Category Archives: Current Events

Sermon, Feb. 9

Are you grieving today, weighed down with loss? Are you timid, fearful; do you struggle to speak up for yourself and find what you need? Is your yearning for justice eating you up inside? You are LUCKY! You are HAPPY! You are BLESSED! 

Jesus is standing on a mountaintop – or at least a hilltop – and preaching about what it means to live a holy life. There’s surely an intentional echo here of Moses on Mount Sinai, receiving the Ten Commandments, and teaching Israel how God calls them to live. And just as holy laws of the Torah called Israel to live differently than neighboring peoples, so too do Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount.

There’s a lot here that did not align with conventional wisdom and cultural norms. Our Bible translation – most Bible translations – begin each of these lines with “Blessed.” But the Greek word there can just as easily be translated as Happy or Lucky.  I like that translation, because I think Jesus is being provocative at least as much as he’s being pious, here. In Luke’s version of this sermon, Jesus seems to call out the people in the crowd who are laughing – because these teachings make no sense!

The poor? The meek? The lost and lonely? The merciful and the peacemakers – those softies and suckers? Those wingnuts who won’t stop talking about justice, who get themselves arrested or beaten for what they believe is right? Lucky. Happy. Blessed. Every last one of them.  What nonsense. 

Holy nonsense, divine foolishness, is a big theme in the early chapters of Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. In chapter 1 he writes: God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom. (1 Cor 1:25) In chapter 2 he urges, Your faith must not rest on human wisdom, but on the power of God. (1 Cor 2:5) And in chapter 3, he concludes, The wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. (1 Cor 3:19)

On one level, Paul is concerned that other Christian teachers who have visited Corinth may be taking liberties with the Gospel – and getting away with it because they are such eloquent speakers. The people don’t realize that they’re changing the message because they sound so smart. Paul says, Just because somebody SOUNDS wise and insightful doesn’t meany they are. Bad and wrong things can be preached in beautiful, persuasive words. History certainly justifies his concern. 

At a deeper level, though, Paul is pointing to the paradox at the heart of Christianity: Christ crucified and risen. The one we call Savior and Lord was executed by the government. Not much of a Messiah! And then – we claim – he came back from the dead. Everyone knows that’s impossible. 

Paul doesn’t try to make Christian faith palatable to intellectuals. He says, Yes, it’s nonsense – holy, necessary nonsense. Look, says Paul: God’s wisdom seems like foolishness to human understanding – to the people of this age – but it carries deep truth, and profound hope. If you think you are wise, maybe you need more holy foolishness – to understand what Jesus said and did, and begin the lifelong work of following him and growing into his likeness. 

Who here reads romance novels and is willing to admit it? 

The popular image of romance novels is of mediocre writing, formulaic plots, and probably overblown, cringey descriptions of hugging and kissing. They’re seen as frivolous and escapist. How could romance novels accomplish any good in the world?

Let me tell you a story – a story about one of the most successful romance novel writers of all time. Her name was Ida Cook, though she wrote under the name Mary Burchell. 

Ida was born in England in 1904, to a happy, affectionate family. She and her older sister, Louise, were fast friends and lifelong companions. Biographers note that both sisters were notably plain. As young women, they shared an apartment in London and worked at clerical jobs. In 1923, they discovered opera, and fell in love with it. They bought a gramophone, and started attending operas whenever they could. They became superfans of some of the great opera stars of the day – writing fan letters and waiting outside stage doors for autographs. How feminine. How frivolous. How foolish. 

One of their faves was an opera singer named Amelita Galli-Curci. They wrote to her telling her they planned to save up for two years to come to New York and hear her sing. She wrote back, promising them free tickets to ALL her operas if they could get there! So, of course, they saved up and made it to the Big Apple. 

They became friends with Galli-Curci, and started meeting other opera stars too. 

Meanwhile, Ida writes an article for a sewing magazine about the dress she made for their New York trip. Then she starts writing and publishing short romantic stories… and then she’s invited to start writing for Mills and Boon, the major romance publisher in the UK. (Think Harlequin!) She’s good at it, and suddenly she’s making pretty good money.

Naturally, the sisters use that money to travel and see more opera all over Europe, especially in Germany. In 1934 they’re in Germany when a singer they know introduces them to another woman, asking the Cooks to look after her, since she’s traveling to England soon. Of course they agree. When they ask their new friend why she’s moving to England, she explains, “I’m Jewish – didn’t you know?”

Ida and Louise learn about what’s happening in Germany. The growing pressure on the Jews, the rising tide of danger and fear. Jews who can afford to leave, and have connections or opportunities abroad, are getting out. And Ida has a realization. She thinks about all the money she is making with her novels – and she realizes she could be using it to save lives. 

It’s hard to look back on now, knowing what we know, but both Britain and the United States were reluctant to accept Jewish refugees. They didn’t make it easy. To leave Germany for Britain at this point, in the mid-1930s, you needed to have proven income or cash reserves. The question wasn’t whether you were in mortal danger in your home country, but whether you would be a drain on public resources when you arrived. Practically, you needed someone in England to be your guarantor – to attest that you had resources and would be provided for.  

Ida starts using her book money to guarantee as many people as she can. And as requests for help start to stream in, the sisters organize friends to donate funds or be guarantors themselves. Ida buys an apartment where newly-arrived refugees can stay while getting settled in. The sisters keep traveling to Germany on weekends, to hear opera performances… and to connect with those seeking to leave the country, and help them along. They make heartbreaking decisions about who they can help, then work to get their visas through the British immigration system. 

Often, on their return journeys, they carried with them jewelry and other small, high-value goods belonging to the Jews they hoped to help leave Germany for England.The smuggling was necessary because Germany wouldn’t let Jews take their assets with them when they left; but they would certainly need assets to begin their new life in Britain. The smuggling was effective because people tended to ignore and underestimate Ida and Louise. One biographer describes them as “plain and anonymous in their tatty cardigans and Woolworth glass beads.” (Carpenter) Margaret Talbot writes, “The underestimation of women, especially women who might be dismissed on the basis of their looks, was a resource that Ida and Louise deployed for enormous good.” 

Talbot describes one case in which Ida and Louise were smuggling home a lot of valuable jewelry on behalf of a woman named Alice, who hoped to rejoin her jewels in England shortly. The sisters had a very anxious half-hour when German SS officers boarded the train at the German border to look for Jews trying to escape Nazi Germany. They had a plan: IF the SS men asked them to open their handbags, they were going to do their “nervous British spinster act and insist, quite simply, that we always took our valuables with us, because we didn’t trust anyone with whom we could leave them at home.” (Cook quoted in Talbot) 

Talbot writes, “The Cooks had found that telling a lie that made them look meek and foolish was sometimes their best bet.” Meek and foolish… In this case, looking like ordinary, plain, middle-aged, middle-class white women did the trick, and the SS left them alone. 

The situation in Germany continues to deteriorate. Visas are harder and harder to get. People are disappearing before the Cooks can help them. Ida writes, “We cried, of course. And then we would start again. What else could we do?” She spends more and more time writing; the more books she publishes, the more money, the more lives she can save. As paths to escape become more and more scarce, the sisters speak at church groups; they hassle their friends; they approach strangers in restaurants. Always the message is: People are dying. If we pool our funds and guarantee them someplace to live, we might be able to get them out. 

Ida’s persistence and passion sometimes shake loose possibilities against all odds. In the Twitter thread that first brought Ida to my attention, John Bull writes that in August 1939, Ida received a letter from a Polish Jewish boy being held in a detention camp in Poland. He was on a waiting list to enter the United States, meaning he had a chance to get a visa to enter Britain on the way. But he was number 16500 or so on that waiting list – meaning it might be three years. People were already dying of starvation and disease all around him; he knew he did not have three years. 

Europe is on the brink of war. There is not a moment to lose. Ida finds a church group that will agree to take him in; she scrapes together the money to serve as his guarantee. She goes to the Immigration Office to organize his visa, and talks to the clerk who normally handles her cases.  “The woman looks aghast: They can’t give this kid a visa. New rules as of yesterday. Only people number 16,000 on the US list or under [can get visas.] Ida tells her that this kid will die if they don’t get him out. They need to do something. Then the clerk comes up with a plan and tells Ida to trust her. ‘Go home, and take this with you,’ she says, handing Ida the completed and signed application form. The next day, Ida gets an official letter from the clerk: ‘Please submit the missing paperwork we finalized three days ago.’ The clerk had found a way around the rule change: fudging the date on the application so it looked like it was filed before the new rules. The visa goes through. The child escapes – on the last boat of child refugees that is allowed to leave Poland. The last life the Cooks manage to save. 

Ida and Louse were directly involved in 29 emigration cases, many of which were families. They were indirectly involved in many others, as well. 

Bull writes, “Ida and Louise weren’t special. They were normal people and, by Ida’s own admission, terrified almost every step of the way. But once they had their eyes opened to what was happening, they knew they had to help. And Ida worked hard to try and make others see that too.” Ida herself wrote, “Terrified, agonized need can be ignored if it is attached only to a name on paper. Change [that] to a human who stammers out a frantic story, weeps difficult tears and asks for nothing but hopes for everything, and show me the ordinary person who can refuse.”

I want to be clear that one heart-warming story does not redeem the Holocaust. Mary and Ida saved perhaps fifty people. Hitler and those who went along with his regime murdered perhaps 11 million. This isn’t a story about how everyday heroism and moral courage can turn the tide of history – though I have to believe that sometimes it can. This is a story about how everyday heroism and moral courage might make a tiny difference, here and there; and helps us keep our souls, no matter the circumstances. 

Where is wisdom and where is foolishness, in Ida’s life and times? The wisdom of this age is found in quotas and fees and forms, bureaucratic barriers and waiting lists. The whole apparatus that made it harder and harder and finally impossible for Jews to flee Hitler’s final solution. All rational, modern, and deadly. 

Holy foolishness shows up in the subversive, strategic meekness of two ordinary, extraordinary middle-aged opera fans using romance novel royalties to save one life, and another, and another. 

For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom. 

The Reverend Marcus Halley, dean of Formation for the Episcopal Church in Connecticut, wrote recently: “To be Baptized is to … be brought into a way of life that is meant to pull a little more of the Kingdom of God into this world. We pray it in the Lord’s Prayer and are called to let it *happen* in us. Our vocation… might look like a ministry within the church, but most likely it will be a ministry somewhere deep behind enemy lines in God’s world…  Wherever sin shreds human dignity, there is room for God’s people to exercise their vocation of healing, mending, and making whole… I want the Church to offer everyday, ordinary people an opportunity to do the extraordinary.” 

Those wingnuts who won’t stop talking about justice, who approach strangers in restaurants about their cause, who smuggle jewels in their pocketbooks? The poor? The meek? The lost and lonely? The merciful and the peacemakers – the softies and the suckers? Those who mourn – the ones who can’t look away, who refuse to get numb, the sad ones, the angry ones? 

Lucky. Happy. Blessed. Every last one of them. What nonsense. May we all be so foolish. 

 

More on Ida Cook:

John Bull’s Twitter thread: 

https://twitter.com/garius/status/1220711078100897793

Louise Carpenter in Granta: 

https://granta.com/ida-and-louise/

Margaret Talbot in the New Yorker:

https://www.newyorker.com/books/second-read/ida-and-louise-cook-two-unusual-heroines-of-the-second-world-war

The Rev. Marcus Halley on what church could be: 

https://twitter.com/word_made_FRESH/status/1220786885892747264

Sermon, Jan. 12

Note: We read the entire 10th chapter of the Book of Acts this morning in worship. 

This story from the book of the Acts of the Apostles always brings to mind a favorite memory. One summer during my grad school years, several of my college friends and I rented a house on the beach in North Carolina for a few days, to hang out and reconnect. These were my church buddies, friends from the Episcopal campus community in my college town. Several of us had arrived and were settling in when my friends Jay and Spencer drove up. Jay rushed in and demanded to see a Bible immediately. (This was before Smartphones. Sometimes you just had to wonder about things for a while.) We found one and he looked up the tenth chapter of Acts. Meanwhile Spencer explained: In a Burger King along the way, they had seen several members of a church group, all wearing T-shirts that said in big letters across the back: ARISE.  KILL.  EAT. And a Scripture citation: Acts 10, verse 13. 

Now, ARISE, KILL, EAT, didn’t sound like any summary of the good news of God in Christ that we’d ever heard. And none of us knew the Book of Acts well enough to recognize the story from those few words. But you, of course, know what those words are about. They’re part of Peter’s vision – a message from God, a revelation that the categories that had bound Peter’s thinking and behavior in the past were passing away. (I still think it’s a weird thing to put on a T-shirt!) 

This story is sometimes named as the Conversion of Cornelius. But I think it’s really more about the conversion of Peter – Peter’s realization that the God made known in Jesus Christ shows no partiality. Partiality – a funny word; we don’t use it much. Somebody might say they’re partial to chocolate ice cream. Well: What Peter discovers in today’s Acts story is that God isn’t partial to any group of people over any other group. God doesn’t play favorites. God doesn’t like this one better than that one, just because of who or what they are. 

It’s a wonderful, profoundly important insight.  And what’s just as wonderful is that Peter has it. Peter was one of Jesus’ first disciples. We know him by the name Jesus gave him – the Rock – Peter in Greek, Cephas in Aramaic. We’ll hear that story next week, actually! In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus explains the nickname this way: “On this rock will I build my church.” It makes it sound like Peter is getting this nickname because he is so steady and solid. 

Well… maybe. We know Jesus could look right into people and see their hearts.

Peter’s original name, the one his parents gave him, was Simon, which means “hearing.” Maybe Jesus looked at Simon and thought, This one hears about as well as your average rock!… And he’s about as likely as a rock to change his mind. 

Now, pig-headed – rock-headed people have their uses. Someone who holds onto an idea or a vision with great determination and faithfulness can be just the right person to do something really hard, like starting a whole new religion, in the face of persecution. Peter did become one of the foundation stones of the Church. 

But walking with Jesus wasn’t always easy for someone like Simon Peter, who is not … nimble in his thinking, and takes a while to arrive at new understandings. The Gospels are full of stories about Peter being just a little slow on the uptake. He always thinks he’s got it – and he so rarely does. When Jesus talks about how hard it is for wealthy people to enter the kingdom of heaven, Peter’s the one who says, “We’re poor, Jesus! We left everything to follow you! So what are we gonna get?….” 

When Jesus appears to the disciples walking on the water, Peter’s the one who says, “Jesus, I want to walk on water too!” And of course he ends up getting soaked…  

When Jesus talks about his coming death on the cross,  Peter’s the one who says, “You’ve got to stop talking like this! You’re bringing everybody down!” Jesus has to rebuke him:  You’re seeing things from a human point of view, not God’s.

 

Peter is the only one of the male disciples brave enough to follow Jesus to the High Priest’s house after he is arrested. But he loses his courage, afraid to follow his friend to death, and denies knowing him – three times. When he and Jesus meet again, beside a lake, after everything, Jesus asks him three times: Do you love me? And tells him three times: Tend my sheep. 

Jesus knows his friend well. He knows it’s a good idea to hammer the point home. Maybe by the third repetition, it will get through Peter’s rocky head and settle into his big, loving, faithful heart. 

And Peter does tend Jesus’ sheep. He preaches Christ crucified and risen to the crowds, to the authorities, to anyone who will listen. He becomes a great and gifted leader. He goes to jail and suffers for his faith. Simon the Rock has got an idea in his hard head: Jesus called me to lead and protect his church. And I’m going to do it. 

One of the threats to Jesus’ church – to Peter’s church – is a fellow named Paul. Paul didn’t even know Jesus; he used to persecute Christians. Now he’s going around preaching to non-Jews, telling them they can become Christians without following all the religious practices of the Jewish people. Peter is not so sure about this. Jesus was a Jew, and all the disciples were faithful Jews. Peter fears that Paul is preaching cheap grace and wishy-washy warm fuzzy inclusion, and letting just ANYBODY in. 

Then something happens to Peter. We just heard the story. He has a vision of all kinds of animals – many of which are unclean and not to be eaten, in Jewish dietary law. Peter says, God, I will not eat these things; I am a faithful Jew; I have never eaten anything unclean! And a divine Voice says, What God has made clean, you must not call unclean. 

Then the messengers from Cornelius arrive – Peter follows them to Caesaria – Cornelius and his household gather to hear Peter’s preaching – and he begins with this new insight, this new revelation: I truly understand that God shows no partiality. EVERY person everywhere, no matter who or what they are, if they honor God and live with justice, they are acceptable to God. 

(A brief word on “acceptable”: It sounds kind of minimal, right? Like, just barely good enough. It really means something more like proper or appropriate. It’s used elsewhere for things like the acceptable sacrifice to God; the acceptable time for God’s action in the world. Acceptable, here, means: Just right for God.) 

In today’s story from the book of Acts, a big new idea has finally gotten through

the apostle Peter’s rocky head: The Gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, isn’t just for Jews – it’s for everybody. God’s love isn’t just for this nation or that nation. What God has made clean, it’s not the business of the church or its leaders to call unclean. When God opens a door, it’s never our business to close it.

Today is the first Sunday in the church’s season of Epiphany. Epiphany means, Revelation. A light-bulb moment. A new understanding of faith, self, world. Our Epiphany lessons are full of big revelations: The revelation to the Magi, those eastern astrologers, that a great King was born in Judea. The revelation that Jesus is God’s beloved Son. This revelation to Peter: I truly understand that God shows no partiality. God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. 

Receiving a revelation is one thing. Living in that new way of seeing and being, is another. God shows no partiality – but humans are really good at it. We have a strong propensity to create us-es and them-s, insiders and outsiders, to draw lines and build walls. We use different standards to judge those whom we see as our kind of people, and those whom we see as other. There’s a lot of science that explores this tendency, and lots of history that illustrates it. 

And not just history, but headlines. Partiality is in the rhetoric of war: enemies and allies, winners and losers. We forget over and over again Abraham Lincoln’s wisdom: “My concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side.” 

Partiality is in what lives we allow to matter to us – Iraqi, Canadian, Honduran, Puerto Rican (which is to say, American). It’s in the antagonisms and manipulations of the election cycle. Did you know we are much more likely to fall for false or manipulative news coverage that’s in line with our biases? We’re less critical and careful readers when we are reading positive stories about those we already like, or – more commonly – negative stories about those we don’t like. 

Partiality shows up in force at public hearings about workforce housing and school zoning – folks who think they’re just concerned about their property values; who don’t understand – or don’t want to understand – how residential segregation perpetuates racial and economic inequality. 

Partiality takes one of its most monstrous forms in resurgent anti-Semitism and emboldened white supremacy. 

I truly understand that God shows no partiality. God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. 

The heart of discipleship, of faithful living, is trying to live lives that reflect God as we have come to know God,through Jesus Christ and the witness of Scripture. God tells God’s people, right from the start: Be holy, as I am holy. Peter learns that part of God’s holiness is that God loves without boundaries. God’s welcome, God’s care, God’s call are for everybody. Therefore, as Christians, we are called beyond partiality. To be a people who do not call anyone unclean, profane, unworthy, or unimportant. 

What does it mean for you to grapple with that call, in this year, this season of the world? Maybe it means coming to the Saturday Book Group this week to discuss how to talk with people with whom we disagree; or to the Witnessing Whiteness series beginning in March, for white folks to explore what our whiteness means. Maybe it means trying to listen to why somebody else’s favorite candidate is their favorite. Maybe it means pausing to grieve far-away hurts and losses – letting them touch our hearts, even though it hurts. Maybe it means something as small as looking around at coffee hour or the Peace, this morning, for the people who are standing alone.

Being anti-partiality isn’t wishy-washy or weak. It’s bold and hard, and there is a lot of work to do. But if Peter, the Rock, could overcome his biases, and rejoice in finding God among those he’d seen as outsiders – then so can we. 

May the God who calls us to holiness, grant us wisdom and courage for the living of these days. Amen. 

History & repentance: A 4th of July sermon

The Rev. Miranda Hassett preached this sermon on June 30, 2019. 

Why do we observe the Fourth of July at church?  As a Christian and as a church leader, I’m pretty mindful of the line between my patriotism and my faith, my identity as a citizen and as a baptized follower of Jesus. But praying for our nation and our leaders is in our DNA as Christians in the Anglican tradition. So most years we take the Sunday leading up to Independence Day to pray together for our nation, that it may live up to its boldest ideals and bravest promises. 

There tends to be a lot of talk about freedom at this time of year. It’s a complicated topic, one which we collectively deploy quite selectively. Consider the recent prosecutions of people who leave water in the desert along our borders for migrants who might otherwise die of thirst. People who might well have thought they were free to exercise mercy. 

Our Galatians lesson this morning talks about freedom – Christian freedom. Paul says: Your freedom isn’t to do whatever you want, and it certainly isn’t to hurt others. When Paul is talking about freedom, his point is that the life of faith isn’t about following certain concrete practices and rites, as in Old Testament Judaism. He’s saying that the life of faith is, simply and completely, a life oriented towards loving your neighbor as yourself. And there is a freedom in that, because there are lots of ways to live out love of neighbor. But there’s also commitment in it – an un-freedom of sorts – because if we are in Christ we are NOT free to not care about the wellbeing of others. 

Our freedom in Christ, says Paul, is to strive, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to be people of love and joy, peace and patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. So that’s something to carry with you this week as our nation celebrates freedom. 

Another thing that you might hear about a lot this week is history. The Fourth of July, Independence Day, is an historical celebration. It is, to be specific, the date in 1776 when the Continental Congress, the governmental body of the original 13 colonies,  approved the final wording of the Declaration of Independence, agreeing on all the changes and edits they’d been working on for days.

But history, like freedom, is more complicated than we often think. I’ve been reading up lately on local history. Very local history. As in, the history of the ground under our feet right now. 

It’s easy to begin telling the history of this property in 1848. That’s when the Heim brothers, Joseph and Anton, left Bavaria, Germany, following a failed revolution against the oppressive ruling class. Joseph was 30, Anton was 22. Joseph’s wife Theresia traveled with them. Along with many others, they came to the United States and eventually settled in Wisconsin. They bought this land from the U.S. government, and established a farm, building that brick farmhouse in around 1858. 

This whole area was the Heim farm – from Old Middleton Road to the south up to the lakeshore, and some ways to the east and west. Heim Avenue, half a mile east, still bears the family name of our founding family. 

This is how European Americans usually tell the history of our places.  As if it begins when white people show up. But this land had history, and people, before the Heims, before the U.S. government. 

The Ho-Chunk people, known in the 19th century as the Winnebago tribe, lived in this area for thousands of years before they were largely removed to reservations in the mid-19th century.  Their ancestors, a thousand years ago, built the effigy mounds that still dot our landscape, though many have been destroyed. Effigy mounds are earthen structures that make the shape of an animal or symbol – birds, human figures, bears, and, maybe 1500 feet from where I’m standing, a fox. 

Anton’s son Ferdinand grew up in the old farmhouse we call the rectory. He lived from 1865 to 1950 – a lifespan that bridged the 19th and 20th centuries, and saw this area go from woodlands with a few tiny clusters of homes and businesses, to a bustling suburb. In 1937 Ferdinand donated the fox mound to the Wisconsin Archaeological Society, to keep it safe for posterity as he was selling off the land around it for development into the neighborhood along Mound Avenue. 

Ferdinand also shared memories of the presence of Winnebago Indians in this area during the early decades of the Heim farm. Apparently the bit of lakeshore right behind those apartments – the Swenson estate, perhaps 2000 feet away – was a very popular camping area.  Ferdinand recalled that anywhere from thirty to fifty natives might camp in the area at a time, living in wigwams and hunting, trapping, and fishing for food. He said, “They were great beggars, stopping at the farm houses at all times for food supplies, and his father [Anton Heim] was obliged to erect rough fences about his hay mows in the Middleton Beach marsh to protect them against the foraging Indian ponies.”

Clearly, the native people who had treated this area as part of their territory – a comfortable spot, a beautiful spot, a sacred spot – for centuries or maybe millennia, were trying to continue doing so, even as European settlers moved in and turned the forests into farmland. And just as clearly, the continued presence of the Natives was a significant annoyance to the settlers. 

The history of how the Ho-Chunk and other local Native groups lost this land is hard to tell. Partly because it’s complicated and partly because it’s heartbreaking.  I’ve been reading about it – the 1804 Treaty of St. Louis; the so-called Black Hawk War and the massacre at Bad Axe; President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830; the decimation of the Ho-Chunk and other Midwestern tribes by contagious diseases brought by European settlers. 

It’s not easy history to know. But I’m glad I know it. It makes my heart heavy, but I prefer it to ignorance. 

In our prayer of confession, when we hold up the evil done on our behalf, the dispossession and decimation of the native peoples of this continent is among those evils. And when we hold up the evils that enslave us, the fact that we live and work on land taken unjustly, and lack the wisdom or the will to make amends, is among those evils. 

I don’t know what amends would look like, in these circumstances. I truly don’t. But I know that the opening words of the Prayer for our Country in the Book of Common Prayer are a lie: “Almighty God, who hast given us this good land for our heritage…”

Maybe it was God’s intention, part of the ineffable plan, for the United States of America to come to be. But to claim in our prayers that this land was simply given to us by divine fiat obscures the bloody reality that our ancestors took it, by deception and by violence. 

So, this Sunday, and this Independence Day, let us remember that we are gathered on Ho-Chunk land. Let us celebrate the goodness and grace in our history, while courageously facing the unjust and the bitterly sad. And let us turn to the God who blesses our repentance and helps us to will the good, as we pray. 

O God, who created all peoples in your image, we thank you for the wonderful diversity of races and cultures in this world. Enrich our lives by ever-widening circles of fellowship, and show us your presence in those who differ most from us, until our knowledge of your love is made perfect in our love for all your children; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Lord God Almighty, you have made all the peoples of the earth for your glory, to serve you in freedom and in peace: Give to the people of our country a zeal for justice and the strength of forbearance, that we may use our liberty in accordance with your gracious will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

A little further reading: 

https://isthmus.com/news/snapshot/the-story-of-this-land/

Sermon, August 11

Richard Swanson is a Biblical scholar and commentator. I turn to him pretty often for his keen eye and thought-provoking exegesis; if you hear me preach regularly you’ve probably heard me quote him before. He spent the week before last at the Network of Biblical Storyteller’s annual gathering. My mother, who is a Biblical storyteller, was there too, actually. This year the gathering was held in Dayton, Ohio.

In his commentary on this Sunday’s Gospel, Swanson writes about leaving his hotel at 4am last Saturday morning, to catch an early flight – and learning about the tragedy – the atrocity – that had happened just a few hours earlier, and just a mile away. 

Be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. 

Swanson writes, “Events like this are sometimes made to dance with texts like the one from Luke 12, and the point is made to be: ‘You could die anytime, so be more religious.’ That is not the point, and it never was. This scene is about the arrival of the Reign of God, and the Reign of God does not come [through events like the violence in Dayton or El Paso or Gilroy or Chicago]. The scene [in this Gospel] focuses on being prepared for action, with lamps lit. The scene urges anticipation and readiness.”

Readiness for what? Not for “dying suddenly and unprepared,” as our prayer book says in the Great Litany. Readiness, rather, for the Reign of God. The Kingdom. Ready to be part of the dawning of God’s new reality. Readiness for what our faith, our conscience, asks of us in the face of violence and apathy. In the face of daily news so far from God’s dream for us. 

I like to take my first look at the upcoming Sunday readings about a week and a half ahead. When I first looked ahead at these lessons, way back on August 1, I thought, Maybe it’s time to talk a little about the prophetic literature. In Ordinary Time – the summer and fall – of this year of our Sunday lectionary cycle, all our Old Testament texts come from the prophets – people who received and spoke God’s word to God’s people in the centuries before Jesus’ birth. 

Speaking for God sounds like an important, celebrated role! It was not. The prophets were charged with telling God’s people – and especially their leaders – where they had gone wrong. Their words were unwelcome, and they often suffered for their calling. 

I was going to preach about how it can be hard to receive the prophetic texts, because we can’t relate to their urgency. We’re tempted to tone-police the prophets – “You just seem so angry. Maybe if you said it a nicer way, people would actually listen to you. Can’t you be more constructive  in your criticism?” And it’s true: Some of these are tough texts to proclaim on a sunny Sunday morning in beautiful Madison, Wisconsin, which VisitMadison.com assures me “consistently ranks as a top community in which to live, work, play, and raise a family.”  

As much as I love and honor the Old Testament, I struggle with the Prophets sometimes – with their fierce and sometimes brutal rhetoric; with their reliance on metaphors we now hear as misogynistic; with their conviction that Israel’s misfortunes are God’s punishment and not simply the natural consequences of complacency and injustice… So, way back on August 1, I started to gather some thoughts on how we can hear what the Spirit is saying to God’s people in these challenging texts. 

But between August 1 and August 6, when I began to write this sermon, there was August 3 in El Paso, and August 4 in Dayton. And many political leaders, the people with the responsibility and authority to do something about the disproportionate violence that is America’s tragedy and shame, responded as they did last time, and the time before, and the time before that: by offering thoughts and prayers. 

And suddenly it doesn’t feel so hard to relate to the prophet Isaiah… “When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” 

Your hands are full of blood. Stop your empty prayers, and cleanse yourself. 

This week a writer named Chas Gillespie wrote an essay for the online magazine McSweeney’s, with this title, more or less: “God Has Heard Your Thoughts And Prayers And [God] Thinks They Are BS.” The essay begins, “Hi. God here. I am contacting you in response to your prayers regarding the most recent and totally horrific mass shooting in a college/ high school/ elementary school/ bar/ nightclub/ park/ shopping mall/ concert/ movie theater/ parking lot/ church/ mosque/ synagogue. I have listened to your prayers, America, and I have come to the conclusion that they are cowardly, pointless, and shameful… You pray in order not to feel culpable in horrendous acts of violence. You pray in order to feel good. … If you don’t like my tone, it’s called “tough love,” America. You need to change yourself or this will keep happening and it will get worse. You have prayed for answers, and I have given you answers. You have prayed for guidance, and you have ignored it. So why are you still praying?”

Your hands are full of blood. Wash away the evil from among you. 

The kind of prayer that Isaiah and the other prophets condemn is prayer that cries out to God to fix what we’re unwilling to try to fix ourselves – and performative piety as a replacement for action. Like in today’s Psalm, which accuses God’s people of being faithful in sacrificing at the Temple – and nothing else: “O Israel, I will bear witness against you, for I am God, your God. I do not accuse you because of your sacrifices; your offerings are always before me. I will take no bull-calf from your stalls, nor he-goats out of your pens… Do you think I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats? Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving and make good your vows to the Most High.”

The psalm echoes these pithy words from the prophet Micah: “Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?… God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” 

In our public life, as in the time of the Prophets, prayer can serve as pious deflection of responsibility for the common good. And God, speaking through the prophets, says that God is not especially sympathetic to those kinds of prayers. 

Now, a word in defense of prayer: As my colleague Gary Manning wrote this week, prayer is not nothing. Gary writes, “[In addition to] contacting my elected officials (repeatedly!) and adding my voice to … others who are asking for our leaders to at least begin talking about substantive ways we can… make our society safer, [I also] pray. Not because I’m unwilling to do “real work,” but because I believe prayer is some of the real work I can do.”

Of course prayer is one of our responses to tragedy. I can’t do anything for the most recent victims – or perpetrators – but pray. For mercy. For comfort. For healing. For transformation. Prayer is my first, deep, genuine response to crisis. 

And it’s a relief to know my prayers don’t have to take the form of detailed policy plans. Sometimes our prayers are simply sighs too deep for words, as the apostle Paul wrote in the letter to the Romans. When our hearts and God’s heart are aching together, I believe that’s a kind of prayer; and I believe it matters. 

When we simply hold up our anguish and grief and rage, even our numbness and bitterness, to God – that is prayer. But I find those prayers are not enough, for me…. At best, at best, they allow me to release some of my deep and weary feelings, and leave me empty: Now what? 

What if prayer is not meant simply to empty us, to drain off our worries, griefs and regrets, but also to fill us? To turn back towards our Gospel: What if our prayers could help make us ready? 

There are a lot of hymns in our hymnal that I love deeply, but the single line in our hymnal that I mean the most, every time I sing it, is this line from hymn 594: “Save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore.” That line is a prayer, and I pray it often. It’s easy to become overwhelmed. To freeze or shut down. It’s easy to feel helpless and hopeless. Resigned. 

Sometimes hopelessness is more comfortable than hope. Andrew Greeley, a sociologist and Roman Catholic priest, wrote in 1973: “Humankind does not object to prophets of doom, for the evidence of doom is all around. We do not protest when religious leaders say there is evil in the world, for the proof of evil is all around. We do not grow angry when it is announced to us that the powers of darkness are making progress on all sides, for we have already noticed that the light is waning….

“No, the kind of leaders we really object to are those who call us to begin over again, who tell us that the light can shine brighter and that the powers of evil can be repelled. Religious and political leaders who preach a message of hope are never very welcome, for they require of us more than cynicism, more than despair, more than resignation. They require effort, activity, fidelity, commitment.” (Father Andrew Greeley, 1973, New York Times)

Effort and activity; fidelity and commitment. Those are hard to muster and hard to maintain when we are sad, afraid, angry, cynical, or just forking EXHAUSTED. One of the things the Bible, our holy book, says over and over again is: Fear not. Take courage. Take heart. I hear the strength of that theme in our Scriptures as meaning that this is one of the things God wants for us, God offers us: Courage, peace, wholeheartedness – to be ready to face what faces us. 

What could it look like to pray for readiness? There are no magic words, no One Cool Trick …  If you pray alone a lot and you feel like that’s not feeding or strengthening you, maybe try praying with friends. Talk to me if you want help gathering a group. If you pray with others a lot, maybe try praying alone more. Find a Scripture or a set prayer that gives words to what’s in your heart and use that – consistently – for a while. Or if you usually pray with other people’s words, try praying with your own words for a while – or with no words. If the only prayer you can find is, Open my heart, use that – it’s as good a prayer as any. Make time and space within yourself for God’s grace to work in you. 

Because prayer is part of the real work we do. Not a replacement for action, but the way we ground and gird ourselves for action. Not a deflection of our responsibly for the common good, our call to love of neighbor; but the way to feel deeply how my neighbor’s struggle touches me, and to know deeply how to respond. 

Because I pray, I cannot be resigned. I cannot accept language that dehumanizes and actions that terrorize my immigrant neighbors. I cannot accept our epidemic of gun violence as normal and inevitable – Wendell Barry writes, “‘Inevitable’ is a word much favored by people in positions of authority who do not wish to think about problems.”

Because I pray, because prayer is not nothing, prayer is not enough. Prayer unsettles me, shakes me loose from resignation and despair; fires me up with the discomfort of hope. Prayer plants deep inside me the foolish conviction that we could yet put our shoulders to the wheel of history and push, all together, kingdom-wards – in the direction of a world in which all God’s children can find safety, kindness, and peace. 

Light your lamps. Dress for action. Stay awake. Swanson writes,  “This is going to be difficult. But it is necessary. The Reign of God is overturning our systems.  Be ready.”

 

 

 

Gillespie’s essay in full: 

https://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/god-has-heard-your-thoughts-and-prayers-and-he-thinks-they-are-fucking-bullshit

Gary Manning’s essay on prayer:

https://medium.com/@Solwrker/prayer-is-not-nothing-d7a13f79aaff

Swanson’s essay: 

https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2019/08/05/a-provocation-9th-sunday-after-pentecost-proper-14-19-august-11-2019-luke-12-32-40/

Sermon, July 14

Before the first lesson, from Amos 7: 

Our first Scripture today comes from the time of the prophets, about 750 years before Jesus was born. And I want to explain something about it before we hear it. This Scripture talks about a plumb line. And not everybody knows what that is; but it’s an interesting thing to know about. This is a plumb line: [show]

It’s very simple and very ancient. It’s a heavy weight at the end of a string. The weight would usually be lead, because that’s a heavy metal. It’s called a “plumb” line  – “Plumb” with a b on the end – because that’s the ancient name for lead. (Same with the word “plumber”!)

A plumb line is a tool for builders. It tells you if something is straight up and down, using gravity, that force built into the universe that pulls us towards the center of the earth. “Up” and “Down” are based on gravity. Knowing whether something is plumb when you’re building is important because that’s how you build something strong. Let’s feel that in our bodies. Stand straight, with your hips and shoulders and head all in line with your feet… Feel how strong and stable you are? Gravity is pulling you down but your whole body is in a nice straight line so you’re not tippy. You’re plumb – straight up and down. 

What if you lean backwards or forwards? Try it…. Okay, stop trying it! Did you notice that it was harder to keep standing? When you lean forward, or backward, you get tippy! You’re not stable anymore! You’re askew – out of alignment. Well, if you were the wall of a building, it would be the same. A leaning wall is less stable. A straight-up-and-down wall is most stable and steady and safe. 

So in the story we’re about to hear about the prophet Amos, a plumb line becomes a metaphor. A metaphor is when we say something is like something else, in a way that helps us see the something else in a new way. God says to Amos, My people have turned from Me, and from My ways of justice and mercy. And so they have become like a crooked wall, a wall that isn’t plumb. It’s weak and it’s likely to fall. 

SERMON following the Gospel

The story Jesus tells in today’s Gospel is an important story. Some of us have probably heard it a lot of times; but I find that every time I read or hear it, it’s still challenging me. My guess is that none of us are finished with what this story has to say to us. So let’s go through it again, and make sure we hear and understand it – because some of us probably haven’t heard it before! Kids, listen up too, because this is a story for everybody, and in a minute you might help me tell some of it. 

Today’s Gospel begins with a man who studies the Scriptures of the Jewish people, what we call the Old Testament, to find out how best to live in God’s ways. And he wants to know what Jesus thinks about that. Teacher, he says, how can I enter into the Life of the Age that you talk about so much? And Jesus says, Well, you study the Scriptures; what do you find there? And the man says: “You shall love God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as you love yourself.”

What’s a neighbor? …. Somebody you live close to, sure. Or maybe people in your school community or workplace, or the cashier you see at the grocery store every week. If you go back to the roots of the word, “neighbor” just means a near person. And the original Greek word here, plesion, means the same thing: Somebody near. Somebody close. Somebody whose life touches your life. 

Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. We think of that as Jesus’ teaching but it’s actually a summary of Jewish law. It’s something Jesus endorsed, not something Jesus invented. So Jesus tells the law scholar, Yep. You got it. Do that. Love God, and love your neighbor! And the scholar says, Wait a minute. I have one more question. Who is my neighbor? If living in God’s ways means loving my neighbor as myself: Who counts as my neighbor? Who is near enough that I have to love them? 

And Jesus tells him a story. Listen! A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho. This was a really dangerous mountain road, with hills and caves all around – lots of places for robbers and bandits to hide. And what happened to the man?…

Right! Bandits, robbers, attacked him. They took everything he had, even his clothes; And they beat him up and left him there, lying on the side of the road, bloody, probably unconscious. It says he was “half-dead”. 

And then what happened?… Some other people come along the road. The first one is a priest, somebody who works at the great temple of God in Jerusalem. 

This is somebody whose whole life is to serve God. So what does he do? …

And then another person comes along the road. This person is a Levite. That means he belongs to a family whose job it is to work in the Temple. They weren’t priests, but they might work at the gates, or play music, or clean the floors. So this is another person whose life is to serve God. And what does he do? ….

Okay, let’s pause the story for a minute to talk about these guys, the priest and the Levite. Why do you think they didn’t stop and help that man? ….  They might have been afraid of an ambush. That’s legit. 

They might have ben afraid of becoming unclean. Let’s talk about that one. This is a little tricky to explain because we don’t think of clean and dirty in the same way they did. But let me say it this way: Have you ever seen a picture of a surgeon, all dressed up in that blue stuff, with gloves on her hands and a mask over her face? A surgeon has to be REALLY clean to do her job well. Otherwise germs will contaminate the patient. Being a priest in the Great Temple was kind of like that.  There were things you could do or touch that would make you dirty, impure; and then you wouldn’t be able to do your job. Worse, you’d bring that contamination with you into a place that was supposed to be perfectly clean and pure and holy. And touching a dead body was one of those things. So the priest and the Levite both might have been worried about becoming unclean, which would make it hard for them to do their jobs.

They might just not have wanted to. I mean, it’s upsetting to see somebody hurt, maybe dead. It’s really easy to think, “There’s nothing I can do. Just keep walking.” I can’t judge these men, because I have done what they did. There is a lot of suffering in the world, and I have absolutely walked past people visibly in pain. Because I was tired, or afraid, or busy; because I didn’t know how to help, or how much it would cost me.

But then, in the story, somebody else comes along – right? Who is the next person? …. What does it mean that this person was a Samaritan?… (Because of this story, we use the phrase “good Samaritan” to mean somebody who helps a stranger; but we need to understand that the people listening to Jesus did not like Samaritans at all. They did not think Samaritans were good.) 

But this Samaritan sees the man who has been beaten – and he is moved with pity.  He feels compassion. What does he do? …[bandages wounds; oil and wine; puts him on his donkey; takes him to an inn; gives the innkeeper money to care for him.] Did he have to do any of that? … Why do you think he did it? … 

So that’s the story that Jesus tells the scholar of the law. And then he asks him a question: Which of these three – the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan – was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers? What do you say?… 

Right! The Samaritan. The one who showed him mercy. And Jesus says, Go and do likewise.

You don’t have to say a lot about a story like this. It tells you what you’re supposed to walk away thinking about. But I’m going to say a little bit about it anyway. 

Parked out front of our church this morning is a truck that is a teaching tool for learning about solitary confinement. Sometimes people get arrested and they go to prison. Maybe because they made a bad choice; they hurt somebody. Maybe because they have a mental illness that’s out of control and nobody knew how to help them, so they put them in jail. Maybe because they’re addicted to drugs or alcohol and got into a bad situation because of their addiction. Maybe because they’re very poor and couldn’t pay a fine, or they stole something they needed. There are lots of reasons people end up in prison. 

And sometimes people who are in prison are shut up in very small cells all by themselves – to punish them, or for other reasons. That’s what solitary confinement is. It’s really hard and awful. The truck is here to help us start thinking together about who is in prison in America, and why, and whether we think that’s OK. 

If this is the part of the sermon where you tune out because this isn’t your issue, I hope you’ll listen a little longer. A couple of weeks ago, Elvice McAlpine – who’s part of the group that arranged to have Talib and the truck visit us, and that will be inviting us to read the book “Just Mercy” together in August – Elvice stood up here and talked about how she was raised by good, law-abiding people 

to think of folks in prison as a Them, not an Us. As a different kind of people who probably got what they had coming to them. A lot of us were raised to think like that, consciously or unconsciously. We trusted the system to protect the good people and lock up the bad people. That’s what it’s supposed to do, right?

But there are lots of reasons to re-examine our assumptions. One reason is that if you are older than 40, criminal justice and incarceration in America have really changed within your lifetime. And not for the better. Crime has dropped since the 1990s, but prison populations have skyrocketed, due to “tough on crime” policies and harsh sentencing laws. The graph of the prison population from 1925 to 2017 goes like this: … with a sharp increase in the mid-1980s. Today the United States has the largest prison population in the world – by far the largest in the developed world. And of course that’s an increase is in dollars as well as bodies: the cost of keeping people in prison soared from $19 billion in 1980 to $87 billion in 2015. Of the over two million Americans in prison right now, a disproportionate number are African-American; there’s a lot of data showing that racism is built into the fabric of this system. It’s very clear that something about the criminal justice system in America is askew. Out of alignment. Not plumb.

Facts like these and so many more are the reason why politicians on both the right and the left are increasingly finding common cause to call for reform. Because it’s obvious how broken – how expensively, cruelly broken – this system is. 

And because there are Christians on both the left and the right, and Jesus told us to care about prisoners. Jesus himself was arrested, incarcerated, and executed by the government. When Jesus is on trial for his life, in John’s Gospel, the Roman governor asks, What has he done? And his enemies answer,  

“If he weren’t a criminal, we wouldn’t have handed him over to you.” The fact that he has been arrested becomes proof that he is a criminal. The wrong kind of person. That same logic destroys people’s lives on a daily basis, now. 

So that’s another reason to re-examine our thinking about incarceration and about people who are or have been involved with the criminal justice system: Because of Jesus, who says, When you show mercy to those in prison, You’re showing mercy to Me. If that challenges you or stretches you, beloved ones – I sympathize! But I am not the one you need to take it up with. It really is one of the things He is clearest about.  

This parable, this story Jesus tells, about neighboring and extending mercy, comes to us through a calendar of readings shared by many churches and denominations. We did not plan to receive this parable on the same day the solitary confinement truck was here. That’s just the calendar and the Holy Spirit. 

As I was studying the story this week, I learned something new that I think is important. What Jesus actually asks at the end of the story is, Which one of the three passers-by became a neighbor to the man beaten by bandits? Not just, which one was a neighbor. Which one became a neighbor. It’s a verb of process, change, choice. 

None of the others on the road started out as neighbors to the man beaten by bandits. They didn’t know each other or live near to each other. Their kids didn’t go to the same school. They didn’t root for the same football team. Their lives did not touch. And the priest and the Levite kept it that way. They kept their distance. 

But the Samaritan chooses to go to him. To get close. To come near. To become a neighbor.

Go and do likewise. 

Some initial reading:

Trends in U.S. Corrections

https://sentencingproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Trends-in-US-Corrections.pdf

Digital Jail: How Electronic Monitoring Drives Defendants Into Debt

https://www.propublica.org/article/digital-jail-how-electronic-monitoring-drives-defendants-into-debt

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/

Sermon, Nov. 11

Rut was born in a small town in northern Honduras, in central America. It wasn’t so bad, growing up – they didn’t have much, but her parents made sure she was fed and went to school. But as Rut became a young woman, life in Honduras was getting worse and worse. It seemed like everyone was involved in the drug business – big money and big risks. And gangs started to fight each other. 

And there was more and more violence against women. Honduras is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman. Assault, domestic violence, and murder are commonplace. Ninety percent of murders of women are unsolved, unpunished. In 2014, a young woman named Maria Jose Alvarado, from a town not far from Rut’s hometown, was selected as the Honduran candidate for the Miss World contest. A week before she was to fly to London for the big event, Maria Jose was murdered, along with her sister, by her sister’s boyfriend.

Rut took note. She had a boyfriend herself, but he wasn’t good to her. He hit her, like a lot of men hit their women. She wondered if he would really hurt her someday – and if she ever had a child, how could she keep it safe? Then came the drought. Crops failed across Central America, including Rut’s home region. People began to starve. Men who had been cruel and angry before, were now cruel, angry and hungry. 

Rut’s boyfriend was involved in some bad stuff. Almost everybody was. Then a deal went wrong, some money went missing, and he disappeared. They found his body days later, full of bullets. Rut wondered if they’d come after her too, even though she didn’t know anything about his business. 

Tia Noemi told Rut, You should get out. Now. Tia Noemi wasn’t really Rut’s aunt. In fact she was the aunt of Rut’s boyfriend – but she liked Rut, looked out for her. Tia Noemi lived in Arizona. She’d married an American, an older man she’d met while cleaning his house. He was dead now, but she had her green card; she could stay.  She told Rut, Come. It’s not so hard. I’ll help you out. There’s work here. They need people like us. Here, you won’t starve. Here, you won’t be murdered. Here, you have a chance. 

Rut still wasn’t sure. It was so far to go! But Tia Noemi said, You have to trust God. God is working for you.  Rut had never thought much about God. But she could hear that for Noemi, God was real. God was good. Noemi trusted God, so Rut decided she would, too. 

It was hard to leave home, but Rut knew she had no future in Honduras. Tia Noemi sent her a little money, and her mother and a couple of friends gave her a little more. She paid a coyote to help her on her way, made the 2000-mile journey from Honduras to the border between the U.S. and Mexico. 

She crossed the Rio Grande by night, wading and swimming, grateful that the water was low. She helped another woman who was traveling with three young children, carrying a two-year-old in her arms, struggling to swim with that warm frightened weight. 

On the far side, as dawn broke, she talked with others who were making the same journey. Rut had planned to seek out American border patrol – she wanted to claim asylum. She’d heard you could do that: that if you were almost certain to starve, if you were almost certain to be murdered, in your home country, then the United States would take you in. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me! Everyone knows young women die in Honduras. Surely that was grounds for a claim of asylum.

But an older woman, crossing the border a second time after being deported, laughed in her face. You’re not an endangered minority, she said. You’re not being persecuted by your government. You’re just a woman. You’re disposable. 

In 2014, the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals ruled that women who were at risk because of domestic violence and gang violence had grounds to claim asylum in the United States. In June of 2018, the Trump administration overturned those protections. Rut had no grounds for an asylum claim.

The older woman told her what would happen if she found border patrol. They’ll put you in the hielera, the freezer, she said – the brutally cold detention cells. Later they move you to the perreras – the kennels – chain-link cells, no privacy, no quiet. You’ll get a foil blanket to sleep with. No mat, no pillow. No soap. No toothpaste. Everybody is sick – the women, the children. If you ask for medical attention they tell you to drink water and rest. You’ll be there for months, and when you finally get an asylum hearing, they’ll say no, and deport you. Don’t turn yourself in. Better to hide. 

Rut found her way to Tia Noemi. She was out of money, and she had to do some things she didn’t like to get people to help her. But she made it.

Noemi’s apartment was tiny. She had a little money from her husband, but she’d hurt her shoulder and couldn’t clean houses anymore. She could barely afford groceries for herself, and sometimes had to go around to churches and community centers asking for money to keep the electricity and water on. But she let Rut sleep on the sofa – she was tired, so tired; she slept for two whole days. 

On the third day Noemi sat down and said, You can stay here, but you have to work. I can’t feed myself, let alone both of us. There’s a place nearby where they pick up workers for day labor in the orchards. They don’t pay much because they know you’re illegal, but it’s something. And sometimes you can bring home some fruit that’s damaged – Americans only like perfect fruit. While you’re working, you have to be careful, stay near other women; some of the workers will assault you if they have a chance. And wear a handkerchief on your face, so you don’t breathe too much of the chemicals they spray on the fruit. 

So Rut went out early the next morning and stood with other men and women, waiting for the trucks. She climbed into one, and rode to an orchard, packed in shoulder to shoulder with other undocumented workers. Climbing out of the truck, she didn’t notice the man who stood nearby watching the workers arrive – but he noticed her. His name was Boas, and he owned the orchard. He could see that Rut was new here, and that she was young. He took the men who oversaw the workers aside, told them: Keep an eye on her. She’s new. Don’t let the boys bother her. 

Rut picked fruit all day. By sundown, her shoulders hurt and her eyes burned from pesticides, but she had cash in her pocket and a heavy bag of damaged fruit to take home. As she climbed into the truck to ride back to town, someone pushed another bag into her hands: tomatoes, bruised and bursting but usable; potatoes, still dirty from the ground. Food. She clutched her bags tightly on the ride back to town.

Back at the apartment, Tia Noemi was delighted at what Rut had brought home. She demanded to know where Rut had been working. Rut hadn’t seen the farm’s name, but it was printed on one of the bags. Noemi said, I know about the man who owns this place, Boas. His parents were Honduran. He’s better than most. His father was cousin to my father. I’ve met him a couple of times, though he’s too important for me. His wife died a couple of years ago. He must be lonely. Listen, Rut: This is your chance to claim a new life here. Tomorrow is Friday – sometimes the owners and overseers drink with the workers on Friday nights. Stay for the party. Watch Boas. When he’s had a few drinks, get close to him. Show him you like him. He’s old, older than me, but that doesn’t matter. He’s an honorable man. If you become his girlfriend, he will make sure you don’t go hungry. Shower tonight. I have a blouse that will look good on you, and some makeup. 

Rut said, I will do everything you tell me. 

The next morning Rut waited with the other workers, feeling self-conscious in the low-cut blouse. But again, the other workers left her alone. And at the end of the day, she brought her bag of damaged fruit to the place where the workers gathered to drink together. Sure enough, Boas was there. 

Rut took one beer, drank it slowly; she wasn’t used to drinking. She talked with other women, and fended off a few men, and kept an eye on Boas, who drank one beer, two, three.

Finally she saw him leave the group, headed into a nearby shed, and she followed him, tugging her blouse lower. It was dim in the shed, and quiet. Boas heard her steps behind him and turned. She came close and looked up at him, making her eyes big; She said, Senor, how can I ever thank you for your kindness to me? Boas looked at her, long and hard. He said, You’re from Honduras. She said, Si. Si, Senor. He said, Do you have family here? She said, Only my Tia Noemi. He said, How long have you been here? She said, Five days. He said, What’s your name? And she said, Me llama Rut. 

Boas reached for her. Rut braced herself; she knew what she had to do, but she was afraid. But Boas only put his hand on her shoulder. He said, Rut, you don’t have to do this. You deserve better. I know Noemi. She’s a good woman. I’m glad you’re with her. And I know how hard it is, where you came from. Listen: There are a hundred handsome, strong young men out there, drinking beer and looking for a good time. If it’s companionship you want, pick one of them. Don’t come to me just because you’re poor, just because you’re hungry, just because you’re afraid. But if you can really have eyes for an old man like me, I’ll take you to dinner tomorrow, and we can see how things go. Now, go back out there quickly, before everyone thinks something happened in here.

Later that night, Noemi asked: WELL? Did something happen? And Rut said: No. But… maybe. He was kind. He didn’t touch me. He wants to take me out for dinner tomorrow night. 

The next night Rut wore an old dress of Tia Noemi’s, and brushed out her long glossy hair.  Boas picked her up and took her to dinner at a Mexican place, friendly, not too fancy. Over the chips he told her, I spoke to your father today. It took a while, but I got him on the phone. They’re doing OK. He sends his love. I’m going to help him out with some debts. 

Boas said, Rut, if you want safety here, if you want stability, I can give you that, if you marry me. I’m an American citizen; as your husband, I can protect you. You can have your own room and your own life. Maybe we can even try to bring your family here. I know I’m an old man. I’m not pushing myself on you. I just want to help you. You deserve better. 

Rut looked at Boas. She could see that he meant what he said. She could see that his eyes were kind, that the lines on his face were from laughter. She said, What if I want a real marriage? What if I want a husband who loves me? What if I want a house full of children? With you?

Boas and Rut were married two months later. Noemi danced at the wedding. And when Rut bore her first child, a son, named Obed, Noemi held the baby close and wept for joy. She said, I have no children or grandchildren of my own, but this baby shall be like a son to me. The women of the neighborhood would tease Noemi as she walked the stroller around every morning: How’s your son, Noemi? How’s your boy, old lady? And Noemi would smile. 

You’ll find a whole story of Ruth tucked into your Sunday supplement today – the one from the Bible, not the version I just told you. It’s a story about immigrants, asylum seekers. It’s a story about poverty and sexual vulnerability. It’s a story about chain migration and anchor babies. I hope you’ll read it.

In the Bible story, Ruth’s son, Obed, grows up and has a son, Jesse. And Jesse has a son, named David. David becomes the greatest king of Israel. And generations and generations later, another baby boy is born to Jesse’s lineage, a boy named Jesus. The Gospel of Matthew begins with Jesus’ genealogy, fathers and grandfathers and great grandfathers all the way back – and a few grandmothers too. Ruth is one of them. Named. Remembered. Honored.

Ruth’s story, the story of the Moabite woman who became the great-grandmother of King David, is one instance of one of the most pervasive and emphatic themes of the Bible, Hebrew and Christian scriptures alike: Be kind to the outsider, for there are no outsiders in God’s eyes. Your ancestors were strangers and wanderers once; therefore always extend grace to the stranger and wanderer, for they have a unique claim on our conscience and hospitality. 

Some voices in America today are spreading hatred and fear about immigrants, about those fleeing violence and desperate poverty, seeking safety and a better life for their children here. Last year we shared some stories of our own immigrant parents and grandparents, who set out on the same journey, and faced some of the same struggles; we remembered that we are here because of their hope and courage. But God knows that remembering our forebears’ journeys isn’t enough,  because humans have a tragic capacity to say, I’ve got mine, and slam the door behind us. That’s why God makes kindness to the stranger a central command and call in the holy texts at the heart of our faith.  

Let me be clear: I’m not saying that America is or should be a Christian nation. And I’m certainly not saying that Scripture offers a clear map for a reasonable and humane immigration policy. I’m saying that if we call ourselves Christians, then care for the stranger has to be a hallmark of our way of being: from the words we use to the news we watch, our votes, our giving, our letters to our leaders, our helping and hoping, our meeting and marching – it all has to begin here. With a people wandering forty years in hope of a homeland. With a young woman in a strange country, offering her body to escape starvation. With a baby born homeless in Bethlehem. 

A list of Scripture passages about welcoming strangers:

https://www.openbible.info/topics/welcoming_strangers

About violence against women in Honduras: 

https://abcnews.go.com/International/men-women-honduras-inside-dangerous-places-earth-woman/story?id=47135328

Sermon, Jan. 21

This is what I’m saying, friends: Our time is short. From now on, married people should not be preoccupied with their partner, family and home. Those who are sad should look beyond their sadness, and those who are happy should look beyond their happiness. Everyone should not be so concerned with how they make or spend money. Those who make use of the world and its opportunities should be like people who are detached from the world. Because this world in its present form is passing away.

That’s today’s Epistle, from Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth. (1 Cor 7:29-31) A few verses earlier, leading up to this passage, Paul writes, “In view of the impending crisis…”

Those are words you really don’t want to hear from the rector of your church in her annual meeting address: “In view of the impending crisis…”

In preparing sermons, I often use a wonderful webpage called The Text This Week. It compiles and presents commentaries and reflections and sermons and liturgical resources for every reading on every Sunday, following the Revised Common Lectionary. The Text This Week has a long list of commentaries and articles on this text – but not a single sermon. So apparently people have LOTS to say about this passage, but nobody cares to preach on it.

Well. Here goes.

One of the reasons it’s a difficult text to preach is that Paul seems to expect, in this passage, that Jesus will return soon – like, next week soon – so Christians really can detach from this world, because there’s no point in saving for college or setting up autopay on your mortgage.  And we shrug off the passage because, well, Paul was wrong. We’re all still here.

But Biblical theologian Alastair Roberts says that’s missing the point. What Paul says here isn’t that the world is passing away, but that the present form of this world is passing away. The Greek word is “schema”, the shape or appearance of the world as it is. Paul wrote this letter perhaps a decade before the first Jewish revolt against Roman rule, which led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the great Temple. It was a world-changing event for early Christians – and Paul may well have seen it coming; Jesus certainly did. So: Paul wasn’t wrong. When we stop being 21st-century observers and put ourselves in the shoes of 1st-century Christians experiencing the upheavals of that time: Yeah. The schema was passing away, bigtime. As many, many schemas have passed away in the two millennia since then.

Furthermore, Roberts says, Paul’s point here isn’t just about historical changes and endings. It’s also about theology – how we see the world in light of our understanding of God. You don’t have to believe that the world is literally going to end soon, to see the world through the lens of the expected fulfillment of God’s promise to transform and renew the whole cosmos.

Roberts says that the New Testament expresses the first Christians’ sense of eschatological imminence – the sense that God’s Kingdom is just over the horizon. And that sense arises from the Church’s experience of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. The first Christians understood that reality had already been fundamentally transformed by the events of Good Friday and Easter. Roberts writes: “Life after these events is characterized by a radical relativization of the current world order and an intensified sense of its penultimacy.”

Let me try to rephrase that. Christians living after Easter and before the Second Coming should believe and know that the way things are is not the way they are meant to be – or the way they will be when God brings God’s purposes to fulfillment. “Relativization” means being able to see whatever is most familiar and seems most natural to us, as only one option among many, and not necessarily the best.

And the world as it is – even in its best and grandest moments – is not yet what it will be. Penultimate means, Next-to-last. Not final, complete, or ultimate, but whatever comes before the final, the complete, the ultimate. So: Life in the time of the church – 2000 years and counting – is marked by a sense of relativization and penultimacy: a recognition that things are not as God would have them; that we live and die, work and pray, hope and strive, in the crepuscular glimmer of God’s future, just beyond the horizon of our limited sight.

Bringing that lens to this text, Paul’s guidance to the Christians of Corinth doesn’t sound like the rantings of a prophet whose doomsday predictions missed the mark. Paul is reminding the Corinthians not to take the world-as-it-is for granted. To hold it lightly. Everything is provisional, everything is temporary – both the things you hate and the things you love. Don’t take anything too seriously; don’t lose yourself in the preoccupations of everyday life in the here-and-now.

Read in this light, Paul’s words don’t feel distant and irrelevant. They feel like good advice that I don’t really want to take,either as Miranda, a wife and mother and friend and citizen who wants a safe, stable, predictable future for those I love, or as Rev. Miranda, Rector of St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church.

Across mainline Christian denominations right now, the ethos is anxiety bordering on panic. Membership numbers have fallen sharply since their high point in the 1950s – for a variety of big, sweeping historical reasons. Mainline Protestantism’s position of cultural and institutional centrality in American life is long gone. Churches and denominations are struggling to adjust to the changed religious, economic and social landscape, making tough choices about how to use decreasing resources to maintain what they have or to cut their losses and try something new. Look up the current struggle over the Episcopal Church’s budget for a lively case in point. We all know – in our best moments – that the Church and the Gospel will outlive the forms of institutional church that took shape in the mid-20th century. But we live in those forms, and love them, so there is grief and fear and struggle in this season, across American Christianity. A schema is passing away.

But St. Dunstan’s is growing. Slowly, but surely. I don’t know why. I don’t understand it. I’m grateful, and puzzled, and sometimes overwhelmed. But here we are.

During my seven years here, the treasured, committed, active, long-time members of the church have been joined by many treasured, committed, active new members. We’ve reached the point where we actually need to bring some energy and intention to making sure people know each other – that’s the impetus behind the Neighbor Dinners you’ll hear more about later. And though we’ve lost some folks to jobs in other cities or to the nearer presence of God, there continue to be enough of us to sustain this fellowship of faith, with the needed resources of time and skill and heart and, yes, money. For each of the past three years, we’ve modestly expanded our budget, to accommodate needs and areas of growth. The Vestry and the Finance Committee ask for what we think we need, and the congregation steps up. It’s amazing. Sometimes, honestly, it’s a little hard to talk with my clergy colleagues, when my challenges are things like too-small Sunday school classrooms and improving our capacity to integrate new members.

BUT, but, but: Growth doesn’t mean we’re exempt from the changing times. That we get to keep the schema of the present world. At best our current flourishing is a temporary reprieve from having to reckon with the tectonic shifts in American religion;  at worst it may prevent us from seeing and adapting to the ways in which those tremors have already shifted our foundations.

I’m going to resist diving headlong into the sociology of 21st century American Christianity, but here’s an incomplete list of some of the ways that epochal shifts in the cultural and economic landscape have an impact on how we do church.

Let’s start with committees! In 1960 – the boom years for American mainline churches – 70% of American households had a man who worked, and a woman who stayed home. Our images and memories of churches busy day in and day out with committees and guilds and service projects and craft sales reflect that era. Most women didn’t work outside the home; they were, let’s face it, bored and lonely; church was one place to take their energy and skill. Today, over 60% of American households are dual-income households, in which both adults work. What that means for churches is that people have fewer hours to offer to church committees and ministries. People still want to commit their time and skill – but often in more specific, targeted ways.

And people are, simply, tired on the weekends. What’s more, the loss of cultural centrality for Christianity means that sports and other events happen on Sunday mornings now. For folks with kids at home, Saturday and Sunday are a jumble of activities, laundry, and trying to snatch a little rest and togetherness. I get it. I’ve become pretty protective of my Saturdays, because during the school year it is my only day home with my family. So when people whom I know are committed to this church, and love God and love this community, are not here every Sunday – I miss you, but I sympathize. Life is really full, and pretty exhausting.

And that shift in work patterns is just one factor among many. The rise of the Religious Right in the 1980s began an era in which Christianity increasingly associated with hard-line moral conservatism. I know we have members who struggle with toxic Christianity, in its public manifestations or in their own past. Being church in the 21st century means both being inevitably tainted by Christianity’s brand issues, and continuously having to remind ourselves and each other that we follow Jesus, but not in that direction.

Another big shift is in patterns of institutional loyalty and giving. People don’t join and give as a normal, default behavior anymore; a church or nonprofit has to earn peoples’ loyalty and generosity. I think that’s a good change, but it is a change.

And outside of evangelical Christianity – which is having its own struggles right now! – church has really shifted from the center of American life. Many people not only don’t belong to a church, but honestly have no idea what it’s all about, or why anyone would want that.  There’s a tendency to pin that shift on GenX or the Millennials, but it actually started with the Boomers, with the freedom they felt to walk away from inherited norms – including church attendance – and chart their own path in life. The result is that for a huge swath of the American public, we are quaint and peculiar. I recently ate lunch at a restaurant that seemed to be a re-purposed church building – a cute little white country church. You could still see organ pipes up in the loft. You see that a lot – churches that have closed being turned into cafes or condos. But my friend told me, This building is new. This is not a former church; this is a hip restaurant built to look like a former church. That’s where we are in the life of American Christianity, friends.

OH, and ALSO, the fundamental epistemological shift from modernity to postmodernity means that people are no longer certain that there’s any such thing as truth! ….

“In view of the impending crisis…”

We do church – we gather, pray, and sing, welcome, share, and nurture, feed and work and serve – we do church in a new time. In a changed and changing schema. We do church in the shadow of profound change, and profound loss, in the faith landscape of our nation. We are growing here – but even the growth comes with the ache and uncertainty of change. New members bring ideas and energy and heart; but they don’t necessarily want to put their efforts towards maintaining existing structures and habits, extending the past into the future. They didn’t come here to help us maintain the schema. They came here to find a community with whom to follow Jesus.

The gist of it all, friends, is that even though St. Dunstan’s is flourishing right now, if we are wise, we still hear Paul’s call to hold it all lightly. We still live with a sense of relativization and penultimacy. Even the most familiar or most sacred of our acts are experiments, approximations, rough drafts of God’s future. Everything we do is provisional – the things we’ve been doing for decades, or centuries, as much as the things we try for the first time.

This is a terrible Annual Meeting message. Especially for a year when we’re actively talking about a capital campaign. I am supposed to be telling you that this church could be your everlasting monument. That if you endow a brass candlestick, your grandchildren will be able to visit St. Dunstan’s in fifty years and read your name on the plaque. I’m supposed to be telling you that if you commit your time and treasure to this church, it will keep being the exact thing you love right now, forever. This sermon I’m preaching, about how everything is changing and the future is unknowable: this is opposite of the sermon I’m supposed to preach today.

I’m preaching it anyway because I think it’s true, and I don’t want to lie to you. The past half-century has brought epochal changes in American culture, society, economy, and faith. Big stuff has changed, and is changing, and will yet change.

And I’m preaching it anyway because I actually find some freedom and grace in remembering that both the church and the future belong to God. Not to us. There are choices and challenges before us at St. Dunstan’s – the good kind. The choices and challenges of growth; of wisely and lovingly integrating old and new, received and emerging; of having, for the moment, enough, and discerning how to best to use what we have to further God’s purposes among and around us.

This past week at our Vestry meeting, our senior warden Shirley Laedlein read us a prayer which says, in part, “Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us… We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.” I like that image of planting seeds, as a metaphor for the work of the church – but, friends, the seed packet is NOT labeled. We do not know what’s going to grow, nor what ecology the young plants will become part of, nor what they’ll have to withstand, nor what they will produce when they mature.  But we ARE planting seeds. And providing light, and water, and good soil. I believe that. And God gives the growth, and blesses the harvest. I believe that too.

May we have the courage and faith to experience provisionality as freedom, and uncertainty as opportunity. To commit our resources and our efforts towards God’s future with hope and trust. And when we witness the schemas of this world passing away, may we lift our eyes to the horizon, to see what holy possibilities are dawning.

Alastair Roberts’ post about this 1 Corinthians text: 

http://www.politicaltheology.com/blog/the-politics-of-eschatological-imminence-1-corinthians-729-31/

The full prayer that is the source of the excerpt about seeds:

http://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/prayers-and-devotions/prayers/prophets-of-a-future-not-our-own.cfm

Sermon, Christmas Eve

I’m going to tell you a story that happened a long time ago. It’s a story about a time when God’s people were struggling, persecuted and poor. It’s a story about how God never abandoned them, even when things seemed darkest and most hopeless. A story about someone called to set the people free, to give them new hope, new life. His name was Gideon. (We’ll come back around to that other story in a little while!)

Gideon lived a little over three thousand years ago, long before Jesus, long before the Roman Empire, even before King David. God had called this little tribe of people, called Israel, to follow God’s ways and be God’s people. But in Gideon’s time things were not going well.

Gideon’s story is in the Book of Judges, in the Bible. Judges has a pretty clear view of Israel’s history: God called the people Israel to a way of life founded on justice, mercy, and worship of God. But again and again, the people fell away; that way of life seemed too hard, or they figured they could do better by *not* being just and merciful. But when they turned from God, they got weaker. They weren’t looking out for each other, weren’t building up their common good and their shared strength. And so they were attacked by neighboring tribes and nations, again and again. And then they’d cry out to God, and God would help them, and they’d promise to do better this time… This time we’ll REALLY be the people God calls us to be! No, this time we REALLY mean it!…

Well. Those are the kinds of times when Gideon lived. When Gideon was a young man, a neighboring tribe, the Midianites, was attacking Israel. Things were bad. The Midianites had driven the Israelites out of their towns; they were living in caves in the mountains. The Midianites would destroy the fields, kill or steal all the livestock, and bring their own flocks to devour all the pasture land. So Israel was starving. And they cried out to God for help.

One day Gideon is beating out wheat, separating the grain from the chaff. He’s doing it inside his father’s wine press, to hide from the Midianites. And an angel appears to him, and says, “The Lord is with you, O mighty warrior!”

And Gideon says, “But, sir, if God is with us, why has all this bad stuff happened to us? Where are the miracles and mighty deeds that we hear in our holy stories? Why doesn’t God deliver us today, like God delivered our ancestors from Egypt? It seems like God has cast us off, and given us into the hands of Midian!”

But God didn’t strike Gideon down; apparently God wanted someone strong-minded and a little bit argumentative. The angel said, “Go in this might of yours and deliver Israel from Midian; I hereby commission you.”

Gideon says, “Sir, how can I deliver Israel? My clan is the weakest clan of my tribe, and I am the least in my family.” And the Angel of the Lord says, “Because God is with you, you will drive out the Midianites.”

Because God is with you. 

Well, that sounds good; but Gideon is not someone to be convinced by pretty words. He tells the angel, Stay here; I will bring you an offering, and you can give me a sign that you actually have holy power. Gideon hurries to prepare some meat and bread. When he brings them out, the angel says, “Put them on that rock.” And then the angel touches the food with the tip of its staff – and fire leaps up and consumes the food.

Okay, pretty convincing. But Gideon wants proof that this is actually God, and that God can actually do what God says, before he raises an army and attacks the Midianites, which could just leave everybody dead.

He starts to gather an army, calling together all the fighting men and boys of Israel. At the same time, Gideon asks God for a little more proof. He says, “In order to see whether you will actually deliver Israel by my hand, I am going to lay a fleece of wool on the threshing-floor. In the morning, if there is dew on the fleece but the ground is dry, I will know you will free Israel from the power of Midian.” And it was so; when Gideon arose in the morning, the ground was dry, but the fleece was so wet he could squeeze a bowlful of water out of it. All right! God is with Gideon! It’s time for battle! Well… maybe. Gideon is not so easily convinced. Gideon says to God, “Okay, let’s try this once more, the other way around: make the ground wet, and the fleece dry.”  And in the morning, it was so.

So finally Gideon is convinced that God is with him, and that God has the power to shape reality, to do improbable things – like defeating Midian. Because even with all Israel’s warriors, thirty-two thousand troops, the Midianites still outnumber them.

But Gideon’s willing to give it a try. He gathers his troops, near the Midianite camp, ready for attack. Maybe they have a chance, with God’s help.  But then God says to Gideon, “You have too many soldiers. If you defeat the Midianites with all these soldiers, Israel will take the credit away from me, and say, ‘We delivered ourselves.’ Speak to your troops and say, Whoever is fearful and trembling, GO HOME.”

So Gideon does that. And twenty-two thousand men … go home. Leaving Gideon with ten thousand soldiers who are itching for a fight.

Okay. Now there are a LOT more Midianites, but this is how God wants it. Fine.

But then God says to Gideon, “You STILL have too many men. Take your army down to that pool of water over there for a drink. Some of them will cup up the water in their hands, and some will kneel down and lap the water like dogs. The ones who cup the water in their hands – send them all home.”

So the men go to drink. And how many of them lap the water like dogs? Three hundred. And God says to Gideon, “With these three hundred men I will deliver you, and give the Midianites into your hands. Send the rest home.”

And Gideon does. But before they go: he takes all their water jars and their trumpets. So here’s Gideon, with three hundred men, and a bunch of jars and trumpets, looking out at the Midianite camp, with its soldiers as thick as sand on the seashore. And that night God speaks to Gideon and says, “Attack the camp. It’s time.” And he wakes his tiny army and says,  “Get up. God has given Midian into our hands.” He gives them all trumpets and jars – with torches hidden inside the jars.

They sneak into the camp under cover of darkness, and at Gideon’s signal, they all BLOW their trumpets, and SMASH their jars so the torches shine out, and they shout, “For the Lord and for Gideon!”

And the Midianites panic! They wake up to this horrible noise, and light, and fire, and shouting! Some of them start to run and others see them running and they run too, and pretty soon the whole Midianite army, tens of thousands of men, are fleeing towards home. And they’re fighting each other in the dark, in the confusion, and killing each other, without Gideon’s men even drawing their swords.

So Gideon and his three hundred crazy fearless men drove out the great army of Midian, freed their land from the invaders, with some trumpets and some torches and the power of God. Because God was with them.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light…. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. 

This reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah is always used at Christmas, because of the image of light dawning in darkness, and because of Isaiah’s prophetic words about a Savior who will come to God’s people, a child who will be born to us, for us, who will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, and Prince of Peace. Christians have long understood this text as pointing towards Jesus.

Isaiah lived about halfway between Gideon and Jesus; his words harken back to his people’s history, and lean forward into their hopes for the future.

This phrase, “As on the day of Midian” – tt’s a passing allusion to a long-ago battle – one of countless battles told in the Old Testament. And its protagonist, Gideon, didn’t make the cut for most children’s story bibles. Who remembers Gideon? But I really like story of Gideon and the defeat at Midian. And I think there’s something very timely about it.

This story is timely for us as Americans in 2017. I find Gideon really relatable. He’s skeptical, and kind of pessimistic. He hears God’s promises and looks at the world around him and says, God, I’m not sure we can get there from here. He says, God, you’re an idealist, and I’m a realist. But he enters a dialogue with God. He’s not totally cynical; there’s hope lurking under there. When God says, Things can be better, Gideon doesn’t laugh in God’s face and walk away. Gideon says, Tell me more.

So this conversation begins, and continues, all the way through the first business with the sacrifice, through the moments just before the attack, when Gideon sneaks into the Midianite camp, just to see what they’re up against, and hears one of the Midianite soldiers telling a friend that he had dreamed their army was defeated by Israel. Gideon believes: The impossible is possible. Let’s do this.

Gideon begins the story wearing skepticism as a kind of armor to protect the tenderness of hope, and of his anguish at his people’s misery. And he ends up committing himself to God’s purposes. He reaches a point where he wants what God wants, and he gives himself over to it, using his strength and his connections and his ingenuity to help bring about God’s deliverance for his people. Even to the point of risking his life.

And all of that makes Gideon a holy figure worth remembering, in these weary and jaded times. In our discouragement and our skepticism.

And I think the story of Midian is timely for Christmas. Because it’s about how something small can accomplish something big. Gideon marched on Midian with an army of 300 men. A laughably tiny force. Yet by God’s power, combined with human imagination and courage, they were successful. The power of God to do what seems impossible in human terms is what Isaiah has in mind, when he says that the burden of oppression will be cast off as on the day of Midian. It’s not just that a battle was won – but that a battle was won by the power of God. And that’s the Christmas story, the Incarnation: a tiny tiny baby, a newborn infant, poor, cold, and helpless, nevertheless – changes things.

Attacking an entire camp of enemy warriors with three hundred men is ridiculous, but confronting the entire regime of evil and greed and injustice and suffering in the world with one newborn baby – that’s even more absurd.

But that’s the kind of God, God is. That’s the heart of God, made known to us in the face of the child in the manger. Not a God of overwhelming force, to bend humanity to God’s will, but a God of hope and possibility and invitation.

Our God is a God who calls us to take heart, take courage, to lay down our skepticism and weariness and commit ourselves to God’s purposes, God’s agenda of liberation, justice, mercy, and love. To believe that better is possible, and that we can help, because God is with us.  And our God is a God who changes the world with the power of small, ordinary, beautiful, powerful things: The light of a candle, the sound of a trumpet. A few words of love. An infant’s first cry.

Amen.

Racism resource list, 11/18/17

Resources on Racism                                            

Compiled by Eliot R. Smith for a gathering to learn about racism  from the standpoint of cognitive science, held at St. Dunstan’s Church, Nov. 18, 2017

General/historical background

http://aaihs.org/resources/charlestonsyllabus/  [“Charleston syllabus,” readings and resources on the history of race relations in South Carolina and the US in general]

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/  [Ta-Nehisi Coates, historical overview]

Nonconscious bias

https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/   [demonstration; take test of your own biases]

https://www.gv.com/lib/unconscious-bias-at-work

Combating bias in various fields (academics, medicine, etc.)

http://wiseli.engr.wisc.edu/hiring.php  [list of resources; women in science & engineering]

https://www.aamc.org/download/102364/data/aibvol9no2.pdf  [literature summary; faculty and leadership recruitment]

https://www.aamc.org/initiatives/diversity/learningseries/346528/howardrossinterview.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/31/opinion/sunday/guess-who-doesnt-fit-in-at-work.html   [commentary on the danger of looking for “cultural fit” at work]

Episcopal resources

https://www.episcopalchurch.org/library/topics/state-racism-america  [Extensive video of panel discussion, Nov. 2013]

https://www.episcopalchurch.org/racial-reconciliation [links to many resources]

https://www.episcopalchurch.org/library/document/house-bishops-pastoral-letter-sin-racism  [1994 pastoral letter]

Lutheran resources

http://elca.org/webcast   August 2015 webcast with Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton; page also has links to numerous other resources on racial justice

http://download.elca.org/ELCA%20Resource%20Repository/race_ethnicity_culture_statement.pdf   1993 “Social Statement”

http://www.loveasrevolution.blogspot.com/2015/08/standing-accused-of-glory-heidelberg.html     [responses to the Charleston shootings from a Lutheran perspective]