Here is a recording of our StoryChurch story from July 5. The story is adapted from “Diddy Disciples,” by Sharon Moughtin-Mumby.
Here is a recording of our StoryChurch story from July 5. The story is adapted from “Diddy Disciples,” by Sharon Moughtin-Mumby.
Today is the feast of Pentecost, when we celebrate that the Holy Spirit of God came to the first Christians to comfort and inspire and guide them.
What is the Holy Spirit? Well, over thousands of years, we have come to know God in different ways. We know God as Creator and Source, Father and Mother of all, the Ancient of Days, Beginning and End, the Silence at the center of things. We know God as Jesus Christ, the Word of God come to earth to dwell among us, Brother, Friend, Teacher, Redeemer and Liberator. And we know God as Holy Spirit, Breath of life, refining Fire, divine Wisdom. We call these the three Persons of the holy and undivided Trinity, the three in one and one in three.
So the Holy Spirit is one of the ways we know God. We use names for the Spirit like Comforter, Advocate, Dove, Spirit of Truth, Holy Wisdom. We use symbols like wind, water, fire… things that are powerful and important, but that you can’t hold in your hand.
Did you know you can pray to the different Persons of God? We pray to the Holy Spirit – we call on the Holy Spirit – often in church, when we ask the Spirit to make the water holy for a baptism, or to make the bread and wine into Christ’s Body and Blood for us, at Eucharist.
But in everyday life, I pray to the Holy Spirit – I call on the Holy Spirit – pretty often too. When I need strength and wisdom for a difficult conversation. When I need my heart to soften towards someone so I can respond to them as Jesus would. When I’m confused or stuck and need insight and direction. When I just need encouragement, in the face of hard stuff.
We have a big word for asking the Holy Spirit to help us: Invocation. It means to call on something. It’s not like magic in a book; we don’t control the Spirit with our words. But she likes to be invited. We have to make room for her instead of trying to handle it all on our own. We have to open a door inside us, to let her come in and help us. So the Church has always taught God’s people to call on the Spirit… to invoke the Spirit. No magic words, it’s one of the simplest prayers there is: Come, Holy Spirit!
Now we’re going to sing a song that invites the Holy Spirit to come among us as we celebrate today….
After the Acts lesson:
One of my favorite things to do is when I get to spend some time talking about the Bible with kids. I love it; I wish I could do it even more! And I’ve noticed that a question kids often have is: Is this story true? Do you believe this story?
So let’s talk about that for the story of the Tower of Babel. I don’t believe that this happened the way the story says it happened. This is not that kind of story. It’s the kind of story that tells the truth about something big, even though the events of the story might not have happened.
One thing the story tells the truth about is technology, and the human relationship with technology. Notice that this story is talking about a technological change: People have taken the big step from making bricks out of mud and baking them in the sun, to making bricks out of mud and baking them in a hot oven, which makes them stronger and harder. And it makes new kinds of building possible! (This is a VERY old story, y’all.)
And the humans in the story think this is their big break.They have it all figured out now; they can be truly great. “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves.” Even though this is a very old story, it sounds familiar. We develop new technologies and we think we can use them to make ourselves great; to come close to God.
Technology is amazing. Medical and information technology, green technology, and so on, make incredible things possible. But we’re still prone to thinking our technological achievements can make us more than human. And we’re still wrong. That is one truth this story tells.
Another truth this story tells is about the people who told the story. This is one of the kinds of stories that offers an explanation for why things are the way they are.In this case, the thing it’s explaining is why people speak many different languages (and also have different cultures, ways of dressing, kinds of music and food, and so on).
The people who first told this story were wondering, Why aren’t we all the same?It must be something God did. God must have given us all these different languages – made it so we can’t understand each other. So in the story, God “confuses” people’s language so they won’t be able to talk to each other: “Therefore the tower was called Babel, because there GOD confused the language of all the earth; and from there GOD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.”
Do you think the people who first told this story thought it was a good thing, that we have all different languages, or a bad thing? …
So: This is not a true story about why we speak many languages. It’s more of a wondering story – people trying to explain something that puzzles them. And what it tells us about the people who first told the story is that they didn’t really like having all those different languages. It seemed like a problem, to them.
We know now that language is one of the things our brains are best at. We are so good at learning language, creating and changing language, using language. It seems to me that the richness of language across humanity, the fact that as a species we are so good at generating and using words, means that this is something God wants for us. That God made us to be a people of many languages.
And the Pentecost story kind of affirms that. In this story, the Holy Spirit acts in a miraculous way to make it so that a whole group of people who speak many different languages, people from FIFTEEN different regions and countries, can all hear the good news of Jesus Christ.
But pay attention to HOW the miracle happens. The Holy Spirit could have done it any way she wanted. She could have had the apostles preach the Gospel in their own language, and she could have reached into the ears of all those listeners from around the world, and tuned their ears so they miraculously understood the Galilean Aramaic that the apostles were speaking.
But that’s NOT what she does. Instead, “All of the apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” The miracle here is that people are suddenly able to talk to someone else in their language – to do in an instant what would otherwise take years to learn. The miracle, the divine gift, here is not that human language is reunited, all that inconvenient diversity brought back to unity. The divine gift is being able to understand each other within that rich diversity.
Our differences can be confusing and difficult and frustrating. We might still sometimes ask the question this story asks: Why aren’t we all the same? The answer of the Babel story is, Because we’re broken. Because God punished us with human diversity.
But the answer of the Pentecost story is, Because it’s beautiful.It doesn’t divide us; it gives us scope for a greater, a deeper togetherness, when we learn to listen and understand and share across our differences of language and culture and experience. May the Spirit of God empower us for that work, and help us delight in the wonder of our diversity. Amen.
I’d like to ask the kids in the room to listen up. I’m going to read you something, and then I want to know what you think about it. Listen: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.” How does that make you feel? …
Okay, now I’m going to read you something else. These words come from the great prophet Jeremiah. He says, “The Word of God came to me saying, “Before you were born I set you apart for a special call: I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Then I said, “Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But GOD said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Don’t be afraid of them, for I am with you.” How does that make you feel? …
Thank you so much for listening and sharing your thoughts! I’m going to keep talking now, the way that grownups do. Carry on coloring or drawing – I hope you’ll show me your work, later.
Here’s what I notice about these readings. Paul isn’t actually talking about growing up, here. He’s talking about how we’re only able to see a little bit of God’s greater purposes, and we do not understand the unfolding of the reign of God. So we do best when we simply steer by Love, because that will always lead us true.
Paul is using growing up as a metaphor – saying that now we have a limited, “childlike” understanding of God and the cosmos, but one day we will understand fully – all those great mysteries will be opened to us. So he’s saying some wonderful and important things in this passage. But in the process, he reveals that he thinks kids’ words and thoughts are definitely second-best. I guess he’s forgotten the time when Jesus picked up a little child, and said to his friends, “Listen, unless you all change and become like little children, you’re never going to find your way into the Kingdom of Heaven.”
On the other hand, we have young Jeremiah. This was our assigned Old Testament lesson today; we shared the Candlemas story instead. But I just told you most of it. Jeremiah was a boy when he was called as a prophet. And he says, God, I don’t know how to talk to important people! I’m just a kid! And God says, Don’t say, I’m just a kid! You can do this. I’ll be with you.
Our Gospel story is kind of related to that Jeremiah story. Jesus – who is a grownup at this point – is beginning his public ministry. It’s a really important moment. He goes back to his hometown, Nazareth, where he was brought up. He goes to the synagogue, the local house of worship, where people read Scripture and talk about what it means together. And he reads these words from the prophet Isaiah, saying that he has been anointed to begin God’s great work of healing and redemption! And everyone’s staring at him wide-eyed, they’re really impressed; but what are they saying to each other? “Isn’t this Joseph’s boy?”
They like what he’s saying, but they’re having a hard time taking him seriously, because they remember him as a child. They think he’s getting above his raising, for one thing. But also, a lot of people, if they knew someone as a child, have a hard time seeing them as a grown-up. How many of us have gone back to where we came from, one way or another, and found that the older generation there still thinks of us as who we were when we were six or ten or sixteen? They still see you as a child; and they don’t take you seriously, because we don’t take children seriously.
We have this idea that kids’ words and thoughts are not as good, not as important, not as sophisticated. That grownup ways of doing things as better and more important. Jeremiah thought that. Who told him that kids can’t do God’s work? The grownups in his life, that’s who. And Paul thought it too. “I used to think like a child, but then I grew up and put away childish ways!” And we still think this. Our kids get this message over and over again. I would say that in the 21st century, we take kids more seriously than many previous generations of humanity did – but we still don’t take them all that seriously. If you raised your kids in an earlier generation, you might feel like kids today have the world revolving around them. But I promise you, these kids all know what it feels like to have their words and needs not listened to – not believed – even laughed at – because they’re just kids, and the grownups know better.
Paul is right in a way: kids are different from grownups. Kids are not short adults. Kids bring different ideas, perspectives, and needs; and of course kids aren’t all alike – different kids, and different ages of kids, have their own ways of being and thinking and participating. We’ve tried just inviting kids to be part of what the grownups like to do – churches have been trying that for generations, and it doesn’t work terribly well! (A friend once told me, Grownups like to sit around and talk about stuff; they should be in Sunday school. Kids like to march around, play with fire, tell stories, and sing – they should be in church!)
Kids’ voices, kids’ calls, kids’ prayers, kids’ contributions may be different from those of grownups. It would be silly to expect them to be the same. Of course part of what’s different is that we learn and grow. As we get older, we have life experiences, we meet more kinds of people, we encounter different ideas, we reflect on it all; and our understanding of the world gets bigger and more complex. (Ideally!) But there’s something about the freedom and clarity and playfulness and truth of young minds that don’t have all that grownup stuff muddying them up yet – I think that’s why Jesus told his friends they needed to think more like little kids.
So: Sure, kids are kids. They haven’t seen or read or done or thought about as much stuff as your average grownup has, yet. And: God can absolutely work in them and through them. God can absolutely strengthen and guide our fellowship of faith, though the presence and ministry of our kids. God can absolutely have a word for us grownup types, though the voices of our children. Liturgical scholar Louis Weil writes this about why kids belong in church: “It is not only that the child changes by being brought into the community of faith, but that the community itself changes as the mystery of another believer’s life unfolds in the context of community.” (Children at Worship, Congregations in Bloom, xi) And Sylvia Mutia-Miller, one of the wisest voices in the Episcopal Church on kids’ belonging in church, says that adults don’t often anticipate mutuality in relationships with kids.
We expect those relationships to be one directional – grownups helping or teaching kids, and kids receiving. But, she says: The Spirit calls together intergenerational communities because we have gifts for each other.
I’m not talking about romanticizing or idealizing kids. Yes, they say cute stuff and funny stuff sometimes. But kids’ dignity is important to them; they don’t want to be seen as just cute and funny. I’m talking about hearing and receiving kids’ questions, hopes, ideas, needs, and yes, sometimes, their prophetic words.
And I’m not talking about privileging kids over adults. I know sometimes it probably feels that way – we are so used to adults being at the center of church life, and kids being off to the side somewhere, that moving kids towards the center – not TO the center, not even close, but closer – moving kids towards the center, naming them as full members of our faith community, can feel like adults are losing something. If you feel that now and then, dear ones, I ask you to try to trust that instead, we are gaining something. And bear in mind that as of right now, I believe *one* of our church committees has a kid member. Nearly every decision made in the life of this parish is made with little or no input from our 18 and younger population. I hope we’ll reexamine that together in the months ahead. Because that is what I’m talking about: Not putting kids and youth at the top of the ladder, but bringing them to their rightful place at the table, alongside the grownups.
And let me be clear – I’ve said this before, but I think it bears repeating – that making space for kids and youth to be fully heard and fully included makes more space for many grownups, too. Here are some notable things about kids: Kids are open with their questions; they’re upfront with what they like and what they don’t; if they wonder what we’re doing or why things are the way they are, they’ll speak up about it; they usually let you know when they’re upset, and they bring their whole selves to whatever they do.
Well: A lot Episcopal churches have a culture in which people don’t ask questions, at least not the real ones; pretend they know what’s going on even if they don’t; sure as heck don’t let people know if they’re upset; and bring only the respectable, well-dressed, together parts of themselves to church. But kids are not the only ones who sometimes feel like they don’t have much to offer, or that they’re only welcome if they act like everybody else.
So, grownup friends in Christ, what if welcoming and including kids helps us welcome and include each other – and even ourselves! – as people who have questions! As people who have likes and dislikes, hopes and fears! As people who wonder why things are the way they are! As people who hurt. As people who need to be able to wear their whole selves in public – here, if nowhere else in your life! – within the safety of a community of mutual flourishing and holy friendship, in which together we seek to be transformed and empowered by that Love that is patient and kind; that is never envious, or arrogant, or rude; that does not insist on its own way, and is not irritable or resentful; that never rejoices in another’s failure or misfortune. That Love that bears all things; believes all things; hopes all things; endures all things… and never, never ends.
Welcome and peace to all of you, people of St Dunstan’s! Welcome to guests and to those returning from afar; it is so good to be with you. Welcome to that fellowship divine of the faithful departed, who are always with us but whom we call to mind especially today. The household of God includes people who left this earth centuries ago; people whose passed from among us recently, like Lou, Ginny, George, Jeff; and people who have just begun their life in this world – like the babies whom we have the blessing of baptizing this morning.
Not all churches baptize babies! Some churches teach that it doesn’t make sense to baptize a baby who can’t believe what our church teaches or even understand it. I respect that position, but it’s not how our church does things. We confess in all humility that if a real Christian is someone who can diagram the Trinity, comprehend the Incarnation, or explain the Eucharist… then none of us belong here. As Episcopalians, Christians in the Anglican way, we follow the church’s ancient pattern and baptize infants – as well as kids or adults who seek to join Christ’s Body the Church.
Our church thinks of baptism a lot like birth. There’s a completeness to it – a newborn baby is a whole person. And yet, obviously, it’s also just a beginning. That baby still has to be loved and fed and sheltered and taught and raised to maturity. That nurture and growth might happen in the family that shares the baby’s genetic material, or it might turn out that another household is the best place for that child’s flourishing – and the same is true with churches: some of us come to maturity in the church that birthed us, some find a new faith home. But either way, somebody’s got to raise that baby. Baptism, which is birth into God’s household, is just a start. When we, as a church, baptize babies – when I ask, “Will all of you do everything in your power to support this person in his life in Christ?” and you shout, “WE WILL!” – we are taking on the responsibility, together, along with their parents, godparents, and siblings, of raising that child to know and love God, and to find comfort and courage in a community of faith, throughout their lives.
Let’s be honest, though: Churches are inconsistent at best in following through on that commitment. I’ve gone looking, friends, and from what I’ve seen,
churches that understand nurturing faith in their children as a core part of their common life are few and far between. (I’m proud that St Dunstan’s is one of them – though we’ve got lots of room to grow!) Our prayer book clearly states that baptism is our church’s rite of full initiation by water and the holy spirit: a baptized baby is a full member of the church! Yet churches find so many ways to tell kids that they are only “junior” members. That their presence is disruptive or unwelcome; that their needs are secondary.
What does it take for a church to live deeply into its commitment to raise its children in faith? I came back from my sabbatical, focused on intergenerational worship, with some thoughts. Here are few of them.
First, we grownups need to be extra mindful about kids’ dignity. Dignity – like in the baptismal covenant: “Will you respect the dignity of every human being?” And like in the song: “And we’ll guard each one’s dignity and save each one’s pride, and they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” Dignity is a tough word to define, though we all know what it feels like when our dignity takes a hit. Adults can sometimes forget that kids need their dignity tended just as much as grownups do – maybe even more. One weekend during my sabbatical, Iona and I visited a church in a big city that advertised a Sunday morning service where children “actively engage in the readings, sermon, and Communion.” The service began with a responsive prayer led by a child, a boy, maybe 7 years old. The only problem was, the microphone was attached to a lectern, like this, and it was too tall for him. So his mom had to hold him up around his waist while he led the prayer. At first I thought, Awwww. What a nice icon of an adult supporting a child’s ministry. But then, after the prayer, the boy and his mom walked past us on their way back to their seat, and I could see that he was furious. That was humiliating and uncomfortable for him. He was given a role, but he wasn’t given a way to do it that honored his dignity.
This dignity thing is a big, broad general principal; it’ll take a while, and probably lots of talking and listening, to figure out all its implications. For example: I’m trying to get out of the habit of patting kids on the head. It’s hard because their heads are RIGHT THERE. But they’re not dogs; they’re people. And even with a dog, I’d give the dog a chance to show me whether it wanted me to touch it or not. Grownups and kids are different in important ways, but it can still be helpful to ask yourself, Would I do this to a grownup? If not, is there a reason to make a different decision with a child?
Respecting kids’ dignity leads to a second core way churches can live into our commitment to our kids: By taking kids’ belonging and participation here as seriously as we take grownups’. One of the people I interviewed who really thinks deeply about kids and church, Sylvia Mutia-Miller, said, “The best way we can honor any person is to believe they are capable of things.” Kids have particular gifts and skills to contribute to our common life, just like grownups do. Our friend Sir Bjorn, who is a knight, talked about how in his organization, the Society for Creative Anachronism, they try to match jobs for kids to what the kids are good at and like to do. LOUD kids make good heralds. FAST kids make good messengers and gophers. KIDS WHO LIKE TO DO STUFF WITH THEIR HANDS make good Duct Tape Pages, going around to fix broken weaponry and such.
Yet in churches we often assign kids jobs based only on age: When you’re seven, you can be an acolyte. If acolyting isn’t really your jam, or if acolyting is fine but you’d like to do more… sorry! This is something I really want your help to think about here, friends – kids and grownups. We can ask kids: What are you good at that you think would help our church and be a gift to us all? What could we do differently that would give you more chance to participate and contribute? That’s a good question for grownups who would like to be more involved, too!
Finally, we raise faithful kids by filling their hearts and minds and imaginations with holy stories of justice and mercy, hope and courage. Gretchen Wolff Prichard, the amazing Christian educator who creates the “Sunday Papers” we use, says we have to avoid the temptation to offer children a “kiddie Gospel” of “Everything is fine.” Kids know everything isn’t fine, and pretending it is, is much scarier than talking about the truth. Writing about All Saints Day, Gretchen challenges churches to go beyond the message that we’re all saints, chosen, called, and sanctified – which is true! – and point out that living a holy life and resisting evil is hard, sometimes scary work. We need stories of someone small but brave, who prevails against evil with the help of friends and of a mysterious Power of Good. That reminded me of our Christmas pageant last year – who remembers it? Was the Devil involved? … What was he trying to do? He was trying to keep Joseph and Mary from getting to a safe place to have the baby, and to keep the shepherds from coming to welcome and honor the baby! (And who’s the baby?) And how was the Devil defeated? Yes – the people recognized him, and the Angel drove him away! Writer Boze Herrington says: “As much as kids need food and shelter, they also need stories to teach them that there are monsters that need fighting, and good worth fighting for.” The Church has stories like that – so many. Let’s keep telling them to each other.
Who knows what a simile is? It’s when you show that one thing is like another thing, to help you look at the first thing in a new way. My friend Father John has a wonderful simile about baptism: He says it’s like making pickles. Can you just go pick a pickle? …So, then, where do pickles come from? You take a cucumber and you dunk it in brine – salty water, with maybe some peppers or herbs in it too. Maybe that’s like baptism! And then… you WAIT. It takes a while, but slowly, over time, the brine gets inside the cucumber and it changes. It becomes something else. It becomes… a pickle. Maybe that’s like growing up in church! Pickling each other, over weeks and months and years, by guarding each one’s dignity, and raising up each one’s gifts, and sharing holy stories that give us courage for the hard work of justice and mercy in our time and place.
Poet Russell Brand says, “If we become the kind of people that can change the world, then the world will change.” May it be so. Amen.
It’s evening, about 3000 years ago. Before Jesus, before David, before Jerusalem. And Levi, the priest of the temple of God at Shiloh, has gone to bed. Levi is old, and tired, and his sight is going. So he leaves his young assistant, Samuel, to sleep in the temple hall. We don’t know how old Samuel was – old enough to be given some light responsibilities; young enough to confuse his master’s voice with God’s voice. Let’s say he’s about seven – the age we invite kids to start acolyting, here at St. Dunstan’s.
You’ve just heard the story of what happens next; it’s one of my favorites. Samuel is awakened by a voice calling his name: Samuel! Samuel! He runs to his master, Eli, and says, Here I am! But Eli didn’t call him. Eli says, Go back to bed. So Samuel lies down again. And again he hears the voice: Samuel! Samuel! And again he runs to Eli’s bedside: Here I am, for you called me! And Eli says, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” Samuel lies down; but the voice calls him yet a third time. SAMUEL! So he goes to Eli, and says, Here I am! You called me! And Eli understands that God is calling to the child. So he says, Go and lie down; if the Voice calls you again, say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
Samuel goes back to the Temple. He does as Eli instructed – and he becomes a prophet – one who receives God’s words, who knows God’s intentions. Samuel goes on to become one of the greatest prophets in Israel’s history, and the one who anoints the first two kings of Israel.
Samuel was an exceptional figure. But it was the work to which he was called that made him exceptional; not the fact that God spoke to him – God speaks to all of us, though we often don’t hear. Not the fact that God called him to a role in God’s purposes – God calls each of us to such roles. And – this is important – God doesn’t wait till we’re grownups. God doesn’t wait till we have 401(k)s and mortgages, or at least bachelor’s degrees, to start speaking in our hearts.
Three things made it possible for young Samuel to receive and respond to God’s call. First, Samuel had parents who connected him with a faith community. Read the first chapter of the first book of Samuel sometime, if you don’t know the story of Elkanah and Hannah, Samuel’s parents. What you need to know is that they were both people of deep faith. And they chose to commit their son Samuel to God’s service as an act of gratitude for God’s faithfulness to them, and because they believed that there could be no better place for their son to be than in the temple, learning to love and serve God. (Side note: Samuel went to live at the temple full-time when he was perhaps three years old – please don’t do that with your children, however tempting it may be! We are not staffed for that!)
Second, Samuel had people in the faith community who gave him a meaningful role there. I’ll bet even when he was three, Eli found little jobs for him: Carry the incense – before it’s lighted. Help me finish the holy bread. Hold the dustpan while I sweep the temple every morning. Chant the prayers with me, beginning with the simplest ones. Feed the chickens. (There must have been chickens.) As he grew in knowledge and strength and responsibility, Eli would have given him more to do. That’s something I want to do well here – have a ladder of responsibility kids can climb, a variety of ways they can use their skills and interests in service to God, our faith community, and our neighbors, as they grow and mature among us.
Third, Samuel had an adult in his faith community who took him seriously when he heard God’s voice. Eli could have said, You’re dreaming; go back to sleep. Eli could have said, I’m the senior priest at this temple; my sons run the show; why would God speak to a seven-year-old?? Eli could have said, What a wild imagination you have; maybe when you’re older, God will choose to speak to you. But Eli said, God is speaking to you, child. Keep listening. Keep listening.
Which leads me to three things can happen, if we choose to raise kids in church. (And raising kids in church is a choice we ALL make, starting, of course, with the parents who deal with shoes and coats and cars and somehow, miraculously, get them here; but from the moment they walk in the door, it’s on all of us.)
First, if we raise kids in church, it’s possible they’ll hear God’s voice. The text of this story says something interesting: “Now, Samuel did not yet know the Lord,” before God called him that night. In the context of Samuel’s vocation as a prophet, I think this means that he hadn’t heard God’s voice directly yet. But it also means something more general. Samuel had been living at the temple for several years, participating in worship, helping out, singing the songs and prayers. I don’t know if they had coloring pages or not. He knew a lot about God, but he didn’t yet know God.
Now, I believe that young children can have experiences of God, and I certainly believe that God speaks to people who haven’t been raised in a faith community (or who were raised in a faith community that did not listen to them). But being immersed in a faithful and loving worshipping community can create the conditions for a child to be able to hear God’s voice, and recognize it, and respond. And to be able to put their experience of God into words, so the Elis in their lives can hear, and affirm, and encourage.
Second, if you raise children in church, it’s possible God will give them a vocation. The church has done a lousy job with the word and concept of “vocation.”It simply means, Something to which you are called. But we’ve treated it as though only clergy and monastics have vocations – only people whose lives are visibly, officially dedicated to church and God. I believe with all my heart that God invites each of us into participation in God’s redemptive work in the world, and that God invites us – calls us – into that work in ways that are grounded in our individual stories, skills, needs, and hopes. I hope for the kids of this church, just as I hope for the youth and the grownups of this church, that we’ll have the capacity and sensitivity and patience and the courage to feel and notice the tug of call, when the holy Spirit of God is inviting us into something, large or small. Again: The reach of God’s voice is not bounded by church. But kids raised in church might be more ready to hear, and to recognize, God’s voice – and to respond with joy and purpose to God’s call.
Third, if you raise children in church, it’s possible God will give them a vocation that makes you uncomfortable. What God has to say to Samuel is not good news for Eli. His sons have been running the temple to serve their own interests instead of God; and Eli knew that, but didn’t stop them. So, in a nutshell, God’s message is that Eli’s era is ending. That natural human hope, that his children and grandchildren will have what he had, will value what he valued, will do what he did – that hope is dashed. Change is on the wind.
This passage gives me a lot of respect for Eli, despite his failures. He seems to expect bad news; I think he knows this is coming. And he receives it in faith, saying: “God is God; God will do what God pleases. So be it.”
God’s words at work in the hearts and minds of our children may sometimes bring us uncomfortable news – even bad news. We may hear from their lips that the patterns and structures of faith that seem sacred and all-important to us, are incidental and negotiable to God. We may hear from their lips that things we had hoped would last forever, will better serve God’s future in a new form. I’ve had those moments. I expect to have many more. I pray for the grace to say, like Eli: “God is God. So be it.”
Finally, here are three things we can do, to be a church that takes children’s faith seriously. First, we can understand that kids are not short adults.Grownups have learned the cultural cues to show that we are paying respectful attention to whatever is going on: Sitting up straight, looking towards the front, trying to look interested. Kids either haven’t learned that yet – or they have to do it in school all week, and need a break on the weekends. Some kids sit still just fine; that’s who they are. Some don’t. But every adult who’s spent time around kids knows that just because they are reading, or building with blocks, or coloring, or wandering around, or looking out the window, doesn’t mean they’re not listening. Those little pitchers pick up a lot. And the rich language and stories and images of our faith can reach and touch them very deeply, finding fertile soil in young hearts and fresh imaginations. I’ve head so many stories about young kids who go home from church and draw pictures or make up songs or act out liturgies or ask deep theological questions – and they’re NOT all my kids. The fact is, it happens all the time. Kids take church, and God, very seriously. Serious just looks different for kids than it does for grownups.
Second, we can understand that kids are, on the other hand, NOT that different from adults. Grownups and kids like a good story well-told, and a song that feels good to sing. Grownups and kids like it when there’s something to engage our senses – sounds, images, smells. Grownups and kids like a balance of routine – things we can learn and internalize and expect – and stuff that’s more flexible and open. Grownups and kids like to have church friends. Look at how Philip gets Nathanael to come meet Jesus, in today’s Gospel: “Come and see!” Being welcomed, and loved, and invited deeper into discipleship by friends and peers is a huge thing at any age. Grownups and kids have questions. What is that thing called, anyway? Does God care when I hurt? How does prayer work, exactly? Does Rev. Miranda really think that bread turns into Jesus? And so on. I was raised Episcopalian; I was at church most Sundays. And there was a ton of stuff I didn’t learn, about the Bible and church, until I went to seminary as part of my preparation to become a priest. So I know we all have questions about what all this means and where it came from and why it matters. And grownups and kids – at least, some of us – listen better when we’re doing something with our hands. Which is why we tend to have coloring pages around.
The third thing we can do to be a church that takes children’s faith seriously is to see the kids as people. I know sometimes they’re just a blur rushing past – but try to pay attention to them as individuals. I have the huge privilege and blessing of getting to know the kids by sharing projects and ministries with them – like pageants, Vacation Bible School, our 4th and 5th grade group the AbominOwls, and so much more. I get to find out about their favorite books and songs, and what they worry about and what they’re really good at, and that they really care about animals or the environment or homeless people, and what their faces look like when they’re really interested in something, and when I ask a question in a children’s sermon, which of them will give the answer I expect and which of them will offer some next-level theological and ethical reflection that makes me have to say, Wow, let’s talk about that later, I have a sermon to finish here.
I guess I’m saying that one more way the kids of St. Dunstan’s are a lot like the grownups of St. Dunstan’s is this: They’re a bunch of really great people who are well worth getting to know. If you’ve got time and interest, there are lots of opportunities to drop in on our Christian formation programs for kids and youth. You can bring a special activity, or be a “second adult”, or help out with seasonal special events. Or you can just be church together. Learn someone’s name. Let them know when they do a good job, acting or acolyting or singing or reading. Tell them which is your favorite tree, out on the grounds, or ask them if they’ve read a good book lately. And watch for our opportunities to be like Eli: to include children in our worship and our ministries, to affirm that God is at work in their hearts and their lives, and to listen when God speaks through them.
Our readings this morning tell us that God calls us to HOPE and God calls us to HELP. Today I am mostly going to talk about Helping… but I think the Hope is really important too. If we don’t have hope, then we can get too sad or tired or overwhelmed to feel able to help. That’s one of the things we do together as a church: we help each other have hope, for our own lives and for the world.
But now I want to talk about helping. Let’s talk about that story about the rich man and Lazarus.What could the rich man have done differently, before he died?…
A friend told me a story recently about taking her granddaughters to Chicago. The girls live in a small town in Wisconsin and had never been to the big city before. They enjoyed all the sights of the big city, the fancy stores and museums and parks. But they were also sad to see all the homeless people there, even families with little kids, settling down to sleep in doorways as the evening approached. Finally one of the girls turned to her grandma and said, “Nana, DO something!”
Grownups just laugh sadly at that story because we know what a big, messy, hard problem that is. It will take a lot of money to fix that situation, to help change all those people’s lives so they have homes and work and food to feed their children. But even more than all the money, what it will really take is this: A whole lot of people who want it to change. Who are determined that things have got to be better.
Maybe an ordinary family like mine, if we didn’t have too many extra bills that month, maybe we could take one of those families sleeping in a doorway, one of those Lazarus families in Chicago or Madison today, and we could buy them a good dinner, and pay for them to sleep in a hotel for a night. But we couldn’t change things for them. Tomorrow they would be right back sleeping in a doorway.
But if a whole lot of ordinary families get together, and tell our leaders in our city and our state and our nation that we don’t want anybody to be homeless or hungry anymore, if enough of us got together and really stayed focused on that, we might, eventually, make a difference.
God wants us to help. And there are lots and lots and lots of ways to help. But there are two big simple ways: Give, and Speak. Give means, buy somebody a meal. Pass on your old coat to MOM, so another child can wear it this winter. Help assemble Backpack Snack Packs for hungry kids. Cook a dish for the folks at the men’s shelter. Give to MOM or MUM or Briarpatch or Second Harvest or my discretionary fund and let us give to others in need. We do a lot of giving, at St. Dunstan’s. We can always do more – but we do this pretty well.
But giving isn’t the only way to help. We can also Speak. That can mean lots of things – talking with friends or family about the things we worry about and hope for; talking with our leaders and officials; using our votes when there’s an election of any kind; showing up for meetings or when people are gathering to show support or concern about something.
Speaking and Giving are different, but they’re both important and you can do both. You can feed a hungry person,while also asking our leaders why they let so many people be hungry, and how we could work together to change things.
Today is Bread for the World Sunday. Bread for the World is an organization that asks Christians to speak to our leaders, and ask them to be faithful to one of God’s highest priorities: feeding the hungry. It could be a detailed two-page letter that outlines exactly what legislation we hope they’ll support. It could be just a postcard or a Tweet that says, Remember the hungry. Each year Bread for the World chooses a particular issue as a focus, so that we can press our leaders to take real steps. This year the issue is asking our government to give more to programs in poor countries around the world that help mamas and babies have enough to eat. We’ll hear more about Bread in a few minutes.
Kids can’t vote yet – not till you’re 18! But you can still speak to your elected leaders. There are some tables up here at the front, and we’re going to write note to four people – President Obama; our Senators, Ron Johnson and Tammy Baldwin; and our Representative, Mark Pocan. You can write a note that says Remember the hungry! or if you feel like you can write more, you can use this text, and maybe add some of your own words about why you think this is important. You can draw a picture too if you want, of a happy mama and baby who have enough to eat! I hope each of you will do four letters. We’ll put them all together and mail them later.
OKAY, Grownups… time for YOUR Children’s Sermon. There will be visual aids and response activities and everything! Today is Social Media Sunday. (And no, I didn’t invent this; observed widely for several years; this is our first time observing it.)
How many of you use some form of social media? That includes Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, etc. Raise your hand… How many are on social media at least once a week? Once a day? More than once a day?
So we hear a lot about the bad of social media – and that’s real; people can be addicted, people can get into unproductive fights with strangers, people can use these platforms to be creepy or abusive. But there’s a lot of potential for good, too.
Raise your hand if you’ve used social media to share information about an issue of concern… If you’ve ever learned something new or gotten a new perspective from something you read or saw on social media… If you think you’ve ever given somebody else a new perspective, by way of social media… If you’ve used social media to be in touch with your public officials… Who’s used social media to get support, prayers, even help in a hard time? Who has ever posted about their church or their faith on social media?… All right, we’ll come back to that.
Now, a very quick tutorial. This is the At-sign, and it’s used at the beginning of someone’s handle (or username) on Twitter or Instagram. Individuals and organizations can have them. Mine is @revmirandah; the church’s is @StDunstansMSN.
This is the Hashtag – again, mostly used on Twitter and Instagram. Hashtags work two ways. One is, it’s a way you can search to find people talking about the same thing, even if you don’t know them and they don’t know each other. Another is, to be funny or comment on what else you just said. So you’ll see a lot of hashtags that aren’t really functional hashtags – usually the long ones. People use them on Facebook some as well, even though Facebook doesn’t really work that way.
So if you were to Tweet or post to Instagram about Social Media Sunday, you might include the church’s handle -@StDunstansMSN – and you might include the hashtag #SMS16.
Now let’s talk briefly about some of the platforms out there.
Facebook – who uses Facebook? … I think Facebook is the most familiar and maybe the most intuitive. On Facebook, you’re connected with a set list of people – your Facebook “friends.” Some have 1000s, some have 50. You have to build that network, by asking people to be your friend, or by saying yes when they ask you. So you have a thought, or a funny thing happens, or you take a picture, or you read an article; and you post or share it on Facebook, and then all those friends can see it. The interesting thing – and sometimes the challenging thing – about Facebook is that ALL those friends see what you posted. Sometimes some of those friends from different corners of your life see things differently from you, or from each other.
Twitter – who uses Twitter? … Twitter is very different from Facebook. I’ve been using it fairly regularly for a little over a year. I mostly re-tweet things – sharing a tweet I read that I think is important or funny. I don’t create a lot of content on Twitter. Twitter has the famous 140-character limit (though they’re stretching that now…), so people express themselves very concisely on Twitter!
Instead of a friend network, on Twitter, you “follow” people to see their tweets, and people can “follow” you to see your tweets. Twitter is interesting because it’s totally public – unlike Facebook, anything you Tweet is visible to ANYONE – but it can also seem very private because if you don’t have a lot of followers, you can Tweet something and NOBODY will Like it. Or maybe just your mom.
What I like about Twitter: its immediacy – you can hear about what’s happening RIGHT NOW; its flatness – if you’ve got a favorite author or minor celebrity who’s on Twitter, you may have a chance to interact with them; and I’ve really used it to diversify my media, by, for example, following people who are commenting on current events from the standpoint of racial equity. So, I read on Twitter much more than I post.
Instagram – who uses it? … I don’t use Instagram much myself but I’m going to try to start. It’s mostly for sharing photos. Like Twitter, you “follow” people to see what they share, and vice versa. And you can Like people’s photos, and use hashtags to index photos, or link your photos to a place or a project or event. Some folks say that Instagram can actually be a good beginner platform – because it’s pretty easy and it’s mostly pretty nice.
Snapchat – who uses it?… Snapchat & Instagram are maybe most popular with teens & twenty-somethings these days, though as soon as us old people move in, they’ll move on. Snapchat is a way of sharing photos socially – they come to your phone like a text or instant message. You can add funny captions and doodle on them. The photos disappear quickly, so there’s an element of, you have to be tuned in, if you miss it, you miss it. (But people can get themselves in trouble because the picture only disappears quickly if the person receiving the photo doesn’t screencap it and keep it!…)
There are other platforms too, but that’s a good start!
Okay, Miranda, but WHY ARE WE TALKING ABOUT SOCIAL MEDIA IN CHURCH? Listen, a friend told me a few years ago that he’d read somewhere that the average Episcopalian invites someone to church once every 46 years. I think that’s probably not quite fair… but it is funny.
The reason some folks came up with Social Media Sunday a few years ago is to help encourage church folks to share about their faith life on social media, just like you share about other parts of your life. If you are a social media user, it can be a really easy, effective way to let people know about your faith and your church.
When you post to Facebook or Twitter or Instagram about a cool event at your church, or a bit of a sermon or song or Scripture that speaks to you, or about how God is present to you in daily life, YOU ARE EVANGELIZING. You are proclaiming. You’re letting people who know you, who aren’t church folks but might be curious or interested – you’re letting them know that you are a person of faith, and that you belong to a community of faith that you value. And you NEVER HAD TO HAVE AN AWKWARD CONVERSATION ABOUT IT. You just Shared about something you do anyway.
In your bulletin you got a sheet about “15 Ways to Share your Faith on Social Media” – some of these are great, some are a little corny. On the back, we’ve added a few of our own. Please take special note of #21, #SelfiewithaSaint a special challenge for today and this week!
If you are NOT a social media user, and don’t plan to become one, here’s your take-away from Social Media Sunday: When you see somebody with their smartphone out in church, don’t judge. DON’T ASSUME they’re tuning out. They might have heard something they really like, and be Tweeting it or posting on Facebook. Which is awesome! They might be donating to the church online, at donate.stdunstans.com . They might have heard about an upcoming event, and be putting it on their calendar. They might be texting a friend to say, Hey, I’m at church and wanted to let you know I’m praying for you and my community is too. They might be snapping a photo or taking a video of what we’re doing, because they think it’s worth recording!
Maybe they got curious about one of the Scripture readings and they’re looking it up in an online Bible. Maybe they’re Tweeting their elected officials to ask them to remember the needs of the hungry – Bread for the World uses Twitter a lot, and invites us to use it too. They even have a Social Media Kit – you can pick up a copy or look at it online. They say, “Digital-minded Christians should see social media platforms as an opportunity to “give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and destitute” (Psalm 82:3). Engaging in digital conversations is engaging in democracy, which is part of good Christian stewardship.”
So, social media can be a powerful tool – for speaking, for evangelizing, for helping, and for sharing hope.
Jesus was praying in a certain place. (Luke 11:1)
We understand that, don’t we? Sometimes we just pray, we turn our thoughts towards God, wherever we are – in the car or at school or work or on Facebook or reading the news, whatever. But we also know about having certain places, special places, where we come to pray. We know that God is everywhere. But there are certain places where it’s easy for us to feel close to God. It’s easy to share our thoughts and feelings with God, and to listen for God’s voice in our hearts, and feel God’s love around us.
Some of those certain places are places like this – places made by people. Churches, temples, mosques. But some of those certain places are natural places. Humans take care of them and protect them, but their beauty comes from God, and from Nature, which is God’s.
Often, when I ask people where they feel closest to God, they say, In Nature. And they seem to feel a little guilty about it! Like they think it’s a bad answer. It’s not a bad answer! Christians have known for a long long time that Nature shows us God’s glory and love and power. It’s in the Old Testament and the New Testament, and there are voices all through 2000 years of Christian tradition that tell us we can meet God in the natural world.
We heard one of those voices a little earlier – Thomas Traherne, who lived in the 17th century. And he says, God made the world to be enjoyed, and God made you to enjoy the world; so it makes God very happy when you do what you were made for, by enjoying the natural world!
What’s your favorite thing in Nature?…
Have you noticed that in Nature, the more you notice, the more you find to enjoy and appreciate? When you look harder, or you learn more, it just gets more amazing, doesn’t it?
My friend B, who is a nature educator, introduced our Creation Care Task Force to the work of naturalist John Muir Laws. Laws gives us a really good definition of love: Love is sustained compassionate attention. Sustained compassionate attention.
Let’s unpack that. Sustained means you do it for a while. You don’t just take a quick look and then move on.
Compassionate means caring. It means you look at something with a warm, open heart.
And you know what attention means,because your parents and teachers use that word, don’t they? When something has your attention, your eyes are on it, and not just your eyes, but your mind too. You’re focused on it. You’re really there.
So: Love as sustained compassionate attention. You could absolutely apply that to other human beings – but right now we’re talking about love of nature. And the great thing about love is that, just like a child or a plant, if you feed it, it grows. Laws says, Every time somebody has an opportunity for sustained compassionate attention with a leaf, or a bug, or a tree, they fall in love a little bit more with the natural world.
And for us that means we also fall a little bit more in love with God, whom we know through the beauty and order and complexity of Nature.
Our Creation Care Task Force is still doing its work, but here’s one conclusion we’re reaching: We have a special gift and mission, here at St. Dunstan’s, to invite people deeper into love of nature, love of Creation. To offer ourselves and others opportunities to practice sustained compassionate attention. That’s where the gift of our grounds points us -and even our nave, where we are right now, where we can pray and sing and reflect while we look out at birds and trees and flowers and snow and rain. Where instead of stained glass, we have Nature’s beauty.
From here we went into this amazing exercise in sustained compassionate attention!
A homily for our All-Ages service on April 24, 2016.
Who remembers a baptism? What do we do?…
Another part of what we do is that we say some things together. We say some things that remind us of who we are, and what we believe, and how we try to live, as God’s people. It’s called the Baptismal Covenant. A covenant is kind of like a promise. It has five questions in it that all start “Will you?” They ask if we will keep being faithful to our church family, if we’ll turn back to God when we go wrong, if we’ll share God’s good news in our lives, if we’ll love other people and try to help them, and if we’ll work to build a better world. And what we say when we answer all those questions is, I WILL, WITH GOD’S HELP! Because those are all important and also hard; so we say, Yes, we will do it, but we need your help, God.
Today I want to talk a little bit about the fourth question. Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
Who’s your neighbor? … Jesus means, anybody whose life crosses paths with your life. Friends, family, strangers, enemies, all are our neighbors. Even people who live around the world from us are our neighbors in God’s eyes. So we’re talking about, how we treat other people.
At your school, do they talk about the Golden Rule? What’s the Golden Rule? … Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Treat other people the way you want to be treated. Do your parents or teachers sometimes ask you, “How would you feel if somebody did that to you?” Like if you don’t feel like sharing, or you get upset and hit somebody. You have to think about how it feels when somebody doesn’t share with you, or when somebody gets mad and hits you.
The Golden Rule is a good way to think about how to treat people, because it helps us think about how things feel for somebody else. But Jesus says something different here, in today’s Gospel story. He says something more. He says, Love each other the way I love you. Love each other the way Jesus loves you. The way God loves you.
Let’s try out an example to explain this… What do you like to eat for breakfast?… Okay. So, if you’re in charge of breakfast, if you get to choose, you’ll have waffles. Now, what if you had a guest and you were making breakfast for them too? And you made them waffles, because it’s your favorite? You are trying to be kind and loving. You are making them the thing that you really like. You are loving your neighbor as yourself.
But what if your guest doesn’t like waffles? It’s just not their favorite. Maybe it even tastes bad to them. Or maybe they’re even allergic to it, (or they’re vegetarian). Then even you were trying to be kind, the breakfast you made for them isn’t meeting their needs. So what could you do differently? …
Yeah! If you really wanted to make your guest happy, make them feel welcome and loved, you would ask them what they like best for breakfast, and then, if you can, that’s what you would make for them.
Jesus says, Love each other the way I love you. Jesus didn’t treat everybody the same. He looked into people and saw who they were and what they needed, and that’s how he responded to them. That’s the kind of love Jesus and God show us, the kind of love that sees that our neighbors are sometimes different from us. What they need and want and hope for might be different too.
We had a little story about that earlier today, in the story about Peter the apostle. Peter and Midamos had a way of following Jesus, that included keeping the practices of Judaism. And they thought that was the right way for everybody who follows Jesus. But God showed Peter that he was wrong. God showed Peter that Gentiles, people who didn’t follow Jewish practices, were called to follow Jesus and become Christians, too.
For Peter, to love those new Christians the way he loved himself, would be to say, Here are the rules for being a Christian. Instead, God helped Peter to love these new Christians the way God loved them, so he was able to just say, Welcome to God’s family! I am glad you’re here!
Our Baptismal Covenant asks us to love our neighbors as ourselves. But let’s remember that that’s just the beginning, and that, with God’s help, we can try to love our neighbors with God’s love, which is bigger and broader and brighter than our love.
I’m going to ask the question now, and I want to hear a nice loud answer: I will, with God’s help!
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? …
(With the children in the congregation) Let’s open our wooden tomb… Where is Jesus?…. (Wait for them to find the resurrected Christ figure) Where else is he? He’s in US. WE are the resurrected Christ. Jesus is alive in the world today because Jesus is in us, and WE are alive in the world today! It’s pretty amazing, isn’t it?…Do you know who else thought it was amazing? Tiberius Caesar, the Emperor of Rome. He was the ruler of the whole wide world, back in Jesus’ time. And he heard the story about how Jesus rose from the dead from a woman named Mary – Mary Magdalene.
Mary Magdalene had been a friend and follower of Jesus. She came from a wealthy and important family, so after Jesus was killed by his enemies and then rose from the dead, she went to Rome, to complain to the Emperor, Tiberius Caesar, that the Roman governor in Judea, Pontius Pilate, had allowed himself to be tricked into executing Jesus,who was innocent and good. Now, because the Emperor was so important, everyone who came before him was supposed to bring a gift. Mary Magdalene brought – an egg. Not a very fancy gift, is it?
She told the Emperor all about Jesus, the amazing things he did and said, and that even death couldn’t stop him.The Emperor listened, but he listened with this kind of look on his face…and then he said, A dead person can’t come back to life! That’s impossible! Just like it’s impossible for that white egg in your hand to turn red!….
And then, do you know what happened? The egg in her hand TURNED RED. We use all different colored eggs at Easter, but Orthodox Christians use red eggs, to remember Mary speaking the Gospel to the Emperor, and the holy sign that was given to her. Here are some eggs for you to color! Use markers or crayons or colored pencils or stickers. (Send kids back to their places)
What do we know about Mary Magdalene? Less than we think, perhaps. There’s been a long tradition in Christianity of glomming all the women in the Gospels together, so that Mary Magdalene is ALSO Mary the sister of Lazarus and ALSO the woman who was forgiven her sinful life, and so on. In fact, Jesus probably just had a lot of women followers and friends, just like he had a lot of men followers and friends. And Mary was a common name, so there were quite a few Marys, including his mother. That’s why the Gospels call this particular person Mary Magdalene – to set her apart, like your first grade class might have had Jason D. and Jason R. Magdalene was probably a place name, meaning that she was the Mary who came from the city of Magdala – though it’s also possible that the name means that she was a hairdresser by profession!
Here’s what we do know. She was part of a group of women who traveled with Jesus, just like the (male) disciples, though they are barely mentioned until the Crucifixion. Here’s the Gospel of Mark, chapter 15: “There were also women looking on from a distance [as Jesus was crucified]; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger…, and Salome. These [women] used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.”
The fact that Mary and the other women are named as providing for Jesus may mean that she was wealthy, as the later story about her visit to Caesar assumes. Or she may have just been stubborn enough to leave home and family and follow Jesus, and resourceful enough to help make sure he and his group of friends always had somewhere to sleep and something to eat.
So, Magdalene is one of this group of faithful female followers of Jesus. But she stands out even among that group. ALL FOUR GOSPELS name Mary Magdalene as one of the first witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection. Now, our four Gospels – the four books of the Biblethat tell the story of Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection – they agree in the general shape of the story, and they complement each other in many ways.They agree on the big stuff, the central truth they’re telling. But they differ on details a lot. So it’s actually really something that they all agree on this detail: that Mary Magdalene was one of the first to discover that Jesus had risen from the dead.
John’s Gospel, the Gospel we heard a few moments ago,tells of that discovery so beautifully. Jesus’ body was buried in a hurry, before the Sabbath,when it was not acceptable to touch dead bodies. So it hadn’t been washed and anointed and cared for in all the ways that those who love him would have wanted. So as soon as the Sabbath is over, early in the morning, Mary goes to the tomb where Jesus was buried. In the other Gospels she’s with several other women; in John’s account she’s alone.
She finds that the great stone that covered the opening to the tomb has been removed – and she immediately assumes that Jesus’ body has been taken by his enemies. She runs to find the Simon Peter and John, leaders among the disciples, and they all run back to the tomb together. They look inside and see that the linen cloths are still there,the ones that were used to wrap Jesus’ body, but Jesus himself is gone.They’re not sure what to think – verses 8 and 9 say that they believed, but did not yet understand. Then Peter and John go home. Nothing else to see here.
But Mary stays. She stands weeping outside the tomb. And she looks into the tomb once more, the way you do, the way you confirm terrible or amazing news one more time. And this time there are angels there, who ask why she is weeping. She tells them what she told Peter and John: “They have taken away my Lord,and I do not know where they have laid him.” Hear her longing and grief – she had wanted to embrace her friend and teacher once more, to clean and anoint and care for his body, to honor him in death as she did in life. She turns away from the tomb, blinded by tears, and there’s someone standing nearby, maybe a gardener, and she asks her desperate question, “Sir, please, if you have taken him somewhere, tell me where,” and he says her name – Mary! – and she recognizes the voice and cries out Rabboni! My teacher!
John doesn’t tell us what she does in that moment but I imagine a desperate, fierce embrace,the way you hug a loved one lost and found. And I think I must be right about that because the next thing Jesus says is, Don’t cling to me, Mary. I still have to leave you. I can’t stay. I must go to be with my Father in Heaven. But tell the others what you have seen and heard. And Mary Magdalene went and told the disciples, I have seen the Lord!
Listen. Christianity was born in a patriarchal culture, in which men made the decisions, owned the property, ran the world. Christianity has matured and diversified and spread around the world as a patriarchal culture among patriarchal cultures. Many Christian churches still don’t admit women to leadership. Many Christian churches that do admit women to leadership are still burdened and blinded by structural sexism that means that few women are actually invited onto the higher rungs of the ladder. Far too often, and for far too long, in institutional Christianity, we have followed the script of the Gospel of Mark: telling and living a story that centers on men, and then, four-fifths of the way along, suddenly remembering to mention, Oh, there are some women here too. They’ve actually been here all along.They’ve actually made the whole thing possible.
But. This story, of Mary Magdalene, whom Eastern Christians call the Apostle to the Apostles for her role as first witness to the Resurrection – This story of Mary Magdaleneis not feminist fan-fiction. It’s not something somebody wrote last year to correct the lack of women in the Gospels. It’s in the Gospels. All four of them. Which I think allows us to say two things: One, it’s true. She really was the first to receive the good news of Easterand tell it to others. That fact was so well-known among early Christians that all four Gospel writers acknowledge it. And two, these guys, these four men, Mark, Matthew, Luke, John, formed as they were by the male-dominated cultures of Judaism and Rome, these four men were also formed by their faith in Jesus Christ in a way that led them to write Mary into the story where she belongs.
That’s the thing about Christianity. For all its flaws, its crimes, its failures. At its best, at its heart, what it’s all about is people gathering to help each other and ourselves to follow Jesus. Jesus who carried forward the vision of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the other prophets of God who went before him,in holding the social and political order accountable to God’s vision of justice and mercy. Jesus whose words and actions taught his followers to look beyond the rules of respectable morality and social status and view each person as a beloved child of God. Jesus who called and sent forth a people to live and proclaim a Gospel of love that transcends the labels that divide us – We are no longer Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free, for we are all one in Christ Jesus.
At its best, at its heart, our Christian faith equips and empowers us to reflect critically on our world, our culture, in the light of God’s vision of justice and mercy. Ours is a way of faith that always contains the seeds of its own renewal, and of the renewal of the society around us. Ours is a way of faith that casts a vision so radical that there is ALWAYS farther for us to go, in living into it. A Way that stands against our human tendency to stigmatize and exclude, and tells us we are not whole until we learn to welcome, hear, and love the stranger and outsider. A Way that stands against our human tendency to laud the rich and powerful, and calls us to honor the poor and the marginalized, and to strive for a more just and sustaining common life. A Way that stands against our human tendency to value each other differently on the basis of race, gender, age, and more, and gives us a Gospel in which – against the grain of their culture, and, still, against the grain of ours – women and children and foreigners and disabled people and criminals are treated with respect and compassion, as if they were fully worthy of understanding and love…!
No wonder Mary wept at his tomb, thinking him dead. To hear that voice silenced, to see that vision crushed. To believe that it was over. No wonder she wept. And no wonder she cried even harder when she heard his voice, saw his beloved face, and knew that not only was it not over, it was only just beginning.
That’s what matters about the Resurrection. About Jesus’ rising from the dead, the joyful mystery we celebrate today. What matters about the Resurrection is that it validates everything Jesus did and said to teach everyone who would listen about the heart of God and the worth of humanity. The meaning of Easter isn’t, Hey, some guy was dead and came back to life! He must be God! Let’s worship him and have a party! As our Presiding Bishop said in his Easter message, This is not a fairy tale.
The meaning of Easter is that the guy who said all THAT stuff, about justice and kindness and redemption and God’s fierce relentless love for each and all of us, THAT guy came back to life. THAT guy is God with us. His message, his inexhaustibly radical message of a world turned upside down by God’s love and God’s priorities, his message is ratified by the empty tomb.
Take heart, Mary. Take heart, children. Love wins. Alleluia!
The 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.