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.

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.

Prayer and Justice, Guns and Garden trowels

Prayer and Justice, Guns and Garden Trowels

Proper 24C

October 16, 2022

I’m holding up a garden trowel. Its blade was fashioned from the barrel of a gun, its handle from a gunstock. Yesterday, a group of us heard from Shane Claiborne, author of Beating Guns. He has taken his vision of re-enacting the prophetic call to beat our swords into plowshares across the country. At a forge and anvil, he and others forge the metal from hand guns and assault rifles into gardening implements. One gun so repurposed makes little difference. There are more than 400 million guns in the USA. 41000 people were killed by gun violence last year in the US. It’s one more staggering statistic in a litany of suffering that can lead to despair as we watch the various crises unfold in our community, nation, and world.

We have heard a great deal about the crises in and around our judicial system. Trust in the Supreme Court is at an all-time low; the federal court system seems intent on turning back rights, negating regulations that protect us and the environment. There was a news story last week about an appellate case that had been before a court for around a decade with no resolution.

We’ve also heard about the injustices in the criminal justice system; the way people of color are targeted; rape kits that have gone un-analyzed; people on bail committing violent crimes. There’s a sense that the scales of justice are weighted toward the powerful and wealthy, and that the weak and vulnerable are left to themselves. The stories of doctored evidence; of forced guilty pleas go on and on.

We’re also facing a crisis of democracy with election deniers poised to take over important positions in state governments and gerrymandering that disenfranchises voters and voting regulations that are intended to keep turnouts down. At the same time, policies with widespread popular support—like the right of women to make reproductive choices, and reasonable limits on firearms—are held hostage by vocal and powerful minorities.

Yesterday, we heard stories from women who were crying out for justice and change. As part of our Beating Guns event, two African-American women shared stories of the loss of their sons to gun violence and the trauma caused to themselves and to their other family members as a result. Their voices broke as they spoke of the pain and loss they felt: a mother who lost her best friend and closest companion, a child who would never know their father. Such stories are all too familiar. We have seen the tears and anger of parents after school shootings so often that we hardly take note of mass shootings any longer.

So when we hear a story like the parable in today’s gospel, something about it rings very true. A widow seeking justice approaches the court. We don’t know what her concern is. What we do know is that in 1st century Palestine, as in many places today, widows were especially vulnerable people. The mosaic law made special provision for widows and orphans, commanding that they be cared for, provided for by society as a whole and especially by those with wealth and power. 

In other words, this judge, by refusing to hear her case, by ignoring her was breaking the law of Moses. In the end, he relents—not because he sees the justice of her cause. We’re told that he neither fears God nor respects people. Instead, he relents because he’s tired of her coming in front of him repeatedly. In the original, their encounters are described rather more colorfully than in the translation we heard: the woman’s repeated appearances before him are giving him a “black eye.” Not only does she cause him physical pain; she is embarrassing him publicly.

Now here’s the thing. Jesus is telling the parable not to rant about the powers that be; the injustice of it all, the different treatments of the haves and the have-nots. He is telling it in order to say something about prayer. The parable is told to the disciples “about their need to pray always and not lose heart.” 

  Prayer and justice. The parable and its setting open up a number of interpretive possibilities. The most obvious may be the least helpful-comparing our experience of unanswered prayer with the widow who seeks justice. Unhelpful because in this approach, we would also likely interpret God on the lines of the unjust judge—a God disinterested or uncaring for us, and responsive only because we are persistent in our requests and annoying. 

In fact, Jesus makes quite the opposite point. If even an unjust judge eventually relents to persistent complaints, how much more likely to respond is a just, righteous, and compassionate God? Of course we get that many people would give up if their prayers remained unanswered, if their calls for justice remain unheard. For us, too, it may seem easy to lose heart, to abandon our cause.

But this parable is powerful testimony to the importance of not giving up. It also challenges us to center our cries for justice in prayer itself. Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great rabbi, mystic, and theologian who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King jr. from Selma to Montgomery, said as he reflected on that experience, “I felt my legs were praying.”

There was something futile, even absurd yesterday as we gathered in the courtyard here at Grace, around a small forge and anvil and watched as Lutheran Pastor turned Blacksmith Jeff Wild cut up the barrel of gun and reshaped it into a gardening trowel. There was something futile and absurd about those who stepped up to the anvil and struck the hot iron with a hammer, slowly transforming that metal into a usable tool. 

Such actions do not effect meaningful change. To many they might seem less than helpful, worthy only of spite and ridicule. But to those who were present and participated, what we did was more than gesture. It was prayer. It was also a powerful demonstration of faith that the God in whom we believe, the God we worship is a God of justice and peace, bringing into existence, forging, if you will, a new world in which God reigns triumphant in justice.

What we did yesterday was try to imagine the vision of the prophet Isaiah as he looked around the destruction and suffering in his world and offered an alternative: 

they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
   and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
   neither shall they learn war any more. 

We may be fearful; we may lose hope. As we watch the news and worry about what is to come, it may seem that the world that is emerging is a more dangerous place, that the future bodes ill with climate change, war and violence, the rise of fascism across the world. It may seem that the actions we take, whether by voting, or protesting, or beating hot iron into a gardening trowel make little difference, cannot stem the tide of hatred and evil.

It may even seem that our prayers for justice, for peace, for equality fall on deaf ears or are empty words that mean nothing and are powerless against the forces of evil and death. The two women who spoke yesterday, Lashea Jackson and Wendy Thompson, didn’t give up hope. In the midst of their trauma, they helped to create a support group for other victims of gun violence, helping others like themselves to cope with their pain.

Rooting our cries for justice in prayer is a profound act of faith. It is an expression of our belief that the God who created us and the universe is a just God. It is a proclamation that death is not the end but that the one who died on the cross to show us the way of salvation and to save us, conquered evil and death, was raised, and reigns eternally.

To pray with our feet, to cry for justice as we persevere in prayer, deepens our relationship with God. Like the apparent futility of beating one gun barrel into a gardening tool, prayer bears witness to our faith that God is a God of justice. It proclaims that we believe God hears our prayers, and the cries of all those who suffer, that God is making things new, that God’s reign will come. Thanks be to God.

Messy Lives, Messy Faith: A sermon for Proper 22C, October 2, 2022

By the rivers of Babylon

Proper 22C

October 2 2022

Today is our annual blessing of the animals. In a few minutes, I will invite those of you have brought pets with you, or if you have photographs, or ashes of deceased beloved animals, to come forward for a blessing. We’ve done this many different ways over the years at Grace, but always on a date close to the feast of St. Francis of Assisi which is observed on October 3. Some years, we have changed our readings so that instead of the regular Sunday lectionary, we read the lessons and prayers appointed for the Feast of St. Francis. 

It’s a messy day, messy liturgically because we are doing multiple and somewhat contradictory things, messy because we have among us dogs and other animals that disrupt the decorum of the church. But I’m always reminded when dogs are among us that altar rails became a thing to prevent dogs from entering the holy space of the altar. You’ll note that we no longer have an altar rail that can do that.

One of the few pluses of the past few years of pandemic is that the messiness of our lives was on display for all to see, thanks to zoom and other technological things. I’m not sure how many times a meeting, or morning prayer was disrupted by kittens or cats running through the house and across the keyboard. Zoom, especially for those of us who never created backgrounds, provided windows into the messiness of our lives, the cracked ceilings, the bookshelves that are disorganized with papers everywhere.

That messiness, and the relationships powerfully symbolized by the pets among us, here or at home, remind us of something else profound, the ways in which our lives, even our spiritual lives don’t always present themselves publicly the way we would want them to. More deeply, we might recognize ways in which we don’t admit the messiness of our spiritual lives to ourselves—those places, those hidden things that we don’t like to be reminded of, or confess but have a way of revealing themselves to us, and often to others, at inopportune moments.

Last week’s gospel, the story of the rich man and Lazarus, confronted us with the ways in which we fail to live up to the gospel imperative to love and care for others. We have all walked past homeless people, turning our heads away, offering nothing to panhandlers. In today’s readings, we are confronted with something else entirely, but perhaps even more challenging.

The reading from Lamentations, and Psalm 137, reflect the pain and suffering of a defeated people, forced into exile. Both bear witness to the deep distress and spiritual upheaval caused by military defeat and forced removal. We know about this, if only from the images and stories from the war in Ukraine: cities, cultural and historical monuments destroyed, thousands killed, millions forced to flee.

The texts convey the pain. Lamentations, written by someone who witnessed the devastation, saw the ruined buildings, the empty streets, the destroyed temple. The psalm, written by an exile poet, expressing their deep distress, their crisis of faith:

By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, *
when we remembered you, O Zion.

2 As for our harps, we hung them up *
on the trees in the midst of that land.

3 For those who led us away captive asked us for a song,
and our oppressors called for mirth: *
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion.”

4 How shall we sing the Lord’S song *
upon an alien soil.

These beautiful, tragic words echo across the millennia. They describe not only the experience of the Babylonian exiles but also the experiences of millions of others over that vast expanse of time, forced from their homes by war, famine, natural disaster, and now climate change. 

But that’s not all. The pasalm ends on a very different note, one so violent that I did not include the its last verse in our service bulletin. It speaks of bloody and violent vengeance, calling down God’s wrath on the conquerors. And that too is part of the experience of victims of war and other forms of violence—the desire to get back, to punish. That’s part of the messiness of human life, too.

Still, there’s something important that neither the psalm nor the reading from Lamentations mentions. The experience of defeat and exile was not only about mourning and desire for revenge. It was also about something else. Something radical, transformational happened while the exiles were in Babylon. In the ancient world, if a people were defeated in war, it meant not only the conquerors were more powerful, it also meant that the conquerors gods were more powerful than the defeated people’s gods. Usually, always, the defeated people lost their religion and their culture, being subsumed into the larger more powerful conquering culture.

In the case of the Babylonian exiles, that didn’t happen. They reflected on their experiences and as they reflected, they came to a new understanding of their God and what it meant to be faithful to that God. And when they returned from exile, they brought that new understanding, and newly created scriptural texts back to Jerusalem with them, and in doing so forged a new faith that would carry them, and their Jewish descendants, through the millennia, down to the present.

In the gospel, the disciples ask Jesus, “Increase our faith!” It’s something we all might ask; something we can imagine those people forced from their homes millennia ago, or people forced from their homes today, might ask. Faced with the prospects of having to abandon homes, or with the prospect of rebuilding lives after hurricanes, as people across the Caribbean, in Puerto Rico, Cuba, Florida, South Carolina are facing today, feelings of despair, doubt, may seem natural. For us, too, faced with our own struggles, the suffering in the world, we may be overwhelmed by despair, we may feel helpless, powerless. But what little faith we have, the messy faith we have, may be enough. Jesus is there, among the suffering, the victims of violence, war, and natural disaster, Jesus is here with us, in the midst of whatever struggles we are facing. Jesus’ arms pick us up when we fall down; he carries us when we are too weak, he brings us to this table where we feast with him. Thanks be to God.

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.