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An Occasional Blog by The Reverend Grace P. Burson, Holy Trinity's Associate Transitional Pastor
Holy Trinity, Newington
Feast of the Epiphany (Transferred), Year B
January 7, 2017
Star of wonder, star of night, star with royal beauty bright …
These familiar words remind us that the simplest and most memorable symbol of the feast of the Epiphany is the star. And no wonder; from the time when Matthew’s Gospel was written, when the stars were believed to be set in a crystal sphere rotating around the fixed point of the earth, to now, when we know them to be huge balls of flaming gas around which the planets move in orbit, the stars have always enticed and fascinated us.
And they are a clear and compelling symbol for the light and love of God, revealed to the world at this time in the coming of Jesus Christ.
The question I want to ask today, though, is where do we locate this light?
Is it far away in the heavens, beckoning us to a place we can barely imagine now?
Is it shining forth from the manger, from the innocent baby who is Imanuel, God with us?
Is it on a distant hilltop, where the nations are drawn to its brightness?
Or is it here, now, with us, among us, in us?
The answer, of course, is “all of the above”, but today I want to look particularly at the last answer on that list.
Each of us is called to shine our own unique light, given to us by God, into the world.
Each of us is called, in fact, to be a star for others.
In just a few minutes, we will baptize little Henry Moore. Baptism is, among many other things, an affirmation of the light that God has already lit in the form of a new human life; and it is also the lighting of a new light, the light of God, the flame that is passed on from one person of faith to another as we bring new members into God’s family. We will represent that light with an actual candle, lit from the Christ candle, and passed to Henry’s parents and godparents, which they can light every year on his baptism anniversary, to remind him as he grows of God’s love and light in his life. (Then they can light it again a week later on his birthday! This is quite a week for the Moore family.)
As we celebrate God’s light coming into the world and its particular manifestation in the life of one of our youngest members, I invite each of us to reflect on the light that God has lit in our lives. Is it shining brightly, or is it veiled or shadowed by difficulty and sin? Do we have people in our lives who can reflect God’s light back to us, and encourage to shine our own light brightly? How are we nurturing the light in the lives of children and others whom we love? In other words, how are we being stars, for ourselves and each other?
Perhaps this year, instead of resolving to lose five pounds or always balance the checkbook, we can instead make an intention to cherish and tend our star-light, and resolve to let it shine a little brighter in a world that desperately needs it.
And in order to give you a sense of what I mean, I want to tell you all about how you have shined a light to me in the past two years. Which requires going back a ways. Many of you have heard parts of this story, but bear with me as I tell the whole thing.
A little more than eight years ago, when I was a new curate (I had been a priest for about 9 months) the Rector of the church where I was working had a nervous breakdown. Overnight, he had to resign. While the Diocese acted quickly to bring in capable interim clergy, I was the only full-time priest on staff until just a few weeks before I left in August of 2011. Needless to say, I did not come out of my three-year curacy with the formation and mentoring experience that I was hoping for.
From there, I went to Plymouth, where I combined being the not-quite-full-time Rector of the small local church, with working as a chaplain at Plymouth State. Hoping to put down long-term roots, I bought a house, planted asparagus and apple trees, and got chickens. I loved living in Plymouth, but over the course of four years, the situation in my church deteriorated (in some ways that were my fault, and a lot of others what weren’t) until it could no longer provide me with a viable living, and I had to leave.
And it wasn’t just about whether the church could provide a viable living, although that was the precipitating factor that forced my resignation. By the time I left, I was burned-out and ground down by years of pouring energy into a system that was unable to respond in a healthy way.
To be clear – most of the people in Plymouth were lovely people who were doing their best. Stars, even, in their own way. There were systemic forces at work, some of them going back generations, that made it close to impossible for me as a new, first-time rector to manage the multiple interacting factors in the situation. And the attempt to do so drained me dry.
When I left Plymouth two years ago this month, I was applying for disability coverage from the Episcopal Church Pension Fund, based on how my job situation had exacerbated my anxiety disorder. I was hoping to gradually build up a doula practice, and was not at all sure when, if ever, I would work in the church again.
But the disability claim was denied. And denied again, on appeal. And in the mean time, Hannah Anderson (the Diocese’s equivalent of Tim Roser) had called me letting me know about this Lutheran church on the seacoast that needed an associate transitional pastor …
As you all know, the clergy search process can be long and drawn-out, because everyone involved wants to make sure they, pray, and discern, and wait on the Spirit, and find the right fit for their gifts and needs, and so on.
Not this time. I had been through that process twice, resulting in the experiences I’ve just told you about. This time, I met with Pastor George, we verified that I had a pulse and no outstanding warrants, and that my paychecks wouldn’t bounce, and off we went.
Perhaps there’s something to be said for having low expectations.
In fact, I had a speech all prepared for Pastor George, as my supervisor, in which I would outline my history of anxiety and burnout and warn him that he might find himself having to navigate some of the aftereffects.
Well, I never had to deliver that speech. Because I didn’t need to.
I first met the people of Holy Trinity on a day just under two years ago, a day very much like this one, when we Skyped with the Isimani pastor and told him it was 10 degrees out. And from that moment, you embraced me. You eagerly welcomed my gifts. You enthusiastically jumped on board with my ideas, however out-there they sounded (sure, let’s do a Christmas pageant that focuses around a giant tree in the middle of the church and involves dancing in circles around the altar. Why not?!). You told me, over and over again, how much you appreciated my presence and contributions.
Friends, you gave me back my joy in ministry, which was something I was not sure would ever happen. You restored my faith that church could be what Jesus wants it to be – a place where people welcome each other in love, grow in faith, and go forth into the world to serve.
To return to the Epiphany star image, my light was shining very weakly when I got here, and you held it and cherished it until it grew strong and bright again. You have been my stars.
So today, on this Epiphany feast, when we celebrate a baptism and remember our own baptisms, all I can say is: Thank you. And keep it up, church. Keep welcoming the stranger. Keep getting to know each other more deeply, and caring for each other through life’s highs and lows. Keep teaching children, and keep learning as adults. Keep being happily grateful for the gifts you have been given. Keep reaching out in generosity to those in need. Keep standing up for justice for this in our community who need an ally.
Keep shining your lights, friends. Raise up little Henry Moore to be a Christian like all of you. And know that as I go forth from this place, much of the light I carry has been nurtured by you.
This is not a Tidings column that I want to write! It is so hard to think about leaving Holy Trinity after two wonderful years. But it’s time for me (and Peter) to say goodbye, with enormous thanks for all that you have given us during this time.
I have considerably more to say that I want to impart first in person on Sunday, and I hope many will come and listen. For this column, I just want to convey some important information and ask for your prayers.
I’m still job hunting, and while I have some good leads, nothing has definitely panned out yet. Prayers for the Spirit to send me in the right direction are much appreciated! And of course if anyone knows someone who’s having a baby and needs a doula (before, during or after birth) send them my way! I’m also happy to lead retreats and workshops for your friends at other churches, though I can’t return to Holy Trinity in any pastoral capacity of that kind for at least a year.
Work and the job search will be put on hold for a while, though, immediately after my departure, because on January 9 I’ll be having surgery at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon. Many of you have noticed how uncomfortable I get lately when I have to sit still for any length of time, due to the herniated disc in my neck; that will be removed and two vertebrae fused to hopefully give me lasting relief and get me off the powerful nerve medications that I’ve been on to deal with the pain. Again, your prayers are very welcome!
Finally, a word about communication following my departure. Again, as of January 8 I will no longer be your pastor, and thus must avoid being in touch about anything having to do with church in more than the vaguest generalities. That said, I would be most happy to stay in touch on a personal basis with anyone who would like to friend me on Facebook or write to my personal email address. (Editor's note: to prevent Grace from getting spam email, please email the church office if you would like Grace's personal email address)
I hope to see everyone on Sunday! And stay warm!
Advent IV, Year B
December 24, 2017
“Mary, blessed mother mild”
“a virgin mild”
“gentle Mary meekly bowed her head”
“Mary, chosen virgin mild”
“Mary was that mother mild”
“the virgin mother kind”
Are we maybe sensing a theme here?
Yes, of course there are other ways to refer to Jesus’ mother that are found in our hymnal and prayers. But the idea that Mary was “meek and mild” is so embedded in our traditional worship language that I think it’s become in many ways the default image of her. All kinds of ideas that aren’t spelled out in the Biblical text have become attached to this image: that Mary was in her early teens; that she was poor; that she remained a virgin for the rest of her life; that her own parents had been past the age of childbearing and that she herself had been a miraculous, God-ordained birth. Mary has been mythologized almost past recognition.
From one phrase – “Here am I, the servant of the Lord” – we have extrapolated an image of a woman whose obedience to God is perfect – which of course means that she is humble and lowly, never gets angry, is always smiling, is an endlessly patient self-sacrificing mother, is defined by her sexual status and reproductive potential, and spends her life with her hands folded and her eyes downcast in prayer – right?
Well, let’s check into what happens after “the angel departed from her”.
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
Two Spirit-filled women, both of them carrying children who were destined to play a role in the salvation story, both of them giving birth outside the normal familial structures of the time, recognizing God’s presence in each other and feeling their babies leap in their wombs with that recognition, and then exclaiming “with a loud cry” in joy and wonder at God’s goodness.
It’s not sounding so meek and mild anymore, is it?
And in response to Elizabeth’s words, Mary sings the great hymn of the Magnificat, in which – yes – she refers to herself as God’s “lowly servant”. But this lowly servant has an agenda that is anything but obedient to the powers that be, as she sees them around her in the form of the Empire of Rome. Mary confidently declares that God has scattered the proud and cast down the mighty from their thrones, filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty. This Mary is radical. This Mary is revolutionary. This Mary is fierce.
The Magnificat itself has been watered down by centuries of being sung by angelic-looking choirboys in languages their listeners don’t understand (don’t get me wrong, I love choral Evensong); even the lilting cadences of the Holden Evening Prayer version are perhaps a little too familiar to pack the kind of punch that the words deserve. But if we actually pay attention to this text, we realize that God’s intention for the lowly is not to pat them on the head and tell them how mild and virtuous they are, but rather to lift them up, to make them part of God’s plan for turning the world upside down. Mary’s fierceness is the fierceness not of rebellion, but of radical obedience to God’s subversive plans.
And are “lowly” and “fierce” really such contradictory terms, anyway? After all, the word “humble”, often paired with “lowly” as a synonym, derives from the Latin word for soil, earth, ground, “humus”: to be humble and lowly is to be close to the ground. (The second verse of the Magnificat in Latin: quia respexit humilitatem meam.) If we’re near the earth, at ground level, we see what’s going on, up close. We don’t have our head in the clouds floating amidst abstractions; we’re rooted in the dailiness of life, and can witness to the plight of those who are needy and hurting.
This is a kind of lowliness that is very likely to result in fierceness once we decide that something has to be done.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, is both lowly and fierce. She has her feet planted on the earth; she is rooted in the truth of things, and she stands near those who are likewise lowly, those who have nothing but God to rely on. And because of this humility, this connection to the earthly humus of human life, she sings aloud a fierce and holy song, a song that claims and proclaims the goodness of a God whose plan is to turn the world upside down, through a child born of the womb of a lowly and fierce young woman of Nazareth.
A couple of years ago, my friend Layton Williams, a Presbyterian pastor, wrote this poem:
An Almost-Mother’s Song
When I was fourteen My biggest fear was the virgin birth there was nothing on earth I could imagine worse I mean, it kept me up with bad dreams This is a thing, it turns out for religious girls fear of a life unasked for a crash course in unearned “impurity” and no one to believe.
See, it was all too heady for me then I wasn’t ready, then But lately I have been thinking about Mary and feeling her in me and wondering.
I’ve never yet been a mother so maybe I can’t speak but then neither had she, till she was.
What I know is this: when my nephew was born my world shifted it lifted my self-centered haze And I woke up with nightmares for days upon days worried for love of this tiny new child hellbent on sparing him all of life’s trials.
So I wonder
That night, when the angel came called her by name and said she’d conceive by miracle means And become a mother
That the flutter in her womb would soon give birth to God’s son. Did she shudder?
When he told her: Fear not God is with thee Did she want to raise up her brow and say: Are you kidding?
I wonder how many fearful thoughts got caught in the space it took her to become Mary, full of grace.
Did she fear it would hurt? That the child she’d bear would tear through her with pain even as he came into this world?
Did she fear he’d get sick or hurt? Hate her or take after her father?
Did she question if kings would hate him and make them all refugees forced to flee for the safety of other unfriendly lands?
Did she picture his hands bent in prayer at the temple? Did she dare to expect he’d be strong in his faith? Did she suspect they’d reject him when he cried out for change?
Could she even imagine in her mind’s eye the last time she’d cradle her son to her chest? Could she guess he’d be dead? Did she know that his body would carry the weight of a young man unjustly killed by the state?
Of course she could not have known then all these things But no doubt she was worried what might come to be So I can’t begin to imagine or dream of the strength that compelled her, in the face of all that, to sing.
My God, she sang brightly My soul magnifies you I won’t deny you I’ll just hold on tightly to this promise you’ve made me this night
See, she chose hope As the answer to every what if to this risks, to the list of new questions that filled her to the known and unknown, to it all to the scope of her fears, She chose hope.
This is the wonder of Mary, I think This is her grace, She trusts and believes Not that nothing will happen no trouble befall her but to know above all her God will prevail
That though powers wage war And hours seem dark Still the last word belongs to the long-bending arc of justice and love. that good will drown out all the hard, hateful things
She believes. And with courage to open her lips Mary sings.
We are all almost-mothers like Mary once was conceiving within us the promise of love We can trust and believe that justice must win and then Give birth to the goodness we were made to create and bear grace to a world lost in fear and hate
We too can sing, Mary tells us. However shaky our voice is the choice is still ours to choose hope and to sing and to know we belong to a God once born from the very same song.
Tidings, Faith Formation, December 2017
This will be my last column written on behalf of the Faith Formation Team. It has been a joy to work with this group over the past two years, on the intergenerational GIFT ministry, on the visioning process, and most recently on the revamped Children’s, Youth and Adult Forums and Confirmation Class. Along the way, we have had two successful Vacation Bible Schools, an All Saints’ Saturday celebration, two Confirmation Camps, an Easter Vigil, and a Christmas pageant (with another on Sunday!).
Holy Trinity is a congregation that cares deeply about the Christian formation of its children and youth, and is also committed to lifelong learning. Bible studies, movie nights, retreats, and other adult formation programs are well and steadily attended. Special events like the lectures on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation are eagerly received.
Too many people to name, including all the past and present members of the Faith Formation Team, step up to make these things happen day in and day out. And the rest of the congregation strikes a remarkable balance between making your wishes and opinions about Faith Formation clear, while also gamely pitching in to give the latest idea a try – and most of the time, having fun and learning something in the process!
We have been glad to see the renewed participation in the Forums in response to the changes that were discerned in the visioning process, while also being aware that there are still many beloved traditions that have fallen by the wayside during the interim period, and many new and exciting possibilities that Holy Trinity might want to explore once Pastor Tim Krick has arrived. So, as I transition out of this ministry, my farewell message is – keep up the good work! Keep being curious, keep learning, keep teaching each other, keep being involved, and keep being open to new things.
With every blessing for God’s peace,
Tidings, Faith Formation, November 2017
This coming summer, the triennial ELCA Youth Gathering will be held in Houston, TX. Groups of youth from Holy Trinity have attended these youth gatherings in past years and have had wonderful experiences of fellowship, service, and growth in faith. We hope to send another group in summer 2018.
A number of “alumni” from Detroit 2015 and New Orleans 2012 are still in the congregation, including several young people who are now in college. On January 7, the first Sunday of the new year, we plan to hold a forum for adults and youth in which several of those alumni have the chance to witness to the congregation about how the Youth Gatherings impacted their lives. This will be the beginning of the process of planning and preparation for the 2018 group to go.
Thanks to the generosity of the congregation and the good work of prior cohorts of youth, we have a significant amount of funding (more than $8000) already accumulated that we can put toward the trip if the congregation chooses to do so. This will hopefully take the fundraising pressure off and allow the preparation for Houston 2018 to focus more on the actual experience that those who attend will be having. Nevertheless, I’m sure there will still be some money needing to be raised, so be prepared!
If you are interested in perhaps attending as a chaperone, please let the Faith Formation Team know, and get ready to hear lots more about the Gathering. Thank you in advance for your support and prayers!
Pastor Grace and the Faith Formation Team
In this holiday season, we hear a lot about welcome. The essence of the Christmas story is about God welcoming humanity: by taking on our flesh, joining God to humankind, God welcomes us into God’s divine identity. But welcome is also enacted in the story of a poor family looking for lodging in a crowded Bethlehem: after being turned away because “there was no room in the inn,” they bed down with the animals, who witness the birth of Imanuel, God with us. When there was no room in the conventional place for visitors, the poor and humble (and nonhuman!) made room for the Christ Child. Likewise, the shepherds were welcomed as visitors to Jesus’ crib alongside powerful wise men.
As a community that follows Jesus, welcome is one of our duties. And in recent weeks, as I’ve gotten my head around the knowledge that my time here at Holy Trinity is rapidly running out, I’ve noticed even more clearly the ways in which this congregation welcomes each other and helps each other out.
On a recent Sunday, young boys from three different families helped bring up the offertory. Multiple people pitched in to cover for an acolyte who couldn’t be at church, so that the service would run smoothly. A member of the confirmation class was at the sound board, learning how to run it from an experienced volunteer. New families had signed up to participate in the Christmas pageant.
This is the way a church works when people feel welcome. In order for folks of all ages to stick their necks out and try something new, they must be confident that their gifts are welcomed, their questions are welcomed, and their efforts are welcomed – that even if they don’t always know where to go or what to do, the people who do know those things will be glad that they tried and will help them learn the ropes so that they can participate fully in ministry.
It makes my heart glad when I see these signs of welcome. And Holy Trinity is pretty good at welcoming newcomers to worship, too. Our ministry of welcome is also lived out in our deepening relationship with Imanuel Indonesian Lutheran Church and our ongoing advocacy for all our neighbors on the Seacoast who wish to live in this country in peace.
Of course, there are always more ways we can live into this ministry of welcome. Soon after Christmas, Holy Trinity will welcome a new pastor. How will you demonstrate that welcome? And how, this Advent and Christmas, can you welcome those whom Christ would welcome – the lonely, the hungry, the sick and the suffering – and show them the hospitality of God?
In God’s peace,
Advent I, Year B
December 3, 2017
O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down!
This line in German (O Heiland, reiss die Himmel auf) is the name of a chorale tune, set by Johannes Brahms as a gorgeous motet, and it’s tempting to just play that piece of music and sit down again. But that would be cheating.
The image of God tearing open the heavens is one that may cause fear or joy, depending on how you hear it. For some, it may be like the clouds parting at the end of a storm, when light shines down and we know that we are safe, the danger is over. For others, it may be a terrifying moment when all our protections are stripped away and we find ourselves judged and found wanting.
The writer of Isaiah himself seems to move from one perspective to the other over the course of today’s reading. At the beginning, he is begging God to come down, to make the mountains quake at God’s presence. He wants to witness mighty deeds like those of old, so that all the nations will know that Israel’s God is the true God.
By the end of the passage, though, he seems to have reversed course, or at least to be having doubts; his mind has come to rest on the frailty and sin of humanity, and his petition to God has turned from “come down and show yourself!” to “Do not be exceedingly angry, and do not remember iniquity forever.” He has been struck by the yawning gap between God’s righteousness and his own sinfulness, and the sinfulness of all the people.
In fact, the readings this morning are full of gaps, beginning with that same opening phrase: what is God tearing open the heavens, if not the creation of a gap in our usual reality, a literal hole in the sky, a rending of the fabric of the cosmos to allow God’s presence to be known? When the prophet says to God, “you did awesome deeds that we did not expect”, he is drawing attention to the gap between our expectations and what God is capable of. And when he laments, “you have hidden your face from us,” he is acknowledging the distance, the gap, created between God and humanity by our sin – a chasm that he begs God to bridge by tearing that gap in the heavens, even as he wonders whether he would be able to stand the consequences.
The theme emerges in many of the same ways in the Gospel reading from Mark. This passage is the conclusion to an extensive speech in which Jesus predicts the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, which took place in 70 AD. The community for which Mark wrote his Gospel was struggling profoundly with this reality, which had blown a huge hole – a yawning gap – in their understanding of what it meant for them to be God’s people. It was a rupture in the very fabric of history, after which nothing would ever be the same again.
And Jesus’ response to this cataclysm, as narrated in Mark’s Gospel, is not terribly reassuring. He doesn’t tell his listeners that everything will be all right, that God will fix it all and make it better than before. He tells them, in fact, that the opening of this gap is merely the prelude to the opening of even bigger and scarier gaps, between their present reality and the coming reign of God: “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” And since nobody but God knows when it’s coming, the only way to know what’s happening is to be vigilant, to keep awake.
Advent is a time of gaps. It is a time when we are living in at least four time frames simultaneously: the prophets, longing for the coming of the Messiah; Jesus, predicting the coming reign of God; our present reality; and the unknown future. The gaps between those times are big enough to fall into. Jesus’ words, and the words of the prophets, and our own words here and now in worship, are like signals being sent from mountaintop to mountaintop, across the deep gorges and chasms below. Much can get lost in translation.
Advent reveals the yawning gaps in our own lives. There are so many places where we see emptiness, rending, separation. The gaps between the hopes and plans of our younger selves, and our lives as they are now. The gaps left in our hearts and at our holiday tables by those whom we have lost, or from whom we are estranged. The gaps between the relentless, gaudy, fake cheer of the commercial holiday season, and the words and deeds of Jesus, the God who came among us in poverty and humility. The gaps between rich and poor, between the genders and the races, between the proud and the humble: the gaps between how we feel the world should be, and how it actually is.
What do we do with these gaps? How, to borrow a phrase from the disembodied voice on the London Tube, do we “mind the gaps” in Advent?
Our scriptures for today, at the same time that they are revealing the gaps, also point the way toward navigating them. And the first thing to do is to acknowledge that they are there: not trying to jump over them too quickly, sitting with them in full knowledge that they are probably painful and distressing. Jesus doesn’t try to downplay or paper over the gaps. He is very frank about the changes that are coming and the suffering that will result. Isaiah, likewise, is open about his emotional conflicts, both welcoming and dreading God’s advent on earth.
Jesus encourages us to keep awake. When you’re talking about gaps, this is wise advice. It’s hard to avoid the pitfalls if you’re not alert (as anyone who has tripped getting off of a train can attest). But there’s a deeper meaning to this call to keep awake, as well. It means that even when we feel overwhelmed, like the gaps are spreading and swallowing us up, like there can be no hope of things ever being different, we are still encouraged to keep our eyes open, to look around us, to find signs that God is at work in the world, despite the seeming hopelessness of everything and the temptation to cry aloud (with the prophet) for it all just to be torn down.
Isaiah’s response is, I think, still more interesting. It is from this passage that we get the famous image of God as the potter and ourselves as the clay; as the prophet laments the increasing gap between God’s righteousness and the people’s iniquity, and how it has caused God’s face to be hidden from them, he reminds himself that nevertheless, they are the work of God’s hands, the clay being shaped by God on the potter’s wheel of life.
Not only is this a deeply hopeful message – that God’s sure hands are shaping us, and will continue to do so, even when we mess up and it seems like everything is going wrong – it also speaks to the image of the gap. Because if the pot is finished, if it’s been fired, and something happens to strain it to the breaking point, then – well, it breaks. You’ve got a cracked, useless piece of pottery – another gap.
But if the clay is still on the wheel being shaped, there’s still hope. Unfired clay is malleable. It can change. If a gap needs to be bridged, perhaps a piece can be stretched out and across that gap, and bring the two sides back together.
Perhaps this is an invitation not to rush Advent too much, not to hurry to be finished, but rather to stay with the clay even as it is ugly and unformed and (let's face is) kind of slimy and unappealing. There is much to be said for remaining unfinished, ready to be shaped into whatever form God needs us to be.
This image of the clay should not be simplified too much. The gaps of Advent are too real, and too messy, to be easily bridged. Much of what God is calling us to do in this season is simply to be, to be present, to be aware, to acknowledge what is, and not run from it in panic, but simply look for where God is acting.
But when we find God acting, we find hope. We find the Son of Man sending out his angels to gather the elect, we find Paul assuring the Corinthians of God’s strengthening them to be blameless, we find Isaiah reminding us (and God!) of God’s past righteous deeds and offering the lovely and rich image of the potter.
The gaps are still there, and Advent tells the truth of them. May we, with God’s help, mind the gaps this Advent, and still find hope.Amen.
It’s been quite the couple of weeks at Holy Trinity, with the twin anniversary celebrations of the Reformation and the parish’s founding, followed by All Saints’ Sunday.
As we’ve talked with the Confirmation class about the Ninety-Five Theses that kicked off the Reformation five hundred years ago, we’ve taken pains to emphasize that the word “thesis” at the time (and still, in scientific terminology) didn’t mean “an assertion meant to be taken as fact” but rather “a starting point for discussion”. Luther didn’t want to start the Protestant Reformation; he wanted to have an honest debate. He was willing to be persuaded that he was wrong, if his opponents could use arguments that convinced him.
One suggestion that I saw floating around as people were preparing to celebrate the “Reformation 500” anniversary, was to put out pads of Post-It notes and have people write on them their hopes for and challenges to the church for the next 500 years, and stick them to the doors of the building, the way Luther (supposedly) did with the Ninety-Five Theses.
Amid everything else that was going on, that particular activity didn’t end up happening at Holy Trinity (although somebody did print out a copy of the original 95 and Scotch-tape it to the back door!), but I would still love to know what you might write on a note and stick to the front door of the church.
What conversation are we not having? What genuine, honest debate do you want to have with your fellow Christians? How do you think the church will need to change – to be reformed once again – to meet the needs of the world, and bring the Good News to those who long to hear it, in the next 500 years?
I’d love to hear your versions of the Ninety-Five Theses! Send me an email (or comment on this article when it goes up on the church blog) with your thoughts! And to start things off, here are some of mine (remember, these are starting points for debate, not intended as statements of fact!):
Let the conversation – and the reformation – begin!
It may be helpful to read this sermon with a copy of ELW at hand, open to Hymn 422.Holy Trinity, Newington
All Saints’ Sunday, Year A
November 5, 2017
O may thy soldiers, faithful, true, and bold,
Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,
And win, with them, the victor’s crown of gold:
This is the verse that was left out of "For All the Saints," today's opening hymn, in the most recent version of the hymnal.The question of how to handle violent and military imagery in our hymns and in our scripture has been a vexed one for quite a while. It is inarguably true that many of the hymns were written in and for a culture that saw nothing wrong with converting people to Christianity at the point of a sword, and that many of the scriptures have been used for equally problematic ends over the course of history.
But to go to the opposite extreme – to eliminate all of the language of warfare from our religious language on principle – seems to me to fail to reckon with reality on several levels. (As my favorite theologian, my mother, likes to say, it’s fine to tell children that there are no monsters under the bed; but only if there are, in fact, no monsters under the bed.) The language is there in scripture, and it does no one any good to pretend otherwise, so we have to decide how to handle it there. And to stop singing, or rewrite from top to bottom, a beloved hymn because it depicts Christians as soldiers, is, I think, misguided, for reasons I hope I will make clear in the next few minutes.
If you look at our readings for this morning – specifically, the readings from Revelation and Matthew – they would seem at first glance to come from the opposite ends of the spectrum on this question. But if we look closer, I think we’ll find that they’re speaking with a much more unified voice than is first apparent.
The Revelation to John is, without question, a text soaked in violence. The few passages from this book that we hear on Sundays are carefully chosen to skirt around much of it, but it is this way because it is a text that speaks to the experience of a community being targeted with extreme violence. This is what is being referenced when the elder identifies the members of the great crowd standing around the throne of the Lamb as “those who have come out of the great ordeal” (or, in older translations, “the great tribulation”).
The communities to which John is writing are facing the wrath of an empire whose gods and rulers they refuse to worship, and they are suffering as a result; many of them have made the ultimate sacrifice. One might forgive them for wishing to see their enemies – who seem, at least by earthly standards, infinitely more powerful than they – tossed into a lake of hot lava or slaughtered by one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. But to us, living in a very different time, these images seem like they belong in Game of Thrones, perhaps, but not in scripture, which we would like to believe is more uplifting.
We might turn, then, to the Beatitudes, this well-loved passage from Matthew’s Gospel. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed area the peacemakers. These are the words we want to hear from, and about, Jesus. They sound so much kinder and gentler than washing our robes in the blood of the Lamb.
But think for a moment about what it entails to be meek. Or merciful. Or to make peace.
Meekness is not a mealy-mouthed virtue. Meekness is the self-discipline of the one who is deeply formed by the practice of nonviolence, who stands on the bridge staring down the fire hoses and the attack dogs and refuses to budge because she knows that her cause is right.
Mercy? Mercy is hard, people. Forgiving those who have hurt you, instead of lashing out at them in the hopes of inflicting similar pain, and then moving on and building a life that is no longer governed and deformed by that pain – that takes extraordinary courage.
And making peace? I have a colleague who is the executive director of an organization called Kids for Peace. Sounds charming, right? It’s a nonprofit that seeks to build peace in Israel and Palestine by bringing together Jewish, Muslim and Christian kids for camps and workshops where they can get to know each other as people and build relationships. His work is unrelenting and he doesn’t talk much about the amount of hate mail he gets, the difficult conditions when they go to Palestine, where there’s no running water and sometimes the power is only on for a few hours a day, or the fact that he and his staff are literally risking their lives some days on the job. This kind of peacemaking requires a level of self-sacrifice that goes above loyalty to one or the other side and instead places one’s trust and loyalty in Christ, the Prince of Peace.Discipline. Courage. Loyalty. These sound awfully like the virtues of, well, a soldier.
Nobody needs me, a civilian, to stand up in front of this congregation chock-full of current and former military (and military spouses and families) and explain what courage, loyalty and discipline mean. And I think we can all understand that being a soldier for Christ does not mean going out and killing people for Jesus.
We may fall in different places along the continuum of opinion on whether it’s ever permissible to use violence in pursuit of one’s aims (this question is currently known on social media as the “punching Nazi question” and as the granddaughter of a woman who shot an actual Nazi dead in her living room in 1944, I may not be the most impartial person to ask on the subject). Some of us are combat veterans; some are pacifists; heck, some may be both. All of these things are OK.
What I want us to understand this morning is that when we read the Beatitudes and then sing hymns that describe the saints as soldiers, we are not contradicting ourselves. Disciples of Jesus Christ have real and identifiable enemies. (Remember when I mentioned the monsters under the bed? Here they are.) Those enemies are not cartoon monsters. And they are definitely not our fellow human beings, all of whom are beloved children of God (yes, even the Nazis – though that doesn’t make their behavior any more excusable).
The enemies of God, and of us as God’s people, are identified in the threefold renunciation that we make at the baptismal font: the devil and all forces that defy God; the powers of this world that rebel against God; and the ways of sin that draw us from God.
It is these enemies against which we do battle, and these enemies whom the great saints vanquished in their lives of virtuous struggle. Our own greed, cowardice, laziness, and cruelty; our corporate sin, the injustice of our societies, our oppression of those who are different from us, our abuse of God’s good gifts in creation, our neglect of the poor and needy, and yes, our tendency to resort to violence at the slightest provocation – these are the powers against which we fight, and will continue to fight until we are no longer able.
The wonderful thing – well, there are two wonderful things, for both of which we give thanks today:
The first is that although the battle is often hard and frequently seems hopeless – and when the strife is fierce, the warfare long – in fact, victory is already assured. This battle is like the climactic battle in every fantasy novel ever written, when the forces of good are overwhelmed in every way and yet at the last minute, something happens to turn the tide. (It’s no accident that the original fantasy novels were written by devout, practicing Christians who were also veterans of the First World War.) Jesus has already won the victory for us: steals on the ear the distant triumph song. We may be outgunned, outmanned, outnumbered, outplanned, but we will never be defeated.
And the second wonderful thing is that we are never alone. We are surrounded by the communion of saints, by that great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us, who know this struggle intimately and who are still there, shoulder to shoulder with us. They are blessed by God and they show us the way to that blessedness in our turn.
“These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
They have fought nobly, as we still fight; and they now rejoice, as we one day hope to rejoice.
O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in thee, for all are thine:
Holy Trinity, Newington/Imanuel, Newington
Proper 24, Year A
October 22, 2017
“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Or, in the old translation that became an aphorism independent of its context, “Render unto Caesar …”
Jesus, in his ongoing war of words with the religious authorities, neatly evades a trick question here. The Pharisees, in their attempts to “entrap” him, knew that the question about taxes was the one that really mattered. If he answered “yes”, he would be viewed by the Jews as a collaborator; if he answered “no”, he would be seen by the Romans as a traitor. There was no good option.
But Jesus not only finds a good option, he calls out the questioners on their “malice,” making it clear that he knows exactly what game they’re playing.
Within his clever answer, though, is another, deeper trick question.
Jesus seems to accept the idea that if the emperor’s image and superscription are on the coin, then the coin must belong to the emperor. Often his answer is interpreted to mean, “Give your money to the earthly authorities that demand it, but save the really important things – yourself, your faith and allegiance – for God.”
This is fine as far as it goes, but if we stop there, we can end up thinking that there are parts of our lives to which God and faith are relevant, and parts of our lives to which they aren’t. But this is a dangerous misconception. Taken to its extreme, it can result in one of the heresies known as dualism or Gnosticism, in which everything earthly is considered sinful and corrupt, and we are saved, not through faith in God, but through secret knowledge.
Because regardless of the verbal gymnastics that Jesus has to perform in order to get the Pharisees off his back (very temporarily, as it turns out, since he’s crucified three days after this conversation happens) – the truth is, there’s nothing in our lives that’s exempt from God’s concern.
If we were in any doubt, we need only turn to the passage from the prophet Isaiah, the first of today’s lessons. It will require a little context to understand the impact of this passage, so bear with me.
At the time of the writing of this chapter, the Israelites were in exile, but King Cyrus had just become king of Persia and was making plans (for political reasons of his own) to return the people of Israel and Judah to their homeland. Because of this, Isaiah saw Cyrus as an agent of God’s will.
It’s hard to overstate how radical this assertion – that a Persian king, a worshiper of Marduk, could be doing the will of the God of Israel – was, in the context of the 5th century BCE. The rulers of one nation were not supposed to have relationships with the gods of another. The ruler’s job was to obey and placate his own nation’s gods. The gods of other nations were the responsibility of those nations’ kings. Each nation asserted that its gods were the best and most powerful, but no one really disputed that all those gods existed. Even the stubbornly monotheistic Israelites accepted that the other nations’ gods were real, although they often called them demons or abominations instead of gods. The idea that there was one god who ruled over all the nations was practically unthinkable.
But Isaiah thought it. And he hammered away at the idea throughout the seven verses of today’s passage. “I am the Lord and there is no other; besides me there is no God. … There is no one besides me; I am the Lord, and there is no other.” And just in case Cyrus has not yet gotten the point, God repeats: “I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the Lord do all these things.”
In other words, God is not taking responsibility only for the good things in human life (light, “weal”); God also confidently declares that the bad things are his responsibility too (“I … create woe”). The Lord is the Lord of the whole earth; there is nothing that falls outside God’s purview.
People often question how God can be all-powerful and good when there is so much suffering in the world. This doesn’t seem to be a question that bothers Isaiah’s God; he seems quite comfortable being responsible for all of it, the good as well as the bad. We are the ones who have the impulse to try to separate out the unpleasant stuff and assign it to some other entity than the God we worship – like those who use today’s Gospel passage to claim that money is dirty and unworthy of the attention of God, and so we should “render unto Caesar” and otherwise try to keep our minds on loftier things.
Actually, the entire rest of the Gospels shows that Jesus is deeply concerned about what we do with our money. The Gospels are, in fact, relentlessly economic documents, from the Parable of the Talents to the widow’s mite. Our money is the last thing that should be bracketed out of our faith lives.
In this stewardship season, we reflect on the ways we use the gifts that God had given us, our financial resources very much included. And we take a hard look at how we are spending our money, and whether that reflects the values and priorities that we claim to hold.
Since signing my first online petition circa 1999, I have gotten on the mailing list of pretty much every nonprofit in existence. Most of them send me mail at least several times a year. I let the envelopes pile up until the end of the month, and then I sit down and go through them. I can only contribute to a tiny fraction of the solicitations, but each month I do write a few checks, based on a percentage of whatever my income is at the time. And I try to remember to pray over the ones I can’t respond to (well, except for the occasional request from an organization promoting something in direct opposition to my values; it’s always entertaining to wonder how I got on those lists). And I contribute an equal amount to churches or other ministries that I support. This is very much an expression of my faith.
Of course, I also pay my taxes, because participating in the common good through government is also one of my values – though I would do so more joyfully if less of the money went to weapons and subsidizing fossil fuel production, and more of it to feeding the hungry, caring for creation, and healing the sick.
There is nothing in our lives that God does not consider relevant to our faithfulness and our flourishing. There is nothing that falls outside God’s domain of concern.
I was reminded of this once again over the past weekend, when the hashtag “Me Too” began to trend on social media. Thousands of women (and others) used this simple phrase to indicate that they, too, had been the victims of the kind of abuse perpetrated by the film director Harvey Weinstein over decades of his career. And a horrifying number of those stories came from within the church. There are too many pastors and church leaders – and one would be too many! – who think that their institutional authority gives them unquestioned access to other people’s bodies, to use and abuse as they like. They have apparently forgotten that there is no part of our lives that is not subject to God’s expectation that we love our neighbor as ourself.
And all too often, it is the victims, instead, who become convinced that they are too dirty and shameful to be acceptable to God, when in fact they are utterly innocent.
Because the flip side of the fact that all parts of our lives are owed to, and subject to, God, is the fact that there is no part of our lives that is too messy and hard for God. There is no part of our experience that is so difficult that God cannot come and be present with us, sit with us in the pain and confusion, and help us to bring good out of evil. Even the perpetrators of abuse can be redeemed – if they realize the extent of the harm they have done, repent, and resolve to do better.
All of us belong to God; and God helps all of us.
“There is no one besides me; I am the Lord, and there is no other.”
And, it turns out, even the things that are the emperor’s, are also God’s.