Category Archives: Sermons

Sermon, Nov. 17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SOURCES & FURTHER READING

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

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

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

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

Quotations from letters and contemporary documents come from this source:

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

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

Read the Farmer letters here:

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

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

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

Sermon, Nov. 10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon, Nov. 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BIBLE! TRADITION! BIBLE! TRADITION! 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon, Oct. 20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Main source for information about Sophie in this sermon: 

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

Some more sites about Sophie: 

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

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

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

Sermon, Oct. 13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon, Oct. 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hmm, doesn’t mustard seed sound familiar?… 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Molly Baskette’s summary of functional atheism: 

https://www.ucc.org/daily_devotional_functional_atheism_1

Sermon, Sept. 22

O God, the nations have come into your inheritance; they have defiled your holy temple; they have laid Jerusalem in ruins. They have given the bodies of your servants to the birds of the air for food, the flesh of your faithful to the wild animals of the earth. (Ps 79:1-2)

For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored? (Jer 8: 21-22)

The book of the Prophet Jeremiah and Psalm 79 are texts of conquest and exile. 

Jeremiah was born around the year 626 before the birth of Jesus. The days of the great united Kingdom of Israel under King David were long past. The Assyrian Empire had conquered the northern region in 720. Judea, the territory around Jerusalem, remained nominally free, but fell under Assyria’s authority in 700, as part of their empire, forced to pay tribute and obey their rulers. When Assyria fell and Babylon arose, Judea got tangled up in a war between Babylon and Egypt, and then became part of Babylon’s growing empire. Judah revolted against Babylon, first in 598 and then again ten years later. Both times, Babylon won. And after the second revolt, in the year 587, they made sure there wouldn’t be a third one. The city walls were torn down, the great Temple burned. Most of the people of Jerusalem and Judea were killed or exiled. Those exiles, the survivors, struggling to build new lives in Babylon, had endured a decade of active military threat, and over a century of domination by external powers.  

The book of Jeremiah and Psalm 79 are  texts of trauma.

Trauma here refers both to shocking negative events that overwhelm one’s immediate capacity to cope, but also to the ways such events affect us for the short, medium and long term. These Biblical texts bear the marks of traumatizing violence, loss and displacement, as they tell the story of an event so pivotal in Jewish history that it is described in at least five different places in the Old Testament. 

The book of Jeremiah largely dates to the years before the conquest – the prophet is warning Judah and its leaders of their approaching doom, and begging them to change course. But Jeremiah’s prophetic mission extends into exile – and as his prophetic texts were gathered into a book during and after the exile, those ancient editors may have added their memories of devastation to the prophet’s oracles of warning. As for Psalm 79 – we think of the Psalms as coming from the time of David’s court, and some of them do; but others were written centuries later, like this one, which clearly describes the fall of Jerusalem – with a vividness that makes it hard to read. 

What does it mean to call these texts of trauma? What can we read from them, through that lens? First, it helps us understand this sometimes horrific imagery. One common after-effect of trauma is intense and intrusive memories, that may overwhelm the survivor at times. When our psalm speaks of blood poured out like water, or when Jeremiah speaks again and again about dead bodies scattered in the fields, food for carrion birds and wild animals, with no one left to bury them – I think that we are hearing the memories that haunt these survivors and shatter their sleep, even years afterwards. 

Understanding these as texts of trauma also helps make sense of the strong themes of guilt and shame. Excessive guilt is a common response to trauma. It’s actually a way to try and make sense of what happened, and why it happened, by assuming responsibility. As horrible as it is to think that a tragedy was my fault, it may be easier than thinking it was nobody’s fault. The book of Jeremiah spends a lot of time explaining the violence that has fallen upon Judah by describing their collective misdeeds and failures. The word “shame” appears 34 times in the book of Jeremiah, and the word “guilt” another 13 times. Just a few verses before today’s passage, the text says, “I will give their fields to conquerors, because from the least to the greatest everyone is greedy for unjust gain; from prophet to priest everyone deals falsely. They acted shamefully, they committed abomination; yet they were not at all ashamed, they did not know how to blush. Therefore they shall fall among those who fall. (Jeremiah 8, selected verses)

Not only the idea of Judah’s guilt, but the idea of God’s punishment, are cognitive tools for making sense of disaster. Scholar Kathleen O’Connor has written about trauma in the book of Jeremiah. She argues that making God the agent in the devastation of Judah means that neither the gods of Babylon – nor random, cruel Fate – have triumphed. Even in conquest, even in exile, Judah remains, as always, under the authority of its God. 

Holding onto a sense of God’s presence and power was important because trauma can shake or shatter your worldview and sense of who you are. Clinical psychology and trauma scholar Amy Mezulis says that violent loss “breaks past that… barrier that most of us have that says ‘This isn’t how the world works’ or that life is sacred.” After trauma, the world may feel unpredictable and unsafe.  It may feel impossible to engage with normal life events, or imagine a future. Life may feel hopeless and overwhelming, long after the actual traumatic events are over. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician who can heal my people? 

And yet… Trauma does not get the last word.  With support, and love, and time, and luck, people can heal. People can grow. They will always carry the mark of what they have been through. But they may be able to integrate it into a new sense of self and  world. I’m in tender territory here, which some of you know far more intimately than I do, and I’m speaking with humility. But the literature suggests there can be good outcomes for people who come through significant traumas, whether individually or as a group. They may arrive – with support, love, time, and luck – at a  stronger sense of connection with loved ones and community; and at a new sense of meaning and purpose. We can see this happening late in the Book of Jeremiah, and other books of the post-Exile period. Watch for that in the weeks ahead!

The exiles lost SO much – but they survived, and their faith survived. They discovered that God was not left behind in the ruins of the Jerusalem Temple. They began to see that God’s presence and promise and plan were bigger than any one nation or people. Kathleen O’Connor calls the book of Jeremiah a “survival manual” for how to maintain life, faith, and hope, after profound loss. 

What will you do when the end comes? The prophet Jeremiah asks that chilling question in chapter 5. What are the gifts of these texts of trauma? What will you do when the end comes?

We live in a time of impending crisis. It has a name: the Anthropocene. The epoch in which human activity is massively altering the conditions of life on earth. It’s characterized by dramatic, short-term, localized crises; and the slow, stealthy global crisis of climate change we all share. We have always had hurricanes, floods, droughts, blizzards. But climate change makes those systems more intense and destructive, and less predictable – like the intense hurricane drowning Houston this week, or the deadly flooding in Wisconsin last August. 

At the same time, the long-term, large-scale impacts are becoming more visible, bit by bit, if we pause to notice. Dan Zak writes in the Washington Post, “There is no crisis, just an accumulation of curiosities and irritants. Your basement now floods every year instead of every five or 10 years. Your asthma has gotten worse. You grew up wearing a winter jacket under your Halloween costume in Buffalo, and now your kids don’t have to. The southern pine beetle that once made its home closer to the equator is now boring through trees on Long Island… We freak out, but go about our business. The problem is clear, but it has yet to consume us.”

I recently read a journalist who covers climate change, David Roberts, reflecting on how our nation might respond to future mass traumas. He reflects on the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and concludes that in that case, in hindsight, we did not respond terribly well. We let our rage and need for revenge – our shared trauma – lead us into endless and senseless wars; into tolerating surveillance that chipped away at our privacy and civil rights; into a demagogic and scapegoating mode of political discourse. Roberts writes, “Climate change is, above all, going to manifest as a series of traumas — storms, heat waves, food shortages, mass migrations, [and so on.] …Our only hope is to react to trauma with grace, compassion, and solidarity. That’s what I would like to tell the [teenagers] of the world: you are going to be tested, again and again. Don’t be like your parents. Don’t be small; don’t retreat behind tribal walls; don’t wallow in rage and self-righteousness. Be better. You have to be, or we’re all [screwed].” 

Today’s Gospel parable is one of the more perplexing of its kind. But it does show us one thing to do when the end is coming, when you’re about to lose everything – job, status, income, way of life all at once. The dishonest manager doesn’t despair, and he doesn’t run. Instead, he tries to build relationships, so that he isn’t facing an insecure and diminished future alone. What will you do when the end comes? 

Being a church-going Christian means a lot of things. One is that we’re in a living relationship with an ancient text. If you’ve been coming for even a few weeks and paying even some attention, you carry around inside you stories and songs and laments and advice and poetry that range from 2 to 4000 years old. That gives us a somewhat unusual historical perspective. As I told a friend this week: if NOTHING else, the Bible shows you that God’s people have been through some stuff. Our faith ancestors survived traumatic loss and epochal change. They had to come through struggle to new understandings of God and world and self. Maybe we can, too. Maybe the poetry of grief and perseverance that they left for us can give us courage to face this season in the life of the world. 

Because, writes Kate Marvel for On Being, courage is what we need for the days and years ahead. “I have no hope,” she says, “that these changes can be reversed. We are inevitably sending our children to live on an unfamiliar planet. But the opposite of hope is not despair. It is grief. Even while resolving to limit the damage, we can mourn. And here, the sheer scale of the problem provides a perverse comfort: we are in this together. The swiftness of the change, its scale and inevitability, binds us into one, broken hearts trapped together under a warming atmosphere. We need courage, not hope. Grief, after all, is the cost of being alive. We are all fated to live lives shot through with sadness, and are not worth less for it. Courage is the resolve to do well without the assurance of a happy ending….  [Because] here we are, together on a planet radiating ever more into space where there is no darkness, only light we cannot see.”

 

SOURCES

An overview of trauma: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK207191/

On mass trauma: https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.sciencenews.org/article/what-we-know-how-mass-trauma-affects-mental-health/amp

Walter Brueggemann review Kathleen O’Connor’s book on Jeremiah: https://www.christiancentury.org/reviews/2012-04/jeremiah-kathleen-m-o-connor

Dan Zak on climate change: https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/everything-is-not-going-to-be-okay-how-to-live-with-constant-reminders-that-the-earth-is-in-trouble/2019/01/24/9dd9d6e6-1e53-11e9-8b59-0a28f2191131_story.html

David Roberts’ thread on 9/11 and climate crises: https://twitter.com/drvox/status/1171915448088256512

Kate Marvel for On Being: https://onbeing.org/blog/kate-marvel-we-need-courage-not-hope-to-face-climate-change/

Sermon, September 8

That’s a tough Gospel, beloveds. One colleague suggested that preachers should invite people to take a deep breath and hold hands before we read it. Before we proclaim that unless you hate your family and give up everything you own, you can’t be a real disciple.  (This is definitely one of those passages that makes you wonder what people mean when they talk about Christian family values!) 

Sooo let’s unpack these difficult words. Part of what’s going on here is the intersection of two things: Jesus’ tendency to use hyperbole, and where this passage falls in Jesus’ journey to the cross. 

Jesus sometimes uses hyperbole in his teaching – exaggerated statements that are not meant to be taken literally, like, “I’m hungry enough to eat a horse!” Jesus never said that, as far as we know. But he did say that if your eye causes you to sin, you should pluck it out. And he did say that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is ruled by their own wealth to enter the kingdom of Heaven. (That image wasn’t unique to Jesus; the Talmud, a Jewish text from around the same time as the New Testament, talks about an elephant going to though the eye of a needle.) 

People used hyperbole sometimes back then, just as we do now, to get people’s attention and make a strong point. I think it is fair to say that when Jesus says his followers must hate their families, he is using hyperbole. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus scolds people who don’t care for their aging parents as the Law of Moses requires. And even the first Christians didn’t take Jesus’ hard words here literally. In the letters of early Christian leaders we call the Epistles, for example, followers of Jesus are advised to show faithful love towards their spouses and children.

The sharpness of this passage could also come from the fact that it comes at a moment in Jesus’ path when the stakes are rising. Luke 13 tells us that Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. He’s traveling slowly, stopping in towns and villages to teach and heal; but he is making what he knows will be his final journey. Some sympathetic Pharisees tell him, “Stay away from Jerusalem and the surrounding area; King Herod wants to kill you.” And Jesus says, This is what I’m here to do. 

Jesus is walking towards his death – a brutal, humiliating death. He has every reason to expect to be crucified. That’s what the Romans did to people who caused civic unrest, who stirred people up and caused a ruckus. Crucifixion was a slow, agonizing, public death, intended to demoralize and deter onlookers. Everyone in Jesus’ original audience would have been familiar with these horrors. They would have known how the condemned person would be forced to carry the crossbeam along the road out of the city, to the place of execution, where the upright beams were already fixed in the ground, awaiting the next victim. 

Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. A large crowd is following Jesus, as this passage begins. Jesus knows that some of them are just there for the buzz, the excitement, the thrill of the road, the rush of being part of the next big thing. So he’s telling them – warning them:  Listen. This is not a picnic in the park. Stuff is about to get real. Are you sure you’re ready for this?

That’s the purpose of these micro-parables of the builder and the general: Count the cost before you begin. Consider the stakes, and the odds. Consider yourself, your attachments and commitments – home and family, business, plans and possibilities. Are you willing to hold them lightly? Consider all of that – then decide whether to follow Jesus down this road. 

(By the way, I’m pleased to mention that the tower we are building here, for the elevator, IS completed. Thanks for your ongoing gifts to our renovation fund!)

Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. This passage is in heavy use in certain corners of Christianity. It has been misused, over the centuries, to normalize suffering and encourage acceptance of oppression: racial injustice or domestic abuse, for example, might be just somebody’s cross to bear. That is emphatically not what Jesus is talking about here. He is talking about choosing a costly walk on the way of Love. 

Suffering doesn’t automatically make you a “good” Christian, and lack of suffering doesn’t automatically make you a “bad” one. But this is true, beloveds: Being a real Christian, being serious about following where Jesus leads, means we have to be prepared for stuff to get hard. For this road, these commitments, to cost us something. 

Here’s the thing, though: Not following this road can be costly, too. I’m not talking about being consigned to hellfire. If you’re looking for a sermon about how people who don’t accept Jesus will burn forever, you are in the wrong church. 

I’m talking about what happens when people stop striving to do justice and love mercy. When people turn their backs on the strangers God calls us to welcome; close the door on the hungry God calls us to feed; dehumanize those in prison, whom God calls us to visit and care for; when people exploit the earth, which God made us to tend with love. Those actions carry their own consequences, sooner or later.  

The prophet Jeremiah lived in a time when those with power among God’s people in the land of Judea had decided, We don’t need God and God’s bossy opinions about how we should live. In the lesson assigned for last week, God speaks through Jeremiah to say, “What wrong did your ancestors find in me that made them wander so far? I brought you into a land of plenty, to enjoy its gifts and goodness, but you ruined my land; you disgraced my heritage. Your leaders rebelled against me, Your priests did not seek me. Ask anyone: Has anything this odd ever taken place? Has any other nation ever switched its gods? Yet my people have exchanged their glory for what has no value. My people have committed two crimes: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water; and they have dug wells for themselves, broken wells that can’t hold water.”

In today’s lesson, Jeremiah is saying, Look, you think you’re God’s chosen nation, and that you can do whatever you want because God favors you. But God can choose a new favorite nation anytime. God doesn’t owe you anything; it is the other way around. Hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches!

The text uses the language of God’s punishment: “Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you.”  The idea that God punishes Israel when they turn from God’s ways is an important idea in the Hebrew Scriptures – and I struggle with it, every time it comes around, because it’s at odds with how I understand God’s heart for humanity, through the witness of Jesus. But I don’t think we need the idea of divine punishment to understand what happened to Judea in Jeremiah’s time – any more than we need the idea of divine punishment to understand how our nation and world are suffering the consequences of our collective bad choices today. We have intense and destructive hurricanes in part because we’ve ignored alarms about climate change. We have violent actions in the news far too often because we’ve armed civilians with weapons of war. We have mass incarceration because we’ve criminalized poverty, addiction, and mental illness. The things we tolerate, collectively, become their own punishment. So it was in Jeremiah’s day. 

Jeremiah did not like being a prophet of doom. He was beaten, imprisoned, mocked and derided. He cries out to God: Cursed be the day on which I was born! If Jeremiah had sat down to count the cost of his call to serve God as a prophet, the total would have been astronomical. But Judea needed Jeremiah’s voice, however unwelcome it was. Speaking God’s words to God’s people was Jeremiah’s cross to bear; and he bore it. 

Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 

Disciple is a word that’s used a lot in some kinds of churches, less so in others. It really just means a student, maybe an apprentice – somebody who’s in the process of becoming a certain kind of person. Our Presiding Bishop has been trying to get Episcopalians to think about discipleship, by talking about the habits of Christian living as a Way of Love. Back in 2016, we did some work here at St. Dunstan’s to name the ways we live our faith in daily life: Welcoming, Abiding, Wondering, Proclaiming, Turning, Reconciling, and Making. It’s a good list; every time I revisit it, I think, These are great! This set of practices is a useful, substantive way to talk about how we live out our faith, in big ways and especially in the small, everyday ways that are actually so important! We should work with this more! 

And yet at the same time I feel in myself a hesitation to cross that Sunday-to-Monday boundary and flat-out tell people, Hey, here are some things you should try to do more. There are lots of reasons that telling people how their faith should shape their daily lives can feel transgressive for people formed by the Episcopal Church. I think maybe the biggest reason is that we all know about other kinds of Christianity that can be specific and intrusive in telling people what their daily lives and intimate relationships should look like. Those kinds of Christianity have hurt some of us. Are, arguably, hurting all of us.

In response, we Episcopal types tend to bend over backwards in the other direction. The church may ask things of you: Make a pledge! Cook a meal! Bring cookies! But, we hasten to say, GOD isn’t asking anything of you. Jesus said to tell you that you’re FINE. 

But here, awkwardly, we have Jesus himself, saying, Take up your cross. This Way, if you take it at all seriously, will make a difference in your life. And sometimes that difference will be joy and hope and strength and possibility. And sometimes that difference will be hard and exhausting and scary and sad. Costly. That’s what it means to be My disciple. 

So this fall we’re going to talk some more about those practices of discipleship we have named together. A year ago, as part of my sabbatical, we visited my friend James, also known as Sir Beorn, a knight in the Society for Creative Anachronism. James has a combat practice ground behind his house, and around it are the shields of various famous knights, each of which represents one of the virtues of chivalry that the people who gather there seek to practice and embody. So taking a cue from Sir Beorn, we will put up images of saints around this space, one saint for each practice. We’ll start next week with blessed Pauli Murray and the practice of Welcoming. And if you’re here at 9am, we’ll talk about the practice together, what it means, when it’s easy, when it’s hard. Because discipleship is hard, and the companionship of trustworthy friends helps a lot. 

Christian essayist John Pavlovitz writes about Christians sometimes trying to dodge our call to discipleship by saying, “It doesn’t matter what I do; God is in control”. He says, “… The truth, Christians friends: is that God is not in control of you. You are in control of you and God is asking you to be goodness and love in a way that tangibly changes the story we all find ourselves in.” May Jesus Christ, who calls us to this work, guide us, protect us, and accompany us on the Way. Amen. 

John Pavlovitz, “Christian, Stop Telling Me God Is In Control,” February 22, 2017, https://johnpavlovitz.com/2017/02/22/christian-stop-telling-me-god-is-in-control/

History & repentance: A 4th of July sermon

The Rev. Miranda Hassett preached this sermon on June 30, 2019. 

Why do we observe the Fourth of July at church?  As a Christian and as a church leader, I’m pretty mindful of the line between my patriotism and my faith, my identity as a citizen and as a baptized follower of Jesus. But praying for our nation and our leaders is in our DNA as Christians in the Anglican tradition. So most years we take the Sunday leading up to Independence Day to pray together for our nation, that it may live up to its boldest ideals and bravest promises. 

There tends to be a lot of talk about freedom at this time of year. It’s a complicated topic, one which we collectively deploy quite selectively. Consider the recent prosecutions of people who leave water in the desert along our borders for migrants who might otherwise die of thirst. People who might well have thought they were free to exercise mercy. 

Our Galatians lesson this morning talks about freedom – Christian freedom. Paul says: Your freedom isn’t to do whatever you want, and it certainly isn’t to hurt others. When Paul is talking about freedom, his point is that the life of faith isn’t about following certain concrete practices and rites, as in Old Testament Judaism. He’s saying that the life of faith is, simply and completely, a life oriented towards loving your neighbor as yourself. And there is a freedom in that, because there are lots of ways to live out love of neighbor. But there’s also commitment in it – an un-freedom of sorts – because if we are in Christ we are NOT free to not care about the wellbeing of others. 

Our freedom in Christ, says Paul, is to strive, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to be people of love and joy, peace and patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. So that’s something to carry with you this week as our nation celebrates freedom. 

Another thing that you might hear about a lot this week is history. The Fourth of July, Independence Day, is an historical celebration. It is, to be specific, the date in 1776 when the Continental Congress, the governmental body of the original 13 colonies,  approved the final wording of the Declaration of Independence, agreeing on all the changes and edits they’d been working on for days.

But history, like freedom, is more complicated than we often think. I’ve been reading up lately on local history. Very local history. As in, the history of the ground under our feet right now. 

It’s easy to begin telling the history of this property in 1848. That’s when the Heim brothers, Joseph and Anton, left Bavaria, Germany, following a failed revolution against the oppressive ruling class. Joseph was 30, Anton was 22. Joseph’s wife Theresia traveled with them. Along with many others, they came to the United States and eventually settled in Wisconsin. They bought this land from the U.S. government, and established a farm, building that brick farmhouse in around 1858. 

This whole area was the Heim farm – from Old Middleton Road to the south up to the lakeshore, and some ways to the east and west. Heim Avenue, half a mile east, still bears the family name of our founding family. 

This is how European Americans usually tell the history of our places.  As if it begins when white people show up. But this land had history, and people, before the Heims, before the U.S. government. 

The Ho-Chunk people, known in the 19th century as the Winnebago tribe, lived in this area for thousands of years before they were largely removed to reservations in the mid-19th century.  Their ancestors, a thousand years ago, built the effigy mounds that still dot our landscape, though many have been destroyed. Effigy mounds are earthen structures that make the shape of an animal or symbol – birds, human figures, bears, and, maybe 1500 feet from where I’m standing, a fox. 

Anton’s son Ferdinand grew up in the old farmhouse we call the rectory. He lived from 1865 to 1950 – a lifespan that bridged the 19th and 20th centuries, and saw this area go from woodlands with a few tiny clusters of homes and businesses, to a bustling suburb. In 1937 Ferdinand donated the fox mound to the Wisconsin Archaeological Society, to keep it safe for posterity as he was selling off the land around it for development into the neighborhood along Mound Avenue. 

Ferdinand also shared memories of the presence of Winnebago Indians in this area during the early decades of the Heim farm. Apparently the bit of lakeshore right behind those apartments – the Swenson estate, perhaps 2000 feet away – was a very popular camping area.  Ferdinand recalled that anywhere from thirty to fifty natives might camp in the area at a time, living in wigwams and hunting, trapping, and fishing for food. He said, “They were great beggars, stopping at the farm houses at all times for food supplies, and his father [Anton Heim] was obliged to erect rough fences about his hay mows in the Middleton Beach marsh to protect them against the foraging Indian ponies.”

Clearly, the native people who had treated this area as part of their territory – a comfortable spot, a beautiful spot, a sacred spot – for centuries or maybe millennia, were trying to continue doing so, even as European settlers moved in and turned the forests into farmland. And just as clearly, the continued presence of the Natives was a significant annoyance to the settlers. 

The history of how the Ho-Chunk and other local Native groups lost this land is hard to tell. Partly because it’s complicated and partly because it’s heartbreaking.  I’ve been reading about it – the 1804 Treaty of St. Louis; the so-called Black Hawk War and the massacre at Bad Axe; President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830; the decimation of the Ho-Chunk and other Midwestern tribes by contagious diseases brought by European settlers. 

It’s not easy history to know. But I’m glad I know it. It makes my heart heavy, but I prefer it to ignorance. 

In our prayer of confession, when we hold up the evil done on our behalf, the dispossession and decimation of the native peoples of this continent is among those evils. And when we hold up the evils that enslave us, the fact that we live and work on land taken unjustly, and lack the wisdom or the will to make amends, is among those evils. 

I don’t know what amends would look like, in these circumstances. I truly don’t. But I know that the opening words of the Prayer for our Country in the Book of Common Prayer are a lie: “Almighty God, who hast given us this good land for our heritage…”

Maybe it was God’s intention, part of the ineffable plan, for the United States of America to come to be. But to claim in our prayers that this land was simply given to us by divine fiat obscures the bloody reality that our ancestors took it, by deception and by violence. 

So, this Sunday, and this Independence Day, let us remember that we are gathered on Ho-Chunk land. Let us celebrate the goodness and grace in our history, while courageously facing the unjust and the bitterly sad. And let us turn to the God who blesses our repentance and helps us to will the good, as we pray. 

O God, who created all peoples in your image, we thank you for the wonderful diversity of races and cultures in this world. Enrich our lives by ever-widening circles of fellowship, and show us your presence in those who differ most from us, until our knowledge of your love is made perfect in our love for all your children; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Lord God Almighty, you have made all the peoples of the earth for your glory, to serve you in freedom and in peace: Give to the people of our country a zeal for justice and the strength of forbearance, that we may use our liberty in accordance with your gracious will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

A little further reading: 

https://isthmus.com/news/snapshot/the-story-of-this-land/

Sermon, August 11

Richard Swanson is a Biblical scholar and commentator. I turn to him pretty often for his keen eye and thought-provoking exegesis; if you hear me preach regularly you’ve probably heard me quote him before. He spent the week before last at the Network of Biblical Storyteller’s annual gathering. My mother, who is a Biblical storyteller, was there too, actually. This year the gathering was held in Dayton, Ohio.

In his commentary on this Sunday’s Gospel, Swanson writes about leaving his hotel at 4am last Saturday morning, to catch an early flight – and learning about the tragedy – the atrocity – that had happened just a few hours earlier, and just a mile away. 

Be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. 

Swanson writes, “Events like this are sometimes made to dance with texts like the one from Luke 12, and the point is made to be: ‘You could die anytime, so be more religious.’ That is not the point, and it never was. This scene is about the arrival of the Reign of God, and the Reign of God does not come [through events like the violence in Dayton or El Paso or Gilroy or Chicago]. The scene [in this Gospel] focuses on being prepared for action, with lamps lit. The scene urges anticipation and readiness.”

Readiness for what? Not for “dying suddenly and unprepared,” as our prayer book says in the Great Litany. Readiness, rather, for the Reign of God. The Kingdom. Ready to be part of the dawning of God’s new reality. Readiness for what our faith, our conscience, asks of us in the face of violence and apathy. In the face of daily news so far from God’s dream for us. 

I like to take my first look at the upcoming Sunday readings about a week and a half ahead. When I first looked ahead at these lessons, way back on August 1, I thought, Maybe it’s time to talk a little about the prophetic literature. In Ordinary Time – the summer and fall – of this year of our Sunday lectionary cycle, all our Old Testament texts come from the prophets – people who received and spoke God’s word to God’s people in the centuries before Jesus’ birth. 

Speaking for God sounds like an important, celebrated role! It was not. The prophets were charged with telling God’s people – and especially their leaders – where they had gone wrong. Their words were unwelcome, and they often suffered for their calling. 

I was going to preach about how it can be hard to receive the prophetic texts, because we can’t relate to their urgency. We’re tempted to tone-police the prophets – “You just seem so angry. Maybe if you said it a nicer way, people would actually listen to you. Can’t you be more constructive  in your criticism?” And it’s true: Some of these are tough texts to proclaim on a sunny Sunday morning in beautiful Madison, Wisconsin, which VisitMadison.com assures me “consistently ranks as a top community in which to live, work, play, and raise a family.”  

As much as I love and honor the Old Testament, I struggle with the Prophets sometimes – with their fierce and sometimes brutal rhetoric; with their reliance on metaphors we now hear as misogynistic; with their conviction that Israel’s misfortunes are God’s punishment and not simply the natural consequences of complacency and injustice… So, way back on August 1, I started to gather some thoughts on how we can hear what the Spirit is saying to God’s people in these challenging texts. 

But between August 1 and August 6, when I began to write this sermon, there was August 3 in El Paso, and August 4 in Dayton. And many political leaders, the people with the responsibility and authority to do something about the disproportionate violence that is America’s tragedy and shame, responded as they did last time, and the time before, and the time before that: by offering thoughts and prayers. 

And suddenly it doesn’t feel so hard to relate to the prophet Isaiah… “When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” 

Your hands are full of blood. Stop your empty prayers, and cleanse yourself. 

This week a writer named Chas Gillespie wrote an essay for the online magazine McSweeney’s, with this title, more or less: “God Has Heard Your Thoughts And Prayers And [God] Thinks They Are BS.” The essay begins, “Hi. God here. I am contacting you in response to your prayers regarding the most recent and totally horrific mass shooting in a college/ high school/ elementary school/ bar/ nightclub/ park/ shopping mall/ concert/ movie theater/ parking lot/ church/ mosque/ synagogue. I have listened to your prayers, America, and I have come to the conclusion that they are cowardly, pointless, and shameful… You pray in order not to feel culpable in horrendous acts of violence. You pray in order to feel good. … If you don’t like my tone, it’s called “tough love,” America. You need to change yourself or this will keep happening and it will get worse. You have prayed for answers, and I have given you answers. You have prayed for guidance, and you have ignored it. So why are you still praying?”

Your hands are full of blood. Wash away the evil from among you. 

The kind of prayer that Isaiah and the other prophets condemn is prayer that cries out to God to fix what we’re unwilling to try to fix ourselves – and performative piety as a replacement for action. Like in today’s Psalm, which accuses God’s people of being faithful in sacrificing at the Temple – and nothing else: “O Israel, I will bear witness against you, for I am God, your God. I do not accuse you because of your sacrifices; your offerings are always before me. I will take no bull-calf from your stalls, nor he-goats out of your pens… Do you think I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats? Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving and make good your vows to the Most High.”

The psalm echoes these pithy words from the prophet Micah: “Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?… God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” 

In our public life, as in the time of the Prophets, prayer can serve as pious deflection of responsibility for the common good. And God, speaking through the prophets, says that God is not especially sympathetic to those kinds of prayers. 

Now, a word in defense of prayer: As my colleague Gary Manning wrote this week, prayer is not nothing. Gary writes, “[In addition to] contacting my elected officials (repeatedly!) and adding my voice to … others who are asking for our leaders to at least begin talking about substantive ways we can… make our society safer, [I also] pray. Not because I’m unwilling to do “real work,” but because I believe prayer is some of the real work I can do.”

Of course prayer is one of our responses to tragedy. I can’t do anything for the most recent victims – or perpetrators – but pray. For mercy. For comfort. For healing. For transformation. Prayer is my first, deep, genuine response to crisis. 

And it’s a relief to know my prayers don’t have to take the form of detailed policy plans. Sometimes our prayers are simply sighs too deep for words, as the apostle Paul wrote in the letter to the Romans. When our hearts and God’s heart are aching together, I believe that’s a kind of prayer; and I believe it matters. 

When we simply hold up our anguish and grief and rage, even our numbness and bitterness, to God – that is prayer. But I find those prayers are not enough, for me…. At best, at best, they allow me to release some of my deep and weary feelings, and leave me empty: Now what? 

What if prayer is not meant simply to empty us, to drain off our worries, griefs and regrets, but also to fill us? To turn back towards our Gospel: What if our prayers could help make us ready? 

There are a lot of hymns in our hymnal that I love deeply, but the single line in our hymnal that I mean the most, every time I sing it, is this line from hymn 594: “Save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore.” That line is a prayer, and I pray it often. It’s easy to become overwhelmed. To freeze or shut down. It’s easy to feel helpless and hopeless. Resigned. 

Sometimes hopelessness is more comfortable than hope. Andrew Greeley, a sociologist and Roman Catholic priest, wrote in 1973: “Humankind does not object to prophets of doom, for the evidence of doom is all around. We do not protest when religious leaders say there is evil in the world, for the proof of evil is all around. We do not grow angry when it is announced to us that the powers of darkness are making progress on all sides, for we have already noticed that the light is waning….

“No, the kind of leaders we really object to are those who call us to begin over again, who tell us that the light can shine brighter and that the powers of evil can be repelled. Religious and political leaders who preach a message of hope are never very welcome, for they require of us more than cynicism, more than despair, more than resignation. They require effort, activity, fidelity, commitment.” (Father Andrew Greeley, 1973, New York Times)

Effort and activity; fidelity and commitment. Those are hard to muster and hard to maintain when we are sad, afraid, angry, cynical, or just forking EXHAUSTED. One of the things the Bible, our holy book, says over and over again is: Fear not. Take courage. Take heart. I hear the strength of that theme in our Scriptures as meaning that this is one of the things God wants for us, God offers us: Courage, peace, wholeheartedness – to be ready to face what faces us. 

What could it look like to pray for readiness? There are no magic words, no One Cool Trick …  If you pray alone a lot and you feel like that’s not feeding or strengthening you, maybe try praying with friends. Talk to me if you want help gathering a group. If you pray with others a lot, maybe try praying alone more. Find a Scripture or a set prayer that gives words to what’s in your heart and use that – consistently – for a while. Or if you usually pray with other people’s words, try praying with your own words for a while – or with no words. If the only prayer you can find is, Open my heart, use that – it’s as good a prayer as any. Make time and space within yourself for God’s grace to work in you. 

Because prayer is part of the real work we do. Not a replacement for action, but the way we ground and gird ourselves for action. Not a deflection of our responsibly for the common good, our call to love of neighbor; but the way to feel deeply how my neighbor’s struggle touches me, and to know deeply how to respond. 

Because I pray, I cannot be resigned. I cannot accept language that dehumanizes and actions that terrorize my immigrant neighbors. I cannot accept our epidemic of gun violence as normal and inevitable – Wendell Barry writes, “‘Inevitable’ is a word much favored by people in positions of authority who do not wish to think about problems.”

Because I pray, because prayer is not nothing, prayer is not enough. Prayer unsettles me, shakes me loose from resignation and despair; fires me up with the discomfort of hope. Prayer plants deep inside me the foolish conviction that we could yet put our shoulders to the wheel of history and push, all together, kingdom-wards – in the direction of a world in which all God’s children can find safety, kindness, and peace. 

Light your lamps. Dress for action. Stay awake. Swanson writes,  “This is going to be difficult. But it is necessary. The Reign of God is overturning our systems.  Be ready.”

 

 

 

Gillespie’s essay in full: 

https://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/god-has-heard-your-thoughts-and-prayers-and-he-thinks-they-are-fucking-bullshit

Gary Manning’s essay on prayer:

https://medium.com/@Solwrker/prayer-is-not-nothing-d7a13f79aaff

Swanson’s essay: 

https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2019/08/05/a-provocation-9th-sunday-after-pentecost-proper-14-19-august-11-2019-luke-12-32-40/