Category Archives: Sermons

Sermon, Jan. 19

I have been experimenting with preaching from an outline in this season. Apologies to those who read online – I know this is harder to read than a complete sermon text!

  1. Annual Meeting Sunday
    1. Happens every January (though some churches do it in the late fall) 
    2. Business – presenting budget, electing representatives, ministry updates
    3. I usually take invitation to do a “State of the Parish” sermon, to best of my ability
    4. Last year: Jesus at the Wedding at Cana, & anxiety about whether there will be enough. & being in the “stretch zone” as the parish changes and as my role changes too. 
      1. Helpful to me to re-read, because honestly, dealing with the renovation last year sucked up a lot of my capacity to think and pray and practice my way into those changes… if you want to re-read it too, I have some copies in the sermon basket!
    5. Year before that: Preached on an Epistle about holding the present lightly, so that we’re more able to welcome God’s future. That was an easy one!
  1. THIS YEAR… 
    1. Ask myself: What’s the word that needs speaking? Where am I catching a glimpse of God’s next work among us, that I can name and hold up? 
    2. Coming up blank.
    3. Not a bad blank. Not lost, lonely, anxious blank.
    4. Blank page in an artist’s pad, with colored pencils and markers and paints at hand…  
    5. Which makes a lot of sense, when I think about where we are in our common life at St. D’s… 
  1. CAP CAM TRAJECTORY
    1. I came to St. D’s in Jan 2011. First document that mentions preparing for a cap cam dates from March 2011. 
    2. Not because I came here itching to do one, but because folks here had some things they felt could be better. 
    3. Budget issues – put it off; good thing! 
    4. We began in earnest in 2015. Five years ago. 
    5. Open Door Project – make bldgs more accessible, flexible, comfortable and beautiful. 
    6. And here we are.
    7. ODP is NOT OVER. 
      1. More on that in a bit! 
      2. But: Over the hump. 
      3. Renovation was the largest part, both financially and logistically; and it’s more or less over. 
      4. Still collecting pledge payments for the next couple of years; still some interesting and important pieces to undertake.
      5. And still a lot of closets and cabinets and corners with stuff that doesn’t belong there… I’m telling myself it will be OK if some of the sorting and settling waits till the summer! 
      6. But I find there’s also starting to be room to breathe… and wonder, what now? 
      7. Back to that blank page…! 
  1. Lectionary readings for today frame this wondering space. 
    1. Sunday readings come from 3-year calendar used by many churches
    2. Epiph: dropped one lesson, extended another, but still working with assigned texts
    3. Lots of kinds of churches where preachers choose texts; I like the discipline & challenge of hearing what the Spirit is saying to the church though the texts that the lectionary places before us. 
    4. Today: Prophetic text from Isaiah; portion of early part of John’s Gospel. 
  1. ISAIAH
    1. Prophet. Godly Play: “a prophet is someone who comes so close to God, and God comes so close to them, that they know what is most important.”
    2. First 39 chaps attrib to OG Isaiah. Later, another prophet’s voice continues and extends Isaiah’s prophecies. Different, but also consistent – it IS one book. 
    3. This is Second Isaiah – chap 49. 
    4. People of Judea conquered, many killed, others taken away to live in exile. 
    5. Prophetic text points towards return to homeland, and restoration of what they have lost, for God’s people. 
    6. Israel not forgotten or abandoned; God remembers; God has a future for them. 
    7. BUT NOT JUST return and rebuilding: a new mission.
    8. You’ll be honored by foreign kings; you’ll set captives free; your cities will be so full you’ll be saying, “Where did all these children come from?” 
    9. MOST OF ALL: Sign of God’s power and redeeming love to the whole world. “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
    10. Echoes – Song of Praise this season – Isaiah 60: “Nations will stream to your light, kings to the brightness of your dawning…” A city of peace and plenty and light for the whole world. 
    11. Import msg for people in exile: temptation to just want what they had before. God says: OK – but I have bigger plans for you. 
  1. APPLYING ISAIAH
    1. Now, all that speaks to me pretty directly.
    2. Renovation is not conquest and exile. But there was chaos and confusion and dislocation, and some struggle, and some grief. 
    3. And now we can settle in to renewed spaces & return to normal. It would be easy to let that be enough. 
      1. Since Xmas: I’ve been able to notice & enjoy. Hearing that from others, too. Things look nice and feel good! 
    4. BUT: God through Isaiah: It’s too light a thing to just move back in, tidy up, get back to how things were before all the mess. 
      1. God says to God’s people: I have work for you that extends beyond the gates of your city, the doors of your church. 
      2. Your renewal has a purpose beyond yourselves. 
    5. Return, rebuilding and restoring is not just for our comfort or convenience, but for God’s glory and God’s work in the world.
      1. I don’t know yet what that will look like. 
      2. But I believe that’s what we’ll be discerning in the months and years ahead. 
      3. What’s waiting to be drawn or painted on that blank page … or maybe several blank pages.
      4. If this makes you uncomfortable – if you were enjoying getting back to normal, and the idea that our new “normal” includes opening our hearts and minds to God’s unfolding purpose for our parish, sounds like more than you’re up for at the moment – then you are not alone. 
      5. That’s where our Gospel today comes in – and it is good news. 
  1. VII. GOSPEL
    1. We are back and forth between the Gospels of Matthew and John a lot in this season, for some reason. 
    2. We’re back in John this Sunday, soon after Jesus’ baptism (which we had in Matthew last week), and John the Baptist is telling people about Jesus: “That man over there? He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God!” 
    3. John had his own disciples – followers and students – from among the many, many seekers who came to him to hear his preaching & perhaps be baptized.
    4. Here he is pointing away from himself, towards Jesus: That’s who this is all about. That’s who you really need to follow.
    5. Just a few verses before this passage, a verse I treasure:
    6. V. 19-20: “This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ John confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’”
    7. Something I read a few years ago called this the Confession of John the Baptist – as in, his confession of faith. Only half a joke. 
    8. I AM NOT THE MESSIAH. Not the One Sent by God to Save and Restore. I just point at him. Look, there he is!
  1. VIII. Putting the Confession of John in conversation with Isaiah….
    1. It is too light a thing for God’s people to simply have what they had before, restored to them; God intends them to be a light to all peoples, so that God’s saving power can reach to the ends of the earth.
    2. But – and – We are not the Messiah.
    3. Reassurance: Whatever comes next for us does not have to be Messiah-scale. 
      1. Nobody, least of all God, expects St. Dunstan’s to fix what ails the world or our nation or even just Madison or Middleton. 
    4. Offering ourselves to God’s purposes not the same as being the SAVIOR of the WORLD. That’s a relief!
    5. But just as important: We are not called to be the Savior; but we are called to point towards him. 
    6. That IS our job, individually and together – to live lives that point in word and deed towards a loving and redeeming God, made known to us in Jesus Christ. 
  1. Picture that blank page. Close your eyes if it helps. 
    1. A nice chunky notebook; good brushes; cup of clean water; the colored pencils are sharp and ready… 
    2. If art stuff makes you anxious, feel free to pick another image. Wood and tools? An empty garden plot? An image of joyous potential. 
    3. We have some praying and wondering and discerning to do, in this season. 
    4. I am looking for some prayer partners to pray with me about the next chapter in our common life here at St. Dunstan’s. I don’t know exactly what that looks like either but I know I need it. If you think that might be you, talk to me. 
    5. There’s no hurry in all this; we’re still unpacking, and still recovering, from the renovation. 
    6. But I think the time is right to begin patient, prayerful preparation for the next thing – remembering that it won’t be OUR thing, but God’s.
      1. The purpose, the plan, and the power – all God’s. 
    7. If we listen with open minds and hearts, God will show us the way. I really believe that. 
    8. Let us pray.

      O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquillity the plan of salvation; let the whole world
      see and know that things which were being cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by the One through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Sermon, Jan. 12

Note: We read the entire 10th chapter of the Book of Acts this morning in worship. 

This story from the book of the Acts of the Apostles always brings to mind a favorite memory. One summer during my grad school years, several of my college friends and I rented a house on the beach in North Carolina for a few days, to hang out and reconnect. These were my church buddies, friends from the Episcopal campus community in my college town. Several of us had arrived and were settling in when my friends Jay and Spencer drove up. Jay rushed in and demanded to see a Bible immediately. (This was before Smartphones. Sometimes you just had to wonder about things for a while.) We found one and he looked up the tenth chapter of Acts. Meanwhile Spencer explained: In a Burger King along the way, they had seen several members of a church group, all wearing T-shirts that said in big letters across the back: ARISE.  KILL.  EAT. And a Scripture citation: Acts 10, verse 13. 

Now, ARISE, KILL, EAT, didn’t sound like any summary of the good news of God in Christ that we’d ever heard. And none of us knew the Book of Acts well enough to recognize the story from those few words. But you, of course, know what those words are about. They’re part of Peter’s vision – a message from God, a revelation that the categories that had bound Peter’s thinking and behavior in the past were passing away. (I still think it’s a weird thing to put on a T-shirt!) 

This story is sometimes named as the Conversion of Cornelius. But I think it’s really more about the conversion of Peter – Peter’s realization that the God made known in Jesus Christ shows no partiality. Partiality – a funny word; we don’t use it much. Somebody might say they’re partial to chocolate ice cream. Well: What Peter discovers in today’s Acts story is that God isn’t partial to any group of people over any other group. God doesn’t play favorites. God doesn’t like this one better than that one, just because of who or what they are. 

It’s a wonderful, profoundly important insight.  And what’s just as wonderful is that Peter has it. Peter was one of Jesus’ first disciples. We know him by the name Jesus gave him – the Rock – Peter in Greek, Cephas in Aramaic. We’ll hear that story next week, actually! In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus explains the nickname this way: “On this rock will I build my church.” It makes it sound like Peter is getting this nickname because he is so steady and solid. 

Well… maybe. We know Jesus could look right into people and see their hearts.

Peter’s original name, the one his parents gave him, was Simon, which means “hearing.” Maybe Jesus looked at Simon and thought, This one hears about as well as your average rock!… And he’s about as likely as a rock to change his mind. 

Now, pig-headed – rock-headed people have their uses. Someone who holds onto an idea or a vision with great determination and faithfulness can be just the right person to do something really hard, like starting a whole new religion, in the face of persecution. Peter did become one of the foundation stones of the Church. 

But walking with Jesus wasn’t always easy for someone like Simon Peter, who is not … nimble in his thinking, and takes a while to arrive at new understandings. The Gospels are full of stories about Peter being just a little slow on the uptake. He always thinks he’s got it – and he so rarely does. When Jesus talks about how hard it is for wealthy people to enter the kingdom of heaven, Peter’s the one who says, “We’re poor, Jesus! We left everything to follow you! So what are we gonna get?….” 

When Jesus appears to the disciples walking on the water, Peter’s the one who says, “Jesus, I want to walk on water too!” And of course he ends up getting soaked…  

When Jesus talks about his coming death on the cross,  Peter’s the one who says, “You’ve got to stop talking like this! You’re bringing everybody down!” Jesus has to rebuke him:  You’re seeing things from a human point of view, not God’s.

 

Peter is the only one of the male disciples brave enough to follow Jesus to the High Priest’s house after he is arrested. But he loses his courage, afraid to follow his friend to death, and denies knowing him – three times. When he and Jesus meet again, beside a lake, after everything, Jesus asks him three times: Do you love me? And tells him three times: Tend my sheep. 

Jesus knows his friend well. He knows it’s a good idea to hammer the point home. Maybe by the third repetition, it will get through Peter’s rocky head and settle into his big, loving, faithful heart. 

And Peter does tend Jesus’ sheep. He preaches Christ crucified and risen to the crowds, to the authorities, to anyone who will listen. He becomes a great and gifted leader. He goes to jail and suffers for his faith. Simon the Rock has got an idea in his hard head: Jesus called me to lead and protect his church. And I’m going to do it. 

One of the threats to Jesus’ church – to Peter’s church – is a fellow named Paul. Paul didn’t even know Jesus; he used to persecute Christians. Now he’s going around preaching to non-Jews, telling them they can become Christians without following all the religious practices of the Jewish people. Peter is not so sure about this. Jesus was a Jew, and all the disciples were faithful Jews. Peter fears that Paul is preaching cheap grace and wishy-washy warm fuzzy inclusion, and letting just ANYBODY in. 

Then something happens to Peter. We just heard the story. He has a vision of all kinds of animals – many of which are unclean and not to be eaten, in Jewish dietary law. Peter says, God, I will not eat these things; I am a faithful Jew; I have never eaten anything unclean! And a divine Voice says, What God has made clean, you must not call unclean. 

Then the messengers from Cornelius arrive – Peter follows them to Caesaria – Cornelius and his household gather to hear Peter’s preaching – and he begins with this new insight, this new revelation: I truly understand that God shows no partiality. EVERY person everywhere, no matter who or what they are, if they honor God and live with justice, they are acceptable to God. 

(A brief word on “acceptable”: It sounds kind of minimal, right? Like, just barely good enough. It really means something more like proper or appropriate. It’s used elsewhere for things like the acceptable sacrifice to God; the acceptable time for God’s action in the world. Acceptable, here, means: Just right for God.) 

In today’s story from the book of Acts, a big new idea has finally gotten through

the apostle Peter’s rocky head: The Gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, isn’t just for Jews – it’s for everybody. God’s love isn’t just for this nation or that nation. What God has made clean, it’s not the business of the church or its leaders to call unclean. When God opens a door, it’s never our business to close it.

Today is the first Sunday in the church’s season of Epiphany. Epiphany means, Revelation. A light-bulb moment. A new understanding of faith, self, world. Our Epiphany lessons are full of big revelations: The revelation to the Magi, those eastern astrologers, that a great King was born in Judea. The revelation that Jesus is God’s beloved Son. This revelation to Peter: I truly understand that God shows no partiality. God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. 

Receiving a revelation is one thing. Living in that new way of seeing and being, is another. God shows no partiality – but humans are really good at it. We have a strong propensity to create us-es and them-s, insiders and outsiders, to draw lines and build walls. We use different standards to judge those whom we see as our kind of people, and those whom we see as other. There’s a lot of science that explores this tendency, and lots of history that illustrates it. 

And not just history, but headlines. Partiality is in the rhetoric of war: enemies and allies, winners and losers. We forget over and over again Abraham Lincoln’s wisdom: “My concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side.” 

Partiality is in what lives we allow to matter to us – Iraqi, Canadian, Honduran, Puerto Rican (which is to say, American). It’s in the antagonisms and manipulations of the election cycle. Did you know we are much more likely to fall for false or manipulative news coverage that’s in line with our biases? We’re less critical and careful readers when we are reading positive stories about those we already like, or – more commonly – negative stories about those we don’t like. 

Partiality shows up in force at public hearings about workforce housing and school zoning – folks who think they’re just concerned about their property values; who don’t understand – or don’t want to understand – how residential segregation perpetuates racial and economic inequality. 

Partiality takes one of its most monstrous forms in resurgent anti-Semitism and emboldened white supremacy. 

I truly understand that God shows no partiality. God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. 

The heart of discipleship, of faithful living, is trying to live lives that reflect God as we have come to know God,through Jesus Christ and the witness of Scripture. God tells God’s people, right from the start: Be holy, as I am holy. Peter learns that part of God’s holiness is that God loves without boundaries. God’s welcome, God’s care, God’s call are for everybody. Therefore, as Christians, we are called beyond partiality. To be a people who do not call anyone unclean, profane, unworthy, or unimportant. 

What does it mean for you to grapple with that call, in this year, this season of the world? Maybe it means coming to the Saturday Book Group this week to discuss how to talk with people with whom we disagree; or to the Witnessing Whiteness series beginning in March, for white folks to explore what our whiteness means. Maybe it means trying to listen to why somebody else’s favorite candidate is their favorite. Maybe it means pausing to grieve far-away hurts and losses – letting them touch our hearts, even though it hurts. Maybe it means something as small as looking around at coffee hour or the Peace, this morning, for the people who are standing alone.

Being anti-partiality isn’t wishy-washy or weak. It’s bold and hard, and there is a lot of work to do. But if Peter, the Rock, could overcome his biases, and rejoice in finding God among those he’d seen as outsiders – then so can we. 

May the God who calls us to holiness, grant us wisdom and courage for the living of these days. Amen. 

Sermon, Dec. 22

I like to remind people, around this time of year, that we have the story of Jesus – his birth, life, teachings, acts, death and resurrection – in four voices, which we call the Gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John is the traditional order, though actually Mark was written first. Our Sunday Gospel readings each year come mostly from one of the four – specifically, Matthew, Mark, and Luke; John is scattered around in pieces for some reason. The Church’s new year is the first Sunday in Advent, so we are just a few weeks into getting re-acquainted with the gospel of Matthew. 

Each Gospel has its own voice, its own lens on the shared story. These authors – writing thirty to sixty years after Jesus’ death – are working with different memories – their own or others’ – of what Jesus did and said. And they have somewhat different understandings of who he was, and what his life, death, and rising meant for the world. 

In each Gospel, you get a sense of its voice and priorities in the very first chapter – and that’s certainly true for Matthew. One of Matthew’s big themes is that Jesus is the completion of the Old Testament – the Hebrew Bible. He quotes the prophetic literature often – like the bit of Isaiah in today’s text. He uses these quotations to say, Jesus is the fulfillment of these ancient prophecies. But it’s not just the prophecies: for Matthew, Jesus fulfills and completes all of Jewish history and tradition. That’s obvious in the first seventeen verses of his Gospel – which are printed on the back of your Sunday Supplement, if you’d like to take a look! 

Matthew’s Gospel begins with a genealogy of Jesus. In first-century Palestine, as in many human cultures, who you are depends a lot on who you come from. In a patriarchal society, that’s generally reckoned by naming fathers and grandfathers and great-great-great-grandfathers. And that’s exactly what Matthew does here. He starts with Abraham – the first Jew, the founder and father of it all, in human terms. And he works his way down through the centuries: Isaac, Jacob, Judah, Perez, Hezron, AND so on. He keeps going through King David and his lineage, and through the exile and return.

And he ends in verse 17 with some interesting math: By his count, there are fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen generations from David to exile, and fourteen generations from exile to Jesus. That might just seem odd to you, but numbers were a big deal in Jewish thought, including interpretation of Scripture. For Matthew, those fourteens are part of his case that Jesus is the fulfillment of all of this history, the Messiah – the Savior sent by God – at whom everything that went before has pointed. 

The Sunday lectionary never gives us these verses, and maybe that’s wise; it does take a little explaining to understand their significance for Matthew. But they are an important preface for the text we do receive today. I said, a minute ago, that in a patriarchal context, like Biblical Judaism, genealogies are generally lists of fathers, grandfathers, and so on. 

But this list… has some grandmothers in it too. Did you notice that? Do you remember them, from meeting them three years ago? Their names are Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba – though Matthew calls her the wife of Uriah. 

Tamar is the first of these interesting grandmothers of Jesus. Her story is in the book of Genesis – chapter 38. She married one of the sons of Judah – a great-grandson of Abraham. But her husband dies before they have children. Now, if a man died childless, his brother was supposed to take on his wife and raise children for his dead brother’s sake. But apparently not everybody was on board with this idea.

Judah orders his second son to “perform the duty of a brother-in-law”, but that son, Onan, refuses to give Tamar a child. Then Onan dies too. In classic victim-blaming style, Judah starts to think maybe Tamar is the problem. He tells her, “Go live with your father as a widow until my younger son is old enough to marry,” and sends her away. Now, in this time and place, without a husband and children, Tamar has nothing. No social standing. No security. No future. So. She waits. And waits. And waits. And then she decides to take matters into her own hands. I don’t have time for the full story – it’s Genesis 38; look it up! – but she tricks Judah himself into getting her pregnant – and into admitting that he was wrong in his treatment of her. 

Then there’s Rahab. Her story is in the book of Joshua, chapter 2. The Israelites understand that God has given them a new home, a land of milk and honey. Only trouble is, there are people already living there – Canaanites, whom they’ll have to violently displace. Rahab is a Canaanite, living the city of Jericho. And she practices what is sometimes called the oldest profession. The Israelites send out a couple of spies into Canaan, to figure out how hard it’s going to be to conquer this territory.

The spies go to Jericho and decide to spend a night with Rahab. The local leader hears there are two strangers in town and demands that Rahab present them. But she sends them up on her roof to hide, and tells the men who came to find them, “Oh, yes, they were here, but they just left! If you hurry I bet you can catch them!” Then she goes up on the roof and tells the spies, “Listen: I know that God has given this land to your people. I can feel it. The people of Canaan are terrified. Your God is indeed the Lord of heaven and earth, and we cannot stand against God. So, because I saved you, please save me in turn. When your people come to conquer this city, spare me, and my parents and brothers and sisters and their families. Let us live.”

And the spies agreed. Rahab helped them escape the city – and when Jericho was conquered, she and all her family were saved, and lived among the people Israel from that time forward.  According to Matthew, Rahab marries an Israelite named Salmon. Their son Boaz grows up to marry Ruth – perhaps the best-known of the grandmothers named by Matthew. Ruth, like Rahab, is an outsider who marries into an Israelite family – she’s from the land of Moab. And like Tamar, her first husband dies before they have children. But she’s become so attached to her Israelite mother-in-law, Naomi, that she refuses to go home to her own family. She more or less vows herself to become Naomi’s daughter: Your people shall be my people, and your God my god.  

I love Ruth’s story too – read the book of Ruth! It’s only four chapters long! Spoiler alert: Through the connivance of Naomi, the decency of Boaz, and the grace of God, Ruth becomes a wife and mother – and the grandmother of David. David, the shepherd boy chosen by God to be Israel’s king; David, the poet so in love with God that he danced in the streets; David, the scrappy military leader who led his band of misfits to defeat King Saul; David the ladies’ man, David of the wandering eyes… who’s gazing out his window one morning and spots a beautiful woman, taking a ritual bath on her rooftop, and decides he has to have her. Her name is Bathsheba, and she never has the chance to say no. She gets pregnant with David’s child. Did I mention that she’s married, and her husband, Uriah, is a general in David’s army? David arranges to have him “accidentally” killed in combat. It’s not David’s best chapter. Bathsheba becomes one of David’s wives – and much later, she advocates for David to choose her son Solomon to become king after his death, reminding him:  You owe me. 

These are all amazing stories; it’s painful for me to tell the nutshell versions! But it’s also important to hold them up together, as Matthew does in his genealogy.

He knew all these stories – and he calls them to his readers’ minds intentionally. 

Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba: These are women whose histories of sexuality and child-bearing do not meet ideal patriarchal standards. None of them had the life course their parents would have chosen for them. And yet, they all become part of God’s story. 

And not just because they have babies; but because of their insight, their courage, their determination and faithfulness, their refusal to settle. 

Matthew names these women – and their sons – to set the stage for telling us about Mary and her son. Look at verse 16: “… Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.” Matthew is saying, YES, this is another irregular hop in the genealogy. YES, this is another place where parentage is not quite as tidy as everybody would like it to be. But it’s not like it’s the first time. This is part of God’s MO. 

And lest we miss the point, Matthew makes it clear that Mary’s pregnancy was awkward. “Mary was found to be with child – pregnant – by the Holy Spirit.” Notice that passive voice – “found to be with child.” This is not a version of the story in which Mary meets an angel, agrees to become the mother of God, and then runs to her friends, family, and fiancé to say, “Hey, everybody! A wonderful thing just happened! God has looked with favor on me, and all generations shall call me blessed!” This is a version in which she keeps it to herself as long as she can, until some nosy neighbor spots the curve of her belly under her robe, and sounds the alarm: A young woman has crossed the line. 

In the year of our Lord 2019, many families would still find it a source of dismay and shame for a daughter to become pregnant without a socially-sanctioned partnership. How much more so, in Mary and Joseph’s time! The consequences for a young woman found pregnant without a man willing to claim the child could range from ostracism to death. No wonder Mary kept her mouth shut. She knew this angel story wasn’t going to convince everybody. And indeed, the person she most needs to believe her – her fiance, Joseph – is not on board. 

In his book Ladies and Gentlemen: The Bible!, Jonathan Goldstein re-tells today’s Gospel from Joseph’s point of view. I love how he fleshes out the emotional subtext of the spare Gospel narrative. Listen to Joseph’s words, per Goldstein:  “Being chosen by the Lord is an honor. I’m not saying it’s not… It’s flattering to think that your girlfriend is good enough for God, and on some days I can convince myself well enough that it is an honor indeed, but if the guys at work don’t act like it’s an honor, and none of your friends or family act like it’s an honor, then it doesn’t feel so much like an honor.”… ‘How’s the holy baby?’ Ezekiel, my foreman at work asks me, like, ten times a day, and I have no choice but to bite it. It’s either that or be out of a job…” 

A couple of pages later Joseph describes his own angelic encounter: “Mary had never lied to me before and I knew her heart like I knew my own, but when she told me this business about being visited by an angel, I had an honest-to-God conniption… After a whole night of screaming and crying,… I went outside to try and cool off. Sitting on a tree stump, I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned around and there he was: an angel. The whole bit. Wings and everything, just squatting there….’Are you the one… with Mary?’ I asked, not looking at him. ‘No,’ he said softly. ‘I just came here to tell you that what Mary tells you is the truth.’ ‘This is a lot to digest,’ I said. The angel withdrew his hand from my shoulder and left me sitting there outside my house, digesting until morning.” 

I appreciate that Goldstein’s retelling makes clear that while Joseph agrees to stay with Mary, the angel’s reassurance wouldn’t have made it all fine. Whatever people assumed about Mary’s untimely pregnancy, there would have been winks and sneers and cutting remarks.There would have been a shadow of shame cast over this couple before they even fully began their life together. 

That’s why Matthew reminds us of Jesus’ grandmothers. Reminds us that God’s purposes are bigger than human propriety. That redemption matters more than respectability. Matthew tells us that Joseph is a righteous man – with an ambiguity I suspect is intentional: Joseph’s righteousness is shown by the fact that he doesn’t want to ruin Mary’s life, but it’s the same righteousness that makes him decide he can’t possibly go on with the wedding, either. Pregnant with a mystery baby, she is no longer an appropriate wife for a righteous man. 

Biblical commentator Richard Swanson writes, “The word dikaios, in this scene, means that Joseph has a good name that he will defend any way he can. He has a good reputation…  By putting Mary away quietly, he preserves his good name. He is willing to say publicly (if silently) that HE has had NOTHING to do with making Mary pregnant.  Not a thing. And that leaves Mary alone and exposed, whether he does it publicly or privately.  What a guy.” 

But the angel’s visit calls Joseph to a deeper and truer righteousness: the righteousness of going along with God’s purposes even when it’s confusing and painful. Even though it exposes him to sneers and winks; even though it commits him to a fatherhood that wasn’t his hope or his choice. 

Mary, like Tamar and Rahab and Ruth and Bathsheba, doesn’t have the life most parents would choose for their daughters. Her trajectory from maiden to mother is not clear and tidy. And yet, like those holy grandmothers, she becomes part of God’s story – and so does Joseph, confused, resentful, tender Joseph. 

Matthew is my least favorite Gospel – let me say that right now. There are things I really struggle with about his voice. But I love this first chapter – I love what he does, here.This genealogy is structured and clean; it does what genealogies tend to do: create an artificially tidy picture of family and history. Father begets son, generation succeeds to generation.

But when he names Tamar, and Rahab, and Ruth, and Bathsheba, he reminds us that life and love, family and belonging, respectability and redemption, are not tidy. Indeed, they can be pretty messy. And God shows up in that mess – working, always, through our struggle and confusion, our shame and our yearning, our hurts and our healing, to accomplish holy purposes on earth. 

Amen. 

Sources: 

Swanson’s thoughts on Mary’s pregnancy and Joseph’s reaction: 

https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2016/12/15/a-provocation-fourth-sunday-of-advent/

Jonathan Goldstein, Ladies and Gentlemen: The Bible!, Riverhead Books, 2009. 

Sermon, Dec. 8

Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the Kingdom of Heaven!

That’s how our Sunday school classes are hearing the message of John the Baptist. A loose translation, but not an unfaithful one. Did you expect him to holler “Repent!”? That’s the more familiar translation for many of us. The Greek word there is “metanoia”, which means, Changing your mind. Reflecting back on things in a way that changes how you move forward. Coming to a new understanding. 

The Scripture in your leaflet this week is a hybrid of our usual Bible translation, the New Revised Standard Version, and David Bentley Hart’s New Testament, which strives to be a fairly direct translation of the Greek. It’s Hart who renders John’s call this way: Change your hearts! And then, to those whom the Baptist suspects of superficial repentance: Bear fruit worthy of a change of heart!

Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the Kingdom of Heaven!

New Testament scholar Sarah Dylan Breuer – who lived downstairs from us when I was in seminary – reminds us that ritual washing, like the baptism of John, was – and is – a practice for non-Jews converting to Judaism. It was a symbolic washing away of the old identity before taking on a new one; a cleansing from past actions that would no longer be part of the new faithful life. A sign of death and rebirth. If that all sounds kind of familiar, it should. 

What was new about John’s practice of baptism, and then Jesus’, and then the church’s, was the assertion that everybody needed it. That’s the context for John’s snark about how being descendants of Abraham – in other words, REAL Jews – doesn’t make you right with God. Everybody needs cleansing. Everybody needs renewal. Everybody needs a change of heart. 

The call to repentance – the call to a changed heart – is a core theme of Advent, this season when we prepare to celebrate God who has come and is coming again. But it’s difficult to reconcile with Advent as we experience it. I learned in my first few years here not to try to schedule much extra stuff at church in December, because people are SO busy. Concerts… Holiday fairs… Work and school deadlines… Family gatherings, and perhaps complex negotiations related to same… Travel plans … Decorations… Baking… Volunteering… and SO much shopping… 

In a wonderful essay about the REAL war on Christmas by the Dean of Yale Divinity School, Andrew McGowan, he points out that Black Friday’s irresistible deals and urgent demands immediately wipes out Thanksgiving – we turn on a dime from giving thanks for all that we have, to a barrage of messages that wDO NOT HAVE ENOUGH, and we need MORE, MORE, MORE. 

So: we have a gulf – at least, many of us do – between the church’s invitation to Advent as a season of quiet, of reflection. Of sober acknowledgment of what is amiss in the world, and our ongoing need for God’s presence among us. A season when the church prays urgently: Come, Lord Jesus! – And the month of December in the world out there. 

Does it help to think of John’s call to a change of heart as a matter of re-orientation? Turning from; turning towards? Recalibrating what we’re doing with our time and energy and resources, to point in the same direction as our inner compass, our deep desires? 

We’re going to try something now – an exercise suggested by David Lose of the website Working Preacher. Does everyone have a piece of paper and a pencil? Good. Now, start making the list of everything you have to do, in the next two weeks plus. What’s on your to-do list between now and Christmas? What are others expecting of you? What are you expecting of yourself? 

You don’t have to turn this in. It’s OK to use abbreviations or keywords, as long as you know what you mean. Take a few minutes with this. It’s OK if you don’t catch everything; some of our lists are long. Stick to one side – if you fill it, you can stop. 

Okay! Let’s take a moment and just breathe through any anxiety that might have stirred up!

Now, here’s the second step. Turn over your page so that list isn’t staring at you. Don’t start writing until I tell you to. 

I want you to daydream about what you want this Christmas to be like. I mean that as broadly as possible. How do you want Christmas to feel in your heart, this year? How do you want it to feel in your home? Among your friends and family? In your community? Our nation? Our world? 

What kind of day do you want to have? How do you want to be, with the people who share your life? What news would you love to wake up to, on Christmas morning?

Now, take up your pencil again. Write a few words or even draw something on the blank side of your paper, to capture some of your hopes for your life and the world this Christmas. This doesn’t have to be comprehensive. Trust what rises to the surface first in your heart. 

Okay! Finish what you’re writing. Look at your page for a minute. Hold that yearning and hope. 

Now, here’s our third step. Turn your paper over, back to your to-do list. I want you to review that list and notice which of the things on THIS side of the paper, point towards things that you wrote down on the OTHER side of the paper. Circle the things that contribute directly to your deep hopes and longings about your life and the world. 

There might be things where you have a choice about how you do them, right?Maybe you could put a star, an asterisk, by those. Like buying a gift for someone you usually exchange gifts with. It could be a hurried resentful “This will do” purchase. Or it could be five minutes’ loving thought about that person and what they enjoy. Or – if there’s no getting the gift right, because sometimes there isn’t – then add some grace to the situation by making the getting of the gift a blessing to somebody. Go to the craft fair at Middleton Outreach Ministry after church today – just for example – and buy something lovingly handmade that will benefit their food pantry! 

I’m going to offer everybody a freebie right now: if “rest” isn’t on your to-do list in some form, please put it there. And circle it. Rest is holy. Literally. It makes us able to discern, to choose, to do well. 

There will be lots of things on your list that are important in the short run, or for purely practical reasons, that don’t really feed into your bigger hopes and dreams. That’s OK. I’m not about to suggest you shouldn’t do those things. I, too, live in the real world. But maybe there are little choices you can make, as you steward your time and energy in these days and weeks. To give a little more of yourself to the things that matter deeply, and a little less of yourself to the things that don’t. 

Because it feels good to give ourselves to things that matter. To lean in to our hopes for our lives and our world. To bear fruit worthy of a changed heart, as the Kingdom of Heaven draws near. 

 

Sources:

Sarah Dylan Breuer on this text: 

https://www.sarahlaughed.net/lectionary/2004/11/second_sunday_o.html

Andrew McGowan on the War on Christmas: 

http://abmcg.blogspot.com/2019/12/the-war-on-christmas.html

David Lose on the Advent to-do list exercise:

http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2901

Sermon, Nov. 17

They will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name…. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.

These words of Jesus’ would have been remembered and treasured during the decades that followed, as the first generations of Christians dealt with social and religious ostracism, and then with periods of violent political persecution. Jesus speaks to his disciples about the chaotic times ahead, for them and for their whole nation and people; and he assures them that no matter what happens, even if some of his followers are killed for their faith in him, they will be, in some deeper sense, safe in God’s hands. 

Modern mainline churches don’t talk much about the martyrs – those who have died for their Christian faith. There is a martyr section in the Hymnal – numbers 236 through 241 – but we rarely sing them. The feasts of Stephen, the first martyr, and the Holy Innocents, tend to be tactfully lost in the shuffle after Christmas. (It’s unusual that St. Dunstan’s does sometimes honor the latter.)

But the faithfulness and courage of the martyrs in the face of death was of tremendous importance to our early faith ancestors. Tertulllian, the great 2nd-century Christian writer, declared,“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”Martyrs were remembered and celebrated with stories both inspiring and gruesome. We have a few on the church’s calendar in this season – November 24 is the feast day of Catherine of Alexandria, Barbara of Nicomedia, and Margaret of Antioch. Margaret is my favorite of the three. The was the daughter of a pagan priest, as a baby she was entrusted to the care of a nurse, who happened to be Christian. As she grew up, Margaret became a Christian as well. When this was discovered, she was subjected to many trials of her faith, including being swallowed by the Devil in the form of a dragon. However, the cross she was holding irritated the dragon’s stomach, causing it to explode and freeing Margaret. She was eventually executed for her Christian beliefs. 

There’s another name on our calendar of commemorations this week. Tomorrow is the feast day of Samuel Seabury. Who’s heard of Samuel Seabury?… Who’s heard of him as the first Bishop of the Episcopal Church?… Who’s heard of him as an opponent of Alexander Hamilton?… “Heed not the rabble that scream revolution!”

Seabury’s story is more complicated than the stories of the early martyrs – though it has some moments of drama. He was born in Connecticut in 1729, the son of a priest of the Church of England. He grew up among the educated English upper class of the Colonies, became a priest himself and served parishes in New Jersey and New York

Then there started to be talk, around the Colonies. About no taxation without representation. About liberty. About revolution. Tensions rose between those who named themselves Patriots – those who wanted their own country – and those loyal to the English crown. In 1770 there was a skirmish in Boston which killed five patriots. In 1773 Patriots threw crates of tea into Boston Harbor. 

In 1774, Patriots gathered to set up their own government, forming the first Continental Congress. In April of 1775 came the first real battle of the Revolutionary War, at Lexington and Concord. 

I don’t know how you were taught about the American Revolution. I don’t remember being taught that people were divided. That lots of people thought all this independence nonsense was chaotic, risky, and foolish. That the Continental Congress was controversial; that some people saw it as tyranny. I learned that King George was the tyrant! I certainly don’t remember being taught that the Episcopal Church’s venerated first bishop, Samuel Seabury, fought tooth and nail against our becoming an independent republic. 

The official church biography of Seabury sums it up this way: “During the American Revolution, [Seabury] remained loyal to the British crown and served as a chaplain in the British army.” Well. That’s one way to put it. Another way would be to say that Seabury was vocally, publicly, and fiercely opposed to the Continental Congress, revolution, and independence. Seabury wrote four pamphlets under the pseudonym of “A Westchester Farmer,” making the case to the farmers, merchants, and other ordinary folk of New York – city and state – that this path towards revolution was foolish and dangerous, and would be disastrous to their economic interests. 

The first Letter, published in 1774, begins, “The American Colonies are unhappily involved in a scene of confusion and discord. The bands of civil society are broken; the authority of government weakened, and in some instances taken away: individuals are deprived of their liberty; their property is frequently invaded by violence, and not a single Magistrate has had courage or virtue enough to interpose….” 

Seabury absolutely believed that British rule was best for the colonies. In that first letter, he protests the rampant smuggling of tea to avoid British taxes: “In this trade the laws of our country are trampled upon. The nation [that would be Great Britain] is defrauded of its revenues.” And he concludes his lengthy appeal with some dramatic words about what may lie ahead:  “Think me not too severe. Anarchy and Confusion, Violence and Oppression, distress my country; and I must, and will speak. … Let me intreat you, my Friends, to have nothing to do with these [revolutionaries]…  Peace and quietness suit you best. Confusion, and Discord, and Violence, and War, are sure destruction to the farmer.”

In his third letter, Seabury railed agains the Continental Congress: “[This] Congress… was founded in sedition; its decisions are supported by tyranny… The manner in which [the delegates] were chosen was subversive of all law, and of the very constitution of the province… Liberty under the supreme authority and protection of Great-Britain, is infinitely preferable to slavery under an American Congress.”

Seabury’s letters became a vituperous public debate with an 18-year-old student at King’s College in New York, an eloquent young upstart named Alexander Hamilton, whose writing Seabury describes at one point as “superlatively arrogant and impudent.” If you’re not familiar with the musical “Hamilton,” check out the song “Farmer Refuted” for a musical version of their debate. 

Seabury’s pamphlets were popular, but not popular enough. The revolution was already underway. Seabury had his opportunity to be hated by all. During the war, he was arrested and imprisoned by Patriots; his home was plundered and his children beaten. When the war was over, he lived quietly with a community of other Loyalist sympathizers in New York… until he received word in 1783 that a gathering of priests in Connecticut wanted him to become the first bishop of an independent American branch of the Church of England. There were only fourteen priests in Connecticut at the time – and since it takes bishops to make more priests, and since the Church of England would presumably not be sending them any more priests after the Recent Unpleasantness, they were concerned with the very survival of their way of faith in the new nation. 

Seabury accepted their nomination and traveled to England to seek consecration as a bishop, along with a letter from the group explaining in part, “This part of America is… dismembered from the British Empire; but, notwithstanding the dissolution of our civil connection with the parent state, we still hope to retain the religious polity …. [of] the Church of England.” But despite this appeal, and despite Seabury’s well-documented opposition to the Revolution, the Church of England bishops declined the request. Being consecrated as a Bishop in the Church of England involved an oath of loyalty to the British crown… an oath Seabury, as an American, could not make. However, bishops in the Episcopal Church of Scotland were less concerned with such matters; they consecrated Seabury as bishop on November 14, 1784, 235 years ago last Thursday, and he returned to Connecticut to begin his work. 

Why did Seabury decide to do this? To be a core figure in the founding an independent church, after opposing the founding of an independent nation? Maybe the status associated with being a bishop appealed to him; but I don’t believe he had any illusions that it would be an easy or comfortable life. One of his letters in 1786 complains that he had no settled salary as Bishop of Connecticut, because the populace was so poor in the aftermath of the Revolution. 

I think Seabury must have just loved the church and really wanted to do whatever he could to sustain it and build it. He spent the rest of his life working very hard to do just that. He developed and published the first American liturgy. Between 1791 and 1795, he administered eighteen hundred confirmations. During his eleven years as bishop, he ordained 93 deacons and priests. For much of that time, he was effectively the bishop of all of New England, and traveled the rough roads in all weather to visit churches and clergy in Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and New York.

The grueling pace took its toll. On Feb 25, 1796, at the age of 67, Seabury suffered a heart attack and died. Not a dramatic death like those early martyrs. But nonetheless, a life given for the Church and for God’s work in and through the Church. 

What can we take from Seabury’s life? Well, there’s the reminder that if we look back on history, it turns out that it has often felt like civil society, politics, and the Church were in crisis, dying, and/or devolving into chaos. I find something oddly comforting about that. 

Which leads us to a second point to ponder in relation to the complicated witness of blessed Samuel Seabury. In our youth confirmation class this afternoon, we’re going to talk about one of the Big Questions: Why is the world so broken? 

Why are so many things other than how God intends, to the best that we understand God’s intentions? There’s no one easy answer to that question, but there are a lot of hard answers that are interesting and important. And one of them is: People are fearful about change. People are fearful about losing what they’re used to. I think that’s what Jesus is addressing in our Gospel today when he tells the disciples, You’re going to hear about terrible things – wars and earthquakes, famines and plagues and portents. None of that actually means the world is ending. It’s just history. 

Humans scare easy, and once scared, our judgment is lousy. It’s hard for us to see that the things that we’re invested in, the things that seem natural and good and right and proper to us, are often not the end of God’s story for humanity. In his famous letter from a Birmingham Jail, written in 1963, blessed Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that [African-Americans’] great stumbling block in [the] stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; … who constantly advises [African-Americans] to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’”  

I think most of us are glad that the Revolution happened, despite Seabury’s best efforts; that the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, despite the cautions of those white moderates. But if we’re honest, many of us probably have something where we resonate with that anxiety about changes that seem to undermine the very foundations of the world as we know it. Where deep down we’d like to raise our hand and say, Slower, please. Just… a little slower. 

The third thing, the hopeful thing, I think we can receive from blessed Samuel is that he came through what was, for him, a world-shattering change – and he didn’t just survive; he re-oriented his life and ministry towards what God was doing in this new nation, this new reality. Sometimes it’s not your life you’re asked to give, but your living. The drama of martyrdom might be easy compared to living through big change, living FOR change, offering yourself to the new thing God is doing even when you feel deep ambivalence or grief about what is being left behind. 

As far as we know, Seabury’s faith in God never wavered or changed – nor his love for the church. Rather, his faith and commitment held him steady while the world turned upside down around him – so that he eventually found himself working and praying for the welfare of the nation where he dwelt, like it or not.  The official prayer for Samuel Seabury in the Episcopal Church’s calendar of commemorations invites us to give thanks that our church has bishops, and to join with our bishops in proclaiming the Gospel with missionary zeal. Sure! Amen! But I pray, too,  that blessed Samuel’s life, told in its fulness, will help us find courage and purpose in the face of the changes of our season in the life of the world. 

In Seabury’s diary, in an entry written in the last years of his life, he records a prayer he used every day – the prayer of a man who has learned to trust God’s judgment more than his own; a prayer of self-dedication, committing himself to God’s purposes. Let us pray in Samuel Seabury’s words: 

May God Almighty, who has ever been gracious to me, protect me in this journey; dispose my heart to fear and serve him; enable me to do my duty to his Church with uprightness of heart; and bless this ministers and people under my care with his grace and Holy Spirit. Amen. 

SOURCES & FURTHER READING

A short biography of Seabury from the Episcopal Church in Connecticut: 

https://www.episcopalct.org/Customer-Content/www/CMS/files/Archives/Samuel_Seabury_alternative_biography_.pdf

Lesser Feasts & Fasts (find Seabury on November 18): 

https://extranet.generalconvention.org/staff/files/download/21034

Quotations from letters and contemporary documents come from this source:

https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=GQwCAAAAYAAJ&rdid=book-GQwCAAAAYAAJ&rdot=1

“Life and Correspondence of the Right Reverend Samuel Seabury, D.D.: First Bishop of Connecticut, and of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America,” Eben Edwards Beardsley, published 1881

Read the Farmer letters here:

http://anglicanhistory.org/usa/seabury/farmer/03.html

An overview article, “Reverend Seabury’s Pamphlet War”: 

https://allthingsliberty.com/2013/07/reverend-seaburys-pamphlet-war/

Sermon, Nov. 10

The Jerusalem Temple was the center of the universe. The place where heaven and earth met. Built by the great King Solomon, son of the greatest King, David, to be the very home of God on earth. The place where the holiest object of God’s people, the tablets of the Law, were kept. The place where a person might come to give thanks; to make petition; to seek purification and absolution. 

The Jerusalem Temple was the center of the universe, for the people Israel. And it had been destroyed. Judea, the territory around Jerusalem, had become part of the Assyrian empire in the year 700 before Jesus’ birth – still nominally their own country, but forced to pay tribute and obey the Assyrian rulers. When Babylon arose as the new regional power, Judea got tangled up in a war between Babylon and Egypt, and then became part of Babylon’s growing empire. Judah revolted against Babylon, first in 598 and then again ten years later. Both times, Babylon won; and after the second revolt, in the year 587, they made sure there wouldn’t be a third one. 

The city walls were torn down. The great Temple was shattered and burned, not one stone left upon another. The holy vessels were carried away as spoils of war. Most of the people of Jerusalem and Judea were killed or taken into exile in Babylon.

Then – nearly 70 years later – the exiles are allowed to go home. King Cyrus, the ruler of the NEW regional power, Persia, gives them permission to return and rebuild – even gives them money. Not everyone goes back, of course. The few who still remember Jerusalem in its glory are old now. Mostly it’s the young, the hopeful, the ambitious who return. Drawn by their parents’ and grandparents’ stories of how things used to be, in their own land, with their own great city. They set out, full of energy and purpose.

But when they get there – it’s not what they expected. For one thing, it’s not empty, a blank canvas for their dreams. There are people living in ruined Jerusalem – a mix of their own kin, mostly poor and rural Judeans who moved into what was left of the city after the exiles were taken away, and of other peoples who had moved into the region from elsewhere in the Babylonian empire. And the great Temple, the center of the universe, the place where heaven and earth meet, is … charred rubble. 

The prophet Haggai is among the returnees. His book is short, only two chapters. In the first chapter, God speaks through Haggai to tell the returnees to get busy rebuilding the Temple. In the second chapter, God speaks through Haggai to address the people’s concern and dismay that the new Temple is not as fine and glorious as the old Temple. 

Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? Look at it, elders: How does it look to you now? It looks like nothing, right? Yet take courage, Governor Zerubbabel; take courage, High Priest Joshua; take courage, all you people!  Work, for I am with you; my spirit abides among you; fear not.The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former. 

The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former. The returnees build, and the Second Temple arises from the ashes. Is it better, holier, more splendid than the first? It’s hard to say. But it becomes once again the center of Jewish religious life, the heart of a nation and a faith. The place people come to give thanks; to make petition; to seek purification and absolution. For nearly six hundred years. 

Until it’s destroyed. Again. Second verse same as the first. Empire – Rome, this time; occupation; rebellion; crackdown. Fire and death and desecration. There are Roman carvings that show the holy vessels of the Second Temple being carried off as booty by the Romans, just as the vessels of the First Temple were carried off by Babylon. 

About forty years before the Second Temple is destroyed, with the marks of Rome’s cultural, economic, and military domination everywhere you look, and the people resentful and restless, Jesus of Nazareth visits the Great Temple. He spends some time there, teaching and debating with other religious groups. One of those groups is the Sadducees. 

We don’t actually know a lot about the Sadducees. Most of the surviving texts about them were written by their enemies. We know they had close ties to the Temple and its religious practices. We know they were Torah literalists: they didn’t hold with interpretation or tradition, but only followed what is clearly laid out in the Five Books of Moses. Among other things, that meant they didn’t believe in any kind of life after death, since nothing of the sort is mentioned in the Torah. This puts them at odds with both Jesus and with the Pharisees – with whom Jesus actually has a lot in common. 

A few Sadducees approach Jesus with a question. They say: According to the Law of Moses, if a married man dies without having children, it is his brother’s responsibility to marry the widow and have children with her, as a way to give his dead brother a heritage that will live on. They’re not making this up: it’s called levirate marriage.It’s laid out in Deuteronomy, and there’s a memorable story in Genesis about a man who is struck down by God for refusing to impregnate his dead brother’s wife. It’s a central principal of marriage law in Old Testament Judaism, and it’s found in many other cultures around the world. It seems weird to us, but this practice in itself would have been normal for the crowd gathered around Jesus here. 

The Sadducees have an elaborate what-if about levirate marriage and resurrection – which, remember, they think is bunk:  This unfortunate woman is married to seven brothers in a row, and they ALL die without having children with her. Then she dies. In the afterlife, whose wife is she? 

This isn’t a good-faith question – they are trying to trip Jesus up. But it’s also not entirely a bad-faith question. This IS actually how Jews seek out the meaning of Scripture. The Talmud is a body of law, interpretation, commentary and debate that’s core to Jewish teaching, built up over many generations both before and after the time of Jesus. And the Talmud has lots of stuff like this in it: posing hypothetical questions, debating how the Law applies. It’s rich and contentious and wonderful. So, yeah, the Sadducees are poking at Jesus here; but this is also a game which everyone basically enjoys. 

Jesus, as usual in these situations, sidesteps the trap. I think his answer is important in a couple of ways. For one thing, he liberates this poor hypothetical woman. Please note that marriage is fundamentally asymmetrical, in this context: the men marry, the woman is given in marriage. And for the most part, women had to be married to have any social standing or security. What a relief for this woman, to be able to just be herself in the afterlife, rather than having seven immortal husbands, only one of whom actually chose to marry her! 

But this isn’t really a conversation about marriage. That’s missing the point. It’s a conversation about resurrection. It’s a conversation about the scope of reality: Is this IT, or is there More? Is there After? Jesus says: There’s More. There’s After. Because our God is God of the living. 

We don’t know much about the Sadducees because they disappeared from history. Right around the time of the destruction of the Second Temple. While the Pharisees, and the Christians, and others, developed new forms of Jewish life and practice and identity, the Sadducees just faded away. It makes sense. If your core identity and practice centers on the Temple and the Temple is gone, what else is there to do? Why go on? Judaism, the faith of Moses, might as well be dead. And they didn’t believe in resurrection. 

But Jesus says: Our God is a God of the living. 

Beloved friends, it would have made all the sense in the world for me to use that Haggai text to preach about our church renovation. To promise renewal and prosperity stretching unbroken into the future, now that the kitchen has decent lighting and we have more than one meeting room. The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former. 

But I can’t not know the next chapters of that story… the ones where the latter splendor ends up as rubble, too. And I won’t lie to you.  

The second Temple lasted over 500 years, which is a pretty good run. St. Dunstan’s is only 61 years old – and counting. Like those returning to Jerusalem from exile, we, too, have elders among us who remember the glory days – of this church or other churches. St. Dunstan’s is one of many churches planted in the heady ecclesial optimism of the late 1950s, when a population boom combined with a spike in religious engagement, and churches and Sunday school classrooms across America were bursting at the seams.  When people would be turned away from church committees because they were FULL. 

The former splendor of this house – like all those hopeful midcentury church plants – was pretty splendid. Will the latter be even greater? Hard to say. As I often remind you, the landscape of 21st century faith is complex – though not all bad, by any means. Let me be clear: I think we have some splendor ahead of us. God has some next things in mind for St. Dunstan’s. I don’t know what they are yet; but I can feel the space beginning to open. 

It’s easy, in the dust and muddle of the final phases of a major renovation, to be pretty focused on the building – like our faith ancestor Haggai. Some days the best thing I can imagine is for all the mess and chaos to be finished, and for us to settle in to a newer, nicer version of what we already had. But fortunately God’s imagination is bigger than mine. 

Parts of this place really are looking comparatively splendid. But we don’t come to church – we don’t come to Jesus – for splendor. We come to church – we come to Jesus – for life. If the goal were, Make the old thing into a nicer, newer thing, then yay! We did it! (Mostly. And we’ll still be paying for it for a while.) But all that is just the container for what God is doing among us. It’s a safer, cleaner, more comfortable and accessible container now, but it’s still just a container.  

I’d like to stand here and promise you that the latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former. But I believe a truer and stronger and more hopeful promise is Jesus’ promise is that our God is the God of the living. A promise we live into not only by sharing worship with our beloved dead – but by trusting in the possibility of a future better and bolder and more beautiful than a freshly re-painted version of the past. 

Take courage, leaders! says the prophet Haggai.Take courage, priests!  Take courage, all you people! Work, for I am with you; my spirit abides among you. Fear not.

Sermon, Nov. 3

Today is the feast of All Saints! The Church uses the word “saint” in a couple of different ways. The more common use is to mean somebody who is visibly, obviously living in God’s ways. Somebody who shines God’s light in the world by living a life of justice, compassion, grace, and holiness. A lot of those people are dead – our ancestors in faith who have gone on before us into the nearer presence of God. Some of them are very much alive! You might know people, even people in this room, who meet that description in your eyes! 

The other way we use “saint” is to mean any member of the Christian community. That’s how the earliest Christians used it – like in the letter to the Ephesians, when it says, I pray that God may give you a spirit of wisdom so that the eyes of your heart may be opened to the hope to which Jesus Christ has called you, and to the riches of our glorious inheritance among the saints. Or later when it says that the work of a pastor is to equip the saints for the work of ministry. That’s you! You’re the saints! 

But what does the word mean? Paul begins his first letter to the church in Corinth this way: “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints…”  “Sanctified” and “saints” are the same word in Greek – you can hear that they’re related even in English. A saint is somebody sanctified, which means: set apart to be holy. And the Greek word for “church” – ekklesia – actually points in the same direction: It means people who are called. Called out from whatever their lives were like without the Gospel; called together to be set apart for holiness, to live lives of justice, compassion, grace, and holiness, for God and for the world.

On All Saints Day we dwell with both of those meanings. We hold in remembrance the extraordinary saints, the ones the church through the ages has named and held up as models for holy living. We remember, too, the departed saints who have formed and inspired us. And we remind ourselves and each other of our own sainthood – that we, too, are set apart for holiness, called to shine God’s light in our time and place. 

Holiness has consequences. It’s not quiet. It’s not just you and God having a little private party. Living as the people God invites us to be makes a difference – in small but important ways; sometimes in big ways. In today’s Gospel, Jesus reminds us that it will be hard sometimes. People living lives of holiness may be poor, or hungry, or sad, or hated and persecuted. That’s one reason we need the stories of the extraordinary saints, I think – to show us courage and endurance; 

to show us that faithful lives make a difference. Later we’ll sing a favorite saint song that ends every verse by saying, “I mean to be one too!” That’s kind of an 

English way to say, “I plan to be a saint too!” Let’s say it together: “I mean to be one too!” 

We have been learning about some saints this fall – saints who can help show us what a holy life can look like. Let’s visit them and remind ourselves of their stories. First is blessed Pauli Murray, our saint of Welcoming. 

Pauli was born in North Carolina in 1910. I’m going to tell you a story about Pauli;  there’s a line I’ll need you to say, let’s practice it: “I belong here, and so do the ones coming after me!” Very good! OK, Let’s go. When she was a young woman, Pauli wanted to study the law, so she’d know all about the rules that bind people’s lives, and the best ways to unbind them.And she applied to go to law school. She applied to two schools! And they said, I don’t know, Pauli. You’re a good student. But you’re a woman, and you’re black. We’re not sure you belong here. And Pauli said, “I belong here, and so do the ones coming after me!” She found a law school that would let her study, and eventually she earned THREE law degrees and did really important work studying the laws of segregation.

Later on Pauli got involved with the Civil Rights movement, to get America to treat African-Americans as full and free citizens. And sometimes the men leading that movement would kind of forget about the women. Pauli and other women of the movement would say, Hey, our rights as black women are important too!Some men said, We can’t take on two battles at once; we can talk about women’s rights later. If that’s what you want to talk about, I’m not sure you belong here. And Pauli said, “I belong here, and so do the ones coming after me!” And she was one of the people who founded the National Organization for Women. 

Pauli was an Episcopalian her whole life. And late in life, she heard God was calling her to be a priest. The Episcopal Church had just started to let women be priests. But all of the first group of women priests were white women. She started to feel like God was asking her to be the first black woman priest in the Episcopal Church. At first, people said, I don’t know, Pauli. You’re a black woman, and you’re kind of old, and you don’t always dress or talk the way a woman should dress and talk. But Pauli said, “I belong here, and so do the ones coming after me!” And the church heard her call, and she was ordained a priest. 

May blessed Pauli broaden our welcome! Let’s say together: “I mean to be one too!” …

This is Julian of Norwich, our saint of Abiding. The Lady Julian was born about 1342 in northern England.  When she was thirty years old, she became very sick. 

But then she had a series of visions of God and Jesus. Julian survived her illness – and spent the rest of her life reflecting on her visions, writing and sharing about them, and offering spiritual guidance to others. The churches at that time taught people that God was far away, and unfriendly, and mostly interested in punishing people. God showed Julian that God loves us. Everything God does is done in love – and so, all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well. In one of her holy visions, Julian saw God holding a tiny thing, like a small brown nut, which seemed so fragile and insignificant. She understood that the thing was the entire created universe, and she heard a voice telling her:  “God made it, God loves it, God keeps it.”

May blessed Julian help us abide in love. Let’s say together: “I mean to be one too!” …

This is Richard Hooker, our saint of Wondering. He was born in England in the year 1553, in the early years of the Anglican way of Christianity, the family of churches to which we belong. He helped shape that family of churches.

There were big conflicts about religion in Richard’s time. One big argument was between people who said that ONLY the Bible should guide our worship and our lives of faith.  Let me hear you yell BIBLE!

Then there were people who said, The Church’s leaders have been interpreting the Bible for fifteen hundred years! Their wisdom is what guides us – in the form of Tradition. Let me hear you yell, TRADITION! 

BIBLE! TRADITION! BIBLE! TRADITION! 

WELL, here is where Richard comes in. He said, Our understanding of truth stands on three legs – one is Scripture, the Bible, that tells us the story of God and God’s people. Another thing is Tradition, the wisdom of generations passed down to us. And third thing is Reason: using our minds to think about the Bible and tradition in light of what we know from our lives and our world.  Richard knew things change, and we might come to new understandings in the future! 

Another important thing about our way of being Christian that comes from blessed Richard is that it’s OK to be interested in science and how the universe works! In fact, it’s more than OK, it’s great! Richard lived in a time when science was really beginning to grow. Some religious people were afraid of science; they thought it might draw people away from God. But Richard said, God gave us our 

brains; how could God not want us to use them? All truth is in God, so all truth is precious and worth seeking. 

May blessed Richard encourage our wondering! Let’s say together: “I mean to be one too!” …

Here is blessed Francis of Assisi, our saint of Reconciling. There are many stories about Francis but my favorite is the one about the wolf. Who can help me tell it? [Tell wolf story together]

May blessed Francis help us live lives of reconciling love! Let’s say together: “I mean to be one too!” …

Here is blessed Harriet Tubman, our saint of Proclaiming. She was born around 1822. Who remembers Harriet’s nickname? … Moses! Moses lived a long, long time ago. His story is in the book of the Bible called Exodus. Moses’ people were enslaved in Egypt. The Egyptians made them work hard, and treated them cruelly. When he was a young man, Moses ran away; but then God told him, You have to go back, and lead your people to freedom. And he did! It was hard, and dangerous, but he did it.

Harriet was like Moses because she was born into slavery. Her people were enslaved here, in our country; they were made to work hard, and treated cruelly. As a young woman, she escaped to freedom. But she could not rest while her people were not free. She dedicated her life to helping other enslaved people escape to places where they could live free. Eventually she helped more than 300 people. It was hard, and dangerous, but she did it.

Her favorite hymn was “Swing low, sweet chariot,” a hymn about being carried away to a better life. Let’s sing: …. 

Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home;

Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home.

May blessed Harriet help us proclaim God’s good news of love and liberation not only with words but with our actions. Let’s say together: “I mean to be one too!”

Here is blessed Sophie Scholl. She is our saint of Turning. She was born in 1921 – nearly a hundred years ago – in Germany. She was brave, and smart, and loving, just like all of you. As Sophie grew up, terrible things started to happen in her country. Everybody who didn’t fit a certain idea of what it meant to be German started to be excluded and bullied. Then it got worse: Those people 

were taken away to camps, and many of them were killed. At the same time Germany went to war with its neighbors. There was so much suffering – but nobody dared to stand up to the German leaders, the Nazis. They were too afraid. 

Sophie was the youngest member of a secret group that worked to encourage people to resist the Nazi leaders. They were called the White Rose. They wrote to their fellow German citizens, telling them, Listen to your hearts! You know this is wrong! If we all stand up together, things will have to change! They printed their message on leaflets and sent the everywhere! It was dangerous – the secret police were after them. Sophie could help because they didn’t expect a girl to be part of a resistance group. She looked young and innocent. 

Eventually Sophie and her brother Hans were caught. She died when she was just 21 years old, because of her brave work with the White Rose Society. Remember Jesus’ words in our Gospel today: Blessed are you when people hate you and hurt you for Jesus’ sake. Blessed are those who weep, for they shall have joy. 

May blessed Sophie help our hearts always turn towards what is right. Let’s say together: “I mean to be one too!” …

Finally, we come to blessed Nicholas Ferrar, our saint of Making! Nicholas lived in England in the early 1600s – he was born about 50 years after Richard Hooker. After trying out life as a businessman, Nicholas did something new: He started a new kind of religious community, at an old manor house in the countryside. Eventually about 40 people lived there, at Little Gidding, and others visited often. The members of the community gathered to pray together three times a day. In between they did the work of the house, grounds, and meals; studied the Bible, music, and other subjects together; made up plays debating the big issues of the day; cared for the sick of the wider community; and created beauty by making music, writing poetry, and practicing skilled crafts. I especially love that in the community of makers at Little Gidding, they did so many things together – men and women, children and adults, rich and poor. 

May blessed Nicholas inspire us individually and together as people made in the image of our creating God, empowered to make and do, design and imagine, tend and repair. Let’s say together: “I mean to be one too!” …

Now let’s say “I mean to be one too” in a different way by renewing our baptismal vows – the promises we made or that were made for us when we were baptized. 

If you haven’t been baptized yet and you would like to make these promises, let’s talk! 

Sermon, Oct. 20

Over the past few weeks, we’ve met a saint every Sunday… I mean, in addition to the saints who sit beside you in the pews; these are saints who have already gone on ahead into the nearer presence of God. Each saint’s life and witness, the particular way they shined God’s light in their time and place, reminds us to strive to practice one of the seven Discipleship Practices we discerned together, a few years ago. Blessed Pauli calls us to radical welcome, blessed Julian inspires us to faithful abiding, blessed Richard invites us to holy wondering, blessed Francis urges us to hopeful reconciling, blessed Harriet models courageous proclaiming. 

The practice that comes to us today is the practice of Turning. This is a practice that needs a little explaining; but it might just be the most important one. Here’s some of what we said about it in the document about our practices we developed back in 2016: “We follow the teaching of Jesus Christ by being open to repentance, transformation, and call. The word turning springs from the New Testament word “metanoia,” meaning a change of mind and heart that bears fruit in a changed life… We turn by becoming followers of Jesus, whether that is the ongoing work of a lifetime, the shattering transformation of a moment, or some of each…  We turn by forgiving others, and by recognizing our own need to repent, seek forgiveness and make amends. We turn back towards God when we have turned away, re-orienting ourselves towards what is most important, true, and life-giving…We turn by allowing ourselves to be shaped and guided by grace; by being attentive to the voice of the Spirit, in things great and small… We turn.. by seeking God’s direction in our lives; and by daring to respond to God’s call into new endeavors.” 

I wish I could tell you that I carefully matched saints and practices with the lectionary texts, in planning this out – but I didn’t. However, I got lucky with our 2 Timothy text. Second Timothy is one of two letters written in the name of the apostle Paul, and addressed to his younger friend and fellow church leader, Timothy. Modern Bible scholarship leans toward the opinion that Paul didn’t actually write these letters; they may have been written a few decades after his death, by someone familiar with his life and writings – and perhaps facing a similar situation: imprisoned for his faith, and expecting execution. If this author isn’t Paul, he’s using this frame – Paul writing to Timothy – as a way to urge the church leaders of his time, facing rising persecution and waning interest in Christianity, to hold fast to what they have received and not lose faith. 

“Stay the course” seems like the opposite of  “Turn”. But think about what staying the course – staying faithful to our deepest values and best intentions – actually looks like in practice. Our days and our years are full of course corrections, most tiny, some large, to get back to our intended track: the way we mean to treat our family, friends, neighbors. The way we mean to use our financial resources or our time. The way we mean to care for our bodies, minds, and spirits. The way we mean to participate in the public life of our community and nation. To use a familiar image, think about navigation software: We take wrong turns on a regular basis – and our conscience, God working deep inside us to help us be true to our best intentions, says “Recalculating,” and shows us how we can return to the route. 

The author of 2 Timothy is concerned that younger leaders in the church are becoming discouraged and overwhelmed. You don’t write someone a letter reminding them to keep the faith unless you fear they’re in real danger of walking away. So he urges: Even in the face of suffering, keep using the inner compass of your faith, God’s truth written on your heart, to turn towards true north, trusting in and witnessing to God’s love made known to us in Jesus Christ. 

Turning … metanoia. A change of mind and heart that bears fruit in a changed life.

This is Sophie Scholl. Sophie was born in 1921, in the German city of Forchtenberg. She was raised in the Lutheran church, along with five brothers and sisters – a lively, loving, intellectual family. When Sophie was 11 or 12, Hitler and his Nazi Party began to rise in Germany. At first it was exciting, especially for the children and youth. There was a new sense of hope and pride for their country. Kids could join clubs to celebrate being German. Sophie joined one, and even became a leader – though she was a little troubled that her Jewish friend couldn’t join too. 

Sophie’s father, a sincere Christian and a pacifist, had concerns right from the start; but he would not oppose rising tyranny by being a tyrant. He let his children find their own way – but it was difficult. One evening on a family walk he turned to them and said, “All I want is for you to walk straight and free through life, even when it’s hard.” 

https://timeline.com/sophie-scholl-white-rose-guillotine-6b3901042c98

Sophie’s older brother Hans was the first to become disillusioned. He’d been chosen to attend the 1936 Nuremberg Rally, as a representative of the Hitler Youth – a big honor. But while he was there, he was told that Hitler Youth shouldn’t sing some songs he really loved, because the words or music had been written by Jews. (Later, Hans and friends formed their own youth group that resisted Nazi ideas by singing folk songs of all nations!) Soon after, Sophie was told that her favorite poet, Heinrich Heine, was also off limits because of his Jewish heritage – and she began to question Nazi doctrine, too. 

In 1937 several members of Sophie’s family, including Hans, were arrested and briefly imprisoned for “unapproved activities.” Sophie was arrested too, though she was released immediately because she was only sixteen. Biographer Richard Hanser writes, “There is no way of establishing the precise moment when Sophie Scholl decided to become an overt adversary of the [Nazi] state. Her decision, when it came, doubtless resulted from the accretion of offences, small and large, against her conception of what was right, moral, and decent. But now something decisive had happened. The state had laid its hands on her and her family, and now there was no longer any possibility of reconciling herself to a system that had already begun to alienate her.” (28)

Sophie was turning, from conformity towards justice. From fear towards courage. God was working deep inside her to help her be true to her deepest values and best intentions. She and Hans wondered together why so few Christian leaders stood up to the Nazis. Hans wrote in a letter, “When this terror is over… we will have no answer when we are asked: What did you do about it?”

The fact is, many people were conflicted in Nazi Germany. Many had the same concerns as Sophie and her family. But few stood up. Few pushed back. Fear and complacency overwhelmed their consciences. 

Hans went to the University of Munich, and Sophie followed. There they met a few like-minded students, and one professor who dared to share their views. In the summer of 1942, Hans and some friends started a secret group, called the White Rose Society. They wrote and printed leaflets urging ordinary Germans to resist Nazi ideas – one leaflet said, “We want to try and show [people] that everyone is in a position to contribute to the overthrow of the system.” The fourth pamphlet concluded, “We are your bad conscience.” They printed thousands of copies of the leaflets, and secretly sent them all over their city and country. 

When Sophie found out, she was shocked – but then she asked to join them. She knew that because she was a girl, and looked young and innocent, it would be easier for her to sneak around to share the the White Rose pamphlets. Sophie and another female friend bought paper for printing the pamphlets, as well as envelopes and stamps – going to many different stores to avoid suspicion. The group stayed up late at night printing the leaflets. They knew the Gestapo, the Nazi secret police, was after them. 

On February 18, 1943, Hans and Sophie carried the sixth White Rose leaflet to the university campus. Rushing to get all the leaflets out where they might be found before classes began, Sophie tossed some down a staircase into an entrance hall. She was spotted by a janitor who was a loyal Nazi. Sophie and Hans were arrested immedately, and evidence was found that linked them to White Rose. They were tried days later, and quickly condemned to death for being enemies of the government and weakening the nation. Their father had to be dragged out of the courtroom, shouting, “There is a higher justice! They will go down in history!”

Sophie was 21 years old on the day of her execution. Her last words were, “The sun still shines.”

The verses that immediately follow today’s 2 Timothy text read, “As for me, I’m already being poured out like a sacrifice to God, and the time of my death is near. I have fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith. At last the champion’s wreath that is awarded for righteousness is waiting for me.”

I chose Sophie as one of the saints we would meet this fall,  because I wanted to include a young person. To show our kids and youth that their sense of right and wrong, their words and actions, can matter. I didn’t realize, when I chose to tell Sophie’s story, how hard it would be to tell, and perhaps to hear. 

The good news is that few of us are called to Sophie’s path. Few us are called to die for the cause of righteousness.

But all of us are called to turn. To listen to God’s truth written in our hearts, to pay attention to the inner compass deep inside that points us towards true north, and follow where it leads, even when it involves recalculating our route.

I said earlier that turning might be the most important of our seven discipleship practices. In a real sense it’s where the Gospels begin: first John the Baptist, and then Jesus of Nazareth, call people to metanoia. To a change of mind and heart that bears fruit in a changed life. Our capacity to stick with any of the other practices is dependent on our capacity to turn – to listen for the voice of the Holy Spirit; to recognize when we are not where we mean to be, where God means for us to be – and to re-orient ourselves towards what is right, true, and life-giving. All I want is for you to walk straight and free through life, even when it’s hard.

Sophie’s story is exceptional – but what made her exceptional is simply that she listened to the voice deep inside her that kept saying, This is wrong. And, like the woman in our Gospel parable, she persisted – even when it seemed like no one was listening. Sometimes when you’re speaking to the powers that be, there is no conscience, no intention to do right, to which you can appeal. Jesus and others sum up the Law of God this way: Love God, and love your neighbor as you love yourself. The judge in this parable doesn’t give a flying fish about God or neighbor. All he cares about is himself. Sometimes the person or system in charge is unjust, plain and simple. 

This parable can tangle people up sometimes because they think God must be like the judge – and that doesn’t work very well. But that’s not where God is in this story. God is the strength and courage, the love and determination that keeps this woman demanding justice, even when she knows perfectly well that this judge doesn’t care about her case. And God is the force that makes the judge relent and do the right thing, if only to get some peace and quiet. 

God is in the capacity of people and systems to change, to be transformed; God is the Source of holy persistence, of faithful courage; God is in the nudge that reminds us of our need to turn, and God is the promise that whatever we face, on the road of justice, mercy, and love, the sun still shines. 

Main source for information about Sophie in this sermon: 

https://timeline.com/sophie-scholl-white-rose-guillotine-6b3901042c98

Some more sites about Sophie: 

https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/75-years-ago-hans-sophie-scholl/

https://allthatsinteresting.com/sophie-scholl-hans-scholl-white-rose-movement

https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-white-rose-a-lesson-in-dissent

Sermon, Oct. 13

Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. Does that sound familiar? We say a version of it in our Prayers of the People every week: Work and pray for the good of the city where you dwell, for in its peace we shall find our peace. I’ve heard from folks in the past who assume the “city” in question is Madison, and feel a little offended that we’re leaving out Middleton, Cross Plains, Mount Horeb, Sun Prairie, Black Earth, Verona, and so on. But the city mentioned here, in fact, is Babylon. 

The prophet Jeremiah was born around the year 626 before the birth of Jesus, in a time of instability and threat for Jerusalem and Judea. God called him as a boy to speak God’s words to the nations, and especially to his own nation and its leaders – bringing them the unpopular news that conquest, death and doom are coming. Sure enough, in the year 587, when Jeremiah is around forty years old, the armies of the empire of Babylon march into Judea, killing and destroying as they come. After a long and terrible siege, they conquer the city, and tear down the great Temple. Most of the people of Jerusalem and Judea are killed or exiled. Jeremiah himself ends up in Egypt, dragged along with some nobles fleeing Babylon’s might. 

All that is context for this letter to the exiles, today’s Jeremiah text. You might notice our text skips some verses; that’s just more about when the letter was written and how it was sent. In the verses following our text, Jeremiah speaks for God to say, God’s going to bring you home and restore your nation – but it’s going to be a while. So! Settle in. Build a house! Plant a garden! Make family! Live!  

Last week’s Old Testament text from the book of Lamentations gives us a hint about why this message was needed. The book of Lamentations is exactly what it says on the tin – a book of poetry of grief and loss over the Babylonian conquest. Listen to a few poignant verses:  “Judah has gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude; she lives now among the nations, and finds no resting place… All her people groan as they search for bread; they trade their treasures for food to revive their strength. The Lord is in the right, for I have rebelled against his word; but hear, all you peoples, and behold my suffering; my young women and young men have gone into captivity. In the street the sword bereaves; in the house it is like death. On the day of the anger of the Lord no one escaped or survived; those whom I bore and reared my enemy has destroyed.”  (Lamentations 1, selected verses) 

Jeremiah is speaking to people traumatized, grieving and angry.  And his message, God’s message, is: Choose life. And don’t just survive: Work and pray for Babylon, the capital city of your conquerors. Seek the shalom of Babylon – a wonderful word that combines peace and wellbeing. 

Work and pray for the good fo the city where you dwell. Do Jeremiah’s words speak to us? Many of us have had experiences of otherness or not belonging, minor or major, that have something in common with the Israelites’ experience in Babylon. But few of us probably think of ourselves as exiles, people forced to live among strangers, in a place not our own. 

Yet our Christian ancestors thought of themselves that way – even when living in their hometowns. Their beliefs and practices set them apart, made them not belong. One metaphor they used was that of citizenship, based on Roman citizenship, a distinctive identity that you would carry with you wherever you went, that set you apart and incurred both privileges and obligations. Paul – who was a Roman citizen – writes in the letter to the Philippians, “Our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” (3:20). And the letter to the Ephesians says, “You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and… members of the household of God.” (2:19) So our forbears experienced their faith as a kind of otherness. As making them resident aliens, citizens of another nation – working and praying for the good of the city where they dwelt, but never forgetting that their true identity and loyalty lay elsewhere. 

Then came 1700 years when it was pretty easy to forget. Christianity became the religion of the western world. That marriage of Church, state, and culture that endured so long was called Christendom… and it’s over. I just covered a whole library of historical and sociological literature  in two sentences; take my word for it for now, and let me know if you want to read more.

One of the gifts of Christianity after Christendom is that we have more in common now with our ancestors in faith. When we read in early Christian texts about feeling like outsiders, being seen as strange or dangerous or just eccentric and irrational by our cultured neighbors – well, we can relate. (With the added layer that when Christianity does show up in the public square or the halls of power, it’s often not our Christianity.) So, more than many of the generations in between, we may find some encouragement and direction in the lives of the early Christians, and before them, in the lives of the Jewish exiles. That’s why we use this snippet of Jeremiah in our prayers: Work and pray for the good, the shalom, of the city where you dwell. 

What did that look like, in practice, for God’s people in exile? It looked like Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego – young Israelite men, educated, probably of elite backgrounds – who were brought into the court of King Nebuchadnezzar, to become pampered symbols of Babylon’s conquest of Judea. Now, King Nebuchadnezzar had a giant golden statue of himself made, and issued this edict: “You are commanded, O peoples, nations, and languages, that when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble, you are to fall down and worship the golden statue that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up.” But Jews worship only one god. They will not bow down to false idols, things made by human hands that we give power over ourselves. And people noticed that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were not bowing down to the golden statue that Nebuchadnezzar had set up. So they told the king. And King Nebuchadnezzar in a furious rage had the three young men flung into a fiery furnace, because they would not worship him as a god. But the flames did not hurt them! When they came out again, the hair of their heads was not singed, their tunics were not harmed. Nebuchadnezzar was amazed and issued a new edict: Blessed be the god of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and let everyone honor their god, who has shown such power in saving them from the fire! 

Daniel, for his part, earned the esteem of Nebuchadnezzar for his wisdom in interpreting dreams. A few years later, after Nebuchadnezzar was dead, his son Belshazzar held a great feast. And under the influence of wine, Belshazzar had the holy vessels from the Great Temple in Jerusalem, that his father’s armies had stolen, brought out, and they drank wine from them. And suddenly, Belshazzar saw a hand appear and begin to write on the wall – mysterious words he could not read. The King was terrified. He called in all his sorcerers and scholars. 

He told them that anyone who could tell him what the writing meant would be dressed in royal purple, with a gold chain around his neck, and be ranked third in the kingdom. But no one could read the writing on the wall. (Yes, this is where that saying comes from.) Then the queen said, Remember that young Judean man who was so good at interpreting your father’s dreams? Perhaps he can help. 

So Daniel was summoned. And the king told him, ‘If you can read this writing, you shall be clothed in purple, have a chain of gold around your neck, and rank third in the kingdom.’ But Daniel said, O King, keep your gifts! You have exalted yourself agains the Lord of Heaven, the only true God, by drinking wine from the vessels of God’s holy Temple. You worship gods of silver and gold, wood and stone; but the God in whose power is your very breath, and to whom belong all your ways, you have not honored. The writing on the wall is a message from the God of Israel, and this is what it says:  MENE, MENE, TEKEL PARSIN, which means, God has numbered the days of your kingdom.You have been weighed, and found wanting. Your kingdom will be taken from you and divided. Then Belshazzar gave the command, and Daniel was clothed in purple, and a gold chain put around his neck, and it was decreed that he should rank third in the kingdom. And that very night… King Belshazzar died. 

And then there is Esther, a young Jewish woman who lived a few decades later, a descendant of the exiles. When the Judeans were allowed to return to Jerusalem, fifty years after the Exile, not everyone chose to return. Esther’s family was among those who had followed Jeremiah’s advice so well that they stayed in their new homes. But they were still Jews – set apart by their beliefs and practices, and by their neighbors’ suspicions. By an unlikely series of events, Esther ends up married King Ahasuerus, the local ruler.  The king and the court don’t know that Esther is a Jew. Meanwhile, an adviser to the king, named Haman, has a grudge against Mordecai, Esther’s uncle, because Haman thinks he’s really important… and Mordecai doesn’t. 

So Haman tells the king that these Jews who live in the city – they’re not really just like everybody else. They have different values, a different way of life. They don’t really belong here. Maybe we should throw them out. Maybe we should kill them. 

The king says, Sure, do what you want. Issue an edict in my name: On such and such a day, we’ll get rid of the Jews.

Mordecai sends word to Esther: You have to do something! You have to change the King’s mind! It’s the only hope for your people. Perhaps you were raised to this high position for just such a time as this!

Esther is afraid; this isn’t a warm, chummy marriage – she only sees the king when he sends for her.  But she summons her courage and invites him to dinner. She chooses her moment and makes her case. She reminds the king that Mordecai, her uncle, once uncovered a plot to assassinate him!  The Jews are good citizens, loyal and helpful! She asks him to spare her life, and the lives of all her people. The king reverses his edict, instead protecting the Jews – and Haman is executed. 

Build houses and live in them; plant gardens; work for the welfare of the place where you find yourself… but never forget who, and whose, you are; for you are still God’s people, even in exile. For the three young men, that meant refusing to bow down to the golden idols, those false and empty gods. For Daniel, it meant taking the opportunities that came his way – being honored and esteemed by those in power, but also being ready to tell them the truth, no matter what the cost. For Esther, it meant being bold about using her position and voice, trusting that God had prepared her for such a time as this. 

Daniel and Esther and the others were God’s gift to the places where they lived. The resident alien, the outsider, the person pushed to the margins, a step or two outside of mainstream culture, our accepted norms and shared assumptions – 

Those people often see things a little more clearly. Like the Samaritan in today’s Gospel story. We’ve invited to assume the other nine lepers were Jews. People who had skin diseases were ostracized, cut off from normal social and religious life. It makes sense that misfits from different social backgrounds would hang out together – we’ve all seen those movies. But then the club breaks up: the nine do what Jesus, and their religion, tell them to do – if your leprosy goes away, naturally or miraculously, you’re supposed to go to the priest to be cleared to resume normal life. What they do makes perfect sense to them. But for the Samaritan, that’s not his faith, not his practice. That’s WHY he is the one who says, Heck with the priests; that guy back there – he’s the one who cleansed me! I need to go back and thank him! 

Work and pray for the shalom of the city where you dwell. 

I think there’s real grace in this invitation to be in the world, but not entirely of it. To be present and engaged, while remembering our true loyalties. Seek the welfare of the city where you dwell, be it Madison, Middleton, Fitchburg, Mount Horeb, and so on… but remember that you just live there. Our citizenship is in the Body of Christ – an idea that may be a comfort some days, a challenge on others!  The values and orientations and practices that we carry inside us may put us at odds – at times SHOULD put us at odds – with the world around us, in expected and unexpected ways. 

May we inherit Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego’s clarity about what’s worthy of our loyalty. May we inherit Daniel’s readiness to speak the unpopular truth. May we inherit Esther’s courage in using whatever measure of privilege, status and connection we may have to speak up for those demonized and in danger. May we work and pray for the good of the city where we dwell… for in its peace we shall find our peace. Amen. 

Sermon, Oct. 6

Let’s talk about Luke – the name by which we know the author of this Gospel, one of the four Biblical books that tells the story of Jesus’ life, teaching, death, and resurrection. Luke is writing perhaps fifty to sixty years after these events. He’s talked with people who were there, and he’s read various written accounts, including Mark’s Gospel and at least one other compilation of Jesus’ teachings and sayings. He’s not satisfied that anybody has really pulled it all together into one coherent, compelling account yet. So, he tells us in the first chapter, he decided to take on the task of investigating everything carefully and writing down an orderly account, so that everyone may know the truth. 

To do this, Luke is trying to combine all these various sources. Imagine him with index cards all over his desk, moving them around, trying to get the timeline right, to match parables with sayings with healings, and so on. Overall, he does a pretty good job…though I think he sticks too many morals onto the ends of parables sometimes. 

Today’s Gospel passage feels to me like some of Luke’s left-over index cards. Luke has it on good authority that Jesus said these things, but he doesn’t know where to stick them into the story. So there’s this part in chapter 17 where Jesus just says stuff. There are three sayings in this section; today’s Gospel passage contains two of them. The first is a short speech about handling others’ bad behavior. Jesus says, Don’t cause others to stumble; rebuke those who sin; but also be ready to forgive, over and over again. This passage is also in Matthew’s Gospel, because Matthew was reading some of the same sources as Luke, and we’ll read it on a Sunday next year, when Matthew will be our core Gospel text.

Then there’s this saying about faith like a mustard seed; and then the saying about the obedient slaves. From there, Luke chapter 17 goes to a healing story and then some of Jesus’ teachings about the end times, including everybody’s favorite Bible verse, “Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.”  (That’s Luke 17:35, if you want to embroider it on something.) 

I don’t think the two teachings in today’s text are directly related, except in the general sense of “stuff Jesus talked about.” They’re just a couple of index cards Luke put together, trying to organize all this material. So the jump from the obliging mulberry tree to the weary slave really is a jump; it’s not just you. But that doesn’t help us that much, because even if we take them separately, these are both difficult sayings. 

Listen to the second saying again: Jesus said, “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from ploughing or tending sheep in the field, “Come here at once and take your place at the table”? Would you not rather say to him, “Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink”? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!” 

The word translated as slave here is doulos in Greek, and it’s a tricky word to translate into American English. The range of practices by which one person was bound to serve another person in the ancient Near East were somewhat different from our American experience with slavery. The same word is translated as “servant” in some other passages, and in some translations of this passage. But the emphasis in this little story is on the power imbalance between the master and the worker – and it’s clear that the worker has little authority or autonomy. He doesn’t get to rest when he’s tired; he doesn’t get to eat when he’s hungry. Anyone who could easily find other work would probably do so. Slave seems like the right word to use. 

So what is Jesus saying, here? Is he saying that God’s relationship with us is like the relationship of an exploitative, even abusive, master? I don’t think so. I think Luke put this index card in the wrong place. 

See, Jesus is very audience-conscious. He always knows who he’s talking to and what they need to hear, whether it’s comfort or challenge. When he’s talking to ordinary folks, he tells stories about farming and fishing, housekeeping and sheep-herding. When he’s talking to his rich friends, he tells stories about property development, lavish banquets, and staff management.

When he begins this little parable with, “Think about how you treat your slaves,” that makes me think he is not talking to his usual crowd of penniless seekers -even though that’s where Luke pastes the story into his text. I think Jesus is talking to people who own slaves, and treat them exactly like this, and think that’s normal. And I think the jarring language is very intentional. 

Think: You’re a wealthy man who’s also publicly religious. You participate in holy days, you give generously to the Temple, you keep the food purity rules, and so on. Maybe you’re a little proud of all that. Maybe you reckon your wealth is because God is especially pleased with you. And then Jesus looks you in the eye and says, All your righteousness is only doing what you have been ordered to do, by Moses and the prophets. It does not make you God’s special favorite.

So I’m hypothesizing that this parable might have been originally spoken to folks who were wealthy and somewhat self-righteous. Did Jesus know anybody like that? He sure did. He went to dinner with people like that back in chapter 14, and he had a few things to say to them. He mocked them a little for their status anxiety and jockeying for position, and then he told his host, ‘You think you’re being pretty generous with this nice dinner party. But you know, most of your guests will have you over to dinner within a month, to return the favor and show off their houses. If you really want your generosity to impress God, hold a banquet and invite all the poor folks in your neighborhood, even those who beg in the streets.’ There’s an echo here of the Sermon on the Mount, earlier in Luke’s Gospel, when Jesus said, “If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.”

If we imagine the saying from today’s Gospel being spoken at that dinner table, or one a lot like it, Jesus’ description of harsh treatment of slaves makes sense. He is not endorsing the master’s behavior. He’s calling out what he sees – a shallow righteousness without kindness. And he’s trying to shock and humble his elite hearers by equating them with slaves, reminding them that while they feel pretty important among their neighbors, they are lowly before God. The first shall be last, and the last shall be first. 

There is a more general teaching buried here, I think – that following God’s ways is a basic pattern of life, not something extra for which you earn a gold star. But I believe Jesus is shaping his message in this text for a particular audience, and we are not that audience – unless any of you are particularly nasty to your household help. 

That leaves us with the mustard seed and the mulberry bush! Here it is again: The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”

The apostles, here, means the group of Jesus’ disciples whom he’s appointed to go out and spread the good news of God’s redemption. So… he’s talking to us. No way to dodge it this time. 

I have two conflicting gut reactions to this text. One is, That’s not how things work. Jesus is talking about faith as if it were stage magic. The point of faith is not to manipulate reality. When the Marianne Williamsons of the world suggest we can focus our prayers and get a hurricane to turn away from our favorite beach resort, they misunderstand both God and world. In my most faithful moments, in the moments when I know deeply and boldly that God’s redemptive love is powerfully at work in every human circumstance – I still have not been able to throw trees around. (Though I admit I’m not sure I’ve tried.) So my first reaction is, honestly, to be a little angry. Jesus’ playful hyperbolic language about the power of faith here seems misleading and possibly harmful. 

But my second reaction is: Yeah, Jesus, you got me. In my most faithful moments, my faith is still so small. The Greek word here, pistis, is really more like trust. What do we trust in? It’s so easy to trust in things like tomorrow being a lot like today; like a plastic card that somehow allows you to buy food; like my own competence, and the illusion of control. It’s so hard to trust in God, unseen and unknowable. 

There’s a term for this: functional atheism. It means we believe in God, but don’t actually run our lives that way. Author Parker Palmer defines functional atheism as “the belief that ultimate responsibility for everything rests with me.” Molly Baskette, from the United Church of Christ, suggests you might be a functional atheist if you often find yourself saying, “‘I can handle this all by myself.’ ‘Don’t worry about me.’ ‘Yup, just fine.’” That doesn’t mean our belief is shallow or insincere. It means that our culture has successfully sold us the myth of rugged individualism, complete with stress and loneliness. It means that it’s hard for us to feel and trust in God’s near and loving presence. Gerald May writes, “Even if we believe devoutly that God is present with us, our usual experience is that we are “here” and God is “there,” loving and gracious perhaps, but irrevocably separate. “We just don’t understand ourselves,” says [Saint] Teresa [of Avila], “or know who we are.”  (Gerald May, The Dark Night of the Soul)

Maybe I shouldn’t admit this from the pulpit, but I find that all of this names me better than I like. If my faith were like a mustard seed… 

Hmm, doesn’t mustard seed sound familiar?… 

Jesus talks about mustard seeds twice in Luke’s Gospel. One day – about four chapters earlier – Jesus was telling stories about the Kingdom of God, God’s alternate reality of justice, mercy, freedom and love. And he said, “The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.” (Luke 13:18-19)

The Kingdom of God might seem tiny… but it GROWS. It grows and spreads, and becomes strong and gracious and lovely. What if our faith can do that too?

[Show people mustard seeds] These are seeds from the garlic mustard that grows in many places on our church grounds. It’s a very different kind of plant than Jesus is describing, but it’s part of the same big family of mustard plants. And it has the same tendency to start out tiny… and end up big. I’m sure some of you see garlic mustard as an enemy… but you’ve got to respect how resilient and prolific it is. 

Jesus says, The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed… And Jesus says, If you had faith like a mustard seed… Our Bible translation says “faith the size of a mustard seed,” but the original Greek doesn’t say anything about size – it’s just, like a mustard seed, in both of those passages. Maybe Jesus’ reply to his friends’ request isn’t shaming them for having little faith. Maybe instead he’s saying that the quantity of your faith doesn’t matter; that in fact it’s not even quantifiable. Because faith is like the Kingdom is like a mustard seed: it seems so small, but throw a few of those seeds around, and suddenly the woods are so full of the stuff that you’re asking volunteers to come pull it up. 

On the days when my faith feels small, when I trust too much in myself or the world and forget to trust in the God who knows my name and loves me beyond imagining – what I need on those days isn’t to beat myself up about it, but to trust that small things matter. My faith – our faith – however tiny or weak it might feel, can make a difference to us, to others, to the world. That’s why we started talking about these spiritual practices, a few years ago. We got together and asked ourselves and each other about why we follow Jesus, and what church means to us, and when we’re aware that we’re doing something because of our values and convictions as people of faith. And we took all that beautiful qualitative data and shook it all up and ended up with the discipleship practices we’re talking through this fall; we’ve done Welcoming, Abiding, and Wondering so far, and today is blessed Francis and Reconciling. 

These practices: they are things we already do, because we’re already formed by our faith and the way it orients us in the world, often at a level we’re not even conscious of. But naming and talking about them also helps us be intentional about looking for opportunities to practice them more faithfully and fully. 

That’s how our faith – our capacity to trust in God and let that trust make a difference in our lives – that’s how faith is like a mustard seed: smaller than a fingertip, but holding within itself the gracious tree, the resilient weed, that lives, and grows, and spreads, and changes things. 

Molly Baskette’s summary of functional atheism: 

https://www.ucc.org/daily_devotional_functional_atheism_1