Category Archives: Sermons

Sermon, Sept. 13

I want to begin my homily today by reading you a story. It’s from a book called Tales of a Magic Monastery, by Theophane the Monk (Crosswood Publishing, 1988). The Magic Monastery is a strange and wonderful place. People come there seeking answers from the wise monks. Often what they get instead are questions – or the insight to realize that what they need is different from what they seek.

In this story, a monk from another monastery comes to the Magic Monastery. He’s fed up with his brother monks, and wants a time of retreat. As usual, the Magic Monastery gives him just what he needs. 

The story begins: The guestmaster looked at me carefully and led me to a room marked “Righteous Indignation.” “Good,” I thought. “Back home some people don’t understand me. They think I’m judgmental. But this man understands.” 

There wasn’t much in the room besides the four walls, and that was all right with me. I sat down and meditated a while. Then I read my Bible. I found myself looking at those walls. I read some more, then meditated, then looked at the walls again. 

Late in the evening, as I was staring at one of the walls, it became transparent, and I found myself looking at my own monastery. FAScinating. What’s more, as I watched, I found I could see right through its walls and into the church and cloisters. After a while I could even see inside the cell of each monk. I saw everything. I saw what each monk had in his room and what he was doing. I saw some praying, some sleeping, some reading. I could even see what each one was reading. Brother! Do you see what that one is reading? And look at the private property! Soon I could hear their voices. I could hear everything that was said – the complaints, the backbiting. My own name was mentioned. Huh! That one to be complaining of me! 

I began to take notes. I filled page after page. I had thought the place was bad before, but here were the facts – what they said, what they did, what they had. Nothing subjective – just cold facts. As I kept writing, I began to see right into their heads, to see their very thoughts. These also I wrote down. 

Once, when I was resting my eyes, the thought came to me, “I wonder what I would see if the other wall were transparent?” Perhaps if I kept looking at it long enough… well, it did open up and through it I saw the Magic Monastery, every bit of it. What an eyeful! I thought my own place was bad. Talk about individualism. I began to write that down too. 

I rang for the Brother and asked him to bring me some more notebooks. There was so much to get down. From time to time a further question would come to me, “I wonder what’s behind these other two walls?” I became uncomfortable. “Who is there? What are the walls hiding? Why don’t they let me see? It’s probably dreadful.” I took to starting at these walls. The Brother said that behind the one wall were the deceased members of the Magic Monastery, and behind the other were the deceased members of my own monastery. 

“Ah,” I said, “but why can’t I see them? I want to see them.” 

“You won’t like it,” he said.

“Truth, that’s all I want. That’s all I’ve ever wanted. I call it like it is. Show me!” 

“You’ll only get angry.”

“Show me. Bring me some more notebooks, and show me.” 

But he refused and hurried away. I was determined that when he returned the next day I would get the truth out of him. 

I did. I took him by the throat and demanded to know what was going on behind those walls. “Behind this one,” he gasped, “are the deceased members of your own community. They are all looking in at you. They are weeping and praying for you.

“Behind this other wall are the deceased members of the Magic Monastery. They are all looking at you and laughing.” 

I’ve loved this book for a long time, and this story is one of my favorites. It’s a story that points to the problem with righteous indignation.

Righteous indignation is a powerful, even intoxicating, feeling. Think back on a time you’ve felt it. Something was unfair. Somebody in power was wrong or hypocritical. Somebody said something stupid and dangerous.

Righteous indignation is important. It drives us to speak and act. It can drive us to stand up for what’s right, and against what’s wrong. But – as the story reminds us – there can be something both laughable and deeply sad about someone in the throes of righteous indignation. 

When we are seized by righteous indignation, it tends to be really hard to stay self-aware. To keep a sense of proportion about the situation. To be the person we mean to be. 

Both of today’s lessons have to do with righteous indignation. In this portion of the letter to the Romans, Paul is addressing a division within the church over faith practices, especially food practices. This is the passage where Paul calls me “weak” for eating only vegetables. 

Seriously: Meat was an issue for a couple of reasons. It might have been used in the rites of pagan temples; Paul addresses that issue extensively in 1 Corinthians. The animal might also not have been killed in accord with the practices of kashrut, kosher. In an urban setting where folks had to buy food instead of raising their own, the only way to be sure to avoid ritually impure meat was to avoid meat altogether. 

Paul uses the loaded terms “Weak” and “Strong” to refer to the parties here. The “weak” are concerned about whether their practices put them right or wrong with God. The “strong” know that all of that is details, and what matters is giving yourself, body and mind, heart and soul, to God through Christ Jesus. Their confidence might well put them at risk of judgmentalism and righteous indignation towards the “weak” with their tender scruples.

In case the “weak” and “strong” vocabulary doesn’t give it away: Paul agrees with the Strong, in principle. He says, “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.” But Paul has seen this kind of thing play out enough times that he knows that there’s no future in having one group within the church be RIGHT and another group be WRONG. People need to listen to each other, love each other, and grow together, slowly, into a shared understanding of their life in Christ.

Even Paul’s identification with the Strong here is a strategic act – he’s trying to take their sense of righteousness and massage it into compassionate consideration for others. The really strong thing to do here, says Paul, is to accept people as they are and let them figure it out step by step, instead of arguing with them about deeply-felt convictions. “For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”

And then there’s today’s Gospel. In which Peter wants to know what do to if somebody isn’t just sinful but is, like, super-duper sinful, over and over again. And not just generally sinful but sinful AGAINST ME. What do I do about somebody like that? Do I have to keep forgiving them as many as seven times?Jesus says, Not just seven but seventy-seven – a number that clearly means, “as many times as it takes.” And then he tells a story, a parable: 

A king wanted to settle accounts with his slaves. One slave owed him ten thousand talents – an incredible sum, a fortune. The slave, of course, could not pay him back. So the king ordered that the slave, his wife and children, and all his possessions, should be sold, to make up the lost money.

Let me pause and remind us that every king in a parable does not represent God! The king, the debt – all of this is just the situation Jesus sets up for the real point of the parable, which is about the human heart. Anyway. 

The slave, naturally, is horrified; he throws himself to the ground before the king and begs for mercy. And out of pity, the king releases him and forgives him his debt! An amazing gift of freedom from bondage and obligation! Imagine the slave’s gratitude and relief! 

But that same slave, as he’s leaving the king’s court, spots one of his fellow slaves who owes him 100 denarii. And he grabs him by the throat and says, Pay me what you owe. And when he can’t or won’t, the first slave has him throw in prison. People tell the king what happened, and he calls the first slave before him and says, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?”

I’m honest enough with myself to find the slave’s actions believable. He’s just been faced with losing literally EVERYTHING, because he doesn’t have enough money. He reacts from that desperate fear and sense of scarcity, even though the great debt has been forgiven; even though this second debt is literally one ten-thousandth of what he owed the king.

As much as anything, this is a story about self-awareness. If the slave hadn’t been awash with anxiety, he would have realized how senseless it was to make this demand from his neighbor. He might have said, “Hey, forget that 100 denarii! I just got my whole life back!” But that’s not what happens. Instead, he turns towards righteous indignation – You owe me, you good-for-nothing slacker! – as a release from his feelings of terror, shame, and inadequacy. 

The fundamental premise of righteous indignation is that somebody else is the problem. 

LOOK: SOMETIMES OTHER PEOPLE ARE A PROBLEM – in heartbreaking, terrifying ways, that touch many lives besides their own. Human beings can be both wrong and bad. And niceness is not a Christian virtue. Striving to follow Jesus by no means obligates us to tolerate abuse or to make peace with injustice and cruelty; quite the opposite. Jesus himself often corrects people and argues with people.

The lesson of the magic monastery, of Paul’s admonition to the Strong, of Jesus’ parable, is that part of the work is always, always self-work. 

There’s a prayer I’ve learned from a friend in the recovery community: Bless them; change me. So simple, and yet so hard to pray: Bless them; change me. 

Praying this prayer doesn’t mean simply accepting the other person as they are, even if they are dangerous to themselves or others. Praying this prayer is a recognition that I am only person I can control. And that even my capacity to maybe, possibly, begin to help that other person, or change that person, or change my relationship with that person, or change the circumstances in which  that person has power to do harm – all of that, too, has to start with my inner work. 

A couple of weeks ago a member shared a quotation from the great spiritual writer Thomas Merton, that’s been knocking around in the back of my mind ever since:“Those who attempt to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening their own self-understanding, freedom, and capacity to love, will have nothing to give others. They will communicate to others nothing but the contagion of their own obsessions, their aggressiveness, their ego-centered ambitions, their delusions about end and means, their doctrinaire prejudices and ideas.”

Merton doesn’t mention righteous indignation but it’s in there, right there at the center of the Venn diagram of aggressiveness and ego and delusions that WE are the ones who have it all figured out. 

Bless them; change me. It is hard to pray this prayer for the people who spark my righteous indignation. For the people who are most callous or clueless about the brutal impact of the Covid pandemic. For the people who refuse accountability for their role in institutions that harm and oppress. For the people who believe they are so righteous that they’re allowed to hurt God’s children in God’s name. 

But I try to pray it, even if I pray it with a little coda:  “… and also please change them too.” Because I know that the faith I preach and try to live is a faith that begins with metanoia: with a changed mind and heart that bear fruit in a changed life. The faith I preach and try to live is a faith that continues with self-examination, holding up our lives to the light of God’s loving purposes; and with confession, and forgiveness, and amendment of life.  I know that I am my own life’s work, in a way that is the opposite of self-centered or self-indulgent, because as Merton says, I have nothing to give others if I am not continually striving to deepen my self-understanding, freedom, and capacity to love. Because I can’t be part of any solution if I haven’t also taken a brave, honest look at the ways I’m part of the problem.

Righteous indignation is a powerful force that drives many human movements for a more whole, just, and merciful world. The nutshell version of this sermon is not that righteous indignation is bad. But that part of righteous indignation where we tend to lose our sense of self-awareness and proportion, and project the whole problem outward – that is risky. Because we are each our own life’s work. 

Comedian and kindness advocate Josh Gondelman says he has never been asked to give a graduation speech, but he wrote one just in case. It’s in his book Nice Try. Here’s part of it: “Every time you fail, or someone fails you, you could grow embittered and defeated and withdrawn. Or you could take some time to stomp around and curse heaven and earth before making the choice to become more resolute and compassionate and righteous and tender. Just because things are bad doesn’t mean you have to get worse with them. You don’t have to pretend things are good; you just have to believe they can get better…It won’t always be easy. In some cases, that will take a substantial amount of time, or effort, or support, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. But you can always learn how to better stand up for yourself or for other people… You can become gentler and more relentless.” 

Faced with the inevitable failures and errors of people and institutions, may we follow the way of Jesus by choosing to become more more resolute and compassionate; more righteous and tender; gentler and more relentless for the sake of good. And may the God who calls us to this work give us courage, clarity, and grace. Amen. 

Sermon, Aug. 16

Read the Gospel here: Mt 15:1, 7, 10-11, 16-28 

I know this is a Gospel story – especially that second part – that some have strong feelings about. 

Jesus is being pretty snippy, frankly, for somebody who’s up on his high horse about what comes out of your mouth. 

Maybe we should just take it as a given that he is exhausted and overwhelmed. If we read what comes before this passage, we find that Jesus keeps trying to get away by himself to rest and pray, and he keeps being found – by crowds of desperate people seeking healing, or by antagonists who want to argue with him. 

I’m not going to tell you how I think YOU should read this text – but I am going to suggest how I think MATTHEW, the author of this Gospel, understands what happens here. 

Matthew gets this passage from Mark, the earliest of the Gospels. While Matthew and Mark don’t always tell things in the same order, these two pieces are together in both texts – Jesus’ little diatribe about what really makes someone unclean, and then this reluctant healing. But Matthew does tell things a little bit differently. (I encourage you to set them side by side & compare – that’s often pretty interesting! The Mark version is in chapter 7.)  

This month we are giving some attention to the ways we read, reflect on, and seek meaning in the Bible. Reading a passage out loud in different ways is a great tool; so is looking at a text side by side with a related passage from elsewhere in the Bible. Sometimes just reading a text closely and slowly makes you notice new things, too, even in a familiar story. We’ve found that with our Scripture reflections at Compline. And with some help from Bible scholar Richard Swanson, it happened for me with this Gospel – with the word Canaanite. 

Canaanite. When Mark tells this story, he says the woman is a Gentile – a non-Jew – and a Syro-Phoenecian. A descendant of one of the great empires that marched through Judea in ages past. But Matthew says this woman is a Canaanite.

Canaanite is a very old-fashioned word. The Canaanites were Israel’s great enemies in the time of Joshua and Judges over a thousand years ago. I had never paused on the word before because it’s a Biblical word; it’s familiar. But this is the only time this word is used in the New Testament… and for that matter, the last 2/3 of the Old Testament. The Canaanites mostly aren’t mentioned after the book of Judges – except when people are re-telling Israel’s early history, remembering how God brought them to the land of Canaan and said, This is for you; kill everyone who lives here and then move in and settle down. 

Calling this woman a Canaanite is like saying she’s a Redcoat. It’s recognizable as a term for an enemy we used to have – but it’s been a while since those were the bad guys. 

Why call this woman a Canaanite? The Canaanites were the peoples who lived in the land where the Israelites wanted to live. (Or – as archaeologists and Biblical scholars increasingly believe – they were the ancestors of the Israelites, whom the Israelites wanted to separate themselves from as they developed a new faith and way of life.) So this woman is a non-Jew who lives in a neighboring territory. Sure, call her a Canaanite. It’s not necessarily wrong; it’s just odd.  

Matthew isn’t making a mistake. He means something by using this archaic term. But what? 

Matthew is sometimes described as the most Jewish of the Gospels – the most grounded in the history and heritage of Judaism. Matthew believes, with the apostle Paul (Romans 11), that non-Jewish Christians should hold their faith with humility, knowing that they have been grafted onto a vine that was planted long ago;  that our life and vitality come from the deep roots and resilient growth of that vine. 

Matthew’s Gospel begins with a genealogy that doubles as a capsule history of Israel. He frequently shapes his narrative to present Jesus as a second Moses. In that light, Matthew’s use of the word “Canaanite” means to throw us back into the history of the Jewish people. He wants to evoke the time of Joshua and Judges, when the Canaanites were Israel’s despised neighbors, a constant cultural, religious, and military threat, to be resisted and, when possible, exterminated. 

Matthew’s deep commitment to Judaism may seem like it’s in tension with Jesus’ hostility towards the scribes and the Pharisees, Jewish religious scholars, in today’s Gospel. 

I’m sure Matthew is re-telling Jesus’ words here – potty humor and all. Jesus clearly had kind of a “frenemy” relationship with the Pharisees during his life. 

Matthew’s Gospel may lean into that antagonism because those tensions had become stronger in the decades after Jesus. 

Matthew is writing his Gospel, based on Mark and some other texts and memories and stories he’s gathered, around the year 75, give or take. 

It’s not long after the destruction of Jerusalem following a failed revolt against Roman colonial rule. 

Different Jewish groups are all trying to work out what faithful living looks like in this new time, after all that struggle and loss. The Pharisees are seeking the survival of their way of faith by calling people to daily observance of the ancient ways of Judaism. 

In contrast, Christians (at this point still a weird movement within Judaism) are seeking survival of their way of faith by cutting back on required practices, emphasizing heart and soul instead, and becoming a faith that actively evangelizes non-Jews. 

So these kinds of questions about what kind of life puts you right with God, and who Jesus’ mission and ministry were for, may have felt even more pressing and weighty as Matthew wrote down his Gospel than they did during Jesus’ life. 

I want us to notice that there’s a penny waiting to drop, between the end of Jesus’ diatribe against the Pharisees and the moment of his softening towards the Canaanite woman. 

He has just pushed back strongly on the idea that worthiness, holiness, rightness-with-God can be earned or kept through particular practices, things you do. 

He’s said, more or less, that his mission is not to restore Judaism as the Pharisees understand it.

But he apparently still thinks his mission is focused on Judaism, on the lost sheep of the house of Israel. On those descendants of Abraham who are hurting, hungry, helpless or hopeless.  

But then. 

I want to take a moment to honor this woman, this fierce mama whose fear for her child makes her fearless. She does something very familiar here – something that women in sexist systems and marginalized folk of all kinds sometimes have to do. She accepts the demeaning terms that are offered her, and makes her case anyway. Jesus says this flat-out racist thing, calls her a dog, and she says, Yes, sir. But you know, the thing about dogs is, when the kids are eating, the dogs are going to end up getting something. 

There are many little hints that make me think Matthew thinks Jesus’ heart changes, in this moment. It’s not just that Jesus is swayed by her feistiness and decides to make an exception, just this once. It’s that penny finally drops and the fully-human part of Jesus gets a little bit closer to understanding what the fully-God part of Jesus is up to. 

But right now I just want to circle back to that word, Canaanite. Remember that the Canaanites were Israel’s ancient enemy, to avoid and/or destroy. That a touchstone of their history is the story about God bringing them the land of Canaan, and telling them: This is for you; now, kill everyone who already lives here. 

Because Matthew calls this woman a Canaanite, suddenly this Gospel story is in conversation with Joshua and Judges. It’s not just that Jesus suddenly sees that his mission is to and for the Gentiles too. It’s that Jesus’ work and teaching, life and death and rising, are meant to mend and redeem a history of hatred, suspicion, and violence. 

By the way: Joshua – the great general of the campaign against Canaan –  and Jesus are the same name in Hebrew: Yeshua. Matthew knows this.

Richard Swanson writes,”The storyteller is staging a remembrance of the slaughter carried out by Joshua when [the Israelites] invaded the land [of Canaan].  This is not idly done. This remembrance makes this [Gospel story] a scene of historic repentance: the Canaanites are shown to be capable of real faithfulness… The argument for [the] slaughter [of the Canaanites] – that they will lead you away from true faithfulness – is revealed to be false.” 

This is a pivot point in Matthew’s Gospel. It’s in chapter 15, close to the halfway point of Matthew’s 28 chapters. In chapter 16, Jesus starts warning his disciples about what’s going to happen to him.* And chapter 17 contains the Transfiguration, the literal mountaintop moment that turns the Gospel story towards the cross. 

I think Matthew sees this moment as the fulcrum – the point on which the story pivots. On which Jesus’ understanding of his mission pivots. From seeking and saving the lost sheep of the house of Israel, to breaking down the walls that divide us, making whole what has long been broken. and embracing all those of any nation who seek God’s healing, redemption, and grace. 

Thanks be to God. 

Sermon, July 12

Our Gospel today brings us one of Jesus’ parables – these stories he likes to tell. Why does he do that so much, anyway?…  In the verses our text skips, Jesus gives one answer, quoting the book of the prophet Isaiah: “The reason I speak to [the crowd] in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’” The purpose of the parables is to perplex people, to keep the truth obscured. 

I wonder….  I think Jesus probably really said something a lot like that. But I think there’s more more going on here. If you want to hide the truth, why preach to enormous crowds? In Mark, Jesus goes on to say, “Nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light.” So maybe parables are supposed to leave you wondering – until the penny drops and you say, “Oooh! I see what he meant now!” 

Telling stories can be a good way to get away with public speech that might upset the authorities. There are several moments in the Gospels where people suddenly realize that a story Jesus is telling is about them – and not in a good way! 

Telling stories is a great way to talk to people who aren’t in the habit of listening to sermons or lectures – and Jesus wanted to reach people like that. People remember stories; they invite you in and stick with you much more than an expository speech making the same point. I try to use stories in my preaching often, for the same reason. 

Stories can hold big, strange ideas in deceptively simple containers. This might be the main reason Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God mostly in stories. 

The writer Francis Spufford offers this overview of Jesus’ Kingdom parables: 

“When [Jesus] talks about [the Kingdom], it sips from analogy to analogy… Yeshua’s kingdom apparently exists in ever-changing resemblances. He does not say what it is, only what it is like. It’s like a tiny seed. It’s like a big tree. Like something inside you. Like a pearl you’d give everything to possess. Like wheat growing among weeds. Like the camel climbing though the needle’s eye. Like the way the world looks to children… Like getting a day’s pay for an hour’s work. Like a crooked magistrate, who has fixed the case in your favor. Like a narrow gate, a difficult road, a lamp on a stand. Like a wedding party. Like a wedding party where all the original guests have been disinvited and replaced by random passers-by. Like yeast in dough. Like a treasure, like a harvest, like a door that opens whenever you knock…. The kingdom is — whatever all those likenesses have in common. The kingdom, he seems to be saying, is something that can only be glimpsed in comparisons, because the world contains no actual examples of it. And yet the world glints and winks and shines everywhere with the possibility of it.” (Unapologetic, p. 123)

So there are lots of reasons Jesus might have spoken in parables. To fly under the radar; to catch people’s attention; to point at ideas and realities hard to capture with other kinds of language.  And Jesus’ parables do leave us thinking, and wondering. Even the “easy” ones, the ones Jesus pauses to explain, like the Parable of the Sower. 

In his explanation to the disciples, Jesus describes the different soils as different people. That’s a reading that makes sense in that moment, as he’s preaching his message to larger and larger crowds. Let’s just note the genius here: with this parable Jesus is doing exactly what he’s talking about. He’s tossing out this story like seeds into the crowd, knowing it will only take root in a few. And as he explains the parable to his friends, he is managing their expectations. He’s saying, Not everyone in that crowd is going to get it. And not everyone who gets it, will stick with it. But don’t be discouraged. Enough will get it. Enough will stick with it. Enough will go on to bear fruit. 

This is a parable that says something about results, about outcomes. When we are good soil, we bear fruit. Jesus talks often about fruitfulness. Those whose hearts and lives are changed by turning towards God are expected to live lives that are fruitful in some way. Not to earn salvation or God’s love by deeds or accomplishments! No; our deliverance, our belovedness are givens. But as our response, as our willing participation in God’s work of healing, liberating, and reconciling. 

These verses about bearing fruit can weigh heavily because we’re not sure what it looks like – and we may compare ourselves with others, thinking our garden should look just like theirs. I can be prone to that myself sometimes. But I think God expects our gardens and fields to be different. What fruitfulness God wants to see in your life is an intimate, prayerful question. For me, it means asking God often, What matters? Where should I be putting my best energy? And trying to notice, and follow, any holy nudges. 

Which brings me to the way I’d like to dwell with this parable a little together.

Jesus explains this as a parable about how the seed of God’s word lands in different people. But that might not be the only way to receive this parable. Parables are like that. As I read about the Sower and the seed, I notice that I have all those kinds of soil inside of me. Our lives are full of opportunities and invitations – to begin or deepen a relationship, to get involved with a project or process, to help or advocate or build or connect or learn or rest or share joy. To bear fruit for God’s kingdom. And we don’t take all those invitations. We can’t. God understands that. God knows our limitations better than we do. 

Take the seed that falls on rocky ground.This reminds me of the inevitable seed sprouting projects that come home from school with young children. The traditional Dixie cup, or even worse, the plastic bag… I love teachers, don’t get me wrong, but WHY do they do this to parents? Get a child invested in a tiny fragile living thing and then send it home, putting it on the parents to either transplant it – tearing up tiny roots that have nothing better to grow in than a damp paper towel or cotton ball – and try to nurse it along until the child loses interest and it dies, or leave it in the bag and hide it quietly and hope the child forgets about it. 

These plastic-bag seeds sprung up quickly! They had moisture and sun. But they do not have what they need to keep growing and become mature plants. 99% of the time, they are not going to get past the seedling stage. 

What’s like that in my life?… In these seedlings I recognize my temporary enthusiasms, things that are gripping and exciting and urgent for a day or a week, but then fade into the background. For whatever reason, they didn’t get rooted in my life. Maybe because I didn’t take the time to plant them well. Maybe because I’m not the right soil for that project. 

Right now I’m working hard – I think many of you are, too – to keep our renewed commitment to racial equity from being one of these quick-to-grow, quick-to-wither plants. Transplanting the seedling from that Dixie cup to a pot, with soil and drainage. Watering it, putting it in the sun. Committing to tending it for a season, and seeing what it may bear. 

Next there are the seeds that get established OK, but then get overgrown by weeds. Weeds that tangle around, stealing the sun and the water, crowding and choking the young plant. Oh my gosh, so many things are like that for me. There are a lot of weeds right now, y’all. The ongoing thrum of anxiety, stress, grief – over lost opportunities, lost people, lost normalcy – all of that is big stuff that we can’t turn off. It may weigh heavier some days and lighter others, but it’s always there. 

It’s why I’ve pulled back on some impulses to create LOTS of content and LOTS of opportunities in our virtual church household. Sure, some of us have more time now than we did in the Before-times – but most of us have less bandwidth, less mental, emotional, and/or spiritual capacity.  A lot of things we might like to do in principal are getting choked out by the cares of the world, as Jesus says.

And then there are the seeds that the birds grab before they even get rooted. I struggled a little with finding this in my life until I realized – these are the seeds that never even start to grow. These are the opportunities and possibilities that cross my path, but don’t even register. I don’t click the link. I have a schedule conflict and don’t make it to the event. I don’t ask the next question that would take the conversation somewhere deeper. I know these misses happen all the time – even though I try to pay attention and notice which of the thousands of things that cross my path have that glint or shimmer of holy possibility. 

Now and then I recognize a miss, and grieve it. But most of the time I don’t even know the misses happen. That doesn’t keep me up nights… much – because I trust in God’s Plans B, C, D, E, F, G, and so on. Maybe that seed bounced off me and got nobbled by a bird. But somewhere else – I hope, I pray – a seed landed in warm, rich, moist soil, soft and deep enough to send down roots. 

And that’s where this parable points us. It’s a parable of reassurance. Maybe only a quarter of the seed lands in the good soil. But the ones that land in the right soil at the right time – they grow enough that there will be a harvest. A banquet. 

As I was working on this sermon, my husband Phil was out in the garden picking the first fresh pea pods off our pea plants. He picked a quart of peas – and that’s just the beginning. And each of our happy, prolific pea plants started as one pea. One. Pea. 

Now, it was work to give those pea plants good, rich soil, and make sure they get enough water and enough sun – even cutting down some old dead trees a few years ago! – and to keep critters from eating the seedlings. But it’s not work to make the plant grow, or bear fruit. If the conditions are right, the plant just *does* that. 

Our lives are full of opportunities and invitations to be part of God’s work of healing, liberating, and reconciling. And some of those possibilities WILL land in good soil. The season is right; there’s just enough sun, just enough rain; and the seed takes root. When something is really rooted in your good soil, it uses the gifts and skills you already have – AND it calls you into getting better at what it needs from you. When something is really rooted in your good soil, you don’t have to talk yourself into doing it because your heart is already there. Maybe it feels easy, maybe it feels hard – but it draws you onward. It grows. 

Here’s an example of something I currently want to drop everything else and work on: Turning the last fourteen chapters of the Book of Genesis into a script and a virtual Vacation Bible School for August. It’s not a big or significant project by many standards. And there are moments when I reproach myself for wanting to put my time into something fun and frivolous.

But then I remind myself of the endgame, the harvest I’m trying to cultivate with projects like this: Nurturing kids- and grownups! – in this church whose consciences and imaginations are deeply formed by Scripture, and its call to be people of justice, mercy, and reconciliation. 

When something is deeply rooted in your good soil, you want to give it your time and energy and skill. It’s okay that not everything is like that. But it’s glorious that some things are. 

We all have rocky soil within us, friends – and weeds that tangle and crowd. But we have good earth too – rich soil where things can grow, where things are already growing, already bearing fruit, already turning one seed into twenty or forty or a hundred. We all have the capacity to grow something for God’s kingdom – watermelons or cherries, zucchini or chives or potatoes… After all, fruitfulness comes in all shapes, sizes and flavors, thanks be to God! 


Is there something in your life that you want to weed around, and water, and give a little more chance to grow? … 

Sermon, July 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The video that got me thinking:

Sermon, June 21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matthew 10, selected verses, The Message, alt. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mt 10: 21-22, 34-36

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

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

Mt 10: 21-22, 34-36 again

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

Mt 10: 21-22, 34-36 again

What did you notice? …. 

Sermon, June 14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I invite you to pray it with me. 

Sermon, June 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(from his memoir No Future Without Forgiveness) 

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

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

Except that there’s this pandemic going on.

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

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

No man is an island. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some sources… 

Basil and bad Trinity math:

Gregory of Nyssa:

BuzzFeed piece:

99 Percent Invisible, Episode 401: The Natural Experiment –

A starting point on the contagion of altruism –

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