Fashioned by God, refashioned by Jesus: A Sermon for Proper 18C, September 4, 2022

I have an old friend who’s a potter. We’ve pretty much known each other all our lives. Grew up in the same town, he was a year older, in my sister’s class and a friend of hers. We went to the same college and after graduation, he went back home and became the potter at the local historic village/ museum set up by a wealthy entrepreneur. I would drop by his studio every time I went home and if there weren’t many people around, I would watch him throwing pots as we would chat, catching up on our lives and other friends and acquaintances. Like all potters, as he is creating his art, occasionally things will go wrong. There’s a fault in the object he has on the wheel and he has to take it all back down, start over. There’s something mesmerizing about watching a potter at work

Somewhere, I’ve got a pitcher of his I bought at a college art fair many years ago. We also have a number of his more recent pieces. Over the course of his career, he has become adept not only at making useful, attractive objects but also at using glazes to create stunning works of art. 

This reading from Jeremiah is one of the most vivid and memorable images in all of scripture. It has also lent itself to reinterpretation and adaptation as the image of the potter and the clay has become a common way of thinking about our individual relationships with God, “You are the potter, I am the clay” goes the old song. 

But before exploring the image, let’s go back and get a bit of background. We’ve actually been reading about the Hebrew prophetic tradition throughout this season after Pentecost. We were introduced to Elijah and Elisha, then Amos, who was the first of the Hebrew prophets to have his words written down and recorded. Now we come to Jeremiah, who was active for around 40 years or more. He began his work in the 620s, during the reign of Josiah, who introduced a number of religious reforms, chief among them an insistence on worship and sacrifice in Jerusalem at the temple (the book of Deuteronomy reflects these concerns). Jeremiah’s prophecies address these same concerns, especially the tendency to worship other gods, the gods of Canaanite religion, Baal and Astarte

Alongside these religious concerns are the political ones. Judah, the southern kingdom is being threatened by Babylon. Eventually it will be conquered, the temple destroyed, and the religious and political elite of Judah carried off into captivity in Babylon. Under threat, the king of Judah wants to make an alliance with Egypt, something Jeremiah opposes and which contributes to his troubles (imprisonment and exile).

Against this context Jeremiah’s visit to the Potter’s House, and the Word of the Lord that comes to him there becomes quite clear. God is the potter, Judah the clay. God chose and called the people of Israel, created the monarchy, and nourished it. But their apostasy and disobedience have angered God, who will destroy them as a potter destroys a misshapen pot on the wheel. Nevertheless, if the people repent and turn away from the worship of false gods, God may restore them and recreate them.

While this may be the context for the original prophetic oracle—Judah’s apostasy and the existential threat to the nation posed by the Babylonian empire, there is significant biblical warrant for reinterpreting it as the Christian tradition has done, to think about our relationship with God as that of a potter and clay.

Indeed, the biblical story of creation lends itself to that interpretation—God created human beings out of the dust of the earth, fashioned the human as a sculptor fashions a sculpture. That sense of intimacy alongside the creative power of God is evidenced in the first verses of Jeremiah—words we heard a couple of weeks ago: “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.”

That same intimacy and deep connection between God and us human beings is eloquently described in today’s Psalm:

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

 My body was not hidden from you, *
while I was being made in secret
and woven in the depths of the earth.

15 Your eyes beheld my limbs, yet unfinished in the womb;
all of them were written in your book; *
they were fashioned day by day,
when as yet there was none of them.

This sense of being shaped, created, formed by God may seem a long way away from the hard words Jesus says in today’s gospel reading.

In today’s gospel, Jesus seems to be making statements about family relationships that radically upend our feelings and ideas about traditional family ties. 

“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”

What to make of this? On first hearing, Jesus’ language seems offensive, overly harsh. In its context, it may be hyperbolic, exaggeration. Jesus uses such stark language to drive home the point that if one wants to follow Jesus, be his disciple, nothing else should matter as much.

Our tendency when we hear Jesus say things like he says in today’s gospel reading, is to dismiss it. Either he can’t really mean what he says, or it’s so outlandish as to be completely irrelevant to our lives. And if he means it, then maybe I don’t want to sign on to this Jesus stuff, and anyone who does is crazy, which may be a judgment many of us make regarding others who call themselves Christian. 

But to do that is to let ourselves off the hook; to relegate Jesus to some hidden corner of our lives that is largely irrelevant. Jesus’ words challenge us to think about what he hold most dear, what our deepest commitments are, what are priorities and values really are. And Jesus’ words challenge us to reshape our lives in conformity to him, to reshape our relationships, commitments, and priorities.

We live in a messy world. We lead messy lives. We face all kinds of decisions in our lives that seem not to be clear-cut. We face choices at work that might seem the lesser of two evils; we wonder what it might mean to follow Jesus’ call. Whether the decisions are large or small, it’s about trying to be faithful day in, day out. Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow him. These words challenge us to follow him in all of our lives, in everything we do. They challenge us to get our priorities in line. They challenge us to see everything in light of the cross. Everything! All that we do, all of our values, our hopes and fears, the things we love most dearly lie in the shadow of the cross, by the love demonstrated by Christ’s outstretched arms, and by his call to follow him.

An onerous burden indeed. But even as we hear Jesus’ call to us, to take up our cross and follow him, even as we hear his words that we must hate father and mother, brother and sister, if we want to enter God’s reign, we also need to remember that the burden is not wholly on us. God is working in us, on us, as a potter works on clay, fashioning us into the creatures, the human beings, God desires us to become helping us, through the grace given us in Jesus Christ, to be the vessels of God’s love, pouring out that love into the world. Thanks be to God.

Guest Post: Fr. JF’s Sermon for Proper 17C, August 28, 2022

I want to talk with you this morning about having a second conversion. A second conversion you ask? What’s that? Well, I’m glad you asked. We know what conversion is in this our Christian context. That moment or season when I began to realize that God is Love, that Jesus Loves Me, and I began to get my head and heart around the mysterious simplicity of John 3:16 – For God so loved the cosmos that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting and abundant life. My first conversion in this light has been ongoing. That the Christian life is about death and resurrection and being drawn ever more closely to God by his Spirit. When I was a teenager, a period I lovingly and also cringingly refer to as my Billy Graham phase, in my vigilance and immaturity, I asked a priest friend of my parents if he was saved. He patiently and with great contemplative wisdom replied, “I was saved, I am saved, I am being saved, and I will be saved. This has been my perspective on my first conversion to this day. Day by Day. Maybe many of you can relate. 

Now, Let me tell you the story of my second conversion. I was 19 years old in my sophomore of college at Messiah University in central Pennsylvania, near the state capital of Harrisburg. I was a restless long haired wild eyed English Major, disenchanted by the versions of Christianity I was seeing all around me. The elitism, the favoritism, the overwhelming Whiteness and systemic racism I was surrounded by drove me to the arms of the nearest metropolis. Harrisburg. To poor neighborhoods and communities of color. I drove the ten miles – which may as well have been culturally light years away from the insulated separated culture of my alma mater. This is not to say that Messiah University was getting it all wrong. Their commitment to pacifism rooted in the Anabaptist tradition was very attractive to me, and some of my closest and most encouraging and affirming relationships I have to this day were forged at Messiah University. 

Nonetheless, On one day, I was driving on the square around the capital building, much like the square we are on today and much to my shock and surprise I saw a group of men and women gathered on the capitol steps, holding large signs which read, “Jesus was a death penalty victim”, they had a symbolic large metallic electric chair that had a crown of thorns mounted on the top of it. I slammed on my breaks, parked somewhere quickly, and just about ran up to the protestors to see more of what had sparked my interest in what they were all about. I wanted to know More of what drew me to this ragtag bunch on the capitol steps. Like a wide eyed child, I aksed one of the men holding a sign, “what are you doing?” he said, we are protesting the death penalty and demanding that Pennsylvania place a moratorium on executions.” This group exuded empathy and something else that I recognized and resonated with on a soul level, they were swept up in passion for justice. Justice. Justice for the poor. And a prophetic declaration that the system could and would be transformed toward justice for the poor by the power of the people aligned with the Holy Spirit. That society would and could be changed. I was dumbfounded. Who are you? What are you? I asked the burly man with the sign. He simply replied. “We’re the Catholic Workers”. That was the interaction that set me on a journey that would change my life indelibly and permanently. What I call my second conversion. My ongoing second conversion began to solidify there. With the Catholic Worker Movement and its house of hospitality in Harrisburg, PA. My second conversion was to solidarity with the poor and toward empathy and justice for them. As Dr. Cornel West said, “Justice is what love looks like in public”. To this we can and do endeavor, because it is intrinsic in the person of Jesus, that he transforms us toward solidarity with the poor. 

Saint Martin De Porres Catholic Worker House was located on Alison Hill in Harrisburg. At the time, Alison Hill was the poorest zip code in Pennsylvania. The Catholic Worker Movement began with Dorothy Day in New York City, during the Great Depression.  When Dorothy Day read the Gospel text for today, “When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed…” She took it literally. She invited the homeless, the destitute, the poor, the broken, the most vulnerable of our society into her home, and she cared for them. This spawned an International movement called the Catholic Worker which is marked by the Works of Mercy…clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, giving hospitality to refugees, advocating for the undocumented, and all the while asking why the naked have no clothes, why the hungry have no food, why refugees are pushed to the margins of our society and chiefly not offered hospitality….in other words, like Jesus, Dorothy Day wanted to uproot and transform not just individuals but also the systems of oppression which keep people poor, neglected, hungry and invisible. 

“When you give a banquet, Jesus says, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And give them the seats of honor. And you will be blessed…” This command from Jesus is not merely a nice and kind thing to do. This is way more and greater than just being a nice person. Jesus is pointing to a radical reconfiguring of society, of the caste system, and a transformative picture of the Kingdom of God. This is not metaphorical or theoretical, it is literal. “When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed…”

Let’s start the reading of this Gospel text for today by acknowledging that it was downright amazing that Jesus was invited to this dinner party in the first place. Was it intrigue that caused the Pharisee to open his home and table to Jesus, or was it entrapment. We know Jesus was being watched closely by the religious elite, just hoping and waiting for him to slip up. Jesus accepts this invitation knowing full well that the stakes were high. 

What is the first thing Jesus does at this dinner party? He corrects the host! Then he goes on to correct the gathered elites who have chosen to sit in places of honor. Jesus says plainly, 8”When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place’, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” It is amazing that Jesus gets invited in the first place, because they must have known what was about to go down. Their plan to trap Jesus wasn’t going to work. Instead, he dissects and interrogates their entire social system that creates a hieararchy of class and caste. He appeals to the power of the Spirit to transform individuals who then transform systems to welcome and invite, and invite first and foremost the misfits and the most vulnerable of society. This paradigm that Jesus is invoking is also not a case of “Charity”… nor is it a charity case. There is not enough charity in the world that can fix the inequities and injustices of our world. It is the systems that must be addressed and dismantled. It is a deconstruction of abusive societal systems of caste, and it addresses the very roots of that abuse. 

In her book titled ‘Caste’, the origins of our discontent’ Isabel Wilkerson hits the nail on the head. And I find her understanding of the caste system in America to be spot on. She writes, “Caste is insidious and therefore powerful because it is not hatred, it is not necessarily personal. It is the worn grooves of comforting routines and unthinking expectations, patterns of a social order that have been in place for so long that it looks like the natural order of things.”  Wilkerson goes on to write, 

So where is the good news in this message? The good news is that the Gospel changes everything. It turns our long ingrained and abusive societal structures upside down. It invites the beggar to the feast. It means we are tasked and charged to be transformed as we transform the world around us toward empathy, equity, and justice. 

What does it mean for us here on W. Washington Avenue? Here in Madison in the here and now? What does it mean for Grace Church in the present? Well, I can see and feel the hand of God moving here in Grace Church. We are responding to our collective second conversion when we endeavor to bring land acknowledgement, justice and reparations to our Native brothers and sisters, when we partner with African American businesses and African American churches, when we begin to address the local needs of those coming out of jail and reentering society, when we welcome with open arms our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. When we take on the often painful demand of Jesus to examine ourselves as individuals and as a congregation as to where in the caste hierarchy we find ourselves and then to live accordingly. 

You see the church doesn’t need a bastion devoted to keeping the wrong people outside. It needs a family of huge hearted sinners who are committed to throwing open wide the doors and proclaiming, there is food here. Spiritual food and bread and wine, come and eat no matter who you are or what caste you find yourself in. The church needs a beggars banquet mentality. A second conversion character. One that, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.”  This is it a kingdom for the hungry. Let us reflect on that in our hearts as we come to the Lord’s banqueting table this morning. 

Disability and Healing: A Sermon for Proper 16C, 2022

This past week, I read Amy Kenny’s My Body is not a prayer request: Disability Justice in the Church. Kenny is disabled and writes passionately and with humor about her experience with the medical establishment, with Christians. She also calls for a rethinking, not just of architecture and attitudes, but of our theology and language of worship, urging us not just to accommodate the needs of disabled people but to incorporate them fully in the life of the church and of society. 

I was reading it at the same time that I was hearing criticism of current attitudes toward COVID restrictions—knowing that many people are living with conditions that make them especially vulnerable and that by demanding a return to normalcy, we are relegating them to live in constant fear or in isolation. At the same time, I read about cases in Canada, where medically assisted suicide is now legal, that doctors and medical personnel have encouraged some disabled people to undergo suicide because they were burdens to the medical system, or in one case, there was no adequate housing available for the person in question.

For Kenny, one of the great challenges in her life is how people respond to her disability. Each chapter concludes with a list of remarks people have made to her. Among them: “At least you’ll be running in heaven”

Or among the top ten reasons she is disabled:

“God needed a special angel” or

“You’ve given up hope.” Or

“You need to have a little more faith.”

Kenny and other disability advocates challenge us to work toward a world, spaces, society which are fully inclusive of all people. We are being challenged to rethink our assumptions, to reorient our perspectives, and to rebuild our spaces.

Such challenges cut to the very heart of our assumptions about scripture and faith. For example, the healing stories in the gospels are easily read in light of those assumptions. For example, in today’s reading, it’s easy to interpret this as simply another one of those demonstrations of Jesus’ compassion and divine power, healing a woman who had been disabled for eighteen years.

But it is a much more complex story than that.

But wait, that’s not quite the story Luke tells. First of all, the woman. Luke doesn’t tell us why she came to the synagogue. What he doesn’t say is that she came because Jesus was there, that she was hoping Jesus would heal her, that she asked Jesus to heal her. In fact, she doesn’t say anything to Jesus, she doesn’t touch his garment; she doesn’t disrupt the service. It’s Jesus who notices her and stops what he’s doing to heal her. Moreover, Luke says nothing about her faith, that it was faith in Jesus that brought her to the synagogue, or that she came to faith because of the healing. All he says is that after she’s healed, she praises God.

And before we succumb too quickly to the Jesus against Judaism trope, remember where this is taking place, in a synagogue, on the Sabbath. In fact, it’s the third time Luke places Jesus in a synagogue on the Sabbath. More importantly perhaps, all three times Luke tells us that Jesus was teaching in it. In other words, it’s not just that Jesus behaved like a good Jew by going to the synagogue on the Sabbath. He was seen in all three locations as an authority on scripture, on the law, and was asked to teach, or preach, if you’d rather. He was interpreting Torah, interpreting the law to the assembled congregation. So for him to interrupt his teaching and train of thought, to notice a woman coming in, for him to stop everything and heal her is quite a big deal.

Then there’s the woman herself. What brought her to the synagogue that day? Was it her custom? Was it desperation? What was her life like? For eighteen years she had been bent over, more literally the text could read, as the KJV does, “bowed together,” unable to straighten herself out. For eighteen years, her eyes were on the ground as she walked. She could not see the faces of anyone. She hadn’t felt the warmth of the sun on her cheeks; she hadn’t been able to look at the sky, or the horizon. Her world had narrowed to the few square feet directly in front of her.

What did she do when she was healed? She stretches out to her full stature. What must that have felt like? Can you imagine the sudden freedom? The new perspective on the world? What is her immediate response? She praises God—by the way, that was something that was typically done standing up, arms outstretched to the sky. Had the fact that her body forced her almost into a prostrate position kept her soul from glorifying God, from lifting itself up to God in praise? 

There’s something else in the story that’s curious. After the healing, the focus shifts to a dialogue between the Synagogue ruler and Jesus. The ruler criticizes Jesus for healing on the Sabbath but his criticism isn’t primarily directed at the question of its legality. Rather, he seems focused on Jesus breaking another rule—people come to the synagogue for healing on the other six days of the week. The ruler wants to keep it that way. Sabbath in the synagogue is not for healing but for other things.

So there’s a lot going on in this little healing story and there’s much we could say about it. But I want to focus on one thing in particular. In the ancient illness, disability was often understood to be the result of something—of sin. So in John 9, when Jesus and his disciples encounter the man born blind, his disciples ask him, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Illness or disability reflected a disordered person, a disordered soul. In this story, both Luke and Luke’s Jesus take care to emphasize that the woman’s condition is not because of sinfulness, not caused by something she has done or who she is, but that it comes from outside of her, from Satan or an evil spirit.

Just as the ancient world understood illness in a particular way, it also understood wellness, or healing very differently than we do. The word for healing, for wholeness, was the same word as that translated as salvation—so physical healing was tied up with spiritual healing, the healing of the whole person, and the restoration of that person into community. Healing, and wholeness does not necessarily mean the end of a physical or mental disability, but rather wholeness or healing of one’s relationship with God, and inclusion in community.

One thing Kenny points out in scripture that I had never noticed before was that there are repeated references to the inclusion of lame people in the vision of the kingdom or reign of God.  So, for example, in the very next chapter of Luke, Jesus says: 

But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14And you will be blessed, 

I’m grateful that the leaders of Grace had the vision nearly thirty-five years ago to install an elevator, in order to make our spaces more accessible. I’m grateful that we installed a hearing loop to make our services more accessible to those with hearing challenges. I’m grateful that the pandemic forced us to explore new technologies so that our services are available, usually, to people who find it difficult to come to church. 

Such measures are not accommodations, but the bare minimum. There’s more to do, however. We need to rethink our attitudes, even our theology, to understand that all human beings bear God’s image, no matter what they look like, no matter what their physical or mental challenges might be. We also need to recognize and embrace the reality that people who are disabled are beloved of God and our siblings in Christ. 

I’m reminded that the risen Christ bore on his body the marks of his crucifixion. For my old friend St. Augustine, that was a sign that in the general resurrection, when we are finally in God’s presence, we may continue to carry on us and in us signs of our physical challenges, that our bodies would not be made perfect according to some cultural ideal of beauty, that we would not all look the same, but that we would continue to carry on us signs of those infirmities, even though we would no longer be suffering bodily from those infirmities or disabilities.

As we continue to work toward full inclusion of all those who come to us, as we advocate for a society that embraces all humans in all of their fullness, diversity, and disability, may we also look to Christ, who offers us healing and compassion, and who gives us hope and wholeness, even when our bodies remain broken.

Strangers and Foreigners: A Sermon for Proper 14C, 2022

Proper 14C

August 7, 2022

A few weeks ago, one of my cousins posted on facebook a copy of the deed to the land my great-great-great grandfather Christian Beck purchased in 1835 in Northwestern Ohio.

If I had seen it a few years ago, I would have thought, how cool! But as I’ve immersed myself in Native American history and learned more about the forced removal and genocide of Native Americans—the Potawatomie who had lived on that land had been forcibly removed west only a few years earlier—the deed was a reminder of all that history and of all the ways my ancestors, who had come to America in search of a better life, and in their case, freedom to worship and express their faith as a dissident religious community, were bound up in that larger story of dispossession and genocide.

That story, America’s story, my story, is tied up in notions of American exceptionalism and the doctrine of discovery—the idea that European settlers could claim as their own property land on which native peoples had lived for millennia. But that story is also tied up with the biblical story in so many ways, perhaps most notably in the story retold and interpreted in our reading from the letter to the Hebrews.

Well, it’s not really a letter. It’s more of a sermon than a letter. It doesn’t have any of the characteristics of a piece of correspondence. There’s no back and forth. There is no conversation between the author and their audience; no questions asked or answered. We don’t know who wrote it—the attribution to Paul is ancient but his name does not appear in the text. We do not know when it was written, probably around the year 100. We don’t know who the intended audience was.

Nonetheless, it’s a fascinating, powerful, and beautifully written text. We encounter it at various points in the three-year lectionary cycle. Much of the first half of the book was read last year, in October and November. And now we return to it for a few weeks. 

Our reading today is extracted from the 11th chapter. To this point, the author has been laying out their understanding of Christ, using imagery from the Jewish Temple and Jewish sacrifice to contrast those traditions with Jesus Christ, who is the Great High Priest and whose sacrifice on the cross both fulfilled and brought to an end the need for animal sacrifice. 

Now the author switches gears. Chapter 11 is an explication of faith, and provides litany of the heroes of the faith; of which the verses concerning Abraham that we read are a part:

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for; the conviction of things not seen.” It might seem that the author is setting up the familiar dichotomy to us—faith against science, faith against reason, faith against facts. But that’s not the case. David Bentley Hart translates this verse as “Now faithfulness is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of unseen realities.”

In other words, by using “substance” Hart is stressing that it is real, tangible, objective over against something that isn’t real. But there’s something else to note in Hart’s translation; he uses the word faithfulness, rather than faith. We tend to think of faith as something static. We either have it or we don’t. But it’s not. It’s about relationship, about process.

It’s not about whether we can say the words of the Nicene Creed without stumbling, or without crossing our fingers behind our back. It’s about trusting in God and centering ourselves in God even when we’re not certain that God is there.

We’re given examples of faith to guide us in what follows. The author takes us on a journey through the great heroes of faith, citing the examples of Abel, Enoch, and Noah, before coming to the greatest exemplar of biblical faith: Abraham. By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents.”

In fact, Abraham died without God’s promise to him having been fulfilled. At his death, he had one son, Isaac, and the only land he actually possessed was the land he purchased for his wife Sarah’s burial place. He died, as the author of Hebrews writes, All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, … But as it is, they desire a better country, that is a heavenly one.”

Strangers and foreigners.

The author of this text is writing to a community that is profoundly not at home in its environment. Confessing Jesus Christ as Lord in the first and second centuries meant going against the ideology and culture of the Roman Empire. The cities in which they lived were expressions of that ideology, of Roman power and prestige. It was unescapable, part of everyday life. But our author reminds them of their true citizenship in the city of God.

Strangers, foreigners. It may be hard for us to think of ourselves that way. Certainly in this time when Christian Nationalism runs rampant through our culture. It’s difficult to imagine a Christian faith untethered to the language and symbolism of American exceptionalism.

 Of course, we may feel estranged from all of that. To watch our rights being eroded; the end of Roe, the attacks on our political institutions may leave us profoundly alienated and disoriented. And that so much of it is being done in the name of Christianity may anger and frighten us. It may even make us uncomfortable identifying as Christian or confessing our faith publicly. And yet even in our discomfort we may be reminded that “the we” I am using is made up of people of different races and ethnicities, different places of origin, different sexual and gender identities. 

This past couple of weeks, the bishops of the Anglican Communion have been meeting; for the first time in fourteen years. A gathering that was supposed to take place every ten years was delayed, first by internal division within the communion, then by COVID. Disagreement over sexuality and same sex marriage received much of the press and threatened to disrupt the gathering.  Beneath that noise were days of relationship-building among bishops and their spouses from across the globe. My social media feeds were filled with photos and comments about those relationships, being built and strengthened across great cultural divides, united by and in Christ. A reminder that our identity as Anglicans, as Episcopalian Christians, is not just about the people next to us in the pews or others in the Episcopal Church, but that we are part of a church with members across the globe. Indeed, we are strangers and foreigners here.

We may even, at times, feel alienated from God, strangers and foreigners wandering far from home with no map or road to follow. We may not feel at home in our bodies or our skin. The faith of Abraham may seem an unattainable goal. But God does not abandon us when we feel lost and alone. There may be signs of God’s presence in the wilderness or the foreign land, signs that God is with us, caring for us, carrying us, leading us toward that city where justice and peace reign.

We are bold to say: A sermon for Proper 12C, 2022

We are bold to say

Proper 12C

July 24, 2022

Lord, teach us to pray.

There’s something powerful, something even sad, about the plea we hear in today’s gospel reading. Powerful, because the request of one of Jesus’ disciples is something most of us could imagine asking. How many of us really think we get the whole prayer thing?

But sad, too, because we would like to think that Jesus’ disciples, his closest friends and companions, would have this prayer thing figured out. Or at least, that Jesus would have taught them to pray earlier in their time together. I mean, what were they all doing all those weeks and months together?

Lord, teach us to pray. As Anglicans, Episcopalians we have a treasured resource in the Book of Common Prayer—prayers written by faithful Christians over the centuries, many of them whose roots go back more than a 1000 years. Even I, someone who has been using the BCP for upwards of thirty years, even I am occasionally surprised by the power of a collect I may have prayed 100 or 1000 times. There are some that I find difficult to pray aloud without my voice catching.

But such prayers can also become rote, so familiar that we barely notice the words as we say them, we never think twice about them, never consider their meaning. 

It’s also true that the Book of Common Prayer can become a crutch> It can help us by offering words and images that ring true when we can’t speak for ourselves. But it can also prevent us from developing the habits and becoming comfortable with speaking to God with words from our hearts, expressing our authentic selves to the one who created and redeemed us.

In the Gospel of Luke, we see Jesus praying often. He prays as he comes from his baptism. He prays at other significant moments, perhaps most famously, in the Garden of Gethsemane, as he faces his coming crucifixion and death. Sometimes, he goes off by himself to pray as he does in today’s gospel reading. 

The disciples had seen all this, and they also knew that John the Baptizer had given his disciples instructions in prayer, so one of them asked Jesus to teach them as well. Perhaps the disciple asking had also noticed the intimate relationship Jesus had with his Father and sought a deeper, more intimate relationship with God as well. 

“We are bold to say… Those are the words that introduce the Lord’s Prayer in our worship. Have you ever thought about them? Is it bold, courageous to pray in the words Jesus taught us? Or is it bold to say, “Our Father”?

, “Our Father.” For many of us in the 21st century, to address God as Father is deeply problematic as it plays into gender hierarchies and the patriarchy, and for those of us with complicated relationships with our fathers, to refer to God as Father may be more stumbling block than life-giving. Still, it’s important to underscore the positive meaning of this address. To call God “Father” is to emphasize the relationship between us and God; at best, as we see in Jesus’ later reference to how a father should behave in response to a child’s request, such relationships are grounded in love, and yes, dependency.

To call God Father was not a revolutionary act by Jesus, there are places in Jewish scripture where God is so addressed, and we know it also from extra-biblical sources. Still, there seems to have been an intense intimacy in Jesus’ address and experience of God as Father; perhaps best expressed in the Aramaic word we know Jesus used, “Abba” was a word that was remembered and used by early Christians who spoke no Aramaic. Paul tells us, for example, that early Christians in the Gentile, Greek-speaking comunities to which he wrote letters, prayed to “Abba,” Father.

I doubt very much whether many of us, when we begin saying the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father”—think or experience such intimacy, but it may be that the cultivation of a deeper and richer prayer life begins by opening ourselves and our hearts to deeper intimacy with God. 

There’s something more here. Jesus begins, “Our Father” not “My Father”—Prayer, the Lord’s prayer is predicated on intimacy and relationship, not just with God, but with a community at prayer. We pray together; not only when we gather for the Eucharist and say the words of the Lord’s prayer together but even if we pray these words alone, we are praying them with all those Christians throughout the world and throughout history who have prayed and are praying them. 

Prayer is about relationship—with God and with others. We see that in Jesus’ follow-up to the Lord’s Prayer. The brief parable about the one who asks for bread, and the familiar sayings, “Ask, seek, knock” are often interpreted as how-to’s or as encouragement to persistence. If you pray long enough and hard enough, eventually, your prayer will be answered.

But I don’t think that’s what’s intended here. Think again about the first story. You go to a neighbor to ask for bread late at night because an unexpected visitor has arrived. He’s in bed, he doesn’t want to bothered but nonetheless he relents. The word translated here as persistence might better be translated as shameless. In other words, you go to your neighbor for help, openly, humbly, admitting your need, relying on that friendship. 

At our 10:00 service, we will be baptizing Magdalen, Mage. Like all babies, she is utterly dependent on her parents, on their love and care for her. Today, we are also widening that web of relationships in which she is nurtured, bringing her into the body of Christ, naming her as Christ’s own forever. We hope that as she grows and matures, she will also experience deep relationship with God. 

We may sometimes feel like babies when we think about our relationship with God. We may feel inadequate to express ourselves to God, unable to find the words, unable even to say “Our Father.” There may be times that intimate relationship with God seems impossible. Our needs so great, our faith faltering, that words simply do not come.

But even then, in those dark moments, when God may seem distant when words fail, prayer may become the silent cry of anguish. It’s worth remembering that Jesus prayed in Gethsemane; that he even prayed on the cross.

There’s a lovely progression in this passage. Beginning with deep intimacy, “Our Father” the Lord’s prayer quickly moves to a reminder of God’s wholly otherness—your name be holy or hallowed. In Judaism, of course, God’s name cannot be spoken, cannot even be written. 

And then we are given images of child asking his parent for bread; From transcendence to immediacy; from distance to intimacy. We are free to approach God as a child approaches her parent, spontaneously, intimately, expressing our needs and our dependence, confident of God’s love. 

Whether we pray with words or wordlessly, whether the Lord’s Prayer speaks for us or not, may we find ways in prayer to deepen our intimacy with God, and may we be bold to express our needs to God, approaching God as a child approaches her loving parent.

A brief recap of General Convention

The General Convention of the Episcopal Church met this past week. General Convention is the Episcopal Church’s governing body. It decides our worship (the Book of Common Prayer), our constitution and canons, and the church’s budget. It consists of two houses: the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies. Each diocese elects four clergy and four laypeople as deputies. Resolutions need to be passed by both houses to take effect. 

Delayed a year by COVID, its usual 8-day gathering was reduced to four days with many meetings and hearings occurring virtually before the in-person meeting. I’ve probably been paying attention in some fashion to General Convention since 2000 and followed it closely from 2003-2018, first via various usenet groups and then with the advent of social media, Twitter. Over those fifteen years, a total of six conventions, the dominant issue was the full inclusion of LGBTQ+ people, beginning with the confirmation of the election of Gene Robinson as the first openly gay bishop in a committed relationship. That unleashed more than a decade of conflict internally and with the larger Anglican Communion; giving rise to the splinter denomination the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) and court disputes that are still being resolved in 2022. 

In contrast to the Sturm and Drang of past General Conventions, the lead up to this year’s was filled with anxiety about COVID and discussions about liturgical revision. The issue that received the most ink and social media attention in the weeks preceding the in-person gathering was a resolution to permit “Communion without Baptism.” In spite of the widespread conversation, the resolution didn’t make it out of committee, so it wasn’t voted on by the House of Deputies.

Perhaps the issue with the greatest significance for local congregations addressed at General Convention was that of Prayer Book revision or liturgical change. The Book of Common Prayer was last revised in 1979. Since then, a number of alternative forms of worship have been approved for trial use. In 2018, the Marriage Rite was significantly altered to adapt to the blessing of same sex marriage and expansive language versions of the Eucharistic Prayers A, B, and D of Rite II were authorized for trial use. But this piecemeal approach to liturgical revision came under attack from those who advocated for a full-scale revision of the Book of Common Prayer. 

This past week, after much discussion and debate, resolution A059 was passed that lays out a process for revision of the prayer book. Because the process will require constitutional changes (that need to be passed by two successive Conventions), the process foreseen is a lengthy one. After the constitutional changes are passed and the necessary canonical changes made in 2024, trial liturgies will be prepared that will be approved in 2027 for use in local congregations for the next three years. Only then would a new Book of Common Prayer be approved for general use. It’s a complicated process. If you want to learn more, there’s a helpful article at Earth and Altar.

On a side note, new versions of Eucharistic Prayer C were also approved for trial use. As soon as they are made available, we will begin using one of the new versions at our 10:00 service to replace the Book of Common Prayer version.

On the last day of convention, the House of Bishops published a “Mind of the House” statement on “Climate and our Vocation in Christ.” It’s well worth a read and should spur us to action on behalf of the planet and future generations of all living things.  p

Neighbors and Ditches: A Sermon for Proper 10C, 2022

One of the few positive developments in our lives over the last two plus years is that Corrie and I have gotten to know some of our neighbors much better. It began with little things as a couple of our neighbors would reach out to us when they were going to the grocery store. Over time, we began mail-ordering certain exotic gourmet products together and have impromptu gatherings on the sidewalk. We have a chat group that discusses food, wine, restaurant recommendations, and waxes nostalgic over Boston in the 80s. We’ve gathered for drinks and helped out during illness.

Of course, it’s fairly easy for us. We live in a neighborhood where everyone pretty much looks like us—a few African-American families and singles live nearby but the overwhelming majority are white and well-off and were not terribly inconvenienced by lock-downs or unemployment. And the relationships we’ve forged over the last few years cannot mask the reality of the deep divisions in our city, state, and nation

Grace’s anti-racism group, Creating More Just Community, will be discussing articles this coming week that point out cities like Madison, with large universities, have deeper racial inequities than other cities of the same size. That group started in response to learning about the deep inequities in Madison and Dane County, now almost a decade ago, and in that time, in spite of the work and advocacy of many in our community, little has changed.

On Thursday as I was walking around the square, I encountered an old friend for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic. Joe is my shoe-shine guy. He’s an African-American who sets up on the square when he can, shining shoes out of a little box he carries around. Over the years, I’ll arrange with him a time when he can come by the church and shine all of my shoes. We’ve gotten to know each other a bit. I’ve helped him out from time to time, especially buying bus tickets so he can go to Chicago and visit family or attend family reunions.

I’d been wondering about him and was delighted to see him again and to catch up and yes, I promised to buy him a bus ticket so he could go down for his first family reunion since the pandemic. He’s a neighbor in more ways than one—he lives in the Allied Drive neighborhood, which I often bike through on my way out the Badger State or Military Ridge trails.

Who is my neighbor? This week I’ve also been working on land acknowledgement for both the diocese and for Grace Church. Our neighbors are also our displaced or invisible neighbors; those whose land was seized and who were forced to relocate as white settlers advanced. They are among us, but often invisible, or noticeable only for the traces left behind—here the effigy mounds, for example. Their erasure, from our history, from our consciousness helps us claim innocence of the great evils perpetrated on them in the past and present, and the generational trauma that they continue to suffer.

Who is my neighbor? This is the question the young lawyer asks of Jesus in the course of their conversation. 

Jesus tells the parable in the context of a conversation, a debate really with a lawyer who approaches him to ask “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Now Luke tells us that he asked this to “test” Jesus, but we should be a bit skeptical about thinking that he is trying to trap or outdo Jesus. He addresses him respectfully, calling him “Teacher,” Rabbi, which offers a clue that this is the sort of conversation that could take place among devout Jews throughout the first-century world. It was conversations like this, over interpretation of Torah, that would be later compiled beginning in the second century, into the Talmud. And of the they were conversations very much like this one about the meaning and application law, the Torah.

While many commentators begin their criticism of the lawyer with the question he asked, it seems not to have bothered Jesus. His response was, “What does Torah say?” The lawyer responds “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your strength, with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus praises his answer, “Do this and you will live.” It’s one of the few times in any of the gospels where Jesus praises the words of a member of the religious establishment. 

But let’s be honest, there’s at least one ambiguous term here, neighbor, and the lawyer, being a lawyer, probes for clarification, “And who is my neighbor?”

That’s the question, isn’t it?  We have an inkling what it might mean to love the Lord our God with all our heart and all our soul and all our mind, even if we know we cannot, in this life, ever really do it. And loving our neighbor as ourself. To love others as much as we love ourselves? Well, our family members perhaps, but our next door neighbors? Does that extend to the guys across the street or the ones over in the next block who are inclined to sit outside well into the night and play loud music? Let’s be frank, in my neighborhood, we pretty much all look the same, all come from the same socio-economic background, I hope I can at least tolerate them, but love them? And it only takes something like the controversy over the Edgewood stadium to show how fragile our community and sense of neighborliness are.

So the lawyer asks, “Who is my neighbor?” Only now does Jesus tell the story, and if you think carefully about it, it doesn’t really answer the lawyer’s question. Even Jesus’ question to the lawyer at the end, seems somewhat off-topic, “Which of these three was neighbor to the man who fell among robbers?” Off-topic, because it requires an imaginative leap. The lawyer was hoping that Jesus would define the limits of the category “neighbor.” Instead, Jesus’ story exploded those limits and the category.

You know that Samaritans were reviled by first-century Jews and that the feeling was at least somewhat reciprocated. There was a set of complicated reasons for this, partly religious, partly ethnic. Samaritans regarded only Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, as authoritative, the Word of God. They had a built a temple on Mt. Gerazim, outside of Jerusalem, in competition with the Temple in Jerusalem. They were suspected to be the result of intermarriage between Jews and non-Jewish populations. Jews regarded them as impure and unclean, as heretics. Interaction with them made Jews ritually impure. 

But the story is not about a Samaritan falling into a ditch and being helped by a good Jew. The story is about a man (whose religious and ethnic identity is not specified) who is robbed, beaten, and thrown in a ditch. He lies there suffering while two representatives of the Jewish religious establishment pass by. He lies there suffering. Does he even hear them as they walk by? Has he abandoned hope? Can he cry for help, even moan in pain? He lies there and a Samaritan comes to his aid, binds his wounds, takes him to an inn, and pays for his care. We can be certain that he welcomed the Samaritan’s actions; we can’t be certain how he would have perceived the Samaritan had they encountered each other in different circumstances. 

The lawyer, too, gets the point of the story. Who was neighbor to the man who fell among thieves? The one who showed mercy. The priest and levite walked by. They saw the man and did nothing. The Samaritan came by and he sees, too. But he also takes action. He is moved with pity, a phrase that’s used only two other times in the Gospel of Luke, once of Jesus when he meets the woman grieving the death of her son, and once in the parable of the Prodigal Son, to describe the father’s response on seeing his son return. 

Where do we locate ourselves in this parable? We want to be the Good Samaritan, moved with pity, who shows mercy. Too often, of course, we are the priest or levite, to busy going about our business to take notice of someone in need. Perhaps even more, especially now, in the face of all the injustice, hate, and evil that unfolds before us, we feel impotent or perhaps have grown callous, averting our eyes to the suffering and dehumanization of others. 

But what if, sometimes, we are the one in the ditch, stripped, robbed, and left for dead? And what if, at that moment, Jesus comes to us in the guise of someone we hate because of  the color of their skin, their sexuality, their ethnic or national background, immigration status? 

Jesus, the victim, lies in the ditch. He lies alongside homeless people, refugees, victims of gun violence.  Jesus is also walking down the road to Jericho. Jesus the physician is moved with pity and offers mercy. Jesus reaches out his hand and breaks down every barrier that divides us—barriers of ethnicity and nationality, barriers of gender and sexuality, and yes, even political difference. He breaks down those barriers, reaches his arms across those walls, and brings us together into one fellowship. May we have the strength and courage to join him, in the ditch, alongside the victims, and on the road, moved with pity, and offering mercy.

Freedom, chains, or life among the tombs

Proper 7C

June 19, 2022

Today is Juneteenth, a brand-new federal holiday celebrating the end of chattel slavery in the US. It has its origins in Texas, where African-Americans have observed it off and on since that first June 19th, 1865, when two months after Lee surrendered at Appomattox, confederate forces in Texas finally surrendered, and General Granger of the Union Army issued the order enforcing emancipation in Texas. It is a day for us both to celebrate the end of the evil of slavery but also to take note of all the ways that slavery has shaped the United States and its legacy continues to burden us more than 150 years later. 

It is a celebration of freedom, a celebration of our nation coming to understand that the lofty values expressed in the Declaration of Independence extended beyond the rights of white men, to include ultimately all people, men and women, black and white. But to observe Juneteenth means that we also have to recognize and lament all of the ways we have failed to live up to those expanding values. As Clint Smith eloquently writes in the chapter on Galveston in his book How the Word is Passed, slavery didn’t end in Texas on June 19, 1865. Slaveholders continued to enslave people for years after. 

In her extended meditation, On Juneteenth, Annette Gordon-Reed reflects on how our history and especially the history of her homestate of Texas, is shaped by mythologies and mythological figures—the cowboy, the oilman—while erasing other figures and realities, like the fact that slavery drove the Texan fight for independence from Mexico and the importance of slavery and the slave economy to the state. 

Even as we mark this occasion, our hearts also go out to our Episcopalian siblings at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Vestavia Hills, AL, where another shooting took place at a potluck gathering Thursday evening. It reminds us that there is no place in our nation, no person in our nation who is safe from the violence perpetrated with guns and that our nation remains deeply beholden to the myth of redemptive violence and the worship of guns. 

All this of course against the backdrop of the January 6 hearings as we learn more and more about the dangers faced by our democracy on that day, and the ongoing threat to democracy posed by many of those same actors. We know more now as well about the many ways Christian nationalism is intertwined with the ideology of the groups supporting that insurrection.

These evils, these demonic forces hold us in their grip, bind us, and even when we seem to break free and allow us to imagine a future of freedom, of justice and equality, we often creep back to the comfort of the chains that limit us, keep us and others in bondage.

In today’s gospel reading we hear one of the most fascinating and rich stories in the gospels. It is by far the longest of the many stories telling of Jesus’ encounters with demonic powers and forces. The rich details we are presented encourage us to think of the action taking place on several levels: the individual, the man possessed by Legion; the social and communal; the political and imperial, and, of course, most importantly the cosmic.

First of all, geography. I have repeatedly stressed the importance of paying attention to geography in the gospels, and especially in Luke. With his two-part work of Luke and Acts that tells the story of the move of the gospel from Galilee, to Jerusalem, to the world, this incident is the only time in Luke that Jesus enters Gentile territory, crossing the Sea of Galilee to the territory of the Gerasenes.

Second, there’s the demoniac. His description, naked, living among the tombs, is the description of someone who has lost his identity. He has no home, no family, no place in society. He might as well be dead, which may be one reason he’s living among the tombs.

The third thing I want to point out has to do with the demons and the herd of swine. When Jesus asks the demon for its name, they reply, “Legion, for we are many.” Fearful that Jesus might return them to the abyss, which in the ancient world was the dwelling place of demons, they ask him to cast them into a nearby herd of pigs, and promptly stampede into the sea to perish. The name Legion brings to mind the Roman army and while it’s likely that we are meant to think that there are as many demons as soldiers in a legion (6000), it’s also possible that the story as a whole is meant to convey a confrontation between Jesus and the Roman Empire. Coincidentally, one of the legions stationed in Palestine had as its figurehead a boar, and more generally, a fertile sow was one of the ancient symbols of Rome. So while Jesus is confronting the powers of the demonic, he is also confronting imperial power in this story.

The story ends in an odd fashion, completely consistent with its overall strangeness. The man is restored to his senses Luke describes him sitting at Jesus’ feet, clothed and in his right mind. When the people see him healed, they are fearful and beg Jesus to leave them. He does so, returning by boat with his disciples to Galilee. But before he departs, the healed man begs Jesus to allow him to come along. Jesus tells him no, instead, he should proclaim what God had done for him, so the man returns to his home, “proclaiming throughout the city all that Jesus had done.”

There is a great deal that is intriguing in this story, but what I’m most struck by this week is the fear of the city’s residents. They see the demoniac clothed, in his right mind, and sitting at Jesus’ feet, and they are afraid. Now many commentators will say that their fear was caused by the news of the pigs being drowned in the sea, or by the possibility that their economic livelihood was at stake if Jesus continued to perform such mighty acts among them. I’m not so sure.

Jesus is a foreigner here, an outsider. He comes for no apparent reason, or perhaps only for this reason, to encounter this man who was possessed by demons. He heals him, restores him to his senses and to his community and in so doing he isn’t threatening a way of life or economic well=-being, he is threatening the very order of the universe. He demonstrates his power over the forces of evil, demonstrates that many of the assumptions the inhabitants of this place held dear, can no longer be taken for granted. If the demons obey him, what else might he be capable of? What other trouble might he stir up?

Now the story begins to challenge us and our assumptions. As hard as it may be for us to believe that Jesus cast out demons, it may be even harder for us to believe that Jesus Christ continues to work in that way in the world today. It’s almost unimaginable to us that the reign of God, proclaimed by Jesus Christ nearly two thousand years ago and demonstrated with his mighty acts, may be in our midst already. It’s hard to believe that our faith, our community can work miracles like Jesus did; that we have power over the forces of evil in the world; that we can restore people to their right minds.

In fact, of the characters in this story we’re more like the Gerasenes than the possessed man. We’re more like those people who saw evidence of Jesus’ power and proclamation, grew fearful, and asked him to leave their country. It’s likely that we’re more comfortable in the place we are, whether as individuals or as a congregation, than we would welcome the frightening, world-changing power of Jesus Christ in our midst. 

We can’t imagine that we might be freed of the demons that possess us—the demons of white supremacy, gun violence. We look around in despair at the world’s situation and watch as the fears of a different future cause reactions that seek answers in the past, try to turn back the movement toward greater gender and racial equality, diversity, LGBTQ inclusion.

We are living among the tombs. We are surrounded by the monuments previous generations built for themselves, not just buildings of course, but a culture and society that privileged the few, stealing their lives, their land, their futures. Now we are in the same place, with our actions and inaction, condemning future generations to live on a globe transformed b climate catastrophe. 

Jesus comes to us, comes among us, and offers us new life, the vision of a way forward into the future. Will we risk following him into the unknown, with no signposts to lead us forward? Will we risk the possibility that as we follow him into the future, we will experience new forms of life, new ways of being, encounters with all sorts and conditions of people? Or will we ask him to leave us alone, so we can continue to live among the tombs?

The Dance of Love: A sermon for Trinity Sunday, 2022

Trinity Sunday

June 12, 2022

Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty …

God in three persons, blessed Trinity

Our opening hymn this morning was probably familiar to most of you. What you may not have noticed, or perhaps paid attention to, was the closing line of the first and last verses. 

Today is Trinity Sunday—the only Sunday in the liturgical year devoted to a theological doctrine, a central tenet of our faith, rather than on Jesus: his person, or on his ministry. 

I have a sense that for most of us, the Trinity is not something we spend much time thinking about. We may sing about it in hymns like “Holy, holy, holy,” we may confess our faith in it using the the words of the Nicene Creed, but I doubt many of us lose sleep wondering about the relationships among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; how they might be equal yet different, united in the Godhead. We don’t worry whether the Son was only-begotten, or as our Eucharistic Prayer B says (quoting the letter to the Colossians) the first-born of all creation…

That wasn’t alwaysthe case in the History of Christianity. In the first centuries of our tradition, debates over the relationship between Father and Son, and the Trinity were intense and had ramifications that played out in the sphere of politics. These doctrines were things that ordinary people debated and cared deeply about. 

I like to cite an early Church father Gregory of Nyssa, who lived through, and participated in, the dramatic controversies over the Trinity in the fourth century. He described life in Constantinople during one period of the conflict in the following terms:

If in this city you ask anyone for change, he will discuss with you whether the Son is begotten or unbegotten. If you ask about the quality of bread, you will receive the answer that ‘the Father is greater, the Son is less.’ If you suggest that a bath is desirable, you will be told that ‘there was nothing before the son was created.

Imagine getting into your Uber and immediately being confronted with questions about Christology and the Trinity. To be honest, that’s happened to me, but only after being identified as a priest…

I’m not going to rehearse any of those debates, nor am I going to go back through old files and resurrect lectures I used to give on the trinitarian controversies. Instead, I would like to focus on two key elements about the trinity that speak directly to the nature of God, and how God relates to us and to the created world.

The first is that at the heart of God is community—relationship. When St. Augustine was working through the doctrine of the Trinity in his great treatise “On the Trinity” one of the first images he grasped for to explain it was this. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are like love: The Lover, the Beloved, and the Love that binds them together. While he quickly rejects that image as inadequate, I think it says something important about the nature of God and of the Trinity. At the heart of God is love, relationship; love flowing out of Godself into the world, to us.

One way we see and experience that love is in the fact that God’s love flowed outward, creating the universe and us; and even after we rejected or turned away from God, God’s love continues to flow outward, reaching out to us in the form of his son our savior.

I want us to think about God’s creativity in another way. We see that creativity at work and at play in today’s reading from Proverbs. The reading from Proverbs is a poem of Wisdom. Wisdom, personified here as female is speaking:

“Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice?

“On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries out.”

We may find it hard to imagine Lady Wisdom taking her stand at the crossroads, beside the gates of the town. Such imagery may bring to mind the sort of protests of which we are familiar around here, but that’s a little misleading. In the biblical tradition, the city gates or portal was the place where justice was meted out; where injustice was decried and people who had been wronged received their due. The crossroads or marketplace was a place where ideas were exchanged, decisions affecting the community decided. So here, Lady Wisdom is proclaiming her role in creating community. She speaks from the centers of human life, from and about economic and social relationships. 

But Wisdom isn’t just present in human society. She also is present in God, at the creation. She reminds us that it was through wisdom, in wisdom, that God created the universe. She helped to give it order:

 “When he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker, and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.”

Here, wisdom describes herself as the master workman, and in the reading we get a strong sense of Wisdom participating in creation in some way, helping plan it or at least observing it. But, wait. That word that’s translated as master worker? It might instead mean nursling, little child. What a different sense we would get from the reading.

“When he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was with him, like a little child, I was his delight, rejoicing before him always, and delighting in the human race.”

I love that dual image, of Wisdom as a master worker, wisdom as a little child. I especially love that last verse, I was his delight, rejoicing before him always, and delighting in the human race.”

Delight, play. There’s a term in Greek orthodox theology that became quite fashionably in the west in the late twentieth century that captures something of this play and delight. The term is “perichoresis” literally, co-indwelling of the three persons of the Trinity, that they occupy the same space, if you will. It’s also translated as, or understood as, a divine dance: three persons moving rhythmically and dynamically, distinct and yet united in a shared dance of love.

Isn’t that a marvelous image? That at the heart of the Trinity, at the heart of God is three persons united in a wild dance of love?

For St. Augustine, one of the key things about the Trinity was how it helped us understand ourselves as human. If we are created in God’s image, then our being, our nature, reflects the trinity, in all of its creativity, its need for relationship. To think about ourselves that way invites us to imagine ourselves not as independent beings but as beings created in and for relationship, with each other and with God. And what is the nature of the relationship for which we are created? A dance of love.

There’s much more that might be said about all of this and I will admit to you that the idea of Trinitarian perichoresis as “dance” has been challenged by a number of theologians in the last couple of decades but I do think it can help us think creatively about God, ourselves, and our life in community.

As we struggle to make sense of the world, as we are confronted by all of the world’s challenges and take up the challenge to follow Jesus in these difficult times, it’s important not to lose sight of God’s playfulness and creativity, and the invitation the Trinity offers us to play, and love, and dance. 

Preaching a gospel of inclusion in a world overwhelmed by hate and fear: A sermon for 5 Easter C, 2022

On Thursday morning, I remarked to Parish Administrator, Christina, how strange and wonderful it felt to have other people in the offices. JF was working away on various projects in his office, and our new Communications Coordinator, George Decker, was at work in his. It’s been a long time since we’ve had that many staff in place. As we begin to build relationships and establish camaraderie, there’s the excitement that new things are bubbling up, new opportunities, new life. 

Thursday was also probably the best day to enjoy the beauty of Spring. With the high temperatures this past week, the bulbs and flowering trees won’t last long; but I was at least able to get a couple of photos of the crabapple and redbud out in the courtyard.

But our hope and excitement is tempered by the reality of all of the uncertainty and problems we face. Over the weekend, the shootings that left 20 people injured in Milwaukee after the playoff game and the news from Buffalo of 10 killed and three more injured in a racist shooting attack. The perpetrator was radicalized to white supremacy and great replacement theory, once a fringe notion that contends white people in America are being replaced by people of color. Now, it has been taken up by media personalities and by politicians.

We watch the ongoing, senseless war in Ukraine and the horrific human suffering it has caused. Our record high temperatures ought to remind us of the climate crisis that is unfolding across the planet. Reports this week that the pandemic has cost a million lives in the US alone and that it has laid bare and exacerbated the inequities in our society and across the globe. There are also more local effects. Among the long-term changes intensified by the pandemic is the long-term decline of Christianity in the US, with church membership and attendance (virtual or in-person) falling precipitously in recent years. Our downtown was hollowed out by the pandemic with empty storefronts on our streets and the likelihood that many office workers will never return to full-time in-person work.

There’s so much more I could add—the rise in gun deaths, suicides; the shortage of baby formula; the exhaustion we all feel so much of the time. We are a society on edge, and our anxiety and fear leads us to lash out in violence and anger.

Contrast that with the vision cast by our reading from the Revelation of St. John the Divine. While it is a complicated text, full of violence and symbolic imagery that eludes interpretation, as we approach its end, we are presented a vision of the new Jerusalem, the new heaven and new earth. At the heart of that vision is God, a God whose home is now with mortals, a God who comforts mourners and ends suffering. It is a vision that may inspire and comfort us as well.

But before that vision becomes reality, there is work to do. In the reading from Acts, we see that work taking place, and the conflict that such work often initiates.

For many of us it’s a familiar story. This is its second appearance in Acts. The first time, in chapter 10, it is told by the narrator. Now, in chapter 11, we have Peter’s version of it, testimony, as it were presented before suspicious and skeptical believers when he has returned to Jerusalem from his travels. Peter has a vision of a cloth descending from heaven, filled with all sorts of unclean, that is to say, non kosher animals, and a voice from heaven commands him, “Take and eat.” 3 times this happens and each time Peter refuses. 

Just as the vision comes to an end, there’s a knock on the door. The Roman Centurion, himself the recipient of a divine vision, has sent for Peter to come preach to him. Peter does and during his sermon, the Holy Spirit descends on the assembly. Peter’s version of the story leaves out  what happened next, that he baptized everyone in the household. 

Peter’s speech is in response to questions from some of his fellow believers in Jerusalem. But we should be clear on the issue at stake. Even though we have this dramatic vision of a sheet filled with all sorts of unclean animals and a divine command to take and eat, the issue at stake was not about food rules or about baptizing Gentiles. It was about Peter eating and presumably also staying with Gentiles.

To be clear, this is something of a false problem. While first-century Palestinian Jews were concerned about eating certain foods and about the idolatry that was widely practiced in Hellenistic culture, there were no clear rules or bans on interacting with Gentiles—such bans would have been almost impossible to maintain in the ethnically and religiously pluralistic Roman empire. This was even more true of Jews living in the diaspora, Alexandria Egypt or even Rome.

What we do see reflected here is something of an identity crisis brought on by the rapidly changing events and community. As the Holy Spirit takes the disciples out of Jerusalem into the world, baptizing Ethiopian eunuchs, preaching and baptizing in Samaria, visiting the house of a Roman centurion, there emerges this fundamental question of who are we, and how do we maintain our identity as we embrace these new people and go into new places? It is a question that preoccupies much of the book of Acts and much of Paul’s writings, as he sought to find a way to include Gentiles equally and fully alongside Jews in the Body of Christ.

In a time when White Supremacy runs rampant and has overtaken much of one of our political parties, and baseless, incendiary claims that the Federal Government is sending baby formula to refugees and immigrants at the expense of white suburban families, the message that God shows no partiality needs to be proclaimed as loudly and urgently today as Peter boldly proclaimed it before the community in Jerusalem.

We Episcopalians don’t do a particularly good job of incarnating inclusive community—we are overwhelmingly white, middle-class, over aged 50 and our efforts to do so at Grace are made more difficult by the lack of diversity in our city and county and the ongoing, systemic racism and marginalization of communities of color.

Still, we have done some good work. Over the last eight or nine years, our Creating More Just Community has helped us address the racism in ourselves, our church, and community. It has built relationships with African American churches and organizations; and through its work with MOSES, has advocated for criminal justice reform. Similarly, our Native American initiative has explored the history of US relations with Native Americans and developed ongoing relationships with a number of Native American groups and individuals. And the outreach committee has committed itself to supporting our neighbors across the square at the Boys and Girls Clubs.

These are all small steps, for our congregation and for our community and may feel terribly inadequate in the face of white supremacists spouting replacement theory nonsense in manifestos and on tv and the internet. We may feel helpless to counter white supremacists shooting down people of color in malls or on the streets, or as they gather for bible study in churches. But Jesus’ words in the gospel, “love one another as I have loved you” ring as true today as they did two thousand years ago. He is with us laying down his life for us, for his friends, and for his enemies. And he calls us to do the same.

Our burdens seem so heavy, the world’s pain so intense, that we may lose heart and hope. We may feel alone and abandoned

But we are not alone. As we watch events unfold around us and around the world, as we move into an uncertain and challenging future, may we be assured that the Holy Spirit is with us. The Holy Spirit, the Comforter guides us, strengthens us, helps us to discern our way forward, to respond to the world’s needs and helps us to love one another as Christ loved us, to deepen our relationships with each other and to reach out to the neighbors we have never met.