Singing after Silence: A Sermon for Advent 2C, December 5, 2021

Of all the things the pandemic has deprived me of, deprived us as humans, as members of a congregation, none may be more significant than the loss of song. From the early days, when we learned of the rapid spread of covid among choir singers, we have remained largely silent in church—the rich hymnody of the Christian tradition, which speaks to and for us and our faith, has been laid aside except for halting attempts like virtual choirs or our zoom hymn sings when we gather virtually to raise our voices. But the sheer joy and emotional depth that comes from singing together has been largely absent from our worship. We are slowly, haltingly, reintroducing hymns to our worship, but at the same time we recognize the challenges we face when we do sing.

Still, as Mark and Berkley know, I refused to go through a second Advent without singing “Lo, he comes with clouds descending” which will be our closing hymn today at our later service. 

Song has been a central part of Christian worship from the beginning, as it was and remains for Judaism—evidenced in the presence of the Book of Psalms in our holy scripture. 

Today, we sang the Song of Zechariah as our psalm or response. It’s one of four songs that Luke includes in his story of the nativity.  One of those songs, the Gloria, sung by the angels when they appeared to the shepherds, has traditionally been a central part of our Eucharistic celebrations. The other songs appear regularly in the daily office, morning and evening prayer: the Song of Mary, the Magnificat, the song of Simeon, the nunc dimittis, which is sung at Evening Prayer, and the Benedictus, the Song of Zechariah, which we just said together.

These songs likely were not composed by Luke, but were taken and adapted by him from songs that Christians were already singing in their worship. Whether or not they come from the people or angels, in whose mouths Luke placed them, they reflect an even deeper tradition for all of them are bathed in the language, imagery, and poetry of Jewish worship and Hebrew scriptures. 

Still it’s important to pay attention to the context and to the lips where Luke places these songs. In Zechariah’s case, he hadn’t been able to sing, or speak for nine months. You may recall the story. Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were elderly, childless. Zechariah was a priest. The story goes that he was chosen by lot to enter the sanctuary and offer incense, quite likely a great honor and probably the only time he did it in his life, and while he was there by himself, the angel Gabriel appeared to him and promised that he and Elizabeth would have a child. Zechariah was rather skeptical about the probability of this ever happening, and when he expressed his doubts, Gabriel struck him speechless for the duration of the pregnancy. 

The child was born and on the 8th day, as he was about to be circumcised, and still speechless, Zechariah wrote out instructions that the baby should be named John. As soon as he did that, his voice returned and he began to praise God. Luke continues, “Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy.” 

For nearly two years, our voices have remained silent of song. We have been able to speak, unlike Zechariah who remained totally silent for nine months. Now, I can’t imagine being silent for nine months, and I can’t imagine that after nine months of silence, the first thing I would do would be to praise God. But I do know this about silence, that it allows us to think and reflect before we speak, and with nine months of silence, and uncertainty about whether the silence was just temporary as Gabriel said, or would be permanent, I think I probably would think carefully, very carefully about what words I would speak when the ability to speak came back.

But Luke doesn’t say that this song was the product of careful reflection and composition over the course of nine months. He offers a rather different account of its composition—Zechariah, Luke says, was filled with the Holy Spirit and began to prophesy. This prophecy, this Spirit-filled song, fairly bursts with scriptural allusions. It’s as if Zechariah, having nine months of silence to reflect on his experience and on his promised son, has internalized all of salvation history, the whole story of scripture, and recasts it in light of the hope he now has. 

It’s fitting that the name Zechariah means “God remembers” for Zechariah sings of God’s remembering God’s people. Zechariah sings of God’s promises, to raise up a mighty nation, to save “us”—Zechariah includes himself in this promise of salvation—from our enemies; to show mercy to our fathers; to set us free to worship God without fear.

In the last section of the psalm, Zechariah turns to the promises embodied in his own son, John the Baptist, who would be the prophet, not only of God’s promises, but also prepare the way for the one who was still to come, the one who would usher in God’s reign. 

This one, Zechariah’s son, John the Baptist, would be a harbinger, a sign of that which was to come, the dawn of salvation, not salvation itself. John offered hope and pointed away from himself to the Christ. But through him, we begin to see, recognize, and experience “the tender compassion of our God.” That lovely phrase not only evokes images of a mother embracing her new-born child, as the joyful and incredulous Elizabeth was likely cradling her infant son John, it also invites us to imagine God’s maternal, nurturing love for us and for all creation, a love we experience and know in and through Christ’s love for us. 

“Tender compassion” reminds as well that God’s love and mercy for us, as powerful as it may be, is also an invitation, not an imposition. It requires us to pay attention, to be vulnerable and open, to allow ourselves to see and experience that tender compassion in spite of the noise and violence of our world. Like the breaking dawn that we see only if we ourselves are already awake, and if we lift our eyes away from ourselves and our concerns to the horizon, God’s tender compassion is easily overlooked, missed in the noise of all that competes for our attention. God’s tender compassion is a melody played on a single note, not the cacophony of a rock band in a stadium.

Zechariah sang his song after nine months of silence, imposed on him as punishment by Gabriel. Song has largely been absent from our voices, our lives over the last couple of years and our lives have been less rich because of it—our spiritual experience perhaps less full, less rich because of our inability to sing.

And the world may make us feel like we cannot sing. We may feel hopelessness, despair, oppression as the world around us careens from one disaster to the next. Images and stories from across the globe make real the suffering of our fellow humans, the fact that like Zechariah, they too, cannot open their mouths to sing, or if they do, their songs are laments or the blues.

Such songs can also be prophesies—they can call us out of our complacency, our stupor, our self-deception. They can wake us to the pain and suffering of the world around us; they can also, like Zechariah’s inspire us to action and to hope. 

God’s tender compassion comes to us in many ways and in many forms. May we pay attention, open our ears to hear its sweet melody, and may it help our hearts sing as we experience God’s mercy and salvation.

Our redemption has drawn near: A Sermon for Advent 1C, 2021

November 28, 2021

What a couple of weeks it’s been! The shock of the Rittenhouse verdict; the carnage in Waukesha last weekend, during which the good people of St. Matthias led by the rector David Simmons, opened their doors to offer refuge and comfort to victims and bystanders. Then this week the convictions for murder of the defendants in the murder of Ahmad Aubery. And even as we were trying to observe the annual rituals of Thanksgiving, Good Friday, and the end of the college football regular season, news of a new and worrisome COVID variant threatening to upend our lives once again.

We continue to struggle, individually, as a community, a nation, a world, with ongoing pandemic and our deep desires to return to the world and the lives we had two years ago. News of the omicron variant sent shockwaves through the financial system on Friday, and I daresay, has caused many of us to worry again what the future, the next weeks may hold for us, even as we look ahead to Christmas and other holiday plans that were beginning to look rather like celebrations of past years.

With all of that on my mind, I didn’t have the fortitude to go back through my past sermons on Advent I, to remind myself of past years, of the themes I stressed. For me, the beginning of Advent has usually been a wonderful moment in my personal spiritual life and in the life of the congregations of which I’ve been a part. There’s the excitement of the build-up towards Christmas but more than that, the central themes of the season: waiting, watching, hope have tended to strengthen my faith in Christ’s coming—not only at Christmas but on the Last Day, and strengthen my resolve to look for signs of his coming, and his presence already in the world around us and in my life. 

But this year, I feel like I’ve had enough of waiting. Haven’t we all been waiting, for nearly two years, for life to return to some semblance of normal? Is it possible to maintain hope in the face of all that’s going on in the world? 

How do we make sense of it all? How do we enter Advent this year with all of this uncertainty, fear, and, let’s face it, sheer exhaustion? I don’t have answers for you—I think asking these questions, wondering how to prepare for Christ’s coming, how to open ourselves to his presence in the world, experiencing his entrance into a world like ours all that pondering search; well, that all maybe Advent discipline enough for now.

Still, as I reflect on our readings and collect, there’s something that intrigues me this year. As I was thinking about today’s sermon, something a commentator wrote caused me to stop and ponder. They said something to the effect that the gospel reading in Advent begins with a focus on time expanding outward, toward the Second Coming, and over the course of the four weeks, time begins to slow down, to shorten, until we come (this is me, not the commentator) to the moment of Gabriel announcing to Mary the coming of the Savior of the World in her body.

There’s something profound in that observation that says something about the Gospel of Luke and about us. We are in Year C of the lectionary, when we read the Gospel of Luke which has a very different tone, and certainly different perspective on time, than the Gospel of Mark which we read this past year. If there’s a single word that describes Mark’s attitude toward time, it is “Immediately” one of the most common words in the gospel, often used to introduce a new scene or episode. There’s an urgency to Mark’s gospel, a sense that everything is happening at a break-necked pace. And that extends to his perspective on Christ’s second coming, which as you heard last Sunday, Mark seems to have expected to happen very soon, in his lifetime.

 Luke has a very different tone. As we will see again and again throughout the coming year. The story he tells is not limited geographically in scope to Galilee and Jerusalem, as with Mark. Instead, Luke puts the story of Jesus in a global context. He begins by contextualizing his story in the Roman Empire, and ends the Book of Acts, the second volume of his work, with St. Paul’s arrival in Rome. 

Even here, in this text, Luke ratchets down Mark’s urgency. Whether it’s because he’s writing at a later date, further removed from the events described in the text, Luke’s version of Jesus’ words lack the intensity of Mark’s.

We are actually hearing from Luke’s version of verses taken from the same episode in Mark’s gospel that we heard last week, the so-called Little Apocalypse. Both gospel writers place in Jesus’ mouth in the last days of his life as he is teaching in and around the temple. He predicts the destruction of that very temple, an event that would take place some forty years after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. It was a cataclysmic event both for Judaism and for Christianity.

Mark was very likely written shortly after the temple’s destruction, and his version of this apocalypse shows urgency and immediacy. Luke, writing at least 15 years later, has a longer perspective. Clearly, the destruction of the temple did not inaugurate Christ’s return, so Luke leaves out references to wars and rumors of wars, references to people fleeing the destruction and fleeing persecution. Instead, he mentions signs in the skies and stars, and in the seas, nothing so specific as an earthquake.

Luke’s version may not seem quite so urgent, but there is desperation, nonetheless. The language used is evocative—“People will faint from fear and foreboding”—we might also say, it is enough to take one’s breath away, feelings we are familiar with these days.

But in the midst of these signs, all is not lost. There is hope. God’s reign is still entering into the world, still coming. Our redemption is drawing near. 

Over the course of the next weeks, as we move back from nearly the end of Jesus’ life to the beginning, and before, time will contract; the scope of Luke’s story will narrow to Bethlehem, and to the coming of Christ into the world. Our focus may narrow as well, as the business of the season, the world-historical events swirling around us give way to the intimate rituals of family, friends, and community.

But those small, intimate moments bear witness to the larger truth—that Christ’s coming into the world ushers in a new age—God’s reign of justice and peace. And signs of that coming are not just in scripture, or in re-enacted stories but in the world around us.

Our redemption draws near. Even when it seems most unlikely, when things seem to be at their worst, when there are signs in the skies and in the seas, when the powers of the heavens seem to shake, and we cower in desperate fear, there are signs of God’s coming reign. 

Our redemption draws near. There is hope for all who live on the face of the earth. This Advent, even as we struggle with all of the world’s ills, struggle with pandemic, with injustice, oppression, and racism, when all seems lost and the world seems to be spiraling into chaos, our redemption draws near. 

May this Advent be a season when our hope is rekindled like the candles of advent wreaths are lit; when our faith is strengthened and our eyes opened to see those signs of Christ’s coming, signs of God’s reign breaking in upon us, signs of God’s future entering into our present. 

Inheritance and Discipleship

What do you want to inherit?

Proper 2, Year B

October 10, 2021

Yesterday our diocesan convention, held on zoom, passed a resolution submitted by a group of Grace members and diocesan clergy that committed the diocese to examine our history as it relates to the indigenous people of Wisconsin and to build relationships with our Native American neighbors. It came at an appropriate time. Next year, 2022, sees the concurrence of two important anniversaries for Wisconsin Episcopalians. First, next year is the 200th anniversary of the arrival of Episcopalians to what is now the State of Wisconsin. They were members of the Oneida Nation, forced to leave their homes in upstate New York. The second anniversary is the 175th anniversary of the Diocese of Milwaukee, which we will observe at a special convention a year from now. 

Tomorrow is also the observance of Columbus Day, or increasingly “Indigenous People’s Day” an opportunity for us as Americans to consider the complicated and violent history that saw the destruction of native cultures, the seizure of land, and genocide. I’ve been reading David Treuer’s The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present. Treuer, an Ojibwe who grew up on the Leech Lake reservation in Minnesota, tells the stories of Native Americans over the last century; the Federal government’s efforts to force assimilation, to “kill the Indian and save the man” to dissolve reservations and tribal autonomy, and slowly, haltingly, to support Native efforts to build community and heal trauma. Treuer also tells stories of resistance and resilience. 

Like the history of slavery and the persistence of racism, the history of Native Americans in the US is a story that makes us uncomfortable. The hard truths of that history have long been ignored and suppressed, replaced by a story of whites settling and taming a land that was empty, bringing prosperity, civilization, and democracy to the wilderness. Christianity, Christian churches played an important role in that project operating missions and boarding schools that suppressed native cultures, native languages, and native religions.

As we move forward with our efforts, both at Grace and on the diocesan level, we will engage in conversations internally and with Native Americans to deepen our understanding both of the history and of the current challenges facing indigenous peoples in Wisconsin. We hope to provide an update at our Annual Meeting next month.

This legacy, this history, is uncomfortable. It raises questions about our responsibilities given the fact that events like the removal of the HoChunk, the history of the boarding schools, took place decades or over a century ago. It challenges our self-understanding, as individuals, as Christians, as Americans. Too often, faced with these harsh truths, we want to ignore, turn away. And so the sorts of conflicts we see at school boards, here in our State Assembly, over what is derided as “Critical Race Theory” seek literally to white-wash American history and culture. 

Even as our national, cultural, and family identities may tug at as, may tempt us to avert our eyes and pass over our history, Jesus calls us into a different identity and into new community. I think we see something of that same struggle of identity, the conflict between legacy and discipleship in today’s gospel reading.

It’s a familiar story, though as is typical of gospel stories, we’re never satisfied with the way one gospel writer tells it and introduce details from other versions to complete it. So, in Mark’s telling, a young man comes to Jesus with the question, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Think about that question for a moment. First, the way he addresses Jesus: “Good Teacher,” he begins. Rather like a student might approach a teacher, but not really, right?” It’s a bit of flattery maybe, like the student who approaches a prof for an extension, or a letter of recommendation. And I’ll point out, instead of responding in kind, Jesus rejects the flattery, no one is good but God. 

But then comes the real question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” We might assume it’s a rather obvious question, similar to others we see in the New Testament, “What must I do to be saved?” for example. But in fact, this is the only time the term “eternal life” appears in the Gospel of Mark. 

And furthermore, that verb: “inherit.” In the ancient world, if not today, inheritance almost always was a family thing—parents’ passing their possessions on to their children after death. Inheritance implies family; it implies privilege. Inheritance, privilege. Think again of the wealth accumulated and passed on in the US thanks to slavery, thanks to the dispossession of Native Americans; think of the generational trauma inherited by African Americans, by indigenous peoples.

And think of Jesus, calling his disciples. Those first disciples, by the Sea of Galilee, “Come, follow me.” When Jesus talks about discipleship and following him in the gospel of Mark, he stresses that it means giving up everything, including family ties. Here, Peter says, “we have left everything to follow you.” Jesus responds with a saying about the reward for giving up everything, including family, to follow him. 

Seen in this light, the man’s question is phrased incorrectly. What Jesus is proclaiming is a new community based not on ties of family or economic status. It may be that when Jesus tells the young man to distribute his possessions among the poor, he is instructing him to break away from his old relationships of privilege and family and enter into this new community that Jesus is calling together. It’s interesting that Jesus uses the same words, “Follow me,” to the young man that he used when calling the disciples. But in this instance, he has added another stipulation, “Go, sell all that you have and give to the poor.” It’s as if he knows, to pick up on the idea that this story is in the form of a healing story, that for the young man to follow him, to be whole spiritually, he needs to abandon his wealth.

But what does this all have to do with us? It’s a story that may fill us with guilt because we think about our relative wealth in the face of the world’s and this city’s poor. It may fill us with guilt as we think about our privilege over against the struggles of people of color in the US, of African Americans and Indigenous peoples. It may fill us with guilt because of our comfort and enjoyment of life in the face of the world’s need. 

At the same time, in light of all those stories about the vast accumulation of wealth by the few, how that wealth increased exponentially during the pandemic, we may think that whatever our privilege and relative wealth, it is nothing compared to the wealth of those other people, and that Jesus’ words are not directed at us but at them.We may think that this is one of those places where what Jesus has to say has no relevance for our lives. 

But I don’t think that’s the case. All of us struggle with money. Some of us struggle with the lack of money, with worries about the future, about making it till the end of the pay period. Some of us have different struggles, as we wonder whether how our financial lives connect with our spiritual lives. Did you know that Jesus had more to say about money and wealth than about any other topic?

It’s not something we like to talk about at church, especially in this time of the year as we are beginning our annual stewardship campaign. But we need to talk about it and think about it, as a congregation and as individual Christians. Jesus calls us to follow him. He wants our whole allegiance, body and soul. Following him totally means living all of our existence in light of him and that call. It means seeing our wealth, our financial choices, in light of that call. What have we inherited, what do we want to inherit?

As we struggle with these questions; as we struggle with Jesus’ call to follow him, he sees us in our struggles, as we try to make wise and faithful decisions. He sees us, and while we may think his gaze is one of judgment and condemnation, may we be certain that even as he loved the man who turned away; he loves us even when we stumble or falter. Thanks be to God.

The Comfort of a Reasonable and Holy Hope: A Sermon for Proper 21B, 2021

During a funeral last week, I was caught short by a phrase I heard and had never noticed before. After 15 years of being a priest, presiding at who knows how many Rite 1 funerals (15? 20? 30), I was listening as Carol read the prayers. I heard this:

Give courage and faith to those who are bereaved, that they
may have strength to meet the days ahead in the comfort of a
reasonable and holy hope

“The comfort of a reasonable and holy hope.” In case you’re wondering, they’re on p. 481 of the Book of Common Prayer, in the prayers of the people.

I was so taken by these words, so moved by them, that I could hardly return my focus to the service at hand. And over the last week, they have continued to run through my mind. They spoke to me in that moment; they speak to me as I navigate these difficult times; in the midst of my fear, despair, as I listen to the news and see the horrific images of men on horseback whipping desperate Haitian asylum seekers, as I hear about the suffering of COVID victims, as we all wonder when the crises in which we are living will finally give way to some sense of ordinary-ness.

The comfort of a reasonable and holy hope. Hope has certainly been hard to come by the last months and years. As a citizen of the United States, I think my hope began to wane in 2016, if not before, as we have seen the backlash against efforts to make ours a more just and equitable society, to address the legacies of slavery and genocide against Native Americans; the ongoing racism and sexism, our catastrophic wars and the devastation and suffering they have caused. And then came the pandemic, months of fear and isolation, with hope rekindled as the vaccines were rolled out, then the Delta variant, and anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers allowing the pandemic to continue.

I had a conversation a couple of weeks ago with the altar guild leader about, of all things, Christmas decorations. The deadline for ordering was coming up and we needed to decide what sort of decorations we will put up this year; something restrained and minimal as we did last year when we weren’t worshiping in person? Or should we go back to the extravagance of past years? It was a hard conversation, not just because planning more than a few weeks in advance is so difficult. We have had to make so many last minute changes in order to adapt to the changing pandemic. It was difficult too because of the memories—of a full church, of the excitement of being together for Christmas, of music and festivity and joy, and the possibility reality of continued social distancing, masks, and fear.

Hope is hard to come by these days, and when it does, it often feels more like self-delusion. With all of the crises we face, with a political establishment apparently unable to honestly and seriously deal with those crises, from climate catastrophe to pandemic, with a media and social media more interested in producing content that generates more views and clicks than conveying the reality of the situation, despair seems not only the appropriate emotional response, it seems like a logical, even necessary stance in the world.

But then those words, “the comfort of a reasonable and holy hope.” You may wonder why I fixated on them. I wonder myself. As I’ve pondered them, and my response to them, I began to focus on the adjectives used—reasonable and holy. I don’t know whether I had ever attached such words to the concept of hope and I began to explore what their presence here might mean.

After all, what is “reasonable” about hope in our current context? Why might hope be “holy”?

As I’ve reflected on these questions, I have thought about how we generally think about hope. We might assume that hope stands in opposition to reason. Perhaps we’re reminded of what St. Paul writes in Romans 8: 

Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

And often hope seems to be something far off; a sort of imagined future that bears little resemblance to the world we live in, the lives we lead. So what might a “reasonable hope” be? Given the original context of the phrase, I would assume that it is a reference to our faith in the resurrection—both the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the hope for the resurrection of the faithful. Reasonable, because as Paul writes elsewhere, the resurrection of Christ is the first fruits of the resurrection of the dead; evidence that our hope is justified, thus rational.

But let’s be honest—that hope may seem as distant, as unmoored from reality as the hopes we have for a better life, for change in ourselves, our loved ones, our world. 

But there’s another adjective in that phrase that encourages reflection—“holy” What might a holy hope be? And here I think it’s worth going back to the word’s origin, to its biblical usage. Holy means being set apart—made sacred for God; other than ordinary objects, occupations, concerns. And here is where I think it helps to distinguish “holy” from other sorts of hope. We have desires, wishes, hopes for ourselves and our loved ones but are those based in our own desires or are they something more, something deeper, drawing on God’s love in Christ?

The comfort of a reasonable and holy hope. As I reflect on where we are as followers of Jesus, as members of the body of Christ that gathers in this place, and virtually, that has experienced these last months and years together and is looking ahead into an uncertain and challenging future, “a reasonable and holy hope” may be just what is needed for us to move forward in faith.

Reasonable—what have we as Christians, as God’s people learned over the last months? What resources in ourselves and our congregation have we discovered that have helped us grow more deeply together in community, and in relationship with Christ? What has made us stronger, more resilient to face new challenges that may arise in the future? I’m mindful of our technological adaptations; the months of phone tree activity that kept us in touch with each other, the efforts of the little group that imagined and organized the short Monday videos. I’m mindful of the lay-led bible studies that have continued throughout the pandemic. There has been much we have failed at, but we have a great deal for which to be grateful, much to celebrate.

We have reason to hope; but our hope must be holy. As we continue to adapt to these circumstances, as we tentatively, slowly emerge into a new reality of congregational and community life, our holy hope should help us distinguish those things we desire out of nostalgia or selfishness, and the vision of mission and ministry to which God is leading us. 

My friends, there is much to hope for; the comfort of a reasonable and holy hope is God’s gift to us. Over the coming weeks, we will be talking about the future as changes come to our congregation, our ministry, and mission. We will be talking about our future role in the downtown neighborhood, our leadership in racial reconciliation and addressing the Episcopal Church’s and the US’s treatment of Native Americans, seeking to build relationships with our HoChunk neighbors and other indigenous peoples of Wisconsin. We will be imagining ways of reaching out into the neighborhood and community, to share the love of Christ in new and creative ways. Filled with God’s love, inspired by that reasonable and holy hope, may we step courageously and faithfully into the future.

Did you wash your hands? A Sermon for Proper 17B, 2021

Proper 17, Year B

August 29, 2021

We know all about washing our hands, don’t we? Here at Grace, we’ve got signs everywhere reminding us of the importance of that act. We’ve developed little rituals to help us make sure we do the full 20 seconds. If we’re not able to wash our hands, we’ve got hand sanitizer everywhere. Over the last eighteen months, we’ve developed instincts for things like staying six feet away, not shaking hands, all the rituals of sanitizing and social distancing. Many of us have so internalized these instructions and rituals that they have become second nature, even as we learn that much of the things we were told to do and did are no longer necessary. And at the same time, we’re all too familiar with the conflicts over such measures, the way those conflicts reflect partisan and cultural differences; the ways our views on such matters have become identity markers, to the detriment of public health and the suppression of the pandemic.

To hear Jesus debating the merits of hand washing may seem to us a bit strange, even if we might wonder whether there was something there that might connect with our own concerns and controversies. And truth be told, after all of those weeks listening to the conflicts over the meaning of bread in John 6, a switch in topic might be welcome indeed. At the same time, we might wonder whether Jesus is little more than a trouble-maker, looking for ways of generating conflict and drawing distinctions between himself and the religious establishment. Given that in our current context, watching people inciting or welcoming conflict and controversy has become commonplace, with fatal consequences for some, we may be a bit weary of it all, and eager to find other things to talk about in church.

But there’s more to it than that, and in order to make sense of it, we need to spend a little time talking about Mark’s gospel and the context in which this story appears. We are in Mark 7, so we are picking up the story where we left off—after the Feeding of the Five Thousand, after Jesus walked on water, after those trips back and forth across the Sea of Galilee. It’s not quite clear where we are, but I think we can assume we are back in Galilee. 

In any case, Pharisees and some scribes have come to check Jesus out. It’s the second time we’ve seen this constellation of characters. The first time was near the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry when they confronted him about healing someone in the synagogue on the Sabbath. This time, they are challenging Jesus’ disciples about their conformity to ritual practices. 

For us, heirs of two thousand years of Christian polemic against Judaism, this debate seems lifeless, the outcome a foregone conclusion. But in the first century, it wasn’t. We need to remember just who the Pharisees were and what they were trying to do. They were a movement within Judaism that sought to make Torah, the Jewish law, relevant for the daily lives of ordinary people. They wanted to “build a fence around Torah” that is to say, to develop a body of interpretation that would help people be faithful while protecting the Torah’s central tenet. So they developed traditions of interpretation that applied the principles of the law to ordinary life. They also wanted to expand its reach and relevance, so they applied legal material that had originally affected only the priests, to all. That was the case here, with hand-washing.

But it’s also important to remember that they were only one group within 1st century Judaism; there were others who disagreed with their approach. In other words, this debate was alive and there were sound arguments on both sides.

We generally assume that Jesus preached against the Pharisees’ approach. He does so here, but note that he argues against their position by quoting the tradition, the prophets. In other words, Jesus is not trying to abandon the tradition, he is arguing from within the Jewish tradition against the Pharisees’ approach.

It’s important to understand just what the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees was about—interpretation of the law, and especially interpretation of the purity laws. It was not a conflict between external religious practice and inward piety. That’s the way Christians have often understood the conflict and thus they see  Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees as an attack on external practice. When Jesus tells the Pharisees that impurity does not come from the outside, but rather an impure heart leads to sins, he is redefining purity and holiness. Sin, Jesus is saying, comes from within. Evil intentions lead to evil acts. 

The lesson from the Letter of James makes the same point in a slightly different way, “Be ye hearers of the word also, and not just doers.” This letter, well it’s not really a letter, more like a collection of ethical advice, emphasizes moral action. Throughout, the author of the letter emphasizes the importance of faith expressing itself by doing good toward others. 

We don’t think in terms of purity much these days, we don’t even use the term holiness very much. They seem old-fashioned, irrelevant in the contemporary world, not even terribly important in our lives of faith. But to ignore such important categories is to miss something that was crucial in Jesus’ message in the first century, and should remain of central significance to those who would follow him in the twenty-first century. 

Holiness has meant different things over the centuries. In the biblical tradition, of course, holiness was above all something denoted of God. But the real connotation of the term, both in the Hebrew, and later in the form we are also familiar with it—sacred, both terms mean essentially being set apart. That which is sacred, or holy is different from, that which is not. In a sense, what is holy or sacred is God’s, and that’s why when the people of Israel came to think of themselves as God’s chosen people, they use rules of purity to set themselves apart from other peoples. Over time, those purity rules became more important as they came to define the differences between the people of God and others. So in Leviticus, when the Israelites received the laws of purity, the holiness code, it found its meaning with God’s statement “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” 

The question of course, is what all this means. We are called to be a holy people, yet if you’re like me, you probably bristle at the notion. Some of us have good reason to do so. There was a time in the Episcopal Church, maybe some of you can remember it, when if you were divorced, you couldn’t receive communion. I don’t know if that was the practice here at Grace before rules were liberalized in the 70s; I know it was true in churches in South Carolina. 

For the Judaism of Jesus’ day, such purity rules were all about preserving the community over against a dominant and domineering culture. Over the centuries such rules, laws, had become more important, especially as the Jewish community had to struggle to survive as a subject of mighty empires. 

But Jesus challenged that view of things. Such purity rules, as helpful as they were and are in preserving community, went against something even more important to Jesus—the full inclusion of all people among his followers. We will see this more clearly in the coming weeks, but it is no accident that Mark puts this dispute about Jesus’ disciples keeping the purity code right after the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand. For there was no more perilous moment for someone who kept purity laws than eating. And since they were somewhere out in the wilderness, as Mark makes clear, there would have been no way to keep the purity laws concerning the washing of hands, or, of food. 

That’s precisely what Jesus was advocating and living, a move away from a notion of holiness that divides and excludes, toward one that is inclusive—a holiness of the heart, rather than a holiness of rules. What that means for us in the twenty-first century may not be exactly clear. 

Jesus’ words challenge us to rethink our deepest cultural values and some of our deepest aversions. To be the inclusive, welcoming community that Jesus has called us to be means not only eliminating the barriers and rules that divide us but to embrace one another in a spirit of love and forgiveness and above all, to transform the love we experience in our acceptance by God, to the love of others. In our divided and conflict-ridden world, to welcome and embrace difference, to reach across everything that divides us and be witnesses to God’s love, may be the most important thing we can do.

Where can we go? A Sermon for Proper 16B, 2021

Proper16, Year B

August 22, 2021

Have you ever faced one of those life-changing decisions, one where you knew that whatever you did, your life would change forever? It may have been a relationship, a job opportunity, where to go to college. It may have been a decision between remaining in the familiar comfortable place, where you knew who you were and where you stood, and the uncertainty and challenge of a future that held the possibility of excitement and a transformed life, but also might have been dangerous. 

We know all about bad decisions, regretting the choices we made, things that led us down deadends, or trouble. We also know about doors that we didn’t open, opportunities that we didn’t pursue.

We know about bad decisions in the world around us. We see them playing out in society, in government, in institutions like schools or universities as we all struggle with the pandemic and with the challenges we face. The news is full of such stories these days; some of those decisions affect us, our livelihoods, the health and welfare of our families and in the face of those bad decisions, we wonder how we can make right ones.

We are seeing bad decisions play out on a global scale as we watch unfolding events in Afghanistan; the fruits of a twenty-year long military debacle, and repeated bad decisions, or refusals to make the hard decisions. And we see the consequences of those decisions in the lives of Afghanis who wanted to create a better society and better lives for themselves and their families.

Often we can’t know or imagine the implications of decisions we make—how they will affect those around us, our future lives. And in such circumstances, we often don’t take others into consideration when we act, or out of fear that we might make the wrong decision, we don’t choose, which of course is a decision of its own.

I was scrolling twitter last night, witnessing the deep partisan conflict and anger that is endemic to that platform; seeing links to heartbreaking stories of COVID patients, chaos in Afghanistan; witnessing the fear and anxiety of individuals as they try to do the right thing; conflicts over, well just about everything. As I scrolled, I thought about Peter’s response to Jesus in today’s gospel reading, “Where can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Facing a choice, facing a decision, Peter and the twelve vowed to walk with Jesus into an uncertain future.

We are finally coming to an end to our reading of John 6. Next week, we will be back in Mark for the rest of the liturgical year. Today’s reading provides us with a helpful transition back to Mark because it addresses one of Mark’s central themes, and certainly a central theme of that part of Mark where we will find ourselves for the next several weeks. 

Let’s go back and look at what is taking place. The story begins with the feeding of the five thousand. His disciples cross the lake and Jesus walks on water to join them. After discovering that Jesus is gone, the crowd follows him back across the lake, and then begins the lengthy debate, discussion, argument, over the meaning of the miracle and the significance of bread. Now, as the chapter comes to an end, we are told that Jesus said these things, with the culminating statement: “But the one who eats this bread will live forever” in the synagogue at Capernaum, where he had been teaching.

Then we are treated to another shock, or abrupt transition. The crowd with whom Jesus had been debating has suddenly vanished, and only the disciples are left. The controversy is over, or Jesus’ opponents are gone, and in the quiet of the moment, some of those closest to Jesus have second thoughts: “This teaching is difficult, who can accept it?” 

Struggling to comprehend what Jesus is saying, what he is about, the gospel writer observes, “many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.”

And then, Jesus took the inner circle, the twelve, aside and asked them, “Do you also wish to go away?” 

Peter answered for the group: “Where would we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” 

“Where would we go?” 

Peter and the twelve had borne witness to the conflict. They had listened and watched as Jesus and his opponents argued over the meaning of bread, and the bread of life. They saw as his opponents appealed to history and tradition in their attempt to silence Jesus. They watched too, as their friends, other disciples turned away because Jesus said difficult things. 

We might very well be among those that think Jesus’ teachings are difficult, so difficult in fact, that we refashion them into an ideology that reflects our fears and baser instincts, that contribute to white supremacy and Christian nationalism, that reinterpret the command to love our neighbor and our enemy, so that they refer only to those in my family, race, political party, or socio-economic class. 

Jesus has difficult words for us, difficult teachings. Wherever we stand on the political spectrum, wherever we stand on the burning questions of our day, it is easy for us to view Jesus, his teachings, through the lens of our political and cultural assumptions. We can see that when others do it; when they mold Jesus and Christianity into an ideology supportive of their political perspective. It’s often much more difficult to see when we do it ourselves.

Where would we go? 

As we return to the Gospel of Mark next week, we will see that following Jesus, discipleship means for that gospel, following Jesus to the cross—an arduous and dangerous journey for those who would follow Jesus. We will learn from Mark his perspective on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

In the gospel of John, there’s a rather different emphasis. As I mentioned last week, in this gospel discipleship is all about relationship with Jesus, being with, abiding with Jesus. There’s a poignancy in this little episode, when some of Jesus’ disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. Having tasted that relationship, having abided in him, having glimpsed the abundant life Jesus offers, they chose the easier path, to walk away. 

But Peter and the twelve saw that they really had no option. There was no alternative. “Where would we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

We stand at a crossroads, in this liturgical year as we move from John to Mark, and between somewhat different notions of discipleship. We stand at a crossroads as Jesus asks, “Do you also wish to go away?” We may want to step away from him, from the difficult words that he teaches, back into the comfort of easy answers and complacency, but to do so means also turning our backs on the life he offers us. Behind us lies the familiar with all of its easy answers and certainties. Ahead of us lies the uncertainty of a future, and amid that uncertainty the promise of a life lived in Christ. Where will we go?

Summer of Bread, Summer of Soul: A Sermon for Proper 15B, 2021

Proper15, Year B

August 15, 2021

Over the last months, Corrie and I have streamed a lot of movies and television shows. We are revisiting some of our old favorites, discovering new shows, and branching out to explore foreign productions. Some of them are not very good; some of them we continue watching only because we can’t think of any alternatives. Some of them are capable of helping us forget about the world’s problems. Very occasionally we watch something that really wows us.

That was the case with “Summer of Soul.” It’s a documentary using footage taped in 1969 of a series of concerts in Harlem. Unlike Woodstock which took place the same summer and became an iconic moment of American culture, no one saw the film footage of Summer of Soul until it was masterfully crafted into a documentary for the ages by Questlove, with interviews of some of the surviving performers as well as some who had been in attendance. 

It’s a remarkable film both for the quality and diversity of the performers: jazz, gospel, R & B, blues. There are transcendent moments: a young Stevie Wonder drum solo but the moment that is burned into my memory is of Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples singing “Precious Lord.” Jesse Jackson introduces the song, telling the crowd it was MLK jr’s favorite song and that Mahalia sang it at his funeral, just a little over a year earlier. It’s a hot and humid day, and Mahalia has already been singing; she’s tired, and hands the mic to Mavis, telling her she can’t sing it. Mavis is up to the challenge but as she sings, Mahalia recovers, gets up and joins in an improvisational duet that stops time and summons the Holy Spirit. With the memory of MLK’s assassination still raw, after riots and dashed hopes, that moment and the film as a whole, is witness to the hope, faith, and resilience of an oppressed people.

Watching this film more than fifty years after the footage was made is a strange experience. There’s a sense of possibility, of dreams of change, in the midst of the reality of what had taken place. The fashions, the amazing performances bear witness to the joyous exuberance of a people celebrating their culture and music, celebrating being together. But there’s also the reality that we know how the next fifty years played out—the ongoing backlash to the civil rights movement, the abandonment of the cities and the hollowing out of social programs, the rise of white supremacy.

Strangest of all was the power of the experience, the way I was moved while watching the film, and especially while watching the Mahalia Jackson—Mavis Staples duet. With all that’s going on in the world, all the ways my life, our lives, our world has changed, with all of the troubles, suffering and crises, for a moment to be transported into another dimension by a recording of a performance more than 50 years ago, was unexpected, inspiring, and sublime.

What’s more surprising is that I experienced it in my living room with only Corrie and the cats to share it. In an utterly mundane, ordinary space, beauty and grace, the Holy Spirit entered and for a moment we—Corrie and I at least, probably not the cats, were transported to another plane of existence. 

It’s something we used to experience regularly. The effervescence of experience, shared in a group or a crowd, at a concert, the theatre, even at a sporting event, and of course, in a church. But in pandemic, with our concerns for social distancing, masks, and all, those sorts of experiences are rare indeed. Such experiences, such feelings are one of the reasons we find ourselves taking risks we might not otherwise take in light of the continuing pandemic. We yearn to be with others; we yearn to be transported outside of ourselves and away from the narrow, mundane lives we’ve been living, the fear and anxiety that have dominated us.

As we continue to read from the bread discourse in John 6, I find it interesting that we are given a dialogue in which Jesus and his interlocutors debate the experience they shared earlier—the feeding of the five thousand—and reflect on what it might mean for them. In one sense, Jesus’ conversation partners—I hesitate to call them opponents—seem to be trying to draw an analogy between their experience of receiving the miraculous bread from Jesus, with the historical event of the Israelites being fed manna in the wilderness. It’s a very human thing to do, isn’t it, to look for similar experiences in the past, to interpret the present through the past.

But Jesus seems to be saying something quite different: What you see and experience here is nothing like the manna in the wilderness. The Israelites ate manna and died; whoever eats the bread I give them will live forever. We immediately think of eternal life when we hear such language, but when Jesus and the gospel writer speak of “life” in the Gospel of John, they mean life lived now, abundant life, lived in the presence of, in relationship with Jesus Christ. 

There’s something else I want to emphasize. When Jesus speaks of flesh and says, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abide in me and I in them” we immediately think of the Eucharist, the bread and wine the body and blood of Christ. And rightly so, for clearly that’s one meaning of all of this. But there’s another aspect of “flesh” to which we should pay attention. Remember John 1: “And the Word became flesh and lived among them.”  

This text is about more than the Eucharist. It is about the incarnation, the word made flesh, but it’s also about the flesh-made word living among us, living in us. 

We may want to focus our attention on what these verses suggest about the meaning of the Eucharist. Christians have debated how Christ is present in the bread and wine since the first century. But I think we have more to learn from what else Jesus says here, “those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them.”

Jesus is pointing to the riches and depth of relationship that are possible in and through him, as we grow more deeply in knowledge and love of him, as we eat more deeply and drink more deeply, as we are nourished by his wisdom. All of that opens up more possibility for dwelling more deeply in him, and he in us.

Even as we struggle with our current lives and the crises in our world—as we learn of the devastation in Haiti, a tragedy on top of all of the other tragedies that nation has faced over the centuries and in recent years; as we watch the collapse of Afghanistan and are reminded again of the failures of American diplomacy and military might, as we confront climate catastrophe, pandemic, and everything else, the noise, the fear, the worries may be overwhelming.

But in the midst of all of it, the cacophony of crisis, Jesus comes to us, in bread and wine, in flesh and blood, in voices raised in song, offering us hope and new life, abundant life. May we find the ears to hear, the eyes to see, the mouths to taste, the life he offers, the life he gives us.

And even if we can’t sing like Mavis or Mahalia, may we reach out our hands to our Precious Lord, so he can lead us home.

Out of the Depths: A sermon for Proper 14 B, 2021

Proper14, Year B

August 8, 2021

As I started reflecting on the readings for today earlier this week, I found myself drawn to the Psalm. It’s a familiar one full of powerful imagery that draws us into the spiritual life of an author 2500 years ago and offers us opportunity to reflect on our own spiritual lives.

 And I thought it might be worthwhile to spend some time with the Psalm, and with Psalms in general to help us understand their role in our Eucharistic liturgy, and perhaps open up new possibilities for our own spiritual reflection and growth.

You may wonder why we recite or chant a psalm each week in our Eucharistic liturgy. Each week, following the first reading, there’s a psalm. It’s not a reading like the other readings, but a response to the first reading, meant to be a reflection on it and to repeat some of the first reading’s themes. It’s meant to be sung, or chanted, or read. When we read it at Grace, we usually read it in unison; but it can also be read responsively, with the leader reading one verse, and the congregation reading the next one. It can also, although this requires a bit more orchestration, be read antiphonally, with each side of the congregation reading a verse.

The psalms are prayers and for most of the history of Christianity, and of Anglicanism, they have been a central part of devotion and practice. Traditionally, if you read Morning and Evening Prayer regularly, you would read all 150 psalms every month. Doing that repeatedly over the years would cultivate a deep familiarity with them, not just with the words, but with the sentiments expressed, the imagery, the theology. In our current Book of Common Prayer, the daily office of Morning and Evening Prayer isn’t quite so psalm-heavy. Instead of a monthly cycle, there’s an eight-week cycle, and some of the psalms, and some verses of individual psalms, are omitted.

I don’t want to go into great detail concerning the history of the book of Psalms. If you know anything about the Bible, you probably know that David is associated with the Psalms. We’re told that David was a musician and some of the Psalms, though not all are attributed to him as author. But in fact, the book of Psalms is a carefully edited and compiled collection, brought together in its current form over many centuries. We know that because it’s easy to see that some of them were written long after David’s death. Psalm 137 for example, begins “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, and there we wept, ere we remembered Zion.”

It’s clearly a lament, written by people who had been carried off into exile after having seen their city of Jerusalem, and their temple destroyed.

“Out of the depths I cry to you, O God, Lord hear my voice”

Psalm 130 may be familiar to you; it’s one of the 7 penitential psalms in the Western Christian tradition as a group often set to music. In the Protestant tradition, Martin Luther translated it and is attributed as composer. “From deepest woe I cry to you…” #151 in our Hymnal.

Many of the psalms have instructions for their use or other information about them provided. Thus, we’re told that Psalm 130 is a “Song of Ascents.” It’s one of a group of psalms so labelled (Psalms 120-134). Many of them begin, like this one does, with an individual’s prayer to God: “Out of the depths, I cry to you Oh God.” You may be familiar with Psalm 121, which begins, “I lift my eyes to the hills, from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.”

What makes Psalm 130 particularly powerful is the place from which the individual cries—“out of the depths.” In the imagery of the Hebrew Bible, the depths mean the sea, a place of chaos, the farthest imaginable distance from God’s presence. And the writer of the Psalm doesn’t seem certain that God can hear him from that place—that’s one meaning of that first verse. I am crying out to God, but I am also praying that God can hear me.

Following that an initial plea to God to hear the psalmist’s prayer, the writer offers a statement of faith in God’s goodness and justice: 

“If you Lord, were to note, what is done amiss…

“For there is forgiveness with you

Then comes two verses that are simple yet powerful in expression:

“My soul waits for the Lord, my soul waits for him

“In his word is my hope”

The image of “waiting on the Lord” is repeated.

We may not think of waiting as a spiritual practice. For us, waiting often includes with it growing anxiety and discomfort—waiting for an appointment, waiting in line, waiting for someone who promised to come at a certain time and is late. Waiting often leads not toward serenity, but towards anger and resentment.

But here, waiting opens oneself up to the possibility of God’s presence, waiting to hear God’s response to the cry of verse 1. Waiting implies hope but also trust that God will speak into the silence of waiting.

And finally, in the last two verses, the individual experience of the psalmist is expanded to all of Israel, or to the whole community. If I wait for God, so too should Israel wait for God; for with the Lord there is mercy, It speaks to us as well.

We know about waiting, waiting in our own lives, waiting in the life of our congregation, waiting as a people struggling against injustice, in the midst of suffering, in a broken world. We wait for the Lord, and the psalmist reminds us that our waiting is not in vain.

“With him there is plenteous redemption

“He will redeem Israel from their sins.”

 A psalm written 2500 years ago, in a particular moment, by an individual struggling with her own faith, and praying to God for deliverance, became a prayer of the Jewish people and then was used by early Christians as well, to express their struggles and their faith. It speaks to us across the millennia, and it can speak for us. 

Often we feel like we are in the depths, alone, tossed about by chaotic times, turbulent seas. We feel we are far from God; that if we are crying out, there is no one to hear us, and we’re not sure that God, if there is a God, can hear us. But our cries can be acts of faith in themselves, assertions of hope that God will deliver us in the midst of our distress and suffering. And so we wait on the Lord, for in God there is plenteous redemption.

I am going to end by reading to you another translation of it, that by the great Jewish literary scholar and critic Robert Alter. Alter recently published his translation of the whole Hebrew Bible. It’s idiosyncratic but reflects his deep understanding of the Hebrew language, of the English language, and of the faith of the peoples who wrote the texts and have lived with hese texts for the last 2500 years:

From the depths I called you Lord,
                        Master, hear my voice.

                        May Your ears listen close to the voice of my plea

Were you, O Yah, to watch for wrongs,

            Master, who could endure

For forgiveness is Yours

            So that You may be feared.

I hoped for the Lord, my being hoped

            And for his word I waited.

My being for the Master—

            More than the dawn-watchers watch for the dawn.

Wait, O Israel, for the Lord,

            For with the Lord is steadfast kindness,

                        And great redemption is with Him

And He will redeem Israel

            From all its wrongs.

Hometowns and Sending out: A homily for Proper 9B, 2021

Proper 9, Year B

July 4, 2021

So today is the 4th of July. Especially this year, I am approaching this day with mixed emotions. It’s not just that it’s on a Sunday so marking it in some way seems inevitable, necessary. By the way, did you know that in the Episcopal liturgical calendar, there’s an official observance of the 4th of July with its own lessons and a collect? Like other such observances however, Sunday takes precedence, so if we were to observe the 4th of July here at Grace, we would do it tomorrow. 

With all that’s happened in the last era—the war on terror and in Iraq and Afghanistan; police violence and black lives matter; gun violence; the January 6 insurrection; the assault on democracy and voting rights; the attack on the teaching of American history and the teaching of systemic racism—it’s hard to figure out just how to observe this day, especially when Independence Day didn’t mean “independence” for many residents of our nation for many, many years.

For me, there’s an added complexity this year because my memory is still fresh, and I am still processing, emotionally and theologically the afternoon we spent with Bill Quackenbush, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the HoChunk this week. Hearing his stories, learning more about the treatment of the HoChunk and other Wisconsin tribes by settlers and by the state and federal government, and in spite of that receiving gracious words and an expressed desire to develop relationships with Grace Church, other Madison organizations, and the Wisconsin Council of Churches, was both awe-inspiring and humbling. 

With all of these issues in our wider culture, our efforts to find a way of celebrating this day openly and honestly seem especially fraught, and to do it in a Christian Church, an Episcopal Church, adds another layer of complexity as we think about the ways that American Christianity has been tied up with nationalism and the good and bad of American history. We might want simply to ignore it all; to let the observances of the 4th of July pass unnoticed in our Sunday morning worship, left to barbeques and fireworks, and the like.

When we turn to the lectionary, as distraction, or escape, or perhaps, today, even for inspiration, we are confronted again with some of the ways that Jesus in Mark unsettles and disturbs our conventional thinking and perspective.

Jesus is coming home again after his preaching and healing tours that took him beyond Galilee, across the Jordan and back. Mark tells us that he went to the synagogue on the sabbath. That’s where he began his public ministry, in Capernaum, but we saw him visiting the synagogue in his hometown earlier in the gospel. Then, you may recall, he found himself in conflict with Jewish religious authorities and with his own family members.

This episode plays out in similar fashion. But now, it’s the local populace that takes offense at Jesus’ words. They know him; they remember him as a boy; they know his family. Who gave him the right to say these things? 

There is more going on here; it’s not just the hometown trying to put the uppity local boy back into his place. We might think about this whole episode tactically. If you’re about to go out and challenge the status quo, preach the good news of the coming of God’s reign, wouldn’t you want to go back where it all started, in hopes of getting support from the people who know and love you best? 

But they reject him, and in turn he rejects them. He turns his back on them and sends his disciples out into the countryside to teach and heal. One more thing, before moving on to the next section. While we’ve seen Jesus teaching publicly in the synagogue repeatedly up to this point, in Mark’s gospel, this the last such appearance. From now, Jesus’ teaching will take place elsewhere, in the streets and in the fields, in people’s homes around meals.

Which brings us to another way of linking these two sections; Jesus’ rejection in his hometown and the sending out of the disciples. The instructions Jesus gives are suggestive. The disciples are well-equipped for the journey with staff and sandals, but not with the means of sustenance, food, money, or extra clothes. They will be utterly dependent on the hospitality of others. As Ched Myers points out in his brilliant Mark commentary, “Binding the Strong Man” the disciples, “like Jesus who has just been renounced in his own ‘home’, are to take on the status of a sojourner in the land.” For Mark, putting on sandals is a metaphor for discipleship.

We will have a great deal more to say about discipleship in the gospel of Mark. What it means to follow Jesus will only become clear as we work through the next sections of the gospel, and especially as we recall Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem, his arrest and execution. For now, it’s worth thinking about the contrast between the hometown and family that rejected Jesus, and the community of followers (whoever does the will of my Father is my mother and brothers and sisters) that Jesus gathers around himself and then here sounds out as an extension of his own ministry.

Like the 4th of July, hometowns can evoke a great deal of nostalgia. We often remember with great fondness the places where we grew up; or the way those places were when we were growing up. We may even recall hometown 4th of July celebrations that were community events, with parades and fireworks. But the stories our hometowns tell about themselves, the stories we have internalized, are often quite one-sided. That was one of the lessons I learned from Bill Quackenbush this week. He told HoChunk stories about the area that I had never heard before and helped me to see this land with new eyes.

For some of us, of course, remembering our hometowns can bring back bad memories, even trauma. We may have left the moment we were able, and never looked back. But nonetheless, they tug at our emotions and heartstrings. Even if our experience of them was painful, the dream of perfect childhood, a perfect place can continue to hold us captive.

As hard as it may seem, and in our current climate, it may seem even more difficult, following Jesus means leaving behind those old certainties and old stories. Following Jesus means entering into a new story—the story of a community gathered together by Jesus, a community of people tied together by shared faith, not by common ethnicity, national origin, or socioeconomic class. The story in which we are invited to become characters is a story of personal transformation and social change. It is a story that challenges complacency, nostalgia, and the status quo. It is the story of God’s reign coming. May we have the ears to hear this story as Mark tells it, and the courage to share it with others.

Here are my mother and my brothers: A Homily for Proper 5B, 2021Sermons


June 6, 2021

What an exciting day it is at Grace. After almost exactly fifteen months of live-streamed or recorded worship, some of us are back in person. Others are still joining us online—and as I’ve said before, I assume that we will continue to offer some form of online worship for the foreseeable future. Some of us aren’t able to join us in person; others will choose to join us from home or while traveling because of convenience. It’s a new adventure for us all and we will have to do the hard work of thinking how to incorporate everyone into our congregation. 

What an exciting day, too, for Brandon and Kate. They’ve been waiting almost six months to have their daughter Mia baptized. We originally planned for a private baptism in November, but as COVID cases spiked we decided to delay it until a time when we could all feel more comfortable with it. This way, members of their family can be present

It’s lovely that we have a baptism today, on our first Sunday back for in-person worship. Not only does it bear witness to the newness of life in these difficult times, it is also a reminder to us of what we are about as God’s people, bringing into the body of Christ new members, witnessing to God’s love, and proclaiming our faith in the risen Christ. Our baptismal liturgy includes in it an opportunity for us to renew our own baptismal vows, to commit ourselves to each other as members of Christ’s body, and to renew our promises to grow more deeply as followers of Jesus.

There’s a creative tension at the heart of our understanding of baptism, especially infant baptism. On the one hand, it is a profoundly, intimately family celebration and event, linking families across generations with beloved and familiar traditions. That understanding was especially prominent in earlier generations when most baptisms were private. In the Episcopal Church, they were often conducted with only the immediate family and the priest present, often after Sunday services had taken place.

On the other hand, baptism is the full initiation of individuals into the body of Christ. It is a rite that brings us into fellowship and relationship with Jesus Christ and other members of Christ’s body. That aspect of it is emphasized when we all promise to help the one being baptized grow in the Christian faith. That’s why we now conduct baptisms usually at the principal Sunday service of Holy Eucharist, although we do make provisions as needed and to accommodate individual circumstances.

We see something of that same tension in today’s gospel reading. This is the first time we’re reading from the Gospel of Mark since Easter and after all those weeks in John’s gospel, we jump back into Mark’s very different story with a jolt that may wake us up.

We’re back fairly early in the gospel—chapter 3 to be precise. In the preceding chapters, Jesus has been on a preaching tour through the towns of Galilee, beginning with Capernaum. He has healed many people of their illnesses, cast out evil spirits, and called several of his disciples. His fame has spread far and wide and the crowds are becoming impressive. He has also aroused conflict around his interpretation of the law.

We see the effects of his healing ministry and the conflict he has already elicited here in this story. It’s an enigmatic story, full of drama, and leaving us with many questions as we listen to it. But I want to focus on the internal drama—or perhaps better put, the internal conflict between Jesus and his family members. A bit of that drama is downplayed in our reading because we pick up the story in verse 20. It’s not really clear to us that Jesus has come home, literally, to his house. That’s where the crowd presses in, so urgently that they are not able to eat. But, and this is important for what comes next, he and the disciples are not in the house, because his family comes out and wants to restrain him. They fear he has gone mad. To top it off, the religious experts have come down from Jerusalem to assert that he is not a messenger from God, but a servant of Satan.

That all this takes place around the house is significant. We have already seen that the private home is a place of refuge. Jesus went to his disciple Peter’s house after his initial public preaching and healing in the synagogue in Capernaum. But there too, he was beset by the crowds who wanted him to heal the sick. Later on in the gospel, we will see Jesus gathered with his disciples, but also with tax collectors and sinners, in people’s homes sharing table fellowship. Here, the house is a refuge, but it is occupied by family members who question his sanity.

Coming back to the end of the reading, Jesus is in the house, and his family members are outside. Being made aware of their presence outside, Jesus asks:

“Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

We have been outside of this place these many months, clamoring to enter, wanting to return. For many of us, to be back inside this sacred building is a coming home. It is a sanctuary from the troubles and dangers of the world, a place where we connect with our deepest selves, with God, and with our fellow Christians. Yet many of us are still standing outside—for whatever reasons reluctant to return to services because of anxiety, vaccination status, or medical conditions that limit our freedom.

Others stand outside because of their alienation from God, because of the pain they have suffered at the hands of the Church, because they are not sure they are welcome here. Some may not feel welcome because they are different from us, racially or ethnically, socioeconomically, because of their sexuality or gender. 

Even as Jesus embraces the household, the home, as a place of refuge, for himself and his followers, at the same time, he reinvents or reimagines the nature of the community that occupies the house. No longer is it a fellowship united by ties of blood; anyone “who does the will of my father” is a part of this new community, new family brought together by shared commitment to Jesus.

 In fact, it may be misleading even to call what is being brought together by Jesus a “family.” Especially in our culture where the notion of “family” is contested and full of symbolic meaning, weaponized for political purposes and cultural warfare, when we call the church a “family” we risk setting up the same sort of barriers between “inside” and “outside” that are created by the walls of a church, or a house. When one’s experience of family is full of trauma, scars, and abuse, to be called into a new family of the faithful may be a barrier to hard to cross.

Still, we are a new community, created by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are a new community that welcomes into its midst through baptism and confession of faith anyone who comes to us. We are a new community that is meant to model what it means to follow Jesus in the world. We are a community called by Christ, calling others to Christ. 

As we reaffirm our baptismal vows today, as we bring into this fellowship a new member, as we gather, for the first time in many months in this place, face to face, and as we after a long fast, once again taste and see that the Lord is good, share in the Sacrament of Christ’s body and blood, may the bonds that unite us together be strengthened, that we may go from this place, to love and serve the Lord.

Here are my mother and my brothers: A Homily for Proper 5B, 2021Sermons

Preaching Grace on the Square

Here are my mother and my brothers: A Homily for Proper 5B, 2021Sermons