Category Archives: Stories

Sermon, July 5

This sermon is based on Genesis chapter 24. Read it here! 

What a lively little story and cast of characters! Abraham appears here as the slightly bigoted old dad. Isaac barely appears – showing up just in time to fall in love with the ingenue. Laban is Big Brother from Central Casting. (We’ll hear more about Laban in a few weeks!)  Rebekah is a lively young woman who is more than ready to get the heck off the family farm. And then there’s the unnamed servant. 

The scene at the well was really popular with artists for a while. A significant meeting, a lovely young woman, a romantic setting, jewels, camels – how could they resist? If you look at some of those paintings, they really look like courtship images. That’s an interesting, kind of strange aspect of this story. The servant is sent as a proxy to find a wife for Isaac – who is a grown man; the verse that follows today’s passage says that he is forty when all this happens! 

Why didn’t Abraham send Isaac himself? Maybe it’s because Isaac is overwhelmed with grief for his mother; maybe it’s because Abraham perceives that Isaac would not get the job done. Throughout his chapters in Genesis, Isaac is a fairly passive character. Things mostly happen to him and around him. So Abraham sends a servant instead. 

Now, the text doesn’t name the servant, though he’s a tremendously important character for this one chapter. But Jewish tradition names him Eliezar – God is my help. I’ll use that name to make it easier to talk about him, and to give him the dignity he deserves. 

So, these images look like courtship. But Eliezar’s interest in Rebekah is not based in romance. It’s based in faith. 

When we’re dwelling with stories from the Hebrew Bible, one gift is that there’s also a rich interpretive tradition in Judaism that we can look to. And I found a wonderful reflection, part of the Aleph Beta project to create videos offering meaningful study of Jewish holy texts. I want to show you part of what it helped me notice. 

First, I need to introduce a really important word and idea: Chesed. It’s a Hebrew word that may be translated as kindness, mercy, steadfast love, goodness, grace, compassion. An early English Bible translated it as “lovingkindness,” a wonderful word. Chesed is not just being a nice person. It is active, zealous, determined kindness. Chesed is an attribute of God – it is how God feels towards Israel, refusing to abandon them no matter what they do. And Chesed towards other humans is what God demands from God’s people. Love of neighbor manifest as generosity and justice – a foundation for both Jewish and Christian ethics. 

The word chesed shows up three times in this passage. Twice in Eliezar’s prayer – he asks God to fulfill his mission in order to show Chesed to his master Abraham. He doesn’t say it in so many words but it’s almost as if he’s reminding God of the covenant – Look, you promised my master descendants as numerous as the stars; that means his son needs a wife. And Eliezar uses the words again when Rebekah fulfills all his hopes – “Blessed be the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who has not forsaken his steadfast love and his faithfulness towards my master!” 

In addition to the word chesed, the attribute of chesed appears in this story as well. Rebekah shows some signs of being a person of chesed. She is generous in sharing her water, even drawing more water for the camels – a significant effort.  We don’t know whether her readiness to leave her father and brothers’ household is because she honors God’s intentions or is just really ready for a change of scenery. Why not both? Regardless, she opts in to God’s plan here, to the covenanted people God is building – and she does so partly by showing concern for some thirsty camels. 

And Eliezar is unmistakably a person of chesed. He goes above and beyond in his loyalty to both Abraham his master and to God. He puts his task in God’s hands, and blesses God for God’s chesed when God comes through. 

But – here’s the thing I didn’t notice until I watched the Aleph Beta video: Eliezar DOESN’T use the word chesed when he’s telling Laban and the rest of Rebekah’s family what happened. We cut that out of the reading to shorten it, but let’s look at it now. 

Here’s Eliezar’s prayer: “O Lord, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham. I am standing here by the spring of water, and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water. Let the girl to whom I shall say, “Please offer your jar that I may drink”, and who shall say, “Drink, and I will water your camels”- let her be the one  whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac. By this I shall know that you have shown steadfast love to my master.”

Here’s how Eliezar tells about his prayer: “I came today to the spring, and said, “O Lord, the God of my master Abraham, if now you will only make successful the way I am going! I am standing here by the spring of water; let the young woman who comes out to draw, to whom I shall say, ‘Please give me a little water from your jar to drink,’ and who will say to me, ‘Drink, and I will draw for your camels also’—let her be the woman whom the Lord has appointed for my master’s son.”

Eliezar shifts his language. And the Aleph Beta video suggests Eliezar did that because he noticed some things about Laban, Rebekah’s brother, who seems to be the head of household here. First, he noticed Laban noticing Rebekah’s new jewelry. The text says, “As soon [Laban] he had seen the nose-ring, and the bracelets on his sister’s arms, and when he heard the words of his sister Rebekah…, he went to the man.” 

Second, he might nave noticed something about Laban’s hospitality. Here’s what the NRSV, our Bible translation, does with verses 31 and 32, Eliezar’s arrival: 

“Laban said, ‘Come in, O blessed of the Lord. Why do you stand outside when I have prepared the house and a place for the camels? So the man came into the house; and Laban unloaded the camels, and gave him straw and fodder for the camels, and water to wash his feet and the feet of the men who were with him.”

In the NRSV, Laban offers hospitality & then actually extends hospitality. But the rabbis behind the Aleph Beta video aren’t so sure. 

Here’s how Robert Alter renders this text, a more faithful rendition of the Hebrew: 

“And the man came into the house and unharnessed the camels; and he gave bran and feed to the camels and water to bathe his feet and the feet of the men who were wit him. And food was set before him.” 

“The man” here is Eliezar – that’s how the Biblical text refers to him. 

So Laban offers hospitality – but does he actually follow through and treat Eliezar as an honored guest, or does he leave Eliezar to tend to his own camels and traveling party? Making an assessment that Eliezar is, after all, just the help? 

Now, this is ambiguous in the Scriptural text – you can read it either way, but there’s certainly room to wonder. If Laban made a point of his household’s capacity for hospitality, but then didn’t actually act out that hospitality because he assessed that Eliezar wasn’t a person he needed to bother to impress – well, that would be consistent with the bit about the jewelry; and with how Laban acts when Rebekah’s son Jacob comes to him for refuge, many years later. Across those texts, Laban appears as someone who’s primarily motivated by wealth and status. 

And – today’s text suggests that Eliezar himself makes exactly that assessment. 

Remember how he begins his speech to Laban: “I am Abraham’s servant. The Lord has greatly blessed my master, and he has become wealthy; he has given him flocks and herds, silver and gold, male and female slaves, camels and donkeys.”

Eliezar has sized up Laban and decided that what’s going to persuade him to let Rebekah go is the idea that this might be a really beneficial alliance. So he drops the chesed language, and replaces it with talk about wealth and success. Laban isn’t interested in whether Rebekah is the wife God’s lovingkindness has intended for Isaac. Laban is interested in whether his prospective son-in-law is rich. 

So what is the Spirit saying to the churches in this story? Well, she might be saying something else to you, and I’d be interested to hear about that. What I notice is that I feel both tickled and inspired by Eliezar. 

Eliezar reminds me of something Jesus said to his disciples, a couple of chapters ago in Matthew’s Gospel: Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Eliezar’s innocence, his goodness and integrity, lie in the fact that he’s person of chesed. A person who lives by lovingkindness, in response to God’s lovingkindness. But he’s savvy like a serpent in the way he susses out Laban and figures out the best way to close this deal. He frames the situation in a way that will help this stakeholder get on board – a core principal for any kind of coalition-building. And, listen, this matters: He doesn’t lie to Laban. There’s nothing fundamentally false about the way he adapts his message. He’s just strategic – and effective – in using Laban’s values to get Laban on board. 

Today’s Gospel contains a favorite verse of mine: Jesus says, “But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’” It’s a little cryptic, but for me it speaks – maybe especially this year – to the numbness and overwhelm of our times. There’s so much coming at us that we don’t know how to respond to good news or bad – to dance tunes or dirges. It rings especially poignantly for me on the weekend of our biggest national holiday, in a year that features a brutal pandemic, economic recession and widespread civic unrest. So far. 

I think we could do worse, living in these times, than take Eliezar for inspiration. May we share his savvy in strategic communication across differences of values and goals – while striving always to live as people of courageous lovingkindness, in response to God’s chesed and as co-conspirators in God’s great and ongoing work of redeeming the world. 

The video that got me thinking: 

https://www.alephbeta.org/playlist/story-of-isaac-finding-rebekah

Homily, May 17

We begin by watching a short film about the life of St. Dunstan. 

Wonder together some: 

What was your favorite part?…

What was the most important part? … 

Let’s look at an image of Dunstan together. 

It’s interesting to study Dunstan. He is a figure of holy folklore, a man who is said to have miraculously levitated a falling beam. But he is, too,  an actual figure of historical significance – the great libraries of Britain hold manuscripts that bear Dunstan’s actual handwriting. Here is a page from a manuscript known as the Glastonbury Classbook, currently in the collection of the Bodleian Library in Oxford. The big central figure is Jesus Christ, depicted as a king. But what you should notice is this little monk in his habit, down here in the corner, kneeling at Christ’s feet. This might be an actual self-portrait of, by, Dunstan. He’s known to have written manuscripts of this period, he began his career at Glastonbury, and he was an artist and craftsman. This is the image of Dunstan we keep in our icon corner at church – not an icon that makes Dunstan central, but this image that perhaps shows him the way he pictured himself: kneeling at the feet of Christ. 

(What it says:  Dunstanum memet clemens rogo, Christe, tuere / Tenarias me non sinas sorbsisse procellas  – ‘I ask, merciful Christ, that you protect me, Dunstan; do not permit the Taenarian storms to swallow me’).

There’s a lot to say about Dunstan, who lived an interesting life in interesting times. But today I want to focus on Dunstan the reformer.  Dunstan’s faith led him to a life of civic engagement that left Britain better than he found it. 

The Britain into which Dunstan was born was fractured, chaotic, and dangerous. It was only thirty years before his birth that Alfred the Great had begun to unify many small kingdoms into something resembling a nation – and that work was ongoing during Dunstan’s lifetime. 

Besides political divisions and frequent wars and skirmishes, for most people life was brutish and short. In Dunstan’s time the common people were uneducated, poor, harassed by bandits, cheated by merchants, and oppressed by the landed aristocracy. Rule of law and civil society were almost nonexistent.

Dunstan committed his long life to supporting the project of a unified, orderly Britain, with education more widely available; common systems for money and commerce; and a fair and equally-applied judicial system. 

He is rightly remembered as a founder of monasteries & proponent of Benedictine monasticism; but for Dunstan, monasteries were a tool for reform. Dunstan and the other great bishops of his time believed deeply that the flourishing of the English people would be best served by the cultivation of monastic centers, whose prayers, teaching, and care for the common folk would be a stabilizing and improving force.

Dunstan was a consummate pragmatist. His lifetime and work spanned the reigns of eight kings. He was exiled by some, elevated to higher and higher positions of honor and influence by others. He pursued his vision with the help of friendly kings, and against the opposition of unfriendly ones. Dunstan’s life reminds us that while human political agendas and God’s agenda can overlap, those overlaps are always temporary and partial. If we can keep that in mind, then maybe our civic and political engagement can be as clear-sighted and stubborn as Dunstan’s was. 

And over the course of Dunstan’s long, determined, faithful life, England did become a little more ordered, a little more just, a little safer. Something worked – and Dunstan’s role in those changes was honored, as he became celebrated as a saint within decades of his death. 

I think Dunstan the reformer stands out for me right now because I think we may be tempted to think that reform, the work of making things better for more, the work – as we see it as Christians – of making the community and world around us better reflect God’s intentions of justice, mercy, peace, and wholeness, needs to start from a place of stability. It’s something people – usually people in authority – sometimes say: Now isn’t the time. Things need to be more  settled before we can work for improvement. 

But Dunstan and those who worked alongside him, did what they did in chaotic, violent, unsettled times.  As the great rabbi Hillel once said: If not now, when? 

In a few months, or weeks, we will be under immense pressure to get Back To Normal. It’s already starting, to some extent.  I hope that we will demand a better Normal than the one we had before. I hope that we will have the insight and courage to be choosy about what we want back in our lives, individually and especially collectively. 

What would we like to see better, on the other side of all this?

What will we to work and fight and vote and pray and give to build into the new Normal? 

I’d like our new Normal to value our health care workers, from janitors to surgeons, more.

And to better respect and better compensate the work of teachers and child care workers more.

I’d like our new Normal to recognize that minimum-wage hourly work is essential work, and makes those jobs more sustainable and livable. 

A society that listens when scientists tell us about the risks of how we’re living now, and responds by changing our behavior. What if we did that with climate change?….

I’d like our new Normal to extend our realization that we are connected. And that we need one another. 

What would you like to see become part of the emergent Normal, friends?… 

Sermon, March 8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I mean. 

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

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

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

Nobody is admirable in this chapter of the story. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon, Feb. 9

Are you grieving today, weighed down with loss? Are you timid, fearful; do you struggle to speak up for yourself and find what you need? Is your yearning for justice eating you up inside? You are LUCKY! You are HAPPY! You are BLESSED! 

Jesus is standing on a mountaintop – or at least a hilltop – and preaching about what it means to live a holy life. There’s surely an intentional echo here of Moses on Mount Sinai, receiving the Ten Commandments, and teaching Israel how God calls them to live. And just as holy laws of the Torah called Israel to live differently than neighboring peoples, so too do Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount.

There’s a lot here that did not align with conventional wisdom and cultural norms. Our Bible translation – most Bible translations – begin each of these lines with “Blessed.” But the Greek word there can just as easily be translated as Happy or Lucky.  I like that translation, because I think Jesus is being provocative at least as much as he’s being pious, here. In Luke’s version of this sermon, Jesus seems to call out the people in the crowd who are laughing – because these teachings make no sense!

The poor? The meek? The lost and lonely? The merciful and the peacemakers – those softies and suckers? Those wingnuts who won’t stop talking about justice, who get themselves arrested or beaten for what they believe is right? Lucky. Happy. Blessed. Every last one of them.  What nonsense. 

Holy nonsense, divine foolishness, is a big theme in the early chapters of Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. In chapter 1 he writes: God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom. (1 Cor 1:25) In chapter 2 he urges, Your faith must not rest on human wisdom, but on the power of God. (1 Cor 2:5) And in chapter 3, he concludes, The wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. (1 Cor 3:19)

On one level, Paul is concerned that other Christian teachers who have visited Corinth may be taking liberties with the Gospel – and getting away with it because they are such eloquent speakers. The people don’t realize that they’re changing the message because they sound so smart. Paul says, Just because somebody SOUNDS wise and insightful doesn’t meany they are. Bad and wrong things can be preached in beautiful, persuasive words. History certainly justifies his concern. 

At a deeper level, though, Paul is pointing to the paradox at the heart of Christianity: Christ crucified and risen. The one we call Savior and Lord was executed by the government. Not much of a Messiah! And then – we claim – he came back from the dead. Everyone knows that’s impossible. 

Paul doesn’t try to make Christian faith palatable to intellectuals. He says, Yes, it’s nonsense – holy, necessary nonsense. Look, says Paul: God’s wisdom seems like foolishness to human understanding – to the people of this age – but it carries deep truth, and profound hope. If you think you are wise, maybe you need more holy foolishness – to understand what Jesus said and did, and begin the lifelong work of following him and growing into his likeness. 

Who here reads romance novels and is willing to admit it? 

The popular image of romance novels is of mediocre writing, formulaic plots, and probably overblown, cringey descriptions of hugging and kissing. They’re seen as frivolous and escapist. How could romance novels accomplish any good in the world?

Let me tell you a story – a story about one of the most successful romance novel writers of all time. Her name was Ida Cook, though she wrote under the name Mary Burchell. 

Ida was born in England in 1904, to a happy, affectionate family. She and her older sister, Louise, were fast friends and lifelong companions. Biographers note that both sisters were notably plain. As young women, they shared an apartment in London and worked at clerical jobs. In 1923, they discovered opera, and fell in love with it. They bought a gramophone, and started attending operas whenever they could. They became superfans of some of the great opera stars of the day – writing fan letters and waiting outside stage doors for autographs. How feminine. How frivolous. How foolish. 

One of their faves was an opera singer named Amelita Galli-Curci. They wrote to her telling her they planned to save up for two years to come to New York and hear her sing. She wrote back, promising them free tickets to ALL her operas if they could get there! So, of course, they saved up and made it to the Big Apple. 

They became friends with Galli-Curci, and started meeting other opera stars too. 

Meanwhile, Ida writes an article for a sewing magazine about the dress she made for their New York trip. Then she starts writing and publishing short romantic stories… and then she’s invited to start writing for Mills and Boon, the major romance publisher in the UK. (Think Harlequin!) She’s good at it, and suddenly she’s making pretty good money.

Naturally, the sisters use that money to travel and see more opera all over Europe, especially in Germany. In 1934 they’re in Germany when a singer they know introduces them to another woman, asking the Cooks to look after her, since she’s traveling to England soon. Of course they agree. When they ask their new friend why she’s moving to England, she explains, “I’m Jewish – didn’t you know?”

Ida and Louise learn about what’s happening in Germany. The growing pressure on the Jews, the rising tide of danger and fear. Jews who can afford to leave, and have connections or opportunities abroad, are getting out. And Ida has a realization. She thinks about all the money she is making with her novels – and she realizes she could be using it to save lives. 

It’s hard to look back on now, knowing what we know, but both Britain and the United States were reluctant to accept Jewish refugees. They didn’t make it easy. To leave Germany for Britain at this point, in the mid-1930s, you needed to have proven income or cash reserves. The question wasn’t whether you were in mortal danger in your home country, but whether you would be a drain on public resources when you arrived. Practically, you needed someone in England to be your guarantor – to attest that you had resources and would be provided for.  

Ida starts using her book money to guarantee as many people as she can. And as requests for help start to stream in, the sisters organize friends to donate funds or be guarantors themselves. Ida buys an apartment where newly-arrived refugees can stay while getting settled in. The sisters keep traveling to Germany on weekends, to hear opera performances… and to connect with those seeking to leave the country, and help them along. They make heartbreaking decisions about who they can help, then work to get their visas through the British immigration system. 

Often, on their return journeys, they carried with them jewelry and other small, high-value goods belonging to the Jews they hoped to help leave Germany for England.The smuggling was necessary because Germany wouldn’t let Jews take their assets with them when they left; but they would certainly need assets to begin their new life in Britain. The smuggling was effective because people tended to ignore and underestimate Ida and Louise. One biographer describes them as “plain and anonymous in their tatty cardigans and Woolworth glass beads.” (Carpenter) Margaret Talbot writes, “The underestimation of women, especially women who might be dismissed on the basis of their looks, was a resource that Ida and Louise deployed for enormous good.” 

Talbot describes one case in which Ida and Louise were smuggling home a lot of valuable jewelry on behalf of a woman named Alice, who hoped to rejoin her jewels in England shortly. The sisters had a very anxious half-hour when German SS officers boarded the train at the German border to look for Jews trying to escape Nazi Germany. They had a plan: IF the SS men asked them to open their handbags, they were going to do their “nervous British spinster act and insist, quite simply, that we always took our valuables with us, because we didn’t trust anyone with whom we could leave them at home.” (Cook quoted in Talbot) 

Talbot writes, “The Cooks had found that telling a lie that made them look meek and foolish was sometimes their best bet.” Meek and foolish… In this case, looking like ordinary, plain, middle-aged, middle-class white women did the trick, and the SS left them alone. 

The situation in Germany continues to deteriorate. Visas are harder and harder to get. People are disappearing before the Cooks can help them. Ida writes, “We cried, of course. And then we would start again. What else could we do?” She spends more and more time writing; the more books she publishes, the more money, the more lives she can save. As paths to escape become more and more scarce, the sisters speak at church groups; they hassle their friends; they approach strangers in restaurants. Always the message is: People are dying. If we pool our funds and guarantee them someplace to live, we might be able to get them out. 

Ida’s persistence and passion sometimes shake loose possibilities against all odds. In the Twitter thread that first brought Ida to my attention, John Bull writes that in August 1939, Ida received a letter from a Polish Jewish boy being held in a detention camp in Poland. He was on a waiting list to enter the United States, meaning he had a chance to get a visa to enter Britain on the way. But he was number 16500 or so on that waiting list – meaning it might be three years. People were already dying of starvation and disease all around him; he knew he did not have three years. 

Europe is on the brink of war. There is not a moment to lose. Ida finds a church group that will agree to take him in; she scrapes together the money to serve as his guarantee. She goes to the Immigration Office to organize his visa, and talks to the clerk who normally handles her cases.  “The woman looks aghast: They can’t give this kid a visa. New rules as of yesterday. Only people number 16,000 on the US list or under [can get visas.] Ida tells her that this kid will die if they don’t get him out. They need to do something. Then the clerk comes up with a plan and tells Ida to trust her. ‘Go home, and take this with you,’ she says, handing Ida the completed and signed application form. The next day, Ida gets an official letter from the clerk: ‘Please submit the missing paperwork we finalized three days ago.’ The clerk had found a way around the rule change: fudging the date on the application so it looked like it was filed before the new rules. The visa goes through. The child escapes – on the last boat of child refugees that is allowed to leave Poland. The last life the Cooks manage to save. 

Ida and Louse were directly involved in 29 emigration cases, many of which were families. They were indirectly involved in many others, as well. 

Bull writes, “Ida and Louise weren’t special. They were normal people and, by Ida’s own admission, terrified almost every step of the way. But once they had their eyes opened to what was happening, they knew they had to help. And Ida worked hard to try and make others see that too.” Ida herself wrote, “Terrified, agonized need can be ignored if it is attached only to a name on paper. Change [that] to a human who stammers out a frantic story, weeps difficult tears and asks for nothing but hopes for everything, and show me the ordinary person who can refuse.”

I want to be clear that one heart-warming story does not redeem the Holocaust. Mary and Ida saved perhaps fifty people. Hitler and those who went along with his regime murdered perhaps 11 million. This isn’t a story about how everyday heroism and moral courage can turn the tide of history – though I have to believe that sometimes it can. This is a story about how everyday heroism and moral courage might make a tiny difference, here and there; and helps us keep our souls, no matter the circumstances. 

Where is wisdom and where is foolishness, in Ida’s life and times? The wisdom of this age is found in quotas and fees and forms, bureaucratic barriers and waiting lists. The whole apparatus that made it harder and harder and finally impossible for Jews to flee Hitler’s final solution. All rational, modern, and deadly. 

Holy foolishness shows up in the subversive, strategic meekness of two ordinary, extraordinary middle-aged opera fans using romance novel royalties to save one life, and another, and another. 

For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom. 

The Reverend Marcus Halley, dean of Formation for the Episcopal Church in Connecticut, wrote recently: “To be Baptized is to … be brought into a way of life that is meant to pull a little more of the Kingdom of God into this world. We pray it in the Lord’s Prayer and are called to let it *happen* in us. Our vocation… might look like a ministry within the church, but most likely it will be a ministry somewhere deep behind enemy lines in God’s world…  Wherever sin shreds human dignity, there is room for God’s people to exercise their vocation of healing, mending, and making whole… I want the Church to offer everyday, ordinary people an opportunity to do the extraordinary.” 

Those wingnuts who won’t stop talking about justice, who approach strangers in restaurants about their cause, who smuggle jewels in their pocketbooks? The poor? The meek? The lost and lonely? The merciful and the peacemakers – the softies and the suckers? Those who mourn – the ones who can’t look away, who refuse to get numb, the sad ones, the angry ones? 

Lucky. Happy. Blessed. Every last one of them. What nonsense. May we all be so foolish. 

 

More on Ida Cook:

John Bull’s Twitter thread: 

https://twitter.com/garius/status/1220711078100897793

Louise Carpenter in Granta: 

https://granta.com/ida-and-louise/

Margaret Talbot in the New Yorker:

https://www.newyorker.com/books/second-read/ida-and-louise-cook-two-unusual-heroines-of-the-second-world-war

The Rev. Marcus Halley on what church could be: 

https://twitter.com/word_made_FRESH/status/1220786885892747264

Sermon, Nov. 17

They will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name…. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.

These words of Jesus’ would have been remembered and treasured during the decades that followed, as the first generations of Christians dealt with social and religious ostracism, and then with periods of violent political persecution. Jesus speaks to his disciples about the chaotic times ahead, for them and for their whole nation and people; and he assures them that no matter what happens, even if some of his followers are killed for their faith in him, they will be, in some deeper sense, safe in God’s hands. 

Modern mainline churches don’t talk much about the martyrs – those who have died for their Christian faith. There is a martyr section in the Hymnal – numbers 236 through 241 – but we rarely sing them. The feasts of Stephen, the first martyr, and the Holy Innocents, tend to be tactfully lost in the shuffle after Christmas. (It’s unusual that St. Dunstan’s does sometimes honor the latter.)

But the faithfulness and courage of the martyrs in the face of death was of tremendous importance to our early faith ancestors. Tertulllian, the great 2nd-century Christian writer, declared,“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”Martyrs were remembered and celebrated with stories both inspiring and gruesome. We have a few on the church’s calendar in this season – November 24 is the feast day of Catherine of Alexandria, Barbara of Nicomedia, and Margaret of Antioch. Margaret is my favorite of the three. The was the daughter of a pagan priest, as a baby she was entrusted to the care of a nurse, who happened to be Christian. As she grew up, Margaret became a Christian as well. When this was discovered, she was subjected to many trials of her faith, including being swallowed by the Devil in the form of a dragon. However, the cross she was holding irritated the dragon’s stomach, causing it to explode and freeing Margaret. She was eventually executed for her Christian beliefs. 

There’s another name on our calendar of commemorations this week. Tomorrow is the feast day of Samuel Seabury. Who’s heard of Samuel Seabury?… Who’s heard of him as the first Bishop of the Episcopal Church?… Who’s heard of him as an opponent of Alexander Hamilton?… “Heed not the rabble that scream revolution!”

Seabury’s story is more complicated than the stories of the early martyrs – though it has some moments of drama. He was born in Connecticut in 1729, the son of a priest of the Church of England. He grew up among the educated English upper class of the Colonies, became a priest himself and served parishes in New Jersey and New York

Then there started to be talk, around the Colonies. About no taxation without representation. About liberty. About revolution. Tensions rose between those who named themselves Patriots – those who wanted their own country – and those loyal to the English crown. In 1770 there was a skirmish in Boston which killed five patriots. In 1773 Patriots threw crates of tea into Boston Harbor. 

In 1774, Patriots gathered to set up their own government, forming the first Continental Congress. In April of 1775 came the first real battle of the Revolutionary War, at Lexington and Concord. 

I don’t know how you were taught about the American Revolution. I don’t remember being taught that people were divided. That lots of people thought all this independence nonsense was chaotic, risky, and foolish. That the Continental Congress was controversial; that some people saw it as tyranny. I learned that King George was the tyrant! I certainly don’t remember being taught that the Episcopal Church’s venerated first bishop, Samuel Seabury, fought tooth and nail against our becoming an independent republic. 

The official church biography of Seabury sums it up this way: “During the American Revolution, [Seabury] remained loyal to the British crown and served as a chaplain in the British army.” Well. That’s one way to put it. Another way would be to say that Seabury was vocally, publicly, and fiercely opposed to the Continental Congress, revolution, and independence. Seabury wrote four pamphlets under the pseudonym of “A Westchester Farmer,” making the case to the farmers, merchants, and other ordinary folk of New York – city and state – that this path towards revolution was foolish and dangerous, and would be disastrous to their economic interests. 

The first Letter, published in 1774, begins, “The American Colonies are unhappily involved in a scene of confusion and discord. The bands of civil society are broken; the authority of government weakened, and in some instances taken away: individuals are deprived of their liberty; their property is frequently invaded by violence, and not a single Magistrate has had courage or virtue enough to interpose….” 

Seabury absolutely believed that British rule was best for the colonies. In that first letter, he protests the rampant smuggling of tea to avoid British taxes: “In this trade the laws of our country are trampled upon. The nation [that would be Great Britain] is defrauded of its revenues.” And he concludes his lengthy appeal with some dramatic words about what may lie ahead:  “Think me not too severe. Anarchy and Confusion, Violence and Oppression, distress my country; and I must, and will speak. … Let me intreat you, my Friends, to have nothing to do with these [revolutionaries]…  Peace and quietness suit you best. Confusion, and Discord, and Violence, and War, are sure destruction to the farmer.”

In his third letter, Seabury railed agains the Continental Congress: “[This] Congress… was founded in sedition; its decisions are supported by tyranny… The manner in which [the delegates] were chosen was subversive of all law, and of the very constitution of the province… Liberty under the supreme authority and protection of Great-Britain, is infinitely preferable to slavery under an American Congress.”

Seabury’s letters became a vituperous public debate with an 18-year-old student at King’s College in New York, an eloquent young upstart named Alexander Hamilton, whose writing Seabury describes at one point as “superlatively arrogant and impudent.” If you’re not familiar with the musical “Hamilton,” check out the song “Farmer Refuted” for a musical version of their debate. 

Seabury’s pamphlets were popular, but not popular enough. The revolution was already underway. Seabury had his opportunity to be hated by all. During the war, he was arrested and imprisoned by Patriots; his home was plundered and his children beaten. When the war was over, he lived quietly with a community of other Loyalist sympathizers in New York… until he received word in 1783 that a gathering of priests in Connecticut wanted him to become the first bishop of an independent American branch of the Church of England. There were only fourteen priests in Connecticut at the time – and since it takes bishops to make more priests, and since the Church of England would presumably not be sending them any more priests after the Recent Unpleasantness, they were concerned with the very survival of their way of faith in the new nation. 

Seabury accepted their nomination and traveled to England to seek consecration as a bishop, along with a letter from the group explaining in part, “This part of America is… dismembered from the British Empire; but, notwithstanding the dissolution of our civil connection with the parent state, we still hope to retain the religious polity …. [of] the Church of England.” But despite this appeal, and despite Seabury’s well-documented opposition to the Revolution, the Church of England bishops declined the request. Being consecrated as a Bishop in the Church of England involved an oath of loyalty to the British crown… an oath Seabury, as an American, could not make. However, bishops in the Episcopal Church of Scotland were less concerned with such matters; they consecrated Seabury as bishop on November 14, 1784, 235 years ago last Thursday, and he returned to Connecticut to begin his work. 

Why did Seabury decide to do this? To be a core figure in the founding an independent church, after opposing the founding of an independent nation? Maybe the status associated with being a bishop appealed to him; but I don’t believe he had any illusions that it would be an easy or comfortable life. One of his letters in 1786 complains that he had no settled salary as Bishop of Connecticut, because the populace was so poor in the aftermath of the Revolution. 

I think Seabury must have just loved the church and really wanted to do whatever he could to sustain it and build it. He spent the rest of his life working very hard to do just that. He developed and published the first American liturgy. Between 1791 and 1795, he administered eighteen hundred confirmations. During his eleven years as bishop, he ordained 93 deacons and priests. For much of that time, he was effectively the bishop of all of New England, and traveled the rough roads in all weather to visit churches and clergy in Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and New York.

The grueling pace took its toll. On Feb 25, 1796, at the age of 67, Seabury suffered a heart attack and died. Not a dramatic death like those early martyrs. But nonetheless, a life given for the Church and for God’s work in and through the Church. 

What can we take from Seabury’s life? Well, there’s the reminder that if we look back on history, it turns out that it has often felt like civil society, politics, and the Church were in crisis, dying, and/or devolving into chaos. I find something oddly comforting about that. 

Which leads us to a second point to ponder in relation to the complicated witness of blessed Samuel Seabury. In our youth confirmation class this afternoon, we’re going to talk about one of the Big Questions: Why is the world so broken? 

Why are so many things other than how God intends, to the best that we understand God’s intentions? There’s no one easy answer to that question, but there are a lot of hard answers that are interesting and important. And one of them is: People are fearful about change. People are fearful about losing what they’re used to. I think that’s what Jesus is addressing in our Gospel today when he tells the disciples, You’re going to hear about terrible things – wars and earthquakes, famines and plagues and portents. None of that actually means the world is ending. It’s just history. 

Humans scare easy, and once scared, our judgment is lousy. It’s hard for us to see that the things that we’re invested in, the things that seem natural and good and right and proper to us, are often not the end of God’s story for humanity. In his famous letter from a Birmingham Jail, written in 1963, blessed Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that [African-Americans’] great stumbling block in [the] stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; … who constantly advises [African-Americans] to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’”  

I think most of us are glad that the Revolution happened, despite Seabury’s best efforts; that the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, despite the cautions of those white moderates. But if we’re honest, many of us probably have something where we resonate with that anxiety about changes that seem to undermine the very foundations of the world as we know it. Where deep down we’d like to raise our hand and say, Slower, please. Just… a little slower. 

The third thing, the hopeful thing, I think we can receive from blessed Samuel is that he came through what was, for him, a world-shattering change – and he didn’t just survive; he re-oriented his life and ministry towards what God was doing in this new nation, this new reality. Sometimes it’s not your life you’re asked to give, but your living. The drama of martyrdom might be easy compared to living through big change, living FOR change, offering yourself to the new thing God is doing even when you feel deep ambivalence or grief about what is being left behind. 

As far as we know, Seabury’s faith in God never wavered or changed – nor his love for the church. Rather, his faith and commitment held him steady while the world turned upside down around him – so that he eventually found himself working and praying for the welfare of the nation where he dwelt, like it or not.  The official prayer for Samuel Seabury in the Episcopal Church’s calendar of commemorations invites us to give thanks that our church has bishops, and to join with our bishops in proclaiming the Gospel with missionary zeal. Sure! Amen! But I pray, too,  that blessed Samuel’s life, told in its fulness, will help us find courage and purpose in the face of the changes of our season in the life of the world. 

In Seabury’s diary, in an entry written in the last years of his life, he records a prayer he used every day – the prayer of a man who has learned to trust God’s judgment more than his own; a prayer of self-dedication, committing himself to God’s purposes. Let us pray in Samuel Seabury’s words: 

May God Almighty, who has ever been gracious to me, protect me in this journey; dispose my heart to fear and serve him; enable me to do my duty to his Church with uprightness of heart; and bless this ministers and people under my care with his grace and Holy Spirit. Amen. 

SOURCES & FURTHER READING

A short biography of Seabury from the Episcopal Church in Connecticut: 

https://www.episcopalct.org/Customer-Content/www/CMS/files/Archives/Samuel_Seabury_alternative_biography_.pdf

Lesser Feasts & Fasts (find Seabury on November 18): 

https://extranet.generalconvention.org/staff/files/download/21034

Quotations from letters and contemporary documents come from this source:

https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=GQwCAAAAYAAJ&rdid=book-GQwCAAAAYAAJ&rdot=1

“Life and Correspondence of the Right Reverend Samuel Seabury, D.D.: First Bishop of Connecticut, and of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America,” Eben Edwards Beardsley, published 1881

Read the Farmer letters here:

http://anglicanhistory.org/usa/seabury/farmer/03.html

An overview article, “Reverend Seabury’s Pamphlet War”: 

https://allthingsliberty.com/2013/07/reverend-seaburys-pamphlet-war/

Sermon, Nov. 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BIBLE! TRADITION! BIBLE! TRADITION! 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon, Oct. 20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Main source for information about Sophie in this sermon: 

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

Some more sites about Sophie: 

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

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

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

Sermon, Oct. 13

Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. Does that sound familiar? We say a version of it in our Prayers of the People every week: Work and pray for the good of the city where you dwell, for in its peace we shall find our peace. I’ve heard from folks in the past who assume the “city” in question is Madison, and feel a little offended that we’re leaving out Middleton, Cross Plains, Mount Horeb, Sun Prairie, Black Earth, Verona, and so on. But the city mentioned here, in fact, is Babylon. 

The prophet Jeremiah was born around the year 626 before the birth of Jesus, in a time of instability and threat for Jerusalem and Judea. God called him as a boy to speak God’s words to the nations, and especially to his own nation and its leaders – bringing them the unpopular news that conquest, death and doom are coming. Sure enough, in the year 587, when Jeremiah is around forty years old, the armies of the empire of Babylon march into Judea, killing and destroying as they come. After a long and terrible siege, they conquer the city, and tear down the great Temple. Most of the people of Jerusalem and Judea are killed or exiled. Jeremiah himself ends up in Egypt, dragged along with some nobles fleeing Babylon’s might. 

All that is context for this letter to the exiles, today’s Jeremiah text. You might notice our text skips some verses; that’s just more about when the letter was written and how it was sent. In the verses following our text, Jeremiah speaks for God to say, God’s going to bring you home and restore your nation – but it’s going to be a while. So! Settle in. Build a house! Plant a garden! Make family! Live!  

Last week’s Old Testament text from the book of Lamentations gives us a hint about why this message was needed. The book of Lamentations is exactly what it says on the tin – a book of poetry of grief and loss over the Babylonian conquest. Listen to a few poignant verses:  “Judah has gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude; she lives now among the nations, and finds no resting place… All her people groan as they search for bread; they trade their treasures for food to revive their strength. The Lord is in the right, for I have rebelled against his word; but hear, all you peoples, and behold my suffering; my young women and young men have gone into captivity. In the street the sword bereaves; in the house it is like death. On the day of the anger of the Lord no one escaped or survived; those whom I bore and reared my enemy has destroyed.”  (Lamentations 1, selected verses) 

Jeremiah is speaking to people traumatized, grieving and angry.  And his message, God’s message, is: Choose life. And don’t just survive: Work and pray for Babylon, the capital city of your conquerors. Seek the shalom of Babylon – a wonderful word that combines peace and wellbeing. 

Work and pray for the good fo the city where you dwell. Do Jeremiah’s words speak to us? Many of us have had experiences of otherness or not belonging, minor or major, that have something in common with the Israelites’ experience in Babylon. But few of us probably think of ourselves as exiles, people forced to live among strangers, in a place not our own. 

Yet our Christian ancestors thought of themselves that way – even when living in their hometowns. Their beliefs and practices set them apart, made them not belong. One metaphor they used was that of citizenship, based on Roman citizenship, a distinctive identity that you would carry with you wherever you went, that set you apart and incurred both privileges and obligations. Paul – who was a Roman citizen – writes in the letter to the Philippians, “Our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” (3:20). And the letter to the Ephesians says, “You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and… members of the household of God.” (2:19) So our forbears experienced their faith as a kind of otherness. As making them resident aliens, citizens of another nation – working and praying for the good of the city where they dwelt, but never forgetting that their true identity and loyalty lay elsewhere. 

Then came 1700 years when it was pretty easy to forget. Christianity became the religion of the western world. That marriage of Church, state, and culture that endured so long was called Christendom… and it’s over. I just covered a whole library of historical and sociological literature  in two sentences; take my word for it for now, and let me know if you want to read more.

One of the gifts of Christianity after Christendom is that we have more in common now with our ancestors in faith. When we read in early Christian texts about feeling like outsiders, being seen as strange or dangerous or just eccentric and irrational by our cultured neighbors – well, we can relate. (With the added layer that when Christianity does show up in the public square or the halls of power, it’s often not our Christianity.) So, more than many of the generations in between, we may find some encouragement and direction in the lives of the early Christians, and before them, in the lives of the Jewish exiles. That’s why we use this snippet of Jeremiah in our prayers: Work and pray for the good, the shalom, of the city where you dwell. 

What did that look like, in practice, for God’s people in exile? It looked like Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego – young Israelite men, educated, probably of elite backgrounds – who were brought into the court of King Nebuchadnezzar, to become pampered symbols of Babylon’s conquest of Judea. Now, King Nebuchadnezzar had a giant golden statue of himself made, and issued this edict: “You are commanded, O peoples, nations, and languages, that when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble, you are to fall down and worship the golden statue that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up.” But Jews worship only one god. They will not bow down to false idols, things made by human hands that we give power over ourselves. And people noticed that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were not bowing down to the golden statue that Nebuchadnezzar had set up. So they told the king. And King Nebuchadnezzar in a furious rage had the three young men flung into a fiery furnace, because they would not worship him as a god. But the flames did not hurt them! When they came out again, the hair of their heads was not singed, their tunics were not harmed. Nebuchadnezzar was amazed and issued a new edict: Blessed be the god of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and let everyone honor their god, who has shown such power in saving them from the fire! 

Daniel, for his part, earned the esteem of Nebuchadnezzar for his wisdom in interpreting dreams. A few years later, after Nebuchadnezzar was dead, his son Belshazzar held a great feast. And under the influence of wine, Belshazzar had the holy vessels from the Great Temple in Jerusalem, that his father’s armies had stolen, brought out, and they drank wine from them. And suddenly, Belshazzar saw a hand appear and begin to write on the wall – mysterious words he could not read. The King was terrified. He called in all his sorcerers and scholars. 

He told them that anyone who could tell him what the writing meant would be dressed in royal purple, with a gold chain around his neck, and be ranked third in the kingdom. But no one could read the writing on the wall. (Yes, this is where that saying comes from.) Then the queen said, Remember that young Judean man who was so good at interpreting your father’s dreams? Perhaps he can help. 

So Daniel was summoned. And the king told him, ‘If you can read this writing, you shall be clothed in purple, have a chain of gold around your neck, and rank third in the kingdom.’ But Daniel said, O King, keep your gifts! You have exalted yourself agains the Lord of Heaven, the only true God, by drinking wine from the vessels of God’s holy Temple. You worship gods of silver and gold, wood and stone; but the God in whose power is your very breath, and to whom belong all your ways, you have not honored. The writing on the wall is a message from the God of Israel, and this is what it says:  MENE, MENE, TEKEL PARSIN, which means, God has numbered the days of your kingdom.You have been weighed, and found wanting. Your kingdom will be taken from you and divided. Then Belshazzar gave the command, and Daniel was clothed in purple, and a gold chain put around his neck, and it was decreed that he should rank third in the kingdom. And that very night… King Belshazzar died. 

And then there is Esther, a young Jewish woman who lived a few decades later, a descendant of the exiles. When the Judeans were allowed to return to Jerusalem, fifty years after the Exile, not everyone chose to return. Esther’s family was among those who had followed Jeremiah’s advice so well that they stayed in their new homes. But they were still Jews – set apart by their beliefs and practices, and by their neighbors’ suspicions. By an unlikely series of events, Esther ends up married King Ahasuerus, the local ruler.  The king and the court don’t know that Esther is a Jew. Meanwhile, an adviser to the king, named Haman, has a grudge against Mordecai, Esther’s uncle, because Haman thinks he’s really important… and Mordecai doesn’t. 

So Haman tells the king that these Jews who live in the city – they’re not really just like everybody else. They have different values, a different way of life. They don’t really belong here. Maybe we should throw them out. Maybe we should kill them. 

The king says, Sure, do what you want. Issue an edict in my name: On such and such a day, we’ll get rid of the Jews.

Mordecai sends word to Esther: You have to do something! You have to change the King’s mind! It’s the only hope for your people. Perhaps you were raised to this high position for just such a time as this!

Esther is afraid; this isn’t a warm, chummy marriage – she only sees the king when he sends for her.  But she summons her courage and invites him to dinner. She chooses her moment and makes her case. She reminds the king that Mordecai, her uncle, once uncovered a plot to assassinate him!  The Jews are good citizens, loyal and helpful! She asks him to spare her life, and the lives of all her people. The king reverses his edict, instead protecting the Jews – and Haman is executed. 

Build houses and live in them; plant gardens; work for the welfare of the place where you find yourself… but never forget who, and whose, you are; for you are still God’s people, even in exile. For the three young men, that meant refusing to bow down to the golden idols, those false and empty gods. For Daniel, it meant taking the opportunities that came his way – being honored and esteemed by those in power, but also being ready to tell them the truth, no matter what the cost. For Esther, it meant being bold about using her position and voice, trusting that God had prepared her for such a time as this. 

Daniel and Esther and the others were God’s gift to the places where they lived. The resident alien, the outsider, the person pushed to the margins, a step or two outside of mainstream culture, our accepted norms and shared assumptions – 

Those people often see things a little more clearly. Like the Samaritan in today’s Gospel story. We’ve invited to assume the other nine lepers were Jews. People who had skin diseases were ostracized, cut off from normal social and religious life. It makes sense that misfits from different social backgrounds would hang out together – we’ve all seen those movies. But then the club breaks up: the nine do what Jesus, and their religion, tell them to do – if your leprosy goes away, naturally or miraculously, you’re supposed to go to the priest to be cleared to resume normal life. What they do makes perfect sense to them. But for the Samaritan, that’s not his faith, not his practice. That’s WHY he is the one who says, Heck with the priests; that guy back there – he’s the one who cleansed me! I need to go back and thank him! 

Work and pray for the shalom of the city where you dwell. 

I think there’s real grace in this invitation to be in the world, but not entirely of it. To be present and engaged, while remembering our true loyalties. Seek the welfare of the city where you dwell, be it Madison, Middleton, Fitchburg, Mount Horeb, and so on… but remember that you just live there. Our citizenship is in the Body of Christ – an idea that may be a comfort some days, a challenge on others!  The values and orientations and practices that we carry inside us may put us at odds – at times SHOULD put us at odds – with the world around us, in expected and unexpected ways. 

May we inherit Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego’s clarity about what’s worthy of our loyalty. May we inherit Daniel’s readiness to speak the unpopular truth. May we inherit Esther’s courage in using whatever measure of privilege, status and connection we may have to speak up for those demonized and in danger. May we work and pray for the good of the city where we dwell… for in its peace we shall find our peace. Amen. 

Sermon, August 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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