Category Archives: Current Events

Sermon, Christmas Eve, 4:30 & 9PM

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

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

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

1919 was a tough year. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I resonate with every word of that passage. 

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

And some wise soul replied: Both. 

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

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

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

The 20th century is hardly a consoling tale.

We know some of the costs and struggles to come. 

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

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

The recognition of environmental degradation in the 1970s. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re not recreating or re-enacting something.

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

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

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

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

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

Let me take this one step further. 

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

And then there’s God’s time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For something more than mere repair and restoration; 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A space of darkness and unknowing and possibility. 

A space of birth. 

May it be so.


Homily, July 3

Susan B. Anthony, Declaration of Rights of the Women, July 4, 1876: “It was the boast of the founders of the republic, that the rights for which they contended were the rights of human nature. If these rights are ignored in the case of one-half the people, the nation is surely preparing for its downfall. Governments try themselves. The recognition of a governing and a governed class is incompatible with the first principles of freedom… Now, at the close of a hundred years, as the hour-hand of the great clock that marks the centuries points to 1876, we declare our faith in the principles of self-government; our full equality with man in natural rights; that woman was made first for her own happiness, with the absolute right to herself – to all the opportunities and advantages life affords for her complete development; and we deny that dogma of the centuries, incorporated in the codes of all nations – that woman was made for man – her best interests, in all cases, to be sacrificed to his will. We ask of our rulers, at this hour, no special favors, no special privileges, no special legislation. We ask justice, we ask equality, we ask that all the civil and political rights that belong to citizens of the United States, be guaranteed to us and our daughters forever.”


We have this custom of sharing readings from American history on the weekend of the Fourth of July.  It’s a way to mark the holiday without too simply endorsing it. I hesitated about doing it, this year, but when I looked at the readings, and sat with my own feelings a little, I decided we needed these voices. 

I don’t know about you, but it’s been a difficult couple of weeks for my patriotism. I’ve been forced to face the fact that, as educated and thoughtful and aware as I think I am, there’s a part of me that has always believed in the ideal of American progress. That has always assumed that as a nation, we’d keep marching in the direction of more rights, more freedoms, more human dignity for all. 

And that was a hopeful belief for me, because it was congruent with my values as a Christian – my belief in a God who does not have favorite kinds of people, a God who is about freedom from bondage, and about calling people from the margins to the center, and about human wholeness.

That hopeful belief is what was really shaken by the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe vs Wade – and by the direction that decision seems to point. 

The Roe decision is painful and frightening on its own terms. As far as anyone can tell, abortion is now illegal in Wisconsin, with basically no exceptions, due to an 1849 law still on the books. Over half the states in our nation will soon have banned abortion. 

I know we likely have a range of convictions and feelings about abortion here. It’s both a big polarized political issue, and a deeply sensitive human issue. Whatever your views, whatever your experiences, I hope you understand that many people with uteruses truly feel less free today than we did two weeks ago. To borrow some phrases from Susan B. Anthony – writing nearly 150 years ago! – we feel consigned to being a governed class, without the absolute right to ourselves. 

There’s so much that could be said about abortion. Let me say three things, very briefly. The first is that the Episcopal Church supports legal abortion. The second is that God asked for Mary’s consent before having her bear and birth Jesus Christ. 

The third is that the terrain of conceiving or not conceiving, birthing or not birthing, parenting or not parenting, is some of the most tender and delicate territory of our lives. We are so easily bruised, here. When we talk about all this, as perhaps we must, let us strive to listen, and to be kind. 

But the impact of overturning Roe is bigger than reproductive rights. It has shaken – shattered – any comfortable sense of progress. For one thing: There is a very real concern, now, that Obergefell is also under threat. If Obergefell isn’t a household name for you: It’s the Supreme Court case which secured a nationwide right to gay marriage.

It meant that same-sex couples were no longer dependent on geography and state governments for whether their marriages – and the many rights and privileges bound up with marriage – were legal.  

Obergefell was decided on June 26, 2015. I remember the day! I was at General Convention in Salt Lake City. There was a huge party at a local park. Lots of General Convention deputies joined the celebration. People were dancing. Rainbows everywhere. It was amazing. So much relief. So much joy. 

Now, it’s increasingly clear that many conservative leaders, and at least some Supreme Court justices, would like to overturn that decision as well. Every same-sex couple you know is watching and worrying and planning. Figuring out what to they need to do to protect their families, their livelihoods, their selves, in the coming months and years. 

As a faith community, part of our work in this season is to find out what it means to have the backs of our gay, lesbian, and gender-diverse members and households, and friends and neighbors too. Dancing in the park isn’t enough anymore. 

I believed that rights, once acknowledged by the Supreme Court of our nation, would remain secure. I should have known better. I’m an anthropologist, a student of human nature. I’ve studied the Bible closely. I know that history is full of pendulum swings.

Maybe it’s my naïveté, my whiteness, my privilege, that let me believe otherwise. Probably all of the above. I know plenty of people were never under any such illusions. Those of us who were, are sadder and wiser now – and, I hope, ready to listen and learn from those who have always known that the arc of history only bends towards justice if we all pull on it together with all our strength. 

How do we live now? What do we do? How do we show up for each other and ourselves and those burdened, or desperate, or at risk? 

Those are questions to be explored in both the short term and the longer term. Let me say again, as I did last week, that if you are looking for people to connect with, to share ideas about how to respond, together, to the times in which we find ourselves, let me know – and we’ll see what takes shape. 

I appreciate Paul’s paradoxical advice in today’s Epistle: Bear one another’s burdens; but also, Each will bear their own burden. I think what he means is: Figure out what your work is, and do it. Seek out your way among the many, many ways to work or march or give or serve or sing or study or make art or pray, as part of God’s holy movement for justice, compassion, and the flourishing of humanity and creation.

Do your work. But also, when you have a chance: help others. Lighten their load. 

What’s OUR work, at St. Dunstan’s? Well, that’s for us to continue to discern together.  But maybe part of our work needs to be digging in to who we think Jesus is, and what we think it means to follow him. 

If it’s been a tough couple of weeks for your patriotism, it probably has been for your Christianity too. There are people who claim the faith of Jesus at both extremes. And right now the Jesus who seems to be winning some of these big legal and cultural battles doesn’t look much like the Jesus we talk about around here. 

In today’s Gospel Jesus sends out his followers with a simple message to share: The Kingdom of God has come near. I always feel like I need a whole sermon to talk about the Kingdom of God. It can’t be simply explained or described. Jesus talks about it a lot – but he talks about it in stories. The Kingdom of God seems to be Jesus’ vocabulary for … an alternative way of being or seeing or living, or an alternate reality. Maybe it’s somewhere else, or maybe it’s here but hiding just behind our familiar reality. It’s not Heaven; it’s closer and stranger than that. 

In the Kingdom of God the last are first, and the lost matter more than the found. 

In the Kingdom of God small good things grow, even when big bad things threaten to overwhelm. 

The Kingdom of God is an intentional contrast with the powers and politics of this world. 

The Kingdom of God is not coercive or controlling. It does not shame or blame. It shines. It teases. It invites. 

That inviting mystery of the Kingdom of God is actually pretty important to my spirituality and my faithful living. I don’t claim to understand it! But it calls me. 

In the face of a Christianity that seems to want to become more and more deeply embedded in the structures and institutions of this world, I am drawn to a way of faith that invites us to imagine our way into a different kind of world.

In the face of a Christianity that seems to be so much about control and shame, I’m drawn to a Christianity that’s about kindness and possibility and play. 

In the face of a Christianity that makes laws, I’m drawn to a Christianity that tells stories. 

And even if I can’t believe in American history as an inevitable march from worse to better, I do still believe in a God at work in human history and human hearts.

Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, for the living of these days. Amen. 

Sermon, May 9

Today the lectionary offers us two texts from the Johannine literature: a portion of the first letter of John, and a passage from John’s Gospel. Let me start with a little explanation – beginning with a word I just used: Johannine. It’s based on a form the name John – the name associated with the fourth Gospel, the fourth of the four books in the Bible that tell the story of Jesus’ life. There are also three epistles, three letters or documents of the early church, in the Bible that bear John’s name – First, Second, and Third John. There’s a lot of overlap in language and themes between these letters and John’s Gospel – which is itself quite distinct from the other three Gospels. Many scholars think that the primary author of the Gospel, and the writer or writers of the letters, were different people, but that they were all part of a part of a particular community within the early church – a Johannine community, with a particular understanding of Jesus and Jesus’ message and what that means for Christians living out their faith. So today’s two texts, while most likely not the same voice, have a lot in common. It’s easy to read them together.  

Though this is our first sermon on it, we’ve been reading our way through 1 John for a few weeks now. We’ve heard that the world does not know us because it did not know Jesus. We’ve heard the call to love one another, for love is from God, and those who abide in love abide in God. And we heard, today, that whatever is born from God conquers the world. Even those few snippets are enough to point us towards the two central themes of this letter, woven through all five chapters:  Love each other, even when it’s hard; and: Keep the world at a distance. 

David Bentley Hart’s translation of the New Testament uses the Greek word “cosmos” instead of translating it into “world.” Hart explains that he does this in the hope of helping us hear the expansiveness of what’s being named. In this letter’s original time and place, “cosmos” would have encompassed the human, natural, and supernatural worlds. And it’s clear that for the author of First John, the cosmos is dangerous – aligned against the believers. Do not be astonished if the world hates you, says chapter 3, verse 13.  Further, this author believes that an evil power is at work in the world, the cosmos. “You are from God, little children… [and] the one that is in you is greater than the one that is in the cosmos.” (4:4)  And right at the end of the letter – “We know that we are of God, and that the whole cosmos rests entirely upon the wicked one.” (5:19)

The looming dangers of the cosmos are precisely why it’s so important for Christians to love one another; how else could they survive and stay faithful? 

Hart is probably right that we lack the cosmic sensibility of this letter’s original audience. But we can still hear the phrase “the world” in a context like this and make some sense of it. We can gesture to the surrounding culture and society, outside of the church and its worldview and commitments. 

Some of you, I know, have spent part of your lives in evangelical churches – and most of us are at least passingly familiar with evangelical Christianity. One defining characteristic of that family of churches is a sense of a very clear line between church and world. Like the author of letters of John, evangelical Christians have a clear sense that there’s a way the World does things, and a way Christians do things – and that they are and must be different. That’s why there’s so much stuff that’s kind of an evangelical alternative to trends in the surrounding culture. Christian alternatives to Harry Potter; Christian raves; Christian skateboarding. Who remembers pogs? … I don’t know why this came to mind when I was working on this sermon, but Google confirmed my hunch: YES, there were Christian pogs. 

And of course plenty of Christian rock and roll… which I mostly don’t know, because I was raised in the Episcopal church, and Episcopalians just let their kids listen to regular rock and roll.

Episcopal and Anglican relationships with “the world” have always been more nuanced – or maybe just messier. We are Christians who believe God is at work in the world outside the walls of the church – a mindset that probably springs from our origins as a national church. It’s in our DNA as a family of faith to believe that God’s purposes can be fulfilled and even revealed by wholly secular institutions and movements. 

There are many moments and choices in Anglican history that illustrate that tendency. In the late 20th century, both the ordination of women and the full sacramental inclusion of LGBTQ+ people followed in large part from new understandings emerging in the wider society. I hasten to say that our church did not, as critics sometimes claim, simply take on whatever had become the prevailing cultural idea. These things were matters of profound discernment and struggle. Those advocating for change and those with the power to make change studied Scripture, sought direction from the Holy Spirit, and wondered together as a body, on the way to clarity. 

I hasten to say that sexism and homophobia remain realities in the life of our institutional church. We have not fully lived up to our intentions.  But it’s nonetheless important that those intentions have been clearly named. It gives us something to measure our failures against, something to strive to live out more truly. Right now, the fresh reckoning with racism in our wider society is spurring a renewed exploration and re-commitment to change within the Episcopal Church as well. If you’re interested in knowing more about that, let me know. Overall: Our church has often found “the world” to be a source of revelation about God’s hopes for humanity and creation.

At the same time: There is something I recognize in 1 John’s call to caution about the world. In the letter of James, which we’re reading in Compline, James says: Keep yourself uncontaminated by the world. Not 1 John’s words, but very much their sentiment. And, you know: I get it. Not everything about our surrounding society is great. In fact, a lot of it is pretty messed up. Contamination – or staining, in some translations of that verse from James – is an apt image. Consider racism. Fears and assumptions about African-American people live in my head. I didn’t choose that stuff, or seek it out; I work to fight and transform it within myself; but it has leached in from the culture. Many other examples are possible. 

So: As Christians in the Episcopal way, our relationship with the world – with the cultural, social, economic and political landscape in which we live – is complicated. It’s certainly not all bad. It’s certainly not all good. Discernment is required. Thoughtfulness and prayerfulness are required. 

Today’s Johannine texts offer us a couple of tools for that work.One, of course, is love. The Johannine texts are crystal clear that love is a hallmark of God’s people. To abide in love is to abide in God. This is my commandment: Love one another as I have loved you. 

It’s easy to name love as a tool for assessing what happens in the world around us, and our right response. Applying it is not always so easy. 

Today, the city of Madison will evict homeless people who have been camping together, as a community, at Reindahl Park, over near the airport.  Neighbors and other park users don’t like having them there, and the city would rather have them in the shelter system. It’s a complicated issue with a lot of perspectives to consider. St. Dunstan’s is far from the areas where Madison’s unhoused population is concentrated. But I’ve met and talked with a few unhoused folks over the years who were staying in this part of town, precisely BECAUSE we’re far away.  I’ve heard from them about some of the reasons people choose not to enter the shelter system. The crowding and lack of privacy can be tough for some. Especially for moms with young children, or for people with PTSD or other reasons to just need their space. They may have substance abuse challenges that make it really difficult to work with the shelter’s requirements. They may just really dislike being thrown together with a lot of people whose company they didn’t choose. I think the decision to camp in a park instead of living in a shelter is especially understandable during a pandemic! 

What I’ve learned from these conversations is that some people will tolerate a LOT of discomfort and inconvenience, to avoid the shelter system. I understand why the city would like to simply bring all these folks into shelter. But it seems to me as if their needs and concerns have not been truly heard and addressed. I don’t know what the right answer is. But I believe more loving solution should be possible. 

The loving path, the loving choice, isn’t always obvious. It certainly isn’t always easy. But it’s always important. It’s always worth seeking. 

And then there’s another tool for discernment that today’s Gospel offers us: Joy. Jesus tells his friends, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” Pause and take that in. Where churches have long spoken of God’s anger and human shame, Jesus speaks of inviting us into holy joy. 

What moments come to mind when you think about joy? What does joy feel like in your body? Joy is different from happiness. You can choose to do things that will probably make you happy. Joy shows up on its own. You can’t force it.  J.D. Salinger wrote that happiness is a solid and joy is a liquid. C. S. Lewis wrote that joy “dashes in with the agility of a hummingbird claiming its nectar from the flower, and then zips away… leaving a wake of mystery and longing behind it.”

Here are some times when I feel joy – always only sometimes: When I’m learning something new. When I’m sharing experiences with those I love best. When I’m doing my work and can feel that I’m doing it well, serving you well, serving God well. 

Joy is an elusive tool for discerning where God may be at work in the cosmos around us. But I think it’s a valuable tool nonetheless. When you experience joy – well, when you experience joy, just be present to it! But later, when you recall and savor that moment, you could ask yourself: Does that joy have something to teach me? Does this joy point me towards anything? For myself? For others? 

Joy and love are holy gifts to us – and holy calls upon us. With hearts and minds open to both blessing and brokenness, opportunity and challenge – may love and joy guide us, as God’s people in the world. Amen. 


Sermon, June 14

So, God has a deal for Abraham. God comes to Abraham – then named Abram – when he is 75 years old. God says, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great. In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” And Abram went, as the Lord had told him. Even though Abram doesn’t know God. There is no religion, no people committed to the God who will become Israel’s God at this point. It’s been generations since God spoke directly to a human – Noah. 

But Abram and his wife Sarai are childless, and God’s plan to give them descendants is an offer Abram can’t resist. He gathers up his household and sets out towards an unknown destiny. God keeps showing up and reiterating the promise: Let me set you apart as the father of My people, and you will have descendants – more than you can count. 

But ten years go by and: still no descendants. That’s where today’s story begins. 

This text is expanded well beyond what the Sunday lectionary suggests. The assigned text is the story of the three visitors, Sarah’s laughter, and Isaac’s birth. But this year I’m not willing to join in Hagar’s erasure. 

It’s easy to join Sarah’s joyful laughter at the birth of her son. She’s been through a lot. Uprooted from a settled home, late in life; dragged all over the Ancient Near East; TWICE nearly being taken as a concubine by foreign kings because Abraham insists on this bizarre lie that she is his sister and not his wife… and, one assumes, ten years of Abram looking at her askance, because God said he would have descendants, and he STILL doesn’t, and maybe Sarah is the problem. Sarah is burdened by what she has suffered, and marked by internalized sexism that measures her value in her fertility. But people are complicated, and Sarah also acts as an oppressor here. 

Let me tell, briefly, the next chapter of Hagar’s story, which is assigned as a reading for next Sunday: Isaac is a young child, doted on by his parents. One day Sarah sees Isaac and Ishmael playing together, and flies into a rage. She tells Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” Abraham is distressed; he’s fond of Ishmael. But God says, Fear not; Ishmael too will become a great nation; but it is through Isaac that I will make you a people. So Abraham gives Hagar bread and water, and sends her away with her son.  

Note that Ishmael’s age is a jumble in the text. This story makes him sound young – not much older than Isaac. But by Abraham’s age given elsewhere, he’d be in his late teens. Not too old to play with his little half-brother – but certainly too old for Hagar to leave him under a bush to die when their water runs out, after wandering in the wilderness for some time. 

Hagar walks away, because she cannot bear to watch her son’s death. But God hears Ishmael’s wails, and the angel of God appears to Hagar a second time, telling her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Don’t be afraid; go pick up your child. He will live and I will make him a great nation.” Then God shows her a spring of water, and she and the child are saved. Ishmael grows up in the wilderness, and becomes a great hunter. 

In all of this: Neither Sarah nor Abraham ever use Hagar’s name. Neither Sarah or Abraham ask Hagar’s consent before making her body the tool of their faithless plan to arrange descendants for themselves instead of waiting on God’s fulfillment. Neither Sarah or Abraham care enough about Hagar or Ishmael’s lives to deal with their complicated family situation and struggle through to a new way of being together. (I don’t give Abraham a lot of credit for the bread and water he gave Hagar, considering how quickly it ran out.) Sarah and Abraham treat Hagar and Ishmael as less fully human than themselves and Isaac. 

Let me be clear that the black-and-white racialized order of American society and economy emerged over 400 years or so of quite specific historical events and patterns. Abraham and Sarah were not white, and Hagar was not black. 

And yet. The fact that Hagar is used to bear a child for her master without her consent may rightly remind us of the situation of many enslaved women before the Civil War. The fact that Abraham can turn on a dime from fathering a child with Hagar, to telling Sarah, “She’s your property, do whatever you want with her,” may rightly remind us of police in Buffalo, New York, who one day knelt in symbolic solidarity with protesters and the next day, in the same place, pushed over a 75-year-old protester and then kept walking as he lay on the ground bleeding. The fact that Hagar flees into the wilderness in the desperate hope for a better life may rightly remind us of the Central American migrants who undertake the dangerous trek across the desert at our southern border, fleeing violence and starvation in their home countries. The fact of Hagar’s agony in the face of her son’s likely death may rightly remind us of the fierce and bitter grief of the mothers of sons murdered by police and by racist vigilantes in our nation in recent years. 

There are deep threads here that we recognize all too easily about our capacity to dehumanize and harm one another. To identify other human beings as members of a group that matters less than our group – whether that group be slaves, Egyptians, African-Americans, illegal aliens, or protesters. It’s one of the strongest threads of the HPtFtU – the Human Propensity to Eff things Up, the vocabulary Francis Spufford offers us for sin. 

Yet when people occasionally ask me how I can love the Bible so deeply when it contains such terrible stories, the story of Hagar is one of the stories I often mention. Because here – so early in our great sacred story, at the very beginning of Israel’s covenant relationship with God – we can already see light between God’s perspective and human perspectives. We can already see that God’s vision of human wholeness and holiness is much bigger than anything Abraham can imagine. 

It is true that in repeatedly promising a son to Abraham and Sarah, God seems to be buying in to the way they reckon identity and status. The eldest son of the first (or favorite) wife is the child who matters. Neither the adoptive son Abraham names as his heir early on, nor Ishmael, properly “count” as the REAL SON God has promised. 

But does God perform the miracle of Isaac’s birth because God endorses that thinking, or to prove God’s power to Abraham and Sarah? Without human biases and resentments, could another kind of story have been possible? Remember that glimpse of Isaac and Ishmael playing together. Genesis contains many stories of non-favored sons who matter. 

What really draws me to this story is God’s relationship with Hagar. Neither Sarah nor Abraham ever use Hagar’s name … but God does. Both times, when the angel of God’s presence seeks out Hagar in the wilderness, they address her by name. The first time, the angel calls her “Hagar, slave-girl of Sarai,” and sends her back to subjugation and abuse. I don’t love that… but apparently Ishmael needs to be part of the story; Hagar can’t disappear from the narrative yet. 

And as counterweight to the the story’s acceptance of Hagar’s enslavement, we need to understand how big a deal it is that Hagar has a direct encounter with the Divine. Keen listeners may nave noticed that the text says an angel spoke to Hagar, but she speaks of having seen God. The nature of angels in these ancient stories is a fascinating topic. Sometimes they seem to be autonomous beings who work for God.Sometimes they seem to be something much closer to a local, limited manifestation of Godself. The voice that stops Abraham from sacrificing Isaac? – “The angel of the Lord.”  The burning bush that speaks to Moses? – “The angel of the Lord.” And let’s not forget the Angel of the Lord who stops Balaam’s donkey. The Genesis text does not use the word “angel” in describing the three mysterious men who were somehow God, who visited Abraham’s tent, but they have been read and depicted as angels for a long time. 

So Hagar’s meeting with the angel of the Lord – TWICE – is understood by the text itself as a theophany, a direct encounter with the Holy. And that’s a big deal. That does not happen to very many people, in the whole Bible. God’s visits with Abraham set him apart as the ancestor of God’s people. God’s direct communication is a privilege and a burden for Moses. The prophet Elijah begs God for the chance to actually see God. Various people are struck dead on the spot for coming too close to the presence of God, unworthy or unprepared. Hagar’s reaction – have I actually seen God and lived? – is appropriate. 

God appears to Hagar to tell her that her child will be special. Sound familiar at all? This is an annunciation scene – one of many Biblical scenes in which a woman receives a divine message about her future child. Note that God never addresses Sarah this directly! God makes promises to Hagar that sound a lot like God’s promises to Abraham: You will have more descendants than you can possibly count.

And in response to this divine message – I love this – Hagar is the first person in the Bible to name God. In fact, I haven’t had time to verify this, but some claim that she is the only person in the whole Hebrew Bible to give God a name.The Biblical text names God; Moses asks God’s name; there are many texts describing God in poetic language… But what Hagar does here is different: she invents a name for God, based on her experience of God’s saving power. You are El-Roi, she says, the One who sees – the one who sees me, the unseen, disregarded, and abused. 

In the second story of Hagar in the wilderness, the one we’ll hear next week, the angel no longer calls her “slave-girl,” but simply “Hagar.” Abraham’s casting out of woman and boy is also their liberation. She is a free woman now, and will not return to bondage. 

I read this narrative, Hagar and Sarah’s pregnancies and the births of Abraham’s sons, as reflecting the tug between human understandings and the divine purpose. The story hangs suspended between Abraham’s desire to become the ancestor of many nations, and God’s desire to found a people who belong to God in covenanted love. God is working with human understandings and limitations, and so God through Abraham founds a lineage, because lineages are how people organized themselves in that time and place.

But God SEEING Hagar, saving Hagar, is only one of many hints that God’s ultimate plan is much broader. Both Jews and Christians, as covenanted peoples of God, blessed to be a blessing for the world, will become peoples not defined by descent or bounded by blood kinship. Hagar’s story is a distant foreshadowing of Isaiah’s vision of the redeemed Jerusalem as a light to enlighten ALL nations and peoples. 

Suspended between human understandings and the divine purpose is also where we find ourselves – often, and particularly with respect to matters of racism and human dignity and wellbeing. We live in a world that normalizes black poverty; that takes “good” and “bad” neighborhoods as natural features of the landscape; that assumes the vastly disproportionate numbers of people of color in our prisons reflects a disparity in criminality rather than a biased system;

that insists that systems that work for some kinds of people would work for EVERYBODY if folks would just put in a little effort; that struggles to maintain a moral differentiation between property damage and violence against human beings; that, as Ibram Kendi writes, finds it much easier to place blame on people rather than to examine the impact of policies. 

In tension with those and other human understandings, which shape our lives and judgments and actions at levels deeper than conscious thought, Are God’s desires and intentions for humanity – as we understand them: Revealed in the witness of the prophets who held the privileged and powerful accountable for the wellbeing of the poorest and most marginalized. Revealed in the witness of the apostles who called us into holy community in which Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female are all one in Christ Jesus. Revealed in the witness of Jesus Christ himself, who taught and lived and died that God is a god of the dispossessed, forgotten, wounded, unseen. Hagar speaks the truth: God is the One who Sees. 

Friday of this week is Juneteenth, a day commemorating the end of slavery. 

It’s not a national holiday, which speaks volumes, though it’s observed by many states and cities. There are lots of things I could say about what this day means, But let me say simply that it’s a day to dwell with, and repent of, the HPtFTU – and specifically our longstanding and well-attested propensity to create in-groups and out-groups, and to use, disregard, harm and tolerate harm against, those whom we see as outside our group. That may rightly weigh on us more heavily this year. 

I am listening and reading and praying about what repentance looks like for me, and for us. This week, writer and church planter Emily Scott wrote about how she and her congregation are moving forward. She and others researched organizations in Baltimore, where she lives, that are working toward racial justice – and looked at the kind of support they were looking for: some ask for money, some need volunteers, and so on. The congregation weighed in on the organizations they felt called to support. Scott writes, “Rooting the work in our call and our gifts means we’re drawing from a deep well.” A small core group of members have committed to attending meetings of two local groups, as a next step. 

Scott concludes, “This [work] takes time and intention. It may take setting other priorities aside, because this is important…There will be the slow, steady work of learning stories, building relationships, supporting with our money and our time, and showing up as we’re asked to. This is what it takes. Movements are built on excel sheets and reminder phone calls, monthly meetings and one-to-ones. Let’s get working.” It helped me to be reminded that big change is slow and stepwise and collaborative; and that our best work will flow from the gifts and capacities we’ve already developed. 

In the meantime, while we listen and wonder and pray, I invite you to join me Friday at noon for a liturgy of repentance. I’ll try to do it on both Zoom and Facebook Live. I don’t have it all figured out yet but I know I need to do it. 

And today we begin our summer Prayer of the Week Project – we’ll share a prayer every week, from different sources and for different occasions. The idea is that over the course of the summer you may discover some new prayers to plant in your heart and use as part of your ongoing conversation with God. This week’s prayer is one from our Book of Common Prayer; you may have heard it used in our diocesan worship last Sunday. 

I invite you to pray it with me. 

Sermon, June 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(from his memoir No Future Without Forgiveness) 

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

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

Except that there’s this pandemic going on.

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

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

No man is an island. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some sources… 

Basil and bad Trinity math:

Gregory of Nyssa:

BuzzFeed piece:

99 Percent Invisible, Episode 401: The Natural Experiment –

A starting point on the contagion of altruism –

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

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:

Louise Carpenter in Granta:

Margaret Talbot in the New Yorker:

The Rev. Marcus Halley on what church could be:

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:

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 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:

Gary Manning’s essay on prayer:

Swanson’s essay:

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

Digital Jail: How Electronic Monitoring Drives Defendants Into Debt