The Scandal of the Cross: A sermon for 4 Epiphany, 2023

I’ve been thinking a lot about St. Paul this week. Wednesday, January 25, was the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. Paul often has a bad reputation among contemporary progressive Christians. He can be quite nasty; he seems very sure of himself, and he wrote, or others wrote in his name, things about the role of women that strike modern sensibilities as offensive.

Still, the occasion gave me the opportunity to reflect on his conversion or call, and the different ways he in his own writings, and Luke in the Book of Acts, have slightly different takes on it. In my homily at our monthly Eucharist at Capital Lakes, I talked about how Paul is in some ways much like us—a flawed person who was transformed by God’s grace and called by God to share the good news of Jesus Christ. 

I almost always focus on the gospel reading in my sermons—it’s not only accepted practice but in some ways expected. And perhaps I should have chosen to preach on today’s gospel reading the first verses of Matthew 5, the beginning of Jesus’ sermon on the mount. These verses are known as the Beatitudes. But the other two readings are equally compelling. First there are the words from the prophet Micah that climax eloquently with: 

“What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Then the Beatitudes, which in the Gospel of Matthew are the first public words uttered by Jesus:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth

And so on. Words that have comforted and challenged Christians throughout the millennia, and comfort and challenge us today. If I have time this morning, I will come back to them and connect what Jesus is saying here with what I will be saying about Paul over the next few minutes.

But to Paul, and to 1 Corinthians. We heard the first verses of the letter last week and we’ll have more readings from it over the next few weeks, so it’s worth saying about about the letter as a whole. The first thing to keep in mind is that it was a letter. It was written by Paul to a community that he had founded some years earlier and it reflects that relationship. He has been in contact with members of that community. Apparently he received a letter from them and also a visit from some “Chloe’s people” he calls them. 

Like any other letter, it is written for a particular purpose and to a particular audience—not to us. We are, in a sense, eavesdroppers on that conversation. The questions that are asked are not necessarily questions that concern us—whether it’s ok to eat food that’s been offered to Hellenistic deities, for example. Nonetheless, these letters tell us a great deal about Paul, about the communities he began and those with whom he corresponded. We also learn a great deal about early Christianity. As such, and because they were written only a couple of decades after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, they are worth reading to gain an understanding of how this new religious movement was developing and what motivated people to join it.

The relationship between Paul and the early Christian community in Corinth was not an easy one. II Corinthians reveals the intensity of the conflict between Paul and some members of the community, and the extent of the pain he felt from their criticisms. But I’ll leave all that aside. I want to focus in on today’s reading. 

Paul makes one of the great rhetorical and theological flourishes in the Christian tradition as he rebuffs his opponents: “For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” When we hear Paul contrasting the “folly” of the cross with the Greeks’ desire for wisdom, our temptation is to read those words in light of our own conflicts between faith and reason. But that’s not the case. For the Greeks, the search for wisdom was a religious quest, a quest for a certain kind of religious knowledge that was acquired only through great effort or personal revelation. 

What Paul is trying to articulate is that the wisdom of the cross, or to use his language, the folly of the cross, is accessible to all. At the same time, it subverts all categories of comprehension and expectation. For Paul, the cross—where we see Jesus Christ dying—where we see God at God’s weakest, is precisely the place where God’s saving power is revealed. That is the central paradox of the gospel for Paul. He uses it to undercut all efforts to connect status or power in the community with one’ own abilities, efforts, or experience. 

There may be nothing more difficult to understand than this key notion of Paul’s. It runs counter to everything we know or expect. As humans, our very conception of God is tied to God’s power and knowledge. God is that being to whom we appeal for help when we are powerless, weak, and in need. We project on God all of our hopes. We turn Jesus Christ into the superhero who will rescue us when we are in danger. 

But Paul says something quite different. For Paul, God is at God’s most powerful, we see Jesus Christ most clearly, when we see him dying on the cross. There we confront and experience God’s love and more importantly, God’s sharing in our humanity and pain. That’s the foolishness of the cross. But that’s also the power of the cross. That’s the power of the incarnation—God with us. Jesus Christ is not the superhero who rescues us, Jesus Christ is the one who is with us when we suffer. Jesus Christ, God is with all those who suffer.

It is there, on the cross, that we see God. It is there, on the cross, that we see God’s reign breaking in upon the world. Jesus proclaims this truth when he announces that those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, when he announces that all of them are blessed. They share in God’s reign. They experience God’s reign.

Of course, none of that may be obvious. Those who mourn are grieving; the poor in spirit are suffering. Yet when we accept Jesus’ call to follow him and become fishers of people, we share with him in proclaiming the Good News that God’s reign has come near. We share with him the responsibility of bringing healing and wholeness to a broken world and to broken people. When they experience that healing, they begin to see and experience God’s grace and power in their lives. They begin to experience the power of the cross and the reality that God’s reign is near. Thanks be to God.

It’s time to leave our nets and our boats: A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, 2023

Over the years, I have developed a pattern as I begin working on my sermon for Sunday. I try reading Sunday’s texts early in the week—one of my profs recommended reading them already on Sunday afternoon, but I never do that. Then I go back through my files to look at sermons I preached on the text in previous years. There may be a hint of something that I can build on, an idea I didn’t develop, that could be woven into this year’s sermon.

As I am now in my 14th year at Grace, and going on twenty years of preaching regularly, this practice has become something of a journey into my past, and into the recent history of Grace, as well. Just to give you two examples. In 2014, when I preached on this Sunday, I talked about how we opened our doors to the homeless on MLK Day that year when there was no other location for them to go. That experience catapulted me into the center of efforts to create a day shelter in Madison. In fact, a photo from that day showed up in my Facebook memories on Friday.

Three years later, in 2017, it was just after the inauguration of the last president, and the day after the Women’s March, another occasion when we opened our doors for people to gather, rest, and warm up. 

Both of those events, and it’s just a coincidence that they occurred in conjunction with this Sunday’s lectionary readings, are evidence of our efforts to use our space for outreach and to support the community. If you’ve been around here for a while, you know that we have done many other things in this regard—opening our doors during protests, for groups to gather before and after engaging with legislators, for our food pantry, for the homeless shelter, for concerts.

Over the last year, we have engaged in conversations about our witness and mission in the community. These conversations have seemed especially urgent as the shelter’s departure at the beginning of the pandemic not only left a lot of vacant space in our building, it also left a gaping hole in our congregational identity and mission.

All of those conversations are beginning to bear fruit. Over the last few weeks, I have met with a couple of entities that are interested in using our space for their work. You will all hear more about this in the weeks to come, as proposals are presented and more details emerge. 

As we reflect on where we have been as a congregation, where God is calling us in this present moment, it seems especially appropriate that today’s gospel reading points us directly toward the question of call. We often hear a text like this and want to interpret it light of our own lives, to reflect on God’s call of us, and where Jesus might be asking us to follow him.

Let’s delve into the text. First of all, a bit of context might be helpful. We’re dropped into Matthew’s story of Jesus after he was baptized by John, and after his temptation in the wilderness. So today’s gospel reading comes immediately after Jesus has been tempted by Satan. It’s the beginning of his public ministry, and it begins on an ominous note, after John’s arrest.

Matthew tells us that after hearing of John’s arrest, Jesus withdraws, he returns to Galilee, his home country, presumably having been further south, around the Jordan River, where he was baptized, where John was preaching, and where he himself was tempted. 

In essence, Jesus is going back home; but he’s going there because Herod arrested John the Baptist. It’s likely that Jesus felt himself under threat and suspicion because of the action taken against John; after all, the two were associated. 

So one might imagine that Jesus was feeling fearful, concerned about the future, concerned about his future. But he did not hide. He may have gone to Galilee, but in the midst of whatever fear he might have had, he chose at that very moment, in all of the uncertainty, to begin his public ministry. More than that, Jesus emphatically chose to continue John the Baptist’s ministry. Matthew reports as a summary of Jesus’ proclamation: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” 

Let me pause and make two observations because to twenty-first century ears, this language sounds overly pious and a bit old-fashioned. When we hear the word “repent” our minds go to the overt rituals and drama of repentance—feeling shame and guilt over sins and seeking God’s forgiveness, whether we do this individually and privately, or in the context of the sacrament of Confession. Similarly, “kingdom of heaven” sends our minds to pearly gates, angels with harps, and streets paved with gold. Both of those sets of images are misleading.

The word translated here as “repent” is the Greek “metanoiete” which literally means “change your mind.” So it’s not so much feeling remorse for one’s actions and seeking forgiveness, but a complete transformation in one’s point of view; the way one looks at the world, perhaps even, a transformation of who we are at our very core. 

Similarly, while Matthew almost exclusively uses the phrase “kingdom of heaven,” it’s his wording for what in the gospels of Mark and Luke is called the kingdom of God and kingdom should be thought of not as a place, a territory or nation, but a qualitative existence—we could say “reign of God.” We will have a great deal more to say about the reign of God as we work through the Gospel of Matthew this coming year. Especially now, we might even translate it as “empire” and interpret Jesus’ proclamation of the “empire of God” as a direct challenge to Rome. God’s power and justice is present around us and in this very world, confronting and overturning the power and oppression of Rome.

From that brief summary of the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, Matthew turns to the story of Jesus calling the first disciples. In its brevity and simplicity, it invites all sorts of questions. Why did Peter and Andrew, James and John, respond in such a way to Jesus’ call? Did they know Jesus? Had they heard about him? Was it something in his demeanor that motivated them? Were they so ground down and dispirited by lives caught up in the grinding poverty and oppression of Roman occupation that they jumped at the opportunity to break free? Or, as many scholars think, were they somewhat successful? If they owned their own boats, they may have had decent livelihoods. In any case, they left what they were doing, they left their families and homes, and followed Jesus. 

We may think it was an individual call, but it was a call in community and to community. Peter and Andrew, James and John, heard the call together, and answered it together, and when they followed Jesus, they were the first members of the community Jesus was calling into existence, a community that includes us and all those throughout the generations who have responded to that call.

We gather here, in this place, on this square, and with those who join us remotely in response to God’s call. In the heart of this city, God is calling us to share the good news of Jesus Christ, to work for justice and peace. 

Last Sunday, we heard Mark Charles speak eloquently about the injustices the people of the United States have inflicted on Native Americans over the centuries; how our most revered heroes and presidents participated in and perpetrated those evils. He called us, not to reconciliation because that word assumes there was a prior state of relationship or community. Instead, he called us to conciliation, to building relationships with indigenous peoples, to become their allies and to build a more just and equitable society.

In Madison, we are hearing a great deal about the need for affordable housing. We are also seeing how efforts to change zoning laws, to make it possible to build more affordable housing, are resisted by some of our most progressive leaders and media, because those efforts threaten neighborhoods and historic districts. We’re all for justice and equity, except when our home values might be threatened, or when people of different ethnicity or socioeconomic status might move next to us.

Jesus is calling us to leave our boats, to leave our complacency and comfort, and follow him into a future and into community that welcomes all and where all might flourish. May we have the courage to follow him into that unknown and possible future.

Unsettling Truths: Confronting our history, lamenting our sins, working for justice

Last weekend, Mark Charles, co-author of Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery visited the Diocese of Milwaukee. I had read his book early last year as part of my effort to educate myself about Native American history and about the culture, lives, and resilience of contemporary Native Americans. Although I knew much of the story told in the book, I hadn’t connected all of the dots in the way that Charles and his co-author, did. The story they told, and the story Mark told us this weekend, re-shaped how I think about myself, my ancestors, and my nation.

My ancestors settled in Northwestern Ohio beginning in 1836, just four years after the Indian Removal Act and the forced relocation of the Potawatomie from that area to Indian Territory in the West. When I was growing up, there was almost no vestige of Potawatomie or other Native American remaining in the area. A single town in my county, Wauseon, was named after a Potawatomie chief but all other place names were European in origin. We weren’t taught the story of the forced removal of the Potawatomie to make way for European settlers. Instead, it was empty territory, waiting for European settlers to populate it. It’s a story that could be told of many other places in the US, different from others, including Southern Wisconsin, only in the total erasure of Native peoples from the landscape and from memory.

The most devastating part of Charles’ talk and Unsettling Truths is his discussion of Abraham Lincoln. The Great Emancipator, the President who preserved the Union and freed the slaves, is an American hero, beloved for his wisdom and for his accomplishments, mourned after his assassination by the nation. While the Civil War was raging, Lincoln also oversaw the transformation of the West. The Homestead Act offered 160 acres to anyone who homesteaded for five years on Western lands; he promoted the Transcontinental Railway that transferred vast tracts of land to railroad companies in exchange for their commitments to build railroads linking the west coast with the east.

To accomplish those goals, Native Americans had to be forced from their homelands. During Lincoln’s presidency, while the Civil War was raging the US Army also oversaw massacres, forced relocation, and internment camps: the Arapahoe and Comanche in Eastern Colorado, the Navajo in the Four Corners area, and the Dakota from Minnesota. When the Dakota resistance was finally quelled in 1862, more than 300 Dakota warriors were condemned to death by military tribunals. In the end, 38 Dakota were executed, the largest mass execution in US History. That the number wasn’t larger is partly attributable to the pleas of Minnesota Episcopal Bishop Whipple, who convinced Lincoln to offer leniency.

The Doctrine of Discovery, the notion that lands occupied by native peoples could be claimed and seized by Europeans was first promulgated by papal bulls in the 15th century. It shaped notions of American Exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny. It is reinforced by White Supremacy and notions of racial superiority. Charles pointed out how these underlying ideas continue to resonate in the policies and statements of contemporary politicians, Republican and Democratic. Surprisingly, the Doctrine of Discovery continues to play a role in contemporary legal disputes. As recently as 2005, it was cited in a majority opinion of the Supreme Court, written by Ruth Bader Ginsberg, that denied New York Oneida efforts to gain sovereignty over land that had been seized from them centuries ago and that they had repurchased.

As Americans, as Christians, as Episcopalians, it is crucial that we come to terms this history. The evil done to Native Americans, like that perpetrated on African-Americans, resulted in countless lives lost and continues to affect those communities in the legacies of poverty, health inequities, and generational trauma. Studying that history is only a first step. We must lament the sins that have been committed and the evil that was perpetrated and from which have benefited.  We must build relationships and learn from the Native Americans who live among us. Finally, we must take concrete actions, however small, that begin to right the wrongs that were committed, to make justice where there was and remains injustice. 

The Journey of the Magi by TS Eliot

Today is the Feast of the Epiphany, which celebrates the coming of the Magi and brings to an end the season of Christmastide. In honor of that, and of the centenary of the publication of his book-length poem The Wasteland, I repost his The Journey of the Magi.

After a spiritual journey that led him from Congregationalism to Anglicanism, he served as churchwarden of St. Stephen’s Church, Gloucester Road, for 35 years. He died on January 4, 1964. 

The Journey Of The Magi

By T. S. Eliot (there’s a recording of Eliot reading it if you click the title)

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

The Word became Chord: A homily for Christmas Day, 2022

Those of you who have attended Christmas Day services during my tenure as rector of Grace know that it is one of my favorite services. It’s more intimate yet somehow more glorious than Christmas Eve. All the stress associated with orchestrating a major festival Eucharist is gone. Moreover, I can look forward to the peace and quiet of Christmas Day afternoon—a great meal, a bottle of good wine, and, hopefully, a restorative nap.

But there are other reasons I love Christmas Day services. One of them is that occasionally there’s a day like today—bright, sunny, with the sun reflecting off of the snow and blinding us with its brilliance—a perfect match to one of my favorite hymns, one we sing every year on Christmas Day, “Break forth O beauteous, heavenly light”

But, the biggest reason I love Christmas Day is because it gives me the opportunity to proclaim today’s Gospel, the so-called prologue of the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word…”

 If Christmas Eve, with its candlelight and Silent Night, and the story of Christ’s birth from the Gospel of Luke, explores the mystery and miracle of an omnipotent God becoming human in a vulnerable, utterly dependent baby, then Christmas Day with its poetic and profound meditation of the Word made flesh, explores the mystery at the heart of the universe, of an omnipotent God whose love and creative power is reflected in all that is, in this wonderful, expanding, beautiful universe, and yet also comes to us as one of us—lived among us, tented, or tabernacled among us, as the Greek suggests. It’s an evocative word that witnesses to the impermanence of human flesh. It also alludes to God’s presence among the Hebrews in the wilderness, in the tabernacle that the Israelites carried with them in their sojourn in the desert.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Word, words, not just the language that we speak, the words we search for when we try to communicate our deepest feelings, the words that elude us. Think of all those who use words to deceive, to manipulate, to obfuscate. Think of those who deny the truth of words, who rely on lies, whose deceptions tear at the fabric of our lives, the fabric of our nation. Our words, our language, ultimately can, or should, connect us with the Divine, connect us with God, with the Word.

Ponder the word, ponder the word made flesh. 

I’m not sure why, but I have struggled this year to enter into this season of mystery and miracle. I felt like I was going through the motions in Advent, not really exploring or experiencing the time of waiting, preparation, and anticipation. Perhaps it was the burden of the world weighing on my spirit, numbing my soul. Scenes of war in Ukraine, the relentless toll on all of us of COVID, even if we want to deny it and declare it over. Maybe it is the political theatre and disruption in Washington and here at home in Wisconsin. 

Whatever the case, I felt like I was going through the motions. To be honest, maybe it wasn’t all that different from other years. My Christmas Eve morning started like every other Christmas Eve, as I tuned in to Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge. While I’ve listened to that service for many years, over the last decade or so, my experience of it has been shared with Anglicans and musicians across the world via Twitter, sharing our feelings, talking about the carol choices, commenting on the readers.

The sound of the treble singing the first notes of “Once in Royal David’s City” broke through my malaise. Later came “In the Bleak Midwinter” which transported me across the years and across the country to the Christmas Eve when I sang that carol in the choir at St. Paul’s, Newburyport. And then, finally, “O Come, all ye faithful.”

 There was an article this week in the New York Times about “the chord.” In the arrangement of the carol usually used at the Lessons and Carols, there’s a moment, in the 6th verse, as the choir and congregation sing “Word of the Father…). I won’t go into technical detail about it but simply quote the article: it is “a moment of total release, embracing the unknown.”

Embracing the unknown, yet being known in that embrace. It transports and connects us—to each other, and to God. St. Augustine of Hippo is famously alleged to have said, or written, “Whoever sings, prays twice.” It is a moment of sheer rapture, made the more powerful and meaningful by being shared by Christians and listeners throughout the world. The music of the universe, the music of the spheres, brought to us. The Word made chord. And yes, Christmas came to me in that moment, in that chord.

That has given an added dimension to my reflections on the word made flesh. As I continue to probe the pluriform and incomprehensible meanings of the word—the logos—in Greek—and I suppose I will continue to do so as long as my mind is capable, the mystery of the word made flesh will continue to elude and entice me. Even as I do so, I pray that God’s grace and truth will continue to open up new possibilities, new wonders, new mystery. In music, in art, in the words of theologians and mystics, the word made flesh is mystery, and possibility, and grace. May we all experience that mystery and that grace today and always.

Ghosts of Christmases Past: A Sermon for Christmas Eve, 2022

One of the most beloved Christmas stories is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It’s often said that Charles Dickens invented modern Christmas. It has been made into films and plays. It has been rewritten and adapted—This past week Corrie and I watched Spirited starring Will Ferrell and Ryan Reynolds. We’ll probably watch Scrooged starring Bill Murray before the holidays are over. We probably won’t watch A Muppet Christmas Carol, even though my social media feeds insist that not only is it the best adaptation of Dickens’ story, it’s the bese Christmas movie of all. 

As I was watching Spirited it occurred to me that I am haunted by Christmases past this year. I’m probably haunted by past Christmases every year, but this year the ghosts of past Christmases seem especially potent.

 Tonight is the first time we gather here on Christmas Eve since 2019; our traditional customs and rituals, our lives and world, disrupted by pandemic. I was asked more than once in the past few days, “We will have services?” “Are there contingency plans?” The concerns were real, of course but driven, not by the continued pandemic, but by the speculation and worry about the weather. We hardly remember that years ago, we wouldn’t have had a second thought about coming out to Christmas Eve services in sub-zero temperatures.

As we gather this evening in this beloved, beautiful space, lovingly decorated by our Altar Guild, surrounded by the sights and sounds of Christmas, we embrace the familiar even as we are mindful of the time that has past, of all that has happened. There are ghosts among us: loved ones who are no longer among us; there is all that we’ve suffered, individually, communally, globally over the last nearly three years. 

There are those who are suffering now: the people of Ukraine, subjected to missiles and drones destroying their homes and culture, leaving them cold and dark. There are refugees and asylum seekers on our borders; people staying in homeless shelters or seeking what shelter they can find, as Mary and Joseph did so long ago in Bethlehem. And tonight, especially, we think all of those still suffering from the impact of the storm and the frigid temperatures in our nation.

Ghosts of Christmases past.  Among them, for me especially, I’m haunted by the images that haunted me every Christmas at Grace up to 2020. For thirty-five years, from 1984 until March 2020, we worshiped in this beautiful space on Christmas Eve while on the opposite side of the courtyard, men huddled on cots, trying to sleep and rest in a crowded basement. The irony of it all was never far from my mind. We, hearing again the story of a pregnant mother and her fiancé seeking shelter in a distant town. We, celebrating the coming of the Christ child, the incarnation, God made man, coming from warm, inviting spaces, returning to celebrations with family and friends; while a few hundred feet away, men were spending the night as they had spent so many nights before and would again and again. And of course, they are not here now, but they are in this city and throughout the world, homeless men and women, homeless families without shelter tonight.

The starkness of that reality is also only a memory, a ghost, let’s say; but even so, for some of us, perhaps many of us, the reality of our lives and our world, the suffering and trauma, may only be masked by the celebration of this evening. Some of us will return to dark and empty homes. Some of us will be mourning lost loved ones; some of us will be facing the realities and pain of broken relationships. Ghosts of Christmases past. Ghosts of Christmases longed for but not experienced. Ghosts of Christmas suffering.

Yet we are here, and in spite of our worries and troubles, we sing familiar carols, we hear the familiar story. In spite of the cold outside, we are here, surrounded by warmth—not just of the heating system. We are embraced in the warmth of community, of joy, of excitement, of wonder. We celebrate Christ’s coming into the world. 

To enter into the story, to hear it read once again, to sing the familiar carols, to be surrounded by the beautiful decorations, connects us with our own stories, and helps us once again to experience the light and love of Christmas. 

The story connects with us because of its familiarity. We have heard it so many times—in the language of the King James Version—swaddling clothes, sore afraid; in modern translations, in countless reinterpretations and retellings, on tv, in artistic depictions, Christmas pageants like the one we saw this past Sunday at Grace. 

It is a familiar story in other ways, some we may not acknowledge. A couple forced to travel by occupying powers; a young girl giving birth in uncomfortable, perhaps even inhumane conditions. A story told about people in a small town far removed from the centers of power, and money, and culture.

Tonight we feel the vast chasm between the world we want and the world we have; the world we had and the world in which we live. But that is nothing new.

The vast chasm between what is and it is meant to be, what will be, is at the very heart of Christmas. It reveals itself in so many ways—in God coming to us in the person of an infant, the power of God becoming the powerlessness, the weakness and vulnerability of Jesus. God coming to us, not in majesty and power but in the silence and darkness of a night; God coming to us not in the center of the world, in Rome, or New York, or Hollywood, but in a little town on the edge of empire. 

In that act, in the manger in Bethlehem, God comes to us, revealing who God is, and revealing also who we are meant to be, what the world is meant to be. 

Jesus comes to us, a frail, vulnerable, weak baby, meeting us in our own weakness, vulnerability, and suffering. God comes down to us, in the darkness and silence of our lives, in the world’s suffering. And as God comes to us, in the silence, we see the world God is bringing into being, the world transformed by the coming of Christ. We see ourselves, transformed by God’s grace and love.

Love came down to us at Christmas, God emptied Godself, taking on human form, becoming one of us, so that we might see and know what love is; so that we might see and know love, so that we might be love in the world. As we go out into the world on this cold night, may our hearts be warmed by God’s love, and may we share that love with the world. 

November 27, 2022

I’m not one of those people who complains every spring and fall when we have to change our clocks for daylight savings time. Sure, it’s a hassle, and there used to be the stress of wondering whether we’d forget and get to church either an hour early or an hour late—but cell phones have done away with that anxiety. I don’t really care about losing or gaining an hour of sleep, for truth be told, I never sleep well on Saturday nights—I’m always worrying about my sermon and about what’s going to happen on Sunday morning.

Still, there’s something shocking about that first Sunday evening when it gets dark an hour earlier than it did the night before. Whatever the temperature outside, the fact that it grows dark around 5:00 is a reminder that winter is coming, and I feel my body and spirit coming to terms with that fact.

We’re deep into it now in late November. We had a little over 9 hours of daylight yesterday; thankfully it was sunny and warm, so our spirits weren’t oppressed by the dreariness of a cloudy November day. We know it will get darker; that the days are still getting shorter. 

One of the realities of modern life is the extent to which the electric lightbulb has changed our lives and cultures. The inevitability, the ubiquity, the sheer pervasiveness of darkness has been overcome permanently. It takes a power outage to remind us of the human struggle against darkness, the futility of that struggle, and all the ways that darkness limited and continues to limit human life and culture in so many ways.

Light, darkness. In spite of our technology that keeps absolute darkness at bay most of the time, we all know what it’s like when we turn on a flashlight in a dark space and are able to orient ourselves to our environment. We also know what it’s like when the light suddenly goes out and we don’t quite know where we are. This experience, the contrast of light and darkness are definitive aspects of human experience. We may tend to think of them as oppositional and there’s temptation to give them moral qualities—light is good, dark is evil. Certainly, one can see such tendencies in scripture.

Light and darkness is a leitmotif of our season and those that are to follow—Christmas and Epiphany. Think of the opening verses of the Gospel of John that is read on Christmas Day each year: “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot comprehend it.”

The collect for the First Sunday of Advent highlights this theme: “give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light…” It is a quotation from the epistle reading, in which Paul urges his readers to pay attention, to wake up from their sleep for the night is far gone, the day is near, by which he means Christ’s coming.  

There’s something about the advent wreath that conveys the tentativeness, the vulnerability of the season, and of our hope. Around us, the world grows darker as the days grow shorter. Around us, the world is dark—literally so in Ukraine where Russian missiles and drones knock out the power grid, forcing millions to shiver in the cold and struggle in darkness. The world is dark, the relentless march of mass shootings across our country. The light of hope seems nearly extinguished. 

But in the midst of that darkness, even as we know more darkness is to come, week by week we light the candles of Advent, and as we do the Advent wreath grows brighter, its witness stronger, even as the darkness of the season deepens. 

The witness of a single candle burning in a space shrouded by dusk or darkness. That is a metaphor of our Advent experience. St. Paul was writing a couple of decades after Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. We sense already in this text some of the uncertainty that arose as Christ’s expected return, in majesty as the collect says, was delayed. Stay awake, he admonishes, the night is far gone.

For us, that urgency, that expectation is even more distant. Oh we know all about those Christians who look for signs of Christ’s imminent return; those who interpret every historical event in light of the Book of Revelation or other biblical prophecies. But really, do most of us think that the loudest exponents of Christ’s imminent return believe it, or rather that they are using it to gain power, prestige, and wealth?

Do we believe it? We say we do, every Sunday, when we recite the Nicene Creed: “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.” Still, the second coming of Christ, is one of those doctrines with which we might struggle, even as we acknowledge, as we see in the gospel reading as well as in the epistle the centrality of that belief to early Christianity and to the teachings of Jesus as well.

It may seem so farfetched that we press it from our minds, leave it to those other Christians to ponder, to reflect on, and to exploit. Our feet are on the ground, we take comfort in the rational world in which we live, and so we push away those beliefs—even if, from time to time, our minds may wander and wonder. 

The images are gripping aren’t they? Two people in the field, one taken, one left. When we hear it, our mind goes to the stories we’ve heard or the movies we’ve seen that claim to depict Jesus’ second coming and the Rapture—a 19th century invention that has gripped the fascination of generations of especially American Christians.  

If not that, then what? I don’t mean to demythologize or downplay the Second Coming. It is, after all, a central concept in Christianity. One way of thinking about it is that it highlights the contrast between what is and what should be. We know all about what is: the violence, the evil and hatred, I won’t recite the litany. We have a sense that things aren’t right and when we hear the words of scripture as the vision described in Isaiah 2, we feel in the marrow of our bones the disconnect between the world we inhabit and the world that God intends: a world of peace and justice, where swords are beat into plowshares.

At its core, the Second Coming is an expression of our hope that God will make all things right, that God will bring justice and peace, an end to suffering. 

And so, in Advent, we light week by week the candles of the advent wreath, expressing our hope that even in the darkness of our world and of our lives, we can discern the light of God’s presence. And as the candles burn, they proclaim our faith that Christ will come and make all things new. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overwhelm it. Amen.

Disruption and the Call to Mission: Rector’s Annual Report for 2022

Whether or not you have an account on Twitter, you’ve probably heard something about the turmoil in the company and on the platform since its sale. I’ve been on twitter since 2011 and over the years, I have taken advantage of the ability to connect with diverse people across the world and with varied interests. I have gotten to know Episcopalians across the country and Anglicans all over the world. I’ve been able to connect with thoughtful Christians from other traditions, with academic communities like historians and religious studies scholars. I have learned a great deal, received and offered support in challenging times. In spite of the disinformation and toxicity often prevalent there, I have also used it as a primary source of news, especially as events unfolded in real time. Like many others, I am worried about the future of the platform, and of those communities of which I was a part. Will I lose touch with many of those people? Will the knowledge I gained from them no longer be available to me? Will I stay, or like so many others, will I seek out different means of making connection, learning and growing as Twitter changes and perhaps collapses?

It strikes me that there are lessons for the church in the collapse of Twitter. For many of us on the platform, we were active in spite of the challenges it presented—the racism, the trolls, the bullying, the lies. In and amongst all of that, there emerged places of joy, fun, support, wisdom. And we feel the uncertainty and the loss as we wonder whether other venues might offer similar opportunities for relationship, connection, joy, and learning. Likewise, we are beginning to discover that in the wake of all the disruption caused by the pandemic, the church, Grace Church can continue to be a place of spiritual sustenance and deep, meaningful relationships, that we continue to attract newcomers who are seeking connection with others and with Christ, and that there are new opportunities to reach out into the community and the world to share the Good News.

I would like to express my immense gratitude to Grace’s staff—first and foremost to Parish Administrator Christina. We all know how hard she works and her deep commitment to Grace’s ministry and to its members. Her administrative skills and her deep knowledge of Grace make my job much easier. Our musicians, Berkley and Mark contribute so much to our worship and to our congregation. Their flexibility and creativity over the last years have helped to make our worship a means of encountering Jesus Christ, whether in-person or remote. We have learned over the course of the pandemic the importance of continuing to offer a live-stream experience, and our tech team, led by James Waldo with the assistance of Steve, Marshall, and Clay, help us connect with our members who are unable or uncomfortable attending in-person worship. Mary Ann Nannassy, who is working in the kitchen today, has helped to build community by organizing coffee hour each week and providing space for relationship-building. George Decker, who came on board this year, and some of you are meeting for the first time today has been an invaluable addition to staff as our Communications Coordinator. Vikki Enright and her team of volunteers continue to feed the hungry through our Food Pantry. Her hard work, resilience, and adaptability have led the pantry through these difficult years and she is a powerful witness to our church’s commitment to outreach and to serving the most vulnerable in our city and county.

I would also like to extend a word of thanks to our clergy. Deacon Carol continues to support my ministry and the people of Grace in countless ways, small and large. Her pastoral gifts help us all to keep connected and her contributions to our worship are often noticed by me only when she is away, as she has been several times this past year supporting Bishop Lee’s visitations to other parishes. John Francis has brought energy and creativity to our team. The relationships he has developed in the past have brought new experiences and new visibility to Grace, through the visit last month of Shane Claiborne, and on Friday night of Bill Miller. With the help of volunteers, he has successfully restarted our Christian Formation program for children. I look forward to supporting his ministry and growth in the coming year.

Among the transitions that we will experience this year is David Lyon’s stepping away from active leadership in parish administration. A Vestry member, then treasurer for three years during an especially difficult period, then Senior Warden for two, and in 2022 a return gig as Treasurer. I think we can all say, “Well, done, Good and faithful servant”—and that he deserves his rest from the labors and spreadsheets. Tom Felhofer has served as Assistant Treasurer for the last year and will be moving into the Treasurer spot.

At the heart of our common life and ministry are, the people of Grace. Our lay leadership continues to excel. I’m deeply grateful for Jane Hamblen’s leadership as Senior Warden. Her wisdom, sensitivity, and attention to detail complement my own strengths and make up for some of my weaknesses. As junior warden, Kara Pagano has put her unique stamp on the position and on Grace. She has led the effort to create a Parish Life Committee and to offer opportunities outside of Sunday morning for people to connect with each other. I would like to thank outgoing vestry members: John Johnson and Mike Edwards who have helped to lead the parish over the last years, asking challenging questions, offering the wisdom and insight of many years of work in complex organizations outside of the church. Thanks as well to Suzy Buenger, who was elected to fill a partial term and could have stepped down but agreed to run for a full three-year term. 

There are challenges ahead. As detailed in the report from the Roof Committee, we are looking at a significant fundraising and construction project in the next few years. We don’t know exactly how much time we have but the wise course forward is likely to move ahead now rather than wait. We have the expertise in the congregation and connections in the community to help us achieve our goals, to hand down to future generations a structurally-sound building and to ensure that our beautiful church will remain in excellent condition as it approaches the 200th anniversary of its construction. 

We are discerning what God is calling us to in the coming years. The departure of the men’s shelter at the beginning of the pandemic left not only empty space in our building but also meant that a ministry at the heart of our identity, and our standing in the community left our hearts empty as well. The conversations that have occurred over the last month with widespread congregational participation will help us listen to the Holy Spirit and discern new opportunities. The changing fabric of the city, new patterns of work and life caused by the pandemic, the deep racial and economic inequalities, and the challenges of affordable housing are issues shared by many cities throughout the country and world. How can Grace Church be model of Christ’s love in the heart of the city?

One way we do that is through our space. Once again, we opened our doors to the community on this past election day. Thanks to the spontaneous efforts of a group led by Steve Webster, we offered Grace as a place of spiritual respite and comfort on a very stressful day. Even if only a few people came through ours that day, it was an important witness and gift to the community. We don’t know how many lives are touched by our presence on the square. The gardens, now expertly overseen by John Andrews are a place of welcome for all.  

I recently had a conversation with Christian Overland, Director and CEO of the Wisconsin Historical Society during which he updated me about plans for the new history museum. They hope to begin construction a year from now. That project promises to bring new life to the top of State St. and our block of N. Carroll and we will be involved as planning for the museum proceeds.

In your Annual Meeting packet is information about Land Acknowledgement. To talk about our property without reference to its history before the lots were purchased in 1847 is to erase thousands of years of earlier human presence on the land and the forced removal of the Ho-Chunk. As you know, over the last two years we have been learning about Native American history and about the Native American communities of Wisconsin. That work continues as we will welcome Mark Charles, co-author of Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery for a series of events in January. We are also exploring what sort of restorative actions we might take that would support the thriving of Native Americans in Wisconsin.

Another area where I have spent considerable time and energy over the last year and will continue to demand my attention in the coming year is the Wisconsin Episcopal Trialogue. The three dioceses of Wisconsin are discerning the future of the Episcopal Church in this state. I am helping to lead one of the task forces involved in these conversations: The Parish and Regional Engagement Task Force. Considerable work has occurred behind the scenes and in the next few months, much more information will emerge. A decision on whether to move forward on re-unification will probably come some time in the spring of 2023. If the decision is to move ahead, votes will be taken at the three conventions next fall. 

We may mourn what we lost over the past three years; we may struggle to understand all that is taking place in the world around us, we may worry about what is to come. I think it’s appropriate that our Annual Meeting takes place on Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday. Just as it brings to an end the liturgical year and looks ahead to the Season of Advent, it is also a reminder that Grace Church, is held in God’s hand, under the reign of Christ, that whatever might come, Christ will continue to reign. May we go forward into the new year in the sure and certain faith that Christ reigns, and may we commit ourselves and Grace to work toward the coming of his reign in our lives and in our city.

Past, Present, Future: A Sermon for Proper 28C, November 13, 2022

As I began looking over the lessons for today, I began to experience a powerful sense of disorientation. It was like a movie that was full of flashbacks and flash forwards, leaving the viewer confused and uncertain of what was happening when, and hoping that it would all get resolved in the final reel. 

Let me explain. There’s that wonderful passage from Isaiah 65, in which the prophet describes a vision of a new heaven and a new earth; a new Jerusalem full of joy, where there is no weeping nor untimely death; where the wolf and the lamb feed together, and the lion eats straw like an ox.

The prophet, writing after the return from Babylonian exile in the 5th century BCE, is looking ahead to a messianic future where God has made all things new, right, and just. Contrast that with the gospel reading. Our gospel reading dates from some 600 years later. Luke is writing at the end of the first century, or perhaps even early in the 2nd, is describing the last days of Jesus’ life, after the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Jesus and his disciples spent the days of this last week in the temple, where Jesus overturned the tables of moneychangers, taught, and debated with various religious leaders and groups. 

The temple, rebuilt after the Babylonian exile, had been greatly expanded and renovated by Herod the Great, a building project that began decades earlier and was probably still underway when Jesus and his disciples arrived. It was, by all accounts, magnificent. It would have dominated the landscape and pilgrims would have been able to see its marble walls gleaming in the sun from miles away.

But, as the disciples, tourists from the hinterlands of Galilee, looked at it for the first time, exclaimed in awe at its beauty, Jesus predicts its destruction: Not a single stone will be left standing on another. And he was right. In 40 years, around the year 70, the temple would be destroyed by the Roman legions as part of their suppression of the Jewish rebellion. Ultimately, all that would be left was what remains now, the wailing wall, as it’s called, part of a retaining wall that had supported the temple itself.

That wasn’t all that Jesus had to say. He went on, as we heard, to predict a very different future than the peaceful , abundant, and joyous one described in the Isaiah passage: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.”

There is a more helpful message in the midst of the doom and gloom. Jesus urged his followers not to be terrified when they heard of wars and rumors of wars. And though he predicted his followers would suffer persecution, he promised that he would give them strength, courage, and the words they would need to testify to the truth of his message.

Luke was writing decades after Jesus’ crucifixion, decades after the destruction of the temple and the ruthless suppression of the Jewish rebellion that likely forced many of that second or third generation of Christians to flee Jerusalem and the surrounding area. The early expectation that Jesus would return in glory and power to establish God’s reign was slowly giving way to disappointment and bewilderment as Christians began to rethink that belief and develop theological coping mechanisms that would allow their survival into the future. 

So to summarize, there’s an confusing, disorienting relationship to time and to history evident in these passages. This feeling of disorientation may be familiar to us. It’s not just the semi-annual changing of the clocks that requires our bodies to reorient themselves to the cycles of waking and sleep. There are all the ways in which our technology and lifestyles have collapsed traditional categories and experiences. We know what’s happening half-way around the world as it’s happening. Video and social media posts bring the experiences of war, natural disasters, and other events onto our screens and into our lives.

The dislocation and disruption of the last years have also contributed to that disorientation. The pre-pandemic world seems like a mirage,  a fantasy that bears little reality to the lives we live now, the world in which we live, even as we desperately try to recapture that world in so many ways.

And still, in the midst of that disorientation, time marches on. We are nearing the end of the liturgical year. Two weeks from today is the First Sunday of Advent, the beginning of a new Christian year. Our readings are preparing us for that season of preparation. Advent is a time when we look ahead to Christ’s coming, both his coming at Christmas and his Second Coming in power and majesty. It’s a time of joy and hope but it is also a time of reflection during which we are called to open our hearts and cultivate the soil of our souls in advance of both of Christ’s comings.

Advent’s imminent arrival reminds us that the world we inhabit, the time that we inhabit, are transformed by the incarnation of Christ, the coming of Christ into the world. As we pass through the liturgical seasons year after year, from Advent and Christmas through Lent, Holy Week, and Easter, we remember, we reenter that story of Christ’s coming, his death and resurrection, making it present to us, making it our present. But simultaneously the time and place of the world around us have their own rhythms and pace, their own presence.

The disruption and disorientation of our scripture readings careen us back and forth across different possible futures: a new heaven and a new earth; wars and rumors of wars. As they disorient us they also offer us orientation, toward Christ—toward the coming of Christ, the moment that transformed and continues to transform all of history. 

We long for permanence. We want stability. The thick stone walls and spire of Grace Church are testimony to the presence of God’s people in this place over the last almost 200 years and many of us work hard to ensure that this place, this congregation, survives and thrives long into the future. Its sturdy structure gives us confidence, assurance, and hope. How often have we, like those around Jesus, praised its beauty?

The future may fill us with fear. We may mourn what we have lost; the past that we remember or half-remember. We may wish the world hadn’t changed, and that the rapid changes taking place would stop. We may worry about our own futures, the futures of our children and grandchildren, the future of the planet.

Christ promises to be with us, to be present with us, to give us, as he says in today’s gospel, word and wisdom to confess our faith in the midst of the world’s suffering. Christ is with us now, present among us. In word and sacrament, the disorientation of the world and of time, are reoriented toward the one who created time and redeems time; the one whose coming we await, and who comes to us now in the Eucharistic feast. Thanks be to God.

Seeing Jesus, Seeing Zacchaeus: A Sermon for Proper 26C, 2022

I didn’t think it could still happen. I’ve been preaching regularly for seventeen years. I don’t know how many sermons I’ve preached over the years—some might say I preach the same one every week. I’ve been through year C, this year of the three-year lectionary cycle, 6 times. And over all those years, I’ve never preached on this gospel passage. It’s not like I’m avoiding it; or that I always take off the last Sunday in October. Rather, it’s that because we observe All Saints’ Sunday on the first Sunday in November each year, the texts for that observance take precedence over the texts for this Sunday, Proper 26. To top all that off, in all my years of teaching bible before becoming a priest, this was not one of the texts that made it into class discussion for Intro to Bible or Intro to New Testament.

So this week I read the gospel with an openness and with no preconceived ideas that I usually bring to the text. It’s kind of a strange feeling not to have all of that history with the text. Really, the only history or preconceived notions I have about it are my faint memories of the song we used to sing in Sunday School when I was small: “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he.” Truthfully, that’s all I remember of the song. Although it turns out, Deacon Carol can sing all three verses.

The story of the encounter of Zacchaeus and Jesus comes at the end of Jesus’ long journey to Jerusalem. That journey began when Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem” back in chapter 9; and Jericho is the last stop. In a few verses, Jesus will enter Jerusalem in triumph, and by the next Friday will be crucified. 

With that on the horizon, the story of Zacchaeus takes on more significance. And while there’s nothing in the story that seems to foreshadow the events of the coming week, there’s a great deal that hearkens back to earlier episodes and themes in the Gospel of Luke.

The first of those themes is sight or seeing. Immediately preceding this story, Jesus heals a blind man just as he is about to enter Jericho. Earlier in the gospel, Jesus had healed a bent-over woman in the synagogue after seeing her. Now, Zacchaeus, the short man, runs ahead of the crowd and climbs a sycamore tree so that he could see Jesus; and when Jesus sees Zacchaeus, he says to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” Zacchaeus’ desire to see Jesus, and Jesus seeing him, leads to their deeper encounter.

Second, Zacchaeus is a tax collector. Throughout the gospel, Jesus spends time with tax collectors and sinners, eating in their homes, conversing with them, welcoming them into the new community he is creating and into the Reign of God that he is proclaiming. Often, Jesus’ behavior arouses anger and opposition as it does here. Bystanders grumbled that Jesus was going to eat at the house of a sinner.

Tax collectors in the Roman empire were especially reviled. It’s not just that they worked for the IRS and were feared because they might call for an audit. The entire system was profoundly unjust and oppressive. Tax collecting was farmed out; you could buy the franchise for a province or an area; and then subcontract to others beneath you. The way you made money was by extracting more in taxes than you needed to send up the food chain and finally to Rome. So if you were a tax collector, you wanted to squeeze as much as you could out of the people. And you were seen as a collaborator with the empire, not a member of the community. For Jesus to invite himself into the home of a tax collector was to put himself on the side of extortionists and collaborators. 

All of which brings us to a third theme—sin, repentance, forgiveness. And that’s where it gets a bit tricky, at least in the story. At the end of it, Jesus commends Zacchaeus, saying, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

Seems rather straightforward, doesn’t it? Jesus says this in response to Zacchaeus’ statement: Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”

What complicates things a bit is that what is translated here as the future tense: I will give half my possessions to the poor, could also be translated in the present tense: “I am giving half my goods…” In other words, Zacchaeus’ actions may already be taking place before his encounter with Jesus, not as a result of his encounter with Jesus. 

It becomes a rather puzzling story then, with a tax collector who does more in response to the law of Moses than expected or demanded. In response, Jesus does not declare that he has faith, but rather acknowledges him as a son of Abraham, a member of the Jewish community, no matter what his neighbors might think. 

And one more thing. Think about that tax collector in last week’s gospel, who went to the temple and prayed, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” The word sin does not appear in the story of Zacchaeus, and we don’t see clear signs of Zacchaeus’ repentance, or words of forgiveness from Jesus.

What are we left with, then? Well, this. Seeing. Zacchaeus climbs up a tree so he can see Jesus. He is so desperate to see Jesus, so excited, that he will do anything to accomplish it, even something as silly or un-behooving an adult male as climbing a tree. I mean, I can’t remember the last time I climbed a tree, and I can’t imagine doing it. But Zacchaeus did, in his excitement and in his joy.

 And because he does so, Jesus can see him. But not only see him. Jesus calls him by name. He knows him. Who else of all those who Jesus engages with in the gospel of Luke have names? The people Jesus heals, the people who come to ask questions, most of them remain anonymous, but not Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus’ joy and excitement are rewarded, even while the crowd grumbles around him. Jesus invites himself to Zacchaeus’ home, so that their brief encounter becomes a longer one. Zacchaeus becomes the honored and gracious host and Jesus the honored and gracious guest. 

That might be the take away for us. This joyous, joy-filled encounter takes place just before Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. The mood shifts suddenly and dramatically. But now, for a moment, Zacchaeus can have his excitement and joy and Jesus can relax in a stranger’s home.

We live in times where joy often seems distant, a faint memory. The weight of the world lies on our shoulders; our own problems, the world’s problems seem intractable and worsening; divisions deepening. Our political institutions seem on the verge of collapse; old hatreds that seemed long-dead have returned as virulent and violent as ever. We may feel overwhelmed with fear.

But Jesus comes to us. Do we want to see him? Do we want to have that life-changing encounter, to see him? He is calling our names, inviting us to be with him, inviting us to enter his presence, to see him. May our encounters with him fill us with joy and may his presence transform our lives.