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Sermon, Feb. 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the gift of this new day

In the gift of the present moment

In the gift of time and eternity intertwined

Let us be grateful

Let us be attentive

Let us be open to what has never happened before 

In the gift of this new day

In the gift of the present moment

In the gift of time and eternity intertwined

 

Sermon, January 14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What was going on under that fig tree? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources: 

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

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

Sermon, Jan. 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and the body spiritually cleansed.” 

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

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

And so it is with baptism – 

for with such complete simplicity, without display, 

without any unusual equipment, 

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

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

is washed to the accompaniment of very few words,  

and comes up little or no cleaner than they were – 

because it is all so simple, 

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

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

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

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

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

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

We marvel because we believe.

Unbelief, however, marvels and refuses to believe; 

it regards simple things as ineffective, 

and sublime things as impossible.”

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

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

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

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

 

 

Sources:

McDaniel’s blog post:

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

Some stuff about Mithraism:

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

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

 

Sermon, December 10

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

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

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

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

I’ve been thinking about it for weeks. 

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

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

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

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

Is that good news?… 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it’s also beautiful. 

I want to see those ruins, don’t you?

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

A place of death become a place of vibrant life. 

Wilderness is different from apocalypse. 

That was last week’s theme. 

But wilderness may be what comes after. 

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

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

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

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

Wilderness is an important kind of place, in Scripture.

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

A place of life and a place of death.

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

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

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

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

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

There is ambiguity in the text of Isaiah 40. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These are assumptions that underlie much of Scripture. 

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

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

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

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

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

Human life and accomplishments are temporary. Nothing lasts. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At least 500 people died, possibly many more. 

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

Surely the people are grass. 

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

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

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

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

“Father Forgive.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

To erase the wounds, the destruction. 

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

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

Jay told us about Coventry. 

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

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

What sort of persons ought we to be? … 

There are so many kinds of wilderness.  

Literal wildernesses in their sprawling glory.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But yes, also: Hope. 

There is hope in apocalypse, hope in wilderness.

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

Hope in naming and facing our losses and our fears. 

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

Hope in the wilderness calling us to get ready –

Because even now, even here,

The Holy comes to meet us. 

 

 

More about Jay:

https://jayhulme.com/

More about Coventry: 

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

Sermon, Dec. 19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What might we mark about Deborah’s story? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s all straightforward enough.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is – clearly – much to digest inwardly here! 

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

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

Let’s pray it one more time… 

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

Sermon, November 5

This Gospel text is generally known as the Beatitudes – from the Latin word for Blessed. It may sound familiar; besides being often quoted, this is also the third time in a year that we’ve had it in the lectionary. We had the version from the Gospel of Luke last All Saints, 364 days ago, and we read Matthew’s version back in January when we were reading our way through the early chapters of Matthew’s Gospel. 

Nevertheless, thanks to a commentary on this passage at the Salt Project website, I do have a new thought to share. 

The Salt commentary points out that people have a tendency to try and turn this passage into instructions. Christians want to be blessed and here’s a list, direct from Jesus, of people who are blessed. So these must be our marching orders! 

But these are not instructions. Grammatically, these sentences are indicative, not imperative. Jesus isn’t telling people that they should go get themselves persecuted, or find cause to mourn. 

While aspiring to be a peacemaker, or to become more pure in heart, may be worthwhile, and while elsewhere Jesus does offer teachings about how we should live, that’s just not what’s happening here. 

Rather, Jesus’ words here are revealing a truth that is counter to many peoples’ assumptions, past and present. The Salt commentary says, “Looking around the world, then and now, it’s easy to conclude that the “blessed” are the rich, happy, strong, satisfied, ruthless, deceptive, aggressive, safe, and well-liked — and yet here’s Jesus, saying that despite appearances, the truly ‘blessed’ are actually the poor, mourning, gentle, hungry, merciful, pure in heart, peacemaking, persecuted, and reviled… This way of beginning [his sermon] rejects at the outset the idea that what’s most important about God’s blessing is how to get it and keep it. On the contrary, for Jesus, the most important thing about divine blessing is that it’s already graciously given; indeed, it’s already all over the place, just not where we might … expect it to be.”

The famous repeated word in this Gospel passage, “Blessed,” can be translated equally well as “happy” or “fortunate.” And that overlap in meanings itself points to the idea that anyone who seems fortunate, who has things really going for them, must be particularly blessed and favored by the Powers That Be. 

In every generation there are people and movements who rediscover and proclaim the idea that those whom God truly loves will inevitably be healthy, wealthy, and happy.

But there’s just no Scriptural basis for that idea. That’s never been the deal. 

Spiritual writer Annie Dillard put it this way in her book For the Time Being:  You can live as a particle crashing about and colliding in a welter of materials with God, or you can live as a particle crashing about and colliding in a welter of materials without God. But you cannot live outside the welter of colliding materials.”

What this means, among other things, is that suffering – and bearing witness to suffering, which is itself a kind of suffering – is just part of life. 

If, as Jesus tells the crowd in the Gospel today, God’s blessedness particularly enfolds us when we grieve, when we struggle and yearn and shout, then there is no reason to think that belonging to God – being beloved of God – will somehow opt us out of the common human catastrophe in its many forms. 

Blessed and beloved, we will struggle. We will ache. We will grieve and rage. 

In our Revelation text today, John of Patmos gazes in wonder at the white-robed throng before the throne of God, and learns that these are those “who have come out of the great ordeal…” 

John probably had a particular great ordeal in mind – likely the persecution of Christians in his time. But there have been so many great ordeals.

Those touched by the many ordeals of human history indeed make up “a great multitude that no one [can] count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.” 

But. But belonging to God does matter. Somehow. Even if it doesn’t make us ordeal-proof. Even if we cannot opt out of the welter of colliding materials. 

The first letter of John says, boldly and tenderly:  We are God’s children now. 

There is growth and becoming – what we will be has not yet been revealed – but: Belonging, blessedness, belovedness, are already given. We are already a people claimed and called. Held in holy love.  Blessed to be a blessing. 

I think I say this every year at All Saints but it bears repeating: We are used to hearing “saint” used for extraordinary people, people with stories of miracles or martyrdoms or great acts of courage or faithfulness or self-denial to their name. 

But the early churches called all their members saints. People burdened by sorrow or beaten down by the daily struggle. People who never have enough. People who can’t reconcile themselves to the world as it is.  The hungry, the lonely, the strange.  Happy. Fortunate. Blessed. Beloved. 

Saints. 

What does that word mean, anyway? 

I know that going to etymology, word origins, is a frowned-upon tactic in freshman composition classes.  But I sometimes find it really interesting to dig into the deep roots of a word, to find its nearest relations and see what that cluster of meanings might suggest.

Saint is a particularly annoying word to investigate. It comes, straightforwardly enough, from the Latin word sanctus.  As in, sanctify, or the title for the thing we say or sing in the Eucharist that begins, Holy, holy, holy.

But the definition for both those words is just, more or less, sacred. Which has the same root word if you go back another language or two. And as you go further and further back in root words and origins, everything just means sacred or holy.  It’s the proverbial turtles all the way down. 

I think the frustrating circularity here does say something about the sacred: it’s hard to capture or define in words. We know it when we come close to it, but it’s hard to do more, within the limits of human language, than say: That. That’s sacred. That’s holy. 

But I chased the etymology of saint and sacred a little further – with the help of my well-informed friend Google – to the Proto Indo-European root of this cluster of words. People who study language have figured out some possible very deep, very old roots of many of our European and Asian languages.

The likely Proto Indo-European root word here is sehk. And that root word has some other branches, which can help us think about what defines the sacred. One branch is, To seek. As in, to look persistently for something that might be hard to find. 

Another branch is, Sacrifice. Giving or offering up something of value, something important to you – not in a transaction or a trade, but perhaps as an expression of gratitude, or loyalty, or in the hopes of strengthening a relationship by showing how much it matters to you.

Another branch on that word tree is, To make a treaty or a pact. To make an arrangement between two people or groups to be at peace, or to share resources or territory; or even to become one new thing, together. 

So: Maybe the sacred is that which we seek. 

Maybe the sacred is that to which we feel called to offer something. 

Maybe the sacred is what we are missing, when we feel adrift, alone or disconnected. That with which we long to reconnect or reconcile. 

A saint, then, is a person who has some kind of relationship with the sacred, the Holy – with that Other that we can’t easily name or describe. A relationship that might include seeking; offering; reconciling and belonging. 

This is fuzzy and undefined – but that’s kind of what I like about it, because that’s how it feels to me, a lot of the time. 

It resonates with my lived experience of sainthood, of striving to live my daily life as a person who belongs to God. 

A person of faith, where by “faith” I do not mean a coherent and theologically sophisticated and unquestioning conviction of the divinity of Jesus Christ, but something more like the thread in William Stafford’s poem, The Way It is. 

Listen: William Stafford’s “The Way It Is” 

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among

things that change. But it doesn’t change.

People wonder about what you are pursuing.

You have to explain about the thread.

But it is hard for others to see.

While you hold it you can’t get lost.

Tragedies happen; people get hurt

or die; and you suffer and get old.

Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.

You don’t ever let go of the thread.

I don’t know much about this poet. I don’t know what the thread was, for him. But I know that this simple poem captures something, for me, of what it feels like to choose and follow faith. 

To be particle crashing about and colliding in a welter of materials with God. 

To be a saint, even though I wrestle with that word. 

Tragedies happen; people get hurt and die; nothing we do can stop time’s unfolding. 

But that thread of relationship with the Holy runs through it all – that relationship that has something of seeking and something of giving and something of returning and belonging. 

Today we observe the feast of All Saints. We honor saints widely known and named, the ones with miracles and martyrdoms and great acts of courage and faith.  We remember with love our beloved dead, the faithful departed and the not-so-faithful departed too, who have gone on ahead. And – I hope – we know ourselves, and one another, to be blessed. Known and loved. Called and claimed. Saints. 

Let us now continue with the lighting of candles on our saint altar. If you are so moved, you are welcome to come forward and light a candle in memory of someone you love and miss. Take your time; we will take as long as we need. 

 

 

Salt Project commentary (accessed October 31, 2023):  

https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2020/10/26/blessing-comes-first-salts-commentary-for-all-saints-day?rq=All%20Saints%20

Sermon, October 22

Today is the day we kick off our fall Giving Campaign – the four weeks when we invite members and friends of St. Dunstan’s to make a pledge, a statement of your planned financial support for the church in the coming calendar year. That allows us to form a budget and plan our mission and ministries. 

And the lectionary gives us this passage from the Gospel of Matthew. In the language of the King James Bible, Jesus says famously, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto God that which is God’s.” 

Let’s make sure we understand the story. The Roman Empire is the occupying power in Judea and Jerusalem. They demand high taxes from the populace – after all, the main reason to have an empire is to take wealth from the territories you occupy! 

People have to pay the taxes with Roman coins, bearing the image of the Emperor – just like the dead presidents on our coins. This is a problem for pious Jews because it breaks the Ten Commandments. We heard them couple of weeks ago: You shall not make for yourself any idol. Meaning: Don’t make images of living things – animals or people – and then treat them as gods. Which is exactly what Rome does with the Emperor. 

This question about taxes is intended as a trap for Jesus. If he says yes, pay your taxes, he loses credibility as a prophetic teacher. If he says no, he makes himself even more of a target for the Romans.

But he sidesteps the trap so cleverly here! He says, Hey, looks like there’s a picture of the Emperor on this coin, so it must belong to him. So give the Emperor what is his; and give God what belongs to God. 

And what belongs to God? For the faithful Jews of Jesus’ time, for us today, the answer is: well, everything. 

I do love this story, and the trickster Jesus we see here. 

And I can’t help thinking that the people who designed our lectionary were really pleased with themselves for giving us this story in late October. 

Lots of churches do giving campaigns or pledge drives at this time of year. And the lectionary tees us up for a sermon about how since everything is God’s, you owe back whatever portion of your income or wealth your church leaders may ask of you. 

But obvious as it is, I find I can’t quite preach that sermon. 

For one thing: I just don’t think one persuasive or demanding sermon is going to dramatically change how or how much people give. Either this church has earned your loyalty, your support, your investment, by who we are and what we’re doing together or what we have the capacity to become, or it hasn’t. I can’t say anything in the next five minutes to shift that. 

I think being honest about how we use our shared resources, and what we need to do what we do, can be helpful and impactful. But those kinds of nuts and bolts don’t fit well in a sermon. 

The second reason I have a hard time preaching the give everything to your church sermon that the lectionary seems to be suggesting is that I don’t believe that church is the only way you can give back to God.

I do, actually, believe that we owe God pretty much everything. But there are many ways we can use our resources, time, and skill to honor God and respond to God’s call in our lives. 

There’s lots of good work in the world that doesn’t happen through churches. 

And caring for yourself and your loved ones is also holy work. 

Now, there are ways to use our money that are not offering it back to God. Every Instagram ad or glossy catalogue in your mailbox would like to show you a few. It’s easy to use our resources in ways that are selfish or just pointless. Wrestling with that, finding our enough, can be tough this culture and economy. 

Discerning how to use our time, talent, and treasure in ways that please God, and serve God’s purposes of justice, mercy, peace and flourishing, is ongoing work for all of us. 

Giving to the church isn’t better or holier or more important than anything else. There are certainly many churches where we might have big questions about how they use their resources. 

And yet I am inviting us into generosity, in supporting this church and our shared life here. I do believe we’re doing good work together here that we couldn’t do on our own. And that some of that good work is not unique, but at least distinctive; that God has particular work for St. Dunstan’s, and that we’re striving to do it. 

I believe that St. Dunstan’s is worth our support and our investment, in the many forms that can take. 

I am encouraged and inspired on a daily basis by so many aspects of our life together here, as a church community. 

When I read today’s Epistle, I immediately resonated with Paul’s words of gratitude about this church’s “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in Christ Jesus.” 

I thought, that sounds like the loving, lively, curious, engaged group of folks that I have the privilege of pastoring!

And then of course I got into the weeds of interpreting the text. “Work of faith and labor of love” – I got curious about work and labor. In English those words can be used the same way in some contexts, but they have some different meanings too. I wondered: What’s the difference in Greek, the language in which this letter was first written?

So I looked it up! Work is ergon, like in the word “ergonomic.” It just means, a thing you do. A deed; a project.

Some of our works of faith this year included our Kindness Fair and Creation Care Fairs; grocery shopping for refugees; putting up signs for Pride Month; helping care for the Native American mounds at Governor Nelson Park; having solar panels installed. 

We’ve done a lot of big stuff this year, in response to the areas where we have felt God’s call together. 

So if that’s work, what is labor? The Greek word is kopos. It seems to imply something more ongoing – and frankly, more demanding – than the word for work.  It suggests struggle and weariness and some amount of inconvenience. 

Paul’s phrase “labor of love” here, then, points to the bigger and deeper work of being people of love. 

The part of it all that’s not just doing but becoming. 

I can see that work of becoming people of love, underlying a lot of the projects I just named, and lots of other things too. 

I can see it in our care for the kids and youth among us – and those not among us. In a recent conversation about why youth group matters, one of the kids said, “Youth group is a space where you can be safe and be yourself, and be as wild as you need to be at the end of the week, or as tired as you need to be at the end of the week, and it doesn’t matter, because you will feel safe and accepted no matter what.” 

What a holy thing to be able to offer. 

I can see our labor of love in our efforts to build connection, listen to one another’s needs and struggles, and hold each other in faithful prayer. 

I see it in the ongoing work of seeking ways to respond together to climate change and climate grief; to loneliness; to those marginalized and targeted by hateful language or laws. 

I can see it in our efforts to care for our elders, and to lay our beloved dead to rest with love and dignity – something we’ve had too much practice with this past year, frankly. 

So I want to join Paul in naming with gratitude what I see in this church: your works of faith and your labor of love.

What about steadfastness of hope in Jesus Christ? 

I know hope can be hard work at times – though it can be easier to hold hope in community than on our own. 

What Paul names here isn’t just abstract or generalized hope. It’s hope in Jesus Christ. Which means: Hope that God is with us, in the struggle, the mess, the pain; and that Love will ultimately win, even if hatred and death seem triumphant for a season. 

Let’s turn here briefly towards poor Moses, still struggling with the burden of leading God’s recalcitrant people through the wilderness. The somewhat formal language of our Bible translation can hide the fact that Moses is complaining bitterly, here. The Message Bible paraphrase has Moses saying, “Look, you tell me, ‘Lead this people,’ but you don’t let me know whom you’re going to send with me. You tell me, ‘I know you well and you are special to me.’ If I am so special to you, let me in on your plans. And remember: this is your people, your responsibility.”

This text follows closely on last week’s story: While Moses was on the holy mountain meeting with God and receiving the Ten Commandments, the people got restless and demanded that Aaron – Moses’ brother and second in command – make them some gods. So Aaron takes all their gold jewelry, makes it into a golden calf, and tells the people, “This is the god who brought you out of Egypt!” And the people have a big party, eating and drinking and who knows what else. 

God is NOT HAPPY with any of this; and neither is Moses. But Moses pleads with God to have mercy on the people – not to abandon them. 

What Moses is really asking in today’s passage is, Are you still with us, God?  In spite of everything?  In spite of the people choosing a cow statue over your power and glory – and otherwise complaining, misbehaving, and acting out in every possible way? 

Moses pleads – and God relents, and commits to traveling on with the people. And then Moses asks for something big: a glimpse of God’s glory. I love the Hebrew word for glory: kavod. It means, most literally, weight. I have felt that holy weight, now and then.

God gives Moses a limited glimpse – of God’s goodness, not God’s glory; and only a look at God’s back, as God passes by, not the full glory of God’s face, the Divine countenance. Old Testament scholar Robert Alter says that while it may seem odd to us, it was natural for these “ancient monotheists” to “imagine [God] in… physical terms”, as having a face, a hand, a back. 

But, Alter says, the text is saying something bigger here:  “The Hebrew writer suggests… that God’s intrinsic nature is inaccessible, and perhaps also intolerable, to the finite mind of [humanity], but that something of [God’s] attributes— [God’s] ‘goodness,’ the directional pitch of [God’s] ethical intentions, the afterglow of the effulgence of [God’s] presence – can be glimpsed by humankind.” [Read that again.]

THIS is what we are about, as people of faith. Seeking glimpses of God’s goodness, God’s intentions for the world, God’s glory. Striving to mirror back that goodness, and share it with others. 

And maybe what Paul calls “steadfastness of hope in Jesus Christ” just means sticking with a community that’s doing that seeking and striving together. 

I have to remind myself every year that the Giving Campaign season is, ultimately, a time of turning towards the Holy to guide us. It’s not about us; and we can’t sustain any of this on our own. 

There’s a quote from Christian ethicist and writer Stanley Hauerwas up next to my desk: “The church is a prophetic community necessary for the world to know that God refuses to abandon us. We are God’s hope for the world; you are a servant of that hope.”

May our work together in these weeks be a sign and an instrument of God’s hope for the world, manifest among and through us. Amen. 

Walter Karst funeral liturgy

A Celebration of the Life of Walter Edward Karst

August 24,1934 – September 5, 2023

Saturday, October 14, 2023, St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church, Madison, Wisconsin

Words of Welcome

Hymn: “Love Divine, all loves excelling”        Hymnal #657

 

Anthems

Spoken by the Celebrant        

I am Resurrection and I am Life, says the Lord.

Whoever has faith in me shall have life,

even though he die.

And everyone who has life,

and has committed himself to me in faith,

shall not die for ever.

As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives

and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.

After my awaking, he will raise me up;

and in my body I shall see God.

I myself shall see, and my eyes behold him

who is my friend and not a stranger.

For none of us has life in himself,

and none becomes his own master when he dies.

For if we have life, we are alive in the Lord,

and if we die, we die in the Lord.

So, then, whether we live or die,

we are the Lord’s possession.

Happy from now on

are those who die in the Lord!

So it is, says the Spirit,

for they rest from their labors.

Prayers for the Departed and Those who Mourn

Celebrant  The Lord be with you.

People  And also with you.  

Celebrant Let us pray. 

O God, whose mercies cannot be numbered: Accept our prayers on behalf of your servant Walter, and grant him an entrance into the land of light and joy, in the fellowship of your saints; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

Most merciful God, whose wisdom is beyond our understanding: Deal graciously with Walter’s family in their grief. Surround them with your love, that they may not be overwhelmed by their loss, but have confidence in your goodness, and strength to meet the days to come; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Please be seated for the reading of Scripture. 

The First Reading: Ecclesiastes 3:1-8      

Reader       A reading from the Book of Ecclesiastes. 

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose;  a time to keep, and a time to throw away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace. Reader The Word of the Lord. 

People Thanks be to God. 

Psalm 121        

Spoken by all 

I lift up my eyes to the hills; *
from where is my help to come?

My help comes from God, *
the maker of heaven and earth.

God will not let your foot be moved; *
the One who watches over you will not fall asleep.

Behold, the One who keeps watch over Israel *
shall neither slumber nor sleep;

The Holy One watches over you *
and is your shade at your right hand,

So that the sun shall not strike you by day, *
nor the moon by night.

The Lord shall preserve you from all evil *
and is the One who shall keep you safe.

The Lord shall watch over your going out and your coming in, *
from this time forth for evermore.

 

The Second Reading: Revelation 21:2-7

Reader  A reading from the Revelation to John the Divine

I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,  See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away. And the one who was seated on the throne said, See, I am making all things new. Also he said, Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true. Then he said to me, It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega,  the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water  as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.

Reader The Word of the Lord. 

People Thanks be to God. 

 

The Gospel: John 14:1-6

Reader The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, according 

to St. John.

People Glory to you, Lord Christ. 

Jesus said:  “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.”  Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”

Reader The Gospel of the Lord, 

People Praise to you, Lord Christ.  

Sharing of Memories                         

Homily         

The Rev. Miranda Hassett

Song: “Time to say goodbye”

Andrea Bocelli

The Apostles’ Creed

Celebrant In the assurance of eternal life given at Baptism, let  us proclaim our faith and say,

Celebrant and People

I believe in God, the Father almighty,

    creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.

    He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit

        and born of the Virgin Mary.

    He suffered under Pontius Pilate,

        was crucified, died, and was buried.

    He descended to the dead.

    On the third day he rose again.

    He ascended into heaven,

        and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

    He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,

    the holy catholic Church,

    the communion of saints,

    the forgiveness of sins,

    the resurrection of the body,

    and the life everlasting.  Amen.

 

Prayers for the Departed 

led by the Celebrant

For our brother Walter, let us pray to our Lord Jesus Christ who said, 

“I am Resurrection and I am Life.”

Almighty God, give courage and faith to those who are bereaved, that they may have strength to meet the days ahead in the comfort of a reasonable and holy hope, in the joyful expectation of eternal life with those they love.  Amen.

Help us, we pray, in the midst of things we cannot understand, to believe and trust in the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, and the resurrection to life everlasting.  Amen.

Grant us grace to entrust Walter to your never-failing love; receive him into the arms of your mercy, and remember him according to the favor which you bear for your people.  Amen.

Grant that, increasing in knowledge and love of you, he may go from strength to strength in the life of perfect service in your heavenly kingdom.  Amen.

Grant to us who are still in our pilgrimage, and who walk as yet by faith, that thy Holy Spirit may lead us in holiness and righteousness all our days. Amen.

A silence is kept. 

Father of all, we pray to you for Walter, and for all those whom we love but see no longer. Grant to them eternal rest.  Let light perpetual shine upon them. May his soul and the souls of all the departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

The Peace

Celebrant The peace of the Lord be always with you.

People And also with you. 

Offertory Hymn: Here I am, Lord”   

 

The Holy Eucharist  

Celebrant    The Lord be with you.

People And also with you.

Celebrant Lift up your hearts.

People We lift them to the Lord.

Celebrant Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.

People It is right to give God thanks and praise.

Celebrant

It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth. Through Jesus Christ our Lord; who rose victorious from the dead, and comforts us with the blessed hope of everlasting life. For to your faithful people, O Lord, life is changed, not ended; and when our mortal body lies in death, there is prepared for us a dwelling place eternal in the heavens. 

Therefore we praise you, joining our voices with Angels and Archangels and with all the company of heaven, who for ever sing this hymn to proclaim the glory of your Name:

Celebrant and People

Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,

heaven and earth are full of your glory.

   Hosanna in the highest.

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.

    Hosanna in the highest.

The people stand or kneel.

Celebrant

Holy and gracious Father: In your infinite love you made us for yourself; and, when we had fallen into sin and become subject to evil and death, you, in your mercy, sent Jesus Christ, your only and eternal Son, to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to you, the God and Father of all.

He stretched out his arms upon the cross, and offered himself, in obedience to your will, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world.

On the night he was handed over to suffering and death, our Lord Jesus Christ took bread; and when he had given thanks to you, he broke it, and gave it to his disciples, and said, “Take, eat: This is my Body, which is given for you. Do this for the remembrance of me.”

After supper he took the cup of wine; and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and said, “Drink this, all of you: This is my Blood of the new Covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Whenever you drink it, do this for the remembrance of me.”

Therefore we proclaim the mystery of faith:

Celebrant and People

Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

The Celebrant continues

We celebrate the memorial of our redemption, O Father, in this sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. Recalling his death, resurrection, and ascension, we offer you these gifts. Sanctify them by your Holy Spirit to be for your people the Body and Blood of your Son, the holy food and drink of new and unending life in him. Sanctify us also that we may faithfully receive this holy Sacrament, and serve you in unity, constancy, and peace; and at the last day bring us with all your saints into the joy of your eternal kingdom. All this we ask through your Son Jesus Christ. By him, and with him, and in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit all honor and glory is yours, Almighty Father, now and for ever.  AMEN. 

The Lord’s Prayer 

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name, 

thy kingdom come, thy will be done, 

on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread

And forgive us our trespasses, 

as we forgive those who trespass against us. 

And lead us not into temptation, 

but deliver us from evil.

For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, 

for ever and ever. Amen.

 

The Breaking of the Bread

Celebrant  Alleluia. Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us;

People Therefore let us keep the feast.  Alleluia.

Celebrant   The Gifts of God for the People of God. Take them in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your hearts by faith, with thanksgiving. 

All are welcome to receive the bread and wine of this holy meal. 

Communion Music

The Prayer After Communion

Celebrant and People 

Almighty God, we thank you that in your great love you have fed us with the spiritual food and drink of the Body and Blood of your Son Jesus Christ, and have given us a foretaste of your heavenly banquet. Grant that this Sacrament may be to us a comfort in affliction, and a pledge of our inheritance in that kingdom where there is no death, neither sorrow nor crying, but the fullness of joy with all your saints; through Jesus Christ our Savior.  Amen.

The Commendation 

Celebrant Give rest, O Christ, to your servant with your saints,

People        where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting.

Celebrant

You only are immortal, the creator and maker of mankind; and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth shall we return.  For so did you ordain when you created me, saying, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

People Give rest, O Christ, to your servant with your saints, where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting.

The Celebrant says

Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant Walter. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming.  Receive him into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light.  Amen.

The Dismissal

Celebrant  Let us go forth in the name of Christ.

People Thanks be to God.

Celebrant   Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and giving life to those in the tomb. Alleluia. 

Hymn: “I sing a song of the saints of God”         Hymnal #293

 

The Rev. Miranda Hassett, Celebrant

Steve Johnson, Piano

Sermon, September 17

You can read today’s Scripture lessons here.

This is an important – though difficult – Gospel text!

The parables – these stories Jesus liked to tell – use ordinary, real-world events to invite people to reflect on the way things are – and the way things could be. 

This is one of the parables about the way things are – about human nature. 

The core moment in this parable feels very emotionally real to me: The main character has been let off the hook! He should be relieved, overjoyed, ready to be generous. But in fact, he’s still awash with fear, shame, and an overwhelming sense of scarcity, from this terrifying encounter with the king. 

I like to remind us that the powerful people in Jesus’ parables are not always meant to represent God. 

We shouldn’t recognize God in this king and his cruel actions.

But we may recognize ourselves in the way anxiety and insecurity can make us behave harshly towards others. 

Jesus’ point is: God isn’t like that king – and we shouldn’t be like the enslaved man in the parable. We receive grace; we should extend grace to others. 

Which ties in very nicely with the passage from Romans – one of my favorites, and an important text! The apostle Paul – this tremendously important voice in the early shaping of Christian community and practice – here he insists here that we don’t all have to live out our faith in the exact same way. 

It picks up on what I said last week about how we often have to differentiate between harm and disagreement. Other people doing or liking different things is not an insult to us; it’s just part of being in community and living in society.

A lot of damage can come from misdiagnosing disagreement or even conflict as harm, and vice versa. Treating real harm as mere disagreement can silence those harmed and pressure them to tolerate abuse. 

Treating mere disagreement as harm can rapidly escalate a conflict and create unnecessary division and stress. 

Paul knows all this. That’s why he’s so insistent here: Don’t judge one another for the practices by which you honor God. There are many ways to worship and serve. 

A diversity of practices and pieties within one religion would have been very normal in first-century Judaism, in the context of the first Christians. Maybe the new Christian communities felt like there should be more uniformity in their way of being. 

But Paul – with surprising sociological insight for the first century – says, That’s not a healthy or sustainable way to build communities or institutions. 

This is one of the things that makes historic Christianity not a cult!

A cult is rigid about imposing uniform practice and penalizing those who don’t conform. Paul says: We’re not going to do that. 

These are both important passages! But I’m going to preach on Exodus. We’ve been hearing bits of the story of Moses and God’s people in bondage in Egypt for several weeks now. Here we reach a culminating moment – and the most familiar part of the story: the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea. 

Three years ago I heard Ellen Davis speak about this story. Davis is one of the greatest Old Testament scholars of our time; I was lucky enough to take her Old Testament classes in seminary. 

One of her strong convictions as a scholar is that the land – Creation – is a vital partner in God’s relationship, God’s covenants, with humanity. That this shows up in lots and lots of ways in the Old Testament, and that it very much continues to be true for us as Christians today. 

Back in 2020 Ellen was speaking at a gathering for preachers. She told us: You have something distinctive to say to your people about climate change.

And she used the Exodus story as an example to show us how. 

First, she shared her principles for Biblical storytelling – for how to share these sacred stories of our faith ancestors. 

She said: “First, I must tell the story with transparency, opening a window into our moment in history.

Second, I must tell the story in faith, looking for God’s work, specifically God’s work of creation and preservation, and how humans honor that work, or don’t.

Third, I must tell the Scriptural story in hope, in a way that opens out towards the future.

And finally, I must tell the story in love, looking for how God’s love and human love are at work together.”

Transparency – faith – hope – and love. 

You don’t have to remember all that – but I will circle back to it! 

So, let’s look at the Exodus story through those lenses. Exodus means, Going out. There’s a longer story arc here – from Moses’ birth under oppression and genocide, to this moment, and beyond. And then there’s this specific story, the core going-out moment. The saving miracle of divine liberation. 

Davis says: This is a story about power. 

The real power of God, and Pharaoh’s refusal to acknowledge that power. Pharaoh’s reliance on, commitment to, human power. 

Pharaoh – the king of Egypt – is a perfectly-drawn character, a tyrant straight out of central casting. Power-crazed, cruel, heedless of harm to his own people. 

And he is on a collision course with God’s intentions for the world. 

Our Sunday lectionary skips the dramatic escalation of the conflict between God’s power and Pharaoh’s: the ten plagues. 

Through Moses, God sends a series of hardships on the land of Egypt, with the stated purpose of convincing Pharaoh that he should release the Hebrews from their bondage in Egypt because their God is stronger than him or his gods. 

And Pharaoh’s people suffer: water turns to blood; frogs invade their homes; dirt turns into lice; gnats swarm everywhere; animals get sick and people develop terrible sores; hail crushes homes and crops, and then locusts devour whatever is left; darkness falls over the entire land for three days.

Again and again, Pharaoh seems to relent – says to Moses, Fine, take your people, go! But then he changes his mind. Why release all these useful slaves? Why admit the supremacy of a greater power? 

And then, finally and terribly, God sends the Angel of Death to kill the firstborn child of every family in Egypt. 

Davis invites us to reflect on how the Bible uses the deaths of children. It is meant to be a shock, an atrocity, as it should be. 

It is meant to jolt us to change of heart, to acting in new ways, as it does for Pharaoh. 

How many children died this week in the floods in Libya, due to the heavy rainfall from Tropical Storm Daniel? 

Do the Pharaohs of our age, those holding the greatest earthly power – presidents, judges, CEOs – show any sign of change of heart in response to those deaths – and all the others directly due to extreme weather systems caused by global anthropogenic climate change? 

The experience of suffering plague after plague after plague, yet still, those in power won’t change, won’t yield – we’re living through that, right now. I fear we’ll continue to live through it in the coming years. 

We may rightly judge the powerful of our age by the degree to which they pursue policies that support the health and flourishing of children – all our children, worldwide. 

And, yes, also the health and flourishing of our ecosystems. We must refuse to be pushed to choose between human and planetary wellbeing, between loving babies or trees. 

Davis said, “You have to love both, in ways that are personal, visionary, active, and political.”

So. Pharaoh’s collision course with God culminates here: the Hebrews huddled in terror on the shore of the Red Sea, and Pharaoh’s army approaching, a noisy terror of hooves and chariot wheels and spear points blinding in the sun. Because Pharaoh has – once more – changed his mind. 

But God makes a way where there is no way. The sea opens. The people pass through. And when their enemies follow – undaunted, still, by this amazing manifestation of the power protecting their former slaves – the waters crash down, kill and destroy. 

“Israel saw the great work that the Lord did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.”

Davis said: 

“At the Red Sea, the Israelites move from natural fear – of violence, of death, of loss, of Pharaoh – to fear of the GOD who saves them with awesome power. Fear of God is nothing other than knowing where the real power in the Universe resides, and acting on that knowledge. It’s the opposite of arrogance, of recklessness, moral blindness, of Pharaonic insanity. THIS is the pivotal moment: When Israel ceases to be dominated by natural fear – fear of the tyrant who seems to hold all the cards – to fear of God.”

This brings us back to the first of Davis’ principles of Biblical storytelling: transparency. 

I think of this less like a window and more like an actual transparency, an overlay that lets you align two layers of images to see something new. 

What do we see when we overlay the Exodus story on climate change – or vice versa? 

The trials of climate change are not the plagues of Egypt; they are not sent by God to persuade our leaders to change of heart. 

Rather they are the manifestations of many complex systems becoming increasingly chaotic and destructive, in ways that scientists have warned about for decades now. 

If enough of our leaders, and enough of us, had listened and acted: We could have prevented them. 

If enough of our leaders, and enough of us, listen and act now: We can still mitigate them. 

We may not consciously fear of the pharaohs of our time. But we do live in bondage to them in so many ways, obvious and subtle. 

And we do, I think, live in fear of what it would be like to walk away from the world defined by the current regime of power, as manifest in politics, economics, material production, culture, and so on.

That’s very much part of this Scripture story as well. We’ll see that next week as the Hebrews, free in the wilderness, complain bitterly about being dragged away from the familiar comforts of their enslavement in a life that offered their children no future. 

Here’s one glimpse of what our bondage looks like: 

Many of the products we consume travel to America on huge cargo ships. If global shipping were a country, it would be the sixth-largest producer of greenhouse gases in the world. 

And here’s the kicker: Over 40% of the cargo of those big ships is… fossil fuels. We consume fuel getting fuel to consume. 

If the developed world switched entirely to renewable energy, ocean shipping would be cut by almost half.

Imagine the cascade of effects if we were to make that change!

Consider the cascade of effects if we don’t. 

Davis concluded her talk with these words: “The time has come for us to cultivate holy fear as the key to our own sanity and to proving a real future for the children. We must summon the strength to feel healthy fear in this generation.” 

Fear of God is nothing other than knowing where the real power in the Universe resides, and acting on that knowledge.

How would we act if we feared God more than we feared our Pharaohs? If our desire for freedom and flourishing was stronger than our investment, our uncomfortable comfort with the status quo, the way things are? … 

That’s where telling the Exodus story with transparency leads us. What about faith, hope, and love? Where’s the faith in this story and our dwelling with it? 

In the Scriptural story, God intervenes in big, bold, dramatic ways to bring God’s people into freedom. But it takes a while, because of human stubbornness, timidity, and limited imagination.  

Not just Pharaoh’s, but Moses and the Hebrews as well. 

There’s an invitation, here, to strive to face these times, our times, with a belief in God’s saving power. That God can act, even here, even now. Is acting, in spite – always – of human stubbornness, timidity, and limited imagination. 

Not an easy faith to hold, perhaps – but we can try, together. 

Where’s the hope in this story? … 

When we look at the long arc of the Exodus story, we can see that right now we’re at a moment of triumph – singing, dancing, rejoicing in the deaths of oppressors. 

Next week we’ll hear complaining instead of singing. Forty full years of wandering and whining follow the miraculous journey through the Red Sea. 

But there are, eventually, new homes and a new way of living for God’s people. Or – rather – for their children and grandchildren. 

I think we all know at some level that the next few of decades are going to be hard, strange, and costly.

Life as we know it is going to change, a lot. Whether because the changing climate forces it upon us – or because we make big changes, together, to mitigate and adapt – or most likely, some combination of the two. 

Life is already changing – faster in some places than others, but unmistakably. 

Maybe we can find some hope in thinking in terms of a new way of life for this generation’s children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren – and doing what we can today to journey towards that future. 

Finally: where’s the love in this story? … 

It’s a tough question. I always struggle with the Hebrews’ joy in the death of the Egyptian army and their horses. 

I learned a version of the triumph song in Sunday school as a child: “I will sing unto the Lord for he has triumphed gloriously, the horse and rider thrown into the sea…” 

I loved it. It was fun to sing!

I have not taught it to my children, or yours. 

Most of them wouldn’t like the dead horses.

Some of them wouldn’t like the dead soldiers.

I understand the Hebrews taking joy in the deaths of their oppressors. That is a real way people feel sometimes. 

Elsewhere, the Bible calls us to love our enemies. 

Here, the Biblical text has no sympathy for these dead. 

They’re not even really people, for the story – they’re just symbols of bondage and genocide. But we might wonder: were the soldiers afraid? Did their leaders order them forward? Did they want to run away? Did they have wives and children at home? 

The Exodus is a profoundly important story for the Hebrews, the Israelites, God’s people. A story of God’s faithfulness and saving love, told and re-told for thousands of years.

It’s clear that the people who first experienced the events this story captures, did not care about the suffering of the Egyptians. 

But that doesn’t mean God didn’t care. 

I wonder how God would tell this story. 

Until we have a chance to ask, we are charged with telling it – and looking for how God’s love and human love are at work together. 

In this chapter of the longer story, we see love at work mostly in this fierce push towards freedom. The way love drives us to want better for each other and our children. 

If we turn back just one chapter, to the passage we heard last week, we see God calling God’s people to prepare for this great journey by sharing a special family meal – the first Passover meal. 

I sure hope everybody made sure that the small households and the folks who live alone were invited to somebody’s table as well. 

I love that God told everybody: Feast together. A special feast of

remembering and preparing. God’s love gathering people around a table to share and strengthen human love. 

There’s something so precious about sharing food and fellowship, song and story and laughter. It grounds us in hard times or facing big changes. 

May the many ways we feast together, here, bind us together and prepare us for the challenges and possibilities of our times. Amen.