Category Archives: Sermons

Homily, March 22

Read the Gospel lesson here. 

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

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

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

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

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

So, let’s just note that. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

Sermon from March 2014 – “Who sinned?…”

This sermon was composed and preached six years ago. I am re-posting it in case it is helpful to anyone else in these times. 

Read the Gospel lesson here. 

Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind? It’s such a human question.  Why is this person suffering? Is it his fault? Can we blame the victim? You’d think we’d be over that, but it’s such an attractive idea that it keeps coming back – after all, if the person in pain brought the suffering on herself, then we don’t have to care, right?…

Well, if it’s not the victim’s fault, then whose is it? It must be somebody’s. Did the parents mess up? They usually do. Is Society at fault? The schools? Vaccines? Environmental pollutants? The President? God? … 

Suffering is the great problem of human existence, and oh, how we would like to be able to understand it, to explain it, once and for all.  If we can’t opt out of it, we would at least like to know what it means, why it happens. 

The 50-cent seminary word for this is Theodicy. Theodicy: the effort to explain why a loving God permits evil and suffering. If God is all-loving and all-powerful, then why do bad things happen? And especially, why do bad things happen to the innocent and the good? 

People of faith have tried out many, many explanations, whether trying to make sense of suffering far away or close to home. In his book Unapologetic – the one I keep telling you to read – Francis Spufford runs through some of the more popular theodicies, the ways people have tried to reconcile the reality of a cruel world with their experience of being cherished by a loving God. Spufford says, “Theodicies try to justify God by justifying the cruel world. They vary, but they have one thing in common: None of them quite work. None of them fare well enough against the challenge of experience… to let us lay the issue [of suffering] to rest,  to let us file it under ‘solved.’ Each tends to find some useful elements of truth to grip on to, but end up failing…by drawing a picture of the God of everything which is incompatible with love.” 

Explanation number one: People get what they have coming to them. Good things happen to good people. This illusion has a certain appeal if you lead a comfortable life, if you’ve never dealt with a serious crisis or loss, and if you can manage to disregard the extensive evidence, both in Scripture and in the voluminous text of human history, that innocent people – starting with infants and children – suffer and die ALL. THE. TIME. 

Living a good life, a just and ethical and loving life,  day by day and year by year – that is utterly and completely worth doing, for the well-being of your soul and of the world. But the world is not a gumball machine; dropping your good life like a quarter into the slot won’t get you the sweet sweet reward of easy living. It just doesn’t work that way. What looks like the simplest, cleanest, fairest explanation fails as soon as we hold it up to the harsh light of a single child’s suffering. 

Okay. So. We move on to other explanations. How about this one: We suffer because God is refining us.  Making us stronger, purer. Spufford says,  “The element of truth… here is that there are virtues which, quite genuinely, can only be developed by endurance. There truly are ways in which we need to experience bad things… in order to have selves which are strongly made.” 

We know this is true  because we have heard it affirmed by the only people with the authority to speak to it: people who have suffered greatly, and who say,  ‘I am who I am because of that suffering. I am braver, more compassionate, more thoughtful,  more focused, more faithful, because of what I have endured.’

But, Spufford notes, the idea that suffering might be distributed by God for pedagogical and character-building purposes cracks open and falls apart when we consider the distribution of suffering. Spufford writes,  “The ills of the world are not all neatly sized so that we can cope with them. It is not true that we are never tested beyond our power to endure.”

Suffering does not always help us grow, or make us noble. Sometimes it distorts and debases us. Sometimes it makes us into people who want others to suffer. Sometimes suffering makes us more;  just as often it makes us less. And sometimes, of course, it destroys us. When suffering does bring growth or deepening, I see that as evidence of divine grace at work, of God’s capacity and desire to bring good out of pain and loss. That doesn’t mean that God intends the suffering; only that, sometimes, God can redeem it. 

Here’s another one, Explanation Number Three: We suffer because God has a plan in which our suffering is necessary. The idea here is that God has some vast, profound, wise cosmic plan, and while we can’t see how this loss or that misfortune fits into that divine strategy, it’s only because our perspective is so limited. The helpful truth here is that God cannot be confined in time as we are; God’s perspective is unimaginably other than ours. God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, God’s ways not our ways. 

But again, if we understand God’s love as being at all similar to human love – then this explanation doesn’t carry us very far. I have a friend in another state who, years ago, suffered the miscarriage of a very-much-wanted pregnancy. Twin girls. She and her husband have three living children now, a houseful of noise and happiness. Does the loss she suffered make her a better parent now? Does she treasure her living children more, having suffered that loss? I don’t know. Maybe. Does that mean that God planned for her to lose those babies, knowing that eventually good things would come to her? … 

Spufford writes,  “If love is love, [if God’s love is like human love,] it can’t manipulate. It can’t treat those it loves as means to an end. Love is love because it sees the loved ones as ends in themselves, not tools or instruments to achieve some further goal. Suffering can’t be vindicated by a pay-off elsewhere.” 

How about this one? We suffer, but it doesn’t matter, because life is only a brief prelude to heaven. What you might call the pie-in-the-sky theodicy. Spufford deals with this one briskly:  “[This is] a comprehensive and instant fail, because whether or not you believe that heaven is real, this life certainly is, and so is the suffering it contains. …The only useful element [in this explanation] is a hope you can hang onto, that love with outlast trouble.” Beyond that, this explanation turns God into an emergency-room doctor who thinks it’s OK to take his time,  because you’ll get the morphine eventually.

The common element in all the explanations so far is that human suffering is in some way intended by God. Many Christians believe that, deeply; and I would never tell someone who finds comfort in the idea that there is a purpose for their suffering, that their mindset is theologically untenable. 

But it makes me worried, and sad, to see someone in pain who believes that pain is God’s intention, God’s desire. I can, I do believe in a God who brings good out of evil, wherever and whenever and however that is possible. I cannot believe in a God who intends evil, in order to break us down and break us open. 

Scripture teaches us to think of God as a parent, in order, I think, to teach us about God’s love through our own experiences of human love. Think of your own love for your child, your partner, your dear friend. When bad things happen, you support and comfort; you try to help them survive, and if possible, to learn from the experience, to grow and change. But you would never plan bad things for someone you love. To paraphrase Jesus, if even we, in our human limitations, know how to treat our children with love, then how much more so does God, our loving Parent. 

Which brings us to the explanations, the theodicies, in which suffering is NOT God’s intent. These explanations get more mysterious. More paradoxical. More slippery, perhaps. Perhaps less satisfying. There’s this one:  Suffering is the flip side of free will. God made us to be fully ourselves, wholly free, able to choose good and evil, so that we might choose relationship with God, instead of simply being dolls in God’s divine dollhouse.  

Again, our experiences of human love offer insight: We see those we love make bad choices, sometimes. We try to guide, encourage, support, comfort. But their choices are their own. Love does not coerce or manipulate. Does God watch us sometimes with the same thwarted tenderness we feel for one we love,  who is plainly taking a wrong turn? … 

But what, then, about suffering not caused by human choices? Earthquakes, plagues, typhoons, droughts? Leave aside global warming for a moment; these things have happened 

since long before humans began our complicated and destructive dance with our environment. The only possible answer is this: that the world is not entirely as God intended it to be. Perhaps, like us, Creation is free, to turn unfortunate corners, to make destructive choices. There are scientist-theologians who explore these possibilities and paradoxes. 

The important element of truth in this theodicy is the reminder that the creation is not the same as the creator. Spufford writes,  “God may sustain it all, God may be its bright backing, … but Creation is not God, it is in some utterly mysterious sense what happens where God isn’t.” 

It’s helpful to remember that… but, in truth, all of this only brings us back to the original question: Why does God permit suffering? Why doesn’t God fix the world, kick butt and take names, straighten the whole business out, once and for all? … 

How, then, do we deal with suffering? How do we deal with the heartbreaking contradiction between a loving God and a cruel world? How do we understand the unfairness of a child born blind, or whatever lack or grief or hurt troubles our hearts? Well… ultimately, we don’t. 

Spufford writes,  “[For many believers,] the question of suffering proves to be one of those questions which is replaced by other questions, rather than being answered. We move on from it without abolishing the mystery. … We don’t ask for a Creator who can explain himself. We ask for a friend in time of grief, a true judge in time of perplexity, a wider hope than we can manage in time of despair.”

In the face of those things that break us down, break us open, explanations don’t help much anyway – neither good ones nor bad ones ease our rage or sorrow. The only comfort that can really touch us is the comfort of feeling that we are loved. Spufford wraps up his survey of theodicies here: Given the cruel world,  it’s God’s love song we need most, to help us bear what we must; and, if we can, to go on loving.

But Spufford has one more thing to say. Every faith that trusts in a loving God deals with the problem of suffering. Each faith has its distinctive answers. Our distinctive answer, as Christians, is a person, and a story. He writes, “[As Christians,] we don’t say that God’s in his heaven and all’s well with the world. We say: all is not well with the world, but at least God is here in it, with us. We don’t have an argument that solves the problem, but we have a story.” The story of God wearing a human face, sharing in human experience, human love, human pain.

In these weeks of Lent,  we prepare ourselves to tell that story again, to receive it in all its grueling beauty. Whatever suffering you carry, great or small, near or far, bring it with you as we walk together towards the cross, and towards what lies beyond. 

Francis Spufford, Unapologetic: Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense,  Faber and Faber, 2012. 

Sermon, March 15

Read the lessons for this Sunday here: https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=26

A NOTE FROM REV. MIRANDA…  This isn’t a sermon about coronavirus. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing! Instead, it’s an invitation to reflect on our accountability to God’s Creation, as we enact it through our relationship with our church grounds. There’s an invitation here into some shared wondering that may help us look towards a future beyond the current public health crisis. Eventually spring will turn into summer; eventually we’ll be able to gather freely again; eventually we’ll be able to joyfully undertake shared work and song and prayer. Walk with me in that faith, friends. – Rev. Miranda+

 

“If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” (John 4:10) 

Living water. It’s a beautiful phrase. It had a concrete meaning as well as a spiritual meaning. Living water, for the Biblical texts, meant water that moves. Running water in a stream or river, but also water falling as rain or bubbling up as a spring. 

People living in an arid environment – as the people of the Bible largely did – were dependent for much of the time on still, stale water in cisterns and wells. For them, the attraction of living water would have been obvious. People have long understood that moving water is cleaner and clearer and tastes better. It doesn’t just slake thirst and allow life to continue, but offers beauty, delight, and satisfaction. 

Jesus is speaking metaphorically rather than ecologically, here. He is drawing a contrast between physical and spiritual realities, as John’s Jesus often does. The “living water” he offers this unnamed woman isn’t literal water, any more than the new birth he described to Nicodemus in last week’s Gospel is a literal second birth. Instead it’s a way of describing an inner state of being tapped in to something that sustains and refreshes you deeply – irrespective of physical circumstances. He’s offering this woman that kind of deep connectedness with the Divine, with grace, with Love. “Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to the life of the Age.”

The Gospels are some of the least ecological texts in the Bible.They don’t say much about our relationship with the land and the whole created order. That’s somewhat unusual – pretty much anywhere you look in the Old Testament, you trip over ecological texts. (For just one example, consider our psalm today. It was chosen for the lectionary because it alludes to the Exodus story; but it also speaks about how all Creation belongs to God and how we humans are part of that divine created order, God’s sheep living in God’s pasture.) There are some significant creation-focused texts elsewhere in the New Testament as well – including later in Paul’s letter to the Romans; we’ll get to that this summer! 

We don’t necessarily notice the strong ecological themes in the Bible because generations of Protestant Christianity have taught us to think about faith as a matter between humans and God. But for the Old Testament, right relationship with God and neighbor and land are all inextricably linked. Justice and righteousness in society cannot be accomplished without a just and righteous relationship with the land – including sharing the produce of the land fairly, treating the land with respect and care by letting it rest and renew itself, and so on. 

This year, St Dunstan’s is part of a program called ChurchLands.It’s a pilot program inviting Episcopal churches and church leaders to explore and discern ways to reconnect faith and land in their parish context. It is specifically for churches that have land holdings of some sort – inviting us to reflect on how we might integrate our relationship with our land into our shared life as a community of faith. 

Our land is not especially well integrated right now. I wouldn’t be surprised if many newer members don’t even know about it. So let me tell you about it! St. Dunstan’s sits on about seven acres, in total. It was once part of the territory of the Ho-Chunk people. The U.S. government seized it after the Blackhawk War, and sold it off in parcels to settler farmers. In the late 1850s, the Heim brothers, immigrants from Bavaria, bought this land & built the farmhouse that still stands. It changed hands over the course of a century & eventually was given to the Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee, which then gave it to a mission congregation who wanted to start a new church on the west side of Madison. And here we are. 

The church building sits near the northeastern corner of the lot. Behind the farmhouse and the Parish Center, our grounds continue down to Old Middleton Road, with about three acres of woodland, mostly black walnut with some oak trees and pines. That’s the part that it’s easy for us to forget about; to just have, year after year, without any real sense of purpose or engagement. Now and then we walk through it, or wander down to pick a few black raspberries. But mostly – even for me – it’s out of sight, out of mind. 

Three acres of woods – and a couple more acres if you count the grassy area around the church, the Pine Island out front, and so on – it’s not a lot. There are folks in the ChurchLands program who are trying to figure out what to do with ten acres, or more. But it’s here, and it’s ours; and we have named ourselves, from the earliest years of this parish, as a church that cares about God’s creation. So the ChurchLands program offers a great opportunity to wonder together about our grounds. 

The structure of the program itself is pretty simple. Two of us attended a retreat in Michigan in late January, where we and other program participants dug deep into some foundational values and questions. There will be a second, concluding retreat in December. In between, there are monthly online meetings for learning and check-in. Meanwhile, we’re supposed do… something, here. Some kind of project or initiative. I’ll come back to that in a moment. 

On that retreat back in January, we did a lot of Bible study – looking at some familiar and unfamiliar stories through the lens of human relationship with the land. One was the story told in Genesis chapters 41 and 47. Joseph – great-grandson of the patriarch Abraham – is in Egypt, in jail. (It’s a long story!) Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, has a strange and troubling dream. Joseph has a knack for interpreting dreams – and someone mentions that to Pharaoh, so Joseph is called to the throne room. And he interprets Pharaoh’s dream as a message from God: The seven fat cows in your dream mean there will be seven good years of harvest. The seven lean and ugly cows in your dream, who eat up the fat cows, mean that after the seven good years, there will be seven years of famine, that will devour all the surplus from the good years. Joseph goes on to suggest that for the next seven years, one-fifth of each year’s harvest should be gathered and stored as a reserve against the famine; and that Pharaoh should fin somebody discerning and wise to put in charge of that endeavor. 

(Let me say here that Joseph is right up there with King David on the list of people that your children’s Bible called a righteous hero favored by God – but whose story turns out to be a lot more complicated than that when you actually read it.)

Naturally Pharaoh puts Joseph in charge, and it all happens just as the dreams predicted: seven years of bounteous harvests – and then, the famine begins. And Joseph shares the stored food among the people of the land so that everyone survives, as God intended in sending the dream. 

Hah… no. That’s not what happens. Joseph makes people buy the food. First with money, until they run out of money. Genesis 47:14: “Joseph collected all the money to be found in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, in exchange for the grain that they bought; and Joseph brought the money into Pharaoh’s house.” Now, THAT is Employee of the Month. Then, when people are out of money, Joseph gives them food in exchange for their livestock, their flocks and herds. All of that ends up as Pharaoh’s property too – and incidentally, it’s Joseph’s family that has the job of tending all those animals. 

And the next step is inevitable – the people come to Joseph and say, “Buy us and our land in exchange for food. We with our land will become slaves to Pharaoh; just give us grain, so that we may live and not die.’… So Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh… As for the people, he made slaves of them from one end of Egypt to the other.” (Genesis 47:19-21)

I think this is an interesting story for us to dwell with, because it’s a story about preparing for ecological crisis. Joseph and Pharaoh receive an insight from God – and they decide to use this privileged knowledge, and the power they already have, to further consolidate wealth and power, and to take away people’s freedom and livelihoods.

We face impending ecological crisis today. There’s no secret about it, no mysterious dreams to interpret; many, many people are sounding the alarm. And there are absolutely people of wealth and power today who plan to use the years ahead just as Joseph and Pharaoh did. 

How can we face our frightening future with a commitment to  building relationships and sharing strategies and resources, instead of hardening social lines and deepening inequalities? How can we resist the quarreling and division that comes with scarcity and fear, as we see in the Exodus lesson today? 

Those are great big questions. The invitation of the ChurchLands program is to dwell with questions like that as we discern how to live more fully into our values on this land, our four-plus acres of woods and grass. The work is motivated by a conviction that reconnecting with Creation, with land, in very local, small-scale ways DOES matter, IS a step towards our hopes in the face of these frightening larger realities. 

This week I read about a beautiful example – at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Annapolis, Maryland. Like St. Dunstan’s, St. Luke’s had about four acres of woodland behind their church. Unlike our site, their woods back up to a creek, a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay. The land had been originally intended for a larger sanctuary, back when folks thought churches would keep growing forever. But a few years ago, the church began to envision another way to reclaim the land as sacred space. With help from a couple of grants, they undertook a project to turn those four acres back into wetlands, including restoring a stream that had been buried when the area was developed.

The project wasn’t driven by a naive desire to return the land to its original condition, but by current need. Climate change is raising sea levels and causing more frequent extreme weather. Along the Maryland coast, flooding is becoming more common, with seawater breaching sea walls to flood parking lots, roads, homes and businesses. In 1960, four such events were recorded; in 2017, 63. 

The marshland restored by St. Luke’s Church helps absorb extra water. Avery Davis Lamb writes, “By restoring their land to serve its intended purpose, the church created a climate sanctuary: absorbing higher tides, filtering polluted stormwater from extreme rain events, [as well as] hosting displaced [wildlife] and drawing carbon out of the air.” St. Luke’s itself sits high enough to avoid flooding, but their wetland restoration project serves their neighbors by absorbing water their houses cannot. 

The restored stream flows gently down the property towards the creek, surrounded by wet-loving native plants. Living water. 

St. Luke’s solution is obviously not our solution. But there are things we can learn. The people of St. Luke’s studied their land and how it fit into local systems. They paid attention to how climate change was harming their neighbors and neighborhood. They found non-church agencies to help them learn, fund, and do. And they held fast to their conviction that a restored landscape can manifest justice, wholeness, and holiness. 

At our initial retreat in January, we were invited to set goals. Carrie’s goal was to understand better what’s growing on our grounds, and how we might get to know those resources, as way to be in touch with the land and engage with it. My goal was just to get people together. Specifically, I wrote down an intention to gather at least at least 5 to 8 people, at least 3 times, between February and August, to bounce ideas around and come up with one or two specific things to do or try. 

It’s hard for me to come before you without a project, a plan; to have this be so open-ended. But in my nine years here, we have had lots of ideas for our grounds; what we’ve lacked has been follow-through. So I believe God means for me to come to this with my mind and hands open, and wait for ideas and directions to emerge and gather energy from among us. 

I invite you to consider whether you’d like to be part of those conversations – and/or part of the work, once we’re working on something. Even if you don’t feel called to that, maybe you have a connection or idea to offer. Please do! This is wide open! As Sharon Bloodgood used to say, it’s easier to tame a wild idea than to spruce up a dull one. 

Jesus uses the image of living water, this ecological image, because it is so evocative and so important in his context. Living, running, fresh, clear, satisfying water… Deeply meaningful, deeply attractive, to a desert people. 

What can we think of that’s not only life-sustaining but also delightful and satisfying for us? A strawberry still warm from the sun; the intoxicating scent of basil fresh from the garden; the color and detail of a flower in bloom; the smell of the earth just after a rainfall. What if things like these aren’t mere physical pleasures, but ways to tap into something that sustains and refreshes us deeply – means of connectedness with grace, with love, with the Divine? What could a landscape of justice, wholeness, and holiness look like here? Let’s wonder together. 

 

Read about St. Luke’s, Annapolis, and other examples here:

https://sojo.net/magazine/april-2020/how-three-coastal-churches-became-hubs-climate-resilience

Sermon, March 8

Our lectionary – our Sunday cycle of Scripture readings – sometimes pairs our lessons by theme or topic. Sometimes there will be a thread that connects our Old Testament lesson with the Gospel or Epistle. Not always – sometimes we’re just reading along in each of our Scripture slots. But this is one of those Sundays – and the connection is pretty obvious. Paul, in the letter to the Romans, is talking about Abraham, from the book of Genesis. (By the way, our passage from Genesis is before Abram’s name is changed to Abraham by God. But I’m going to follow Paul in just using the more familiar name Abraham.)

In this section of his letter to the church in Rome, Paul is laying out the case for how there can be righteousness before God outside of the Law. He doesn’t believe, and doesn’t want to say, that the Law – the way of holiness of the Jewish people – was a mistake. But he does want to say that there’s something more fundamental, a deeper faithfulness and holiness of life, that underlies both Jewish law and the Christian way. So he turns to Abraham – the father of Israel’s covenant relationship with God. The one to whom God first says, I will be your God, and you and your family and descendants will be My people. 

When God addresses Abraham in today’s text and says, Go! Leave everything familiar! I have something new for you! – this is the first time God has spoken to a human since Noah, ten generations earlier, as far as the Biblical text is concerned. Abraham has never even heard of God – THIS God, the God Israel comes to know by the holy name I AM. And yet, Abraham listens – and obeys. Paul says, Right from the start, Abraham trusted in God – and that trust counted as righteousness, before and therefore outside of the covenant. 

So, what Abraham teaches us about faith is, Just trust God. 

Well. Paul is oversimplifying Abraham’s story a lot. Here are some things I think Abraham teaches us about faith. 

First, God knows our deepest hopes and longings… and may use them to draw us into God’s purposes and projects. When our story begins, Abraham and Sarah are middle-aged and well-off. They are not sitting around thinking, “If only we could leave everything we know, set off on a risky journey to an unknown destination, enter into a perplexing relationship with a mysterious divine being that makes both joyful promises and terrifying demands, and become the parents of a new people and a new faith.”

But there is something they really really want. They want a child. A child they can name as their own. Their longing for parenthood is a theme for their entire story. And, to put it bluntly, it’s what God uses to get them on board with God’s agenda. 

When God says, “I will make of you a great nation,” God is promising Abraham that he will have descendants. That promise gets clearer and clearer as it is repeated in chapters 13, 15, 17, 18, and 22. 

God is making Abraham and Sarah an offer they can’t refuse. God has a little plan to found a new nation, who will be God’s people and learn God’s ways. And God tells them, Leave everything; change everything; become the people I call you to be; and I will give you a child. 

Don’t be surprised if God uses your deepest desires to draw you into a larger purpose. I’ve seen it happen. God can be sneaky like that. Maybe those deep longings get fulfilled in the end – maybe they don’t. Maybe they get healed or transformed; maybe they remain a lifelong ache. But in the meantime you’ve been woven into the fabric of God’s work within and among us, God’s work of reconciling and restoring, connecting and renewing and making whole.  

The second thing I think Abraham can teach us about faith is that trusting God is hard. In our passage from the letter to the Romans today, Paul is quoting from Genesis chapter 15. Here’s the passage: “God brought Abraham outside and said, ‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ And Abraham believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” (Genesis 15:5-6) A few verses later, Paul says,“Abraham did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb.”

Paul makes it sound like Abraham’s faith in God’s promises was immediate and complete. And that’s just not true. In Genesis chapters 17 and 18, first Abraham, and then Sarah, literally laugh at the idea that God is going to bring forth a child from their aged bodies. 

Abraham has something most of us don’t: God flat-out tells him God’s plans for his life. Most of us don’t get a memo that clear. We look for the places where our deep joy meets the world’s deep need, or where there’s a problem that we’re able to solve, or where we are able to use our gifts and skills to add to the world’s measure of hope, wholeness, and delight… And we try to walk in that direction, as best we can. 

But God tells Abraham exactly what God wants Abraham to do, and what Abraham will get out of it; and Abraham STILL struggles to trust God. We see Abraham’s struggle with trust not only in the fact that God has to keep repeating Godself – God repeats God’s promise literally six times in ten chapters – but also in Abraham’s actions.

Right after today’s Genesis passage, there’s a famine in the area where Abraham and his family are staying. So they go into Egypt, where there’s more food. And Abraham has an idea. He tells Sarah, his wife, “I know well that you are a woman beautiful in appearance; and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife’; then they will kill me, but they will let you live. Say you are my sister, so that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared on your account.” (12:11-13)

The artist James Tissot painted wonderful pictures of some moments in this cycle of stories. Here is Abraham explaining this plan to Sarah. 

SOOOO they go into Egypt and everyone admires Sarah and Abraham tells everyone that she’s his sister. And word gets to Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, about this beautiful foreign woman, and he takes her into his household. No problem, right? Abraham should be delighted to have his sister become a companion to the King of Egypt! 

Except not so much. Fortunately, God is looking out for Sarah, if Abraham isn’t! Mysterious plagues affect the whole palace. One commentator suggests we imagine an awkward bedroom scene – perhaps Pharaoh is examining his sores and lamenting aloud, “Why is this happening?” And Sarah says, “Welllllll….” Pharaoh calls Abraham and says, “What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? Why did you say, ‘She is my sister’, so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife; take her, and be gone.” (12:18-19)

Okay, well, Abraham has just met God; maybe it’s understandable that he doesn’t really trust God yet. Except that MUCH later, in chapter 20, the EXACT SAME THING happens again with King Abimelech of Gerar. This time, after it’s revealed that Sarah is his wife, Abraham explains: Well, she IS actually my half-sister so it’s not a lie. And Abraham continues – I quote:  “When God caused me to wander from my father’s house, I said to her, ‘This is the kindness you must do me: at every place to which we come, say of me, He is my brother.’” Not only does Abraham not trust God enough to look out for him and Sarah, and undertakes this weird lie that keeps putting his wife into risky situations, he’s now BLAMING GOD for putting him in the situation by sending him out to wander the world – and giving him such a beautiful wife…!

Paul concludes his passage on Abraham with these words: “No distrust made Abraham waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what God had promised.”

I mean. 

Paul knows his Genesis, I’m sure. He’s brushing aside all the complexity of the story because he’s just using it to make a point. He doesn’t want to rehash the whole Abraham cycle like I do. But I don’t think he’s doing anybody any favors by insisting that it’s a simple, one-time choice to trust God’s goodness and God’s purposes in your life. He knew better. We know better. Trusting God is hard. Which brings me to point number three. 

The third thing I think Abraham can teach us about faith is that there’s a really fine line between following God’s call, and taking over from God. God has promised Abraham a child, a child of his own body. But years go by and it doesn’t happen. So Abraham and Sarah decide to take matters into their own hands. Sarah has an Egyptian slave-girl named Hagar. She says to Abraham, “Look, God has prevented me from having children. Why don’t you spend some time with my slave-girl? Maybe I can have children through her.” It’s a strange idea to us but this kind of quasi-surrogacy shows up again in the Jacob stories; it made some kind of sense in context. 

So Abraham follows Sarah’s suggestion, and Hagar gets pregnant. But far from being the ideal solution, it tips the household into crisis. Hagar is proud of her pregnancy and feels contempt towards Sarah; Sarah is bitterly jealous. She goes to Abraham in a rage, demanding that he do something. Abraham says, I dunno, she’s your slave, do what you want! And Sarah treats Hagar so harshly that she runs away into the wilderness. (Genesis 16:1-6)  

Nobody is admirable in this chapter of the story. 

The angel of the LORD finds Hagar in the wilderness, and tells her that she will bear a son, that she will become the mother of a great nation; and… that she must return to her mistress and submit to her. Tissot painted this scene too.

Hagar’s encounter with God in the wilderness is actually pretty remarkable. God is establishing a lineage, a tribe, with Abraham and Sarah – patriarchal and defined by ancestry. But here God acknowledges and includes a woman, an ethnic and racial outsider, as part of God’s story. Hagar is the first person in Scripture to name God: She calls God El-Roi, the One who Sees. 

God honors Abraham and Sarah’s mistake in making Hagar a tool, an object, in their quest for a son. But the story is pretty clear that it was a mistake. 

The thing is, I have 100% done things like this. Nothing quite this dramatic, mind you, but – I have definitely gotten impatient with God and taken matters into my own hands, making choices that I could see later had not been for the best. I know the feeling of getting a glimpse of God’s intentions and then doubling down on MAKING IT HAPPEN. 

It takes ongoing, thoughtful discernment to know the difference between the places where we should take steps towards what we need or want or hope for, and when we should wait and watch and listen for God to take the next step, or show us the path. Maybe that sounds abstract to some of you – but I have versions of this conversation with people ALL THE TIME. About seeking wellness, or clarity in a relationship, or a new career or place to live, or discerning a vocation – so much more. Having the courage to change the things we can, the serenity and trust to wait for God’s action or God’s guidance on the things we can’t, and above all, the wisdom to know the difference, is daily and lifelong spiritual work. Abraham and Sarah got it right sometimes and wrong sometimes. So do most of us. 

In the end Abraham and Sarah’s journeys of striving to trust and follow God look a lot like most of ours. Not a simple, total, one-and-done commitment, as Paul suggests. Instead, this is a story of wondering and wandering, struggle and yearning, mistakes and missteps, seeking and only sometimes finding. 

But it’s also a story of God’s faithfulness and God’s patience. God doesn’t give up on Abraham and Sarah – even when they stray far from God’s hopes for them, even when they do stupid and hurtful stuff. God bears with them; God keeps working in their hearts and lives – for their sake and for the sake of all those whom God seeks to bless through them. 

So it is with us, beloveds. Faith in God – trust in God, a better translation – isn’t like a college degree that you achieve and then just have from then on. It is wondering and wandering, struggle and yearning, seeking and only sometimes finding. What we can trust is that God is patient with us; God persists; and that the good things that God wants to do for us, and through us, are robust and flexible enough to survive our worst choices. With apologies to Paul, that is how I find encouragement in Abraham’s faith.

Sermon, Feb. 16

  1. Today’s Gospel – Continuing the Sermon on the Mount 
    1. The most complete sermon we have from Jesus.
    2. Shared in Luke & Mt – gotten from a common source whom Mark didn’t have. 
    3. What Jesus has said so far: 
      1. The “blesseds” (Beatitudes) – says, the people who are blessed, lucky, happy, might be very different people from the people who LOOK blessed, lucky, and happy by the world’s standards.
      2. He calls on those who follow him to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth. Living the way God calls you to live has a ripple effect on the people and community around you. Your holiness isn’t just for you or for God; it’s for others.
  1. Today’s portion: Faithfulness to the Laws of Scripture, of Torah. 
    1. Jesus: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.”
    2. He goes on to touch on a number of subjects from the Torah – murder, adultery, divorce, vows, revenge, how to treat enemies – and says that he’s not here to throw out these core practices of holiness, but to call people to even deeper faithfulness. 
      1. Not just avoiding outright murder – a rather minimal standard! – but striving not to demonize or diminish others, and seeking reconciliation whenever possible. 
      2. Not just keeping your promises, but living with such integrity that you don’t have to make promises – if you say Yes or No, people know you mean it. 
      3. Not just disciplining your body to avoid violating your marriage vows, but disciplining your mind, heart, and imagination to fidelity as well. And likewise, taking those vows seriously enough not to end them lightly. 
        1. Jesus’ words about divorce here can hit some people hard. Pay attention to his exact wording: it’s really clear that divorce in this setting was something men did to women. And since women only had standing and security through connection with a man, divorce was terribly destructive for a woman and potentially her children as well. Jesus’ teaching here is really  about defending the vulnerable.
      4. With all these topics, Jesus says: Go farther – much father – than the Law demands. And in a specific direction – the direction of minimizing harm. Of mercy and integrity. 
    1. Notice Jesus is being selective in the elements of the Law he invokes here! 
      1. The 613 commandments in the Torah cover everything from faithful worship to just business practices, from acceptable foods to what to do if a dead lizard falls into your food storage jars. 
      2. Jesus teaches elsewhere that many of the laws of Judaism are not that important for the people of his new movement. 
      3. And the Church discerned early on that Christians didn’t need to practice circumcision or keep Jewish food rules – remember “Arise, kill, eat”, from a few weeks ago? 
      4. The parts of the Law that seem to matter most to Jesus – the parts he is here to fulfill rather than abolish – are the parts that have to do with how we treat one another. And not only our actions but our hearts – because Jesus knows what we all know: what’s in our hearts shows in our actions. 
  1. Next portion of the Sermon on the Mount builds on this – 
    1. Cut off this year by a short Epiphany season. 
    2. As in today’s passage, Jesus quotes the Law & then describes how his followers should live beyond the Law. 
    3. ‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” 
      1. Quoting a legal teaching from the Torah. Clearest statement, Leviticus 24: “Anyone who maims another shall suffer the same injury in return: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; the injury inflicted is the injury to be suffered.”  
    4. “But” – says Jesus – “I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” 
    5. “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, offer the other one as well.” This saying is more famous in the version from Luke’s Gospel: “Turn the other cheek.” Have you heard that?… 
    6. It has a long history of being used to advise people to put up with bad treatment. To let bullies or abusers have their way. To be passive in the face of harm and injustice. 
    7. Does that sound like advice you want to get from Jesus? … Well, here’s the good news: Lots of people think that is NOT what Jesus is saying. It’s more interesting than that. 
    8. I did some research about this for our youth retreat last winter, and found some stuff worth sharing. I’m going to need a couple of volunteers… at lest one of you needs to be right-handed. 
  1. TURNING THE OTHER CHEEK
    1. Mt says, “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” Who’s right-handed? – OK, A, you’re the striker. B, you’re the person being struck; which is your right cheek? 
      1. A,  use your dominant right hand to pretend to strike B on the right cheek. Don’t actually make contact, just show us what you would do. So that’s a backhand, right? That’s a gesture with a lot of social context. Do you backhand a social equal, or someone you think is inferior?…. 
        1. It’s how you hit a child or a slave or someone you think is less than you. How a Roman soldier might smack a local peasant whom he thinks was looking at him funny. 
    2. So Jesus is talking about a specific kind of social situation: A superior striking an inferior. Somebody with power striking someone with less power or no power, with the intent to punish and shame them. 
    3. What do you think the powerful person expects to happen after they backhand this servant or peasant or whatever? … they certainly don’t expect them to stay here and ask for more! 
    4. Let’s continue our demonstration. If B here turns their left cheek to invite another blow, suddenly A has to strike with their open hand – it’s a different gesture, right? 
      1. (Dismiss volunteers!) 
      2. Look, it’s hard to be sure what these gestures meant in the distant past. … 
      3. But we have a clue in a Jewish legal text from maybe 100 years later, the Bava Qamma (8.6), which says that if a person slaps another person with open hand, he must pay him 200 zuz; if he strikes him with the back of his hand, he must pay him 400 zuz. 
      4. That difference isn’t about injury; it’s about honor. The backhand is more humiliating. Another Talmud text describes the backhand as a gesture of public shame. 
      5. Some interpreters argue that the open-handed slap – or maybe a blow with a fist – is more how you strike a social equal. So the person turning the other cheek upsets the social dynamics. 
    5. I don’t want to try to hard to lock down what this might have meant. But I do think it’s clear that Jesus is talking about a backhanded strike, a blow intended to humiliate; and that offering the other cheek instead of scuttling away would put the striker off-balance, both physically and socially. 
  1. There are similar arguments to be made about the next verses as well – the coat and shirt, and walking the second mile. 
    1. To unpack the simpler one very briefly: when Roman soldiers, the occupying army, were on the move around Judea, they were allowed to demand that Judeans carry their pack and equipment for a mile. Just, “Hey! You! Carry this!” Jesus says, If anyone – the “anyone” here is a Roman soldier – forces you to go one mile, go the second mile. Don’t just do what you have to do; go farther. Make it a kindness – a favor. 
    2. Like turning the other cheek, at first glance it looks like submission, like passivity – but when you think about it, especially in the context of the stark social divisions of Jesus’ time, these are actions that pose a subtle and uncomfortable challenge to the status quo. 
      1. In the letter to the Romans, Paul writes, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” (Romans 12:20)
    3. The 20th century movement for non-violent resistance drew significant inspiration in this teaching of Jesus. What Jesus is preaching here isn’t, Just let the bad guys have their way. It’s responding to injustice and cruelty by visibly refusing to cede your humanity, your agency. And that, ideally, makes the oppressor feel uncomfortable and maybe even ashamed. 
  1. Jesus concludes this portion of his sermon with these words, more or less: “So what if you love those who love you? So what if you’re kind to those who are kind to you? Almost everyone does that. You are called to more.”
    1. I don’t think I need to unpack that – it speaks for itself. 
      1. It is one of Jesus’ teachings that nudges me now and then – and sometimes bites me.
      2. What credit is it to me if I love those who love me? So what if I’m kind to those who are kind to me? How have I loved my enemies lately? Where am I called to go the second mile? 
    2. Beloved in Christ, we live in challenging times, politically, socially, ecologically. 
      1. A lot of people are fearful, angry, or despairing…and with reason. 
      2. Between the climate crisis, global health challenges, and the travails of our democracy, the news cycle can feel overwhelming. Paralyzing. 
    3. Henri Nouwen, a great spiritual writer, talks in one of his books about responding to the news as a person of faith, of spirit. 
      1. He suggests that when there’s breaking news, we might ask ourselves, How does this call for my repentance anew? How does this call for my conversion anew?  (Here and Now)
      2. To use the vocabulary of our discipleship practices: How does this call me to turning? To metanoia, a change of mind and heart that bears fruit in a changed life? 
      3. What might disruptive kindness, subversive mercy, look like in the face of today’s challenges? 
    4. I don’t even have answers to these questions for myself, let alone for all of you. But I think they’re timely questions.
      1. For this chapter in our walk with the Gospel, when Jesus calls his followers to a paradoxical path of loving resistance, wherever sin shreds human dignity. 
      2. For this moment in the church’s year, with Lent around the corner – a fine time to wonder: is there something I might set aside for a season, to make more space in my life for turning towards mercy.
      3. And for this season in the life of our world and our country, when we seem in desperate need of more both kindness and more courage. 

 

Further reading…

Walter Wink on Jesus’ teachings about nonviolence:

https://cpt.org/files/BN%20-%20Jesus%27%20Third%20Way.pdf

A really interesting exploration of slapping in ancient texts:

http://www.jgrchj.net/volume10/JGRChJ10-3_Cook.pdf

Sermon, Feb. 9

Are you grieving today, weighed down with loss? Are you timid, fearful; do you struggle to speak up for yourself and find what you need? Is your yearning for justice eating you up inside? You are LUCKY! You are HAPPY! You are BLESSED! 

Jesus is standing on a mountaintop – or at least a hilltop – and preaching about what it means to live a holy life. There’s surely an intentional echo here of Moses on Mount Sinai, receiving the Ten Commandments, and teaching Israel how God calls them to live. And just as holy laws of the Torah called Israel to live differently than neighboring peoples, so too do Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount.

There’s a lot here that did not align with conventional wisdom and cultural norms. Our Bible translation – most Bible translations – begin each of these lines with “Blessed.” But the Greek word there can just as easily be translated as Happy or Lucky.  I like that translation, because I think Jesus is being provocative at least as much as he’s being pious, here. In Luke’s version of this sermon, Jesus seems to call out the people in the crowd who are laughing – because these teachings make no sense!

The poor? The meek? The lost and lonely? The merciful and the peacemakers – those softies and suckers? Those wingnuts who won’t stop talking about justice, who get themselves arrested or beaten for what they believe is right? Lucky. Happy. Blessed. Every last one of them.  What nonsense. 

Holy nonsense, divine foolishness, is a big theme in the early chapters of Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. In chapter 1 he writes: God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom. (1 Cor 1:25) In chapter 2 he urges, Your faith must not rest on human wisdom, but on the power of God. (1 Cor 2:5) And in chapter 3, he concludes, The wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. (1 Cor 3:19)

On one level, Paul is concerned that other Christian teachers who have visited Corinth may be taking liberties with the Gospel – and getting away with it because they are such eloquent speakers. The people don’t realize that they’re changing the message because they sound so smart. Paul says, Just because somebody SOUNDS wise and insightful doesn’t meany they are. Bad and wrong things can be preached in beautiful, persuasive words. History certainly justifies his concern. 

At a deeper level, though, Paul is pointing to the paradox at the heart of Christianity: Christ crucified and risen. The one we call Savior and Lord was executed by the government. Not much of a Messiah! And then – we claim – he came back from the dead. Everyone knows that’s impossible. 

Paul doesn’t try to make Christian faith palatable to intellectuals. He says, Yes, it’s nonsense – holy, necessary nonsense. Look, says Paul: God’s wisdom seems like foolishness to human understanding – to the people of this age – but it carries deep truth, and profound hope. If you think you are wise, maybe you need more holy foolishness – to understand what Jesus said and did, and begin the lifelong work of following him and growing into his likeness. 

Who here reads romance novels and is willing to admit it? 

The popular image of romance novels is of mediocre writing, formulaic plots, and probably overblown, cringey descriptions of hugging and kissing. They’re seen as frivolous and escapist. How could romance novels accomplish any good in the world?

Let me tell you a story – a story about one of the most successful romance novel writers of all time. Her name was Ida Cook, though she wrote under the name Mary Burchell. 

Ida was born in England in 1904, to a happy, affectionate family. She and her older sister, Louise, were fast friends and lifelong companions. Biographers note that both sisters were notably plain. As young women, they shared an apartment in London and worked at clerical jobs. In 1923, they discovered opera, and fell in love with it. They bought a gramophone, and started attending operas whenever they could. They became superfans of some of the great opera stars of the day – writing fan letters and waiting outside stage doors for autographs. How feminine. How frivolous. How foolish. 

One of their faves was an opera singer named Amelita Galli-Curci. They wrote to her telling her they planned to save up for two years to come to New York and hear her sing. She wrote back, promising them free tickets to ALL her operas if they could get there! So, of course, they saved up and made it to the Big Apple. 

They became friends with Galli-Curci, and started meeting other opera stars too. 

Meanwhile, Ida writes an article for a sewing magazine about the dress she made for their New York trip. Then she starts writing and publishing short romantic stories… and then she’s invited to start writing for Mills and Boon, the major romance publisher in the UK. (Think Harlequin!) She’s good at it, and suddenly she’s making pretty good money.

Naturally, the sisters use that money to travel and see more opera all over Europe, especially in Germany. In 1934 they’re in Germany when a singer they know introduces them to another woman, asking the Cooks to look after her, since she’s traveling to England soon. Of course they agree. When they ask their new friend why she’s moving to England, she explains, “I’m Jewish – didn’t you know?”

Ida and Louise learn about what’s happening in Germany. The growing pressure on the Jews, the rising tide of danger and fear. Jews who can afford to leave, and have connections or opportunities abroad, are getting out. And Ida has a realization. She thinks about all the money she is making with her novels – and she realizes she could be using it to save lives. 

It’s hard to look back on now, knowing what we know, but both Britain and the United States were reluctant to accept Jewish refugees. They didn’t make it easy. To leave Germany for Britain at this point, in the mid-1930s, you needed to have proven income or cash reserves. The question wasn’t whether you were in mortal danger in your home country, but whether you would be a drain on public resources when you arrived. Practically, you needed someone in England to be your guarantor – to attest that you had resources and would be provided for.  

Ida starts using her book money to guarantee as many people as she can. And as requests for help start to stream in, the sisters organize friends to donate funds or be guarantors themselves. Ida buys an apartment where newly-arrived refugees can stay while getting settled in. The sisters keep traveling to Germany on weekends, to hear opera performances… and to connect with those seeking to leave the country, and help them along. They make heartbreaking decisions about who they can help, then work to get their visas through the British immigration system. 

Often, on their return journeys, they carried with them jewelry and other small, high-value goods belonging to the Jews they hoped to help leave Germany for England.The smuggling was necessary because Germany wouldn’t let Jews take their assets with them when they left; but they would certainly need assets to begin their new life in Britain. The smuggling was effective because people tended to ignore and underestimate Ida and Louise. One biographer describes them as “plain and anonymous in their tatty cardigans and Woolworth glass beads.” (Carpenter) Margaret Talbot writes, “The underestimation of women, especially women who might be dismissed on the basis of their looks, was a resource that Ida and Louise deployed for enormous good.” 

Talbot describes one case in which Ida and Louise were smuggling home a lot of valuable jewelry on behalf of a woman named Alice, who hoped to rejoin her jewels in England shortly. The sisters had a very anxious half-hour when German SS officers boarded the train at the German border to look for Jews trying to escape Nazi Germany. They had a plan: IF the SS men asked them to open their handbags, they were going to do their “nervous British spinster act and insist, quite simply, that we always took our valuables with us, because we didn’t trust anyone with whom we could leave them at home.” (Cook quoted in Talbot) 

Talbot writes, “The Cooks had found that telling a lie that made them look meek and foolish was sometimes their best bet.” Meek and foolish… In this case, looking like ordinary, plain, middle-aged, middle-class white women did the trick, and the SS left them alone. 

The situation in Germany continues to deteriorate. Visas are harder and harder to get. People are disappearing before the Cooks can help them. Ida writes, “We cried, of course. And then we would start again. What else could we do?” She spends more and more time writing; the more books she publishes, the more money, the more lives she can save. As paths to escape become more and more scarce, the sisters speak at church groups; they hassle their friends; they approach strangers in restaurants. Always the message is: People are dying. If we pool our funds and guarantee them someplace to live, we might be able to get them out. 

Ida’s persistence and passion sometimes shake loose possibilities against all odds. In the Twitter thread that first brought Ida to my attention, John Bull writes that in August 1939, Ida received a letter from a Polish Jewish boy being held in a detention camp in Poland. He was on a waiting list to enter the United States, meaning he had a chance to get a visa to enter Britain on the way. But he was number 16500 or so on that waiting list – meaning it might be three years. People were already dying of starvation and disease all around him; he knew he did not have three years. 

Europe is on the brink of war. There is not a moment to lose. Ida finds a church group that will agree to take him in; she scrapes together the money to serve as his guarantee. She goes to the Immigration Office to organize his visa, and talks to the clerk who normally handles her cases.  “The woman looks aghast: They can’t give this kid a visa. New rules as of yesterday. Only people number 16,000 on the US list or under [can get visas.] Ida tells her that this kid will die if they don’t get him out. They need to do something. Then the clerk comes up with a plan and tells Ida to trust her. ‘Go home, and take this with you,’ she says, handing Ida the completed and signed application form. The next day, Ida gets an official letter from the clerk: ‘Please submit the missing paperwork we finalized three days ago.’ The clerk had found a way around the rule change: fudging the date on the application so it looked like it was filed before the new rules. The visa goes through. The child escapes – on the last boat of child refugees that is allowed to leave Poland. The last life the Cooks manage to save. 

Ida and Louse were directly involved in 29 emigration cases, many of which were families. They were indirectly involved in many others, as well. 

Bull writes, “Ida and Louise weren’t special. They were normal people and, by Ida’s own admission, terrified almost every step of the way. But once they had their eyes opened to what was happening, they knew they had to help. And Ida worked hard to try and make others see that too.” Ida herself wrote, “Terrified, agonized need can be ignored if it is attached only to a name on paper. Change [that] to a human who stammers out a frantic story, weeps difficult tears and asks for nothing but hopes for everything, and show me the ordinary person who can refuse.”

I want to be clear that one heart-warming story does not redeem the Holocaust. Mary and Ida saved perhaps fifty people. Hitler and those who went along with his regime murdered perhaps 11 million. This isn’t a story about how everyday heroism and moral courage can turn the tide of history – though I have to believe that sometimes it can. This is a story about how everyday heroism and moral courage might make a tiny difference, here and there; and helps us keep our souls, no matter the circumstances. 

Where is wisdom and where is foolishness, in Ida’s life and times? The wisdom of this age is found in quotas and fees and forms, bureaucratic barriers and waiting lists. The whole apparatus that made it harder and harder and finally impossible for Jews to flee Hitler’s final solution. All rational, modern, and deadly. 

Holy foolishness shows up in the subversive, strategic meekness of two ordinary, extraordinary middle-aged opera fans using romance novel royalties to save one life, and another, and another. 

For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom. 

The Reverend Marcus Halley, dean of Formation for the Episcopal Church in Connecticut, wrote recently: “To be Baptized is to … be brought into a way of life that is meant to pull a little more of the Kingdom of God into this world. We pray it in the Lord’s Prayer and are called to let it *happen* in us. Our vocation… might look like a ministry within the church, but most likely it will be a ministry somewhere deep behind enemy lines in God’s world…  Wherever sin shreds human dignity, there is room for God’s people to exercise their vocation of healing, mending, and making whole… I want the Church to offer everyday, ordinary people an opportunity to do the extraordinary.” 

Those wingnuts who won’t stop talking about justice, who approach strangers in restaurants about their cause, who smuggle jewels in their pocketbooks? The poor? The meek? The lost and lonely? The merciful and the peacemakers – the softies and the suckers? Those who mourn – the ones who can’t look away, who refuse to get numb, the sad ones, the angry ones? 

Lucky. Happy. Blessed. Every last one of them. What nonsense. May we all be so foolish. 

 

More on Ida Cook:

John Bull’s Twitter thread: 

https://twitter.com/garius/status/1220711078100897793

Louise Carpenter in Granta: 

https://granta.com/ida-and-louise/

Margaret Talbot in the New Yorker:

https://www.newyorker.com/books/second-read/ida-and-louise-cook-two-unusual-heroines-of-the-second-world-war

The Rev. Marcus Halley on what church could be: 

https://twitter.com/word_made_FRESH/status/1220786885892747264

Sermon, Jan. 19

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

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

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

Sermon, Jan. 12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon, Dec. 22

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen. 

Sources: 

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

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

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

Sermon, Dec. 8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sources:

Sarah Dylan Breuer on this text: 

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

Andrew McGowan on the War on Christmas: 

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

David Lose on the Advent to-do list exercise:

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