Category Archives: Spiritual Practices

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.

Sermon, July 22

Today our church has the privilege, blessing and joy of celebrating  the baptisms of A and M. So let me start right out by saying that I don’t understand baptism and don’t anticipate that I ever will, at least not in this life. (I hope God offers some kind of seminar in liturgical theology in the Great Beyond!…) 

Baptism, like Eucharist, comes to us as a convergence of human symbol and divine action. As human symbol, it is conditioned by history and culture in ways that can be difficult to unpack. As divine action, its intention and efficacy are mysterious to us. I believe that baptism does something. But I’m darned if I can tell you what. 

However, by the grace of God, our cycle of Sunday Scripture readings has brought us one of the best baptismal texts there is: the second chapter of the letter to the Ephesians. Those verses – along with the preceding chapter – tell us a couple of things about baptism, about being part of this thing we call the Church. It’s about being chosen, and it’s about being sent. 

It’s about being chosen, and it’s about being sent. 

Way back last winter, I read something online and immediately tucked it away for my next baptism sermon. If you don’t use Twitter, you’re probably aware of it as a social media platform used for live commentary on major public events like the World Cup or the Episcopal Church’s General Convention; for presidential proclamations, bot attacks, and goofy humor. One of the other things Twitter is good for is micro-fiction – tiny, tiny stories that make you pause or wonder or laugh, in 144 characters or less. Here’s the one I saved, last December – a snippet of conversation, from the Micro Science Fiction & Fantasy account: 

“You’ve been chosen,” the spirit said. 

“What?”

“Save the world, make it kinder, cleaner, safer.” 

“Me?” 

“Yes.” 

“Alone?”

“We chose everyone.”

(@MicroSFF, Dec 31, 2017)

We chose everyone. 

Let’s talk about being chosen. 

The author to the letter to the Ephesians – some scholars say it’s Paul, some scholars say it’s obviously not Paul, some scholars say it’s Paul’s thoughts recorded by someone with a strong stylistic hand – in any case: this author dives right into chosenness, as soon as he’s finished saying hello: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as They chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before Them in love.” (1:3) 

God chose us in Christ, before the foundation of the world. God destined us to become God’s children. And a few verses later (Hart’s translation): We were marked out in advance according to the purpose of the One who enacts all things according to the counsel of Their will. 

Our chosenness comes with gracious gifts, says the first chapter of Ephesians: We have been bought out of bondage to the world; we are forgiven all our mistakes and failures; and we are given a glimpse of God’s great plan for the fulness of time: a plan to gather all things together in God, both heavenly and earthly things, in one capacious and beautiful harmony. 

Today’s passage from the second chapter of Ephesians returns to the theme of chosenness, with one of my very favorite passages of the Bible: “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints, the holy ones, and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God.”

The preceding verses tell us more about the context for this letter: the author is addressing Gentiles – non-Jews. In Jesus’ time and the time of the early Church, the distinction between Jews and Gentiles was a huge social and religious divide. In the book of the Acts of the Apostles we see early Christians wrestling with whether their message and mission should be extended to Gentiles – and God leading them to an emphatic Yes. Ephesians affirms that joyful Yes: the Way of Jesus Christ is for people of both Jewish and Gentile backgrounds. And indeed, the unity of those formerly-divided groups is a sign of what God is up to in the world. “For Christ is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, the hostility, between us… creating in himself one new humanity in place of the two.” 

The situation is specific but the message, I think, transcends it: God chooses us for community, for what we can be and do together – even across the differences that feel most fundamental. God chooses us to call us out of our alienation -whether we ourselves feel other and outside-of, or whether we cast that shadow on someone else. God chooses us as citizens of a new society; as members of a household with an unshakable foundation; as building blocks for a holy temple, a dwelling-place for God. 

Being chosen could imply that there’s also a group of not-chosen. One of the things I love about this text from Ephesians is that it’s not at all interested in that issue. It’s all invitation and no exclusion, all celebration and no disparagement, all door and no wall. We chose everyone. 

The choosing is beyond our power to understand or influence. The author says, This is grace, a gift from God – not our accomplishment. But all the same, it is not passive. Citizens shape their society; members share in the common life of the household; even stones of a building have their share of the weight to bear. We are chosen, and we are sent. 

“You’ve been chosen,” the spirit said. 

“What?”

“Save the world, make it kinder, cleaner, safer.” 

“Me?” 

“Yes.” 

“Alone?”

“We chose everyone.”

The verse just before today’s passage says, “We are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” Those who have spent some time with Rite I may remember these words from that liturgy: “And we humbly beseech thee, O heavenly Father, so to assist us with thy grace, that we may continue in that holy fellowship, and do all such good works as thou hast prepared for us to walk in.” 

What kind of good works? Well – the overarching theme of the letter to the Ephesians is unity and reconciliation – not only of Jews and Gentiles, but of the whole creation – the cosmos, system, created order. The reconciliation of the whole creation, through the agency of the church, the people of God, chosen and sent. 

We are given that precious, heartbreaking gift of a glimpse of God’s great plan to gather all things together one day, things in heaven and things on earth. And we as God’s people, we ourselves have been put back together – reunited with God and neighbor, re-gifted our birthright of belonging and belovedness. And our mission, should we choose to accept it, is to go out and put more things back together. A hope that some theologians call the Great Restoration.

Nature writer, poet and theologian Wendell Barry speaks about it – listen: “We all come from [brokenness]. Things that have come together are taken apart. You can’t put it all back together again. What you do is the only thing you can do. You take two things that belong together and you put them back together. Two things, not all things. That’s the way the work has to go. So that the made thing becomes a kind of earnest — of your faith in, and your affection for, the great coherence that we miss and would like to have again. That’s what we do, people who make things. Whether it’s a [chair] or a film or a poem or an essay or a novel or a musical composition. It’s all about finding how it fits together and fitting it together.” (Wendell Berry, in the documentary “Look & See”) 

The Great Coherence…I love that word because it captures not just fitting together what is broken or separated, but also becoming comprehensible and meaningful. That stirs up my deep yearning, in a time when so much seems incomprehensible and meaningless. 

Coherence. Unity. Restoration. Reconciliation.  Making whole what is divided, scattered, riven. Ilia Delio, writing about the Jesuit monk and scientist Teilhard de Chardin, writes about his insight: “Those who follow Jesus are to become wholemakers, uniting what is scattered, creating a deeper unity in love.”

We name reconciliation as one of our practices of discipleship here at St. Dunstan’s – it’s on the fans! – “We follow the teaching of Jesus Christ by living as ambassadors of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:20), seeking to restore unity among humans, between humans and God, and between humans and creation.”

Like all of our discipleship practices, there are countless ways to live it out. There are people in this congregation who live their vocation of wholemaking, of coherence-creation, by helping preschoolers learn the tools of friendship and peace. By designing technological solutions to human problems. By communicating what really matters, building bridges between hearts and minds, through journalism, design, music, art, poetry, prose. By caring for creation, and teaching others to do the same. By patient loving presence with teenagers, elders, those who struggle, so that nobody has to feel alone. 

Now, I’m speaking about this ministry of reconciling as the call of the church, a core practice for those who seek to follow the way of Jesus. It would be easier to make that case if we could look around us and see Christians consistently striving for the wellbeing of neighbor and world. Such is not remotely the case. And many of those who do strive faithfully for wholeness are people of other faiths, or ambiguous faith, or no faith. 

What I can say is this: At its best, the church – this church, any church – is a community that names itself as called and sent. A community that provokes one another to good deeds, in my favorite verse from the letter to the Hebrews. That acknowledges and holds up our mission of reconciliation, coherence, whole-making, and seeks to live it out in big, small, and middle-sized ways, each and all. 

Friends, you’ve been chosen. To save the world. To make it kinder, cleaner, safer. To make it more whole. But don’t worry. You don’t have to do it alone. God chose everyone. 

Sermon, May 20

HAND OUT PROPS: Fire: tinsel pompoms.  Wind: People blowing – same as in the Ezek story. Water: Blue ribbon sticks. Doves: paper doves. 

Today we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit to the early Church! People had known and experienced God’s Spirit at work for a long time before Jesus came. In the beginning of Creation, God’s Spirit moved across the waters of chaos. We just heard the story of Ezekiel’s vision of the Dry Bones – when a holy Wind, the breath of God, turned skeletons into living people – as a sign of how God’s Spirit would revive the people of Israel in a time of hopelessness and despair. The Hebrew Bible also speaks often of Lady Wisdom, as an aspect of God – her name is Hokmah in Hebrew, Sophia in Greek – she welcomes those who seek her and leads them in right pathways. The story of Pentecost is the story of how God’s Spirit of life and wisdom and promise came to the first Christians – when they were fearful and uncertain, missing Jesus, wondering how to go on without him – and gave them confidence and joy to undertake their mission. 

Though Pentecost was an important beginning for Christians, Pentecost existed before Christianity. Our Acts lesson begins, “When the day of Pentecost had come…” That makes it sound like there was already such thing as Pentecost – because there was! Jesus and most of his first followers were members of the Jewish people and had been formed by the Jewish faith. Pentecost is the Greek name for a Jewish religious festival, called Shavuot in Hebrew. Shavuot falls seven weeks or 50 days after Passover – Shavuot means Weeks, Pentecost means Fifty. On Shavuot, Jews celebrate the gift of the Torah, when God called the Jewish people into covenant and told them how to live as a people of holiness, mercy, and justice. It is a feast of chosenness and covenant – almost like a wedding, but between people and God. Some Jews observe Shavuot by staying up all night reading Torah together. Shavuot is also celebrated by decorating with spring flowers and eating dairy products. There’s a beautiful layering of meaning here: the first Christians, who were also Jews celebrating Shavuot, felt their new covenant relationship with God confirmed through the Divine Spirit on this holy day. But I wish early Christians had come up with their own name for this new feast, instead of borrowing the name from Judaism! 

The Holy Spirit can be pretty mysterious, so Christians have named her and described her through symbols.  In the Pentecost story, Jesus’ friends and followers say that the Holy Spirit felt like fire! Where is the fire? …. Fire is still one of the symbols we use for the Holy Spirit. The Spirit can make people feel like they’re burning up with excitement or joy! Sometimes the Spirit’s fire is frightening, too – sometimes she works in us to burn away parts of our souls that are keeping us from being our true and holy selves. Thank you, Fire! 

The Church struggled for three hundred years with how to understand the mystery of one God whom we know in three ways – God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit – and finally they just said, It’s a mystery, and we’re going to call it the Trinity – Three in One, three faces of one loving God. 

Different types of churches talk more about different aspects of God. Some churches are heavy on Jesus; some are big on the Spirit. In Episcopal churches, we tend to talk a lot about God the Creator and Source, whom Jesus names as Father, and about Jesus Christ. But we don’t know quite what to make of the Holy Spirit. We invite the Holy Spirit to show up every time we perform a sacrament – Holy Communion, baptism, confirmation – but we don’t talk much about how she might feed us or guide us or help us in our daily lives, outside of church. And that’s too bad, because she bears many gifts. 

Another symbol Christians have used to describe the Spirit is water. Where’s my water?…. The Spirit can clean people who feel dirty inside, and refresh people who feel thirsty inside – that’s how she’s like water. The waters of baptism remind us that the one being baptized is also washed in the grace of God’s spirit! Thank you, Water! 

You’ve probably noticed that sometimes I call the Holy Spirit, “she.” I don’t really think the Holy Spirit is a girl. But there are a couple of reasons that I, and others, sometimes use feminine language for the Holy Spirit. For one thing, our Scriptures and prayers usually talk about God saying “he” and “him,” as if God were a man. But we know that God is really bigger than male or female. So using “she” for the Spirit can help us remember that men and women are equally made in God’s image. Also, both of the Bible’s original languages, Hebrew and Greek, have words that are male or female – like Spanish or German.  And in Hebrew and Greek, many of the Spirit’s names are feminine – Ruah, wind; neshama, breath; hokmah and sophia, wisdom; pneuma, wind or spirit. The Spirit has always had many names, and taken many forms. So you can call the Spirit whatever you like – but do call upon her! 

Wind is both a name and a symbol for the Spirit. Let me hear the sound of the wind again!…. The Spirit is like wind because you can’t see the wind itself, but you can see what it’s doing. The wind can be refreshing; it can also sweep away the old, and bring the new! In Hebrew and Greek, wind and breath are the same word – so the Spirit is also God’s breath, that enters lifeless things and gives life to all creation. Thank you, Wind! 

Letters and sermons written by the first Christians, tell us many ways they experienced the Spirit – and Christians have been experiencing the Spirit in the same ways, ever since. Here are some ways God’s people have found that the Spirit can help us. The Spirit helps us know what to say, when we’re speaking for God! The Spirit helps us pray and cry out to God, when we’re in trouble. The Spirit gives us each gifts and skills for the common good – all activated by the same Spirit, who allots to each one just as she chooses.  The Spirit binds us together into one body, one household of faith, across our differences – we are all one through God’s Spirit. The Spirit working in a human heart, or a human community, can bring love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

The gifts we invoke for every person we baptize are gifts of the Spirit, named in Scripture: an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere; a spirit to know and to love God; and the gift of joy and wonder in all God’s works. Aren’t all of these blessings well worth receiving? 

We have one more symbol of the Spirit to share – the dove!… The Gospels tell us that God’s spirit came down upon Jesus like a dove when he was baptized. Doves are associated with purity and gentleness, and with the promise of new life – because in the Flood story, a dove brought news of dry land and growing plants to Noah on the ark. Water, wind, and fire can all be powerful and fierce, and so can the Holy Spirit; but often the Spirit is gentle as a dove –bringing us gifts of clarity, wisdom, peace, and power.

All of this sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? It makes me want the Holy Spirit to be in my life, every day. Here’s a big word for us all: Invocation. It means to call on something. It’s not like magic, in some of your books – we can’t control or manipulate God with our words or our actions. But the Spirit likes to be invited.  We have to make room for her instead of trying to handle it all on our own. We have to open a door to let her come in and help us. So the Church has always taught God’s people to call on the Spirit… to invoke the Spirit.  No magic words, it’s easy: Come, Holy Spirit!

But if you like magic words, there’s a wonderful word that early Christians used: Maranatha!

It’s in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, and it means, Come, Lord! Maranatha! 

Come, Holy Spirit! Maranatha!

Bless your church and your people; work within us and among us; heal us, connect us, encourage and empower and guide us, today and always. Amen! 

Sermon, Oct. 1

It was late November, 2016, about ten months ago. Our country had just been through a brutal presidential election. Many, many people were terrified. Many, many people were triumphant. Just about everybody was angry. I was just trying to keep my bearings enough to keep on pastoring, you know? One day I sat down to put together the leaflet for our little Thanksgiving service, a simple Eucharist on the Wednesday evening before the holiday. And the lectionary offered me this text as the Epistle: “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

I put the text into the Thanksgiving leaflet, and then I put it on a page by itself, and printed it out, and put it near my desk, where I could look at it. And I did look at it, often, as we all fumbled through the changed American political landscape, those first weeks and months. Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just… think about these things. 

Those words are from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, the source of today’s Epistle. They’ll roll around in the lectionary again in a couple of weeks.The letter to the church in Philippi is short, only four chapters, and it has a pretty coherent message. Philippi was a city in the Macedonian region of Greece. Paul had helped found the church there, on one of his missionary journeys.  And the Philippian church was apparently one of his successes. He speaks of them so warmly in this letter. He warns them against some bad influences, and urges resolution of a conflict, but doesn’t rebuke them for misbehavior as he does in some of his letters to other early churches. It’s clear throughout the letter that he loves this church, and is proud of them, and anxious for them, as they face struggle and persecution for their faith.

Paul was writing to the Philippians from prison. It’s not clear whether this was his final imprisonment in Rome, before he was executed, or an earlier period of jail time. But either way, he wasn’t sure whether he’d get out, this time. He says he hopes to visit them again – but he’s also clearly trying to give them some words to hold onto, to live by… just in case.  And much of Paul’s message to the Philippians could be summed up in one word: Abide.

Abiding is one of our Discipleship Practices. It’s not quite as hot today so you might not have a church fan in your hand, but maybe you remember the list from warmer Sundays! About two years ago, as a parish project, we explored how we practice our faith in daily life. The choices we make, the habits we cultivate, because we are followers of Jesus.  And we summed up all our answers with seven practices:  Welcoming, Abiding, Wondering, Proclaiming, Turning, Reconciling, and Making.

Abide is an odd, churchy word.  When’s the last time you used it in conversation? It mostly shows up in old hymns and in the Gospel of John.  Abide means Stay, but it means more than Stay. It means to hold fast with intention and love, to anchor yourself in something, even when it’s hard.  Abiding is the spiritual practice of sticking with something or someone. Committing, investing, going deeper, putting down roots. Abiding is a practice that happens both among us and within us.  Among us, abiding means building and nurturing a community of trust, solidarity, fidelity, and love. Within us, abiding means taking it all in – Scriptures and songs, symbols and sacraments, and the concerns and joys of our companions too – and letting it find a home in us, and shape us.

Paul doesn’t use the word Abide in this letter. But he does talk about Abiding a lot. He begs his friends in the church in Philippi to abide with one another – stick together, and love each other – and to abide with the Gospel as they have received it. In chapter 1: “Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents.” Chapter 2, part of today’s lesson:  “It is by your holding fast to the word of life that I can boast on the day of Christ that I did not run in vain or labour in vain.” Chapter 3:  “Let us hold fast to what we have attained…”

And chapter 4, the beautiful culmination of the letter, is a call to abiding:

“Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved…. Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”

The fourth chapter is one of Paul’s most eloquent passages, and I’m sure his hope was to give this beloved church some words to live by, to come back to again and again, to pass down to the next generation and pass on to other churches.  Words to abide with. Christians have been abiding with these words for nearly 2000 years.

The Epistles, the books that are letters to the early churches, are some of the texts in the Bible that address us most directly as Christians. And one of the ways we can use those texts, one of the ways to receive their gifts and let God speak and work through them, is by abiding with them. Finding a verse or two that touches us, or stirs something in us, and carrying it with us for a while -memorizing it or turning it into a simple song, or putting it in your smartphone, or carrying a slip of paper in your purse or pocket… Or posting it near your desk where you can see it when you look up from your work, as I did with that portion of Philippians 4.

So today, I’m going to offer us an exercise in abiding, based in Paul’s letter about abiding. I’ve taken some snippets of text from the letter to the Philippians, and printed them out. Take one when the basket comes around. There should be plenty of extras so if your first one doesn’t speak to you, you can try again later.

Take the verse or verses and, well, abide with it. Maybe it’s carrying the slip around with you, or sticking it to your mirror or your dashboard, or using it as a bookmark, or using some fancy app on your phone to set it in a nice font over an artsy photo and set it as your home screen. Whatever works for you! Just try to come back to it, now and then, for a while. Read it and notice the words, and the meaning, and the feeling.  If the Spirit of God has something to say to you through this text, try to listen. It could take time.  If you spend enough time with these words for them to settle into you, they may swim up in your mind sometime when you don’t expect them – but when you need them. That certainly happens to me, with bits of Scripture and hymn and prayer text that I’ve taken in, by dwelling with them intentionally or just by being an Episcopalian for 42 years. Take a text and abide with it. For a while. A day, a week, a month? I don’t know. That’s up to you and God.  I’d love to hear what you try, and what you find.

I want to say one more thing about abiding. Abiding sounds like it would make you more and more settled – into one way of thinking or being, one place or community, one understanding of God. And that can be true up to a point – but not always.  In fact, the opposite often happens – at least if what you’re abiding with is true and just and commendable and lovely.

Paul knew that, expected that, too: That abiding with God’s words, God’s truth, God’s purposes, doesn’t lead to getting more and more sure and settled. Abiding with the Gospel leads you new places.  Abiding leads to Turning.

Turning is another of our practices of discipleship. 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 that bears fruit in a changed life. In the words of the old hymn, “To turn, turn, shall be our delight, till by turning, turning, we come round right.” In the words of Michael Curry, our Presiding Bishop, in a sermon I heard long ago and have never forgotten, “God loves you just the way you are, but God’s not going to leave you that way.” Our turnings aren’t always dramatic; most of them are small and everyday.  A simple choice to do what ought to be done, or not to do what ought not to be done. A choice to help bear someone’s cross. A choice to speak and act from love.

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul talks about abiding, about holding fast and standing firm and keeping on; but Paul also expects all that abiding to form and to transform the community and its people. As much as he loves this church, as much pride as he takes in them, he knows that God has only begun to work in them. Chapter 1, verse 6: I am confident that the One who has begun a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Christ Jesus, when he returns to earth.  Chapter 2, verses 12 and 13: Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you.

Yes, fear and trembling! Abiding with the living word of God is serious business. A serious commitment to the good of others will change you. A serious commitment to dwell with what is good and just and honorable and lovely will change you.  “Think upon these things” isn’t an invitation to build yourself a beautiful bubble and ignore what’s going on outside. It’s a call to keep your eyes fixed on what’s good and true and important, and trust that light to guide you.

Abiding and turning – twin practices that only seem like opposites. Holding fast and letting go, standing firm and marching on, putting down roots and developing new growth. I invite you to abide with Paul’s words, passed down to us by the faithfulness of the church and the grace of the Holy Spirit. I invite you to let the words that come to you be a tool for God’s continued good work in you, helping you to desire and to work for God’s purposes, and to shine like stars in a dark world. And may these words and their work bless you, my beloved friends, my joy and my crown.

Sermon, August 13

Kol ha-olam kulo gesher tsar meod, gesher tsar meod, gesher tsar meod, Kol ha-olam kulo gesher tsar meod, gesher tsar meod. Ve ha-ikar, ha-ikar lo lifachad, lo lifachad klal. Ve ha-ikar, ha-ikar lo lifachad klal. 

The words are Hebrew, and they mean: The whole world is a very narrow bridge, But the most important thing is not to be afraid. The whole world – kol ha-olam – is a very narrow bridge, gesher tsar meod. But the most important thing is not to be afraid.

I learned this song in 1995, during the five weeks or so that I spent in Jerusalem. It was supposed to be the beginning of my junior year abroad, But a horrific bus bombing and an escalation in violence, in the long, costly war between Israel and Palestine, changed all that. Along with many students in the same program, I ended up going home; I spent my junior year in Canterbury, England, instead. But between the bombing and getting on the plane back to Indiana, I had a week-plus of living with fear, with an intimacy and intensity that was new to me. That’s probably why this song stuck – I needed it, badly. Those simple words became an anchor for me, in the storm of fear in which I found myself – along with Psalm 107, which I discovered in the little student edition of the Book of Common Prayer that my chaplain had given me before I left: Their hearts melted because of their peril, they were at their wits’ end. Then God stilled the storm to a whisper… and brought them to the harbor they were bound for.

The whole world is a very narrow bridge, but the most important thing is not to be afraid.

The disciples saw Jesus walking towards them across the water, and they thought he was a ghost; they cried out in fear. But Jesus said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Then Peter said, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you across the water.” And Jesus said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, and started walking towards Jesus, across the water. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened. And beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

Preachers often use this story to preach about faith. But I think this tiny, important story is just as much about fear. In our translation, Jesus says that Peter “doubted.” That word suggests that Peter’s faith was faltering. Yet Peter cries out to Jesus for help as he sinks. The Greek word translated as “doubt” here is pretty interesting. It doesn’t mean questioning something you believe. The word, distazo, literally means something like being of two minds, being conflicted, wavering. What’s happening inside of Peter in this moment isn’t that his faith in Jesus is faltering; it’s that something else creeps in alongside his faith, and wreaks havoc on his balance and direction. Peter notices the strong wind, and he becomes afraid. Fear comes alongside his eagerness, his sense of hopeful purpose. He wavers; he begins to sink.

Take heart, says Jesus. The words “Take heart” appear five times in the Bible. “Take courage” appears 21 times, and “Be courageous” 12 times. Do not be afraid, says Jesus. “Do not be afraid” appears in the Bible 67 times. “Have no fear” appears another 11 times. That’s 116 exhortations to resist fear – and that’s only the ones that are easy to find in a text search.

The Bible treats fear as a spiritual challenge – one of the biggest spiritual challenges. God knows – and the ancient authors who recorded the holy stories of God’s people, knew – that fear shakes us, weakens us, holds us back, Turns us against one another. Fear corrodes our ideals, our convictions, our hopes.

What does it feel like in your body, when you’re afraid? Think about it for a minute; remember. I don’t know if it feels the same for everybody, though the biological processes are basically the same. Do you hear a kind of rushing in your ears? Does your gut clench? Does your heart race?

Scientists tell us that the fear response, what happens in our bodies when we feel threatened, is a deep-seated adaptive response. Something that helped our ancient ancestors survive, long before we first stood up on two legs. The fear response pushes us towards one of three actions: Fight, flight, or freeze.

Fight: That’s clear enough. That means our little primordial mammal-selves Are going to fight that predator tooth and claw. What does that look like in “civilized” society? When someone raises an idea that threatens our worldview, or a concern that challenges our plan, we respond with anger. We attack. We try to drive away the inconvenient truth or the challenging idea, by hurting or intimidating or silencing the person who’s raising it. I’ve done this. So have you.

Flight: That’s clear enough too. That means our little primordial mammal-self RUNS AWAY. Maybe we can outrun the predator, escape the danger. In our lives, that looks like getting out of a situation when it starts to feel challenging or threatening. Walk back that thing you said, and apologize; you meant it, but you’re not prepared to deal with the reaction. Decide not to put yourself forward for that opportunity, because you probably don’t have the right qualifications. Don’t buy that swimsuit; Good Lord, what if someone takes your photo and puts it on the Internet, and people laugh at you? I experience the Flight reaction in one very specific way: when situations become a certain kind of stressful, a child’s voice – presumably mine – in the back of my head says, clear as day, “I want to go home.” What does the Flight response feel like inside of you? You’ve done this, too.

And then there’s Freeze – that means our little primordial mammal-self goes totally still: maybe the predator won’t see me, will walk on by. You’ve seen rabbits and squirrels do this. In our modern, civilized lives, that looks like: not rocking the boat. Keeping quiet when your boss makes a racist joke. Sticking with the job you hate because who knows if you could find something else. Holding your truth locked up inside you because the people closest to you might hurt you if they knew. Don’t try that hard thing, that big daring thing, because failure would be worse than not trying. Wouldn’t it? Just… hold still and keep quiet, and maybe everything will be OK. I’ve done this, and so have you.

Fight, flight, or freeze – that’s what happens inside us, when we’re afraid. What happens among us, when we’re afraid? … Leaders discovered a long, long time ago that fear is an outstanding tool for managing and manipulating large groups of people. It’s easy to scare people, and hard to un-scare them. Our brains are lousy at probability: we will readily believe that a certain risk is orders of magnitude greater than it actually is, and we’ll allow that sense of danger to shape our worldview and drive our behavior. And once we’re afraid, as a society, we’ll tolerate all kinds of things if they give us the illusion of greater safety. The limiting of our freedoms and privacies. The demonization of people in a group that’s seen as a threat. The proliferation of weapons in our homes and neighborhoods, which, the data say quite clearly, makes us less safe, not more.

The French philosopher Anne Dufourmantelle wrote and spoke extensively about all this, in her book, “In Praise of Risk,” and elsewhere. She said, Risk is part of life. Danger, loss, hardship, challenge: it’s all just a given. It will come to you, and to those you love. Certainly you can make better choices – fasten your seat belt, take your medication – but human life will never be safe. In a 2015 interview, she said that the idea of “absolute security” is a fantasy – and not an innocent fantasy: one that’s often used as a political weapon of control. And it can become a feedback cycle: the visible apparatus of security, like armed guards on street corners, can feed public fear and thus make us even more subject to manipulation through the promise of security. She said, ”To imagine an enemy ready to attack… induces a state of paralysis, a feeling of helplessness.” There’s that “freeze” response…

Dufourmantelle argued, instead, for accepting risk as part of the human condition. The human response to risk can be noble, beautiful. She told the interviewer, “When there really is a danger that must be faced in order to survive, as for example during the Blitz in London, there is a strong incentive for action, dedication, and surpassing oneself.”

I’d never heard of Anne Dufourmantelle until her name cropped up in the news a couple of weeks ago. She’d been swimming at a beach in France, when the ocean currents suddenly intensified and became dangerous. When the alert went out, she saw two children nearby, and instead of heading directly for shore, she set out to try and rescue them. The children were saved, but Dufourmantelle drowned. Living what she professed. Rising to the risk before her.

Is that supposed to be an encouraging story? I hear you asking. She wound up dead. But imagine how it could easily have ended: She saved herself, and the children were lost. Is one’s own death the worst possible outcome in every situation? What would Jesus do?

Kol ha-olam…. The whole world is a very narrow bridge…

As I look back on it, It occurs to me that those weeks in Israel, when I was 20, may have been the crucible in which one of my fundamental spiritual practices was formed: the practice of resisting fear. Because I spent a couple of weeks living in terror, and I hated how it felt. I hated being so preoccupied with my basic physical safety. It was hard to think about anything else, to enjoy, to learn. I hated how selfish it made me. I hated how it made me afraid of people.

Sometime along the road of recovering from that dark chapter, I decided I didn’t want to be ruled by fear, ever again. It wasn’t until this week that it dawned on me to think of that as a spiritual practice. But it is; it really is. I practice it imperfectly, to be sure. But I try to live as a follower of a God who says, Fear not. Take courage.

Resisting fear doesn’t mean being naive or blindly optimistic, or pretending everything is going to be OK. Scripture and God and the saints nowhere claim that being beloved of God means nothing bad will ever happen. Instead, they insist that none of those dangers can touch your fundamental life in God. It’s hard to say it better than Paul does in our recent text from the letter to the Romans: “Who can separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, illness, poverty, danger, violence? No! I am convinced that neither death nor life, angels nor rulers, things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

So if security is a dangerous illusion, what are the alternatives to fear? Well, I can name a few, from my own practice. Maybe you have others; I’d love to hear about them. These are some of ways I manage myself, when I start to feel the urge to fight, or freeze, or flee. When I start to get distazo, when fear creeps in alongside my faith, my sense of hopeful purpose.

One alternative to fear is curiosity – approaching the things that scare us with curiosity and wonder. Charles Lafond has written a lot about fear as a spiritual challenge, in general and particularly in our relationship with money. He wrote this, last year: “Choosing curiosity over fear takes no small amount of courage.  There is so much to fear. There are the many diagnoses, the possibility of plague, not getting my way in everything, the teetering economy, not getting my way in everything (it deserves saying twice), the Presidential Election, tooth decay, a melting ice cap, and my inability to smell bad salmon… But curiosity is so much more gentle than fear. It winks, for one thing.  And it seduces, which is pleasant. And curiosity is the gift that keeps on giving, making life a treasure hunt if we let it.”

Another alternative to fear is compassion. Madison is seeing almost-unprecedented levels of gun violence right now. There have been ten homicides so far this year. One of the neighborhoods affected is not far from my home; kids who are living with occasional gunfire on their street go to school with my daughter. As a concerned citizen, I could react to this in a couple of ways. I could get scared, for myself and my family, despite the vanishingly small likelihood that this violence will touch us directly. Or I could be dismayed and grieved for those affected by this violence – including the perpetrators, who surely would rather have a safer and better path in life. It’s really hard to be both compassionate towards those affected, and afraid for myself, at the same time. We’re not cut out for that. I have to choose – and I’ve chosen.

Another alternative to fear is courage. I think of both curiosity and compassion as ways to sneak around behind the fear and find a different way of engaging the situation. But courage means facing the fear head-on. Looking it right in the face. Getting to know it. Befriending it, even. How do you take courage? For me the process goes something like this. I think about the risks, as calmly as I can. What’s the worst that could happen – and how likely is it, really? I think about the resources I bring to the situation. When making that inventory, remember, always, to count the basic things that nurture and sustain you: song and prayer, fresh fruit and evening skies, the love of friends, family, pets, whatever it might be for you. And I think about the hopes or possibilities that brought me to the point where I’m facing this fear. What’s important enough to make me undertake something hard and scary? If it’s really important – and especially if I feel God calling me towards it – well, then, forward.

I am not a master at the art of resisting fear. I’ve been practicing for a while, but only haphazardly. I would love to hear about your techniques. But I know it’s an important spiritual discipline for me – and I wonder if it might be for all of us, in this moment in the life of the world, when so much fear is circling among us.

Take courage. Don’t be afraid. God is here. Jesus and God and saints and prophets and angels say it, over and over and over again. Could it be part of the message we’re entrusted with, too? Words we’re given for the welfare and hope of our neighbors?

The whole world is a very narrow bridge, but the most important thing is not to be afraid… Take heart.

Sources:

On Anne Dufourmantelle: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-40703606

Charles Lafond on curiosity: http://thedailysip.org/2016/08/18/668/

Rev. Jonathan Grieser’s recent reflection on gun violence in Madison: https://gracerector.wordpress.com/2017/08/02/murder-city-madison/

Our Immigrant Stories

As immigration has become a major topic in our national conversation, we as Christians are mindful that our holy book commands us to be kind to the stranger residing among us. You shall love the stranger living among you, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt, says Leviticus 19 – one of many places where mercy towards the outsider is mentioned.  Our Scriptures and our God call us to treat immigrants with kindness and respect – remembering that we or our ancestors were once immigrants seeking a new home. To help us understand the lives, needs, and fears of our immigrant neighbors, some members of St. Dunstan’s have been sharing their own “how I got here” stories.

Julie

My immigrant story really is my grandmother’s story. I never knew her, because she died in the mid-1930s, when my father was a teenager. But I spent most Wednesday afternoons after school with my great-aunt Frances, her sister, and she loved to talk about my grandmother to me.

My paternal grandparents emigrated from one of many German enclaves in Romania in the first decade of the 20th century, before World War I. Their entire village and the extended families of both my grandmother and grandfather immigrated to the United States together. My grandfather was possessed of a simple ambition: to own his own land, for back in Romania he never would have been allowed to do so, as he was only a peasant.

After a few years of working hard in America, he achieved his dream and bought his own dairy farm. Many members of their families and fellow villagers settled in the same area, about 60 miles north of Detroit, Michigan. My grandparents had four children, two born in Romania and two, including my dad, born in this country. They were contented on the farm. My grandfather planted roses around the house and by the barnyard fence for my grandmother, roses that still bloom by our horse paddock gate here in Wisconsin. He made the old farmhouse as pretty as possible for her, too, with wallpaper and paint and a marble-topped table in the parlor. He was one of the first farmers in the area to install an indoor bathroom in their house. All this and more to make my grandmother happy.

And she was, I think, mostly contented. But she dreaded going into town. Back then, people disliked and looked down on immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, especially if they were Catholic. When she went into town with her children, people were unfriendly, some even going so far as to cross the street to avoid the newcomers. “Why do they hate us so?” she used to ask her sister, my great-aunt Frances, tears pouring down her face. All the older German women who knew her used to tell me after mass each Sunday that she was the sweetest, gentlest soul they ever knew, and perhaps this is the reason she never grew accustomed to the prejudice she faced. One day, she laid her head down on the table at breakfast and said, “I’m so tired,” and died.

My great-aunt Frances always maintained to me that my grandma died of a broken heart, that she wore herself out pining for something that would never be given to her, no matter how spruce her home and farm, no matter how white and starched the immaculate lace dresses she put on her three young girls for town visits. She craved respect and friendship from the people among whom she settled, and she never got that. Of course, who knows whether that unrequited dream contributed to her death? But I’m certain that she felt the sadness my great aunt told me about, for they were very close.

This seems a sad story, doesn’t it? But its ending is not sad, I hope. Before I share the end of the story, though, let me first share a few facts. My German grandparents came here during a period when this country, according to the Pew Research Center, had a very high percentage of foreign-born residents. And it’s predicted that we may break the record for that percentage within the next few years. Many things about immigration have changed since my grandparents came over from eastern Europe. Here are just a few: there are now more immigrants who are Hispanic, though that also will change in the future, Pew Research analysts predict; there are more refugees in the world than at any other time in the last seventy years except right at the end of World War II; and there are many foreign-born residents here without legal authorization who have not been able to, and will not be able to, secure that authorization. One can gain legal permission to remain here through work, family ties, or for humanitarian reasons, but those exceptions don’t apply to many of the undocumented immigrants in our country. There is, at this point, no line for a large percentage of the undocumented immigrants in this country to go stand at the end of, so that they can secure permission to stay here.

It’s true that as a society today, we don’t always agree about how to address the challenges of today’s undocumented immigrants and others who arrive in our country. But I think some things about immigrants, authorized or otherwise, remain the same as when my family emigrated here. People still want to feel welcomed to our country, and accepted. And other people still feel threatened by people with a different culture and a different language, perhaps fearful that the way of life that is theirs will change.

As for my grandmother, I believe she would be happy to see that her family has thrived in America, that all her grandchildren have college degrees while many have obtained advanced professional degrees. My grandparents valued education, as well as hard work, music, and beauty. Naturally, my grandfather, being German, also valued a bottle of good beer! We feel part of the life of this country. It took about two generations for the German Catholic community from Romania to fully integrate into the small town where I grew up, but it did. Even though we are no longer strangers to this country, however, I don’t forget my grandmother’s pain. I remember Barbara Loeffler’s story.

I think about her path as a stranger to this country, and I think about my path to this church of St. Dunstan’s. My journey, nowhere near as difficult as hers, was made easy by so many people here. And I thank you all for that, and for listening to my grandmother’s story.

Nana

We were born in South Africa. At the time we emigrated in 1985 we had lived most of our lives there. This was where we grew up, were educated, had our family and worked for more than a decade. Peter grew up Methodist, I was Anglican and after our marriage, we worshipped in both communions. South Africa was also where our parents and siblings lived. Why, then, did we leave?

South Africa was an apartheid society, with power and wealth in the hands of whites (who were less than 20% of the population). As we grew up, resistance to the status quo by the subservient black population led to draconian laws that limited where black people could live, who they could marry, what jobs they could hold, and what consequences they faced if they transgressed. To manage this, the apartheid government ramped up security forces – both police and the military. After high school, all white males were conscripted for at least two years: their primary purpose was to maintain the status quo. States of emergency that suspended normal civil liberties were imposed. The polarization between white and black increased to the point that mediation efforts appeared to be withering, and outright civil war seemed a distinct possibility. Small wonder, then, that in spite of our deep roots, we decided South Africa was not a country where we wanted to spend the rest of our lives.

The next question was: Where should we go? Since both of our ancestral families were from the UK, and that is where we both went for postgraduate study and where we met, this might have seemed an obvious choice.  But 2½ years in Vancouver, Canada where Peter had a post-doctoral fellowship and I did my master’s, changed our minds: we’d have happily stayed. There were personal reasons – we look back on that time as an extended honeymoon, we made life-long friends and Fraser, our son, was born there, I completed my master’s and Peter found new professional directions. But there were no jobs. After 6 years back in South Africa, a sabbatical gave us the opportunity to spend more than a year in Ithaca, NY. This was highly influential for both of us in our professional development. Once again, we’d have happily stayed. Two in-depth, decidedly positive North American experiences convinced us that this is where we could happily live. It took, however, another 5 years back in South Africa before contacts initiated in Ithaca bore fruit with a faculty position at the UW-Madison.

We are conscious that we have been extraordinarily privileged in our lives. Our decision to leave was not forced on us by deprivation, persecution, or civil war. As white English-speaking South Africans, we had access to excellent schools that opened doors to university education in South Africa and to study-abroad opportunities after graduation. These gave us a perspective on other parts of the world beyond the borders of South Africa. Our decision to come here was also a choice that we could pursue on our terms, and do so in an orderly manner: we received a job offer at the UW-Madison where they held the position open for more than a year until our green cards were issued. To get established here we were indebted with the support we received from many quarters: professional, social and spiritual.

These two questions – Why leave? and Where to go? – faced many of our own ancestors, as they do for the vast number of migrants and refugees we see in the world today. Shortly after we were married we met an Indian physicist in Canada. He told us he was a citizen of the world, and he had a newsletter to promote this concept. We signed on, and that is what we are today: citizens of the world.

Sermon, June 18

When have you felt welcome? What made you feel that way? In today’s passage from Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus sends out the Twelve to preach the Kingdom, to spread the good news that God is still present, still acting, still saving. The way he tells them to do it is really interesting. He says, Stay in people’s homes. Matthew says, ‘whoever is worthy,’ but in Luke’s parallel passage, Jesus says, Just stay with whoever will welcome you. Whoever lets you in, and gives you a corner to sleep in. (And honor their hospitality by staying with them until it’s time to move on; don’t move to a nicer house even if it’s offered!) Don’t bring money, or food, or even extra clothes or shoes. Don’t be self-sufficient. Depend on the kindness of strangers. Jesus knows this will be hard and scary! – “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves!” But he’s very clear about it.

We name welcoming as one of the discipleship practices of our congregation. Receiving one another, for the first or the thousandth time, with warmth and generosity. Embracing people in the fullness of who they are, the scars they carry, the gifts they bring. And we have an icon of welcome hanging near the door to our nave: this little icon, a reproduction of an icon that was painted for St. Francis house, our sister faith community over on campus. Iconographer Drazen Dupor painted that image for St. Francis House, based loosely on very famous icon of the Three Angels visiting Abraham and Sarah, today’s Old Testament passage. This story is especially significant in Christian thought because those three angels have long been seen as foreshadowing the Trinity. The scene becomes an icon of hospitality because of Abraham’s ready, no-questions-asked welcome for these three strange guests. It joins countless folktales from around the world of people who responded with kindness towards strangers who turned out to be powerful beings, and rewarded hospitality with blessings – in Abraham and Sarah’s case, their much-wanted, long-awaited child.

The artist told me something about this image that I really enjoy, a significant detail: the napkins are messy. He explained that according to Near Eastern tradition, at the end of the meal, if you’re the guest, and you fold your napkin and neatly place it on the table, it means that you still feel like a guest. Whereas if you just toss your napkin on the table any old how, it means that your hosts succeeded in making you feel like family. You felt truly welcomed. It’s hard to see in this small version, but the iconographer painted the napkins in this image as messy napkins. A detail that calls our attention to the grace and responsibility of being a guest, rather than a host.

This story from the book of Genesis is just one of many examples in Scripture when God comes to humanity as a guest. When God allows humans to set the table, and preside at the feast. Jesus is fundamentally God incarnate as a guest among us. And he’s constantly a guest at some feast or another. Even at the Last Supper, where we imagine him at the head of the table, it was not his table, not his home, not his food. Someone else prepared that meal and made that room available for Jesus and his friends, that evening. God makes Godself our guest, in Genesis, in Jesus; and in today’s Gospel Jesus tells his followers to do the same. Welcoming is well and good; a few verses later Jesus will promise God’s favor to those who practice hospitality. But here he his directions are: Go be a guest. Why?

It would be so easy to take today’s Scriptures and preach on the virtues and practices of hospitality and welcome. I feel the gravity of it, like a coin circling one of those big plastic funnels at a science museum. But this gospel is not calling us to hospitality. In the language of our Discipleship Practices – conveniently listed on our church fans – this lesson is about proclamation rather than about welcoming. About proclaiming, by word and example, the good news of God’s love and God’s hope for the world, to those outside our community of faith. Evangelism: which means that we take what this all means to us, how it’s touched our lives, given us strength or hope, whatever it is that keeps us coming back, and we carry that with us as part of the story we tell about ourselves, part of the answer we give when someone asks us, How are you? What’s giving you joy? What’s keeping you strong? Evangelism, which in its simplest shyest gentlest form simply means letting the people around you know that God has a place in your life.

Churches, at least mainline Protestant churches like the Episcopal Church, are by and large much more comfortable with welcoming than with proclamation. In fact we’d sort of like to think that the former can substitute for the latter. And for the people who actually walk up to our doors looking for a community with which to puzzle out this whole God business, maybe it can. But there are a whole lot of people wondering and seeking and struggling who are not going to walk up to these doors, for all kinds of reasons. They’ve been burned by church in the past, or simply found it boring and irrelevant. Or their lives have just never taken them close enough to church and faith for it to occur to them that they might find strength, solace, grace, purpose, in a community of faith and in relationship with the Divine. And there are people who are genuinely not in the market for a church, but who might still be looking for God.

Think about the task of evangelism that Jesus gives the disciples. It would have been much easier to go to each village, rent the Elks lodge, hold a big dinner, invite everybody, and then while they’re sitting there between dinner and dessert, and feel like they owe you their attention in exchange for the meal, that’s when you stand up and talk about Jesus.

Being the host is a position of power. Being the guest means making yourself beholden. Entering someone else’s home, and life, and story. When we are the guest – whether it’s at a meal in someone’s home, or out at a coffee shop, or hanging out at a community picnic, or any time when the setting and occasion are not our own – when we are the guest, we set aside the security of our own familiar space, and the comfort of being the people who called the meeting, with the implicit right to frame the conversation and set the agenda. When we’re the guest, we feel keenly that we can’t sit at someone’s table, eat their food, and then push back our plate and say, I’d like to tell you about Jesus. You can’t demand your host’s attention or cooperation. That’s not how hospitality works, for host or guest.

Jesus sends his disciples out to share the good news that God works for good for and around and within and among us; and to share that good news from the vulnerability, the beholden-ness, of being a guest. Just as he did. I think that approach was wise then; I think it may be even wiser now. We live in a capitalist society which has trained all of us to be keenly aware of when we are being sold something. Americans are very sensitive to being treated as marks, as potential sales. And generally speaking, we don’t much care for it. Even when I actually want to buy a sofa, having a saleswoman sidle up to me with a big smile makes me a little uncomfortable.

But if we can’t enter the conversation with our plans laid out and our speeches prepared, then what can we do? Well – we can listen to our hosts, or fellow guests. Their hopes, their hurts, their longings. We can be open to moments when we might speak God’s love into someone’s life, through relationship rather than agenda. Genuineness instead of preparedness. Presence instead of power. Small moments instead of big speeches. As Rob Chappell said last year, just saying, “I’ll pray about that,” says a lot.

It helps if you can manage to think of what you have to say about God in your life – your testimony, friends – as a gift instead of an imposition. It’s a truth you have to tell about yourself – and listen, I know y’all; I know that those stories range from “God saved my life” to “I’m not sure why I’m here or whether I believe any of this stuff but something keeps bringing me back.” All those stories are gifts; all those stories contain grace; they’re all worth telling. Trust me.

Matthew’s gospel doesn’t tell us how this mission turned out, how it all went for those disciples sent forth as sheep among wolves. But Luke does, in his telling. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus sends out not twelve but seventy disciples, empty-handed, unprepared, to find someone who’ll house them and feed them, and look for opportunities to talk about God. And Luke says, They returned with joy.

They returned with joy. Amen.

Sermon, May 7

Who’s heard of Napoleon? The French general? What if I told you that Napoleon was actually… taller than average? This week I read a thought-provoking cartoon written by artist Matthew Inman, for his site The Oatmeal. Matthew uses goofy images to share some of what cognitive scientists have learned about how people respond to new information. It turns out that the response depends on the information – specifically, whether the information challenges an existing idea that’s important to us, that feels central to our worldview. He offers some examples like the one about Napoleon that are pretty easy to take on board. We just think, “Huh. Okay.”

And then he offers a few examples that he suspects some of his readers will find more challenging or unsettling. Like, Jesus Christ was not born on December 25th. The Pledge of Allegiance was written by a socialist. Neither of those gave me much pause, but your mileage may vary. Or take a piece I read recently that revealed that Margaret Atwood, the author of the famous feminist dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, once spoke up to support a fellow writer who’d been fired from his university job for harassing female students. There’s more friction, more discomfort, in taking in facts like these.

We are not equally open to new ideas. Some are just interesting new information that maybe changes our thinking or outlook a little, but is easy to integrate. Some new ideas stretch us, make us re-examine our assumptions. It might take some inner heavy lifting to take them on board. And some new ideas are so challenging that we shut down entirely. We lock up our minds. We build a wall. It doesn’t matter how persuasive the evidence is – whether that’s evidence in the form of data and facts, or the evidence of someone else’s life experience that casts a new light on our world and our thinking. In fact when something really challenges our deep-seated beliefs, more evidence may actually make us shut down even MORE, in a phenomenon called the backfire effect.

When we encounter a new idea that really shakes up our fundamental understandings, our brains respond the same way we would respond to a physical threat. Which is not by getting more flexible or thoughtful, but by flooding our systems with adrenaline, in preparation to FIGHT off the threat – or run away! In those moments, people get confused. Conflicted. Angry. Kind of like the Pharisees in the 9th and 10th chapters of the gospel of John.

Today’s Gospel is one of the times when we really need to know what came before it. If you start at chapter 10, verse 1, it’s easy to take this as just a theological speech, with no particular context or audience. But in fact the context and the audience are really important – and you know about them, if you were here on March 26. Because we had the 9th chapter of John, that Sunday, and we acted it out, just to make sure you’d remember it! There was a young man who was born blind – his eyes didn’t work. And then Jesus came along, and healed him! And that’s when the trouble began.

The leaders in his church, his synagogue, were confused and upset. This kind of healing is so unusual that it’s clearly a miracle. But does that mean that Jesus is using God’s power? Or is he using the Devil’s power instead, or dark magic? And if he is using God’s power – what does that mean? Because we have heard about this guy Jesus, and a lot of what he teaches is different from the way we understand the faith of our God and our ancestors! And if Jesus DOES have some uniquely close relationship with God, then what does that mean for the monotheism that is the non-negotiable heart of Judaism – there is only, always, ever, ONE God!…

The fact of Jesus’ healing of this young man is new information that is way at the fight or flight end of the spectrum for these Pharisees. Matthew Inman says, There’s no magic trick to get around these moment. All you can do is understand how it works, and when you notice it happening inside yourself, ride out that stress reaction and THEN give the new information a serious look and assess whether and how it should change your thinking. He concludes, “I’m not here to… tell you what to believe. I’m just here to tell you that it’s okay to stop. To listen. To change.” And that is exactly where today’s gospel starts: with Jesus trying to talk the Pharisees down a little bit. To get them to listen. Reflect. Wonder. Change.

We get this Gospel lesson today because at some point the Church named the fourth Sunday of Easter as Good Shepherd Sunday. Every year we have one of the passages where Jesus uses this image of himself as the Shepherd (or in this case, the Gate). And preachers usually preach on the image, the metaphor, and probably I will too, next time around. But once I realized that this is the end of that other story, I got more interested in the context and purpose of the conversation than its content.

This passage, Jesus’ extended metaphor of himself as the Good Shepherd, is the moment in the story of the healing of the blind man when Jesus and the Pharisees finally talk to each other. Before that, there was a lot of talking ABOUT Jesus, who he was and what to do about him. Some of them were saying, This man is not from God, for he performed this act of healing on the Sabbath, when God’s people are commanded to rest. Others were saying, How can a sinner perform such miracles? The Pharisees, this group of local religious leaders and scholars, were divided among themselves – and likely conflicted within themselves. And as the story moves along, their anxiety ratchets up, until they become pretty shrill and angry and panicky. (I have been in that mental space, 100%. Anybody else?) They cast out the Man Born Blind – and Jesus comes back around to affirm that young man in his stubborn faith in the One who gave him sight. And he offers one of his paradoxical pronouncements: “I came into this world to bring sight to those who do not see, and blindness to those who do see.” Some of the Pharisees are hanging around – and they say, “Wait. We’re not blind…?” They’re curious about Jesus, interested enough that they care what he thinks and what he has to say, even though he also upsets and challenges them.

Jesus says, “If you were really blind” – remember, folks, we’re talking about *figuratively* blind – “If you were really blind, nobody could blame you for your failures. But since you think you can see, you are culpable.” And then he starts talking about sheep. And gates. And bandits. And stuff. Reading this passage in light of chapter 9, and noticing the cues about the interaction between Jesus and the Pharisees, has really changed how I imagine the tone of this speech. A lot of sources assume that the “thieves and bandits” are an allusion to the Pharisees themselves, and that Jesus is attacking their leadership here, slamming them. But I think he’s actually trying to reassure them.

Here’s what I think he’s saying: “You have been fierce and valiant defenders of our faith. There have been thieves and bandits, over the centuries, who have tried to change or distort or destroy the faith of our God and our ancestors. There have been false prophets and false messiahs – so many. But I’m not one of them. I am the real thing. And you can know that by the evidence of your own eyes: because you saw how I tended one of my sheep, that young man whose eyes didn’t work, and how he responded to me, following my voice like a sheep who knows its shepherd. Those false prophets did what they did for their own gain, or to sow destruction and death. But God the Gatekeeper sent me here to give life to the sheep – abundant life.”

I think Jesus is trying to win them over, or at least to help them understand. And they don’t react like people who feel attacked. They react like people who are still trying to make sense of a big, hard, challenging new idea. That verse isn’t in today’s lesson but here’s how the scene ends: “Again they were divided because of these words. Many were saying, ‘He has a demon and is out of his mind!’ But others were saying, ‘These are not the words of one who has a demon….’”

Divided. Conflicted. Challenged, but fascinated. Struggling to make sense of an unfamiliar truth. I feel for them. I have absolutely been there. It’s a difficult space, that space between the old and the new ways of thinking. A hard space – but also a holy one. This is why Turning is one of the practices of discipleship that we name and affirm here at St. Dunstan’s: We follow the teaching of Jesus Christ by being open to repentance, transformation, and call. This is why “Seek opportunities to learn, turn, and amend” is on the personal Rule of Life I read to myself every morning. Because one of the most important things that makes the Church not just an especially peculiar and anachronistic social club is our conviction that God isn’t done with us yet. That we don’t have it all figured out on our own. That in the words of one of our hymns, the Lord has yet more light and truth to break forth from his Word. That there is deeper and farther to go into the mysteries of God and of our fellow human beings. Knowing that Turning is part of the life of faith is our way of telling ourselves and each other that it’s okay to stop. To listen. To change. Sometimes a new idea or perspective or truth will confuse us and unsettle us, even make us angry; but bit by bit, if we are faithful to the work, listening and wondering and attending to what God is showing us, will transform us into the image of Christ, in whom there is no falsity, and no fear.

In a moment we’ll perform the sacrament of baptism, one of our holiest rites, one of my greatest privileges. In this sacrament we are baptized into certainty: into belonging to a faithful God, marked as Christ’s own forever; into having a loving family of faith that will always welcome and support, no questions asked. But friends, we are also baptized into uncertainty. Into curiosity. Into growth, into change. Into seeking, wondering, repenting, turning. Baptized into life in God who is not done with us yet.

Matthew Inman’s comic may be read here. Language warning!