Category Archives: Current Events

Sermon, Sept. 4

Months ago – around the time the Supreme Court unexpectedly dropped to eight members – somebody out there commented that it appears to be the final season of America. Not in the apocalyptic sense, but in the television sense. America in 2016 feels like a TV show in its final days, in which the producers are throwing in all kinds of unlikely and bizarre plot twists, that strain our suspension of disbelief and our capacity to care about what happens to the main characters, and have caused many folks to tune out entirely.

Let me be clear: I’m not suggesting that our current national roller-coaster ride is in fact being created or manipulated by some shadowy interest group. But unlike most of the swirling conspiracy theories, the fatigue, confusion, and frustration many of us feel are very real. This is a tough time. A lot of issues feel polarized and charged right now – not only, but especially, around this year’s presidential election. People on both the left and the right feel conflicted about their own votes, and struggle with the uncomfortable fact that even people who share our convictions and hopes are considering casting their votes differently, in ways that could have huge consequences for our republic and our common good.

What I’m trying to say is that 2016 has been a heck of a year for arguing with strangers on the Internet. Right? Because we’re all anxious, and conflicted, and scared, so we get shouty; but we don’t want to get shouty with people we know, with co-workers or friends or family. The Internet seems like a safe outlet – but then the rage and poisonous hate-speech online becomes its own toxic feedback loop and spills back over into real life.

Into the midst of that, on this Sunday 64 days out from Election Day, comes the Letter to Philemon. Philemon is one of the shortest books in the Bible. It’s a letter, written by the apostle Paul – there’s a broad consensus that this really is Paul’s voice. Paul is writing from prison, during one of his several incarcerations. He’s writing to a man named Philemon, who was a wealthy church leader in the church in Colossae. Philemon hosted a church community in his home. Paul is writing to Philemon about Onesimus. Onesimus used to be Philemon’s slave. Slavery was very common in the ancient world. Onesimus was likely a household slave of some sort. His name is Greek – it means “useful”. That sounds like a name he was given by a master, rather than a parent.

Onesimus might have been born into slavery, or sold into slavery because of poverty or debts. He might have a native of the region, or he or his parents might have come from the edges of the empire as spoils of conquest – Africa, Germany, Britain. You can picture Onesimus with almost any color skin or hair. But picture him as a young man, because of the way he becomes like a son to Paul. And picture him as unhappy or angry in his slavery, unhappy or angry enough to run away, despite the fact that the punishment for runaway slaves could include anything from a severe beating to execution. We don’t know how Onesimus connected with Paul. Maybe he had had met Paul in the past, and sought him out; maybe Onesimus was captured and imprisoned, and met Paul there.

The situation Paul is writing about is unfamiliar to us. But what Paul is doing here is actually quite familiar. He is talking with a friend or acquaintance about an area of disagreement, on which they both feel strongly. Some of us dive into conversations like that on Facebook or email or in person, on a daily basis. Some of us avoid them entirely, but write whole volumes in our heads of what we *would* say if we did speak up. But we’re all familiar with this kind of writing and speaking.  And Paul’s careful, wise work here might actually give us some encouragement for having those difficult but important conversations face to face, with people we know, instead of shouting at strangers on the Internet or holding our fearful and angry thoughts within, where they eat away at us until we disconnect or explode. So let’s look at what Paul does, step by step.

Step zero: He probably thought for a good long while about how to address this awkward situation. Consider how difficult and delicate this was for Paul: Onesimus has come to him, learned from him, become a Christian, and a dear friend, like a son to Paul, who never had biological children. BUT by right of law, Onesimus belongs to Philemon, a wealthy and influential church leader, who has every reason to punish Onesimus – and blame Paul. Onesimus probably really didn’t want to go back to Philemon. But for Paul to say to Onesimus, “Go on your way, forget your master, you are free in Christ now,” would burn bridges Paul can’t afford to burn – not only with Philemon but with any wealthy slave-owning person who might otherwise be sympathetic to the Christian faith. According to the ethics of his time and place, but also very much according to his pragmatic desire to build the Christian movement, Paul needs to make things right with Philemon somehow. But he also cares for Onesimus’ welfare and future.

Paul might have taken some counsel from today’s Gospel, in which Jesus says that following him fully may sometimes lead to strained or broken relationships. (As I said a couple of weeks ago: Niceness is a not a Christian virtue.) Jesus goes on to offer a couple of images: a person building a tower, a king going to war. In both cases, he says, it’s wise to go into the endeavor with a realistic idea of what it could actually cost you. Discipleship, living our lives as followers of Jesus, at certain moments can be a costly and demanding project. Paul, facing one such moment, undoubtedly took some time to calculate the risks and plan his approach.

When we’re facing conversation across differences, taking time to think and pray and plan, and reflect on the concerns and experiences we bring to the table, can be really helpful.

Step one: Paul engages with a friend – or at least an acquaintance whom he addresses as a friend. He undertakes this difficult conversation about the intersection of faith and life with someone to whom he’s already connected – not some stranger from the Internet, but a person who has some reason to listen and care what Paul thinks. And he begins – and ends – by affirming the relationship, alluding both to his friendship with Philemon and to the wider web of relationships that bind them together. Verses 1 through 3: “From Paul, who is a prisoner for the cause of Christ Jesus, and our brother Timothy, to Philemon our dearly loved coworker,  Apphia our sister, Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church that meets in your house. May the grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you.” And at the very end, verses 23 to 25: “Epaphras, who is in prison with me for the cause of Christ Jesus, greets you, as well as my coworkers Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke. May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.”

When we’re facing conversation across differences, reminding ourselves that we’re connected by the bonds of friendship and community, and care about each other, can be really important.

Step two. Paul addresses Philemon on the basis of what they share, as followers of Jesus. In what Martin Luther once called “holy flattery,” Paul affirms their common framework, their shared hopes and commitments, and reminds Philemon of what a good Christian he is, before, during, and after talking about their awkward area of difference: Paul sees Onesimus as a beloved son, Philemon sees him as a runaway slave. Listen to Paul’s words as he reminds a wealthy man with a grievance of their shared faith in Jesus (verses 4 – 7): “Philemon, I thank my God every time I mention you in my prayers because I’ve heard of your love and faithfulness, which you have both for the Lord Jesus and for all God’s people. I pray that your partnership in the faith might become effective by an understanding of all that is good among us in Christ. I have great joy and encouragement because of your love, since the hearts of God’s people are refreshed by your actions, my brother…”

And then a few verses later, when Paul comes to the big ask – that Philemon welcome, forgive, and free Onesimus – he again talks about the kinship in Christ that he, Philemon, and Onesimus share: “Onesimus is a dearly loved brother to me. How much more can he become a brother to you, personally and spiritually in the Lord.”

When we’re facing conversation across differences, grounding our conversation in the values and hopes we hold in common can help us stay connected even when we’re disagreeing, and keep our eyes on the bigger picture.

Step three. Paul is dealing here with a specific, concrete issue. I think it’s really important that we have some clarity on the ethics of the Kingdom of God, in which we are called to citizenship – big complicated holy demanding words like liberation, justice, mercy. But conversations across differences tend to be most fruitful when we can talk about something real and immediate.  Elsewhere in his letters to the young churches, Paul gestures towards a position that slavery has no place among Christians – since we become a new community in Christ in which there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female (Gal 3:28). One imagines that that passage might really get Philemon’s hackles up.

Paul knows this isn’t the context for that kind of language. He doesn’t write to Philemon to say, “Listen, now that you’re a Christian, I think you should consider freeing all your slaves. It’s what Jesus would want.” Instead he writes to Philemon with a very specific request: Receive Onesimus back into your household as a brother in Christ. Listen to Paul’s appeal to Philemon. Notice how he plays up the fact that he’s old, and in prison; how he calls Onesimus “child,” “brother,” and “my own heart” – and the puns on Onesimus’ name (verses 11 – 16): “I, Paul—an old man, and now also a prisoner for Christ Jesus— appeal to you for my child Onesimus. I became his father in the faith during my time in prison. He was useless to you before, but now he is useful to both of us. I’m sending him back to you, which is like sending you my own heart…. Maybe this is the reason that Onesimus was separated from you for a while so that you might have him back forever— no longer as a slave but more than a slave—that is, as a dearly loved brother.”

Do I wish Paul had handled this differently? Sure! His tactful and deferential approach to the issue of slavery here helped Christians justify slavery for centuries. Both opponents and supporters of slavery appealed to this letter to support their positions during 18th and 19th century debates over slavery. I wish Paul had said more plainly what I believe he believed: that slavery was wrong, was a violation of the humanity of a child of God, a person for whom Christ died. Paul is compromising here, and it’s a compromise that we may, rightly, find unsatisfactory.

But Paul was trying to spread Christianity in a hostile world. He needed wealthy people to support the movement, for it to have chance to grow and spread. I’m sure he was anxious about alienating the wealthy, many of whom would have owned slaves. Having the elite classes decide that Christianity wasn’t for them, and was, in fact, rather troublesome, could have been terrible for the young churches.

You can look at Paul’s appeal to Philemon as letting temporal concerns constrain the truth of the Gospel. I think that’s a fair assessment. You can look at Paul’s appeal to Philemon as a strategic foot-in-the-door approach, based on a calculation that if Paul can get Philemon to follow the implications of his faith in this one instance, other ripple effects may follow. I think that’s a fair assessment too.

When we’re facing conversation across differences, it’s often helpful to focus on something specific and concrete, instead of hypotheticals or big abstract principals. Turns out the big abstract principals are embedded in the specific and the concrete, anyway.  Focusing on the particular – a situation, a policy – gives us the best chance to have our facts straight – and not only our facts but also our thoughts and feelings. And the best chance to be able to understand the other’s perspective and perhaps come to a common understanding, even if we still ultimately draw different conclusions.

Step four. Paul trusts Philemon with the outcome of this conversation. This is a hard one for me: if I’m going to try to change someone’s mind, I want to succeed. But Paul leaves this decision in Philemon’s hands.

Paul is pushy in this letter, no question. He is quite clear about what he thinks Philemon should do. But he doesn’t threaten him or order him – in fact, he makes a point of asking instead of commanding (vs. 8-9): “Though I have enough confidence in Christ to command you to do the right thing, I would rather appeal to you through love….” A few verses later he says that he considered just keeping Onesimus with him, but that he didn’t want to take the opportunity to make a righteous choice away from Philemon: “I didn’t want to do anything without your consent, so that your act of kindness would occur willingly and not under pressure.”

Now, “not under pressure” is a bit rich – Paul does pressure Philemon. He tells him how much he could gain by having Onesimus as a brother in Christ instead of a slave; he promises to pay back any money Onesimus owes to Philemon, whether from theft or the price of a slave’s freedom (verses 18-19) – and offers this little gem: “Of course, I won’t mention that you owe me your life.” And he hints that Philemon should expect Paul to visit soon, and see with his own eyes whether Philemon has received Onesimus in accordance with Paul’s hopes: “Also, one more thing—prepare a guest room for me.”

Paul is unabashed in asking Philemon to change his heart, to forgive and forget his grievance against Onesimus – in verses 20 – 21 he writes, “Yes, brother, I want this favor from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. I’m writing to you, confident of your obedience and knowing that you will do more than what I ask.”

Paul is pushy, here. But he puts the outcome in Philemon’s hands in a very real way: He sends this letter with Onesimus. Or rather – he sends Onesimus with this letter. Consider the alternative: he could have corresponded with Philemon first, keeping Onesimus with him until he knew how this would go. Until he had a promise of safe return for this young man he has come to love so dearly.

But he doesn’t do that. He says his piece, and he puts the whole matter in Philemon’s hands, entrusts it to Philemon’s conscience. Again, we might question Paul’s choice here – if the gambit had failed, Onesimus would have borne the greatest cost. But sending Onesimus with the letter, instead of writing first, seems like a strategic demonstration of confidence in Philemon. Paul is saying with his actions, I know you’re going to do the right thing.

And it worked. We know it worked, because we have the letter. This was private correspondence, unlike Paul’s other letters, written to be read aloud in a community setting. If Philemon hadn’t responded to Paul’s appeal, surely this letter would have just been burned or thrown away. Instead it was preserved by Philemon’s family and church, passed down until it became part of the canon of Scripture. I believe that could only have happened if Philemon did was Paul asked: welcomed Onesimus as a brother in Christ. Philemon must have shared the letter. And if he shared the letter, surely he shared it as part of explaining why he was going to free Onesimus, rather than punishing him.

While the letter gives us a glimpse of the story, with no clear ending, I believe grace triumphed here. I believe liberation, justice, and mercy were lived out, in this particular situation.

When we’re facing conversation across differences, it helps a lot to respect the intellect and conscience of the other person. It’s so easy to forget this – especially on the Internet, but in person too – but very few of us are actually monsters. Very few of the people who live and vote and think differently from you actually wake up in the morning with the intention to hurt people and ruin the world. Coming to those difficult conversations with curiosity about how that person came to see things the way they do, will get us a lot farther than assuming they’re simply wrongheaded and evil.

Trusting the other person’s intellect and conscience also means these conversations take time. It means letting your conversation partner think about it, giving them time and space to change. Trusting the other person’s intellect and conscience also means being open the possibility that I might have some thinking to do, and maybe even some changing to do, as well.

It’s not really the final season of America. I have too much faith in God, and in us, to believe that. But it’s a complicated, charged season in the life of our country, to be sure. Hard conversations across differences are always possible, and right now they feel probable, or even inevitable. And not just around the election and the candidates, but around all kinds of things. On my Facebook wall, they’re usually public schools and/or systemic racism. In church, we sometimes run into moments when people’s hopes and priorities differ, and have to be reconciled. On this Labor Day weekend I note our lively national conversation about a just and livable economy for working people. There’s lots to disagree about. We are passionate people!

I’m grateful for Paul’s voice in Philemon, in this season. For the reminder to think before I speak. To have real conversations with real people. To affirm what we share, even in disagreement. To stay focused, and to respect my conversation partner. And – but – above all, to have those necessary hard conversations, with faithfulness, humility, and courage.

Sermon, August 21

I looked at these readings and started thinking about them before taking a week’s vacation. Maybe laying down my priest identity for a while let my anthropologist identity come to the fore, because when I came back to actually write this sermon, I found I wanted to lead you in a bit of a word study. The word is, Nice.

Nice is a very anthropologically interesting word. Its most familiar/common meaning, what you’d probably say if I asked you, is something like agreeable, pleasant, friendly. But Nice is also a word we use to police behavior. To nudge one another towards following cultural and social expectations. Nice comes into play a lot in talk about gender norms – Nice girls don’t dress like that, or talk in a loud voice, or have strong opinions.

Nice comes into play when we talk about tradition and the way things are done. My favorite example comes from the film Bend it Like Beckham, or rather, from a little bonus video on the DVD of the film, in which the director, Gurinder Chadha, cooks several Indian dishes in her own kitchen under the supervision of her very traditional Indian mother and aunt. They disapprove of many of her choices as she cooks, telling her, if you chop the onions that way, “It won’t be nice.”

Nice comes into play when we talk about social order and appropriate behavior. It isn’t nice to make a fuss, to rock the boat, to be disruptive. It isn’t nice to say things that make people feel bad, or uncomfortable, or guilty. It certainly isn’t nice to disrupt business or traffic.

Niceness is very much in the eye of the beholder. One person’s “not nice” is another person’s heroic or prophetic. The Montgomery bus boycott was certainly not nice, in the eyes of the racist white society that it challenged. It was not nice to throw crates of perfectly good tea into Boston Harbor – think of the waste! the environmental impact! – and yet we regard the folks who did that not as punks but as patriots.

Anthropologically speaking, niceness about much more than being polite or friendly. It’s a word we use to maintain boundaries of respectability, police social norms, express disapproval of the inconvenient, messy, or disruptive. Back in 1964, Malvina Reynolds wrote a song called “It isn’t nice.” (By the way, Malvina was born 116 years ago this Tuesday – which means she was in her 60s when she was writing and performing various anthems of the civil rights movement!…)

The song says, “It isn’t nice to block the doorway, it isn’t nice to go to to jail. … There are nicer ways to do it, but the nice ways always fail. It isn’t nice, it isn’t nice, you told us once, you told us twice, but if that is Freedom’s price, we don’t mind. It isn’t nice to carry banners, or to sit in on the floor, or to shout our cry for freedom at the hotel and the store… It isn’t nice, it isn’t nice, you told us once, you told us twice, but if that is Freedom’s price, we don’t mind.”

This song, “It isn’t nice” has been stuck in my head this week – in part because this is the “It isn’t nice” Gospel. Jesus is teaching in a synagogue, a local place of worship. And a woman comes into the synagogue, who is crippled, bent over, with some disabling illness. And Jesus sees her and calls her over, and lays hands on her and heals her, And she stands up straight – that must have felt so good – and begins to praise God. Not “thank you God” but HALLELUJAH THANK YOU JESUS THANK YOU!

And then… the leader of the synagogue – my brother across the ages – starts to complain about what has happened. Here’s where Niceness comes into it. It isn’t nice to bother the Rabbi while he’s teaching. it isn’t nice to cure on the sabbath and disrupt our orderly worship. It isn’t nice for a woman to start loudly and emotionally praising God in the middle of the men’s nice intellectual conversation about Scripture.

Luke describes the leader as “indignant.” That’s how we feel when niceness is violated. When people do things that aren’t appropriate – respectful – nice. And he uses a word we use when our sense of niceness is violated: “Ought”. He can’t quite say that he’s sorry she was healed, so instead he criticizes how it happened: There are six days on which work ought to be done! She ought to have come on one of those days!

But Jesus “ought”s right back at him, makes one woman’s ailment a matter of historic, cosmic, and ethical significance: “Ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?”

It isn’t nice, it isn’t nice, you told us once, you told us twice, but if that is freedom’s price, we don’t mind.

Now I’m going to tell you something really important. I learned this from a mentor back in the Diocese of New Hampshire, and I think of it often. Here it is: Niceness is not a Christian virtue.

Niceness is not a Christian virtue.

Now, some of the things we think we mean by niceness ARE Christian virtues. Mercy IS a Christian virtue. Compassion. Generosity. But not niceness. My friend in New Hampshire suggested that we work on substituting kindness for niceness. Kindness: a more everyday way of talking about mercy, about compassion, about caring for the welfare of our neighbor.

Kindness and niceness are superficially similar. In some situations the kind action and the nice action may be the same. But in other situations, they might not be. Because kindness is always concerned with the good of the other, full stop. And niceness … wants everyone to feel good, but also wants things to be nice.

Kindness was Jesus healing that woman as soon as he saw her. Niceness is what the synagogue leader wanted: Just come back tomorrow, this isn’t a good time. Niceness bundles up kindness with a bunch of other things – respectability and appropriateness and comfort – that the witness of Scripture tells us God is not very interested in. That, in fact, more often seem to come between us and God, between us and righteousness, than otherwise.

Niceness is not a Christian virtue. Prophets, saints, and Jesus himself have often been told their actions and words weren’t nice. Look at poor Jeremiah, called to prophesy as a young boy. His protest in today’s passage is because he knows he will not be well received. It is not nice for a young man – a boy – to go to his elders, religious and political leaders, and tell them they’re all wrong and that God’s judgment is coming to them. Not nice at all. But it’s what God is doing.

Because, in the vision of our Hebrews text, God is both a God of joy and generosity – of a heavenly city with its streets thronging with a perpetual angel festival, a God who bestows upon us freely the gift of a kingdom that cannot be shaken – and – and – a God who demands our reverence and awe, a God who is indeed a consuming fire. Consuming fires don’t care about nice.

The problem of this Gospel story for us – the story of the woman healed on the Sabbath – is how to read it so that it challenges us, instead of just making us feel smug. It’s too easy for us to read this story and simply think, Well, duh, compassion should win over pious rigidity. The synagogue leader was wrong wrong wrong.

Listen: the Sabbath was the heart of Jewish piety, one of the core practices that set the Jews apart from the society around them. The Sabbath honored God, provided rest for workers, meant time for family and song and prayer and play. Can anybody tell me you wouldn’t love to have one day a week in which you were not allowed to do any work? At all? There is nothing to sneer at about Sabbath observance.

And yet – it’s clear that the synagogue leader is mis-applying his piety. His sense of religious niceness keeps him from fully witnessing another’s pain, and fully rejoicing in another’s freedom. I believe the challenge this story has for us is to pay attention to the places where niceness, a human virtue, might be building a nice white picket fence around our capacity to exercise the holy virtues of mercy, generosity, and justice. Where our “niceness” glasses make it hard for us to see what God is doing. Or… to look at what humans are doing, with God’s eyes. This story asks us, Where might God’s purposes be in tension with our sense of order and propriety? And that should be an uncomfortable question.

My friend L and his teenage son are losing their apartment. They’ve been in this place for five years. He hasn’t always gotten the rent in right on time, but he’s been a good tenant. No trouble. But a new company has bought up his building – has bought up a whole chunk of the southwest side, in fact, about ten blocks south of the Hassett home. This has been one of the few neighborhoods in Madison where folks with lousy credit history could find a place to live. A lot of poor veterans were housed there; L was one of them. Most of the residents were African-American or Latino. For many of these households, losing these apartments means they are at risk of long-term homelessness. There simply may not be anywhere else.

The new company is moving folks along because it has a very different vision for this neighborhood. Madison’s housing crisis means that it can be a very lucrative proposition to turn over rental housing from low-income tenants to young middle-class tenants. Between the university and Epic, demand – and rents – are high. Back in early June there was a story in the Wisconsin State Journal about this new company and its lead investor, and what they’re doing to L’s neighborhood. The article talks about one woman in particular, named Myra. She’s African-American, 62 years old, with some health problems. The head of the company called her situation “heartbreaking,” and said, “She’s like the freakin’ model tenant.” And yet, when her lease was reviewed to see if she could stay, the answer was that she did not meet their new criteria, and would have to move out. The reason given was that her grandchildren act unruly when they visit.

This wasn’t an entirely nice neighborhood, sure. There’s no question in my mind that it’ll be nicer, once the apartments all have new paint, and new appliances, and new young mostly-white tenants with full-time jobs and great credit histories. But will it be kinder?

I was talking with L about losing his home one day, and I was just thinking about him and his son, where they would go, whether they would be OK, but he started talking about his downstairs neighbor, an older lady who lived alone. He said that when his anxiety started to get too high, about money, about taking care of his son, whatever, he would pace, and she would hear him, and call him downstairs, and talk to him, and help him calm down. She’s being moved on too. All of them are. All of the folks who managed to make homes here, to make community here, in spite of peeling paint and late rents and litter.

What’s happening to L’s neighborhood will make it nicer. But it is not kind.

It’s easy to read this Gospel story, this moment that pits kindness against niceness, and feel a little smug. Feel like we’re securely in Jesus’s corner. We know that healing is more important than decorum. That freedom from bondage matters more than an orderly meeting that sticks to the agenda. We can send a contingent to the PRIDE parade, we can have thoughtful conversations about race and poverty. Well and good.

But, friends, the only reason we can feel smug, receiving this story, is that the niceness that matters to this synagogue leader is not the niceness that matters to us. The things that feel right, and orderly, and appropriate, and familiar, and proper, and safe, to him, are different from the things that feel that way to us. But we have those things. We have our nicenesses, too. And when our sense of nice is threatened, we get indignant. We start saying “ought.”

I think that instead of smugness, this Gospel story invites us into ongoing mild discomfort. The discomfort of realizing that our sense of Nice – and we’re Midwesterners; we’re big on Nice! – does not reliably track with God’s priorities. When something disturbs us, makes us uneasy or indignant, in our daily life or in our wider civic scene, this Gospel urges us to ask ourselves: Does it disturb me because it’s unkind? unjust? unloving? unmerciful? God cares about that, and so should we. Or it disturb us because it’s not nice? Because it violates our sense of respectability, order, and appropriateness?

And if after all it is our sense of nice that’s being challenged – then I think it’s incumbent upon us to hold that lightly. Because niceness can lead us astray. What Would Jesus Do? really can be a helpful question – as long as we remember that Jesus of the Gospels was almost unfailingly kind, but rarely bothered with nice.

Far from an invitation to smugness, this Gospel asks us, Where in our lives, in our world, might God’s holy purposes of healing and freeing from bondage be in tension with our sense of order and propriety? And that is an uncomfortable question.

Sermon, July 3

So this isn’t really a proper sermon, folks – I got back from vacation yesterday…! But as I planned this service I found I had a train of thought that seemed to want sharing.

We live in a cultural context in which religion and politics are understood as different things. That division is NOT intrinsic to the nature of things; in the vast majority of human history and cultures, there has been no clear distinction between religion and politics. But the cultural conditions to draw that distinction arose during the Enlightenment and it became a foundational principal of our nation.

There are really good things about the way religion and politics are legally separated in the United States. It makes it possible to be a pluralistic society, in which Christians and Jews and Muslims and Hindus and Sikhs and agnostics and atheists can all help vision and build the common good.

But I think that distinction can trip us up when it tricks us into thinking that religion is a private thing that only belongs in this 90 minutes on a Sunday morning. That it’s somehow inappropriate to have our faith convictions shape our civic and political engagement, and even more inappropriate to TALK about it – either out there or in here.

I believe that it’s not only appropriate to talk about faith in light of politics and vice versa; it’s necessary, in order for us to be truly faithful.

A couple of years ago I shared with you a sermon by one of the great early 20th century preachers, Harry Emerson Fosdick. It’s a powerful sermon; I re-read it about once a year. But there’s one point in particular that I think about often.

Fosdick, writing in the early years of the Great Depression, speaks to those who say that churches, and preachers, should stick to the spiritual needs of individual souls, and leave the social situation to the politicians and the public square. He is convinced that to talk about the Christian gospel as merely individual and not social is “dangerous nonsense” (his words).

But, he says, up to a point, those who criticize talk about political issues in church have a point. Fosdick writes, “If they mean that when people come to church on Sunday, having lived another week in the hurly-burly of the world, their ears tired with boistrous debate, they are seeking something other than a continuation of the secular dispute, then we had better agree with that. The church has lost its function which forgets how deeply people… need spiritual renewal. [Churches] do sometimes continue the secular debate which the newspapers conduct a great deal better through the week.”

Fosdick’s point is this: We as Christians, we as the Church, have to talk about the same issues being discussed in the public square. But we need to talk about them in a different way, not “continue the newspapers’ secular debate.”

The language we use to talk about any of the big issues affecting the common good and the welfare of our neighbors needs to be different from the language used in the newspapers, or in a flyer someone presses into your hand on a street corner, and, please God, it needs to be different from the way people talk about it in the nastier corners of social media.

In the past few months I’ve had conversations with two of our newer households, people who have come to St. Dunstan’s within the past year.

And they’ve both said that one of the things that’s really important about church for them is that it be a place where people who maybe vote differently, or who maybe vote the same way but for different reasons, people driven by different core concerns, people with different understandings of how best to get from where we are now to where we hope to be –

that all those people can be in genuine fellowship.

Nobody silenced. Nobody ashamed.

I’ve heard those conversations as a nudge from the Holy Spirit – a timely nudge in this election year. I hear a call to passionate nonpartisanship.  Not to avoiding the issues that are so much on our minds and hearts, but to talking about them here DIFFERENTLY than we talk about them at home, or among our circle of friends who all share our views, or on Facebook where you either FORGET that your racist uncle will read that post, or secretly hope he will and think it serves him right if he gets upset.

When other clergy ask me, So what’s the political leaning at St. Dustan’s?, I say, well, it’s probably about 90% progressive, left, liberal, whatever word you choose. And that means two things.

First, it means that that 10% of folks who see some issues in a different light are really really important, so that we don’t become an echo chamber. So that our political and religious views don’t completely collapse into each other. So that we remember to have a different kind of conversation here.

Second, it means that it can be hard to remember that that 10% is here. It can be hard to hold a space where people can ask questions, share experiences, talk about our deep-seated values and how they have been formed.

A call to passionate nonpartisanship. I’m trying to hold that in my mind and my heart, and now I’m passing it on to you, too.

What does that mean? What does it look like? I think that’s something to be discovered in the doing, to an extent.

It might look like gently encouraging ourselves and each other to talk less about what we’re against – which is far too easy – and more about what we’re for.

It might look like gently encouraging ourselves and each other to listen. To ask each other, Where do faith and life and politics intersect, for you?

I dare to hope that listening and reflection, on our own and others’ experiences and convictions, might actually help us feel less overwhelmed, less despairing. Might actually lead us towards more focused and energized action as God’s people in the world.

And above all, passionate nonpartisanship has to look like coming back to the Gospel, again and again and again. Coming back to what we share as disciples of Jesus Christ. As people called to be ambassadors of God’s reconciling love in the world around us.

Homily, May 22

A pretty common question around here, from new members and sometimes not-so-new members, is: Who was Saint Dunstan? Dunstan was a 10th-century English monk and bishop, who was deeply involved in the religious, civic, and cultural rebirth of England after some dark and violent decades. He was born around 910 to an upper-class family in the western town of Glastonbury. Dunstan became a monk as a young man, and was named Abbot of the monastery at Glastonbury in 943 (that’s when we like to say he really started irking the Devil). During a year-long political exile, after one of many disagreements with one king or another, he encountered the revival of Benedictine monasticism that was underway on the Continent at that time. King Edgar called Dunstan back to England in 957, and eventually appointed him Archbishop of Canterbury, head of the English church. In that capacity he spent the rest of his long life striving to renew and develop monasticism in England, based on the Benedictine rule and including both monks and nuns. This work had an impact far beyond the church, which was Dunstan’s intention. He was an immensely important figure in the process of cultural and political stabilization and centralization in tenth-century England. He is said to have been an artist and craftsman, and known to have been a writer of manuscripts. The image of St. Dunstan that dwells with our crowd of saints around the baptismal font is from the Glastonbury Classbook, an Anglo-Saxon religious text that may well have been written (and drawn) in part by Dunstan himself. It is possible that the monk kneeling at the feet of Christ in that image is a self-portrait by Dunstan’s own hand.

For the past couple of years we’ve done a really delightful little poem-pantomime about Dunstan’s legendary encounter with the devil. It’s good fun, but it’s basically fiction. What I love about Jane Maher’s play, that we are doing this year, is that it actually gives you some history and a little sense of Dunstan’s significance.

I think Dunstan’s life and witness are especially instructive to us in the seasons when politics are on our minds. He lived his life and vocation at the intersection of faith and politics. That’s why I chose this Gospel for our celebration of his feast day. The recommended Gospel for Dunstan’s feast is a text from Matthew, about the faithful steward who keeps watch while the master is away, and that’s nice too. But in the “Render unto Caesar” story, Jesus calls our attention to the distinction between what is Caesar’s and what is God’s; between human political agendas and God’s agenda. And that is the core of Dunstan’s life. Let me offer two brief points for reflection, on this feast of St. Dunstan.

First and most fundamentally, the witness of Dunstan’s life points us towards faithful engagement with the public issues of our time and place. Dunstan’s commitment to monasticism wasn’t a retreat from the world; far from it. In Dunstan’s time the common people were uneducated, poor, harassed by bandits, cheated by merchants, oppressed by the landed aristocracy. Rule of law and civil society were almost nonexistent. Dunstan and the other great bishops of his time believed deeply that the flourishing of the English people would be best served by the cultivation of monastic centers, whose prayers, teaching, and care for the common folk would be a stabilizing and improving force.

Dunstan lived in a very different time than ours, but maybe it’s not as different as we think it is. And despite all the talk about the decline of religion in America, churches – and nonprofits and volunteer agencies full of church folks – play a huge role in support and advocacy for the most vulnerable folks of our era. Dunstan’s insight – that effective, well-ordered, engaged religious communities can be the foundation and watchdog of a just society – is just as true today as it was in the tenth century. Organized religion still has a huge role to play in American civic life, if we step up to it.

Second, the witness of Dunstan’s life calls us to reflect on just how much God’s agenda can be pursued through human politics – and how much God’s agenda has to be pursued by faithful people regardless of the ups and downs, the rights and lefts of our political processes and institutions. Dunstan was a consummate pragmatist. He pursued his vision and calling with the help of friendly kings, and against the opposition of unfriendly ones. He had to find ways to advance his agenda under all circumstances. He had to work with the system as it was as in order to inch it closer to the system he hoped it could be.

Civic engagement doesn’t mean we forget the difference between God and Caesar. We’re most likely to forget that difference when someone we really like is on the ballot. But no human election will ever usher in God’s kingdom of justice, mercy, and peace. Human political agendas and God’s agenda can overlap, for sure; but those overlaps are always temporary and partial. If we can keep that in mind, and keep our eyes on God’s purposes for the world, then maybe our civic and political engagement can be as clear-sighted and stubborn as Dunstan’s was.

May the spirit of Dunstan, that wise and pugnacious bishop, guide and inspire us in this season and in all highly-charged political seasons. May his life remind us to be mindful of the difference between God and Caesar, and yet, to work and pray faithfully for the good of the city, the nation, and the world where we dwell. Amen.

Maundy Thursday Homily

Relations between blacks and whites are tense. Systemic racism and its deep patterns of inequality and injustice are driving protests among black folk and their white allies, demands for profound and substantive change, demands that many white Americans find terrifying. Relationships between the police and African-American communities are particularly fraught – police are seen not as allies in dealing with the crime that goes hand-in-hand with extreme poverty, but as part of the system of oppression. There is deep mistrust in both directions, and often violence, in both directions. In some places police force is used to subdue and discourage protesters, making the police seem less like servants of the people and more like guardians of an unjust status quo.

The year is 1968.

And in a Presbyterian church in Pittsburgh, two men are making friends. One of them is a young black man with an extraordinary voice. He dreams of becoming a professional singer. But he grew up in the ghetto and has already overcome huge odds to get this far; he isn’t even sure he can make rent next month.

The other man is white. He’s forty – the age, I like to think, when our youthful idealism and our mature pragmatism begin to find a fruitful balance. He is, in fact, an ordained Presbyterian minister, but he’s just attending church, not serving as a pastor, because he has a full-time job as a TV star. His name is Fred Rogers.

Who here has never seen Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood?… It was a children’s television show, with this man who talked to the TV as if he were talking to a child, and invited us into adventures with his puppet friends. Sing it with me, folks: “Let’s make the most of this beautiful day; since we’re together, we might as well say, Would you be my, could you be my, won’t you be my neighbor?”

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

But sometime along the road, we all started to get it. Maybe it was his death in 2003 that finally made us all re-assess. Maybe it’s the quotations that circulate on Facebook. Something made us all take a better look and realize that Fred Rogers was the real thing, an honest-to-God saint walking among us, preaching basic human decency on syndicated television, no less.

So. Back to 1968. Fred Rogers hears this young man, Francois Clemmons, sing at church. They become friends. And Mr. Rogers asks Clemmons to come on his show. He said, “I have this idea. You could be a police officer.” Clemmons was not enthusiastic. Where he came from, the cops were not friendly neighbors. In a recent StoryCorps interview, he said, “Policemen were siccing police dogs and water hoses on people [at that time]. So I was not excited about being Officer Clemmons at all.”

Still – there was the rent to pay. Clemmons eventually said yes. He would serve as Officer Clemmons in occasional appearances on the show for 25 years – while living out his dream of being a professional singer.

Reminiscing about his years on the show, Clemmons recalled a particular scene early on, in an episode that aired in 1969. Rogers was sitting in his back yard resting his feet in a plastic wading pool, as relief on a hot summer day. Officer Clemmons stopped by, and Rogers invited him to come rest his feet in the water too, which he did. You can find a photo online, these two grown men sitting next to each other with their shoes and socks off and their pant legs rolled up and their feet in this wading pool. It’s the sweetest, dorkiest thing. And – it was kind of radical.

The first interracial kiss on television was in a Star Trek episode in 1968, just a year earlier. White flesh and black flesh sharing space was still a big deal. (It still is, sometimes, some places, in America; let’s not kid ourselves.) During the 1950s, groups of black and white folks together had worked to integrate Pittsburgh’s public pools, in a united effort supported by the NAACP, the Urban League of Pittsburgh, and the Pittsburgh Presbytery – the church jurisdiction that ordained Fred Rogers in 1962. Still, as late as 1962, a city pool in Pittsburgh, where Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was filmed, had a sign outside saying “No dogs or niggers allowed.” 

So this kiddie pool in Mr. Rogers’ TV back yard, with black feet and white feet in the same water – that, even that, would have pushed some folks’ buttons.

And then it was time for Officer Clemmons to get on with his children’s television show police officer duties. So Fred Rogers got down on his knees with a towel and dried Clemmons’ feet. One a time. I haven’t found footage, but I’m sure he did it with his usual deliberateness and gentleness.

Recalling the scene, Clemmons used the word “icon.” An icon: a holy image that shows us something about the divine, in visual form. Clemmons says, “I think [Rogers] was making a very strong statement. That was his way.”

I don’t know how much I really need to connect the dots here. There’s that word, icon, that Clemmons uses – a holy image that reveals the Divine. There’s Fred Rogers, a disciple of Jesus, actively striving to bear witness to God’s love in simple humble ways that even a child can understand, casting a black man as a friendly policeman and then kneeling to wipe his feet dry, on national TV. There’s Jesus on his knees, towel in hand, telling his friends, You need to let me do this for you. And you need to do this for one another.

In the interview, Clemmons shared another memory – an ordinary day on the set of the long-running show. Rogers wrapped up the program, as he always did, by hanging up his famous cardigan sweater and saying, “You make every day a special day just by being you, and I like you just the way you are.” Clemmons was standing around off-camera, and this time, Rogers looked right at him as he spoke. Once the cameras were off, Clemmons walked over and asked him, “Fred, were you talking to me?” Rogers answered, “Yes, I have been talking to you for years. But you heard me today.”

Honoring the Holy Innocents

IMG_9425The Feast of the Holy Innocents has largely been dropped from observance in the Episcopal Church. It’s a sad and grisly story, and rubs up uncomfortably against the obligatory joyfulness of Christmas and the impulse to take it easy for a while, in every possible sense, right after Christmas. I don’t know quite what led me to take a second look at this story, this year, and to decide to tell it after all – and to the children of the parish, no less. For one thing, I have a contrarian aversion to the practice of just ignoring the parts of Scripture that we find difficult or unpleasant. So while I feel the tension in holding up this story of murdered children as the coda to the Nativity, I also think there’s a deep truth and wisdom in its placement there that we may be missing. I’ve vaguely felt that way for several years. Then sometime before Christmas this year, I ran across the custom of blessing the children of the church (and, more, commending the practice of asking God’s blessing for our children and loved ones, to all our members) on the Feast of the Holy Innocents. I found that a beautiful and worthwhile custom, and it needs the story as explanation. So I drafted this. And then on Sunday morning between services, I pulled together some items to construct a simple prayer station to go with the story. After the Post-Communion  Prayer, I invited the kids – about eight of them, ages 3 to 10 – to meet me at the chancel steps and talk about this story. 

It all went fine. Nobody burst into tears. I talked with a few parents afterwards and they voiced some of the same convictions I hold, as both a parent and a person charged with the faith formation of other people’s kids: If we act like all the stories of faith are happy stories where good things happen to good people, then the faith we teach has little to do with the actual world in which we live. Kids, even quite young kids, know that bad things happen, that children get hurt or killed, that sometimes kings are evil. Let’s be brave enough to let Scripture speak in our churches with at least as much drama and danger as a Disney movie. 

I have a story for you guys.  The bad news is that it’s a scary, sad story; the good news is that it’s just a story.  To understand it we have to go ALL the way back to Moses.  Remember Moses? Remember baby Moses in the basket in the river?… Why was he in the basket?…  [We talked over that story a little bit.]

Matthew, who wrote one of our Gospels,  knew that story about Moses. And Matthew wanted the people who read his Gospel to see that Jesus is like another Moses – a great leader who calls his people into a new way of living with God.  So there are lots of little things that Matthew put into his Gospel, his story of the life of Jesus,  to make you think about Moses, and how Jesus is like Moses. And one of those things is a story about a bad, cruel king, King Herod, and how he was just like Pharaoh.  Matthew tells us that King Herod heard  that a baby had been born in Bethlehem who would become a king.  He didn’t know that Jesus was going to be a different kind of king; he thought Jesus might try to take his throne, someday. So he sent his soldiers to Bethlehem  to kill all the baby boys there.  But Joseph was warned in a dream,  so he took Mary and baby Jesus  and they ran away into Egypt to hide, and were safe.

It’s a scary story, isn’t it? But like I said: it’s probably just a story. King Herod was a bad, cruel king, and he did some pretty bad things, that ancient historians wrote about. But only Matthew tells this story, the story of the Holy Innocents, and people who study the Bible think that Matthew probably made up this story to make us think of Moses and of how he was saved, in Egypt, when all the other baby boys were being killed.  So baby Jesus escaping with his family is like baby Moses in his basket on the river Nile.

But stories are powerful even when they aren’t history. And of course there really are bad, cruel leaders in the world, and there really are children who live with danger, every day. So let’s create an altar to pray for those children. First, a red cloth – this is actually a chasuble. We use this color in church when we are remembering somebody who died for God. Next, a crown for King Herod and Pharaoh and all the kings of the earth. Next, a sword, for all the violence in our world. (NB: I asked a three-year-old girl to place the sword on the altar, guessing – rightly – that she would resist the temptation to start swinging it around.) Now, some of the sheep from our Nativity set. Lambs are a sign of children and innocence. Next, a cross, as a sign of life coming out of death. And finally, a candle in a dove-shaped holder, as a sign of hope and peace.

Now let’s pray for all those children in danger in the world.

Loving God, we remember before you the children whom Herod slew in his jealous rage, and all children of the world who face fear and danger. We ask that your love will enfold, protect, and comfort them, and we call on you to strengthen the hands of those who work for to ensure that all God’s children have safety, kindness, and hope. Amen.

One of the ways Christians have handled this hard story, over the centuries, is to use it as a time to bless their children.  Not just to have them blessed in church by the priest – that’s me –  but to learn the habit of blessing them at home –  at bedtime, before school, whatever. And remember kids need blessing not just by moms and dads, but by grandmas and grandpas, aunts and uncles, godparents and teachers and close grownup friends.  I’m going to teach you a simple blessing now.  You can use it for any of your loved ones. May God bless you,  and be the guardian of your body, mind, and heart.  Turn to your friend and trace a cross on his forehead and say,  May God bless you,  and be the guardian of your body, mind, and heart.

And I say it now to all of you: May God bless you and be the guardian of your body, mind, and heart! Amen.

Sermon, Dec. 13

Homily for our Service of Lessons & Music on the life of John the Baptist, December 13, 2015

It’s been a hard few weeks, in the world. Violence at home and abroad. Racist and inflammatory rhetoric in the public square. Anguish about our environment. I’ve heard a number of folks saying, I’m having a hard time with Advent this year. I’m having a hard time finding hope, trusting the promises. Can God’s light dawn in times this dark?

And I’ve heard other folks say, But that’s just what Advent is – that’s what Advent is for. A season to look around with open eyes – to see the struggle, to hear the clamor, and to know: God loves anyway. God redeems anyway. The years when the world’s brokenness weighs heavy on our hearts and minds – those are the years when we experience Advent most truly and fully.

Alfred Delp described Advent as not just a season in the church, but a season in the life of the world. He wrote about it from a Nazi prison in 1944. I stumbled on Alfred Delp’s essay on Advent in this book –Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas. My first thought was, Sheesh, the essay for December 5 is really long. Then I read it. Then I thought, This is a sermon, and I want to preach it.

So I’m going to read you part of it – Delp’s words on Advent, and on John the Baptist as one of the central figures of Advent.

First, a few more words about Delp. He was 37 when he died, executed by the Nazi regime for speaking his convictions, not unlike John the Baptist. He had been a teacher in Jesuit schools since his youth. During the early part of World War II, he worked at a Jesuit magazine until the Nazis shut it down, then served two churches in Munich, where he was part of the network that secretly helped Jews escape from Germany. Delp was arrested in July 1944, in the crackdown on the Catholic resistance to the Nazis that followed an attempt to assassinate Hitler. Though he hadn’t been involved in the plot, Delp was convicted of treason and sentenced to death. He spent six months in prison, during which he wrote this essay on Advent, among other spiritual writings. On December 8, a Jesuit leader came to visit Delp in prison and received his final monastic vows, completing his commitment to the Order. Delp was executed by hanging on February 2, 1945. On his way to the gallows, he turned to the prison chaplain and whispered, “In half an hour, I’ll know more than you do.”

In Delp’s essay on Advent you’ll hear that he sees God as the source of the chaos and darkness of the times, at least to some degree. Here he stands firmly in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets, who tell Israel again and again that her struggles are a message from God – that if the rulers had been just and righteous, if the people had been faithful, then these calamities would not have fallen upon them. I am hesitant to say that the tragedies and brutalities of World War II represented God’s desire for humanity in any way. But Delp and the prophets who went before him have always faithfully named a simple and lasting truth: when we go wrong, things go wrong for us. Sometimes in big dramatic obvious ways, sometimes in subtle long-term ways. Call it God’s will, call it natural consequences, but when we, as a people, tolerate or even choose paths that lead us away from mercy, justice, righteousness, and peace,  when we go wrong, things go wrong for us.

Here are Delp’s words on Advent, and on John.

Rev. Miranda read portions of the introduction and the section on John the Baptist from Alfred Delp’s essay “The Shaking Reality of Advent.” A portion of the essay may be read online here. 

Sermon, Dec. 6

There are probably a dozen or more people in this congregation who have had this experience in the past 18 months:  getting into a conversation with me about matters of faith… suffering… God… Jesus…  and having me thrust a book into your hands: always the same book – Francis Spufford’s book Unapologetic. The subtitle is, “Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense.”

One of the things I really love about Spufford’s take on faith is that he immediately moves the conversation away from belief, and towards emotion. He diagnoses – accurately, I believe – that in our post-Enlightenment cultural context, we think belief is something that happens in your brain. That to believe something means that we agree with it intellectually. Sure, the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides of the triangle. Sure, Jesus Christ rose from the dead and ascended to a heavenly throne.

Spufford says, that’s not really what’s going on inside a Christian. It’s not that our doctrines, our teachings don’t matter, but the heart of our faith is really about… well, about the heart. About emotion, the ways we experience and respond to the world and other people. That really rings true for me – and I heard it in our focus group conversations about faith in daily life last summer, too. We know ourselves most as people of faith in our frustrated patience as we struggle to deal with difficult people; in our grief and anger in the face of catastrophe and injustice in the world; in the love we give and receive in this community, and the other communities which we call home.

Today’s Scripture lessons point us towards one of the key Christian emotions, an orientation of the heart that makes us and marks us as God’s people: Hope.

Hope. From the German root, hoffen. Meaning, Confidence in the future; expectation of something desired; trust in God. The Latin verb is spero, meaning to hope, expect, assume, await, anticipate.  Our English words despair and desperate both come from that Latin root, spero… to despair, to be desperate, is to have fallen from hope, lost hope.

People often name hope as one of the themes of Advent as a season. Let’s look at what today’s Scripture lessons say about hope, this quality of the heart that I think is one of our hallmarks as people of faith.

The book of Baruch is written in the name of Baruch, who was the assistant of the prophet Jeremiah. Its premise is that it contains the proclamations of Baruch, now become a prophet in his own right, to the people Israel during their exile in Babylon. It’s possible that some parts of the text go back that far, but most of it seems to have been composed much later, perhaps about 150 years before Jesus’ birth. During the brief period when Israel was again an independent kingdom, a time of religious and political renewal, before Rome conquered Judea in 63 BCE. The minds and hearts that composed and edited this text, then, were seeking meaning in the cycle of loss and restoration that Israel had experienced, again and again. Conquest, then freedom. Exile, then return. Destruction, then restoration. Perhaps these words were written in one of the good times, to hold close when the bad times roll around again, as they will, as they do.

The voice of the text explains Israel’s struggles and losses as the result of their failure to stay faithful to their God. Baruch says, You were conquered and taken away into exile because you worshipped other gods and forgot to live with mercy and justice. But then the text turns towards consolation – towards hope. Your God, the God who called you into covenant and made you God’s people,  has not forgotten you, still loves you, and will bring you home and restore you.

Chapter 4, just before today’s passage, has a wonderful refrain: “Take courage, my children, cry to God, and God will deliver you from the power and hand of the enemy. For I have put my hope in the Everlasting to save you, and joy has come to me from the Holy One… Take courage, my children, and cry to God, for you will be remembered by the one who brought this upon you. … Take courage, O Jerusalem, for the one who named you will comfort you. …”

Today’s passage concludes this message of hope: “Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God…. Arise, O Jerusalem, stand upon the height; look toward the east, and see your children gathered from west and east at the word of the Holy One, rejoicing that God has remembered them…. God will lead Israel with joy, in the light of divine glory, with the mercy and righteousness that come from God.”

That image of looking to the east for the dawn of God’s salvation shows up again in another text we use in this season –  the Song of Zechariah from the Gospel of Luke, which our Church names as a canticle, a holy song of faith. We’ll hear it next week as we hear the story of Zechariah, Elizabeth, and their son, John the Baptist; and it’s quoted into the bidding to the Peace that we use in this season – “In the tender mercy of our God, the Dawn from on high shall break upon us, to give light to those who dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

The hope of the Bible, the hope of Advent, isn’t the happy-go-lucky hope of someone who assumes good things will happen because good things always happen. It’s the hard-won, courageous, improbable hope of people who have seen their soldiers cut down, their children starve, who’ve been marched away from their homeland in chains. The hope of people living under unjust and corrupt rule. Dwelling in darkness and the shadow of death, indeed, yet still looking to the east, awaiting the dawn of grace.

The introduction to the letter to the Philippians is another text of hope. Paul was in prison when he wrote this letter – and possibly on his final journey to Rome, anticipating his trial and execution for preaching Christianity. He’s upfront about his circumstances, but with typical Pauline badassery, he expresses confidence that his struggles will only inspire more believers – here are the verses that immediately follow today’s text: “I want you to know, beloved ones, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear.” And a little later, in chapter 2: “Even if I am being poured out, like oil or wine poured over a sacrificial offering on the altar, I am glad and rejoice with all of you.”

He reminds the people of the church in Philippi to stay faithful. To take care of each other.  To hold fast to the word of Life. To rejoice in the Lord always, and not worry about anything, but offer up their needs in prayer. In short… to keep on keeping on, as people of hope.

And then there’s today’s Gospel. We’ll focus on John next Sunday – John the Baptist, the prophet, the forerunner. I want to point instead to the first couple of verses – the verses which locate this story in time and place. “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”

Those verses are easy to overlook – let the Bible scholars worry about all that! But I think there’s something important here, as Luke anchors the Gospel he proclaims in a particular moment, a particular situation. God’s word arrives … NOW. God’s dawn breaks… HERE.

And here we are, right here, right now, in the seventh year of the reign of President Obama, when Scott Walker was Governor of Wisconsin, and Michael Curry was Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. Where is hope showing up, now? What does hope look like, here? Where are you looking to spot the first rays of God’s dawn?

Our scriptures, our liturgies, our creeds and seasons seek to shape us as people of hope. To plant and nurture hope within us, as one of the fundamental marks of God’s people, a defining and necessary Christian emotion. What does hope feel like, inside of you? What keeps your feet on the ground, what keeps your heart from flying into bits, in the face of the latest piece of bad news, and the ongoing grinding bitter realities of life in these times?

I meant to preach a more concrete sermon than this. I meant to tell you what hope is and how to have it. But when I set out to write, I found that harder than I expected. Hope is hard to define; it resists being packaged or sold.

The early Christian theologian Tertullian said, Hope is patience with the lamp lit. Hope is patience with the lamp lit. Patience… plus something bright, burning, urgent. I like that.

The fictional spaceship pilot Han Solo said, Never tell me the odds. I like that, too.

The 19th century poet Emily Dickinson said, Hope is a thing with feathers that perches in the soul –  and sings the tune without the words – and never stops – at all – And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard – And sore must be the storm that could abash the little Bird that kept so many warm.

What helps you have hope? Most of us have been through seasons of life when hope was a struggle. Maybe some of us are in a season like that now. Do you, like the Book of Baruch, take notes in the good times, when you’ve come through the storm, to hold close when the bad times roll around again? As they will, as they do?

What helps you have hope? I hope that this place – these people – what we do here – is on your list. Helping you have hope is part of my calling, my work, and the work of this community of faith.

I watched something this week – I bet some of you saw it too – that put it into words so beautifully. It’s a conversation between a man named Angel, and his son, Brandon, who is six. They were interviewed a day after the Paris attacks, near one of the sites of the violence.

Little Brandon told the reporter, ‘We have to be really careful and maybe move away…’ and his father, Angel, spoke up gently to say, ‘We don’t have to move out. France is our home.’

Brandon said, ‘But there’s bad guys, daddy. They have guns, they can shoot us.’

And Angel replied, ‘It’s OK, they might have guns but we have flowers.’

Brandon was not reassured; he said, ‘But flowers don’t do anything.’

And Angle answered, ‘Of course they do, look, everyone is putting flowers over there. It’s to fight against guns.’

Brandon said, ‘It’s to protect us?’

Angel said, ‘Exactly.’

Brandon asked, ‘And the candles too?’

And Angel said, ‘The flowers and the candles are here to protect us.’

The flowers and the candles are here to protect us. Not from bad guys but from fear, which is more destructive than any bad guy could ever be.  The flowers and the candles are here to give hope, to sustain hope. So are the bells, and beautiful colors. The songs, and the way it feels to raise our voices together, that’s to protect us too. The bread and the wine, and that solemn beautiful face up there. They’re here to protect us. We’re here to protect each other from despair and desperation, which both mean, loss of hope. We’re here to be made and remade as people who watch and wait for the first beams of God’s dawn, breaking over the here and now. We’re here to be, and become, people of hope.

Take courage, children!

Vestry & Parish Goals, ’15-’16

Leadership Goals for the Year Ahead, as discerned by the Vestry of St. Dunstan’s at our Workday on May 31, 2015

The Vestry offer these to the parish in the hopes that others will join us in taking on these goals, identifying areas of opportunity or challenge in the life of our parish in relation to these goals, and sharing the work of moving together in these hopeful and holy directions. We expect these goals to guide our work through the spring of 2016, and perhaps beyond.

1. Deepen our mutual life of prayer.

We will look for ways to deepen our life of mutual prayer, and to extend it to the wider community.

Some possibilities for pursuing this goal:

  • explore weekday prayer, in person and/or virtual
  • explore fresh approaches to the prayer list
  • explore seeking prayer requests from neighbors

2. Move some recurring tasks from Work towards Ministry. 

We will give thoughtful attention to some of the areas in our common life where a person or ministry is often recruiting or going short-handed, such as grounds work, coffee hour, Sunday school helpers; and others which may come to our attention. We will explore how to re-engineer the work itself so that perhaps it is less, and simpler; and then how to re-market the tasks as easy-entry, low-commitment ministry opportunities.

These goals are intentionally broad and open-ended. We hope for input, ideas, and help from members of the parish (and beyond!) to help us put them into practice. 

Sermon, August 9

Almighty and everlasting God, who didst enkindle the flame of thy love in the heart of thy holy martyr Jonathan: Grant to us, thy humble servants, a like faith and power of love, that we who rejoice in his triumph may profit by his example; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

One of the interesting questions I get, now and then, from folks who have come to the Episcopal Church from other traditions, is: How do y’all handle the matter of saints? As a church, we have a calendar of commemorations, people to honor on particular days of the church year. And at St. Dunstan’s, we’ve got our little wall of holy people, back there overlooking the baptismal font; our iconostasis, the name they use in the Orthodox churches. In a couple of months we’ll celebrate All Saints’ Day, one of the great feasts of the Christian year. So clearly we have some practice of honoring saints, more so than most Protestant churches. But the definition of a saint, what makes somebody a saint, is nowhere near as clear as it is, for example, for our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters.

We Episcopalians and Anglicans tend to live with, and in, the tension between the two ancient definitions of sainthood. The one we see in the New Testament, which uses “saints” to mean the whole fellowship of believers, called and holy. And the one that evolved in the early centuries of the church, which uses “saints” to mean those special individuals whose lives and often deaths bore witness in a particular way to their faith, virtue, and courage. Our church’s Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music, the body that oversees our calendar of commemorations, has been wrestling with this conundrum for several years, trying to find a clear and theologically-grounded way to explain why we name and set apart certain people for remembrance, while we still affirm that every Christian life can and should show forth the love of God in Christ Jesus. The Commission’s solution is to hold up the idea of witness. That the people we hold up and honor are people who demonstrated, lived out, witnessed to their faith, in a way worth honoring and remembering. In a way that may inspire us as we strive to live our faith in the face of today’s challenges.

The introduction to our latest volume of commemorations, called “A Great Cloud of Witnesses,” says, “Following the broad stream of Christian tradition, there are no formal criteria for defining saints. Rather, sanctity is celebrated locally by a decision that [certain] individuals… shine forth Christ to the world… As illustrations, they mirror the myriad virtues of Christ, in order that, in their examples, we might recognize those same virtues and features of holiness in people closer to our own times and stations and neighborhoods. And, seeing them in those around us, we may be more able to cultivate these virtues and forms of holiness—through grace—as we strive to imitate Christ as well.”

Today I’ve got a new picture to add to our wall, our iconostasis. (No, it’s not Art Lloyd, though it’s a kindred spirit.) This is Jonathan Myrick Daniels – known to his friends as Jon. He died fifty years ago this month, on August 20, 1965. His feast day on our calendar is August 14, the date of his arrest. Jon was born in 1939 in Keene, New Hampshire. He became Episcopalian as a young man, after struggling with faith in his teens. He attended the Virginia Military Institute, where he was valedictorian of his graduating class in 1961. He received a fellowship to study English literature at Harvard, but he discerned a call to ordained ministry and left Harvard to study at my alma mater, the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, then known as ETS.

In 1965, Jon Daniels was 26, and America was torn by a deepening struggle over civil rights. In March of ’65, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called for people to come to Alabama to help, to stand with African-Americans in their fight for freedom. Who went to see the movie Selma, earlier this year? On March 7, civil rights activists had tried to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, as the first step of a march to state capitol in Montgomery to highlight the disenfranchisement of African American voters. As you may have seen in the movie – or, for some of you, on the news, fifty years ago -the marchers were beaten back by so-called law enforcement. King’s call was for allies, black and especially white, to join the marchers for a second attempt.

Dr. King’s call was much-discussed at ETS. One day at Evening Prayer in St. John’s Chapel – where today there hangs an icon of Jon Daniels, surrounded by other martyrs of the world’s long struggle for freedom and equality – during Evening Prayer, Jon heard the Magnificat, Mary’s prayer of joy and hope. And it spoke to his heart in a new way, a transformative way. He wrote later: “As the lovely hymn of the God-bearer continued, I found myself peculiarly alert, suddenly straining toward the decisive, luminous, Spirit-filled “moment”… Then it came. ‘He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek…’ I knew then that I must go to Selma.”

Jon joined a group of other ETS students on a weekend trip to Alabama, to help with community organizing work there. But Jon missed the bus home – and took that as a sign that he should stay longer. His friend Judith Upham, who took this photo of Jon, back at ETS, wrote later about how they spent their time: “After the march, Jon and I just hung around, doing what we could to help.” If a demonstration needed marchers, they marched. They helped students complete college applications, played with children, helped voter-registration efforts, visited schools. They attended the local Episcopal church every Sunday and spent about an hour each week lobbying the rector to act, without success. Upham says, “He was too steeped in the ways of the South, and he had his job to consider.” Upham concluded, “We were in our 20s, young and naïve, assuming that if people knew the right thing to do, they would do it.” It also was, she said, “one of the few times in my life I was 100 percent positive that I was doing what God wanted me to do. If it cost me my life, that was all right. After all, there are worse things than death.”

On Aug 13, 1965, Jon Daniels, with about 30 others, went to Ft. Deposit, AL, a small rural town, to picket segregated businesses. On Aug 14, they were all arrested, and taken to the nearby Hainesville jail. They were held for 6 days. On August 20, they were released with no warning – meaning there was no ally ready to pick them up and take them to safer territory. Friends have described it as a set-up. It was a hot bright day, 100 degrees, and a sense of danger hung heavy around. A small group – Jon Daniels, a white Roman Catholic priest, and two black protesters – approached a small store, hoping to buy a cold drink. They were met at the door by Tom Coleman, an unofficial sheriff’s deputy, wielding a shotgun. Words were exchanged. He threatened them, then pointed the gun at one of the black protesters, a young woman named Ruby Sales. Jon Daniels stepped between Ruby and the gun. Coleman fired. And on a dusty road in Hainesville, Alabama, Jon Daniels gave his life for a friend, for the world, for Christ.

Jesus says, The bread that I give for the life of the world is my flesh.

The author of the letter to the Ephesians says, Be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

In the weeks before his death, Jon Daniels wrote, “I lost fear… when I began to know in my Bones and sinews that I had been truly baptized into the Lord’s death and Resurrection, that in the only sense that really matters I am already dead, and my life is hid with Christ in God.”

The shooter, Coleman, got off on self-defense, through an absurd claim that Daniels had pulled a knife. But Jon’s death drew national attention to the protests. In particular, it mobilized the Episcopal Church to engage the civil rights movement, to take seriously the struggle for freedom and justice, and join God’s work by supporting that struggle. Jonathan Daniels is still remembered and honored for having shown the church where to stand – as close as possible to those facing unjust oppression. Judith Upham said later, “I know that Jon’s legacy made a huge difference in theological education,… in terms of how do we practice what we say we believe.”

Why honor, why remember Jon Daniels? There are a lot of names on our calendar of witnesses. Most of them don’t get a Sunday sermon, in this church or any church. Jon Daniels became an important witness for me for various reasons – a fellow alumnus of my seminary, and a child of New Hampshire, where I served for three years. But I think there are good reasons to hold up his witness. Not just because Miranda likes him, but because his story indeed speaks to the ongoing struggles of our time and place.

I preached about Jon three years ago, in 2012. It was interesting looking back at that sermon. I alluded to the ongoing existence of racial inequity, but my only concrete example was the shootings at the Sikh temple. We continue to see the murder of those who seem racially or ethnically other, around our country. But since 2012 we have also become much more keenly aware of the real and lasting and life-compromising forms that structural racism takes right here, in our beautiful, beloved Madison.

The Race to Equity report, released in 2013, showed us a stunning reality. The United States has some of the worst racial disparities in the world, measured in things like differences in arrest and incarceration rates and educational outcomes across racial groups. Wisconsin has some of the worst disparities in the nation; and Madison has some of the worst disparities in the state. What that means, friends, is that by some measures, Madison has one of the biggest gaps in wellbeing, opportunity, and quality of life between racial groups, and especially between whites and blacks, of anyplace in the world.

And it’s not just that communities of color here fare about the same as communities of color elsewhere, and that the gulf exists because Madison is such a great place for white people. No. The data show that Madison is an actively bad place to be African-American. Jobless rates, poverty rates, and other measures of wellbeing for African-Americans in Dane County are all markedly worse than national averages for the same population.

I know that it continues to be uncomfortable, for some of you, to hear these issues held up in a sermon, as demanding Christian engagement and response. I truly honor that each of us has to work out for ourselves where the rubber of the Gospel gets traction on the roads of our lives, and when, where, and how we’re called to live out the faith we claim. At the same time, the many discomforts that the issues of racial equity stir up for us may be discomforts with which we need to get comfortable. Because racial inequality and systemic racism have been identified by our denomination and diocese as matters of urgency for our common life as followers of Jesus.

Our General Convention, our church’s legislative gathering, which met earlier this summer, passed a resolution [A182] that acknowledged that many Episcopalians find it challenging to understand or know how to respond to systemic racial injustices; that affirmed that the Gospel, our Baptismal Covenant, and the Five Marks of Marks of Mission call the Church and its members at every level to find more effective and productive ways to respond to racial injustice as we love our neighbors as ourselves, respect the dignity of every human being, and seek to transform unjust structures of society; that directs the Church at every level to commit to further study, teaching, training, and shared prayer and practice that specifically addresses racial injustice; and urges the Church at every level to increased engagement with civic conversations about racial injustice. Our Convention also committed two million dollars to this work, over the next three years.

I do believe, wholeheartedly, that this is one of the great projects – possibly THE great project – that God has for God’s churches in this nation, in this time: striving for more fairness and flourishing for all God’s children, and especially for African-Americans, who have struggled under the burden of racism in its many forms for so long. I also believe, wholeheartedly, that not everybody here is called into that work; and that even for those who are, there are many ways and levels at which to engage. A life like Jon Daniels’ draws our eyes and minds and hearts to the urgency and depth of the matter; it doesn’t lay out a course to follow or a model against which to measure ourselves. Being called into engagement with the corporate sin of structural racism doesn’t mean being called to take a bullet.

And here I’d like to circle back around to the ambiguity of sainthood. Earlier I named two types of saints: ordinary saints like all of us, claimed and called by God to live out holiness in our own simple and humble ways; and extraordinary saints like Daniels, who lived and died publicly, powerfully, prophetically, as witnesses to the love and mercy and justice of God. It turns out that the line between those kinds of saints, those definitions of sainthood, that line is much finer than it seems, once we’ve packaged up those extraordinary lives and put them in the pages of a book.

Jon wrote a lot, during his time in Alabama. About what he was doing and thinking and feeling. And his journals reveal a young man who was both extraordinary and ordinary. Who found the work of following the Gospel sometimes exciting and sometimes boring; sometimes clear-cut and sometimes messy; sometimes joyful and sometimes heartbreaking; sometimes remarkable and sometimes trivial.

Listen to Jon’s own words about the ambiguity and necessity of sainthood… “There are good [people] here, just as there are bad [people]. There are competent leaders and a bungler here and there. We have activists who risk their lives to confront a people with the challenge of freedom, and a nation with its conscience. We have neutralists who cautiously seek to calm troubled waters. We have [people] about the work of reconciliation who are willing to reflect upon the cost and pay it. Perhaps at one time or another, the two of us are all of these. Sometimes we take to the streets, sometimes we yawn through interminable meetings, sometimes we talk with [other white folks] in their homes and offices… sometimes we confront the posse, and sometimes we hold a child. Sometimes we stand with men who have learned to hate, and sometime we must stand a little apart from them. Our lives in Selma are filled with ambiguity. We are beginning to see the world as we never saw it before. We are truly in the world, and yet ultimately not of it. For through the bramble bush of doubt and fear and supposed success we are groping our way to the realization that above all else, we are called to be saints. That is the mission of the Church everywhere. And in this, Selma, Alabama, [and Madison, Wisconsin] is like all the world: it needs the life and witness of militant Saints.”

When Jon delivered the valedictory speech at the Virginia Military Institute in 1961, an official introduced him, saying, “This young man has not only been outstanding as a member of the cadet corps, he is an outstanding man, and you will hear of him later on, as the years go on.” Jon ended his speech with a few words for his classmates that I’d like to claim, and offer, as his words to us. He said, “My colleagues and friends, I wish you the joy of a purposeful life. I wish you the decency and the integrity of which you are capable. I wish you new worlds and the vision to see them.”

Let us pray.

O God of justice and compassion, you put down the proud and mighty from their place, and lift up the poor and the afflicted: we give you thanks for your faithful witness Jonathan Myrick Daniels, who, in the midst of injustice and violence, risked and gave his life for another; and we pray that we, following his example, may make no peace with oppression, and may live with purpose, decency, and integrity, striving to bring into being the new world of God’s justice and mercy; through Jesus Christ the just one, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Sources:

A detailed account of Jon’s arrest and death 

The Race to Equity report

Judith Upham shares some memories

A collection of Jon’s writings from his time in Alabama

Jon’s valedictory speech