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Sermon, June 2

The Gospels contain a good handful of stories about Jesus healing on the sabbath. There’s this one, the story of the man with the withered hand, here in the Gospel of Mark – and also told in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, which use Mark as a source text. There’s another in Luke chapter 13, when Jesus heals a woman who has something wrong with her back; she is bent over and can’t stand straight, and has been living with this condition for eighteen years. In the fifth chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus sees a man who has been disabled, and living as a beggar, for thirty-eight years, and he heals him; later on he also restores sight to a young man who is blind, also on the sabbath. 

In each of these stories Jesus is challenged about these acts, which some onlookers see as violation of sabbath-keeping. And he has a number of snappy responses. He says, “Shouldn’t this woman be set free from her bondage on the Sabbath day?” He says, “My Father is still working [today], and so am I.” He says, “It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” And in today’s Mark passage, he says, “The Sabbath was created for humans; humans weren’t created for the Sabbath. This is why the Son of Man is Lord even over the Sabbath.”

These many accounts make me think this is something Jesus really did. He healed and helped a lot of people, and sometimes he did it on the Sabbath, the holy day set aside to rest from work; and that upset some people, who felt that this was breaking the sabbath, or perhaps upstaging God on a holy day. 

To really understand these stories we need to pause and talk about sabbath. What does that mean? In Judaism, the Sabbath is a day, once a week, set apart for rest and worship. God practices sabbath in the Biblical day of creation – creating light, dark, earth and water, and all living things, then resting on the seventh day. 

Keeping Sabbath is mandated in the Ten Commandments, the way of life given to God’s people through Moses long ago: “Remember the Sabbath day and treat it as holy. Six days you may work and do all your tasks, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. Do not do any work on it—not you, your sons or daughters, your servants, your animals, or the immigrant who is living with you.” (Exodus 20:8-11, CEB).

For modern Jews who observe the sabbath, that means things like not flipping light switches or turning on the oven to cook a meal – because the Book of Exodus says, “You shall kindle no fire in your dwellings on the Sabbath day.” If you have a fancy lunch after Sabbath worship, members of your community can’t prepare it or clean it up.

It’s important for us as outsiders to understand that those practices – those restrictions – are not the heart of Sabbath. Those are outwards signs intended to move people into a way of being, a mindset of intentional rest. It’s a time of the week, Friday sunset to Saturday sunset, separated from the rest of life by a hard line – set apart as a reminder that they are a people set apart, called and chosen to honor God by their way of living. 

Many of us recently lost power for a few hours or a few days. Think about how you would organize your life if there were going to be 24 hours every week when you could not turn anything on. It would become an important rhythm in your life; you would orient much of your week around preparing for and protecting that holy time. 

So what does it mean when Jesus says that the Sabbath was created for humans; humans weren’t created for the Sabbath? 

It means, for one thing, that Sabbath isn’t something God needs. That’s a common theme in the books of the prophets from before the time of Jesus: God doesn’t need our religious observances.

The Hebrew Bibles states pretty clearly that none of the religious observances of God’s first people are set up to meet God’s needs. For example, God doesn’t ask for animal sacrifices because God is hungry. 

Rather, these practices are tools to form God’s people. That’s the reframing Jesus is doing about the sabbath – and it’s both radical, and consistent with the witness of the prophets before him. He’s saying that the point of the sabbath is to point us towards God. And if there are aspects of our sabbath-keeping that don’t point us towards God, then maybe change is needed. 

And Sabbath is also, fundamentally, explicitly, about rest – so that God’s people don’t work themselves to utter exhaustion and depletion. Which means that sabbath is also about human wholeness and flourishing. 

So there are two different ways in which the sabbath was made for humanity, as a gift: to help people turn back towards God, our loving Creator, and to provide a weekly pause, a time of rest and recovery. 

Matthew and Luke tell this story, from Mark, in their Gospels. But they don’t like this saying of Jesus! They’re comfortable saying that Jesus – the Son of Man – is Lord of the sabbath. But both of them edit out Jesus saying that the Sabbath was created for humans. I think they’re just too committed to the Judaism of their ancestors to feel OK about the idea that how we keep sabbath is less important than what sabbath does inside of us. 

For Jesus, refusing to heal someone – to offer them a physical restoration that they desire – because it happens to be the sabbath, feels like itself a violation of sabbath. He seems to feel that these leaders who are saying, “Just wait and do it tomorrow,” have a distorted sense of sabbath that’s no longer pointing towards God and God’s intentions for humanity. 

As our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry likes to say, If it’s not about love, it’s not about God. 

Let me gesture towards a couple of nuances! I want to be clear that the pushback on Jesus’ Sabbath healings seems to me like a religious leader thing, not a Jewish thing. As somebody who presides over public worship, I understand the feeling that there’s a decorum and an order and a purpose in spaces like this that can be disrupted, even by good things. I think we’ve gotten pretty good at handling joyful disruption here at St. Dunstan’s, but that has taken time and work, and it’s somewhat countercultural with respect to the wider church. Many of the people who feel called to roles like mine are people who like know what’s going on in the room and what’s going to happen next, and that’s probably true always and everywhere. 

The second nuance has to do with disability and healing. It’s not clear in every story, but I sure hope that these people approached Jesus seeking healing – and that Jesus didn’t see a withered hand or a crooked back and think, “Well, we gotta fix THAT.” There’s a big project underway, church, of shifting our understanding of human wholeness and flourishing so that it doesn’t presume bodies look or work in particular ways – or minds either, for that matter. 

There’s a book I’d like to read – maybe some people would like to read it with me – called, “My body is not a prayer request: Disability justice in the church.” There are good reasons for people to desire physical healing – especially in societies that limit and stigmatize on them. There are also good reasons for us all to come to greater respect for disabled people, and their presence, giftedness and worth. 

Okay. Back to sabbath. As Christians, we don’t keep sabbath. Just a few weeks ago we read about the early church’s active and somewhat contentious discernment process about what aspects of Jewish law should be binding for Christians. And Sabbath did not make the cut. People will sometimes talk about Sunday as our sabbath but we did not, in those early decades and centuries, take on the prohibitions and practices that would have really set apart Sunday as a true sabbath in that way. 

There are a few Christian groups that have more of a true sabbath practice, but it’s never been dominant in our faith. 

So does Jesus’ saying here – the sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the sabbath – have anything to say to us? 

We as Episcopalians are not sabbath keepers, but we can be a little particular about how we worship. We’re a few weeks out from our next General Convention, the every-three-years gathering of bishops and elected deputies from across the church to pass legislation on church matters. Which means we’re in the throes of another round of angst about liturgical revision. 

I will not get into the weeds about that here! It does not concern us much. But when we’re talking about altering our received patterns of worship – revising or editing the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, for example – we are very much talking about whether humanity was made made for the sabbath, or the sabbath for humanity. 

Are these ways of worship a requirement from Above that we must enact precisely in order to fulfill all righteousness, or are thee just tools to bring us into God’s presence, such that when they are not doing that very well, we should change them? 

As Anglicans, our way of faith BEGAN with one great big discernment that we needed to dramatically change our way of worship for it to actually bring people closer to God. 

Thomas Cranmer, charged by King Henry VIII with creating an English church, wrote in the preface of the first English Book of Common Prayer in 1549, “There was never any thing by the wit of man so well devised, or so sure established, which in continuance of time hath not been corrupted…” Sometime, grab a prayer book and read that preface in full; it’s in the Historical Documents section in the back of the book. 

It’s very clear that Cranmer’s motive for advancing worship in English instead of Latin, and for simplifying worship and including more Scripture in worship, was to help ordinary people develop their own piety and spirituality. Cranmer emphatically believed that the sabbath was made for humanity, and that time-honored practices of worship could – must – be changed in order to help humans approach the Holy. And he did not think he was creating the one thing that would work forever. He anticipated continued revision. 

I’m astonished sometimes by the degree to which some Episcopalians in the larger church can lose the plot on what makes us Anglican, and start to talk as if we were made for the 1979 Prayerbook, and not the prayerbook made for us. 

The purpose of liturgy, and how best to fulfill it, is interesting to me; it may be interesting to a few of you as well. If so, let’s chat; I’m thinking of re-gathering a liturgy committee later this year and maybe you’d enjoy being part of that. But let me turn to something relevant to more of us. 

Sabbath as a word and concept has escaped its specific historical and religious context and is used somewhat more broadly, in secular contexts. 

When I hear people talk about sabbath in that more general sense, I think they mean not just a break from the pace and demands of daily life, but a time that allows some restoration of what has been worn or depleted or damaged by that pace and those demands. 

Sabbath includes rest – sleeping and napping, or down time without much agenda. Space to do things you enjoy, things you can choose freely to do – or not.

Sabbath is different from vacation, because vacation can be its own kind of work, right? Keeping up with the itinerary, dealing with logistics, checking things off the bucket list, attending to everyone’s needs and expectations. Vacation can be exhausting. 

I try to take two days off a week – usually Saturday and Monday, my “weekend,” though there is sometimes church stuff on Saturdays. Like everyone else, I have a certain quota of adulting, of small and large responsibilities to attend to, during the hours that aren’t committed to my work as rector of St. Dunstan’s. 

It does not happen every week, but it feels so good when, now and then, I have enough time that I can finish doing one thing and the next thing isn’t already cued up: checking the bank account, doing laundry, making dinner. Instead, I can ask myself, “What would I like to do now?” 

That kind of time is hard to come by. But I feel like that’s an element of sabbath. Sabbath isn’t just a day off work to do all the other work that life requires. It’s time – a lot or a little – that’s somehow spacious enough that we can follow our hearts, and truly rest. 

And because God’s agenda for us includes human wellbeing and flourishing, this is not really a secularization of the concept of sabbath. This is just … Sabbath. Returning to ourselves; having time to tend to ourselves, and to people and activities we love. 

This week brings the end of the school year for some of our kids and their families. It’s a season when patterns and rhythms change, for many households – which does NOT mean more free time, and indeed can mean more scrambling, and less of the comfort of structure and routine. 

For me summer always feels like a ten-week struggle for the right balance between taking time at work for some bigger-picture thinking and planning for the year ahead, AND trying to work less and rest and play more. It has its own kind of intensity, and sabbath can be just as elusive as during the program year. 

Here on the cusp of summer, friends, whatever your circumstances, whatever the turn of the season means or doesn’t mean for you: it’s never a bad time to think about sabbath. 

To remember that God called God’s first people to pause, and re-center, and rest… and still calls us to the same. 

To wonder about whether and where we might be able, through some strategic saying No to this or Yes to that, to open up even a little bit of sabbath spaciousness in our lives and hearts. 

And to know deeply that what God wants for us, from us, includes rest, restoration, playfulness and joy. 

Homily, May 5

Our Acts lesson today is a slightly abbreviated version of Acts Chapter 15. 

This chapter of Acts, about the leaders of the church in Jerusalem deciding to endorse the mission to the Gentiles, is not in the Sunday lectionary. And I think that’s a shame, because it’s an important story! Most of us are here because the early church, by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, made this decision. 

Father John Rasmus and I talked about this story a couple of weeks ago, as we often talk about upcoming readings. With his extensive knowledge of Scripture, he helped me notice some things about this story. Luke, the author of the book of the Acts of the Apostles, is telling this story a certain way. Peter and James, core leaders in the Jerusalem church, are the main characters. Peter is shown as a strong supporter of sharing the Gospel with Gentiles. And Luke makes it sound like the church came to a clear and settled consensus at this meeting. 

But we have a lot of Paul’s letters included in the Bible as Epistles, and Paul tells this story a different way. He describes this meeting in Jerusalem, in Galatians chapter 2. In Luke, Peter says, “Early on, God chose me from among you as the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and come to believe.” Whereas Paul says, “…They saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel for the uncircumcised [Gentiles], just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel for the circumcised – for the One who worked through Peter making him an apostle to the circumcised also worked through me in sending me to the Gentiles.”

Peter met a Roman once and said, “Huh, I guess you could actually become a Christian too!” Paul poured out his life preaching Christ crucified and risen to Gentiles, making disciples and founding churches. 

But: Peter was understood to be Jesus’ chosen leader for the early church. So Luke – writing this history later than Paul’s letters – tells the story in a way that puts Peter more solidly on the right side of history than he probably was at the time. 

In fact, Paul tells an additional story. Sometime after this big meeting, Peter comes to visit the church in Antioch, and at first he shares meals with the Gentile Christians there. But then he gets a rebuke or warning from people who are still saying that there’s something unclean about Gentile Christians who don’t follow Jewish law – and that Peter, as a faithful Jewish Christian, shouldn’t be sitting at table with them. And Peter stops sharing meals with the church. 

Paul calls him out for hypocrisy, and for betraying the Gospel! He says to Peter in front of everybody, “If you, although you are a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, because though the Gospel you no longer follow the rules of our Jewish faith, then how can you force Gentiles to live like Jews?!?!” (Galatians 2:14). 

Now, Paul is telling the story in a way that puts HIM on the right side of history, certainly. But it complicates Luke’s narrative. Father John wonders whether they had to send some extra people to carry that letter because Paul disagreed with the letter and refused to be their messenger. In that letter, the Jerusalem leaders say that Gentiles need to avoid meat from animals sacrificed to idols – killed as part of the rituals of other religions. Paul writes about that issue a couple of places in his letters, and he thinks that’s nonsense – that those idols are false and empty, those rituals are meaningless, and that meat is meat. 

There’s nothing strange about all this; indeed it might feel all too familiar. People with strong opinions wrestling their way through big change. A complex, conflicted process being described after the fact as if it had been simple and clear. People in institutional leadership being retconned, or retconning themselves, into having always held the position that is now the correct position to hold. 

Change is messy. Consider the last 60 years in the Episcopal Church. Prayer book revision; the ordination of women; the movement towards the full inclusion of LGBTQ+ people; working to decenter whiteness in a church with deep cultural roots in the white middle class. I could point to so many examples of big struggles and debates. Of movements for change and movements of resistance. Of leaders who feel uncomfortable with a particular change, but can see that it’s where the Spirit is leading the church. … And leaders who can’t. 

People on the vanguard are always frustrated with the people who are dragging their heels – like Paul’s frustration with Peter. But some of those dragging their heels aren’t just doing it for its own sake; whatever change is in the air just feels big and new and strange to them. 

In this gathering in Jerusalem we see an honest effort to hash out an issue that folks have very deep-seated feelings about, and to try to discern where the Holy Spirit is leading – even though it feels to some folks that the church is letting go of some really important, holy stuff. 

But people tell stories. And maybe even more importantly: People listen. And through listening and sharing, as much as though stating and debating, openness begins to emerge. 

The church begins to be able to make room for the new thing God is doing. It’s not easy; it’s not clear; it’s not settled. That takes much longer. But something breaks open, begins to unfold. 

This story makes me feel grounded and grateful – aware of the ways the Church today is a lot like the church two thousand years ago, and that somehow, in spite of ourselves, God keeps working with and through us. May it always be so. Amen. 

Sermon, April 14

On Sundays in Easter season, instead of Old Testament readings, our calendar of readings gives us texts from the Book of the Acts of the Apostles. Acts is the sequel to the gospel of Luke, which tells about what happened after Jesus’ resurrection – how the disciples began to share the Gospel far and wide, and to found a network of faith communities. There’s a lot of exciting stuff in the book of Acts – funny stories, scary stories, adventure stories. This year I’ve tinkered with the lectionary calendar a bit, to give us a little more of the larger story of Acts. 

With that, let’s turn to today’s story. First: Who is this Philip? There was a disciple named Philip, one of the Twelve, but this is not that Philip. This Philip is one of the first deacons. In Acts chapter 6, we read, “Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food.” 

There’s a lot implied here; let’s unpack. The Christian community in Jerusalem is growing fast, and it includes both people of Jewish background – Hebrews – and non-Jews, Gentiles, here described as “Hellenists.” And: One of the things the brand-new Christian community is doing, is feeding the hungry – distributing food. 

Last week we heard, “There were no poor people among [the first Christians]. Those who owned properties or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds from the sales, and place them in the care and under the authority of the apostles. Then it was distributed to anyone who was in need.” Widows – women without a man to provide for them – were a particularly vulnerable population. So the church is providing food. But because the core leadership of the church are all Jews at this point, there is either a bias in food distribution, or a perception of bias in food distribution, in favor of the Jewish widows. 

The leaders of the church – the Twelve Disciples, who have rebranded as the Twelve Apostles – offer one of the classic responses of authority challenged: They say, “That’s not our job.” They say: “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait at tables.” So they have seven men chosen to take charge of this humble task of distributing food fairly. And seven men are duly chosen, and the apostles pray and lay their hands on them. Luke never uses the word “deacon,” but these are understood to be the first deacons – people called by the church, and ordained to a role of service, both within the church and towards the wider community.

But! It very quickly becomes clear that some of these deacons have been chosen either very badly or very well, depending on your perspective. One of them, Stephen, immediately goes out and starts preaching the Gospel – and arguing with critics. Many people become Christians because of his words. He is arrested, tried, and condemned to death, and becomes the first Christian martyr. So much for waiting at tables.

And then there’s Philip. After Stephen’s death, many leaders in the Jerusalem church scatter. Philip goes to Samaria in the north; he preaches there and casts out demons, and many people are converted, including a former magician named Simon, which is a fun little story. Then he gets this message from God to head down to the road that leads south from Jerusalem towards Gaza, and see what happens. There he meets the Ethiopian eunuch, and today’s story unfolds.

I want to be clear that Philip is not only stepping far out of the role to which he was called; he is getting well ahead of the church. The people of Samaria, north of Judea, were seen by other Jews as religiously dubious. That’s part of the background for the parable of the Good Samaritan, for example. 

When a bunch of people there become Christians through Philip’s ministry, Peter and John – the core leaders of the early church – have to come to Samaria to make sure all of this is in order. 

And then Philip rushes off and baptizes an Ethiopian eunuch, who is even more of an outsider than Samaritans. At this point in the book of Acts, Paul, who will become the great apostle to the Gentiles, hasn’t even become a Christian yet. He was literally just holding people’s coats while they stoned Stephen to death. The early church will not fully endorse ministry to non-Jews until chapter 15, and it takes some real discernment and argumentation to get there. 

Philip does not wait on church consensus. He hears God say, Go there. Talk to him. And he goes, and talks. 

After Acts chapter 8, which is mostly about Philip, we don’t hear anything else about him except a brief mention in chapter 21. Luke and others visit Philip in Caesarea, and meet his four young daughters, who have the gift of prophesy. I feel like it’s very on brand for Philip to have a houseful of young people who are just full to overflowing with the spirit of God. 

So. That’s Philip. Now let me say a little about the Ethiopian eunuch. Tradition has given him several names, and using a name feels better than referring to him by these labels, so let’s call him Simeon. But we need to talk about his labels. First, he’s Ethiopian – that’s straightforward enough. Ethiopia is in East Africa, south and east of Egypt and the Sudan. It’s one of the oldest civilizations in the world, with cultural and economic relationships to Ancient Egypt, Rome, and many other kingdoms and empires over the millennia. 

It’s not surprising that an educated first-century Ethiopian would have been familiar with Jewish faith and scriptures, as Simeon is, nor that a wealthy Ethiopian might travel as far as Jerusalem. (There is still a significant community of Ethiopian Jews in Israel!) 

As for Simeon’s job, the Candace or Kandake seems to have been a queen or a queen-mother figure in the Ethiopian kingdom of Luke’s time. There’s archaeological evidence for this kind of role: a female ruler, the king’s mother or sister, secondary to the king, but with her own court and treasury. 

Which brings us to the more difficult part of Simeon’s identity: That he was a eunuch. Look, it would be easier to assume we all know what that word means and hurry along, but my commitment to understanding Scripture won’t let me do that. (I was going to prep this story as a Sunday school lesson until I started to think about it!) I am not going to go into details, but let me read a few sentences from the Wikipedia entry, OK? 

“A eunuch is a male who has been castrated… Over the millennia…, [eunuchs] have performed a wide variety of functions in many different cultures… Eunuchs would usually be servants or slaves who had been castrated to make them less threatening servants of a royal court where physical access to the ruler could wield great influence… Eunuchs supposedly did not… have loyalties to the military, the aristocracy, or a family of their own. They were thus seen as more trustworthy…Because their condition usually lowered their social status, they could also be easily replaced or killed without repercussion.”

I think that’s helpful in terms of not just the physicality of Simeon’s identity as a eunuch, but the cultural and psychological aspects. 

He carried great trust and responsibility – because he was seen as someone who didn’t have a stake in anything, no agenda of his own to advance. I hasten to say that I don’t think the capacity to produce biological children has some intrinsic tie to personality and motivation! – but that’s the understanding at work, here. 

In Jewish law, as laid out in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, eunuchs were forbidden to enter the tablernacle or temple – the holy places where God’s people came before God. That prohibition was a reflection of a general discomfort, in Mosaic Law, with things that are neither this nor that, that don’t fit into the dominant categories.

So Simeon was a double outsider, to Philip. A non-Jew, a foreigner, visibly different due to his dark skin, though that would not have carried the same racial implications it does today. And a eunuch – a social role that bore a paradoxical combination of privilege and stigma. But Philip – being Philip – seems totally unconcerned by any of that. They talk about the Bible, and Philip talks about Jesus, and then Simeon asks about baptism, and Philip says: Let’s do this. 

I want to pause on the fact that this encounter happens on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. Gaza as a place-name goes way back; in the Bible it’s first used in Genesis. For millennia it’s been a region close to Israelite territory – sometimes enemies, sometimes just neighbors. I wondered about that road, so I put it into Google Maps – How does someone get from Jerusalem to Gaza today? Google Maps told me, “Sorry, we could not calculate driving directions.” The road is there, but it stops at the northern border of Gaza. The borders are closed, right now – to civilian traffic and to most humanitarian aid. 

Philip and Simeon’s encounter happened during a time of open roads, under the paradoxical peace of the Roman Empire – the Pax Romana, in which many nations and kingdoms were, for a while, under one global power that made them get along. I don’t think a new worldwide empire is a good solution today. I just want to notice that Simeon and Philip could meet – and so much of the missionary work of the early church was possible – because of those open borders. Because people were able to move and share and connect. God’s holy possibilities have the best chance of unfolding into human realities when we aren’t barred and bound from encountering one another. 

I have spent a lot of time with the story of Philip and Simeon in the past few months because of my role helping grade the General Ordination Exams, the written exam taken by everyone seeking ordination to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church. The question I graded this year asked candidates for Biblical texts to support the Episcopal Church’s position on the full human dignity of transgender people. This story is one of the texts many candidates chose – probably because they have read queer theology or Bible commentaries that use this story to help make a Scriptural case for the full inclusion of LGBTQ+ people. 

The fact that Simeon was, undeniably, a stigmatized sexual minority, has become a stepping stone to theological work building bridges from Simeon to gay, trans, and other queer identities in the church. 

There are really important ways Simeon’s identity as a eunuch is different from transgender identity. Becoming a eunuch in the ancient world was not the emergence from the inside out of a deep and true sense of self, as a gender transition can be. Rather, it was something forced upon you, a violent act by people with power over your body and your future. 

Furthermore, the whole point of eunuchs was this idea that they would be fully loyal to their role because they couldn’t have children. Trans people can very much have children and families – and I think we’ve gotten a little wiser about not assuming that having children is the only path to a meaningful life! 

Simeon was not transgender. Or at least: We have no reason to think that Simeon was transgender. But he was someone who didn’t fit people’s categories, with respect to sexuality and gender, in a way that was stigmatized, that pushed him to the margins. 

A young friend recently shared a video clip of a trans woman explaining that God made her trans as a test. She goes on to clarify: Not a test for ME. A test for other people. To see if they’re able to love me the way God loves me. 

This story about Philip and Simeon – it’s not a conversion story, in which someone without faith comes to faith. Simeon is already a believer in Israel’s God; that’s why he made pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He has taken the first big step into belief already, and now he wants to understand more deeply; that’s why he’s studying Scripture. 

Philip seizes the opportunity presented by the particular Isaiah passage he’s reading – one of the so-called Suffering Servant songs, which Christians have been interpreting as pointing towards Jesus since, apparently, this exact moment. Philip tells Simeon about Jesus, this man who preached justice and love, and welcomed those at the margins; and who was executed, but rose from the dead, and told his followers to baptize people into this new family of faith, the church. And Simeon hears something that touches his heart – and when they see some kind of seasonal pond along the road, he asks, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” 

I love that phrasing. It’s like he’s challenging Philip to withhold baptism, to prove that this Gospel is not as welcoming as he claims. At the temple in Jerusalem, Simeon would have been doubly excluded – as a eunuch and as a non-Jew, despite his belief – from anything beyond the outermost Court of the Gentiles. He wants to know: Does Jesus, and Jesus’ church, welcome me fully as I am? Here’s some water. Prove it. 

Philip doesn’t convert Simeon. Simeon already believes; God is at work in his heart and his life. This encounter isn’t a test for Simeon. It’s a test for Philip, and for the church.  

Philip is whisked away to preach elsewhere, and Simeon goes on his way, rejoicing. I wish, a little bit, that the story ended differently: that Simeon brought his voice, his background and faith, his beautiful and challenging self, to the Jerusalem church, and helped shape its growth. But instead, he takes the Gospel home, to Ethiopia. Christianity takes root and spreads there, and boy, does it bear fruit. 

Christianity becomes the state religion in Ethiopia in the year 330, a full fifty years before the same thing happened in Rome. The Garima Gospels, dating from around the year 500, are the world’s oldest surviving illuminated Christian manuscripts. Ethiopian Christianity is not well known in the wider world but it is deep and old and rich and lovely. Our smaller processional cross is Ethiopian, decorated with the distinctive style of Ethiopian Christian art. Our practice of honoring the Gospel book by carrying a canopy above it in procession is borrowed indirectly from the Ethiopian Orthodox churches. 

And look up some photos of Ethiopian church forests online sometime! Listen to this short description: “The church forests in Ethiopia are small fragments of forest surrounding Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Churches. Northern Ethiopia was once covered in forests, but due to deforestation for agriculture, only about 4% of the original forested lands remain. Church leaders have long held the belief that a church needs to be surrounded by a forest, and these sacred forests have been tended for some 1,500 years…. There are around 35,000… church forests in the region.” (Wikipedia)

All of this, I find, leads me to questions rather than conclusions. I have focused here on trans folks because of all those GOE essays – and because I do believe that the Episcopal Church in general and St. Dunstan’s in particular are called to deeper affirmation of the holy belovedness of trans and non-binary people. 

But I think there are lots of kinds of people who could sit in Simeon’s seat in this story. Some of them wait in frustration for the church to see them as prophets instead of problems. Some of them aren’t connected with church at all, and are building new worlds driven by their own inner sense of holy possibility, while the church misses out on coming to know them, because we’re too fearful or shy or invested in the way things have always been.

What people of deep and eager faith are just waiting to be seen, named, and welcomed, today? 

What new churches is God longing to build, in our time? 

Homily, Palm Sunday

Before we continue into the Passion Gospel, I want to offer a brief reflection on the Palm Gospel. Why are people waving palms at Jesus? Why are we waving palms at Jesus? 

I don’t know when it became a custom to cut palm branches and wave them as part of a celebratory procession. But it’s described quite clearly in the first book of Maccabees, written maybe 150 years before the time of Jesus: “[The people entered Jerusalem] with praise and palm branches, and with harps and cymbals and stringed instruments… because a great enemy had been crushed.” (1 Macc 13:51). And then in Second Maccabees, the people use palms to honor their hero: “Carrying ivy-wreathed wands and beautiful branches and also fronds of palm, they offered hymns of thanksgiving to [the one who had purified their holy place].” (2 Macc 10:7). 

That all sounds a lot like what happens in the Palm Gospel, right? So: it’s a thing people did, to celebrate a triumph or honor an important leader. And we know from the writings of a Christian pilgrim named Egeria that by the 380s or so, Christians in Jerusalem were observing Palm Sunday with a procession waving palms. So, fairly early on, the church started to not just tell these holy stories at this special time of year, but to act them out, to some extent. 

Why palms? The simple answer is: Palms were around. There are various kinds of palm trees that grow all over the world. (Did you know that palms, as a family, are very old, and that palms are more closely related to grass than to other trees?) 

But you don’t see a lot of palms in Wisconsin, right? Generally speaking, palms like warmer places. 

So what happened when Christianity moved out of warmer parts of the world, to places where palms didn’t grow… and before you could order palms shipped to your church in Wisconsin? 

A friend shared some research on Facebook a few weeks back that got me thinking. I learned that in Ireland, where palms were not readily available, branches from local trees like yew, fir, spruce, and cypress were used. Those are all conifers – probably because in Ireland as in Wisconsin, Easter often arrives before our deciduous trees have leafed out! 

Palm Sunday became known as “Yew Sunday”… and one historian recalled that in his childhood in Ireland in the 1830s, yew was always called “palm.” That seems to have been true in parts of England as well. 

In other parts of Europe, Christians used willow wands instead of palm branches, when decorating for Palm Sunday. One source from 1530 describes “Palm” as “the yellow that groweth on wyllowes.” 

Has anybody ever seen a pussy willow, the kind of willow with the cute little gray fuzzy buds on it?… In some parts of Germany that was called “palmkätzchen,” meaning “palm kitten”! 

And in Finland, on Palm Sunday, children dress up as Easter Witches and go around to houses in their neighborhood trading decorated willow branches for candy! How does that sound?… 

This is all very charming but I think there’s something deeper here. The only really honest Palm Sunday I’ve ever had is the year Phil and I were in Uganda, and people WERE just cutting palm branches from the palm trees surrounding the church – as the crowd outside Jerusalem would have done, in Jesus’ time. 

I wonder if we went wrong somehow when we all started importing palms from Florida or South America for our Palm Sunday observances – spending money and resources to bring in something that doesn’t belong here. As if what kind of branches we were waving was important to how well we tell this story. 

Some churches have shifted away from palms to use whatever is local, and it’s not a new thought for me either. But I’m thinking about it a little more deeply this year, for both ecological and theological reasons. 

Ecologically speaking: It would make a very small difference if St. Dunstan’s stopped ordering palms that have to be shipped and refrigerated, using fossil fuels, to get them into our hands. But it would make a difference. 

Theologically speaking… It seems to me that when we go out of our way to use palms in our enactment of this story, we are treating them as a prop, like in the world of theater. When you’re preparing to perform a play, if the play calls for a sword, or a lion, or a palm, you come up with a sword, or a lion, or a palm. (Though if this were REALLY theater, we’d probably make some nice sturdy cardboard palms we could use again and again!) 

But what we do on Palm and Passion Sunday isn’t theater. Even though we have people reading lines, telling a story together with their voices – even acting out parts of it. 

It is close to theater. But it’s something else – in ways I’m struggling to put into words. Partly it’s that we are all participants, not audience, even though only some people read the voices. Partly it’s because this isn’t a story that some of us offer to others; it’s a story that belongs to all of us, that encompasses all of us. Partly it’s that, while many kinds of stories carry deep truth, this story makes a particular claim to truth, for us – on us. 

So. I wonder. I wonder if we would be entering the story more fully by using sprays of the yew and cypress and spruce that grow gladly on our church grounds. Maybe we could develop a custom of a spring pruning, the week before Palm Sunday.

Listen: If you’re thinking, but I *like* the palms, please know: I don’t want to shame anybody for feeling some resistance to this idea. I decided to order the palms, this year – and every previous year!  

And I understand the appeal of tradition, our attachment to what is familiar, what reminds us of childhood. I actually quite miss the long palms we used to order before we, along with many other churches, shifted to fair trade eco-palms a few years ago. I have happy memories of folding and plaiting those palms during long Passion Gospel readings. 

If this were a light decision, we would have made it already. 

But maybe we can think about it, today and over the coming months, and decide together before the turning of the year brings Palm Sunday around again, whether we’d like to root our annual encounter with this story in our ecology and climate, our place, our lives. To incarnate the story a notch more authentically. 

Because this isn’t just a matter of placing an order, or not. When I was talking about this a couple of weeks ago with Father John, he pointed out that when churches use the plants that grow nearby, then those plants carry that meaning for them all the time. Maybe we won’t start calling our arbor vitae trees “palms,” but maybe they will remind us of Palm Sunday, the things we do and say and reflect on, today and every year. And Father John reminded me that we have a word for that – for when something ordinary that we can see and touch every day, like the water of baptism or the bread and wine of Eucharist, becomes a container for the holy. We call it a sacrament.

I’d like to call this holy gathering onward into the gospel of the Passion. 

 

Shout out to my cousin Trelawney for sharing this wonderful research! Here are some of her sources… 

https://www.irishcultureandcustoms.com/…/PalmSunday.html

https://thefadingyear.wordpress.com/…/irish-folklore…/

https://pinguicula.typepad.com/blog/2007/03/palm.html

April 2, Spring election

TUESDAY, APRIL 2 IS OUR SPRING ELECTION! Participation in our civic life is an important Christian responsibility. Please plan to vote for local and state officials, in addition to the presidential primary. There are also two important ballot questions on our ballots. For both, the Wisconsin Council of Churches election guide says, “A ‘Yes’ vote is favored by conservative and “election integrity” (meaning the most restrictive reading of voting laws) groups; “No” is favored by voter participation and access advocates.”  See the WCC’s full election guide, below.

WCCApril-Election-Bulletin-insert

Sermon, Feb. 4

Many of you know that this year I’m participating in something called the Clergy Contemplative Renewal program, based at Holy Wisdom Monastery, the ecumenical Benedictine monastery six minutes away on County M. (It seems odd to just call it a monastery; I don’t know if it’s a monastery with a prairie or a prairie with a monastery, but the land is a huge part of the place and its spirit and mission.) 

Anyway: I was there for a week last July, when the program began. I was just there for six days recently, and I’ll be there for a final, shorter gathering with my cohort and our leaders in June. 

There are 18 of us – clergy from around the Midwest and various denominations: Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, UCC, Methodist, Mennonite. 

The program is relatively new; we’re the fourth cohort.

The goal is to help clergy explore contemplative practices, to tend to our spiritual wellbeing, our capacity to rest, to listen, to grow.

For the benefit of our churches, but also for us as human beings beloved by God. 

People in the parish have not really asked me what “contemplative” means. Maybe you all know all about it already! 

Maybe some of you have the same impression I did before I started this program: That it has something to do with a lot of sitting still, and with an attitude of vague, kindly disapproval towards busyness, bustle and noise. 

It was hard for me to make up my mind to apply to this program.

I don’t sit still easily. I like things busy. 

People tell me sometimes, “I read the Enews and there’s just so much going on!!” – I worry that that means, “You exhaust me!” 

In my defense, everything in the Enews isn’t me. But it’s true that I always have more ideas and projects than I do time and capacity. 

It took me a long time to decide to apply for this program. I was afraid of it. Afraid of being shamed for being a priest wrong. 

And when I did apply, and got in, I dreaded it. I dreaded it right up to the first day, last July, when one of our leaders, Winton Boyd, told us, “You may have been on other clergy renewal programs where they get you together and tell you you’re doing it wrong. This isn’t going to be that.”

And it’s true. It hasn’t been that. It has been about listening, and noticing, and, yes, changing; but it has been so gentle, so kind. It’s one of the best things I’ve done, as a priest and as a human being. 

There are definitions of contemplative spirituality, offered by various noted figures in that world.

I thought about finding and sharing some of their words, today. But then I decided it might be more helpful – and more authentic – to share my own fumbling, half-formed impressions with you. 

The word contemplative comes from the word contemplate, which sort of means, to look at something reflectively. To spend time really paying attention to something. 

And in many ways that is the heart of it. But how the heck does that become a whole way of life – a whole spiritual path? 

Today’s Scripture lessons connect with three threads or themes in contemplative spirituality. The first thread has to do with Creation-consciousness. The Psalmist praises God by naming some of the wonders of the created world: “You count the number of the stars and call them all by their names… You cover the heavens with clouds and prepare rain for the earth… You provide food for flocks and herds, and for the young ravens when they cry.” 

In our Isaiah text, too, the author looks to the stars in wonder: 

“Lift up your eyes on high and see:  Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name.” 

I don’t know that Creation-consciousness is essential to contemplative spirituality, but it is a big part of it for many contemplative teachers and traditions, and certainly for the way of contemplation shared and taught at Holy Wisdom on the prairie.

The idea of finding some sense of renewal in Nature is so commonplace that it’s a cliché. Consider the saying “Stop and smell the flowers” – or the phrase “touch grass,” which in some corners of the Internet has become a way of telling someone that they’re too wrapped up in whatever is happening online and need to take a break and check in with the physical world.  

There’s nothing wrong with pausing to appreciate a flower, or to step outside after a long day on a screen. But the underlying assumption is that a little bit of Nature can help us dive back in to business as usual – rather than deeply reorient us, and change our sense of what really matters. 

Many of us – maybe most of us here – enjoy Nature. In my experience, contemplative Creation-consciousness isn’t fundamentally different from that enjoyment; it is, perhaps, just deeper, and wider. I’ve spoken about this before, but I genuinely thought prairies were secretly kind of boring until I had several days with not much to do except walk the prairie at Holy Wisdom and pay attention. I met coneflowers, baptisia, lead plant, several types of clover, compass plant, butterfly weed, wild quinine, shooting star, cinquefoil, rattlesnake master, plantain, hoary vervain, coreopsis, and many others. 

And then there were the many insects, birds, and creatures who are also part of the prairie ecosystem. It is so alive, and so diverse; anywhere you look there is something worth noticing. I can’t wait to start watching spring arrive on the prairie, with these new eyes. 

Paying deeper and wider attention to Creation – wherever we are, whatever landscape or non-human neighbors are close at hand – shows us lots of things. The Psalmist and other voices in Scripture find that contemplation of Creation points them toward God, the creator, in gratitude and awe. That’s true for me too – but I find that reflective dwelling with Creation shows me lots of things besides the glory of the Creator. 

When we spend time in contemplation of the natural world, we see the subtle ways light changes hour by hour, and seasons change day by day. We see cycles: rest and renewal; death, decay, and new life. We see beauty, and strangeness, and beauty in strangeness. We see the focus of the bee at the flower, the tree’s clarity of purpose. We see that there is always, always change. We see that there is so much more than us.  

At Holy Wisdom last month we were invited to write our Rule of Life – a set of intentions about how we think God is inviting us to live, to be most fully our holy and beloved selves. 

In my Rule of Life, I call myself to cultivate my relationship with land, place, and creation. I have come to see this as something that I need, something that feeds me. Even the grief of loving Creation in a time of climate crisis is essential to my full humanity. 

For the second thread of contemplative spirituality in our readings today, let’s turn to the Gospel. “In the morning, while it was still very dark, Jesus got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.”

This is something Jesus does repeatedly in the Gospels – going off by himself to pray, when he can. Even Jesus, who was God as well as human, did not have an inexhaustible well of energy, kindness, insight, and healing power. 

He knew he had to get away, now and then, to re-center and recharge. To come back to the God he named as Father, and back to himself. 

Part of my Rule of Life involves sitting in quiet for seven minutes, every morning… ideally as the first thing I do. 

There’s nothing magic about seven minutes. I used to do five and it felt like not quite enough, but I’m not sure I can commit to ten. So I’m trying seven. 

Our leader in this program, Nancy Enderle, says there’s no such thing as a bad sit, and I’m coming to believe that this is true.

Sometimes – often – I spend most of the seven minutes just trying to gently clear away the thoughts that rise up, and get to a little bit of inner quiet. 

Rarely: something else happens. Maybe an insight rises to the surface, or I feel a connection with deep peace and love. 

But even if all that happens is that I manage to spend thirty seconds out of that seven minutes paying attention to my own breath and just being: I still start my day from a better place than if I hadn’t done that. 

Let me tell you, nobody is more surprised than I am that this has become part of my life. Something I hunger for, and miss when I don’t do it. 

But set-apart times to sit in quiet aren’t the only way to step away. I remember learning about contemplative prayer in seminary and feeling deeply frustrated: I was a full-time student and a full-time mom of a toddler – there was no “away” for me. 

Instead I started working on a practice of presence – having a few minutes each day when I was just fully there, in the moment, with my kid, in my messy living room. No agenda, no thinking about the next thing that needs doing. 

That, too, is a kind of quiet – a little space of inward peace. 

I’m opening myself to those kinds of moments again now, too. Seeking inner quiet, presence, stillness, even among the clamor of needs and tasks and priorities that fill my days.

Notice, in the Gospel, that Jesus gets called back. His disciples seek him out and say, “Hey, what are you doing here? People need you!” I don’t think Jesus ever gets as much away time, as much quiet, prayerful time, as he wants and needs. But, apparently, he gets enough to be able to keep going, to know what matters. So can we, I think. I hope. 

To get to the third thread of contemplative spirituality, I want to look at part of our text from Isaiah. The young and strong will grow weary and exhausted, but those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength. It’s a passage that suggests a resilience, a capacity for perseverance and renewal, that has nothing to do with age or physical wellbeing. 

Those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength – shall rise up like a young eagle testing the strength of her wings. 

It’s a famous verse; while preparing for this sermon I stumbled on some of the many Amazon products that feature Isaiah 40:31. But it’s also a somewhat cryptic verse. What does “wait for the Lord” mean, here? 

I don’t know for sure. But I think that waiting for the Lord has something to do with trusting that God is present – in your life, in your situation. 

And it has something to do with attention – with openness to how God may be present, and what God may be doing.

About ten chapters earlier in Isaiah, there’s another well-known passage about the true source of strength: “For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel: In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” (Isaiah 30:15) If you recognize those words it’s likely because they’re woven into one of the most beloved prayers in our prayer book – it concludes: “Lift us, we pray, to your presence, where we may be still and know that You are God.” 

Return and rest, quiet and trust, waiting on God. All these phrases and words resonate with the theme of seeking quiet times of prayer that I just talked about. But there’s more here, too. We’re not talking about quiet for quiet’s sake, like the relief when a too-loud TV is finally turned off. We need that relief sometimes, for certain. But the quiet, the rest, the waiting here is to help us be awake to the world around us, to God, even to ourselves. It’s a quietness that gives us space to notice. To listen.

Listen is a core word in contemplative spirituality. It’s often noted that it’s the first word in the Rule of St. Benedict; Benedictine monasticism is one of the wellsprings of contemplative spirituality. I came home after my first retreat at Holy Wisdom with a plan to get the word “listen” tattooed on one of my hands. I still might. 

I hope it’s obvious, but this listening isn’t just about ears and sound. The listening of contemplative spirituality is about openness and non-judgmental attention. 

A release of preconceptions, distractions, outcomes, and plans, to be present to what is.

Attending deeply to what is doesn’t mean we release our agency, our capacity to act, our hopes and concerns. Listening doesn’t mean becoming passive. It means that we are able to exercise our agency more wisely, in the direction of futures that want to become true. Not fighting with intractable reality.

There’s a lot that’s still mysterious to me here, and a lot that’s hard to put into words, but I think that this is part of how waiting for the LORD renews our strength. Because when we listen well, to the situation, to others, to ourselves, to God, we are able to discern how best to use the strength and capacity we have.

Creation-consciousness. Time apart for prayerful quietness. Waiting for God – listening, with the ears of the heart. These are some of the core practices of contemplative spirituality, as I am coming to know it – as I am coming, fumblingly, to practice it.

This sermon resists an ending, because I am a beginner. I can’t tell you where I think this path leads. I can’t promise you results. All I know is that I’m finding nourishment here, and grace. If anyone wants a conversation partner, or just to walk on the prairie together, I would love to do that. Maybe there’s something here that sparks reflection about a Lenten practice for you. 

Someone in the congregation is thinking about starting a centering prayer group; let me know if you are curious about what that would feel like. 

And let me offer, in closing, a prayer we often use at Holy Wisdom – the Prayer for Presence. Let us pray. 

In the gift of this new day

In the gift of the present moment

In the gift of time and eternity intertwined

Let us be grateful

Let us be attentive

Let us be open to what has never happened before 

In the gift of this new day

In the gift of the present moment

In the gift of time and eternity intertwined

 

Sermon, January 14

Let’s start with some context for today’s Gospel.  First: Where we are in John. We’re about 25 *verses* after the theological prologue we heard two weeks ago: “In the beginning was the Word… And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” 

In verses 19 – 34: John the Baptist talks about how he is preparing the way for the Messiah, and who Jesus is: the Son of God, the One who baptizes with the Holy Spirit, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. 

Then a couple of John’s disciples – men, probably young men, who are hanging around John to listen to his teaching – decide to go follow Jesus instead. One of them, Andrew, goes to get his brother, Simon, telling him, “We have found the Messiah!” Simon  Peter will become one of Jesus’ closest friends, and a core leader of the early church. 

That brings us up to today’s text! But I want to bring in another piece of context by turning back to Genesis, to a story we had in the lectionary last summer – the story of Jacob. Jacob and his twin brother Esau are the grandsons of Abraham and Sarah, the couple with whom God first forms a covenant. Jacob becomes an important figure too – he is later given the name Israel, which becomes the name of God’s first people and nation.  

Jacob is the second-born of the twins, and he resents it. As a young man he and his mother trick his father into giving Jacob the special blessing for a first-born son. Jacob then has to run away to escape his brother’s fury. He falls in love – but his father-in-law tricks him into marrying the wrong woman. Then he tricks his father-in-law into taking most of their herd of sheep and goats. Deceit is a big theme in Jacob’s life! 

But God finds a way to make Jacob part of the ineffable plan, despite his complicated story. When Jacob is first running away from home, he spends the night sleeping in the wilderness, using a rock for a pillow. And he has a dream. He sees “a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God ascending and descending on it.” And God speaks and assures him that God will protect him, bring him home, and bring good out of his story.

With that fresh in our minds, let’s look again at today’s Gospel. 

Jesus is continuing to call and gather his first followers – now Philip, who’s from the same hometown as Andrew and Simon Peter. It’s natural that word spreads about Jesus through networks of friendship or acquaintanceship. And here it happens again: Philip runs to tell his friend Nathanael about Jesus. 

Philip has already reached some big conclusions about who and what Jesus is: the fulfillment of God’s people’s long wait for a Savior who will free their people, restore their nation, and transform the world. He says, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote: Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” 

But Nathanael has questions! He says, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” It’s obvious that Nathanael doesn’t think much of Nazareth, or people from Nazareth. But why not? We don’t entirely know, but there are some hints from history and archaeology. 

The region of Galilee had a more mixed population than Judea to the south – there were folks there of all different backgrounds and beliefs – so Judeans tended to look down on Galilean Jews. 

But  Philip, Andrew, Peter, and probably Nathanael are all from Galilee too, so that’s not the issue here. 

Nazareth in particular seems to have been a very small town indeed. An archaeologist who works there says that Nazareth wasn’t on a roadway, so nobody went there unless they really meant to go there. A true backwater, of probably just a few extended families.

(Link – interesting stuff! https://www.timesofisrael.com/listen-what-do-we-know-about-nazareth-in-jesus-time-an-archaeologist-explains/ ) 

We just don’t know whether Nathanael’s scorn or doubt come from the fact that Nazareth was just a complete nothing of a town, or whether there was more – some particular bad reputation that is simply lost to history, outside of this hint in John’s Gospel. 

Nazareth was built on soft, chalky rock, and archaeology shows that the residents of Nazareth were good at digging pits under their homes – for storage, but also perhaps to hide goods from Roman taxation. Maybe it was a hotbed of smuggling, or some other kind of hive of scum and villainy!

Regardless: Philip gets Nathanael to come meet Jesus. And that’s where this little passage really gets interesting. Jesus greets Nathanael cheerfully: “‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”

That’s a weird thing to say. Say your friend is bringing you to meet somebody that they think is really amazing. And that person sees you coming and says, “Here comes an American who does not commit fraud!” Or, “Here comes somebody from Wisconsin who is not involved in any secret plots!”

You’d react in one of two ways, right? If you in fact do not commit fraud and are not involved in any secret plots, you’d just be like, What the heck, man??? 

On the other hand, if that greeting was somehow not entirely off the mark, you might say, “…. Who are you? Have we met? What have you heard?” And that’s what Nathanael does. He says, “How do you know me?” 

The plot only thickens with Jesus’ response. He says, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 

What was going on under that fig tree? 

There is a face-value reading possible here: that Jesus is simply revealing that he has the ability to see things that aren’t within sight for a normal human, and that that impressed Nathanael so much that he immediately believes that Jesus is the Messiah.

But. But. This interaction is already weirder than that. And we’re in John’s Gospel. John’s Gospel is weird. John tells a distinctive version of Jesus’ story. And John also uses language in a distinctive way, often using words or phrases to point towards bigger or deeper ideas. If something in John’s Gospel feels odd in a way that makes you wonder if more is going on, the answer is Yes. 

So what happened under that fig tree?? We don’t know. We don’t know anything else about Nathanael. John’s Gospel is the only one that names one of the disciples as Nathanael. It’s possible he’s the same person as Bartholomew, named as a disciple in the other Gospels. Bartholomew is what’s called a patronym; “Bar” means “son of.” So, he could have been Nathanael, son of Talmai. Kind of a first name/last name thing. 

But even that doesn’t help us because the other Gospels have nothing to say about Bartholomew, other than that he was one of the twelve that Jesus chose as his inner circle. This is the most we ever hear about Nathanael as an individual.

There’s a funny kind of hint in the things Jesus says to Nathanael. First, calling him an Israelite in whom there is no deceit. That’s just half-step away from saying, Here’s a Jacob who’s not full of trickery.  And then there’s the last thing Jesus says in this passage – about how if Nathanael sticks with Jesus, he’ll see some amazing things – as amazing as angels ascending and descending from Heaven. Jesus is clearly gesturing to the Jacob story, here. But why? 

In the book some of us read for Advent, “The First Advent in Palestine,” the author, Kelly Nikondeha, sometimes takes the Biblical text, puts it together with some information from history, archaeology, culture – and then uses her imagination to expand the story. What if we do that with Nathanael and the fig tree? 

We know that there was a lot of resentment of both the Herodian and Roman rulers in Galilee in Jesus’ time. It’s pretty clear in the Gospels that people’s double subjugation and its daily impact was on everyone’s minds. And there were various attempted revolts. 

Andrew was one of John the Baptist’s disciples, which suggests he was somebody who was looking for change. Willing to follow this weird wilderness prophet in the hope that his preaching might point towards something better than the status quo. None of the other first four disciples are named as followers of John. But they probably all knew each other. Andrew and Simon are brothers; Philip’s from the same small town, and he knows Nathanael. 

It’s easy to imagine the four of them sitting together in the evening, after a hard day’s fishing, and talking – quietly – about how bad it is. How much they hate Herod and Rome. How they long for freedom from political oppression and grinding poverty. 

Now imagine Nathanael, the day after one of those conversations, sitting under a fig tree to take a break in the hot afternoon sun. He’s thinking about how heavy and frustrating and hopeless it all seems. And maybe he’s wondering what can be done. Maybe somebody has asked him to help with… something. Something deceitful. Maybe to strike a blow against the Romans; maybe just to put one over on them in some way. 

Or maybe Jesus’ allusions to Jacob suggest that Nathanael’s temptation to deceit has more to do with getting what’s coming to him, as he sees it. Some matter of inheritance or a share in somebody’s wealth that he thinks is rightfully his – but will have to claim by trickery. 

Maybe, as he sits under the fig tree, Nathanael is weighing his response. Is he willing to do… whatever it is? Can he square it with his faith, his ethics, the kind of person he means to be? Maybe he decides he can’t – won’t – do this thing, whatever it is.  

And then, a day later or two days, this stranger from Nazareth says, Hey! Look at this Israelite! There’s no deception in this guy! And when Nathanael says, What gives? – the stranger says: I saw you. Under the fig tree. 

That’s the kind of thing that might really make an impression on you. That might make you say, Rabbi: You are the Son of God. 

That might make you decide to follow that man wherever he leads you, and make his teaching, his life and death and resurrection, the focus of the rest of your life. Which Nathanael did.

This Gospel is a call story. The story of Nathanael’s call to discipleship, to becoming a follower of Jesus. “Call” is an ordinary word that we use in lots of ways, but here I’m using it in a particular, churchy way. “Call” in this sense is a moment when somebody hears or sees or experiences something that invites them out of their life as they have been living it, and into something new. A new understanding, commitment or community; a new path or direction. 

If you asked Nathanael for his call story, he’d probably tell you about this conversation with Jesus. If you ask me for my call story, I would ask, as a Christian or as a priest? As a Christian, I’d tell you I was raised in the church, but that there was an important moment for me during my freshman year of college where I kind of chose to be an Episcopalian Christian for myself. As a priest, I’d tell you about a day in Uganda in 2002. 

But the truth is that those were just starting points – for Nathanael, for me. There keep being forks in the road. You have to keep deciding, seeking, choosing. 

After Jesus’ death, after the Ascension, I’m sure some of the folks who had been following him decided it was all over and went home. But some of them stuck around, stuck together, to see if there would be a next chapter to this great story. And it turns out there was. We don’t know anything about how Nathanael Bartholomew was part of the story of the early church, but we know that he was. His name is on the list of the ones who kept following the call, even as it led in new directions. 

Tomorrow our community and our country honor the life, witness, and death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Having a national holiday for Dr. King is a mixed blessing. There’s a risk that at some level folks will say, “Hey, look at what we did, racism is over.” 

The fullest potential of this day, it seems to me, is as a time to recall the costs of the struggle for civil rights and human liberation in our country, so far; and to recommit ourselves to the ongoing work – inner work as well as civic and political work. 

As I prepared this sermon, I got curious about Dr. King’s call story, as a Christian, a pastor, an activist and leader.

Somebody asked him about his call, in 1959, and he wrote about it, saying, “My call to the ministry was neither dramatic nor spectacular. It came neither by some miraculous vision nor by some blinding light experience on the road of life. Moreover, it did not come as a sudden realization. Rather, it was a response to an inner urge that gradually came upon me… a desire to serve God and humanity, and the feeling that my talent and my commitment could best be expressed through the ministry.” 

But that gentle emergence of a sense of vocational direction was just the beginning, for Dr. King. I’m sure there were many moments of call, of choice, in his life. He later shared the story of one that was particularly pivotal. 

King had accepted a job as a pastor in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1954. He didn’t plan to get involved in civil rights work, but when the bus boycott began in late 1955, he got involved with the group of pastors that were leading the boycott. One late night in January of 1956 – soon after King arrived home from his first night in jail – the phone rang. A voice on the other end of the line told him, “By next week you’ll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery.” 

King had received his share of threatening phone calls before, but somehow this one shook him. He was alone; his wife and young daughter were asleep. He made a pot of coffee and sat down at the kitchen table. 

“I felt myself faltering,” he said, telling the story of that night – and wondering if there was a way to get himself and his family out of this danger without harming the movement. He felt trapped and frightened.

He bowed his head and began to pray – calling on the Power that can make a way out of no way. He prayed, “Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I still think I’m right… But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now… I’m losing my courage. Now, I am afraid. And I can’t let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”

And in response he heard a voice say, “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you. Even until the end of the world.” King recalled that moment as a profound experience of the presence of the Divine. His fears and uncertainty began to ease, and he felt ready to face anything. 

Call – to a new thing or a next thing – can take all kinds of forms, from an actual voice speaking to you as you sit at your kitchen table with your head in your hands, to a sense of clarity and direction emerging from the way the pieces of your life add up. 

Maybe you meet someone who speaks truth to you in a way that changes your heart. 

You know the feeling when you’re trying to screw on a lid and it’s not sitting right on the threads, so you take it off and try again and this time it’s right? Sometimes call is like that. Something just feels right, that wasn’t right before. 

Calls come in all different sizes. We tend to talk about the big ones, the life-changing ones, but in my experience there are plenty of little ones too. Pay attention to this. Say yes to that opportunity. Ask her how she’s doing. Let your mind be changed. 

Calls find us in all kinds of moments and states of mind. Ready and willing; confused and defensive; reluctant or resentful. Next week we’ll have a snippet of the story of Jonah in the lectionary; Jonah gets a call from God and straight up runs away from it. Relatable! 

My prayer for all of us is that when the Holy speaks your name, you’ll be able to hear, and to respond with wonder, curiosity, and courage. Amen. 

Sources: 

https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/my-call-ministry

https://www.beliefnet.com/faiths/christianity/2005/01/receiving-the-call.aspx

Sermon, Jan. 7

Today is the first Sunday of the season of Epiphany – and the day when we honor the Baptism of Jesus (who in the lectionary has grown very suddenly from a baby to a grown man). And we are celebrating the baptism of one of our members today! So it’s a good day to talk a little about baptism.

There is something fundamentally mysterious about baptism. Like the Eucharist, it’s something the church does because Jesus told us to do it, so however many thousands of book are written about it, we will never really know what it means or how it works, on this side of the veil. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t things to talk and wonder about. 

The word “baptism” comes from the Greek word that means to immerse or dunk into water. Baptism has its roots in some of the ritual practices of Judaism, that included washing yourself at certain times for purposes of religious purification. John the Baptist seems to be riffing on those traditions when he starts dunking people in the Jordan River and telling them this is a path to forgiveness of sins and a new way of living. 

Christian baptism takes John’s practice a step further. Our Acts lesson today highlights an interesting moment in the spread of the Christian movement. Paul, the great missionary of the early church, encounters a little group in Ephesus who have heard about Jesus and become believers. But they have only received “John’s baptism” – water baptism for the forgiveness of sins. 

Paul sees baptism as more than that. In his letters he talks about baptism as washing away our differences – we are baptized into one body, Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female. 

He also talks about baptism as a kind of death and resurrection: your old self drowns in the baptismal waters, and your new self rises with Christ to new life. 

And then there’s this idea of baptism with water and the Holy Spirit. For the early church, baptism by the Holy Spirit seems to have been both a ritual practice – something someone like Paul could do to and for people – and also a religious experience of being overwhelmed by the power of the Holy. In stories from the Book of Acts, sometimes baptism in water and Spirit are separate. With these folks in Ephesus, they’ve already received water baptism, but Paul baptizes them with the Holy Spirit. There’s another time when a group receives the Holy Spirit while listening to Peter preach, and Peter baptizes them with water too. 

But pretty early on the Church comes to understand our practice of baptism as including both water and the Holy Spirit in one ritual act. We can see and feel the water; the action of the Holy Spirit is more mysterious. But we trust that She shows up, and does something that – invisibly, ineffably – marks the newly baptized as Christ’s own forever. 

I want to take us back, now, to around the year 200. It’s about 150 years after Paul’s visit to Ephesus. Christianity has grown and spread, becoming its own religion distinct from Judaism. But it is still very much a minority religion. It has fans and supporters; it also has detractors, and believers face occasional and local bouts of persecution. 

People accused Christians of some weird things. For example, maybe because of the practice of the Eucharist – Take, eat, this is my body – some people thought Christians were prone to cannibalism. Some even thought that Christians stole, murdered, and ate babies. 

But other people disdained Christianity just because it was kind of boring, in comparison with available alternatives. 

In the Roman Empire, everyone was supposed to participate in the imperial religion, worshipping various Romans gods and honoring the Emperor as part of civic life. It was a little like saying the Pledge! Christians got into trouble for refusing to participate in all that, at times. But Christians were not the only group with their own set of beliefs and devotional practices – and Roman civic religion wasn’t Christianity’s main competition. 

The Roman Empire connected large areas of the ancient world, and it was fertile soil for new religious movements to rise and spread – including a wide range of what religion scholars call “mystery cults.” 

Mystery here means that you weren’t allowed to know very much about the group’s practices and beliefs unless you joined. Cult here just means a specific, minority religious group; it doesn’t necessarily carry the implications that word does in popular usage today. 

Spencer McDaniel writes, “Joining a mystery cult was optional. People who were members of mystery cults were members of those cults because they chose to be, because they wanted something more than what traditional public religion had to offer.”

He explains that joining a mystery cult connected you with a community that would gather regularly for worship. It had scope for personal devotional practices, and a sense of deepening knowledge and relationship with a particular god or divine being – and also of perhaps having favors or benefits conferred, like personal renewal or even eternal life. Does that sound familiar?

But mystery cults were a lot more interesting than Christianity. To begin with, there was the element of mystery itself. 

These groups didn’t have evangelists handing out pamphlets in the public square. It was more of the kind of thing where a friend takes you aside to say, Hey, I’m in this thing… you should come to a meeting sometime. 

Meanwhile, the successors to Peter and Paul, Christian missionaries, are walking all over the Empire telling everybody all about their god and his teachings and how to join their movement. 

The gods at the center of the mystery cults were exciting and exotic. Some of them were Greek gods, who had fun stories and myths to build your cultic practices, like Dionysios. Some were imported and adapted from the edges of the empire, like the cult of the Egyptian goddess Isis, or the Syrian sun-god Elagabalus, or the Person god Mithras. In all these cases, the Roman mystery cult’s practices were pretty different from the way those gods were honored in their original context. 

In comparison, the Jesus cult was built on the foundation of Jewish religion, and their god was notoriously cantankerous. He didn’t like people making statues or murals of him, and he didn’t like being one among the many gods honored across the Empire – maintaining instead a ridiculous insistence on being the one true God. So cringe! 

Finally, many mystery cults had some kind of framework for moving to higher – or deeper – levels of involvement and secret knowledge. Let’s look at Mithraism as a specific example. Roman Mithraism started to get popular in the late first century, and spread around the Empire in the second and third centuries – meaning, it was moving into the religious marketplace very much at the same time as Christianity. 

We don’t always know a lot about the beliefs and practices of the mystery cults because they were kept secret, but a few credible sources about Mithraism have survived. 

Mithraic groups were all male; they usually met in an underground cave, decorated with images of the god Mithras killing a bull; and feasting was a regular part of their gatherings.

It seems there were seven grades of initiation: after you joined the cult at the Raven level, you could aspire to achieve the Bridegroom level, then the Soldier level, the Lion level, and so on, all the way up to the Pater or Father level. 

There are also hints that moving up this ladder involved tests or ordeals – feats of strength or endurance. Frescoes from a Mithraeum – a site of worship – in Capua show a man blindfolded and naked, with his hands bound behind him. Whatever is happening in that scene is what gives you access to the next title and set of mysterious  teachings. 

In comparison, mainstream Christianity had just one rite of initiation: baptism. One and done! And it was such a simple rite, using water, and maybe a little oil. True, early Christian baptismal fonts were big enough for a person to walk down into and fully submerge, but it was hardly dangerous or exciting. Couldn’t they at least add some mind-altering herbs or a little bull’s blood, to spice things up?

Early Christians were aware that their faith seemed a little boring and simplistic in comparison with Mithraism and other cults. And one of them, named Tertullian, wrote a whole treatise about Christian baptism, addressing some of these objections. Tertullian lived from about 155 to 220 CE, in Carthage, in modern-day Tunisia in north Africa. He was a prolific writer, writing sermons and essays on a number of topics – explaining, and arguing for, Christianity in this context of religious diversity. 

Tertullian held some unpopular opinions over the course of his life, and was thus never named as a saint. But many of his writings are eloquent defenses of the mainstream theology of the church, and people still read and value his work today. 

I first read some Tertullian during my seminary studies – and I love some of his writing about baptism. I’ve always been tickled by this line: “We are little fishes, as Jesus Christ is our great Fish. And as little fishes we begin our life in water, and only while we abide in water are we safe and sound.”

Tertullian goes on at length about the virtues of water, justifying the use of such a simple and everyday substance in this sacred rite. He concludes that in baptism, water, “the substance which gives us earthly life, likewise becomes the agent of our obtaining spiritual and eternal life. 

In baptism, human ingenuity has been permitted to summon [the Holy] Spirit to combine with water,… to rest upon the waters of baptism as though revisiting the Spirit’s first resting-place [at Creation]. 

Being thus sanctified, made holy, the waters obtain the power of sanctifying and making holy, 

so that the spirit may be bodily washed in the waters,

and the body spiritually cleansed.” 

But my favorite part of Tertullian’s essay on baptism is the way he takes the comparative simplicity of Christian baptism and uses that as a springboard to talk about how our faith is a faith of God present in the simple and the everyday, the familiar and the immediate. He writes: 

“There is nothing which so hardens people’s minds as the simplicity of God’s works as they are observed in action, in comparison with the magnificence of what we promise they do. 

And so it is with baptism – 

for with such complete simplicity, without display, 

without any unusual equipment, 

and (not least) without having to pay for it,

a man or a woman or a child is sent down into the water, 

is washed to the accompaniment of very few words,  

and comes up little or no cleaner than they were – 

because it is all so simple, 

some cannot believe that these acts bear the gift of eternal life.

Other idolatrous religious groups build up belief in themselves by their secret and complicated rites, and by the fees that are charged!

O, that poverty-stricken unbelief, which denies to God his characteristic attributes, simplicity and power! 

Well then, is it not a marvel that by bathing, death is washed away? 

Because it is a marvel, is that a reason for not believing it? 

No – rather it is so much the more to be believed – for God’s works are always marvelous!

We marvel because we believe.

Unbelief, however, marvels and refuses to believe; 

it regards simple things as ineffective, 

and sublime things as impossible.”

Baptism IS simple. Over the millennia the church has added to the rite until it fills up two full pages of your Sunday supplement in 12-point type, but at its core it is what Tertullian describes – there is water, and a little oil, and a few words; and the person baptized ends up not particularly cleaner than they were before.

And yet it’s one of the holiest things we do.

Perhaps it can be simple because it’s not something we do, really; it’s something God does. We just choose it and invite it. 

Today CJ is choosing it. And the rest of us join him in affirming the faith of the church. We pray for him, and we welcome him as a full member of God’s household, this quirky ancient worldwide family. 

 

 

Sources:

McDaniel’s blog post:

https://talesoftimesforgotten.com/2020/03/27/is-christianity-a-mystery-cult/

Some stuff about Mithraism:

https://www.tertullian.org/rpearse/mithras/display.php?page=main#Initiation_into_the_mysteries_of_Mithras

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mithraism

 

Sermon, December 10

Since all these things – heaven and earth – are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be? 

I recently heard a friend talk about how in the assigned lectionary texts, most weeks, there’s one sentence somewhere that really seizes his attention, demands reflection and response. 

In our lessons for the second Sunday in Advent this year, this is that sentence, for me. 

Since all things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be? 

I’ve been thinking about it for weeks. 

That’s the bit of Scripture that just occasionally floats to the top in my brain… not the much more familiar, and comforting!, beginning of Isaiah chapter 40: “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem…” 

Those words are the beginning of a portion of the Book of Isaiah – which is sixty-six chapters long! – that is sometimes called the Book of Consolation. It contains many prophecies of return and restoration, after the more catastrophic words of the preceding chapters.

But even the comfort of Isaiah 40 is nuanced. We read a few verses further and find the text telling us that all people are grass, short-lived, ephemeral, insignificant. And in practically the same breath the text talks about good tidings! Good news!

The grass withers, the flower fades; surely the people are grass.

Is that good news?… 

Have you noticed – have you felt – the fascination of abandoned places? Places where people, with all our busyness and plans, used to be, and aren’t, anymore? 

TikTok regularly shows me videos of people exploring a derelict hotel, school, or shopping mall. 

Now, I do watch those videos, and TikTok will show you more of something it thinks you like, but it’s not just me. 

Posts like that regularly get 300, 400, 500 thousand likes, sometimes more. 

Turning over to Instagram, a better platform for evocative still photography as well as video… 

Abandoned America is a photographic project by an artist named Matthew Christopher. He has 84,000 followers on Instagram. 

Another account with a similar theme, Deserted Places, brings together videos and photos from folks exploring abandoned places all over the world, and has 1.3 million followers… 

A third account called simply “itsabandoned” boasts “Beautiful abandoned places” for its 1.2 million followers. 

There are photos of a three-story gracious home in the woods, trees growing from a tower, the patio and steps swallowed by moss, ivy climbing the walls. 

A greenhouse, elegant with stained glass – who knows where? – is being slowly swallowed by vines that have broken their way in from outside, the floor carpeted with dead leaves. 

A bowling alley still has a ball and pins waiting for use, as the floor returns to earth, and ferns, moss, and trees grow in the dim daylight from broken windows. 

There’s always an extra fascination for me in images of abandoned churches – glass and stone gradually falling to earth, fragment by fragment; pews and prayerbooks gently decaying back to their component molecules… 

In these images, in these places, I feel some tantalizing stew of recognition of mortality, and a strange delight in seeing what man hath wrought fall to ruin, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. 

Five chapters before those famous words, “Comfort, comfort,” the book of Isaiah contains an evocative oracle of desolation.

Of Israel’s neighbor and enemy Edom, Chapter 34 says,

“From generation to generation it shall lie waste;
no one shall pass through it for ever and ever.
But the hawk* and the hedgehog* shall possess it;
the owl* and the raven shall live in it…
They shall name it No Kingdom There,
and all its princes shall be nothing.
Thorns shall grow over its strongholds,
nettles and thistles in its fortresses.
It shall be the haunt of jackals,
an abode for ostriches.
Wildcats shall meet with hyenas,
goat-demons shall call to each other… 

There shall the owl nest
and lay and hatch and brood in its shadow;
there too the buzzards shall gather,
each one with its mate.”

This is a prophecy of doom for Israel’s enemies – one that echoes what happens to Jerusalem and Judea when they are conquered, ruined, and emptied out. 

But it’s also beautiful. 

I want to see those ruins, don’t you?

Overgrown by thorns and thistles, inhabited by owls and wildcats and hedgehogs…

A place of death become a place of vibrant life. 

Wilderness is different from apocalypse. 

That was last week’s theme. 

But wilderness may be what comes after. 

What’s left, when all the things we built and planned and expected and relied on have dissolved.

Today – as always on the second Sunday in Advent – the lectionary turns towards John the Baptist, who announces Jesus’ arrival and mission. 

John is a prophet, like all the Old Testament prophets before him. And John is, specifically, a wilderness prophet.  

He preaches in the wilderness; he dresses like the wilderness, in animal skins instead of decent woven cloth; he eats the wilderness, living on bugs and wild honey. 

Wilderness is an important kind of place, in Scripture.

It’s a place of chaos, danger, and clarity. 

A place of life and a place of death.

A place you run to, to escape human danger, and a place where you confront non-human danger: wildcats and jackals, lions and wolves, hunger and thirst, the harsh terrain itself. 

The wilderness is inhospitable at best, and hostile at worst.

And the wilderness in Scripture is a place where, again and again, people encounter the Holy.

We read this Isaiah text today because our Gospel text from Mark quotes it: “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness…” 

Studying these texts this week, I realized something that I had somehow never noticed before. 

There is ambiguity in the text of Isaiah 40. 

Our translation, the New Revised Standard Version, says, ‘A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord…”’

But when Mark quotes the same text, the mysterious Voice is no longer just talking about the wilderness, it has become “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness…” 

Apparently this slight quirk of translation was part of the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible that Mark would have known, called the Septuagint.

But a new translation of the Hebrew Bible by Robert Alter that I often consult renders the Isaiah verse the same way: A voice cries out in the wilderness… 

Whose voice is this, anyway, that cries out either about – or in – the wilderness? It’s not clear. A footnote in one of my scholarly Bibles notes, “The identity of the voice… has been deliberately left mysterious by the prophet.” (Jerusalem Bible) 

What the text does say plainly is that God’s presence will be found in the wilderness. 

So perhaps the voice is also in the wilderness… or even of the wilderness. 

It’s not a far-fetched thought! Just two chapters later, in Isaiah 42, Creation speaks: “Sing to the Lord a new song! Let the sea roar and all that fills it….let the desert and its towns lift up their voice!” 

An ecological lectionary commentary recently introduced me to the Earth Bible Project’s principles of ecology in Scripture, including the principle of voice: That Earth is a living entity capable of raising its voice in celebration and against injustice.

And the principal of resistance: Creation not only suffers from human injustices, but actively resists them. 

I immediately realized I had learned similar ideas in seminary from Ellen Davis, one of the greatest Old Testament scholars of our time. 

Walter Brueggeman – another one – talks about this stuff too. 

The idea that Creation or Earth has agency and a voice isn’t just 21st century ecological woo. 

These are assumptions that underlie much of Scripture. 

Where modern environmental science and ancient wisdom point us in the same direction, we should probably pay attention, and listen to the voice of Creation – or its component parts. 

Isaiah 40 hints that the wilderness that is speaking, here, is the dry and rocky near-desert that the Judean exiles would have had to cross to come home to Jerusalem from Babylon. 

But with Isaiah 34 close at hand, the wilderness that comes after civilization may well be in our minds too – those owl-haunted ruins and moss-eaten mansions… 

When the post-human wilderness tells us, Surely the people are grass, it speaks with particular authority. 

So what does the voice in, the voice of, the wilderness have to say, in Isaiah 40? 

Human life and accomplishments are temporary. Nothing lasts. 

God’s coming anyway. Take comfort. Get ready. 

Since all things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be? 

This past Tuesday I attended the Wisconsin Council of Churches annual meeting. British poet Jay Hulme was the keynote speaker. 

Our theme for the event was “chaplains to the apocalypse.” 

An invitation to wonder, together, what spiritual community and spiritual leadership look like in this season of the world. 

Jay told us – among other things – about Coventry Cathedral.

Our 2 Peter reading includes these frightening words: The heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire. 

On November 14th, 1940, during World War II, that happened to the city of Coventry, a midsized city in central England. 

515 German bomber planes carried out an attack on Coventry that night. Over the course of the night the Luftwaffe dropped 500 tons of high explosives and 30,000 incendiaries – bombs made to start fires. 

More than 43,000 homes were damaged or destroyed; infrastructure was shattered. 

At least 500 people died, possibly many more. 

And when morning came, Coventry’s 14th-century cathedral church was in ruins – its wood and metal interior structure had burned and melted, and its roof had collapsed. 

Surely the people are grass. 

But as people who loved the Cathedral wandered among its smoking ruins the morning of November 15, something remarkable started to happen.

The cathedral stonemason found two charred beams and lashed them together into a cross, standing it behind an altar of rubble. 

The vicar of a nearby church took a few of the big medieval nails from the floor – liberated as ancient beams burned – and tied them together with wire to create a smaller cross. 

And the Provost of the Cathedral, Richard Howard, took some chalk and wrote two words on the charred wall of the cathedral: 

“Father Forgive.” 

An abbreviated quotation of Jesus’ words on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” 

As the website of the Diocese of Coventry explains, Howard “wanted everyone to recognize their own part in the destructive patterns of behaviors which can lead to disaster… [and] to make a commitment not to seek revenge but to strive for reconciliation with the enemy.” 

The response to disaster – apocalypse – dissolving that first began to emerge, that smoky morning, developed into a lasting commitment to peace and reconciliation work grounded at Coventry Cathedral. 

After the German city of Dresden was brutally bombed in February of 1945, the Cathedral community sent Dresden a cross made from the nails of their ruined cathedral – a sign of hope, of endurance, of empathy. 

That cross has a place of honor in Dresden’s Frauenkirche. 

When it was time to rebuild Coventry’s cathedral, the design they chose was not one that tried to remake what had been before. 

To erase the wounds, the destruction. 

Instead, they built a modern worship space, and planted a garden within the ruined walls still standing. 

In that garden, members of the community pray the Coventry Litany of Reconciliation every day. 

Jay told us about Coventry. 

The bombs – the crosses. Father, forgive. The garden in the ruins. 

And he told us: When there’s an apocalypse, you have to make a choice about what kind of world you want to build among the ruins. 

What sort of persons ought we to be? … 

There are so many kinds of wilderness.  

Literal wildernesses in their sprawling glory.

We have to protect them by law, now, but in the past they were simply the places humans couldn’t easily figure out how to tame, to use, to inhabit. 

The wildernesses we leave behind when we abandon a place: derelict malls, boarded-up hotels or churches, sometimes whole neighborhoods or cities – hollowed out, haunted by crows, raccoons, coyotes. 

The inner wildernesses of our lives, our hearts, disorienting and empty. Places we avoid because they frighten us. 

Places where something once was, and isn’t anymore. 

Some churches will tell you that the themes of Advent are things like Peace and Love and Hope. 

I am here to tell you that the themes of Advent are things like Apocalypse and Wilderness.

But yes, also: Hope. 

There is hope in apocalypse, hope in wilderness.

Hope in the emptiness before, and after, human striving. 

Hope in naming and facing our losses and our fears. 

Hope in grappling with what kind of person we mean to be.

Hope in the wilderness calling us to get ready –

Because even now, even here,

The Holy comes to meet us. 

 

 

More about Jay:

https://jayhulme.com/

More about Coventry: 

https://www.coventry.anglican.org/the-story-of-the-cross-of-nails.php

Sermon, Dec. 19

Today we read one of my very favorite collects. A collect is a type of prayer – a short paragraph that says something about God and then asks something from God. The funny name comes from the idea that it’s gathering us, or our prayers – collecting them together. We say a collect at the beginning of worship, and another collect at the end of the prayers of the people. 

The collect assigned for this Sunday reads, “Blessed God, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them…” 

This is one of our really old collects; it goes back to the first English Book of Common Prayer, published in 1549, and was written by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. If you’ve heard that the Church of England, our mother church, was founded by Henry the Eighth, please do look up Thomas Cranmer sometime! Cranmer’s big work was getting liturgy and Scripture to be in the language people understood – English, instead of medieval Latin. Having ordinary people be able to read and study the Bible was very important to him, and it’s important to me, too. 

I have always loved that list of verbs: Read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest. It lays out that receiving and finding meaning in Scripture isn’t a one-step or simple process. It takes time and reflection. Sometimes it takes study, seeking more information. It takes curiosity and prayerful openness.  

We have read several pieces of Scripture this morning already. So let’s turn to the rest of those verbs. What about mark? 

Mark is being used here in a somewhat archaic way, still preserved in the saying “You mark my words!” It means, To pay close attention to, or take note of. 

Let’s pause, then, to mark our first reading today, from the book of Judges – about the judge Deborah. 

Judges is the book of the Bible that lays out what happens after God’s people settled in the land of Canaan. Last week you heard their leader Joshua, Moses’ successor, ask the people: Are you going to follow the God who brought you out of Egypt, and obey God’s commandments? And the people answered: The Lord our God we will serve and obey!

Narrator: The Lord their God they did NOT serve and obey. At least, not for long.

The Book of Judges has some dark stuff in it – some PG-13, some definitely R – but it’s a fascinating read. People sometimes assume that anything contained in the Bible is good – is how things are supposed to be. Judges is NOT that. 

The editorial voice of the text is really clear: This is a book about a time when society was coming apart at the seams. Leadership was unstable; there was a lot of chaos and violence; there were no strong shared values or sense of the common good. Everyone did what was right in their own eyes, says Judges chapter 17. 

Among other things, the Israelites UTTERLY FAIL to wipe out all the other peoples who are living in the land, as the text claims God told them they should. They live right alongside the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; and they intermarry with them, and they start worshipping their gods. (3:5-6) 

The Israelites are breaking Commandment number one – You shall have no other gods before me! – left and right. And God gets cranky about it. 

As the book of Judges understands it, because the people aren’t loyal to God, God repeatedly lets them get conquered by other nations, in the many tiny back-and-forth territorial wars of this time and place. 

When they get conquered, Israel remembers God and cries out to God for help, and God sends them a leader to help them – a judge. The ideal judge was wise and attuned to God, and also capable of leading the people as needed, including military leadership at times. 

Not all of the judges in the Book of Judges are ideal judges! Have you heard of Samson, the strong man? He’s probably the most famous figure from Judges. But the text is not kind to Samson.  

Deborah is Israel’s fourth judge, after Othniel, Ehud – that’s a story! – and Shamgar. I hope we’ll see a short drama of the rest of the story at our Talent Show, but you can also just read Judges chapter 4 – it’s not long. 

What might we mark about Deborah’s story? 

It is significant that she is a woman! One of very few named female *leaders* in the Bible. 

It makes sense that this happens in the early years of Israel, when leadership is still informal and based on call and giftedness. 

More formal and hierarchical leadership structures tend to lean patriarchal and lock women out; this happens both in Israel’s history, and then later in Christian history. 

The voice of the text accepts Deborah’s leadership – and seems to present her as one of the successful judges. At the same time, the text is aware of conventional gender norms, and plays with them. War was men’s work – and we are supposed to notice that Barak, whom Deborah calls to lead Israel in battle, says, “I’m not going unless you go too.” And Deborah fires back by saying, Fine, but God’s going to use a woman to kill the enemy general. You aren’t going to get to chop his head off and bask in manly glory. 

I think all of that is really interesting, and in some ways surprisingly current! We are still, as a culture, working through how we feel about women as warriors – or even just as strong, assertive leaders. 

It was only during the Obama years – another Barak! – that combat positions in the U.S. military were opened to women. 

And it’s well known, at least among women, that if you’re in a leadership role and try to lead like a man, you’ll get called things like abrasive and bossy and another word that starts with b.

So I mark that about the Deborah story: that there are seeds of solidarity and struggle here for the long, long human journey of unpacking expectations and constraints around gender roles. 

How about learn? Sometimes we learn from Scripture;  sometimes we learn things that shape how we read Scripture. 

Our text from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians is beautiful. It’s one of many in these weeks that lean towards Advent, with themes of staying alert and being ready for the day of the Lord, the second coming of Christ, the great and transformational intervention of God in history that the church still awaits. 

The thing that I am learning, in relation to this text and many like it, is that we need to be thoughtful about our imagery. 

This passage refers to Christians as children of light, not of darkness. What do light and dark mean, here? 

There’s a first layer of metaphor that’s pretty direct:

In the dark, you can’t see. You can’t do much. 

There aren’t electric lights, and oil lamps only go so far.

Dark is when thieves and bandits operate, and when people do the things they’re ashamed to be seen doing. 

Daylight is a blessing, in comparison. You can see what’s going on, and go about your business. 

That’s all straightforward enough.

Some later Christian texts, especially gnostic Christian writings, use light and dark in a more value-laden way – where light means good and pure, and dark means bad, evil, or corrupt. Paul is maybe leaning in that direction a little here. 

Sixteen hundred years later, European nations started conquering Africa and other places where darker-skinned peoples lived. And we started to add a racial dimension to those moral metaphors of light and darkness. 

Light-skinned people of European origin understood themselves as the bearers of culture, civilization, and the light of the Gospel to the dark places of the earth. 

And the idea of “darkness” increasingly tied together skin color with ideas of ignorance, childishness, and moral depravity. 

We who lead and worship in predominantly white churches have been asked to pay attention to how we use imagery and metaphors about light and darkness. Not to edit them out of our Scriptures, but to be mindful of the harm this language has caused, and can still cause. 

Sometimes learning makes us handle Scripture more carefully or in new ways. Being children of light, children of the day, means openness, honesty, integrity. Some of the metaphorical associations of “daylight” in modern American English have to do with coming to a new understanding, or with bringing something out into the open so we can take a good look at it. Developing greater awareness of the ways centuries of systemic racism have filtered into our language and thought is actually a pretty good way to be children of light. 

That brings us to inwardly digest. What a wonderful phrase! Sometimes we definitely have to really chew on Scripture to get to something that can feed us. 

Today’s Gospel parable is a puzzler. I don’t feel like I fully know what Jesus meant by it. What’s more, I’m not sure the Gospels know what Jesus meant by it. 

It is widely interpreted as a capitalist parable: Take a little, turn it into a lot, please the boss. 

We have this story in both Matthew and Luke’s Gospels, but they tell it very differently. Luke’s version includes some details that point towards a universally-hated political leader, Herod Archelaus, who was around when Jesus was a child. So it seems that for Luke’s version, the boss in the story is a bad guy. 

In Matthew’s version, if you peel back the layers of all the sermons you’ve heard about how you’re supposed to use your talents to please God – and I say this as we’re about to share a talent show! – it’s actually pretty hard to tell how we’re supposed to feel about the rich man. 

If we think he stands for God, what do we do with the fact that he is presented as harsh and greedy? 

What if instead of emulating the first two slaves, we’re supposed to see them as being welcomed in to a corrupt and exploitative status quo? Like a new employee who proves he’s willing to lie and cut corners, so he gets a promotion?… 

I’m not sure either Matthew or Luke has a coherent theological understanding of this parable. I wish we could get back to what Jesus actually said. I suspect part of the puzzle is that Jesus’ original audience would have known stuff we don’t know, that would have made the gist of the story more clear to them – like recognizing the allusions to Archelaus, or like the fact that being trusted with someone else’s money was a really big deal in the ancient world. (And a talent was a LOT of money! This was a fraught, risky situation.) 

What comes next in Matthew’s gospel is the parable of the sheep and the goats. We’ll hear it next week. That story features a true and righteous ruler – and suggests that what God is looking for in our lives is not return on investment, but feeding the hungry, clothing the cold, visiting the sick and imprisoned. 

There is – clearly – much to digest inwardly here! 

Our collect says that the goal of reading, marking, learning, and inwardly digesting Scripture is to hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life. First Thessalonians says that we will always be with God, whether awake or asleep, but other than that, today’s Scriptures don’t have a lot to say about life beyond this world. What I hope, rather, is that our abiding with, and grappling with, Scripture will help us feel that there’s something here worth the seeking, worth the reading, learning, and digesting. 

That in this big, strange chronicle of some part of the long human dance with God, there are texts that – by the grace of the Holy Spirit – still speak to challenges, questions, hearts and lives today/ That can still point us beyond ourselves towards something – towards Someone – bigger, better, wiser and kinder than we can imagine.

Let’s pray it one more time… 

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.