Category Archives: Sermons

Sermon, July 5

This sermon is based on Genesis chapter 24. Read it here! 

What a lively little story and cast of characters! Abraham appears here as the slightly bigoted old dad. Isaac barely appears – showing up just in time to fall in love with the ingenue. Laban is Big Brother from Central Casting. (We’ll hear more about Laban in a few weeks!)  Rebekah is a lively young woman who is more than ready to get the heck off the family farm. And then there’s the unnamed servant. 

The scene at the well was really popular with artists for a while. A significant meeting, a lovely young woman, a romantic setting, jewels, camels – how could they resist? If you look at some of those paintings, they really look like courtship images. That’s an interesting, kind of strange aspect of this story. The servant is sent as a proxy to find a wife for Isaac – who is a grown man; the verse that follows today’s passage says that he is forty when all this happens! 

Why didn’t Abraham send Isaac himself? Maybe it’s because Isaac is overwhelmed with grief for his mother; maybe it’s because Abraham perceives that Isaac would not get the job done. Throughout his chapters in Genesis, Isaac is a fairly passive character. Things mostly happen to him and around him. So Abraham sends a servant instead. 

Now, the text doesn’t name the servant, though he’s a tremendously important character for this one chapter. But Jewish tradition names him Eliezar – God is my help. I’ll use that name to make it easier to talk about him, and to give him the dignity he deserves. 

So, these images look like courtship. But Eliezar’s interest in Rebekah is not based in romance. It’s based in faith. 

When we’re dwelling with stories from the Hebrew Bible, one gift is that there’s also a rich interpretive tradition in Judaism that we can look to. And I found a wonderful reflection, part of the Aleph Beta project to create videos offering meaningful study of Jewish holy texts. I want to show you part of what it helped me notice. 

First, I need to introduce a really important word and idea: Chesed. It’s a Hebrew word that may be translated as kindness, mercy, steadfast love, goodness, grace, compassion. An early English Bible translated it as “lovingkindness,” a wonderful word. Chesed is not just being a nice person. It is active, zealous, determined kindness. Chesed is an attribute of God – it is how God feels towards Israel, refusing to abandon them no matter what they do. And Chesed towards other humans is what God demands from God’s people. Love of neighbor manifest as generosity and justice – a foundation for both Jewish and Christian ethics. 

The word chesed shows up three times in this passage. Twice in Eliezar’s prayer – he asks God to fulfill his mission in order to show Chesed to his master Abraham. He doesn’t say it in so many words but it’s almost as if he’s reminding God of the covenant – Look, you promised my master descendants as numerous as the stars; that means his son needs a wife. And Eliezar uses the words again when Rebekah fulfills all his hopes – “Blessed be the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who has not forsaken his steadfast love and his faithfulness towards my master!” 

In addition to the word chesed, the attribute of chesed appears in this story as well. Rebekah shows some signs of being a person of chesed. She is generous in sharing her water, even drawing more water for the camels – a significant effort.  We don’t know whether her readiness to leave her father and brothers’ household is because she honors God’s intentions or is just really ready for a change of scenery. Why not both? Regardless, she opts in to God’s plan here, to the covenanted people God is building – and she does so partly by showing concern for some thirsty camels. 

And Eliezar is unmistakably a person of chesed. He goes above and beyond in his loyalty to both Abraham his master and to God. He puts his task in God’s hands, and blesses God for God’s chesed when God comes through. 

But – here’s the thing I didn’t notice until I watched the Aleph Beta video: Eliezar DOESN’T use the word chesed when he’s telling Laban and the rest of Rebekah’s family what happened. We cut that out of the reading to shorten it, but let’s look at it now. 

Here’s Eliezar’s prayer: “O Lord, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham. I am standing here by the spring of water, and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water. Let the girl to whom I shall say, “Please offer your jar that I may drink”, and who shall say, “Drink, and I will water your camels”- let her be the one  whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac. By this I shall know that you have shown steadfast love to my master.”

Here’s how Eliezar tells about his prayer: “I came today to the spring, and said, “O Lord, the God of my master Abraham, if now you will only make successful the way I am going! I am standing here by the spring of water; let the young woman who comes out to draw, to whom I shall say, ‘Please give me a little water from your jar to drink,’ and who will say to me, ‘Drink, and I will draw for your camels also’—let her be the woman whom the Lord has appointed for my master’s son.”

Eliezar shifts his language. And the Aleph Beta video suggests Eliezar did that because he noticed some things about Laban, Rebekah’s brother, who seems to be the head of household here. First, he noticed Laban noticing Rebekah’s new jewelry. The text says, “As soon [Laban] he had seen the nose-ring, and the bracelets on his sister’s arms, and when he heard the words of his sister Rebekah…, he went to the man.” 

Second, he might nave noticed something about Laban’s hospitality. Here’s what the NRSV, our Bible translation, does with verses 31 and 32, Eliezar’s arrival: 

“Laban said, ‘Come in, O blessed of the Lord. Why do you stand outside when I have prepared the house and a place for the camels? So the man came into the house; and Laban unloaded the camels, and gave him straw and fodder for the camels, and water to wash his feet and the feet of the men who were with him.”

In the NRSV, Laban offers hospitality & then actually extends hospitality. But the rabbis behind the Aleph Beta video aren’t so sure. 

Here’s how Robert Alter renders this text, a more faithful rendition of the Hebrew: 

“And the man came into the house and unharnessed the camels; and he gave bran and feed to the camels and water to bathe his feet and the feet of the men who were wit him. And food was set before him.” 

“The man” here is Eliezar – that’s how the Biblical text refers to him. 

So Laban offers hospitality – but does he actually follow through and treat Eliezar as an honored guest, or does he leave Eliezar to tend to his own camels and traveling party? Making an assessment that Eliezar is, after all, just the help? 

Now, this is ambiguous in the Scriptural text – you can read it either way, but there’s certainly room to wonder. If Laban made a point of his household’s capacity for hospitality, but then didn’t actually act out that hospitality because he assessed that Eliezar wasn’t a person he needed to bother to impress – well, that would be consistent with the bit about the jewelry; and with how Laban acts when Rebekah’s son Jacob comes to him for refuge, many years later. Across those texts, Laban appears as someone who’s primarily motivated by wealth and status. 

And – today’s text suggests that Eliezar himself makes exactly that assessment. 

Remember how he begins his speech to Laban: “I am Abraham’s servant. The Lord has greatly blessed my master, and he has become wealthy; he has given him flocks and herds, silver and gold, male and female slaves, camels and donkeys.”

Eliezar has sized up Laban and decided that what’s going to persuade him to let Rebekah go is the idea that this might be a really beneficial alliance. So he drops the chesed language, and replaces it with talk about wealth and success. Laban isn’t interested in whether Rebekah is the wife God’s lovingkindness has intended for Isaac. Laban is interested in whether his prospective son-in-law is rich. 

So what is the Spirit saying to the churches in this story? Well, she might be saying something else to you, and I’d be interested to hear about that. What I notice is that I feel both tickled and inspired by Eliezar. 

Eliezar reminds me of something Jesus said to his disciples, a couple of chapters ago in Matthew’s Gospel: Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Eliezar’s innocence, his goodness and integrity, lie in the fact that he’s person of chesed. A person who lives by lovingkindness, in response to God’s lovingkindness. But he’s savvy like a serpent in the way he susses out Laban and figures out the best way to close this deal. He frames the situation in a way that will help this stakeholder get on board – a core principal for any kind of coalition-building. And, listen, this matters: He doesn’t lie to Laban. There’s nothing fundamentally false about the way he adapts his message. He’s just strategic – and effective – in using Laban’s values to get Laban on board. 

Today’s Gospel contains a favorite verse of mine: Jesus says, “But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’” It’s a little cryptic, but for me it speaks – maybe especially this year – to the numbness and overwhelm of our times. There’s so much coming at us that we don’t know how to respond to good news or bad – to dance tunes or dirges. It rings especially poignantly for me on the weekend of our biggest national holiday, in a year that features a brutal pandemic, economic recession and widespread civic unrest. So far. 

I think we could do worse, living in these times, than take Eliezar for inspiration. May we share his savvy in strategic communication across differences of values and goals – while striving always to live as people of courageous lovingkindness, in response to God’s chesed and as co-conspirators in God’s great and ongoing work of redeeming the world. 

The video that got me thinking: 

https://www.alephbeta.org/playlist/story-of-isaac-finding-rebekah

Sermon, June 21

This speech by Matthew’s Jesus is a tough text. I looked back in my sermon files and I seem to have avoided preaching on it, like, EVER. …. Better late than never?

Before we even listen to the text, I want to start by placing it in the narrative of Matthew’s Gospel. It’s part of a long speech – the whole of chapter 10 – which begins with Jesus calling the twelve disciples and sending them out to heal the sick, cast out demons, and preach the good news that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. 

We have the story of Jesus in four Gospels, which tell the same story (more or less) through different lenses. It’s often informative to look at them side by side. Mark is the oldest and shortest; Luke and Matthew both use Mark as a source, in addition to other sources and to what seem to be their own distinctive understandings. (John has fewer overlaps and does not have a parallel to this story.) But Mark and Luke do. 

In Mark, Jesus sends out the Twelve, tells them to take nothing for their journey but rely on the hospitality of those they meet, and don’t waste their time in places that don’t receive them. The Twelve go out, and heal and preach and cast out demons. Then they return to Jesus and tell him all about it. In Luke, Jesus sends out seventy appointed disciples, not just twelve, and his instructions to them are a bit more of a speech – he speaks about the doom that awaits the towns who reject the good news. Then the disciples go out and return with joy, having had great success with casting out demons. 

In Matthew, this chapter begins the same way: the Twelve are named and sent out, advised to take nothing with them and to rely on hospitality, and when a town doesn’t welcome them, to shake the dust from their feet and move on. But then we get this passage. I’ve tweaked the lectionary to give us what seems to me to be a complete thought. Listen now…. 

Gospel Reading: Matthew 10:16-39 (NRSV)

Jesus said to his disciples, ‘See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of people, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.

‘A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!

‘So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

‘Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.

‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;  and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.’

Now, parts of that speech are also in Luke, and some fragments in Mark as well; it’s not all unique to Matthew. But big chunks of it are unique to Matthew – and even the bits he shares with other texts, he’s put into a particular context here. And the context is a warning to his followers about what is going to happen to them AFTER he’s gone. In Mark and Luke, Jesus’ advice to his disciples is for their work in this moment, though it may guide them in the future. Matthew’s Jesus looks ahead to the persecution, dissension, violence and loss that the first couple of generations of Christians will have to live through, and tells them, It’s going to be really rough, in ways you can’t begin to imagine. Stick with it anyway. Unlike Mark and Luke, Matthew never describes the disciples’ return – another clue that he’s speaking beyond the present moment within the text. 

Let’s hear the speech again in the Message Bible paraphrase – abbreviated somewhat, but I think this version may help us hear the text. Would someone like to read this aloud? …

Matthew 10, selected verses, The Message, alt. 

“Stay alert. This is hazardous work I’m assigning you. You’re going to be like sheep running through a wolf pack, so don’t call attention to yourselves. Be as cunning as a snake, and inoffensive as a dove. 

Don’t be upset when they haul you before the civil authorities. They’ve given you a platform for preaching the kingdom! And don’t worry about what you’ll say or how you’ll say it. The Spirit of your Father will supply the words.

People are going to turn on you, even people in your own family. But don’t cave in. Focus on survival. And remember: a student doesn’t get a better desk than her teacher. A laborer doesn’t make more money than his boss. Be content to get the same treatment I get. If they call me, the Master, a demon, then what do you think they’ll call you, my servants? … 

Don’t be intimidated. Eventually everything is going to be out in the open, so don’t hesitate to go public now. Even if the worst happens to your body, there’s nothing anyone can do to your soul. God cares about what happens to a sparrow – so don’t you think God is paying attention to what happens to you? So don’t be afraid of those who threaten you. You’re worth more than a million sparrows. 

Don’t think I’ve come to make life cozy. I’ve come to cut through your family ties and free you for God. Well-meaning family members can be your worst enemies. If you choose father or mother over me, you don’t deserve me. If you choose son or daughter over me, you don’t deserve me. If you don’t go all the way with me, through thick and thin, you don’t deserve me… 

If your first concern is to look after yourself, you’ll never find yourself. But if you forget about yourself and look to me, you’ll find both yourself and me.”

Last fall I preached about the book of the prophet Jeremiah as a text of trauma – a text that reflects a community’s experience of terrible, violent overwhelming events. For Jeremiah, that event was the conquest of Jerusalem, the destruction of the Temple, the violent deaths of thousands of his people.

Matthew experienced the same thing, six hundred years later. In the year 66, some Jews in Judea began to revolt against Roman rule and taxation. Repression by the Romans drew more Judeans to the cause and things escalated into a full-on rebellion. The rebels had some early successes – but they never had a chance against Rome’s machinery of war. In the year 70, Roman armies breached the walls of Jerusalem, having already re-conquered the countryside. The city was reclaimed, and the second Great Temple was torn down. 

The violent quashing of the Jewish revolt marks many early Christian texts, but it seems likely that the voice we know as Matthew was a first-hand witness. We see it in the distinctive violence of some of the stories and imagery in this Gospel. We see it in the urgent yearning for revenge upon enemies, and those who fell away from the truth. If you read a Gospel text that talks about someone being cast into outermost darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, it’s from Matthew.

And we see it in this speech, in which Matthew’s Jesus tells his followers, Terrible times are coming. You may lose EVERYTHING. Everyone you love. Even your life. But if you stay true to me through all of it, at least you will not lose your soul. 

You will have noticed the focus on family division, in this text. Matthew’s Jesus speaks about straining – breaking – family ties TWICE in these 23 verses. This is shocking for us, and would have been MORE shocking to the original audience. Family loyalty is a central value in Jewish faith and law.  Richard Swanson writes, “Torah observance means many things, but one thing it surely means is that there is a dance done by parents and children that acts out the stable and orderly love of God so that people grow up knowing in their DNA that God is good and loving. This holds the world together.” (Provoking the Gospel of Matthew, p. 156) Jesus’ insistence that people must choose him over parent, spouse, child, is incredibly jarring. Why would he say that? … 

I don’t think we know much about what was going on inside of families, in those difficult first-century decades, beyond hints like this. But it’s not that hard to project. People joining the Way would have caused tensions within families right from the start. The autobiography of the apostle Paul is informative on that front. Paul was a fiercely faithful Jew who thought that Christianity was an affront to his religion, and eagerly worked to identify and round up Christians, to have them arrested and even killed. Paul didn’t have a family of his own. But imagine if he had. Imagine if his son or wife had become a Christian before he did. 

So the new faith itself created strains within families. Then you add the layer of rising political unrest. The revolt in 66 did not come out of the blue. The census of Judea under Quirinius around the time of Jesus’ birth was widely resented; people had to be forced to comply. Other episodes over the decades increased resentment and mistrust. When things started to break open, thirty years or so after Jesus’ death and resurrection, it probably started with the young men (and a few of the young women) – feeling helpless and hopeless, furious at the forces that held them down and made a mockery of their lives and dreams. 

Some of their elders would say, You are absolutely not going out to a protest; you’re going to get yourself killed. Some would say, Violence in the streets won’t help anything; let’s start a letter-writing campaign instead. Some would say, This is foolishness; Rome keeps order in the streets. We’d have chaos if they weren’t in charge. And some elders, of course, would join the young folks in the streets. 

All of those rising tension and fears would only increase the strains within families. How those new factors intersected with existing tensions between Jews and Christians isn’t very clear, historically – but we know that new stressors tend to exacerbate old ones. So, says Matthew’s Jesus: You expect your family to be your anchor, the thing that defines you and protects you, no matter what. Stop expecting that. Now. 

I’ve been using the phrase “Matthew’s Jesus.” What do I mean by that? 

The Jesus of the four Gospels is discernibly the same guy. But those four texts do remember him differently. They give him somewhat different tones and agendas. That’s not surprising, given what we know about human beings and historical texts. If the Gospels were more alike, I’d be more suspicious that someone made the whole thing up. But it does leave us as faithful readers sometimes wondering what to make of the differences.

When Matthew’s Jesus has something to say – as he does here – that is somewhat different from anything in the other Gospels, we can wonder about that. We can wonder whether Matthew had a source that remembered some things Jesus said that the other Gospels don’t reflect. 

Or – we can wonder whether Matthew received the same words of Jesus that are reflected in the other gospels – and reads them through the lens of the trauma he has witnessed. In that case, this speech of Jesus’ might be a mix of Jesus’ voice and Matthew’s voice – which doesn’t make it less gospel. There are lots of hints in all the gospels that Jesus anticipated violence and chaos in the coming decades. One way to read Matthew is as the gospel that leans into that aspect of Jesus’ message – just as Luke is the gospel that leans into Jesus’ outreach to the marginalized, as Mark is the gospel that leans into the urgency of the call to transformation of life, as John is the gospel that leans into the cosmic nature of Jesus’ redemptive work. 

All right. Enough context. What do we make of these words of Jesus? 

Richard Swanson writes about this passage, “If the raw demands of this scene are reduced to bland encouragements to love God a lot, then we might as well stop trying to read, interpret, and honor the Bible and the old strange stories that peek out of it. We ought to admit publicly that we really intend only to interpret the messages written in uplifting greeting cards. Of course, you might be stuck with a commitment to the Bible that is stronger than your commitment to greeting cards. How inconvenient…. Just for a moment, imagine that the Bible is more substantial and interesting than a greeting card. Imagine that biblical stories are more challenging than uplifting, that they give life by provoking their audiences out of their dogmatic slumbers.”

Then, Swanson challenges us, imagine this scene with people who “feel the sharp edge of the sword” when Jesus speaks of coming to bring division. It’s too easy to set the stage with people of courage who choose Jesus, and people of cowardice who don’t. Imagine people of integrity and honor who choose their families, no matter what. Imagine people who abandon their families all too readily – who were, perhaps, just waiting for an excuse. This is not an easy word to receive, then or now, and we should not pretend otherwise. 

One thing I often wonder about, when I’m struggling with difficult words of Jesus, is how he said them. The Biblical text only rarely gives us hints about mood or tone. Let’s listen to a few verses of this text again, read in three different ways. And as we listen, ask yourself: What do you hear? What do you notice? Is Jesus speaking to you? … 

The first reading will be in the voice of the Historian. Perhaps this is Matthew’s voice: Matthew using Jesus to talk about what actually happened, what Matthew experienced and witnessed in those tumultuous years.  I need someone who can read this without much emotion. You’re just telling us what happened. (This is also how we usually read stuff in church!…)

Mt 10: 21-22, 34-36

“Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved… Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.” 

The second reading is in the voice of Angry Jesus. This is the Jesus who yells at someone for wanting to bury his father before he becomes a disciple. This Jesus thinks his followers are a bunch of fair-weather Christians who don’t understand what the Way will really cost you.This Jesus says, You think it’s all sweetness and light! You think Nice is the same as Good! You have NO idea of the real stakes!! Who feels like they could read that Jesus? …. 

Mt 10: 21-22, 34-36 again

The third reading is in the voice of Compassionate Jesus. This is the Jesus who weeps over stubborn Jerusalem, who sees struggle and cataclysm on the horizon and knows there is nothing he can do except try to prepare the few who will listen. He knows the same simmering resentments that will drive his execution will soon flare up into consuming violence. And he knows that following the Way will lead his followers into persecution by authorities and divisions within their families.  He is warning them, with an open and aching heart, how it’s going to go. Who feels like they could read that Jesus? … 

Mt 10: 21-22, 34-36 again

What did you notice? …. 

Sermon, June 14

So, God has a deal for Abraham. God comes to Abraham – then named Abram – when he is 75 years old. God says, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great. In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” And Abram went, as the Lord had told him. Even though Abram doesn’t know God. There is no religion, no people committed to the God who will become Israel’s God at this point. It’s been generations since God spoke directly to a human – Noah. 

But Abram and his wife Sarai are childless, and God’s plan to give them descendants is an offer Abram can’t resist. He gathers up his household and sets out towards an unknown destiny. God keeps showing up and reiterating the promise: Let me set you apart as the father of My people, and you will have descendants – more than you can count. 

But ten years go by and: still no descendants. That’s where today’s story begins. 

This text is expanded well beyond what the Sunday lectionary suggests. The assigned text is the story of the three visitors, Sarah’s laughter, and Isaac’s birth. But this year I’m not willing to join in Hagar’s erasure. 

It’s easy to join Sarah’s joyful laughter at the birth of her son. She’s been through a lot. Uprooted from a settled home, late in life; dragged all over the Ancient Near East; TWICE nearly being taken as a concubine by foreign kings because Abraham insists on this bizarre lie that she is his sister and not his wife… and, one assumes, ten years of Abram looking at her askance, because God said he would have descendants, and he STILL doesn’t, and maybe Sarah is the problem. Sarah is burdened by what she has suffered, and marked by internalized sexism that measures her value in her fertility. But people are complicated, and Sarah also acts as an oppressor here. 

Let me tell, briefly, the next chapter of Hagar’s story, which is assigned as a reading for next Sunday: Isaac is a young child, doted on by his parents. One day Sarah sees Isaac and Ishmael playing together, and flies into a rage. She tells Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” Abraham is distressed; he’s fond of Ishmael. But God says, Fear not; Ishmael too will become a great nation; but it is through Isaac that I will make you a people. So Abraham gives Hagar bread and water, and sends her away with her son.  

Note that Ishmael’s age is a jumble in the text. This story makes him sound young – not much older than Isaac. But by Abraham’s age given elsewhere, he’d be in his late teens. Not too old to play with his little half-brother – but certainly too old for Hagar to leave him under a bush to die when their water runs out, after wandering in the wilderness for some time. 

Hagar walks away, because she cannot bear to watch her son’s death. But God hears Ishmael’s wails, and the angel of God appears to Hagar a second time, telling her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Don’t be afraid; go pick up your child. He will live and I will make him a great nation.” Then God shows her a spring of water, and she and the child are saved. Ishmael grows up in the wilderness, and becomes a great hunter. 

In all of this: Neither Sarah nor Abraham ever use Hagar’s name. Neither Sarah or Abraham ask Hagar’s consent before making her body the tool of their faithless plan to arrange descendants for themselves instead of waiting on God’s fulfillment. Neither Sarah or Abraham care enough about Hagar or Ishmael’s lives to deal with their complicated family situation and struggle through to a new way of being together. (I don’t give Abraham a lot of credit for the bread and water he gave Hagar, considering how quickly it ran out.) Sarah and Abraham treat Hagar and Ishmael as less fully human than themselves and Isaac. 

Let me be clear that the black-and-white racialized order of American society and economy emerged over 400 years or so of quite specific historical events and patterns. Abraham and Sarah were not white, and Hagar was not black. 

And yet. The fact that Hagar is used to bear a child for her master without her consent may rightly remind us of the situation of many enslaved women before the Civil War. The fact that Abraham can turn on a dime from fathering a child with Hagar, to telling Sarah, “She’s your property, do whatever you want with her,” may rightly remind us of police in Buffalo, New York, who one day knelt in symbolic solidarity with protesters and the next day, in the same place, pushed over a 75-year-old protester and then kept walking as he lay on the ground bleeding. The fact that Hagar flees into the wilderness in the desperate hope for a better life may rightly remind us of the Central American migrants who undertake the dangerous trek across the desert at our southern border, fleeing violence and starvation in their home countries. The fact of Hagar’s agony in the face of her son’s likely death may rightly remind us of the fierce and bitter grief of the mothers of sons murdered by police and by racist vigilantes in our nation in recent years. 

There are deep threads here that we recognize all too easily about our capacity to dehumanize and harm one another. To identify other human beings as members of a group that matters less than our group – whether that group be slaves, Egyptians, African-Americans, illegal aliens, or protesters. It’s one of the strongest threads of the HPtFtU – the Human Propensity to Eff things Up, the vocabulary Francis Spufford offers us for sin. 

Yet when people occasionally ask me how I can love the Bible so deeply when it contains such terrible stories, the story of Hagar is one of the stories I often mention. Because here – so early in our great sacred story, at the very beginning of Israel’s covenant relationship with God – we can already see light between God’s perspective and human perspectives. We can already see that God’s vision of human wholeness and holiness is much bigger than anything Abraham can imagine. 

It is true that in repeatedly promising a son to Abraham and Sarah, God seems to be buying in to the way they reckon identity and status. The eldest son of the first (or favorite) wife is the child who matters. Neither the adoptive son Abraham names as his heir early on, nor Ishmael, properly “count” as the REAL SON God has promised. 

But does God perform the miracle of Isaac’s birth because God endorses that thinking, or to prove God’s power to Abraham and Sarah? Without human biases and resentments, could another kind of story have been possible? Remember that glimpse of Isaac and Ishmael playing together. Genesis contains many stories of non-favored sons who matter. 

What really draws me to this story is God’s relationship with Hagar. Neither Sarah nor Abraham ever use Hagar’s name … but God does. Both times, when the angel of God’s presence seeks out Hagar in the wilderness, they address her by name. The first time, the angel calls her “Hagar, slave-girl of Sarai,” and sends her back to subjugation and abuse. I don’t love that… but apparently Ishmael needs to be part of the story; Hagar can’t disappear from the narrative yet. 

And as counterweight to the the story’s acceptance of Hagar’s enslavement, we need to understand how big a deal it is that Hagar has a direct encounter with the Divine. Keen listeners may nave noticed that the text says an angel spoke to Hagar, but she speaks of having seen God. The nature of angels in these ancient stories is a fascinating topic. Sometimes they seem to be autonomous beings who work for God.Sometimes they seem to be something much closer to a local, limited manifestation of Godself. The voice that stops Abraham from sacrificing Isaac? – “The angel of the Lord.”  The burning bush that speaks to Moses? – “The angel of the Lord.” And let’s not forget the Angel of the Lord who stops Balaam’s donkey. The Genesis text does not use the word “angel” in describing the three mysterious men who were somehow God, who visited Abraham’s tent, but they have been read and depicted as angels for a long time. 

So Hagar’s meeting with the angel of the Lord – TWICE – is understood by the text itself as a theophany, a direct encounter with the Holy. And that’s a big deal. That does not happen to very many people, in the whole Bible. God’s visits with Abraham set him apart as the ancestor of God’s people. God’s direct communication is a privilege and a burden for Moses. The prophet Elijah begs God for the chance to actually see God. Various people are struck dead on the spot for coming too close to the presence of God, unworthy or unprepared. Hagar’s reaction – have I actually seen God and lived? – is appropriate. 

God appears to Hagar to tell her that her child will be special. Sound familiar at all? This is an annunciation scene – one of many Biblical scenes in which a woman receives a divine message about her future child. Note that God never addresses Sarah this directly! God makes promises to Hagar that sound a lot like God’s promises to Abraham: You will have more descendants than you can possibly count.

And in response to this divine message – I love this – Hagar is the first person in the Bible to name God. In fact, I haven’t had time to verify this, but some claim that she is the only person in the whole Hebrew Bible to give God a name.The Biblical text names God; Moses asks God’s name; there are many texts describing God in poetic language… But what Hagar does here is different: she invents a name for God, based on her experience of God’s saving power. You are El-Roi, she says, the One who sees – the one who sees me, the unseen, disregarded, and abused. 

In the second story of Hagar in the wilderness, the one we’ll hear next week, the angel no longer calls her “slave-girl,” but simply “Hagar.” Abraham’s casting out of woman and boy is also their liberation. She is a free woman now, and will not return to bondage. 

I read this narrative, Hagar and Sarah’s pregnancies and the births of Abraham’s sons, as reflecting the tug between human understandings and the divine purpose. The story hangs suspended between Abraham’s desire to become the ancestor of many nations, and God’s desire to found a people who belong to God in covenanted love. God is working with human understandings and limitations, and so God through Abraham founds a lineage, because lineages are how people organized themselves in that time and place.

But God SEEING Hagar, saving Hagar, is only one of many hints that God’s ultimate plan is much broader. Both Jews and Christians, as covenanted peoples of God, blessed to be a blessing for the world, will become peoples not defined by descent or bounded by blood kinship. Hagar’s story is a distant foreshadowing of Isaiah’s vision of the redeemed Jerusalem as a light to enlighten ALL nations and peoples. 

Suspended between human understandings and the divine purpose is also where we find ourselves – often, and particularly with respect to matters of racism and human dignity and wellbeing. We live in a world that normalizes black poverty; that takes “good” and “bad” neighborhoods as natural features of the landscape; that assumes the vastly disproportionate numbers of people of color in our prisons reflects a disparity in criminality rather than a biased system;

that insists that systems that work for some kinds of people would work for EVERYBODY if folks would just put in a little effort; that struggles to maintain a moral differentiation between property damage and violence against human beings; that, as Ibram Kendi writes, finds it much easier to place blame on people rather than to examine the impact of policies. 

In tension with those and other human understandings, which shape our lives and judgments and actions at levels deeper than conscious thought, Are God’s desires and intentions for humanity – as we understand them: Revealed in the witness of the prophets who held the privileged and powerful accountable for the wellbeing of the poorest and most marginalized. Revealed in the witness of the apostles who called us into holy community in which Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female are all one in Christ Jesus. Revealed in the witness of Jesus Christ himself, who taught and lived and died that God is a god of the dispossessed, forgotten, wounded, unseen. Hagar speaks the truth: God is the One who Sees. 

Friday of this week is Juneteenth, a day commemorating the end of slavery. 

It’s not a national holiday, which speaks volumes, though it’s observed by many states and cities. There are lots of things I could say about what this day means, But let me say simply that it’s a day to dwell with, and repent of, the HPtFTU – and specifically our longstanding and well-attested propensity to create in-groups and out-groups, and to use, disregard, harm and tolerate harm against, those whom we see as outside our group. That may rightly weigh on us more heavily this year. 

I am listening and reading and praying about what repentance looks like for me, and for us. This week, writer and church planter Emily Scott wrote about how she and her congregation are moving forward. She and others researched organizations in Baltimore, where she lives, that are working toward racial justice – and looked at the kind of support they were looking for: some ask for money, some need volunteers, and so on. The congregation weighed in on the organizations they felt called to support. Scott writes, “Rooting the work in our call and our gifts means we’re drawing from a deep well.” A small core group of members have committed to attending meetings of two local groups, as a next step. 

Scott concludes, “This [work] takes time and intention. It may take setting other priorities aside, because this is important…There will be the slow, steady work of learning stories, building relationships, supporting with our money and our time, and showing up as we’re asked to. This is what it takes. Movements are built on excel sheets and reminder phone calls, monthly meetings and one-to-ones. Let’s get working.” It helped me to be reminded that big change is slow and stepwise and collaborative; and that our best work will flow from the gifts and capacities we’ve already developed. 

In the meantime, while we listen and wonder and pray, I invite you to join me Friday at noon for a liturgy of repentance. I’ll try to do it on both Zoom and Facebook Live. I don’t have it all figured out yet but I know I need to do it. 

And today we begin our summer Prayer of the Week Project – we’ll share a prayer every week, from different sources and for different occasions. The idea is that over the course of the summer you may discover some new prayers to plant in your heart and use as part of your ongoing conversation with God. This week’s prayer is one from our Book of Common Prayer; you may have heard it used in our diocesan worship last Sunday. 

I invite you to pray it with me. 

Sermon, June 7

When Bishop Miller invited me to preach on Trinity Sunday, I was both honored and alarmed. It was and is a daunting assignment! Every year, in Episcopal circles on Twitter and Facebook, there’s a little flutter before and after this feast over which preachers commit heresy in the course of explaining the Trinity.  I hope to avoid that pitfall because I am under no illusion that I understand the Trinity. 

When I can’t avoid talking about it, I like to turn to the fourth-century theologians who thought and wrote about the Trinity back when that was the central theological debate of the age. The Nicene Creed which we say every Sunday, and the Church’s formal doctrinal language, can make the idea of the Trinity feel rigid and dry. But those long-ago thinkers were keenly aware that they were fumbling to put words to a mystery that is, as Gregory of Nyssa writes, “beyond a certain point ineffable and inconceivable.”

One of my favorite ideas from these fourth-century writers comes from Gregory’s brother Basil, on the math of the Trinity. He wrote, “The Unapproachable One is beyond numbers, wisest sirs … Count if you must, but do not malign the truth…There is one God and Father, one Only-Begotten Son, and one Holy Spirit. We declare each Person to be unique, and if we must use numbers, we will not let a stupid arithmetic lead us astray to the idea of many gods.” (On the Holy Spirit) Basil goes on to explain that because of this distinctiveness, yet unity, of the Persons of the Trinity, the proper way to count the Trinity is not one plus one plus one makes Three, but but One, One, One… makes One.

One idea that was important in thinking and writing about the Trinity during this formative time and the following centuries is perichoresis – a wonderful Greek word that means something like, Moving around in a circle. Scholars have tried to render the concept into English in many ways:  relational co-inherence, co-indwelling, dynamic reciprocity, interpenetration, fellowship, intimacy, sharing, mutual belonging…. No one term or phrase captures it, but I think you get the idea!

Gregory of Nyssa wrote that because of this profound interconnectedness of the Persons of the Trinity, it’s impossible, for example, to think or talk about just the Holy Spirit. He writes, “Since the Spirit is of Christ (Rom 8.9) and from God (1 Cor 2.12)…, then just as anyone who catches hold of one end of a chain pulls also on the other end, so one who draws the Spirit (Ps 118.131) as the prophet says, also draws through him the Son and the Father.” (Epistle to Peter)

What these great-grandparents of our faith are telling us is: Within Godself, there is multiplicity – the Persons named as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and there is relationship. Relationship is not something secondary to the Divine, something added on to a fundamental completeness; but is in the very being and heart of the Holy, from the beginning. C.S. Lewis writes, “‘God is love’ is a way of saying that the living, dynamic activity of love has always been going on within God, and has created everything else.”

And we, humans, made in the image and likeness of God, we too are relational, in our very being. Made to belong to one another – and to the ecology in which we are placed, though that’s a sermon for another day! We were made for connection, for fellowship, for sharing, for love. That’s not just throw-pillow philosophy. It’s also the conclusion of quite a number of scientific fields. 

That connectedness is fundamental to God’s nature, and ours, is a challenge of sorts to Western thought – to the idea that the fundamental unit of humanity is the autonomous individual. We are prone to think of ourselves as much more separate from those around us, much more self-determined in our opinions and choices, than we actually are. Despite being reminded otherwise regularly over the millennia!

St. Paul wrote, “All the members of the body, though many, are one body… The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’” (1 Cor 12)

John Donne, in the 1620s, another time of plague, wrote, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less…  Any [person]’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in [hu]mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

In the late 20th century, Archbishop Desmond Tutu introduced us in the American church to the idea of ubuntu, explaining: “We believe that a person is a person through another person, that my humanity is caught up, bound up, inextricably, with yours.” Ubuntu means, “We belong in a bundle of life.” 

(from his memoir No Future Without Forgiveness) 

Writer and human rights activist Glennon Doyle calls us to look at the crises of our times through the lens of knowing that there is no such thing as other people’s children. 

We need each other. No person is an island. We belong in a bundle of life. There is no such thing as other people’s children. We know all this – but we forget, so easily. We fall back into the illusion that I am an independent Self. That my skin and my skull bound my being. That what makes me and matters about me are my own, singular tastes, choices, possessions, experiences and moods – and not my connections and my context. 

Except that there’s this pandemic going on.

A few weeks ago, in a piece about life during coronavirus, I read a line that said something like this: We are thinking more socially than ever before. I didn’t make note of the source at the time; I should have, because I’ve thought about that idea, again and again. 

It started with those diagrams or animations that were circulating in the early days, when social distancing was a new idea: Remember – you’d be invited to visualize yourself as a dot. And lo and behold, that dot is connected to other dots. Not just the people you’d readily name as being in your network – family members, co-workers, friends – but people you didn’t think much about before: Your grocery store clerk, your postal worker. The receptionist at your hair salon. Your child’s teacher. Your child’s teacher’s child’s teacher. 

No man is an island. 

Our fresh recognition of the degree to which interaction and connection are part of our daily lives came at first with a lot of fear. Trips to the grocery store became fraught because we were newly mindful of touching what someone else has touched; of inhaling air that someone else just exhaled. 

But as our new awareness settled in, many of us started to think about our fundamental interconnectedness in more measured and altruistic ways. The people who deliver my mail and my packages: Are they OK? Are they staying healthy? Are they afraid? Does their employer provide masks? Do they have paid sick leave if they need it? Perhaps we start wondering because we’re estimating the risk of virus on our Amazon boxes – but then we keep wondering because those people too are part of my network. Their wellbeing should matter to me. Does matter to me.

In a recent essay, Anne Helen Peterson writes about the nationwide drop in consumption – partially because of job losses and fears of even worse economic times ahead, but also, she argues, because of “a newfound awareness (and attention to) the human cost of each purchase: For everything you buy online, there are people in factories packaging it, others in warehouses distributing it, and still more in trucks delivering it.” Some of those people have some protections provided by employers; others do not. One person told Peterson, “The calculus for every decision is: Do I need to put an essential worker in harm’s way to get this? [Or] can I do without it?” 

Likewise, we’re slowly getting used to the idea that masking is primarily to protect OTHERS from us. As the Bishop says so well, the mask is a sign of love of neighbor. Putting on a mask is a physical act that acknowledges our mutual vulnerability and responsibility. We belong in a bundle of life – and we mask to preserve life. 

As protests continue against our nation’s long and entrenched history of excessive use of force against black and brown bodies, I’m seeing more of my white friends and colleagues than ever before saying, I see. I hear. I’m going to start this work. We are realizing that systems that make us feel comfortable and safe, often have the exact opposite impact for our neighbors of color. We’re coming to understand more deeply, more urgently, that our lives are embedded in a shared fabric that lifts some kinds of people and presses down on others. 

May we hold onto that newfound knowledge, even though it hurts – and not be like the person described by the apostle James who looks in the mirror, then walks away and immediately forgets what they look like. 

This newfound, deeper awareness of our mutual interconnectedness that I think I see is certainly not universal. For every person considering afresh the wellbeing of those touched by their choices and actions, there is a person angry that their hair salon isn’t open yet… a person who has not understood, or does not care, that the risk is MUCH higher for the staff, who come into contact with many customers, than for the client. 

But I think more of us are carrying those dot and line diagrams in our heads these days, one way or another. We are aware in fresh and vivid ways of the human networks that lead to us, and out from us. 

Where do we go from here? Will it stick? Does it matter? The podcast 99 Percent Invisible had an episode recently about the strange opportunities the pandemic has offered – like, ecologists are able to listen to how whales communicate when they’re not competing with the noise of commercial shipping. The hosts observed, “We don’t want to talk about silver linings when so much bad is happening. But… I don’t think it diminishes the moment to treat [it] as having lessons for us… It would be a double tragedy if we went through this and learned nothing.”  [Emmett Fitzgerald, Roman Mars]

It would be a double tragedy if we went through this, and learned nothing. 

What could it look like to carry forward our new social – or epidemiological – patterns of thinking? Disease is not the only thing that is contagious – that spreads through social contact. Information is contagious – and so is misinformation and disinformation, lies spread deliberately to sow confusion and mistrust. Just as it’s incumbent on us as children of a God of wholeness to strive to avoid spreading disease, so it is incumbent on us as children of a God of truth to strive to avoid becoming vectors of falsehood. Take responsibility for what you pass along, in real life and especially on social media, and remember that we’re most likely to be fooled by lies that lean into our existing biases. 

Ideologies spread socially. In recent years white supremacist ideologies have spread rapidly in online spaces and beyond. When we find ourselves in the presence of racist or hateful speech, it’s on us to break that chain of transmission. All you have to say is, “I don’t like that kind of joke,” or, “Talking about people that way makes me uncomfortable.” That can feel hard – but it’s a lot easier than not leaving your home for two months!

There are things we don’t want to spread – and there are things we DO. We are social animals; we are shaped by the attitudes and behaviors of the people around us, and we shape others in turn. Rightly deployed, that’s a powerful force. 

Faith is contagious, of course – and like the coronavirus, it’s unlikely to be caught by casual contact; it’s much more likely to make the jump from one person to another when you spend time in close proximity, breathing the same air. 

Kindness is contagious. Again: That sounds like a throw pillow, but there is science behind it. When people witness someone else doing a kind act, they’re more likely to do something kind for others. One study suggested that a person who sees an act of altruism may go on to do as many as four kind acts in response. 

Moral courage is contagious – the courage to do or stand up for what is right, even when there are significant risks. Both social norms – the spoken and unspoken messages we get from the people and culture around us – AND particular people who model costly courage, make us more likely to do what is right even when it scares us. Having others in our network who are standing up and speaking up for justice and mercy literally encourages us – puts courage into us – to stand up too. 

My skin is not the boundary of my self. My humanity is inextricably bound up with others – in tiny everyday ways and in big, world-changing ways too. The mutual belonging and interdependence within the very heart of God, the Holy and undivided Trinity, is at the heart of my being as well – and yours.  May a fresh, fierce, hopeful knowledge that no one is an island, that we belong in a bundle of life, that every death diminishes me and there is no such thing as other people’s children – may that knowledge shape our choices and our lives, from this day forward. May it be the blessing we carry away from this season of bitter and costly wrestling with disease and injustice. 

Some sources… 

Basil and bad Trinity math: 

https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2012/12/02/st-basil-and-the-stupid-arithmetic-of-the-trinity/

Gregory of Nyssa:

https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2018/05/01/st-gregory-of-nyssa-perichoretic-trinity-2/

BuzzFeed piece:

https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/annehelenpetersen/recession-unemployment-covid-19-economy-consumer-spending?fbclid=IwAR0KVivjzZAbshRYv64zn_F50Kqf5MA00YegrHC_Qq92MieS2sQ7pd5H0dc

99 Percent Invisible, Episode 401: The Natural Experiment –

https://99percentinvisible.org/episode/the-natural-experiment/

A starting point on the contagion of altruism – 

https://ethicalleadership.nd.edu/news/harnessing-the-power-of-elevation-how-a-little-known-emotion-makes-ethical-leadership-work/

A wonderful piece that didn’t make the cut but that you should read – “The Pandemic is a portal” 

https://www.ft.com/content/10d8f5e8-74eb-11ea-95fe-fcd274e920ca

Homily, May 17

We begin by watching a short film about the life of St. Dunstan. 

Wonder together some: 

What was your favorite part?…

What was the most important part? … 

Let’s look at an image of Dunstan together. 

It’s interesting to study Dunstan. He is a figure of holy folklore, a man who is said to have miraculously levitated a falling beam. But he is, too,  an actual figure of historical significance – the great libraries of Britain hold manuscripts that bear Dunstan’s actual handwriting. Here is a page from a manuscript known as the Glastonbury Classbook, currently in the collection of the Bodleian Library in Oxford. The big central figure is Jesus Christ, depicted as a king. But what you should notice is this little monk in his habit, down here in the corner, kneeling at Christ’s feet. This might be an actual self-portrait of, by, Dunstan. He’s known to have written manuscripts of this period, he began his career at Glastonbury, and he was an artist and craftsman. This is the image of Dunstan we keep in our icon corner at church – not an icon that makes Dunstan central, but this image that perhaps shows him the way he pictured himself: kneeling at the feet of Christ. 

(What it says:  Dunstanum memet clemens rogo, Christe, tuere / Tenarias me non sinas sorbsisse procellas  – ‘I ask, merciful Christ, that you protect me, Dunstan; do not permit the Taenarian storms to swallow me’).

There’s a lot to say about Dunstan, who lived an interesting life in interesting times. But today I want to focus on Dunstan the reformer.  Dunstan’s faith led him to a life of civic engagement that left Britain better than he found it. 

The Britain into which Dunstan was born was fractured, chaotic, and dangerous. It was only thirty years before his birth that Alfred the Great had begun to unify many small kingdoms into something resembling a nation – and that work was ongoing during Dunstan’s lifetime. 

Besides political divisions and frequent wars and skirmishes, for most people life was brutish and short. In Dunstan’s time the common people were uneducated, poor, harassed by bandits, cheated by merchants, and oppressed by the landed aristocracy. Rule of law and civil society were almost nonexistent.

Dunstan committed his long life to supporting the project of a unified, orderly Britain, with education more widely available; common systems for money and commerce; and a fair and equally-applied judicial system. 

He is rightly remembered as a founder of monasteries & proponent of Benedictine monasticism; but for Dunstan, monasteries were a tool for reform. Dunstan and the other great bishops of his time believed deeply that the flourishing of the English people would be best served by the cultivation of monastic centers, whose prayers, teaching, and care for the common folk would be a stabilizing and improving force.

Dunstan was a consummate pragmatist. His lifetime and work spanned the reigns of eight kings. He was exiled by some, elevated to higher and higher positions of honor and influence by others. He pursued his vision with the help of friendly kings, and against the opposition of unfriendly ones. Dunstan’s life reminds us that while human political agendas and God’s agenda can overlap, those overlaps are always temporary and partial. If we can keep that in mind, then maybe our civic and political engagement can be as clear-sighted and stubborn as Dunstan’s was. 

And over the course of Dunstan’s long, determined, faithful life, England did become a little more ordered, a little more just, a little safer. Something worked – and Dunstan’s role in those changes was honored, as he became celebrated as a saint within decades of his death. 

I think Dunstan the reformer stands out for me right now because I think we may be tempted to think that reform, the work of making things better for more, the work – as we see it as Christians – of making the community and world around us better reflect God’s intentions of justice, mercy, peace, and wholeness, needs to start from a place of stability. It’s something people – usually people in authority – sometimes say: Now isn’t the time. Things need to be more  settled before we can work for improvement. 

But Dunstan and those who worked alongside him, did what they did in chaotic, violent, unsettled times.  As the great rabbi Hillel once said: If not now, when? 

In a few months, or weeks, we will be under immense pressure to get Back To Normal. It’s already starting, to some extent.  I hope that we will demand a better Normal than the one we had before. I hope that we will have the insight and courage to be choosy about what we want back in our lives, individually and especially collectively. 

What would we like to see better, on the other side of all this?

What will we to work and fight and vote and pray and give to build into the new Normal? 

I’d like our new Normal to value our health care workers, from janitors to surgeons, more.

And to better respect and better compensate the work of teachers and child care workers more.

I’d like our new Normal to recognize that minimum-wage hourly work is essential work, and makes those jobs more sustainable and livable. 

A society that listens when scientists tell us about the risks of how we’re living now, and responds by changing our behavior. What if we did that with climate change?….

I’d like our new Normal to extend our realization that we are connected. And that we need one another. 

What would you like to see become part of the emergent Normal, friends?… 

Sermon, April 26

This morning, I’m taking the opportunity of our online worship to do something that’s harder to do in church – look at some art together. I mentioned last week in the evening gathering that there are wonderful paintings of some of these Easter Gospel stories by the artist Caravaggio, who lived in Italy from 1571 to 1610. Caravaggio’s work represents some rich and wonderful visual exegesis – reflecting on a Scriptural story and drawing meaning out of it by rendering it artistically. 

Here is his painting of our Gospel story from last week – The Incredulity of St. Thomas.

Remember, when the other disciples told him that they had seen Jesus, risen from the dead, while he was not with them, Thomas said, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” In Caravaggio’s image, Jesus is guiding Thomas’s finger into the wound in his side. As much as to say, “If this is what you need, Thomas… let it be so.”

How would you describe the look on Jesus’ face? Unmute & share what you’re seeing, if you’d like – just a word or two. You can do it in Chat, too. How would you describe the feelings on Thomas’s face?….

When you’re looking at a Caravaggio painting, always notice the hands. He paints very expressive hands. Notice Thomas’s left hand. Does that add to how you read his feelings, in this moment? 

All right. Let’s move to this Sunday’s Gospel – another beautiful story of followers of Jesus meeting the risen Christ. Two of the disciples, Jesus’ friends and followers, are leaving Jerusalem – burdened with sadness and disappointment. They had hoped that he would be the one to redeem Israel – to free their nation and people from the degradation of Roman rule, to a new era of freedom and holy strength, like the remembered time of King David. 

But that’s not what happened. Jesus didn’t call the people to him and start a righteous revolution. Instead, the imperial powers and the local powers, Pilate, Herod, and the chief priests, worked it out among themselves to dispose of him. It wasn’t even especially difficult. And now, the great moment of hope and possibility has passed. They’ve heard about the empty tomb and the rumors that maybe Jesus is alive; but still, it feels like everything is over. They might as well go home, and return to the normal lives they abandoned when they joined the Jesus movement. 

We know both their names, by the way, though Luke only names Cleopas. John, in his Gospel, names the women who were standing near the cross – one of them is Mary, the wife of Clopas. 

Clopas and Cleopas are very likely the same name. And it makes all the sense in the world that this was a married couple traveling together, since we know there were women among Jesus’ disciples, and since the story ends at a home they share. 

So, Mary and Cleopas are headed home, sad and weary.  But then a stranger approaches and falls into step with them. He asks them, What are you talking about? And when they tell him, he says, Wait, have you even READ the Scriptures? It was necessary for the Messiah to suffer these things! And as they walk on, the stranger re-interprets Scripture to them, texts of liberation like Exodus and texts of judgment and promise like the Prophets, to show them that passing through death to new life is a story God tells in the world, over and over and over again. 

And then they reach Emmaus. And Mary – I’m sure it was Mary – says, Oh, please stop here with us. It’s getting dark. We don’t have much in the cupboard, but I’ll borrow from a neighbor. Stay. And the stranger agrees to stay. And over their simple shared meal, he takes bread, and blesses it, and breaks it, and gives it to them. And the words and the voice, the way he lifts his hands, the way he meets their eyes when he holds out the bread – suddenly, they see. They recognize. They know. 

Here is Caravaggio’s image of the supper at Emmaus.

You’ll notice that Caravaggio thought both of the disciples on the road to Emmaus were men. What else do you notice?…

A couple of notes: The servant is a self-portrait of Caravaggio. Caravaggio’s Jesus here doesn’t look like a conventional Jesus – he is young and androgynous or even feminine. This is how Caravaggio has interpreted the fact that the disciples didn’t recognize Jesus – he must have looked different in some way. Compare the Jesus in Caravaggio’s painting “The Taking of Christ,” who looks a lot more like “normal” depictions of Jesus.

Then Jesus – disappears. (While he does have a real human body, the Risen Jesus seems to be able to pop in and out of our reality in a new way!) And Cleopas and Mary stare at each other, with understanding and hope dawning on their faces. And they RUSH back to Jerusalem – seven miles by night! – to tell the other disciples what has happened. How Jesus walked with them and talked with them, and was made known to them in the breaking of the bread. 

That phrase may sound familiar! It’s used in one of our Eucharistic prayers, Prayer C. The congregation says it: Risen Lord, be known to us in the breaking of the bread. It’s also in a beautiful prayer we use in the evenings sometimes, a prayer based on this story: Lord Jesus, stay with us, for evening is at hand and the day is past; be our companion in the way, kindle our hearts, and awaken hope, that we may know you as you are revealed in Scripture and the breaking of bread.

Sharing the Eucharist, breaking bread that is the Body of Christ and sharing it among the fellowship of believers that is also the Body of Christ, is central to our church’s practice. We are fasting from it now, for a season, for the sake of human wellbeing – for one another and for our wider community. I know that fast is really hard for some folks. I’m sorry. We will return to the Eucharistic table, when we have discerned that it’s safe enough, and how to do so with minimal risk. 

The breaking of the bread is a really important moment when we can see and feel and touch the Divine. But it’s far from the only such moment. I love what Mary and Cleopas say to one another: Were not our hearts burning within us, while he was speaking to us on the road? Hours before they recognized their mysterious traveling companion as Jesus Christ, God incarnate, hours before this eucharistic meal, they had the sense that they were hearing something powerful and important and true. I think that’s why they begged the stranger to stay with them. Not just kindness or politeness, but also a sense of connection, possibility, urgency. 

Were not our hearts burning within us? I know what that feels like. That sense of hearing important truth, truth that will change how I think and how I live. Or hearing something that has a call on me. I know the feeling of a deep-down nudge that says, Pay attention. There’s something here. Something that kindles your heart and awakens hope. You’re close to one of the cracks in everything, where the light gets in. I am more or less attuned to those nudges, that strange inner warmth, depending on how well I’ve been sleeping, how hard I’ve been working, how open and present I’m able to be. But I do know that feeling. 

We love gathering at our church building – but we know God doesn’t live there. We love sharing the Body of Christ in Eucharist – but we know that’s not the only place to meet Jesus. We may be all shut up in our homes, but the risen Jesus walks right through locked doors, friends. 

Where is the Holy showing up for you, in these days? Where might the Holy show up for you, if you look, and listen? If you open your heart to expect that even here, even now, God has a word to speak to you, or a gift to offer you, or a mission of love to invite you into? Listen to your heart, friends… notice when it burns within you. 

Response question: Where have you seen or sensed God’s presence, gotten a glimpse or whiff of the Holy, in these days? … 

Gospel and Homily, April 19

The Gospel for April 19, 2020: John 20:19-31

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

Homily

The “Doubting” Thomas Gospel is one of the readings that is the same every year – unlike most of our Sunday lessons, which cycle around once in three years. Those repeating texts can be challenging to preach! But this year, this text spoke to me right away – as a text about presence. Not presents with a T, like Christmas presents. Presence with a CE. “The state of being present in a place.” Being somewhere; or, often, being somewhere with someone. Showing up. Being there. thesaurus.com offers only a few synonyms: Nearness. Proximity. Being. Companionship. Company. And then there are some antonyms: Absence. Distance. Remoteness. Confusion. Distress.

Right now, in April of 2020, we have a lot of experience with, and a lot of feelings about, the difference between presence and absence, or presence and distance – and about the shades of presence that are possible for us as we shelter in place. Many of us are keenly missing actual physical presence of friends and loved ones. I’ve seen a rash of posts on social media this week from people saying, Okay, I’m an introvert, and this was fine at first, but it’s not fine anymore…!

Zoom, Facetime, even email and the old-fashioned telephone call – they’re a lot better than nothing. I hear it often in our Zoom church gatherings: people say, It’s so good to see one another’s faces. It’s so good to talk a little about what’s going on in our lives. It’s so good to still feel connected, to feel cared for and to extend care to others. This is presence, of a sort, and it matters. It is sustaining us. It’s so, so very much better than nothing.

But it’s not the same. We are grateful for it; AND there’s no mistaking it for the fullness of actually being able to be in the same room. To see each other’s faces without computer screens in between. To hug, laugh, sing together.

At the same time, in this season, absence takes on an extra weight of concern. Are the people we’re not seeing, doing OK? Are they just busy, or just enjoying the opportunity to join worship anywhere they please? Are they sick or struggling, physically, mentally, spiritually? COVID itself is far from the only threat. Addiction, depression, anxiety, and loneliness lurk close in this time of isolation and distancing.

It’s an interestingly double-edged situation. Some who can’t usually worship with us, now can – whether that’s friends from afar, or members who live close by but can’t easily attend our physical services. That’s a big deal; it’s important and precious.

And: some who usually attend our “IRL” services at church, aren’t attending online. I’m sure that’s for a variety of reasons, but I’m also sure that for some, it’s because the physical, embodied aspects of gathering as a church are what they treasure and need. Making music together. Receiving the Eucharist. Basking in the beauty of a beloved space. Watering the plants. Sharing – or providing! – snacks at coffee hour. Just sitting close to a friend, shoulder to shoulder. Running around having epic stick battles with your friends on the Pine Island.

The phrase “Real Presence” is a churchy shorthand for what Episcopal and Anglican churches say about the Eucharist, or Holy Communion. Our church teaches that Christ is truly present in the bread and wine; they are not just symbols. But we don’t claim to understand exactly how Christ is present; we don’t have that locked down, scientifically or theologically.

Real presence could just as easily be shorthand, right now, for what we’re missing. Sure, there are lots of ways we’re being present for and with one another, from Zoom to phone calls to notecards to sidewalk chalk. But even as we engage in elaborate dances to maintain social distance in the grocery stores, we miss the real presence of our friends and loved ones.

We long to break the taboos that bind us: to be closer than 6 feet. To share a meal. To touch; hold hands; embrace. To breathe the same air – so risky, so precious. Real presence.

The story of Thomas’s encounter with Jesus is important for the Church. It asserts that the risen Jesus is something more substantial than a Zoom avatar. He’s not a ghost; he is embodied. He can pass through locked doors, but he can also eat fish, as Luke tells us. In addition, his humanity is not just a costume. Jesus did not only appear to suffer and die; the blood wasn’t ketchup or chocolate syrup. Jesus has a real body which still bears the marks of what was done to it. These were important points of doctrine for the first Christians and the early church, as they made the bold claim that Jesus Christ has risen bodily from the dead, and promises new life beyond death for all of us.

Father Tom McAlpine, a member of this congregation and friend to many of us, has been writing short, rich, thought-provoking commentaries on the Daily Office readings every day for the past couple of weeks. You can follow along on Facebook by joining the St. Dunstan’s Church Daily Lectionary Group, or on Father Tom’s blog – email me or Father Tom for that address. Earlier this week he posted a quotation from Scripture scholar Richard Hays that speaks directly to why the idea of actual physical resurrection – Jesus’ or ours – is so fundamental.

Hays writes, “The resurrection of the dead is necessary in order to hold creation and redemption together. If there is no resurrection of the dead, God has capriciously abandoned the bodies [God] has given us. The promise of resurrection of the body, however, makes Christian hope concrete and confirms God’s love for the created order… Furthermore, this teaching is consistent with what we have come to understand about the psychosomatic unity of the human person. Contrary to the ideas that held sway in much of Hellenistic antiquity [or, I would add, in a lot of contemporary New Age thinking], we are not ethereal souls imprisoned in bodies. Rather, our identity is bound up inextricably with our bodily existence. If we are to be saved, we must be saved as embodied persons, whatever that may mean…. To affirm the resurrection of the dead is to confess that the God who made us will finally make us whole – spirit, soul, and body.” First Corinthians (Louisville: John Knox, 1997), p. 278.

Bodily resurrection is one of the mysteries, for me. There’s no question that when we die, our bodies decay and go back to the earth. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Our very atoms are reused as building blocks for new living things. I don’t know what it means for God to promise a new life beyond death that is somehow embodied. It’s one of the things we’ll understand better by and by. But I believe it. I believe.

Thomas longs for – demands – the real, bodily presence of the risen Christ. I’ve long been frustrated with Thomas’s Sunday-school nickname: “Doubting Thomas.” The nickname suggests Thomas was wrong to doubt, when the Scripture itself says that Jesus showed up ready and willing to respond to Thomas’ desire. Yes, Jesus tells him, “Do not doubt, but believe” – WHILE Jesus is literally holding out his hands to Thomas, inviting him to touch the holes left by the nails of his crucifixion.

Thomas’ insistence on touching Jesus – and Jesus’ willingness to offer his real, and really broken, body to Thomas’ hands – asserts, along with so much else in Scripture, that our bodies and our embodiment matter. Touch matters. Woundedness and illness matter. Healing matters. Real presence matters. It all matters, to God and to us.

God, who made us, soul and body, and who has lived in a human body in Jesus Christ, understands that we need one another’s real presence.

And… Notice how this passage ends. The writer of John’s Gospel knows he’s doing something paradoxical here. He is telling the story of someone whose belief was ratified by meeting the risen Christ… to people who will never meet the risen Christ – at least, not in the flesh, the way Thomas did. He’s saying, Thomas didn’t want to believe based on second-hand stories… but you, reader: Please believe, based on second-hand stories. “This is written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God…. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

According to the Gospels, only a few people ever got to meet the risen Jesus in the flesh. After the first weeks, Jesus went on ahead to wherever we go when we’re finished here, and the Eucharist became our primary experience of the real presence of Jesus among us. And during the decades that followed, there were a lot of times in which Christians were limited in even being able to be really present with each other. Travel was difficult, and there were waves of persecution which made it dangerous to gather. The early church by circulating letters, sermon texts, and other written documents. Indirect – second-hand – but enough. Enough to survive. Enough to sustain. Enough to grow.

We may miss one another’s real presence, and the real presence of Christ in our shared Eucharistic meal. But our ancestors in faith knew about keeping in touch across distance; about maintaining faith practices when you have to hunker down for a while; about leaning on our holy stories of healing, redemption, and release to sustain us during hard and fearful times.

“This is written so that you may come to believe ….” John breaks the fourth wall here; he’s talking to US. He’s saying, I know I’m asking you to take this on faith, but truly, truly, there is life with Jesus. There is hope with Jesus. For our bodies as well as our souls.

Stay the course, beloved friends.

Holy Week Homilies

HOLY WEEK HOMILIES for Worshiping in Place

The Rev. Miranda Hassett, St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church, Madison, WI 

Maundy Thursday – Homily for the Anointing of Hands

So, let’s talk about footwashing. That’s usually the “special thing” we do tonight. Footwashing was a significant gesture of service in the ancient Near East, because people’s feet needed care. My daughter and I recently read an article about Roman sewers that contained this line:  “The streets of a Roman city would have been cluttered with dung, vomit, [human waste], garbage, filthy water, rotting vegetables, animal skins and guts, and other refuse from various shops that lined the sidewalks. 

Feet were dirty. And because people mostly wore sandals, feet also took a beating – dry & cracked, often small cuts or injuries. Tending someone’s feet was a real act of humility – usually for those of lowly stature, considering what you’d be washing off. That’s why Peter resists it – he doesn’t want Jesus, his honored friend and teacher, to do this for him. But Jesus says, I need to do this. Because foot washing was a true act of service. Imagine how good it would feel to have your dirty, beaten-up feet gently washed & dried & perhaps anointed with some balm or oil. 

I think foot washing as a church custom is really holy and precious. Even though the context has changed a lot – our streets are pretty clean, and we mostly wear shoes – it’s still powerful and intimate and humbling. But it’s also pretty hard to do as part of a Zoom liturgy. It takes time; it takes setup; it excludes those who are joining us on their own. I encourage you, if you’d like, to wash your feet or one another’s feet after the end of our service tonight, perhaps as kind of a bedtime ritual. It’s a tender, holy gesture.

But what we will do now, as we are gathered, is something different – but I think it’s a fair analogue, for this year, this moment in the life of the world. I’m going to invite you to anoint your hands. Or if you’re here with others, to anoint one another’s hands. Don’t start yet! I’m still talking! 

Anointing hands is different from washing feet. Feet were dirty, and had shameful cultural connotations. Hands are not seen as shameful in our culture, and our hands are all probably REALLY clean. But they may also be dry. Sore. Chapped or cracked. Our hands are bearing the burden of our carefulness. 

In Matthew’s Gospel, almost the last thing that happens before the Last Supper, is that a woman anoints Jesus with scented oil. It’s a gesture of honor – something you do for somebody special – and also a gesture of care. 

So let’s carry all that into this gesture of anointing our hands. Make it a mediation, a sacred pause. Whether you’re tending your own hands or someone else’s… take your time. Be gentle. Be thorough. Thank these hands for their work. Thank them for what they are sacrificing every day, by being washed and washed again until they are dry and scratchy and maybe painful. Thank them for helping keep you safe; helping keep your loved ones safe; helping keep everyone safe. 

There’s a simple prayer you can say – to yourself or to whomever’s hands you are anointing: [Name], I anoint your hands in the name of the One who made you, loves you, and sustains you. 

 

Maundy Thursday – Homily for the Stripping of the Altar 

Let’s remember what we usually do at this time… and describe it for people who haven’t seen it at St. Dunstan’s before.… 

One of the things we do is empty the tabernacle and take the consecrated bread and wine to the Altar of Repose. It’s a place we set aside holy things that we aren’t going to use for a while. Usually a pretty short while – Thursday evening to Saturday evening!

I was talking about Maundy Thursday with a friend, Michael, and she said: Maundy Thursday, and specifically the stripping of the altar, is going to be hard this year because so many people are living through that experience of having things stripped away from them. When we are putting away beautiful, special things that give us delight, Michael said, people will look at that this year and think, That’s not just a symbol. That’s my life. 

Dear ones: What we are doing now is hard, and costly, and important. This thing we are doing together, that’s making us worship through computer screens – It may help keep us safer – my household, your household. That’s certainly one big goal. But It is definitely helping keep our whole community safer. 

It’s hard for us to to see it, but the people who are modeling this epidemic tell us there’s a really direct line between our setting aside all these things for a season, our self-isolation – what a weighty phrase – and saving lives. Lives of people we may know but also lives of people we don’t, because we are all in a web of connection, in ways we maybe didn’t think about a lot before coronavirus. You’ll never know the names of the people who are alive in June because of what you are setting aside right now. But they have names, and lives, and people who love them. 

Staying home, minimizing our contact with others and the outside world, is one of the most Christlike things we may be called upon to do. 

So in few minutes I will strip our symbolic altar. But first, I’d like to take some time for you to create your own Altar of Repose for the things you have set aside for this season. There’s a fancy word for this – renunciation. Things set aside or stop doing for a reason. We have been asked and told to stay home – but we still have a choice about whether & how fully we comply. We do have agency, and we’re using it. 

Take your pens & slips of paper & write or draw some of the things you’re NOT doing right now… your renunciations. Some of the things we miss & are longing to return to. Please include the things that feel trivial, like stopping by a favorite coffeeshop or petting your neighbor’s dog when you meet on a walk! You can just write a word or two;  you’ll know what you mean. Then gather all those slips into your envelope or special container, and set them aside in some special place. We are setting aside beautiful things, lovely things, things that delight and fulfill us. But we will bring them forth again, when the time is right. We will. 

 

Good Friday Homily

This liturgy is hard because it leans into suffering, loss, struggle, and death. This year we are all in that together in a (I hope) unique way. It’s humbling for me as a pastor because I know that Good Friday always hits some people hard. Maybe every year; maybe only in some particular year – it’s all just too close to the bone, this story of betrayal, abuse, indifference, despair, and a lonely, brutal death. 

This year it’s close to the bone for all of us, collectively. And that is strange and raw and hard and holy. This is a day to acknowledge grief at suffering and loss. It’s also a day when the Church says two bold, insistent things: You’re never alone; and death is not the end of the story. You’re never alone because in Jesus Christ, God entered into human experience, even into its darkest depths. God can always find us there, walk with us there. 

My prayer for people in times of profound struggle or pain is not that God will be with them – I believe deeply that God is always as near as our next breath – but that they may have a clear and present sense of God’s presence with them. 

The other thing the church says on Good Friday is that death is not the end of the story. But we mostly say that by saying: Come back tomorrow. This is not the final chapter – as final as those last verses may sound. So: Come back tomorrow. Easter is still coming. 

This is also a day to acknowledge anger. Anger at our common circumstances and all that they are demanding from us, costing us; and anger at those who could have helped it be otherwise. The virus, a product of Nature’s freedom to change and diversify, kills. Human greed, dishonesty, arrogance, short-sightedness and indifference have made its impact, its death toll, so much worse. 

I’ve heard from several members of the parish that you’re really struggling with anger. The process that resulted in going ahead with this week’s election, against all public health advice, was a focal point – but it’s not just that, by any means. 

Many of us have been taught that anger is bad or dangerous – or unChristian. But there’s plenty of anger in the Gospels, and throughout our scriptures. Anger is tricky; it’s easy to deceive ourselves when we’re angry. I know within myself that my capacity to see a just and loving resolution to a situation is not as good when I am angry. But it doesn’t follow that anger is bad. Anger is both natural and necessary. Anger is energy. Energy is good. Anger is willingness to act. Action is good. God loves justice more than we do – and God loves those who will suffer needlessly because of this disease more than we do. Just as we’re not alone in grief, so we are not alone in anger. 

Let’s join our voice with the voice of King David who, three millennia ago, wrote or had written a powerful psalm of indignation, Psalm 10… 

 

Easter Vigil Homily

Does it feel like Easter? Show me with hand motions!  Yes? No? Sorta? Not really? ….  On a scale of one to ten? … 

It’s a strange Easter, for sure. We can’t make a big noise ringing our bells all together.  We can’t share chocolates and fizzy juice after the end of this service. We can’t look at all the beautiful plants around the altar.  We can’t hide and find easter eggs on the church grounds. We can’t prepare beautiful anthems by our singers and instrumental musicians. (Well, we did one last week – but it took some doing! It’s harder to make music together when you can’t BE together!) We can’t cook a big meal to share with guests from near and far. 

Easter could feel kind of small, this year. 

But it helps me to remember that the first Easter was pretty small too. Only a few people knew, at first – and for kind of a while! Jesus rising from the dead didn’t change the world overnight – at least, not in ways most people noticed.  The change was deep and slow and mysterious, beneath the surface of things. We’re still living into that big, slow, deep change, the change in everything made by the first Easter. 

Way back at the beginning of all this, when things were just starting to go quiet, I remember thinking that it felt like Holy Saturday. The Saturday after Good Friday. That’s a time of waiting and preparing, in church….  of quietness and anticipation. We’re still carrying the sadness of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday… but we’re getting ready for the big joy of the Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday. I always feel kind of still inside, on Holy Saturday. And when I would drive around town on that day, it often seemed like kind of a quiet day for everybody. 

That’s why I thought of Holy Saturday, back when things were just starting to be canceled, when people were just starting to stay home. And here we still are – in a really, really long Holy Saturday….! 

There are different ideas about what happened on Holy Saturday, the first Holy Saturday, between when Jesus was laid in the tomb and when his friends found the tomb empty on Sunday morning. 

Some people and some churches imagine Jesus just … resting. Like a child sleeping in their bed or a seed sleeping in the earth. After all, he’d been through a few really hard, demanding days. Resting and healing so that sometime in the early early hours of Easter Morning he … got up. Folded up the grave cloths like a blanket, and walked away… 

Some people and some churches imagine what was happening on Holy Saturday very differently. They don’t picture Jesus lying there quietly. They picture him basically doing a jailbreak. Freeing those who have been held captive in the realm of Death, starting with Adam and Eve, understood as the ancestors of all human beings. Breaking down doors; shattering chains and locks.  This idea is called the Harrowing of Hell. There are lots of images of it – let me show you a good one, from a 12th or 13th century manuscript… 

The big green monster there, that’s Hell or the realm of the dead, imagined as a monster that’s holding all the dead people inside it. The Devil lies tied up at Jesus’ feet. And Jesus, with the help of an angel, is leading Adam and Eve to freedom, to new life in God, and the others will follow them!…. So in this version, Jesus isn’t resting; he’s fighting evil and death, for the sake of new life for all humanity. 

I’ve been thinking about how in this long Holy Saturday we are living through, both of these things are happening.  A lot of us feel a little entombed… like we’re closed up somewhere, just waiting for the right moment to emerge into new life. It might be restful, it might be restless, but we’re closed up, like Jesus in the tomb, like Noah and all the animals in the ark, and we wait. 

But in the meanwhile – others are doing battle with death itself, for the sake of life. Our friends who are health care providers are doing that. Doctors and nurses and hospital staff and all kinds of health care workers – mental and spiritual health too! – all over the country, all over the world, are fighting death, fiercely, day and night, as hard as they can. 

And biologists and epidemiologists and geneticists and statisticians and public health people and all kinds of scholars are putting together information as fast as they can, seeking more and more ways to keep people from getting sick and keep people who DO get sick from getting REALLY sick. 

And then there are mayors and governors and journalists and pastors and public health officials and university administrators and teachers and all kinds of other people who are working so, so hard right now, to make the best decisions they can to keep people safe, and to tell people the best things to do to keep themselves and each other safe.  

There are a LOT of people fighting death! Fighting for life! Right now! They are so brave, and they help me be brave. Even when I’m bored or restless or sad or weary or lonely. 

It is Easter tonight. But it’s also Holy Saturday, the waiting time. It will be Holy Saturday as long as some of us are waiting to come out of our tombs… and some of us are battling the powers of death. We know, tonight, that Jesus is with us, whether we are resting or fighting. 

And whenever we are able to be together again, in the same space: We will have a great big Easter party. No matter when it is! We will celebrate resurrection and new life! We will celebrate that death does not have the last word! We will celebrate release from our confinement! We will celebrate that nothing can separate us from God’s love! I’m looking forward to that party so much, friends. 

Before we continue with the Renewal of baptismal vows, let us pause to hold in prayer all the people, places and situations who are waiting to be able to come forth for a new chapter, like the people and animals on the ark; who are longing for freedom, like God’s people in Egypt; who need God’s healing breath, like the bones in Ezekiel’s vision… Whom are we holding in prayer this Easter night? …. 

Homily, March 22

Read the Gospel lesson here. 

Watch a video of the Gospel lesson, prepared for the Sunday school students, here. 

“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, in order that he was born blind?” 

Before we really talk about this story, I want to pause and say that it’s important to note that in this story, blindness is clearly seen as a deficiency. This man’s blindness is there to be healed. 

We need to understand that in this context, there were really limited opportunities for anyone blind or otherwise disabled. For many, begging was the only option – a life, probably a short life, of poverty and dependence on the kindness of strangers. Today, many disabled folks would say that they’d prefer not to be seen as less-than, as people just waiting to be fixed. 

We used to have a member of this congregation who was blind. His name was Jerry. And once when we had this story about the blind man, I asked him: Does it bother you when the Bible talks about being blind like it’s a terrible thing? And he said, No, it doesn’t bother me. Being blind is just part of who I am. I met my wife because I was blind. I spent my life helping other blind people learn how to care for themselves. Being blind isn’t a burden for me, so I don’t mind how people talk about it. 

So, let’s just note that. 

But then let’s turn back to the disciples’ question. Rabbi, who sinned?…  It doesn’t really matter whether we’re talking about blindness, or dementia, or cancer, or infertility, or COVID-19. When we’re faced by something inexplicable – especially something that makes us frightened or sad – we look for a way to make sense of it, to understand why it’s happening. 

The disciples think – as many did at the time – that this physical misfortune must be somebody’s fault. A punishment for bad behavior. Did this guy mess up? If he brought this on himself, we don’t have to care… Or did the parents mess up? They usually do…

Jesus stops this logic in its tracks: Nobody sinned. This man’s blindness isn’t a clue about his or his parents’ behavior, purity or worthiness. That’s not how things work. 

Back in 2014, when I preached on this story, I walked through a lot of the ways people try to make sense of suffering, given our belief in a loving God. I’ve re-posted that sermon on our website and I invite you to read it, if you think that would be helpful. It’s pretty indebted to Francis Spufford’s chapter, from the book Unapologetic, about why bad stuff happens, because I think he does a good job of walking through the various explanations that we try on – the work they do, and their pitfalls. 

But in that sermon, I end up – as Spufford ends up – kind of saying that the question – why did this bad thing happen? – is a question that we move past. As Jesus moves past it, in our Gospel story: he doesn’t explain how congenital blindness fits into the created order. He just heals this man, and wanders off. 

Richard Swanson, a Biblical scholar to whom I often turn, wrote about this passage this week. And he, too, felt dissatisfied with how he’d handled it in previous years. 

He says, it’s not enough to just say the disciples’ question is misguided. 

Because while their framing is wrong – this man’s blindness is not due to anyone’s sin – their desire to understand isn’t wrong. Seeking causes is important. That’s how we’ve beaten the diseases we’ve beaten. That’s how we’ve dramatically reduced infant and child mortality within the past hundred years. How we beat back polio and measles and diphtheria. 

Asking why is part of how God made us, and it’s important. It’s one of our superpowers, as a species – our curiosity, our intelligence, our capacity for collaboration in pooling knowledge and developing solutions. 

Like many of our superpowers, we can take it in unhealthy and even hurtful directions. Like the folks who think this illness is a judgment on our nation or our world, a punishment for our collective sins. Like the folks spinning and circulating conspiracy theories, feeding our fear and mistrust of one another, when what we need most to survive this time is our connectedness. 

There is no tidy answer to the question of why there are things in Nature that can hurt us – earthquakes, hurricanes, broken genes, viruses. The best I can offer is a combination of a couple of ideas. First, Creation isn’t about us. The Scriptural tradition has known this for a long time; the strange, fierce nature poetry of the Book of Job says as much. The earth is not a garden to feed, tend, and protect us. We are not the center, the purpose, of it all. 

And second – a related but separate point – Creation, like humanity, is free, and dynamic, and alive. God isn’t controlling every tweak of viral DNA or creak of the tectonic plates, any more than God controls our every choice and action. God’s action as Creator is to make, and then to give us to ourselves – humans and oceans, bacteria and birds alike… 

That’s the best I can do, for the question of why a harmful virus can emerge. 

We’ll all have to ask God about it, when we get the chance. But there’s another great big category of Why that we can actively wonder about and grapple with. 

Swanson writes that in the face of our current crisis, “I do find myself asking “Who sinned…?” Just like the disciples, just like all people, I am driven to understand this situation and I want to understand how this novel virus works and how we can counteract it. And I want to know what we have done that has allowed it to spread so fast and so far.”

We can see the value of our human desire to ask Why, in the many good things that are happening right now. The virus’s DNA was sequenced really quickly. Scientists and medical professionals are exploring treatments to slow and mitigate the illness. And they’re working as fast as they can on potential vaccines – but vaccines take time to develop. Still, it gives me hope to know that literally, many of the smartest people in the world are working – working together – on beating the novel coronavirus right now. And we do have a head start; it’s not some alien, brand-new bug; we have dealt with other coronaviruses; there’s a lot they already know about this guy. Human curiosity, human intelligence, human collaboration will beat this bug. Eventually. 

But – and – some of the reasons it is so disruptive right now, why it has made many sick and will make many more sick, have to do with human actions too. 

I suspect there’s lots of blame to spread around, but certainly the slow pace of making widespread testing available in our country – something that could have been otherwise – is part of the landscape we’re living with now. We have to investigate all those causes too, eventually – to ask Why, and seek answers – so that we know how to respond better as a nation and world, next time. 

Our human impulse to question, to seek understanding, is driving us in addressing the human aspects of this moment, as well as the medical aspects. So many of us are asking:  What can we do to make the best of the situation we have? What choices and sacrifices can we make that will lead towards the least worst outcomes for everyone? What can we do to help those most affected – whether by illness or by the financial and logistical shocks of this situation? What can we do – down the road – to make sure this never happens again?

Swanson writes that the disciples’ question – “Who sinned?” – may be misguided, but the questions “of what we did wrong, of how we can design and maintain systems that will improve our response next time, those questions are basic to human nature. That is what we do. That is our real strength.”

There are no clear and satisfying answers to the things we’re all wondering right now.  But I’m finding hope and grace in these strange hard days nonetheless. 

In watching health care providers and scientists and public health professionals and political, civic, business and organizational leaders doing their absolute best to limit and mitigate the impact of this virus. In watching our collective readiness to do what we must, suffer what we must – and let’s not kid ourselves; this shelter-in-place life involves some suffering for ALL of us – for the good of those most at risk and our community as a whole. In seeing how much we are looking out for one another, checking in with one another, sharing with one another. 

I’m not trying to sugarcoat. Things are not OK and will not be OK for a while. But  the resilience, generosity, courage and grace I’m seeing day by day is sustaining me, and helping me remember that even in struggle, sickness, confusion, and loneliness, God sticks with us, and God made us to stick with each other. 

 

 

Read Swanson’s full commentary here: https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com