Category Archives: Stories

Sermon, July 14

Before the first lesson, from Amos 7: 

Our first Scripture today comes from the time of the prophets, about 750 years before Jesus was born. And I want to explain something about it before we hear it. This Scripture talks about a plumb line. And not everybody knows what that is; but it’s an interesting thing to know about. This is a plumb line: [show]

It’s very simple and very ancient. It’s a heavy weight at the end of a string. The weight would usually be lead, because that’s a heavy metal. It’s called a “plumb” line  – “Plumb” with a b on the end – because that’s the ancient name for lead. (Same with the word “plumber”!)

A plumb line is a tool for builders. It tells you if something is straight up and down, using gravity, that force built into the universe that pulls us towards the center of the earth. “Up” and “Down” are based on gravity. Knowing whether something is plumb when you’re building is important because that’s how you build something strong. Let’s feel that in our bodies. Stand straight, with your hips and shoulders and head all in line with your feet… Feel how strong and stable you are? Gravity is pulling you down but your whole body is in a nice straight line so you’re not tippy. You’re plumb – straight up and down. 

What if you lean backwards or forwards? Try it…. Okay, stop trying it! Did you notice that it was harder to keep standing? When you lean forward, or backward, you get tippy! You’re not stable anymore! You’re askew – out of alignment. Well, if you were the wall of a building, it would be the same. A leaning wall is less stable. A straight-up-and-down wall is most stable and steady and safe. 

So in the story we’re about to hear about the prophet Amos, a plumb line becomes a metaphor. A metaphor is when we say something is like something else, in a way that helps us see the something else in a new way. God says to Amos, My people have turned from Me, and from My ways of justice and mercy. And so they have become like a crooked wall, a wall that isn’t plumb. It’s weak and it’s likely to fall. 

SERMON following the Gospel

The story Jesus tells in today’s Gospel is an important story. Some of us have probably heard it a lot of times; but I find that every time I read or hear it, it’s still challenging me. My guess is that none of us are finished with what this story has to say to us. So let’s go through it again, and make sure we hear and understand it – because some of us probably haven’t heard it before! Kids, listen up too, because this is a story for everybody, and in a minute you might help me tell some of it. 

Today’s Gospel begins with a man who studies the Scriptures of the Jewish people, what we call the Old Testament, to find out how best to live in God’s ways. And he wants to know what Jesus thinks about that. Teacher, he says, how can I enter into the Life of the Age that you talk about so much? And Jesus says, Well, you study the Scriptures; what do you find there? And the man says: “You shall love God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as you love yourself.”

What’s a neighbor? …. Somebody you live close to, sure. Or maybe people in your school community or workplace, or the cashier you see at the grocery store every week. If you go back to the roots of the word, “neighbor” just means a near person. And the original Greek word here, plesion, means the same thing: Somebody near. Somebody close. Somebody whose life touches your life. 

Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. We think of that as Jesus’ teaching but it’s actually a summary of Jewish law. It’s something Jesus endorsed, not something Jesus invented. So Jesus tells the law scholar, Yep. You got it. Do that. Love God, and love your neighbor! And the scholar says, Wait a minute. I have one more question. Who is my neighbor? If living in God’s ways means loving my neighbor as myself: Who counts as my neighbor? Who is near enough that I have to love them? 

And Jesus tells him a story. Listen! A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho. This was a really dangerous mountain road, with hills and caves all around – lots of places for robbers and bandits to hide. And what happened to the man?…

Right! Bandits, robbers, attacked him. They took everything he had, even his clothes; And they beat him up and left him there, lying on the side of the road, bloody, probably unconscious. It says he was “half-dead”. 

And then what happened?… Some other people come along the road. The first one is a priest, somebody who works at the great temple of God in Jerusalem. 

This is somebody whose whole life is to serve God. So what does he do? …

And then another person comes along the road. This person is a Levite. That means he belongs to a family whose job it is to work in the Temple. They weren’t priests, but they might work at the gates, or play music, or clean the floors. So this is another person whose life is to serve God. And what does he do? ….

Okay, let’s pause the story for a minute to talk about these guys, the priest and the Levite. Why do you think they didn’t stop and help that man? ….  They might have been afraid of an ambush. That’s legit. 

They might have ben afraid of becoming unclean. Let’s talk about that one. This is a little tricky to explain because we don’t think of clean and dirty in the same way they did. But let me say it this way: Have you ever seen a picture of a surgeon, all dressed up in that blue stuff, with gloves on her hands and a mask over her face? A surgeon has to be REALLY clean to do her job well. Otherwise germs will contaminate the patient. Being a priest in the Great Temple was kind of like that.  There were things you could do or touch that would make you dirty, impure; and then you wouldn’t be able to do your job. Worse, you’d bring that contamination with you into a place that was supposed to be perfectly clean and pure and holy. And touching a dead body was one of those things. So the priest and the Levite both might have been worried about becoming unclean, which would make it hard for them to do their jobs.

They might just not have wanted to. I mean, it’s upsetting to see somebody hurt, maybe dead. It’s really easy to think, “There’s nothing I can do. Just keep walking.” I can’t judge these men, because I have done what they did. There is a lot of suffering in the world, and I have absolutely walked past people visibly in pain. Because I was tired, or afraid, or busy; because I didn’t know how to help, or how much it would cost me.

But then, in the story, somebody else comes along – right? Who is the next person? …. What does it mean that this person was a Samaritan?… (Because of this story, we use the phrase “good Samaritan” to mean somebody who helps a stranger; but we need to understand that the people listening to Jesus did not like Samaritans at all. They did not think Samaritans were good.) 

But this Samaritan sees the man who has been beaten – and he is moved with pity.  He feels compassion. What does he do? …[bandages wounds; oil and wine; puts him on his donkey; takes him to an inn; gives the innkeeper money to care for him.] Did he have to do any of that? … Why do you think he did it? … 

So that’s the story that Jesus tells the scholar of the law. And then he asks him a question: Which of these three – the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan – was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers? What do you say?… 

Right! The Samaritan. The one who showed him mercy. And Jesus says, Go and do likewise.

You don’t have to say a lot about a story like this. It tells you what you’re supposed to walk away thinking about. But I’m going to say a little bit about it anyway. 

Parked out front of our church this morning is a truck that is a teaching tool for learning about solitary confinement. Sometimes people get arrested and they go to prison. Maybe because they made a bad choice; they hurt somebody. Maybe because they have a mental illness that’s out of control and nobody knew how to help them, so they put them in jail. Maybe because they’re addicted to drugs or alcohol and got into a bad situation because of their addiction. Maybe because they’re very poor and couldn’t pay a fine, or they stole something they needed. There are lots of reasons people end up in prison. 

And sometimes people who are in prison are shut up in very small cells all by themselves – to punish them, or for other reasons. That’s what solitary confinement is. It’s really hard and awful. The truck is here to help us start thinking together about who is in prison in America, and why, and whether we think that’s OK. 

If this is the part of the sermon where you tune out because this isn’t your issue, I hope you’ll listen a little longer. A couple of weeks ago, Elvice McAlpine – who’s part of the group that arranged to have Talib and the truck visit us, and that will be inviting us to read the book “Just Mercy” together in August – Elvice stood up here and talked about how she was raised by good, law-abiding people 

to think of folks in prison as a Them, not an Us. As a different kind of people who probably got what they had coming to them. A lot of us were raised to think like that, consciously or unconsciously. We trusted the system to protect the good people and lock up the bad people. That’s what it’s supposed to do, right?

But there are lots of reasons to re-examine our assumptions. One reason is that if you are older than 40, criminal justice and incarceration in America have really changed within your lifetime. And not for the better. Crime has dropped since the 1990s, but prison populations have skyrocketed, due to “tough on crime” policies and harsh sentencing laws. The graph of the prison population from 1925 to 2017 goes like this: … with a sharp increase in the mid-1980s. Today the United States has the largest prison population in the world – by far the largest in the developed world. And of course that’s an increase is in dollars as well as bodies: the cost of keeping people in prison soared from $19 billion in 1980 to $87 billion in 2015. Of the over two million Americans in prison right now, a disproportionate number are African-American; there’s a lot of data showing that racism is built into the fabric of this system. It’s very clear that something about the criminal justice system in America is askew. Out of alignment. Not plumb.

Facts like these and so many more are the reason why politicians on both the right and the left are increasingly finding common cause to call for reform. Because it’s obvious how broken – how expensively, cruelly broken – this system is. 

And because there are Christians on both the left and the right, and Jesus told us to care about prisoners. Jesus himself was arrested, incarcerated, and executed by the government. When Jesus is on trial for his life, in John’s Gospel, the Roman governor asks, What has he done? And his enemies answer,  

“If he weren’t a criminal, we wouldn’t have handed him over to you.” The fact that he has been arrested becomes proof that he is a criminal. The wrong kind of person. That same logic destroys people’s lives on a daily basis, now. 

So that’s another reason to re-examine our thinking about incarceration and about people who are or have been involved with the criminal justice system: Because of Jesus, who says, When you show mercy to those in prison, You’re showing mercy to Me. If that challenges you or stretches you, beloved ones – I sympathize! But I am not the one you need to take it up with. It really is one of the things He is clearest about.  

This parable, this story Jesus tells, about neighboring and extending mercy, comes to us through a calendar of readings shared by many churches and denominations. We did not plan to receive this parable on the same day the solitary confinement truck was here. That’s just the calendar and the Holy Spirit. 

As I was studying the story this week, I learned something new that I think is important. What Jesus actually asks at the end of the story is, Which one of the three passers-by became a neighbor to the man beaten by bandits? Not just, which one was a neighbor. Which one became a neighbor. It’s a verb of process, change, choice. 

None of the others on the road started out as neighbors to the man beaten by bandits. They didn’t know each other or live near to each other. Their kids didn’t go to the same school. They didn’t root for the same football team. Their lives did not touch. And the priest and the Levite kept it that way. They kept their distance. 

But the Samaritan chooses to go to him. To get close. To come near. To become a neighbor.

Go and do likewise. 

Some initial reading:

Trends in U.S. Corrections

https://sentencingproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Trends-in-US-Corrections.pdf

Digital Jail: How Electronic Monitoring Drives Defendants Into Debt

https://www.propublica.org/article/digital-jail-how-electronic-monitoring-drives-defendants-into-debt

Homily, June 9

Today is the feast of Pentecost, when we celebrate that the Holy Spirit of God came to the first Christians to comfort and inspire and guide them. 

What is the Holy Spirit? Well, over thousands of years, we have come to know God in different ways. We know God as Creator and Source, Father and Mother of all, the Ancient of Days, Beginning and End, the Silence at the center of things. We know God as Jesus Christ, the Word of God come to earth to dwell among us, Brother, Friend, Teacher, Redeemer and Liberator. And we know God as Holy Spirit, Breath of life, refining Fire, divine Wisdom. We call these the three Persons of the holy and undivided Trinity, the three in one and one in three. 

So the Holy Spirit is one of the ways we know God. We use names for the Spirit like Comforter, Advocate, Dove, Spirit of Truth, Holy Wisdom. We use symbols like wind, water, fire… things that are powerful and important, but that you can’t hold in your hand. 

Did you know you can pray to the different Persons of God? We pray to the Holy Spirit – we call on the Holy Spirit – often in church, when we ask the Spirit to make the water holy for a baptism, or to make the bread and wine into Christ’s Body and Blood for us, at Eucharist. 

But in everyday life, I pray to the Holy Spirit – I call on the Holy Spirit – pretty often too. When I need strength and wisdom for a difficult conversation. When I need my heart to soften towards someone so I can respond to them as Jesus would. When I’m confused or stuck and need insight and direction. When I just need encouragement, in the face of hard stuff. 

We have a big word for asking the Holy Spirit to help us: Invocation. It means to call on something. It’s not like magic in a book; we don’t control the Spirit with our words. But she 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 inside us, 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 one of the simplest prayers there is: Come, Holy Spirit!

Now we’re going to sing a song that invites the Holy Spirit to come among us as we celebrate today…. 

After the Acts lesson: 

One of my favorite things to do is when I get to spend some time talking about the Bible with kids. I love it; I wish I could do it even more! And I’ve noticed that a question kids often have is: Is this story true? Do you believe this story?

So let’s talk about that for the story of the Tower of Babel. I don’t believe that this happened the way the story says it happened. This is not that kind of story. It’s the kind of story that tells the truth about something big, even though the events of the story might not have happened. 

One thing the story tells the truth about is technology, and the human relationship with technology. Notice that this story is talking about a technological change: People have taken the big step from making bricks out of mud and baking them in the sun, to making bricks out of mud and baking them in a hot oven, which makes them stronger and harder. And it makes new kinds of building possible! (This is a VERY old story, y’all.) 

And the humans in the story think this is their big break.They have it all figured out now; they can be truly great. “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves.” Even though this is a very old story, it sounds familiar. We develop new technologies and we think we can use them to make ourselves great; to come close to God. 

Technology is amazing. Medical and information technology, green technology, and so on, make incredible things possible. But we’re still prone to thinking our technological achievements can make us more than human. And we’re still wrong. That is one truth this story tells. 

Another truth this story tells is about the people who told the story. This is one of the kinds of stories that offers an explanation for why things are the way they are.In this case, the thing it’s explaining is why people speak many different languages (and also have different cultures, ways of dressing, kinds of music and food, and so on). 

The people who first told this story were wondering, Why aren’t we all the same?It must be something God did. God must have given us all these different languages – made it so we can’t understand each other. So in the story, God “confuses” people’s language so they won’t be able to talk to each other: “Therefore the tower was called Babel, because there GOD confused the language of all the earth; and from there GOD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.”

Do you think the people who first told this story thought it was a good thing, that we have all different languages, or a bad thing? … 

So: This is not a true story about why we speak many languages. It’s more of a wondering story – people trying to explain something that puzzles them. And what it tells us about the people who first told the story is that they didn’t really like having all those different languages. It seemed like a problem, to them. 

We know now that language is one of the things our brains are best at. We are so good at learning language, creating and changing language, using language. It seems to me that the richness of language across humanity, the fact that as a species we are so good at generating and using words, means that this is something God wants for us. That God made us to be a people of many languages.

And the Pentecost story kind of affirms that. In this story, the Holy Spirit acts in a miraculous way to make it so that a whole group of people who speak many different languages, people from FIFTEEN different regions and countries, can all hear the good news of Jesus Christ. 

But pay attention to HOW the miracle happens. The Holy Spirit could have done it any way she wanted. She could have had the apostles preach the Gospel in their own language, and she could have reached into the ears of all those listeners from around the world, and tuned their ears so they miraculously understood the Galilean Aramaic that the apostles were speaking. 

But that’s NOT what she does. Instead, “All of the apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” The miracle here is that people are suddenly able to talk to someone else in their language – to do in an instant what would otherwise take years to learn. The miracle, the divine gift, here is not that human language is reunited, all that inconvenient diversity brought back to unity. The divine gift is being able to understand each other within that rich diversity.

Our differences can be confusing and difficult and frustrating. We might still sometimes ask the question this story asks:  Why aren’t we all the same? The answer of the Babel story is, Because we’re broken. Because God punished us with human diversity. 

But the answer of the Pentecost story is, Because it’s beautiful.It doesn’t divide us; it gives us scope for a greater, a deeper togetherness, when we learn to listen and understand and share across our differences of language and culture and experience. May the Spirit of God empower us for that work, and help us delight in the wonder of our diversity. Amen. 

Sermon, April 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Richard Swanson’s commentary on this text:

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

Sermon, Feb. 10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Tobit 8:15-17)

Sermon, Jan. 13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon, Nov. 11

Rut was born in a small town in northern Honduras, in central America. It wasn’t so bad, growing up – they didn’t have much, but her parents made sure she was fed and went to school. But as Rut became a young woman, life in Honduras was getting worse and worse. It seemed like everyone was involved in the drug business – big money and big risks. And gangs started to fight each other. 

And there was more and more violence against women. Honduras is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman. Assault, domestic violence, and murder are commonplace. Ninety percent of murders of women are unsolved, unpunished. In 2014, a young woman named Maria Jose Alvarado, from a town not far from Rut’s hometown, was selected as the Honduran candidate for the Miss World contest. A week before she was to fly to London for the big event, Maria Jose was murdered, along with her sister, by her sister’s boyfriend.

Rut took note. She had a boyfriend herself, but he wasn’t good to her. He hit her, like a lot of men hit their women. She wondered if he would really hurt her someday – and if she ever had a child, how could she keep it safe? Then came the drought. Crops failed across Central America, including Rut’s home region. People began to starve. Men who had been cruel and angry before, were now cruel, angry and hungry. 

Rut’s boyfriend was involved in some bad stuff. Almost everybody was. Then a deal went wrong, some money went missing, and he disappeared. They found his body days later, full of bullets. Rut wondered if they’d come after her too, even though she didn’t know anything about his business. 

Tia Noemi told Rut, You should get out. Now. Tia Noemi wasn’t really Rut’s aunt. In fact she was the aunt of Rut’s boyfriend – but she liked Rut, looked out for her. Tia Noemi lived in Arizona. She’d married an American, an older man she’d met while cleaning his house. He was dead now, but she had her green card; she could stay.  She told Rut, Come. It’s not so hard. I’ll help you out. There’s work here. They need people like us. Here, you won’t starve. Here, you won’t be murdered. Here, you have a chance. 

Rut still wasn’t sure. It was so far to go! But Tia Noemi said, You have to trust God. God is working for you.  Rut had never thought much about God. But she could hear that for Noemi, God was real. God was good. Noemi trusted God, so Rut decided she would, too. 

It was hard to leave home, but Rut knew she had no future in Honduras. Tia Noemi sent her a little money, and her mother and a couple of friends gave her a little more. She paid a coyote to help her on her way, made the 2000-mile journey from Honduras to the border between the U.S. and Mexico. 

She crossed the Rio Grande by night, wading and swimming, grateful that the water was low. She helped another woman who was traveling with three young children, carrying a two-year-old in her arms, struggling to swim with that warm frightened weight. 

On the far side, as dawn broke, she talked with others who were making the same journey. Rut had planned to seek out American border patrol – she wanted to claim asylum. She’d heard you could do that: that if you were almost certain to starve, if you were almost certain to be murdered, in your home country, then the United States would take you in. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me! Everyone knows young women die in Honduras. Surely that was grounds for a claim of asylum.

But an older woman, crossing the border a second time after being deported, laughed in her face. You’re not an endangered minority, she said. You’re not being persecuted by your government. You’re just a woman. You’re disposable. 

In 2014, the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals ruled that women who were at risk because of domestic violence and gang violence had grounds to claim asylum in the United States. In June of 2018, the Trump administration overturned those protections. Rut had no grounds for an asylum claim.

The older woman told her what would happen if she found border patrol. They’ll put you in the hielera, the freezer, she said – the brutally cold detention cells. Later they move you to the perreras – the kennels – chain-link cells, no privacy, no quiet. You’ll get a foil blanket to sleep with. No mat, no pillow. No soap. No toothpaste. Everybody is sick – the women, the children. If you ask for medical attention they tell you to drink water and rest. You’ll be there for months, and when you finally get an asylum hearing, they’ll say no, and deport you. Don’t turn yourself in. Better to hide. 

Rut found her way to Tia Noemi. She was out of money, and she had to do some things she didn’t like to get people to help her. But she made it.

Noemi’s apartment was tiny. She had a little money from her husband, but she’d hurt her shoulder and couldn’t clean houses anymore. She could barely afford groceries for herself, and sometimes had to go around to churches and community centers asking for money to keep the electricity and water on. But she let Rut sleep on the sofa – she was tired, so tired; she slept for two whole days. 

On the third day Noemi sat down and said, You can stay here, but you have to work. I can’t feed myself, let alone both of us. There’s a place nearby where they pick up workers for day labor in the orchards. They don’t pay much because they know you’re illegal, but it’s something. And sometimes you can bring home some fruit that’s damaged – Americans only like perfect fruit. While you’re working, you have to be careful, stay near other women; some of the workers will assault you if they have a chance. And wear a handkerchief on your face, so you don’t breathe too much of the chemicals they spray on the fruit. 

So Rut went out early the next morning and stood with other men and women, waiting for the trucks. She climbed into one, and rode to an orchard, packed in shoulder to shoulder with other undocumented workers. Climbing out of the truck, she didn’t notice the man who stood nearby watching the workers arrive – but he noticed her. His name was Boas, and he owned the orchard. He could see that Rut was new here, and that she was young. He took the men who oversaw the workers aside, told them: Keep an eye on her. She’s new. Don’t let the boys bother her. 

Rut picked fruit all day. By sundown, her shoulders hurt and her eyes burned from pesticides, but she had cash in her pocket and a heavy bag of damaged fruit to take home. As she climbed into the truck to ride back to town, someone pushed another bag into her hands: tomatoes, bruised and bursting but usable; potatoes, still dirty from the ground. Food. She clutched her bags tightly on the ride back to town.

Back at the apartment, Tia Noemi was delighted at what Rut had brought home. She demanded to know where Rut had been working. Rut hadn’t seen the farm’s name, but it was printed on one of the bags. Noemi said, I know about the man who owns this place, Boas. His parents were Honduran. He’s better than most. His father was cousin to my father. I’ve met him a couple of times, though he’s too important for me. His wife died a couple of years ago. He must be lonely. Listen, Rut: This is your chance to claim a new life here. Tomorrow is Friday – sometimes the owners and overseers drink with the workers on Friday nights. Stay for the party. Watch Boas. When he’s had a few drinks, get close to him. Show him you like him. He’s old, older than me, but that doesn’t matter. He’s an honorable man. If you become his girlfriend, he will make sure you don’t go hungry. Shower tonight. I have a blouse that will look good on you, and some makeup. 

Rut said, I will do everything you tell me. 

The next morning Rut waited with the other workers, feeling self-conscious in the low-cut blouse. But again, the other workers left her alone. And at the end of the day, she brought her bag of damaged fruit to the place where the workers gathered to drink together. Sure enough, Boas was there. 

Rut took one beer, drank it slowly; she wasn’t used to drinking. She talked with other women, and fended off a few men, and kept an eye on Boas, who drank one beer, two, three.

Finally she saw him leave the group, headed into a nearby shed, and she followed him, tugging her blouse lower. It was dim in the shed, and quiet. Boas heard her steps behind him and turned. She came close and looked up at him, making her eyes big; She said, Senor, how can I ever thank you for your kindness to me? Boas looked at her, long and hard. He said, You’re from Honduras. She said, Si. Si, Senor. He said, Do you have family here? She said, Only my Tia Noemi. He said, How long have you been here? She said, Five days. He said, What’s your name? And she said, Me llama Rut. 

Boas reached for her. Rut braced herself; she knew what she had to do, but she was afraid. But Boas only put his hand on her shoulder. He said, Rut, you don’t have to do this. You deserve better. I know Noemi. She’s a good woman. I’m glad you’re with her. And I know how hard it is, where you came from. Listen: There are a hundred handsome, strong young men out there, drinking beer and looking for a good time. If it’s companionship you want, pick one of them. Don’t come to me just because you’re poor, just because you’re hungry, just because you’re afraid. But if you can really have eyes for an old man like me, I’ll take you to dinner tomorrow, and we can see how things go. Now, go back out there quickly, before everyone thinks something happened in here.

Later that night, Noemi asked: WELL? Did something happen? And Rut said: No. But… maybe. He was kind. He didn’t touch me. He wants to take me out for dinner tomorrow night. 

The next night Rut wore an old dress of Tia Noemi’s, and brushed out her long glossy hair.  Boas picked her up and took her to dinner at a Mexican place, friendly, not too fancy. Over the chips he told her, I spoke to your father today. It took a while, but I got him on the phone. They’re doing OK. He sends his love. I’m going to help him out with some debts. 

Boas said, Rut, if you want safety here, if you want stability, I can give you that, if you marry me. I’m an American citizen; as your husband, I can protect you. You can have your own room and your own life. Maybe we can even try to bring your family here. I know I’m an old man. I’m not pushing myself on you. I just want to help you. You deserve better. 

Rut looked at Boas. She could see that he meant what he said. She could see that his eyes were kind, that the lines on his face were from laughter. She said, What if I want a real marriage? What if I want a husband who loves me? What if I want a house full of children? With you?

Boas and Rut were married two months later. Noemi danced at the wedding. And when Rut bore her first child, a son, named Obed, Noemi held the baby close and wept for joy. She said, I have no children or grandchildren of my own, but this baby shall be like a son to me. The women of the neighborhood would tease Noemi as she walked the stroller around every morning: How’s your son, Noemi? How’s your boy, old lady? And Noemi would smile. 

You’ll find a whole story of Ruth tucked into your Sunday supplement today – the one from the Bible, not the version I just told you. It’s a story about immigrants, asylum seekers. It’s a story about poverty and sexual vulnerability. It’s a story about chain migration and anchor babies. I hope you’ll read it.

In the Bible story, Ruth’s son, Obed, grows up and has a son, Jesse. And Jesse has a son, named David. David becomes the greatest king of Israel. And generations and generations later, another baby boy is born to Jesse’s lineage, a boy named Jesus. The Gospel of Matthew begins with Jesus’ genealogy, fathers and grandfathers and great grandfathers all the way back – and a few grandmothers too. Ruth is one of them. Named. Remembered. Honored.

Ruth’s story, the story of the Moabite woman who became the great-grandmother of King David, is one instance of one of the most pervasive and emphatic themes of the Bible, Hebrew and Christian scriptures alike: Be kind to the outsider, for there are no outsiders in God’s eyes. Your ancestors were strangers and wanderers once; therefore always extend grace to the stranger and wanderer, for they have a unique claim on our conscience and hospitality. 

Some voices in America today are spreading hatred and fear about immigrants, about those fleeing violence and desperate poverty, seeking safety and a better life for their children here. Last year we shared some stories of our own immigrant parents and grandparents, who set out on the same journey, and faced some of the same struggles; we remembered that we are here because of their hope and courage. But God knows that remembering our forebears’ journeys isn’t enough,  because humans have a tragic capacity to say, I’ve got mine, and slam the door behind us. That’s why God makes kindness to the stranger a central command and call in the holy texts at the heart of our faith.  

Let me be clear: I’m not saying that America is or should be a Christian nation. And I’m certainly not saying that Scripture offers a clear map for a reasonable and humane immigration policy. I’m saying that if we call ourselves Christians, then care for the stranger has to be a hallmark of our way of being: from the words we use to the news we watch, our votes, our giving, our letters to our leaders, our helping and hoping, our meeting and marching – it all has to begin here. With a people wandering forty years in hope of a homeland. With a young woman in a strange country, offering her body to escape starvation. With a baby born homeless in Bethlehem. 

A list of Scripture passages about welcoming strangers:

https://www.openbible.info/topics/welcoming_strangers

About violence against women in Honduras: 

https://abcnews.go.com/International/men-women-honduras-inside-dangerous-places-earth-woman/story?id=47135328

Sermon, June 10

We are halfway through the third chapter of the Gospel of Mark, and already there are crowds mobbing Jesus; religious officials sent out from Jerusalem to inspect him, and rumors circulating that he’s out of his mind. How did we get here? 

Mark is the oldest and the shortest of the four Gospels, the books of the Bible that tell about the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus. Mark is also my favorite Gospel. I’m drawn in by his skillful and efficient storytelling. In the Revised Common Lectionary, the three-year cycle of Sunday readings that we follow, we’ll be in Mark’s Gospel for much of this summer and fall. So it’s a good moment to pause and introduce Mark, get a sense of the voice that will be telling us the Good News of God in Christ in the weeks ahead. 

Today’s lesson starts 92 verses into Mark’s Gospel, but a LOT has already happened. Mark’s introduction to his Gospel is famously brief, compared to the other three: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Then he introduces John the Baptist, with a quotation from the prophet Isaiah. John appears in the wilderness, oddly dressed and preaching an odd message of repentance and ritual washing. And then Jesus appears – “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan River.” The Spirit of God descends upon Jesus and calls him Son and Beloved. He fasts in the desert for forty days, and is tempted by Satan, and tended by angels. Then he comes back to Galilee and begins proclaiming that the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near, and calls people to change their hearts and trust the good news. 

He calls his first disciples, Simon, Andrew, James and John – four fishermen he finds on the shores of the sea of Galilee, who think, Well, following this guy seems more interesting than mending nets for my dad. The little group heads to the town of Capernaum – where in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus seems to have a home base of some sort. Maybe it’s a home of his own – he was thirty years old, after all; maybe it’s Simon and Andrew’s home, where Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law from a fever, so she could make them dinner. 

Jesus is teaching in the synagogue when a man who is possessed with an unclean spirit cries out and names him as the Holy One of God. Jesus sends out the spirit, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” People are amazed and start talking about Jesus: “What is this? A new teaching – and this man doesn’t just have words; he also has power and authority!” And his fame begins to spread. 

That evening, people gather at the house where he’s staying – practically the whole city. They bring him the sick and the demon-possessed, and he heals them. Early in the morning, he sneaks out to go pray by himself. But his friends soon track him down and say, “Everyone is looking for you!” And Jesus says, Let’s go on to the neighboring towns. We need to spread the message around. 

So they travel around Galilee, proclaiming the message and casting out demons. In one town, he cures a man afflicted by leprosy, and asks him please not to say anything to anyone, but the man is so joyful about his healing that he tells EVERYONE about it. The crowds become so great that Jesus can’t even go into towns anymore. He stays out in the countryside, and crowds come to him, from all over the place. 

That’s chapter 1. 

After this healing tour, Jesus goes home to Capernaum for a break – but people hear that he’s back, and quickly a crowd gathers again, packed in front of the house. Jesus stands in the doorway, teaching them. Some people bring a man who is paralyzed, carrying him on his mat; they can’t get through the crowd so they somehow get themselves, and the paralyzed man, onto the roof of the house, break through the roof tiles and beams, and lower the man down to Jesus. Jesus tells the paralyzed man, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” 

Now, some scribes are among the crowd – maybe even towards the front, either as recognition of their status or because they were chumming it up and talking Scripture with Jesus. These scribes were probably the local Scripture scholars, people who had studied the Torah and taught at the local synagogue. Jesus scandalizes them when he says this man’s sins are forgiven, because in Judaism, that’s not something people can do; that’s something only God can do. Jesus perceives their doubt and indignation – and demonstrates his power by giving the paralyzed man healing of body as well as spirit. Stand up, take your mat and go home, he says; and the man does. 

The people are amazed and glorify God. But the scribes start to worry about whether Jesus’ teachings are compatible with their faith as they understand it. Is he a prophet – or a problem? 

Then Jesus makes things worse by starting to keep notably bad company. He calls a tax-collector to join his followers.  Everyone knows those guys collaborate with the Romans, the despised foreign power that controls Judea; and they line their own pockets by taking too much from people already desperately poor. Jesus goes to dinner at this man’s house, sitting among tax collectors and sinners. No doubt it was a wonderful meal, paid for by the wages of the penniless!

This time Mark names the people questioning Jesus as Pharisees. The Pharisees were a movement within Judaism at this time. They wanted all Jews to return to faithful practice of the laws and traditions of Judaism, rather than losing their distinctive identity and faith and assimilating to the Greco-Roman cultural context. In the Book of Acts, the apostle Paul talks about being a Pharisee before he became a Christian and calls it, “The most exacting sect of our religion.” 

For the Pharisees, things like food purity practices and Sabbath observance – keeping Saturdays as a day of rest, as commanded by God – were really important. Not because they were superficial or legalistic but because they believed that the heart of Judaism was faithfulness to a distinctive way of life that God had given them through Moses. For the Pharisees, if you are a rabbi, a teacher of God’s ways, you’ve go to walk the talk, and that means you do NOT share a meal with a tax collectors. And you observe certain days of fasting – which Jesus and his disciples did not do. And you don’t do any work on the Sabbath, including picking grain – which Jesus and his disciples did.

Jesus’ perspective is that the Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath. Sabbath-keeping is a tool to help us rest and re-center on God. This difference of perspectives on Sabbath-keeping is an honest disagreement between people of faith. But at the beginning of chapter 3, things come to a head on another Sabbath. 

Jesus is again at the synagogue. And a man approaches him who has a withered hand – an old injury or a birth defect. And the Pharisees watch him to see what he’ll do. 

This is a bit of an edge case in terms of Sabbath-keeping. Jewish law has a robust and ancient teaching that preserving life is always the overriding value. For example: If a wall collapses on a child on the Sabbath, of course you do the work of lifting the bricks to save the child. However, by the same teaching, if the situation is not life-threatening, then Sabbath observance should prevail. This withered hand isn’t life-threatening, so Jesus is actually stretching the law here – from saving life to alleviating suffering. You can be sympathetic to that move – I am – but the Pharisees see it as a slippery slope. Jesus heals this man’s hand today, on the Sabbath, when he could just as well have healed it tomorrow. In their eyes, he’s undercutting the ancient, holy patterns of life that they’re trying to renew. 

Mark tells us, The Pharisees went out and immediately began to conspire against Jesus with the Herodians – those in the inner circle of King Herod, the ruling class who were collaborating with Roman colonial rule of Judea. The Herodians and the Pharisees do not have a lot of interests in common. But Mark wants us to understand that Jesus was becoming a threat to people who were invested in the status quo in many different ways. 

Jesus leaves town with his disciples but a crowd follows – and others gather from all over the place, even as far as Jerusalem, Tyre and Sidon. He has his disciples have a boat ready, in case he needs them to take him out on the lake so he can preach without being crushed. And he continues to heal people and send out demons, who frequently shout out, “You are the Son of God!” He sternly orders them not to talk about him – but we can see how well that’s working. 

After preaching by the lake, he somehow escapes up a hill and calls his closest friends and followers to join him there. He names twelve of them to be sent out to proclaim and send out demons, in his name – a way to try and spread the ministry around and manage the crowds! But it doesn’t work; everybody wants Jesus. He comes home to Capernaum and a crowd gathers AGAIN – so packed that they can’t even eat. 

That brings us to today’s Gospel. Jesus’ family hears that he’s back in town. And they go out to try and restrain him – that’s a physical word: to take hold of him, to seize him. Because he’s in danger. People are saying he’s out of his mind. He’s disrespecting the community’s religious leaders. And look at these crowds! Things could go wrong in an instant. 

Now, as his mother and brothers and sisters are marching across town to fetch him, Jesus gets into a lively little dispute with some scribes, Scripture scholars, who have come down from Jerusalem, the Holy City, to evaluate his teaching. Their assessment? He certainly can cast out demons – but they think he’s doing it by using the power of a stronger demon. Namely Beelzebul, who was thought to be a prince of demons, second only to Satan himself. 

Jesus overhears – or reads their minds – and says, “Really? Satan is casting out Satan, now? Well, I guess our work here is finished, because if Satan’s realm is divided and fighting itself, then his end has come. But we all know that’s not what’s going on here. Look, if you want to plunder goods from the home of a strong man, the first thing you have to do is tie up the strong man himself. Then you can can take whatever you want. That’s what I’m doing: stealing from Satan’s house, freeing people whom Satan has held in bondage. You have said that I’m possessed by an unclean spirit, that it’s by demonic power that I heal and cast out demons. Listen: I assure you that human beings will be forgiven for everything, for all sins and insults of every kind. But whoever insults the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven. That person is guilty of a sin with consequences that last forever.”

Jesus tells these experts in Jewish law from the Great Temple in the Holy City that they are so blind to God’s presence that they see the Holy Spirit of God at work and they name it as a demon… and God is not amused. 

Then his mother and his brothers and sisters show up. They can’t get through the crowd but they stand at the edge and call his name. Jesus! JESUS! Jesus BarJoseph, YOU COME OUT HERE RIGHT NOW!  Word passes through the crowd, as it does, and the people near him tell him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside asking for you.” And he replies, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’  And he looks around at them and says, ‘You are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’ This would have been an even bigger insult in Jesus’ time and place, where family loyalty was core cultural value. 

I find that there’s a duck/rabbit quality to this scene for me. Sometimes it just sounds like some archetypal cult leader smarminess. “All of you are my family now!” … But then I look at again and see something hopeful and liberative: We are not bound by who we have been in the past. If where you came from doesn’t fit who you are, you’re not lost. You don’t have to be alone. We can choose new families, when we need to.  

That’s the first three chapters of Mark’s Gospel, friends. Many of the things that scholars name as characteristic of Mark have shown up already in the text. It’s a text that marches at a breakneck pace towards the Cross. Mark’s Gospel is only sixteen chapters long, and by the beginning of the third chapter, people are already plotting to have Jesus killed. There’s a sense of urgency in the text- “immediately” is one of Mark’s keywords; listen for it in the weeks ahead. 

Another hallmark of this Gospel is what scholars call the “Messianic secret”: Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, but he keeps telling people (and demons) NOT TO TALK ABOUT IT – whether because the time for full revelation has not yet come, or because he’s just tired of dealing with the crowds. Mark’s narrative style is direct and simple – but not simplistic. People thought of Mark as the least sophisticated Gospel for a long time – but Biblical scholars have come to recognize that there is a LOT going on here, narratively and theologically. That’s one of the things I really like about Mark’s Gospel – he’ll tell you the story and leave you to think about what it means, instead of trying to explain it to you. 

This is, by many standards, a terrible sermon. I’m supposed to draw something out from the assigned text that we can apply to our lives in the contemporary world. But I looked at this Gospel and I thought, I just want us to receive this story. To understand how it fits into Mark’s fast-building narrative, and what it tells us about Jesus. 

Because I like Jesus. I’m drawn to him. That’s one of the touchstones of my faith: I find Jesus compelling. I find Mark’s portrayal of Jesus compelling.

In our Godly Play classroom downstairs, the Jesus stories begin, Once there was a man who said such amazing things and did such wonderful things that people followed him. That’s what we see here, in these first chapters of Mark. And it still happens. I know because I’m one of those people. Amazed, and wondering, and following. 

Our Godly Play stories end with questions, like: I wonder where you are in this story? I love that wherever I place myself in this story, Jesus has something for me. When I’m coming to him with pain, my own or that of a loved one, he sees and offers the touch of healing love. When I’m facing him as a religious leader who feels defensive of my understanding and my way of doing things, he’s there to challenge and liberate me. If I’m feeling anxious about respectability and order and not being too “out there,” he’s there to remind me that the movement of the Spirit and the will of God matter more than human expectations.  And when I’m just one of the crowd, showing up to see and hear and talk about it with friends, well, I’m in the story too. Showing up to hear – once more, and always – that the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. 

Sermon, Jan. 14

It’s evening, about 3000 years ago. Before Jesus, before David, before Jerusalem. And Levi, the priest of the temple of God at Shiloh, has gone to bed. Levi is old, and tired, and his sight is going. So he leaves his young assistant, Samuel, to sleep in the temple hall. We don’t know how old Samuel was – old enough to be given some light responsibilities; young enough to confuse his master’s voice with God’s voice. Let’s say he’s about seven – the age we invite kids to start acolyting, here at St. Dunstan’s.

You’ve just heard the story of what happens next; it’s one of my favorites. Samuel is awakened by a voice calling his name: Samuel! Samuel! He runs to his master, Eli, and says, Here I am! But Eli didn’t call him. Eli says, Go back to bed. So Samuel lies down again. And again he hears the voice: Samuel! Samuel! And again he runs to Eli’s bedside: Here I am, for you called me! And Eli says, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” Samuel lies down; but the voice calls him yet a third time. SAMUEL! So he goes to Eli, and says, Here I am! You called me! And Eli understands that God is calling to the child. So he says, Go and lie down; if the Voice calls you again, say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

Samuel goes back to the Temple. He does as Eli instructed – and he becomes a prophet – one who receives God’s words, who knows God’s intentions. Samuel goes on to become one of the greatest prophets in Israel’s history, and the one who anoints the first two kings of Israel.

Samuel was an exceptional figure. But it was the work to which he was called that made him exceptional; not the fact that God spoke to him – God speaks to all of us, though we often don’t hear. Not the fact that God called him to a role in God’s purposes – God calls each of us to such roles. And – this is important – God doesn’t wait till we’re grownups. God doesn’t wait till we have 401(k)s and mortgages, or at least bachelor’s degrees, to start speaking in our hearts.

Three things made it possible for young Samuel to receive and respond to God’s call.  First, Samuel had parents who connected him with a faith community. Read the first chapter of the first book of Samuel sometime, if you don’t know the story of Elkanah and Hannah, Samuel’s parents. What you need to know is that they were both people of deep faith. And they chose to commit their son Samuel to God’s service as an act of gratitude for God’s faithfulness to them, and because they believed that there could be no better place for their son to be than in the temple, learning to love and serve God. (Side note: Samuel went to live at the temple full-time when he was perhaps three years old – please don’t do that with your children, however tempting it may be! We are not staffed for that!)

Second, Samuel had people in the faith community who gave him a meaningful role there. I’ll bet even when he was three, Eli found little jobs for him: Carry the incense – before it’s lighted. Help me finish the holy bread. Hold the dustpan while I sweep the temple every morning. Chant the prayers with me, beginning with the simplest ones. Feed the chickens. (There must have been chickens.) As he grew in knowledge and strength and responsibility, Eli would have given him more to do. That’s something I want to do well here –  have a ladder of responsibility kids can climb, a variety of ways they can use their skills and interests in service to God, our faith community, and our neighbors, as they grow and mature among us.

Third, Samuel had an adult in his faith community who took him seriously when he heard God’s voice. Eli could have said, You’re dreaming; go back to sleep. Eli could have said, I’m the senior priest at this temple; my sons run the show; why would God speak to a seven-year-old?? Eli could have said, What a wild imagination you have; maybe when you’re older, God will choose to speak to you. But Eli said, God is speaking to you, child. Keep listening. Keep listening.

Which leads me to three things can happen, if we choose to raise kids in church. (And raising kids in church is a choice we ALL make, starting, of course, with the parents who deal with shoes and coats and cars and somehow, miraculously, get them here; but from the moment they walk in the door, it’s on all of us.)

First, if we raise kids in church, it’s possible they’ll hear God’s voice. The text of this story says something interesting: “Now, Samuel did not yet know the Lord,” before God called him that night. In the context of Samuel’s vocation as a prophet, I think this means that he hadn’t heard God’s voice directly yet. But it also means something more general. Samuel had been living at the temple for several years, participating in worship, helping out, singing the songs and prayers. I don’t know if they had coloring pages or not. He knew a lot about God, but he didn’t yet know God.

Now, I believe that young children can have experiences of God, and I certainly believe that God speaks to people who haven’t been raised in a faith community (or who were raised in a faith community that did not listen to them). But being immersed in a faithful and loving worshipping community can create the conditions for a child to be able to hear God’s voice, and recognize it, and respond. And to be able to put their experience of God into words, so the Elis in their lives can hear, and affirm, and encourage.

Second, if you raise children in church, it’s possible God will give them a vocation. The church has done a lousy job with the word and concept of “vocation.”It simply means, Something to which you are called. But we’ve treated it as though only clergy and monastics have vocations – only people whose lives are visibly, officially dedicated to church and God. I believe with all my heart that God invites each of us into participation in God’s redemptive work in the world, and that God invites us – calls us – into that work in ways that are grounded in our individual stories, skills, needs, and hopes. I hope for the kids of this church, just as I hope for the youth and the grownups of this church, that we’ll have the capacity and sensitivity and patience and the courage to feel and notice the tug of call, when the holy Spirit of God is inviting us into something, large or small. Again: The reach of God’s voice is not bounded by church. But kids raised in church might be more ready to hear, and to recognize, God’s voice – and to respond with joy and purpose to God’s call.

Third, if you raise children in church, it’s possible God will give them a vocation that makes you uncomfortable. What God has to say to Samuel is not good news for Eli. His sons have been running the temple to serve their own interests instead of God; and Eli knew that, but didn’t stop them. So, in a nutshell, God’s message is that Eli’s era is ending. That natural human hope, that his children and grandchildren will have what he had, will value what he valued, will do what he did – that hope is dashed. Change is on the wind.

This passage gives me a lot of respect for Eli, despite his failures.  He seems to expect bad news; I think he knows this is coming. And he receives it in faith, saying: “God is God; God will do what God pleases. So be it.”

God’s words at work in the hearts and minds of our children may sometimes bring us uncomfortable news – even bad news. We may hear from their lips that the patterns and structures of faith that seem sacred and all-important to us, are incidental and negotiable to God. We may hear from their lips that things we had hoped would last forever, will better serve God’s future in a new form. I’ve had those moments. I expect to have many more. I pray for the grace to say, like Eli: “God is God. So be it.”

Finally, here are three things we can do, to be a church that takes children’s faith seriously. First, we can understand that kids are not short adults.Grownups have learned the cultural cues to show that we are paying respectful attention to whatever is going on: Sitting up straight, looking towards the front, trying to look interested. Kids either haven’t learned that yet – or they have to do it in school  all week, and need a break on the weekends. Some kids sit still just fine; that’s who they are. Some don’t. But every adult who’s spent time around kids knows that just because they are reading, or building with blocks, or coloring, or wandering around, or looking out the window, doesn’t mean they’re not listening.  Those little pitchers pick up a lot. And the rich language and stories and images of our faith can reach and touch them very deeply, finding fertile soil in young hearts and fresh imaginations. I’ve head so many stories about young kids who go home from church and draw pictures or make up songs or act out liturgies or ask deep theological questions – and they’re NOT all my kids. The fact is, it happens all the time. Kids take church, and God, very seriously. Serious just looks different for kids than it does for grownups.

Second, we can understand that kids are, on the other hand, NOT that different from adults. Grownups and kids like a good story well-told, and a song that feels good to sing. Grownups and kids like it when there’s something to engage our senses – sounds, images, smells. Grownups and kids like a balance of routine – things we can learn and internalize and expect – and stuff that’s more flexible and open. Grownups and kids like to have church friends. Look at how Philip gets Nathanael to come meet Jesus, in today’s Gospel: “Come and see!” Being welcomed, and loved, and invited deeper into discipleship by friends and peers is a huge thing at any age. Grownups and kids have questions. What is that thing called, anyway? Does God care when I hurt? How does prayer work, exactly? Does Rev. Miranda really think that bread turns into Jesus? And so on. I was raised Episcopalian; I was at church most Sundays. And there was a ton of stuff I didn’t learn, about the Bible and church, until I went to seminary as part of my preparation to become a priest. So I know we all have questions about what all this means and where it came from and why it matters. And grownups and kids – at least, some of us – listen better when we’re doing something with our hands. Which is why we tend to have coloring pages around.

The third thing we can do to be a church that takes children’s faith seriously is to see the kids as people. I know sometimes they’re just a blur rushing past – but try to pay attention to them as individuals. I have the huge privilege and blessing of getting to know the kids by sharing projects and ministries with them – like pageants, Vacation Bible School, our 4th and 5th grade group the AbominOwls, and so much more. I get to find out about their favorite books and songs, and what they worry about and what they’re really good at, and that they really care about animals or the environment or homeless people, and what their faces look like when they’re really interested in something, and when I ask a question in a children’s sermon, which of them will give the answer I expect and which of them will offer some next-level theological and ethical reflection that makes me have to say, Wow, let’s talk about that later, I have a sermon to finish here.

I guess I’m saying that one more way the kids of St. Dunstan’s are a lot like the grownups of St. Dunstan’s is this: They’re a bunch of really great people who are well worth getting to know. If you’ve got time and interest, there are lots of opportunities to drop in on our Christian formation programs for kids and youth. You can bring a special activity, or be a “second adult”, or help out with seasonal special events. Or you can just be church together. Learn someone’s name. Let them know when they do a good job, acting or acolyting or singing or reading. Tell them which is your favorite tree, out on the grounds, or ask them if they’ve read a good book lately. And watch for our opportunities to be like Eli: to include children in our worship and our ministries, to affirm that God is at work in their hearts and their lives, and to listen when God speaks through them.

Sermon, Christmas Eve

I’m going to tell you a story that happened a long time ago. It’s a story about a time when God’s people were struggling, persecuted and poor. It’s a story about how God never abandoned them, even when things seemed darkest and most hopeless. A story about someone called to set the people free, to give them new hope, new life. His name was Gideon. (We’ll come back around to that other story in a little while!)

Gideon lived a little over three thousand years ago, long before Jesus, long before the Roman Empire, even before King David. God had called this little tribe of people, called Israel, to follow God’s ways and be God’s people. But in Gideon’s time things were not going well.

Gideon’s story is in the Book of Judges, in the Bible. Judges has a pretty clear view of Israel’s history: God called the people Israel to a way of life founded on justice, mercy, and worship of God. But again and again, the people fell away; that way of life seemed too hard, or they figured they could do better by *not* being just and merciful. But when they turned from God, they got weaker. They weren’t looking out for each other, weren’t building up their common good and their shared strength. And so they were attacked by neighboring tribes and nations, again and again. And then they’d cry out to God, and God would help them, and they’d promise to do better this time… This time we’ll REALLY be the people God calls us to be! No, this time we REALLY mean it!…

Well. Those are the kinds of times when Gideon lived. When Gideon was a young man, a neighboring tribe, the Midianites, was attacking Israel. Things were bad. The Midianites had driven the Israelites out of their towns; they were living in caves in the mountains. The Midianites would destroy the fields, kill or steal all the livestock, and bring their own flocks to devour all the pasture land. So Israel was starving. And they cried out to God for help.

One day Gideon is beating out wheat, separating the grain from the chaff. He’s doing it inside his father’s wine press, to hide from the Midianites. And an angel appears to him, and says, “The Lord is with you, O mighty warrior!”

And Gideon says, “But, sir, if God is with us, why has all this bad stuff happened to us? Where are the miracles and mighty deeds that we hear in our holy stories? Why doesn’t God deliver us today, like God delivered our ancestors from Egypt? It seems like God has cast us off, and given us into the hands of Midian!”

But God didn’t strike Gideon down; apparently God wanted someone strong-minded and a little bit argumentative. The angel said, “Go in this might of yours and deliver Israel from Midian; I hereby commission you.”

Gideon says, “Sir, how can I deliver Israel? My clan is the weakest clan of my tribe, and I am the least in my family.” And the Angel of the Lord says, “Because God is with you, you will drive out the Midianites.”

Because God is with you. 

Well, that sounds good; but Gideon is not someone to be convinced by pretty words. He tells the angel, Stay here; I will bring you an offering, and you can give me a sign that you actually have holy power. Gideon hurries to prepare some meat and bread. When he brings them out, the angel says, “Put them on that rock.” And then the angel touches the food with the tip of its staff – and fire leaps up and consumes the food.

Okay, pretty convincing. But Gideon wants proof that this is actually God, and that God can actually do what God says, before he raises an army and attacks the Midianites, which could just leave everybody dead.

He starts to gather an army, calling together all the fighting men and boys of Israel. At the same time, Gideon asks God for a little more proof. He says, “In order to see whether you will actually deliver Israel by my hand, I am going to lay a fleece of wool on the threshing-floor. In the morning, if there is dew on the fleece but the ground is dry, I will know you will free Israel from the power of Midian.” And it was so; when Gideon arose in the morning, the ground was dry, but the fleece was so wet he could squeeze a bowlful of water out of it. All right! God is with Gideon! It’s time for battle! Well… maybe. Gideon is not so easily convinced. Gideon says to God, “Okay, let’s try this once more, the other way around: make the ground wet, and the fleece dry.”  And in the morning, it was so.

So finally Gideon is convinced that God is with him, and that God has the power to shape reality, to do improbable things – like defeating Midian. Because even with all Israel’s warriors, thirty-two thousand troops, the Midianites still outnumber them.

But Gideon’s willing to give it a try. He gathers his troops, near the Midianite camp, ready for attack. Maybe they have a chance, with God’s help.  But then God says to Gideon, “You have too many soldiers. If you defeat the Midianites with all these soldiers, Israel will take the credit away from me, and say, ‘We delivered ourselves.’ Speak to your troops and say, Whoever is fearful and trembling, GO HOME.”

So Gideon does that. And twenty-two thousand men … go home. Leaving Gideon with ten thousand soldiers who are itching for a fight.

Okay. Now there are a LOT more Midianites, but this is how God wants it. Fine.

But then God says to Gideon, “You STILL have too many men. Take your army down to that pool of water over there for a drink. Some of them will cup up the water in their hands, and some will kneel down and lap the water like dogs. The ones who cup the water in their hands – send them all home.”

So the men go to drink. And how many of them lap the water like dogs? Three hundred. And God says to Gideon, “With these three hundred men I will deliver you, and give the Midianites into your hands. Send the rest home.”

And Gideon does. But before they go: he takes all their water jars and their trumpets. So here’s Gideon, with three hundred men, and a bunch of jars and trumpets, looking out at the Midianite camp, with its soldiers as thick as sand on the seashore. And that night God speaks to Gideon and says, “Attack the camp. It’s time.” And he wakes his tiny army and says,  “Get up. God has given Midian into our hands.” He gives them all trumpets and jars – with torches hidden inside the jars.

They sneak into the camp under cover of darkness, and at Gideon’s signal, they all BLOW their trumpets, and SMASH their jars so the torches shine out, and they shout, “For the Lord and for Gideon!”

And the Midianites panic! They wake up to this horrible noise, and light, and fire, and shouting! Some of them start to run and others see them running and they run too, and pretty soon the whole Midianite army, tens of thousands of men, are fleeing towards home. And they’re fighting each other in the dark, in the confusion, and killing each other, without Gideon’s men even drawing their swords.

So Gideon and his three hundred crazy fearless men drove out the great army of Midian, freed their land from the invaders, with some trumpets and some torches and the power of God. Because God was with them.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light…. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. 

This reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah is always used at Christmas, because of the image of light dawning in darkness, and because of Isaiah’s prophetic words about a Savior who will come to God’s people, a child who will be born to us, for us, who will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, and Prince of Peace. Christians have long understood this text as pointing towards Jesus.

Isaiah lived about halfway between Gideon and Jesus; his words harken back to his people’s history, and lean forward into their hopes for the future.

This phrase, “As on the day of Midian” – tt’s a passing allusion to a long-ago battle – one of countless battles told in the Old Testament. And its protagonist, Gideon, didn’t make the cut for most children’s story bibles. Who remembers Gideon? But I really like story of Gideon and the defeat at Midian. And I think there’s something very timely about it.

This story is timely for us as Americans in 2017. I find Gideon really relatable. He’s skeptical, and kind of pessimistic. He hears God’s promises and looks at the world around him and says, God, I’m not sure we can get there from here. He says, God, you’re an idealist, and I’m a realist. But he enters a dialogue with God. He’s not totally cynical; there’s hope lurking under there. When God says, Things can be better, Gideon doesn’t laugh in God’s face and walk away. Gideon says, Tell me more.

So this conversation begins, and continues, all the way through the first business with the sacrifice, through the moments just before the attack, when Gideon sneaks into the Midianite camp, just to see what they’re up against, and hears one of the Midianite soldiers telling a friend that he had dreamed their army was defeated by Israel. Gideon believes: The impossible is possible. Let’s do this.

Gideon begins the story wearing skepticism as a kind of armor to protect the tenderness of hope, and of his anguish at his people’s misery. And he ends up committing himself to God’s purposes. He reaches a point where he wants what God wants, and he gives himself over to it, using his strength and his connections and his ingenuity to help bring about God’s deliverance for his people. Even to the point of risking his life.

And all of that makes Gideon a holy figure worth remembering, in these weary and jaded times. In our discouragement and our skepticism.

And I think the story of Midian is timely for Christmas. Because it’s about how something small can accomplish something big. Gideon marched on Midian with an army of 300 men. A laughably tiny force. Yet by God’s power, combined with human imagination and courage, they were successful. The power of God to do what seems impossible in human terms is what Isaiah has in mind, when he says that the burden of oppression will be cast off as on the day of Midian. It’s not just that a battle was won – but that a battle was won by the power of God. And that’s the Christmas story, the Incarnation: a tiny tiny baby, a newborn infant, poor, cold, and helpless, nevertheless – changes things.

Attacking an entire camp of enemy warriors with three hundred men is ridiculous, but confronting the entire regime of evil and greed and injustice and suffering in the world with one newborn baby – that’s even more absurd.

But that’s the kind of God, God is. That’s the heart of God, made known to us in the face of the child in the manger. Not a God of overwhelming force, to bend humanity to God’s will, but a God of hope and possibility and invitation.

Our God is a God who calls us to take heart, take courage, to lay down our skepticism and weariness and commit ourselves to God’s purposes, God’s agenda of liberation, justice, mercy, and love. To believe that better is possible, and that we can help, because God is with us.  And our God is a God who changes the world with the power of small, ordinary, beautiful, powerful things: The light of a candle, the sound of a trumpet. A few words of love. An infant’s first cry.

Amen.

Sermon, Oct. 15

I spend a lot of time trying to rehabilitate God in people’s eyes.  People who have heard about this God character – but what they’ve heard about Him makes Him sound like an angry, judgmental psychopath. And they can’t imagine why anyone would want to hang around with somebody like that. I spend a lot of time trying to explain that that’s not the God I know. That the destructive anger of God in many parts of the Bible reflects human understandings, and our sinful tendency to assume God hates whom we hate. That the God I follow is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, as the Bible says over and over again. That the God I follow understands, accepts, forgives, comforts, heals. That God is love.

But you know what? Sometimes love gets angry. As a preacher, as a Christian, I have to take God’s anger seriously.

Our lectionary texts today show us an angry God. In the book of Exodus, the people Israel are on their long wilderness journey. Moses is up on a mountaintop, having an extended conversation with God. And the people get bored and impatient. This God that Moses keeps talking about is too big and powerful and mysterious to even see. They want gods they can see and touch. Like the golden statues of gods they saw in Egypt. So they beg Aaron, Moses’ brother, whom he left in charge: “Make a god for us!” And Aaron gives the people what they want. Aaron tries to fudge things a bit – maybe the golden calf just *represents* the real god? – but he knows what he’s doing. When Moses comes down the mountain and demands to know what he’s done, here’s his explanation, straight out of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible:

Aaron said, ‘Do not let the anger of my lord burn hot; you know the people, that they are bent on evil. They said to me, “Make us gods, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” So I said to them, “Whoever has gold, take it off;” so they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!’

It’s hard to recognize because we get the stories in bits & pieces, and because we have this assumption that the Bible is Very Serious, but there’s a lot of humor in the wilderness stories. I think they were campfire tales told to a lot of laughter, for many generations, before they were written down. One recurring gag is that Moses and God do a lot of Parents-On-A-Road-Trip stuff throughout these chapters. For example, notice in today’s text, God says, “Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely…” And Moses comes right back with, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?” God is saying, YOUR CHILDREN are driving me CRAZY, And Moses says, YOUR CHILDREN are just HUNGRY, maybe if you’d stop at Burger King…!

But like the best funny stories, the humor in Exodus has a real point. And the point of this story is to highlight how eager humans are to decide the whole God business is really too complicated, too strange, too much trouble. The name for the sin of the golden calf is idolatry – putting something else, something made and controlled by humans, in the place of God. Substituting a relationship with a thing for a relationship with a Person. Relationships with things are predicable, safe; relationships with people are alive, dynamic, demanding, especially if the Person happens to be God. Idolatry is a fundamental theme in the Old Testament – Israel’s proclivity for it, and God’s anger and dismay about it.

I’ve been trying to think of how to explain the problem. It sounds like this is about God’s ego, God’s jealousy – God flips out if Israel even gets a text from another god, right? But listen, I think this is a fair analogy for what’s happening here: Imagine a six-year-old child. She’s dissatisfied with her actual parents, she feels like they’re too demanding and she doesn’t always understand why they want her to do certain things, and they’re not always as nice as she would like them to be. So she makes herself a new parent. She tells her human parents, “Thanks, but I’m done with you guys. My new parent here will always buy me ice cream, and let me wear whatever I want, and ride my bike in the street, and never clean my room or do homework.” That six-year-old would learn pretty quickly that the parent she made was an inadequate parent; it wouldn’t do anything she didn’t like for simple reason that it can’t do anything at all. The same would happen with the golden calf, to be sure. But somehow the unresponsiveness of our idols has never really made a dent in the impulse towards idolatry.

God is angry in this story because the people God has chosen, freed, and called, want to opt out of the relationship. They don’t have the gratitude or the patience or the discipline to commit to being God’s people and see how that forms them and blesses them. They’d really rather make their own parent, thanks.

And then there’s the Parable of the Banquet. I’ve been talking about how Matthew’s Gospel often adds a layer of violence, compared to similar texts in Luke and Mark. This is a text where that’s particularly evident. Matthew understands Jesus’ life and witness through the lens of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Great Temple by the Romans in AD 70, as part of the brutal suppression of a Jewish rebellion against Roman rule. Hundreds of thousands of people died.The author we call Matthew probably composed his version of the Gospel between 10 and 20 years later.  The trauma, the violence and loss were very much still with him. In this parable, when the king sends an army to kill people and burn down a city – that’s Matthew working over what happened to Jerusalem.

This parable as told in Luke’s Gospel lacks the military images, and the perplexing attack on the inappropriately-dressed guest. Here’s the story as Luke tells it: Someone gave a great dinner, and invited many. When dinner was ready, he sent his slave to tell those who had been invited, “Come, everything is ready.” But they all began to make excuses. One said, “I’ve bought some land and I need to go see it; please accept my apologies.”  Another said, “I just bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my apologies.” Another said, “I just got married, so I can’t come.”

So the slave returned and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, “Go out at once into the streets of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” And the slave said, “Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room in the banquet hall.” Then the master said to the slave,  “Go out to the roads beyond the city, and make people come in, so that my house may be filled! For none of those who were invited shall taste my dinner.”

That’s a very different story, isn’t it? It’s a story about people who have been honored with an invitation, and have a delicious meal waiting for them – free! – but they can’t be bothered. They’ve got other stuff going on. But the host is determined to feed someone. So the host gathers in all the people who were seen as lowly and dirty and unimportant, to be guests at the banquet. It’s one of many parables and Gospel stories about how the people who think they’re close to God, the people who assume they’re on God’s guest list, don’t actually show up for God, while those in the streets, those at the margins, do. The host’s anger isn’t murderous military might, as in Matthew’s account. It’s frustrated hospitality. Thwarted grace. The host wants to celebrate with friends, and the friends don’t show.

God gets angry sometimes. We shouldn’t make God so warm and fuzzy that we forget that. But we also have to be really careful about distinguishing God’s anger from our anger. Humans like to think we know what God is angry about. I find it really upsetting – as a preacher, as a Christian – when I see people attributing terrible events to God’s anger.  Earthquakes, hurricanes, wildfires, mass shootings: NOT GOD’S ANGER.

Look, how to make sense of that stuff is another whole sermon. Here’s the shortest possible version of how I understand it: Humanity is free and Creation is free. God couldn’t give us freedom and simultaneously protect us from the world and ourselves and each other – that’s not how freedom works. So bad stuff happens but God promises, promises, that God is with us in the bad stuff, and that the bad stuff is never the last word.

The destruction wrought by humans and nature is not God’s punishment.  And when people with authority name it as such, people who’d like to believe in God, people who’ve tried to believe in God, are apt to get right off that train, because with a God like that, who needs enemies? And I can’t blame them. But I can blame those who blame God for human actions…!

If God’s anger doesn’t look like wildfire or a hurricane wiping a whole town off the map, then what does God’s anger look like? Thwarted grace. Frustrated love. A banquet table lovingly prepared, dishes overflowing – and nobody there to eat and celebrate. The common thread between the Golden Calf and the Banquet parable is that God is angry when people walk away from relationship. Choose something else instead. Spending some time with the Gospels and the Prophets will quickly show you some of the other things that really get God’s goat. God gets pretty mad about leaders who shirk their responsibilities to those under their care. God gets pretty mad about those who enrich themselves at the cost of the poor. God gets pretty mad at those who judge others harshly without taking an honest look at themselves.

You know, I looked ahead at these lessons probably a month ago, and thought, Wow, the obvious theme here is the anger of God. And then about a week ago, I finally put two and two together, and realized, Oh, we’re doing a baptism today! Divine rage – a classic subject for a baptismal sermon.

But you know, it’s actually true that our relationships with the children and young people whom we love are one of the best windows we have into God’s anger.  The Bible and our liturgical texts name God as a parent Because God is a lot like a parent, or anyone who’s helping raise and teach and form a child. God doesn’t want us to do the right thing from fear of anger or punishment, but because we know what’s right and good, and we choose to do it. And God gets angry when God wants better for us, or from us.

Our fiercest loves give birth to our fiercest anger. And the angriest we get at the people we love is when they do something that puts them in danger, or when they do something that goes against our hopes for them, the person we believe them to be or want them to become. I remember that vividly from my own childhood; I see it in my own parenthood. And it helps me understand God.

Hear me: I’m not saying parental anger is pure and holy. Anger is important, powerful, and risky. Anger for good reason, expressed in healthy and constructive ways, can be a force for personal or public repentance,  amendment of life, and movement towards justice and righteousness.  But anger is often selfish or fearful as much as it is righteous, and we are, frankly, terrible at telling the difference. And anger can so easily become destructive, and have widespread and long-lasting consequences. Anger is like fire and water – necessary and life-giving, but also capable of terrible damage when misplaced or out of control.

Anger – or own or someone else’s – can be uncomfortable at best, and terrifying at worst. But we can’t simply say that anger is bad, is to be avoided. We can’t separate anger from hope, from justice, from love. Sometimes love gets angry.

And when we extend grace to a loved one and they don’t show up, when we seek relationship and the one we love turns away, the disappointment and frustration and grief we feel – the anger we feel – is a window into the loving, yearning, aching heart of God, the Parent of each of us and all of us.