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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 27, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By the rivers of Babylon

Proper 22C

October 2 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proper 14C

August 7, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strangers and foreigners.

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are bold to say

Proper 12C

July 24, 2022

Lord, teach us to pray.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freedom, chains, or life among the tombs

Proper 7C

June 19, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trinity Sunday

June 12, 2022

Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty …

God in three persons, blessed Trinity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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