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Announcements, April 26

CHECK YOUR MAILBOX!  Invitations to the party to kick off the Open Door Project, our capital campaign, will arrive this week. The party will be on Saturday, May 19, from 4 – 6pm, and everyone who considers St. Dunstan’s their church home is invited! Please RSVP using the enclosed postcards.  We hope to have the whole congregation present as we begin this exciting journey together. Kids are very much welcome. Please note: we will not ask for pledges at this event, but we hope you’re thinking and talking about your household’s readiness and capacity to contribute to the campaign.

We’ll share an evening of food, music, and exploring St. Dunstan’s past, present, and future!

THIS WEEKEND…

Sandbox Worship, Thursday, April 26, 5:30pm: In the Sandbox this week, we will study the Acts lesson for this coming Sunday, then prepare a scripted version of the lesson to use in worship on Sunday. If you would like to read one of the parts and will be at church on Sunday the 29th (either 10am or 8am worship), please come! A light dinner will follow.

Ladies’ Night Out, Friday, April 27, 6pm: Come join us for good food and good conversation among women of all ages from St. Dunstan’s. This month we’ll be celebrating the Chinese New Year, the Year of the Dog, at The Imperial Garden at 2039 Allen Blvd., Middleton, just across from St. D’s. For more information, or to arrange a ride, please contact Kathy Whitt  or  Debra Martinez.

Water is Life, April 27th, 7-9 pm @ St Francis House, 1011 University Ave.: St. Francis House is bringing together interfaith, academic, and Native People’s perspectives to discuss water rights and justice. John Floberg, Episcopal priest and an organizer of Clergy Standing with Standing Rock, comes from North Dakota to St Francis House as a special guest. Join us for his talk, additional perspectives, and a panel discussion to follow. This event is sponsored by St Francis House Student Episcopal Center and the Center for Religion and Global Citizenry; co-sponsored by Pres House, Badger Catholic and His House.

Last Sunday All Ages Worship, April 29, 10am: Our Last Sunday Worship this month will focus on our call to care for God’s creation. This service is intended especially to help kids (and grownups who are new to our pattern of worship) to engage and participate fully. NOTE: Our 8am service always follows our regular order of worship.

Falk Friends Pantry Prep, Sunday, April 29, 11:30am: Helpers of all ages are welcome to help pack our Falk Friends Pantry bags after the 10am liturgy!

Looking for Coffee Hosts May 13 and 27: Consider being a coffee host and talk with Janet Bybee at (608) 836-9755 for more information.

Seeking Sponsors for our Kids & Youth!  Your $25 sponsorship helps one of the children or youth of St. Dunstan’s attend Camp Webb or our summer youth mission trip. Each shareholder will receive a postcard from one of our kids or youth, during their time at camp or on the youth mission trip. We also plan a late summer social event for kids and sponsors, when kids can share about their trips.  You can contribute with a check in the offering plate with “Camp Sponsorship” on the memo line, or online at donate.stdunstans.com.

Meal Helpers Needed: New parents Kate and Alex have asked for some meals as they adjust to life with a baby. They will be without “Grandparent help” during the month of May, and would like a couple of meals a week during that time. Shirley Laedlein has created a calendar where every day in May is selected, but would ask that if you sign up, you would spread out the meals to twice a week to cover the whole month rather than clump them up. Alex has a couple of recipe ideas if you don’t know what to make. Shirley will be get those from her, so let her know if you want them. You can access the calendar by going to St. Dunstan’s website, clicking on the Fellowship and Learning tab, and then going to the Sharing Meals tab. Please contact Shirley with any questions. Thanks so much for all you do!

THE WEEKS AHEAD…

Basics of Major Gifts and Tax Law, Sunday, May 6, 9am: John Scherer will offer an overview of some different ways to make major gifts to the church or another beloved organization, and the impact of changes in tax law on charitable gifts.  

Spring Clean-Up Day, Sunday, May 6, 11:30am – 1pm: Join us after the 10am service to enjoy a time of shared work on our beautiful grounds, tidying them up and preparing for the growing season. A list of tasks will be posted in the Gathering Area ahead of time. Wear or bring your scruffy clothes and work gloves. Lunch will be provided!

Birthday and Anniversary blessings and Healing Prayers will be given next Sunday, May 6, as is our custom on the first Sunday of the month.

MOM Special Offering, Sunday, May 6: Next Sunday, half the cash in our offering plate and any designated checks will be given to Middleton Outreach Ministry’s food pantry. Here are some of the current top-ten, most needed items: Rice, Barley, Quinoa, Oats;  Canned Chicken, Salmon, Sardines, Tuna; Pasta: Penne, Elbow, Bowtie; Canned Veggies: Mixed, Artichokes, Asparagus, Mushrooms; Toilet Paper/Paper Towels; Size 6 Diapers. Thank you for your generous support!

Evening Eucharist, Sunday, May 6, 6pm: Join us for a simple service as the week begins. All are welcome.

Buildings & Grounds Meeting, Monday, May 7, 6pm: Weather permitting, we will gather outside at 6pm for some outdoor tasks, and then meet inside at 7pm to talk about some current projects, needs, and how to tackle them. If you’re interested in helping out with these kinds of tasks but can’t attend this meeting, talk to John Ertl or Jim Whitney, or and we will follow up.

Madison-Area Julian Gathering, Wednesday, May 9, 1:00 – 2:45pm: We welcome everyone who is interested in learning more about contemplative spirituality in the Christian tradition. We meet the second Wednesday of the month for a period of contemplative prayer, after which we discuss a reading from Julian of Norwich, a 14th Century English mystic who has been called “a theologian for our time.” We would love to have you join us.  If you have questions, contact Susan Fiore.

Ascension Eucharist at The Sandbox, Thursday, May 10, 7pm (TIME CHANGE): A simple Eucharist to celebrate the Feast of the Ascension, as the Church honors the story of the risen Jesus saying a final farewell to his friends.

Men’s Book Club, Saturday, May 19, 10am: The book is All the Light We Can Not See by Anthony Doerr. “A beautiful story about a blind French girl, Marie-Laure and a German boy, Werner, whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.” Werner grows up enchanted by a crude radio he finds and becomes an expert at fixing these new instruments, a talent that wins him a place in the Hitler Youth and a special assignment to track the resistance. More and more aware of the human cost of his intelligence, Werner travels through the heart of the war and, finally, into Saint-Malo, where his story and Marie-Laure’s converge. HAVE A GOOD READ

SUMMER…

Our Vacation Bible School this summer will be August 5 – 9! Our VBS meets in the evening – 5:30 to 7:30pm. We’ve got some great ideas cooking up for this year. If you’d like to help out, talk to Sharon Henes.

Women’s Mini Week 2018, “Courageous Women of God!” August 9-12 at Camp Lakotah in Wautoma, WI: Spread the Word, Ladies! You are invited to Women’s Mini Week, beginning at Thursday dinner, August 9th through Sunday brunch, August 12th. For registration materials and to answer questions, go to the website: www.womensminiweek.org or email to womensminiweek@gmail.com.

 

 

Sermon, Dec. 17

Most weeks, I write my sermons in the same coffeeshop, on the same morning. I need the routine. And they make a good bagel sandwich. My particular coffeeshop tends to have the radio on – not loudly, just in the background, so that when I get stuck, or my mind wanders, or a song I especially like comes on, I notice it. This week, I was sitting in my coffeeshop wondering how to start this sermon. I knew I wanted to talk about nostalgia, its attraction and its risks, but I couldn’t find my way in. And then my ear caught the song on the radio – one I know because it’s a favorite of my son’s. It’s called “Stressed Out,” by the band Twenty One Pilots, and the hooky little chorus begins, “Wish I could turn back time to the good old days…”

Wish I could turn back time to the gold old days. There it is. Nostalgia. That’s the heart of it. In the song, a young man remembers his childhood: playing with his brother and bedtime lullabies and not having to make money. But nostalgia is all around us at this time of year – family traditions, grandmother’s recipes, ornaments from decades past, vintage Christmas movies, Charles Dickens and Santa and Bing Crosby on the radio singing, “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas just like the ones I used to know…”

I told Deanna, our music minister: We don’t have to choose hymns for Christmas Eve. We sing the same hymns every Christmas Eve. Because that’s what people want: to enter that timeless time when we’re singing Joy to the World and Silent Night and it could be any year, except that we’re older, and some of us are gone. Wish I could turn back time to the good old days. Christmastide is heavy with memory, with longing, with nostalgia.

This passage from the book of the prophet Isaiah comes from a moment when the people of God thought they could turn back time to the good old days. This text – this portion of the Book of Isaiah – was probably written a little over 500 years before the birth of Jesus. Another five hundred years earlier, King David had ruled Israel, an independent kingdom at the height of its power, conquering territory and receiving tribute goods from other nations, wealthy and healthy and strong. David made Jerusalem the capital of his kingdom, and his son Solomon built the Great Temple there, the heart of the people’s worship of God. Two hundred years earlier, David’s kingdom had split in two, and the Northern Kingdom had fallen, conquered by the Assyrian Empire. The Southern Kingdom, Judah, somehow avoided that fate, but fell under Assyria’s power, its kings and its wealth under Assyrian control.  And about sixty years earlier, Judah and its capital Jerusalem finally fell to the next great empire, Babylon. Jerusalem’s walls were broken down, and the Temple torn to pieces, its holy vessels carried away as spoils of war. Many, many people died; and many, many more were dragged off into exile in Babylon. Anyone of any status or skill was taken away from their homeland. Only the poorest were left there, among the ruins.

God’s people live in exile. They learn, painfully, that God is with them even when they are far from their homeland and their Temple. But they still long for what they have lost – how could they not? Psalm 137 gives voice to that longing: “By the waters of Babylon, we lay down and wept. How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill…” Wish I could turn back time to the good old days…

And then – wonder of wonders – they have the chance to do it! A new empire conquers Babylon, and their emperor, Cyrus, has a kinder, gentler approach to imperial rule. In the year 538 BCE, Cyrus tells the Judean exiles, Go home. Rebuild your city and your temple. Get back on your feet. Of course, you’ll send us taxes of money and goods, and do what we tell you do – you’re still part of an empire – but you can have your little nation, if it makes you happy and keeps you quiet.

The exiles are SO EXCITED. They can go home! They can rebuild! They can restore Jerusalem, which has only become more beautiful in memory; they can reconstruct the Temple, which shines with gold and holiness and love in the stories of their parents and grandparents.

But of course it’s not that simple. Jerusalem is eventually rebuilt, including the Temple, but it takes a long time, and it’s hard and complicated. The people who were left there during the exile think of this as their land now, and there are tensions between them and the returnees, those coming home from Babylon.  Most the exiles who return are young men, so there ends up being intermarriage with women from other groups, even as the religious leaders are trying to get everyone to be “real Israelites.”

There was a harsh drought at about that time, which compounded the problems of a ruined infrastructure and economy. Attacks by bandits and other tribes were an ongoing challenge while the returnees struggled to complete the city wall. And conflicts developed between factions of leaders with different priorities and visions for the rebuilding process. One source I consulted summed it all up saying, “Feelings of disappointment developed among the returnees.” Wish we could turn back time to the good old days… But we can’t.

The Gospels – the beginning of the Jesus story, whether you start with his birth or his baptism – That’s another moment when people thought they could turn back time. Get back to their glory days. You hear it every time King David is invoked: In Gabriel’s proclamation to Mary: “[Your child] will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.” In the shouts of hope when Jesus enters Jerusalem: “Hosanna to the Son of David!”  O come, thou branch of Jesse’s tree…! David is remembered as Israel’s great king, Strong and just and holy, called and favored by God. Many, many people followed Jesus, hoped in Jesus, because they wanted him to be a second David. To kick out the Romans and restore Judea as an independent kingdom, with peace and plenty for all.

You can’t blame people for wanting that. Nostalgia is a very understandable emotion. But it’s also toxic.

That insight comes from John Hodgman, a comedian, actor, author, and fake internet judge. Comedians, like anthropologists, spend a lot of time observing human behavior; they just turn it into humor instead of peer-reviewed articles.

And Hodgman’s observations – including years of adjudicating disputes on the Judge John Hodgman podcast – have led him to the conclusion that nostalgia is at best, unproductive; at worst, poisonous. Hodgman says – and I think he’s spot-on – that nostalgia is based on two delusions: That the past was better, and that the past is attainable.

We are prone to the delusion that the past was better than the present for several reasons. Maybe we were kids, in the time we’re remembering, and everything seemed simpler because it was simpler, for us. Or maybe we weren’t even born yet, and all we have of the past are the idealized stories of our parents and grandparents. We idealize the past because memory is selective; the hard stuff and the bad stuff tends to fade. And that’s fine; we should hold and treasure our good memories!  The problem is when we start to take our selective memories of the past as the whole truth about the past. (Even the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes takes a swing at nostalgia: “Do not say, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.” Ecclesiastes 7:10.)

And then there’s the illusion that the past is attainable. That we could, maybe, somehow, turn back time to the good old days, and make everything great again.

Sometimes – in some cases – the past really was better, for a particular group of people. Take the 1950s, an era that is a huge focus for nostalgia in American culture. Sixty years ago – interestingly, about the same gap that separated the Babylonian Exile and the return to Jerusalem. In the 1950s, if you were straight and white and middle-class and moderate in your politics and basically content with dominant gender norms, then things might have been pretty great for you. But there have been massive, irreversible changes in the past sixty years. Women are not going back into the kitchen and nursery. African-Americans are not returning to the exclusions and oppressions of Jim Crow. GLBTQ+ folks are not going back in the closet. And it’s not just social change. The microprocessor and the Internet are not going anywhere. And the massive increase in economic inequality in America, which has polarized and blighted our social landscape over the past half-century, does not seem likely to turn back to 1950s levels anytime soon. Even if the past was better, for some very specific definition of better, we can’t get there from here. The past is not attainable.

Likewise in the time of our text from Isaiah. Before the Exile, life in Jerusalem was good for people of status and wealth. But the poor people who were left among the ruins when Babylon conquered the city – things might have been better for them before the exiles returned and said, Actually, all this land is ours. And for the exiles themselves: Not everybody came back. People made lives for themselves in Babylon, and stayed. Things had changed, as they always do; history moved along, as it always does; the past that some longed to recreate stubbornly stayed past.

Nostalgia tells us that the past was better, and tempts us to believe that we might be able to bring back the past. But that’s an illusion, and sometimes a costly one. You can treasure your memories, you can take what you treasured most about the past, and build it into the present and the future – as the Exiles did, eventually, in the renewed Jerusalem. But you cannot turn back time. If our hope for the future is that it will be exactly like the past, then it’s not really hope; it’s just nostalgia projected forwards. God says, We can do better than that.

The alternative to nostalgia is hope. Hope leans into the future, instead of back toward the past. Hope insists that we can do better, with God’s help. Hope is challenging; we can’t always visualize where it’s leading us. Hope demands our trust, and our labor, while nostalgia just bathes us in comforting, rosy images. There’s a very real sense in which many of us prefer nostalgia. When we’re tired or stressed or sad, maybe most of us prefer nostalgia – time to have a cup of cocoa and watch Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Right now, we are in the midst of the most nostalgic time of year, the weeks approaching Christmas. And yet there’s this provocative irony in the fact that what God is urgently saying to God’s people in our seasonal texts is: Look! I’m doing something new! It’s in Luke’s birth narratives, in Zechariah and Mary’s fierce songs of hope and redemption. It’s in John the Baptist’s proclamation that big change is coming, and everyone had better get ready. It’s in the Book of Revelation:  “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away.”

It’s all through Isaiah, the core Old Testament text of Advent: Chapter 65: “I am about to create a new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered!” Chapter 43: “Behold, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; can’t you see it?” And today’s text, the one that Jesus quotes when he begins his public ministry: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to proclaim a new time, a new season!

This text from Isaiah speaks to the exiles in their disappointment – their grief – that the present refuses to conform to the remembered past. That the good old days remain elusive, illusory. The prophet says to them, with joy and urgency: Return, rebuild, restore, raise up what has been cast down, repair what has been ruined; tut it’s not going to be the way it was. It’s going to be different, and it’s going to be better. You remember Jerusalem before the Conquest as the good old days, but the prophetic books tell a different story: corruption and arrogance, cruelty and licentiousness, hunger and hopelessness. The renewed City that God calls you to build will not have poverty and injustice built into its very foundations. It will be a city of freedom, not bondage;  of gladness, not mourning; of righteousness, instead of robbery and wrongdoing. While nostalgia calls us back, God calls us forward, with the voices of prophets and saints and Jesus himself. God calls us to as people of hope, people whose lives point towards God’s future, which is more just and joyful and true and free than any of our pasts.

Read more on John Hodgman on nostalgia here: 

https://www.pastemagazine.com/articles/2012/11/the-real-john-hodgman-were-not-making-this-up.html

https://medium.com/@pk.patrick.kelly/how-nostalgia-is-tarnishing-the-millennial-generation-41a8c4df133d

Homily, Dec. 10

The Gospel of Luke, chapter 2, verse 7, says, “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

Because there was no place for them in the inn. That detail goes by fast, and it’s so familiar. And we love that the Holy Family ends up in a barn – the image of God Incarnate born among sheep and cattle and donkeys and chickens. If there had been room at the inn, there wouldn’t be ANIMALS in our Nativity scenes!

But this verse – there was no place for them in the inn – It’s an insult. It’s a failure. Hospitality was, and remains, terribly, terribly important in the cultures of the Middle East. And hospitality is a theme throughout scripture – the blessings that come when you practice it; the shame and danger that can follow, when you fail to welcome a guest.

Today we’ve shared a garland of stories of strangers and guests in Scripture, to help us reflect on that detail from the Nativity story: “There was no place for them in the inn.” Later, as a grown man, Jesus says about himself: “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” (Luke 9:58) And it’s true even now, at the very beginning of the story: God’s incarnate presence among us begins with closed doors and angry faces. With failed hospitality.

This Advent and Christmas we are exploring together the music and meanings of Las Posadas, a custom found in many parts of the Spanish-speaking world. The word “Posada” means “inn.” Las Posadas is a community acting-out of Mary and Joseph’s search for shelter in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. Mary and Joseph knock at many doors and are rudely turned away. The asking – and refusing – take the form of a song, sung back and forth between the people participating.  In some versions, the Devil also plays a role, sneering at them and telling them to go away! Watch for that in our Christmas Eve pageant this year! Finally, finally, Mary and Joseph find welcome -a kind person allows them to stay in her barn. There’s a welcome song too:  “Enter, enter, holy pilgrims, holy pilgrims! Welcome to my humble home. Though ’tis little I can offer, I can offer, all I have please call your own.” We’re singing some Las Posadas music today – and we’ll hold our Posadas this Saturday evening at 5pm. I hope you’ll come!

Why are we doing Las Posadas this year? Well, one reason is to broaden our sense of our church and our faith. Midwestern Episcopalians tend to think of both our churches and our tradition as basically Anglo – white, and English in both origin and language. And that’s not true. There are lots of non-Anglo Episcopalians. In particular, Latino and Latina Episcopalians are a vibrant presence in the Episcopal Church. Even in Madison, Wisconsin! It’s been a gift to me as an Anglo to realize that our way of faith is bigger than my cultural experience. I am a cradle Episcopalian, friends, this church’s music and prayers are in my bones; but the Episcopal Church, La Iglesia Episcopal, is not limited to the music and the prayers I already know. The word “familiar” is closely related to the word “family” – but God’s family is bigger than what is familiar to us, and that is a holy and joyful opportunity.

But celebrating the breadth of our way of faith is not the only reason to weave Posadas into our Advent and Christmas this year. Las Posadas is an embodied reflection on hospitality. There are many issues in our civic life right now that hinge on our readiness to open our hearts to one another. And as Christians we cannot in good conscience separate those civic issues from our faith – because our faith’s teaching on hospitality is overwhelmingly clear. One of the strongest ethical mandates of Scripture is: Treat the stranger, the immigrant, the guest, with care and respect; for your people were once strangers too. I don’t know offhand how many times the Bible says that – but it’s a lot. As Christians – as people formed by Scripture – hospitality, welcome, is one of the fundamental ways we are called to engage the world.

Over the past few months, some members of our parish have shared their stories of immigration – their own, or a parent’s or grandparent’s. Those stories – and our own family stories – remind us that our country is overwhelmingly a nation of immigrants. And many of our immigrant ancestors were unwelcome when they first arrived here. They were seen as wretched refuse – tired, poor, exiles and huddled masses. And yet – we have been tempted to close the golden door behind us. To refuse welcome to today’s immigrants who seek to build lives here, for the betterment of both their children and our common good.

Immigrants today have heard the words of the Posadas song, the ones that go with doors slammed shut: We don’t have room for you. We don’t have enough to share. You might be robbers. Go away. This very month, many groups, including faith groups, are urging Congress to pass the Dream Act, which would grant permanent residency to immigrants brought here illegally as children. Without the Dream Act, people who have lived here since they were two, or four, or seven, people for whom California or North Carolina or Wisconsin is home, face living in shadow, secrecy, and risk.

And all of that, friends, is the second reason we’re trying out the custom of Las Posadas this year. So that we can do something unfamiliar. So that we who are Anglos, in this congregation, can have the immigrant’s experience of wondering if we’re saying the words correctly, if someone’s going to laugh at us. So that we can reflect on how it feels to say, or to hear, Go away! We don’t want you. So that we can remember how it feels to be strangers and outsiders – or notice how it feels, if we’ve never felt it before. So we can be both hosts and guests, and, receiving hospitality, may improve our hospitality, and make us more ready to welcome the holy in the guise of the stranger.

Sermon, Nov. 19

As I’ve wrestled with this parable this week, I keep thinking of the duck-rabbit. You’ve seen it: the classic simple image that could be one thing or could be another thing. Before I name the duck and rabbit I see here, let’s hear the parable again, and let’s make the setting a little more modern:

The CEO of MoneyCorp (note: I made up this name, but of course it turns out there actually is a MoneyCorp somewhere) is going on a business trip, maybe a long one; he needs to oversee operations in China for a while. So he calls in his three vice-presidents. (Of course a vice-president in a company is very different from a slave – but not entirely different. His position, his livelihood, even his future, depend on his boss’s goodwill.) So the three vice-presidents meet with the boss. And he tells the first one, “You’ve been doing good work; while I’m away, you’re in charge of $5 million.” He tells the second one, “You’re really growing into this role; I’m leaving you with $2 million to manage.” And he tells the third one, “…. You get $1 million.” And he leaves.

A long time later, the CEO comes back, and calls in the VPs to settle accounts with them, reclaim the company’s wealth and hear what they did with it. The first one says, “Sir, I used the $5 million to make another $5 million.” The CEO says, “Well done! You can expect a raise, and even more responsibility in the future.” And the second VP said, “Sir, I used the $2 million to make another $2 million.” And the CEO said, “Excellent! You’ll be getting a raise and a promotion too.”

And then the third VP comes forward. He says, “Sir, you left me in charge of $1 million. I know you; I know how you run MoneyCorp. I know that you’re a hard man, and that you’ve gotten wealthy by taking the profit of other people’s work. So when you put me in charge of this money, I locked the check in the drawer of my desk until your return. Here it is. Take it.” And the boss said, “You wicked and lazy man! You knew I was a hard man? You knew I profit off the work of others? Then why didn’t you at least keep the money in an interest-bearing account?! Listen, buddy, this is the way of the world:  Those who have a lot, get more, and those who don’t have much, lose the little they have. If you don’t want to play the game, maybe you don’t belong at MoneyCorp.”

Okay. The duck-rabbit. The rabbit – see the rabbit? – the rabbit is the better-known interpretation of this parable. It’s warm and fuzzy. Kind of. It says, God is our Master, and God gives us resources, and we’re supposed to use those resources to extend our Master’s domain and earn our Master’s approval.

The duck – see the duck? – the duck is loud and awkward and might bite you. The duck says, This Master is a horrible person who embodies the cruel and corrupt systems of this world.

It’s hard to see both the duck and the rabbit at the same time.You kind of have to choose.

Let’s go back to the parable – Matthew’s version, not mine – and see if we can find any clarity on the duck-rabbit issue. The narrative raises a lot of questions. How much is a talent? It’s a large amount of money. Translating it into millions isn’t unreasonable.

How would someone have used money to make money, back in Jesus’ day?Doubling your money always means you’re playing high risks, and sometimes means somebody’s getting cheated. The world of finance and investment was a lot smaller and simpler back then, but there were a couple of ways to win big. One was to put your money into the currency exchange business that happened in the court of the great Temple. The people who set the exchange rate can make sure they get a hefty profit from every transaction. We know how Jesus felt about that business. The other way was essentially high-risk mortgage lending. Historically, most ordinary Judeans were small-scale farmers. By Jesus’ day, many had lost their ancestral land due to poverty, and many more were on the edge of losing their land, due to the heavy taxes Rome demanded. When someone is desperate, you can loan them money at a high interest rate. We know how that usually works out.

As for investing money to earn interest: This parable is literally the only place in the Bible where someone suggests this as a good thing. For the entire Old Testament, taking interest income is proof that you’re an unscrupulous, greedy person. To be clear, I think it’s fine that our church gets interest on our invested funds. But Jesus had very Old Testament ethics about money. So the Master’s eagerness to earn interest is a clue to what Jesus meant by this story.

One more question: Why did the third slave bury the money? I spent a really happy couple of hours this week chasing this question deep into the Talmud. In 70 CE, about forty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the Great Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, as Roman troops crushed a Jewish rebellion against Roman rule. This was a big event for early Christians; even more so for Jews. What emerged from that great loss was Rabbinic Judaism – a way of being Jewish without the Temple as its center.

During the time of the Temple, there was a whole body of religious teaching about how to apply the laws of the Torah to all kinds of situations. That teaching had been curated and passed down at the Temple, but after the Temple, in the first and second centuries, it gets written down, so that it can circulate and spread among scattered Jewish communities. That’s the set of texts called the Talmud.

And it turns out that in the Talmud, being responsible for someone else’s property was a big legal and ethical issue. There were banks, but banking wasn’t widely accessible, and a lot of people didn’t hold their wealth as money; they had it as wine or grain or oil or sheep. If you had to travel, or if you had more than you could store, you’d leave your stuff with someone else, so it wouldn’t be stolen.  And of course being left in charge of somebody else’s stuff is a temptation. You could drink a couple of barrels of wine, and then when the owner returns, claim that they broke or went sour. So there is a lot of teaching in the Talmud about the moral obligation of looking after someone else’s property. And it turns out that when someone leaves you in charge of some money, burying it is RECOMMENDED by the Talmud. Rabbi Shmuel, who lived in the late 2nd century, said, “There is safety for money only in the ground.”

There’s even a story, kind of a case study, about a man who’s entrusted with some money by a friend. He gives the money to his mother, who puts it in a chest in their house; but a robber steals it. The question is, who is responsible for the loss? – and in the course of the discussion, the text says, Well, the man must not have told his mother that it was somebody else’s money, because if he had, she would have buried it.

Despite all this – and more; I could’t fit all my points into this sermon! – the duck-rabbit won’t fully resolve into a duck. I’ve spent a lot of time with this parable, over the years. And it just keeps being awkwardly both duck and rabbit. At least, that’s true in Matthew’s version. Luke has this story too, but his version is a lot stranger and darker. It’s not in the lectionary, so it’s less familiar. It’s in chapter 19 – check it out later. In Luke’s version, the Master is unambiguously a corrupt and cruel ruler, whose actions echo the acts of the brutal king of Judea who ruled during Jesus’ early childhood. There’s a strong case to be made that Luke records the story as Jesus told it – and that Matthew simplified it because the story made more sense to him as a story about how we should be good productive servants for Jesus.

But even though he stuck some rabbit ears on the story, Matthew retained its fierce heart, its ethical and theological core: that dialogue between the third slave and the master, which is much the same in both Gospels, and which I’m sure is much as Jesus first told it.

‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’

‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter?… Take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.’

Do you know the old joke about the pastor who calls the kids forward for a children’s sermon? And he says, I’m going to describe something, and I want you to guess what it is! It climbs around in the trees… it has a big fluffy tail… and it collects nuts and buries them! And there’s dead silence; the children just stare at him. And he says, “Come on, you must know what it is, speak up!” And finally one child says, “I know the answer must be Jesus, but it sure sounds like a squirrel.”

I feel like that’s what we’ve done with this parable. I’ve read SO many commentaries and sermons on this story. And SO many of them say, “I know the Master must be Jesus, but he sure sounds like a jerk.”

Sometimes a squirrel is a just a squirrel, and a cruel and greedy master isn’t supposed to remind us of God.

Okay. Why does it matter? Duck or rabbit? We’re committing our pledges to the life of this church today. Is it duck church or rabbit church? We’re baptizing a child into the faith and family of Jesus. Is it duck faith or rabbit faith?

The rabbit message – it’s not WRONG. The idea that we should honor what we’ve been given – resources, skills, and yes, talents – and use them, and multiply them, in ways that add to the world’s measure of hope and wholeness and delight – the Gospel says that in lots of places, and I try to live that way, and I think you all do too.

But there’s a sense in which I don’t need church to tell me that.  A capitalist culture tells me to use what I have to get more. Human decency tells me to use what I have to serve others.

What I need to hear from the Bible, from the Church, from Jesus, is that there’s a higher standard and a bigger picture, beyond and above our culture and our systems and our norms. This isn’t a parable about obedience, or resourcefulness, or, God help us, productivity.  This is a story about power and courage. About resistance. Some commentators call this the Parable of the Whistleblower. I like that. The third slave says he was afraid, but there’s nothing cowardly about what he does. He refuses to play the game. And he doesn’t just opt out and vanish; he names the boss to his face as cruel, greedy, and ruthless.

This the duck’s message: When the system is broken, or fixed – it matters to God. When the powerful use their power to benefit themselves – it matters to God. When people just take what they want because nobody dares to stop them – it matters to God.  When “more” drives our common life, instead of better, kinder, fairer – it matters to God. It matters to God so much that God in Christ became the whistleblower, teaching and arguing and healing and dying – and rising – to tell the truth about our human systems of power and gain.

When the culture tells us, The rich and powerful run the show; your best plan is to play the game – when our human decency runs low because we’re tired and jaded and frustrated – then we need duck church, duck faith. We need a community gathered around Christ the Whistleblower, to comfort and encourage us, to connect us and reorient us. May we be both rabbit church and duck church for each other, my dear ones – a church worthy of our gifts, our children, and our hearts.

Sources & Further Reading… 

“Jesus As Archelaus in the Parable of the Pounds,” Brian Schultz, Novum Testamentum, Vol. 49, Fasc. 2 (2007), pp. 105-127

David Lose on Luke’s version of the story:

http://www.davidlose.net/2013/11/luke-19-11-27/

Another sermon on this parable:

https://www.huffingtonpost.com/stan-duncan/the-parable-of-the-liferi_b_6164642.html

Explore the Talmud at sefaria.org

The part in question is Section 42 of the Bava Metzia.

https://www.sefaria.org/Bava_Metzia?lang=bi

And here’s a post that summarizes this portion of the Talmud:

https://www.torahinmotion.org/discussions-and-blogs/bava-metzia-42-where-is-my-money

Sermon, Oct. 22

Let me tell you that story again, with a few details filled in. Because it’s a terrific story. The Pharisees are increasingly fed up with Jesus. Their movement taught that the Jewish people should return to to the traditional practices of their faith, following all the commandments, as a way to separate themselves from the unclean pagan ways of the Roman Empire and to earn God’s favor. Sometimes they’re on the same page with Jesus, who also wants ordinary people to feel they can approach God in faith, and has a healthy disdain for Rome and its ways. But Jesus is disturbingly irreverent about the Law and the Commandments. He seems to think that many of them don’t matter at all.

Meanwhile, the Herodians don’t think much of Jesus either. The Herodians would have been folks who were cozy with Herod, the king of Judea – a puppet king, supported by the Roman army, and allowed to have power on condition that he keep his people in line and make sure money keeps flowing from Judea to Rome. These are the people who are managing to get richer under Roman rule, while the rest of Judea gets poorer. Now Jesus has been saying some pretty disrespectful things about leaders who are only concerned with themselves, and he’s stirring up trouble.

The Pharisees and the Herodians don’t get along. The Herodians think the Pharisees are weird fanatics. The Pharisees think the Herodians are self-indulgent sell-outs. But sometimes the enemy of your enemy is your friend. They’d all like to take Jesus down a peg, and they stumble on a way to do it. They’re going to ask him about a hot-button issue: paying taxes to Rome.

The people of Judea were struggling under the burden of these taxes; they were wildly unpopular. And for the Pharisees and other observant Jews,  there was another problem: Paying taxes meant using Roman coins, which had an image of the Roman Emperor’s head on them, and text that named the Emperor as a god. The Emperor was very definitely NOT a god in the eyes of Jewish people, and these coins were tainted by idolatry. The question the Herodians and Pharisees pose to Jesus is a trap because either answer will get him in trouble with somebody. If he says, NO, we are God’s people and owe nothing to the Emperor, then he’s in trouble with the Romans – and maybe they’ll deal with him. If he says, YES, be a good citizen, pay your taxes, then the common people may turn against him, and the disruptive movement he’s started might lose steam.

Don’t you love their double-edged flattery? “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and you’ll always say what you believe is true no matter what the consequences might be…So tell us, IS IT LAWFUL TO PAY TAXES TO THE EMPEROR, OR NOT?”

Jesus is no fool. He sees the trap clearly, and calls them out: ‘You hypocrites! Show me one of the coins used for the tax.’ Somebody has one in their pocket, and they show him: Look, there’s the Roman emperor, probably Tiberius, with the inscription, “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus.” Jesus says, So…. Whose head is this, here on the coin? And they say, Um. The Emperor’s. And Jesus says, Okay, well, then, give the Emperor what belongs to the Emperor, and give God what belongs to God.

It’s such a good answer. He evades their trap by saying in one breath, Sure, pay your taxes, but the Emperor is a fraud. Because a crowd of Jews, no matter how religious they are, all know the answer to what belongs to God: Everything. Everything. Let the Emperor have his little bits of metal. Your lives, your souls, Judea, Rome, the whole wide earth: All God’s. And don’t you forget it.

One of the issues at the heart of this story is what money stands for.Money in itself is just a tool. It’s a way to trade one thing for another thing, at a distance of time or space. For example, money is what allows us to trade a portion of your work for electricity to heat this building. People often misquote Scripture – specifically, the first letter to Timothy – and say, Money is the root of all evil. But what that text actually says is, The love of money is the root, or source, of all kinds of evil. Some have wandered away from faith and gotten themselves into all kinds of trouble and suffering because they made money their goal and focus.  (1 Tim 6:9-10, Common English Bible, alt.)

Money in and of itself – if such a thing were possible – is pretty straightforward. It’s what money means to us that gets complicated. In this Gospel story, money is tied up with politics, with faith, with social status. That’s all true for us today, too, in various ways. How we feel about wealth, taxes, our community, our nation – all of that is bundled up with how we feel and think and talk about money. Moral assumptions about money, wealth, and poverty are at the root of our national debates over taxes, health care, and so much more. Money is also closely bound to our fears and anxieties. In uncertain times, money stands for security – and lack of money means vulnerability and struggle.

Charles LaFond, an Episcopal priest, writer, and stewardship consultant, says that despite our buying habits and reputation, it’s not true that Americans are greedy. The fact is that we’re overwhelmed and afraid, and consumerism is how we scream. I think he has a point; I know how it feels to read the news, feel my heart sink and my stomach clench, and then see an online ad for a children’s clothing company I like and think, Oh, that sounds like relief….! Let me go look at appliquéd hedgehogs for a while…

We’re coming into the heaviest shopping season of the year – when we all strive for balance between the momentary catharsis of buying a thing, and the longer-term security of clinging to our dollars –  just as St. Dunstan’s and other churches are asking their members to make financial commitments to the church for the year ahead. To give money away, getting little that is tangible in return.

Today we hand out our giving campaign packets. For those who are new to this system: during the fall giving campaign, we ask those who make St. Dunstan’s their faith community to look ahead to the next calendar year, decide how much they’d like to give to the church, and report that number to us. Those numbers – your pledges – are private; only our parish treasurers see them. But we add up all those pledges to give us an estimate of our expected income for the year ahead, which allows us to budget and plan. Nearly 90% of St. Dunstan’s annual budget comes from our members’ pledged giving.

There’s sort of an “Insert inspiring paragraph about where our church is going” slot in my sermon here. But I’m finding that this is a funny year for that kind of thing. In looking ahead to 2018, it feels like there’s simultaneously more and less to talk about, than in other years. More, because we are looking at so many possibilities. We may undertake a capital campaign, to raise funds to improve our main building and more, to better accommodate our ministries and everything else that happens here – or could happen here if we had a bit more elbow room! We will undertake a sabbatical together, using a substantial grant from the Clergy Renewal program to enable me to learn more about including children in worship, and you all to work on building intergenerational friendships. And even aside from those big, special projects, our full seats and full classrooms mean that in the year ahead, we may have to start getting creative about how to accommodate our overflowing life together as a community of faith…!

So there is a lot in the works for 2018. And yet most of it is still unfolding, still subject to our shared discernment and exploration. I can’t draw you a map; this is brand-new territory, friends. It’s not that I and your Vestry and other leaders aren’t thinking about it – we could scatter a handful of ideas and possibilities around, but other possibilities will emerge as we all walk the road together, with the Holy Spirit’s guidance. There’s so much that is simply still TBD – To Be Discerned, “discerned,” that churchy word for the shared work of wondering together, exploring possibilities, listening to each other and to God, and allowing clarity and direction to emerge.

So while there’s more to say about 2018 than an ordinary year at St. Dunstan’s – it will assuredly not be an ordinary year – there’s also less to say because we still have a lot of discerning to do. (Beginning, in a few weeks, with whether to follow this capital campaign idea another few steps along the road…!)

Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God… We actually do need some of the stuff with dead presidents on it, to pay the bills and keep this place running. That’s why we ask for your pledges and gifts. But the reason there’s a church here – a loving, lively, seeking, serving, growing church – is because people are giving God what is God’s.  If we had twice the money but nobody was giving their heart, there’d be nothing here. You are giving yourselves, your time and labor, your skills and gifts, your hearts and spirits, to this church, and to the work God is doing among us and through us here.

In today’s Epistle, Paul names the three great gifts of faith, hope, and love, but he turns them from abstractions into actions – praising the people of the church in Thessaloniki for their acts of faith, their labor of love, and their persistence in hope. Your actions of faith, friends – your work of love – your persistence in hope – that’s why new things are becoming possible here; and indeed why we’re able to keep doing some of the old things with care and faithfulness. That’s why in the face of uncertainties about the season ahead – wonderful, exciting uncertainties, but uncertainties nonetheless – I am not afraid. I’m excited, curious, and joyful, so joyful, about the people with whom I have the privilege to share this journey into God’s future for St. Dunstan’s.

Sermon, July 23

LORD, you have searched me out and known me; * you know my sitting down and my rising up; you discern my thoughts from afar.

You trace my journeys and my resting-places and are acquainted with all my ways.

Indeed, there is not a word on my lips,  but you, O LORD, know it altogether.

You press upon me behind and before and lay your hand upon me.

Once there was a little bunny who wanted to run away. So he said to his mother, “I am running away.” “If you run away,” said his mother, “I will run after you. For you are my little bunny.”

Where can I go then from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?

“If you run after me,” said the little bunny, “I will become a fish in a trout stream, and I will swim away from you.” “If you become a fish in a trout stream,” said his mother, “I will become a fisherman and I will fish for you.”

If I climb up to heaven, you are there. If I make the grave my bed, you are there also….

Margaret Wise Brown published The Runaway Bunny in 1942. How many people here heard that book in their childhood, or read it to kids in their family? …

How many of you really love it? ….

How many of you find it deeply unsettling? …

I haven’t been able to discover, with some casual poking around, whether Brown was intentionally riffing on Psalm 139 or not.  (If you’d like to look at the Prayer book version of the Psalm, instead of the verse setting we sang, it’s on page 794.)

Regardless of whether Brown intended it or not, the parallel is there. Not just the superficial similarity of content – but Brown nails the emotional ambivalence of being loved so relentlessly. There’s just no other word for it. Relentless.

Some people who find the book – and the Psalm – unsettling do so because it’s grounded in parent images, and their experience of parenting has not been so great. Maybe they were parented by someone whose love was conditional, intermittent, or who didn’t have a lot of capacity for love at all,  in which case these images of relentless love may simply feel unrealistic at a deep level. Maybe they were parented by someone whose love was controlling or manipulative, in which case these images of relentless love might feel realistic in the worst possible way.

People whose experiences of human parenting have been deeply flawed or damaging may find more solace and hope in other ways to imagine God, of which there are many.

But God as the persistent Mama Bunny is emotionally ambivalent even for people like me, who have been loved well by their parents and first family . Accept the premise that the Parent in storybook and psalm is a good parent, who knows and loves the child deeply and desires the child’s wellbeing. This is still a complicated little story.

The child – the bunny and the Psalmist – wants to run away. Seeks distance, space, freedom, autonomy. And the Parent – God, our Mama Bunny – says, Fine. Run. Go where you need to go, do what you need to do. But I’ll be there when you stop running.

The line between reassurance and threat is – very unclear. Our prayer book Psalter renders verse 4 of the Psalm this way: “You press upon me behind and before.” That verb in Hebrew is “besiege.”  Like someone surrounding a city to conquer it.  You besiege me on all sides, God.  No wonder the Psalmist goes on to say, How can I run away from you? Where can I go to escape this Presence, this scrutiny? …

I know that feeling, the hot prickly tight feeling of the push-pull between attachment and autonomy.  I think everyone who’s been either a child or a parent knows that feeling. The feeling when you run to your room and slam the door, and sit in there alternately hating your parents and hoping they’ll come check on you. The feeling when your child runs to their room and slams the door, and you stand there letting your blood pressure come down, remembering to breathe, remembering that the reason that little monster can make you so angry is because you love them so freaking much, and eventually, once you can trust yourself, once you’ve found one true, kind thing to say, you go knock on their door, and ask if you can come in.

It’s hard to know someone that well, as well as you know your child. Your parent. Your spouse. Your sibling or best friend.  It hurts to know and love someone deeply, and see them struggling – dealing with hardship, or making lousy choices. It hurts to know someone so well that you understand exactly why something is so hard for her, exactly why he’s making that particular lousy choice. And yet your love and your understanding can’t always save or spare them. The poignancy, the pathos of those moments, when we’re swamped with pity and fear and even anger for someone we love so much, and cannot save from themselves – that poignancy and pathos is one of our purest glimpses into the heart of God. Who knows each of us that well. Who loves each of us that much.

Being deeply known and deeply loved is a huge blessing, compared to any alternative. But it can feel stifling or overwhelming at times. That’s simply a human truth – and the source of the impulse to escape, in both storybook and psalm. And yet even in the frustration, the door slamming, the running away, there is deep trust. That’s why we can afford to struggle, to push away, to shout anger and defiance. Because we know that parent, that friend, will still love us afterwards.  We know there is something unbreakable there. Something steadfast. Something, yes, relentless.

Bunny and Psalmist both come to some resolution. The Psalmist lands at awe and gratitude, towards a God who knew him even when he was being formed in the womb, who numbered his days before his life began. The bunny ends at resignation, at acceptance: Aw, shucks. The dialogue between mother and child seems to defuse whatever conflict sparked the child’s initial desire to run away. Mother and child are reconciled, and carrots are shared, because the mother’s love was bigger than the child’s anger.

This morning we will baptize baby B, naming her as a member of God’s one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, and affirming her as a child of God. B is blessed with a human family that loves her deeply, with parents and brothers and a sister who will always have her back, who will honor her growth and need for self-determination, even as they continue hold her in safety and steadfast love. I hope the church will be another such family for her, and for all the children growing up among us.

But human families and human love are finite and imperfect. Sometimes parents aren’t equipped to love the way a child needs. Sometimes children run farther than a parent can reach.  Sometimes a person goes through a season in life in which it feels like there’s no person that can give them that fierce, trustworthy, unbreakable love we all need. But there is a Love that we will never wear out, never outrun, never outlive. There is a Love that will be the wind that blows us where we need to go, the tree that we fly home to. There’s a Love that is beside us in our darkest nights, That goes before us even into the depths of the grave. That is the Love in whose name we name B today, the Love that will encompass her growing, seeking, and striving,  all the days of her life.

Sermon, July 23

BunnyWind

LORD, you have searched me out and known me;  you know my sitting down and my rising up; you discern my thoughts from afar.

You trace my journeys and my resting-places and are acquainted with all my ways.

Indeed, there is not a word on my lips, but you, O LORD, know it altogether.

You press upon me behind and before  and lay your hand upon me.

Once there was a little bunny who wanted to run away. So he said to his mother, “I am running away.” “If you run away,” said his mother, “I will run after you. For you are my little bunny.”

Where can I go then from your Spirit? where can I flee from your presence?

“If you run after me,” said the little bunny, “I will become a fish in a trout stream, and I will swim away from you.” “If you become a fish in a trout stream,” said his mother, “I will become a fisherman and I will fish for you.”

If I climb up to heaven, you are there.  If I make the grave my bed, you are there also….

“If you become a fisherman,” said the little bunny, “I will become a rock on the mountain, high above you.” “If you become a rock on the mountain high above me,” said his mother, “I will be a mountain climber, and I will climb to where you are.”

Margaret Wise Brown published The Runaway Bunny in 1942. How many people here heard that book in their childhood, or read it to kids in their family? …  How many of you really love it? …. How many of you find it deeply unsettling? …

I haven’t been able to discover, with some casual poking around, whether Brown was intentionally riffing on Psalm 139 or not.  (If you’d like to look at the Prayer book version of the Psalm, instead of the verse setting we sang, it’s on page 794.)  Regardless of whether Brown intended it or not, the parallel is there.  Not just the superficial similarity of content – but Brown nails the emotional ambivalence of being loved so relentlessly.  There’s just no other word for it. Relentless.

Some people who find the book – and the Psalm – unsettling do so because it’s grounded in parent images, and their experience of parenting has not been so great.  Maybe they were parented by someone whose love was conditional, intermittent, or who didn’t have a lot of capacity for love at all,  in which case these images of relentless love may simply feel unrealistic at a deep level.  Maybe they were parented by someone whose love was controlling or manipulative, in which case these images of relentless love might feel realistic in the worst possible way. People whose experiences of human parenting have been deeply flawed or damaging may find more solace and hope in other ways to imagine God, of which there are many.

But God as the persistent Mama Bunny is emotionally ambivalent even for people like me, who have been loved well by their parents and first family. Accept the premise that the Parent in storybook and psalm is a good parent, who knows and loves the child deeply and desires the child’s wellbeing.  This is still a complicated little story.

The child – the bunny and the Psalmist – wants to run away. Seeks distance, space, freedom, autonomy. And the Parent – God, our Mama Bunny – says, Fine. Run. Go where you need to go, do what you need to do. But I’ll be there when you stop running.

The line between reassurance and threat is – very unclear.  Our prayer book Psalter renders verse 4 of the Psalm this way: “You press upon me behind and before.” That verb in Hebrew is “besiege.”  Like someone surrounding a city to conquer it.  You besiege me on all sides, God. No wonder the Psalmist goes on to say, How can I run away from you? Where can I go to escape this Presence, this scrutiny? …

I know that feeling, the hot prickly tight feeling of the push-pull between attachment and autonomy.  I think everyone who’s been either a child or a parent knows that feeling. The feeling when you run to your room and slam the door, and sit in there alternately hating your parents and hoping they’ll come check on you. The feeling when your child runs to their room and slams the door, and you stand there letting your blood pressure come down, remembering to breathe, remembering that the reason that little monster can make you so angry is because you love them so freaking much. And eventually, once you can trust yourself, once you’ve found one true, kind thing to say, you go knock on their door, and ask if you can come in.

It’s hard to know someone that well, as well as you know your child. Your parent. Your spouse. Your sibling or best friend. It hurts to know and love someone deeply, and see them struggling – dealing with hardship, or making lousy choices.

It hurts to know someone so well that you understand exactly why something is so hard for her, exactly why he’s making that particular lousy choice. And yet your love and your understanding can’t always save or spare them. The poignancy, the pathos of those moments, when we’re swamped with pity and fear and even anger for someone we love so much, and cannot save from themselves – that poignancy and pathos is one of our purest glimpses into the heart of God. Who knows each of us that well. Who loves each of us that much.

Being deeply known and deeply loved is a huge blessing, compared to any alternative.  But it can feel stifling or overwhelming at times. That’s simply a human truth –  and the source of the impulse to escape, in both storybook and psalm. And yet even in the frustration, the door slamming, the running away,  there is deep trust. That’s why we can afford to struggle, to push away, to shout anger and defiance. Because we know that parent, that friend, will still love us afterwards.  We know there is something unbreakable there. Something steadfast. Something, yes, relentless.

Bunny and Psalmist both come to some resolution. The Psalmist lands at awe and gratitude, towards a God who knew him even when he was being formed in the womb, who numbered his days before his life began. The bunny ends at resignation, at acceptance: Aw, shucks. The dialogue between mother and child seems to defuse whatever conflict sparked the child’s initial desire to run away. Mother and child are reconciled, and carrots are shared, because the mother’s love was bigger than the child’s anger.

This morning we will baptize baby B, naming her as a member of God’s one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, and affirming her as a child of God. B is blessed with a human family that loves her deeply, with parents and brothers and a sister who will always have her back, who will honor her growth and need for self-determination, even as they continue hold her in safety and steadfast love. I hope the church will be another such family for her, and for all the children growing up among us.

But human families and human love are finite and imperfect. Sometimes parents aren’t equipped to love the way a child needs. Sometimes children run farther than a parent can reach.  Sometimes a person goes through a season in life in which it feels like there’s no person that can give them that fierce, trustworthy, unbreakable love we all need.

But there is a Love that we will never wear out, never outrun, never outlive. There is a Love that will be the wind that blows us where we need to go, the tree that we fly home to. There’s a Love that is beside us in our darkest nights, that goes before us even into the depths of the grave. That is the Love in whose name we name B today, the Love that will encompass her growing, seeking, and striving, all the days of her life.

Sermon, August 7

IMG_6078Welcome to Tobit. Some of us have been eating, sleeping, and breathing Tobit for weeks now, or months, as we prepared for our Evening Bible & Arts Camp, which ran its course this past week. Some of us have dipped into it a little – coming to a Bible study or an art workshop, or just browsing the book on your own time. Some of us have still barely heard the name. Which is fine. Most Christians have never heard of Tobit. But today, and next Sunday, we’re going to fill you in. I can almost guarantee you that St. Dunstan’s will soon be the most Tobit-literate congregation in the Episcopal Church, maybe in the whole United States.

Tobit is found in a part of the Bible called the Apocrypha. The Apocrypha is a set of books written later than most of the Old Testament – within the last few hundred years before the birth of Christ – and written in Greek, rather than Hebrew. Protestant churches by and large treat the Apocrypha as a secondary kind of Scripture. It’s not included in most Protestant Bibles, including the ones we have around here. These books are more likely to be found in Roman Catholic Bibles, and study Bibles often include them in a separate section between the Old and New Testaments – so that if your church teaches that they’re not really Scripture, you can easily skip them! We Anglicans have treated them as a sort of secondary Scripture, of historical meaning, not excluded from our study of the Bible but not included on equal terms, either. The Revised Common Lectionary, the calendar of Sunday Scripture readings that we share with many other churches, includes a few Apocryphal texts – but nothing from Tobit, though there is a Tobit passage listed in the readings appropriate for weddings – Phil and I used it in ours, actually!

I first encountered the Book of Tobit, not in church, but in a religious studies course at Indiana University, during my senior year of college. The course focused on Last Words in ancient texts. The wisdom and moral guidance that people pass on when they’re anticipating death. The Book of Tobit was an obvious choice because Tobit gives a Last Words speech to his son Tobias TWICE – once early in the book, when Tobit has prayed to God for relief from his suffering and anticipates that God will take him soon; and once at the end of the book, at the actual end of his life.

Reading the Book of Tobit for class, I discovered a rollicking, engaging story. It was a lot of fun to read and talk about. I remembered it. And fifteen-plus years later, as a priest, rector of a parish, helping run summer programs for kids, Tobit floated back into my mind. I thought, this would be a great book to explore with kids. It has two young protagonists, no older than their early teens. It has a demon, and an angel in disguise. It has fish guts and bird poop. What more could you ask for?

Now, for those of you who haven’t read it yet – well, you should; there’s a link to an online version on our website, and the people who have read it this summer have told me, It’s actually really interesting and easy to read! But you can’t read it right this second, so with a little help, I’ll give you a very basic outline of the story.

Tobit was a righteous man, a Jew, who lived in the northern kingdom of Israel, in the chaotic years just before the Assyrian conquest. He did all the things he was supposed to do, as a faithful Jew, even though most of the people around him didn’t care about following God anymore. He had a wife, Anna, and a son, Tobias, and he was reasonably well-off, wealthy enough to make generous gifts to the Temple. Then the Assyrians conquered Israel, and the family lost everything except each other. They were dragged off to live in exile in the city of Nineveh. It was a terrible time. Many Jews living there died of starvation or were killed by Assyrian masters. And Tobit would bury their bodies, even though he was forbidden from doing so by the ruler.

One night the family managed to scrape together an especially nice meal, and Tobit said to his son Tobias, Go out and find one of of our people in the street, somebody who’s hungry and in need, and call them in to share this meal with us. Tobias went out and instead of finding a guest, he found another dead body in the street. He rushed home and said, “‘Look, father, one of our own people has been murdered and thrown into the market-place, and now he lies there strangled.’ Tobit leapt up and rushed to recover the body. He wept for the misfortune of his people. And after sunset, he snuck out to bury this nameless victim. When he came back, he lay down to sleep in the courtyard of his home, so as not to disturb his family. And while he was sleeping, bird droppings fell in his eyes from sparrows nesting nearby, and caused him to become blind.

So Tobit became blind. And this misfortune on top of all the others was more than he could bear. He became bitter and angry. Finally on one especially awful day, he yelled at his wife Anna, who was working so hard to care for the family. And when Tobit realized how he was acting, he fell on his knees and asked God to set him free from his suffering, saying, “Command, O Lord, that I be released from this distress; release me to go to the eternal home… For it is better for me to die than to see so much distress in my life.” (3:6)

Now, at that very same moment, somebody else was also praying to God and asking to be set free from suffering. In another city, a young woman named Srah was in terrible trouble. She had been married seven times, but she was persecuted by a demon, who killed every bridegroom on their wedding night. People were fearful and suspicious of her, and there seemed to be no hope. Sarah was just as miserable as Tobit. She had even thought about killing herself, but she knew how terrible that would be for her parents. So instead, she asked God to set her free from her hopeless situation and the cruel words of others. She prayed, “Lord, I turn my face to you, and raise my eyes towards you. Command that I be released from the earth and not listen to such reproaches any more.”

And God heard these prayers, Tobit’s prayer and Sarah’s prayer, and God decided it was time to sort things out. Tobit expected to die, because he had prayed for death. So he sent his son Tobias on a journey. Tobit had a cousin in another city, far away, who was keeping some money for Tobit. Tobias would retrieve the money, and it would help him and Anna to survive once Tobit was gone. But the journey was long, and Tobias was still young; so he needed a companion. Almost as soon as he looked for a companion, he found this man named Azariah (so he said), who knew the way, and even knew Tobit’s cousin, and was eager to help out Tobias. Azariah was actually the angel Raphael in disguise, sent by God!

So Tobias and Raphael the angel in disguise set out. Along the way they stop to rest beside a river. Tobias went to wash his feet, and a giant fish jumped out and tried to eat his foot! They managed to catch the fish, and Raphael told Tobias to gut the fish and keep its heart, liver, and gall, which could be useful to drive away demons and to cure blindness.

So they go on their way again, with the fish guts. And Raphael tells Tobias about this young woman, Sarah. He says, She is sensible, brave, and very beautiful. (In that order.) And she is a distant cousin to Tobias, which in those days was the kind of person you were supposed to marry. Tobias says, I’ve heard of her; don’t all her husbands die? And Raphael says, Don’t you worry about that. Remember the magical powers of fish guts. We’ll be staying at their house tonight. I think she would be a perfect wife for you.

So they come to Sarah’s house. Sarah’s parents are delighted to meet them! The young people, Tobias and Sarah, like each other at once, and the families know each other, so just like that, Tobias and Sarah are married. They have a wonderful banquet, and then they go off to sleep.

Now, this is when the demon usually shows up! But Tobias burns the fish guts on the incense burner, and the smell drives the demon away, and Raphael chases the demon all the way to Egypt and binds it in chains, never to bother Sarah again. Tobias and Sarah pray for God to bless their life together, protect them, and allow them to grow old together.

Meanwhile, what Sarah’s father Raguel is digging a grave outside, just in case he has to quietly dispose of Tobias’ body! But when he peeks in and sees that Tobias is alive, he hurries off to fill in the grave again! [This is the scene we created in our photo project; take a look and notice all the details.]

Then there are two weeks of feasting and celebration, because Sarah is finally free, and she and Tobias are so happy together. The cousin with the money hands it over – we’d almost forgotten that, right? So everything has worked out… except that Tobit is still blind, and Anna, Tobias’ mother, is CONVINCED that her son is dead, because he’s been away for so long. Finally Tobias tells his father-in-law, I must go home! My parents will be so worried! So Tobias and Sarah and Raphael, and the dog, head home to Nineveh. There’s a very happy reunion. Tobit and Anna are delighted to meet Sarah. Tobias uses the fish guts to cure his father’s blindness!

And then in the midst of the rejoicing, Tobit says, Now, we mustn’t forget your traveling companion, this fellow Azariah. He’s been a great help to you; we must pay him from the money you got, and thank him. And then we get the great reveal: Raphael says, “I am Raphael, one of the seven angels who stands ready before the throne of God.” Raphael tells them, It’s God who is behind all of this, the transformation of your misfortunes into blessings. Thank and bless God always, and proclaim what God has done for you.” And he flies away, and is gone.

It’s a darn good story. That’s why I wanted to work with it. But what we have discovered, the Camp team and Tom McAlpine, who’s been helping us study it and will preach next Sunday, what we’ve discovered is that there’s more here than just a rollicking tale. There’s some real depth, some real meaning. Some surprising and powerful intersections with our lives, and our times.

There are actually many sermons possible based on the book of Tobit, many ways to bring its themes into dialogue with our lives. We were pretty far along in planning our camp, creating the the script for drama and developing art projects, when it dawned on me: Oh, these kinds of things usually have, you know, themes or morals or values that we are teaching the children. Maybe I should come up with some of those!… To my relief, it turned out to be quite easy to pull out some meaningful themes from each chapter of the story: faithfulness, prayer, resourcefulness, courage, gratitude.

Turns out, Tobit is actually a story intended for moral teaching. It’s a work of historical fiction – and has been understood as such since early on – with strong spiritual and religious themes. In some ways the book of Tobit – written more or less as a morally-instructive novel – speaks across the millennia more easily than other Biblical books, whose meaning is more tethered to their time and place. What Tobit can say to us, mean for us, is not all that different from what it said and meant for its first audience, Jews trying to maintain hope and faithfulness in exile or under colonial rule. It encourages people to sustain hope, mercy, and righteousness in difficult times, when bad people are in power. More on that theme next week, I believe.

And it encourages people to trust that God is working in our lives, even when we can’t see it. Even when it seems like everything is terrible, around us, or inside us. There are books of the Bible in which God is very visible as an actor – stepping in to save or destroy, speaking through prophets or miracles or a mighty voice on a mountaintop. There are books of the Bible in which God is entirely offstage – in which the action in the story is all in the lives of people shaped by God and by faith.

Tobit falls somewhere in between. The narrator only names God as a character in the story in one brief passage – when Tobit and Sarah’s prayers reach God, and God tells Raphael, Go sort that out. God delegates to the angel, who puts himself into the situation to see what he can do. Raphael in turn delegates to Tobias – Burn the fish guts! Marry the girl! – as the angel weaves the struggles of Tobit and Sarah together in such a way as to resolve them both.

The book of Tobit offers us a model for how God works in the lives of ordinary people – even people who, like Sarah and Tobit, have reached extraordinary depths of misery and despair. The story says, God sees you. God hears you. Even if it takes a while. Even if it seems like nothing is changing. Somewhere out there, possibilities are taking shape. Hope is being born.

Raphael the undercover angel has this in common with Jesus, God dressed in a human body: The Divine doesn’t show up in clouds of glory, guns blazing, overwhelming our human stories.  Instead the Divine might show up looking a lot like… your second cousin’s brother-in-law, whom you’ve never met but who sure came at the right time, and just happens to know something, or somebody, who can really help you out with this situation.

A big part of why I love the story of Tobit is that this just rings so true for me, this idea of God keeping an eye on us all, watching for the places where our needs intersect, giving a little nudge. Delegating the work of redemption, to angels and humans alike. Are there actual angels in disguise among us? I would not venture an opinion. But there have absolutely been moments in my life, my journey, when somebody has angeled for me, wings hidden under their sweater or alb or T-shirt, making the right connection, pointing me in a new direction, connecting me with fruitful possibilities. And I hope and pray that there have been, and will be, moments when I have angeled for somebody else. Been the agent and tool of God’s quiet intervention in human lives, God’s subtle work for hope, wholeness, and delight.

Over the past weeks, the Church Camp team, eating, sleeping, and breathing Tobit, has come up with some summaries of the book’s message. Like this one: “Always remember the restorative powers of fish guts.” Okay – maybe that one doesn’t apply to very many situations. The other one is, “Trust God; bring a shovel.”

Trust God; bring a shovel. The shovel is Tobit’s shovel, used to dig graves for the nameless dead in the streets, to offer them one final act of respect. A symbol of his stubborn faithfulness, his willingness to do God’s work when nobody else would. It’s also Raguel’s shovel, Sarah’s father – the one he used to dig a grave just in case the demon got Tobias, too! A symbol of… preparedness to do any clean-up that may become necessary?

Trust God, bring a shovel. You may need a shovel – or other tools – because God isn’t going to just make it all happen, burst into the story and clean things up and put everybody where they’re supposed to be. But – and – Trust God. God is keeping an eye on your story, and on the much larger story around you. Answers and possibilities and hopes may already be walking down the road towards you; or waiting for you when you set out to find them. Demons and bird poop may catch our attention, but there’s real wisdom in the Book of Tobit, to carry with us into our lives and our times. Pray your pain and struggle, as well as your blessings. Keep an eye peeled for angels – and for opportunities to do a little freelance angel work yourself. Be alert to the possibilities in everything, even fish guts. Take courage. Trust God, and bring a shovel.

All-Ages Sermon, Feb. 28

Jesus told this parable:  “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none.  So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none.  Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ The gardener answered, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good;  but if not, you can cut it down.'”

Have a seat, and let’s talk about the story.

First, I have a question for our younger kids who were in Sunday school last week…. [show Mustard Seed image] What is this?…. What does the mustard seed do? …  This is one of the parables of Jesus. Parables are like little stories that you can just keep thinking about, aren’t they? Well, in Luke’s Gospel, in the story of Jesus the way Luke tells it,  the mustard-seed parable – AND the Yeast parable –  are close to another parable:  the parable of the Fig Tree. (They’re also very close to the time when Jesus calls King Herod a fox and himself a mother hen!…)

What we learn in the parables of the mustard seed & yeast is that things GROW! The seed grows into a big tree that is home for many birds; the yeast grows and makes bread big and fluffy and delicious. But sometimes things DON’T grow when you want them to… That’s the deal with this fig tree. It’s not giving fruit.

Giving fruit, in the Bible, is a metaphor.  A metaphor means we’re talking about one thing, as a way to talk about another thing. There are lots of places in the Bible where God’s people are described as plants – trees or vines… And when we’re bearing fruit, that means we are doing the things God wants us to do. Being kind and fair and loving. Caring for our neighbors and for the world. It doesn’t necessarily mean we’re getting straight A’s or getting promoted at our job; but it means we’re making the most of what God has given us, whatever that means for us.

So the question Jesus is raising, with this story, is, What do we do about people who aren’t bearing fruit? Do we say, Too bad! They’re failures! They’re no good!Chop them down!  Or do we ask … why? Why aren’t they bearing fruit? Are they just lazy or selfish? Or is there a real reason?…

[Show them the kumquat tree]

We got this tree three years ago. I thought it would be neat to have a tree that lives inside that gives fruit. But it’s given exactly one kumquat in the time we’ve had it.  Have you ever had a kumquat?… Here, try one…

So why isn’t our kumquat tree giving us kumquats? See here, Tree! We want fruit! What’s the problem?!? Well… I know what the problem is. Or what the problems are.

This kumquat doesn’t have what it needs to bear fruit. Trees have to be happy and healthy to give fruit; otherwise they put their resources into just staying alive. Our kumquat is doing OK,  but it’s not flourishing. And that’s not the tree’s fault. It’s my fault.

What do plants need? You know this…

Water – yes. Okay, I think this is the one thing we do pretty well; we are pretty faithful about watering our tree regularly.

Sunlight. Yes. This tree gets OK light but not great light. It would be happier with more. It’s a warm-climate tree, so it needs to be inside for the fall and winter and spring. And while our building has a lot of windows, we don’t have windows where the sun really shines in. The architect probably did that on purpose, because human beings don’t like the sun shining right on us. But trees DO. And last summer – I am embarrassed to say this – last summer, when it could have lived outside for a few months, getting sun and air and warmth, I never got around to taking it outside. I owe this tree an apology. I’m sorry, tree! …

And another thing it needs – there’s a hint in the story: what does the gardener say she’s going to do? … Right – she’s going to dig up the soil around the tree and add some manure. What’s manure?… Why is the gardener going to put manure around the tree?… Do your parents talk to you about eating healthy food? Food with the right nutrients and vitamins in it? Well, trees and plants need particular nutrients too. To be healthy enough to give fruit, this tree needs fertilizer. When I got the tree, I got some fertilizer. But it’s not exactly the right kind, and I haven’t been careful about giving it the fertilizer regularly. So the tree hasn’t been getting the right kind of food for it grow well and give fruit. Just like us, if we’re not eating well, and getting our basic needs met, it’s hard for us to bear fruit and be the people we want to be.

You know what else this tree needs, to bear fruit? It needs a community. It needs other trees like it, and it needs pollinators – insects that will come to its blossoms and carry pollen from flower to flower, to fertilize the female blossoms so a fruit can start to form. And there, this tree is just out of luck. It doesn’t have tree friends here, and there aren’t the right kind of insects around to pollinate it. Two summers ago, when I did take it outside, it was happy and healthy enough to have some flowers! And I took a paintbrush and moved pollen from flower to flower, trying to do what a pollinating insect would do. And it sort of worked – it grew a few fruits, though only one of them managed to stay till it got ripe. But if it had friends, if it had the community it needed of other trees and insects, it would be a lot easier for it to bear fruit. Instead, it’s alone.

So this kumquat is like that fig tree in the story: it’s not bearing fruit. Do you think I should chop it down?

Do you think we should try to take better care of it, so that it will be a happier, healthier tree, and will give us fruit?

But remember, when Jesus and the Bible talk about trees, they’re not just talking about trees, they’re talking about people. So when we feel mad at somebody because they’re not being good or doing right things or helping other people as much as we think they should, maybe we should wonder Why. Is there something they need that they’re not getting, that’s making it hard for them to bear fruit? And is there any way we could help?

And when we feel mad at ourselves, for not bearing fruit the way we think we should, maybe we should ask Why too? Do we need more sunlight or more community or better food or something, to help us be the person we feel called by God to be?

Do you remember back in January, I taught you to bless each other, marking a cross on the forehead and saying, May God bless you and be the guardian of your body, mind, and spirit? Well, my daughter taught me another version of that, and I think it’s a good way to end today:  May God bless you and be gardening your body, mind, and spirit!

Bless each other while I put our tree friend away!…

Sermon, Jan. 10

Today we honor the feast day of the Baptism of Jesus. Just two weeks ago, he was a tiny baby lying in a manger; last week he was a sassy independent twelve-year-old; and today he’s a grown man, ready to step into the public eye and begin his life’s work.

And he begins by being baptized. By John the Baptist, who was preaching repentance and transformation, and dunking people in the River Jordan as a symbol of their desire to be cleansed and live a new life. Later, Jesus tells his followers to baptize new believers, making baptism by water and the Holy Spirit the rite by which one becomes a Christian.

There are libraries of theology about baptism, what it is, does, and means – as there are about the Eucharist – but ultimately it just is what it is, simple and mysterious, as is the Eucharist. Water, bread, wine, human hands, God’s grace; something happens – we do, we wonder, we trust.

The Gospel of Mark, the first, the shortest, the most to the point of our Gospels, begins and ends with the baptisms of Jesus.In the first chapter, Jesus’ baptism by John in the river Jordan, very much as Luke describes it in our Gospel today. And In the next-to-last chapter, Jesus’ death on the cross at the hands of the Roman government, which is what Jesus means in the Gospels when he talks about his baptism. This baptism, the baptism the Church celebrates today, was only the beginning. As our baptisms are only a beginning.

Who here was raised in a church that doesn’t baptize babies? That teaches “believer’s baptism”? In those churches – and there are many of them – what is normal for us, to baptize babies within their first year of life, is seen as a deeply mistaken practice. Christians in those churches understand faith as contingent on individual belief, on a person’s confession of Jesus Christ as Lord, so infant baptism seems nonsensical, even superstitious.

Those ideas go back to the time of the Reformation,the great time of religious change, creativity, and violencethat swept across Europe in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. One of the great themes of the Reformation, was that ordinary people should be able to understand the Church’s Scriptures and rites, and participate as believers in the Church’s sacraments and services. Many of the Reformed churches that developed in those decades moved away from the Roman Catholic practice of infant baptism. It didn’t fit their emphasis on conversion and belief. How could a baby be converted to faith in Jesus? How could a baby participate in baptism as a believer?

The great minds who shaped our way of faith, the Church of England, the Anglican way, had to deal with all that. They shared many of those Reformation convictions, but instead of crafting new ways of worship, they adapted the ancient sacramental patterns that we still share with the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches.Those practices included infant baptism.

Thomas Cranmer, the early 16th century Archbishop and architect of our prayer book, and Richard Hooker, the late 16th century scholar who laid the foundations of Anglican theology, both dealt with Reformed objections to infant baptism by stressing that baptism is just a beginning, a first step in the life of faith rather than a completion – a life of faith that will be lived within the Church, the body of Christ, the family of faith, that will nurture and form that child into a mature Christian. They saw baptism as a moment of receiving God’s grace which is then grown into over a lifetime.  Hooker uses the image of baptism as planting a seed: “For that which we there professed without any understanding, when we come to fuller understanding later, we are simply bringing to ripeness the seed that was sown before.” (V.64.2, my paraphrase).

That theme of gradual development is key; elsewhere he writes, “Christ imparts himself [to us] by degrees… we are confident that we will eventually receive all of him.” (V.56) Both Hooker and Cranmer stressed that that ongoing, gradual growth in faith happens in the church, in and through its rites, teachings, and fellowship.  Hooker describes baptism as a birth, the Church as the mother that cares for and raises the child, and the Eucharist as the meals that feed and sustain. And Thomas Cranmer constructed a baptismal rite that intentionally reminds adults of the promises made at their own baptisms – as the rite in our prayer book does – to remind and call us to continue living into, and up to, our baptism.

So the wisdom of Cranmer and Hooker and the others who shaped our way of faith made us into a church that sees baptism as birth into a new life that, like physical birth, assumes there’s a lot of growth ahead. Baptism, in our church’s understanding, is both complete in itself – as our Prayer Book says, “Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s body the Church” (298) – and it’s also a beginning, a birth, a threshold. Look at what the congregation says, after the baptism: “We receive you into the household of God.” There’s that image of joining a family, an oikos! The newly-baptized – regardless of her age – is welcomed as a newborn baby into the waiting arms of a family of faith that commits to care, feed, and teach.

Baptism, as a beginning, a birth, an initiation, leads us straight to discipleship. Discipleship isn’t a very Episcopalian word – it’s the kind of thing Evangelical Christians talk about – but I’m increasingly convinced that it’s an important word, with which to name the lifelong process of learning and growing, of receiving and becoming Christ. We use the word “disciples” to describe Jesus’ posse. Although I admit that I often refer to Jesus’ friends, instead – because disciples is a clunky awkward word, and we don’t really know what it means. But we should know what it means. And Jesus’ friends weren’t just his friends.They were his followers. His students. His padawans. He was their rabbi, their master, their teacher, their Jedi master, their sensei.

Disciple means learner, or student. It’s related to discipline – but please don’t think of spankings; instead, think of the discipline of an athlete or artist or a monk, anyone highly-skilled, highly-focused, highly-committed. Their discipline is the set of practices that make them able to do what they do. Discipline in this sense is close kin to training: improving our skills, extending our capacity, meeting and rising to new challenges. Being dissatisfied. Struggling. Improving. Failing. Keeping at it.

We are disciples.Try that on. I’m a disciple. Someone learning and growing, seeking and striving, to live as a follower of Jesus. We are disciples together, trying to discern and name and live out the ways Jesus calls us to follow him, in this time, this place. Because the first question of discipleship is, Well, what do I do? I want to be like you. I take you as my Teacher. I trust your Way. How do I begin? How do I act? How do I think?

Our baptismal rite maps out a path of Christian maturity, a way of living and being that flows out of baptism. It’s on page 304, if you want to take a look. Those five questions – our Baptismal Covenant – identify five hallmarks of living as followers of Jesus: faithfulness in worship; resisting evil and repenting when we mess up; proclaiming the good news of God’s love; serving our neighbors; and striving for justice and peace.

Those are some important guideposts to point us in the right direction on the road of discipleship. But I think we could get more fine-grained than that – both in terms of getting a little closer to the ground,talking about what baptismal living and discipleship look like in daily life; and in terms of getting more particular to this community, this oikos. Churches aren’t interchangeable; if you’ve ever been church-shopping, you know that. St. Dunstan’s is a particular church with a particular culture and call, just like every other church. The people who come here, and stay here, are connecting with something distinctive about this household of faith. We’ve made our homes here, some for decades, some for months, because of some sense of fit or belonging or finding what we’re looking for or finding a group that’s at least asking the right questions together. And once you’re here, once you’ve chosen this as your oikos, your household of faith, we interact. We shape each other. We become St. Dunstanites. So it stands to reason that the way we understand the path of discipleship, the work of living our faith, might be distinctive, different in some matters of substance or emphasis from the way it’s understood across the parking lot at Foundry, or up the road at St. Bernard’s or Advent Lutheran or Blackhawk, or even across town at our sister Episcopal parishes.

Up in St. Paul, Minnesota, an Episcopal parish, St. Matthew’s, went through a process together of mapping out their common understanding of the Way of Jesus.The path of discipleship that they share, as a household of faith. A small group led the congregation through conversations and other kinds of group reflection, over the course of several months, circling around questions of discipleship, following Jesus and living our faith, in daily life. Out of those data, they distilled a number of hallmarks that define how they understand and practice discipleship together. St Matthew’s list boils down to six words. I’ll give you just one example: Hospitality. That’s a core value that we can easily ground in Scripture, and that operates at multiple levels – individual, household, parish.You can see how this theme of hospitality would call forth people’s memories, stories and reflections; you can see how, having once identified hospitality as a central element of discipleship, that value would help guide choices and practices in the future.

In the next couple of months, we’ll go through a similar process here at St. Dunstan’s. We’re calling it the “Towards Discipleship” project. PLEASE don’t go Google St Matthew’s and look at their list – I’ve carefully not looked very hard at it myself! I really want our core values, our hallmarks of baptismal living, to rise organically out of our conversations and experiences, not to plagiarize another community’s list. We’ve started this already, through our Church, Faith, Life survey and conversations last summer. Some themes that have already started to emerge, and we will use those data, but we’ll also invite the congregation into some new conversations, over the next couple of months. The questions this time around will be similar, but not the same. I expect the conversations to be just as powerful and lovely as the ones we had last summer. I hope that even more us of will participate, this time around.

The goal, the endpoint we’ll be working towards is a simple, profound, powerful list of five or six or seven words – core values, hallmarks, touchstones of discipleship, as we know and follow that path here at St. Dunstan’s. Something to post on our walls, on our website. Not the same as a parish mission statement, but not entirely different, either – something we can refer to, to orient ourselves, to remind ourselves of what we’ve discerned together about what it looks like to follow Jesus in the world.

One way to visualize that endpoint is to picture yourself having that conversation. You know, the one where somebody says, “Christians are so creepy, I really don’t trust them,” or, “Your church seems like it’s really wishy-washy, are you real Christians?”, or, “Why do you go to church anyway? I just practice my spirituality on my own,” or even, “I wasn’t raised in a church, or the church I was raised in really hurt me, but church seems really important to you; can you tell me why?” And you can say,“Well, I’m part of a transformative and welcoming community that follows Jesus by practicing hospitality, and ….”

We are going to finish that sentence together, find those words, and get familiar with them, and internalize them. I’m excited and hopeful about this work.  I kind of can’t wait to see this list. To see the map we create, together, of the path of discipleship as God has shown it to us here. I think that map, that list, will help us both to identify ways to develop our daily discipleship,to live more fully as followers of Jesus; and I also think it will help us to name and affirm the ways we’re already living out our baptisms. I am 40 years old, a priest of the church for nearly seven years, with a seminary degree, and I am still learning how to name my spirituality, to name the moments and activities in my lifewhen I’m most in tune with the Divine and with God’s intentions and desires for me. I have a hunch that all of us have both areas where we’re called to growth, and areas where we’re already living out discipleship,and we’ll be deeply blessed by the holy voice of God speaking through our community to say, Well done, good and faithful servant; keep it up.

Jesus’ baptism was a beginning, a first step down a long and challenging road.Likewise, our baptisms were – or for some of us, will be – a beginning. A turning point. Crossing the threshold of the household of God. Baptism leads to discipleship, to a lifetime of learning and growing, being nurtured and challenged. May the God who has called us together here and formed us into a fellowship of faith, bless our work as we come to know ourselves as disciplesand seek to understand more fullythe walk of faith to which we are called. Amen.