Category Archives: Church Seasons & Holy Days

Homily, June 9

Today is the feast of Pentecost, when we celebrate that the Holy Spirit of God came to the first Christians to comfort and inspire and guide them. 

What is the Holy Spirit? Well, over thousands of years, we have come to know God in different ways. We know God as Creator and Source, Father and Mother of all, the Ancient of Days, Beginning and End, the Silence at the center of things. We know God as Jesus Christ, the Word of God come to earth to dwell among us, Brother, Friend, Teacher, Redeemer and Liberator. And we know God as Holy Spirit, Breath of life, refining Fire, divine Wisdom. We call these the three Persons of the holy and undivided Trinity, the three in one and one in three. 

So the Holy Spirit is one of the ways we know God. We use names for the Spirit like Comforter, Advocate, Dove, Spirit of Truth, Holy Wisdom. We use symbols like wind, water, fire… things that are powerful and important, but that you can’t hold in your hand. 

Did you know you can pray to the different Persons of God? We pray to the Holy Spirit – we call on the Holy Spirit – often in church, when we ask the Spirit to make the water holy for a baptism, or to make the bread and wine into Christ’s Body and Blood for us, at Eucharist. 

But in everyday life, I pray to the Holy Spirit – I call on the Holy Spirit – pretty often too. When I need strength and wisdom for a difficult conversation. When I need my heart to soften towards someone so I can respond to them as Jesus would. When I’m confused or stuck and need insight and direction. When I just need encouragement, in the face of hard stuff. 

We have a big word for asking the Holy Spirit to help us: Invocation. It means to call on something. It’s not like magic in a book; we don’t control the Spirit with our words. But she likes to be invited. We have to make room for her instead of trying to handle it all on our own. We have to open a door inside us, to let her come in and help us. So the Church has always taught God’s people to call on the Spirit… to invoke the Spirit. No magic words, it’s one of the simplest prayers there is: Come, Holy Spirit!

Now we’re going to sing a song that invites the Holy Spirit to come among us as we celebrate today…. 

After the Acts lesson: 

One of my favorite things to do is when I get to spend some time talking about the Bible with kids. I love it; I wish I could do it even more! And I’ve noticed that a question kids often have is: Is this story true? Do you believe this story?

So let’s talk about that for the story of the Tower of Babel. I don’t believe that this happened the way the story says it happened. This is not that kind of story. It’s the kind of story that tells the truth about something big, even though the events of the story might not have happened. 

One thing the story tells the truth about is technology, and the human relationship with technology. Notice that this story is talking about a technological change: People have taken the big step from making bricks out of mud and baking them in the sun, to making bricks out of mud and baking them in a hot oven, which makes them stronger and harder. And it makes new kinds of building possible! (This is a VERY old story, y’all.) 

And the humans in the story think this is their big break.They have it all figured out now; they can be truly great. “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves.” Even though this is a very old story, it sounds familiar. We develop new technologies and we think we can use them to make ourselves great; to come close to God. 

Technology is amazing. Medical and information technology, green technology, and so on, make incredible things possible. But we’re still prone to thinking our technological achievements can make us more than human. And we’re still wrong. That is one truth this story tells. 

Another truth this story tells is about the people who told the story. This is one of the kinds of stories that offers an explanation for why things are the way they are.In this case, the thing it’s explaining is why people speak many different languages (and also have different cultures, ways of dressing, kinds of music and food, and so on). 

The people who first told this story were wondering, Why aren’t we all the same?It must be something God did. God must have given us all these different languages – made it so we can’t understand each other. So in the story, God “confuses” people’s language so they won’t be able to talk to each other: “Therefore the tower was called Babel, because there GOD confused the language of all the earth; and from there GOD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.”

Do you think the people who first told this story thought it was a good thing, that we have all different languages, or a bad thing? … 

So: This is not a true story about why we speak many languages. It’s more of a wondering story – people trying to explain something that puzzles them. And what it tells us about the people who first told the story is that they didn’t really like having all those different languages. It seemed like a problem, to them. 

We know now that language is one of the things our brains are best at. We are so good at learning language, creating and changing language, using language. It seems to me that the richness of language across humanity, the fact that as a species we are so good at generating and using words, means that this is something God wants for us. That God made us to be a people of many languages.

And the Pentecost story kind of affirms that. In this story, the Holy Spirit acts in a miraculous way to make it so that a whole group of people who speak many different languages, people from FIFTEEN different regions and countries, can all hear the good news of Jesus Christ. 

But pay attention to HOW the miracle happens. The Holy Spirit could have done it any way she wanted. She could have had the apostles preach the Gospel in their own language, and she could have reached into the ears of all those listeners from around the world, and tuned their ears so they miraculously understood the Galilean Aramaic that the apostles were speaking. 

But that’s NOT what she does. Instead, “All of the apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” The miracle here is that people are suddenly able to talk to someone else in their language – to do in an instant what would otherwise take years to learn. The miracle, the divine gift, here is not that human language is reunited, all that inconvenient diversity brought back to unity. The divine gift is being able to understand each other within that rich diversity.

Our differences can be confusing and difficult and frustrating. We might still sometimes ask the question this story asks:  Why aren’t we all the same? The answer of the Babel story is, Because we’re broken. Because God punished us with human diversity. 

But the answer of the Pentecost story is, Because it’s beautiful.It doesn’t divide us; it gives us scope for a greater, a deeper togetherness, when we learn to listen and understand and share across our differences of language and culture and experience. May the Spirit of God empower us for that work, and help us delight in the wonder of our diversity. Amen. 

Homily/Drama, April 28

Honoring the second Sunday of Easter as a time to affirm our youth in their wondering and seeking in faith is an idea from John Westerhoff (in Will Our Children Have Faith?, pages 101-102). We decided to try it out! Thanks to the Rev. Thomas McAlpine, the Rev. Jonathan Melton, and other conversation partners in developing these ideas. 

MIRANDA: Friends, today is sometimes called Doubting Thomas Sunday. Because our Gospel is the story about Thomas, one of Jesus’ friends, and how he came to believe that Jesus had truly risen from the dead. We get the same Gospel lesson EVERY year, even though most of our Gospels only come around every three years. It’s like our Lectionary wants to shout at us every year: DO NOT DOUBT BUT BELIEVE!

But what does it mean to doubt?  Is it OK to have questions about faith, and God, and the world? … Of course it is! Is it OK to not understand everything? …  Of course it is! But if we just say, Don’t doubt! It’s bad to doubt! – and don’t talk about what doubt really is… we might all walk around with ideas like this deep down inside:

Hold up signs: I’M A BAD CHRISTIAN, I DON’T BELONG HERE, EVERYBODY ELSE SEEMS TO GET IT; WHAT’S WRONG WITH ME?

MIRANDA: So today we’re going to talk about DOUBT. We’ll draw on several Scriptures – they’re on your Sunday Supplement if you want to take a look. What does it mean to doubt? Maybe it means there are things we think we’re supposed to believe – but don’t, really. You might think you’re a Bad Christian because the church teaches that the earth was created in seven days, and that dinosaur fossils are a trick God gave us to test our faith. But you really love science, and you just can’t swallow that.

Well, good news, Bad Christian – you don’t have to! Our church doesn’t teach that the world was created in just seven days. We understand the Creation story as telling us that God is the Source of all things, and that God made all things in love – and that we’re all in this together, humans and animals and plants and oceans and stars. And science is awesome! There are lots and lots and lots of scientists who also believe in God! 

Or you might feel like you Don’t Belong Here because you’ve heard that Jesus had to die on the cross because God was so angry about how bad and sinful humans are. God was so mad that God had to punish somebody, so Jesus took the punishment for us, to protect us from God’s anger. But, man, that story does not make you feel good about God. 

Well, that one is a doozy. It’s tough because some of our prayers could point you in that direction. But good news: Your church does not ask you to believe this! That teaching is called substitutionary atonement. It is just one way – out of many – that Christians have tried to understand Jesus’ death and resurrection. But what Jesus himself says about God is that God is merciful, and loves us, and wants to be close to us.  What a relief – that angry God was pretty scary! 

It’s OK to have questions, and to wrestle with what you think about it all! Let’s hear from someone who knows about wrestling with God. This is a story from the book of Genesis. 

JACOB: Hi, everybody. My name is Jacob. I lived a really long time ago – after Abraham, but before Moses. Is anybody here a twin? … I’m a twin. I was born second, after my brother Esau. In those days, everything went to the oldest son, even if the second son was born five minutes later. I spent my life consumed by envy of my brother. He had everything – including our father’s love. Finally I crossed a line; I did something so bad that I had to run away, or my brother might have killed me.

I spent years away from home. I got married, had children, became rich. But always, I felt the pull of home. And of unfinished business with my brother. Finally I knew it was time to go home. I gathered up my wives and children and servants and flocks, and we set out. As we got close, I was more and more terrified. My parents raised me to love and trust God. But I’d spent so much time trying to take, instead of waiting for God to give. Maybe God was done with me. Maybe I’d already gotten all the good life was going to give me. 

I sent servants on ahead with gifts for my brother – goats and sheep and camels and cattle and donkeys – did I mention I was really rich? And I sent my family off without me, so that if Esau came to kill me, they could get away. And I prayed to God: ‘God, you told me, “Return to you country and your kindred, and I will do you good.” I am not worthy of the steadfast love and faithfulness you have shown to me, all these years. Save me from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid of him!’ 

And then – someone was with me. It was pitch dark; I could not see him. But he seized me, and we began to wrestle. We struggled together all night, until daybreak. As the sky began to lighten, the stranger said, Let me go. But I said, I will not let you go unless you bless me. So the stranger blessed me, and he gave me a new name, Israel, which means: One who wrestles with God. And then the stranger disappeared. But I knew that God had been with me that night. And that day, when I met my brother, I wasn’t afraid anymore. We hugged each other, and cried, and forgave each other. 

MIRANDA: Thank you for sharing your story, Jacob! We also might think it’s Doubt when we don’t have all the answers. When there are things we don’t understand – things in the world or in our lives. Those moments when you have a friend who just found out she’s really sick, and you’re worried for her, and you just don’t understand why people get sick. Why do we have to suffer?

KING DAVID: Oh, I feel you. I remember some times when I really felt like that. 

MIRANDA: King David! My goodness! It’s an honor to meet you. You were the most famous king of Israel, and most of the Psalms were written by you or by musicians in your court.

KING DAVID: True, true.

MIRANDA: You’re telling me you had times when you were overwhelmed by suffering and confusion? But you’re famous for your deep faith. How did you talk to God, in those times? 

KING DAVID: Actually, writing poetry about it was one of the ways I handled it. Here’s a song I wrote during a tough time. You know it as Psalm 102. 

O God, hear my prayer, and let my cry come before you! Don’t hide your face from me in the day of my trouble. Turn your ear towards me; when I call, hurry and answer me. For my days drift away like smoke,  and my bones feel as hot as burning coals. My heart feels as dry and brittle as withered grass; I even forget to eat my bread; I am skin and bones. I have become like a vulture in the wilderness, like an owl among the ruins. I lie awake and groan; I am like a sparrow, lonely on a house-top. But you, O God, endure for ever, and your Name from age to age. You will arise and have compassion on your people  – for now is the time to have mercy! 

MIRANDA: Wow. Thank you. I think I should read some more of your poetry. 

KING DAVID [modestly]: I have been told that many people find it consoling. 

MIRANDA: Even in your worst moments, you turned towards God. And you weren’t afraid to tell God about it when you were hurting. So… being sad and fearful and confused, and even angry, is not the same thing as doubting God? 

KING DAVID: Not at all. If I doubted God, why would I cry out to God about my troubles? I trust God. That’s why I can complain.

MIRANDA: Wait. You just said you trust God. Jacob said that too. Don’t you mean, you believe in God? 

KING DAVID: I… don’t understand the question. 

MIRANDA: Well, in modern English, to believe means that you think something is true. Like, Cheetahs are the fastest animals. True or not true? True! Trust is different. Trust means you know that somebody is there for you, you know they are who they claim to be and will keep their commitments. You could say that belief is in your brain, and trust is in your heart – and in your relationship with somebody. 

KING DAVID: Hmmm. I see the problem. In Hebrew, the language I speak, we don’t have this… brain-only belief idea. Where you say “believe” in God, our words mean: trust God, hope in God, rely on God, seek safety in God, commit to God… How can you have a relationship with God, or anybody else, with only your brain? 

MIRANDA: That’s a good question… Thank you, O King! Hmm. But if we shift from thinking about believing in God with our brains… to trusting God with our hearts and our lives… then what do we mean by doubt?

JAMES: May I be of assistance?

MIRANDA: Excuse me – who are you?

JAMES: I am James, the brother of Jesus. I wrote a letter that’s included in the New Testament…. About what it really means to live as a person of faith. 

MIRANDA: Of course! It’s an honor to meet you. 

JAMES: I began that letter by reminding fellow Christians to stay faithful in the face of persecution – and even take joy in suffering for Christ’s sake. I said, If you need wisdom, ask God, who gives us what we need with generosity. And ask in faith, without doubting; for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind.The doubter is double-minded and unstable in every way. Double-minded – that’s what I mean by doubt. Split between too many things. Trying to believe two contradictory things at the same time, or believing one thing but acting like you believed something else.

I really started thinking about doubt this way after that time when Jesus called Peter to walk on the water. It worked fine as long as Peter stayed focused on Jesus. But when he started to let his attention wander, he got scared; he lost direction; and he started to sink. Jesus grabbed him, of course – and said, “Why did you doubt?” 

Jesus didn’t mind when we had questions. Sometimes he was annoyed when we didn’t understand – but, to be fair, we were pretty slow on the uptake. He was mostly pretty patient about explaining again, and again, and again. His call on us wasn’t to have it all figured out, but to put our heart into it. To commit. That’s why I think the real meaning of doubt is trying to live by two different, contradictory scripts at the same time. 

MIRANDA: I definitely know what double-mindedness feels like. And that’s probably my biggest struggle with faithful living. I trust in God’s goodness and love. I know God is here among us, right now. But… I get distracted by many things. I get busy. I lose focus and purpose. I get double-minded, and lose my glad singleness of heart. 

But what about Thomas? The one everybody calls Doubting Thomas. That’s why we’re talking about doubt today. What can we learn about doubt from Doubting Thomas? 

THOMAS: Please don’t call me that.

MIRANDA: Oh, hello! Are you… the apostle Thomas? 

THOMAS: Yes, that’s me. 

MIRANDA: Why don’t you tell us your story? 

THOMAS: Well, okay, it’s like this.  Jesus rose from the dead. You know that part, right?  Mary Magdalene told the disciples that she had seen him. But nobody really believed her. [shrugs]

Then one evening most of the old crowd got together. Suddenly Jesus was there among them. He showed them the wounds in his hands and his side – proof that it was really him, not an impostor, not a ghost. They were really happy to see him, of course!

I wasn’t there that night; I was visiting my mother. And when I heard about what happened, I just couldn’t believe it. My heart had been broken by Jesus’ death. I wanted to believe, do you understand? But I was afraid to hope. I told them, “Until I can touch the wounds in his hands, I just can’t believe that he’s alive.”

A week later we were all together, sharing memories. And suddenly – he was there! Jesus! In the room with us! Not an impostor, not a ghost.  And he walked right up to me and held out his hand. It was like he’d heard what I said to the others. He told me, “Here, touch the wound in my hand. Don’t be afraid, Thomas – trust: it’s really me.”

My heart felt like it might burst. I said, “My Lord! My God!” I was so glad to see him – and so grateful that he understood that I couldn’t just rely on second-hand stories. That I needed to see him myself. 

MIRANDA : Thank you for telling your story, Thomas! It reminds me a little bit of my own story. I grew up in church. I was always surrounded by people who believed in God – trusted in God. I heard their stories of times when they’d heard God’s voice or met God, in so many different ways. That was important for me, as I grew up. 

But it was also really important for me to meet God myself. To have my own times when I felt God close by, or heard God’s voice in my heart or in someone else’s words. 

What I’m saying, Thomas, is that what happened for you, and what happened for me, is what I want for all our kids and youth – and grownups, too! We should all have our own meetings with God, with Jesus, with the Holy Spirit. And we should be a community where we can tell those stories, and encourage each other – whether we’re wrestling like Jacob, or crying out to God like King David, or feeling double-minded, or seeking a clearer sense of God in our lives. 

Friends, we wonder about God and seek God at every age – but the teenage years are an especially important time for seeking your own understanding of faith and your own experiences of God. So later this morning we are trying out a new custom: of celebrating that we have young people moving into that exciting season, and committing to being their companions on that journey.

For our teens, Friday night youth group is their primary faith community. Some of them also participate in church on Sunday morning – but mostly at the 10am service. But some of you know some of them. And you may find opportunities to know them better, and be one of the faithful grownups in their lives. – faithful both in the sense of having your own faith story and faith questions to share, and faithful in sticking with them through the challenges of young adulthood. 

I ask you to make a commitment to our youth today: to be unafraid of questions; to speak honestly from our own lives and hearts, instead of saying what we think grownups are supposed to say; and to be brave enough to wonder with them. 

And if their questions and their vision stretches or challenges us, we will rise to it; because we love them, and we trust that God is at work in their lives, and, through them, in the life of this church. 

Friends, will we make this commitment to our young people today? 

WE WILL!

MIRANDA: Names, we acknowledge that as you move into young adulthood, you are thinking about what your church and your faith have offered you in new ways. As you think about God and yourself and the world, you’ll probably have new thoughts and new questions. Like Jacob, you may find yourself wrestling with God; like Thomas, you may find that second-hand faith isn’t good enough for you, and seek your own experience of the Divine. We, as your household of faith, affirm this journey and this work.  At your baptisms, your churches promised to do all in our power to support you in your life in Christ. Today, that means making space for your maturing, and all that it involves. 

What we ask of you is to trust us as companions on this journey. Trust us with the little questions, the things you think you’re probably already supposed to know. You’d be surprised how many of us wonder, too. Trust us with the big questions, knowing that we have wrestled with them too; and that even though some of those big questions don’t have easy answers, we find purpose and truth here. Seek out friends among the grownups of this household of faith, and call on us for support and wondering together. And if it ever starts to feel like this church is too small for you, I invite you to talk to me or another trusted grownup here; we may be able to show you doors into rooms you didn’t even know about. (Metaphorically speaking!) 

Friends, will you make this commitment today? I invite you respond, We will. 

We will. 

Loving God, we commit all our struggle, our lament, our double-mindedness and our seeking to you, trusting that Scripture, tradition, and community are worthy companions on the way; that God is mystery enough to keep us wondering for a lifetime; and that Jesus Christ is Friend enough to walk with us through this and every season. Amen. 

Announcements, April 18 – Holy Week

HOLY WEEK

Thursday, April 18, 6:00pm: Maundy Thursday Meal & Worship

This is a great liturgy for all ages – it moves from joyful to solemn, with lots of participation and symbolism.  If you wish, bring an offering in coins to remind us of Judas’ betrayal.

Night Watch: From 8:30pm to midnight on Thursday, April 18, following our Maundy Thursday service, and from 6am to noon on Good Friday, April 19, members of St. Dunstan’s will keep vigil of prayer in the church, in pairs. Sign up in the Gathering Area for your desired shift. Talk with Connie Ott with any questions. The church is locked in the evening for safety.

Friday, April 19 – Good Friday.

12pm & 7pm: Formal Good Friday services with Passion Gospel of John

2pm: Stations of the Cross Walk.  Starts at the church; walk will be slightly over a mile.

4pm: Children’s Stations of the Cross

Following the 7pm liturgy, several prayer stations for quiet meditation will be offered.

Saturday, April 20 – 8pm: Great Vigil of Easter

The Easter Vigil is great for older kids who can handle a late night (we wrap up around 10pm). We tell ancient holy stories by firelight, then sing and shout a lot!

Sunday, April 21 – Easter Sunday

An egg hunt for children follows both the 8am & 10am services. At 10am we will celebrate the Rite of Holy Baptism with baby Hope and her family.

Holy Week Offerings

Every year, our Holy Week offerings – gifts given at these particular liturgies – are given to help specific organizations. This year the offerings will be given as follows: 

Maundy Thursday – Briarpatch youth services:  Briarpatch provides resources, emergency shelter, access to restorative justice programs and job trainings to help homeless youth reach safety and success.  

Good Friday – GSAFE – Gay Straight Advocates for Education: GSAFE increases the capacity of LGBTQ+ students, educators and families to create schools in WI where all youth thrive.  

The Easter Vigil – Episcopal Relief and Development: Episcopal Relief & Development works closely with partners almost 40 countries worldwide to address global challenges like poverty, hunger, and disease.

St. Dunstan’s Easter Egg Hunt 2019:  As a response to the call to reduce single-use plastics (which includes trinkets that are only interesting when first found), we’re trying something new with our egg hunt this year. Eggs will contain plastic tokens, which kids are invited to put into one of three jars – for Briarpatch Youth Services, GSAFE, and Episcopal Relief and Development, the same three organizations that will receive our Holy Week special offerings. Kids can choose how to distribute their tokens, and later, St. Dunstan’s will send an additional gift to those organizations based on the kids’ choices. We will also be giving out small goody bags containing a little nut-free candy, stickers, and such. We will have some non-candy bags available upon request. Please talk to Rev. Miranda or Krissy Mayer if you have questions, concerns, or ideas!

THE WEEKS AHEAD…

“Why Religion?” Weekly Book Group Discussion, Wednesdays at 9:30am, starting April 24: The Wednesday morning book group is starting a new book, Why Religion, by Elaine Pagels. Quoting a review of the book, “Why is religion still around in the twenty-first century? …This question took on a new urgency for Pagels when dealing with unimaginable loss—the death of her young son, followed a year later by the shocking loss of her husband. Here she interweaves a personal story with the work that she loves, illuminating how, for better and worse, religious traditions have shaped how we understand ourselves” It should be an interesting read. Please feel welcome to join the discussion even if you don’t have the book. The group meets at 9:30 on Wednesday morning in the meeting room at St. Dunstan’s. For more information, you can contact Valerie or Peg Geisler.

Ladies’ Night Out, Friday, April 26, 6pm: Come join us for good food and good conversation among women of all ages from St. Dunstan’s. This month we will meet at The Village Green at 7508 Hubbard Ave., Middleton. For more information please contact Kathy Whitt.

Last Sunday All-Ages Worship, Sunday, April 28, 10am: Our last Sunday worship is intended especially to help kids (and grownups who are new to our pattern of worship) to engage and participate fully. This month we’ll explore the concept of Doubt.

Bite Size Climate, Sunday, April 28, 11:50 – 12:10: Many of us are fearful and sad about climate change and its many impacts. An important first step towards change is to be informed citizens who understand the issue and can talk about it with others – since we’ll all need to work together for change. Adults, kids, and youth are all invited to a series of twenty-minute (we promise!) gatherings to watch a short video, talk, and pray together. Over time, we’ll expand our understanding and commitment in bite-sized chunks. We’ll meet in the Meeting Room after 10am worship on Sundays when children’s choir doesn’t meet. May & summer dates TBA!

“The Death and Life of the Great Lakes,” Book Group Discussion, Saturday, May 4, 10am: The monthly Saturday morning book group will meet to discuss an award-winning book of science and history, examining the past, present, and future of the Great Lakes. St. Dunstan’s members with an interest in ecology and creation care are invited to join the regular Saturday group to discuss this book. To participate, read The Death and Life of the Great Lakes (Dan Egan, 2017) by May 4! If you’d like to buy the book and cost is a barrier, talk to Rev. Miranda. Please note, the Saturday book group has traditionally been known as the “Men’s Book Group” but it is open to everyone!

Groundbreaking Sunday, 9am, Sunday, May 5: We wondered, planned, raised money, prepared – and now it’s time to begin! The Open Door Project, a major renovation to improve the comfort, safety, beauty, and usability of our church buildings, is about to begin. We will kick it off on Sunday, May 5, with a ceremony between services at 9am, and photo opportunities both between services and after the 10am service. Mark your calendar and plan to attend!

Sunday School at St. Dunstan’s: Our Sunday school classes usually meet twice a month; we will meet on May 12 and 19th, during our 10am liturgy. Kids ages 3 through 6th grade are welcome to join one of our three classes. Parents are welcome to come too!

Middleton outreach Ministry (MOM) Needs Clothing Donations: Middleton Outreach Ministry (MOM) has a clothing closet with gently used clothing available at no cost for their clients. Their racks  for infants and toddlers are quite low at this time. During your spring cleaning, if you find any clothing for newborn to 4T that you no longer need please consider bringing them to church and we will deliver them to MOM. Questions? -Connie Ott or Janet Bybee

SUMMER OPPORTUNITIES… 

VACATION BIBLE SCHOOL 2019: SAVE THE DATES – AUGUST 4 – 8! Plans are just starting to take shape but we expect to spent a lot of time outdoors, and to invite the adults of St. Dunstan’s to join our kids and youth for shared learning and fun, as we did in 2018. Mark your calendars!

Seeking Sponsors for our Kids & Youth: Your $25 sponsorship helps one of the children or youth of St. Dunstan’s attend Camp Webb or our summer youth mission trip. Each shareholder will receive a postcard from one of our kids or youth, during their time at camp or on the youth mission trip. We also plan a late summer social event for kids and sponsors, when kids can share about their trips.  You can contribute with a check in the offering plate with “Camp Sponsorship” on the memo line, or online at donate.stdunstans.com .

Camp Webb 2019 (June 16 – 22) is accepting applications now! Camp Webb is an outdoor ministry of the Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee, for children and youth grades 3 through senior high. It is held at a camp outside Elkhorn, WI. Camp tuition is $400, with a deposit of $100 due at the time of registration. St. Dunstan’s offers $150 in aid to all our campers, with additional assistance possible; contact Rev. Miranda for financial assistance. http://www.diomil.org/forming-disciples/children-youth-and-family-ministries/camp-webb/ for registration forms. Camp Webb IS EXPECTED TO FILL this year, so apply soon!

Women’s Mini-Week, August 8 – 11: The mission of Women’s Mini-Week is to provide an annual retreat event for adult women, offering refuge, friendship, relaxation, and fun. Mini-Week combines opportunities to learn with fellowship, spiritual exploration and delicious food as we invite all women to participate as much or as little as they would like and need. Mini-Week is held at a beautiful lakeside camp in northern Wisconsin. Many members of St. Dunstan’s have attended, planned, and led, over the years. Visit womensminiweek.org to learn more and make Mini-Week part of your summer plans.

Sermon, April 7

A certain man became ill. His name was Lazarus, and he lived in the village of Bethany, in the hills just west of Jerusalem, in the region of Judea. His sisters lived there too, in the same vilalge, keeping house together – Mary and Martha. Neither of them had ever married – Mary couldn’t be bothered; she didn’t want the things other women wanted – a home of her own, children underfoot. Her mind and heart were always wandering off from the present moment to dwell with the great Mystery at the center of things. And Martha – well, somebody needed to look after Mary and Lazarus. 

People got sick a lot, in those days. And illnesses we can prevent or treat easily, often killed people. When Lazarus got sick, his sisters were worried. But they had a friend whom they hoped could help: Jesus of Nazareth. I wish we knew how they became friends, Jesus and the siblings from Bethany, but we know it was an important friendship. Luke records the famous story of Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet as Martha prepares food, while John gives us the stories I’m telling now. So the sisters write to Jesus: “Master, your friend whom you love is ill.” They’ve heard about his powers, though they may not yet have seen them firsthand. They trust that he could help Lazarus – if he came.

But he doesn’t come. He gets the message all right. And he loves Martha and Mary and Lazarus, all right. But he stays where he is – preaching and performing acts of wonder near the River Jordan – for two more days. Two long days… during which Lazarus got sicker, and died. During which his sisters washed his body, weeping, and wrapped him in linen cloths, and laid him in a tomb, and sealed the door with a great stone, and began the long hard work of figuring out how to live after the loss of a loved one. 

Then, on the third day, out of the blue, Jesus says to his disciples, “Let’s go to Judea. Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going to wake him up.” His disciples are concerned; Bethany is very close to Jerusalem, where various leaders are plotting to murder Jesus if he shows his face. They say, “If Lazarus is asleep, he’ll be fine! He doesn’t need you.” Jesus realizes he has to drop the euphemisms. He tells them, “Lazarus is dead. But all of this has happened so that God may be glorified.” Then he says some stuff about how if you walk in the light you will not stumble. The disciples look at each other, shrug. If Jesus is going to die, might as well die with him. And they all set out for Bethany. 

By the time they arrive, Lazarus has already been in the tomb for four days. Bethany is packed with people; many friends and extended family have come out from Jerusalem to mourn with Martha and Mary. Jesus and his disciples stay just outside the town, and send word quietly to the sisters that they have arrived. When the message reaches her, Martha excuses herself from a knot of anxious aunties and goes to him. 

She says, “Master. If you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now, I know that God will give you whatever you ask.” Jesus tells her, “Your brother will rise again.”  She answers, “Yes, of course, I know he will rise again when all those who have died in God rise to new life on the last day.” Jesus says, “I am the New Life, Martha. Everyone who trusts in me will live, even if they die. Do you believe this?” And Martha, trembling, says to her friend who is also her God:  “Yes. I believe that you are the Anointed One, Son of God, the One coming into the world.” 

Then Martha goes and slips into the house, and calls Mary away from those who are gathered to console her. Several of them follow her. She runs to Jesus and falls at his feet, and cries out, “Master. If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” She’s weeping, and those who came with her are weeping, and tears are contagious; Jesus starts to weep too. Maybe his God-self has been so focused on the gathering miracle that his human-self hadn’t felt the loss until that moment. But now, he weeps. Some of the onlookers say, “Look, he really loved Lazarus!” But others say, “If he cared so much, why didn’t he come heal him?”

He asks them to lead him to the tomb – a cave, sealed by a stone. They expect him to pay his respects, say his goodbyes. Instead he says, “Take away the stone.” Martha, blessed Martha, ever practical, says, “Master, his body has been there for four days. There will be a terrible smell.” Jesus says, Martha. Trust in me. So they roll away the stone. And Jesus looks up towards heaven and prays out loud: “Father, show this crowd that you have sent me.” Then he shouts into the tomb: “Lazarus, come out!”

A long, still, incredulous moment. Then – horror, wonder – sounds from within the dark of the cave. A dim shape, shuffling into the light – face, hands and feet still bound in cloth. The crowd gasps, steps back.  Jesus laughs. “Unbind the poor man,” he says, “and let him go.” 

Was there a smell, I wonder? The text does not reveal the mechanics of the miracle. Did Lazarus’ body begin the normal course of decay in a warm climate, only to be abruptly and totally reversed? Or did he wait in divine suspended animation, only mostly dead, anticipating Jesus’ call? If there was a smell, it would have been rich and rank. We’ve all smelled it – roadkill, or a dead mouse in the walls. The odor of death. 

Imagine their joy, the sisters and their beloved brother! Psalm 126 gives us words for their incredulous, dazed delight – the way you feel when the worst had happened, but then, suddenly, things turn. “When God restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream! Our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongues with shouts of joy! God has done great things for us. Those who sowed with tears will harvest with shouts of joy.”

But not everyone is joyful. There’s an anxious meeting in Jerusalem the next day. Word of this wondrous act – Jesus’ most amazing yet – has reached the chief priests, and they gather to strategize. They say, “What are we to do? This man Jesus is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him. There will be unrest among the people, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation. Surely it’s better for one man to die for the sake of the people, than to have the whole nation destroyed.”  And they give orders that anyone who sees Jesus in Jerusalem should let them know, so they can have him arrested and deal with this threat. 

Jesus and his friends leave the Jerusalem area, but not long. Just a few days later, they’re back in Bethany. Lazarus has invited Jesus to dinner – a feast in his honor. Martha, of course, does the cooking and serves the guests, but she doesn’t mind, much – this is how she can show her friend and Lord how she feels about having her brother restored to her. Mary has a plan to show her gratitude, as well. 

While Jesus is reclining at table with Lazarus and others, Mary brings some expensive ointment, made from nard, an exotic and fragrant plant from the far East. She kneels beside Jesus. She anoints Jesus’ feet, rubbing in the rich ointment. Then she looses her long hair – women wore their hair up, and covered – she unbinds her hair, and uses it to wipe Jesus’ feet. Foot-washing was a common act of hospitality; people wore sandals and streets were dusty and often filthy. But this is more, and other, than that common gesture.This is powerful, and excessive, and uncomfortably intimate. 

I imagine the people nearest noticing, falling silent. The silence spreads around the room until everyone is watching. If you come to Maundy Thursday services, maybe you know that silence, the silence that gathers around each foot-washing station even though there’s music playing and people singing elsewhere in the room. We enter that silence one by one as we come to sit and be washed; to kneel, and wash. 

The adults are hesitant, self-conscious. The kids are utterly present and utterly serious. This is big work, deep magic, and they know how to do it. The silence in the room at Bethany would have had all that woven together -awkwardness, confusion, recognition, awe. 

This time, there is a smell: the smell of the perfume. It fills the whole house, rich and heavy. It smells like pine needles baking in the sun, like the cool earth of a forest floor, like the insistent sweetness of night flowers. Mary’s using a whole POUND of the stuff; it’s almost choking, overwhelming the smells of roast meat and garlic and warm bread. It gets into your nose and stays there, like the scent of incense. The smell of humanity, urgent with gratitude and awe, offering up the best we have. The odor of devotion. Of love. 

It makes Judas’ head swim. It’s too much. Why are his eyes watering? He’s not weeping; it’s the damn perfume. It’s the excess, the shameless waste of it all. He blurts out, “That could have been sold for three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor!” 

Jesus looks at him. Imagine that gaze – compassion, grief, resignation – as he looks upon his friend, his betrayer. Leave her alone, says Jesus. She bought this ointment for the day of my burial. You will always have the opportunity to respond to the needs of the poor. But I will not always be here.

The next day, Jesus entered Jerusalem as a crowd, frenzied with joy and expectation, waved palms and shouted, Hosanna! We’ll tell that chapter together, here, next Sunday. 

A sermon is supposed to involve some combination of exegesis and explanation. Exegesis is a fancy word for unpacking a text from Scripture, explaining and clarifying – where clarity is to be had. I’ve offered exegesis today simply by telling this story in its fullness. The lectionary gives it to us broken – the raising of Lazarus will come to us on a Sunday in Lent next year, while we have Mary’s anointing of Jesus this Sunday. Those two smells, the smell of death and the smell of devotion, separated by a year instead of 20 verses. 

But as for application… This is not a text that is amenable to paring out some portable moral lesson to carry home and into our daily lives. Sometimes we turn to the Wondering question used in our Godly Play classroom downstairs: Where are you in this story? Certainly we find ourselves more readily in the story if we can recall moments when we’ve been overwhelmed with grief, or gratitude – 

Or when we’ve stood by perplexed or outraged by the depth of someone else’s emotions. That can be a wonderful way to dwell with a narrative from Scripture, let it settle into our minds and hearts, our very bones. 

But I don’t know, friends – who’s ridden a roller coaster? We’re not at the top of the big hill yet – that’s next Sunday – but we are going up, click click click click, feeling the angle pull us back against our seats, watching treetops fall behind us, gripping the bar. Soon. This story, in John’s Gospel, the raising and the feast, is a heart and a pivot: it gathers together what has already happened, it points ahead to what is coming, and it turns the story towards the cross. In this chapter and a half, we have so much that foreshadows what’s ahead: Devotion and betrayal. A feast; a death; a tomb; a stone rolled away; a resurrection. A body wrapped in cloths for burial; a body lovingly anointed with fragrant oil. A week later – only a week! – Jesus will be anointed again, with myrrh and aloes and spices, and wrapped in linen, and laid in a tomb. 

Maybe rather than trying to find ourselves in the story, right now, we should be trying to let the story find us. For this little time, these strange, demanding, aching, glorious days ahead that are the pivot of the church’s year, the heart of Christian faith, may we let the Story become the center from which we view our lives, rather than vice versa. Beloveds, it’s close now; can you feel the pull of its gravity? This is the Great Story, the Big Mystery. Interpretations falter. Explanations fail. God is about to do a new thing. 

 

 

Richard Swanson’s commentary on this text:

https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2016/03/06/a-provocation-fifth-sunday-in-lent-year-c-john-121-8/

Sermon, March 10

The word is very near you, on your lips and in your heart. 

The apostle Paul, in the letter to the Romans, is hitting one of his core themes here: that it’s equally possible for Jews or Gentiles to become Christians, because it’s a religion of heart, not of background or ethnicity – of being a particular kind of person. He’s quoting the Old Testament Book of Deuteronomy, from a passage that is saying something a little bit different – this text is telling the people Israel, LOOK, you know what it means to live in God’s ways… just STICK TO IT.  The book of Deuteronomy places itself on the brink of a new chapter in Israel’s life, as they enter the Promised Land. It calls them to stay faithful to God and God’s commandments, as they leave their wilderness time to become a settled nation. 

Here’s that passage from the 30th chapter of Deuteronomy:  “Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.” (Deut 30:11-14) Yes, the sarcasm is there in the text! The ancient Jews had many specific practices as part of their faith, but the heart of it was simple: Be faithful to God; live with justice and mercy as God has called you. The book of Deuteronomy says again and again: Choose life. Choose faithfulness. Choose righteousness. Choose the things that give you life. 

The word is very near you; it is in your heart for you to observe.

This is the first Sunday in the season of Lent, a season of preparation leading up to Easter. For centuries, Lent has been observed as a special time of self-examination and penitence – meaning, reflecting on where I have not lived up to God’s intentions for me and my intentions for myself; making amends and trying to do better. Christians often take on particular practices in Lent, focusing especially on fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. Fasting means setting something aside for the season, and offering the space it leaves to God. It might be giving up a particular food like sweets or meat, but it can be other things too. You might want to ask yourself, Is there something in my life that has more hold over me than I want it to? And commit to quitting or reducing that for a season. I’m quitting Twitter for Lent this year – and I’m saying that in front of all of you because I expect it to be hard, and I need the accountability! But I want to reclaim that time in my daily life, and spent it with my loved ones, myself, and God. 

Almsgiving is a wonderful old-fashioned word that just means, sharing with those in need. A lot of you do that on a regular basis already. But maybe there’s an opportunity to do more, this season. Some people link a Lenten fast to a practice of giving.For example, students at Virginia Theological Seminary invented “Menstrual Madness” last March. People fasted from things that cost money, like eating out or espresso drinks, and used the money saved to buy feminine hygiene products for local food pantries. 

And then there’s prayer. Turning our hearts towards God. Saying whatever we need to say – be it, Help! Thanks! Or Sorry! And listening to what God might have to say to us. The word is very near you; it is in your heart…

I encourage you to consider taking on a Lenten practice of some kind. It’s not too late; Lent is still just beginning!  The first Sunday or Monday in Lent are great times to start a Lenten discipline.  And I’d like to offer you a practice – a practice of prayer that trusts that God’s word is very near us, in our hearts. 

This practice of prayer was developed by a young man named Inigo. (Not the one you’re thinking of!) Inigo was born in the year 1491, the youngest son of a noble Spanish family.  As a young man, he became a knight, a soldier. One biography describes him as “a fancy dresser, an expert dancer, a womanizer, sensitive to insult, and a rough punkish swordsman who used his privileged status to escape prosecution” when he committed crimes. (Traub & Mooney via Wikipedia) Writing later in life, Inigo described his young self as “a man given to the vanities of the world, whose chief delight consisted in martial exercises, with a great and vain desire to win renown.”

Now, in 1521, when he was 30 years old, Inigo was helping defend a fortress from French soldiers when he was struck by a cannonball, breaking both his legs. He ended up confined to his rooms for many weeks of recovery. During that time he had access to only two books, one on the life of Christ, and one on the lives of the saints. Sometimes he would read this edifying material and reflect on it. And sometimes he would daydream about the life he’d left behind, his glory days of wine, women, and war. 

Over the weeks, Inigo noticed something. The daydreams about his former life were exciting. But they left him feeling exhausted, dissatisfied, and sad. Whereas when he dwelt with the stories of Jesus and the saints, and imagined making his own pilgrimage to Jerusalem someday to see where Jesus had walked – well, those kinds of thoughts left him feeling cheerful, calm, and hopeful. 

He began to think that this could be a spiritual tool – to notice what you feel within yourself, in relation to particular thoughts, actions, or events; and to use those feelings as teachers and guides. The feelings of weariness, sadness, or dissatisfaction, he called desolation; the feelings of peace, joy, and hope, he called   consolation. When he was well, Inigo – known to history as Ignatius of Loyola – visited a shrine to the Virgin Mary, and there hung up his sword for good. He became a pilgrim, a scholar, and a priest. He wrote about consolation and desolation in a book called the Spiritual Exercises; and he founded the Jesuit order. (He’s one of the Lent Madness saints this year, so you can learn more about him by picking up one of those booklets or following the Lent Madness website!) 

Inigo’s approach to reflecting on our lives and noticing our moments of consolation and desolation is known as the Examen. And that’s the practice of prayer I’d like to invite you to try. It has the great advantage of being both simple, and powerful. 

A core premise of the Examen is that God speaks within us. That, indeed, the divine Word is very near you – not up in the sky or beyond the sea, but dwelling in your heart of hearts. That listening attentively to ourselves, to our deepest yearnings, joys, and struggles, is also a way of listening for God. In their wonderful book about the Examen, called Sleeping with Bread, Dennis, Shiela, and Matthew Linn write, “As you do the examen, you are listening to both God and yourself, since God speaks within your deepest experience.” 

The practice of the Examen is very simple. (You don’t have to take notes, I have a guide for you!) People usually do it towards the end of the day – after dinner, or as people prepare for bedtime, or even right before turning off the lights. Find a time that fits the shape of your day and the rhythms of your household. Light a candle.  This helps mark that you’re setting aside a few moments of special time; and the flame represents the light of divine revelation in our everyday experience. (Linn, p. 19) Take a little silence – maybe three deep breaths in and out – to let some clutter clear out of your mind. It might help you to put your hand on your heart. Ask yourself (or each other) two questions. For what moment today am I most grateful? For what moment today am I least grateful? When you’ve spent time with the questions, wrap up your time in prayer. It can be as simple as, “God, thank you for the good things, and help us with the hard things. Amen.” 

There are other ways to frame the two questions: When was I most able to give and receive love today? When was I least able to give or receive love today? When did I feel most alive today? When did I feel life draining out of me today?What was today’s high point? What was today’s low point? 

For some of us, listening to our bodies could be an important part of this practice.  I know that for me, I often realize that I’m stressed or upset or sad because I feel it in my body. My brain is busy saying, Okay, okay, this is fine, I got this, we can cope. But I also get that feeling like there’s a big ball of ice in my stomach, or my chest tightens up. I need to listen to my body to know how I feel, because I can’t always trust my brain. Or have you had the experience of talking about something and, suddenly, there’s a lump in your throat or tears in your eyes? It might be something bad or good – I’ve had it happen in both directions. You had no idea it was affecting you so much. But your deeper self knew. This is pretty common; lots of us can’t trust our brains and need to pay attention to our whole self, including our body, to know how we really are. 

The practice of the Examen has gifts and challenges for everyone. Someone who is pessimistic, negative or stressed needs the invitation to notice joys and blessings – the consolations. But there is meaning in the hard moments, the desolations, too! In Sleeping with Bread, one of the authors says, “My addiction (which I call ‘Peace at Any Price’) is always be grateful and happy and never rock the boat. Thus I need the Examen to help me acknowledge feelings of sadness and pain and hear how God is speaking through them.” (11) 

Dwelling with our desolations can be hard. The Examen invites us to simply acknowledge our worst moments, without judgment, breathing in God’s love. (30) Ignatius teaches that when we’re reflecting on a moment when we acted in a way we wish we hadn’t, we should try to understand the story of that moment. How did it begin? How did you get there? And… what would it look like for that story to be resolved? (49) Here’s an example: Many of us end up snapping at friends or  loved ones, when we are tired or stressed. So the story of those moments might include some kind of strain in the relationship that could be examined and resolved – but it also includes our exhaustion, another real spiritual burden. 

Being gentle with yourself is important. If something really hard is coming up, it’s OK to dwell with it a little at a time, and then tell it kindly that you’ll spend more time with it tomorrow. And if something’s emerging that you need help with, look for help! But dwelling with the hard moments – even the trivial, everyday hard moments – is a crucial first step. 

Dwelling with joy can be hard too. Some of us have internalized deeply that happiness isn’t for us, that the right thing to do is always the hard thing to do. But the Examen assumes that, like our desolations, our consolations have something important to tell us. Those moments when we feel deeply joyful or profoundly peaceful, fully alive, fully engaged – that’s not frivolous, those aren’t just moments of escape from gritty reality. They matter, and they mean something. 

The Examen is fundamentally a daily practice of reflecting back on the past twelve hours or so. But over time, engaged faithfully, it can become much more. It can guide our choices and our lives. If we sustain the practice, we may start to notice patterns. If you spot many similar moments of joy, is there a call or invitation there? Could you shift things so there’s more of that in your life? And likewise, if similar desolations surface often, they may point us towards the need to undertake some change in our lives. Sleeping with Bread says, “Insignificant moments when looked at each day become significant because they form a pattern that often points the way to how God wants to give us more life.” (17) Choose the things that give you life….  

And when taken on as a habit over time, the Examen can just make it easier to be in touch with our own hearts, our own deeper selves. And to trust your own sense of what feels right or not-right. Knowing ourselves helps us say No to things that aren’t right for us – and Yes to things that are. Just like Jesus in today’s Gospel – he had the clarity and courage to say No to the temptations that Satan set before him. They were things he wanted! Bread – he was hungry!Power and authority – he wanted to change the world! Proof of God’s protection – he knew his work was dangerous! But Jesus knew his own soul; he knew the Father’s purposes for him. And he was able to say, This is not for me. The Examen can help us face temptations and tough decisions – the big ones, but also the small ones we face every day. 

As with any spiritual practice, the biggest challenge is making it routine, finding a way to just weave it into the texture of life. We’ve been doing a very simple version of this as our family prayers before Iona goes to bed, on the evenings when everybody is home. We share our Ups and Downs, borrowed from the youth group’s practice of prayer. I hope that in this season we’ll lean into it a little more. 

But what about the evenings when we’re not all home? I need the Examen on those days too. But I’m usually the one who’s out, and I come home tired. I worry that thinking back over the day – especially a hard day – will upset me or get my mind whirling as I’m trying to wind down. But having read more about how the Examen works, I’m going to give it a try, even on those nights. To see if I can sit in the gentle light of holy truth, even when I’m weary or anxious or frustrated.

The Examen works well alone. It also works well with others. And it’s intergenerational – it works with kids, youth, and adults. When members of a household share this practice, it may not only benefit the individuals, but could help with mutual understanding within the household. The book Sleeping with Bread offers the example of one family’s evening Examen: one child’s BEST moment is when he sprayed his sister with the hose. It turns out that was his sister’s WORST moment. Some reconciliation was necessary! 

When I first started thinking about offering the Examen as a spiritual practice to all of you this Lent, I thought I could do it with a little talk at the announcements, as I handed out our handy-dandy Examen Sheets. But I read more about it, and thought more about it, I became convinced that there was more to say. 

Maybe God has already handed you a Lenten practice for this season – that happens. Or maybe your life right now is such that committing to a practice feels impossible. I’ve been there. If that’s you, maybe you can just try it out once or twice in the weeks ahead, with a friend or just with yourself: What was good today? What was hard? But I do invite you to try it, one way or another. Because tuning in to ourselves and to God speaking within us is, simply, foundational – and especially in light of the Lenten call to self-examination, penitence, and amendment of life. It can be all too easy to accept other people’s definitions of what’s wrong with us, what we need to fix about ourselves. But a lot of what we receive from others and from our culture, about how to be good or valued, is shallow or disordered. Or even if there’s some truth to it, it might not be the direction your life is leading you. The practice of the Examen is a tool for seeking what your own daily life is telling you about where God wants to give you more more wholeness. More direction. More joy. 

And that’s why, in this season, I invite you to a practice of observing the consolations and desolations of your daily life, a practice of holy listening to your deepest self. Because the Word is very near you;  it dwells in your heart, to help you choose the things that give you life.

Sleeping with Bread: Holding what Gives you Life, Dennis Linn, Sheila Fabricant Linn, and Matthew Linn, Paulist Press, 1995.

Sermon, Feb. 17

Is there MORE? 

It’s one of the fundamental questions, isn’t it? I’m not talking about a human More, an earthly More. More Nordstrom Rewards points. More hours at the gym. More take-home pay. No, I mean the big More. The one we can’t see or touch, but wonder about – especially when we feel alone, when we’re grieving, or when we’re overwhelmed by joy, or awe, or gratitude. Is there a Beyond? An After? A Better? Is there More? 

In today’s Epistle, Paul is arguing with the church in Corinth about one piece of the More question – the After. He’s talking about resurrection. Will the dead rise again, in God? Paul is saying, This isn’t just one point on a list of things Christians are supposed to believe. It’s the heart of the thing. Because if there’s no resurrection of the dead – if death is, simply and universally, final – then Jesus didn’t rise from the dead. And if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, then how do we know that he was who he said he was? That his testimony about the nature of God and cosmos and humanity carried any more weight than the preaching of any of the other itinerant preacher weirdos who were wandering Judea in those days? If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile. Pointless. Empty. If our hope in Christ is only for this world, this life – then we are of all people the most to be pitied. There IS More, Paul insists. There IS After. 

One thing I find interesting in this passage is how much we have in common with the Corinthian Christians, especially if you read the whole chapter. It’s easy for modern folks to assume people in the past were more credulous, less skeptical. In fact, the Corinthians have same kinds of questions we might. They’ve seen what happens to dead bodies – more than we do. Remember the raising of Lazarus? – “Lord, he’s been in there three days; if we open the tomb, there will be a smell!” 

The idea that anybody comes back was a real stretch. I’m sure they wanted to believe it, just like we do – when we’ve lost a loved one and miss them with heart-rending urgency; when we are overwhelmed by the idea that everything, even the best things, those precious moments of joy and intimacy and awe, will pass away. We want to believe in the After, but it’s hard. Because we can’t see it, touch it. When someone’s gone, most of the time, it feels like they’re just gone. It sounds like for the Corinthians, as for some of us, a Christianity without resurrection, a Christianity of human decency and ethical living, seemed a lot easier to swallow. I get it. 

Paul, however, is not especially sympathetic to this dilemma. He writes, “But someone will ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?’” Although he’s trying to mock the question, he doesn’t have any better answers than I do. He says, I dunno! Maybe it’s like a seed! Of, of wheat or something! I’m not a farmer! You sow it in the ground and after a while something else rises up! A new life emerges! Okay? Or maybe we’ll have some whole different kind of body, then – a spiritual body instead of this earthly body, since you can’t expect an earthly body to live in Heaven, a spiritual place. Look. I don’t know, OK? I don’t KNOW. But I believe. I believe. And my believing makes a difference in my life. 

If the dead are not raised, he says, a few verses later, then hey, let’s eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die. Nothing really matters. Stop worrying an enjoy your life. Instead, says Paul, I put myself in danger every hour. I confront both human and spiritual adversaries. I die every day. Because I believe in the More. 

Is there More? Is there After? Is there Better? 

Today’s Gospel is the beginning of Jesus’ famous teachings known as the Sermon on the Mount – though actually Luke says he’s standing on level ground! In this passage, Jesus is talking about whether this is all there is. What you are, what you have right now – is this it? Or is there more? 

Let’s pause for just a minute on the word “Blessed.” I typed “#Blessed” into Instagram this week, and got over a hundred million results.  A quick perusal of the first hundred showed photos of party dresses, new haircuts, flattering selfies, vacation snapshots, cute kids, and tacos. I mean – sure. But that’s not the kind of Blessed Jesus is talking about here. The Greek word here is makarios – blessed, happy, fortunate. Christians have wrestled with, and leaned on, this Gospel passage for 2000 years because what Jesus is saying is so different from human assumptions about blessedness, or happiness, or good fortune. 

Jesus says, Blessed are you poor; the reign of God is yours. Blessed are you hungry; you will be filled. Blessed are you lamenting; you will laugh. Blessed are you hated and persecuted; you’re in good company. The future tense in these statements is open-ended. Jesus doesn’t say when, or how, people’s reality will shift. But he does say, with complete conviction, that the mess you’re in right now is not all there is for you. 

And he flips it: If you’ve got it great right now, your #blessed lifestyle is also not the end of the story. How terrible for you rich; you’ve already received your good things. How terrible for you who have plenty now; you will be hungry. How terrible for you who laugh – yes, you in the back, says Jesus, I see you laughing! Your time will come to weep. None of us get out of this alive. Unscathed. 

We are so prone, we human beings, to believing that people’s circumstances reflect their worth. We know better, but we fall into it anyway. We fawn over billionaires and criminalize the poor. And worse still, we believe it about ourselves. Our struggles, our failures, our dry times, our self-destructive spirals: in our darkest nights, we believe they’re the whole truth about us. This is it. This is all there is for me. Of me. Jesus says, No. 

Whether Jesus is talking about After, the next life, or More, a new kind of life in this world, or either, or both, Jesus says: The whole truth about you is more than your current circumstances. Good or bad. Poverty, hunger, pain, grief, addiction, illness of body, mind, or spirit; affluence and comfort too – they happen to you, they may become part of you, but they are not all of you. I see you, says Jesus. The whole you. And I tell you: Don’t take Here and Now too seriously. There’s More. 

Is there more? Some people claim to find relief and freedom in the idea that there isn’t. That this is all there is. Generations of Christian leaders are to blame for that, I think – for all the ways the Church has misrepresented what our faith teaches about More, Beyond, and After. I regret it, but here we are. 

In one of my favorite books about faith, Francis Spufford writes about how many non-believers see believers as engaged in a sort of “fluffy pretending” that shuts out the hard realities of life. And he describes a London bus with an ad on it, sponsored by the outspoken New Atheist movement in the UK. The ad on the bus says: “There’s probably no God. Stop worrying and enjoy your life.” 

He writes, “All right then: Which word here is the questionable one, the aggressive one, the one that parts company with actual recognizable human experience so fast it doesn’t even have time to wave goodbye? It isn’t ‘probably.’ [The] New Atheists aren’t claiming anything outrageous when they say there probably isn’t a God. … It’s as much a guess for them as it is for me.” 

Spufford continues, “No, the word that offends against realism here is enjoy. … Enjoyment is lovely. Enjoyment is great…. But enjoyment is one emotion.” He points out that the texture of our lives is such that sometimes we feel enjoyment, and sometimes we feel other things – “hope, boredom, curiosity, anxiety, irritation, fear,.… Life just isn’t unanimous.”  

And Spufford argues that this idea – that life, liberated from the presumed burdens of religious thinking, is simply to be enjoyed – this bit of “fluffy pretending” is not innocent, but deeply harmful.  He invites the reader to imagine different people watching that bus go by: A woman on her way home to her beloved partner who is all but lost to dementia, her weariness and grief and frustration. A young man gripped by profound congenital disability, fearful that cascading illness may take away the limited capacities he has. A woman in the grip of drug addiction, who recently tried to get clean, and failed, and hates herself. 

What does that bus sign say to them? “There’s probably no God. Stop worrying and enjoy your life.” It says, No help is coming. It says, Nobody cares. It says, You’re alone. Spufford writes, “St. Augustine called this kind of thing ‘cruel optimism’ fifteen hundred years ago, and it’s still cruel.” 

In contrast to the superficial cheer offered by the bus sign, Spufford writes, “A consolation you could believe in would be one that … didn’t depend on some more or less tacky fantasy about ourselves… A consolation you could trust would be one that acknowledged the difficult stuff rather than being in flight from it, and then found you grounds for hope in spite of it.”

Spufford goes on to talk about John Lennon, and Mozart, and to put some words around the More as he understands it: “I think the reason reality… is in some ultimate sense merciful…, is that the universe is sustained by a continual and infinitely patient act of love.” It really is a wonderful book. Let me know if you need me to buy you a copy. 

Is there More? Is there After? Is there Better? We’ll never be sure – not in this life. 

Spufford says, “I don’t know that any of it is true…. It isn’t the kind of thing you can know.” My friend and mentor Brooks Graebner said once, “We suffer from a perceptual deficit that causes us to mistake some of reality for all of reality.” Belief in More isn’t “fluffy pretending,” an escape from gritty reality; it’s a source of purpose and direction, courage and consolation, in the thick of it all. We show up here because we want to believe in the More.  We want to trust in it. And maybe, sometimes, we’ve felt glimmers of it. Seen a flash. Heard a whisper. 

It isn’t the kind of thing you can know – but it is possible to cultivate our openness to the More. Our capacity to feel, see, hear, smell, taste the traces of a Mercy, a Love, a Consolation, a Purpose beyond our daily living.

Beloveds, we are approaching Lent – a season in which Christians have often taken on a spiritual practice to draw us closer to God. Some small everyday commitment, a thing to do or not do, that helps us be more grounded, more mindful. Kinder. Simpler. Slower. 

Look back at our first two readings this morning – our Jeremiah text and our Psalm. There’s a superficial similarity: those trees planted by the water. But the Psalm does this thing that some of the Psalms do: It says that there are wicked people and good people. The good people thrive; the wicked people dry up and blow away. Spufford would say this assertion fails the reality test. 

Whereas what the prophet Jeremiah says is less moral judgment and more statement of fact: If you put your whole trust in human capacity, human strength, human intelligence, you’re going to come up short, sooner or later. Send out your roots towards the living water deep underground, the soil that stays moist even in drought, that will sustain you even in harsh seasons and dry times. You need to trust in something bigger. Something More. Something Beyond. What’s calling you as Lent approaches? Where is God inviting you into More? 

 

Book cited:

Francis Spufford, Unapologetic: Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense, Faber and Faber, 2012. All quotations from pages 7 – 20. 

Christmas Eve Sermon (9pm)

The holy occasion we celebrate tonight has several names:Christmas, from the words Christ plus Mass, or Eucharist. The Feast of the Nativity, from the Latin word nativitas, birth. And the Feast of the Incarnation – from the word Incarnate: to make flesh, to take on a body. That’s my favorite way to name this day, because it says why it matters. It’s not just a birth; it’s not just an occasion for worship; but a world-changing theological event: God became human. 

The Carn- in incarnate is the same word as in chili con carne: Meat. The Feast of the Incarnation: When the God who was before Creation, who encompasses and knows all that is, when that God became meat – in a newborn baby boy, the child of poor and ordinary parents – born in such awkward and inconvenient circumstances that his first cradle is an animal’s feeding trough. 

The poet Amit Majmudar has a wonderful poem called Incarnation that invites us to imagine divinity taking human form in concrete anatomical detail:

“Inheart yourself, immensity. Immarrow, 

Embone, enrib yourself… Enmeat 

Yourself so we can rise onto our feet 

And meet…”

A Lenten hymn from the Orthodox tradition says, “The Unapproachable became human, approachable by all, walking among us, and hearing from all, Alleluia.”

Immensity, eternity, mystery and grace, robed in flesh – the Transcendent and Immortal become finite and tangible. Hail the incarnate Deity! It’s a rich and wonderful paradox to ponder. But … why does it matter? 

Western Christianity has put a lot of emphasis on the cross, on Jesus’ willingness to die to show us the depth of God’s love, as the great redemptive moment in the Christian story. But the Eastern churches, the Orthodox, in wisdom, see the Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection all as deeply interconnected. In her book Light upon Light, Sarah Arthur writes, “For Eastern churches, the Incarnation itself is what saves us; the Cross and Resurrection are merely part of a larger whole. When a holy God touched a corrupt humanity, God’s goodness reversed our corruption, restored us to holiness. We were like a basket of rotten apples coming into contact with one good apple: not only did the good apple retain its essential goodness, but it also reversed the decay of all the rest.” (13)

If thinking of humanity as a basket of rotten apples doesn’t sit well with you, some Orthodox theologians say that even if humankind hadn’t fallen so far from God’s dream for us – even if we hadn’t been mired in violence and need – God would STILL have become human, come to live among us – out of love. 

Just to be closer to us. Just to show us how much we matter to the heart of the Divine. Just to remind us that we are made in God’s image, beloved children, always and forever.  The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins says, “I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, And this jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood,… Is immortal diamond.” 

One good apple restoring the whole rotten basket… the opposite of what we expect, what we’ve learned from our produce bins. The opposite, too, of so many toxic and fearful theologies, that seek to purify and punish their way to holiness. 

What if we took seriously the idea that holiness is contagious? That divine grace is robust, not fragile? That in this birth on this long-ago night, something was accomplished, something begun, that changed reality – even if the ripples of that great change are still playing out 2000 years later? How would we live if we believed that good is contagious? That love wins? Has already won?

Let me tell you a story. Some of you remember the time of Apartheid, in South Africa. I remember hearing about it as a child and teen. Apartheid was a brutal system of racial segregation, involving minority rule by white South Africans – those of European descent – and sharply limited opportunities for work, freedom of movement, and political participation for black South Africans, those whose ancestors were native to the land. 

A system so unjust cannot last forever. In the 1980s, other nations were increasingly pressuring the South African government to end apartheid, and a growing resistance movement within the country as well. There were bigger and bigger protests – some of them led by the Anglican bishop of Johannesburg, a small, lively man with a ready smile named Desmond Tutu. Tutu was the first black African to hold that role in our sister church in South Africa – likewise the role of Archbishop of Capetown, which he held beginning in 1986.  

The anti-apartheid protests were not welcomed by the government. Police used tear gas, water cannons, and bullets to disperse protesters. Many angry young men were killed in clashes with security forces; Tutu preached at some of their funerals, gathering crowds of thousands. 

In August of 1989, in the face of harsh repression of protests, Tutu announced that he’d hold a church service instead – an Ecumenical Defiance Service, held at St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town. Thousands of South Africans came to sing and pray for justice and freedom – and hundreds of police came too, surrounding the cathedral in a show of military intimidation.

When Archbishop Tutu began to preach, military police entered the cathedral, lining the walls, rifles in hand. I can’t even imagine that – speaking God’s words of hope and liberation, while looking out at armed men full of hate and fear. But Tutu knew that love wins. That holiness and goodness are contagious. At one point in his sermon, he came down from the pulpit and addressed the police directly.

He said, “You are very powerful, but you are not Gods and I serve a God who cannot be mocked. So, since you have already lost” – he tells the men holding big guns – “Since you have already lost, I invite you come and join the winning side. Come join the winning side.” Immediately, the congregation erupted into song and dance.

Tutu was arrested, after church. But he was right about the winning side. By 1992, Apartheid had ended. In 1994, Nelson Mandela was elected president in an election for all South Africans. 

The Feast of the Incarnation: When the God who was before Creation, who encompasses and knows all that is, when that God became flesh in a newborn baby boy. Why does it matter? Because Eternity, Immensity, Mystery, loves us enough to come and meet us – come be meat with us. Incarnate. Because it shows us that we are immortal diamond, and boundlessly beloved. Because it means that even in the face of terrible events and human cruelty, even when things seem most bitter and broken, we can face it with courage, with hope. Because Love wins. Love has already won. 

 

 

Some sources… 

The story about Tutu (with added details from other research): 

https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3898

Hopkins’ poem:

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44397/that-nature-is-a-heraclitean-fire-and-of-the-comfort-of-the-resurrection 

Orthodox Lenten prayer quoted from here: 

https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/orthodoxbridge/taking-the-incarnation-seriously/

Majmudar’s poem and Arthur’s description of Eastern teaching about the Incarnation both come from Arthur’s book Light upon Light: A Literary Guide to Prayer for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany (Paraclete Press, 2014). 

Sermon, Dec. 16

This morning I’d like to introduce you to Luke. Our Sunday Scripture readings come to us from a cycle of readings shared by many churches, called the Revised Common Lectionary or RCL. It’s a three-year cycle, and each year we mostly use one of the Gospels, the four books of the Bible that tell the story of Jesus’ life, teachings, death, and resurrection. Year A is Matthew, Year B is Mark, and Year C, which we’re three weeks into, is Luke.  (John doesn’t get his own year but we get bits of John throughout the cycle.) 

The Gospels are fascinating in their differences and similarities. Back in seminary, one professor had us read just the first verse of each Gospel – to show that you can get a pretty good sense of their different voices from even that small a sample. Similarly, some of you saw a wonderful proposal from a friend that I shared on Facebook: that churches should have four different Christmas pageants based on what each of the four Gospels say (or don’t say) about the birth of Jesus.

So here’s a quick overview of each Gospel’s voice – and what their Christmas pageant would look like. Mark, the earliest written Gospel, tells you what he’s going to tell you: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (Mark 1:1.) Then Mark dives right into John’s preaching at the Jordan. Mark’s Christmas pageant: dead silence, then a ragged man jumping out shouting REPENT! 

Matthew is deeply interested in how Jesus fulfills Jewish history and prophesy. His Gospel begins, “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” A Matthew-based pageant would have to start with a historical lecture on every person named in Jesus’ genealogy. John’s gospel begins with theological poetry, beautiful and paradoxical, and pretty much goes on that way: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” John’s Christmas pageant would involve children running around in the dark with glow sticks…

And then we have our friend Luke. Here are the first four verses of Luke’s Gospel: “Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.” (Luke 1:1-4) 

Doesn’t that give you a strong sense of personality, right out of the gate?Someone wordy, maybe a little fussy and a little self-important, but also lovable? Luke casts himself as a historian, the one who’s going to actually offer a coherent, clear account of all these important events. Theophilus may have been a real person, but I find it more likely that the name – which means “God-lover” – is kind of a stand-in for anyone seeking God. Perhaps Luke has Gentiles, non-Jews, especially in mind – note that Luke explains Jewish customs, like John’s father Zechariah taking his turn serving in the Temple. 

Unlike the other gospels, Luke has a sequel – the book of Acts, written by the same author, which tells the story of the first Christians after Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension. From clues in the text, we can tell that Luke was educated and probably a city-dweller – but he also cared deeply for the poor, the sick, and those at the margins, including women. (Somebody a lot like many St Dunstan’s folks, in other words.) There’s even a semi-serious theory that the author we know as Luke may have been a woman. 

The Gospel of Luke was written in the late first century, but used older sources, including the gospel of Mark, the earliest of the four Gospels; the Q source, a lost document containing sayings and teachings of Jesus, which Luke and Matthew both used; and what scholars call the “L Source” – which basically means the stuff in Luke that’s not found anywhere else. That includes basically all of the first two chapters of Luke. So Luke’s Christmas pageant would include most of the usual stuff – except the three Kings or wise men; they’re in Matthew. 

Each of the four Gospels has a distinctive voice and particular themes or hallmarks that emerge, as they tell the story of Jesus. One of Luke’s hallmarks is his interest in the intersection of the cosmic and the concrete. The fulfillment of the great prophetic promises in a particular time and place, in the lives of real, ordinary people. Each of the first three chapters of his Gospel begins with anchoring events in history: Luke 1 begins, “In the days of King Herod of Judea…” Luke 2, the beloved Christmas Gospel, names Emperor Augustus and Quirinius, governor of Syria. And Luke 3 starts with another list of officials. This is the opposite of “Once upon a time” or “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” Luke wants us to know that these were real events that happened at a particular time, in a particular place. 

But the events, to be sure, transcend human history. Alongside his historical bent, Luke is deeply immersed in the Hebrew Scriptures and their promises and prophesies. He’s looking for those big themes of restoration and redemption, liberation and peace, to come to fruition in the concrete here and now. 

Another hallmark of Luke’s account is that the Gospel shows up at the margins, the edges instead of the center. The good news of God’s love gets proclaimed and manifest among the least, last, and lowly. Luke shows us divine grace among the poor, the sick, the powerless and scorned. He expects God to be at work there – both for the good of those at the margins, and also for the greater good of the whole. For Luke, the Gospel, the good news of God’s saving love, is preached to those at the fringes of society – and FROM those fringes, as well. 

The cosmic in the concrete; and the Gospel at the margins. Let’s look at how those hallmarks show up in today’s texts. In today’s liturgy we receive an interrupted chunk of Luke’s text, focused on the figure of John the Baptist. Our Gospel story covers John’s birth, and we read/chanted the Benedictus, Zechariah’s prophetic song of joy for his son. The text concludes, “The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.” 

Then we cut away to the story of Jesus’ birth and childhood, in Luke chapter 2 – then cut back to find John thirty years older and still hanging out in the wilderness. He’s begun to fulfill the mission laid out for him since before his conception, to be the Messenger, the Voice, the Forerunner. As the angel told his father in the temple, promising his birth: “He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God, and make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”  And as Zechariah sang to his infant son, “You, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;  for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.” 

 

In these texts, do we see the cosmic erupting into the concrete? Absolutely. The concrete jumps off the page in that list of names of public officials: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”

In her sermon on this text, Megan Castellan wrote, “For Luke’s early hearers, hearing that list… would have felt like reading the CNN headline crawl for us:  a similar sort of constant bad news, and constant disappointment in the state of things.  Recall that these weren’t popular leaders: Herod was known to be paranoid… and prone to narcissistic rages.  Pilate was fond of violent crackdowns on the local populace. The temple leaders were fine, maybe, but you couldn’t expect much from them.  There was a reason people felt hopeless…  [And] it’s in this specifically hopeless situation that God comes, and says ‘prepare the way.’  Not once upon a time… but into this definite place, populated with these specific broken people, and their problems.”

Luke balances these concrete historical details with rich metaphoric texts that draw on the poetic language of the prophets – specifically the book of Isaiah. Zechariah’s song to his newborn son draws on Isaiah chapter 60, which we sing in Epiphany: “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has dawned upon you! For behold, darkness covers the land, deep gloom enshrouds the peoples; but over you the Lord will rise!” For Zechariah, for Luke, the birth of this baby – and of another baby, his cousin – inaugurate the age when these great, ancient promises will be fulfilled. 

And when we turn the corner to John’s adulthood, Luke quotes Isaiah chapter 40. Matthew and Mark both use the same Isaiah text to describe John: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’” But Luke extends the quotation: Every valley shall be exalted, the lofty hills brought low; and all flesh shall see God’s redemption! God’s redemption for all people – beginning here, and now, with this ragged man standing beside a muddy river, telling a motley crowd of the desperate and the curious that God is about to do a new thing. 

What about Luke’s other hallmark, the Gospel at the margins? There’s much more of that ahead in Luke; our best example here is in the figure of John himself. Look back at that list of names: Tiberius, Pilate, Herod, Annas and Caiaphas – important people, powerful people – but the word of God comes to John, in the wilderness. 

Remember: John comes from a respectable family, probably middle-class by the standards of the time. Zechariah, his father, was part of the hereditary priesthood of the great Temple, established during King David’s reign. And John’s mother was of Aaron’s lineage – Aaron, the brother of Moses, the very first priest of Israel’s God, who served in the tabernacle in the wilderness after God’s people escaped from bondage in Egypt. 

When John’s parents were given the divine message that their son would be a prophet of God’s salvation, they might well have assumed that he would fulfill that vocation within the religious hierarchy, as a priest, like his daddy. I wonder what they thought when instead of fulfilling his birthright by going to seminary and getting ordained and wearing fancy vestments, John, their only child, spends all his time in the rocky Judean desert, wears a camelskin tunic, and eats whatever he can find – wild honey and grasshoppers. I’m sure they treasured his faithfulness to God’s call – but they were probably perplexed and possibly dismayed by the way he lived it out.

John started his life in the center, and chose the margins – walked right out of the machinery, like so many following a holy call, over the millennia. He knows – even as a child, it seems – that the message deep in his bones cannot be spoken from the Temple. His words are wilderness words. The Gospel of the margins. 

When I’m writing a sermon, I try to have some kind of a “So what”. Something that has a chance of reaching this text, this room, this fifteen minutes. What’s the “so what” here, Miranda? Well, we’ll be hearing texts from Luke’s Gospel for a while, nearly a year – and some from Acts as well, in Easter season. So we can remember and notice these hallmarks of Luke’s account, his understanding of what this Jesus thing is all about: the cosmic in the concrete; the Gospel at the margins. It’s worthwhile and rewarding to come to a deeper understanding of the different voices of our four Gospels, and how, together, they give us a rich, complex picture of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God. 

It’s worthwhile and rewarding – but it’s not the point. Or at least, it’s a means, not an end. The goal of church is not to make informed readers of Scripture. The goal of church is to make Christians. People who, in the words of one of our Advent prayers, hold the great hope that God’s kingdom of mercy, justice, and love, made known to us through Jesus Christ, shall come on earth; who seek the signs of its dawning, and orient our work and our lives towards that perfect Day. 

The cosmic in the concrete; the Gospel at the margins – Luke makes these things the hallmarks of his Gospel because this is how he has come to understand God. They’re not just things to look for in Luke; they’re things to look for in life. Where are God’s promises coming to fruition today? Where are restoration and redemption, liberation and peace, being born, even among the broken and the hopeless? Where is the Gospel being spoken at the margins today? Who standing far outside the halls of power, speaking God’s hope, God’s love, God’s call to new life? Where is dawn breaking? Even here? Even now? 

Credit to Scott Gunn for the Gospel-specific Christmas pageant idea. 

Megan Castellan’s sermon may be read in full here:

https://redshoesfunnyshirt.com/2018/12/10/whos-who-in-the-ancient-world/

Sermon, Dec. 9

I’m going to explain the shape of the church’s year, and I need a couple of helpers. … See? The church’s seasons make a circle. This circle represents one calendar year. But there are bigger circles too, of course – seasons that come around in our lives, and in the life of the world. Some wise folk say that time is not a circle but a spiral: we move through similar times and seasons, but we’re different each time, because there’s greater movement too; our lives, individually or as a species, are not static, flat. We change; we are different at 50 than we were at 30; we are different in 2018 than we were in 1018. And yet we’re probably less different than we think we are. There are always echoes and resonances; past, present, and future intertwine and tangle. 

For a lot of us, church is probably one of the main places in our lives where we spend time with, you know, old stuff. Stories and symbols and images that are 1000, 2000, 3000 years old. Showing up here is, among other things, a vote that the old stuff still matters somehow, still speaks, still holds truth. (Believe me: There are many people who find this a very odd point of view!)

Fundamentally, of course, we’re here because we believe, or want to believe, that Jesus is the Son of God, and that the things he said and did tell the truth about God’s love for humanity. But there are Christians who spend a lot less time with all this old stuff – for whom ancient texts and traditions are much less central to their worship and practice. 

It’s one of the hallmarks of the kind of Christian we are, we Anglicans, shared with the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches: we take seriously what we have received from our forebears in faith, all the way back.  We expect the ancient to come alive in the present and guide us into the future. Why? Well – I think often of a study I read a couple of years ago showing that families that tell and re-tell stories of past struggle, survival, and success are more resilient in the face of difficult times in the present. Our ancestors’ perseverance encourages and strengthens us. That’s certainly one of the things we do, as a church family. 

But I believe that the way our sacred past works in us is more than psychological; it’s mystical as well. Sometimes the past simply sings within us, among us.  Sometimes the saints and holy ones stir up in us their courage, compassion, eloquence, endurance, humility, fury. If we believe – or want to believe – that more exists than we can see, measure, or prove, then all the “old stuff” we tend and treasure, our scriptures, songs, habits and symbols, are not just antiques but talismans, objects of power that might suddenly turn out to glow in the presence of evil, or to unlock a hidden door that advances our quest. 

One of the ways we carry the past into the present and future is by naming and celebrating holy days. When we set aside a holy day, we’re saying: This is worth remembering. This is worth passing down. This week, this second week of December, is rich in holy days. Let’s look at them together. 

The first one isn’t ours: Chanukkah, a Jewish festival observed from December 3 through 10, this year. But in a quirk of the lectionary, one of our texts today points towards Channukah: Baruch. The book of Baruch is part of the Apocrypha, books written later than most of the Old Testament, not long before Jesus’ time. They have sort of a “secondary Scripture” status for many Christians, but there’s lots of good stuff in there. Baruch was the assistant of the prophet Jeremiah, who lived in Jerusalem in the sixth century before Christ, at the time of the Babylonian conquest. The book of Baruch claims to be the words of Baruch, writing words of rebuke and encouragement to Jews in exile in Babylon. But the book of Baruch actually dates from several centuries later. It’s possible that fragments of older texts were used; but writing texts that borrow and expand the voice of older Scripture texts was common in the centuries just before Jesus’ time, and the book of Baruch fits that pattern. 

Some scholars think that Baruch was actually written around the time of the Maccabean revolt – a military revolt against foreign rule which was also a forceful movement against the encroachment of Greek culture in Judea, and for the return to the old ways of the Jewish people, both cultural and religious. Judas Maccabeus and his guerrilla forces fought back the armies of the Seleucid Empire, ritually cleansed the Great Temple and re-established traditional Jewish worship there. The festival of Chanukkah celebrates the re-dedication of the Temple. (The story about the oil came along later.) The message that Baruch might have had for Jews in exile in the 6th century before Christ, would have felt urgent and relevant for Jews in Judea in the second century before Christ: 

Repent! Forsake other gods! Pray for mercy! If you had walked in the way of God, says Baruch, you would be living in peace for ever. Learn where there is wisdom, where there is strength; where there is length of days, and life, and peace. 

This nameless second-century author turns to the past to find inspiration for what the present demands, writes this beautiful prophetic poetry that speaks to the people and the times, and attributes it to the long-dead Baruch. Who am I to call it a lie? Prophesy is a mystery, and time is full of tangles and echoes. Sometimes the past sings in us. 

The second feast this week isn’t exactly ours, though maybe it’s becoming more so: the feast of the Virgen de Guadalupe. Five hundred years ago, just as King Henry VIII was beginning to think about a church independent from Rome, a native Mexican farmer named Juan Deigo was working in a field outside Mexico City, a place called Tepeyac Hill, when he saw a vision of a beautiful young woman who poke to him in his native language, told him that she was the mother of the true God, and asked him to build a church there in her honor. The bishop was skeptical, but the Virgin kept appearing to Juan. Finally, thanks to miracles like the appearance of roses on Tepeyac Hill, Juan Diego’s vision was accepted as a true theophany, an encounter with the divine. Many native Mexicans became Christian because of Maria de Guadalupe – who was THEIR Mary, not a Spanish import, but God’s Mother come to them on their own soil. Over the centuries she has become a powerful symbol of Mexican faith, unity, and freedom. 

Do I believe it? I wouldn’t presume to disbelieve. I put no boundaries on the One called to wrap God in flesh. And why shouldn’t a poor, small-town, brown-skinned person like Mary choose to transcend fifteen hundred years of history to share the grace of her presence with a poor, small-town, brown-skinned person like Juan Diego? Time is flexible, in the domain of faith, of the Divine. The past can manifest in the present, and shape and bless the future. If you’d like to honor the Virgin today, take a rose and place it at her feet sometime during our worship. We have some prayer cards there as well. 

The third feast day this week is ours, though it always sneaks up on me: the feast day of St. Nicholas, a few days ago on the 6th. My strongest association with Nicholas is the cookies my mother used to make, every December. Their base was a wedge of sturdy, not-very-sweet gingerbread; the frosting of Nicholas’ read cope and mitre were colored with beet juice, because my little brother was sensitive to red dye. I loved them, as a child, but I remember friends trying them and being… nonplused. My mother’s Nicholases were more of a grownup cookie – and that fits, because Nicholas is kind of a grownup saint. 

Nicholas was a bishop, in what is now part of Turkey, back in the third century – seventeen hundred years ago. He’s remembered in many stories that are, like my mother’s cookies, nourishing but not particularly sweet. In one story, three boys on a journey stop at an inn. The innkeeper robs them, kills them, chops them up, and puts them in a pickle barrel. Nicholas, stopping by the inn, discerns the boys’ plight and resurrects them. 

In another story, Nicholas, walking the streets of his city by night, hears parents grieving: they are so poor they cannot afford to help their daughter marry, and she is doomed to a life of prostitution. Nicholas tosses a bag of gold coins down the smoke hole in the roof of their humble home – the ancient origin of the presents-down-the-chimney myth. And then there’s the story of the time Nicholas attended the Council of Nicaea, the great 3rd-century gathering of church leaders to hammer out what the church actually believed. There was a great debate with a man named Arius and his followers, who thought that Jesus was not fully one with God, not fully divine. It is said that Nicholas was so impatient with Arius’ heretical views that he slapped him – and was sent to Bishop Jail as a result. 

Dead children, vulnerable women, slapping heretics – No wonder we collectively opted for Santa Claus, instead of this cranky bishop whose life and deeds were a little too gritty. But which do we really need – a supernaturally-jolly elf who engages in invasive surveillance and  behavior control, and who replicates the dynamics of capitalism by bringing the best gifts to the most affluent kids? Or a saint, a man of God, who walked the poorest streets of his city, listening to the people’s cries of anguish? Who strove to help women in poverty, children touched by violence; and who stood up fiercely for his convictions? The pile of gifts we’re sending to families served by Middleton Outreach Ministry this year shows that the spirit of Nicholas is at work among us already. May that fierce and compassionate saint continue to inspire our generosity and our courage. 

Time is messy for church folks. Out there the calendar marches onward, linear and one-directional: 2018 will soon give way to 2019, and 2020 after that. A revolt from 2300 years ago – a saint who served his city 1700 years ago – a mother who lived and died 2000 years ago, only to show up on a new continent 500 years ago – it’s all distant past, long dead and dusty. But here, time circles and doubles back. There are echoes, resonances, and sometimes resurrections. What has happened, what is happening, what will happen, tangle and overlap. 

Which brings us to the Magnificat. Mary’s bold song of praise, rightly beloved by generations of Christians: My soul proclaims the greatness of God! My spirit rejoices in God my savior! For You have shown the strength of your arm, you have scattered the proud in their conceit. You have cast down the mighty from their thrones, and have lifted up the lowly. Later we’ll sing Rory Cooney’s song based on this text, the Canticle of the Turning, which many of us have come to love in the years we’ve been singing it. In the song, the poet has made God’s actions into future events. That makes sense – since we still wait to see these things finally, fully completed.

But in the Scripture text, Mary doesn’t speak of the future. She uses the present perfect tense: God has filled, has pulled down, has sent away. The tense indicates completion, something already brought to fulfillment.   

Mary wasn’t naive – nor was Luke, who offers us her words. They lived in times more violent, more broken, than ours. These faith-ancestors of ours were under no illusions that God had already fixed the world, once and for all. Yet Luke’s Mary has the audacity to say: God has acted. God’s future is present. Barbara Brown Taylor, writing about the Magnificat, says, “Prophets almost never get their verb tenses straight, because part of their gift is being able to see the world as God sees it – not divided into things that are already over and things that have not happened yet, but as an eternally unfolding mystery that surprises everyone.” (in Home By Another Road) 

What will happen is, somehow, happening now; has, somehow, already happened. Mary sings of a world in which God’s justice already reigns, in which Love has already, finally, won. That’s not the world I see, when I look around. And yet it doesn’t feel to me that Mary is wrong. It feels instead like time folding in on itself, future fulfillment overflowing the past, flooding the present. Time isn’t a line; time isn’t a circle; time is a glorious, complex, mysterious spiraling knot, in which a 2000-year old song strengthens us for the work of this moment, in which saints of old march and pray and struggle and give and sing beside us and within us. 

We spend our days uneasily suspended between God’s promises made and God’s promises kept; in this puzzling difficult unsatisfying in-between time, after the first coming at Bethlehem, before the second coming in glory. That’s the energy behind the most fundamental prayer of Advent, the thing we say again and again and again in these weeks, the prayer that folds time: past, the promised babe, future, the King coming in glory, and now, the urgent holy present; the prayer that gives voice to our yearning and our hope, our disappointment and our faith:  Come, Lord Jesus. O come, o come, Emmanuel, God with us. Come. 

Sermon, Dec. 2

Advent is a season in the church’s year – the season of preparing for Christmas, the feast of the Incarnation. But Advent is more than a season. Advent is also a practice. A practice is something you do because you want to become what the practice will make you. Someone who’s good at soccer, or piano, or hula hooping, or mindfulness. If you want to get better at something, you practice regularly.

The Church practices Advent for four Sundays every year. And we invite people to practice it at home, too, for about a month, lighting the candles, saying the prayers. We dwell with the songs and prayers and readings that are full of hope and warning, intertwined. That point towards ending, loss, and renewal. 

A practice is something you do because you want to become what the practice will make you. What does the practice of Advent make us? I think Advent is supposed to make us people who are not shattered by the idea that everything will change. People who expect God to be at work even in terrifying times. Jesus says, When you see terrible things happening, things that make it feel like the world is about to end, stand up straight. Lift up your head. Keep your eyes peeled for redemption – God’s purposes erupting into human reality. 

Because even among the flames – even among the ashes – there is purpose. There is grace. 

Jeremiah, the source of one of our readings today, lived in the last days of Jerusalem, before it was torn down and burned by the invading armies of Babylon, about six hundred years before Jesus’ birth. God called Jeremiah as a prophet, to speak God’s words to the leaders and people of Jerusalem and Judea. Jeremiah told them, You have turned from the ways of holiness and justice, to which God called your ancestors.  You are neither worshiping God, nor treating each other right. Instead, there is injustice, cruelty, and corruption. The wealthy have taken their own neighbors as slaves, because of their poverty; and when the Law of God commanded them to set them free, they released them – then turned around and brought them again into subjection as slaves. (Jeremiah 34)

Jeremiah says, In the past, when you followed God’s ways, you were strong. Now, with corrupt leaders and suffering people, you are weak. Your doom is at the threshold. 

Jeremiah’s prophetic warnings were true – and unwelcome. The powerful and comfortable did not want to hear it.  Jeremiah was beaten and imprisoned. He was thrown into an underground cistern, a water storage chamber, to starve to death – but someone rescued him. At one point, God told Jeremiah: Look, maybe if you write all My prophesies on a scroll, and take that to the King, and he sees it all in black and white, he will pay attention and repent. So Jeremiah’s helper Baruch wrote it all down on a scroll, and took it to the officials of the King’s court. They read the scroll and said, This is terrible! We must take this to the King! And they took it to the king, and read it to him. And as they read it, every time they finished reading part of the scroll, the king cut it off with his knife, and burned it. 

But Jeremiah was right. Jerusalem was destroyed. Many people died. Others were taken into exile, to live as outsiders in Babylon. They learned, there, that even though the Temple they thought was God’s house was in ruins, even though they were far from their homeland, God was still with them. 

Eventually they were sent home; Jerusalem was rebuilt; the great Temple was grander than ever. And six hundred years after Jeremiah’s time, Jesus looks out on Jerusalem – Jerusalem, the city that murders the prophets whom God sends with warnings! – Jesus looks at Jerusalem and says, The armies are coming. Again. The great Temple will be reduced to rubble. Again. People will die. People will be enslaved. The most vulnerable – women, children, the poor, the elderly – will bear the worst of it, as they always do. 

Jesus sees with God’s eyes, but you didn’t have to be God to see trouble coming for Jerusalem in those days. Corrupt leaders and deepening inequality meant that unrest, rebellion and violence were in the wind. But the warnings were once again unwelcome, and unheard. Forty years after Jesus died and rose from the dead, a revolt against Roman rule led to a brutal war. Jerusalem was destroyed – again. 

We’re not much better now at listening to the warnings of the prophets of our age – be they saints or scientists, activists or administrators. 

Back in August, my family traveled to Chico, California, as part of my sabbatical. We spent a couple of days there with our friend James and his community. Chico is in northern California. While we were there, the sky was dull and smoky frothe Redding fire, seventy miles away. We Midwesterners are used to tornado watches, but Chico was under fire watch – a “red flag” warning. It was fascinating and terrifying to read the rules for avoiding fire in those dry and windy conditions – for example: don’t pull your car over on the edge of the road, because dry grasses could touch the hot parts on the underside of your car and ignite. 

The risk of fire in northern California is well known. There have been forest fires as long as there have been forests, but climate change due to human activity has increased the intensity and damage of fires, as seasonal rainfall becomes increasingly irregular. Scientists and activists have been sounding that alarm for years. This summer and fall, the forests near Chico were extremely dry. The big electrical utility in the region knew its poorly maintained power lines could add to fire risk. The town of Paradise, in the hills above Chico, has few roads out of town, following narrow ridges down the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains – a situation town leaders recognized as risky. 

There were plenty of warnings at every level – nation, state, city. But it’s hard to change course in a situation so big and so complex. People are bad at risk assessment – we often overreact to small risks, and underreact to big ones. And it’s usually true that the people with the most power are also the people most insulated from risk, and most reluctant to invest in change.

Elsewhere in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says, “When you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” 

On the morning of November 8, the worst happened. The Camp Fire was probably started by a power line fault. Extreme dry weather fueled a fire so fast and intense that the tops of trees didn’t even have time to burn. Over 10,000 households lost their homes, in the towns of Paradise, Magalia, and Concow, not far from Chico. Many died. They’re still counting. We’ve watched, and donated, and prayed, as refugees from the fire camped out in the parking lot of the Chico Walmart, where the Hassett family stopped in August to buy an extra water bottle.

The prophets of Scripture – including Jesus – speak about the Big Ending, the time when Christ will return and God will replace everything tattered and broken in this world with the living, joyful wholeness intended from the beginning of Time. 

But they speak, too, of the smaller endings of human life and human history – the ones that only *feel* like the end of the world. Jerusalem torn down, Paradise burned to the ground…  the earth keeps turning on its axis, but many lives are ended, and many others changed forever. The counsel offered by Jesus and the prophets works for those situations too. Jesus says: Pay attention, don’t get distracted or numb. Be ready. Don’t get too invested, too comfortable, in the way things are. And try not be shaken; God is with you. Jeremiah says: Turn back towards justice. Do what you know is right. It’s never too late. It always matters. Our friend Tobit – remember Tobit? – living in cruel and chaotic times, says: Keep praying; give to those in need; take care of those entrusted to you. And don’t lose your capacity for compassion; keep caring, so you’ll keep helping. 

The poet and playwright Berthold Brecht, a 20th-century prophet, wrote: “In the dark times, will there also be singing?  Yes, there will also be singing. About the dark times.”

We sing one of my favorite Advent hymns this morning: “Can it be that from our endings, new beginnings you create? Life from death, and from our rendings, Realms of wholeness generate? Take our fears then, Lord, and turn them into hopes for life anew; Fading light and dying season sing their Glorias to you.” 

A practice is something you do because you want to become what the practice will make you. What does the practice of Advent make us? This season of dwelling with songs and prayers and readings full of hope and warning, that point towards ending, loss, and renewal?

Advent makes us people who are not shattered by the idea that everything will change. People who expect God to be at work even in terrifying times. Because even among the flames – even among the ashes – there is purpose. There is grace. 

There are opportunities to be like Jeff Evans.

Jeff lives in the tiny mountain town of Concow, California, outside Paradise. His property backs up on a reservoir. He can catch a 6-pound bass in his own backyard. Amazing. About a year ago he moved his elderly parents to live with him. His 91-year-old father Chuck chops wood and cleans the gutters. Chuck says Jeff told him he could move there and retire and not do anything – “That was a crock!”

Early on the morning of November 8, Jeff and Chuck stepped outside and saw flames in the distance, smoke filling the sky. They quickly learned that the one road out of their neighborhood was already blocked. They were trapped. They didn’t have a boat to take refuge on the reservoir. So they spent hours frantically defending the house: cutting firebreaks, putting out spot fires. 

It worked. Their house was saved – leaving Jeff and his parents alone, for days and weeks. Those who had fled weren’t allowed to come back to the ashes of their homes. And so Jeff became the caretaker of Concow. Specifically, of Concow’s animals.

Many people didn’t have time to take pets and livestock, or had to flee in vehicles without room for animal family members. In the days following the fire, Jeff collected eight dogs, in addition to his own three. They crowd his kitchen, tails wagging, or curled up together sleeping. They’ve all managed to get along – Jeff thinks they get it. He posts their pictures on Facebook and the owners contact him, weeping with joy to know their pet is safe. He’s been putting food out for cats in the neighborhood, too. And then there are the pigs, the ducks, the chickens, and the goats. One day a group of donkeys wandered into Jeff’s yard. He gave them some peppermint candies and they decided he was their friend and stuck around.

Jeff borrows food and fuel from undamaged houses to keep his menagerie fed, keeping careful track so he can repay later if the people ever return. Firefighters and recovery workers bring him supplies, too, from abandoned homes. Among the ashes, beyond the end of the world, Jeff takes care of the creatures, keeping them safe until their owners can reclaim them when the chaos is past. 

Utility workers have warned Jeff that it will be weeks until electricity is restored to his property – maybe not before Christmas. Jeff’s not worried about it. He says the dark isn’t so bad, up here in the mountains. You can see the stars.

More about Jeff Evans: 

https://ktla.com/2018/11/18/man-in-camp-fire-evacuation-zone-keeps-busy-by-caring-for-animals/