There were two kings, not three: A Sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany, 2018

Today is the Feast of the Epiphany. While it is a major feast day of the Church, unless it falls on a Sunday, as it does this year, most Christians, most Episcopalians, don’t really observe it. Epiphany marks the end of Christmastide in our calendar, so while the church is still decorated for Christmas today, the decorations will be removed after today’s service. There’s a bit of confusion or controversy there, because many people take down their Christmas trees and other decorations on 12th night, which occurred yesterday, the 12th day of Christmas. We keep our decorations up largely because we want to retain the crèche and enjoy seeing the magi and their entourage worshiping the christchild at the crèche. If you weren’t here for Christmas, they spent the entirety of Christmas season on the table in the rear of the nave.

Our focus may be on the star and the magi or wise men on Epiphany, but it’s a feast that has other connections in the larger Christian tradition. It is also associated with Jesus’ Baptism and with Jesus’ first miracle recorded in John, the turning of water into wine at the wedding feast of Cana.

Both of those stories point to the deeper meaning of the feast of the Epiphany. The word Epiphany comes from the Greek word that means “appearance,” or “manifestation”—especially of the divine or of God. It was used in the Hellenistic world of Jesus’ day to describe those appearances of the divine to humans, moments when the gods seemed especially near. It was also used often as a title for rulers and became associated with the imperial cult, as emperors came to be understood as manifestations of the divine.

We see elements of that notion in our familiar gospel story, the story of the coming of the wise men following the star. It’s a lovely story, but one that’s been very much domesticated by the Christian tradition, so that we miss the deeper meaning and power of Matthew’s larger purposes in telling it. First of all, the wise men, or kings. Well, they’re not kings, are they? Associating them with kings derives from other scriptural references such as those from today’s reading from Isaiah and from the Psalm. When we call them “magi” we’re getting closer to what Matthew had in mind, astrologers from the East, very likely Zoroastrian priests from Iran—who were astrologers, using the movements of the constellations and planets to predict the future.

Their very exoticism, their “otherness” is part of Matthew’s point. Coming from the east, they had no knowledge of Jewish scriptures or traditions; they were Gentiles. In part, Matthew wants us to see them as part of the larger mission of sharing the good news—to all the world, as he has Jesus command his disciples in the last verses of his gospel. But he also wants us to understand that even apart from scripture, Gentiles can come to some understanding of God and of God’s saving work—all it took for the magi to begin their quest was to see a new star rising in the East.

The magi’s intuition of God’s new actions in the world provide a sharp contrast with that of Herod who had know clue about the birth of the “king of the Jews” and was terrified when he heard of it. He had to bring in scripture experts to answer the question the magi posed to him.

Let me tell you a little bit about Herod the Great. Herod’s father and grandfather had been supporters of Rome and rulers of provinces in Palestine. Herod’s father appointed him Governor of Judea. Eventually, in the midst of conflict over succession to Julius Caesar, Herod fled to Rome and succeeded in getting declared King of Judea by the Senate; returning to Palestine, he also gained control over Galilee, and eventually, by marrying the daughter of his chief rival, became de facto King of the Jews. He was a ruthless ruler, known for his excessive taxation. He built Roman style cities such as Caesarea Maritima and began the rebuilding and expansion of the Jerusalem Temple. He also had considerable conflict within his domestic life—he had five wives, one of whom he had executed, and killed two of his sons when he feared conspiring against him, and just days before his death, had a third son executed.

All of this is backdrop to Matthew’s story and while we didn’t hear the next episode of this story—the flight to Egypt and the execution of all boys in Bethlehem under the age of two, and while there’s no independent evidence to support this episode, it’s entirely in keeping with what we know about Herod historically. If he killed his own sons because of their efforts to wrest power from him, it’s likely he would have had no qualms with large-scale executions of whole demographic groups.

Matthew is drawing a sharp distinction between Herod, King of the Jews, and Jesus, King of the Jews. He is also drawing a sharp distinction between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. When Herod heard the news of these visitors from the East in search the child born “king of the Jews” Herod was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him. The magi say their intent is to go to the newborn child and pay him homage—we should have in mind a formal act of obeisance a subject might offer to a king or ruler.

So there are two kings in this story, not three. The two kings are rivals—both King of the Jews, one is Jesus, one is Herod. Herod represents the power and ruthlessness of the world, willing to take any action to gain and consolidate power, and once in power to use everything and everyone at his disposal to display and project his wealth and power.

On the other hand, the king of the Jews, born in Bethlehem, born to ordinary, poor, people who are at the mercy of the other king—whose experience of his kingship is terror and fear, who flee their home for another country in search of safety. That king of the Jews will grow up to proclaim the coming of God’s reign, a reign not of power and fear, maintained by bloodshed, but a reign of peace and justice. Jesus’ life will end as he is proclaimed “King of the Jews” by the charges leveled against him by the Roman Empire, a revolutionary, a rabble-rouser.

Like the magi, we stand between these two kings, these two kingdoms. Our journey in search of Jesus has brought us to this place, to this crossroads. We may want to make homage to the king of the Jews, but do we know what that truly means? Are we able to make that journey? Herod’s kingdom may beckon to us with its power and wealth, even with its ruthlessness, but the kingdom of the one who was born in Bethlehem, whose parents fled with him toEgypt, who preached mercy and peace, and whose life ended on the cross in Herod’s city of Jerusalem, beckons to us as well. To whom will we pay homage, before whom will we offer our gifts?

 

 

Voices crying in the wilderness: A Sermon for Advent 3C, 2018

As most of you know already, my mother died this past Monday. Her death was expected. In fact, I received word of it just as I was packing up the car to drive six hours to be with her. Her death, and the memories and grief that have filled my thoughts over the last week have certainly recast my experience in this Advent season. But I realized that so much of what I was feeling, the emotional turmoil is consistent with the themes of this season of Advent. Continue reading

Your Redemption is Drawing Near: A Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent, 2018

 Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

This beautiful and powerful collect for the First Sunday of Advent calls to mind both the first and second comings of Christ and prays that we might direct our energies and lives away from evil and toward the light of Christ brings to our awareness the central themes of this season and orients us to the scope of history and the history of salvation. We live as Christians between that time of Christ’s incarnation, his death and resurrection, and the consummation of our final hope in Christ’s return. As Christians, we have experienced the first fruits of Christ’s transforming work, but we live in this world, in this time, enmeshed in the powers of darkness and evil that surround us and seem to hold sway. Continue reading

Not one stone will be left: A Sermon for Proper 28, Year B (Annual Meeting) 2018

 We are nearing the end of the liturgical year. In the church, the new year begins on the first Sunday of Advent, which this year falls on December 2. But there’s a sense in which our gospel readings in the weeks leading up to that day help us prepare for Advent. Indeed some preachers and liturgists extend the season of Advent back three Sundays and advocate for a seven-week season of Advent.

There are at least two reasons for this move. The first reason for this extension of Advent is, I suspect, largely cultural. Since retailers replace their Halloween merchandise with their Holiday merchandise, and radio stations and satellite services have already started playing holiday music, extending Advent to the beginning of November is a way of offering a counter narrative to the excesses and consumerism of the Holiday season. The second reason for this longer Advent is that our gospel readings for these three Sundays are drawn from Jesus’ teachings concerning his return. They are what we call Apocalyptic literature.

Apocalyptic, which derives from a Greek word meaning revealing, emerged in the second century BCE during a period of crisis among the Jewish people. The central chapters of the book of Daniel are the earliest example of this type of literature. It is symbolic, full of strange beings. It presumes a cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil, in which ultimately, the good will prevail. While it seems to be describing events that will take place at a future time, in fact, it is describing in highly symbolic terms what is happening in the world right now. So, from time to time, after describing some event or some figure, a beast with seven horns, for example, the author will provide a clue, or a hint, and say, “let the reader understand.” Apocalyptic was also the context in which the idea of the resurrection of the dead first became popular, among the earliest clear references to the idea is in fact in the verses from Daniel in today’s first reading.

As I said, the world of apocalyptic is full of fear and danger, and we live in a context which is full of such imagery and events. Whether it’s mass shootings, terrorism, the continuous wars, or the wildfires that have transformed the landscape of California, taken lives, and changed the lives of so many people, our world seems to be collapsing around us. In such a context, Jesus’ words sound ominous indeed.

Today’s gospel, though written about two millennia ago, comes from a time and a community that were experiencing some of the same fear and uncertainty that we face as a world. As I’ve said before, it’s likely that Mark was written during the Jewish revolt against Roman occupation, and either shortly before, or after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. We date the gospel to this particular historical moment in part because of the very verses we heard today—the disciples marveling at the size and grandeur of the temple, and Jesus’ prediction of its destruction.

The Jewish Rebellion and the destruction of the temple constituted a cataclysmic change for Judaism. It was also of enormous significance for the tiny community of Jesus’ followers, who were caught in the midst of the conflict. As they looked around at what was happening around them, as they probably fled the violence, they were also reflecting back on Jesus himself, the hopes and faith he had instilled in them. As we have seen throughout this year, Jesus proclaimed the coming of God’s reign. It’s quite likely that many of those in this tiny community forty years later saw in the Jewish revolt and the Roman response, signs of Jesus’ imminent return.

You can almost hear the conversations of that community in Jesus’ words. He warns against false prophets—those who claim to be Jesus, those who claim to know when Jesus will return. All of the catastrophes, the wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes, and the like. There were people wondering whether these things were signs of Jesus’ return, signs of the end times. Of course, as we imagine first-century Christians wondering about these things, we know all too well that many contemporary Christians, and many in secular society, too, are fascinated with predictions of the end times.

Jesus’ words concerning his return are elicited by an observation of one of his disciples. Let me give you some background. In Mark’s chronology, this takes place of Tuesday in Holy. On Sunday, Jesus and his disciples made the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, which we reenact on Palm Sunday. After that, Jesus went to the temple and looked around.. Then he and his disciples left the city and spent the night in Bethlehem. On Monday, they returned to the temple, and overturned the moneychangers’ tables, after which they returned to Bethany. They came back to the temple on Tuesday where Jesus had a number of encounters with groups of Jews, the chief priests and scribes, some Pharisees and Herodians, some Sadducees. After the story of the widow’s mite which we heard last Sunday, they left the temple again, which is when this story takes place.

Once again, it’s as if the disciples are completely oblivious to what Jesus has just said, or has been saying all along. It’s the sort of remark we make as tourists, “Look at how big the stones are!” It’s the sort of remark I often hear when visitors come to Grace: “Wow, what a beautiful church!” Jesus’ retort may have been intended by Mark to reflect the reality that after Rome destroyed the temple, not a single stone was left standing but it’s an important reminder to us as well.

It’s not about the stones, even if it is our responsibility to make sure the stones of this building remain intact. The Jewish temple, Grace Church, are supposed to be places where people encounter God, where they experience the love of Christ and are transformed by that encounter. The beauty of our spaces, both inside and out, are meant to offer such opportunities, to invite people into relationship with God.

One way of thinking about all those encounters Jesus had with Jewish groups in the temple before this, from the moneychangers to the chief priests, Pharisees, and Sadducees, is to see them as challenges to the immediacy and accessibility of people to God. Spaces create barriers; institutions establish and maintain boundaries, communities dictate who’s in and who’s out. Jesus challenged all of those efforts to limit accessibility to God, to set boundaries. The threat he posed was part of what led to his arrest and execution.

2000 years later, those tendencies remain. We focus on the stones, not on God. Sometimes, instead of being a means of access to God, the building becomes our God, and we worship it or focus all of our energies and attention on it rather than on what it is supposed to be. Sometimes, a building can also be seen as an impediment, that it requires resources that might better be expended in other ways, in outreach to the community, for example. Striking the right balance is always a challenge, but I believe we at Grace do that.

I was reminded of the power and possibility of our spaces to connect us with God on Friday evening of this week. Corrie and I were walking on the square just as our bells began to ring at 6:00 pm. Hearing them from the other side of the square wasn’t just a distraction or noise. The sound of the bells reminded me of all that they represent: the faithful people who installed and now maintained them, their sound reminding me of God’s presence in this city, even on a Friday evening.

That is what our spaces should do—our building, our bells, our gardens, all should remind passersby of God’s presence in the world, and invite people to experience and enter into that presence more deeply, whether here at Grace or in other places or other ways in their personal lives.

We don’t know how long Grace Church will remain standing, whether for fifty, or a hundred, or five hundred years. But there will come a time, I suspect, when stone will no longer stand on stone, when there will only be rubble. But until that time comes, in God’s time, it is our responsibility, our mission, to ensure that our buildings and our congregation, are places where people encounter, experience, and share God’s love.

Make a joyful noise! A homily for Choral Evensong and the Rededication of the Bells

I wanted to say a few words as part of our evensong and service of rededication of Grace’s bells because it’s important to mark such occasions; to offer some words to put what we’ve done in larger perspective.

It’s easy for us to forget what we have here on this corner of N. Carroll and W. Washington. Sure, Grace is on the national register of historic places. It’s a landmark both literally and by designation, among the oldest churches in Dane County; among the oldest surviving buildings in Downtown Madison. But that’s only part of the story for behind that landmark, behind the stone and mortar are all of the people over the past more than century and half, who have worshiped here—who have been baptized, married, been buried from here. It’s easy to forget the legacy we have inherited from them—the presidents like Grover Cleveland and Harry Truman who worshiped here; senators, governors, and yes, regular people many of them.

It’s easy to forget all that they’ve given us; to ignore it or simply let them and their gifts pass into oblivion. That’s kind of what we did with the bells. Oh, we knew they were up there. We could even play some of them; but no one really remembered their stories. When I went digging in the files to try to figure out exactly what pitches, what sizes they were, there were at least 3 that were unrecorded (and the records we had, after the first nine were very incomplete, written by hand on note pads or lined paper). I myself had never even been up in the tower before this week.

But now, thanks to the persistence of a number of people, among them Conrad Bauman, Greg Rogers, and most recently Peter Schultz-Burkel, as well as Senior Warden John Wood, and all of those who donated to the effort, whose names are listed on the insert, thanks to all of you, we can enjoy Grace’s bells in all their glory.

No doubt part of the reluctance to assess let alone reinstate the bells was due to a lack of knowledge of how much it might cost, and a sense that it might be irresponsible, somehow even unfaithful to God to spend a significant amount of money on a rather frivolous project like this. But what we are doing by preserving and enhancing the bells is being good stewards of the legacy we’ve received. In many respects, we chose to worship here; to be members of and leaders of this congregation in this place, and part of what that means is to take care of, maintain, preserve, and enhance our facilities. It was an offense to that legacy and to those generations of donors, that too many of the bells sat silent for so long. We are honoring the memories of all of those people, from the Proudfits and the anonymous donors of the first 9 bells, right down to Bob and Betty Kurtenacker, who gave one of the last bells, and who many of us remember.

But it’s not just about that legacy. Ultimately the bells are about the worship and presence of God in our congregation and in our community. As I wrote in some of the materials describing the history of Grace’s bells, bells provide people with a sense of God’s presence in the world and in their lives. This was pointed out to me one day this week when I was stopped by someone on the sidewalk in front of the church he told me how the bells ringing reminded him of growing up in Goa India and hearing the bells call the faithful to prayer and rang out at the moment of consecration during the Eucharist.

Bells help us celebrate the great festivals of the church year, and sacraments like weddings; they toll at funerals, as ours did on Friday for Bob Kurtenacker, the funeral boll tolled 100 times to mark the years of his life, and at 6 seconds between each ringing, it took a total of ten minutes.

We worship in many ways, in the privacy of our homes, in silence and meditation, and in joyful song. Our bells fill the air with music and fill the nooks and crannies of the streets and alleys around capitol square. May their sound bring the city joy and remind us all of God’s beauty and presence in our world!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jesus, Son of David, Have mercy on us: A Sermon for Proper 25B, 2018

 This is a week that has been filled with meetings—with downtown leaders, with the Outreach Committee, the Creating More Just Community group, the taskforce working on issues around the redevelopment of our block, with ecumenical colleagues across the state, with grieving family members, families preparing for baptisms, and couples about to be married. I was so busy that I barely had a chance to take in the excitement of Grace’s participation in the downtown trick-or-treating on Wednesday, when thousands were welcomed to Grace and heard the spooky playing of our own Mark Brampton Smith. I did get to see the photos and videos that Pat posted to our facebook page and show all of the fun and excitement that was taking place.

Accompanying all of that, all week, has been the sound of the bells, as the technicians completed their work in time for this afternoon’s evensong and bells rededication. Many of us are looking ahead to events here at Grace, making plans for the coming months, talking about new opportunities for ministry and mission, or opportunities for deepening relationships among members in the congregation. The excitement is palpable all over Grace and in the soundwaves above and beyond Grace.

This week has also been a week of hatred and violence, with bombs sent in the mail, the killings of African-Americans in Kentucky, and then yesterday the shocking murders of 11 people at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Whatever excitement and joy we may feel here at Grace as we gather this morning to celebrate a baptism and as we celebrate our newly refurbished bells is tempered by the grief, sadness, and anger we feel at the deep divisions in our nation, at the violence and hatred that surrounds us and threatens so many. Continue reading

The Third Time wasn’t the Charm: A Sermon for Proper 24B, 2018

We’re drawing near to the end of our reading of the Gospel of Mark this year. The past weeks, we have been accompanying Jesus and his disciples as they walk toward Jerusalem. They are now in Judea, the province where Jerusalem is located. As they near Jerusalem, the dangers and possibilities that await them come to dominate the narrative. It’s as if they can see the temple mount on the horizon as they walk.

We don’t know what the disciples were expecting. From Mark’s depiction of them, it seems likely that they thought they had signed up for a divine mission; that when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem and confronted Rome, God would intervene in history and restore the Kingdom of David and the Kingdom of God. Continue reading