Category Archives: Saints

Homily, May 21

Saint Dunstan was a Benedictine monk, and a big part of his life’s work was establishing Benedictine monastic communities. Let me explain what all that means! 

A monk or a nun  is a person who has chosen to devote their life to God by living in a special place called a monastery or convent, with a group of other monks or nuns, and following a very set pattern of prayer and work in daily life. 

Usually, monks and nuns don’t have families of their own, and they live at least somewhat apart from the community around them. They usually have a special way of dressing – like the brown robe that Benedictines wear.

Each monastery has a specific schedule of daily prayer times, meals, and work times. The work depends on the season, on what each monk is good at, and on what they do at that particular monastery. At monasteries and convents, people would usually grow their own food, care for livestock and bees, weave cloth, make candles, beer, or wine, make Bibles and books of prayer and spiritual readings, and much more. 

About 500 years after the time of Jesus, a man named Benedict started a monastery in Italy. The way of life that developed there became a movement that spread all over Europe and, eventually, all over the world. 

To become a Benedictine monk or nun, you had to make three vows. A vow is like a great big promise that you plan to keep for your whole life!

The vows were: Poverty – you had to give away everything you owned, and have nothing of your own. 

Chastity – which meant that you wouldn’t seek out romantic relationships or get married and start a family. 

And obedience – you had to vow that you would obey the leaders of the church and of your monastery. 

But those vows were just the beginning. Once you joined the Benedictine order, you had to live under the Benedictine Rule.  

That’s Rule with a capital R and it’s actually lots of rules all bundled together, to describe how these Benedictine monks were supposed to try to live. 

A monastic Rule of Life is a set of guidelines that cover everything from prayer to meals to sleep to work to prayer again. It lays out how to live in community and how to focus your life on God. The Benedictine Rule is only one Rule of Life; there are other monastic traditions with their own Rules that have developed through history, and still follow their patterns of prayer and work together. 

The Benedictine Rule is long – more than seventy chapters! It covers a lot of things. 

Some parts of the Rule have to do with helping people keep their focus on God. 

For example: There could be as many as SEVEN daily prayer times, depending on the community. Some of them were named after the hour, using the Latin names for numbers – like Terce, recited at 9 a.m. or “the third hour”; sext, read at noon or “the sixth hour”, and None (nohn), read at 3PM or the ninth hour. The Benedictine Rule says that those times of shared prayer are to reverent, pure of heart, full of honest feeling, and SHORT. Otherwise how would all the work get done? 

There’s a rule about not talking after Compline, the prayers late in the evening before bedtime, so that after Compline everybody can just wind down for rest. 

There’s a whole chapter on the practice of humility – how to focus on God, not your own will or desires, and not setting yourself above others. 

And monks weren’t supposed to have their own possessions, to help them not get too attached to objects instead of God. Each monk should have their own robe and shoes, that are comfortable and fit them well, and a mat, blanket and pillow for sleeping. But that’s about it! 

Some other parts of the Rule have to do with the strains of living in community with other people! 

There are rules about “restraint of speech” – not talking a lot in daily life – talking gets us into trouble sometimes, doesn’t it?

Instead of conversation at mealtimes, somebody reads out loud and everybody is silent and listens. 

Monks are discouraged from drinking more than half a bottle of wine per day.

Monks are supposed to be obedient to the abbot, the head monk, but the abbot is also supposed to lead with patience and understanding, not by bossing everyone around. 

Everyone’s needs should be provided for within the community, respecting that some have different needs and capacities. 

If a rich family sends their child to become a monk or nun, they have to understand that they can’t secretly send their kid extra clothes or other luxuries. He has to live like all the other monks.

What do you think of all that? 

Would you be interested in living like that?… 

There are some things about it that I like and some things that I think would be really hard! 

Dunstan lived in a difficult time. Most people were very poor and there was a lot of illness around that nobody knew how to treat. There were bandits who would raid and steal, and there wasn’t really a stable government to look out for people and make things better. Ordinary people’s lives were pretty hard and uncertain. 

Dunstan wanted to help make things better. He did that partly by being an advisor for a lot of different kings, encouraging them to do things that would improve life for the people.

But he also believed that founding more Benedictine monastic houses could be a tool for making things better. 

Even though monasteries and convents keep some separation from the community around them, they can have a big influence. People who were sick or starving, or in trouble in other ways, could come to the monks or nuns for help. Monastic houses were like hospitals, in Dunstan’s time. Most people couldn’t read, so they might come to the monastery to learn and study, or for help with a legal document. 

Hospitality is an important value for Benedictines and other monastic traditions too. All guests are to be received with prayer and generosity, and with special care for the poor and for pilgrims making a holy journey. 

The monasteries also trained monks who went out to be priests in local churches. Before that, a lot of the priests were just somebody who was picked out for the job by the local rich family. The monk-priests were better trained and more committed to God, and they could do more to teach, help, and guide the people of their congregation. 

The changes Dunstan worked for did help things get better for ordinary people. That’s why people started honoring Dunstan as a saint, not long after his death. 

Now, a church like our church is really different from a monastic community. We don’t live together all the time. We don’t have a Rule of Life that tells us how to spend each hour of our days. 

But I think even in the few hours we spend together, week by week, we are training ourselves and each other to be people who can make a difference in our communities too. Sharing worship and learning, and the ways we practice generosity and kindness and caring for one another here –  and the ways we play together and create and celebrate and share our gifts too – I hope, I believe, that all of that helps shape us into people who can do good for our neighbors and in the world around us. 

And I’m sure that it makes Saint Dunstan proud! 



A website with some info about medieval monasticism for interested kids:

A nice abbreviated overview of the Rule of Benedict:

Sermon, Feb. 19

The Transfiguration of Jesus is our Gospel for the last Sunday in Epiphany every year. 

It gives us – looking on with his disciples – a glimpse of Jesus’ divinity, his God-self, as his journey turns towards the cross; and as we turn towards the journey of Lent. 

Let’s note that we’ve jumped twelve chapters in Matthew’s Gospel; the lectionary will circle us back to some of what we missed, in the summer and fall.

But for now we are suddenly fairly late in the story. 

Jesus is headed towards Jerusalem, and anticipating the part of his mission where he gets arrested, condemned, and killed. 

Just a few verses later he tells his disciples “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised.”

The disciples are greatly distressed by this… as you would be.

But Jesus is very clear that doing and saying the things he is doing and saying is going to make the powers that be seize him and crush him. 

I wonder what they were talking about, Jesus and Moses and Elijah – or whoever these mysterious beings are, whom the disciples think are the great prophets Moses and Elijah. 

In his Gospel, Luke says that they were speaking about Jesus’ departure that he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Meaning: his death. 

Which makes sense – that this is a time for Jesus to take counsel, and perhaps comfort, before facing the hardest part yet of his earthly mission. A conversation about what’s ahead, and about how to stay the course. 

I’ve had conversations a little like that – not with people who anticipate being arrested and killed, but with people getting ready to do a hard thing, and trying to prepare themselves, and work out how to do what has to be done as well as possible. 

Maybe that’s what’s happening here. 

It’s the understanding and teaching of our church that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine; and I can’t imagine that any amount of divinity makes it easy for a human to willingly face mortal danger. 

Jesus following his path towards death paved the way for a lot of other people to follow Jesus towards death. 

The apostle Stephen was the first Christian martyr, stoned to death in the seventh chapter of Acts for preaching the Gospel.

But many followed. 

There were waves of persecution that led to many Christians being imprisoned, and some killed, because they refused to participate in the Roman state religion. 

(Saint Valentine, for example!) 

The early church came to hold the martyrs in very high regard, as having made the ultimate sacrifice for Christ. 

Martyr is a funny word. M – A – R – T – Y – R. 

You may be familiar with it in secular language, meaning of someone who appears to enjoy suffering for the sake of others. 

But that’s a distortion of its earliest and simplest meaning. 

It’s a Greek legal term, meaning a witness, as in a court of law. 

It took on its religious meaning as early Christians bore witness to their faith – gave testimony to their convictions and hopes – under threat of torture and even death. 

Those early generations of our faith-ancestors understood martyrdom as a way to respond to – and even emulate – Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross. 


It became less common for Christians to die for their faith, after the year 300 or so, but it was by no means uncommon. 

Yet in the mainline churches like the Episcopal Church, we don’t tend to talk a lot about the Christian martyrs – ancient or modern. 

I’m not sure why not. 

Maybe it seems a little dramatic. A little indecorous. Excessive. 

There’s a tiny little section in our hymnal for feasts of martyrs – Hymns #236 through 241 – but I didn’t grow up singing them. 

Sometimes we talk about the martyrs of the Civil Rights movement – Jonathan Daniels, Dr. King. 

Sometimes we talk about the martyrs of World War II – Dietrich Bonhoeffer is probably the best known. 

But today I want to talk about Sophie. 

Sophie Magdalena Scholl was born in 1921, in Ulm, Germany, the fourth of six children. She was part of a lively, loving family, and was a smart, curious, loving child. 

The Scholls were not particularly religious, but were people who thought deeply about ethics and values; her father was a pacifist and had been a conscientious objector in the first world war. 

When Sophie was 11 or 12, something started to happen in her country – a new movement, with a new leader. His name was Adolf Hitler. 

At first it was exciting! Everybody was talking about a new chapter for Germany, with unity and prosperity for everyone. There were clubs for kids to join to celebrate being German. Sophie joined one, and became a leader. They marched and sang and went on outings; it was fun! Everyone felt caught up in the hope and energy of the moment. 

But this new movement in Germany wasn’t for everybody. The leaders said that only some kinds of people count as real Germans. Others don’t belong – especially the Jews. 

There had been Jews in Germany for a long, long time, and some of the best music and poetry and writing in Germany came from German Jewish musicians and poets and writers.  

But the Nazi movement said:  All of that is no good. Sophie’s brother Hans found out he wasn’t allowed to sing his favorite songs. Sophie learned that her favorite poet, Heinrich Heine, was off limits. And the young Scholls started to look more critically at this new movement. 

Deep down inside, Sophie’s heart began to turn. She couldn’t just go along with things anymore. 

Sophie finished school; by then World War II had started and Germany was deep in wartime. Hans and all her male friends had to become soldiers. Young women had to work for the German cause too, before they could start university or take another path. During those difficult years, Sophie kept in touch with a group of friends who shared thoughts and feelings about the war and the Nazi regime.  

An elderly Roman Catholic priest and scholar befriended the group and influenced their thinking, bringing Christ and faith into their reflections on how to live in such times. 

In 1942, Sophie’s brother Hans and his friends started a secret resistance network at the university where he was studying. It was called the White Rose Society. They wrote essays urging ordinary Germans to resist Nazi ideas. They printed thousands of copies of their essays, and secretly sent them all over their city and country.  

When Sophie found out, at first she was shocked – but then she asked to join them. She knew that because she was a girl, and looked young and innocent, it would be easier for her to get away with buying supplies and distributing leaflets.

It was dangerous work, but Sophie knew that. She knew that terrible things were happening – and even more terrible: ordinary people were standing by and letting them happen. Sophie and Hans knew that they were doing and saying things that might make the powers that be seize them and crush them. And they went ahead anyway. 

On February 18, 1943 – eighty years ago, yesterday – Sophie and Hans were on a university campus in Munich, leaving leaflets for students to find. Sophie had a few papers left, so she threw them over a balcony into an open area.  But a janitor saw her, and reported her to the Nazi secret police. 

Sophie and her brother Hans were arrested by the Gestapo. They were tried the following Monday, sentenced to death, and executed later the same day. Sophie was 21 years old. 

On the last day of her life, February 22nd, 1943 – eighty years ago, this Wednesday – Sophie said,  “The sun is still shining.” 

When we reflect on the lives of the blessed martyrs, we might feel like they must have been a different kind of person – a different kind of Christian – than our ordinary selves. Surely their faith was stronger, their inner vision clearer, to lead them towards the cross in such a way. 

But I’ve spent some time in the past week reading excerpts from Sophie’s letters and diary, and there’s so much that is, as we say, relatable. 

She struggled with having to live through difficult times, writing in a letter to her sister, “Sometimes, and especially of late, I’ve felt that it’s grossly unfair to have to live in an age so filled with momentous events.” (145)

She found consolation in music, as so many of us do. She writes at one point about hearing something on the radio that stirred her and helped, in her words, “distance me a little from the turmoil around me, with its resemblance to glutinous, hostile mush.” (189) She continues, “Music represents neither more nor less than the air that enables a flame to burn more brightly.” (190, winter 1942) 

She found solace and escape in nature – again, as I know many of us do. She wrote in 1942, “I’ve always felt, and I still do now, that I can hear the most consummate harmony resounding from field and forest…” (204) 

And the night before her arrest, she wrote a letter to her sister about looking forward to spring, saying, “You can’t help rejoicing and laughing, however moved or sad at heart you feel, when you see the springtime clouds in the sky and the budding branches sway, stirred by the wind.” (280)

Sophie questioned her own motives and felt like she should be doing more. As perhaps many of us do. 

In June of 1940, she wrote to her boyfriend, a soldier, about the need for clarity of conscience in complicated times – but went on to say, “Very few of my actions correspond to what I consider right… Weariness keeps me silent when I ought to speak out… I know what I’m like, and I’m too tired, lazy, and bad to change.” (75, 77, 1940, to Fritz)

In January of 1943, just a month before her arrest, she wondered whether she’d ever done anything out of truly good motives, or just to look good or keep up with others she admired. She wrote, “It’s beyond me that some people have moments of temptation only. I have moments of greater lucidity, and I’m grateful for them, but the rest of the time I’m paddling around in the dark.” (268)

Sophie struggled with prayer – as perhaps many of us do at times. Late in 1941 she wrote, “When I try to pray and reflect on whom I’m praying to, I almost go crazy, I feel so infinitely small… I get really scared, so the only emotion that can surface is fear… I can’t pray for anything except the ability to pray.” (176-77) 

In June of 1942 she wrote of praying desperately against becoming numb: “Teach me to pray… better to pray for pain, pain, and more pain, than to feel empty, and to feel so without truly feeling at all. That I mean to resist.” (207-08) 

Later that summer she wrote, “I too often forget the sufferings that ought to overwhelm me, the sufferings of mankind. I place my powerless love in your hands, that it may become powerful.” (209)

In October of 1942, four months before her arrest and death, she wrote, “Whenever I pray, the words drain out of me. The only ones I can remember are, “Help me!” I can’t offer up any other prayer….. So I pray to learn how to pray.” (249) 

She writes about feeling like she didn’t know how to approach or name God. Like she was too bad, too small, too distracted. She describes wanting to fall to her knees at an Easter service – and feeling too self-conscious and inhibited. (194) 

And yet: There is no question, reading her diary, that it was her faith and her conscience that drove her to join her brother in resisting the Nazi evil, and thus to her death. 

There is no question that Sophie Scholl is a Christian martyr. 

In my sermon last week I said: Choosing good is hard, for lots of reasons. We are often conflicted, confused, self-deluded, weak and weary. 

It can help to have a community, people in it with us.

It can help to have a season like Lent to invite us deeper into it. 

Maybe it helps, too, to have people we admire and honor to show us what it looks like to choose the good when it’s hard.

In weakness, weariness, confusion. 

Perhaps part of the work of this season – of Lent, of this season of the world – needs to be reckoning with what matters to us deeply enough to stand up for it, to work for it, even when it’s costly. 

We aren’t in the depths of World War II. But we live in profoundly uncertain times. Threats to democracy, civic strife, the deepening climate crisis… We probably feel some recognition of Sophie’s “glutinous, hostile mush.” 

I can’t help thinking about Sophie from the perspective of a parent and friend of young people. When her father, Robert Scholl, tried to get into the courtroom for Hans and Sophie’s trial, the guard told him, “You should have raised them better.”

Sophie and Hans are both a worst-case and best-case outcome for a parent: young people of courage, resourcefulness and conscience, who stood up to evil and paid the price. 

Part of me wants to urge the youth of our parish to dwell deeply with the stories of people like Sophie, to help form their hearts and souls for struggles ahead. 

Part of me wants to say, Look away. Never mind. Stay home. Stay safe. 

But it’s not up to me. 

From one perspective, the White Rose was a failure. Ordinary Germans did not rise up against the regime, as they hoped. 

Sophie believed their deaths would spur a student revolt, but it didn’t happen. People were either too comfortable or too scared.

But their lives and witness remind us that there are things we do because we have to. Because they are necessary and right, regardless of whether they work. 

That there’s always an alternative to standing by, or looking away. 

That sometimes all we can do is place our powerless love in God’s hands, and trust that somehow it will become powerful.



Diary and letter excerpts are from the book At the heart of the White Rose, edited by Inge Jens. 

Homily, May 22

It’s not a very nice story, is it?  For the story, the Devil is the embodiment of evil, who is always trying to trick and hurt human beings… so the story thinks it’s OK to trick and hurt the Devil. Maybe we would want to try to solve this problem another way!

This is an old story – but it’s probably not as old as St. Dunstan himself. Dunstan lived about 11 hundred years ago. He lived in a place that we call England, now… though then it was a group of little kingdoms that had just begun to think of themselves as being a country, together. It was an unstable, uncertain time, with a lot of violence and poverty. 

When he was a young man, Dunstan became a monk. That means he committed his life to serving God, living simply as part of a community of other monks. Later on he became a bishop, a leader in the church – and then Archbishop of Canterbury, leader of ALL the churches in England. He also served in the court of several English kings, helping and advising them – if they would let him. 

We know a fair amount about Dunstan’s life, from historical documents and other evidence. He died on May 19 in the year 988. Soon after his death, people began to honor him as a saint, and to tell stories meant to show how holy he was – like this story about Dunstan defeating the Devil! 

When the church calls someone a saint, it usually means that we think they followed God in ways that mattered to the people of their time and place. Let’s look at a couple of images – historical documents – to remember Dunstan today and think about his sainthood. 

Dunstan was one of the leaders in the English Benedictine Reform movement of the tenth century. Monasteries and convents – places where monks and nuns lived lives of prayer and study, devoted to God – were a really important part of society back then, as centers for for faith, education, medical care, and more. But centuries of war and struggle made it hard for those places to thrive and do what they were meant to do. 

Dunstan and his colleagues wanted to fix that. To make monasteries centers of true faith and learning again – and to start MORE monasteries, where they could train priests to serve God and God’s people.

This is a page of the Rule they used in their monasteries, based on the Rule of St. Benedict.  The Rule was a document that told the monks and nuns how they should live in community, with a balance of daily work, study, rest and prayer. 

The most important thing about this page is something you might not notice right away. Back then, not very many people knew how to read or write. And all the books were handwritten… Does everybody have the same handwriting?

Have you ever seen somebody’s handwriting that was hard for you to read? Maybe they had bad handwriting, or maybe they had GOOD handwriting but you just did’t know how to read it?… 

In Dunstan’s time, if you wanted to study and read about religion or science or travel or philosophy or poetry, anything – well, first, you had to be able to read the language it was written in, often Greek or Latin. Latin was the language of the Roman Empire. And long after the Romans were gone, it kept being used as the language of scholarship and literature and church, in lots of places. 

But even if you could read Latin, you also had to be able to read the handwriting, the script style, that the text was written in! It was hard for a lot of people, even educated people, to read books that came from previous centuries or from other places, because of those problems. So it was hard to study and learn and build up new knowledge. 

But starting not long before Dunstan was born, there was a movement across Europe to start using one form of writing, called Carolingian Miniscule. People wrote new books in this script, and they also rewrote older books in this script. So suddenly a lot more knowledge and culture could be read and shared! It was a big deal!

Scholars think they know Dunstan’s handwriting, from parts of a book called the Glastonbury Classbook. He wrote in his own version of Carolingian Minuscule, with some influence from the Irish monks who first trained him. 

Dunstan didn’t write this page. But it is in the Carolingian style. It’s hard for us to read – and the text is in Latin – but you can notice that the letter forms are very clear and regular. And if you look closely, you’ll see some other words on the page, written in between those nice neat lines. The written-in part is the same thing in Old English, the language ordinary people spoke. 

Those words were written in to help monks and nuns who didn’t know Latin, or only knew a little bit – so that they could also read this important text about how they were called to live. 

So both that Carolingian script – and the written-in Old English – show us that for Dunstan and other leaders of this movement, having more people be able to read and learn and understand was really important. I think that’s really cool! And it’s one of the ways Dunstan’s work mattered to the people of his time and place. 

Dunstan did the things he did – even when they were hard! – because he loved God and wanted to follow God’s will. Here’s the second image we’ll look at today. You may have seen it before. 

This is the icon of Dunstan that we like to use here.

It’s an image from that book I mentioned, the Glastonbury Classbook, and – here’s the part I think is really cool – it’s likely that Dunstan drew it himself. He was an artist, as well as a scribe, a writer of books. 

Usually our icons, our holy images, put the person we’re honoring right in the middle.  But in this picture Dunstan drew himself kneeling at the feet of Jesus Christ, on a throne. That’s how Dunstan drew himself so that is how we honor him – as a servant of Jesus. 

Look: you can see that he’s dressed as a monk, in a robe, and with his hair shaved on top – that’s called a tonsure. 

The words above him are a prayer: “I ask, merciful Christ, that you protect me, Dunstan;  A medieval drawing of a seated Christ, robed, with a monk bowing at his feetdo not permit the storms of the Underworld to swallow me.”

I learned about that prayer a few years ago, and I think it’s a really good prayer. 

It’s a prayer asking Jesus to help us feel his presence and love when we feel overwhelmed – when we feel like chaos or anxiety or struggle might just swallow us up. 

Praying a prayer like that isn’t like flipping a switch; the struggle or anxiety doesn’t just go away. But maybe it reminds us that we’re not alone with it. And that it won’t last forever. And sometimes pausing to pray can help us catch our breath, and unclench our fists, and notice that the earth is still under our feet, and there is still breath going in and out of our lungs, and that we are loved. 

This week when I read that prayer again, it came with a tune. Dunstan was a musician too – so maybe it was a little gift from our saint. 

Here’s how it goes… in Latin first: 

Memet clemens rogo, Christe, tuere / 

Tenarias me non sinas sorbsisse procellas.

Now in English: 

Kindly Christ, I pray thee, save my humble soul;

Let me not be swallowed by the storms of the netherworld! 


Merciful Christ,  Protect us, each and all; when the world feels like a storm that batters us, like waters rising to swallow us up, calm our hearts and give us peace. Amen. 

Easter sermon

He was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;

upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed… 

This Lent, Father Tom McAlpine – a retired priest and Old Testament scholar who makes his home at St. Dunstan’s – invited us into deep study of a set of texts from the book of the prophet Isaiah. 

These texts are called the Servant Songs, and they probably date from about 500 years before the time of Jesus – with the rest of Second Isaiah.

I’ve just quoted part of the fourth and last Servant Song, found in Isaiah chapter 53.  If you’ve hung around churches for a while, you’ve heard bits of the fourth Song, especially during Holy Week.

“Like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
so he did not open his mouth… an
d the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all…

Even if you don’t remember hearing the words of the Fourth Song directly, its vocabulary and ideas are woven into the worship and theology of the church in so many ways. 

It’s a little hard to know what to make of the fourth Song in its original context. The idea of someone innocent suffering on behalf of others, in a way that somehow frees or absolves those others, is distinctive here. It has loose parallels elsewhere in the Old Testament, but nothing terribly close.

If your immediate reaction is to think that this text is unusual because it’s pointing towards Jesus, let’s tap the brakes. I don’t believe that Judaism is only fulfilled in Jesus. That all these pre-Christian texts and traditions just sat around waiting for their true and full meaning to arrive when Jesus was born. I don’t believe that and I invite you to not believe it with me. 

The Fourth Song meant something in its original context and it means something for Jews today.  That does not keep it from meaning something else, something additional, for Christians. And it has, and does. 

Textual study makes it very clear that early Christians interpreted Jesus’ life and death through the words of of the Fourth Song. There are hints, too, that Jesus himself understood his mission through these ancient and evocative words. Jesus knew the Old Testament – the Hebrew Bible – very well. Perhaps he found in this song a poetic description of his call to suffer and die among and for God’s people. Much as one might hear a song of love or anger on the radio and think, That’s it. That’s exactly what it’s like. 

The Fourth Song speaks of death – but I’m bringing it up today because I want to talk about life.  About resurrection – Jesus’s, and ours. 

We think of resurrection – the Church’s fancy word for rising from the dead – as something that happens after we die. And the Bible and the church do speak about a new life in God for the faithful departed. I trust and hope in that promise. 

But the Christian Scriptures also describe baptism as a dying and rising with Christ.  At the Last Supper, Jesus describes his coming crucifixion as a baptism (Mk 10:38) – although he was also baptized with water in the Jordan River by his cousin John, much earlier in the Gospels. 

And early Christian writers repeatedly describe Christian baptism as a death to the old self, and a rising to new life in Christ. In the letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul writes, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” And the author of the letter to the church in Colossae writes,  “So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God… for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”  (Colossians 3:1, 3)

Our baptismal rite reflects this understanding, when we say, “We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.”

What is it like to think of myself as already dead?

What is it like to think of myself as already fully and eternally alive?

The Fourth Song of Isaiah and the Christian scriptures talk about this dying – and rising – as purposeful. It accomplishes something. In the Fourth Song, the Servant is not resurrected, but their death is redemptive:  “The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous.” 

Jesus says about himself: “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24)

The how of Jesus Christ’s redemptive death remains a mystery despite millennia of theologizing. That is another sermon for another time. Today we are talking resurrection. New life. Christ’s life in us. 

The resurrection we celebrate at Easter isn’t just Jesus’s.  It’s also ours. And it’s not just meant to free us from the power of death. We are baptized to become a certain kind of people. We are freed from death to live a certain kind of life. 

Our Prayer Book gestures at some of what that means – we’ll dwell with that shortly as we renew our baptismal vows. 

In our study of the Fourth Song and how Christians understand it, we read a little of the work of Rowan Williams, the theologian and former Archbishop of Canterbury, writing about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a German theologian who was killed by the Nazis for his involvement with the resistance movement. He wrote about what it really means to be a follower of Jesus. What our life in Christ is all about – in times of war, chaos and terror. 

Williams, reflecting on Bonhoeffer’s writings, life and death, argues that our life in Christ Jesus is fundamentally a life lived for the good of others. He writes, “The other person I encounter is already the one with whom Christ is in solidarity, and the death I must endure is the death of anything in me that stops me acknowledging that and acting accordingly…. We are to stand in the place where the other lives, so that we are vulnerable to what the other is vulnerable to; we are to risk what the other risks…”

Williams continues, [To follow Jesus Christ,] “we must learn to ask how we may act so as to relinquish whatever fashions, conventions and securities prevent us from standing with another, whatever self-images protect us from seeing the reality of another, whatever generalities block our attention to the particularity of another.” (Christ the Heart of Creation, Williams, 2018)

I want to be clear here that in their focus on life in Christ as a life lived for others, Williams and Bonhoeffer aren’t talking about letting someone harm you or take advantage of you. They’re talking about seeing and standing with those who are under threat or pushed to the margins in the world as it is. 

And I want to acknowledge that Bonhoeffer, Williams – and I – all speak and write from the position of people who could roll along pretty comfortably with the cultural and economic status quo. Some of those hearing my voice right now may feel yourself outside the “we” of the texts I just read. What you need are people ready to see you and stand with you. To risk what you risk, simply by being. 

There’s a prayer we prayed, here, last Sunday – a prayer we pray every Palm Sunday, as we begin our walk through the great story of Jesus’ death and resurrection.It says, “Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace…” 

This year, our work with the Fourth Song and its meaning for Christians has me asking myself: Whose life? Whose peace? 

I wonder if the author of that prayer – William Reed Huntington, in the late 1800s – actually had the Fourth Song, Isaiah 53, in mind. “Upon him was the punishment that made us whole” – that’s actually the Hebrew word Shalom, often translated as peace – “And by his bruises we are healed.” – it’s not a big step from healing to life. 

Shalom and healing, life and peace. 

The Servant’s death was for the healing and peace of others. Jesus’ life, death, and rising were for the life and peace of others.  It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that as God’s baptized and resurrected people, the life and peace we are to be about is not our own… but others’.

As the author C.S. Lewis once remarked, “If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”

Bonhoeffer wrote, “My life is outside myself, beyond my disposal. My life is another, a stranger; Jesus Christ.” 

What is it like to think of myself as already dead?

What is it like to think of myself as already fully and eternally alive?

What makes this an Easter sermon, beloved friends, is that Jesus’ story doesn’t end at the tomb. Bonhoeffer’s story doesn’t end at the gallows.  Martin Luther King, Jr.’s story doesn’t end on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.  Last night, at the Easter Vigil, we called on the saints, the holy martyrs, the faithful departed, to stand with us as we marched towards Easter. So many names. So many prayers for us, for our world, our lives, our discipleship, uttered – even now – in the presence of the One who is first and last. 

Love wins.

Life wins.

Whatever we spend, comes back to us – in this world, or another. 

Whatever it costs, it’s worth it. 

Whatever we pour out for the life and peace of another draws us deeper into Christ. 

For we are already dead,  and our life is hid with Christ in God. 

Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. 

Saints Perpetua and Felicity

See some beautiful images of these saints here and here.

This biography was prepared for us by Sister Pamela Pranke. 

The young women clung to one another with courage as the wild animal charged them. This story is that of Perpetua and Felicity, companions, Christian heroes and martyrs who faced a violent death rather than deny God by worshiping the Roman Emperor. Their compelling story captured the attention and imagination of Christians for 1800 years as an example of unwavering faith in God while facing torture and death with grace. Perpetua, a Christian noblewoman of Carthage, in North Africa, with an infant at her breast, told us in her own words through a diary she kept while in prison of the friendship with her dear pregnant slave, Felicity, and, fellow catechumens, Revocatus, Saturninus, and Secundulus. This is their enduring story.

In the second century people under Roman rule were required to worship the emperor and the Roman gods. Refusal to do so could result in imprisonment and death. That is exactly what happened to Perpetua and her companions.

Perpetua’s parents were not Christian so they could not understand their daughter’s decision to disregard the Roman law especially since her infant stayed in prison with her. Perpetua’s father pleaded with her to change her mind about Christianity to save her life. This was her response, “‘Father,’ said I, ‘do you see this vase here, for example, or waterpot or whatever?’ ‘Yes, I do’, said he. And I told him: ‘Could it be called by any other name than what it is?’ And he said: ‘No.’ ‘Well, so too I cannot be called anything other than what I am, a Christian.'”

Perpetua’s outraged father left the prison in a fury, returning several days later desperately pleading with Perpetua to offer a sacrifice to the emperors. Even the governor pleaded with her to do the same. Over the next days, her father continued to plead with Perpetua until he was beaten back by the guards. Still, Perpetua remained faithful to Christianity.

Felicity was 8 months pregnant when the group was imprisoned. Since pregnant women were not allowed to be executed, her date for execution was postponed until after delivery. This caused her great distress since she would not be executed with her companions. The group gathered in supplication to the Lord that Felicity would deliver her baby so they could all die together. Their prayer was answered two days before the scheduled execution when Felicity delivered a baby in the prison.

The small group of Christians was determined to die rejoicing in the Lord with dignity. Their last meal together was a love feast shared with family and friends. The group of Christian companions approached death with faith and celebration of victory knowing that they were in the Lord’s hands.

The day of execution arrived. Perpetua entered the arena singing psalms. The men faced the wild beasts first, after being attacked by a bear, boar, and leopard, they waited for Perpetua and Felicity to face their beast, a wild heifer that was symbolic of their young womanhood.

Perpetua and Felicity, clinging to each other, were stripped, and dragged in a large net into the arena. The crowd, after seeing that Perpetua was a very young woman and that Felicity had just given birth, called for them to be clothed. Perpetua was tossed into the air by the wild heifer that trampled Felicity. Perpetua pulled Felicity up so they could face the wild animal together. Perpetua, concerned with her Christian dignity, covered an exposed thigh and straightened her hair.

The crowd indicated that it was taking too long for the Christians to die, so in compassion, they called for a rapid death. The Christians stood in silence together after sharing a blessed kiss. A gladiator killed each in turn, excluding Perpetua. A soldier thrust a sword at Perpetua and hit bone rather than killing her. Perpetua dramatically reached for the sword guiding it to her neck to aid her executioner.
This narrative became so well-known in the early Church that it was read during liturgies. Even today, Perpetua’s diary is read in church services or their brave story retold.

O God the King of saints, who strengthened your servants Perpetua and Felicity and their companions to make a good confession, staunchly resisting, for the cause of Christ, the claims of human affection, and encouraging one another in their time of trial: Grant that we who cherish their blessed memory may share their pure and steadfast faith, and win with them the palm of victory; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Further Reading and References
Acts of Christian Martyrs, The Martyrdom of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas, untitled ( This includes Perpetua’s Diary.

Keifer, J., Perpetua and her companions: Martyrs at Carthage. Biographical sketches of memorable Christians of the past.

Peterson, A.R. (2004). Perpetua: A Bride, a Martyr, a Passion, Relevant Books.

Shewring, W, (2021). The Passion of SS. Perpetua and Felicity, Hassell Street Press.

YouTube has a number of videos about these saints.



Chad of Lichfield

Chad of Lichfield, 634-672  (Feast Day – March 2)

Written by Sr. Pamela Pranke, OPA

In the mid600s, a father transported his four sons across Northumbria in Britain to the Holy Island where the newly build, solid stone Lindisfarne Abbey guarded the North Sea. There, the youngest son, Chad, and his older brother, Cedd, said farewell to their father and were turned over to the care of Abbot Adain to learn and live the life of a Celtic monk. Thus began their legendary saintly lives.

At Lindesfarne, the boys lived in community, praying, studying, and working together. Those early years shaped Chad to the rhythms of the sea and prayer, obedience, humility, Celtic spirituality, memorizing psalms and gospel, singing, and playing clapping word games. A call and response game went something like this, one boy called out, “God is_,” followed by a couple of claps. The other boys would shout a response such as, “Omnipotent.” Chad was especially known for his loud thunderous claps. 

The North Sea churned about the Holy Island as a constant reminder of the power of nature, especially during fierce storms. When the sea roared, Chad humbled himself before God by lying prostrate praying for protection and deliverance.  

When the boys were old enough to travel alone, Chad and some of the other young monks were send to a monastery in Ireland, Rath Melsigi. Following the instructions of Abbott Aidan and the way of Celtic monks they were told to keep their feet on the ground walking rather than riding a horse. Chad always refused a horse until a time when as a Bishop his superior, Archbishop Theodore, picked him up and put him on a horse, forcing him to ride.

Chad and his companions traveled from monastery to monastery on foot in the wet and cold of Ireland, sharing with people living in extreme poverty, hunger, and deprivation, until they reached Rath Melsigi. Chad would go out of his way to meet every poorest distant home or farm to preach the gospel and teach them to sing and chant simple Celtic tunes like, “Come, Lord. Come down. Come among us.” As the chant was repeated, he would tell them gospel stories over the rhythm of the chant. 

When the young monks first saw Rath Melsigi they were like hobbits seeing the elven city of Rivendell for the first time. They were awe struck, especially by the large number of books housed there. At Rath Melsigi, the day was divided into three parts, first, study of early Church writers, second, work for their upkeep, third, work for the good of others, no matter what that might mean. No task was considered beneath their dignity, from mending a fence, or teaching the psalms. The monks completely lived a life of service. This rhythm formed their days until the time when they would be sent back out into the world.

Every time and place have its upheavals and conflicts. For Chad these took the form of political conflict within Christianity between the Roman and Celtic Christians, and the 664 A.D. plague in Ireland and Britain. As we know well, pandemic impacts every part of one’s life.  This plague gave rise to deadly devastation that decimated the population to an extent beyond our understanding, while chaos ruled the day.

Needing assistance, Chad’s older brother, Cedd, who was Bishop of London and Abbott of Lastingham in Yorkshire, sent for his brothers, including, Chad. As Chad traveled to Lastingham his journey slowed to care for the sick and bury the dead. Sadly, death greeted Chad at Lastingham. All of his brothers, including Cedd, died of the plague, leaving Chad to serve as the Abbot of Lastingham.

Sadly, and ironically, while the population died, the rulers and church hierarchy were most concerned with the date of Easter and how to cut a tonsure. Despite the plague, The Synod of Whitby was called to settle the disputes. Unfortunately, most of those attending the Synod died from the plague.

A bishop or priest could not be found in all of Britain resulting in a power void that added to the chaos. For example, a priest named Wilfred was selected to be Bishop of York, but three bishops could not be found to consecrate him since all were dead. So, Wilfred went to Gual in search of bishops. There he lingered to be safe from the deadly plague.

With Wilfred in Gual, a bishop was still needed. Chad was selected for this position, but he experienced the same problem as Wilfred, no bishops were available to consecrate him as a bishop. Finally, the King had him unofficially consecrated. Still, it was not proper or official.

Just like a twisted, concocted tale, Wilfred returned wanting his bishop seat back. This is where Chad’s humility and holiness shined through brilliantly. Chad humbly gave the bishop seat back to Wilfred. Because he was so humble, and saintly, Chad was made Bishop of Lastingham where he served as Abbott. 

Learning of a massacre of martyrs on the fields of Lichfield under the Roman Emperor Diocletian in 303. Chad moved his See to Lichfield where a cathedral and monastary were built on the exact spot of the massacre.

Bishop Chad maintained his untarnished reputation as a humble, holy man. Sometimes he retreated to the bottom of a well to find a quiet space for prayer. It was said that light poured from the well when Chad prayed within. Ultimately, Chad, too, died of the plague. While the Lichfield monks prayed, they heard singing like that of angels. They scrambled outside to learn the source of the singing, instead they found their Bishop dead.

Chad was canonized shortly after his death. Many miracles and healings were attributed to him. The well where he prayed became a site of pilgrimage. His relics reside in the cathedral at Birmingham, England. 

We have much to learn from the life of St. Chad about humility, prayer, living in rhythm with the hours and nature, and care of the least during times of pandemic. Fortunately, one of Chad’s monks taught Bede, the famous British historian. From this monk, Venerable Bede learned intimate details about Chad’s life and Celtic Christianity. To learn more about this interesting saint, here are a few references.

Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of England, by The Venerable Bede,

Lichfield and the Lands of St Chad: Creating Community in Early Medieval Mercia (Studies in Regional and Local History Book 19) Kindle Edition, by Andrew Sargent

Life and Legends of Saint Chad, Bishop of Lichfield, (669-672) With Extracts From Un-edited mss., and Illustrations – September 3, 2015 by Richard Hyett Warner

On Eagles’ Wings – The Life and Spirit of St Chad, Mass Market Paperback – by Revd David Adam

Saint Chad (Caedda), Bishop of Mercia (Lichfield) † 672

Homily, January 30

Our Scripture drama today was based on Acts 9:1-21. 

We may know the main character of the story we just heard better by another name:  Paul. Saul was probably his Hebrew name – like Israel’s first king. Paul or Paulus was probably the name he used in Greco-Roman contexts – which was most of his ministry. So, Saul to Paul was probably not a name change, but a change in what he went by.

Saul or Paul was an incredibly important figure in early Christianity! He indeed ends up suffering a lot for his faith in Jesus, too – and eventually dies for it. But first: He spends thirty years founding churches, traveling around preaching and teaching, and writing letters to remind those young churches how they’re supposed to be acting. At least seven of the Epistles – the letters of the early church – that are included in the Bible were written by Paul, including some that are really important for our understanding of what it means to be a Christian. 

That stuff about how the church is like a body?… That’s Paul! That stuff you hear at weddings about how true, holy love, is patient, and kind, and so on? That’s Paul! That passage about how neither death, or life, nor things present, nor things to come, etcetera, can separate us from the love of God in Christ? That’s Paul! I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me? That’s Paul!  Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, … think about these things? That’s Paul! Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind? That’s Paul! There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus? That’s Paul! I could go on, but you get the idea! 

Paul is so, so important for the growth and spread and identity of early Christianity. So this story of how Paul became a Christian is important, too.  As Paul himself says in his first letter to the church in Corinth, “I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and God’s grace towards me has not been in vain.” (1 Cor 15)

This month’s Skill for Faithful Living is Friendship. In StoryChurch, we’ve been reading some books about friends and friendship. Last Sunday we read two books about people who help their friends see things in a new way. 

A very hungry lion accepts a rabbit’s invitation to lunch, planning to eat the rabbit, and then discovers that he really likes carrot stew. Much to the relief of all the animals in the neighborhood! There’s a hint in the story that what the lion likes isn’t just the stew, but also having friends that welcome him… instead of running away from him! 

In another book, Michael Bird Boy teaches Boss Lady to use bees to make real honey in her factory and get rid of pollution that was hurting the countryside. 

There are lots of ways friendship can be a holy gift. One of them is that sometimes our friends help us change – in ways we need to change. They help us see things in a new light, or try a new way of being, that’s better for us and for those around us. Or sometimes we might be given the opportunity to help a friend change – lovingly, wisely, carefully. People can change. Even people we don’t expect – like Paul. 

When I look at this story through the lens of friendship, I really notice Ananias. Look: Presumably Jesus could have healed Paul’s blindness without help. But that’s not what happened. Instead Jesus asked Ananias to help complete the miracle. 

Does Ananias want to do that?… 

Ananias’ reluctance is very real. There are people we don’t want to help. People who have hurt us personally; or people who stand for things we hate or fear. Jesus was asking a lot, in asking Ananias to be kind to Paul. Ananias does it – not because he wants the best for Paul, but because he loves Jesus. 

The miracle that happens to Paul – 5hat makes him a Christian, and then such an important leader for the early church – that miracle really has two parts. First there’s the Road to Damascus moment – the blinding light and the voice. And then there’s the moment when Ananias lays his hands on Paul and prays over him, and his temporary blindness is healed. 

There were several days between those two events, and we don’t know exactly when Paul’s heart was really turned towards Jesus. But it could be that it was Ananias’ willingness to extend friendship that really fulfilled what was happening inside of Paul. Like the rabbits welcoming that lion into their home! 

Today I give thanks for the ministry of the apostle Paul. But I also give thanks for Ananias, who appears so briefly in the story, but who has such an important role, and who shows us the power and potential of holy friendship.

God, help us be holy friends, too. Amen. 

Sermon, August 22

Put on the whole armor of God, so that you can stand your ground on the evil day… 

There’s something so satisfying about a good visual metaphor.

The “armor of God” passage in the final verses of the letter to the Ephesians seems to be based on armor of Roman soldiers, which people would have seen on a daily basis: A belt, a breastplate; shoes or rather, sturdy sandals; a big honking shield; a helmet, and a sword. This author is using a familiar image to invite believers to think about how to equip themselves for the struggles they face as a community. 

While appreciating the image, we might find ourselves tempted to hold the militarism of this passage at arm’s length. The idea of preparing ourselves for battle may not sit well. We’re Midwesterners. We’re nice.

Mennonite pastor and writer Melissa Florer-Bixler writes that one of the dominant ways we respond to conflict is by assuming that people who harm others are simply misunderstood – or maybe doing what seems best to them, in a way we could empathize with if we knew their whole story.  In this approach, writes Florer-Bixler, “The way to overcome our enmity is by creating spaces where the falsehood of being enemies is unmasked [and] we will discover that we all want the same things.”

But what if we don’t all want the same things? What if some of our differences are too consequential to overcome with a friendly chat over coffee, or a unity vigil? 

Florer-Bixler says the OTHER dominant way we respond to conflict is by assuming that anyone different is an enemy, “a threat to that for which I’ve worked and that which I love…Anyone who stands in the way of my commitments must be eliminated.”  If you believe you’ve never had those thoughts or feelings – that you’ve never experienced a flash of blind hatred towards someone who seemed to represent the opposite of all you hold dear and true – then pause and examine your conscience again. Perhaps you are the exception. But most of us, no matter how nice, have been there. 

Either the enemy is just misunderstood… or they’re an existential threat that must be removed. The first approach can lead to a naive and ineffective idealism.The second, to intractable cycles of fear, suspicion, and harm. 

Is there another way?

Florer-Bixler says there is another way. A Christian way. Her book is called How To Have An Enemy. And in it she argues that Christians can have enemies – in fact, should have enemies… but that true Christian enmity is something very particular. 

Enmity, says Florer-Bixler, is “a relationship between people… that recognizes how a person uses their power, actively or passively, to harm or dominate another.” (28) Power isn’t inherently bad; we need power to act, to change, to protect, to improve. But if our calls to unity and mutual respect ignore power and differences in power, they can only ever lead to a false and temporary peace. 

The Christian enmity that Florer-Bixler describes is not a moral failure or a sin against the call to love our neighbors. Rather, it’s a naming of reality as a necessary step towards change. “In Christianity,” she writes, “we do not resolve enmity by destroying our foes or finding middle ground with them. Instead, Jesus ushers in a different system – a new way of living that changes the order of power itself.” (91)

When Jesus tells his followers to love their enemies, that’s not a call to passivity or to accepting a harmful status quo. Nor is it the low-stakes warm and fuzzy spirituality of someone with no skin in the game. Remember, Jesus’ enemies conspired against him and killed him! 

Rather, love of enemy means calling other and self into a new order freed from those entrenched relationships of harm. Florer-Bixler writes, “We love our enemies when we extend an invitation to a form of life where those who have the power to destroy others no longer exercise the self-destruction of hatred, hoarding, and violence.” (41)

Florer-Bixler wonders provocatively whether churches could become places of cultivating shared anger. (63) She points out, “If we lack anger at injustice, we are unable to rightly discern and act in the world.” (69) Might a church hold space for people to study and talk and pray and “discover how to be angry about the same concerns, and then how to bear that anger together as a creative force to build something new”?  

Let’s be clear that none of this is easy. Accurately naming our enmities demands serious discernment – of self, society, and Scripture. The self-work is necessary because it is very easy to think that God hates what we hate.  Each of our hearts and minds have been shaped by forces and ideologies that we despise. Florer-Bixler says that when we undertake this work seriously, “we discover lingering within us our own participation in the destruction of others.” (65)

We can also be pretty bad at discerning the times, and where Jesus’ message calls us to solidarity and action in today’s world. Our judgment is clouded; many things that seem normal to us are likely outrages in God’s eyes. For example: Most of us would probably agree that the Civil Rights movement and its work for desegregation and voting rights were morally right and necessary. But during the 1960s, most American white people opposed the freedom rides and sit-ins. The urgent moral calls of our era may be no more clear to us than they were to white Christians in the 1960s. 

And finding direction in Scripture, while essential, is not easy. The Bible does not offer a clear list of where we should stand on every issue that faces us today. Instead, as Florer-Bixler says, “there is the Holy Spirit, the Bible, and us.” (138)

Discerning and naming our enmities is demanding work – yet Florer-Bixler argues that it’s essential work. Faithfully facing our enmities, she insists, is living the Gospel:  “The good news of Jesus Christ is for the redemption of the world, for victims and victimizers, for oppressed and oppressors, for the way destruction is borne in each of us… We are freed from the logic of death, from the gods of scarcity and violence, from a politics where some prosper at the expense of others, and from the fear behind power, control, and coercion that are the operational center of the old order.” (32)

That passage really resonates with our Ephesians text: “Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the Archons, against the Powers, against the Cosmic Rulers of this present darkness…” This author fully realizes that those cosmic forces of evil are manifest in human forces and systems, hearts and minds.  They join Florer-Bixler in acknowledging that the flesh-and-blood people who cause harm are just as bound as those whom they harm – by those gods of scarcity and violence, by the cosmic forces of this present darkness. 

There’s a deep generosity and clarity in suffering persecution, perpetrated by human beings, and being able to say, The true enemy here is something else. Something that also entraps my persecutor, my enemy; something from which both of us need – and deserve – deliverance. 

Jon Daniels would be 82 this year, if he were still alive. He was 26 in 1965, when he heard Dr. King’s call for allies to come to Alabama to stand with the growing civil rights movement. The Magnificat, Mary’s song of courageous hope, drove him from his seminary studies in Cambridge, to Selma, where he joined in organizing and picketing,  and tried to integrate the local Episcopal church. 

Christian enmity was at the heart of the civil rights movement, with its strong commitment to nonviolent protest. That refusal to return violence for violence was a bid for the conversion and transformation of enemies, rather than their destruction. It was an invitation to a whole new form of life where those with the power to destroy others no longer use it to harm or exclude. That movement prepared for battle after the fashion of our Ephesians reading: arming themselves with truth and justice, peace and faith, salvation and the word of God, while their enemies prepared tear gas and dogs, clubs and guns. 

On Aug 13, 1965, Jon Daniels, with about 30 others, went to a small town in Alabama to picket segregated businesses. On Aug 14, they were all arrested, and taken to the nearby Hainesville jail.  On August 20, they were released with no warning – meaning there was no one ready to pick them up and take them to safer territory. 

It was a hot bright August day. A small group – Jon Daniels, a white Roman Catholic priest, and two black protesters – approached a small store there in Haynesville, hoping to buy a cold drink. They were met at the door by Tom Coleman, a white volunteer sheriff’s deputy, wielding a shotgun.

Coleman 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 Jon was killed instantly. 

The cosmic powers of this present darkness – the small, bitter gods of scarcity and violence – were manifest in Tom Coleman’s flesh and blood that day. And they won – temporarily. 

Coleman was acquitted by an all-white jury, on the basis of a nakedly absurd claim of self-defense. But Daniels’ death did lead to change. The Episcopal Church had been neutral at best towards the civil rights movement. But Daniels’ martyrdom and Coleman’s acquittal galvanized the church. Presiding Bishop John Hines spoke out in outrage. And a new movement – led in part by Episcopalians – worked to integrate Southern juries, a step away from the all-white juries which had long protected a racist society. 


It’s important to me to talk about Jon in August, every few years. It’s also important to say that his is not everybody’s path. Most of us are called to live for the Gospel, not die for it. 

Jon Daniels knew his enemies. 

He discerned the times; he heard Dr. King and the Mother of God calling him to solidarity, as part of movement on behalf of others. 

He dwelt deeply with Scripture.

He did the self-work: he kept a journal. In it you can see him grappling with his own motives, mocking himself for white-savior thinking, and striving to come closer and closer to Jesus in the why and how of his presence in Alabama. 

Jon Daniels buckled on the belt of truth and the breastplate of justice, so that on that evil day he would be able to stand. To confront his enemies with the possibility of another way. 

The transformation that Jesus – that God – wants for us is a transformation that liberates oppressor and oppressed, privileged and marginalized. It’s not just flipping the script of domination to put the formerly powerless on top, but a truly new order.  Florer-Bixler writes, “We don’t need new oppressors, new wealth, or new social classes. We need a new world.” (93) 

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. Help us put on the whole armor of God, that we may stand firm on the evil day; and give us, like Jon, the wisdom to know our enemies, the courage to confront them, and the visionary love to long for a new world for everyone; through Jesus Christ the Just, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Sermon, Oct. 4

The man we come to know as the apostle Paul, founder of many churches and author of letters to the first Christians, was born around 5 AD – making him a few years younger than Jesus, whom he never met during his lifetime. He was born to a devout Jewish family in the city of Tarsus.  As he says in today’s reading from the letter to the church in Philippi, he was “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews.”

Elsewhere he describes himself as “a Pharisee, born of Pharisees” (Acts 23:6) – meaning that both he and his parents were His family were Pharisees, members of a movement within Judaism to recommit to the faith practices of their ancestors.  He was sent as a young child to study with Gamaliel, one of the greatest rabbis of the time – and could easily have become a rabbi himself. 

In addition to his impeccable credentials as a faithful Jew, Paul was also apparently a Roman citizen by birth.The Roman Empire did not have birthright citizenship! If you weren’t actually Roman, citizenship was a privilege that you had to either buy or be given. 

It was unusual but by no means impossible for a Jew to become a citizen. Paul’s parents might have been offered citizenship as a thanks for service to Rome or to gain their favor if they were people of influence. Their citizenship passed on to their son. 

In short, the young Saul – his Hebrew name – or Paulus, his Roman name – had plenty of social and religious standing. Many paths and possibilities were open to him. The one he chose, in his early 30s, was to help stamp out a new religious movement that sounded to him like heresy. People who claimed to be Jews were saying that this rabble-rouser who had been crucified in Jerusalem was somehow God and had risen from the dead. 

Paulus witnessed the stoning to death of a Christian convert named Stephen. He held people’s garments while they committed mob murder, so their clothes would not get bloody. And he approved of the killing. (Acts 8:1) 

In fact, it seemed to inspire him to get involved in the persecution of Christians, raiding homes and dragging people off to prison. As he says about his former life in today’s reading: “As to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”

When he ran out of people to arrest in Jerusalem, he asked the high priest for letters of introduction to the synagogues in the city of Damascus, so that he could hunt down Christians there too. Luke, the eloquent storyteller, describes Paul as “snorting out menaces and slaughter.” He gets his letters and sets out on his journey.

But as he’s approaching Damascus, a light flashes around him. He falls to the ground. A voice said, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Paul stammers out, “Who are you, Lord?” The voice replies, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”

Paul’s story unfolds from there. He becomes a Christian; he becomes a preacher and founder of churches. He is despised by those who see his teaching as heresy. He is imprisoned and beaten. He brings to bear all the privileges of his younger life on his new lifework of building the Jesus movement. 

But this, the road to Damascus, is the pivot point. This is the moment when Christ Jesus makes Paul his own. The Greek is more forceful: when Christ seizes Paul, and sets him on a new road. 

Some 11 centuries later, a baby boy was born to a prosperous silk merchant and his wife, in the Italian town of Assisi. The baby was baptized Giovanni, but early on was given the additional name Francesco, perhaps because his father’s business dealings in France were going so well. 

Francis had money, status, and indulgent parents. As a young man he was handsome, popular, and fond of fancy clothes. He loved traveling musicians and performers, and lived a carefree life…  until he joined a military expedition against a nearby town and was taken captive for a year. 

This experience led to a sense of dissatisfaction and re-examination of his former life. He began to pray for spiritual enlightenment. One day as he knelt in the ruined chapel at San Damiano, gazing upon an icon of the crucified Christ, he heard a voice. It said, “Francis, Francis, go and rebuild my house.”

At first Francis thought this spiritual charge meant simply to have the chapel at San Damiano repaired. He stole some cloth from his father and sold it, and gave the money to the priest in charge of the chapel – who refused to take it. Legal and parental wrangling ensued – culminating with Francis renouncing his father and his inheritance, and stripping himself of all his fine garments, walking naked into a new way of life. 

As Paul wrote, eleven centuries earlier, “For [Jesus’] sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as garbage, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him.” 

Francis’ story unfolds from there. My favorite picture book about Francis, by  Brian Wildsmith, the source of these images, sums it up well: “From then on, I sought out the poor. I sought out the sick. I repaired God’s ruined churches. I loved all God’s creatures and called them my sisters and brothers.” 

Francis founded an order of men committed to holy poverty, peacemaking, and service to ordinary people in the name of Christ. He worked with his childhood friend Clare to create a sister order for women.

Francis died on October 3, 1226. His feast day is October 4. We honor and remember him today. 

For both Paul and Francis, life turned on a dime when Jesus spoke to them. It’s an unusual, but by no means unique, shape for a Christian life. There have been many saints, both well-known and long-forgotten, whose life includes a sudden and dramatic call away from their former life and to a new way of living in God. Such experiences are sometimes called a “road to Damascus” moment. I guess “chapel of San Damiano moment” is too much of a mouthful? 

We’re not, exactly, talking about conversion. Neither of these men abandoned the faith they held before their call. Francis was most certainly a Christian before San Damiano, though he may not have been the most devout. Paul’s relationship with the Judaism of his young life is more complex. In today’s text he claims to regard his ancestral faith identity as rubbish. But other passages suggest Paul continued to find value and meaning in his Jewish heritage. He sees Christianity as a new branch grafted onto Judaism, and grieves that his new faith separates him from many members of his first faith-family. 

The lives of the saints – the ones with days on the calendar and portraits in stained glass windows – can inspire us. They may also make us feel small and inadequate. I have heard from God, at particular moments in my life, but I’ve never been thrown off my feet by a blinding light and the voice of Jesus. 

I look at Paul, at Francis, at some of their kin among the communion of saints, and I see people driven by a crystal-clear sense of God-given purpose. My sense of God-given purpose is maybe 40% on a good day, and I’m pretty sure that even that puts me way at one end of the normal distribution. 

Paul and Francis encourage me not because I expect my life to look like theirs… but because for them, it wasn’t all about them. Paul and Francis weren’t the kinds of saints who were called away from the world, to lives of discipline and purity, in a wilderness cave or compound. Instead, Paul and Francis were called INTO the world. Specifically, they were called to gather and form communities – communities oriented around a new, or renewed, understanding of God’s purposes for the world.

After Damascus, Paul committed the rest of his life to founding, teaching, encouraging (and sometimes rebuking) churches in cities all across the ancient world. Franciscans, followers of Francis, didn’t build monasteries; they traveled around, preaching, teaching, and serving.

My life may not be like Paul’s or like Francis’s, let alone like Jesus’. But I can aspire to be – across the millennia – one of the people they called and gathered, encouraged and taught. 

Francis invites us to regard material possessions and wealth lightly; to strive for understanding and, where possible, peace, across differences; to see God in our fellow human beings, and to love God’s creation and creatures. 

Paul invites us – well, he covers a lot of ground in his many letters. But fundamentally I think he calls us to stick with the work of figuring out what difference our faith makes in our lives… and to looking out for one another. 

And both invite us to entrust ourselves to communities of faith…  to find, and be, faithful companions for the challenging work of living this way – and of making this way of living make a difference, for our neighbors and the world.