Category Archives: scripture

Homily, Oct. 15

Banquet Parable Parallels

Please click the link above to get the document referenced in the sermon!

  1. Matthew’s parable 
    1. Why read this today? Revised Common Lectionary. 
      1. We get Matthew’s version of this parable, which is also in Luke, and I believe Matthew’s version is pretty distorted – – why it sounds like such a terrible party!  
        1. A wonderful paper I found exploring this parable, by Ernest van Eck at the University of Pretoria: “Almost all scholars agree that the Matthean version of the parable is secondary.” 
  1. Look at page – comparisons. 
    1. Matthew and Luke are two of the four Gospels (explain). 
      1. Mark is the earliest written Gospel. 
      2. Most Biblical scholars agree that Matthew and Luke both draw on Mark, AND seem to have had access to another source that seems to have been a collection of Jesus’ sayings and parables. (Q source)
        1. There are debates about that hypothesis but it’s held up pretty well over time. 
        2. So when we see something in both Mt and Lk, that isn’t in Mark, we might guess that they got it from Q; & then they both maybe put their own spin on it & worked it into the narrative in their own way. 
    2. And then there’s Thomas. 
      1. Gospel of Thomas – discovered in 1945 as part of a cache of ancient documents found in Egypt. 
      2. Dating uncertain; probably sometime in the 2nd century, later than the canonical gospels, but built on/contains some earlier material. 
      3. It is a sayings gospel – no narrative, just teachings. Overlaps by about 2/3 with the things Jesus says in the canonical Gospels. 
        1. Some of the other stuff is … real weird. 
          1. “Blessed is the lion which becomes man when consumed by man; and cursed is the man whom the lion consumes, and the lion becomes man.”
          2. “Whoever has come to understand the world has found (only) a corpse, and whoever has found a corpse is superior to the world.”
          3. Or my favorite – simply: “Become passers-by.”
        2. Thomas likely the work of early Christian sect – a group that had split off from the mainstream church – had this set of their own teachings (“secret” teachings of Jesus), reflecting a more gnostic perspective. 
          1. Gnostic – spell it. Gnostic movements or wings within many religious traditions. 
            1. Characteristics: Emphasis on secret knowledge; intentionally cryptic; usually a strong sense of dualism between body and spirit, this world and another divine world. 
        3. The point here is: Thomas is weird. I think early church leaders were correct in deciding that this gospel did not belong in the Christian scriptures that would be carried forward as our holy text. 
          1. But, when it also has a parallel text to something that’s in our Gospels, it can be interesting and informative to look at it alongside!
  1. So, let’s look. 
    1. We’ve already heard Matthew. Will someone read Luke’s version? Skip the part in italics; it shows us how Luke puts this parable in the context of a dinner party. 
      1. [Have somebody read it]
      2. Now let’s hear Thomas.  [Have somebody read it]
    2. Comparing these texts… 
      1. All the really scary stuff in Matthew – the king sending troops to murder the invited guests and burn their city! The guests who weren’t dressed correctly being thrown into outermost darkness! – that is JUST in Matthew. And there’s strong reason to believe that’s Matthew’s editorial voice. 
      2. As I’ve said before: Matthew lived through the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in the year 70, after the Jewish revolt that started in 66. He makes sense of that trauma by blaming it on the Jews who rejected Jesus as Messiah. 
      3. Sending troops to kill the guests and burn their city is describing what happened to Jerusalem. 
      4. The wedding garment part is just weird. But it’s very clear that this is also Matthew’s addition. 
        1. “Where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” appears SIX TIMES in Matthew; ONCE in Luke; nowhere else in the Bible. 
      5. So: Matthew has stamped this story, as he received it presumably from Q, with his own trauma and rage. Why I’m mad that the RCL gives us his version!
    3. Comparing Luke and Thomas… 
      1. A lot more similar – quite recognizably the same story. 
      2. Luke’s framing of this parable: Jesus is at dinner at the home of a person of status. He criticizes the way people invite “friends and relatives and rich neighbors” who will invite you back in return – so your hospitality only seems like generosity when it’s actually part of a system of honor and reciprocity where you gain status by hosting an event, and will be given favor in return. 
        1. Jesus suggests pointedly that people try having a dinner party for people who can’t invite them to an equally nice party in return. 
      3. Van Eck notes that some scholars say the inviting of the poor, crippled, blind and lame is something Luke has added to the parable, because it’s the kind of thing Luke likes to emphasize. However, says van Eck, you can also flip that: “Because eating with the poor, crippled, blind and lame was so important for Jesus, Luke included it [here].” There are other passages that support that conclusion! 
        1. Luke – third invitation – “roads and lanes” – the host wants to fill their home. 
          1. Social geography of first century Palestine. People in your neighborhood, likely invitees, would share your social status. The farther you go out, the bigger the social drop in who you’re bringing into your home. A big deal, in a very status- and honor-conscious society. 
          2. This third invitation feels very Lukan. Even though I think Luke is right to understand the inclusion of the marginalized as central to Jesus’ message and mission, it also seems very possible to me that Luke added on that final invitation to really drive the point home. 
      4. Thomas – More elaborate and specific excuses, and an explicit anti-business slant. Those making excuses are too busy making money off the backs of their neighbors to come to this party. “Buyers and traders will not enter the places of my father!” 
        1. Thomas is not interested in who *does* end up at the party. That part is totally absent here. 
          1. Lots of stuff in Thomas that does have parallels in the Gospels is shorter, abbreviated. 
          2. But also: In gnostic thinking, defining who’s out  can be as important as defining who’s in. So it tracks that Thomas frames this story as a story about how terrible business people are. 
        2. What Thomas’s text does, though, is possibly add weight to Luke’s version as being more likely closer to the original. A lot more like Luke than Matthew. 
  1. Jesus’ “original” parable? 
    1. Everybody takes whatever Jesus actually said, and tries to make sense of it and re-tell it reflecting their concerns. 
    2. Is it possible to peel away the layers and get to Jesus’ original teaching – and what Jesus meant by it? 
      1. Somebody hosts a party – a banquet. They start by inviting the usual suspects – people with existing connections and relationships, people of comparable social standing. 
      2. But those people don’t want to come. 
        1. Van Eck’s paper: A new idea for me – The excuses are snubs. I always kind of saw that, but had never thought about it. But the universal refusal of the first round of invitees means something. 
          1. The invited guests in the story feel like this party is not the place to be. Van Eck says: “Attendance was socially inappropriate.” Maybe they don’t want to be beholden to that host – to feel like they owe them a favor. Or maybe that host is not generally socially esteemed. 
          2. A surprising and provocative idea for me because this is one of the parables where it seems like the central figure is a stand-in for God.
            1. I can understand feeling cautious about owing God a favor, or getting drawn into God’s social circle! God is weird and unpredictable, keeps strange company, and often makes big demands! And in our time and place, being known to be a friend of God does not generally boost your social status!
      1. The rejection of the first round of invitees ties in with a lot of the passages in the Gospels about people who feel like they don’t need what Jesus is offering. It’s easy for me to see this as part of Jesus’ story. 
      2. But the host really wants to have this party. Everything is ready! The food, the drinks, the music! They need some people to join their celebration. So they send out their slave to invite literally anyone they can find. 
        1. People who are usually not invited to the party, get invited to the party. It becomes a wild chaotic gathering of misfits, outsiders and weirdos. Presumably they eat and drink and dance and have a grand old time. (And let’s be clear, nobody accuses them of wearing the wrong clothes and throws them into outermost darkness.) 
      1. It makes me happy to think about what this means for the guests. Lots of us know what it feels like to not be on the A-list of invitees for something or another. Joyful to think that God’s party isn’t like that. 
    1. Van Eck: Not just what this means for the guests but what it means about the host. 
      1. This host rejects the expectations of their time and their social class, and instead gives to those who cannot give back; breaks down social norms about who does and doesn’t belong, status and class, purity and pollution; and treats everybody as family. (Van Eck, paraphrased) 
      2. The glimpse of God’s way of doing things that we get through this parable, as Jesus likely told it, is a glimpse of a world in which those with social standing and power do not “ostracize or marginalise the so-called unclean or expendable.” 
      3. And, Van Eck points out: “Like the host in the parable, Jesus regularly associated with the so-called ‘impure’ and ate with the so-called ‘sinners’ of his day.” And seemed profoundly unconcerned about how this might affect his own social status – choosing instead to care about those with whom he spent his time, their needs, their hopes, their hearts and souls. 
    2. That’s the core of this parable, which it’s almost impossible to pry out of Matthew’s terrifying anti-party. That’s the message of a Savior I want to follow – and the vision of a holy banquet I’d like to attend. Amen. 

Source:

VAN ECK, Ernest. When patrons are patrons: A social-scientific and realistic reading of the parable of the Feast (Lk 14:16b-23). Herv. teol. stud.,  Pretoria ,  v. 69, n. 1, p. 1-14,  Jan.  2013 .   Available here. Accessed on  10  Oct.  2023.

Homily, July 2

In Genesis chapter 16, Abram and Sarai get tired of waiting for God to fulfill the promise to give them a son, and take matters into their own hands. Sarai tells Abram to spend some private time with her enslaved Egyptian servant, Hagar.  Hagar gets pregnant, and tensions arise between Sarai and Hagar. Sarai treats Hagar so harshly that she runs away into the wilderness. But the Angel of the Lord finds Hagar, sitting near a spring in the desert, and tells her to return to Sarai and submit to her. The Angel also promises Hagar that she will have many descendants, more than can be counted – which sounds a lot like the promise to Abraham! The angel gives Hagar’s son a name: Ishmael, meaning, God has heard you. And Hagar in turn names the being who addresses her,  “You are El-Roi” – meaning, The god who sees me. 

Wait – isn’t it an angel who addresses her, not God? Yes and no. Often in these early parts of the Old Testament, there is not a clear distinction between God and angel. Chapter 18 begins, “The LORD appeared to Abraham…” and goes on to describe the visit of three men. Those strange visitors are later described again as the (singular) Lord, and then as messengers or angels (which are the same word; “angel” or “messenger” is a translation choice). So: We think of angels as separate and lesser beings, but for this part of the Biblical text, it’s not that clear. Hagar knows she has encountered God, and she’s not wrong. 

We need that story to fully understand today’s Genesis reading, from chapter 21, which takes place when Isaac and Ishmael are children. Let me say that we’re taking things out of order – the binding of Isaac, which we heard last week, happens after this – and that the editing in this part of Genesis is a little sloppy; a few verses earlier it said that Ishmael is thirteen years old, but here it sounds like he’s a very small child again. 

Anyway: Isaac is born, a baby half-brother for Ishmael, and Abraham and Sarah dote on him. But Sarah’s jealousy smolders. One day Sarah sees Ishmael and Isaac playing together and gets angry. She tells Abraham to cast them out – “for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” 

Abraham is distressed about this! But God tells him not to worry, and that Ishmael, like Isaac, shall become the father of a nation. So Abraham gives Hagar some bread and a canteen of water, and sends her and the child out into the desert. Bye! Good luck! 

When the angel of God speaks to Hagar, as she sits weeping and waiting for death, they are meeting again – not for the first time. God repeats the promise that Ishmael’s descendants will become a great nation. And this time God does not send Hagar and Ishmael back to Sarah’s abuse, but lets them start their own lives as free people. 

I love the story of Hagar and want to make sure it’s told, every three years when we cycle through the book of Genesis in our Sunday readings. I think it’s important for me because – very early in the story of God’s people – the Biblical text is already laying out some central, holy paradoxes that will carry through. Yes, God calls Abraham and Sarah to be the parents and grandparents of a special, set-apart nation, God’s covenant people; Yes, God also claims Ishmael and makes him part of God’s larger plan.  Yes, God appears to Abraham, making him the honored faith-ancestor of three world religions; Yes, God also appears to Hagar, an enslaved woman of another ethnicity. 

Hagar names God as “The one who sees me.” God as the one who sees – and cares about – those at the margins, the pushed out, the excluded, the vulnerable and those in need, is a strong theme throughout our Scriptures, Old and New Testament alike. 

Many of the founding figures of the United States – and many people today – talk about America as a Christian nation, a country that should enshrine and embody the values and ethics of the Bible. I wonder what it would look like to build a nation on a foundational commitment to this core Biblical value: seeing, honoring, caring for and uplifting those who are poor, vulnerable, excluded, and at risk. 

Sermon, Jan. 15

When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day.

In our calendar of Sunday scripture readings, we’re in the year of Matthew’s Gospel. But this is one of the Sundays when we get a little chunk of John’s Gospel for some reason. 

Next week we’ll hear Matthew’s version of the calling of Jesus’ first disciples. That might be more familiar: Jesus walks along the shore of the sea of Galilee and calls these young men away from their nets and their boats. 

John’s version of the calling of the first disciples isn’t really a calling at all. It’s more of a sending. 

Andrew is a disciple of John the Baptist. He’s already left home and work and family to follow a rabbi, a teacher. 

But then his rabbi, John the Baptist, tells him that Jesus is the real deal. The Lamb of God. 

So Andrew and another guy go follow Jesus. 

And Jesus, naturally enough, sees them following him and asks, What’s up?

Actually, he asks: What are you looking for? 

This question makes a lot of sense when we realize Jesus surely knew that these men – who may have been quite young, teenagers even – have literally just walked away from John the Baptist to start following him. 

This rabbi-hopping suggests that they were seekers, looking for someone to offer them meaning, purpose, hope, a way to spend their days. 

So he asks: What are you looking for? 

And they don’t know how to answer. 

I love that; it’s so real. I wouldn’t have an answer ready either.

I’ve had those moments, when somebody asks an unexpectedly profound or intense question, and I just stare at them and say, “Um. Huh.”  

And then maybe I say something like, “So where are you staying while you’re in town?”

Which is what Andrew and the other guy do. 

And Jesus says, Come and see. 

So they go with him to where he is staying. Some cheap first-century AirBnB or hotel room in a nearby village, probably. 

It’s clear that the where isn’t really that important.

The who is what’s important. 

The text notes that it was about four o’clock in the afternoon. Maybe that means it was coming up on dinnertime by the time they arrived, so they decided to stick around. 

Some commentators think we’re meant to assume it was a Friday, so sunset and the Sabbath were approaching, and that these disciples ended up spending the Sabbath with Jesus – Friday evening and all day Saturday. 

I wonder what happened, during those hours. Was Jesus preaching or teaching? Were they just sitting together over some simple food and a little wine and talking, talking, talking about the world? 

Were they doing ordinary everyday things? Was Jesus, whom Mark describes as a carpenter, doing little woodwork to earn his keep? Maybe building a bench, or a storage box, or a cradle? 

Who knows? Just being around him, being near him, listening to him, awakened something in Andrew. 

Curiosity. Hope. Love. Loyalty. 

We meet someone like that, now and then, in life… Someone who earns our esteem or our devotion very quickly, for reasons it’s hard to put a finger on.  

And sometimes it turns out that our first instincts were wrong. Sometimes charisma misleads us; sometimes people who are compelling, who draw others to them, turn out not to have much substance, or worse, to be selfish, exploitative, abusive. 

But other times, when you keep abiding with that person, you find that they are what they seem to be, and more. Not perfect, but true. Not perhaps always nice, but good. 

A person who looks at you and you can see in their eyes that they really do love you just the way you are, but also, they’re not going to leave you that way. And you want to step up to being the person they know you could be. 

A person who you just want to hang around because they are going to make something happen, something that matters, and you want to be there to see it. 

Andrew finds something like that, in his hours abiding with Jesus.

Something that makes him give Jesus a particular name, when he describes him to his brother Simon: We have found the Messiah. 

John offers us a translation of Messiah, a Hebrew word. It means, the Anointed. (In Greek, that’s Christos – the source of the word Christ, which is a title we give Jesus, not part of his name.) 

What would that word have meant to Simon – to Andrew? To say that Jesus was the Messiah? 

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg wrote a piece just this week about the history of the idea of the Messiah. The practice of anointing someone with oil as a sign of their taking on a new special, sacred role begins in the time of Moses, during the wilderness journey, with the ordination of Aaron and his sons as priests to serve God in the tabernacle, the sacred tent.  

Anointing as a mark of a new status came to extend to kings as well as priests, in the following centuries. 

After the time of King David, the peak of Israel’s political and economic power, expectations that God would send an Anointed One focused on a King, a political leader who would bring back the good old days. Ruttenberg writes, “The hope for a Messiah was a hope to get back to how things should be soon in the current timeline.”

But as first the Northern Kingdom, then Judea, are conquered by the great empires of the time, hopes for an earthly king start to feel more and more distant. 

The Messiah becomes e a more otherworldly figure. Someone who will bring in the World-to-come, the coming Age. 

Our Isaiah text this morning hints at that turn: extending the vision for God’s Holy One beyond restoring Judah to its pre-conquest state, to bringing Light and Salvation to all nations of the earth. 

That’s the vision of Messiah that would have been circulating in Jesus’ time – someone sent by God to transform the world. 

That’s the name Andrew puts to what he is hearing and seeing and experiencing as he spends time with Jesus. 

That’s what motivates him to bring Simon along – Simon Peter, who will become one of Jesus’ closest friends and, later, the central leader of early Christianity. 

I want to turn back to Jesus’ words in this Gospel passage. 

What are you looking for? 

Come and see. 

I think John kind of means for Jesus to break the fourth wall, in theater terms, when he asks: What are you looking for? When he says: Come and see. 

I think John’s Jesus is looking directly into the camera when he says these lines. 

The Gospel writer we know as John is well aware that the readers of his Gospel will not have a chance to abide with the earthly Jesus. That’s why he’s writing a Gospel: to try to pass on something he finds so important, so compelling, so transformational, that he urgently wants to share it, to pass it on. 

He wants his readers to be drawn into this scene. To hear Jesus speaking to them. To us. 

And both of the things Jesus says – the question, the invitation – point towards an important word that’s hiding in today’s Gospel. 

The word is Abide. 

Well: In New Testament Greek, it’s meno. 

In reading about this passage, I saw somebody say that it’s a very Johannine word – a word typical of John’s Gospel.

Well, I didn’t take their word for it – I looked it up. There are tools for this kind of thing! 

That word is used three times in Matthew’s Gospel.

Twice in Mark’s. Six times in Luke’s. 

And somewhere in the ballpark of forty, in John. 

So. Okay. Fair to say this word matters to John.

In John’s often poetic and mystical writing style, there are lots of words that mean more than they mean. 

(That’s one of the reasons I wish we had a John year in the lectionary is that we could really explore that and follow through!)   

So Meno means remain. Also translated as dwell, stay, and abide. 

It’s an important term for John, somehow. 

I wonder if John chapter 15 is the key text for understanding what “abide” means. This is part of Jesus’ long speech at his last supper with his friends. 

Jesus tells them, Abide in me as I abide in you. 

I am the vine, you are the branches; the branches can only be sustained by the vine if they abide in the vine. 

As the Father has loved me, so I love you; abide in my love. 

I like that the NRSV, the Bible translation we usually use, chooses the word Abide here. 

It’s not an everyday word and it makes us pause and perhaps think about how abiding is different from just staying or remaining. 

“Remain in my love” just doesn’t have the same feel. 

But I wish that our translation used abide other places too, to make it clearer that this is a core word for John. In fact, by the time we get to the disciples staying with Jesus in chapter 1, verse 39, John has used meno three times already.

John the Baptist twice says that he saw the Holy Sprit abide on Jesus at his baptism. And the disciples’ question uses meno too – Where are you abiding? 

I find Abide to be a beautiful and evocative word. 

“Abide” is related to “abode”, a place where you live; “dwell” also captures this sense of really settling in somewhere with intention, not just hanging around between other things. 

For me “abide” – as opposed to “stay” or “remain” – has overtones of slowing down, being present, belonging, putting down roots. 

And even though John’s Jesus won’t talk about the deeper meanings of abiding until much later, his words in this Gospel text invite abiding. 

What are you looking for? 

The question takes our outward-bound energy and turns it inward: what’s this really about? What feels unfulfilled or insufficient in you, that’s driving your busy-ness, your seeking and striving? 

What do you really need? What do you want, deep down inside?

I don’t think it bothers Jesus at all that they can’t answer. 

That I can’t answer. 

It’s a question to sit with – to abide with. 

But in the meantime, while we’re asking ourselves, What am I looking for?… in the meantime, John’s Jesus says, Come and see. 

Next week we’ll hear the call of Simon and Andrew again. 

In Matthew’s version, Jesus’ first words to them are: Follow me.  

Follow me. A command, an invitation? A little of both?

Here, instead, John’s Jesus says: Come and see. 

It is a command, grammatically speaking. 

But it’s an interesting contrast with Follow me.

Follow me calls for movement: get up and go.

Come and see invites arrival followed by attentive presence. 

Follow me means decide, commit, NOW. Immediately. 

Come and see calls the disciples closer – calls us closer – but leaves the next step in our hands. 

In Greek as in English, the meaning of “see” spreads out beyond literal sight to mean understand, comprehend, experience, know. 

If we come and see – if we abide a while with Jesus – will we find something there that deepens our love, our loyalty, our curiosity? Our hope?  

There’s a lot to wonder and a lot to say about what it means to abide with Jesus when we can’t sit down for a meal or watch the sunset with the living breathing man, as Andrew could. 

But I’m grateful to know John’s Jesus.

I do strive to follow Jesus, with all the energy and direction that implies. 

But it is a balm to my soul to be reminded that movement and activity isn’t the only thing – or in John, even the primary thing – that Jesus asks of us. 

I’m grateful for Jesus’ invitation, here, to abide with my own deep self, to wonder what I am really looking for. 

And I’m grateful to be reminded that in my life with Christ, when I’m not sure where to go, it is sometimes okay to just be.

 

 

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg on the Messiah idea: 

https://lifeisasacredtext.substack.com/p/anointed

Sermon, January 8

  1. About the Gospels.
    1. Start with basics; bear with me
      1. Bible – a collection of many kinds of texts spanning over a thousand years that, together, tell the story of God’s relationship with God’s people. 
      2. Old Testament – before Jesus, scripture we share with the Jews; New Testament – foundational texts of Christianity. 
      3. New Testament includes letters, sermons, prophetic texts, a chronicle of the early church, and four different accounts of the life, teaching, works, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. = Gospels. 
      4. Sunday lectionary (calendar of readings) – three of these get their own “year”. 
    2. Some folks find those many voices confounding. If all this Jesus stuff was real, why don’t we have one clear account of it? Why, instead, four, that differ on many details & some big stuff too? 
      1. I find the four voices of the Gospels very human, very real, and very reassuring. I’d go so far as to say that it’s one of the anchors of my faith. 
      2. An analogy for us: Imagine a funeral, or a gathering before or after. 
        1. People share memories, stories, what that person was like and what they meant to them. 
        2. Some things – big events, oft-repeated stories – will be told much the same by everyone, though perhaps some differences – how you understood that person, your relationship with them, your own personality and perspective. 
        3. Other memories or impressions aren’t shared as widely – part of someone’s particular relationship with the deceased, or an experience that only a couple of people shared. 
        4. When you put it all together, you get a sense of who that person was. But no one person has the whole picture. And often people’s impressions don’t all line up neatly. 
        5. If you asked four people to write down that person’s life, those four versions would be pretty different. 
      1. Now, in our funeral analogy, those four people probably all knew the deceased. It’s unclear whether any of our Gospel writers knew Jesus directly. 
        1. The Gospels seem to have been written down between thirty and sixty years after Jesus’ death. 
        2. But let me clear up a minor pet peeve. You might have heard that the life expectancy in Jesus’ time was around forty. That does not mean that people dropped dead at forty! 
          1. Numbers like that are an average that includes infant mortality, which was really really high right up to the mid-20th century. 
          2. Most people who survived early childhood might easily live to 55 or older; and many lived to seventy, eighty, or ninety. 
          3. Many of Jesus’ followers were younger than him. The Gospel writers seem to have used earlier written sources, now lost; but they could also easily have known people who did know Jesus and were present at the events they describe. 
          4. And talking with people with different memories and interpretations could be part of why the Gospels are different. 
  1. Let’s talk about the voices of the Gospels.
    1. Seminary exercise: read the first verse of all four Gospels – gives you a good sense of their voices and agendas. 
    2. Baptism of Jesus kind of does too. 
      1. It’s in all four, which doesn’t go without saying. 
      2. Look at your sheet. Vaguely chronological order, though Matthew and Luke may have been written around the same time, or Luke may be a little later than Matthew. 
        1. How John the Baptist is introduced, and whatever is said about Jesus’ actual baptism, in all four. (There’s more about John in all four, and there are interesting differences – but beyond our scope!) 
  2. First, and briefly: what is happening here? 
      1. John was a prophet and religious ascetic – meaning he chose simplicity and poverty – who hung out in the wilderness outside Jerusalem. He preached a message of metanoia, to use the Greek word. I dislike the translation of metanoia as “repentance”; it feels limiting to me. 
        1. Fave translator, David Bentley Hart: “a baptism of the heart’s transformation”; John: “Change your hearts, for the kingdom of the heavens has come near!” 
      2. Baptism – an adaptation of Jewish practices of ritual washing or bathing. Greek word baptizo just means to immerse or dunk. 
      3. There’s a whole thing about how John’s baptism was just a water baptism, but Christian baptism is with water and the Holy Spirit. That is important but we will not go down that rabbit hole today. 
      4. In all four Gospels, Jesus’ baptism by John is the beginning of his public ministry. Apart from the birth stories and one childhood story, he has been invisible for thirty years, presumably living an ordinary life and waiting for the right time. 
  1. MARK
    1. First written Gospel, perhaps as early as 66 – soon after the death of the apostle Paul, whose letters are our earliest window into the beliefs and life of the early church. 
    2. (When we say 66, by the way, the Zero that we’re counting from is in theory the year Jesus was born. And he would have died around the year 33, give or take.) 
    3. Mark dives right into the story – Jesus is baptized by John in the ninth verse – the sixth sentence – of his Gospel. 
    4. Jesus is coming from Nazareth of Galilee – his hometown and region. About 30 miles to the Jordan River, depending on where exactly John was baptizing. Not just a casual day trip, or stopping by on his way somewhere else. 
    5. As he is baptized, Jesus has a vision, hears a voice: “YOU ARE my Son, the Beloved.” Affirmation and comfort. And then – immediately – the divine Spirit drives him into the wilderness. We get that story at the beginning of Lent, late in February!
    6. What’s Markan about it? Brisk, clear, no nonsense. Purposeful. It happens and the story moves on. 
  1. MATTHEW
    1. Matthew and Luke both knew Mark’s Gospel and used it as a source. 
    2. Matthew follows Mark pretty closely here, but adds this dialogue between John and Jesus: “John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’ Then John consented.”
      1. Maybe this happened; maybe Matthew is capturing the testimony of an eyewitness that Mark didn’t have.
      2. But maybe Matthew adds this to address a discomfort that all the Gospels besides Mark seem to share. 
        1. Why would Jesus, God’s Son, the Beloved, need this weird wilderness preacher to shove him down in the water of this muddy river, as a sign of repentance? 
        1. Furthermore: There are hints in the Gospels that John had followers, disciples, and that his movement continued at least for a while beyond his death – which probably happened just a few months after Jesus’ baptism. 
          1. Some of John’s followers came to follow Jesus instead, but others may have felt like John was the real deal. The fact that Jesus came to John for baptism could seem to seal their guy’s position. 
        2. Jesus’ answer in Matthew is vague: Let it be so, to fulfill all righteousness. Okay, boss. John does as he is told. And again, Jesus has a vision – heavens open, dove-like Spirit, voice. 
          1. But this time the voice says, THIS IS my Son, the Beloved. Not YOU ARE. Implies a broader audience – not just Jesus hearing, but others receiving this revelation of Jesus’ true identity. 
      1. What’s Matthean about this? Not the most distinctive; John calling people a brood of vipers, a few verses earlier, is more on brand. 
        1. Emphasis on fulfillment – though usually Matthew has a specific passage from the Hebrew Bible that he describes Jesus as fulfilling. 
  1. LUKE
    1. Luke does not actually describe John baptizing Jesus. He says, “When all the people had been baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized…” I think that’s how Luke manifests his discomfort about this baptism – by kind of rushing past it. 
      1. Again, the heavens open, there’s a dove, there’s a voice. But this isn’t just Jesus’ vision anymore – the words “he saw” drop out. And the Holy Spirit descends IN BODILY FORM like a dove. Maybe Luke is trying to make sense of Mark’s metaphorical language and decides there must have been an ACTUAL REAL HOLY DOVE. 
      2. What’s Lukan about this? 
        1. “John son of Zechariah” – Luke is the Gospel that gives John a backstory. 
        2. Also: Luke doing this very Lukan thing of naming a bunch of government officials. He likes historical details, though he sometimes gets them wrong, and he likes contrasting the big global-empire scale stuff with the very local events he’s describing, which secretly have cosmic significance. 
  2. JOHN
    1. Confusing that this is another John. And the John of Revelation is yet another John. What can you do? 
    2. John’s language is cosmic and poetic right from the start. The first verse of his Gospel is, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” That sets the tone! 
    3. What’s Johannine – John-ish – about this? Lots. 
      1. One of John’s themes: bearing witness. The role of the Church and her members – to bear witness or testify to what we have seen and experienced, and how God has acted in our lives. 
      2. John describes the Baptist’s mission: to testify to the Light, which is Jesus.
        1. Luke’s birth story for John the Baptist has a similar upshot – he is destined from before his birth to prepare the way for God’s Messiah. This is just John’s very Johannine way of saying the same thing. 
      3. John goes a step further than Luke and doesn’t “show” Jesus’ baptism at all; it happens offscreen, so to speak. 
        1. This is another John thing. I think John – the latest-written Gospel – assumes people have read one of the others and know the basic plot. So sometimes he doesn’t tell about the big events, but comments on them instead.
        2. The biggest example: the Last Supper. John’s Jesus has a long farewell speech that evening, but he does not describe the meal itself. He assumes you know. 
        3. Here – John’s John the Baptist tells about baptizing Jesus, bears witness to what he has seen and heard:  God’s Spirit descending on Jesus, marking him as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
    4. So there we have it. The baptism of Jesus, the beginning of his public ministry, refracted through the lenses of four different Gospel voices. 
  1. VIII. The baptism of Christ – the Gospel event that the church always celebrates on the first Sunday of the season of Epiphany – raises a kind of riddle for the church. Jesus was baptized; Jesus told his followers to baptize people; but Jesus did not baptize people. Why not?
    1. One possibility: Jesus’ insight into how best to build his movement. In the early phases, you just need people to follow and listen and spread the word. 
      1. It’s later in the process of movement-building and eventually institution-building that you need a boundary rite, something to mark who’s fully committed, and who’s an outsider or inquirer.
    2. Second – there’s a cranky bit in one of Paul’s letters where it sounds like people are arguing about who’s most important, based on who baptized them. (Paul is disgusted and wants none of it.) 
      1. I can imagine that Jesus knew that kind of thing would happen, and that it would be counter to his hopes for equity and mutual service within the church. 
      2. He never baptized anyone so that there could not be people who would try to set themselves apart as having been baptized by Christ himself. 
    3. I think those are both good reasons. But it’s completely possible that there are other reasons we cannot know. It’s definitely on my list of questions to ask someday!
  2. What our baptism, the church’s practice of baptism, means for US is another sermon, or several. But let’s wonder briefly what Jesus’ baptism means to us. Why DID Jesus need – or choose – to be baptized by John? As John says in Matthew: Why are you coming to me? 
    1. There’s much of mystery here too – no clear or complete answers on this side of things. But when I put these four accounts side by side, I noticed something I hadn’t thought about before.
      1. In three of the Gospels, Jesus’ baptism follows some kind of birth story. 
        1. Luke has the one we all know best, with Caesar Augustus and the stable and the shepherds. 
        2. Matthew has the angel telling Joseph in a dream that he should take Mary as his wife despite her mysterious pregnancy; and he has the wise men, the astrologers, who come to visit the child, and King Herod trying to kill him, forcing the family to flee. 
        3. John’s birth story is very different, but it’s there. He names Jesus as the Word, and the Light; he tells us that from the beginning of everything, Jesus was with God, and was God. And then in the fulness of time, the true Light came into the world; the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. 
        4. And then there’s Mark. The only thing Mark says about where Jesus comes from is Nazareth. There is no birth story in Mark.
      2. Or is there? 
        1. When I’m talking with families about baptism, I like to say that baptism is, among other things, a symbolic birth. There’s water and mess and crying and joy and naming and welcome. 
        1. What if Jesus’ baptism is Mark’s birth story? 
          1. There is water, and there is rending open.  
          2. There is naming, and beginning. 
          3. There is a Voice crying out with joy: My Son! I am delighted with you! 
        2. I like thinking of Jesus’ baptism as another birth story. It helps ease the sudden jump in the church’s calendar from the babe in the manger to the full-grown man standing in the river. 
      1. Just as the other Gospels tell us that God chose to be born among us as a baby, Mark tells us that God chose to join that crowd gathered by the Jordan – the desperate, the confused, the curious, the skeptical, dusty and poor and weary and wary.  God chose to join that crowd, and then to step out from among them, and into the waters, to be born among us and for us. Amen. 

Sermon, Dec. 4

The readings for today, the second Sunday in Advent, call us to attend to the relationship between Christians, Jews and Judaism. 

While perhaps not as loaded as Holy Week, Advent and Christmas raise these questions too: do we think Jesus fulfilled Judaism, completely and finally?  If so, do we see Jews as irrelevant, spiritually extinct? And if we don’t think that: Are we using language in church that suggests that we do? 

These questions matter. The consequences range from the kind of causal Christian cultural supremacy that results in public school classrooms being decorated for Christmas – to the kind of violence that means synagogues routinely hire armed guards to watch their doors during worship. And that my rabbi colleagues are still tending to the pastoral needs of families shattered across generations by the experience of the Holocaust. 

Today each of our Scripture readings raise questions of how Christians think about Judaism – in three different ways. We’ll start with our Gospel reading, from Matthew. 

In our 3 year cycle of Sunday Scripture readings, which we share with many churches, we have readings from one primary gospel each year – with chunks of John, the fourth gospel, scattered all around. We just started a new church year on the first Sunday in Advent, last week; and our gospel for this year is Matthew. 

Let me confess right now: Matthew is my least favorite Gospel – in part because of his often violent and frightening language. 

Why is Matthew like this? About thirty years after Jesus’ death, in the year 66, some of the Jews of Judea began to rebel against Roman colonial rule. The rebels never really had a chance against Rome’s military might, and the revolt quickly turned bloody. Rome crushed the rebels and burned Jerusalem. The Great Temple was destroyed. Many people died; many lost everything. 

This earth-shaking event profoundly shaped both Christianity and Judaism, from that moment onward. All the Gospels are marked by it – but perhaps Matthew most of all. His Gospel text boils over at times with his grief and rage. He seems to blame the Jewish leadership for what happened – feeling that it’s their rejection of Jesus that brought down this destruction, rather than the predictable eruption of the tensions inherent in colonial rule always and everywhere.

Turning to today’s passage: Matthew introduces John the Baptist. The Gospels are pretty consistent in their picture of John: A preacher who separated himself from society to live in the wilderness, wearing simple clothes he made himself and eating what he could find, and proclaiming that people need to change their hearts and their lives and turn back towards God and God’s ways – and to be baptized, a ritual washing, in the Jordan River. 

To all that, Matthew adds this angry speech against the Pharisees and the Sadducees. We know this is Matthew, because later, in chapter 12 and again in chapter 23, Matthew’s Jesus says almost the exact same thing, calling groups of Pharisees and Sadducees “brood of vipers” and yelling at them: “How can you speak good things, when you are evil?” And “how can you escape being sentenced to hell?” Those passages are NOT echoed in the other Gospels. 

Who were the Pharisees and the Sadducees? The Pharisees were a reform movement within Judaism at the time of Jesus, focused primarily on the common people. The Sadducees were an elite and privileged group who more or less ran the Great Temple in Jerusalem. The Pharisees and Sadducees would not have been natural friends; I suspect it’s Matthew throwing them together as enemies of Christianity in his eyes. 

Far too much of Matthew’s hatred of these groups seeped into Christianity as a general suspicion and hatred towards Jews – which in turn has spawned unimaginable violence. I read this passage with pain and repentance. 

It’s ours, but it’s not comfortable, and it shouldn’t be. 

Then there’s our Epistle – a portion of the apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, written in the late 50s. Paul is writing here to the Christians of Rome, who included both Jewish and non-Jewish Christians, and he’s trying to help them respect one another and get along.

Before he became a Christian, Paul was not just any Jew. He had studied Jewish texts and scholarship deeply. He had become a Pharisee, a member of that reform movement that sought to spread more active and heartfelt Jewish practice among the folk of Judea. He was an up and coming young Jewish leader, when Jesus called his name and changed his life on the road to Damascus. 

Scholars have wondered, over the centuries, what to make of the fact that Paul was a Roman citizen, as we learn in the book of Acts. Maybe one of his parents was a Roman. Maybe his family was gifted citizenship, a major privilege, as thanks for service to the Empire. 

Either way, perhaps young Paul threw himself into his Jewish faith as a way to resolve the tensions of divided allegiances, of having ties to both subjects and empire. And perhaps it’s by growing up both Roman and Jew that Paul learned some of the skills of both/and living. Of holding ambiguities within yourself; of finding the value in different worlds and ways – even when they seem at odds. 

That’s the wisdom that Paul brings to this letter to the church in Rome, as he urges Jewish and non-Jewish Christians to welcome one another just as Christ has welcomed them. In today’s passage, he is trying to help the Jewish members of the Roman church see that it’s right and joyful! for God’s saving work to extend to non-Jews – without their having to first convert to Judaism. He quotes a series of texts from the Old Testament, the Jewish Scriptures, that mention God’s intentions to also bring Gentiles – the nations, the goyim – into God’s saving purposes. 

A few chapters earlier he was urging Gentiles, in turn, to feel humbled and grateful for being grafted onto the living tree of God’s covenant people, the Jews. 

He concludes this passage with this beautiful prayer for the Roman Christian community in its diversity: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

Paul is dealing here specifically with Jews who have become Christian, like himself. But Paul’s attitude towards Judaism is nuanced and interesting. He knows that he was called to something different – something more; but he honors the beauty and integrity of what he came from. He’d like other Jews to become Christians too, but I think he’d also like to see Christianity stay pretty Jewish. 

It’s complicated! But I do think a truly Pauline Christianity would have a much more open and humble heart towards Judaism than historical Christianity has had. 

For Matthew, Christianity fulfills Jewish faith – and leaves Jews behind. For Paul, it’s less clear: he loves his Jewish heritage and kin, but feels called to a new way of faith beyond Judaism.

Who’s right about God and salvation: Jews or Christians? What if it’s not up to us to decide – or even to know? 

One of the texts Paul quotes is today’s Isaiah passage: “The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.”

Back in Lent of this past year, Father Tom McAlpine led us in a study of how Christians read the book of Isaiah. We were looking specifically at a set of texts from much later in Isaiah, known as the Suffering Servant songs. Today’s passage is somewhat different – focusing on a wise and righteous leader who will bring peace to God’s people – but it raises similar questions. 

Historically, the prophet Isaiah and his eighth-century-before-Christ audience probably thought this prophecy was about King Hezekiah of Judah. Hezekiah was a young king who called his people back to exclusive and faithful worship of God.  But it’s the nature of prophetic language not to be fulfilled or exhausted by any given historical figure or event. Hezekiah did big things – but his reign did not usher in a cosmic realm of peace. It’s possible to see elements of a prophecy fulfilled, while other parts still hang in the air, waiting and shining. 

This text is here, in our Advent lectionary, because Christians have assumed for millennia that it’s about Jesus. That he is the “shoot of Jesse” – meaning, a descendant of Israel’s great king David, whose father was named Jesse. 

Now, Matthew and Luke both make a point of the fact that Jesus is born into a family with links to King David. But listen: David lived in Judea a thousand years before Jesus. And he had a lot of kids. By sheer dint of math and time, a heck of a lot of Judeans could have claimed Davidic ancestry by the time Jesus was born. 

It’s so, so hard for us not to read these Old Testament texts backwards from Christianity, as as inevitably and exclusively pointing to Jesus. In Father Tom’s class we kept tripping over that, how deeply-seated our impulse was to read these texts and think: “Well, this is obviously about Jesus; how could it not be? What else could it possibly mean?”

Texts from the Old Testament, and especially from Isaiah, shaped the language and hopes of the Jewish people for centuries. The way they thought and spoke about a coming Messiah, a holy leader sent by God to save and restore God’s people. And these texts likewise shaped the ideas and language of the first Christians, especially those steeped in the Hebrew Bible – like Matthew, like Paul. They used Isaiah and other Hebrew Scriptures to help them make sense of what they had experienced in Jesus’ life and ministry, and in his death and resurrection. 

We think we recognize Jesus in these Old Testament texts because how Christians think and talk about Jesus has been shaped by these Old Testament texts, literally from day one. 

I would rather say that everybody’s right than that everybody’s wrong. And I think that’s more faithful to the mystery of how holy texts can speak and speak again in new times and places. 

This passage is about Hezekiah and it’s about Jesus and it’s about the promised Messiah whom our Jewish siblings still await and it’s about the second coming of Christ that we still await. 

What passages like this tell us about God’s purposes for Israel and for the world can help us understand the person and work of Jesus. We can rightly treasure these texts as Christians. But we need to hold them carefully, with an awareness that they don’t only belong to us. 

At the Beth Israel Center across town, when my friend Betsy’s congregation opens the ark where the scrolls of Scripture are kept, and take out the scroll of the Nevi’im, the Prophets, and remove its silver end caps and its embroidered velvet cover and unroll it on the altar and chant it aloud in Hebrew – Isaiah’s words resonate differently in that space than they do here. 

Not entirely differently, to be sure. But importantly differently. And some of the difference is history and humanity – and some of it is holiness and mystery. 

It’s important for Christians to grapple with the anti-Judaism embedded in our history, our texts, our practices. Good citizenship and good ally-ship are part of our call to love our neighbors and serve the common good. 

But for me there’s something more here too – something a little hard to put my finger on, but I’ll try.

I find a sense of joy and freedom and possibility in the idea that God’s saving purposes are bigger and broader and honestly messier than any human mapping. We can’t pin down the meanings of ancient prophecy, or the mechanics of salvation, to fit within our categories of belonging and belief, doctrine and truth. 

This is one of the fundamental themes of Advent: The God who came among us as Jesus of Nazareth is coming again. 

We are people of expectation.

People called to expect mystery.

To expect disruption. 

To expect redemption. 

To expect, someday, whether in this world or the next, to come face to face with the Living One who both fulfills and transcends all our scriptures and theologies.  

May it be so. Come, Lord Jesus. 

 

Sermon, January 9

I want to notice the first sentence of today’s Gospel. 

“As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah…”

Let’s back up: what else do we know about this crowd? 

The third chapter of Luke’s Gospel begins: In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, [and some other historical details] …the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 

Back in Luke chapter 1 we heard about John’s parents and his birth, including Zechariah’s song of hope over his infant son:  “You, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.”

Well, now it’s Go Time for John to fulfill that mission. So: He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins… And crowds came out to be baptized by him. 

Baptized: dipped or dunked into the waters of the Jordan River, as an outward and physical sign of their inward desire to turn their hearts and lives towards God. 

John seems to be re-interpreting Jewish practices of immersion for purification and re-integration into community. He’s making those ritual baths into something messy and muddy and spontaneous. Not a response to specific circumstances or causes of ritual impurity – but a physical acting-out of your recognition that your life is fundamentally askew, and your desire to turn towards the path of holiness and mercy. 

This crowd asks John what that renewed life would look like: “What then should we do?” We had this part of the text back in Advent. And John says things like, Share your extra food and your extra clothing with people who don’t have enough. Don’t use your position to take. Do your work honestly and kindly. 

And that brings us to the first verse of today’s text: As the people were filled with expectation… 

So what do we know about this crowd? There were undoubtedly some folks there who were just curious – or suspicious – or hostile, there to heckle this weirdo preacher. But probably most of them were there because of something they heard, or hoped to hear, from John. People who felt like the existing order wasn’t serving them very well. People who felt disconnected or marginalized by institutional religion. People who felt hopeless; people who felt incongruously hopeful. Maybe people who felt a deep need for change in their own lives, that nothing else spoke to.

In short: They were people who were looking for something. That’s what that word means – the word translated as “filled with expectation.” Prosdokao in Greek. Waiting for, looking for, expecting. 

It’s a very Lucan word. We’re in Luke’s Gospel here – one of the four accounts of the life of Jesus. Unlike the others, Luke has a sequel – the book of Acts. We started our walk through Luke at the beginning of Advent, and we’ll mostly be in Luke for the rest of this year. 

There are two related words here – Prosdokao, and Prosdechomai, meaning to look for, wait for, receive, or accept.  Together they show up 18 times in Luke and Acts. They are used twelve times in the **entire** rest of the New Testament – the other Gospels, epistles and writings. So I think it’s safe to say that Luke likes this word – these twinned words. That it’s part of his focal vocabulary. (The way that “immediately” is for Mark.)

In this specific verse in Luke 3, the crowd’s sense of expectation is explicitly eschatological. Eschatology is a fine big 50 cent word. It means relating to the Eschaton, which means, The Last Days. The time when God will turn things upside down and right side up. When there will be a new heaven and a new earth, and God will wipe away all tears. When the lion will lie down with the lamb, and nobody will study war any more. 

This crowd is wondering whether John is the Messiah, the divine chosen one sent by God to save and restore God’s people, and bring about that new time of peace and prosperity. 

When Luke uses these waiting-and-expecting words, it’s not always with a sense of eschatological anticipation. Sometimes it’s more mundane. People waiting for Zechariah to come out of the temple; somebody expecting to be given a coin.

But by my count, a little over half the time, the words are used with that sense – of not just casual, but cosmic, waiting.  We’re not talking about waiting for the bus. We’re talking about waiting for the consolation of God’s people. We’re talking about waiting for God. 

Things were not great, in early first century Judea. There were lots of reasons to feel fearful and hopeless and disconnected. People were waiting for signs that God was still out there. That they hadn’t been abandoned or forgotten.That God was still acting in the world, in human lives and human hearts; that God still had a plan, despite how fundamentally askew everything seemed. 

Prosdokao. Expecting, waiting, looking for. Why might this be such a central word and concept for Luke?

One of my favorite things about Luke is Acts. The other Gospels end soon after Jesus rises from the dead. Luke tells the next several chapters of the story. He tells us how people’s lives were transformed – not just by meeting Jesus, but by meeting people who had met Jesus, and by meeting people who had met people who had met Jesus. And by hearing the story of his life and death and rising, and the things he said and did… 

Our Acts lesson today is part of that longer narrative. A period of persecution in Jerusalem drives many out to preach elsewhere. A young man named Philip goes to the city of Samaria to proclaim the Messiah to them; people listen eagerly.  

Then Peter and John – Jesus’ close friends, leaders in the Jerusalem church – come to Samaria to fulfill Philip’s mission by baptizing the new believers there.

There’s some stuff in here about the baptism in the name of Jesus versus the baptism of the Holy Spirit; we understand the church’s baptism as encompassing both of those, but apparently they were separate for a while early on in the church’s story. 

The point is: These early Christians, Philip and the others – they’ve lost so much. They lost Jesus – twice. They’ve probably lost family, friends, social standing, by being part of this controversial new movement. They’ve had to flee persecution, at risk of their lives. And they’re still so excited about what God is doing through Jesus Christ that when they talk about it, people can’t help but listen. 

This is why I think Acts matters to us.  It shows us how our earliest faith ancestors carried on, after Easter, after Ascension. 

In many ways those closest to Jesus did not see the fulfillment they longed for. Jesus didn’t become the God-King of a restored Israel. Instead he died a degrading and painful death.  And when he rose from the dead, it wasn’t to kick butt and take names, or even just to keep hanging out with them. Instead, he gave them some assignments, and left. Again. 

They could have been bitterly disappointed. But instead, they seem really joyful. And more: They seem – expectant. 

Luke may have been part of some of the events of Acts. He uses “we” in some parts of the narrative. Or that may just be a literary device, to add immediacy to stories he’s heard about from others. Either way he’s clearly close to these events, to the highs and lows of the first couple of decades of Christianity. 

And there are both highs and lows. Successes and failures. There’s persecution and disappointment and conflict and loss. Acts ends with the implied death of the apostle Paul, one of the central figures of both the book of Acts and of early Christianity. 

But through it all, Luke has seen and heard and experienced enough to believe that God’s people are NOT abandoned.That God IS at work in the world and in human lives and hearts. I think that sense of holy waiting is a hallmark of Luke because that’s how Luke felt. He’d seen strange, wonderful, holy stuff happen – and despite everything, he expected strange, wonderful, holy stuff would keep happening, long after he laid down his pen.  

All the expectant people of Luke and Acts, crowds and individuals who are waiting and looking for something Zechariah and Elizabeth, Simeon and Anna who greet the infant Jesus in the temple, the crowds gathered to hear John, and others… They don’t get to see Rome overthrown, Israel restored, Creation renewed. What they receive is much more partial and fragmentary. Signs and promises, glimpses and glimmers that tell them that God is still out there. That all is not lost. That there’s still meaning, and possibility, and promise. 

What happens in Luke and Acts isn’t that people see all that their dreams come to pass. What happens is that they are formed more and more deeply as people of faithful expectation. People who’ve been shown enough – whether in concrete signs in the world, or in God’s quiet revelation deep in their hearts – that they’re able to continue on in hope. And even choose to step into the baptismal waters and seek to become part of the slow unfolding of God’s purposes.  

May these faith-ancestors encourage us in our own heavy times. May we, too, be formed to live as the expectant people of God. 

Homily, Dec. 5

This sermon followed a Scripture drama based on Luke 1: 5-25, 39-80; 3:1-6. 

I wonder what was your favorite part of this story? 

I wonder what was most important in this story? 

I wonder if you had a favorite character? … 

I want to talk a little bit about the neighbors. 

The Nosy Neighbors are a kind of comedic archetype or trope. 

Our household is most familiar with Fred and Ethel Mertz of I Love Lucy fame, but there are lots of examples in media and fiction.  In our Scripture drama today, we expanded the role of the Nosy Neighbors, but they’re really there in the text of Luke’s Gospel. 

They’re implied in Elizabeth’s long silence about her pregnancy. She doesn’t want to be the subject of gossip or speculation – or to know people are talking about her if something goes wrong. 

And the Nosy Neighbors are right there on the spot when it’s time to name the baby.  Elizabeth and Zechariah’s neighbors and relatives are there to celebrate, at the special party on the eighth day after his birth, the time to circumcise him and name him.  And they are all ready to NAME THAT BABY – Zechariah, after his father, of course. 

And they’re scandalized when Elizabeth – and then Zechariah – have other ideas! 

Then, after Zechariah sings his prophetic prayer over his baby son, the neighbors have SO MUCH to talk about.  That’s all right there in Luke’s text!

When some of the actors and I read over the story together, a couple of weeks ago, we talked a little about those neighbors and what they represent. 

The Nosy Neighbors have expectations about how people should act. About what’s NORMAL and RESPECTABLE. 

It’s not NORMAL for Elizabeth to be pregnant – at her age!

It’s not RESPECTABLE for these people to give their baby a name that nobody in their family has ever had! 

It’s not NORMAL or RESPECTABLE for somebody to expect their son to grow up to be a prophet of the Most High God, and prepare the way for God’s Messiah. 

I mean, everybody thinks their kid is special, but seriously…

But all these things – these are God at work in the world. God acts in human lives in ways that scandalize the neighbors. 

Our drama today includes most of the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel. We skipped the part where Gabriel appears to Mary and asks her to be the mother of Jesus, who is God among us, because we get that story every Advent; we’ll have it in a couple of weeks. And then after that we’ll have Luke’s story about the birth of Jesus – which is the Christmas Gospel you know, if you know a Christmas Gospel: in the time of Caesar Augustus, the manger, the shepherds and the angels, all that. 

The first Sunday in Advent is the church’s New Year’s Day, so here on the second Sunday we’re still at the very beginning of a new church year. And Luke is our Gospel for this year – the version of the story of Jesus that we’ll mostly hear and dwell with in the months ahead. 

And what we see in today’s story, this theme of holiness unfolding in people’s lives in ways that do not fit normality or respectability – it’s true across all the Gospels, but it’s something that was particularly important for Luke. 

He tells Jesus’ story in a way that emphasizes that aspect of his life and his teaching. 

So that’s something to look out for in our year of Luke! Where does God show up, outside the normal and respectable? 

Sermon, November 21

Let’s pause to imagine the scene from today’s Gospel. 

Here’s Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea. His hair is neatly cut and combed. He’s clean-shaven. His clothing is simple but sumptuous – finely-woven cloth bleached bright white, edged with gold. 

The room in which they stand, a meeting room at the Roman headquarters, is probably simply furnished, not lavish – a desk and chair of finely-carved exotic woods – materials for writing letters and decrees – guards in the doorway, clad in the fierce beauty of Roman armor, shield on one arm, short sword at hip, spear in hand. 

Somewhere, perhaps on a pole beside the door, a gold standard bearing the letters that stood for the dominion of Rome: SPQR. Simple physical signs of overwhelming military and political power.  

Pilate is not a king. He’s a provincial governor in a rather backward province of a sprawling and fractious empire.

Rome was supposed to be a republic, founded on the Greek principles of democratic rule, like the United States. But as Rome’s power had grown and spread, so too had the power of her rulers.  

Maybe some of you also read Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar, in high school English class? Julius was a statesman and general who was assassinated in 44 BC by a group of Roman senators who feared that he was turning the Roman republic towards tyranny. 

But killing Julius didn’t save Roman democracy. Instead, Caesar Augustus avenged his killers and turned Rome into a de facto monarchy, ruling for 41 years until his death. Augustus was the first Roman emperor to be worshiped as a god. (An idea which led to the persecution of Christians, decades later, when they refused to make sacrifices at the temples of the Emperor.) 

So that’s the vision of kingship Pilate brings into the room – whether he personally likes it or not: the King as god, emperor, untouchable tyrant. Kingship that spreads like a cancer, distorting and devouring.  

And what about Jesus? Look at him: he’s not clean-shaven or tidy. He’s a mess, dirty and bloody from being roughed up by the guards. His clothes weren’t that nice to begin with, and they’re torn and filthy now. His hands are bound. He’s not a king, either – at least, not in any of the ways Pilate means. 

What image of kingship does Jesus carry?  A thousand years earlier, Israel begged God for a king, so they could be like the other nations around them. And the prophet Samuel, speaking for God, warned them: Kings take. They take your sons as guards and warriors. They take your daughters as cooks and concubines. They take your wealth to arm their troops, decorate their palaces. They take the best of your crops and your flocks and your land. You will become no better than slaves to the power, ambition, and greed of the King you want so badly. 

But the people wanted a king. So first Saul, then David, become the Kings of Israel. Our Old Testament lesson today brings us an excerpt from David’s last words: “God has made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things and secure.” David’s vision of kingship has a lot to do with wealth and wellbeing – and the hope that his sons and grandsons will sit on his throne when he is gone. And he appeals to God as the Power who will make it so. After all, David hates the godless so much that he wouldn’t touch them with a ten-foot pole – so surely God will continue to favor David’s lineage – says David! 

In fact… all has not gone well during David’s kingship, and all does not go well after his death. His son Solomon is kinda faithful to the God of Israel, but more than his father, he fulfills Samuel’s prediction: He takes. His lavish tastes build resentment among his people. 

After Solomon, the Israelite kingship begins a rapid decline. David’s kingdom breaks in two. There are kings who are too weak and kings who become tyrants. There are wars, coups and assassinations. The Northern kingdom, Israel, is conquered, then, a generation later, the Southern kingdom, Judea, where David’s capital city Jerusalem stands. There is exile, and, eventually, return – return to homeland, but not to independence. Now Judea’s kings are allowed to rule only so long as they serve the interests of the latest great empire. 

In Jesus’ lifetime that empire is Rome, which conquered Judea sixty years before his birth. Rome placed the criminally insane Herod the Great as Judea’s king. He was still king when Jesus was born; another Herod, Herod Antipas, was king when Jesus was killed. Both were vassal kings, holding power only because Rome gave it to them, and expected to serve Rome. 

That’s the image of kingship Jesus brings into the room, as a Jew, a member of God’s people Israel. Israel’s kingship was a story of hubris, war, greed, and loss. Kingship failed for Israel, over and over.  

Pilate asks Jesus, I’ve been told that you’re the King of the Jews. Are you a king? And Jesus answers,,  If I were a king, don’t you think I’d have some followers fighting for me, instead of standing before you, bound and utterly alone?  

All those meanings of kingship – power, greed, violence, hubris, authority, glory – they’re thick in the air between these two men. I think Pilate fully intends the irony of his question. I think Jesus fully hears it, and responds in kind. 

The Godly Play stories we use with our younger children say, “Jesus was a king, but not the kind of king people were expecting.” 

A King who sought to change human systems, not by decree or force, but through radical nonviolence. A King sought to change human minds, not by silencing or dominating, but through questions and stories that break open old habits of thought, and let new light shine in. A King who sought to change human hearts, not with manipulation, shame, or fear, but by living a life of radiant generosity and grace.  A King who loves us so much that They will never coerce us or violate our wills. 

I like to remind us each year that the feast of Christ the King, which we observe today, is very new, in church terms:  not yet quite 100 years old. The observance of Christ the King Sunday, on the last Sunday before Advent, was instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925. The Pope was concerned about rising nationalism in Europe, in the wake of World War I. He saw Christians falling into nationalistic ideologies that too readily identified human power with divine power. People equated my nation’s prosperity with God’s favor, my nation’s interests with God’s righteousness. Pope Pius wanted to remind Christians that that our first loyalty is to a kingdom not of this earth – and that God’s rule is very different from human rule. 

What does the kingship of Christ – and the difference between human and divine ideas about power – have to say to us today, 96 years later? Pondering that question this week, I found myself thinking about comfort and discomfort. Some of the movements of this moment seem to have a lot to do with avoiding discomfort. The war on transgender people – legislative and cultural – is based on people’s discomfort with changing gender norms; and – maybe more importantly – with a strategic effort to try to turn people’s discomfort into a political weapon against the vulnerable. The new wave of pressure on teachers is another example – this idea that students shouldn’t have to learn anything that might make them uncomfortable. Some white parents are saying: I don’t want my child to have to read or hear anything that makes them feel bad about what people who look like them have done in the past – or how they benefit from that past. 

Let’s spend a minute with that word uncomfortable. Notice that it’s a metaphor: when we’re talking about mental or emotional or spiritual discomfort, we’re making an analogy from the experience of physical discomfort. There are lots of kinds of physical discomfort, right? Maybe your shoulder is a little achey because you raked the lawn yesterday. Maybe your bad hip is twinging. Maybe you’re too warm or too cold. Maybe you’re not sitting comfortably in your chair. Maybe you’re wearing shoes that pinch your toes. All those discomfort are invitations to change something. To move to a different space or put on a sweater or take an ibuprofen. To adjust how you’re sitting. To take those too-tight shoes to the thrift store! 

Comfort is static.  Discomfort is an invitation to adjust, move, make a change. That’s an interesting way to think about emotional, mental, or spiritual discomfort too. Those discomforts are also messages that we need to make some kind of adjustment. Move into a new frame of mind, or set aside something that doesn’t fit anymore. 

Now, to be clear, there is good and bad discomfort. A classroom, a church, a community at its best should always be fundamentally safe, even if it’s sometimes uncomfortable. Safe means your boundaries are respected; no one will try to hurt you or use you; the people around us are trustworthy. Safe is really important. 

But if we seek to avoid all discomfort, we’re almost definitionally saying that we don’t want to change or grow, to have any new thoughts or experiences.

Churches so often imagine Jesus as if he were an earthly king, the kind with a throne, a crown, a treasury, and an army. Our hymns, our prayers, our art are full of examples. Part of what’s wrong with that is that we are trying to make Jesus comfortable. 

Comfortable for him – how about a nice velvet robe and a silk cushion? – and comfortable for US, because we understand that kind of power, the kind that’s about security, wealth, and control. 

But when God chose to come among us as Jesus, God did not choose comfort. To see Jesus Christ in poverty, poorly dressed, dirty, footsore, going hungry, without a stable place of residence, at constant risk of being harassed by the authorities… to see him arrested, beaten, executed as a criminal… to see God choose discomfort is a reminder that we, too, may be called to tolerate some discomfort, and seeing where it leads us. 

So many kings, so many kingships, haunt this brief conversation between Pilate and Jesus. Julius, Augustus and Tiberius, David and Solomon and Herod. Strong or weak, bold or craven, ambitious, self-indulgent, cruel. And there’s one more concept of kingship in the room – so different that it almost can’t wear the same name. 

It’s the image of kingship that lives in the part of Jesus that is God and not human. 

It’s the idea of kingship that carries him to this bitter hour, and beyond – to his death under that sign Pilate has made, that reads, “Jesus Christ, King of the Jews.” 

It’s the image of a king without army, palace, or crown. 

A king who invites instead of commanding.  

Who rules through persuasion, love, and grace, instead of rule of law backed by force. 

A king who chooses discomfort, the better to share the fulness of human life and human struggle. 

A king who frees instead of binding. 

A king who gives instead of taking. 

It is nonsensical, in terms of human understandings of power. 

And it is the holy kingship of Jesus.  

Sermon, October 17

We have a pear tree in our back yard. Phil planted it some years ago…. and this was the year it really matured enough to bear a full harvest of fruit.  The tree was covered with these lovely little greeny-gold pears, some with just a bit of a red blush. Phil harvested them and brought them inside to ripen, and we’ve been eating them happily for many weeks now. 

That’s our view of the pear tree situation. There are other perspectives.

Our dog, for example, also thinks of it as our pear tree, in our yard, with the our definitely including him. He likes to eat the fallen pears, and will sometimes bring them inside and leisurely eat one on the living room floor.

The local raccoons, on the other hand, question the whole concept of private property. Your yard? Your tree? Says who? Our pear tree is a destination, a point on their map of the neighborhood that’s worth a nightly visit. They seem to appreciate the pears just as much as the Hassetts, human and canine, do. 

If you predict that the canine and raccoon perspectives, the territorial predator versus the anarchic foragers, may have come into conflict, you’d be correct…  though fortunately everyone has emerged from those encounters unscathed. 

Perspective. It’s an interesting word.

Per-spect means see through. The word evokes an imaginary lens, through which you view the world. Photographers and other artists use the word literally; but it’s also used figuratively, all the time. We talk about getting perspective on a problem – meaning, to see it in context and in proportion. We talk about getting a new perspective on something – coming to understand it in a fresh way, maybe a broader way. 

Perspective is an interesting concept to bring to the Book of Job. 

The Book of Job spends two chapters dropping Job into the depths of human misery, and 35 chapters of Job demanding that God heed his suffering and give him some explanation, while his so-called friends tell him he must have had it coming somehow. 

Now, in chapter 38, God answers. And God’s answer… is complicated. 

God’s words emphasize the gulf between Job – a human being with the usual human limitations – and God, all-seeing, all-knowing, and eternal. Again and again, God asks Job questions which can only be answered, “Of course not!” – Is the wild ox willing to work for you?Did you give the horse its might, or clothe its neck with mane? Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars?  Can you catch a sea-monster with a fish-hook? 

It’s hard not to read it as mocking. God is putting Job in his place. Telling him that there’s a whole lot that he should not expect to understand. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman describes this as a massive failure of pastoral sensitivity on God’s part: “After Job relates in great detail his anguish and pain and bewilderment, [God] responds, ‘Let me tell you about my crocodile.’ Any pastoral supervisor evaluating this act of ministry would say to [God], ‘You couldn’t stand the pain and you changed the subject.’”

Fair. And yet: I love these chapters. Many people do.  

For one thing, it’s just wonderful poetry about the beauty and power and strangeness of the natural world. The passage about the ostrich is a great example: 

“The ostrich’s wings flap wildly,
though its pinions lack plumage.
For it leaves its eggs to the earth,
and lets them be warmed on the ground,
forgetting that a foot may crush them,
and that a wild animal may trample them.
It deals cruelly with its young, as if they were not its own;
though its labour should be in vain, yet it has no fear;
because God has made it forget wisdom,
and given it no share in understanding.
Yet when it spreads its plumes aloft,
it laughs at the horse and its rider.”  (Job 39:13-18)

The text holds up the absurdity, the idiocy of the ostrich – and its breathtaking speed. 

Leviathan is another favorite – God spends a whole chapter talking about this wonderful sea-monster!

“Can you put a rope in its nose, or pierce its jaw with a hook? 

Will you play with it as with a bird,
or will you put it on a leash for your little daughters?… 

I will not keep silence concerning its limbs,
or its mighty strength, or its splendid frame… 

Out of its nostrils comes smoke,
as from a boiling pot and burning rushes.
Its breath kindles coals,
and a flame comes out of its mouth.
In its neck abides strength,
and terror dances before it.”  (Job 41:2, 5, 12, 20-22)

These texts are great fun to read. But it’s more than that.  There is – somehow – a strange comfort here. Perhaps – a new perspective. 

Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis writes that it’s easy to see God’s answer to Job as no answer at all: “God… mows Job down with a stream of non sequiturs that have nothing to do with what is really at stake. If Job finally stops talking altogether, … [it’s only] because there is no point in arguing with a bully.”

But, she says, that reading misses the sense in which God is answering Job’s complaint. God offers Job “a God’s-eye view of the world” – starting with the mysteries of seas, stars, and seasons, then moving on to God’s delight in wild creatures. 

All the animals God praises in these chapters have something in common: they completely untamable. From a human point of view, they are useless at best, and terrifying at worst. If there had been raccoons in the ancient Near East, maybe God would have held forth about their dexterity and resourcefulness. The one exception – the war horse – proves the rule; it serves human purposes, yes, but the text stresses its fierce power:  “It laughs at fear and is not dismayed; it does not turn back from the sword; it cannot stand still at the sound of the trumpet.” 

Davis writes, “This God’s-eye view of the world plays havoc with Job’s notion of the way things ought to be – which is to say, sensible, well-adapted to human purposes, and above all, predictable.”

Remember how when Job’s children would get together for a party, Job would go make sacrifices just in case they had sinned? There’s so much about control – about the human illusion of control – in that single detail.  Job was invested in a model of the world in which if you checked all the boxes, everything would be OK.  Like the sons of Zebedee in today’s Gospel, Job’s relationship with God was founded on what God could do for him. 

And in these mocking, glorious chapters, God tells Job: That’s not how any of this works. Davis writes, “God’s involvement with the world expresses itself in huge, unapologetic delight in a creation whose outstanding quality is quite simply magnificence: power and freedom on a scale that is bewildering and terrifying.” She quotes spiritual writer Annie Dillard:  “Freedom is the world’s water and weather, the world’s nourishment freely given, its soil and sap; and the creator loves pizzazz.” 

God’s answer to Job is that the world – that life – is bigger and stranger, riskier and more beautiful than he has ever imagined. Davis says, “God calls this man of integrity to take his place in a ravishing but dangerous world where only those who relinquish their personal expectations can live in peace.” 

God asks Job – perhaps asks every human: Can you love what you do not control? Can you love what you can’t own? What you can’t protect? 

The world is not sensible, not well-adapted to human purposes, and certainly not predictable; can you learn to tolerate that truth? Could you learn to love it? 

I don’t think all this is answer Job was looking for. But it satisfies him. Perhaps it even changes him – heals him. Davis argues that the end of Job’s story – which we’ll hear next week – hints that Job learns to live and love more like God. 

And I think part of the lasting power of the Book of Job is that people continue to discover that same strange comfort. Holding pain, or loss, or anxiety, many of us find some peace in sitting near big water, or walking in the woods, or seeing a storm roll across the sky. In watching squirrels squabble, or gazing at the stars. Even the affection or demands of a familiar pet can take us out of ourselves just a little – into a perspective in which what’s really important is dinner and a warm lap.

Why does it comfort us, sometimes, to remember that we are simply one creature among billions on this big, old, wild world? That we are not the center of it all, but dust and ashes? 

I don’t know – but, sometimes, it does. 

And the witness of the book of Job is that it always has. 

Those raccoons stealing – sharing! – our pears – the bears who sit and gaze at scenic vistas – even the seagulls hanging around the Burger King – they remind us, quite simply, that our perspective is always limited. That there’s a bigger picture and a longer view.  Thanks be to God. 

 

Sources

Ellen Davis, “The Sufferer’s Wisdom: The Book of Job,” in Getting Involved with God, Rowman and Littlefield, 2001. 

The Annie Dillard quotation is from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

The Walter Brueggeman quotation comes from Brueggemann’s CHRISTIAN CENTURY lecture given in Chicago in September of 2005.

Sermon, Sept. 19

Before I start, I want to say to the kids listening that in this sermon, I am mostly talking about you but not to you. I know that’s a little rude and I’m sorry. If you have any thoughts or ideas as you listen, I would love to hear them later! 

Alright. Let’s hear a tiny bit of our Gospel again: Jesus took a little child and put it among the disciples; and taking it in his arms, he said to them,”Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the One who sent me.”

Just 24 verses later – so close that it’s on the same pair of pages in my big study bible – we see Jesus hugging children again. This will be our Gospel in a couple of weeks but let’s hear it today. 

Mark 10, verses 13 to 16:  People were bringing children to Jesus so that he would bless them. But the disciples scolded them. When Jesus saw this, he grew angry and said to them, “Allow the children to come to me. Don’t forbid them, because God’s kingdom belongs to people like these children. I assure you that whoever doesn’t welcome God’s kingdom like a child will never enter it.” Then he hugged the children and blessed them.

I think there are a couple of core ideas in these twin passages. First, it’s the responsibility of grown-up Christians to welcome young Christians. Jesus says that – AND shows it, in his anger at the people trying to create a no-child zone around him. 

Second, grown-up Christians should not assume that children are empty containers and our job is to fill them with faith. Children have things to teach grown-ups about the Kingdom of God. There are parts of all … this … that they understand better than we do. 

Note, too, that none of this is limited to parents or family. In both of these scenes, Jesus is speaking to his disciples – his inner circle, those who will become church leaders after his death. Not to the kids’ parents or grandparents. 

In the past few decades, people studying intergenerational communities and churches have gained some insight into **why** Jesus might have stressed these things. In the mid-20th century, American churches fell hard for the idea that what churches do with kids should look a lot like public school. Age-graded classrooms, lesson plans and workbooks, attendance charts and reward stickers. All based on the idea that Christianity is a body of information that can be taught, the same way you teach long division. 

As early as the 1960s, an Episcopal priest named John Westerhoff started writing about how misguided this was. He says, Faith is caught, not taught. If we want to raise children who know and love our way of faith, we need to focus on being church together. 

Ongoing study of kids and faith have reinforced Westerhoff’s point. Being meaningfully included in faith community helps kids mature into faithful adults. Faith aside, it’s also good for kids to have grownups who know and care about them, outside their family. The reverse is probably also true!

We’re re-discovering that faith isn’t a body of knowledge but a way of living. As one recent article put it, “Congregations are not providers of religious goods and services. They are dynamic, living communities of sojourners accompanying each other in discovering a Christian way of life.” (Elton & Pinkstaff)  In such a group of fellow-travelers, it makes sense that we all – regardless of age – have experiences, skills, good ideas and fruitful questions to share. 

We’re re-discovering that liturgy is learning. Our shared worship, at its best, helps shape us, week by week, year by year, into the people God calls us to be. If our shared worship is inviting and engaging – if it is comprehensible – if what we say and do is aligned with what we believe and mean – then participation in worship is part of how kids – AND adults! – continue to grow in faith. 

We are re-learning what churches should always have known, because Jesus tells us so: that our shared life of faith is incomplete without the voices and perspectives of children. The great 20th century liturgical scholar Louis Weil says, “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.” (CAWCIB, xi) 

My friend Sylvia Miller-Mutia says, “The Spirit calls together intergenerational communities because we have gifts for each other.” 

At St. Dunstan’s, we’ve spent several years now exploring what it looks like to become an intergenerational church. To borrow words from one of the wise voices on this subject, Gretchen Wolff Pritchard, we shifted the question from “How can we keep the children from disturbing us during worship?” to, “How can we invite the children into real involvement?”

And then Covid came along, and church went online for a year. We worked hard to keep elements of all-ages participation in Zoom church – with some success. Our Scripture dramas meant a lot to kids and grownups alike. 

At the same time – we lost a lot. Some kids and households just couldn’t tolerate Zoom worship. And even with the kids who were on Zoom, the rest of the congregation couldn’t hear their chatter, or pick up a lost toy, or admire a drawing, or invite them to help with a task, in the way we could in Building Church. 

We did what we could; and we held onto hope for After. 

And now – here we are, in After. Sort of.  A tentative and emerging After, that requires continued experimentation, flexibility, discernment… and hope.  

Some of our kids won’t be back in church until kids can be fully vaccinated against Covid. And some families’ habits have changed during the pandemic, and Sunday morning church may not fit anymore. 

On the other hand: we have learned that the things we do to engage kids in worship, also work well for some grownups. Pritchard puts it this way: “I am increasingly convinced that children’s liturgical needs are not qualitatively different from those of adults.” (Offering the Gospel to Children, p. 101)

For example: as we’ve added ASL gestures to certain prayers, I’ve been tickled to discover which grownups have been itching for a chance to move and use their bodies in worship. I love it when adults take the invitation to grab a coloring page and markers – or to bring their knitting project! I love that we have both kids and grownups who really like to play the xylophones at the Eucharist. 

This fall we’re trying something new for older kids and youth – and others who may opt in: Church journals. They look like this. The idea is that kids will claim and decorate a journal. Then, every week, there will be a few questions to ponder – and answer in the journal, if you want. Some are reflective – like, What am I feeling grateful for today? Was there a time this week when I felt included – or pushed out? Some are noticing questions, like, What’s my favorite part of our Scripture story today?

There’s also a standing invitation to draw or doodle while listening or praying. I’ve always listened best while doodling, myself! 

With these journals, I’m trying to strike the delicate balance between inviting attention and making space for reflection. As I was preparing them, I remembered Father Ed Tourangeau, my priest when I was my kids’ age. Father Ed always left a little silence at the end of his sermons. He did this, he explained, because he assumed that somewhere during the course of his sermon, people would get off on their own train of thought. Something he said would lead to something they needed to think about… or maybe something else entirely would float to the surface and demand their attention. With the pause at the end of the sermon, he gave people time to wrap up their thoughts and return to the room. I love the pragmatism and generosity of that approach. 

We sometimes say that people – adults and kids – should pay attention during church. Let me be clear: I do hope you pay attention during church, beloveds. But I also hope you’re not ONLY paying attention to ME – or to whoever else happens to be leading worship at the moment. I hope that sometimes your attention will be caught by a word or phrase in a prayer or Scripture or song, and that will draw you towards something you need to think about, or something God has to say to you, deep down I your heart. I hope that sometimes your attention will drift to a loved one who’s going through a hard time, and you’ll pause to hold them in God’s light. Or you notice that some moment from the past week still feels unsettled, and you’ll dwell with whether you need to make amends, or change the situation. 

Let’s be clear: You’re not an audience or a class. And your responsibility here is neither to absorb information nor to appreciate a performance. There will  be neither quiz nor ovation. For some of you, sometimes, this set-apart time, this hour on Sunday mornings, may simply be a doorway into thanks, or a silence in which another voice may speak. (Those words come from the poet Mary Oliver.)

So with the church journals – as with many other things – planning something for our kids leads to naming something that’s true for many of us. 

Putting kids and youth at the center of our common life, alongside the grownups, rather than off to the side; and believing that we grownups can learn and practice faith with and from them – that’s one of the ways we follow Jesus, at St. Dunstan’s. 

I love these passages in Mark’s Gospel where Jesus embraces children. Jesus challenges so many assumptions in his ministry. It delights me that one of them is the idea that there are places kids don’t belong; that there are things that are too important for kids to be around.

I noticed, this week, that it’s easy to think of these stories as breaks from the urgent pace of Jesus’ march towards the cross. As warm and fuzzy “Awww!” Moments – before Jesus starts talking about crucifixion again. But thanks to re-reading the whole Gospel of Mark in Father Tom’s Bible study this summer, I’m questioning that view. Mark’s Jesus predicts his own death and resurrection three times, before he enters Jerusalem and the story begins to accelerate towards the cross. That’s where these scenes fall – among those grim predictions that confuse and frighten his disciples. 

Mark is a very careful writer. Whether that reflects the actual sequence of events or Mark’s choice: it is not an accident. These scenes are not soft-focus breaks from the urgent, building action. They’re important. As Jesus predicts that God’s Messiah must suffer and die, he’s preparing his followers for a world turned upside down: the mighty cast down, the lowly lifted up, the outsider brought in, the last made first. Old ways set aside, and new kinds of communities born. 

We don’t do what we do – our shared and ongoing work towards becoming an intergenerational faith community – because kids are cute and talented, though they are. We don’t do this because Welcoming is one of our Discipleship Practices, though it is. We don’t do this because we think it will make our church grow, though it might?

We do it because we pray every week, maybe every day, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done. And this is one of the ways we walk towards the kingdom, and live out God’s divine will. Because in some way beyond our full understanding, this becoming is part of the redemptive work that God in Christ is doing in and for and through St. Dunstan’s. 

May the God who has called us to this work, give us the wisdom and will to continue it. Amen.