gospel of John says it this way: God so loved the world that God gave Godself to us, not to judge and condemn the world, but to save it. 

To say all that is not to say God doesn’t invite us to change, to renewal, to turning away from some things and towards others. I once heard our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry preach that God loves you just the way you are, but God isn’t going to leave you that way. I think about that a lot. The life of faith means opening ourselves, day by day, year by year, to what God wants to do in us and through us. It means making ourselves available to God’s gracious work in our lives, our relationships, our communities, and our world.

But we do not have have our sh*t together before God shows up. God’s longing to be welcomed into our hearts and our lives – God’s grace ready to shine through the cracks in everything – does not need us to be Instagram-happy or Pinterest-perfect. God does not care if our pajamas match. 

God’s birth into the world God made, God’s dawning in our lives, asks us to trust that we are seen and known and cherished. Tells us that God reaches out for us in love and yearning, not in condemnation and shame. 

“Do not be afraid; for see–I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”

I like you just the way you are.

Merry Christmas.

SOURCES:

D.L. Mayfield on Mr. Rogers:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/religion/2019/11/22/mister-rogers-wasnt-just-nice-he-wanted-take-down-consumerism/

Holiday window descriptions taken from this article: 

https://mommypoppins.com/new-york-city-kids/holidays/holiday-windows-walk-2019-midtowns-most-brilliant-holiday-window

Sermon, Dec. 22

I like to remind people, around this time of year, that we have the story of Jesus – his birth, life, teachings, acts, death and resurrection – in four voices, which we call the Gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John is the traditional order, though actually Mark was written first. Our Sunday Gospel readings each year come mostly from one of the four – specifically, Matthew, Mark, and Luke; John is scattered around in pieces for some reason. The Church’s new year is the first Sunday in Advent, so we are just a few weeks into getting re-acquainted with the gospel of Matthew. 

Each Gospel has its own voice, its own lens on the shared story. These authors – writing thirty to sixty years after Jesus’ death – are working with different memories – their own or others’ – of what Jesus did and said. And they have somewhat different understandings of who he was, and what his life, death, and rising meant for the world. 

In each Gospel, you get a sense of its voice and priorities in the very first chapter – and that’s certainly true for Matthew. One of Matthew’s big themes is that Jesus is the completion of the Old Testament – the Hebrew Bible. He quotes the prophetic literature often – like the bit of Isaiah in today’s text. He uses these quotations to say, Jesus is the fulfillment of these ancient prophecies. But it’s not just the prophecies: for Matthew, Jesus fulfills and completes all of Jewish history and tradition. That’s obvious in the first seventeen verses of his Gospel – which are printed on the back of your Sunday Supplement, if you’d like to take a look! 

Matthew’s Gospel begins with a genealogy of Jesus. In first-century Palestine, as in many human cultures, who you are depends a lot on who you come from. In a patriarchal society, that’s generally reckoned by naming fathers and grandfathers and great-great-great-grandfathers. And that’s exactly what Matthew does here. He starts with Abraham – the first Jew, the founder and father of it all, in human terms. And he works his way down through the centuries: Isaac, Jacob, Judah, Perez, Hezron, AND so on. He keeps going through King David and his lineage, and through the exile and return.

And he ends in verse 17 with some interesting math: By his count, there are fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen generations from David to exile, and fourteen generations from exile to Jesus. That might just seem odd to you, but numbers were a big deal in Jewish thought, including interpretation of Scripture. For Matthew, those fourteens are part of his case that Jesus is the fulfillment of all of this history, the Messiah – the Savior sent by God – at whom everything that went before has pointed. 

The Sunday lectionary never gives us these verses, and maybe that’s wise; it does take a little explaining to understand their significance for Matthew. But they are an important preface for the text we do receive today. I said, a minute ago, that in a patriarchal context, like Biblical Judaism, genealogies are generally lists of fathers, grandfathers, and so on. 

But this list… has some grandmothers in it too. Did you notice that? Do you remember them, from meeting them three years ago? Their names are Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba – though Matthew calls her the wife of Uriah. 

Tamar is the first of these interesting grandmothers of Jesus. Her story is in the book of Genesis – chapter 38. She married one of the sons of Judah – a great-grandson of Abraham. But her husband dies before they have children. Now, if a man died childless, his brother was supposed to take on his wife and raise children for his dead brother’s sake. But apparently not everybody was on board with this idea.

Judah orders his second son to “perform the duty of a brother-in-law”, but that son, Onan, refuses to give Tamar a child. Then Onan dies too. In classic victim-blaming style, Judah starts to think maybe Tamar is the problem. He tells her, “Go live with your father as a widow until my younger son is old enough to marry,” and sends her away. Now, in this time and place, without a husband and children, Tamar has nothing. No social standing. No security. No future. So. She waits. And waits. And waits. And then she decides to take matters into her own hands. I don’t have time for the full story – it’s Genesis 38; look it up! – but she tricks Judah himself into getting her pregnant – and into admitting that he was wrong in his treatment of her. 

Then there’s Rahab. Her story is in the book of Joshua, chapter 2. The Israelites understand that God has given them a new home, a land of milk and honey. Only trouble is, there are people already living there – Canaanites, whom they’ll have to violently displace. Rahab is a Canaanite, living the city of Jericho. And she practices what is sometimes called the oldest profession. The Israelites send out a couple of spies into Canaan, to figure out how hard it’s going to be to conquer this territory.

The spies go to Jericho and decide to spend a night with Rahab. The local leader hears there are two strangers in town and demands that Rahab present them. But she sends them up on her roof to hide, and tells the men who came to find them, “Oh, yes, they were here, but they just left! If you hurry I bet you can catch them!” Then she goes up on the roof and tells the spies, “Listen: I know that God has given this land to your people. I can feel it. The people of Canaan are terrified. Your God is indeed the Lord of heaven and earth, and we cannot stand against God. So, because I saved you, please save me in turn. When your people come to conquer this city, spare me, and my parents and brothers and sisters and their families. Let us live.”

And the spies agreed. Rahab helped them escape the city – and when Jericho was conquered, she and all her family were saved, and lived among the people Israel from that time forward.  According to Matthew, Rahab marries an Israelite named Salmon. Their son Boaz grows up to marry Ruth – perhaps the best-known of the grandmothers named by Matthew. Ruth, like Rahab, is an outsider who marries into an Israelite family – she’s from the land of Moab. And like Tamar, her first husband dies before they have children. But she’s become so attached to her Israelite mother-in-law, Naomi, that she refuses to go home to her own family. She more or less vows herself to become Naomi’s daughter: Your people shall be my people, and your God my god.  

I love Ruth’s story too – read the book of Ruth! It’s only four chapters long! Spoiler alert: Through the connivance of Naomi, the decency of Boaz, and the grace of God, Ruth becomes a wife and mother – and the grandmother of David. David, the shepherd boy chosen by God to be Israel’s king; David, the poet so in love with God that he danced in the streets; David, the scrappy military leader who led his band of misfits to defeat King Saul; David the ladies’ man, David of the wandering eyes… who’s gazing out his window one morning and spots a beautiful woman, taking a ritual bath on her rooftop, and decides he has to have her. Her name is Bathsheba, and she never has the chance to say no. She gets pregnant with David’s child. Did I mention that she’s married, and her husband, Uriah, is a general in David’s army? David arranges to have him “accidentally” killed in combat. It’s not David’s best chapter. Bathsheba becomes one of David’s wives – and much later, she advocates for David to choose her son Solomon to become king after his death, reminding him:  You owe me. 

These are all amazing stories; it’s painful for me to tell the nutshell versions! But it’s also important to hold them up together, as Matthew does in his genealogy.

He knew all these stories – and he calls them to his readers’ minds intentionally. 

Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba: These are women whose histories of sexuality and child-bearing do not meet ideal patriarchal standards. None of them had the life course their parents would have chosen for them. And yet, they all become part of God’s story. 

And not just because they have babies; but because of their insight, their courage, their determination and faithfulness, their refusal to settle. 

Matthew names these women – and their sons – to set the stage for telling us about Mary and her son. Look at verse 16: “… Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.” Matthew is saying, YES, this is another irregular hop in the genealogy. YES, this is another place where parentage is not quite as tidy as everybody would like it to be. But it’s not like it’s the first time. This is part of God’s MO. 

And lest we miss the point, Matthew makes it clear that Mary’s pregnancy was awkward. “Mary was found to be with child – pregnant – by the Holy Spirit.” Notice that passive voice – “found to be with child.” This is not a version of the story in which Mary meets an angel, agrees to become the mother of God, and then runs to her friends, family, and fiancé to say, “Hey, everybody! A wonderful thing just happened! God has looked with favor on me, and all generations shall call me blessed!” This is a version in which she keeps it to herself as long as she can, until some nosy neighbor spots the curve of her belly under her robe, and sounds the alarm: A young woman has crossed the line. 

In the year of our Lord 2019, many families would still find it a source of dismay and shame for a daughter to become pregnant without a socially-sanctioned partnership. How much more so, in Mary and Joseph’s time! The consequences for a young woman found pregnant without a man willing to claim the child could range from ostracism to death. No wonder Mary kept her mouth shut. She knew this angel story wasn’t going to convince everybody. And indeed, the person she most needs to believe her – her fiance, Joseph – is not on board. 

In his book Ladies and Gentlemen: The Bible!, Jonathan Goldstein re-tells today’s Gospel from Joseph’s point of view. I love how he fleshes out the emotional subtext of the spare Gospel narrative. Listen to Joseph’s words, per Goldstein:  “Being chosen by the Lord is an honor. I’m not saying it’s not… It’s flattering to think that your girlfriend is good enough for God, and on some days I can convince myself well enough that it is an honor indeed, but if the guys at work don’t act like it’s an honor, and none of your friends or family act like it’s an honor, then it doesn’t feel so much like an honor.”… ‘How’s the holy baby?’ Ezekiel, my foreman at work asks me, like, ten times a day, and I have no choice but to bite it. It’s either that or be out of a job…” 

A couple of pages later Joseph describes his own angelic encounter: “Mary had never lied to me before and I knew her heart like I knew my own, but when she told me this business about being visited by an angel, I had an honest-to-God conniption… After a whole night of screaming and crying,… I went outside to try and cool off. Sitting on a tree stump, I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned around and there he was: an angel. The whole bit. Wings and everything, just squatting there….’Are you the one… with Mary?’ I asked, not looking at him. ‘No,’ he said softly. ‘I just came here to tell you that what Mary tells you is the truth.’ ‘This is a lot to digest,’ I said. The angel withdrew his hand from my shoulder and left me sitting there outside my house, digesting until morning.” 

I appreciate that Goldstein’s retelling makes clear that while Joseph agrees to stay with Mary, the angel’s reassurance wouldn’t have made it all fine. Whatever people assumed about Mary’s untimely pregnancy, there would have been winks and sneers and cutting remarks.There would have been a shadow of shame cast over this couple before they even fully began their life together. 

That’s why Matthew reminds us of Jesus’ grandmothers. Reminds us that God’s purposes are bigger than human propriety. That redemption matters more than respectability. Matthew tells us that Joseph is a righteous man – with an ambiguity I suspect is intentional: Joseph’s righteousness is shown by the fact that he doesn’t want to ruin Mary’s life, but it’s the same righteousness that makes him decide he can’t possibly go on with the wedding, either. Pregnant with a mystery baby, she is no longer an appropriate wife for a righteous man. 

Biblical commentator Richard Swanson writes, “The word dikaios, in this scene, means that Joseph has a good name that he will defend any way he can. He has a good reputation…  By putting Mary away quietly, he preserves his good name. He is willing to say publicly (if silently) that HE has had NOTHING to do with making Mary pregnant.  Not a thing. And that leaves Mary alone and exposed, whether he does it publicly or privately.  What a guy.” 

But the angel’s visit calls Joseph to a deeper and truer righteousness: the righteousness of going along with God’s purposes even when it’s confusing and painful. Even though it exposes him to sneers and winks; even though it commits him to a fatherhood that wasn’t his hope or his choice. 

Mary, like Tamar and Rahab and Ruth and Bathsheba, doesn’t have the life most parents would choose for their daughters. Her trajectory from maiden to mother is not clear and tidy. And yet, like those holy grandmothers, she becomes part of God’s story – and so does Joseph, confused, resentful, tender Joseph. 

Matthew is my least favorite Gospel – let me say that right now. There are things I really struggle with about his voice. But I love this first chapter – I love what he does, here.This genealogy is structured and clean; it does what genealogies tend to do: create an artificially tidy picture of family and history. Father begets son, generation succeeds to generation.

But when he names Tamar, and Rahab, and Ruth, and Bathsheba, he reminds us that life and love, family and belonging, respectability and redemption, are not tidy. Indeed, they can be pretty messy. And God shows up in that mess – working, always, through our struggle and confusion, our shame and our yearning, our hurts and our healing, to accomplish holy purposes on earth. 

Amen. 

Sources: 

Swanson’s thoughts on Mary’s pregnancy and Joseph’s reaction: 

https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2016/12/15/a-provocation-fourth-sunday-of-advent/

Jonathan Goldstein, Ladies and Gentlemen: The Bible!, Riverhead Books, 2009. 

Sermon, Dec. 8

Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the Kingdom of Heaven!

That’s how our Sunday school classes are hearing the message of John the Baptist. A loose translation, but not an unfaithful one. Did you expect him to holler “Repent!”? That’s the more familiar translation for many of us. The Greek word there is “metanoia”, which means, Changing your mind. Reflecting back on things in a way that changes how you move forward. Coming to a new understanding. 

The Scripture in your leaflet this week is a hybrid of our usual Bible translation, the New Revised Standard Version, and David Bentley Hart’s New Testament, which strives to be a fairly direct translation of the Greek. It’s Hart who renders John’s call this way: Change your hearts! And then, to those whom the Baptist suspects of superficial repentance: Bear fruit worthy of a change of heart!

Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the Kingdom of Heaven!

New Testament scholar Sarah Dylan Breuer – who lived downstairs from us when I was in seminary – reminds us that ritual washing, like the baptism of John, was – and is – a practice for non-Jews converting to Judaism. It was a symbolic washing away of the old identity before taking on a new one; a cleansing from past actions that would no longer be part of the new faithful life. A sign of death and rebirth. If that all sounds kind of familiar, it should. 

What was new about John’s practice of baptism, and then Jesus’, and then the church’s, was the assertion that everybody needed it. That’s the context for John’s snark about how being descendants of Abraham – in other words, REAL Jews – doesn’t make you right with God. Everybody needs cleansing. Everybody needs renewal. Everybody needs a change of heart. 

The call to repentance – the call to a changed heart – is a core theme of Advent, this season when we prepare to celebrate God who has come and is coming again. But it’s difficult to reconcile with Advent as we experience it. I learned in my first few years here not to try to schedule much extra stuff at church in December, because people are SO busy. Concerts… Holiday fairs… Work and school deadlines… Family gatherings, and perhaps complex negotiations related to same… Travel plans … Decorations… Baking… Volunteering… and SO much shopping… 

In a wonderful essay about the REAL war on Christmas by the Dean of Yale Divinity School, Andrew McGowan, he points out that Black Friday’s irresistible deals and urgent demands immediately wipes out Thanksgiving – we turn on a dime from giving thanks for all that we have, to a barrage of messages that wDO NOT HAVE ENOUGH, and we need MORE, MORE, MORE. 

So: we have a gulf – at least, many of us do – between the church’s invitation to Advent as a season of quiet, of reflection. Of sober acknowledgment of what is amiss in the world, and our ongoing need for God’s presence among us. A season when the church prays urgently: Come, Lord Jesus! – And the month of December in the world out there. 

Does it help to think of John’s call to a change of heart as a matter of re-orientation? Turning from; turning towards? Recalibrating what we’re doing with our time and energy and resources, to point in the same direction as our inner compass, our deep desires? 

We’re going to try something now – an exercise suggested by David Lose of the website Working Preacher. Does everyone have a piece of paper and a pencil? Good. Now, start making the list of everything you have to do, in the next two weeks plus. What’s on your to-do list between now and Christmas? What are others expecting of you? What are you expecting of yourself? 

You don’t have to turn this in. It’s OK to use abbreviations or keywords, as long as you know what you mean. Take a few minutes with this. It’s OK if you don’t catch everything; some of our lists are long. Stick to one side – if you fill it, you can stop. 

Okay! Let’s take a moment and just breathe through any anxiety that might have stirred up!

Now, here’s the second step. Turn over your page so that list isn’t staring at you. Don’t start writing until I tell you to. 

I want you to daydream about what you want this Christmas to be like. I mean that as broadly as possible. How do you want Christmas to feel in your heart, this year? How do you want it to feel in your home? Among your friends and family? In your community? Our nation? Our world? 

What kind of day do you want to have? How do you want to be, with the people who share your life? What news would you love to wake up to, on Christmas morning?

Now, take up your pencil again. Write a few words or even draw something on the blank side of your paper, to capture some of your hopes for your life and the world this Christmas. This doesn’t have to be comprehensive. Trust what rises to the surface first in your heart. 

Okay! Finish what you’re writing. Look at your page for a minute. Hold that yearning and hope. 

Now, here’s our third step. Turn your paper over, back to your to-do list. I want you to review that list and notice which of the things on THIS side of the paper, point towards things that you wrote down on the OTHER side of the paper. Circle the things that contribute directly to your deep hopes and longings about your life and the world. 

There might be things where you have a choice about how you do them, right?Maybe you could put a star, an asterisk, by those. Like buying a gift for someone you usually exchange gifts with. It could be a hurried resentful “This will do” purchase. Or it could be five minutes’ loving thought about that person and what they enjoy. Or – if there’s no getting the gift right, because sometimes there isn’t – then add some grace to the situation by making the getting of the gift a blessing to somebody. Go to the craft fair at Middleton Outreach Ministry after church today – just for example – and buy something lovingly handmade that will benefit their food pantry! 

I’m going to offer everybody a freebie right now: if “rest” isn’t on your to-do list in some form, please put it there. And circle it. Rest is holy. Literally. It makes us able to discern, to choose, to do well. 

There will be lots of things on your list that are important in the short run, or for purely practical reasons, that don’t really feed into your bigger hopes and dreams. That’s OK. I’m not about to suggest you shouldn’t do those things. I, too, live in the real world. But maybe there are little choices you can make, as you steward your time and energy in these days and weeks. To give a little more of yourself to the things that matter deeply, and a little less of yourself to the things that don’t. 

Because it feels good to give ourselves to things that matter. To lean in to our hopes for our lives and our world. To bear fruit worthy of a changed heart, as the Kingdom of Heaven draws near. 

 

Sources:

Sarah Dylan Breuer on this text: 

https://www.sarahlaughed.net/lectionary/2004/11/second_sunday_o.html

Andrew McGowan on the War on Christmas: 

http://abmcg.blogspot.com/2019/12/the-war-on-christmas.html

David Lose on the Advent to-do list exercise:

http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2901

Sermon, Dec. 1

Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. Chapter seven, verse fourteen, of the book of the prophet Isaiah.  Maybe the King James language is more familiar:  Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. When the Gospel writer Matthew quotes this text – already seven hundred years old – in his telling of the birth of Jesus, he adds a translation: Emmanuel, which means, God with us.

Growing up in the Episcopal church, I heard a lot of the prophet Isaiah every Advent and Christmas. Our cycle of readings is heavy on Isaiah this season, and our hymns and prayers – even our Gospel readings – quote Isaiah too. The book of Isaiah is an Old Testament book, one of the books we share with God’s first people, the Jews. The prophesies and events it contains happened hundreds of years before Jesus’ birth. But right from the start, followers of Jesus have heard certain texts from Isaiah as pointing towards Jesus. This is most certainly one of them.

We start a new year in church today, and that means we also start a new Gospel. We’ll be primarily reading the Gospel of Matthew in the months ahead – with some chunks of John now and then. One of Matthew’s hallmarks is connecting Jesus to Old Testament texts and traditions. He’s really interested in making the case that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Hebrew Bible. And he sometimes stretches a point to get there. Take this text from Isaiah 7. The context here, as you heard in our reading, is that two of Judea’s neighboring countries have ganged up on Judea, and King Ahaz is scared. That information isn’t actually part of the assigned text; the Revised Common Lectionary follows Matthew’s lead in taking this passage out of context.  Anyway: King Ahaz is scared, and God is telling the king, though the prophet Isaiah, to calm down. And God carries the message through three prophetic names. The first is the name of Isaiah’s son Shear-jashub, meaning, A remnant shall remain. God tells Isaiah to take little SJ with him when he goes out to meet the King and tell him that his fears are unfounded.

But Ahaz is still anxious. God says, Ask me for a sign, to prove to you that this is really My word and not just Isaiah telling you what you want to hear. Ahaz says, No, sir, I will not put God to the test. God speaks through Isaiah to say, Oh, for Pete’s sake. HERE’S THE SIGN YOU WON’T ASK FOR. Look: that young woman is pregnant. The son she will bear will be named Emmanuel. And by the time that child is old enough to know the difference between good and bad, he’ll be eating curds and honey – good, rich food that signifies prosperity and stability. 

A few verses later, Isaiah elaborates: “On that day one will keep alive a young cow and two sheep – [such wealth!] – and will eat curds because of the abundance of milk that they give; for everyone that is left in the land shall eat curds and honey.” (By the way, these wouldn’t be Wisconsin-style cheese curds. Probably something more like a thick fresh yoghurt. Still sounds pretty good, especially with honey!)

There’s one more prophetic child name just a few verses later. The news is less good this time: God warns Judea of the rise of the Assyrian Empire, the new great power in the region. Isaiah “goes to” a woman named as the prophetess, apparently his wife – they have so much in common! – and she conceives and has a son. God says, Name him Maher-shalal-hash-baz (which means, He makes haste to plunder); for before the child knows how to say ‘My father’ or ‘My mother’, Assyria will be looting your neighboring nations. 

All these names – Shear-jashub, Immanuel, Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz – are prophetic signs that indicate God’s intentions for Judea.  The point of little Emmanuel is not that the child himself is someone special. The point is that Judea’s current enemies will be gone within a few years – the time it takes a baby to grow up enough to know bad from good. For Isaiah, the name “Immanuel” is a reassurance that God is with God’s people. It doesn’t mean that the child himself is God. That’s Matthew’s interpretation, woven into the Christmas Gospel and Christian thinking. 

Now, hear me: I’m not saying that Matthew is wrong. Prophetic language is rich and strange, and can carry meaning and truth across centuries and context. It’s reasonable to read Isaiah 7 as a text that casts light on Jesus, as long as we understand that it was not originally, and is not only, a text that casts light on Jesus. 

All that said: Emmanuel isn’t the word I want to talk about today. I want to talk about the word “virgin.” In fact – true confessions – I actually swapped this lesson with the another Isaiah lesson in this season, because I wanted to talk about this now, as we dive into Advent. 

We use this word at least once, often twice, every Sunday – both times talking about Jesus’ mother, Mary. It’s in the Creed – “he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary” – and our autumn Eucharistic prayer contains the same phrase. As we move into Advent and towards Christmas, it’ll show up more and more, in our prayers and hymns. 

And – I gotta tell you – this year, I’m not looking forward to it. In fact, I’m kind of bracing myself. 

Before anybody starts composing angry emails: I am not about to argue that Jesus was not miraculously conceived by the power of God. That’s the witness of both Luke and Matthew. I personally am not especially hung up on whether such a thing is physically possible or not. Compared to rising from the dead, it seems fairly mundane. It’s actually not uncommon in the animal kingdom – Google “parthenogenesis” sometime.

No: It’s not the church’s teaching that troubles me. It’s the church’s language.

I was raised in the Episcopal Church. All this language – “incarnate from the Virgin Mary,” “round yon Virgin,” “Lo, he abhors not the Virgin’s womb” – it was just part of the wallpaper, you know? I don’t think I ever thought about it, just like our kids have probably never really thought about it. The first time I remember examining the phrase was in seminary, when it dawned on me that it’s kind of… weird? interesting? telling? … that this is the one thing we say over and over and over again about Mary. Every time we mention her name. 

We know several things about Mary. God chose her to bear Godself as a human infant. God respected her enough to ask her permission. She was bold enough to say Yes. In the song of faith we call the Magnificat, she celebrates the honor bestowed on her – meek and mild, my butt! She says, God has looked favorably on me! All generations shall call me blessed, for the Holy One has done great things for me! And she continues with this powerful prophetic text that the Church has chanted and sung down through the ages – about the mighty cast down, the hungry fed, the world redeemed. 

She bears her son, names him, loves him, raises him. Celebrates his giftedness. Harangues him into doing miracles at parties. Struggles with his mission; fears for him. Follows him to the cross. Watches him die. Goes on to be one of those who tells his story. 

And, yes, at the moment when the Angel Gabriel invites her into this great, lifelong work, she is a young woman who has not yet experienced physical intimacy.  A virgin. She says so herself in Luke’s Gospel:  “How exactly am I going to get pregnant with this special baby, when I have not done anything that leads to getting pregnant?”

Orthodox Christians call Mary the Theotokos, the God-Bearer. They liken her to the Burning Bush in Exodus, that holds God’s presence and yet is not consumed. That’s a title much more worthy of Mary. But the Western church settled on Virgin. Our faith fathers chose to focus on her mint-condition reproductive system.

Thinking all this through in seminary, it seemed to me to be just one of many ways in which the church needs to reconsider its language. But it has started to actively trouble me now that I’m involved in raising kids – in my home and my church – whom I very much want to have a happy relationship with their own bodies and a healthy capacity for intimacy. 

We tread lightly around the word, in churches like ours. A kid in this church might easily think it just means a young woman – maybe a young man – who hasn’t been married yet. But that’s not how our ancestor churches and some of our sibling churches treat it. And that’s not how popular culture treats it.

Behold, a virgin shall conceive… The Hebrew word in Isaiah’s original text is almah, which just means a young woman of childbearing age. It’s not quite clear from context but it seems that the young woman of Isaiah 7:14 is actually Isaiah’s wife. Emmanuel isn’t even her first child. When Matthew quotes Isaiah, he uses a Greek word – parthenos – that can carry the implication of what we mean by virginity. That comes into Latin – the language of church and Scripture for a thousand years and more – as virgo, the same word as virgin. 

But it isn’t even Bible translation that’s the issue. The Bible says this about Mary twice, once in Matthew, once in Luke. Rather, it was the Church’s choice to exalt and enshrine this focus on one very narrow aspect of Mary’s significance, and tangle it up with policing the behavior of women and girls. Putting on my anthropologist hat for a moment: Virginity is a concept with a lot of cultural weight in highly patriarchal societies, where what matters about a young woman is whether she can bear children that are clearly related to one man. It’s ironic, actually, that the Church managed to make Mary the epitome of purity, when in Matthew’s Gospel, Joseph very nearly abandons Mary because he doesn’t know who fathered her child! That shame, that struggle, is part of what Mary agreed to face, when she said Yes to the angel’s request.  

Many of our sibling churches still put a heavy emphasis on virginity for young people. I’m not talking about encouraging kids to wait till you’re ready, be  safe, choose someone you really care about. I’m talking about telling youth groups that a young woman’s purity is like chewing gum. Nobody wants it after it’s already been chewed. There’s a whole movement out there of young adults struggling to recover healthy intimacy after being raised in churches like that. 

And broken, destructive thinking about virginity isn’t just in churches. If you watch ‘80s teen movies, ‘90s TV, or read the comments in many corners of the Internet, you’ll find it there too. In addition to its classic use to police young women, the word is used as an insult against young men – the implication being that they’re unworthy of romantic attention. A teenager might well get the message that girls are bad if they’re not virgins and boys are bad if they are – which is a heck of a double-bind, especially for the straight kids.

Physical intimacy, ideally, is something you explore when you are ready, as a free choice, with joy and curiosity and safety, and with somebody who is just as into you as you are into them. That’s what I want for youth and young adults today. I would like to live in a society where young people are not shamed for being OR not being virgins. And I would like to serve in a church that finds better, richer ways to praise and honor Mary, Theotokos, Prophetess, and Mother of God. 

Even though the lectionary does not get around to her for a couple more weeks, Mary is rightfully a central figure in this season. What I would really like our young people and indeed all of us to hear when we talk about Mary is not that our holiness, our merit, our worthiness, our potential for becoming an agent of God’s work in the world, depends on what we have or have not done with our bodies. What I would like us to hear when we talk about Mary is that each of us, all of us, and maybe especially the young and hopeful and bold among us, can say Yes to God. Can become part of the unfolding of God’s redemptive purposes on earth.

So even as we use inherited and often beloved language about Mary in the weeks ahead, I invite you to try on some alternatives, out loud or in your heart. 

Where the Church says Virgin Mary, you might say: Prophet Mary. Mother Mary. Blessed Mary. Gracious Mary. Helper Mary. Chosen Mary. Holy Mary. Wisest Mary. Sorrowing Mary. Loving Mary. God-Bearing Mary, Theotokos.  Ark of the Covenant. Burning Bush. Morning Star. Life-giving Spring. Our Lady of Guidance. Mother of Mercy. Stella Maris, Star of the Sea. Help of the Afflicted. Untier of Knots. Mother of the Disappeared. Refuge of Sinners. Mother of Ransom – Pray for us. Amen.