Category Archives: Sermons

Sermon, May 12

There is no violent solution.

I drive past the words most weekday mornings. They’re on the side of a garage along Lake Mendota Drive, near my son’s school. There’s an image of a dove -and these words, neatly painted: There is no violent solution. 

In our text from the Gospel of John today, Jesus is in the Great Temple in Jerusalem. In the other Gospels he comes there only in the days before his execution, but in John he visits the great city several times. It’s winter, and it’s the feast of the Dedication – you know it better as Hanukkah. And as Jesus walks through the temple, some of his adversaries circle around him – religious leaders who are suspicious of his message and mission – and they ask him: How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly!

If you know a Hanukkah story, it’s probably the story of the oil. The Great Temple had been desecrated, its holiness violated, by Judea’s enemies. When they reclaimed the Temple, cleansed it, and dedicated it once again to the God of Israel, they found that nearly all the olive oil for the lamps in the holy place had been defiled – made profane. Only one container remained sealed – enough for one day. They lit the holy lamps – and by the miraculous faithfulness of God, that oil lasted for eight whole days, long enough to press and prepare new oil.

It’s a nice manageable miracle, inspiring and not too hard to believe. But it’s not the Hanukkah story that Jesus and his adversaries would have known. The miracle of the oil first appears in print perhaps 400 years later, though it’s likely somewhat older than that. But it doesn’t appear in the books of the Maccabees, which tell the history behind Hanukkah. And the historian Josephus, writing several decades after Jesus, says this about Hanukkah: “So we celebrate this festival, and call it Lights. I suppose the reason was because this liberty beyond our hopes appeared to us; and that thence was the name given to that festival.” He’s clearly unfamiliar with the magic oil story! 

In Jesus’ time, and Josephus’ time, Hanukkah was pretty new – less than 200 years old. Think Fourth of July, not Christmas. And Hanukkah wasn’t a festival of divine generosity. It was a festival of freedom, purification, and vengeance. And its core story is a little more complicated than miraculous oil. 

Two hundred years before Jesus’ birth, Judea was under the control of the Seleucid Empire. The Seleucids were a dynasty, a lineage of leaders; their dominance basically took over the great empire established by the conquests of the Greek general Alexander the Great, and lasted in some form until the year 63 before the common era, when Rome became the ruling empire of the known world. The Seleucids were culturally Greek, or Hellenistic, and for much of their season of rule, they followed the Greek pattern of tolerating a lot of cultural and religious diversity within the empire. People put up with foreign rule a lot better if you let them keep doing their thing, you know?

But then things changed, under Antiochus Epiphanes, who became emperor in the year 175 BCE. Unlike previous Seleucid rulers, Epiphanes declared himself a god – Epiphanes means, “The One who has been Revealed.” And when there were murmurs of discontent in Judea, he cracked down, outlawing Jewish religious practices and ordering that the Greek god Zeus be worshiped as the supreme god. He had his army desecrate the Great Temple – even killing a pig, an unclean animal, on the altar of the holiest place in the world. I don’t think we can even imagine how horrific this would have been for the observant Jews of Judea.

But just in time, a hero rose up – you might even call him a savior. His name was Judas Maccabeus. There are different interpretations of his second name: It might mean “The Hammer,” because of his ferocity in battle; it might be an acronym for his Hebrew battle cry, a verse from Exodus that translates to, “Who among the gods is like you, O Adonai?” Judas Maccabeus wanted the filthy Seleucids out of his country, and he wanted the Judeans to abandon foreign habits, especially the worship of other gods, and return to the religion of their ancestors. 

The Hammer’s forces were outgunned, outmanned, outnumbered, but not outplanned – think Fourth of July again: like scruffy militias defending their homeland everywhere, the Maccabean rebels used guerrilla warfare against the Seleucid armies, and won some key victories. Go to Wikipedia for all the details! The upshot is: Judas the Hammer freed Jerusalem and the Temple from the Seleucids. The Temple was cleansed and re-dedicated to God, on the 25th day of the month Kislev – the first day of Hanukkah, even today. 

Judas Maccabeus is exactly the kind of savior, the kind of Messiah, that the people of Judea and Galilee were looking for, in Jesus’ time. The freedom won by the Maccabees had not lasted long. Now Rome was the big dog in town, demanding high taxes, bossing around their kings and priests. Rome hadn’t messed with the Temple yet but it could happen; the current emperor doesn’t want to be worshiped as a god, but what about the next guy? What we need is another Hammer, to restore the kingdom to Israel – to give us back our land, our freedom, our sovereignty. Our purity from the pollution of foreign gods, foreign ways. What we need is a Messiah, the Savior so long promised, to bring us back to the way things were under David, Israel united and free and holy under the rule of a holy king, this time forever and ever, world without end. 

Only Jesus isn’t the Hammer. Because there is no violent solution.

We love a good story of revolt against unjust rule. It’s in our cultural DNA as Americans. But Judas Maccabeus and his forces also killed a lot of other Jews. In fact, some modern scholarship now sees the violence of that time as primarily a civil war between Judeans who had adapted to Hellenistic culture – taken on Greek names, Greek clothing, Greek attitudes – and those Judeans who saw all of that as corruption, and wanted to burn it out of their land. There were likely rural/urban divides and class divisions entangled with those cultural differences, as well. 

And lest we be too inclined to root for the anti-colonialists, the defenders of traditional culture: We’re Team Hellenism, friends. The Hellenists believed in things like pluralism and progress and democracy. They thought the Maccabeans’ approach was primitive – provincial – fundamentalist. A retrenchment in an outworn way of thinking and living. One historian of this period writes that Hellenistic Jewish leaders wanted to preserve aspects of Judaism that fit within Greek thinking, like a universal God, but to remove practices that set Jews apart, like dietary laws and Sabbath observance. How… Episcopalian. 

You can see why the story of miraculous oil took hold – to tidy up the Hanukkah story. Because the real history behind the feast is decidedly messy. There were no pure motives and no clear heroes. The Temple was restored, the nation freed – for a while – but at what cost? There is no violent solution. 

And now it’s Hanukkah and people want Jesus to speak plainly – something he’s disinclined to do, especially in John’s Gospel. Are you the Messiah? It’s hard to tell from this short passage, but it’s pretty clear in context that this is a bad-faith question. The religious leaders circling Jesus like wolves, in this scene, aren’t seekers who want to believe; their goal is to get him on record as a blasphemer, one who makes claims to holiness or divinity. Later they’ll tell the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, that by their law Jesus should die because he claimed to be the Son of God. 

The question is a trap – but there may be truth in it as well. On this festival day of freedom, purification, and vengeance, there’s a challenge here, maybe even a plea: If you are the Messiah, man up and prove it.  Drive out Rome. Restore our nation. Show us some results. 

And Jesus… avoids the question. 

In all the Gospels, people talk constantly about whether Jesus is or is not the Messiah, the long-expected Savior sent by God. But he appears ambivalent about that term. He knows how laden it is with people’s expectations. He strives to invent his own vocabulary for who and what he is, in the arc of God’s plan for the cosmos. And here, now, he says: What I am is a shepherd.

He deflates those ballooning expectations with a word. A shepherd isn’t fierce. He might carry a club, a slingshot, like David, to fend off predators. But shepherds are not soldiers. A shepherd and his wooly army are not going to overthrow the lethally organized forces of Rome. 

Today’s text from Revelation goes one better, or worse: Jesus isn’t even a shepherd; he’s a sheep – and not even a full-grown sheep, a nice burly ram that might butt the Romans right of Judea; but a lamb. A lamb that has been slaughtered – evoking the ancient story of Passover, when the people of Israel marked their door posts with a lamb’s blood to protect them from the Angel of Death; evoking, too, the ritual practices described in the Torah, the Book of the Law, in which an unblemished lamb is sacrificed to cleanse people from their sins, its blood dashed upon the altar.  A dead lamb – what could be more helpless, more pathetic? Yet this is one of the early church’s core images of Jesus. Jesus is the Lamb seated on the throne of Heaven –  the Lamb who is also a shepherd, who guides his flock to the water of life. 

It’s beautiful imagery, tender and gentle. I guess what I’m noticing this year is that it’s also profoundly disappointing. Jesus isn’t the Hammer of Judea; he’s practically the Anti-Hammer. What kind of messiah lets himself be arrested? Beaten? Killed? 

It’s clear throughout the Gospels that Jesus’ friends and enemies alike were confounded and frustrated by his refusal to be a man of force. Deep down, on our dark days, maybe we are too. Maybe we long for a hero, a Hammer, a God who’ll kick ass and bash heads – whether for the cause of pluralism and progress, or for purity and tradition. 

But Jesus tells the wolves circling him in Solomon’s portico: There is no violent solution. I’m not going to fight Rome; and I’m not going to fight you. I’m just going to call my sheep – and at least some of them will hear me, and follow. That’s what I’m here to do. And it’s enough. 

I don’t always know what it means, to walk the way of peace in the face of pervasive violence. To arm ourselves with justice, mercy, and love of enemy, against the many death-dealing forces of our times. Jesus confounds and perplexes me, too.

But I hear that voice – a voice I recognize, that calls me to paths of righteousness. So I try to trust and to follow the One who is Shepherd. Who is Lamb. Who is Life.

More on Jesus and Hanukkah here: 

https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com

More on Hellenism and the ambiguity of the Maccabees: 

https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-maccabees-heroes-or-fanatics/

Sermon, May 5

Today the lectionary, our cycle of Sunday readings, brings us stories of both Peter and Paul – the two most famous leaders in the early years of Christianity. On the night of Jesus’ arrest and trial, Peter had famously denied, three times, that he knew Jesus;  now he redeems that night of fear by affirming his love for Jesus three times. And Jesus calls him to his leadership role in the early church, as feeder and tender of Christ’s sheep, the newborn Christian community. 

In the book of the Acts of the Apostles – Luke’s sequel to his Gospel – we receive the story of the conversion of Saul, known to us as Paul. Saul was a Jew and a zealous one; he wanted all God’s people to turn back to their ancient ways of holiness and righteousness. The Jesus movement was a threat – so he set out to destroy it, until one day on the road to Damascus he was blinded by the light of Christ. 

It’s really a lot to get the commissioning stories of both of these guys on one Sunday! But they do have a lot in common. Redemption and re-orientation. Purpose. Joy. And … death. Or at least: The clear expectation of death. 

In our Acts lesson, Saul – who will be Paul – is fresh from his role holding the coats of the men who stoned the apostle Stephen to death for preaching the Gospel. (People took off their coats to avoid bloodstains.) And immediately after this passage, the Jewish leaders of Damascus begin plotting to have Paul killed – for the same reasons he used to be so eager to kill Christians. He has to escape the city by being lowered over the walls in a basket by night. Paul has every reason to expect his new calling – to bring the name of Jesus before Gentiles and kings – will kill him. As it does, eventually – Paul was executed for his faith in Rome, perhaps thirty years later, during the persecution of Christians under the Emperor Nero. 

As for Peter – Jesus tells him now to expect death. “When you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” Tradition tells us that Peter, too, was executed in Rome – crucified, hands outstretched – around the same time as Paul. There’s a second-century story about it: Peter is fleeing Rome to escape his doom, when he meets Jesus, who is walking towards the city. Peter asks him, Quo vadis, Domine? Where are you going, Lord? Jesus answers, I am going to Rome to be crucified again. Peter turns around and returns to the city to face his destiny. 

Peter and Paul spent their lives preaching Christ crucified and risen, preaching a new life in God for all who believe, calling communities of believers gathered around that hope of new and abundant life – all while fully expecting to die for their faith. Not a contradiction but a paradox; not lies and delusion, but deeper truth. 

The Resurrection does not make everything OK. Jesus came back from death – still wounded. And even though his friends got to see him again, were able to find some sense of resolution and peace and purpose in his death, it wasn’t the way it was before. Things weren’t back to normal. That normal was gone. 

Becoming a Christian is not opting out of the hard stuff. Maybe it seems obvious, but there is a temptation, a slippery slope, a hope that our piety can buy us God’s favor. That the quantity or quality of our prayers might pull a beloved child or elder back from the brink of death. Prayer works; but that’s not how it works.

That our generosity might buy us out of the common human lot of pain, misfortune, and loss. Generosity works; but that’s not how it works. 

That our righteous actions will form a hedge of protection around us, shielding us from harm. We’re more likely to say it about someone else than about ourselves, perhaps – how can something like that happen to somebody like her? – but we do slip into it, sometimes. I’ve caught myself thinking it several times this past week. Righteousness works, dear ones – but that’s not how it works.

That’s why we need to be Christians together. Why Jesus commissioned Peter to leadership as care, not command; why Paul gave every day of his life to founding and nurturing communities of believers. Households of faith to bear and carry the hard stuff together. Christian writer Rachel Held Evans says, “There is a difference between curing and healing, and I believe the church is called to the slow and difficult work of healing. We are called to enter into one another’s pain, anoint it as holy, and stick around no matter the outcome.” I ran across this quotation in a post about Rachel’s illness – she’s very sick, and Christians across the spectrum are holding her in prayer. I invite your prayers, too. Because prayer DOES work – we just don’t really know how. 

Today we begin our long-planned, long-awaited renovation. And maybe the inevitability of death and suffering is not the most obvious sermon for the occasion. But Peter and Paul looked death and suffering in the face, and went out to start churches. 

Why invest money and energy and time in making a place for believers to gather? And then invest more in making it safer, more comfortable, more hospitable and beautiful and useful? Not because the building matters; but because the gathering matters. And anyone who’s ever attending a meeting in a musty church basement with ancient folding chairs and bathrooms two flights of stairs away, knows that the container for the gathering matters. 

As the bricks-and-mortar – or perhaps drywall-and-concrete – phase of the Open Door Project begins, it may be easy for us to over-focus on the building. Both the inconvenience and mess of the renovation itself, and our big shiny hopes for the results. It might be easy to feel like disrupting the building is the same thing as disrupting the church; and that renewing the building is the same thing as renewing the church. Those are both probably a little bit true – but not a lot true. 

To remind myself that the building serves the community, and not the other way round, I went way back to the focus groups we did in 2015. Two years before the series of Wondering Conversations that helped us develop the Open Door Project – yet those earlier conversations were part of the work too, naming what we think we’re about and why it matters. One of the questions was, “Does belonging to church help with areas of pain or struggle?” Your answers overwhelmed me then; they overwhelm me now. 

Listen to what some people said: “I’ve had a rough couple of years. I know there are people here who are concerned about me and who love me, regardless of where I am.”  “We share the prayer list every Sunday and very few of us know what all those names are for, but we together lift them up, and for me that’s a tremendous comfort.”  “It’s easy for me to get to feeling like I’m out there on the end of the branch, swinging all by myself, but that’s not the case at all. People who care for me are here, [and] when I don’t have sense enough to pray, somebody else is.”   “Coming here, being with other Christians who share a perspective about how the world could be, gives me hope that there’s a community of people who are committed to making the world a better place.”

“It breaks the tunnel-focus on bad stuff in your little world.”  “It’s a re-set button.”   “It’s a reminder that good exists, and that’s enough.”  “It’s the well that I come to for the water of life, in so many ways.”

Listen, I don’t want to make it sound like we’ve got this figured out. I am positive there are people in the room right now thinking, I haven’t yet found this here; I don’t feel connected in a way that is helping sustain me. I hope we’ll continue weaving that fabric of mutual care to be warm and strong and capacious, for each of us and all of us. And of course caring for one another in hard times is only one of the things a healthy church does. We also worship and sing and play and eat and wonder and make stuff and give and serve together. All of that and more.

The point is this: What we’re doing by repairing and improving the building, the container, is investing in our future gatherings; and we invest in our future gatherings because we believe that gathering matters. That our common life as people of faith, gathered and sent, matters. That what we do when we come together makes us better able to carry love and peace and beauty and justice, and, well, Jesus,  out into the world with us when we go. 

And we can undertake this audacious, impractical work – not renovating a building, but being a church – because it’s ultimately God’s work, not ours. 

This Gospel lesson was read at my ordination to the priesthood, back in February of 2009. My friend and mentor Lisa Fischbeck preached about it. And she called my attention to the pronouns in this back and forth between Jesus and Peter: “Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.” Not your sheep – Peter’s sheep. Jesus’ sheep. God’s sheep. Still. Always. Lisa told me, “Always remember that [even though you are called to be a] tender of the sheep, the Good Shepherd over all is Jesus.”   

Psalm 127 says, Unless God builds the house, the workers labor in vain. We’ve worked hard, friends, but it is God who is building this house, God who is tending this flock. Our past, present, and future belong to God. And in this moment of both fulfillment and beginning, we commend ourselves and all our undertakings to the God who raises up what has been cast down, who makes new what has grown old, and who is carrying out in tranquillity the work of salvation. 

Homily/Drama, April 28

Honoring the second Sunday of Easter as a time to affirm our youth in their wondering and seeking in faith is an idea from John Westerhoff (in Will Our Children Have Faith?, pages 101-102). We decided to try it out! Thanks to the Rev. Thomas McAlpine, the Rev. Jonathan Melton, and other conversation partners in developing these ideas. 

MIRANDA: Friends, today is sometimes called Doubting Thomas Sunday. Because our Gospel is the story about Thomas, one of Jesus’ friends, and how he came to believe that Jesus had truly risen from the dead. We get the same Gospel lesson EVERY year, even though most of our Gospels only come around every three years. It’s like our Lectionary wants to shout at us every year: DO NOT DOUBT BUT BELIEVE!

But what does it mean to doubt?  Is it OK to have questions about faith, and God, and the world? … Of course it is! Is it OK to not understand everything? …  Of course it is! But if we just say, Don’t doubt! It’s bad to doubt! – and don’t talk about what doubt really is… we might all walk around with ideas like this deep down inside:

Hold up signs: I’M A BAD CHRISTIAN, I DON’T BELONG HERE, EVERYBODY ELSE SEEMS TO GET IT; WHAT’S WRONG WITH ME?

MIRANDA: So today we’re going to talk about DOUBT. We’ll draw on several Scriptures – they’re on your Sunday Supplement if you want to take a look. What does it mean to doubt? Maybe it means there are things we think we’re supposed to believe – but don’t, really. You might think you’re a Bad Christian because the church teaches that the earth was created in seven days, and that dinosaur fossils are a trick God gave us to test our faith. But you really love science, and you just can’t swallow that.

Well, good news, Bad Christian – you don’t have to! Our church doesn’t teach that the world was created in just seven days. We understand the Creation story as telling us that God is the Source of all things, and that God made all things in love – and that we’re all in this together, humans and animals and plants and oceans and stars. And science is awesome! There are lots and lots and lots of scientists who also believe in God! 

Or you might feel like you Don’t Belong Here because you’ve heard that Jesus had to die on the cross because God was so angry about how bad and sinful humans are. God was so mad that God had to punish somebody, so Jesus took the punishment for us, to protect us from God’s anger. But, man, that story does not make you feel good about God. 

Well, that one is a doozy. It’s tough because some of our prayers could point you in that direction. But good news: Your church does not ask you to believe this! That teaching is called substitutionary atonement. It is just one way – out of many – that Christians have tried to understand Jesus’ death and resurrection. But what Jesus himself says about God is that God is merciful, and loves us, and wants to be close to us.  What a relief – that angry God was pretty scary! 

It’s OK to have questions, and to wrestle with what you think about it all! Let’s hear from someone who knows about wrestling with God. This is a story from the book of Genesis. 

JACOB: Hi, everybody. My name is Jacob. I lived a really long time ago – after Abraham, but before Moses. Is anybody here a twin? … I’m a twin. I was born second, after my brother Esau. In those days, everything went to the oldest son, even if the second son was born five minutes later. I spent my life consumed by envy of my brother. He had everything – including our father’s love. Finally I crossed a line; I did something so bad that I had to run away, or my brother might have killed me.

I spent years away from home. I got married, had children, became rich. But always, I felt the pull of home. And of unfinished business with my brother. Finally I knew it was time to go home. I gathered up my wives and children and servants and flocks, and we set out. As we got close, I was more and more terrified. My parents raised me to love and trust God. But I’d spent so much time trying to take, instead of waiting for God to give. Maybe God was done with me. Maybe I’d already gotten all the good life was going to give me. 

I sent servants on ahead with gifts for my brother – goats and sheep and camels and cattle and donkeys – did I mention I was really rich? And I sent my family off without me, so that if Esau came to kill me, they could get away. And I prayed to God: ‘God, you told me, “Return to you country and your kindred, and I will do you good.” I am not worthy of the steadfast love and faithfulness you have shown to me, all these years. Save me from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid of him!’ 

And then – someone was with me. It was pitch dark; I could not see him. But he seized me, and we began to wrestle. We struggled together all night, until daybreak. As the sky began to lighten, the stranger said, Let me go. But I said, I will not let you go unless you bless me. So the stranger blessed me, and he gave me a new name, Israel, which means: One who wrestles with God. And then the stranger disappeared. But I knew that God had been with me that night. And that day, when I met my brother, I wasn’t afraid anymore. We hugged each other, and cried, and forgave each other. 

MIRANDA: Thank you for sharing your story, Jacob! We also might think it’s Doubt when we don’t have all the answers. When there are things we don’t understand – things in the world or in our lives. Those moments when you have a friend who just found out she’s really sick, and you’re worried for her, and you just don’t understand why people get sick. Why do we have to suffer?

KING DAVID: Oh, I feel you. I remember some times when I really felt like that. 

MIRANDA: King David! My goodness! It’s an honor to meet you. You were the most famous king of Israel, and most of the Psalms were written by you or by musicians in your court.

KING DAVID: True, true.

MIRANDA: You’re telling me you had times when you were overwhelmed by suffering and confusion? But you’re famous for your deep faith. How did you talk to God, in those times? 

KING DAVID: Actually, writing poetry about it was one of the ways I handled it. Here’s a song I wrote during a tough time. You know it as Psalm 102. 

O God, hear my prayer, and let my cry come before you! Don’t hide your face from me in the day of my trouble. Turn your ear towards me; when I call, hurry and answer me. For my days drift away like smoke,  and my bones feel as hot as burning coals. My heart feels as dry and brittle as withered grass; I even forget to eat my bread; I am skin and bones. I have become like a vulture in the wilderness, like an owl among the ruins. I lie awake and groan; I am like a sparrow, lonely on a house-top. But you, O God, endure for ever, and your Name from age to age. You will arise and have compassion on your people  – for now is the time to have mercy! 

MIRANDA: Wow. Thank you. I think I should read some more of your poetry. 

KING DAVID [modestly]: I have been told that many people find it consoling. 

MIRANDA: Even in your worst moments, you turned towards God. And you weren’t afraid to tell God about it when you were hurting. So… being sad and fearful and confused, and even angry, is not the same thing as doubting God? 

KING DAVID: Not at all. If I doubted God, why would I cry out to God about my troubles? I trust God. That’s why I can complain.

MIRANDA: Wait. You just said you trust God. Jacob said that too. Don’t you mean, you believe in God? 

KING DAVID: I… don’t understand the question. 

MIRANDA: Well, in modern English, to believe means that you think something is true. Like, Cheetahs are the fastest animals. True or not true? True! Trust is different. Trust means you know that somebody is there for you, you know they are who they claim to be and will keep their commitments. You could say that belief is in your brain, and trust is in your heart – and in your relationship with somebody. 

KING DAVID: Hmmm. I see the problem. In Hebrew, the language I speak, we don’t have this… brain-only belief idea. Where you say “believe” in God, our words mean: trust God, hope in God, rely on God, seek safety in God, commit to God… How can you have a relationship with God, or anybody else, with only your brain? 

MIRANDA: That’s a good question… Thank you, O King! Hmm. But if we shift from thinking about believing in God with our brains… to trusting God with our hearts and our lives… then what do we mean by doubt?

JAMES: May I be of assistance?

MIRANDA: Excuse me – who are you?

JAMES: I am James, the brother of Jesus. I wrote a letter that’s included in the New Testament…. About what it really means to live as a person of faith. 

MIRANDA: Of course! It’s an honor to meet you. 

JAMES: I began that letter by reminding fellow Christians to stay faithful in the face of persecution – and even take joy in suffering for Christ’s sake. I said, If you need wisdom, ask God, who gives us what we need with generosity. And ask in faith, without doubting; for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind.The doubter is double-minded and unstable in every way. Double-minded – that’s what I mean by doubt. Split between too many things. Trying to believe two contradictory things at the same time, or believing one thing but acting like you believed something else.

I really started thinking about doubt this way after that time when Jesus called Peter to walk on the water. It worked fine as long as Peter stayed focused on Jesus. But when he started to let his attention wander, he got scared; he lost direction; and he started to sink. Jesus grabbed him, of course – and said, “Why did you doubt?” 

Jesus didn’t mind when we had questions. Sometimes he was annoyed when we didn’t understand – but, to be fair, we were pretty slow on the uptake. He was mostly pretty patient about explaining again, and again, and again. His call on us wasn’t to have it all figured out, but to put our heart into it. To commit. That’s why I think the real meaning of doubt is trying to live by two different, contradictory scripts at the same time. 

MIRANDA: I definitely know what double-mindedness feels like. And that’s probably my biggest struggle with faithful living. I trust in God’s goodness and love. I know God is here among us, right now. But… I get distracted by many things. I get busy. I lose focus and purpose. I get double-minded, and lose my glad singleness of heart. 

But what about Thomas? The one everybody calls Doubting Thomas. That’s why we’re talking about doubt today. What can we learn about doubt from Doubting Thomas? 

THOMAS: Please don’t call me that.

MIRANDA: Oh, hello! Are you… the apostle Thomas? 

THOMAS: Yes, that’s me. 

MIRANDA: Why don’t you tell us your story? 

THOMAS: Well, okay, it’s like this.  Jesus rose from the dead. You know that part, right?  Mary Magdalene told the disciples that she had seen him. But nobody really believed her. [shrugs]

Then one evening most of the old crowd got together. Suddenly Jesus was there among them. He showed them the wounds in his hands and his side – proof that it was really him, not an impostor, not a ghost. They were really happy to see him, of course!

I wasn’t there that night; I was visiting my mother. And when I heard about what happened, I just couldn’t believe it. My heart had been broken by Jesus’ death. I wanted to believe, do you understand? But I was afraid to hope. I told them, “Until I can touch the wounds in his hands, I just can’t believe that he’s alive.”

A week later we were all together, sharing memories. And suddenly – he was there! Jesus! In the room with us! Not an impostor, not a ghost.  And he walked right up to me and held out his hand. It was like he’d heard what I said to the others. He told me, “Here, touch the wound in my hand. Don’t be afraid, Thomas – trust: it’s really me.”

My heart felt like it might burst. I said, “My Lord! My God!” I was so glad to see him – and so grateful that he understood that I couldn’t just rely on second-hand stories. That I needed to see him myself. 

MIRANDA : Thank you for telling your story, Thomas! It reminds me a little bit of my own story. I grew up in church. I was always surrounded by people who believed in God – trusted in God. I heard their stories of times when they’d heard God’s voice or met God, in so many different ways. That was important for me, as I grew up. 

But it was also really important for me to meet God myself. To have my own times when I felt God close by, or heard God’s voice in my heart or in someone else’s words. 

What I’m saying, Thomas, is that what happened for you, and what happened for me, is what I want for all our kids and youth – and grownups, too! We should all have our own meetings with God, with Jesus, with the Holy Spirit. And we should be a community where we can tell those stories, and encourage each other – whether we’re wrestling like Jacob, or crying out to God like King David, or feeling double-minded, or seeking a clearer sense of God in our lives. 

Friends, we wonder about God and seek God at every age – but the teenage years are an especially important time for seeking your own understanding of faith and your own experiences of God. So later this morning we are trying out a new custom: of celebrating that we have young people moving into that exciting season, and committing to being their companions on that journey.

For our teens, Friday night youth group is their primary faith community. Some of them also participate in church on Sunday morning – but mostly at the 10am service. But some of you know some of them. And you may find opportunities to know them better, and be one of the faithful grownups in their lives. – faithful both in the sense of having your own faith story and faith questions to share, and faithful in sticking with them through the challenges of young adulthood. 

I ask you to make a commitment to our youth today: to be unafraid of questions; to speak honestly from our own lives and hearts, instead of saying what we think grownups are supposed to say; and to be brave enough to wonder with them. 

And if their questions and their vision stretches or challenges us, we will rise to it; because we love them, and we trust that God is at work in their lives, and, through them, in the life of this church. 

Friends, will we make this commitment to our young people today? 

WE WILL!

MIRANDA: Names, we acknowledge that as you move into young adulthood, you are thinking about what your church and your faith have offered you in new ways. As you think about God and yourself and the world, you’ll probably have new thoughts and new questions. Like Jacob, you may find yourself wrestling with God; like Thomas, you may find that second-hand faith isn’t good enough for you, and seek your own experience of the Divine. We, as your household of faith, affirm this journey and this work.  At your baptisms, your churches promised to do all in our power to support you in your life in Christ. Today, that means making space for your maturing, and all that it involves. 

What we ask of you is to trust us as companions on this journey. Trust us with the little questions, the things you think you’re probably already supposed to know. You’d be surprised how many of us wonder, too. Trust us with the big questions, knowing that we have wrestled with them too; and that even though some of those big questions don’t have easy answers, we find purpose and truth here. Seek out friends among the grownups of this household of faith, and call on us for support and wondering together. And if it ever starts to feel like this church is too small for you, I invite you to talk to me or another trusted grownup here; we may be able to show you doors into rooms you didn’t even know about. (Metaphorically speaking!) 

Friends, will you make this commitment today? I invite you respond, We will. 

We will. 

Loving God, we commit all our struggle, our lament, our double-mindedness and our seeking to you, trusting that Scripture, tradition, and community are worthy companions on the way; that God is mystery enough to keep us wondering for a lifetime; and that Jesus Christ is Friend enough to walk with us through this and every season. Amen. 

Sermon, April 7

A certain man became ill. His name was Lazarus, and he lived in the village of Bethany, in the hills just west of Jerusalem, in the region of Judea. His sisters lived there too, in the same vilalge, keeping house together – Mary and Martha. Neither of them had ever married – Mary couldn’t be bothered; she didn’t want the things other women wanted – a home of her own, children underfoot. Her mind and heart were always wandering off from the present moment to dwell with the great Mystery at the center of things. And Martha – well, somebody needed to look after Mary and Lazarus. 

People got sick a lot, in those days. And illnesses we can prevent or treat easily, often killed people. When Lazarus got sick, his sisters were worried. But they had a friend whom they hoped could help: Jesus of Nazareth. I wish we knew how they became friends, Jesus and the siblings from Bethany, but we know it was an important friendship. Luke records the famous story of Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet as Martha prepares food, while John gives us the stories I’m telling now. So the sisters write to Jesus: “Master, your friend whom you love is ill.” They’ve heard about his powers, though they may not yet have seen them firsthand. They trust that he could help Lazarus – if he came.

But he doesn’t come. He gets the message all right. And he loves Martha and Mary and Lazarus, all right. But he stays where he is – preaching and performing acts of wonder near the River Jordan – for two more days. Two long days… during which Lazarus got sicker, and died. During which his sisters washed his body, weeping, and wrapped him in linen cloths, and laid him in a tomb, and sealed the door with a great stone, and began the long hard work of figuring out how to live after the loss of a loved one. 

Then, on the third day, out of the blue, Jesus says to his disciples, “Let’s go to Judea. Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going to wake him up.” His disciples are concerned; Bethany is very close to Jerusalem, where various leaders are plotting to murder Jesus if he shows his face. They say, “If Lazarus is asleep, he’ll be fine! He doesn’t need you.” Jesus realizes he has to drop the euphemisms. He tells them, “Lazarus is dead. But all of this has happened so that God may be glorified.” Then he says some stuff about how if you walk in the light you will not stumble. The disciples look at each other, shrug. If Jesus is going to die, might as well die with him. And they all set out for Bethany. 

By the time they arrive, Lazarus has already been in the tomb for four days. Bethany is packed with people; many friends and extended family have come out from Jerusalem to mourn with Martha and Mary. Jesus and his disciples stay just outside the town, and send word quietly to the sisters that they have arrived. When the message reaches her, Martha excuses herself from a knot of anxious aunties and goes to him. 

She says, “Master. If you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now, I know that God will give you whatever you ask.” Jesus tells her, “Your brother will rise again.”  She answers, “Yes, of course, I know he will rise again when all those who have died in God rise to new life on the last day.” Jesus says, “I am the New Life, Martha. Everyone who trusts in me will live, even if they die. Do you believe this?” And Martha, trembling, says to her friend who is also her God:  “Yes. I believe that you are the Anointed One, Son of God, the One coming into the world.” 

Then Martha goes and slips into the house, and calls Mary away from those who are gathered to console her. Several of them follow her. She runs to Jesus and falls at his feet, and cries out, “Master. If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” She’s weeping, and those who came with her are weeping, and tears are contagious; Jesus starts to weep too. Maybe his God-self has been so focused on the gathering miracle that his human-self hadn’t felt the loss until that moment. But now, he weeps. Some of the onlookers say, “Look, he really loved Lazarus!” But others say, “If he cared so much, why didn’t he come heal him?”

He asks them to lead him to the tomb – a cave, sealed by a stone. They expect him to pay his respects, say his goodbyes. Instead he says, “Take away the stone.” Martha, blessed Martha, ever practical, says, “Master, his body has been there for four days. There will be a terrible smell.” Jesus says, Martha. Trust in me. So they roll away the stone. And Jesus looks up towards heaven and prays out loud: “Father, show this crowd that you have sent me.” Then he shouts into the tomb: “Lazarus, come out!”

A long, still, incredulous moment. Then – horror, wonder – sounds from within the dark of the cave. A dim shape, shuffling into the light – face, hands and feet still bound in cloth. The crowd gasps, steps back.  Jesus laughs. “Unbind the poor man,” he says, “and let him go.” 

Was there a smell, I wonder? The text does not reveal the mechanics of the miracle. Did Lazarus’ body begin the normal course of decay in a warm climate, only to be abruptly and totally reversed? Or did he wait in divine suspended animation, only mostly dead, anticipating Jesus’ call? If there was a smell, it would have been rich and rank. We’ve all smelled it – roadkill, or a dead mouse in the walls. The odor of death. 

Imagine their joy, the sisters and their beloved brother! Psalm 126 gives us words for their incredulous, dazed delight – the way you feel when the worst had happened, but then, suddenly, things turn. “When God restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream! Our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongues with shouts of joy! God has done great things for us. Those who sowed with tears will harvest with shouts of joy.”

But not everyone is joyful. There’s an anxious meeting in Jerusalem the next day. Word of this wondrous act – Jesus’ most amazing yet – has reached the chief priests, and they gather to strategize. They say, “What are we to do? This man Jesus is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him. There will be unrest among the people, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation. Surely it’s better for one man to die for the sake of the people, than to have the whole nation destroyed.”  And they give orders that anyone who sees Jesus in Jerusalem should let them know, so they can have him arrested and deal with this threat. 

Jesus and his friends leave the Jerusalem area, but not long. Just a few days later, they’re back in Bethany. Lazarus has invited Jesus to dinner – a feast in his honor. Martha, of course, does the cooking and serves the guests, but she doesn’t mind, much – this is how she can show her friend and Lord how she feels about having her brother restored to her. Mary has a plan to show her gratitude, as well. 

While Jesus is reclining at table with Lazarus and others, Mary brings some expensive ointment, made from nard, an exotic and fragrant plant from the far East. She kneels beside Jesus. She anoints Jesus’ feet, rubbing in the rich ointment. Then she looses her long hair – women wore their hair up, and covered – she unbinds her hair, and uses it to wipe Jesus’ feet. Foot-washing was a common act of hospitality; people wore sandals and streets were dusty and often filthy. But this is more, and other, than that common gesture.This is powerful, and excessive, and uncomfortably intimate. 

I imagine the people nearest noticing, falling silent. The silence spreads around the room until everyone is watching. If you come to Maundy Thursday services, maybe you know that silence, the silence that gathers around each foot-washing station even though there’s music playing and people singing elsewhere in the room. We enter that silence one by one as we come to sit and be washed; to kneel, and wash. 

The adults are hesitant, self-conscious. The kids are utterly present and utterly serious. This is big work, deep magic, and they know how to do it. The silence in the room at Bethany would have had all that woven together -awkwardness, confusion, recognition, awe. 

This time, there is a smell: the smell of the perfume. It fills the whole house, rich and heavy. It smells like pine needles baking in the sun, like the cool earth of a forest floor, like the insistent sweetness of night flowers. Mary’s using a whole POUND of the stuff; it’s almost choking, overwhelming the smells of roast meat and garlic and warm bread. It gets into your nose and stays there, like the scent of incense. The smell of humanity, urgent with gratitude and awe, offering up the best we have. The odor of devotion. Of love. 

It makes Judas’ head swim. It’s too much. Why are his eyes watering? He’s not weeping; it’s the damn perfume. It’s the excess, the shameless waste of it all. He blurts out, “That could have been sold for three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor!” 

Jesus looks at him. Imagine that gaze – compassion, grief, resignation – as he looks upon his friend, his betrayer. Leave her alone, says Jesus. She bought this ointment for the day of my burial. You will always have the opportunity to respond to the needs of the poor. But I will not always be here.

The next day, Jesus entered Jerusalem as a crowd, frenzied with joy and expectation, waved palms and shouted, Hosanna! We’ll tell that chapter together, here, next Sunday. 

A sermon is supposed to involve some combination of exegesis and explanation. Exegesis is a fancy word for unpacking a text from Scripture, explaining and clarifying – where clarity is to be had. I’ve offered exegesis today simply by telling this story in its fullness. The lectionary gives it to us broken – the raising of Lazarus will come to us on a Sunday in Lent next year, while we have Mary’s anointing of Jesus this Sunday. Those two smells, the smell of death and the smell of devotion, separated by a year instead of 20 verses. 

But as for application… This is not a text that is amenable to paring out some portable moral lesson to carry home and into our daily lives. Sometimes we turn to the Wondering question used in our Godly Play classroom downstairs: Where are you in this story? Certainly we find ourselves more readily in the story if we can recall moments when we’ve been overwhelmed with grief, or gratitude – 

Or when we’ve stood by perplexed or outraged by the depth of someone else’s emotions. That can be a wonderful way to dwell with a narrative from Scripture, let it settle into our minds and hearts, our very bones. 

But I don’t know, friends – who’s ridden a roller coaster? We’re not at the top of the big hill yet – that’s next Sunday – but we are going up, click click click click, feeling the angle pull us back against our seats, watching treetops fall behind us, gripping the bar. Soon. This story, in John’s Gospel, the raising and the feast, is a heart and a pivot: it gathers together what has already happened, it points ahead to what is coming, and it turns the story towards the cross. In this chapter and a half, we have so much that foreshadows what’s ahead: Devotion and betrayal. A feast; a death; a tomb; a stone rolled away; a resurrection. A body wrapped in cloths for burial; a body lovingly anointed with fragrant oil. A week later – only a week! – Jesus will be anointed again, with myrrh and aloes and spices, and wrapped in linen, and laid in a tomb. 

Maybe rather than trying to find ourselves in the story, right now, we should be trying to let the story find us. For this little time, these strange, demanding, aching, glorious days ahead that are the pivot of the church’s year, the heart of Christian faith, may we let the Story become the center from which we view our lives, rather than vice versa. Beloveds, it’s close now; can you feel the pull of its gravity? This is the Great Story, the Big Mystery. Interpretations falter. Explanations fail. God is about to do a new thing. 

 

 

Richard Swanson’s commentary on this text:

https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2016/03/06/a-provocation-fifth-sunday-in-lent-year-c-john-121-8/

Sermon, March 10

The word is very near you, on your lips and in your heart. 

The apostle Paul, in the letter to the Romans, is hitting one of his core themes here: that it’s equally possible for Jews or Gentiles to become Christians, because it’s a religion of heart, not of background or ethnicity – of being a particular kind of person. He’s quoting the Old Testament Book of Deuteronomy, from a passage that is saying something a little bit different – this text is telling the people Israel, LOOK, you know what it means to live in God’s ways… just STICK TO IT.  The book of Deuteronomy places itself on the brink of a new chapter in Israel’s life, as they enter the Promised Land. It calls them to stay faithful to God and God’s commandments, as they leave their wilderness time to become a settled nation. 

Here’s that passage from the 30th chapter of Deuteronomy:  “Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.” (Deut 30:11-14) Yes, the sarcasm is there in the text! The ancient Jews had many specific practices as part of their faith, but the heart of it was simple: Be faithful to God; live with justice and mercy as God has called you. The book of Deuteronomy says again and again: Choose life. Choose faithfulness. Choose righteousness. Choose the things that give you life. 

The word is very near you; it is in your heart for you to observe.

This is the first Sunday in the season of Lent, a season of preparation leading up to Easter. For centuries, Lent has been observed as a special time of self-examination and penitence – meaning, reflecting on where I have not lived up to God’s intentions for me and my intentions for myself; making amends and trying to do better. Christians often take on particular practices in Lent, focusing especially on fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. Fasting means setting something aside for the season, and offering the space it leaves to God. It might be giving up a particular food like sweets or meat, but it can be other things too. You might want to ask yourself, Is there something in my life that has more hold over me than I want it to? And commit to quitting or reducing that for a season. I’m quitting Twitter for Lent this year – and I’m saying that in front of all of you because I expect it to be hard, and I need the accountability! But I want to reclaim that time in my daily life, and spent it with my loved ones, myself, and God. 

Almsgiving is a wonderful old-fashioned word that just means, sharing with those in need. A lot of you do that on a regular basis already. But maybe there’s an opportunity to do more, this season. Some people link a Lenten fast to a practice of giving.For example, students at Virginia Theological Seminary invented “Menstrual Madness” last March. People fasted from things that cost money, like eating out or espresso drinks, and used the money saved to buy feminine hygiene products for local food pantries. 

And then there’s prayer. Turning our hearts towards God. Saying whatever we need to say – be it, Help! Thanks! Or Sorry! And listening to what God might have to say to us. The word is very near you; it is in your heart…

I encourage you to consider taking on a Lenten practice of some kind. It’s not too late; Lent is still just beginning!  The first Sunday or Monday in Lent are great times to start a Lenten discipline.  And I’d like to offer you a practice – a practice of prayer that trusts that God’s word is very near us, in our hearts. 

This practice of prayer was developed by a young man named Inigo. (Not the one you’re thinking of!) Inigo was born in the year 1491, the youngest son of a noble Spanish family.  As a young man, he became a knight, a soldier. One biography describes him as “a fancy dresser, an expert dancer, a womanizer, sensitive to insult, and a rough punkish swordsman who used his privileged status to escape prosecution” when he committed crimes. (Traub & Mooney via Wikipedia) Writing later in life, Inigo described his young self as “a man given to the vanities of the world, whose chief delight consisted in martial exercises, with a great and vain desire to win renown.”

Now, in 1521, when he was 30 years old, Inigo was helping defend a fortress from French soldiers when he was struck by a cannonball, breaking both his legs. He ended up confined to his rooms for many weeks of recovery. During that time he had access to only two books, one on the life of Christ, and one on the lives of the saints. Sometimes he would read this edifying material and reflect on it. And sometimes he would daydream about the life he’d left behind, his glory days of wine, women, and war. 

Over the weeks, Inigo noticed something. The daydreams about his former life were exciting. But they left him feeling exhausted, dissatisfied, and sad. Whereas when he dwelt with the stories of Jesus and the saints, and imagined making his own pilgrimage to Jerusalem someday to see where Jesus had walked – well, those kinds of thoughts left him feeling cheerful, calm, and hopeful. 

He began to think that this could be a spiritual tool – to notice what you feel within yourself, in relation to particular thoughts, actions, or events; and to use those feelings as teachers and guides. The feelings of weariness, sadness, or dissatisfaction, he called desolation; the feelings of peace, joy, and hope, he called   consolation. When he was well, Inigo – known to history as Ignatius of Loyola – visited a shrine to the Virgin Mary, and there hung up his sword for good. He became a pilgrim, a scholar, and a priest. He wrote about consolation and desolation in a book called the Spiritual Exercises; and he founded the Jesuit order. (He’s one of the Lent Madness saints this year, so you can learn more about him by picking up one of those booklets or following the Lent Madness website!) 

Inigo’s approach to reflecting on our lives and noticing our moments of consolation and desolation is known as the Examen. And that’s the practice of prayer I’d like to invite you to try. It has the great advantage of being both simple, and powerful. 

A core premise of the Examen is that God speaks within us. That, indeed, the divine Word is very near you – not up in the sky or beyond the sea, but dwelling in your heart of hearts. That listening attentively to ourselves, to our deepest yearnings, joys, and struggles, is also a way of listening for God. In their wonderful book about the Examen, called Sleeping with Bread, Dennis, Shiela, and Matthew Linn write, “As you do the examen, you are listening to both God and yourself, since God speaks within your deepest experience.” 

The practice of the Examen is very simple. (You don’t have to take notes, I have a guide for you!) People usually do it towards the end of the day – after dinner, or as people prepare for bedtime, or even right before turning off the lights. Find a time that fits the shape of your day and the rhythms of your household. Light a candle.  This helps mark that you’re setting aside a few moments of special time; and the flame represents the light of divine revelation in our everyday experience. (Linn, p. 19) Take a little silence – maybe three deep breaths in and out – to let some clutter clear out of your mind. It might help you to put your hand on your heart. Ask yourself (or each other) two questions. For what moment today am I most grateful? For what moment today am I least grateful? When you’ve spent time with the questions, wrap up your time in prayer. It can be as simple as, “God, thank you for the good things, and help us with the hard things. Amen.” 

There are other ways to frame the two questions: When was I most able to give and receive love today? When was I least able to give or receive love today? When did I feel most alive today? When did I feel life draining out of me today?What was today’s high point? What was today’s low point? 

For some of us, listening to our bodies could be an important part of this practice.  I know that for me, I often realize that I’m stressed or upset or sad because I feel it in my body. My brain is busy saying, Okay, okay, this is fine, I got this, we can cope. But I also get that feeling like there’s a big ball of ice in my stomach, or my chest tightens up. I need to listen to my body to know how I feel, because I can’t always trust my brain. Or have you had the experience of talking about something and, suddenly, there’s a lump in your throat or tears in your eyes? It might be something bad or good – I’ve had it happen in both directions. You had no idea it was affecting you so much. But your deeper self knew. This is pretty common; lots of us can’t trust our brains and need to pay attention to our whole self, including our body, to know how we really are. 

The practice of the Examen has gifts and challenges for everyone. Someone who is pessimistic, negative or stressed needs the invitation to notice joys and blessings – the consolations. But there is meaning in the hard moments, the desolations, too! In Sleeping with Bread, one of the authors says, “My addiction (which I call ‘Peace at Any Price’) is always be grateful and happy and never rock the boat. Thus I need the Examen to help me acknowledge feelings of sadness and pain and hear how God is speaking through them.” (11) 

Dwelling with our desolations can be hard. The Examen invites us to simply acknowledge our worst moments, without judgment, breathing in God’s love. (30) Ignatius teaches that when we’re reflecting on a moment when we acted in a way we wish we hadn’t, we should try to understand the story of that moment. How did it begin? How did you get there? And… what would it look like for that story to be resolved? (49) Here’s an example: Many of us end up snapping at friends or  loved ones, when we are tired or stressed. So the story of those moments might include some kind of strain in the relationship that could be examined and resolved – but it also includes our exhaustion, another real spiritual burden. 

Being gentle with yourself is important. If something really hard is coming up, it’s OK to dwell with it a little at a time, and then tell it kindly that you’ll spend more time with it tomorrow. And if something’s emerging that you need help with, look for help! But dwelling with the hard moments – even the trivial, everyday hard moments – is a crucial first step. 

Dwelling with joy can be hard too. Some of us have internalized deeply that happiness isn’t for us, that the right thing to do is always the hard thing to do. But the Examen assumes that, like our desolations, our consolations have something important to tell us. Those moments when we feel deeply joyful or profoundly peaceful, fully alive, fully engaged – that’s not frivolous, those aren’t just moments of escape from gritty reality. They matter, and they mean something. 

The Examen is fundamentally a daily practice of reflecting back on the past twelve hours or so. But over time, engaged faithfully, it can become much more. It can guide our choices and our lives. If we sustain the practice, we may start to notice patterns. If you spot many similar moments of joy, is there a call or invitation there? Could you shift things so there’s more of that in your life? And likewise, if similar desolations surface often, they may point us towards the need to undertake some change in our lives. Sleeping with Bread says, “Insignificant moments when looked at each day become significant because they form a pattern that often points the way to how God wants to give us more life.” (17) Choose the things that give you life….  

And when taken on as a habit over time, the Examen can just make it easier to be in touch with our own hearts, our own deeper selves. And to trust your own sense of what feels right or not-right. Knowing ourselves helps us say No to things that aren’t right for us – and Yes to things that are. Just like Jesus in today’s Gospel – he had the clarity and courage to say No to the temptations that Satan set before him. They were things he wanted! Bread – he was hungry!Power and authority – he wanted to change the world! Proof of God’s protection – he knew his work was dangerous! But Jesus knew his own soul; he knew the Father’s purposes for him. And he was able to say, This is not for me. The Examen can help us face temptations and tough decisions – the big ones, but also the small ones we face every day. 

As with any spiritual practice, the biggest challenge is making it routine, finding a way to just weave it into the texture of life. We’ve been doing a very simple version of this as our family prayers before Iona goes to bed, on the evenings when everybody is home. We share our Ups and Downs, borrowed from the youth group’s practice of prayer. I hope that in this season we’ll lean into it a little more. 

But what about the evenings when we’re not all home? I need the Examen on those days too. But I’m usually the one who’s out, and I come home tired. I worry that thinking back over the day – especially a hard day – will upset me or get my mind whirling as I’m trying to wind down. But having read more about how the Examen works, I’m going to give it a try, even on those nights. To see if I can sit in the gentle light of holy truth, even when I’m weary or anxious or frustrated.

The Examen works well alone. It also works well with others. And it’s intergenerational – it works with kids, youth, and adults. When members of a household share this practice, it may not only benefit the individuals, but could help with mutual understanding within the household. The book Sleeping with Bread offers the example of one family’s evening Examen: one child’s BEST moment is when he sprayed his sister with the hose. It turns out that was his sister’s WORST moment. Some reconciliation was necessary! 

When I first started thinking about offering the Examen as a spiritual practice to all of you this Lent, I thought I could do it with a little talk at the announcements, as I handed out our handy-dandy Examen Sheets. But I read more about it, and thought more about it, I became convinced that there was more to say. 

Maybe God has already handed you a Lenten practice for this season – that happens. Or maybe your life right now is such that committing to a practice feels impossible. I’ve been there. If that’s you, maybe you can just try it out once or twice in the weeks ahead, with a friend or just with yourself: What was good today? What was hard? But I do invite you to try it, one way or another. Because tuning in to ourselves and to God speaking within us is, simply, foundational – and especially in light of the Lenten call to self-examination, penitence, and amendment of life. It can be all too easy to accept other people’s definitions of what’s wrong with us, what we need to fix about ourselves. But a lot of what we receive from others and from our culture, about how to be good or valued, is shallow or disordered. Or even if there’s some truth to it, it might not be the direction your life is leading you. The practice of the Examen is a tool for seeking what your own daily life is telling you about where God wants to give you more more wholeness. More direction. More joy. 

And that’s why, in this season, I invite you to a practice of observing the consolations and desolations of your daily life, a practice of holy listening to your deepest self. Because the Word is very near you;  it dwells in your heart, to help you choose the things that give you life.

Sleeping with Bread: Holding what Gives you Life, Dennis Linn, Sheila Fabricant Linn, and Matthew Linn, Paulist Press, 1995.

Sermon, March 3

Adjusted Epistle text: 2 Cor 3:12-13; 3:17 – 4:2; 4:5-6

Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness, not like Moses, who put a veil over his face to keep the people of Israel from gazing at the end of the glory that was being set aside. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transfigured into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit. Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God. For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

 

It happened when he was praying: the image of his face: different;  his cloak: white, flashing.

That’s Biblical scholar Richard Swanson’s translation of verse 29 in today’s Gospel – staying closer to the original Greek syntax: 

It happened when he was praying: the image of his face: different;  his cloak: white, flashing.

And then there is the cloud – and the Voice – and the glory. The text piles on clues that point to God’s presence, ways God’s people have seen and known God for millennia. 

This Gospel story – known as the Transfiguration – always comes around in the lectionary on the last Sunday in Epiphany, the Sunday when we turn towards Lent, begin the long walk towards Good Friday and Easter. That’s where the story falls in the Gospels, too – on the cusp of Jesus’ turn towards Jerusalem. At the Transfiguration, this moment on the mountaintop, three of Jesus’ disciples get a glimpse of the Divine within Jesus – this brightness, this strangeness. They see – and we see, with them – that the man we follow on this rocky road is not just a man. Not just a wise teacher. Not just a kind healer. He is God, living among us, loving us. As Paul writes in today’s Epistle, we know the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ – a passage so rich and lovely that it’s woven into our Epiphany Eucharistic prayer, if you’re wondering why these words sound familiar!

This is the mystery and the paradox we hold together in our understanding of Jesus: He was actually and fully a particular human being living in a particular time and place. His Jesus-ness was not a costume or an avatar. And yet, Jesus was – Jesus IS – one Person of the Holy Trinity, the divine Logos by whom all things were made; the eternal Word that became flesh and dwelt among us; the Anointed One, the Messiah, the Christ, from before time and forever, sent to liberate and redeem humanity and Creation. 

So while Jesus was truly and authentically human as a first-century Jew from Nazareth, there was also something ultimately incidental about the way the Christ, the Logos, the Light that is the life of all peoples, took human form. In another time and another place, God might have worn another body and another face.

It happened when he was praying: the image of his face: different;  his cloak: white, flashing.

The theologian Soren Kierkegaard wrote a famous allegory about the Incarnation of Jesus: Suppose there was a king who loved a humble maiden. This king: he is so wealthy, so powerful, so respected, so feared. Those who come before him in his throne room tremble before his power. Yet his heart melts within him for love of this simple, poor young woman. How can he approach her and win her love? His power and glory tie his hands: If he appears to her in all his kingly might, she might agree to be his bride – but would she love him, or would she merely consent out of awe or fear or duty? Would she be happy with him, or merely obedient? He does not want to overwhelm or command. He does not want a subject, but a partner, a friend, a lover. And so, because he fears that he cannot raise the maiden to his glory without crushing her freedom, he lowers himself. He becomes ordinary and poor. Not in disguise but in truth: he sets aside his throne and crown. He puts on simple, ragged clothing – and walks the path to his beloved’s door. 

If the point of the Incarnation, of the whole Jesus project, was to be able to approach us, and tell us that we are loved, what body, what face would best suit that task? A body and a face that look like us. Whoever us might be. 

Representation matters. You might have heard someone say that. It’s shorthand for the increasing realization that seeing people who look like us, in positions of power or success, in movies and books, in schools and churches, is important. If none of the people in charge and none of the heroes of our stories look like us, deep down we’re not sure that people like us ever get to be in charge. Ever get to be heroes. That perception can operate within us even if we never think those words. In the past month I’ve had two different women my age or older say to me, “I never knew how much it mattered to me to have a woman priest until I had one.” The funny thing is, as I thought about it, I realized that was true for me too. My early life was blessed by a lot of wonderful priests, who all happened to be men. Discerning my call to ordination happened in parallel with Phil and I joining a mission church in North Carolina, the Church of the Advocate, led by our dear friend the Rev. Lisa Fischbeck. I was called before Lisa became my priest; but Lisa’s priesthood absolutely helped me find my way into my priesthood. 

God who knows us so well, both our potential and our limitations, knows that representation matters. That we needed God to be both transcendent and imminent; both beyond and among; both infinitely other and utterly familiar. And so God gave Godself to us as Jesus – a paradox and mystery that has given Christians the freedom to imagine Jesus the Christ with other bodies, other faces. 

Luke’s Gospel doesn’t use the word “transform” or “transfigure”, metamorpho, the word Mark and Matthew use, the word the Church uses to name this feast. Instead, Luke says Jesus’ face changed. His face became different. Still Jesus, but – different. Let’s look at some different Jesuses. 

This is a black Jesus – African-American. A really important 20th-century theologian, James Cone, wrote about why it’s important to imagine Jesus as black. He wrote, “Jesus Christ is not a proposition, not a theological concept which exists merely in our heads. He is an event of liberation, a happening in the lives of oppressed people struggling for political freedom. Therefore, to know him is to encounter him in the history of the weak and the helpless.” (God of the Oppressed, p. 32) And that’s why, he argues, there’s a deep truth in depicting Jesus as African-American – because if God chose to come two thousand years ago as a poor Jew in a backwards corner of the Roman Empire, God might well come today as a black child living in a neighborhood blighted by poverty and neglect. 

Here are some other ways Christians have envisioned Jesus. A Chinese Jesus, in the work of artist He Qi. A feminine Jesus, in the work of artist Janet Makenzie. Here is Jesus before his birth: his parents Mary and Joseph, reimagined as Maria y Jose, a young couple without money, without friends, without a safe place to birth their baby. This is by an artist named Everett Patterson. And there’s this image, a Good Friday image: Mary holds Jesus after his death – but they’re shown as children. Kids. 

Imagining Jesus as looking like us, whoever we are, is, I believe, a bold and faithful thing to do. We do it because we know that Jesus is more than just Jesus: 

Jesus is the Eternal one who enters time, the Universal one who becomes local. And we do it because we trust that the point of it all was to come close to us. To tell us that we are loved, and to invite us into renewed relationship with the Divine. We depict God in our image to remind ourselves that we are made in God’s image. 

I want to show you another Jesus: Jesus imagined in the image of a community that has heard again and again that God does not love them as they are. What do you notice about it? … 

The original Jesus bust, under all the colorful paint, came from a thrift store as a broken chunk of plaster. That’s where the artist found it. The artist is an acquaintance of mine; and I’m pretty sure she doesn’t have a lot of use for church. She is one of so, so many LGBTQ+ people who have gotten the message loud and clear that churches believe they don’t belong. That God’s love is conditional, and the condition is denying your own heart, soul, and body.

But the artist didn’t leave the broken Jesus bust at the Goodwill, or buy it and break it to smithereens. She took it home, and fixed it, and made it beautiful. She made it into a Jesus whom she and her friends could be safe with. A Jesus whose face shows the glory of God the way they need to see it, to know themselves beloved. Then she put it in an auction at a community event – and I bid on it till I won. (People who knew I was a pastor were shoving money at me, to help…!) 

I brought this Jesus here to St. Dunstan’s because I knew there would be people here who would find them beautiful and meaningful. One person looked at it and said to me, If I walked in the door of a church and saw this, I would know right away that I was safe here. I knew, too, that others would find it a little odd. Who might need an explanation to see how this Jesus is like these other Jesuses. And I know there are people here who will find it uncomfortable – even with the explanation. Who just can’t see this as Jesus. There are people who will see it as disrespectful – though I don’t believe that’s the artist’s intention, and it’s certainly not mine. There are people who will have a hard time seeing it as anything other than a joke, a piece of satire – which is also not the intention. Wherever you fall on that spectrum, I ask you to try to look at this as an icon – a holy image intended to help us focus on the divine. It might not be the image that works for you. That’s why churches have lots of different icons! 

I’ve begun to talk, with a few people, about where to hang this image of Jesus. We’ll probably put off the decision for a few months, because it’s fragile, and we’re about to do a lot of demolition and renovation around here. But I hope we can find a place for this Jesus – their face, different; their garment, shining and sparkling. 

In today’s Gospel, the transfiguration story leads right into a healing story. We chose to include it even though the lectionary offers us the option of dropping it – because it’s an awkward story. We want Jesus to be nice, and Jesus is not nice, here. I want to be clear, though, that Jesus isn’t yelling at the the father of the afflicted child. (The whole story is much clearer in Mark’s version!)  Jesus is yelling at the argumentative crowd. He’s fed up because he’s come from this mountaintop moment of clarity about his mission, and walked right into a big argument about whether he’s a fraud and whether his message matters and why are you bothering the Teacher with this sick kid and who do you think you are anyway?!?

Jesus’ frustration in this passage has been oddly comforting to me, this week, as many of us have watched with dismay as the United Methodist Church debated whether LGBTQ+ Methodists can be both fully themselves, and fully members of their church. And as Anglican Communion leaders – whom, I stress, have no authority over the Episcopal Church – have reminded us once again that they do not share our church’s affirmation of same-sex marriage. People have an amazing capacity to stand around arguing and trying to score points off each other, while someone vulnerable suffers in their midst. But Jesus marches in, tells them to knock it off, and heals the child.

I attended a talk a few weeks ago by Heidi Carter, a Christian sexuality educator. She said when she talks with queer kids about their churches, they say one of two things things. Either, My church loves and supports me completely, it’s one of my safe places; or else: I can’t tell my church who I really am. They might not love me anymore; they would try to change me. Matthew Swanson writes about this Gospel: “The description of the effect of… the demon is terrifying. It rips the boy to shreds. It shatters him. It crushes him.”

Jesus heals the child. Where are we, in this story? 

It is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

The knowledge of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ – a knowledge that is like a light, a knowledge that illuminates. Paul is alluding to Jesus’ transfiguration in this passage, but he’s also calling Christians to transformation –  to transfiguration, in fact; it’s that same Greek word, metamorpho. He says, Because we have seen God’s glory revealed in Jesus, because that light has shone into our hearts, we are being changed, day by day, to reflect that glory more and more ourselves, by living lives of integrity, freedom, and boldness. 

If the point of the Incarnation, of the whole Jesus project, was to be able to approach us, and tell us that we are loved – and call us to lives of integrity, freedom, and boldness – what body, what face would best suit that task? … A body and a face that look like us. Whoever us might be. 

Can you see the light of the glory of God in the face of this Jesus? I can. I see that light, that glory, in the artist’s courageous choice to reclaim Jesus from the hands of those who have hurt her. I see that light, that glory, in the reminder to look for Jesus among those pushed to the margins, those whose worth and humanity are treated as negotiable. I see that light, that glory, in the fact that beauty and holiness can take many different forms. I see light and glory in this garment, shining bright – in this beloved face, different. 

 

Richard Swanson’s commentary on this Gospel: 

https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2019/02/25/a-provocation-transfiguration-march-3-2019-luke-928-45/

Kierkegaard’s parable: 

http://www.readingtheology.com/the-king-and-the-maiden-by-søren-kierkegaard

Sermon, Feb. 17

Is there MORE? 

It’s one of the fundamental questions, isn’t it? I’m not talking about a human More, an earthly More. More Nordstrom Rewards points. More hours at the gym. More take-home pay. No, I mean the big More. The one we can’t see or touch, but wonder about – especially when we feel alone, when we’re grieving, or when we’re overwhelmed by joy, or awe, or gratitude. Is there a Beyond? An After? A Better? Is there More? 

In today’s Epistle, Paul is arguing with the church in Corinth about one piece of the More question – the After. He’s talking about resurrection. Will the dead rise again, in God? Paul is saying, This isn’t just one point on a list of things Christians are supposed to believe. It’s the heart of the thing. Because if there’s no resurrection of the dead – if death is, simply and universally, final – then Jesus didn’t rise from the dead. And if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, then how do we know that he was who he said he was? That his testimony about the nature of God and cosmos and humanity carried any more weight than the preaching of any of the other itinerant preacher weirdos who were wandering Judea in those days? If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile. Pointless. Empty. If our hope in Christ is only for this world, this life – then we are of all people the most to be pitied. There IS More, Paul insists. There IS After. 

One thing I find interesting in this passage is how much we have in common with the Corinthian Christians, especially if you read the whole chapter. It’s easy for modern folks to assume people in the past were more credulous, less skeptical. In fact, the Corinthians have same kinds of questions we might. They’ve seen what happens to dead bodies – more than we do. Remember the raising of Lazarus? – “Lord, he’s been in there three days; if we open the tomb, there will be a smell!” 

The idea that anybody comes back was a real stretch. I’m sure they wanted to believe it, just like we do – when we’ve lost a loved one and miss them with heart-rending urgency; when we are overwhelmed by the idea that everything, even the best things, those precious moments of joy and intimacy and awe, will pass away. We want to believe in the After, but it’s hard. Because we can’t see it, touch it. When someone’s gone, most of the time, it feels like they’re just gone. It sounds like for the Corinthians, as for some of us, a Christianity without resurrection, a Christianity of human decency and ethical living, seemed a lot easier to swallow. I get it. 

Paul, however, is not especially sympathetic to this dilemma. He writes, “But someone will ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?’” Although he’s trying to mock the question, he doesn’t have any better answers than I do. He says, I dunno! Maybe it’s like a seed! Of, of wheat or something! I’m not a farmer! You sow it in the ground and after a while something else rises up! A new life emerges! Okay? Or maybe we’ll have some whole different kind of body, then – a spiritual body instead of this earthly body, since you can’t expect an earthly body to live in Heaven, a spiritual place. Look. I don’t know, OK? I don’t KNOW. But I believe. I believe. And my believing makes a difference in my life. 

If the dead are not raised, he says, a few verses later, then hey, let’s eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die. Nothing really matters. Stop worrying an enjoy your life. Instead, says Paul, I put myself in danger every hour. I confront both human and spiritual adversaries. I die every day. Because I believe in the More. 

Is there More? Is there After? Is there Better? 

Today’s Gospel is the beginning of Jesus’ famous teachings known as the Sermon on the Mount – though actually Luke says he’s standing on level ground! In this passage, Jesus is talking about whether this is all there is. What you are, what you have right now – is this it? Or is there more? 

Let’s pause for just a minute on the word “Blessed.” I typed “#Blessed” into Instagram this week, and got over a hundred million results.  A quick perusal of the first hundred showed photos of party dresses, new haircuts, flattering selfies, vacation snapshots, cute kids, and tacos. I mean – sure. But that’s not the kind of Blessed Jesus is talking about here. The Greek word here is makarios – blessed, happy, fortunate. Christians have wrestled with, and leaned on, this Gospel passage for 2000 years because what Jesus is saying is so different from human assumptions about blessedness, or happiness, or good fortune. 

Jesus says, Blessed are you poor; the reign of God is yours. Blessed are you hungry; you will be filled. Blessed are you lamenting; you will laugh. Blessed are you hated and persecuted; you’re in good company. The future tense in these statements is open-ended. Jesus doesn’t say when, or how, people’s reality will shift. But he does say, with complete conviction, that the mess you’re in right now is not all there is for you. 

And he flips it: If you’ve got it great right now, your #blessed lifestyle is also not the end of the story. How terrible for you rich; you’ve already received your good things. How terrible for you who have plenty now; you will be hungry. How terrible for you who laugh – yes, you in the back, says Jesus, I see you laughing! Your time will come to weep. None of us get out of this alive. Unscathed. 

We are so prone, we human beings, to believing that people’s circumstances reflect their worth. We know better, but we fall into it anyway. We fawn over billionaires and criminalize the poor. And worse still, we believe it about ourselves. Our struggles, our failures, our dry times, our self-destructive spirals: in our darkest nights, we believe they’re the whole truth about us. This is it. This is all there is for me. Of me. Jesus says, No. 

Whether Jesus is talking about After, the next life, or More, a new kind of life in this world, or either, or both, Jesus says: The whole truth about you is more than your current circumstances. Good or bad. Poverty, hunger, pain, grief, addiction, illness of body, mind, or spirit; affluence and comfort too – they happen to you, they may become part of you, but they are not all of you. I see you, says Jesus. The whole you. And I tell you: Don’t take Here and Now too seriously. There’s More. 

Is there more? Some people claim to find relief and freedom in the idea that there isn’t. That this is all there is. Generations of Christian leaders are to blame for that, I think – for all the ways the Church has misrepresented what our faith teaches about More, Beyond, and After. I regret it, but here we are. 

In one of my favorite books about faith, Francis Spufford writes about how many non-believers see believers as engaged in a sort of “fluffy pretending” that shuts out the hard realities of life. And he describes a London bus with an ad on it, sponsored by the outspoken New Atheist movement in the UK. The ad on the bus says: “There’s probably no God. Stop worrying and enjoy your life.” 

He writes, “All right then: Which word here is the questionable one, the aggressive one, the one that parts company with actual recognizable human experience so fast it doesn’t even have time to wave goodbye? It isn’t ‘probably.’ [The] New Atheists aren’t claiming anything outrageous when they say there probably isn’t a God. … It’s as much a guess for them as it is for me.” 

Spufford continues, “No, the word that offends against realism here is enjoy. … Enjoyment is lovely. Enjoyment is great…. But enjoyment is one emotion.” He points out that the texture of our lives is such that sometimes we feel enjoyment, and sometimes we feel other things – “hope, boredom, curiosity, anxiety, irritation, fear,.… Life just isn’t unanimous.”  

And Spufford argues that this idea – that life, liberated from the presumed burdens of religious thinking, is simply to be enjoyed – this bit of “fluffy pretending” is not innocent, but deeply harmful.  He invites the reader to imagine different people watching that bus go by: A woman on her way home to her beloved partner who is all but lost to dementia, her weariness and grief and frustration. A young man gripped by profound congenital disability, fearful that cascading illness may take away the limited capacities he has. A woman in the grip of drug addiction, who recently tried to get clean, and failed, and hates herself. 

What does that bus sign say to them? “There’s probably no God. Stop worrying and enjoy your life.” It says, No help is coming. It says, Nobody cares. It says, You’re alone. Spufford writes, “St. Augustine called this kind of thing ‘cruel optimism’ fifteen hundred years ago, and it’s still cruel.” 

In contrast to the superficial cheer offered by the bus sign, Spufford writes, “A consolation you could believe in would be one that … didn’t depend on some more or less tacky fantasy about ourselves… A consolation you could trust would be one that acknowledged the difficult stuff rather than being in flight from it, and then found you grounds for hope in spite of it.”

Spufford goes on to talk about John Lennon, and Mozart, and to put some words around the More as he understands it: “I think the reason reality… is in some ultimate sense merciful…, is that the universe is sustained by a continual and infinitely patient act of love.” It really is a wonderful book. Let me know if you need me to buy you a copy. 

Is there More? Is there After? Is there Better? We’ll never be sure – not in this life. 

Spufford says, “I don’t know that any of it is true…. It isn’t the kind of thing you can know.” My friend and mentor Brooks Graebner said once, “We suffer from a perceptual deficit that causes us to mistake some of reality for all of reality.” Belief in More isn’t “fluffy pretending,” an escape from gritty reality; it’s a source of purpose and direction, courage and consolation, in the thick of it all. We show up here because we want to believe in the More.  We want to trust in it. And maybe, sometimes, we’ve felt glimmers of it. Seen a flash. Heard a whisper. 

It isn’t the kind of thing you can know – but it is possible to cultivate our openness to the More. Our capacity to feel, see, hear, smell, taste the traces of a Mercy, a Love, a Consolation, a Purpose beyond our daily living.

Beloveds, we are approaching Lent – a season in which Christians have often taken on a spiritual practice to draw us closer to God. Some small everyday commitment, a thing to do or not do, that helps us be more grounded, more mindful. Kinder. Simpler. Slower. 

Look back at our first two readings this morning – our Jeremiah text and our Psalm. There’s a superficial similarity: those trees planted by the water. But the Psalm does this thing that some of the Psalms do: It says that there are wicked people and good people. The good people thrive; the wicked people dry up and blow away. Spufford would say this assertion fails the reality test. 

Whereas what the prophet Jeremiah says is less moral judgment and more statement of fact: If you put your whole trust in human capacity, human strength, human intelligence, you’re going to come up short, sooner or later. Send out your roots towards the living water deep underground, the soil that stays moist even in drought, that will sustain you even in harsh seasons and dry times. You need to trust in something bigger. Something More. Something Beyond. What’s calling you as Lent approaches? Where is God inviting you into More? 

 

Book cited:

Francis Spufford, Unapologetic: Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense, Faber and Faber, 2012. All quotations from pages 7 – 20. 

Sermon, Feb. 10

Substitute Old Testament lesson: Tobit 6:1b – 9

The book of Tobit is part of the Apocrypha – a set of books in the Bible that were written later than the rest of the Old Testament, but just before the time of Jesus. Some churches treat them as part of the Old Testament; some don’t use them at all. We Anglicans have treated them as a sort of secondary Scripture, of some historical and theological meaning. Some of us here at St. Dunstan’s know the book of Tobit very well, because it was the core story for our Vacation Bible School back in 2016. We know that Tobit was a pious man, who took sacrifices to the Great Temple in Jerusalem even when all his neighbors had started worshiping other gods. We know that Tobit married a woman named Anna, and they had a son, Tobias. We know that when the Assyrian Army conquered the northern kingdom of Israel, this little family was taken into exile in the city of Nineveh in Assyria. 

It was a terrible time. Tobit’s family and the other Jewish exiles had lost everything, and Nineveh was a violent and heartless city. Often Tobit would find dead bodies in the street – people who had been killed by bandits or died of starvation. If the dead person was one of the people Israel, Tobit would take the body outside the city gates and bury them with prayers, according to the ways of the Jewish people. What he was doing was against the law, and risky; but Tobit was stubborn in offering that final dignity to his kinspeople. As little as his family had, they also gave food and clothing to those in worse circumstances. But then one day, through a tragic accident, Tobit became blind. He could no longer do good for his people, or even care for his own family. Anna had to work, so they could eat. 

In his grief, Tobit became bitter and angry. One day, in desperation, he prayed that God would free him from this life, because death would be better than this suffering: Blessed are You, O God of my ancestors! God, you are righteous and just in all that you do. Please, God, hear my prayer and be merciful to me. Remember me and set me free! 

Then there’s this wonderful split-screen moment, in this 2300-year-old text: JUST AS Tobit is praying for death to free him from suffering, so is a young woman named Sarah. Sarah is distant kin to Tobit; she lives in another city, with her parents. She has been married seven times, but each time, on her wedding night, a demon, Asmodeus, kills her new husband! People blame her for the deaths – and no future seems possible for her, especially in a time when family was a woman’s fulfillment. Sarah prays: God, I turn to you for help! Please hear my prayer and set me free from this terrible life!  

And Tobit’s prayers and Sarah’s prayers land on God’s desk in the same instant -and God says, I have an idea. We can fix both of these situation at once. God sends the Archangel Raphael, in disguise, to set the plan in motion. And… hijinks ensue, with young Tobias and Raphael, under the name Azariah, at the center of it all. I really can’t tell the whole story here but I hope you’ll go read it if you don’t already know it!

There are many Biblical names you might hesitate to bestow, if you actually read the stories attached to the names. But Tobias is not one of them. In the story, Tobias is plucky and good-hearted. He loves his family, but he’s up for adventures out in the world. And with Raphael’s help, he saves his father Tobit; restores the family fortunes; frees Sarah from bondage to the demon, with the help of fish guts; and of course, finds true love. We’re taking liberties with the lectionary this morning; the book of Tobit does not actually appear in the Sunday lectionary – but there IS a suggested Tobit reading in the marriage rite, Tobias and Sarah’s prayer on their wedding night: “Grant that we may find mercy and that we may grow old together.” Naturally, the story culminates with the mysteriously helpful companion Azariah revealing himself as the Archangel Raphael – who tells the family that it is God’s grace that has brought good out of their misfortunes, and charges them with blessing God and doing good for others, their whole lives long. 

I guess you could say the thread connecting the story of Tobit and Tobias with today’s Gospel is: God invites ordinary people on extraordinary journeys. 

In the other three Gospels, Jesus acquires disciples – this set of people who were his friends, followers and students – he acquires disciples by simply inviting people to follow him; and some of them do. It’s only Luke who fills out the story this way: Simon Peter, James and John have been fishing all night; they haven’t caught ANYTHING. The nets are empty. Then Jesus asks Simon to take him in his boat and take him just a little bit out from shore, so he can preach to the people without being crushed by the mob. Pretty clever! 

Simon’s fine with it; it’s not like he has fish to clean! But when Jesus finishes his speech, he has this dumb idea: Put out the nets, see if you catch anything. Simon says: “… If you say so.” And of course the nets come up so full that they’re breaking. Simon calls James and John to bring their boat, but there are so many fish the boats are nearly sinking. And it’s in this moment when it just becomes too much for Simon. He’s heard Jesus preach; he’s seen Jesus heal; and now – these fish – well, it’s terrific, of course, but it’s also almost insulting. Simon is a fisherman. He has a craft. He knows the right season and time of day, the right temperature in the air and color of the water, to maximize his catch; and Jesus comes along and says, You want fish? Here, have some fish. 

And Simon cracks. He falls to his knees among the fish in the bottom of the boat and says, Go away! This is too much for me! I’m a sinner! Which is to say, I’m ordinary! Let me stay ordinary! And Jesus says, Don’t be afraid. You’re coming with me, and you’re going to do new things. 

Don’t be afraid. In Tobit the refrain is, Take courage. People say that to each other over and over again: facing the bitter violence of the times, the uncertainty of the path ahead, demons to be vanquished, healing to be received: Take courage. Don’t be afraid. Such a little thing to say, but somehow it’s enough. Just as Tobias sets out on his journey, Simon, James and John set out on theirs, leaving boats, nets and fish alike on the shore, and following Jesus. 

Simon Peter’s holy adventure doesn’t, as far as we know, lead to true love or wealth. Tradition says he was crucified, like Jesus, his friend and Lord. On the other hand, he could have spent his whole life as a not-very-good fisherman, instead of becoming a revered saint and father of our faith. So. 

God invites ordinary people on extraordinary journeys – and it’s good to have companions on the road. Tobias has Azariah, the mysteriously knowledgeable gentleman with – are those wings, under his cloak? And Tobias and Azariah also have the comfort and companionship of the unnamed dog. 

Jesus’ disciples have each other – and Jesus has them. This is interesting: Luke puts this scene slightly later in his Gospel than the others. In Mark, Matthew and John, Jesus calls disciples to accompany him as soon as he begins his public ministry of preaching and healing. But in Luke, Jesus gives it a go on his own for a little while. Not long; but long enough to travel around a few villages, healing people and casting out demons and proclaiming God’s liberating love. And long enough that he’s starting to struggle with the overwhelming crowds that follow him and cling to him, won’t let him rest, won’t let him move on. 

THEN, already becoming famous, perhaps already becoming exhausted, Jesus calls his first disciples. I don’t know why Luke flips the story this way. Maybe he simply heard that that’s how it happened. But it does make me wonder if even Jesus, the Son of the Living God, fully divine as well as fully human, needed some friends. 

He needed people to walk with on the long dusty roads of Judea. To relax with in the evenings, to laugh over the awkward moments and unpack the hard ones. To tell the crowds to leave him alone, now and then, so he could pray, and sleep, and maybe take a shower. So he asks Peter to join him. And John. And James. And the rest. 

God invites ordinary people on extraordinary journeys – and it’s good to have companions on the road. Today we will  baptize a baby boy named Tobias.  These stories can direct our prayers for Toby, for all the young ones we are raising in this faith community and the not-so-young ones too: May Toby, may all of us, come face to face with something important, something that calls us with urgency; and may we have the courage and curiosity to answer the call. May Toby, may all of us, set our feet to the path on which our own hopes intersect with God’s purposes, for us and for others through us. May Toby, may all of us, have companions for the hard stuff, and the fun stuff too. May we have enough; may we find love; may we be guided by angels in disguise. 

In the book of Tobit, Sarah’s father prays for the young couple with gratitude and hope: ‘Blessed are you, O God, with every pure blessing; let all your chosen ones bless you for ever. Blessed are you because you have made me glad. It has not turned out as I expected, but you have dealt with us according to your great mercy. Blessed are you because you had compassion on these beloved children. Be merciful to them, O Master, and keep them safe; bring their lives to fulfilment in happiness and mercy.’  Amen.

(Tobit 8:15-17)

Sermon, Jan. 20

Every year, in preparation for Annual Meeting Sunday, I undertake the daring feat of trying to write something that is both a sermon AND a “state of the parish” address, of sorts. It works better some years than others. Last year the Lectionary handed me a terrific Epistle about holding the present lightly, so that we’re more able to welcome the future. That was easy to preach. 

This year… we have these beautiful texts of reassurance. A prophet tells God’s people in exile, You shall no more be called Forsaken or Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight is in Her, and your God shall rejoice over you. The Psalmist sings, How precious is your steadfast love, O God! All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings. Paul writes to the church in Corinth to say: God has gifts for each of you, by the power of the Holy Spirit; and those gifts all work together to help the fellowship of the faithful fulfill God’s intentions. And this Gospel – a story about God’s unlimited bounty. 

These are all wonderful words… But I could not find traction to preach about them. Yes, God loves us, and everything will ultimately be fine. I know all that. Most of the time. But, y’all, those words weren’t meeting me where I was. And I try really hard to start my sermons from the place where the texts are speaking truth to me, so that I can speak to you with authenticity. 

And then I read a sermon on this Gospel – by the Rev. Anne Sutherland Howard – that honed in on one of the emotional notes of this Gospel story: Anxiety. Howard begins, “’They have no wine.’ I hear a question in Mary’s voice as she points out to her son Jesus that the wedding guests have run out of wine. I hear a question that I carry deep within myself, a question familiar to many of us:  Will I have enough? Are we running out? Are we rich enough? Safe enough? Good enough? Will we go over the budget?  Can we put dinner on the table and keep the wolf from the door?” (http://day1.org/1679-finding_wild_space)

Think about the steward – the headwaiter – at the beginning of this story. It’s his job to keep food on the trays and wine in the cups. He’s been watching helplessly as the wine supply gets lower and lower. You can’t just TELL people to go home. Maybe they’re running short because Mary’s oldest brought all his weird scruffy friends with him, and boy, can they put it away. 

Regardless: This is a terrible situation for the steward. Any time you’re offering hospitality, you want there to be enough. More than enough: PLENTY. Both so that the guests feel welcomed and enjoy themselves – and so you come off looking good. There’s honor at stake. You don’t want to come up short. People might talk about what lousy hosts you are. People might not come, next time you invite them. People might even go online and write you a bad review. Worst of all, people who need what you offer might look around and think, There’s nothing for me here – and walk back out the door. 

Anxiety: Is there ENOUGH? In that question, this Gospel finally met me where I am. But before I talk about that, let me lay a little church growth theory on you. If you have ever read a book written by a church growth consultant, you’ll find lots of diagrams and charts and magic numbers. I take all that with a substantial grain of salt. But there is something to the notion that a church with fifty regularly-participating households, functions differently from a church with a hundred regularly-participating households. 

The church growth literature has names for churches of different sizes, based on the ways they tend to function. Churches of about our size or somewhat smaller are called pastoral-sized churches. They are fundamentally pastor-centered. People belong because they like the pastor, and they may leave because they don’t like the pastor. People expect to have a direct relationship with the pastor – and the pastor expects that too, expects to know everybody and more or less know what’s going on with everybody.  The pastor is also the information hub: if you want to know what’s going on or who’s doing what, you ask the pastor. Everybody doesn’t know everybody – that would be a family-sized church, the smallest size category – but everybody knows somebody who knows somebody. 

Churches of about our size or somewhat bigger, on the other hand, are called program-sized churches. They have a diversity of church programs, run by staff or volunteers so committed that they function like staff. Program-sized churches are big enough to have multiple social networks within the church. Alice Mann writes, “[The] larger and more diverse membership will contain a ‘critical mass’ of people from several different age and interest groups… This substantial presence of varied populations stimulates creative ministry.” (The In-Between Church, p. 5) And in a program-sized church, people’s primary connection to the church may be through a program or peer groups – rather than the pastor. The pastor is less central to parish activities, and might not know everybody. 

I don’t know about you, but I see elements of each of those categories in our current common life at St. Dunstan’s. The book I just quoted is called “The In-Between Church,” and I think we’re in an in-between zone. I think we have been for several years. In my annual meeting address for January 2013, when I’d been rector here almost exactly two years, I said that St. Dunstan’s was a pastoral-sized parish. Period. I think that was true at the time. I don’t think it’s true anymore. 

Church growth in the 21st century is tricky because the way we used to measure it doesn’t work very well anymore. The standard metric used to be Average Sunday Attendance – ASA.You knew you were growing because your ASA went up by 10, or 50. ASA still tells us something, but it’s less useful as a core metric, because the ways people participate in churches have changed. This is large-scale stuff, not specific to St. Dunstan’s. For many people, regular attendance now means 2 – 3 times a month, which can tilt ASA downward even as new members tilt it upwards, because math. And people are more likely to connect and participate in non-Sunday morning ways, which ASA does not capture. 

Our ASA has gone up somewhat since 2011. But that number doesn’t really reflect how many new people and households have become part of St. Dunstan’s in the past few years. My first year here, one member told me that she’d been here ten years and was still seen as “new.” That same person definitely counts as a long-time member, now. 

Our capital campaign last year, and the resulting renovation that’s going to dominate our life this year, are symptoms of that growth. We might not have ten kids in a Sunday school class EVERY Sunday, but we have ten kids in a Sunday school class SOME Sundays, and we need space – in our classrooms, our gathering area, our kitchen, all over! 

So here’s the thing: This in-between zone is hard. The consultants say so, and I think they’re spot on, because I’ve lived it, both here and elsewhere. I mentioned that St. Dunstan’s was a pastoral-sized parish in my first years here, but five years earlier, parish leaders were preparing for a possible transition to program size. It’s quite common for congregations to plateau, or go up and down in this in-between zone, for a number of years. Because it’s demanding to break through and develop the necessary new patterns and new culture to become stable at a new size.

The in-between zone is also called the stretch zone, because, well, it’s a stretch. In lots of ways. It demands both rethinking and restructuring. It’s the reason a smart pastor – smarter than me, probably – will be cautious about holding up church growth as an unambiguous good, because growth does not feel good to everybody, or all the time. Growth means real changes, both subtle and obvious, and change is demanding. 

In the stretch zone, some things tend to be stretched thin. Gary McIntosh, who’s written about this, says leadership, facilities, and finances can all be stretched.  We’ve got a plan to address the stretch in our facilities – we start knocking holes in the walls right after Easter! – but those other stretches are real, and we’re feeling them. 

Stretches in congregational and ministry leadership happen because there’s more going on, and more people to engage and incorporate. But newer members may not yet feel read to step into ministry or leadership roles, OR may be looking for something else from church than the opportunity to serve on a committee! We end up with a choice between asking the people in leadership already to serve longer and do more; or letting there be vacancies sometimes and seeing what happens. Here’s what that looks like right now: We have a couple of empty slots for our Vestry, our church board. Thing is, we’ve actually had a great Vestry recruitment season. We’ve had terrific conversations with a bunch of people about what it means to serve on vestry, and what we think they’d bring to that work, and a bunch of people said, That sounds great; ask me next year! So rather than twist arms, we’re sitting with some empty spots. And we are not going to try to fill them today.  Our vestry is an amazing body; it does important work and it does it well; and it’s too important for people to make snap decisions about joining it. I hope that a couple of you out there are thinking, Hey, maybe I should give Vestry a try. We want to hear from you! We do need to fill those slots! But we want that to be a process of conversation and discernment, not just a raised hand and a quick vote. We’re in the stretch zone, and we’re feeling it – but we’ll come through it better if we breathe, and trust. God’s right here with us. 

By the same token, stretches in our finances happen because we’re doing more, with more people. We see that in the parts of our budget that increase as we increase: things like kitchen supplies, youth group budget, and photocopying. This year, we’ll be adding some new expenses as we bring our second building back into use, because we need the space. And our diocesan assessment, the portion we give to the larger church, goes up as our budget goes up, just like income taxes. The upshot of all that is that our 2019 budget shows a small deficit – our first deficit budget since 2013. The deficit is around $6000, less than 2% of our total budget. Now, I hasten to say that the vast majority of our regular pledgers and givers have continued to be incredibly generous and faithful in your financial support. Many of you increased your pledges this year, even as you also made commitments to our capital campaign. Your Vestry and your Finance Committee see this small deficit not as a red flag, but as perhaps a symptom of some factors far outside our control, like new tax laws and stock market instability; and we also see it as a – very predictable! – symptom of being in the stretch zone. 

The good news is that our parish financial situation is not dire; we don’t need to panic or make sharp cuts that might starve growing ministries. We often get pledges during the course of the year, as new members decide they want to commit to helping sustain our common life. We commit to be watchful and transparent about our finances this year – as we always are! – and see how things go. We’re in the stretch zone, and we’re feeling it – but we’ll come through it better if we breathe, and trust. God’s right here with us. 

Anxiety – will there be ENOUGH? Stretched leadership and stretched finances demand my attentiveness and my prayers. But I’m not actually anxious about those things. I’ve seen God, and this church, do much bigger miracles before. Where anxiety gets traction for me is whether there’s enough me. While refreshing my memory of the church growth literature, I opened a blog post that began like this: 

“If you are sole pastor and your congregation [is moving towards program size], you probably already feel pretty stretched by:

  • Keeping up with non-crisis visitation and counseling
  • Tracking visitors and incorporating new members
  • Providing leadership for adult classes, groups, and committees
  • Managing clashing expectations [among members]
  • Stepping up to more complex processes for planning and communication.”

https://alban.org/archive/church-growth-shifting-your-leadership-style/

And I thought, Yeah. Pastoring a pastoral-size church is different from pastoring a program-sized church. We’re a little of both right now, and it’s stretching me. I have some learning and growing to do. And some letting go. Y’all did a terrific job caring for each other and making church and deepening relationships during my sabbatical last fall, a wonderful opportunity to discover that St. Dunstan’s is not as pastor-centered as we thought. It gives me so much joy when someone brings me an idea and says, We’d like to do this. OK? Unless there’s serious clash of calendar or theology, I’m going to say, GREAT! What do you need? 

I’ll probably always do a lot because, guys, I like my job, but over the years I’ve been able to move more and more towards doing stuff that’s exciting and rewarding for me, instead of stuff that has to happen because That’s What Churches Do. I’m overwhelmingly grateful for our staff and for the volunteers that function like staff, whose skill and commitment mean we can offer ministries and opportunities far beyond the limits of our budget or your pastor’s time. But it’s true that my role in the parish has changed, and is changing. It’s good. But it’s a stretch, and sometimes I feel it. 

It’s hard for me to release the idea that I’m going to know everybody. What’s going on with your job and your family and your spiritual life. I never really did, but I thought maybe I could; and these days when I look out at all of your faces, I know we’re not that kind of church anymore. I’m not going to be able to have a meaningful coffee date with everyone in the directory on a regular basis. I’m going to have to trust y’all to have meaningful coffee dates with each other. And you do, and I love that so much! 

If you’ve ever seen my desk, you know I’ve got a lot of quotations and prayers posted around it so that when my eyes wander from my computer screen, they land on something helpful. One of them has these words from a mentor, Dwight Zscheile – “Clergypersons must ask themselves, What am I doing that someone else can do, so that I can be freed up to do what God needs me particularly to do in this place?” (People of the Way, p. 124) It’s a heck of a good question, and one that’s particularly important for me to sit with, in this in-between season, this stretch zone. 

Being in-between is uncomfortable for churches. We have two choices, friends: we can lean into the stretch – trust God, trust each other, and see what happens – OR we could stop growing. Show enough inhospitality that new people stop showing up, and ideally start a big fight about something, so that some folks leave and the church can be a more comfortable size again. That’s actually a pretty common path churches take, friends.But it’s not the one I hope we’ll chose together. I hope that when we’re tempted to ask ourselves or one another that anxious question, “Will there be enough?”, we’ll be able to trust in God’s power and God’s abundance. 180 gallons is a LOT of wine, y’all.

In our Gospel story, the steward’s anxiety is relieved; the party is a resounding success. There is enough. Why? Because somebody shared their gifts. Somebody at the party had a skill that could fix the problem. It’s miraculous, because it’s Jesus – but it also happens all the time. Just like in today’s Epistle – Now, there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; there are varieties of activities, but one God who activates them in everyone, as manifestations of the Spirit for the common good. I love the awkward syntax there – the Greek word is energeo, energy! There are many energies among us, all energized by the Spirit of God.

Paul lists some possibilities – miracles, prophesies, wisdom, healing – but I’ve seen some others: To one is given the ability to build a whale out of PVC pipe; to another the willingness to bake cookies for the youth group; to another the skill to keep the white robes white; to yet another the capacity to sort the markers – a Herculean task. 

My trust in our future together is founded on God’s faithfulness and your giftedness.You have all kinds of things you’re good at, or enjoy doing – charisms, gifts given for a purpose, with God as the energizing power. Maybe you can’t name yours yet, and need friends to help. Maybe you know your gifts, but haven’t spotted where they could be useful here – or, like Jesus, you’re thinking, “What does this have to do with me?” In the weeks ahead, as part of our lean into what’s already happening among us, I’m inviting us to reflect on our gifts and skills. This box will be in the Gathering Area – it’s empty, so far! 

Next to it will be these slips. One is for sharing something YOU’RE good at or enjoy doing, that you’d be interested in bringing to our common life here. And one is for naming a gift or skill you see in somebody else here, adults or kids.  Because it’s really important to call forth each other’s gifts. I encourage everyone to take at least one of each, and do some thinking and some noticing in the weeks ahead. When you’ve got something to say, fill them out and put them in the box! I PROMISE you that I am not going to go through this box and assign people to ministries. Pinky swear. But these little slips of paper, taken all together, might point us in some new directions in our common life. Some new ways to use the gifts you bring, for the common good. 

For the common good: Symphero, in Greek – a word that can mean, To carry each other; to endure hard things together; to move forward as one. May it be so. 

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.

(Book of Common Prayer, p. 291)

Sermon, Jan. 13

Did you notice that today’s text from the Acts of the Apostles felt kind of like one short paragraph cut out of a newspaper story? A tiny slice of events, leaving you wondering how we got here and why it matters? Well – you know me; I always like to give you the whole story.

This story begins with a disciple named Philip. A couple of chapters ago, the Twelve Apostles decided they needed some help. The Christian community was growing. One part of their ministry was sharing food with those in need – and there were arguments about whether food was being distributed fairly. So the Twelve got everyone together and said, “Listen, our mission is too important for us to spend our time waiting tables.” (Chapter 6, verse 2; I wish I was making it up.) So the group selects seven men to be in charge of distributing food: Philip, Stephen, and five others. They are set apart with prayer and the laying on of hands – what we could call ordination. Luke doesn’t use the word, but the Church soon began to name this role as deacon – one ordained to stand where church meets world. 

The deacons were supposed to run the food pantry while the Twelve Apostles focused on the Word of God. But the Holy Spirit had other plans. First, Stephen the deacon, full of grace and power, preaches the Word so well that he gets arrested. At his trial, he gives an inspired account of the Gospel, and is condemned to death by stoning – the first Christian martyr.  A time of fierce persecution of Christians in Jerusalem begins – and another deacon, Philip, flees to Samaria, to proclaim the Gospel there. 

Samaria was a region just north of Judea. Its people, the Samaritans, shared common ancestry and holy texts with the Jews of Judea, but understood and practiced their faith very differently. And by the narcissism of small differences, the Jews of Judea thought very poorly of the Samaritans, and the Samaritans though pretty poorly of the Jews. If you’ve ever heard a sermon or Sunday school lesson on the parable of the Good Samaritan, you’ve heard about all this. That parable comes to us from Luke, who also wrote the book of Acts; Luke was keenly aware of the Samaritans as people his original audience loved to hate, but among whom God was nonetheless at work. 

So Philip preaches about Jesus in Samaria – and people listen eagerly. And by the grace and power of God, amazing things start to happen. Those beset by evil spirits or illness find freedom and health. So there is great joy in the city! And many people believed what Philip told them – the good news that we are not forsaken, that God is with us and for us, and that we know the face of this Presence in Jesus Christ* – many people believed, and were baptized in the name of Jesus. 

Now, in that city was a certain man named Simon. Simon was a Samaritan; and he was a magician. Someone who used trickery, patter and sleight of hand to amaze and confound. Simon has no real power, as Luke sees it; he’s a trickster, a fraud.  The word for “magic” here is just, well, magic – mageia. It’s a form of the same word Matthew uses for the Wise Men who visit the infant Jesus – but while those were noble Eastern astrologer-wizards, Simon is just a commonplace charlatan. 

He’s got a pretty good thing going, before Philip shows up. For a long time he has amazed people with his magic, and they listen to him eagerly, because they believe he has some kind of power. He calls himself Simon the Great, and they swallow it, hook, line, and sinker – they tell each other, “This man is rightly called the Great Power of God!”

But Simon doesn’t really have God’s power. Philip does. And Simon can see right away that Philip has him beat.  The crowds turn towards Philip, whose amazing deeds don’t just dazzle their eyes, but restore their hearts. And Simon, too, believes in Philip’s message. He is baptized, and follows Philip around constantly. Luke says, The one who once amazed crowds is now himself amazed by the signs and miracles he observes. And Luke doesn’t say it in so many words, but Simon is probably also closely observing Philip’s technique – trying to figure out how exactly this stranger commands the power to do these things. 

Now, word gets back to the Twelve Apostles in Jerusalem that folks in Samaria are turning to Jesus. And Peter and John, the two great leaders of the early Church, set out for Samaria to see what’s going on. They meet with the Samaritan Christians – and they learn that while many have been baptized in the name of Jesus, they have not yet received the Holy Spirit. Now, this is a bit of an odd thing; generally the Christian Scriptures and the church understand Christian baptism to be all one thing, water and the Holy Spirit together in one sacrament. But in this instance, the Holy Spirit is given in a sort of second baptism. There are various theories to explain the anomaly. Maybe Philip – who, after all, was ordained to hand out bread – hadn’t yet learned the fullness of what he could offer, in baptism. Maybe the gulf between Jews and Samaritans was so great that Peter and John, men of indisputable authority, needed to show up in order to put the stamp of legitimacy on Philip’s mission. 

Regardless: Peter and John see that God is at work here, though Philip. They pray for the new believers, and ask that they may receive the Holy Spirit; then they lay their hands upon them, and the Holy Spirit comes. I wish I knew what that looked like – what that sounded like. Hundreds of people gathered, men, women, and children… did they line up and come before the great Apostles one by one, or did Peter and John walk among them, touching each head with loving intent? And how could they tell that the Spirit was moving among them? Did people weep and sing? Dance and shout? Give and forgive? Fall to their knees under the holy weight of divine belovedness? 

 Whatever happened – it impressed the heck out of Simon. Here, he sees plainly, is true greatness. After things had settled down, when he could approach the Apostles privately, he went up to them and offered them money, saying, “Give me this power also, so that I can lay hands on anyone and they will receive the Holy Spirit.” 

I feel sorry for Simon. He genuinely doesn’t know any better. He’s gotten this far in life through skill, bombast, and luck. In his line of work, you’re always banking on people’s credulity, and always fearful someone will ask the wrong question, or spot you slipping the marked card into the deck. People were not more gullible back in Simon’s time; trickery and fraud were well-known in the ancient world. If you want people to keep dropping coins in your hat, you have to either keep going bigger, or keep moving on before your tricks become old news – or a more impressive act comes to town. Simon knows he’s been bested – and he respects the power he sees at work. As a fake, he’s uniquely qualified to spot what’s real. And it makes perfect sense – from his standpoint – to offer money for access to this power. Magicians today still sell access to the mechanics of their tricks – the ones they’re willing to give away. 

Maybe Philip, who’d gotten to know Simon, would have answered more kindly; but Peter is furious. He says, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain God’s gift with money! You have no part or share in this, for your heart is not right before God. Repent of this wickedness, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the chains of wickedness.’ 

In his anger, Peter shows that he is quite clear about something the church has sometimes forgotten in the subsequent millennia: The Power, the Presence that hovers low over the font in baptism is not ours to command. All we can do is ask nicely – as Peter and John did when they asked the Holy Spirit to come to the new believers of Samaria. Peter tells Simon, This power isn’t OURS. I couldn’t sell it if I wanted to, because I don’t OWN it. 

Poor Simon! He says, “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may happen to me.” Then Peter and John go home, and Philip is called away to the Gaza road, where he will soon meet an Ethiopian court official. We get no resolution to Simon’s story – but I think it points in a hopeful direction. He wants to understand, to become part of what God is doing. I choose to believe that Simon’s heart was changed that day. That he made his fame, eloquence and skill available to God’s purposes from that day forward. That he sought to offer people truth instead of trickery, healing instead of humbug. 

Simon is struggling with a question that Christians still wonder about: What is baptism for? He sees it initially through the limited lens of his livelihood: Wow, this is impressive! This really draws the crowds! And he’s naturally drawn to the idea of *real* supernatural power that can actually change things… It would come in handy to be able to heal people, cast out spirits. You’d be set for life if you could do that, and people would REALLY call you Great. 

The church is prone to a misunderstanding – or limited understanding – similar to Simon’s: Thinking that the divine power present in the sacrament of baptism, the power Simon longs to be able to call or compel, is given for individual benefit – of the one baptized, and/or of the person authorized to offer baptism. 

While Simon longs for true and lasting greatness, we have more modest hopes and expectations of the fruits of this sacrament for the one to be baptized: A profound, mysterious, and indissoluble connection to God; a fundamental membership in Christ’s body the Church, with all rights and privileges appertaining thereunto; the gifts of the Holy Spirit made available as a birthright of faith. These are real and undeniable blessings for the one baptized and their family, and for the church gathered to celebrate and welcome. 

But baptism isn’t just for us. It’s for others – through us. This whole story is set in motion because God’s grace is at work in Samaria through Philip. Through God’s power manifest in his preaching the good news of God’s love made known to us through Jesus Christ; in the driving out of evil spirits, in healing and curing, and in the bubbling up of a great civic joy. Philip’s ministry reminds us that our baptism is about belonging to a power that works through us for good, to save and heal, comfort and encourage, restore and reconcile. He shows us life as a servant of that Power, listening for God’s word and following God’s nudges: Go there. Speak now. Reach out to her. Ask him what he’s reading. 

Baptism is not about a power we can use or direct. It’s about a Power that can direct and use us. 

Dorothea Mae, we baptize you with earnest prayers for your wellbeing and your flourishing. We long for God’s grace to bless and sustain you, as you grow. But we baptize you not for your greatness but for God’s; not for your good only, but for the good of the world God longs to redeem. Dorothea, we name you Gift of God, and we baptize you into a life of availability to larger purposes and greater goods than we can see or imagine. We baptize you to love others in the power of the Spirit, whose gracious Presence in our rite today will do what our words can only invite; and we send you into the world in witness to God’s love.