Category Archives: Spiritual Practices

Sermon, Nov. 20

Today we conclude our annual Giving Campaign, the weeks in which we invite members and friends of the parish to make a pledge of financial support for the coming year, so that we can develop a budget and move ahead on a sound footing. In a few moments we’ll bless the pledges we’ve received. And we’ve celebrated with pie, which is the best way to celebrate.

But I have to say: This has been a TERRIBLE year for preaching about financial stewardship. For hitting the usual themes of generosity and gratitude and laying up treasure in heaven… First, there was an election. As your pastor and preacher, I could hardly pretend that wasn’t on everyone’s minds, including my own. And now we end the Giving Campaign with the Crucifixion? Seriously?

The lectionary does this every three years. Today is Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday in the church year – the first Sunday in Advent, next year, is our New Year’s Day. On Christ the King Sunday, our liturgy and scriptures invite us to reflect on the cosmic and paradoxical kingship of Jesus. In one year of our three-year cycle of readings, we have the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, which reminds us that we serve our King by serving those most in need. In one year we have Jesus’ conversation about kingship with Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor. And this year – Year C, the year we end today – we have the scene from today’s Gospel: Jesus on the cross, alone, defeated, dying. Not much of a king.

It’s not an easy thing, but I think it’s a good thing, that the lectionary places the Crucifixion in front of us now and then when we aren’t expecting it, when it’s not Good Friday and we don’t have jelly beans and Alleluias stashed in the cupboard, all ready for Easter right around the corner. Of course at St. Dunstan’s, the Crucifixion is always in front of us. It’s unusual for an Episcopal church to have a crucifix – an image of Jesus on the cross – as its focal point. But that’s the choice our elders made, here, back in 1963 or so. So we worship with the Crucifixion, Jesus’ moment of greatest pain and weakness, right in front of us, all the time. Some of you are OK with it, and some of you really don’t care for it – I don’t know of anyone who claims to love it? Kids notice him, and guests, but for a lot of us the image has become so familiar that we don’t really see it, let alone think about it.

Let’s think about it today – about the Crucifixion, and more to the point, about the kingship of the Cross. I’ve got a few thoughts to share – roughly in order from Things I Understand Pretty Well, to Things I Find Deeply Mysterious But Still Believe.

Thought number one: Following this King – this one, the one hanging from a cross in shame – claiming to be subjects of this King should give a certain skepticism, a kind of critical distance, to our views of any human king – or president, principal, mayor, et cetera. Really, ANY leader – the ones we like as well as the ones we fear.

On Good Friday afternoon, every year, I invite kids here to walk the Stations of the Cross with me. And when we come to the eleventh Station, Jesus is Nailed to the Cross, I tell the kids: Sometimes the people in charge are wrong. Maybe because of a mistake or a failure, maybe because their priorities or intentions are not good, but one way or another, sometimes, the people in authority, our leaders, teachers, principals, moms and dads, policemen, presidents, can be wrong. I always half-expect a parent to grab their child and march out in indignation at that part, but nobody has. We all know it’s true; it’s just hard to admit to our kids. But it should be easy for us to remember, with the Crucifix before us every week. Our God was executed as a criminal. Knowing that must help us remember to question our leaders, and the mechanisms of power and punishment in our time, holding them up to God’s standards of justice and mercy.

And let it be noted, please, that the leaders in Jesus’ day weren’t just wrong because they condemned and executed Jesus, the Son of God. They were wrong because they perpetuated a system that punished theft with brutal execution. It’s not clear from the text whether the criminals crucified with Jesus were simple burglars or violent bandits. But it is clear, from a survey of ancient sources, that crucifixion was routinely used as the punishment for theft, fraud, and other non-violent crimes, especially when committed by those of low status, the socially and economically vulnerable. The criminal justice system in Judea under Roman rule was wrong because it murdered people for minor crimes. The leaders of that time and place were unjust, because they created and reinforced a political and economic status quo that drove people into poverty and desperation, and then punished them harshly when they did the things that poor and desperate people sometimes do.

Following this King should give us a critical eye for earthly kings and leaders.

Thought number two: Jesus on the cross is God’s greatest argument against the mindset of self-preservation, of “I’ve got mine,” of looking out for Number One. Notice that three times, in Luke’s account, somebody suggests that Jesus should save himself. “Let him save himself is he is the Messiah of God.” “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”

That word “save” – Sozo in Greek – it’s the same word as the root of Soterio, Salvation. Those two words are a core concept for the New Testament. Save: rescue, deliver, free, help, heal, sustain, restore – all of that wrapped up in one word. It’s the right word for this moment, for what Jesus is doing, on the cross. But the people taunting him are pointing it in the wrong direction. Jesus will not save himself. The people mocking him think he’s powerless. “Save yourself!” is a joke because how could he? Look at him.

With the Gospel writers, we know better. We know he has chosen this. Could he have used divine power to step down off the cross? To cast himself into the arms of angels, as Satan tempted him to do, way back at the beginning? Maybe; or maybe he had laid down divine power and protection, as he turned his face towards this moment. Regardless, it’s very clear from the Gospel accounts that Jesus chose not to resist this death. Chose, even, to walk towards it. Praying in the Garden, submitting his fears to God’s purposes. Rebuking his disciples for resisting his arrest. Silent when asked to speak in his own defense. As human, and as God, he gave himself over to this. Saving himself was never the point.

Following this King means never being satisfied with our own salvation. With being safe, free, healed ourselves – as long as another is in danger, in bondage, or in pain.

Thought number three… I warned you, didn’t I, that these thoughts moved from clarity towards paradox? Thought number three: The Crucifixion, this moment when everything seems as broken as possible, points us towards reconciliation.

The early Christians used a lot of different images, metaphors, to try to capture their experience of the transformation of their lives and of the world by Jesus’ death and resurrection: Redeeming someone, buying them out of slavery. Freeing someone who’s imprisoned. Healing someone hurt, rescuing someone from danger, exonerating someone in a court of law. Cleansing and purifying someone by way of sacrifice, as in the rites of the Temple in Old Testament Judaism. Renewing a broken covenant. Reconciling the parties in a conflicted relationship, or a relationship where the parties have simply drifted apart, lost the mutuality of care, trust, and respect they once had.

Reconciliation is a key concept in Jesus’ life and teaching, as again and again he calls his followers back into a relationship of loving trust with the God who made us. And it’s a key word for the apostle Paul in his understanding of the work of the Church and its people. Jesus came to reconcile humanity to God – and to send us forth to continue the work of reconciliation. That’s how Paul sums up the Gospel, in the second letter to the Corinthians – “In Christ God was reconciling the world to Godself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message and ministry of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, [begging the world to] be reconciled to God.” And the letter to the Colossians today – written perhaps by Paul, perhaps by a disciple of Paul’s – uses that same language: “Through Jesus, God was pleased to reconcile to Godself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of the cross.”

Reconciliation is one of the core practices that we have named together, as a congregation, as a way we strive to live as disciples of Jesus. In Greek the word is katalasso, roughly translated as, Called to the side of the other. Called from our separateness into solidarity. As disciples of Jesus, we strive to live and act so as to restore unity and love among humans, between humans and God, and between humans and creation. We reconcile both by responding to the needs of our neighbors, through church ministries and everyday acts of mercy; and by working to confront and change the systems of this world that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.

Reconciliation is a powerful concept – and also sometimes a slippery one. We can fall into thinking it means the same thing as niceness. And niceness, as I mentioned in a sermon a few months ago, niceness is not a Christian virtue.

Liturgical scholar Derek Olsen wrote this week, “In this ministry of reconciliation [described in 2 Corinthians], we are not being called to be nice or pleasant, or to smooth things over with those who disagree with us. We are called to work on the reconciliation of humanity with God, and God’s vision of the world that God created… This is a vision that puts the poor, the people at the margins, the “alien in your midst,” … as the central figures for our care and concern… If we are exhorting the Christian faithful to be… reconcilers, then we need to be clear that [the call of the Gospel on us is to work] to reconcile the people and society around us to the vision of the world that God intends.”

Reconciliation, for Christians, doesn’t mean pretending things are fine, or ignoring the ways in which the world around us falls short of God’s intentions for us and for all. There is nothing nice about the cross, about a death like this. But following this King means accepting this as an icon of reconciliation: messy, ugly, painful. Necessary. Holy.

Thought number four… There’s a word in the Colossians text, in verse 19: Fulness. “In Jesus, all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell.” It’s easy to read right past it, but it turns out there’s a lot of theology packed into – and flowing out of – that word. Fulness, pleroma in Greek, is used a number of times in the Epistles, the letters of the first Christians – as is its opposite, Kenoo, which means emptiness, inadequacy, incompleteness. Those words, dancing around each other, trace the outline of a theology of the cross: In this moment, Jesus emptied himself (Phil 2:7), to make room for the fulness of God. His weakness makes room for God’s strength, his brokenness opens the way for God to restore and heal. And early Christian leaders and teachers see in this a path of discipleship – they urge one another, especially in times of struggle and fear, to empty themselves. To let God’s fulness work in them. To trust, in the words of Paul, that whenever I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Cor 12:10)

This idea is mystery and a challenge for me. When something is difficult, I respond by trying to put more of myself into it. And sometimes – I believe this – sometimes the better response would be to put less of myself in. To let my inadequacy, my weakness, my emptiness drive me to a more profound openness to God. To serving God less like an independent contractor. More like an instrument or tool.

Following this King challenges us to find grace, to find hope, even in the moments when we feel like we have nothing. Like we are nothing. Because when we are weak, God is still strong. Now, over the next few weeks, we’ll be revising and refining our church budget for next year, based on the pledges we’ve received. And I would, frankly, prefer to be talking about gracious plenty, than about the opportunities offered by inadequacy. But I’m trying to be faithful, in this as in many things….! Faithful to this King – Jesus, my King. And to the ways of his kingdom, which is so profoundly different from the kingdoms of this world. A kingdom that should give us, as its subjects, a critical eye for earthly leaders. That urges us never to settle for our own salvation. A kingdom in which emptiness can be strength, in which brokenness can reconcile, in which dying can lead to eternal life.

Derek Olsen’s essay may be read in full here: http://www.stbedeproductions.com/?p=3740

The Lord’s Prayer: Unity, not uniformity

What a difference a word makes when it’s a word you’ve known your whole life long. There is something extra-confusing about saying something where *most* of the words are familiar… but just enough are different to trip you up. Like, for example, “sins” instead of “trespasses.” (Or even “debts”!) Yes, I’m talking about how we say the Lord’s Prayer – the prayer Jesus offered as an example, when one of his disciples asked him how they should pray (Matthew 6:9-13; Luke 11:2-4).

At St. Dunstan’s, since I came to be your rector, we have used the contemporary Lord’s Prayer (“Our Father in Heaven…”). As liturgical leader, I have made that choice because the modern language makes the meaning of the prayer a little bit clearer for a child or someone brand-new to the church and its distinctive language. We don’t use “art” for “is” or “thy” for “your” in daily speech, so while that old-fashioned language is satisfying and beautiful in its own way, it can be disorienting and confusing.

Believe me: I don’t for a moment believe that the traditional-language Lord’s Prayer is dead – or wish it to be. It’s the one I learned as a child, immersed in the liturgy of the Episcopal Church, and I appreciate the grace of its language. I happily use it at weddings, funerals, and in hospital rooms – because in a mixed crowd, it’s the most familiar, and because it’s the version most people my age and older learned as children, and so it’s the version deepest in our hearts and memories.

There are parishes where they switch versions with the season – for instance, they might use the traditional language in Lent, and the modern language in Easter. I have never thought that sounded like a helpful approach; instead it sounds to me like a recipe for confusion. Many of us carry both versions in our heads, but more or less manage to pick one and stick with it, once we’ve gotten as far as, “Our Father, who art…” or “Our Father in…” I fear that alternating which version we’re using would have the effect of muddling up the versions in our heads and making it even harder to start one and follow through!

But this fall we’re trying out a different kind of muddle. The inspiration came from a couple of different places. One was my experience last summer of the liturgies at General Convention, the Episcopal Church’s great gathering of the tribes in Salt Lake City. In the daily Eucharists there, we were invited to pray the Lord’s Prayer “in the language of our hearts.” That meant that people in that giant roomful of worshippers were praying in both English versions, and in many other languages and versions. Offered that freedom, I myself tend to pray the New Zealand version that begins, “Loving God, may your name be held holy and your kingdom come!…”  My experience of those moments was that instead of the familiar rhythm of many voices saying the same thing the same way, I was paradoxically both more tuned in to my own prayer – thinking the words, meaning them – and more aware of all those voices around me, praying the same thing in beautifully different ways.

The second source of inspiration is our middle school youth group. In their weekly practice of saying Compline (BCP p. 127) together at the end of a Friday night of movies, pizza, and games, they’ve developed a preference for the traditional-language Lord’s Prayer. Several of them have a habit of sitting together in the front row at church on Sundays – and when I’m celebrating at the altar, I can hear them praying with the traditional language, as everyone else uses the modern language version printed in the booklet.

So in planning our autumn worship, I thought, Why do we all need to use the same version at the same time? Everyone here either has a version of this prayer engraved on their heart already – or is ready to choose a version and do the work of memorizing it. It doesn’t matter to me, and it most certainly doesn’t matter to God, which version you pray. Some might pray it in a language other than English – the language of your first family, or of a country you love. Some might pray it in a version that translates the Gospel’s Greek rendering of Jesus’ Aramaic words into English in a different way, as does the New Zealand version. Some might pray in silence, the prayer of the heart. We don’t need uniformity in prayer to have unity in prayer.

So this fall I invite all of us to pray the Lord’s Prayer in the language of our hearts. It will sound and feel different. I invite you to try it out. We’re printing both the traditional and modern language Prayer Book versions in the booklet, but by all means, look farther afield if you are so moved. Find (or create) another version of this simple, ancient, encompassing, gracious prayer. And let’s pray in unity of spirit, and diversity of voice.

Sermon, July 17

When I first read over these lessons, I felt torn. I wanted to give the prophet Amos his due. And this passage from Paul’s letter to the Colossians is so beautiful.  But they’re very, very different.  It seemed impossible to address them in the same sermon.

Amos and Paul lived and taught in very different settings. Amos was a prophet who spoke God’s word in the Northern kingdom of Israel, sometime in the 8th century before Christ. He calls out the king, the wealthy elite, and the religious leaders for failing to order their society in a way that reflects God’s righteousness and concern for the poor and vulnerable.

While Amos calls a whole kingdom to account, Paul speaks to a tiny group of believers trying to care for each other and grow in faith in a context of religious diversity and colonial rule. Unlike the people Amos addresses, the members of the church in Colossae have control over very little beyond themselves. Paul’s call to them is first and foremost to live their lives more fully in Christ, supporting one another in growing towards Christian maturity.

And yet – as different as the settings and messages are, there is a deep similarity. These are both texts of turning. Turning is one of the spiritual practices we named here in our work this spring. It’s shorthand for our capacity to be open to repentance, transformation, and call. Our affirmation that while God loves us just the way we are, God isn’t going to leave us that way.

The turn Amos calls for is a nationwide turn, away from an epidemic of affluenza, with the symptoms being rampant greed, indifference to the wellbeing of the poor, and superficial, perfunctory religious practice.

Amos lived in a time when David’s kingdom has been split in two, into the southern kingdom of Judah, where Jerusalem was, and the Northern Kingdom of Israel, with its capital at Samaria.Things were really good for the Northern Kingdom, under King Jeroboam: military success, wealth, peace, prosperity. For those at the top of the heap, things hadn’t been this good in generations. For ordinary folks, things were getting worse and worse, with increased inequality and exploitation of the poor.

Amos puts words to the greed of the times in today’s passage –

“We’ll use false balances and small measures when we sell wheat, and sell the trash of the threshing floor as grain, to maximize our profit, so that we can buy out the lives of the poor for the price of a pair of sandals.”

Amos himself came from a village in Judah, the southern kingdom. He worked as a shepherd and a tender of fruit trees. He wasn’t a member of one of the guilds of prophets; prophesy didn’t run in the family; he was just minding his own business when the word of God came to him and seized him: “GO, prophesy to my people Israel!”

Why might God have sent an outsider to Israel? We get a hint in Amos’ encounter with Amaziah, priest of Bethel, in last week’s lesson.  Bethel was a temple established by King Jeroboam, to make it more convenient for his subjects to fulfill their religious responsibilities without having to travel to Jerusalem.  Bethel was in theory a temple devoted to Yahweh, Israel’s God; but Amaziah’s words to Amos reveal whose power and authority are really honored there –  ‘Never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and.. a temple of the kingdom.’

I read this week that a gaffe is when someone in power accidentally says something true. Amaziah’s gaffe suggests that God’s word wasn’t being heard or preached in Bethel. And so God called Amos.

So what was Amos’ word, God’s grievance? … The book of Amos isn’t long; you could read all nine chapters in half an hour. But I think the image from last week’s reading is a powerful summary. God shows Amos the image of a plumb line. This is a plumb line. You can walk into the hardware store up the street and buy one. It’s an ancient, ancient tool of carpentry. It simply uses gravity to determine whether something is straight or not.

The plumb line: symbol of the rules that simply exist, always and everywhere. Gravity is gravity. You can build your house, or your society, all askew. You can balance a huge unwieldy class of wealthy people on the unstable base of the poor, hungry and angry.  But gravity will eventually do its thing. And so will the righteousness of God.

God says to, and through, Amos, See, I am setting a plumb-line in the midst of my people. They can’t escape the consequences of their actions any longer.  Their high places and sanctuaries will be made desolate, and I will send enemies against the house of Jeroboam. Like a shepherd trying to rescue a sheep from the mouth of a lion who only recovers perhaps a couple of legs, or a piece of an ear, so the people of Samaria will escape destruction only with the corner of a couch or part of a bed. (Amos 3)

There is a call here, if a desperate and pessimistic one. God says through Amos,  It is not yet too late! Turning is still possible! Seek the Lord, seek good and not evil, that you may live. Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will yet have mercy – and save, at least, a remnant: that leg or ear rescued from the lion’s mouth.

When we come to the Prophets in our three-year cycle of readings, I eagerly pull one book off my shelf: Abraham Heschel, The Prophets. Heschel was a Jewish scholar who grew impatient with the intellectualism of academic study, and became convinced that the prophetic works needed to be studied with attention to heart, conscience, emotion – the prophet’s emotion, God’s emotion, our emotional response to these words that can touch and stir, agitate or comfort us across three thousand years.

Heschel talks about how one of the hallmarks of a prophet is a tendency to see everyday injustices not just as the unfortunate downside of an otherwise functional society, but as an indictment of the entire social order.

Heschel writes (pages 3 – 6),

“The things that horrified the prophets are even now daily occurrences all over the world. There is no society to which Amos’ words would not apply…. Indeed, the sort of crimes… that fill the prophets of Israel with dismay do not go beyond that which we regard as normal, as typical ingredients of social dynamics. To us a single act of injustice – cheating in business, exploitation of the poor – is slight; to the prophets, a disaster….

[The prophets’] breathless impatience with injustice may strike us as hysteria. We ourselves witness continually acts of injustice, manifestations of hypocrisy, falsehood, outrage, misery, but we rarely grow indignant or overly excited. [Yet] to the prophets even a minor injustice assumes cosmic proportions…

[Yet] if such deep sensitivity to evil is to be called hysterical, what name should be given to the abysmal indifference to evil which the prophet bewails?…

Prophesy is the voice God has lent to the silent agony [of humanity].”

Elsewhere, Heschel writes:

The prophet’s words “wrench one’s conscience from the state of suspended animation…. The prophet is intent on intensifying responsibility.” (p. 8)

As a text of turning, the book of Amos bears a call to responsibility. From indifference to concern and action. A call to take the injustices we witness not as inevitable occasional failures of a basically functional system, but as urgent calls to the hard work of improving our common life. A call to measure the gulf between the straightness of the plumb line and the alarming lean of our society.

In contrast with Amos’ call to a society-wide U-turn, the turning to which Paul calls the Colossians is perhaps more like your navigation software telling you, “Proceed to the route.”

The people of the church in Colossae weren’t wrong in any big dramatic ways. They were a little confused about whose teachings to follow and how to practice their new faith. And Paul gives them guidance on those fronts, gently and lovingly. Elsewhere in his letters to the early Christian communities, Paul can be sharp and angry; but the tone of this letter is best described as tender.

Most of all, Paul simply urges them to grow in grace. To continue living more fully in response to Christ’s divine humanity. In today’s passage he writes eloquently about who Jesus was and is, and what it means for us as his people: Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible God, the one in whom all things hold together. The one in whom the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through whom God was pleased to reconcile all things to Godself. Jesus Christ has reconciled you to God, to present you holy and blameless, forgiven, loved, and free.

Paul speaks eloquently about his hopes for this young community, gathered by their faith in Christ: that they may be encouraged and united in love; that they may grow into maturity in Christ, rooted and built up in him, and abounding in thanksgiving. That they may seek the things that are above, not worrying about earthly matters.

And then there’s this passage, in chapter 3: “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

We could read that in church every week for a lifetime and still be encouraged and guided by it. Maybe we should.

As a text of turning, the letter to the Colossians bears a call to grow in grace. Paul passionately invites the people of that church to receive, with wonder and joy, the grace of Christ’s presence among them, and to live with one another as people formed by love, generosity of spirit, and gratitude.

Amos calls a kingdom to responsibility. Paul calls a church to grow in grace. Which are we? What do we hear?

I submit to you that maybe we’re a little of both. In many ways we are the little fellowship of faith in Colossae, surrounded by a pluralistic society that doesn’t share our values, uncertain about what our faith really requires of us, maybe nervous about being known as followers of Jesus. That passage from chapter 3 speaks my hope for how we will live with and care for one another in this church. We need to devote energy and time and resources and care to teaching and singing and loving and giving and forgiving. We need to cultivate our own and each other’s Christian maturity.  We are called to grow in grace.

And… in many ways we are the elites of the Northern Kingdom. We are people of voice and influence.I’m not making assumptions here about anybody’s wealth or connections. But I absolutely believe that if 50 St. Dunstanites decided that we were going to devote our energy and time and resources to changing something about the common life of our city, county, or even our state, we could move the needle.  We could contribute to meaningful change. Because we are citizens of a democracy, and showing up matters.  In the words of Margaret Mead, Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.  And there are many forces in our world, sisters and brothers, which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. We are called to responsibility.

Let us pray. Loving God, you have given us your holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may hear their message to us, and give us grace to respond to the call to grow in grace, and the call to responsibility, as your children, gathered and sent. We pray this in the name of Jesus, the One in whom we are rooted and built up. Amen.

Sermon, May 1

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being? I will, with God’s help! It’s the fifth question of our baptismal covenant, the set of questions we ask one another every time we baptize a new member into the church. These questions ask us, and remind us, how we intend to live as God’s people. And our answer to each one is, I will, with God’s help. Affirming both our commitment … and our need for divine assistance.

Today’s Gospel comes from John’s account of the life of Jesus. Unlike the other Gospels, in John’s version, Jesus visits Jerusalem several times. He’s walking near one of the great gates of the city, past a place where people go seeking healing. Scholars of the ancient world think this was probably a temple to the Greek god Asclepius, the god of medicine and healing. Asclepius was adopted by the Romans and honored all around the ancient world. His temples were, essentially, some of the world’s first hospitals. They often included a pool, for rituals of cleansing and healing. If this pool in the Gospel were part of a temple of healing, it explains why there were many sick and disabled people around, waiting, hoping, praying that Asclepius and his priests would favor them with restoration and health.

There were stories that this was an especially powerful pool – that from time to time, the waters of the pool would be mysteriously stirred up, perhaps by an unseen angel, and the first person to get into the pool after that magical stirring was practically guaranteed to be healed. Jesus is walking past this place, this pagan temple full of human agony and desperate hope. And his eye falls on one of the people lying there, a man who has been ill for thirty-eight years. Why this man? Who knows? Maybe Jesus just saw in him the potential for health, for faith.

So Jesus speaks to him. He asks, Do you want to be made well? The sick man’s response is interesting. He doesn’t say, Yes, of course I do! Please help me! Instead he explains why the approach he’s already trying hasn’t worked for him yet. “Sir, I don’t have anyone to help me into the pool when it is stirred up, and by the time I can get to it, somebody else has already jumped in and stolen the miracle.” Jesus brushes aside the explanations and excuses. He says, Stand up, take your mat and walk. And the man stands up, and walks.

This man’s illness is an individual situation. Something particular to his body and his life story. But this is also more than just an individual situation. Just like the homeless veteran whose PTSD leaves him muttering in a doorway downtown. Just like the single mom dependent on public assistance who calls to see if I can resolve her delinquent utility bill. Just like the former drug dealer who can’t find honest work because of his record. There are layers and layers of larger systems that have contributed to this individual’s need and misery.

Maybe this man’s illness or disability is just a fact of life. Even today, with all the tools of modern medicine, bodies break. Bodies fail. But there’s more to his situation than illness. He is alone. No one is tending or helping him. He is poor. If he weren’t poor, he wouldn’t be alone. And he is looking for help in the wrong place. This temple to an empty god, which has no power to help him or change his life. But it’s the only place he knows to go, so he goes there. Quite possibly he’s been going there for thirty-eight years.

Jesus, because he is Jesus, just stops by and heals him. Most of the time it’s not that simple for us. I can’t just command health back into somebody like this man. But I, or you, could address the fact that he’s alone. That he’s poor. That he doesn’t have a place to go that would welcome and care for him. It is within our reach, within our power, as citizens of goodwill in a democratic society, to address things like that.

And this brings us to the point where Baptismal Question #5 opens out from Baptismal Question #4. The fourth question, remember, is: Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? Our faithful response to that question calls us to reach out in kindness to the individual who is suffering, since we know that God can look a whole lot like a human in pain. But the fifth question, today’s question – it asks us, Will you strive for justice and peace among all peoples, and respect the dignity of every human being? That is a big ask, folks. Justice and peace among ALL PEOPLES. Dignity for EVERY human being. Phew.

If the fourth question demands our response to suffering, the fifth question demands our curiosity about suffering. It asks us to look at the big picture. The world-system that Jesus came to transform and redeem. Where does it come from? How is it created and perpetuated? Why are things like this? Why can’t they be different? Could we shift our society and systems, in ways that would lower the quota of human suffering, and add to the world’s measure of hope, wholeness, and delight? Where would we start?

Some of you are thinking, right now, There she goes again, telling us to fix the world. Doesn’t she know I already try to help all I can? Doesn’t she know how overwhelming it is? Doesn’t she know that sometimes I just need to watch Seinfeld reruns and forget it all for a while? I do, actually. I really do. Because: me too.

Sometimes – when we’re overwhelmed, weary, ashamed, angry – we struggle with whether our neighbor’s wellbeing is really our responsibility. It would be so great if that person’s misfortune were really their own fault, full stop. No layers of shared social and economic and political systems to muddy the picture. Just one person’s successes or failures. Because then we could still help if we wanted to, but when we don’t, there’s no guilt. He brought it on himself. It’s not my problem.

But as Christians, and as thoughtful people, even though those thoughts and feelings touch us sometimes, we can’t really stay there. We know better. We are all in this together. There is no such thing as other people’s children. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” may be a quotation from the Bible, but the person who says it has just, in fact, murdered his brother, and is not a model for our moral behavior.

We would all very much like it if all the ills of the world were someone else’s fault and responsibility. The sick man’s response to Jesus, that little speech about why he can never get to the pool in time, sounds familiar to me because I hear something a lot like it from nearly everyone who calls the church looking for help. Everyone has their reasons why their life has fallen short of their hopes. I lost my job and my jerk landlord won’t cut me any slack. My daughter is in prison and I’m trying to care for my grandbaby. My food stamps cover one adult and one child, and my son eats like an adult now, so we’re hungry all the time. My mother died out of state and we used our grocery money to go see her, and next month’s rent money for funeral expenses. Our apartment complex has bedbugs and we had to throw away everything we own. The employers in this town are racist and won’t give me work. Everyone has a whole list of reasons and circumstances that explain why they just can’t catch a break. Why they haven’t yet managed to stand up and walk.

Here’s the thing: regardless of whether the details of those particular stories are entirely true, the big story they add up to IS true. It IS true. Like Jesus and his contemporaries, we live in a society of deep, entrenched inequality, that does the bare minimum to care for the poor and vulnerable. If you’re not convinced of that, I invite you to do some research comparing our public systems, our safety net for the poor and sick, and our incarceration rates with those of other developed countries. That’s why even when I’m tired and jaded and skeptical, my capacity to respond clouded by compassion fatigue, I try to help, at least a little. I try at least to offer prayers.

Our texts from the book of Revelation describe John’s vision of the redeemed City, at the end of history, when God has fully restored and renewed our world. That City is clean and bright, shining with the light of God, undimmed by human tears, unmarred by pain or grief. The river of Life flows through it, and the Tree of Life grows in its heart, the tree whose leaves are for the healing of the nations.

It is, truly, a beautiful vision – and sometimes the gulf between that holy someday City and the cities of this world feels… paralyzing. It’s enough to make us start to recite our own list of reasons why our lives have fallen short of our hopes. I have to work long hours to pay the mortgage and child care; I just don’t have time to volunteer. My family is going through a rough time and I’m the one holding things together; maybe later I’ll be able to do more for others. There’s so much money in politics, it’s impossible for ordinary people like me to make a difference. I help people all day at work; by the weekend I’m drained, with nothing more to give.

We would all very much like it if the brokenness of the world were someone else’s responsibility. Here’s my good word to you, my sisters and brothers in weariness and perplexity: It is. It is somebody else’s responsibility. The redeemed City is God’s city. We are not going to get there by human efforts. It’s not up to us. The image of that City is not supposed to be like a Pinterest Fail that shames our best endeavors. It’s a vision of God’s intentions for humanity, meant to give us hope and reassurance as we struggle and strive in this world.

It’s not up to us. It’s up to God, and God is already on it. Now, that doesn’t let us off the hook entirely. The Jewish tradition gives us the phrase Tikkun Olam, which means, mending the world – very much what we mean when we talk about reconciling as a core Christian practice. And a great rabbi, Rabbi Tarfon, said this about Tikkun Olam, about the work of mending the world: It is not your obligation to finish the task. But neither are you free to stop the work entirely.

It is not your obligation to finish the task. But neither are you free to stop the work entirely.

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being – That question can feel as overwhelming as the morning headlines. Like it’s asking us to finish the task. To fix the world. To bring about the redeemed City.

Here’s what I want for you, for us, when we hear that question – I want us to feel our feet on the ground, our community standing shoulder to shoulder, the landscape of our lives stretching out around us. I want this big question to stir up another question inside us: Yes, there’s a lot of brokenness, disorder, injustice and pain. Where can I reach out and touch it? Without even trying? Without leaving the path of my everyday life, without even stretching my arm out all the way? I guarantee you that every single one of us has someplace where we can easily lay hands to the world’s brokenness.

I want this baptismal question to invite us in to the practice of reconciling, to noticing where God is at work in our city, neighborhood, school, workplace, church, family, and joining in what God is doing, wherever the lost are being found, the oppressed are finding justice, the broken are being healed, those in need are finding mercy, those in bondage are finding freedom, and enemies are making peace.

I got about this far in writing my sermon, Thursday morning, and then I went to a forum over at Fountain of Life Church on steps towards greater racial equity in Dane County. The event was a collaboration between three big local anti-racism organizations, Justified Anger, the YWCA, and Race to Equity. And what was striking for me was that those leaders said something a lot like what I just said: Racial disparities and their impact on people of color, and on our community as a whole, are a huge, hard, messy problem. And there’s no master plan to fix it all. There’s no one organization or leader that’s going to give us the perfect 5-step plan to transform Madison into the Redeemed City. Instead, they said, look around your life, your landscape. Get together with your people – your friends, your coworkers, your church folks. Have your own conversations about where you can see and touch the patterns of poverty and inequality in our community. And figure out your role, your call, your work, in common purpose and hope with the work of others across our communities. With the work of God in our communities.

Systemic racism is just one of the shadows that mars Madison, that makes us look less like the redeemed City of John’s vision. It’s just one of the evil powers of this world that corrupts and destroys the creatures of God, to borrow words from another part of our baptismal rite. The powers that sicken, impoverish, and isolate people, like that man on the ground in our Gospel story; and that demand our courageous and compassionate response.

I want this great big bold baptismal question to stir up in you the intention and hope that you, YOU, just as you are, can find a way to program or plant or knit or paint or counsel or heal or make music or care for children or report news or call politicians or visit friends or dance or learn or run a business or manage employees or teach or act or administrate or clean or sew or serve on a board or feed people or visit the sick or sell houses or keep cows healthy or solve crimes or go to rallies or write poetry or care for elders or comfort the grieving or catch babies or run a household or take care of animals or write grant proposals or do research or sell insurance or design products in the direction of justice, peace, and human dignity. AMEN.

Sermon, April 17

Will you proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ? Two Sundays ago I began a sermon series of sorts, based on the Baptismal Covenant, the five questions about how we intend to live out our faith that are part of our baptismal liturgy. This question, the third one, is really the shortest and simplest – at least grammatically speaking. Conceptually, perhaps, it’s not quite so simple…

Will you proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ? In today’s Gospel, Jesus is surrounded by a crowd that has heard about him, and wants to know, Are you the real deal? The Messiah, the Savior sent by God? And Jesus says, I’ve already told you that, and what’s more, everything I do in the name of God bears witness to my closeness to God. “The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me.” John’s Jesus talks about works a lot. It’s interesting that he doesn’t use a word like “miracles” or “wonders”. Some of the things Jesus does are wondrous – healings, exorcisms, feeding vast multitudes.

But many of the things Jesus did, that we remember and reflect on and learn from, were more human and mundane. Not wonders but works. Acts. Deeds. He told stories. He gave people his full attention and responded to them with compassion and truth. He sought out the company of those most people avoided. He raised his voice about injustice and hypocrisy. He spoke out even in the face of oppressive violence. None of those are easy, but they’re not superhumanly impossible, either. All those works and deeds were Jesus proclaiming by example the urgent love, the thwarted tenderness of God.

And then we have Tabitha. I love this little story, from the book of Acts. Tabitha – her Hebrew name – or Dorcas in Greek – was an early convert to the way of Christ, and perhaps a leader in this tiny Christian community in Joppa. Tabitha gets sick and dies. But Tabitha’s community knows that the apostle Peter, friend of Jesus, is just one town over, and they think, Maybe, just maybe, there’s enough of our Lord Jesus’ power left in Peter that he can help. Peter comes, and Peter is able, by the power of God, to restore Tabitha to life.

But the detail I really love comes earlier in the story: “All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them.” Now, the widows weren’t necessarily really widows; in the early church that was what they called women who devoted themselves to serving God, their community, and the poor. And the widows of the little church in Joppa, grieving Tabitha, do what we do when we’re grieving our dead – they show and share what that person meant to them. The gifts and graces of that life. And for Tabitha, it was all these garments, pieces of clothing, lovingly and skillfully sewn. It sounds like she kept the whole community dressed, and probably gave away clothes to the poor as well. Doesn’t that make Tabitha real for you? Maybe in your mind now she’s wearing the face of somebody you know or knew, who had Tabitha’s skill and Tabitha’s heart, overflowing with capability and generosity. I know people like that; some of them are in this room. I bet you know some too. Tabitha, Dorcas, a disciple of Jesus, proclaiming by her acts, her works, her example, the boundless generosity of God’s love.

Will you proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ? Word and example. Example and word. Episcopalians tend to be more comfortable with “example.” In our focus groups last month I asked you, Tell me a time when you acted as you did because of your faith. Maybe you even consciously thought, “I HAVE to do this, because Jesus.” And you paused for a few minutes to think about it, but then you had answers. Ranging from the impulse of a moment, to reach out to a stranger, to speak a needed word to a friend – to decisions with life-altering consequences. Leaving or taking a job. Following a dream. Beginning recovery.

We might have to think about it for a minute, but we can name the times and ways in which our actions, our works, reflect our faith, testify to our love for God and our striving to follow Jesus’ example. We are, in fact, tolerably good at living by our faith.

And by and large we would much rather do it than talk about it. Proclaiming our faith in word, not just example, requires us to be able to put it into words. We live in *Madison.* Home of the Freedom From Religion foundation. Being “out” as a Christian feels like a big deal for some of us, depending on our circle of friends and acquaintances. Anne Lamott has a wonderful moment, in her book Traveling Mercies. She invokes an old joke about Judaism – about some guy who isn’t really a serious Jew, he’s just Jew-ish. And she says that her non-church friends prefer to see her as “Christian-ish” – just a “vaguely Jesusy bon vivant.” But it’s not true, she says. I just love Jesus. I really love the guy. I love that passage… because I do too.

Proclaim the good news of God in Christ… What if I misconstrued my role and overstepped my authority and administered a pop quiz, right now? Handed out slips of paper and number 2 pencils and asked you: Define the good news of God in Christ, in your own words?

I think a lot of our reluctance, our hesitation, is that we don’t feel like we have those words. The language of our liturgy, our prayers and hymns, has its pros and cons. It is beautiful, artful, powerful. We love its poetry, its grandeur, its unapologetic premodernism. But it is a step or several steps removed from the language we speak in everyday life. We have to build our own bridges between the language and symbols of our liturgy, and our own experiences of and thoughts about God and faith. We may – and I hope we do – deeply internalize the words of liturgy and Scripture, so they become part of the language of our spirits. But you can’t tell your co-worker, “Well, my church believes that Jesus, rising from the grave, destroyed death, and made the whole creation new; and that we might live no longer for ourselves, sent the Holy Spirit, his own first gift for those who believe, to bring to fulfillment the sanctification of all.” Beg pardon?

We don’t feel like we have the words to testify to the faith that is in us. To proclaim the good news of God in Christ. But I think maybe we do, really. Working on this sermon, I gave myself that pop quiz: How would you summarize the Gospel, which just means, Good News? What’s the Good News of God in Christ as you understand it, Mrs. Priest Lady? And actually, lots of things came to mind. The idea, the hope, that we are never abandoned. Love, you are not alone, in the words of a current pop song. The idea, the hope, that God loves us just the way we are, but isn’t going to leave us that way. Snippets from Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic: The human propensity to mess things up does not define us. Don’t be careful. Risk love’s consquences. Much more can be mended than you know.

Favorite snippets of Scripture, the ones that lodge in my heart – An alternate translation of John 3:16-17: “For God so loved the system, that God sent God’s son into the system – not to condemn the system, but that the system through him might be transformed.” That passage from Ephesians – So then you are no longer strangers and outsiders, but fellow citizens with the saints, and members of the household of God.

Bits of songs – There is more love somewhere; I’m gonna keep on till I find it. For the love of God is greater than the measure of the mind. ‘Twas grace that brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home. God will delight when we are creators of justice and joy.

We’ve been working together, here at St. Dunstan’s, to find our own words for how we live as disciples of Jesus, a list of core practices by which we live out our faith. One of them happens to be Proclaiming; Rob Chappell will talk about that in a few minutes! I hope that list, itself, will become a tool for speaking about faith, both within and beyond our community – a way to begin to answer the question, spoken or unspoken: So you’re a Christian. So what? What difference does it make, for you, in you, beyond you?  And of course our proclamation is most powerful and profound when we’re able to find words not just for what we believe, but for how it’s active in our lives, how God in Christ shapes, comforts, leads, challenges, saves us. You. Me.

Will you proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ? I think you do, friends; and I think you can. We’re finding the words together. Practicing sharing our stories with each other. Talking about what it looks and feels like to proclaim God’s love by our actions, large and small. With God’s help, we are keeping this promise, and learning to live into it ever more fully. I’m going to say it once more, and this time you can answer, I will, with God’s help!

Sisters and brothers, will you proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ? …

What is a Rule of Life?

Laura Norby, an Episcopal deacon who is part of our congregation, shared these words as part of the invitation to Lent on Sunday, February 7. 

I have a dear friend who has shared the spiritual journey with me for several decades. At some early point in our friendship, she said, “If Laura and I were presented with 2 doors, one which said ‘God’ and one which said ‘Reading About God’ we would choose the second door!  There was truth in her humor. We spent hours reading and talking about God. That’s a lot of time in the head.

These days I prefer the door which says ‘God’, because I want to BE in the presence of God.  Experiencing God happens in the heart. I believe that a Rule of Life can be a door which opens into God.  A Rule is a chosen spiritual practice or practices done regularly, ANY of which may be a means to help us open our hearts and become vulnerable to Love.

At the invitation to a Holy Lent, which will be spoken by Miranda to us on Ash Wednesday, we are halted in our tracks by words like self-examination, repentance, self-denial.  We have an unconscious negative reaction to words like rule and discipline.  We prefer words like freedom, liberation, and joy.  Part of my journey has been, and continues to be the surprising discovery that freedom and joy are the real fruits of those very practices of self-examination, repentance, rule and discipline. These words deserve some rethinking.

So here is a bit of my discovery of hidden treasure within these very old words from our Lenten tradition.  It is my experience of where the desire for a Rule begins.

I wake each morning and remember that God is God, Uncreated, a Mystery, and that each unique Created life is lived in God, including yours and mine.

I remember that I am one entity, one unity of body, mind, and spirit. No artificial divisions or priorities of body vs spirit or meditation vs activity. Changing the baby or the oil in the car is as important a place to be with God as sitting in prayer.  ALL life is lived in the here and now of God’s presence.

I try to remember that God lives through me to others, and through others to me. We are all connected in God’s Divine Web. When I am aware of this in both my heart and bones, I am moved, even compelled, to pray:  God, what does Your life look like in me?  Help me learn how to shape my life in thanksgiving for your revelation that we are all one in You. Teach me how to reorient my body, mind and spirit toward You!

In the Church we call these gift moments of awareness ‘conversion experiences’ and  this desire to reorient ourselves toward God ‘metanoia’. In actual experience, I call it WOW-I don’t know big enough words to call it by name! I can only say thank you, God, for planting the desire for You within me.

A longing for a pure heart, for communion with God, and for compassion for others is the birthplace of the call to a Rule of Life, a path to keep us headed toward the door which says God on it.  Any practice that we are drawn to may help us to live more open-heartedly and deeply present with God.  Practices of prayer and study can help us grow our trust in God’s love and forgiveness.  Repentance for our shortcomings, things done and left undone, and practices of self-denial become, not burdens, but gifts, invitations to accept forgiveness and recognize our complete dependence on God.

This isn’t about Lent. It’s about waking to God’s presence and action in us as created beings and followers of Jesus, who reveals God to us. It’s about finding the new life God offers in this moment.

But, it is also about Lent, the big ‘C’ Church’s season to meditate on Jesus’ journey and Jesus’ truth that a life completely given over to God is as close as we get to understanding Heaven while we’re here.  We pause in our busy lives to look at how our current path aligns with Jesus’ path. We intentionally look at particular behaviors where we know we can do better. We might intentionally take on an untried practice, like fasting, tithing, or study to see if they shine new light on our path.  The Church calls these practices ‘disciplines’ and ‘vows.’  I call them signs and lights and boundaries on the path from which I have no desire to stray, but often do.

Lent is bound to have somber moments if we choose to examine our own growth in Christ. Nobody’s perfect. Those moments should not overwhelm us. Recognizing that we don’t always live up to our own or others’ expectations as Jesus’ followers is the very process that shapes and molds us for good.  Our Rule of Life encourages us to see this working of God in us, as well as to see that love and forgiveness are always the low hanging fruit on the path. Taste them.  See that the Lord is good.

So I encourage you to build and grow your Rule of Life for Lent and beyond. Engage with any practice that seems to you to spring from joy and love, and then set to work on it with faith and obedience.  When you fall short, return to it. Wherever your Rule takes you, God is already there.  Most importantly, remember that whatever shape your Rule takes is good and meaningful and holy.

Have a Blessed Lent.