Jesus invites us to the messianic banquet, not the Taste of Madison: A Sermon for Proper 17C, 2019

Outside our doors today one of Madison’s most beloved and popular cultural rituals is taking place. It’s one many of us will be participating in as well, as we make our pilgrimage around the square and sample the various foods on offer. Few of us stop to think about what such rituals mean or signify; for most, if not all of us, the Taste of Madison, like other events such as Art Fair on the Square are fun. In this case, we get to sample food from restaurants we might not otherwise visit, or try new things, or purchase selections that remind us of other times and places—funnel cakes evoking memories of long-ago county fairs.

But such events also reinforce and inscribe our identities—in this case first and foremost as consumers, and they reinforce our place in the capitalist system. There are those vendors who are new or are trying to make a small business succeed as they pursue the fading American dream. There are also the cooks and servers who are working for vendors and likely receiving little more than the minimum wage. And the diversity—the ethnic cuisines that are adapted to mainstream American taste buds, or are being appropriated and monetized by others. Continue reading

The Word of God is like fire: A Sermon for Proper 15C

How many of us, when we’re travelling and making small talk with strangers, or visiting with family out of state, or connecting with friends we grew up with and haven’t seen for several decades, how many of us avoid mentioning certain topics? With whom do we talk about politics, or the news of the day in casual conversation. Even a discussion about the weather can lead to heated conflict. We live in a divided nation, a divided state, a divided community.

Many of us have experienced such division within our own families. In the weeks before Thanksgiving, for example, there are advice columns and essays about how to talk to your relatives who have different political views. Continue reading

Puffs of wind and resurrection hope: A Sermon for Proper 13C, 2019

El Paso. 20 killed, at least 26 wounded, but perhaps more because some of the wounded may have fled the scene fearing that if they sought medical attention they would be deported.

Gilroy Garlic Festival. 3 victims killed, 12 injured. In both cases the perpetrators were white supremacists bent on ridding the US of immigrants and people of color.

Dayton, OH. If you haven’t heard the news this morning, another mass shooting late last night. 9 dead, 16 injured.

These are just the latest in a long list of mass shootings; by some estimates 249 in 2019 alone. We are numb with grief; many of us outraged, angered by the fact that common-sense measures on gun control are blocked by craven politicians beholden to the money from the NRA.

While details on the shooter in Dayton remain sketchy, we know the motives behind the tragedies in El Paso and Gilroy. The shooters were white supremacists, racists, emboldened by a society in which such views have become widespread and unchallenged in the media. Were they Muslims, the full power of law enforcement would be marshaled against them; but as we’ve seen repeatedly, too many of those who wear uniforms in police forces and military share the views, if not the willingness to act on them publicly, of the shooters.

There are no words that can offer comfort; no thoughts and prayers that can ease our mind. The shocking reality of the violence; its seemingly endless recurrence, and the racism and hate that lie behind so much of it lay bare the moral rot in our nation, just as the unwillingness of politicians to address the carnage in any meaningful way, does the same. And we also need to look inside ourselves, to interrogate our deepest emotions and most deeply-held beliefs, to ask whether deep in our hearts we too shelter some of the same hatred and fear that unchecked and stoked lead to such heinous acts.

No words… I would like to stop now for a few minutes; to allow us silently to reflect on the events of the past 24 hours and the last week, to pray for the victims, to pray for our nation, and to listen to ourselves, to our emotions….

 

Lord, have mercy.

Christ, have mercy.

Lord, have mercy.

No doubt it was overwhelming for many of you to sit in silence just now. The horrific violence, the deaths of so many, the hate that we see reflected so intensely in social media, at rallies, and in the acts of shooters as in Gilroy and El Paso. We feel impotent, angry, fearful. And we wonder, where is God in all this? We wonder too, how as Christians are we called to respond and to be faithful to our calling as disciples of Jesus Christ?

Hard questions without easy answers.

Our readings, the Psalm, the excerpts from Ecclesiastes, and the gospel all touch on death and on our legacies. From Ecclesiastes: “I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me — and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish?”

From the Psalm:

For we see that the wise die also;
like the dull and stupid they perish *
and leave their wealth to those who come after them.

 

The gospel reading, first a dispute over an inheritance and then the parable of the foolish rich man, who stores up all of his grain so that he can “eat, drink, and be merry.”

I wonder how many of us are like that rich fool. We lead our lives, go to work, accumulate possessions, plan for retirement; look forward to the time, be it tomorrow or ten years from now when we can relax and take it easy.

I wonder how many of us are like that rich man. Do you notice how he thinks?

He’s faced with a problem. For whatever reason, hard work? Favorable weather? He has a bountiful harvest unlike any he’s had before. What will he do with all that grain? And so he says, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, `I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, `Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”

How many times in those few sentences does the word “I” appear? Here is a man blessed with abundance who thinks only of himself. What might he do with that abundance? Share it with the laborers who did all the work, even invite them to a celebration of the bountiful harvest? No, he thinks only of himself.

One could say the same thing of the writer of Ecclesiastes. In our reading, we hear the word “I” repeatedly and when he speaks of others, he speaks only of whether they deserve what he leaves behind, because who knows whether they will be wise or foolish. His response? All is vanity, literally, a puff of wind.

In fact, the rich man’s words, “eat, drink, and be merry” come from Ecclesiastes (8:15):

“So I commend enjoyment, for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their toil through the days of life that God gives them under the sun.”

It’s advice we might like to take, especially on days like today when the news is particularly disheartening. It’s advice we might like to take, to enjoy ourselves, and ignore the suffering and injustice and all the evils in the world. We might like to close ourselves off from all of it, to claim it’s not our problem or there’s nothing we can do about it, that the occasional “thoughts and prayers” in response to radical evil and horrific violence is enough.

Now, I’m not about to disparage eating, drinking, and being merry. I’m as fond of celebrations as anyone. I love good food, fine wine, and don’t ask me how much dancing I’ve done this summer.

But all is not vanity and a puff of wind.

We are followers of Jesus Christ, who was crucified because he preached release to the captive, good news to the poor, because he challenged injustice and oppression, because he turned over the tables of money-changers and proclaimed love of enemies.

We are followers of Jesus Christ, whose life and ministry was vindicated by his resurrection—evidence to us that God is working new things in this world, defeating evil and calling us to imitate Jesus by loving our neighbors, proclaiming good news to the poor and release to the captive.

We are followers of Jesus Christ, and as Paul writes in Colossians, whatever we might want for ourselves, whatever goals we might have, whoever we are, we are being remade in Christ, our selves are being transformed, made new creations, “according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!

In Christ, may we be remade and renewed, that we lay aside our differences, our anger and despair. Living in the power and hope of resurrection, may we follow him in loving our enemies, proclaiming the good news, and challenging the rising tide of hate and violence that surrounds us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lord, Teach us to pray: A Sermon for Proper 12C, 2019

“Lord, teach us to pray.” Over the years, I have had lots of conversations with people about prayer. Even people who have deep and intense prayer lives often struggle with prayer and seek to become more prayerful. Many others, like myself, feel wholly inadequate in our prayer lives. We struggle to find language to address God, we struggle to be authentic before God; we struggle as we seek to listen to God. It should come as no surprise that I struggle with prayer. One of the first courses I had in Divinity School was “Constructing the Concept of God.” I quickly learned that it was difficult to pray to a concept I had constructed. Continue reading

In the heat of the day: A Sermon for Proper 11C, July 21, 2019

Well, that was quite an exciting day or two around here, wasn’t it? On the hottest day of the year so far, a downtown power outage that lasted for hours. Fortunately, power was restored before too much damage took place. Around here, all of the meat in the pantry freezers was safe, and power came back in time that the nave was at a comfortable temperature for Friday afternoon’s wedding rehearsal. Still, it was kind of eerie driving downtown on Friday—the streets were practically empty, and between the heat and the power outage, there was almost no one walking around. The only lingering effect here at Grace is that the internet is down. Continue reading

Peace, Protest, Hospitality: A Sermon for Proper 9, Year C, 2019

We have come to that section of Luke’s gospel which relates his long journey toward Jerusalem. In the past few weeks, we have seen him teaching and healing in Galilee, crossing over the Sea of Galilee to heal the Gerasene demoniac. Last week, we were told that he set his face to go to Jerusalem, and we heard that strange story of him sending his disciples ahead of him into Samaritan towns that refused to welcome him. Strange, because James and John wanted Jesus to call down fire from heaven to destroy the inhospitable villages. Continue reading

Learning the languages of Pentecost: A Sermon for Pentecost, 2019

When I was twenty-one years old, I studied abroad for the year in Marburg, Germany. My trip there marked the first time I had ever flown on a plane, and while I knew I would be greeted by a friend when I landed, I was terrified. I had studied German for four semesters in college and while I could read with some facility, my speaking ability was quite limited and I my aural comprehension was weak as well. In the year I spent there, I gained considerable fluency that returned when I spent another year in Germany a decade later, and even when I traveled back some years ago. Continue reading

A Sermon of three cities: Madison, Philippi, the New Jerusalem (6 Easter, 2019)

We’ve all seen the headlines and read the stories pronouncing Madison one of the best places to live in the country. Most of us love it here—the restaurants, the entertainment possibilities, the lakes, UW. That Madison is a popular place to live is evidenced by the ongoing construction boom. I was on the near east side, what is now called the Capitol East neighborhood this week. I hadn’t really noticed everything that’s happened there recently. There’s the Sylvee, a new hotel, more apartment complexes. The difference driving down E. Washington today from ten years ago is remarkable. Continue reading

It might be a vision from God, it might be your stomach growling: A Sermon for 5 Easter, 2019

Today marks the end of the program year for our Christian Formation program. It’s a custom here at Grace that on this day we recognize all those who have worked in our Christian formation program as teachers and as volunteers and to invite the children and youth in the program to participate in our service by serving as ushers, lectors, and Eucharistic ministers. Things are always a bit chaotic on this day, which is not necessarily a bad thing. We experience the full breadth and depth of our congregation—its diversity in ages. And we see concretely how our Christian formation program has grown over the last decade. This year we added a second class during the 10:00 service to accommodate that growth, and next year, we anticipate dividing the older group that meets at 9 into separate classes for middle and high schoolers. Much of the success of the program is due to the energy, passion, and creativity of Pat Werk, and also to all those volunteers whom we will recognize later in the service.

That’s all a sign of growth and change at Grace. While we might welcome such growth, it’s also important to recognize that growth brings with it some challenges. We may not know or recognize everyone who worships with us on Sunday mornings; the presence of children in our services can also make things a little more chaotic, and not just on this Sunday morning. And we are struggling with space. As we consider splitting the youth into two classes, finding space for the second class to meet will require some flexibility and creative thinking.

In the book of Acts, we read the story of the spread of the gospel and the growth in numbers of the followers of Jesus in the first years after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Luke tells us a story full of drama and excitement but he also records some of the conflict that such growth involved. We see some of that conflict here, in the story of Peter and Cornelius.

Have you ever been in a situation where someone you respected, someone in authority told you to do something you had never done before, something that went against everything you had been taught, would have challenged your very sense of identity, who you were, how you understood yourself, your deepest values? Can you imagine that? How would you respond?

That’s just what happened to Peter. He was staying with Simon the Tanner in Joppa and as he waited for lunch, he had a vision that unsettled him and challenged his very sense of self. A cloth comes down, on it are all sorts of unclean animals. A voice calls to him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” Peter refuses. The same thing happens three times, and just as the vision comes to an end, messengers sent by Cornelius knock at the door. Peter and some others go with them. Peter preaches to Cornelius’ household, the Holy Spirit comes down on those present, and Peter baptizes them.

We hear the second version of that story, as Peter retells it to the gathered community in Jerusalem after his return from Caesarea. It wasn’t a simple update from Peter to the home office. There was grave concern about what had happened while he was traveling:

Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”

In other words, they weren’t bothered that Peter had preached to Gentiles or that he had baptized them. What concerned them was that he had eaten with them. Peter had visited Cornelius, stayed with him for several days, and had eaten at his table. From Luke’s perspective, this all would have been offensive to observant Jews.

Let me take a moment to unpack this. It’s crucial to compare the New Testament accounts with what we know from other sources and in this case, Luke is mis-stating the nature of Jewish practice in the first century. Certainly, observant Jews maintained strict dietary laws—eating only those foods that were clean by biblical standards. That’s what was at stake in the vision Peter had. But the notion that as Luke records a bit earlier (Acts 10:28) “it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile” is wrong. In 1stcentury Palestine, it would have been impossible for Jews not to have had contact with Gentiles. So Luke is depicting Judaism in negative terms here, and also caricaturing the position of Peter’s critics.

Now certainly there were important issues at stake. We will see the conflict again next week as we hear the story of Paul’s visit to Jerusalem and the so-called Jerusalem council. The question whether Gentiles who accepted Jesus as the Messiah needed to be circumcised and to follow Jewish dietary laws was an important one. From the perspective of 21stcentury Americans, it’s hard to understand what was at stake, and to take seriously the concerns around circumcision. We know how the story ended.

But given the resurgence of Anti-Semitism and Anti-Judaism, we must recognize when new testament texts and their authors present Judaism in negative light and provide cover for contemporary anti-semitism. This is one of those places. It’s obvious to us that circumcision and Jewish dietary laws no longer apply and we regard those who wanted to maintain them misguided. They were in a very different place. The relationship between the Jesus movement and Judaism was not defined. The emergence of two religions—Judaism and Christianity—was not at all an obvious development.

But there are other lessons for us here. We should think carefully about the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, the ways in which our sacred texts and Christian history have led to persecution, anti-semitism, and ultimately the Holocaust.

We often look at the story of Acts, the spread of the Gospel, the movement of the Holy Spirit, and the resistance to that from certain parties and interpret our own experiences and the life of the 21stcentury church in light of that narrative. How many times have people said when change is happening in the church, that the Holy Spirit is moving or doing a new thing? When the question is asked that way, the speaker always is advocating that change is good, that the innovation is a faithful adaptation of our faith to new realities.

I’m not so sure. There’s a passage in Deuteronomy that I’ve always found helpful here. The text is addressing the rise of false prophets and raises the question of how to distinguish true from false prophecy. Well, the answer that’s offered isn’t particularly reassuring—basically the advice is to wait and see whether the prophecy comes true. In other words, you can’t really distinguish true and false prophecy until after the fact.

Our congregation is experiencing change. The Episcopal Church is experiencing change, Christianity in America and worldwide is experiencing change. We may be uncomfortable with some of those changes; we may welcome them but as faithful Christians our ultimate task is to discern the work of the spirit, to listen to scripture and tradition, to pay attention to voices on all sides of an issue, and seek God’s wisdom and will in the midst of it, recognizing that our perspective might not be correct in the long run.

And the vision we receive, the voice that tells us, “Get up, kill and eat” may be heaven. It may also be our stomachs growling.

 

 

 

 

The Disciple named Tabitha: A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, 2019

When I was a boy, one Wednesday a month, my mother would drop me off at my grandfather’s house to spend the day while she took my grandmother and my sisters to the church to what was called “Sewing.” The women of the church gathered together to work on quilts, comforters, and other sewing projects that would be donated to relief sales or sent to people in need—after natural disasters, for example. I’m not sure when or if the custom ended, if it died out like so many other customs did with our changing culture. Continue reading