Category Archives: Worship

Sermon, Jan. 14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seeking a Director of Music Ministry

St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church in Madison, WI, seeks a Director of Music Ministry whose skill, enthusiasm, and collaborative spirit will help us develop the musical aspect of our worship and life as a faith community. Our Sunday worship is eclectic and lively, while deeply grounded in our traditions and patterns of liturgical and sacramental worship; we also strive to be intentionally inclusive of children and youth. We love to sing together, and have many members who are interested in sharing skills as vocal or instrumental musicians. We love the core music of our Episcopal tradition, both hymnody and choral anthems, but we also sing and enjoy music from other churches and traditions, including gospel, Taize, and “paperless” song.

Skills and Knowledge Required:

  • Proficiency at piano/keyboard
  • Choral conducting, including from the keyboard
  • Familiarity with liturgical worship
  • Effective time management and communication
  • Collaborative musical leadership for choir, children’s choir, and congregational singing

Skills and Knowledge Preferred:

  • Organ skills
  • Familiar with Episcopal hymnody and liturgical music
  • Prior experience working in a faith-based setting

Qualities Sought:

  • Inviting and approachable demeanor toward staff and volunteers
  • Encouraging and joyful, able to build excitement around our musical programming
  • Collaborative and interested in helping develop our music ministry
  • Flexible; willing to try new approaches
  • Able to work with musicians of all ages and abilities

This is a part-time position, 12 hours/week, $12,000 – 14,000/year depending on education and experience. Position open until filled. All applicants are welcome, as we are an inclusive parish.

Send a cover letter or statement of interest, and your resume, to .  Questions? Call 608-298-7381.

Sermon, Oct. 16

Two men went up to the temple to pray. One of them was a Pharisee, a member of a movement within Judaism that was restoring the ancient practices of worship and piety described in the books of the Law. And the other was a tax collector – someone who worked for the occupying Roman government to collect punishing levels of tax from his fellow citizens. The Pharisee was standing by himself, and praying like this: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ Jesus said, “I tell you, this man, not the Pharisee, went down to his home that day justified. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Today we begin our annual Giving Campaign, the month in which members offer their pledges – statements of how much we plan to give during the coming year – to enable the church to develop its budget for 2017. At first glance, this is a TERRIBLE Gospel reading for the occasion. The Pharisee, who’s giving a tenth of his income to the Temple, comes out of this story looking like a jerk. His piety is held up as a mistake, not a model. So let’s talk about the Pharisee. Because it’s not his giving that’s the problem.

What’s wrong with the Pharisee? Well, Luke tells us that this story was directed at those who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and regarded others with contempt. That’s what’s broken about the Pharisee’s faith, in a nutshell. He trusts in himself that he is righteous. He fasts, abstaining from certain foods as the religious laws demand; he gives a tenth of his income to the Temple; you can bet he follows all the other rules of his faith too. There is nothing wrong with those practices – in fact, there’s a lot right about them! Fasting and giving and praying, and all the other daily acts of faith, are ways we turn belief into action, into habit.

The practices aren’t the problem. The mindset is the problem. If you think you can get right with God by simply checking a set of boxes, then you don’t actually need God. Being a good person becomes a lot like acing a test, and God becomes irrelevant. The apostle Paul talks about this mindset a lot, because before he became a Christian, he was right there with this Pharisee – righteous under the Law, meeting all its requirements. And then he met Jesus, and realized how inadequate and empty it all was.

So, the Pharisee trusts in himself that he is righteous; and he regards others with contempt. His sense of his own righteousness is based to a significant degree on being better than other people. This is one of my favorite parables because it gives us a glimpse of Jesus’ keen sense of humor. Did you notice the trap he sets here, with this simple little story? You hear the Pharisee saying, Thank God I am not like that tax collector! And the immediate, natural thing to think is, Thank God I am not like that Pharisee!

Let’s call that the Pharisee Trap: the tendency to find our righteousness in being better than others. The Pharisee Trap can be a real risk for Episcopalians. I’ve heard too many church leaders who should know better say that what’s great about the Episcopal Church is that we’re not judgmental like the fundamentalists, or manipulative like the evangelicals, or rigid like the Roman Catholics. I’m sure I slip into the Pharisee Trap now and then myself. We love our church, and we find grace in its particular balance of Scripture, tradition, and reason. It’s great when we talk about that, when we proclaim it.

But we need to be intentional in talking about why we love our church and our way of faith in terms of our strengths, more than in terms of other churches’ weaknesses. I have the privilege of having pretty regular conversations with people who are coming to the Episcopal Church from other ways of faith. And I always try to ask, What was hard about what you’re leaving, what didn’t fit? And, what was good about it? what will you miss? And I try to say, Here are things I love about the Anglican and Episcopal way of faith. Here’s what’s earned my loyalty and my joy. And here are the things we’re not so great at. Because we’re not perfect, not the pinnacle of Christianity.

So that’s what’s wrong with the Pharisee: self-satisfaction grounded in the conviction that he’s got this God thing all figured out, unlike SOME. And if you think that smug spiritual arrogance doesn’t sound very Episcopalian – well, then you haven’t been to all the same meetings I have… Okay. Let’s turn to the Tax Collector. He comes out of this parable smelling like roses. He humbles himself, lowers himself, before God, and God exalts him, lifts him up, sets him right.

What’s right with the Tax Collector? Jesus describes this character in the parable in a way that invites us to notice his grief and guilt: the man is standing far off, off to the side, alone; he would not even look up to heaven; and he is beating his breast, a gesture of self-abasement. And then there are the words of his prayer: God, be merciful to me, a sinner.

Jesus paints a vivid picture with a few simple details. He wants his hearers to understand the intensity of the tax collector’s guilt and longing for mercy. However – I want to be clear that I don’t think Jesus wants us all to approach God this way. A lot of his preaching and teaching is focused on encouraging people to approach God with more boldness, trust, and love. To take one key example, when Jesus’s friends ask him how to pray, he teaches them to call God, Father. Or even, Daddy or Papa – the word Abba that Jesus uses, in the Lord’s Prayer, is one that a child would use at home. Jesus calls his followers to greater intimacy with God, and away from a distant and fearful piety. He doesn’t want us to stand off to the side, to be afraid to look up at God, even in our deepest sins and darkest moments. So those details he tells us about the Tax Collector, I think, are meant not to give us an example we ought to follow, but instead to tell us something about the depth and quality of this man’s spirituality.

So what are we to notice about the tax collector? He’s open to God. Both in telling the truth about himself, his brokenness and his need; and in expecting God to respond. Look back at our friend the Pharisee: his words are technically a prayer, because he starts with “God.” But it he’s basically talking to himself about what a great guy he is. The tax collector’s prayer is far simpler – and far more honest. He doesn’t have a list of what he’s done wrong, or right. He simply names himself as a sinner, as having fallen short of God’s intentions for him. And he asks for God’s mercy. For God to receive him with love and save him from his own weaknesses and failures. While the Pharisee thinks he’s fine already, and has no need to be open to God, the tax collector’s burdened conscience drives him to seek God, in pain, in truth, in hope.

And that leads me to the second thing I think Jesus wants us to notice about the tax collector: He leaves different than he came. Jesus says, He went home that day justified. Set right with God – forgiven – exonerated – his burden lifted. Imagine him walking out of the Temple feeling … lighter. Feeling hope, once more, that there is good in the world and that he has a chance to be part of it. The tax collector leaves the Temple changed by what happened there – by his own prayer, and by God’s grace.

And that, friends, is why maybe this is a pretty good parable for the beginning of a Giving Campaign, after all. Because let’s face it: the real question of a Giving Campaign is, why have a church? You could get together for meals without church. You could give money to charity without church. You could study Scripture without church. Why commit your resources and time and skills and care to helping this place be and become and endure?

A couple of months ago, Scott Gunn, Episcopal priest and writer, wrote a blog post that caught my eye, responding to a statement he’d heard several times: The church should be out in the world. The implication being that we might be indulging ourselves by making sure we have a safe, warm, and lovely place to gather for worship and fellowship. Here’s what Scott says about that idea:

“Sometimes you hear people saying something along the lines that the church shouldn’t be focused on worship when there are so many needs in the world. And I fully agree that any church which turns its back on the needs of the world is no church…. [But] there is not a zero sum… here. A focus on worship does not reduce our focus on the world. Rather, a focus on worship is the church’s work, and … worship rightly done sends us out into the world. I think we confuse the work of the church and the work of disciples… When the church is doing its work, it will be forming disciples of Jesus Christ who find the needs of the world irresistible and who find themselves called to respond. Worship is not a distraction from the world, but rather it is the thin place that opens our eyes to the glory of God and thus to the possibility of glory in our world.”

Scott is saying, in essence, that the purpose of church is to be a place apart. The word Holy, in all the languages of the Bible, basically means: Dedicated. Set apart. And set apart for a purpose. At church we gather from our daily lives, into this holy place, this holy time; and then we go forth as disciples into the world. And like the tax collector, we go forth different.

When we held focus groups last year to talk about why you all make church part of your lives, a lot of you said something like that: that church was a place of solace, of restoration, of re-orientation. A place to bring your thirsty soul and receive the water of life. A place to sit and breathe, and remember the big picture, the long arc, the great story. A place to get re-grounded to face the challenges of daily living. A place to leave different.

Now, in all honesty and humility, I’m sure there are many weeks for you when it’s just church. I know there are for me. Maybe it’s a bit much to expect transformation every week. But at the same time, I’ve learned – mostly from all y’all – that there are a lot of ways in which gathering here, spending this intentional time with God and fellow Christians, does change us. Does send us forth different than we came. Even in small ways.

Because in the face of today’s perplexities, Scripture reminds us of the long history of God’s people struggling and shouting and grieving and journeying and surviving and rebuilding. Because in a divided world, here we share faith and friendship with people of different backgrounds and different views – yes, however homogenous we may look, believe me, we contain multitudes! – and those conversations bless and challenge us by making us remember our shared humanity. Because in an everything-is-fine world, sometimes, here, we are able to name what’s really on our minds and hearts, in prayer and conversation.

Because we can do small, real things together here about the world’s woes, coordinating our efforts and getting diapers or notebooks or a jar of applesauce or the price of a new muffler to those who need them. Because griefs or concerns that feel big and new and strange to us are wrapped up in the capacious and experienced arms of the church’s prayer, to which no human pains are unfamiliar. Because there’s room here to offer the things we’re good at and the things we love to do; and when a community recognizes and receives and acknowledges our gifts, we feel seen, and blessed.

Because despite weariness or despair that can weigh us down, here the bright energy of children and the soaring notes of our hymns and the color of the leaves in the sunlight can lift our hearts and restore some sense of hope and meaning. Because our liturgy invites us to lay down our burdens, offer up our prayers, and be fed by God’s unconditional, unshakable, unending love.

Now, I’m in danger, here, of sounding like the Pharisee. Of saying, God, thank you that our church is such a great place! We welcome everybody, we have beautiful worship and vital ministries, and we’re WAY nicer than Some Other Churches We Could Name. It’s a fine line to walk… I want to celebrate what we do well. I am proud of St. Dunstan’s and I take delight in many aspects of our life together. But I can’t, I don’t ask you, to commit financial support and time and ideas and skills to the life of this body because we’re perfect. We’re not.

I ask for your presence and participation and support because we’re building a good thing here, and I very much want to continue that work together. To follow through on where God is leading us. I ask you to stand with me before God, as we look towards another year in our shared life of faith, with the heart of the tax collector: open to God, in honesty, humility, and hope, and ready to be made new and sent forth.

Scott Gunn’s blog post may be read in full here:

The Lord’s Prayer: Unity, not uniformity

What a difference a word makes when it’s a word you’ve known your whole life long. There is something extra-confusing about saying something where *most* of the words are familiar… but just enough are different to trip you up. Like, for example, “sins” instead of “trespasses.” (Or even “debts”!) Yes, I’m talking about how we say the Lord’s Prayer – the prayer Jesus offered as an example, when one of his disciples asked him how they should pray (Matthew 6:9-13; Luke 11:2-4).

At St. Dunstan’s, since I came to be your rector, we have used the contemporary Lord’s Prayer (“Our Father in Heaven…”). As liturgical leader, I have made that choice because the modern language makes the meaning of the prayer a little bit clearer for a child or someone brand-new to the church and its distinctive language. We don’t use “art” for “is” or “thy” for “your” in daily speech, so while that old-fashioned language is satisfying and beautiful in its own way, it can be disorienting and confusing.

Believe me: I don’t for a moment believe that the traditional-language Lord’s Prayer is dead – or wish it to be. It’s the one I learned as a child, immersed in the liturgy of the Episcopal Church, and I appreciate the grace of its language. I happily use it at weddings, funerals, and in hospital rooms – because in a mixed crowd, it’s the most familiar, and because it’s the version most people my age and older learned as children, and so it’s the version deepest in our hearts and memories.

There are parishes where they switch versions with the season – for instance, they might use the traditional language in Lent, and the modern language in Easter. I have never thought that sounded like a helpful approach; instead it sounds to me like a recipe for confusion. Many of us carry both versions in our heads, but more or less manage to pick one and stick with it, once we’ve gotten as far as, “Our Father, who art…” or “Our Father in…” I fear that alternating which version we’re using would have the effect of muddling up the versions in our heads and making it even harder to start one and follow through!

But this fall we’re trying out a different kind of muddle. The inspiration came from a couple of different places. One was my experience last summer of the liturgies at General Convention, the Episcopal Church’s great gathering of the tribes in Salt Lake City. In the daily Eucharists there, we were invited to pray the Lord’s Prayer “in the language of our hearts.” That meant that people in that giant roomful of worshippers were praying in both English versions, and in many other languages and versions. Offered that freedom, I myself tend to pray the New Zealand version that begins, “Loving God, may your name be held holy and your kingdom come!…”  My experience of those moments was that instead of the familiar rhythm of many voices saying the same thing the same way, I was paradoxically both more tuned in to my own prayer – thinking the words, meaning them – and more aware of all those voices around me, praying the same thing in beautifully different ways.

The second source of inspiration is our middle school youth group. In their weekly practice of saying Compline (BCP p. 127) together at the end of a Friday night of movies, pizza, and games, they’ve developed a preference for the traditional-language Lord’s Prayer. Several of them have a habit of sitting together in the front row at church on Sundays – and when I’m celebrating at the altar, I can hear them praying with the traditional language, as everyone else uses the modern language version printed in the booklet.

So in planning our autumn worship, I thought, Why do we all need to use the same version at the same time? Everyone here either has a version of this prayer engraved on their heart already – or is ready to choose a version and do the work of memorizing it. It doesn’t matter to me, and it most certainly doesn’t matter to God, which version you pray. Some might pray it in a language other than English – the language of your first family, or of a country you love. Some might pray it in a version that translates the Gospel’s Greek rendering of Jesus’ Aramaic words into English in a different way, as does the New Zealand version. Some might pray in silence, the prayer of the heart. We don’t need uniformity in prayer to have unity in prayer.

So this fall I invite all of us to pray the Lord’s Prayer in the language of our hearts. It will sound and feel different. I invite you to try it out. We’re printing both the traditional and modern language Prayer Book versions in the booklet, but by all means, look farther afield if you are so moved. Find (or create) another version of this simple, ancient, encompassing, gracious prayer. And let’s pray in unity of spirit, and diversity of voice.

Sermon, May 29

Today’s lesson from 1 Kings is part of cycle of stories about the prophet Elijah and his relationship with King Ahab. Ahab was king of Israel about a hundred years after King David. Israel’s kings had gotten worse and worse since David’s time, and Ahab was the worst yet. He took as his queen Jezebel, a princess from another tribe, who worshipped a god named Baal. And Jezebel convinced Ahab to start worshipping Baal too, and abandon Yahweh, the God of Israel, even having all Israel’s prophets and priests killed.

So the word of God came to Elijah. God sent Elijah to King Ahab to tell him, THUS SAYS THE LORD: You may have killed off all my prophets, but I’M still alive, and I’m watching you, Ahab…. In a couple of weeks I’ll share more of the stories of Elijah and Ahab’s long and contentious relationship. Today we get this one episode, this epic throwdown between the priests of Baal – 450 of them – and Elijah, the sole representative of Yahweh, Israel’s god.

It’s a terrific story – read it again later and take in the details. My favorite part is when Elijah starts mocking the priests of Baal because despite all their dancing and chanting, nothing is happening. Elijah says, Chant louder! Maybe your god is meditating, or has gone on a trip, or is taking a nap, or he’s wandered away – a Biblical idiom that is equivalent to, “He had to see a man about a dog.”

And then of course Yahweh, Elijah’s God, comes through in a dramatic way, What happens after the end of this passage is that Elijah incites the crowd to murder all the priests of Baal on the spot. Elijah is not a cuddly prophet.

Today we are going to baptize little Nicholas as the newest member of Christ’s body, the Church. When I first looked at this lesson several weeks ago, I thought, Wow, I love this story; but I can’t make that into a baptismal sermon…! And then I started to think about who God is in this story, and in the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, in general.

There is a distinct arc in Israelite history, in the story of the people Israel coming to know and understand Yahweh, the God who named and claimed and called them. At first they see and describe Yahweh as a tribal god among other tribal gods. Every tiny kingdom or cultural group had its own gods, usually including a head god who was supposed to protect them, provide for them, help them out in battle, and fight with other gods on their behalf.

There are many verses in the Old Testament that describe God very much that way. From the sixth chapter of Deuteronomy – “Yahweh your god you shall fear; him you shall serve, and by his name alone you shall swear. Do not follow other gods, or any of the gods of the peoples who are all around you, because Yahweh your god, who is present with you, is a jealous god.” The gods might as well be presidential candidates or football teams. We like ours best, and hope ours will win, but they’re all basically on the same footing. By this logic, when things are going well for Israel, it’s because Yahweh is really kicking butt for them, beating the other gods, and when things don’t go so well for Israel, they tend to start worshipping other gods and losing faith in Yahweh. “What have you done for me lately?”…

So there’s that way of thinking of Yahweh, the God of Israel who becomes the God of Jesus and our God: as essentially a tribal god. Not the only god and not consistently the best or most powerful god, but OUR god. The God who belongs to and looks out for our little tribal group. But fairly early on in the history of Israel, there also begins to be an understanding that the God the Israelites have named and worship isn’t just another tribal god, but is, well, THE God.

It’s in the first chapter of Genesis, in which Israel’s God is described as creating heavens and earth. Today’s Psalm – from the time of King David – holds up God as a creator: For great is Yahweh, more to be honored than the gods of other peoples; for they are idols, but Yahweh created the heavens. It’s in the covenant with Abraham, who is called and chosen to be the father of God’s people – but with the stated intention that through Abraham’s covenant relationship with God, all the peoples of the Earth will be blessed. Likewise in the books of the words of the prophets, often, we see that God, Yahweh, has a particular relationship with Israel, but has that relationship for the sake of the whole world. The final chapters of Isaiah are perhaps the best-known example: Nations will stream to your light, kings to the brightness of your dawning! Through Israel, the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations!

The fact that Yahweh had an agenda for Israel and its rulers, that Yahweh wasn’t just an idol to be bossed around and to rubber-stamp the king’s decisions, was the source of a lot of tension between Israel’s kings and Israel’s prophets. In most ancient world cultures, the king either was a god, or was the child of a god, and whatever the king did was seen as divinely endorsed. Not so in Israel, where God argues with Israel’s kings over and over again, through the voice of the prophets – Elijah, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Micah, and many more.

So there’s a back and forth movement, and sometimes a tension, in the Old Testament, between God as team mascot, always on our side, and God as… GOD, who calls us to be on God’s side.

This tension shows up in the New Testament too. Jesus is pretty clear that God is the God of everybody and everything, and that becomes the understanding of the early church. But there are hiccups along the way. Like when, after Jesus’ resurrection, some of the disciples ask him, NOW are you going to throw out the Romans and restore the kingship of Israel? They want their tribal god back. To fight for them and rule over them and let them be their own people in their own land. They are frustrated and confused that God’s purposes, manifest in Jesus Christ, encompass other peoples, other lands, even the hated Romans.

You can put a finger on the tension in today’s Gospel story. The Roman centurion is drawn to the God of Israel. He’s a friend of the local synagogue, even sent his soldiers to help with building it. He recognizes the power and authority of Jesus and of God in Jesus. And yet. He is and remains an outsider. God can, and may choose, to exercise God’s healing power across the lines of class, status, nationality, and religion; but God is still Israel’s God, the God of the Jews, and this act of mercy for a Roman slave is understood as a special favor. It’s not until much later in the life of the church – and after quite a bit of conflict and struggle – that non-Jews will be seen as belonging to God on an equal footing with Jewish Christians.

I think we still live in that tension, sometimes. The tension between seeing God as a tribal god, who watches out for us and our community; and seeing God as THE God, a God who is present in and has intentions for the whole world.

There is a real and lasting appeal in thinking of God as our tribal god, our pet god. A pet God feels safer. More controlled, more defined. The relationship, though demanding, is clear-cut: we do the stuff God wants us to do, and God stands by us and takes care of us. Also a pet God, a tribal God, is far more comfortable for us as people of faith in a pluralistic and largely secular society. If God is the god of our tribe, then God can stay our business, safely ensconced in our private lives. We get together at church with the other members of God’s tribe, we tell stories and sing songs about how great God is, we complete our ritual obligations to God as God’s people have done since the book of Exodus, and we go out into the world where God is largely absent. Where other tribes and other gods are dominant – wealth, power, beauty, success.

But if God is the God of everything. If God is THE God, who has intentions for the whole world, for all peoples, and who is in fact a little cranky about our persistent idolatry, our millennia-long love affair with these dead idols – wealth, power, beauty, success – If the God we meet here when we gather as God’s tribe is also the God of everybody and everything, then we are still God’s people when we walk out those doors. Then our relationship with God isn’t confined to what we do together when we gather as a family, a tribe, here at church. THE God, who has intentions for the whole world, sends us out into that world to meet and serve God there.

And that – finally – brings me around to baptism. Our baptismal rite uses both languages, both images. We baptize new believers into the household of God, into the eternal priesthood of Jesus Christ. Baptism is a rite of admission into God’s tribe, God’s family. And, probably because we most often baptize babies, that’s where our imagery and language tend to linger. We give Nicholas homely gifts, a blanket, a candle. We vie for the chance to cuddle him. We rejoice to welcome him into our oikos, our household of faith. Into the warmth and welcome and nurture of our tribe, which will, I fervently pray, be a safe and joyful and enriching place for him to grow as a child of God.

And. We baptize new believers not only into the household of God, but also into the mission of God. We are baptized as ambassadors of Jesus Christ and agents of God’s redeeming purposes on earth. We are baptized into God’s profound compassion for all peoples, and every person.  We are baptized into the church, and also into the world. As people who seek and serve Christ in all people. Who love our neighbors as ourselves. Who strive for justice, peace, and dignity for everybody.

It’s a tall order, especially for someone who is still getting to know his toes. The good news is that we don’t expect Nicholas to work it out yet. If I have the blessing to still be his pastor when he is ten, fifteen, twenty, I look forward to talking with him about who he is called to be in the world, as a member of this tribe that exists for the good of those who don’t belong. In the meantime, we welcome Nicholas into our tribe, and strive to be a people who will teach and form him, and all our children and new believers, to live as God’s people, in the world and for the world.

Sermon, April 24

A homily for our All-Ages service on April 24, 2016.

Who remembers a baptism? What do we do?…

Another part of what we do is that we say some things together. We say some things that remind us of who we are, and what we believe, and how we try to live, as God’s people. It’s called the Baptismal Covenant.  A covenant is kind of like a promise. It has five questions in it that all start “Will you?” They ask if we will keep being faithful to our church family, if we’ll turn back to God when we go wrong, if we’ll share God’s good news in our lives, if we’ll love other people and try to help them, and if we’ll work to build a better world. And what we say when we answer all those questions is, I WILL, WITH GOD’S HELP! Because those are all important and also hard; so we say, Yes, we will do it, but we need your help, God.

Today I want to talk a little bit about the fourth question. Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?

Who’s your neighbor? … Jesus means, anybody whose life crosses paths with your life. Friends, family, strangers, enemies, all are our neighbors. Even people who live around the world from us are our neighbors in God’s eyes. So we’re talking about, how we treat other people.

At your school, do they talk about the Golden Rule? What’s the Golden Rule? … Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Treat other people the way you want to be treated. Do your parents or teachers sometimes ask you, “How would you feel if somebody did that to you?” Like if you don’t feel like sharing, or you get upset and hit somebody. You have to think about how it feels when somebody doesn’t share with you, or when somebody gets mad and hits you.

The Golden Rule is a good way to think about how to treat people, because it helps us think about how things feel for somebody else.  But Jesus says something different here, in today’s Gospel story. He says something more. He says, Love each other the way I love you. Love each other the way Jesus loves you. The way God loves you.

Let’s try out an example to explain this… What do you like to eat for breakfast?… Okay. So, if you’re in charge of breakfast, if you get to choose, you’ll have waffles. Now, what if you had a guest and you were making breakfast for them too? And you made them waffles, because it’s your favorite? You are trying to be kind and loving. You are making them the thing that you really like. You are loving your neighbor as yourself.

But what if your guest doesn’t like waffles? It’s just not their favorite. Maybe it even tastes bad to them. Or maybe they’re even allergic to it, (or they’re vegetarian). Then even you were trying to be kind, the breakfast you made for them isn’t meeting their needs. So what could you do differently? …

Yeah! If you really wanted to make your guest happy, make them feel welcome and loved, you would ask them what they like best for breakfast, and then, if you can, that’s what you would make for them.

Jesus says, Love each other the way I love you. Jesus didn’t treat everybody the same. He looked into people and saw who they were and what they needed, and that’s how he responded to them. That’s the kind of love Jesus and God show us, the kind of love that sees that our neighbors are sometimes different from us. What they need and want and hope for might be different too.

We had a little story about that earlier today, in the story about Peter the apostle. Peter and Midamos had a way of following Jesus, that included keeping the practices of Judaism. And they thought that was the right way for everybody who follows Jesus. But God showed Peter that he was wrong. God showed Peter that Gentiles, people who didn’t follow Jewish practices, were called to follow Jesus and become Christians, too.

For Peter, to love those new Christians the way he loved himself, would be to say, Here are the rules for being a Christian. Instead, God helped Peter to love these new Christians the way God loved them, so he was able to just say, Welcome to God’s family! I am glad you’re here!

Our Baptismal Covenant asks us to love our neighbors as ourselves. But let’s remember that that’s just the beginning, and that, with God’s help, we can try to love our neighbors with God’s love, which is bigger and broader and brighter than our love.

I’m going to ask the question now, and I want to hear a nice loud answer: I will, with God’s help!

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? …

Sermon, April 3

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

It is Easter, the season in the church’s year in which we celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus. This Easter season, I’m going to attempt two things you don’t get from me very often. First, I’m going to try to keep my sermons short – to make time for some words from somebody else. Because the conversations we’ve been having about discipleship, about how we as the people of St. Dunstan’s follow Jesus, are beginning to bear fruit. And starting today and over the next few weeks, some members of the congregation are going to speak about some of the core practices of faith that we are starting to identify, and how they experience or live out or struggle with those practices in their own lives.

The second thing I’m going to do is undertake a sermon series. As a preacher I usually take each week, each set of lessons, on its own terms. But I got inspired by the Confirmation class that’s been gathering this Lent, from all the Episcopal parishes in Madison. The class was structured around the Baptismal Covenant, the five promises that are part of our rite of holy baptism. And I got to thinking, You know, those vows really are great stuff to think and talk about. They’re a pithy and powerful map of the Christian life as our church understands it. And though we say them pretty often, when we have a baptism or renew our baptismal vows, we haven’t looked at them and unpacked them together. If you’d like to look at the Baptismal Covenant, these 5 questions, as we go along, you can open a little red prayer book to pages 304 and 305.

Today we’ll start with the first two. I plan to take the rest one by one, but next week we have a guest preacher and I didn’t want to saddle her with this project; and anyway these first two are related. They both have to do with belonging to a worshipping community, and the ways that blesses and challenges us. Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers? The apostles’ teaching and fellowship is… this. Gathering regularly to read and reflect on Scripture together, and to support, encourage, and care for one another. Sharing the Eucharist, the sacramental meal that Jesus gave us, and offering our joys and struggles to God in prayer. All of that is what church is and does, since the first Christian communities established by the apostles, the earliest church leaders. This baptismal vow simply asks us, Will you keep doing church?

Now, in the conversations we’ve been having, over the past year, about how church and faith intersect in people’s lives, one thing several people have said is, The church’s faith carried me when my faith was lost. When I was going through a dark or dry time and God felt far away. When I was too angry at God to pray. When I was brand-new to all this and didn’t know what I thought or believed, but knew something had drawn me here. The church’s faith carried me through until my own conversation with God began again.

When people come to me with questions about the Nicene Creed, the statement of the church’s historic faith that’s part of our Sunday worship, one thing I point out is that the Creed begins, “We believe.” This is something we believe all together, even when particular people have trouble with particular bits.

In today’s Gospel story, we can see Christian community operating in just this way. When the disciples tell Thomas, “We have seen the Lord!”, he says, Okay, fine, how nice for you. Maybe that’s true, maybe it isn’t. All I know is, I haven’t seen him. As far as I know, he’s still dead, and everything I believed and hoped for is in the grave with him. I suspect Thomas felt pretty alone with his doubts, in the midst of a community of disciples that was on fire with hope and excitement about this miracle.

But … he doesn’t just bail out. The next time they gather, he’s there. “A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them.” Even though he didn’t share their convictions, their sense that God was alive and active among them, he still cared enough about the people, the community, to show up. And the community cared enough about him, even in his grumpy skepticism, to invite and welcome and include him. Nobody said, “Don’t invite Thomas; didn’t you hear what he said about all of us seeing Jesus??” His church invited Thomas, and Thomas showed up. And because he showed up, because he put himself into that holy space, surrounded by people of God who loved him, God was able to show Godself to Thomas and restore his faith. Begin the conversation again.

I believe in church, friends. I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I am a much better Christian, that I am able to follow Jesus much more faithfully, because I belong to a Christian community that knows me and loves me and supports me and challenges me and reminds me what it’s all about. I am what I am, and I do what I do, because I believe that’s true for most of us. I believe in church. So when the baptismal covenant asks me, Will you keep doing church?, I’m able to say with a full heart, I will, with God’s help.

The second baptismal question asks us, Will you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? This is another way that belonging to a community of faith, and doing church with some regularity, can bless you: by helping you be honest and clear-sighted and strong enough to resist the habits and temptations in your life that limit your capacity to love God, neighbor, and self; and by reminding you who and whose you are. Who, and whose, you have chosen to be.

In reflecting on this theme of sin, repentance, and restoration, I want to turn to one element of today’s Gospel story: the fact that the risen Jesus is still wounded. Still has nail holes in his hands and feet. Still has the mark of a spear in his side. This is the resurrected Jesus, here among the disciples. He is alive in a new way – not a ghost but also no longer simply human in his physical being. He can enter locked rooms, for example. He looks both like and unlike himself, so that his friends don’t recognize him, then, suddenly, do.

The risen Jesus is alive in a new way. And presumably as part of raising him to new life, God could have tided up all those ugly, painful wounds. But God didn’t. The risen Jesus is still wounded. Broken. Imperfect. I have heard from folks who have suffered deeply that they find a lot of hope and comfort in that. That the risen Jesus, the Lord in whom we trust, has not forgotten what it was like to be beaten, kicked, spat upon. The risen Jesus has not transcended, but somehow integrated, the reality of pain.

A few weeks ago we spent an afternoon and evening here at St. Dunstan’s making crosses. Using all kinds of interesting and miscellaneous objects that many of you contributed. We followed a process laid out by Ellen Morris Prewitt, who developed cross-making as a kind of hands-on theological reflection. At one point in her book on the subject, she talks about what to do if, in the process of making or decorating your cross, you do something that you don’t like so much. Something that doesn’t look right. That makes the object in your hand different from the ideal, the goal, in your head.

She says, when that happens – and it will happen – resist the temptation to undo it. To take off the offending object. To backtrack, press Rewind. Prewitt says, instead, consider whatever it is that is bothering you, that doesn’t look or feel right, and strive to accept it for what it is, and add to it to get closer to where God wants you to be. Fix or resolve whatever is wrong by keeping going, instead of by backtracking.

She writes, “Once you adopt this attitude, you let go of undoing. Nothing on the cross gets taken apart and put together in a different way…. Always remember: God wants our attention, not our perfection. I try to keep this principal in mind in other parts of my life as well, because I hate doing something that I later regret. Whether it’s losing my temper, saying something ugly, or looking the other way when someone needs my help, I fall short more often than not. And no matter how much I want to undo my actions, I can’t. But I can add to them; I can fill out the picture and make it better.” She concludes, “God’s motto is, Don’t worry; everything can be salvaged.”

We are like those crosses, as Prewitt says. Our lives build up, piece by piece. And some of the pieces don’t sit quite right, don’t look good, don’t feel good. Some of the pieces mar the beauty of the whole. But we don’t take them off; we can’t. Our lives don’t have the option to Rewind or Undo. We just have to keep on living, keep on adding other pieces, that lend beauty and meaning and balance and integrity. We have to keep building the whole and not let the less-great pieces define us.

I think that’s the grace, the gift, of the image of the risen Christ, still wounded, spreading his pierced hands for Thomas to see, to touch: We are like those crosses, and so is Jesus. His resurrection doesn’t undo his death. It adds to the picture, instead of erasing everything that went before.

There’s so much to say about sin, forgiveness, struggle and redemption. But this year, that process of forming crosses, and letting the ugly parts and the failures be part of the work, that’s what’s in my mind and heart as I come to this question the church asks us: Will we persevere in resisting evil, and whenever we fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? Will you allow God to keep adding to the work of art that is your life, trusting that the not so great pieces can become part of something true, holy, and complete? Will we trust each other enough, within this community of faith, to show each other the pieces of our lives that we aren’t so proud of, and to help each other see the pattern, the shape, the beauty of each of our lives? That’s what I hear the Baptismal Covenant asking me, this year, and I am able to answer, I will, with God’s help.

Maundy Thursday Homily

Relations between blacks and whites are tense. Systemic racism and its deep patterns of inequality and injustice are driving protests among black folk and their white allies, demands for profound and substantive change, demands that many white Americans find terrifying. Relationships between the police and African-American communities are particularly fraught – police are seen not as allies in dealing with the crime that goes hand-in-hand with extreme poverty, but as part of the system of oppression. There is deep mistrust in both directions, and often violence, in both directions. In some places police force is used to subdue and discourage protesters, making the police seem less like servants of the people and more like guardians of an unjust status quo.

The year is 1968.

And in a Presbyterian church in Pittsburgh, two men are making friends. One of them is a young black man with an extraordinary voice. He dreams of becoming a professional singer. But he grew up in the ghetto and has already overcome huge odds to get this far; he isn’t even sure he can make rent next month.

The other man is white. He’s forty – the age, I like to think, when our youthful idealism and our mature pragmatism begin to find a fruitful balance. He is, in fact, an ordained Presbyterian minister, but he’s just attending church, not serving as a pastor, because he has a full-time job as a TV star. His name is Fred Rogers.

Who here has never seen Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood?… It was a children’s television show, with this man who talked to the TV as if he were talking to a child, and invited us into adventures with his puppet friends. Sing it with me, folks: “Let’s make the most of this beautiful day; since we’re together, we might as well say, Would you be my, could you be my, won’t you be my neighbor?”

I watched some of it, as a child. In my teens and young adulthood, Mr. Rogers was punchline. We made a joke of his weird puppets, his gentle voice and careful words, his cardigans, his deliberateness, his overwhelming kindness.

But sometime along the road, we all started to get it. Maybe it was his death in 2003 that finally made us all re-assess. Maybe it’s the quotations that circulate on Facebook. Something made us all take a better look and realize that Fred Rogers was the real thing, an honest-to-God saint walking among us, preaching basic human decency on syndicated television, no less.

So. Back to 1968. Fred Rogers hears this young man, Francois Clemmons, sing at church. They become friends. And Mr. Rogers asks Clemmons to come on his show. He said, “I have this idea. You could be a police officer.” Clemmons was not enthusiastic. Where he came from, the cops were not friendly neighbors. In a recent StoryCorps interview, he said, “Policemen were siccing police dogs and water hoses on people [at that time]. So I was not excited about being Officer Clemmons at all.”

Still – there was the rent to pay. Clemmons eventually said yes. He would serve as Officer Clemmons in occasional appearances on the show for 25 years – while living out his dream of being a professional singer.

Reminiscing about his years on the show, Clemmons recalled a particular scene early on, in an episode that aired in 1969. Rogers was sitting in his back yard resting his feet in a plastic wading pool, as relief on a hot summer day. Officer Clemmons stopped by, and Rogers invited him to come rest his feet in the water too, which he did. You can find a photo online, these two grown men sitting next to each other with their shoes and socks off and their pant legs rolled up and their feet in this wading pool. It’s the sweetest, dorkiest thing. And – it was kind of radical.

The first interracial kiss on television was in a Star Trek episode in 1968, just a year earlier. White flesh and black flesh sharing space was still a big deal. (It still is, sometimes, some places, in America; let’s not kid ourselves.) During the 1950s, groups of black and white folks together had worked to integrate Pittsburgh’s public pools, in a united effort supported by the NAACP, the Urban League of Pittsburgh, and the Pittsburgh Presbytery – the church jurisdiction that ordained Fred Rogers in 1962. Still, as late as 1962, a city pool in Pittsburgh, where Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was filmed, had a sign outside saying “No dogs or niggers allowed.” 

So this kiddie pool in Mr. Rogers’ TV back yard, with black feet and white feet in the same water – that, even that, would have pushed some folks’ buttons.

And then it was time for Officer Clemmons to get on with his children’s television show police officer duties. So Fred Rogers got down on his knees with a towel and dried Clemmons’ feet. One a time. I haven’t found footage, but I’m sure he did it with his usual deliberateness and gentleness.

Recalling the scene, Clemmons used the word “icon.” An icon: a holy image that shows us something about the divine, in visual form. Clemmons says, “I think [Rogers] was making a very strong statement. That was his way.”

I don’t know how much I really need to connect the dots here. There’s that word, icon, that Clemmons uses – a holy image that reveals the Divine. There’s Fred Rogers, a disciple of Jesus, actively striving to bear witness to God’s love in simple humble ways that even a child can understand, casting a black man as a friendly policeman and then kneeling to wipe his feet dry, on national TV. There’s Jesus on his knees, towel in hand, telling his friends, You need to let me do this for you. And you need to do this for one another.

In the interview, Clemmons shared another memory – an ordinary day on the set of the long-running show. Rogers wrapped up the program, as he always did, by hanging up his famous cardigan sweater and saying, “You make every day a special day just by being you, and I like you just the way you are.” Clemmons was standing around off-camera, and this time, Rogers looked right at him as he spoke. Once the cameras were off, Clemmons walked over and asked him, “Fred, were you talking to me?” Rogers answered, “Yes, I have been talking to you for years. But you heard me today.”

Easter Vigil Homily

This is the night. So says the Exsultet, the ancient hymn chanted at the beginning of the Easter Vigil, after we have kindled the New Fire. The Exsultet is at least 1200 years old; for a dozen centuries Christians have gathered to keep vigil the night of Jesus Christ’s passing over from death into new life, and marked it with these solemn holy joyful words.

This is the night! The Exsultet’s theological poetry builds upon the testimony of the Gospels, that Jesus’ last meal with his friends was a Passover meal, commemorating the last night of the people Israel as slaves in Egypt, before they set out for freedom as God’s people. The Exsultet says, If the Last Supper was Passover, then this night, the night of Resurrection, this is the same night, the very same night, when, millennia earlier, Moses led God’s people across the Red Sea on dry land. This is the night when bondage gives way to freedom, when wickedness is put to flight, and sin is washed away. This is the night.  This is the night when we gather in the firelight to hear the ancient stories of God’s saving work, God’s fierce relentless love for humanity.

Through our stories, songs, and prayers, this becomes the night when God completes the work of Creation, gazing with joy and satisfaction upon our world. This becomes the night when Noah and his family sleep restlessly aboard the ark, waiting and wondering: will the dove return this time? This becomes one of the nights that Jonah spends in the belly of the great fish, reconsidering his decision to run away from God’s call to proclaim repentance and hope.

The Exsultet, at twelve hundred years old, is one of the younger parts of our Easter Vigil. Our liturgy tonight includes the Easter sermon of the fifth-century Saint Euthymius. We Western Christians tend to think that Jesus spent three days just being dead, lying quietly in the tomb. Eastern Christians believe that Jesus spent that same time tearing Hell apart, breaking doors and locks and chains, freeing all those who had been bound by death, starting with Adam and Eve, our first parents. Euthymius’ sermon invites us into that moment – the moment when Jesus breaks down the doors of Hell and calls the dead back into life. Arise, work of my hands! This is the night!

Our liturgy tonight includes, too, the words of the fourth-century saint John Chrysostom, who playfully and joyfully invites us into the great feast of God’s saving grace. You that have been faithful long, you that are new to God’s grace, you that have fasted faithfully, and you that have… not, celebrate this day! Join in this banquet of grace! For Death is conquered and Christ is arisen! This is the night!

And then our Eucharistic prayer does what it always does – it makes us God’s people, once and always. We are one with our ancestors in faith as the prayer recounts, again, God’s work in human history and human lives: “When our disobedience took us far from you, you did not abandon us to the power of death… In your mercy you came to our help, so that in seeking you we might find you. Again and again you called us into covenant with you… and in the fullness of time you sent us your only Son to be our Savior.”

This is the night. Time and space collapse to one moment, one place, one people. We are one with the communion of saints, all God’s people past, present, and yet to come; we are one with all those who celebrate this feast tonight, near and far. The light in your hand isn’t just a candle – it’s the light of Christ returning to the world. The affirmation of our baptismal vows becomes our opportunity to say YES. YES to the story, the light, the mystery, the hope.

We are God’s people, once and always. We will be God’s people, saved and saving, loved and loving.  This is the night, the fulcrum of history. The story – all the stories, the whole story – is about us. It’s ours. It’s true. It’s beautiful. And most of all, it’s now.

Sermon, Feb. 14

Jesus has just been baptized in the river Jordan, at the hands of his cousin John; he has just received these gracious words from Heaven:“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” He’s about thirty years old – Luke tells us that – and Luke tells us, too, that this is the moment when Jesus begins his work. Begins to preach, and teach, and heal, and stir things up. But first, there’s a time of retreat, of solitude and prayer and reflection, to get clear on who he is and what he’s doing. The Spirit alights upon him like a dove, at the moment of his baptism; then She leads him out into the wilderness, to struggle with hunger, and loneliness, and temptation. To become ready, truly ready, for the work ahead.

Someone asked me recently if I believed in Satan, and what our church teaches about the Devil,and I was embarrassed by how unready I was for the question. Let me take a moment here to talk about that, since this passage presents us withthe idea of evil personified in the character of Satan. The Devil isn’t covered in the Catechism in the back of the BCP, nor in my seminary classes.  The official Episcopal Church website has a Glossary of significant terms and names; neither Satan nor the Devil are in it… I have a hunch that if you asked a roomful of Episcopal clergywhat they believe about the Devil, you’d get a long, embarrassed, awkward silence. I haven’t tried it yet, but I plan to. So you’re stuck with my vague and jumbled thoughts, rather than official church teaching.

I don’t believe in the Devil as an excuse for bad human behavior. I have zero patience with “The Devil made me do it” as a rationale for naughtiness. I know my own heart, I have been a student of human nature, and I believe we are quite capable of all sorts and degrees of poor and flat-out evil behavior without any intervention or encouragement from supernatural beings. At the same time, I have enough epistemological humility to say, I don’t know. There are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in our universities. Is evil simply the absence of good, or is evil a thing, a force in itself?

There are definitely times when, looking at the world, evil seems to be an active, living, intelligent thing. If calling that the Devil gives us the courage to name and rebuke those forces, then maybe there’s power in doing so.

And there are definitely times when I hear a clear voice of temptation in my own head and heart, feeding my worst impulses, undermining my weakest virtues. If calling that the Devil gives me the courage to name and rebuke that voice, then maybe there’s power in doing so.

That’s the situation here, in the scene that Luke describes. If you’re distracted by mental images of a guy in red, with horns and a pitchfork, then imagine this whole dialogue as taking place inside of Jesus, his human desires and impulses at war with his sense of call and mission. It works just as well that way.

There’s so much that can be unpacked from this scene, rich with details and beautifully told. What I want to point out, this year,is how well Satan knows Jesus. Consider the things he could have tempted Jesus with,but didn’t: A beautiful woman. A jug of fine wine. Wealth and luxury. Given what we know of Jesus from the rest of the Gospels, if the Devil had waved those things in front of his nose, Jesus would’ve just shrugged. Not that he couldn’t appreciate any of the above…but the Devil knew those weren’t the way to trip him up.

The ways the Devil does tempt Jesus are pretty on point. Jesus is famished, Luke tells us. He hasn’t eaten for forty days. We believe that Jesus was both fully human and fully God. *I* struggle with my mind making allowances for my body, sometimes; I can well imagine that one of great ongoing struggles for Jesus might have been how much his God-self had to make allowances for his human-self. And the Devil goes right to that – so cleverly. He doesn’t offer Jesus bread; no, that’s too easy. He doesn’t actually offer Jesus anything, here; he just encourages some thoughts Jesus probably has anyway. He says, Use your power to make things easier for yourself. Use your power to get what you want. Just a loaf of bread, when you’re hungry; what’s wrong with that? But that could be one hell of a slippery slope. Jesus knows it. And Jesus says No.

The second temptation is the temptation of earthly authority. Glory, power, rule, not the divine kind but the human kind. This is the one time the Devil actually offers Jesus something, since he claims that human political power falls under his jurisdiction!… The paradox and mystery of Jesus’ authority is a theme in his life and ministry. For just one example, there’s the scene from John’s Gospelfrom Christ the King Sunday back in November. Pontius Pilate asks Jesus, Are you a king? And Jesus says, If I were a king in the way you mean, don’t you think I’d have followers fighting to save me? My kingdom is not of this world… In this moment, back at the beginning of his work, the Devil temps Jesus to break down that wall between divine and human power. To use human glory and authority to advance God’s agenda. With the benefit of 2000 years of hindsight, I think we can say that, in general, the times when Christianity has ruled through human politics have not been Christianity’s best chapters. Politics driven by Christian ethics, yes, please, by all means. A Christian political system, no; that has not worked out well. And how could it, when ours is a faith of persuasion, of heart, of conversion, which simply can’t be imposed from outside? Jesus sees the risks of entangling the ways of human power with divine. Jesus says No.

Finally, the Devil lays before Jesus the temptation to know that everything will be OK. The temptation to equate being loved by God with always being safe. Note that the Devil is quoting the Bible, here – Psalm 91, which we read today. The Psalms actually make this equation a lot – if I am righteous and favored by God, then things will always go my way, I’ll be rich, healthy, and popular, and my enemies will always be defeated. Now, there’s a lot more going on in the Psalms than that; that’s a sermon for another day. But those bits of the Psalms – well, they’re pretty easy for the Devil to quote out of context. And, well, that’s just not the deal. It never has been. The overwhelming witness of Scriptureis that living as God’s people, with love, justice, and mercy, is hard, and sometimes dangerous, and most certainly does not guarantee prosperity or even safety. That’s not why we do it. We do it because the world is better with people in it who live like that; and we do it because we believe.

But it sure would be nice if that were the deal – if only good things happened to good people. We fall to this temptation, friends, every time we tell someone who is suffering, Everything happens for a reason, or,God won’t give you more than you can handle. Those words are kindly meant, but they can be heard to imply that tragedy and pain are blessings in disguise. And I just don’t believe that’s always true. Though I do heartily believe that God is with us in suffering, and that God is always at work in our world, lives, and hearts, working to bring good out of evil and meaning out of tragedy.

Satan knows that the work before Jesus will be hard, and dangerous, and ultimately fatal. The temptation he lays before Jesus is the temptation to opt out of the pain and danger. Throw yourself off the Temple! God won’t let anything bad happen to you! Angels will catch you! It’ll be fine! But Jesus says No. I won’t test God – and I won’t make God’s goodness conditional on my personal safety. God is good whether I prosper or suffer. If Jesus hadn’t known that, deeply, truly, there’s no way he could have started down his path. We need to know it too.

In his season of temptation, Jesus’ determination, his trust in God’s love, his certainty of his own purpose and direction, holds him up as he faces his weaknesses and struggles. Jesus refuses temptation three times – but I think we should assume that those refusals were hard. As hard and harder than the hardest such moments in our lives, when we’ve turned reluctantly away from something that we wanted badly, but knew wasn’t right for us.

The church’s season of Lent, which began this week, can be framed as a season of acknowledging – with Jesus in the wilderness – our weakness, limitations, struggles and fears; while – again, with Jesus – holding fast to our desire and intention to live lives that, in ways great or small, add to the world’s measure of hope, wholeness, and delight. We stand in that space of struggle and hope as we pray the Great Litany, that big strange sprawling beast of a prayer with which we began our worship this morning.

Just as Lent always begins with one of the Gospels of Jesus’ temptation, so it also begins with the Great Litany. I’d like to say a few words about the Great Litany, because it is, frankly, one of the more peculiar and medieval things we do. I grew up with it more or less as we do it here, praying it together once a year on the first Sunday in Lent,although at St. John’s, Lafayette, the choir marched right along behind the clergy, for the long and convoluted procession that we called the “Holy Pretzel.” And despite its length, I’ve always kind of loved it. I like that it’s peculiar and medieval. I like that it marks the beginning of Lent so emphatically. I like how encompassing, how thorough it is – whatever your innermost fears or struggles, they are in there somewhere, I guarantee it.

The earliest form of the Great Litany was composed in the fifth century, after a volcanic eruption disrupted Easter worship. Archbishop Mamertius of Gaul introduced the practice of a litany chanted while processing around the city,and asking God’s protection against disasters of all kinds. The forerunners of the Great Litany were developed further in medieval Europe, as a way to respond in communal prayer to political instability and the ravages of the plagues. Martin Luther, the founder of the German Reformation, loved the spirituality and practice of the Litany. He added prayers for the wider world and for faithful ministry and witness in the Church. Luther’s Litany was the most important source when, in 1544, Thomas Cranmer composed a Great Litany in English – before going on to develop the first English Book of Common Prayer.

For 300 years the Great Litany was part of Sunday worship – many churches had a special Litany Book with its own book stand, called a Litany Desk, marking the centrality and importance of this exhaustive prayer. But in the 19th century the Litany began to fall out of favor; people found it perhaps exhausting as well as exhaustive. The 1979 Book of Common Prayer includes it only in archaic language – perhaps because of love for those rhythms of speech, or perhaps because the framers of that book assumed that only the most old-fashioned congregations would keep using the thing.

But the Great Litany continues to stand the test of time. There is nothing quite like it, in the way it weaves all our smaller prayers into its dense fabric of confession and intercession. An article summarizing the history of the Great Litany, my source for this overview, begins with the image of seminarians at the General Theological Seminary in Manhattan, on September 11, 2001. The seminary community was grief-stricken and terrified. They had no idea what was coming next, or what it all meant. They gathered in the chapel for prayer. And they prayed the Great Litany.

Mark Michael, the author of the article, says that the Litany “describes the fragility and peril of human life with particular emphasis,”evoking its origin among the droughts, famines, plagues, poverty and instability of medieval Europe. Michael writes, “This is what those at General Seminary on 9/11 surely understood anew as they took up these prayers on that dark day. Our [modern] ingenuity, reasonableness, and pluck are not enough in the face of natural disaster, bloodshed, and the sudden approach of death. We face great threats from environmental catastrophe, a fraying social fabric, and international terrorism, and the grand promises of science and technology seem to be wearing thin. In the face of evil that baffles, frightens, and overwhelms us, we [like our forebears] must beg for deliverance…. [The Great Litany] is a text that speaks to pastoral need, the Church’s gift for times of crisis. When you do not know how else to pray, there is always the Litany.”

And so, as in our Gospel Jesus takes up the work of his earthly ministry, we take up the work of Lent – in the words of the Litany, we do the work which God gives us to do,with singleness of heart, and for the common good. And we inaugurate the season by joining our voices with Christians across many continents and centuries, mingling our hopes and longings for ourselves and for the world, our repentance and determination, our fears and our hopes, into one great flavorful stew of prayer in which we marinate ourselves, once a year, need it or not. Welcome to Lent.

I am greatly indebted to Mark Michael’s great article summarizing the history of the Great Litany, which may be read here: