Category Archives: Coronavirus

Homily, March 21

What do you hope for?

What do we – as St. Dunstan’s – hope for? 

Jeremiah’s career as a prophet begins with warning people of the coming destruction and calling them to return to God’s ways, as Judea was increasingly threatened by the empire of Babylon.  Then, once the worst has happened – once Judea had been conquered, the Temple destroyed, the people dragged into exile – Jeremiah’s prophetic words and actions turn towards hope. Towards the promise that there is a future beyond this terrible time, this unimaginable loss and dislocation. 

The old covenant – at least, the part that said, “Be faithful to God and you shall live in the land God has given you” – lies shattered among the ruins of Jerusalem. God’s people were faithless, and here is the result. But Jeremiah insists that God’s faithfulness can build a new covenant among those ruins. 

Listen to God’s words to Israel through Jeremiah: “I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you. Again I will build you, and you shall be built, O daughter Israel! Again you shall take your tambourines, and go forth in the dance of the merrymakers. See, I am going to bring [my people] from the land of the north, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame,  those with child and those in labour, together; a great company, they shall return here. With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back… I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow…This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”

A prophecy of return, renewal and rebirth. Words of hope beyond terrible loss and suffering…

Today’s Gospel reading marks a pivot point in John’s Gospel. These poor Greeks just want to meet Jesus… But their arrival is a sign, for Jesus, that his hour has come. The mission to the Gentiles is the apostles’ work, not his. It’s time for the story to turn towards the cross. Time for him to complete his work – by dying. 

And so he speaks a little about his death, and about what this next chapter will demand from those who follow him. His soul is troubled; it’s clear he feels the weight of what’s ahead. And yet, there is hope here.  “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

Unless a seed falls into the earth and dies, it remains a single seed. But if it is buried, it may bear much fruit. 

In one of my visits to my office at church a few weeks ago, I rediscovered this book – a theological handbook of Old Testament themes, by Walter Brueggeman. Brueggeman is one of the greatest living Old Testament scholars. I used this book to help me think about covenant, as we’ve dwelt with covenant-focused texts in the lectionary this season. And this week I looked up the entry on Hope.

Brueggeman says that for the Old Testament, hope is fundamentally connected with the idea of covenant – and with the very nature of God. “Israel’s hope is based on the character of [God], who utters promises and whose promises Israel has found to be reliable.” 

He continues: “The hope articulated in ancient Israel is not a vague optimism or a generic good idea about the future; but a precise and concrete confidence in and expectation for the future that is rooted explicitly in [God’s] promises to Israel. In those promises,…  [God] has sworn to effect futures of well-being that are beyond the present condition of the world, and that cannot, in any credible way, be extrapolated from the present.”

About the prophetic promises, the promises spoken in times of disruption and loss, like Jeremiah’s words of consolation, Brueggeman writes, “The prophetic promises look beyond the present and anticipate a new arrangement of the world ‘in the days to come.’ These promises are not predictions but are rather acts of faithful imagination that dare to anticipate new futures on the basis of what [God] has done in the past.” (Brueggeman, 100-102)

Hope. I’ve been hearing people say: I finally feel hopeful again. Spring is in the air. Vaccination is moving along much faster than it seemed like it would, just a few weeks ago. Emergence, reconnection, recovery seem increasingly possible. 

The hopefulness to which we are called as people of faith is not quite the same as that general ambient optimism. The faithful hope of God’s people is not just that things will improve incrementally from the status quo. Such a hope has a hard time surviving profound disruptions and great losses. 

Our Biblical faith-ancestors show us the kind of resilient and faithful hope that trusts in God’s capacity to create new futures.  This is hope as a conviction that God is at work in history, such that new ways of being are possible which we cannot imagine from where we’re standing in the present. 

God’s people did survive exile and return to their homeland. But it wasn’t just the way it had been before. Jesus rose from the dead, appeared to his grieving friends. But it wasn’t just the way it had been before. The future that is being born right now, for us as Americans, as Wisconsinites, as our individual selves, as the people of St. Dunstan’s, will not be just the way it was before. 

It’s okay to grieve that. In fact, it’s important to make space to grieve what has been lost. 

But it’s also important to hold hope, together.

The holy hope that God is making a new future for us – as Americans, as Wisconsinites, as our individual selves, as the people of St. Dunstan’s – and that we are called as co-creators to join that work. 

Almost exactly a year after we closed our building to public worship, we are starting to make plans – tentative, careful plans – to begin to gather in person once again. There’s always the chance of pulling back if cases start to rise again; and it will be a while yet before we’re gathering indoors comfortably, or singing together on a regular basis. But maybe, just maybe, we are starting to feel a little resonance with Jeremiah’s song of return from exile:  “See, I am going gather them from the farthest parts of the earth; a great company, they shall return; with consolations I will lead them back…”

At the same time, I know that many of us feel like we spent a year confined. Entombed, buried, like the seed in Jesus’ saying. Now, warming weather and spring rains invite new growth…. what will this new seedling look like? What fruit will it eventually bear? 

I want to spend the rest of this time in some shared reflection on a few questions. I can guess at some answers, and I’ve had conversations like this with some groups, like the Vestry.  But I want to hear from this broader group. 

A few notes before we begin: I am going to ask the questions one at a time; please ANSWER them as they are asked, for clarity’s sake. But I’m showing them all to you now in case that helps your thought process. 

You can share a response by unmuting and speaking out loud, or by typing in the chat. If you speak, please keep your remarks brief – one sentence – so that we can share the time well. If you want to write a paragraph in the chat, knock yourself out. :-)

Let’s be intentional about holding this as an open space. We will undoubtedly have some different answers, even some answers that are at odds. That’s not surprising – and it’s OK. Be kind and practice good listening. 

I’m most interested in thoughts about church and faith. But I understand that our lives are all one thing; there aren’t clear lines. Whatever comes to mind for you is fine to share. 

1. What things from the Beforetimes do you suspect (or hope) are gone for good? … 

2. What things from the Beforetimes do you hope to find a way to bring back – or reimagine in some new form? 

3. What new things from this season do you hope to carry forward?…

4. As we look ahead to the next few months: 

– What are you worried about?

– What are you hopeful about?

– What are you curious about? 

Thank you all for this time of wondering. 

There’s no tidy way to wrap all that up. But I believe that shared reflection, and naming our losses, ambivalences, and hopes, will help us with the work of faithful imagination that Brueggeman mentions – and help us discern and discover how God is inviting us to move forward together.

Let us pray. 

O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquillity the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

 

Some things have died.

Some things have been born.

What do we want to resurrect? What do we want to leave behind?

Is there anything that died in this time, that can fertilize new life and growth? 

ALSO USE THIS TIME TO TALK ABOUT SOME OF THIS. We are not the same church, not the same group of people, that we were a year ago.

When we can be together in person again, ** remember to be there for the newcomer. ** It will be exciting to see friends from the Beforetimes, whether those you’ve only seen online for months or those you haven’t seen much at all for a year or more. Celebrating being together is right and good! We just also need to make space to welcome and celebrate those who have become part of our fellowship DURING the pandemic, and those who – believe it or not – will find their way to us for the first time in the weeks and months ahead. 

Our yearning to re-connect is natural and lovely. I’m just inviting us to prepare our hearts with joy to welcome new connections, as well.

ALSO NEED TO SAY: There’s a group that has stayed connected and to some extent deepened connection through online worship during this time. 

What do we say when we come back together? …

It’s good to be together; how has it been for you; what are you looking forward to ?… 

There’ll probably be a few months when we’re re-integrating – seeing which of our Zoom church habits become building church habit, and EXPLAINING them, because not everybody was there. 

Invitation to think and talk about what we MISS and DON’T MISS about building church…

And what we want to KEEP or LET GO from Zoom Church. 

“A strong case has been made that a defining mark of a postindustrial, technological world is despair, the inability to trust in any new or good future that is promised and may yet  be given. Insofar as despair marks the current social environment of faith, to that extent hope is a distinctive mark of faith with dangerous and revolutionary social potential.” (Brueggeman, p. 102)

Making Music in Times of Crisis

An introduction from the Rev. Miranda Hassett…  Over the summer, talking with clergy colleagues about how things were going at their churches, I started to notice a pattern in what they were telling me: “My music director just quit.”  “My organist hasn’t been in touch since March.” And so on. While these were extreme cases, many church musicians struggled to know how to do their job – fulfill their calling – under our current circumstances. I have a lot of compassion for that – I empathize! And I’ve also been incredibly grateful that our Director of Music Ministry at St. Dunstan’s, Deanna Clement, has approached our changed circumstances with curiosity, hope, and a robust confidence that we would continue to offer music to God and one another, somehow.  I asked Deanna about what made her able to face these times. The result is this message – a reflection on the qualities and ways of being that will help us keep making music, literally and metaphorically, in times of crisis.

“Through all the tumult and the strife I hear the music ringing; it finds an echo in my soul; how can I keep from singing?”

These famous lines come from a hymn by Robert Lowry (1826-1899). It may sound familiar: we used them as our Song of Praise for a while, this autumn. They also happen to be on the back of a high school choir sweatshirt that I still own, nearly two decades later.

You can read them as an earnest affirmation of music-making for its own sake, regardless of the circumstances. That’s not the only way I hear them, though. When I read these words on this particular sweatshirt, I also hear the start of an ethic of music-making while in crisis.

I hear it that way because crisis marked my high school choir experience. A choir director’s catastrophic failure of judgement left a vacuum of leadership in its wake, and a group of passionate teenagers committed to singing (and their equally committed parents) had to pick up the pieces.

My cohort ended up having 6 directors in 4 years of high school. It was hard in ways that still hurt 17 years later. And we also got through it. Not only did we all survive – but that first gut-wrenching year, both our concerts and our tour happened. They happened a little differently, but they happened. Choir continued, and we stayed connected.

That all happened in 2003 in suburban, affluent Phoenix, to a secular, public high school choir of passionate teenage musicians.  Today I, and we, are living through another crisis that affects our shared music-making. It’s a very different crisis, but finding wisdom in those long-ago experiences for navigating music ministry at an Episcopal church in Wisconsin in 2020, might not be as big a leap as you’d think.

Having been in that rag-tag band of teenagers, parents, and administrators negotiating uncharted musical territory gives me a way to hold the seriousness of our current situation for what it is, and to reflect on my role in helping navigate our current troubled waters.

Singing together in person in church is dangerous right now. The science is still emerging, but indicates that there is no completely safe way to sing together in-person. Singing, or playing some instruments, together in groups seems to be one of the riskiest things we can choose to do for everyone involved: musicians, helpers, audiences, congregants, and clergy alike.

The best we can do is to mitigate risk with masks, generous ventilation, limits on how many, how loud, how close, and how long. It’s a logistical nightmare for schools, colleges, universities… and churches.

We, as a member of the body of Christ, strive to welcome and serve and whole-heartedly include all kinds of folks – those confident in their ability to weather a Covid diagnosis; those who are at greater risk for complications and even death; and everyone in between. So our guidelines for music-making have to design for people at varying levels of health risk and of risk tolerance.

Our multi-generational congregations make us less like school or university music programs and more like community orchestras and choirs – and many of those community programs have canceled their in-person seasons, not just for 2020, but into 2021 as well. The Metropolitan Opera, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra and Chorus all made this hard choice. So can we.

That doesn’t mean we can’t still sing together. That doesn’t mean we can’t still play together. It does mean that we’re going to have to find a way to make community and minister through music differently.

I don’t say that lightly. Rewriting the script for what music ministry looks like is overwhelming on a good day. Our received ways of making music in church are familiar and beloved. And for me personally, the fact that I wasn’t trained specifically for a church musician role gives me extra room to second guess myself.

But I remind myself that back in high school, the well-respected senior who became the leader for our choir wasn’t the most obvious choice either. He wasn’t the most musically proficient performer, though his many musical and technical skills certainly helped him. What really made him the right leader for our group at that time were traits that had little to do with music. He was kind, attentive, honest, creative, flexible, generous, earnest, curious, and savvy. He was someone who tried to include everybody; who ran towards whatever’s broken; and who tried to make amends when he messed up.

All of those are traits I’m still working to embody. All of those are traits that characterize the church, at its best.

So how did we do it, back in 2003? What values and ways of being helped us keep doing what we felt called to do, when the way we had expected to do it collapsed unexpectedly?

One important way of being was Collaboration. Everyone contributed what they could to keep things running. Although one choir student was put in charge during that strange interim period, in practice, many people helped us keep going. I led sectional rehearsals with the piano, as did others. A friend who had access to the concert program files kept those up to date. Council members made sure each class had leadership. Singers continued to show up to class. Substitute teachers let us do our thing.

In the Diocese of Milwaukee, we are exploring new forms of musical collaboration. People are contributing all kinds of gifts and skills, as we find new ways to make music together. It’s not just playing or singing that’s involved here: there’s so much happening behind the scenes to make sure that the technological and logistical aspects of this effort all work.

Another aspect of my high school choir experience was Sacrifice.  We had to let go of expectations about the experience we had hoped to have. We weren’t going to have one great music teacher lead us through four years of growth, as others do, no matter what we did and through no fault of ours. If anything, we had that ideal deconstructed before our eyes in real time without a lot of terminology for what was going on or how we felt about it, and it hurt. But being able to feel those feelings and release them was crucial to being able to move forward together.

The way we’re doing church and making music together wasn’t anyone’s choice. Being in exile from our buildings hurts. Being unable to do many things we love hurts. Finding possibility in this time doesn’t mean that “Everything is fine.” But doing what we can so that we’re all still here when we can be back together in-person again is worth it.

By the same token, we also needed plenty of Patience. There was a lot of hurt, confusion, grief, and anger to process. It was sometimes hard to know exactly what we were mad at or sad about, just that we were. It came out sideways. It made us sick. Even the strongest among us weren’t immune. We had to learn to be patient with one another as we dealt with the impact, individually and collectively, of what we were going through.

Learning to work with practices meant to keep us safe has required a lot of study, discussion, discernment, and grieving. Learning to work with this technology has required a lot. But we’re working through it all. We’re still here.

Something else that helped us back in high school was Focus. It was easy to get upset and angry because there was a lot to be rightly upset and angry about. Watching your heroes fail spectacularly hurts. Losing an imagined future hurts. But the mission was clear: we would continue to learn about and make music together regardless of what was going on around us. We would do it with whatever and whomever we had.

For my work at St. Dunstan’s in Madison, I’ve had to step back and ask, “What’s the most important thing?” My answer has been being part of the body of Christ in Wisconsin during COVID-tide. My job is to support that mission through music.

Perseverance: There were days where what we were doing felt impossible – but we didn’t give up on music or each other. Today, I’m the Director of Music Ministry at St. Dunstan’s and a recently minted PhD from UW-Madison’s School of Music. Music is still central in my life, and many of the friends I went through this with are still on my Facebook feed.

The Diocese of Milwaukee has not given up on worshiping, and making music, together. We’re working through technological glitches and learning from them. We’re adapting our practices for these new formats and taking notes on how it goes.

Collaboration, sacrifice, patience, focus, perseverance. These are ways of being that allow us to collaborate with God and each other, to “hear that real though far off hymn that hails a new creation.”1 They come alongside those sturdy Christian standbys of faith, hope, and love, as reasons that “no storm can shake my inmost calm while to that Rock I’m clinging.” These behaviors are how I know that “Love is Lord of heaven and earth.” The skills we lack—or just need to practice a bit—will come with time, study, and play.

We may need to learn some things, and that’s okay. We might need to buy some things, and that’s okay. We may want to ask some people we never thought we’d reach out to questions that we never thought we’d ask, but guess what? That’s okay. We may need to try out some things that don’t work. That’s okay. We might need to reorganize our time and efforts and our liturgical aesthetics and our music-making spaces. You know what I’m going to say already: That’s okay!

Our Thessalonians text for today tell us, “Hold fast to what is good.”2 Honesty, kindness, patience, creativity, generosity, perseverance, flexibility, and so much more are good, and are already here. They are ways to “Rejoice, always, pray without ceasing [and] give thanks in all circumstances.”3 We sometimes just need to remember them; be given permission to use them; and bravely act with them in mind. Music is just one way we do these things, and it’s a great space to practice.

So, to quote a ready Music that Makes Community anthem (if there is one), “What we need is here.”4 Let me say it again: “what we need is here.”

Video Transcript:

(Instrumental Drone)

Let’s listen once.

“What we need is here, what we need is here.”

Join in as you’re able.

“What we need is here, what we need is here.”

Add in some harmony.

“What we need is here, what we need is here.”

Last time now.

“What we need is here, what we need is here.”

Let’s transition elsewhere.

It may take some time, but that’s okay.

(Instrumental transition to “How can I keep from singing?”)

“Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing;
it finds an echo in my soul;
how can I keep from singing?

No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that rock I’m clinging
Since Love is Lord of heaven and earth
How can I keep from singing?”

(Instrumental out)


1Also from Lowry’s lyrics for the same hymn.
21 Thessalonians 5:15.
31 Thessalonians 5:16-17.
4Words and music by Amy McCreath.

Sermon, December 13th

An introduction from the Rev. Miranda Hassett…  I’d like to preface Deanna’s words by saying just a little bit about how she came to be preaching today. Over the summer, talking with colleagues about how things were going at their churches, I started to notice a pattern in what they were telling me: “My music director just quit.”  “My organist hasn’t been in touch since March.” And so on. Not everywhere, but in many churches, the music staff person just disappeared in mid-March. They didn’t know how to do their job – fulfill their calling – under our current circumstances, so they ghosted. I have compassion for that. But I also have a huge well of gratitude that that’s not what happened here. Deanna came to our changed circumstances with grief about the things we had to put aside for a season, of course, but also with curiosity and hope and a robust confidence that we would continue to offer music to God and one another, somehow. So I asked Deanna: what makes you able to face these times, these constraints, in this spirit? Is it something you could talk about and offer to others? I was thinking in terms of having her share with other music ministers of our diocese. But when she brought me what she had written, I thought, This could be a homily for our parish, as well. This message transcends Deanna’s particular role and vocation. The Biblical scholar Richard Swanson offers a paraphrase of today’s text from Isaiah: “Make a straight road for the God whose Name is Mercy, make it in the wilderness, make it in chaos, make it in our imaginations so that we can bear the hard, chaotic work that lies ahead of us.”  Here is Deanna’s story about developing the imagination to make a way through chaos. 

 

“Through all the tumult and the strife I hear the music ringing; it finds an echo in my soul; how can I keep from singing?”

These famous lines come from a hymn by Robert Lowry (1826-1899). It may sound familiar: we used them as our Song of Praise for a while this autumn. They also happen to be on the back of a high school choir sweatshirt that I still own, nearly two decades later.

You can read them as an earnest affirmation of music-making for its own sake, regardless of the circumstances. That’s not the only way I hear them, though. When I read these words on this particular sweatshirt, I also hear the start of an ethic of music-making while in crisis.

I hear it that way because crisis marked my high school choir experience. A choir director’s catastrophic failure of judgement left a vacuum of leadership in its wake – and a group of passionate teenagers committed to singing (and their equally committed parents) had to pick up the pieces.

My cohort ended up having 6 directors in 4 years of high school. It was hard in ways that still hurt 17 years later. And we also got through it. Not only did we all survive, but, during that first gut-wrenching year, both our concerts and our tour happened. They happened a little differently, but they happened. And choir continued – and we stayed connected.

That all happened in 2003 in suburban, affluent Phoenix, to a secular, public high school choir of passionate teenage musicians. Today I, and we, are living through another crisis that affects our shared music-making. It’s a very different crisis… but finding wisdom in those long-ago experiences, for navigating music ministry at an Episcopal church in Wisconsin in 2020, might not be as big a leap as you’d think.

Having been in that rag-tag band of teenagers, parents, and administrators negotiating uncharted musical territory gives me a way to hold the seriousness of our current situation for what it is, and to reflect on my role in helping navigate our current troubled waters.

Singing together in person in church is dangerous right now. The science is still emerging, but indicates that there is no completely safe way to sing together in-person. Singing, or playing some instruments, together in groups seems to be one of the riskiest things we can choose to do for everyone involved: musicians, helpers, audiences, congregants, and clergy alike.

The best we can do is to mitigate risk with masks, generous ventilation, limits on how many, how loud, how close, and how long. It’s a logistical nightmare for schools, colleges, universities… and churches.

We, as a member of the body of Christ, strive to welcome and serve and whole-heartedly include all kinds of folks – those confident in their ability to weather a Covid diagnosis; those who are at greater risk for complications and even death; and everyone in between. So our guidelines for music-making have to design for people at varying levels of health risk and of risk tolerance.

Our multi-generational congregations make us less like school or university music programs and more like community orchestras and choirs – and many of those community programs have canceled their in-person seasons, not just for 2020, but into 2021 as well. The Metropolitan Opera, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra and Chorus all made this hard choice. So can we.

That doesn’t mean we can’t still sing together. That doesn’t mean we can’t still play together. It does mean that we’re going to have to find a way to make community and minister through music differently.

I don’t say that lightly. Rewriting the script for what music ministry looks like is overwhelming on a good day. Our received ways of making music in church are familiar and beloved. And for me personally, the fact that I wasn’t trained specifically for a church musician role gives me extra room to second guess myself.

But I remind myself that back in high school, the well-respected senior who became the leader for our choir wasn’t the most obvious choice either. He wasn’t the most musically proficient performer, though his many musical and technical skills certainly helped him. What really made him the right leader for our group at that time were traits that had little to do with music. He was kind, attentive, honest, creative, flexible, generous, earnest, curious, and savvy. He was someone who tried to include everybody; who ran towards whatever’s broken; and who tried to make amends when he messed up.

All of those are traits I’m still working to embody. All of those are traits that characterize the church, at its best.

So how did we do it, back in 2003? What values and ways of being helped us keep doing what we felt called to do, when the way we had expected to do it collapsed unexpectedly?

One important way of being was Collaboration. Everyone contributed what they could to keep things running. Although one choir student was put in charge during that strange interim period, in practice, many people helped us keep going. I led sectional rehearsals with the piano, as did others. A friend who had access to the concert program files kept those up to date. Council members made sure each class had leadership. Singers continued to show up to class. Substitute teachers let us do our thing.

Today at St. Dunstan’s, we are exploring new forms of musical collaboration. People are contributing all kinds of gifts and skills, as we find new ways to make music together. It’s not just playing or singing that’s involved here: there’s so much happening behind the scenes to make sure that the technological and logistical aspects of this effort all work.

Another aspect of my high school choir experience was Sacrifice. We had to let go of expectations about the experience we had hoped to have. We weren’t going to have one great music teacher lead us through four years of growth, as others do, no matter what we did and through no fault of ours. If anything, we had that ideal deconstructed before our eyes in real time without a lot of terminology for what was going on or how we felt about it, and it hurt. But being able to feel those feelings and release them was crucial to being able to move forward together.

The way we’re doing church and making music together wasn’t anyone’s choice. Being in exile from our building hurts. Being unable to do many things we love hurts. Finding possibility in this time doesn’t mean that “Everything is fine.” But doing what we can so that we’re all still here when we can be back together in-person again is worth it.

By the same token, we also needed plenty of Patience. There was a lot of hurt, confusion, grief, and anger to process. It was sometimes hard to know exactly what we were mad at or sad about, just that we were. It came out sideways. It made us sick. Even the strongest among us weren’t immune. We had to learn to be patient with one another as we dealt with the impact, individually and collectively, of what we were going through.

Learning to work with practices meant to keep us safe has required a lot of study, discussion, discernment, and grieving. Learning to work with this technology has required a lot. But we’re working through it all. We’re still here.

Something else that helped us back in high school was Focus. It was easy to get upset and angry because there was a lot to be rightly upset and angry about. Watching your heroes fail spectacularly hurts. Losing an imagined future hurts. But the mission was clear: we would continue to learn about and make music together regardless of what was going on around us. We would do it with whatever and whomever we had.

For my work here, I’ve had to step back and ask, “What’s the most important thing?” My answer has been being part of the body of Christ in Madison, Wisconsin during COVID-tide. My job is to support that mission through music.

Perseverance: There were days where what we were doing felt impossible – but we didn’t give up on music or each other. Today, I’m the Director of Music Ministry at St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church and a recently minted PhD from UW-Madison’s School of Music. Music is still central in my life – and many of the friends I went through this with are still on my Facebook feed.

We at St. Dunstan’s are not giving up on worshiping, and making music, together. We’re working through technological glitches and learning from them. We’re adapting our practices for these new formats and taking notes on how it goes.

Collaboration, sacrifice, patience, focus, perseverance. These are ways of being that allow us to collaborate with God and each other, to “hear that real though far off hymn that hails a new creation.”1 They come alongside those sturdy Christian standbys of faith, hope, and love, as reasons that “no storm can shake my inmost calm while to that Rock I’m clinging.” These behaviors are how I know that “Love is Lord of heaven and earth.” The skills we lack—or just need to practice a bit—will come with time, study, and play.

We may need to learn some things, and that’s okay. We might need to buy some things, and that’s okay. We may want to ask some people we never thought we’d reach out to questions that we never thought we’d ask, but guess what? That’s okay. We may need to try out some things that don’t work. That’s okay. We might need to reorganize our time and efforts and our liturgical aesthetics and our music-making spaces. You know what I’m going to say already: That’s okay!

Our Thessalonians text for today tell us, “Hold fast to what is good.”2 Honesty, kindness, patience, creativity, generosity, perseverance, flexibility, and so much more are good, and are already here. They are ways to “Rejoice, always, pray without ceasing [and] give thanks in all circumstances.”3 We sometimes just need to remember them; be given permission to use them; and bravely act with them in mind. Music is just one way we do these things, and it’s a great space to practice.

So, to quote a ready Music that Makes Community anthem (if there is one), “What we need is here.”4 Let me say it again: “what we need is here.”

Video Transcript:

(Instrumental Drone)

Let’s listen once.

“What we need is here, what we need is here.”

Join in as you’re able.

“What we need is here, what we need is here.”

Add in some harmony.

“What we need is here, what we need is here.”

Last time now.

“What we need is here, what we need is here.”

Let’s transition elsewhere.

It may take some time, but that’s okay.

(Instrumental transition to “How can I keep from singing?”)

“Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing;
it finds an echo in my soul;
how can I keep from singing?

No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that rock I’m clinging
Since Love is Lord of heaven and earth
How can I keep from singing?”

(Instrumental out)


1Also from Lowry’s lyrics for the same hymn.
21 Thessalonians 5:15.
31 Thessalonians 5:16-17.
4Words and music by Amy McCreath.

Sermon, Oct. 18

Today we are kicking off our fall giving campaign – what many churches call a pledge drive. We invite members and friends of St. Dunstan’s to make a pledge, which is a statement of your intended financial gifts to the parish over the course of the upcoming calendar year. Those pledges allow us to form a budget, since members’ pledged giving makes up the vast majority of our income. We do this every October and November; it’s a standard part of  how St. Dunstan’s, and most other Episcopal churches, function. 

Usually, on the first Sunday of the giving campaign, I preach about it, one way or another. To offer some context… some theological grounding… some reassurance and encouragement. 

There have been years when that felt hard. The year we decided to stop running $30,000 deficits and balance our budget. The year when we had just started a capital campaign – and we really didn’t know how many households were able and willing to do both. 

And then there’s this year. 

I can’t even imagine what October 2019 Miranda would have thought if I’d had the opportunity to tell her about the realities of October 2020. It was hard for me to even start thinking about this year’s giving campaign. It’s hard to imagine asking for your attention amidst the clamor of so many alarms – the pandemic, the election, the environment. Many of us feel chronically distracted and/or overwhelmed, and with good reason. It’s hard to imagine asking for your generosity amidst so much uncertainty and scarcity, when even those of us who are doing OK financially tend to add, “for now.” 

The wilderness journey stories from Exodus have been a strange blessing, over the past six weeks. We’ve listened to the Israelites, our long-ago faith ancestors, struggle with fear and frustration, hunger and thirst, boredom and weariness, uncertainty about where it’s all going and how long it will last, yearning for what they had before, struggling to trust that God is working for good through it all.

And their struggles have been our struggles, and, maybe, made us feel a little less alone – reminding us that humans have walked through many a trackless wilderness before. 

The book of Exodus took its more or less final form about 600 years before Jesus, in a time when the Jewish people had been conquered and dragged from their homeland to live among strangers. During those fifty years of exile, God’s people drew on ancient stories and traditions to create a set of holy books laying out their history and way of life. I’m sure that just as we do, those long-ago editors saw parallels between the wilderness journey and their own circumstances. 

Maybe that context can help us understand God’s sometimes-destructive anger, in these stories. Perhaps it simply reflects ancient memories of how people made sense of the hardships of their journey. And/or – for the exiles, God’s anger may have served as a reminder to stay faithful to their heritage and faith, on their own long journey. 

In today’s Exodus text, God does what every parent whose rage is spiraling out of control should do: God gives Godself a time out. Or tries to, anyway. God tells Moses, Look. You all should continue your journey; but I can’t go with you. For you are a stiff-necked people – a wonderful Hebrew idiom. Pause a moment and feel that in your body, that stiff neck; then release it, let your head fall. To bow your head in humility or to nod in agreement – both begin with releasing that stiff neck. 

God says, If I continue to travel with this people, stiff necks and all, we’re going to keep having these situations…. and one of these days I might actually destroy you all. 

If we think about it, we might find Moses’ and the people’s responses surprising. Why not take this deal? God has gotten them out of Egypt and provided food and water. Surely the onward journey would be easier without this demanding, terrifying Being traveling with them. Please note that by this time they have received the Ten Commandments; they have some idea of God’s expectations about how they’re supposed to live. Why not say, Thanks, God, it’s been great, we can take it from here? 

I don’t know why not. But that’s not what they say. The people’s reaction to the idea that God might leave them is grief. And Moses ARGUES with God –  “Oh no you don’t. These are YOUR people. And you told me that I found favor in your sight! Now you’re going to leave me to handle this on my own?”

And God relents, and agrees to stay with the people, and accompany them and protect them and provide for them as they continue their journey.

It is not all smooth sailing from here on out. Next week we’ll hear about that. But I think this is a really important moment in the long arc of the wilderness journey. It’s a moment of mutual choosing. Moses, and the people, didn’t get a lot of choice at the beginning of all this. But now, presented with an opportunity to shake hands and walk away, they choose God. They choose to keep being God’s people, even though it asks a lot from them. And God chooses to keep being their God. And they continue their holy journey together. 

Our text from 1 Thessalonians talks about choosing, too. This is the beginning of the letter, when Paul usually offers some encouragement and praise. To the church in Thessalonica, he says, Knowing of your choice…  The New Revised Standard Version, our usual Bible translation, renders that as, “knowing that Christ has chosen you.” But the syntax in the original Greek is unclear. It could be Christ’s choosing of these people, this church; or their choosing of Christ. Either – or both. But the choosing matters. 

When I’m preaching a giving campaign sermon, I usually find some thread that ties the Scripture texts to the campaign. Generosity. Commitment. Gratitude. Et cetera. This year, what jumps out at me is the choosing. 

It’s there in the texts, for sure, but maybe it stands out for me because I’ve also heard it from many of you in these months. That this has become, like it or not, a clarifying time, a season of discernment. The enforced limitations of our lives, and perhaps too the pervasive sense of risk and loss, has led to a lot re-evaluation of what matters and what we actually want.

I’ve heard about job changes and relationship changes. Changes in how people organize their time, who we stay in touch with, what commitments we keep, even our deep sense of personal direction and purpose. They are not all comfortable changes, to be clear! Some have brought a lot of anguish… even when it’s the right choice. Some of you are still hanging in the uncomfortable space between the old passing away, and the new taking shape. 

It turns out that we were all on auto-pilot about a lot of stuff. We kept doing it because we’d done it before. And when we had to stop and think, we un-chose some things. And we re-chose some other things. 

If you’re hearing my voice right now, that probably means St. Dunstan’s is one of the things you chose again. Or, in a few cases, chose for the first time – which is just amazing to me; such a blessing. 

The giving campaign is an opportunity to choose, again. To choose this faith community as one of the things that’s worth your time and resources and heart,

in this strange season and beyond. To choose to help St. Dunstan’s keep being here, for us and for others.  

Let me say just a few words about this year’s campaign. In recent years we’ve presented a detailed draft budget as part of the fall giving campaign, explaining why particular budget lines went up or down. That kind of work assumes stability. That next year will look a lot like this year, with some tweaks here and there. 

Well – 2020 blew that kind of thinking out of the water. We didn’t know what 2020 would be like. We don’t know what 2021 will be like. We know we’ve lost some beloved saints this year; we know some folks’ jobs and family circumstances have changed. So this year we’re asking for your pledges first, and then we’ll budget for 2021 when we’ve seen what we can do, together. 

This doesn’t mean your parish leadership bodies are slacking off!The Finance Committee and Vestry folks have looked at our numbers and talked about different possibilities. But it seemed both kinder and more responsible to start with what we are able to give, and build our budget from there. 

I am hopeful, beloved friends. I’m hopeful that we’ll keep broadening and deepening our practices of fellowship and prayer when we’re not in the same physical space. I’m hopeful that advances in understanding, prevention and treatment of Covid will allow us to begin to gather in person again in the coming months, in both familiar and fresh ways.

I’ve looked around at what other churches are doing, and we have done a good job of keeping being St. Dunstan’s. There have been costs to this season – no question. I know we have members who love this parish and just don’t connect with online worship. I ache for them. This long fast from Eucharist, and our beloved building, takes a toll. There have been blessings to this season, too – deepening connections within the parish family, building new habits of praying and reflecting on Scripture together, exploring ways for our kids to plan and lead worship. It has been a heavy lift. It will keep being one. But we’re doing pretty well. I’m proud of us. 

Keeping on keeping being St. Dunstan’s takes financial resources. That’s why we have to have a fall giving campaign, even though it’s hard. If you’ve pledged in the past and you’re able to sustain your pledge, please do. If you’ve pledged before and you’re able to increase your pledge, even a little, I hope you’ll consider it. If you’ve pledged before and things have changed and you can’t pledge at the same level – we understand. No shame, please! So much has changed, for so many people, this year. 

If you haven’t pledged before and you’d like to start, to help St. Dunstan’s plan ahead, that would be a tremendous blessing. New pledges are always cause for celebration – even more so this year. I also want to hold up the folks who pledged for the first time last year and plan to pledge again this year. What a time to join a church. Thanks for sticking around. 

Along with your pledge cards, we’re asking for two other things. First, please share your thoughts about what’s most important to sustain and build, with your Vestry and Finance Committee. This is a season of discernment for St. Dunstan’s, too. Let us know what matters, from where you’re standing.

Second, please share your hopes. Each pledge packet this year includes a couple of index cards. They’ll come with an explanation, but the gist is: Use a card to write or draw a hope you have for 2021. It can be a church hope or a life hope or a world hope. It can be a big hope or a little hope. It can be a general hope or a very specific hope. You can do several if you want – let us know if you need more index cards!

One of our members, Kate, suggested this, because, she said, holding hope together is one of the most important things we do as a church in a difficult and frightening time. I think there’s real wisdom in that. So, share a hope, or two, or five. Send them back with your pledge card. We’ll put them all together and share them at the end of the giving campaign. 

In the wilderness journey in Exodus, God’s people chose to keep being God’s people. God’s people in Thessalonica chose Christ and were chosen by Christ, to continue the work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope.

Beloved friends: I am so grateful that you, each and all, chose St. Dunstan’s and keep choosing St. Dunstan’s.That you chose, and keep choosing, the blessings and challenges of life together as a faith community. That you chose, and keep choosing, to walk this wilderness journey together. May the God who has brought us this far protect us, guide us, and give us wisdom and courage for the road ahead. Amen. 

A Prayer for Spiritual Communion

A Prayer for Spiritual Communion
In union, O Lord, with the faithful at every altar of your Church where the Holy Eucharist is now being celebrated, I desire to offer you praise and thanksgiving. I present to you my soul and body with the earnest wish that I may always be united to you, and, since I cannot now receive you sacramentally, I beseech you to come spiritually into my heart. I unite myself with you, and embrace you with all the love of my soul. Let nothing ever separate you from me. May I live in you, and may you live in me, both in this life and in the life to come. Amen.

Sermon, June 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(from his memoir No Future Without Forgiveness) 

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

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

Except that there’s this pandemic going on.

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

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

No man is an island. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some sources… 

Basil and bad Trinity math: 

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

Gregory of Nyssa:

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

BuzzFeed piece:

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

99 Percent Invisible, Episode 401: The Natural Experiment –

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

A starting point on the contagion of altruism – 

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

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

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

Homily, May 17

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

Wonder together some: 

What was your favorite part?…

What was the most important part? … 

Let’s look at an image of Dunstan together. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon, April 26

This morning, I’m taking the opportunity of our online worship to do something that’s harder to do in church – look at some art together. I mentioned last week in the evening gathering that there are wonderful paintings of some of these Easter Gospel stories by the artist Caravaggio, who lived in Italy from 1571 to 1610. Caravaggio’s work represents some rich and wonderful visual exegesis – reflecting on a Scriptural story and drawing meaning out of it by rendering it artistically. 

Here is his painting of our Gospel story from last week – The Incredulity of St. Thomas.

Remember, when the other disciples told him that they had seen Jesus, risen from the dead, while he was not with them, Thomas said, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” In Caravaggio’s image, Jesus is guiding Thomas’s finger into the wound in his side. As much as to say, “If this is what you need, Thomas… let it be so.”

How would you describe the look on Jesus’ face? Unmute & share what you’re seeing, if you’d like – just a word or two. You can do it in Chat, too. How would you describe the feelings on Thomas’s face?….

When you’re looking at a Caravaggio painting, always notice the hands. He paints very expressive hands. Notice Thomas’s left hand. Does that add to how you read his feelings, in this moment? 

All right. Let’s move to this Sunday’s Gospel – another beautiful story of followers of Jesus meeting the risen Christ. Two of the disciples, Jesus’ friends and followers, are leaving Jerusalem – burdened with sadness and disappointment. They had hoped that he would be the one to redeem Israel – to free their nation and people from the degradation of Roman rule, to a new era of freedom and holy strength, like the remembered time of King David. 

But that’s not what happened. Jesus didn’t call the people to him and start a righteous revolution. Instead, the imperial powers and the local powers, Pilate, Herod, and the chief priests, worked it out among themselves to dispose of him. It wasn’t even especially difficult. And now, the great moment of hope and possibility has passed. They’ve heard about the empty tomb and the rumors that maybe Jesus is alive; but still, it feels like everything is over. They might as well go home, and return to the normal lives they abandoned when they joined the Jesus movement. 

We know both their names, by the way, though Luke only names Cleopas. John, in his Gospel, names the women who were standing near the cross – one of them is Mary, the wife of Clopas. 

Clopas and Cleopas are very likely the same name. And it makes all the sense in the world that this was a married couple traveling together, since we know there were women among Jesus’ disciples, and since the story ends at a home they share. 

So, Mary and Cleopas are headed home, sad and weary.  But then a stranger approaches and falls into step with them. He asks them, What are you talking about? And when they tell him, he says, Wait, have you even READ the Scriptures? It was necessary for the Messiah to suffer these things! And as they walk on, the stranger re-interprets Scripture to them, texts of liberation like Exodus and texts of judgment and promise like the Prophets, to show them that passing through death to new life is a story God tells in the world, over and over and over again. 

And then they reach Emmaus. And Mary – I’m sure it was Mary – says, Oh, please stop here with us. It’s getting dark. We don’t have much in the cupboard, but I’ll borrow from a neighbor. Stay. And the stranger agrees to stay. And over their simple shared meal, he takes bread, and blesses it, and breaks it, and gives it to them. And the words and the voice, the way he lifts his hands, the way he meets their eyes when he holds out the bread – suddenly, they see. They recognize. They know. 

Here is Caravaggio’s image of the supper at Emmaus.

You’ll notice that Caravaggio thought both of the disciples on the road to Emmaus were men. What else do you notice?…

A couple of notes: The servant is a self-portrait of Caravaggio. Caravaggio’s Jesus here doesn’t look like a conventional Jesus – he is young and androgynous or even feminine. This is how Caravaggio has interpreted the fact that the disciples didn’t recognize Jesus – he must have looked different in some way. Compare the Jesus in Caravaggio’s painting “The Taking of Christ,” who looks a lot more like “normal” depictions of Jesus.

Then Jesus – disappears. (While he does have a real human body, the Risen Jesus seems to be able to pop in and out of our reality in a new way!) And Cleopas and Mary stare at each other, with understanding and hope dawning on their faces. And they RUSH back to Jerusalem – seven miles by night! – to tell the other disciples what has happened. How Jesus walked with them and talked with them, and was made known to them in the breaking of the bread. 

That phrase may sound familiar! It’s used in one of our Eucharistic prayers, Prayer C. The congregation says it: Risen Lord, be known to us in the breaking of the bread. It’s also in a beautiful prayer we use in the evenings sometimes, a prayer based on this story: Lord Jesus, stay with us, for evening is at hand and the day is past; be our companion in the way, kindle our hearts, and awaken hope, that we may know you as you are revealed in Scripture and the breaking of bread.

Sharing the Eucharist, breaking bread that is the Body of Christ and sharing it among the fellowship of believers that is also the Body of Christ, is central to our church’s practice. We are fasting from it now, for a season, for the sake of human wellbeing – for one another and for our wider community. I know that fast is really hard for some folks. I’m sorry. We will return to the Eucharistic table, when we have discerned that it’s safe enough, and how to do so with minimal risk. 

The breaking of the bread is a really important moment when we can see and feel and touch the Divine. But it’s far from the only such moment. I love what Mary and Cleopas say to one another: Were not our hearts burning within us, while he was speaking to us on the road? Hours before they recognized their mysterious traveling companion as Jesus Christ, God incarnate, hours before this eucharistic meal, they had the sense that they were hearing something powerful and important and true. I think that’s why they begged the stranger to stay with them. Not just kindness or politeness, but also a sense of connection, possibility, urgency. 

Were not our hearts burning within us? I know what that feels like. That sense of hearing important truth, truth that will change how I think and how I live. Or hearing something that has a call on me. I know the feeling of a deep-down nudge that says, Pay attention. There’s something here. Something that kindles your heart and awakens hope. You’re close to one of the cracks in everything, where the light gets in. I am more or less attuned to those nudges, that strange inner warmth, depending on how well I’ve been sleeping, how hard I’ve been working, how open and present I’m able to be. But I do know that feeling. 

We love gathering at our church building – but we know God doesn’t live there. We love sharing the Body of Christ in Eucharist – but we know that’s not the only place to meet Jesus. We may be all shut up in our homes, but the risen Jesus walks right through locked doors, friends. 

Where is the Holy showing up for you, in these days? Where might the Holy show up for you, if you look, and listen? If you open your heart to expect that even here, even now, God has a word to speak to you, or a gift to offer you, or a mission of love to invite you into? Listen to your heart, friends… notice when it burns within you. 

Response question: Where have you seen or sensed God’s presence, gotten a glimpse or whiff of the Holy, in these days? … 

ChurchLands Possibilities, April 2020

In early April, Rev. Miranda and Carrie met with ChurchLands leader Nurya Love Parish over Zoom to discuss how we might think about using our grounds in new ways in light of changed circumstances due to the coronavirus pandemic. (NOTE: If you’re not already familiar with the ChurchLands program, please take a moment to go read this page!)

We noted that many people – both members and non-members – experience our church grounds as holy space and use them accordingly. That led us to some interesting and hopeful questions. How might we be more intentional about inviting members and friends to use our grounds as a place of pilgrimage and prayer, in the months ahead when there may be somewhat more freedom of movement but gatherings are still limited? When we begin to gather again, how might our grounds be a tool for gathering in holy space, when people may not yet feel comfortable coming into the enclosed space of the church building? Might our present circumstances lead us to some experimentation with a long-held desire at St. Dunstan’s for more outdoor, or indoor/outdoor, worship? 

Could hands-on outdoor projects be a way to work together as a church (even if we come and work at separate times) this spring and summer – and if so, what projects would serve the possibilities listed above? (More visible and accessible paths to the Pine Island altar and labyrinth? More wayfinding in the woods?…) 

As Nurya said, Our grounds offer many kinds of possibilities and opportunities. How might this treasured resource take on new purpose and new value for us in this season?