Category Archives: Spiritual Practices

Sermon, Sept. 11

When I was a child, sometimes at bedtime my mother would try to sing me an old song  based on the lost sheep story, called The Ninety and Nine…

  1. There were ninety and nine that safely lay
    In the shelter of the fold;
    But one was out on the hills away,
    Far off from the gates of gold.
    Away on the mountains wild and bare;
    Away from the tender Shepherd’s care….
  2. Out in the desert He heard its cry;
    ’Twas sick and helpless and ready to die.

I hated this song. When she started to sing it, I would protest and make her stop. The plight of the lost sheep was simply too sad. Sick and helpless and ready to die? You want me to sleep, right? 

The parables in today’s Gospel, and the parable that follows them, the story of the Prodigal Son, are some of the best-known and best-loved of Jesus’ stories. They offer up clearly and beautifully what might just be core of the Gospel:God’s yearning, insistent, inexhaustible love and longing for the one (the many) who have strayed, gone missing, broken away, left the sweetness and safety of God’s pastures.

We wander. Or maybe, like the Prodigal Son, we march off defiantly. Or maybe, like the coin, we just get left behind. And God seeks, driven by a heart more loving than we can comprehend.

The heart of the seeker. Our first text today, from the prophet Jeremiah, seems at odds with the Gospel. God’s message here seems to be: You have turned from me and wandered away; well, too bad. Destruction is coming. Have fun with that. 

As is so often the case, though, the selected text isn’t giving us the full picture. It skips verse 19, in which Jeremiah gives voice to God’s agony, anticipating the suffering of God’s people: 

“My anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain! Oh, the walls of my heart!
My heart is beating wildly; I cannot keep silent;
for I hear the sound of the trumpet,
the alarm of war.”

In chapter 3, just a few verses earlier, God speaks through Jeremiah to plead with God’s people:  “Return, faithless Israel, says the Lord.
I will not look on you in anger,
for I am merciful, I will not be angry for ever. …

I thought I would set you among my children,
and give you a pleasant land…

And I thought you would call me, My Father,
and would not turn from following me.
Instead, you have been faithless to me, O house of Israel. 

Return, O faithless children, and I will heal your faithlessness!”  

God is desperate to restore relationship, to save God’s children from the consequences of their own foolishness. The heart of the seeker: God’s anger, yes, but also God’s anguish, and God’s persistent, relentless, unshakeable love. 

Last week we read together Psalm 139, a powerful poem about being sought by God: 

“Lord, you have searched me out and known me; *

you know my sitting down and my rising up;

you discern my thoughts from afar…

Where can I go then from your Spirit? *

where can I flee from your presence?

If I climb up to heaven, you are there; *

if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.

If I take the wings of the morning *

and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,

Even there your hand will lead me *

and your right hand hold me fast.”


Sought, known, held, wherever we may go… 

The lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost child. There have been debates over these parables, over whether the Seeker’s actions make sense. Are the 99 sheep left somewhere safe, while the shepherd goes off seeking the one? Does the woman burn more fuel seeking the lost coin than the coin is even worth?

I don’t think it actually matters, within the world of the parable. Jesus isn’t talking about cost-benefit analysis. He’s talking about the heart of God. That knows our weakness, our smallness, our vulnerability. That follows, wherever we wander; that reaches out, as often as we turn away; that searches every dark corner – never, ever, ever giving up on us. 

Our strongest human relationships give us some small glimpse of the depth and persistence of that kind of love. The love of God, the heart of the Seeker. 

But what of the heart of the sought? The heart of the one who wanders? The lost one? 

I notice, this year, that there’s kind of a continuum of agency in these parables. At one end there’s the Prodigal Son. He means to leave. He’s confident he can do better on his own. 

I appreciate the emotional honesty of Psalm 139.  Even in describing God’s relentless love, the poet seems to be pushing back a bit: Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? Could you just give me some space? …. 

That great divine gift of free will, of intellect and choice, makes us prone to wander, prone to leave the God we love, as one of our hymns puts it. 

In the middle of that continuum is the lost sheep. The sheep didn’t make a deliberate choice to leave the care of the shepherd, the safety of the flock. It just… went that way instead of this way, or got a little wrapped up in a luscious patch of grass and didn’t notice when everyone else moved on. 

I wonder how the lost sheep feels, during the long hours before the shepherd shows up. Is it in denial, that sheep? I don’t need any help, everything’s under control. This is fine. Is it overwhelmed, but still trying to solve its own problems? I’m sure if I just work a little harder, I can get loose from this bramble bush and run away from that wolf!… Is it still trying to figure out how it got here? I just took a few steps away from the path… how did this happen? Just a few little steps, but suddenly I am not where I meant to be at all.  And it’s getting dark…

The prodigal child walks away; the sheep wanders. And then at the other end of the continuum, there’s the coin. The coin didn’t make a choice to leave. It didn’t stray from the flock.  When a coin gets lost, it’s not the coin’s fault. It’s separated from its fellows, and away from its rightful place, because of circumstances and other people’s actions. 

There are lots of ways people get neglected or disconnected, pushed to the edges or left behind. A few years ago, Lutheran pastor and writer Emmy Kegler wrote a memoir called One Coin Found. Spoiler: She’s the coin. 

She writes about her journey as an LGBTQ+ Christian who grew up loving God and loving the Bible – while also being told that she could not be what she knew herself to be, and be right with God. When the church of her childhood lost Emmy, God found her.  

She writes:  “We too are lost and dusty coins. We have gone unnoticed, rusted from others’ indifference, misspent and misused – and our friends and leaders did not see our neglect. But God, in big and little ways, has picked up a woman’s broom and swept every corner of creation. God, in big and little ways, has tucked up her skirts and flattened herself on the floor, dug through dust bunnies and checked every dress pocket. God has found us, dustier and rustier and without any luster, and held us up to the light to say: No matter how you rolled away or what corner you were dropped in, you are mine.”

Emmy is just one of many who have preached and prayed, worked and struggled, dreamed and built their way towards churches that affirm the wholeness and dignity of folks like her. I know so many LGBTQ+ Christians raised in churches that would not name their hearts and bodies, loves and lives as holy. And who have clung fiercely and bravely to the conviction that God loves them and that they belong among God’s people.

I feel humbled by their – by your – courage and love and persistence. It seems to me that the very least a church can do in response is celebrate those coins that were left behind or tossed aside – but refused to stay lost. That’s why we made the effort to have a table at PrideFest again this year – as a witness and a celebration. That’s why we’re learning to share our pronouns, and pay attention to others’ pronouns – an extension of care and respect as fundamental as getting someone’s name right. 

LGBTQ+ Christians – and those who might like to be Christian if they knew they were safe – aren’t the only ones who can get pushed to the edges or lost in the shadows, in church life and culture. Mental illness or addiction, poverty, loneliness or relationship struggles can all make it feel like it’s not safe or welcome to bring your whole self to church. To speak your heart’s deepest prayers out loud. 

Turning back to the parables for a moment: I want to note that “sinner” is a vocabulary Jesus is borrowing from those who are challenging him, here. There’s nothing wrong with the sheep or the coin; they’re just – lost. Apart, alone, at risk. Jesus does care a lot about people changing their hearts and turning back towards God. But Jesus also cares a lot about people who are lost, getting found. The word the church translates as “salvation” or “saved” can also be translated as rescued, delivered, healed, restored. 

These are parables, stories, about God. But we’re called to love with God’s love, to the best of our ability. So they’re also parables about us, as God’s people, as God’s church. And our vocation to seek, and to welcome. 

This year we’ll be revisiting the practices of discipleship we named together back in 2016 – through a series of conversations to help us figure out how we feel called to follow Jesus, as the people of St. Dunstan’s Church. And the first practice on the list is Welcoming. 

In the document that summarizes our work, we say: “We follow the example of Jesus Christ through an ongoing, intentional practice of welcome, of strangers, guests, and one another, in the fulness of our stories, struggles, differences and gifts.”

That ongoing practice of welcome goes a long way beyond the first “Hello, glad to meet you!” There is deeper welcome to do – deeper listening, receiving, affirming, connecting – even in decades-old friendships. And welcome is not superficial or trivial. It is real work, sometimes hard work. And always holy work. 

One more thing I noticed about these familiar stories, this year: The incompleteness of the 99 and the 9. The Bible mostly uses a decimal number system, based on tens, as we do. In such a system, there’s a not-quiteness to nines.

Do the nine coins, or the ninety-nine sheep, know that they’re missing someone? Maybe they do, maybe they don’t. But they are. Someone isn’t there. And some fullness, some all-ness is lacking. Those nines ache for their missing ones. 

As God’s people, as God’s church, we seek, we welcome, we celebrate, with humility and hope. Sometimes we have apologies and amends to make, for harm done by our or other churches – and we strive to do that too.  Sometimes we have learning and growing to do, to be a flock that can be truly safe and welcoming – and we strive to do that too.  Because each coin found, each sheep restored to the flock brings us to a new completeness.

I didn’t sing the lost sheep song to my kids. But those hard, sad words, the lost sheep’s desperate condition – that’s the middle of the story, not the end. What comes next is the really important part. When the lost gets found.

Gentle hands untangle wool from the thorns, lift the sheep,  wash its wounds, hold it close. Carry it home in joy. 

This is how the song ends, if I would ever have let my mother get this far: 

And all through the mountains, thunder-riv’n,
And up from the rocky steep,
There arose a glad cry to the gate of heav’n,
“Rejoice! I have found My sheep!”
And the angels echoed around the throne,
“Rejoice, for the Lord brings back His own!”


Homily, July 24

A homily about prayer for All-Ages Worship, based on Luke 11:1-13. 

What does it mean to pray? 

At church it might feel like praying is when we read certain things out of our booklets. But that’s only one kind of prayer.

Or maybe it’s when we place our flowers and stones in the prayer gardens. But that’s also only one kind of prayer. 

Prayer means so many things! 

Anne Lamott says anything you say from your heart to God – out loud or inside yourself! – is a prayer.

But prayer isn’t just talking.  Listening is an important part of prayer, too. 

Prayer can look like coloring or knitting or walking… It can look like laughing, or crying. It can look like sitting very still. It can look like dancing.

In the Gospel today Jesus’ friends ask him how to pray. They want to know if there’s a right way to do it. And Jesus gives them an example: “Here’s a way to pray!” 

I think he was just trying to show them that prayer can be very simple.  Not that this is the ONE RIGHT PRAYER. But his friends wrote it down, and passed it on, and over time people started calling it the Lord’s Prayer, and using it in worship, and in their daily prayers too.

The Lord’s Prayer is an example of what’s good and what’s bad about worshiping the way our kind of church worships: with set prayers that we read off a page, or memorize. The bad is that it can get boring. Too familiar.  Sometimes we’re not really praying it at all; our mouths are just saying the words. The good is that it’s always there for us. It’s an anchor. When it’s hard to find our own words, we can use these ones. 

At our church we say the Lord’s Prayer using lots of versions! Everyone can pick which one they want to use. But we still know we’re all praying the same prayer together. I know for some people it feels like a lot for their ears – maybe too much! For other people it lets them pray from their heart, whether their words match everyone else’s or not. 

We started doing this because we were using the “contemporary version” of the Lord’s Prayer from our Prayer Book – the one that starts, “Our Father in heaven…”

But some people liked the older version better – the one that starts “Our Father who art in heaven…” So they were praying that version instead. 

When I noticed this, I remembered that at General Convention, when all the Episcopalians from the United States and the Caribbean and parts of Europe and Latin America and the indigenous churches all get together, people are invited to pray in the language of their heart. It’s amazing to be in a room with two thousand people all praying this same prayer, the prayer Jesus gave to his friends, but in so many different ways! 

So we started doing it that way too. 

Today there’s a new version in your Sunday Supplement, one I learned from a member of our parish. It’s based on the Message version of the Bible. It has some beautiful and surprising language and you might like to try it out, when we pray the Lord’s Prayer later on! 

So what’s in this prayer, the simple prayer Jesus gave his friends? Let’s take a quick look – and as we go, I’ll show you the signs from ASL, American Sign Language, that some of us like to use. 

First, we pray as God’s beloved children, calling God Father or Mother. If those are difficult words for you, you could use another name for God that brings you close in love. 

Then we say, May your Name be held holy! We pray for God’s goodness and glory to be seen and known. The sign for Holy is like wiping something clean so it can shine. 

Then we pray, Let your kingdom come! The Message version says, Set the world right! The sign for Come is just like calling someone with your hands. 

Then we pray, Give us the food we need for the day. We’re not praying for a Mercedes Benz here, or a Playstation 5. We’re praying for our most basic needs. Just enough. The ASL sign we use here is Feed or Eat. 

Then we pray for forgiveness of our sins. That the things we’ve done that we shouldn’t have done, or the things we didn’t do and should have done, will be wiped away, in God’s kindness – and that we’ll do better next time. And we pray for help forgiving other people, too.  The sign we use there is like sending someone on their way. You’re free! Go in peace! 

Then – in Luke’s version of this prayer, which is very short! – we pray that we won’t face tough situations and hard times. We use three different ASL signs here! We ask for God to strengthen us … And to spare us… look, two fists together, but then one escapes! And we ask God to save us, to set us free from the grip of evil. For the ASL sign, pretend your wrists are tied together – but then someone cuts the rope!

Then we hold up all our prayers to the God who rules the Universe in love… Amen. 

But then what happens? What happens AFTER we pray?

Praying isn’t like ordering in a restaurant, where you ask for mac and cheese, and in ten minutes, they bring you mac and cheese. 

But Jesus tells us to keep knocking, keep asking, keep seeking. And he says that God knows how to give us what we need. 

I bet some of us can think of times when we prayed for or about something, and it did happen, and we were glad and grateful.

I bet there are a lot more times when we didn’t even notice when our prayers were answered – because it’s easy not to notice when you stop being sad or anxious about something. 

We can also think of times when what we were praying for, didn’t happen the way we hoped it would.  When we prayed for an egg and feel like we got a scorpion. 

That could be another whole sermon. Let me just say that I don’t think everything that happens is God’s will. The world is not the way it is meant to be. 

Sometimes, though, the response to our prayers just doesn’t look like what we expected.

At Drama Camp this week, we worked with the story of Tobit, from the Apocrypha in the Bible. Among other things, Tobit is a story about prayer. Early in the story, Tobit, who has suffered many tragedies, prays for God to end his misery. At the same moment, a young woman named Sarah is praying to be freed from her own shame and suffering. And God decides to take care of both situations at once. 

The way the story unfolds from there involves a journey, a dog, a demon, an angel in disguise, and fish guts. I can’t possibly summarize it. Look it up, or ask a kid! But there is, eventually, a happy ending for both Tobit and Sarah. 

Sometimes the resolution of our struggles or yearnings takes the long way round. I’ve lived that. Maybe you have too. 

Now it’s almost time for us to pray together, friends!…

Sermon, Nov. 14

One effect of being in one parish for nearly eleven years is that the kids start to grow up. As I watch them mature, knowing that they’ll be off on new adventures in a year or two or four or six, I’ve realized that what I hope they’ll carry with them – what I hope we all carry with us, when we log off or walk out the doors on a Sunday – isn’t so much belief in God.  What I want most of all – for our young people, for all of us – is a sense of being in a living relationship with God.

It’s hard to sustain belief without relationship – and it’s pretty easy to sustain belief with relationship. If you’re talking with someone on a regular basis, you tend to assume they exist. Relationship really is the heart of the matter. 

This is a humbling thing to realize because I don’t think I’ve modeled or taught it especially well. When we’re ordained, priests are charged with responsibility to proclaim the faith of the church – which pushes us towards things like teachings and doctrines. And then there’s prayer – the heart of our relationship with God. The Episcopal Church is good at inviting people into formal, set ways of prayer, individually or together. There’s good stuff about reading a prayer off the page, using it as a container for whatever we’re bringing to God. 

But we don’t always have a prayer book on hand – and what we’re carrying inside us does not always fit those containers very well. When someone comes into church like Hannah, praying from their heart, with tears and trembling… I like to think most priests would handle it better than Eli did, and at least not assume they’re drunk! But we don’t entirely know what to do with prayers that don’t fit into the restrained and elegant form of a Prayer Book collect. So today I’m going to take a cue from Hannah, and talk a little bit about prayer, as the heart of relationship with the Holy. 

There are a lot of kinds of prayer. For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to focus on my own prayer life. There are the prayers I share with the church – on Sundays, at Compline, and so on. I bring my own heart-prayers and intentions to those gatherings, and join you in yours. There are family prayers – grace before dinner, Advent prayers, occasionally shared prayer for a particular person or need. There are my personal daily-ish set prayers, involving Scripture, prayer for others, and reflecting back on the day in the evening. 

And then… there’s my ongoing conversation with God. (Or with Jesus, or with the Holy Spirit, whatever name or aspect of the Holy feels easiest to call upon in the moment.) 

The conversational part of my prayer life connects with all that other stuff, but it’s different. It’s not in fancy words, and sometimes not in words at all. It’s not context-dependent; these are anywhere, anytime prayers. It flows from what’s going on in my life and in my heart. It’s the least structured part of my prayer life, and the most fundamental. 

I’m not talking about chattering at God all day. It’s more like touching base, maybe daily, maybe a few times a week, about the stuff that’s on my mind and in my heart. In my mother’s book about Saint Nicholas of Myra, she describes how he would turn his heart and mind towards the Mystery at the center of things. I like that image a lot – but let me be honest that sometimes it’s a pretty quick turn towards the Mystery, and then back towards whatever else I’m doing. 

In some ways this aspect of my prayer life looks a lot like a relationship with a close friend or family member. Sometimes we might sit down to have a real talk about something; sometimes I might ask their advice; occasionally there are big feelings to address. But a lot of the time it’s a casual, “Hey, remember not to lose track of this commitment!” Or “Hey, this is giving me trouble, can you help me figure it out sometime?” 

Conversation with a friend or partner or parent probably happens mostly in words – spoken or texted. With God, the channels of communication are much broader. On my side, I’m just…  talking to God. Sometimes out loud, sometimes silently, sometimes in writing. With or without words. Sometimes using music, or art. Some people find that silence and stillness help. Some people find that movement helps. 

On God’s side the channels are even more diverse. I might hear God speak deep in my heart. Or through the words of friends or strangers. I’ve heard God speak to me through Scripture or other things I’m reading. Through art; through music; through the natural world. Through pivot points where a path suddenly became clear. Through the occasional ridiculous coincidence. 

We have to learn to listen for God’s side of the conversation. Whether we’re looking for guidance or help, resolution of a difficulty, easing of pain, or simply the next right thing to do – God’s response may require some listening, some noticing. The clarity or mercy we’re seeking may not show up in the form we expect. 

You’ve probably heard the story about the man trapped on a roof during a flood who prays for God to save him as the waters rise. People come by in a rowboat and offer to help him; he says, No, I’m a praying man, I have faith that God will save me! Next comes a motorboat and then a helicopter, and the same thing happens: the man refuses their help, preferring to trust in God. Later, in Heaven, the man is furious at God: “I had faith in you! Why didn’t you help me?” And God says, I sent you a rowboat, a motorboat, and a helicopter; what were you waiting for?… 

It’s an old joke but there’s something to it. I’m sure I’ve missed rowboats before because I was looking for, I don’t know, some sort of angelic chariot? 

So, God’s replies to our prayers aren’t always easy to recognize. Furthermore: God’s timing is different from ours. Sometimes God leaves us on read for a while. Hannah becomes pregnant within months of her fervent prayer; but those months must have felt long in the living of them. Sometimes we have to be patient with God. I’m confident God often has to be patient with us. 

Most of the time, God’s side of our conversation, as I’m able to perceive it, is occasional and subtle. I start reading something and realize it speaks directly to something I’ve been wondering about for weeks. I happen to mention a problem to a friend who immediately offers me three concrete solutions. I wonder about whether something is the right direction for our congregation, then a new member shows up out of the blue with a deep passion for that exact issue. 

What’s the difference between things like this, and just a lucky turn in daily life?  Like finding cool boots in my size at the thrift store – which is fun, but which I would not generally interpret as divine intervention? How do I know when something I read or hear or see or experience is a glimpse of the mercy or guidance or assurance I’ve been seeking from God? I don’t know. Something deep inside me says: Pay attention. This. Now. Sometimes it feels like catching something heavier than expected. Sometimes my breath or my heartbeat tell me that something’s happening. Sometimes my eyes prickle with tears. Sometimes something just becomes almost imperceptibly clearer, or lighter, or softer. 

On the other hand, I’ve had a few times in my life when God answered me in laughably obvious ways. I remember a time in my 20s when I was driving home on a dark county road at night and struggling with a question of faith. 

I remember asking God – demanding of God – If this is what you want from me, give me a sign! And right on cue: A shooting star blazed across the sky above the road ahead of me. 

It was a precious, holy moment for me – but as soon as I put it into words, it sounds like something from Reader’s Digest. At best, too tidy, too sweet; at worst, a glimpse into an unsteady and desperate mind, ascribing personal meaning to space debris. 

In his book Unapologetic – an exploration of the lived experience of Christian faith – Francis Spufford describes a comparable moment from his own life. He’d spent the night arguing with his wife, and in the morning he went to a cafe to try to write. And as he sat there drinking his coffee and struggling to focus, somebody put in a cassette of the Adagio movement of Mozart’s clarinet concerto. Spufford writes, “If you don’t know it, it is a very patient piece of music… It sounds as if it comes from a world where sorrow is perfectly ordinary, but still there is more to be said. I had heard it lots of times, but this time it felt to me like news. It said: everything you fear is true. And yet… Everything you have done wrong, you have really done wrong. And yet…” It was exactly what he needed to hear at that moment, to calm his soul and help him move forward. 

A few pages later he talks about the nuts and bolts of how he makes sense of a moment like this. He says he doesn’t believe that God suddenly showed up in that cafe at that moment: “God is continually present everywhere anyway, … underlying all cafes, all cassettes, all composers.” Instead, he says, two centuries ago, Mozart wrote a piece of music that successfully expresses the reality that the universe is sustained by love. And when that music started to play, on that particular morning, he simply became able to notice what was always already true: that we are more than our worst moments, and that we are never abandoned. 

When we talk to God honestly – When we pray from our hearts, unfiltered, unpolished – our prayers are often not things we’d say out loud in church. We pray grasping prayers for things we want or think we need. We pray from our pain, our bitterness, our anger, our envy. Our fear or confusion or despair. How could we not? 

When we read Hannah’s prayer as our Song of Faith today, I skipped a verse: 

“The woman who was barren has birthed seven children,
but the mother with many sons has lost them all!”

Hannah seems to be imagining her rival Peninnah losing all her children, as punishment for her cruelty. The Song of Mary, the Magnificat, in Luke’s Gospel, is built on the foundations of Hannah’s song. But Hannah’s prayer bears the traces of her pain and anger. So do ours, sometimes. It doesn’t matter. We can’t hide those feelings from God; we might as well pray them. 

And how? There are so many ways. When words fail you or you’re weary of the sound of your own voice, anything can become a vessel for prayer. Maybe it’s choosing which salts to burn with colored flame, like we did at FireChurch a couple fo weeks ago. Maybe it’s holding tight to a rock and saying a name in your heart before you put it down on the green felt. It could be a picture you draw in your journal while thinking about a friend you’re worried about. Poet Mary Oliver offers this advice for prayer: “Just pay attention, then patch a few words together and don’t try to make them elaborate; this isn’t a contest but the doorway into thanks, and a silence in which another voice may speak.”

What I’ve shared here is from my own experience. If you recognize any of it, I would love to hear about the texture of your ongoing conversation with the Holy. If all of this is new to you – if you’ve never heard prayer described this way, or been invited into it – I hope you will try it. And if you feel that you have tried it, and heard only silence – then let’s talk. Or maybe I could connect you with someone else in this congregation. Clergy are not experts on personal prayer, and many of my best mentors have not been ordained. I know there are some people of prayer in this congregation who would be glad to companion someone. 

I’d like to close with a prayer for all of us… May we be as bold and open-hearted as Hannah in bringing the prayers and yearnings of our hearts to God. And in times when we see a prayer answered or a hope fulfilled, may we, like Hannah, notice God’s hand at work, and give thanks. Amen. 

How Not To Freak Out

Dear ones, as I walk through these days, I’ve been really noticing the wisdom of folks for whom, for various reasons, this strange season is at least somewhat familiar territory. Here are some things I’ve gathered that I think may be helpful to others as well. I’d love to hear what’s been helping you – or what’s especially hard.  – Rev. Miranda+

On life during a crisis…  

Wisdom from Emily Scott, who was pastoring in New York City during and after Hurricane Sandy, and learned some things from that experience that may be more broadly helpful now. 

1. Your brain won’t work as well. This week I’ve forgotten what I was doing a thousand times. Stress messes with your sequencing, and ordering your thoughts gets hard. Try to do one thing at a time.

2. Touch down once a day for the big picture, but focus on the tasks in front of you most of the day. There’s a lot to take in about how our world has changed. Take in news and new information once during the day, to make sure the work you’re doing in is in line with the new reality. But the rest of the time, focus on your work. Having something to focus on always gives me a sense of agency.

3. Pause to assess your gifts and your vocation, and how they might meet the need in this current moment. We’ll all have to adapt in this new time, but lean on gifts God gave you, and take a breath to decide how to focus your time.

4. Savor the sweet spots. It might be snuggling down under the covers when you first wake up or a cup of tea each night on the porch, but linger in the moments that give you comfort as long as you can. 

5. Do less. Our capacity has changed; we are able to do about 50-75% of what we did before this crisis hit. Let extra stuff fall away and streamline what you can. Extend grace to yourself and others. 

6. Adapt and pivot. Be as nimble as you can. We’re in a world that looks very different. I know I said “do less” above, but also, it’s a time to “do differently” as well.  What resources can you or your organization offer to the work of taking care of our neighbors and community at this time? 

7. Don’t be surprised if past trauma shows up. Under stress, we can expect past traumas to influence our reactions and our days. Notice the signals your body’s sending you, and plan in time and energy for caring for yourself. 

8. Rituals and structures of self care are key. Meditation or a set pattern of prayer at the beginning and end of the day. A long walk. A regular talk with a dear friend. Set up structures that will hold you through this time.

9. You’re not God. If you’re the kind who thinks you have to rescue the whole world, remember that we’re in this together, and God is still here. There are people working for good in every setting — hospitals, libraries, schools, grocery stores. You can trust them to do their job, while you do yours.

What’s going on inside of us: Grief… 

Wisdom from an expert on grief and grieving. I found this article really helpful. Here’s an excerpt: “With a virus, this kind of grief is so confusing for people. Our primitive mind knows something bad is happening, but you can’t see it. This breaks our sense of safety. We’re feeling that loss of safety. I don’t think we’ve collectively lost our sense of general safety like this. Individually or as smaller groups, people have felt this. But all together, this is new. We are grieving on a micro and a macro level.” Read the whole article here: That discomfort you are feeling is grief

What’s going on inside of us: Anxiety…  

Wisdom from a friend who has lived with anxiety for a decade & learned many coping strategies. Catastrophizing is the psychology term for “when your brain runs away with you and tells you that the worst case scenario is about to happen.” 

Avoiding it: Gently notice if certain kinds of information tend to activate this reaction for you. Be selective about what information you take in, and when. Remember: what you *need* to know is only the information that will impact how you act. Everything else is optional and it’s OK to avoid it. 

Countering it: Firstly, get mental health support if it’s really crippling. (Yes, you can still get that kind of help even in these times. Start by calling your primary care doctor if your don’t know where else to start.) But if it’s not crippling, there are many coping strategies you can try, like: 

  • Distraction. Take your mind off of it, and let it fade out.
  • Exercise. Intense exercise, even for 1 minute, can help dissipate your anxiety hormones so you can relax. 
  • Relaxation exercises: Sometimes you can trick yourself out of your anxious thoughts by relaxing your body enough. This works best if you do it often, and not just when you are feeling anxious. 
  • Shift focus to things you *can* do and control. 
  • Check the facts. Sometimes, seeking more (better!) information can help you pull back from spiraling anxiety. 

Read the whole article here:  Fighting Anxiety – What I Learned

Responding to others…

Wisdom from Sarah Knoll Sweeney, an Episcopal priest and hospital chaplain, whose vocation is to accompany people going through hard and frightening experiences.

Compassion rather than empathy…  Lots of us – not just pastors! – are being asked to help others manage their anxiety or struggle right now. Friends or family members may be reaching out and leaning on us. Sarah advises us to think in terms of compassion rather than empathy. Empathy means feeling what someone else is feeling – which can add to our own anxiety, and drain our capacity to respond or even care for ourselves. Compassion, Sarah writes, is different. “Taking a [pause] to send our loving-kindness to those we serve is a renewable resource, and moves us to caring action rather than burnout…. [Between phone calls, or while washing your hands,] visualize the care-seeker you just encountered. In silence, send them loving-kindness. Then, send it to the next person who will encounter them… As you rinse off your blessed hands, send one more push of kindness to [someone else –  maybe someone you struggle with or find difficult.]”

Letting others have their distress…  More from Sarah Knoll Sweeney: “I haven’t talked with a single person who is not in some form of distress, [physical, moral, spiritual…]. In your current distress, whatever it looks and sounds like, which helps more: someone who says, “Don’t worry, it’ll be over soon,” or someone who listens intently, capturing and reflecting that they actually heard you, and doesn’t try to put a lid on it, dismiss it, or minimize it?… You have no power to take away physical illness, to solve moral dilemma, or to spin lament into joy. [But] if we say, “Oh! I’m sure you don’t have it, you’ll see,” or “Calm down, you’re all worked up over nothing,” we tell the person, your distress is wrong. Your distress is invalid. Your distress isn’t worth hearing. That’s a toxic message in any encounter, but right now, we all have to let our distress be real and keep going anyway. If you want to be allowed to have the distress you feel right now, please, [let others] have theirs… Don’t reassure it or invalidate it. Reflect it: “You’re at your wits’ end.” “This doesn’t feel right to you.” “You need some relief.” See how you’re not even in that sentence? In not insisting on solving it, you have held an actual moment of space for the other person. Right now, this kind of encounter is priceless. That kind of moment is gold. [Offer this to others, and seek out] someone who can do this for you.”

Extending grace, lowering expectations… Sarah writes, “When we’re under pressure, our oldest roles try to take over because in our lizard brains, we still believe these will get us through (for better or worse, they did!). Those with whom you’re working closely are wrestling their own.” Try to be self-aware about how you may be reacting from your own deep patterns, more so than in “normal” times, and realize others around you are doing the same. “People are going to be deeply entrenched in their favorite ways of coping right now.”

Leaning on faith & the tools and heritage of faith…

As Christians, we strive to trust that God is with us in all circumstances; and we know that God’s people have been through many hard times in the past. The apostle Paul wrote to a church assembly whom he could not be with, loved, and missed, in the letter to the Philippians. Julian of Norwich, one of the saints we hold in special honor in our congregation, lived in a time of plague and chaos  (here’s a wonderful short paper about Julian & some ideas for reflecting on and praying with Julian, from the bishop of one of our neighboring dioceses). Many of the Psalms speak of distress, longing, and seeking – and sometimes finding – peace. Here are a couple of starting points: Psalm 90 and 130 are cries for God’s help; Psalms 121 and 131 are psalms of trust. If you would like more suggestions for praying with the Psalms, let me know!

Setting aside time for daily prayer – even a simple, short practice – can help anchor you as well. Daily prayer both gives us routine and structure, and offers us a chance to rest in God’s presence and perhaps hear God speaking to us. One very simple practice is this shortened Compline – prayers at bedtime. If you are using this on your own, simply read both the leader & response parts.

Music is a touchstone for many of us – both familiar songs (hymns and church songs, and not so churchy songs too!) and, sometimes, new songs that help us face the present moment. Deanna, our music director, and I are working on plans to continue offering music to our congregation in this time. If there’s a song you really miss and want help finding, so you can sing it at home, please let us know. Here is a song by Martha Burford, based on prayer #59 in our prayer book (p. 832), and performed by friend of the congregation Paul Vasile, that speaks to our need to rest in God in this time.

Finally, remember to do things you enjoy.  

On that subject, I really love this video (OK to watch with kids!):

Bonus resource: One of the priests in our diocese is also a counsellor and has started posting short videos about how to deal with these times. You can find them here:

Sermon, March 8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I mean. 

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

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

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

Nobody is admirable in this chapter of the story. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon, Jan. 12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon, Dec. 8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Sarah Dylan Breuer on this text:

Andrew McGowan on the War on Christmas:

David Lose on the Advent to-do list exercise:

Sermon, Nov. 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon, Oct. 20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Main source for information about Sophie in this sermon:

Some more sites about Sophie:

Sermon, September 8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Pavlovitz, “Christian, Stop Telling Me God Is In Control,” February 22, 2017,