Category Archives: Spiritual Practices

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!): https://vimeo.com/58659769

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: https://www.facebook.com/pg/JDKCounseling/videos/?ref=page_internal

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. 

 

Sources:

Sarah Dylan Breuer on this text: 

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

Andrew McGowan on the War on Christmas: 

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

David Lose on the Advent to-do list exercise:

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

Sermon, Nov. 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BIBLE! TRADITION! BIBLE! TRADITION! 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon, Oct. 20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Main source for information about Sophie in this sermon: 

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

Some more sites about Sophie: 

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

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

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

Sermon, September 8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon, August 11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Gillespie’s essay in full: 

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

Gary Manning’s essay on prayer:

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

Swanson’s essay: 

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

Sermon, August 4

In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells a story about a rich man who has so much grain he doesn’t know what to do with it. He has to think and think. And then he has an idea!  What’s his idea?…  (discuss) 

What else could he have done?…  (There was money in those days, but our whole system for turning stuff into money and then keeping the money wasn’t developed yet. There were things like banks but they weren’t as safe or reliable; a lot of people would just keep their money themselves, but there were a lot of problems with thieves, too. So, “sell it and have money instead” might not have been as good an option… Anyway, that’s not what Jesus is doing with this story. The man has more than enough; turning it into money and putting it in a bank is kinda just a more sophisticated way to build a bigger barn.) 

Why might he have not wanted to give it away? (Some ideas: It might encourage people to be dependent; Maybe they don’t deserve it; they should work for their own money; maybe he doesn’t know any poor people; maybe he’s afraid of the poor people he does know…) 

So the man decides to build bigger barns! To keep his surplus, and use it to enjoy himself. Good plan! But then… he dies! His death isn’t a punishment. It’s just a thing that happens: people die. Rich people, poor people. For this man, his wealth had become the whole meaning of his life.. but as they say: You can’t take it with you.

So, Jesus tells his friends, don’t be preoccupied by the things you think you need. There’s more to life than food, and more to the body than clothing. He points to the ravens: they don’t work in the fields, but they seem to find enough to eat. And to the lilies: they don’t spin or sew, but their clothing is more beautiful than anything any human could create. 

Jesus says, Don’t chase after stuff. Chase after the Kingdom – God’s kingdom of mercy and justice, righteousness and peace. Keep your focus on what matters, and other things will fall into place. 

Now, let it be noted that Jesus was prone to wandering the countryside with nothing but the clothes on his back. So his notion of having what you need might not line up with ours. But Jesus was not an ascetic. An ascetic is someone who practices severe self-discipline, abstaining from most material comforts – with minimal shelter or no shelter; very simple clothing – even intentionally uncomfortable clothing; and likewise very simple food, and often some fasting. 

Asceticism is found in many religious and spiritual traditions around the world. John the Baptist is one familiar example for Christians. He lived in the wilderness outside Jerusalem, wearing a camel hide instead of woven garments like most people of the time, and eating what he could scavenge, including wild honey and grasshoppers. 

That was not Jesus’ jam. During the three years of his public mission, he was dependent on the kindness of strangers. He definitely traveled light. But he would absolutely enjoy a good meal when it came his way. People complained about this. People said, “John the Baptist didn’t eat or drink, and we thought that was weird – but now this Jesus fellow seems like a glutton and a drunkard, who hangs around with tax collectors because they put on lavish feasts with money stolen from the rest of us!”  When a woman pours expensive oil over Jesus’ feet, an act of devotion, some of his own disciples complain – because it would have been better to sell the ointment and give it to the poor; we don’t need these bodily indulgences anyway! 

But Jesus, God made human, likes the world. He likes things like good food, good wine, and sweet-smelling oil. He doesn’t think that stuff is bad, inherently flawed or sinful. He does, however, think that we humans are prone to letting that stuff become far, far too important to us, letting it take over our days and our hearts. He asks questions about wealth: What are you doing with it? Who is it benefiting? Who’s it hurting? What would happen if you had less? And who’s in charge here, really – you or your money? You or your stuff? 

Your life does not consist in abundance of possessions. The Greek word translated “abundance” here really means “too much.” Excess. Overflow. Surplus. Superfluity. Like in the story: the man has more grain than his barns can hold. 

I have a friend in another state who sometimes helps families clear out people’s homes after a death. She was telling me recently about how heartbreaking it can be to see how much stuff people have just accumulated. Not to enjoy; just to have. One woman kept the tags on every garment in her closet until she wore them. She could see how much each item had cost, tally her personal worth in name-brand clothing. As Jesus says elsewhere, Wherever you keep your treasure, that’s where your heart will be, too. 

It’s understandable; we tell women that their appearance and wardrobe are a big part of how people will judge them. We also tell women that shopping is an acceptable way to handle stress, anger, or pain. We normalize it, make it cute, with words like “retail therapy” and “shopaholic.” 

It’s not just a lady thing; men are subject to the same forces, the same manipulation of our desires, though it may manifest in different ways. It’s also not a rich-people thing; some people who are wealthy are incredibly level-headed and generous with their resources, and some people who don’t have much are especially vulnerable to the pull of possessions. 

Now, at the risk of sounding like a presidential candidate in a debate: I am not anti-capitalist. Capitalism can absolutely be a force for good. But it is simply objective fact that capitalism works by continuing to generate desire. If we don’t keep buying stuff, the machine grinds to a halt. Marketing, commercials, ads, are an integral part of the thing. 

That word I mentioned earlier that means excess, surplus, more than enough –  one of the things advanced capitalism does is make it really hard to identify that point. Because “enough” might mean we stay home from the mall and close the Amazon window in our browser. So marketing is always one step ahead of our desires – if you outpace the proverbial Joneses, there will be someone wealthier to measure yourself against. 

In today’s lessons, both Gospel and Epistle warn against greed. Greed is an unpleasant word. None of us want to think of ourselves as greedy. For some reason we mostly use the word “greed” in relation to food, but Jesus, whom his critics called a glutton, doesn’t seem to have any harsh words for people who enjoy a good meal. His concern is for people whose desire for wealth and material things has grown beyond their control, started to run their lives. 

The Epistle, this passage from the letter to the church in Colossae, says something really smart about it. It says that greed is a kind of idolatry. Idolatry – the great sin of the Hebrew Bible. It means worshipping something other than God. Putting something else at the center of your life and your heart – which is a double error: turning away from God, and also trusting in a thing, an inanimate object, which does not care about you.

There are some wonderful, darkly ironic passages in the Hebrew Bible criticizing people who are literally practicing idolatry. The prophet Isaiah describes a man cutting down a tree; he takes the wood and uses half of it to make a fire, to bake bread and roast some meat; with the rest of it he fashions a statue of a god, and bows down to it and worships it, saying, “Save me, for you are my god!” Isaiah says, This man is deluded; he can’t save himself and say,  “Isn’t this object in my hand a lie?”  (Isaiah 44)  

This is one of the endemic diseases of capitalism: it is so, so easy to let things that are just things become the center of our lives, the focus of our attention. They can’t answer or prayers. They don’t care what happens to us. They don’t love us back. No, not even the really *nice* things. 

Managing, mastering, our material desires is hard. It was hard in Jesus’ time. I honestly believe it’s harder in ours. Keeping our relationships with money and stuff in line with our values and intentions is one of the fundamental daily disciplines for Christians under late capitalism. (One of the appeals of asceticism has always been that some people find it easier to opt out entirely, and own NOTHING, than to stay in the system and keep making ethical and balanced choices!) 

So, what’s the good news, Miranda? Because this sounds HARD and discouraging!

I find it to be good news that Jesus sees and names this disease that is endemic in our nation. That he says, keenly but kindly: You can’t let stuff run your life. He speaks into something that so many of us wrestle with, whether it’s a manageable matter of budgeting and priorities, or a true addiction. 

I think it’s good news that God has compassion on our struggles with our impulses and desires, our misplaced priorities.Hosea, the source of our first lesson today, is a complicated book; but this is a beautiful passage. God speaking through the prophet describes Godself as a mother, raising a child in love, nurturing them, pointing them in the right direction. But people, even people we love very much, don’t always make good choices… and sometimes make very bad ones indeed. But God says to God’s child, God’s people: I can’t forget you; I keep loving you; I keep longing for you to come back. My heart and my womb ache for you. Come home. You will always be welcome. 

And I think there’s good news in today’s Epistle, though we almost missed it. The assigned lesson for this Sunday actually stops at verse 11 – that verse about how there are no fundamental differences among us in Christ. That’s good, important stuff!

But the next paragraph is this beautiful word to the church about how to share our lives as people of faith. And it’s not in the Sunday lectionary! It’s a recommended text for weddings – we used it at ours – but this is not just advice for couples; in fact that feels like missing the point in a big way. The first Christians understood churches as households – a group of people in a long-term relationship of care, who celebrate and grieve, raise children and care for elders, deal with conflicts and discern next steps, all together, as a body. 

The stuff that’s hard about daily life, then or now – we’re not supposed to be able to figure it out and manage it, all on our own. We’re supposed to have a loving, trustworthy household of faith, to wonder together, to find our direction and encourage one another. To share stories and struggles, ideas and hopes, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved; to bear with one another, and forgive one another when forgiveness is needed; to teach and admonish one another, in wisdom and with love; and to sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs to God, with gratitude in our hearts, as thankful people, who can look to the lilies and the ravens, and know deeply that what we need is here. 

Sermon, March 10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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