We Are Already Perishing: A Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent 2019

This sermon, offered by The Rev. Andy Jones at St Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison, Wisconsin, is built around the readings for the Third Sunday in Lent in Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find those readings here.

Here is a recording of the sermon at the 10:30 service

Here is a transcript of the recording

O God, you are my God; eagerly I seek you; *
my soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you,
as in a barren and dry land where there is no water.

Therefore I have gazed upon you in your holy place, *
that I might behold your power and your glory.

                                                                                     Psalm 68:1-2

Amen.

Please be seated.

We come here this morning with deeply troubled and questioning hearts.

And we’re here because we have heard that Jesus’s disciples are going to ask him about the people lost when the Tower of Siloam fell, and about those whose blood Pilot spilled in the temple in Jerusalem.

We’re here on this day because we ourselves have been bombarded with more bad news than we can bear.  Most recently, we’ve heard of a cyclone in Africa that has left a huge inland sea in a place where people once lived.  And we too have heard of blood spilled in a temple, this time in Christchurch, New Zealand.

If Jesus is going to be addressing events like these, then, we certainly need to be here!

Where else would we go?

Sudden tragedies like these, any loss at all, remind us of the fragility of our lives, of our own mortality.  And they can fill us with dread and anxiety.  And they raise some really uncomfortable questions.

How can a loving God allow such things to happen?

How can God allow these unspeakable injustices to persist?

Those are deeply troubling questions that we have wrestled with ever since we became aware of that presence outside of ourselves, the source and ground of our being, that is God.  And it would seem that the folks gathered here around Jesus this morning have defaulted to a comfortable answer.  A comfortable answer that is as old as the question itself…

“The people to whom these things happened… the people upon whom the tower fell, the people who died in the temple, somehow they must have deserved it.  They must have earned what happened to them.  You see… God is just and good.  Don’t blame God for what happened.  Those people got what was coming to them.”

That’s how the disciples arrived that morning.  But Jesus is having none of that!

This whole exchange reminds me of this illustration that keeps showing up in my Facebook feed. It often has different texts, different word bubbles.  But this one has a very handsome, long haired Jesus, sitting on a park with a young man, who is well dressed, and they’re in conversation.  In this particular version the young man says, “You know I have always wanted to ask you why it is that you allow suffering: hunger, poverty, homelessness, disease, to persist in the world.”   Jesus looks at him and says, “You know that’s really funny.  I was going to ask you the same thing.”

Jesus says to the people who are gathered here this morning with him,

“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you;”

that’s not how it works…

“but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”

The question of Theodicy, how is it that a loving God allows suffering to persist in the world, is not a question that Jesus is interested in dealing with this morning.  That may be the question that we came to ask, but he has now turned the tables, aiming that question squarely at us!

In New Zealand it took two days for the government to start talking about banning military style assault weapons.  And six days later they were announcing a ban and starting a buy back program.

In this country, after the horrific tragedy at Sandy Hook, a huge majority of people favored new laws, closing and the gun show loophole, and stepping up our background check programs.  And our elected representatives ignored our voices, and voted those laws down!

We have elected representatives in this country who use fear to blunt our reason.

They use thinly veiled hate speech to paint others as our enemies, and then, when someone acts out against the enemies that they have devised to keep us divided, they pretend that they are surprised.

They deprive our LGBTQ brothers and sisters of their basic human rights and dignity, depicting them as less than human, and then they twist our Holy Scriptures and use them to justify their bigotry and hatred.

Right here at home, for several years, study after study, nationally published studies, tell us that Dane County, not Milwaukee, not Birmingham, not Montgomery, not Selma, but Dane County; right here where we live, is the worst place in the country to raise African American children!

We have known this for years…  And we, who have promised to “Seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves…”  We, who have promised to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being…” we still struggle to believe those reports and to work to end

                        The evil we have done

The evil that enslaves us

And the Evil done on our behalf.

It’s scary.  It’s convicting, to think that we allow these evils to continue because we are complacent, tired, inattentive, afraid, because we feel powerless.  But you have to ask yourself what agenda is really being served here?  And what is it that’s so important…  What perceived slight or wrong is so egregious that we would fail to speak up; fail to stand up for those who are being injured, diminished, demonized, and oppressed?

Why haven’t we demanded the changes that are needed in order for us to live in peace and love, to live in a world defined by who it is that we claim to be?  Why haven’t we made sure that the people whom we elect to lead us are moving our society towards the fulfillment of God’s dream for all of God’s children?  It’s even scarier to wonder if we are perhaps allowing these evils to continue, even perpetuating them ourselves, because we somehow profit or benefit from them?

Could it be that we are allowing these evils to persist to protect our own privilege, our own power, our own wealth, status, and rank?  Could it be that we are allowing them to continue because we don’t really believe in God’s abundance, and if someone else gets theirs we might not get ours?  Those are scary questions to contemplate because they cut right to the very core of who we are!  But those are the questions that Jesus won’t let us to duck this morning.

We come here today wanting to know, trying to make sense of the presence of suffering in the world.   “How can a loving God allow such pain, injustice, and horror to exist?

And Jesus looks us straight in the eyes and asks us why we, not God, not “they,” not someone else, but we…  Why are we allowing these evils to persist?

And then, as if that weren’t bad enough…  Jesus tells us that if we don’t repent of these evils, we will perish just like the people in the temple whose blood was mixed with their sacrifices!

What does that mean?  How can that be?  Is a tower going to fall on us?  Do we need to lock the doors to the church and place armed guards on the front porch?

This should sound familiar to you…

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

“German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller wrote this poem about the cowardice of German intellectuals following the Nazis’ rise to power and the subsequent incremental purging of their chosen targets, group after group.” 1

And given all of that, and all that we’ve thought about this morning, it’s not hard to imagine that these evils persist, they will, eventually, get around to focusing their attention on us, and that we too, might perish.

But it is worse than that…  It’s worse than that.

If we are perpetuating these evils, if we are allowing them to persist because we are complacent, tired, inattentive, or afraid… Or even worse, because they somehow benefit us, because they prop us up… and because we are afraid that we might lose something if they are challenged and stopped… then my brothers and sisters we are already perishing!

O God, you are our God; eagerly we seek you; *
our souls thirst for you, our flesh faints for you,
as in a barren and dry land where there is no water.

If we are allowing these evils to persist, we are cutting ourselves off from the very ground, source, and being of our lives…

If we find ourselves in this position we will forever have to hide behind the bushes and separate ourselves from God for fear that we will be found out.  If that’s what’s happening… we are already perishing.

The good news in today’s gospel is first, and may not feel like such great news right now, Jesus isn’t letting us off the hook!  He’s here this morning calling us out, making sure that we’re paying attention, asking us hard and difficult questions, so that we can grapple with the truths of our own lives the lives of the people around us.

He’s also here, and this may not sound like great news either, pilling manure on us, asking for more time, tending to us here in the vineyard, nurturing, pruning, shaping, so that we can begin to bear good fruit.

In all of this Jesus is our advocate, our companion, our teacher, and our friend.  And in all of this he is giving us the opportunity to repent and to cease to perish.

Amen.

1  “First they came …”  From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

 

A Fox in the Henhouse: A sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent

This sermon, offered by The Rev. Andy Jones at St Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison, Wisconsin, on March 17, 2019, is built around the readings for the Second Sunday in Lent in Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find those readings here

A recording of the sermon delivered at the 10:30 service:

Here is a transcript of the recording:

Sometimes a preacher wakes up in the middle of the night on Sunday morning, and something comes to them that changes everything they’ve been thinking for the past week.  Sometimes that thing comes later in the morning when they get up and open the news sites on their computer, just to check, and they discover that what they’ve been doing all week is writing a sermon no longer works.

Those are terrifying moments.  But my experience this week was very different.  All week long I thought about a sermon. I took notes. I jotted things down.  And then on Thursday, when I actually set about to write, something about those words felt very familiar.  So, I went back and looked, and sure enough, I was writing the same sermon that I wrote about this passage six years ago, in Lent of 2013.  Now, while those middle of the night moments are pretty terrifying, you would think that discovering that I was re writing a sermon that I already knew really well would be a happy moment… but it was kind of terrifying for me to discover that that sermon still applies today, six years later.

I have adjusted this sermon a little bit to account for the fact that I have now been to Jerusalem and stood in the place where this morning’s story happened.  But hear again, a sermon that was written in February of 2013.

 

Jesus said that he longed to gather the children of Israel under his wings like a mother hen gathers her brood under her wings…  Is Jesus really talking about… chickens?

I grew up in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC…  Not a lot of contact with chickens there so I don’t know a lot about them, but the little bit that I do know got me in trouble one time.   The summer after I graduated from college, I was with a bunch of coworkers in central Pennsylvania who were sure that I was a “city kid,” and having worked all summer to dispel that idea I blew it when around the corner of a building came the first flock of live chickens I had ever seen.  I stood there transfixed, and when they asked me what was going on, I confessed that I was trying to figure out where the drumstick was…   A little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing!

Now, I don’t know a lot about chickens but I do have a pretty good idea of what happens when a fox gets into the henhouse.  a Fox in the henhouse means panic, voices raised in terror and pain.  A fox in the henhouse means the sound of running feet, carnage, blood, death.

And when a fox enters the henhouse, there is nothing a Mother Hen can do but rush to her chicks defense, sacrificing herself to save them from the jaws of the destroyer.

In today’s Gospel Jesus is responding to a group of Pharisees who’ve come to tell him that Herod wants him dead.  And Jesus’s response to that threat, the threat from Herod the fox, is surprisingly dismissive.  He doesn’t seem to be worried about his own life at all.  And the language that he uses, the pictures that he invokes, his cry of lament over the children of Israel, shift our attention, and tell us that there is a greater threat here than the one posed by Herod.

Jesus is pointing out that the children of Israel have a choice to make and that they have, for a long time, chosen to follow not the loving mother hen, but the fox!

Herod Antipas, the fox who wants to kill Jesus, rules Galilee as a client state of Rome.  He is a traitor, a collaborator, a participant in the oppression of his own people.  He is also the son of Herod the “Great.”  It was Herod the “Great” who had the innocents slaughtered in an attempt to eradicate the newly born King of the Jews that the Magi were seeking.  Herod the “Great” had his own children executed for fear that they were plotting to steal his throne.  So, Herod Antipas came from a long line of people willing to do anything, including killing their own chicks and the chick of others to maintain their hold on status, rank, privilege and power.  You would think that a threat from this man would be enough to grab the attention of an itinerant preacher as he makes his way through Herod’s domain, and yet even here, with his life threatened by the “fox,” Jesus keeps himself focused on a larger concern.  When Jesus refers to himself as a mother hen, and laments the history of Jerusalem as “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it” (Luke 13:34), we realize that the “fox” he is referring to is something bigger than Herod Antipas, first century Palestinian Jew.

Jesus is really, is really talking about an understanding of the world and it’s power structures that stand in opposition to the vision, the dream of God for all creation.  The “fox” in this parable represents our tendency to take what we need, to subjugate others to our agenda, to marginalize and to ride roughshod over the poor, the weak, and anyone else who doesn’t have or can’t wield the power that we think we have and deserve.  Jesus is telling us that the “fox” is already in the henhouse and that there is a choice to be made.  Are we going to align ourselves with the fox, in the hopes that we might be spared by the preservation of the status quo; that we might be allowed to continue to run our own little corner of the henhouse; or are we going to cast our lot in with the mother hen, who has been trying for so long to gather us under her wings and shelter us from the power that would destroy us?

There is a choice to be made and, given the choice between a fox and a Mother Hen, the fox at first blush, might seem like a better choice.  On the surface the Fox seems more powerful and attractive.  The Fox offers perks and benefits, privilege and status, rank and recognition.  The Fox would seem better equipped to defend itself and to defend us.  Surely we can cultivate and tame the fox’s rage and penchant for blood, using it to our own benefit.

But there is this little problem with putting the Fox in charge of the henhouse.  The Fox has a tendency to sneak in when no one else is looking, in the dead of the night, seeking to slake its hunger.  And when we finally wake up and take stock, we will see that some of us are missing, or injured, trampled into the hard scrabble of the henhouse floor by the Fox’s destructive rampage.  Once we have let the fox into the henhouse there is just no telling who might be deemed disposable, be discarded, be left out, or even go missing altogether.  Yes, the fox is powerful, but in the end, no one is safe when there is a fox in the henhouse.

Standing here this morning, the slope of the Mount of Olives at our back, the ground before us falling away to the Kidron Valley, the Garden of Gesthemane down there at the foot of the hill, and the Temple Mount rising before us across the valley, the slope is covered with graves.  The people of Israel have chosen the hill that is the Mount of Olives for a public cemetery.  And in that rocky and steep soil, burials are above ground in stone crypts.  And standing there you can see that the hillside is littered with the graves of the children of Jerusalem.

Right at our back is a Franciscan chapel called Dominus Flevit, which means “the Lord has wept.”  And on the chapel altar is a mosaic, a picture of a mother hen with her wings spread wide, trying her best to look as ferocious as a mother and can look, with her chicks gathered up under her wings.

Here in this place Jesus is telling us your house is “left to you,” another way of telling us that our henhouse is left desolate, because we have refused to shelter in the shadow of the wings of the mother hen.  Why are we so unwilling to turn our backs on the fox and cast our lot with the love of the Mother Hen?

It’s a frightening thing to reject the fox.  It is even more frightening to step into the shadow of the Mother Hen’s wings because, as Jesus is pointing out when he shifts the definition of “fox” away from Herod and towards a view of the systems and structures that dominate and shape our lives, the choice we make will ultimately define the way that we live together, and who we are.

In an article published by the Christian Century in 1985 Barbara Brown Taylor, one of the Episcopal Church’s most gifted and treasured preachers asked,

“If you have ever loved someone you could not protect, then you understand the depth of Jesus’ lament. All you can do is open your arms. You cannot make anyone walk into them. Meanwhile, this is the most vulnerable posture in the world –wings spread, breast exposed — but if you mean what you say, then this is how you stand.”

Now I said that in this passage, Barbara Brown Taylor asks a question.  But you may have noticed that the end of that quotation there was a period and not a question mark.  But you know… today’s Gospel reading didn’t end with a question mark, and there’s still a question there.  It’s implicit in the clear distinction between two ways of seeing, being, and living in the world.

Jesus is asking us to turn away from the way of the fox; to stop participating in structures that oppress, crush and destroy; to recognize that the fox under whose standard we are gathered, will not recognize our past loyalty and support, but will destroy as all without regard or distinction.

Jesus is asking us to take courage from his example; to have faith in God’s love and promise; and to stand, as he did, wings spread, breast exposed, and to gather his children under our wings; to fly at the fox in defense of the weak and the poor the widow and the orphan, the forgotten stranger, the marginalized, the other…

Jesus is asking us to gather under the shadow of his wings and to let him rescue our humanity from the hard scrabble of the henhouse floor.

Amen.

Make Me a Channel of Your Peace: A Sermon Celebrating the Life and ministry of The Rev. Deacon Susan Mueller

This sermon, by the Rev Andy Jones,  was offered at The Lutheran Church of the Living Christ in Madison Wisconsin at the Funeral of the Reverend Deacon Susan Mueller on August 25, 2018

Here is a link to the bulletin for the service – Susan Mueller Funeral Service

Here is a recording of the sermon

Here is a transcript of the recording.

 

Hear again the words of St. Paul.

“The time of my departure has come.  I have fought the good fight.  I have finished the race.  I have kept the faith.  Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:6b-8).

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts, be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.  Amen.

Please be seated.

My name is Andy Jones. I am the rector of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church here in Madison, and it is a great honor and a privilege to be standing before you all today in this moment.  Twelve years ago, when I came to Madison, a first-time Rector, much further west than I had ever been in my life, a Marylander born and raised, it was also my honor and privilege to find Susan Miller in her office in the basement of St. Andrews; a room that she lovingly called the Hobbit Hole.

One of the great gifts that Susan gave to me was our Monday morning a conversation when I would walk down the steps into her office and I would say “Susan I saw this happening yesterday and this is what I think was going on.”  And she would smile at me, and her eyes would twinkle, and she would say, “Well I can see why you might think that.  But let me give you a little history.”

Susan knew the histories of the people at St. Andrews.  She knew their stories backward and forward.  So many people had come to sit there in the hobbit hole with her, that she knew them, and they knew her, and they knew that she loved them.  That’s why she knew their stories, because they were her family and she loved them.  I’m guessing that’s why all of you are here today; because Susan knew you, and you knew Susan and you know that she loves you.

Susan’s smile, her sense of humor, her laugh, those twinkling eyes, her ability to listen completely and without distraction, to convey total authenticity, and to help you to know that she was completely present with you as long as you sat there with her… those were among her many gifts.  Those were the things that have built this community, the community that’s here gathered around her once again.

Since we started telling people at St. Andrews, a little over three weeks ago, that this moment was approaching, there has been a flood of stories.  People have approached me in my office, in the Narthex, in the stairwell, in the parish hall at coffee hour, they told me those stories, they’ve told those stories to one another.  I’ve heard them being shared. I heard more of those stories being told at the St. Francis House board meeting this past week.  St. Francis House Episcopal Student Center where Bill and Susan met and were married, and everyone there knew and loved Susan, and knows that Susan loves them.

Now there’s lots of rich material from which to draw stories about Susan: sixteen years at Holy Name Seminary, her work with Renaissance Learning, her work as Archdeacon of the diocese and Director of the Deacon Formation Program; having served at St. Andrew’s, Grace, and St. Dunstan’s, Susan touched so many of us and there are so, so many stories.  But there’s a common thread that ran through the stories that I heard. There was something that tied them together.  And that was Susan’s love.

“I remember when Susan sat with me as my parents were dying.”

“Susan’s affirmation, and comfort, and wise counsel, at a moment when I was at the lowest I have ever been, literally saved my life.”

“Susan’s Wise counsel helped me to discover my own vocation and led to my life’s work.”

All of the stories that I’ve heard about Susan have indicated Susan’s deep and abiding love.

Susan didn’t just exercise that great gift in the church and with folks like all of us who find ourselves in places like this on Sunday morning.  Bill told me this last week that Susan would go to the grocery store and complete strangers would know that she loved them.  Children in grocery carts would be the recipients of her love, and joy, and praise, and her delight and adulation.  Bill told me that Susan worked the grocery store like it was her parish.

He also told me that here, in these last years of Susan’s life as the terrible disease that took her from us robbed her of so many of her gifts, that love remained.  And that she worked the Narthex in this building like it was her parish, greeting people, welcoming them, drawing them together.

As I looked at the readings  that Bill and Susan’s family chose for today, looking for a focus in the text, I lighted on something unusual.  Unusual in that we haven’t yet heard it this morning.   Usually or often a preacher will stand up and say “I have chosen for my text this morning…” and they’ll announce something from the Scriptures that have already been read.  My text this morning actually comes from the hymn that we are about to sing.  When Princess Diana was buried many years ago this hymn was sung, and the musical accompaniment that we will hear this morning as we sing his bills transcription of that piece of music.  So as my text this morning I chose, “Make me a channel of your peace.”

If there are any words in this bulletin this morning that describe the Venerable Susan Miller, and I just have to tell you that she preferred venomous to venerable, it is the opening words of this hymn, “make me a channel of your peace.”  Whether she was sitting there in the Hobbit Hole at St. Andrews, or working the narthex at the grocery store, Susan was serving as a channel of God’s peace; reconciling people one to another, reconciling people to God, reconciling people to themselves, and helping them to know that they are worthwhile, and intrinsically lovable, and valued beyond measure in God’s sight.  That was Susan Miller’s gift, the ability to help each and every one of us know that, yes she loves us, but her love is a mix tension of God’s love.  And that she lavished that gift upon us we couldn’t help but understand and embrace the truth that God does love each and every one of us.

So as we stand to seeing this a.m. this morning I hope that you all will hear Susan’s voice and Susan’s prayer in these words.  But I also hope that you will hear Susan’s charge to each and every one of us in these words. We’ll sing these words on Susan’s behalf, and in Susan’s memory, and Susan’s honor, but we’ll also sing them as a pledge to the one we knew and loved so well, the one whose love for us helped us to know God’s love in ways that were truly her gift.  Make me, make all of us, a Channel of your piece.  Let us reconcile ourselves and one another to God, following in the ways that Susan has taught formed us all.

Amen.

 

Make Me a channel of Your Peace                                                                                   Text: Prayer of St Francis; adapted by Sebastian Temple 1928 – 1997

Make me a channel of your peace
Where there is hatred let me bring your love
Where there is injury, your pardon Lord
And where there’s doubt, true faith in you

Make me a channel of your peace
Where there’s despair in life let me bring hope
Where there is darkness, only light
And where there’s sadness ever joy

Oh, master grant that I may never seek
So much to be consoled as to console
To be understood as to understand
To be loved as to love with all my soul

Make me a channel of your peace
It isn’t pardoning that we are pardoned
In giving to all men let we receive
And in dying that we’re born to turn around

Oh, master grant that I may never seek
So much to be consoled as to console
To be understood as to understand
To be loved as to love with all my soul

Make me a channel of your peace
Where there’s despair in life let me bring hope
Where there is darkness, only light
And where there’s sadness ever joy

 

 

The Challenge of Becoming “Woke,” Addressing Issues of Race and Racism in Madison, Wisconsin

Over the last couple of years Saint Andrew’s has put a lot of its time, attention, and energy into addressing the racial disparities here in Madison and in Dane County.   We have offered book studies.  We have offered class and conversations around whiteness and black history.  We have worked to partner with the people at St Paul’s AME church on the east side of town.   And we have had well over a dozen people attend the Justified Anger’s Black History for a New Day course at Fountain of Life Covenant Church.

I had enrolled in the class at Fountain of Life a year ago but was only able to attend the first three classes before life got too complicated and other commitments and responsibilities forced me to drop out.  I was eager to enroll this spring, and to finish the course, because between those three classes last year and the Conversations on Being White class here at St Andrew’s, I had begun to get a sense of how deeply racism is embedded in our constitution, our legal code, and our economy.  I get a lot of push back from people when I start to talk about institutional racism and I wanted a deeper history and understanding to buttress my arguments that the deck is stacked against people of color in this country.  I got that education and more…

For instance, I didn’t know that while most slaves were held in the south where cotton farmers needed a large labor force to work the fields, most of the ships that carried kidnapped peoples across the Atlantic were built, maintained, and sailed out of Rhode Island and other northern states.  I didn’t understand that the cheap cotton harvested in the south was shipped to mills in the north where huge profits on the finished goods were only possible because of the artificially low labor costs.

I didn’t know how the laws of this country were written, and then changed, over and over again, to withhold citizenship and the vote from black people.  Nor did I understand the ways that black people were, in accordance with the laws of this land, exploited after the civil war, often being forced to labor under conditions worse than they endured under slavery.

I didn’t know about the long, sordid, history of lynching as a tool of terror in this country; and was shocked by the picture postcards that were produced, sold, and sent through the mails; with crowds of smiling people standing around the bodies of black people who had dared to become successful, to raise their eyes, or to speak in their own defense, thus offending those in power.

I don’t know about you, but I didn’t learn any of this history in the many years I spent in American history classes.  And the fact that I had never learned these stories is just as upsetting as the stories themselves.

I didn’t know… but now I do.  This history, our history, helps us to hear differently the stories that are being written today, right now, here in Madison and in Dane County.  Knowing this history, when our African American brothers and sisters tell us stories about getting pulled over on a regular basis for “Driving While Black”; about being followed by store employees and security, about being stopped by the police for walking in the wrong neighborhood at the wrong time of day;  about being denied equal access to housing, jobs, and positions of leadership in Madison and in Dane County, we have to see them as part of a larger picture, a system that is set up to benefit one group at the expense of another.  We can no longer dismiss these stories as anomalies, as the work of a few bad actors but must see them as the ongoing legacy of a system that is unjust, inhumane, and immoral.  A system that has benefited most of us in ways that we have never been forced to see, believe, or confront.

I didn’t know.  And perhaps we didn’t know.  But I, and hopefully we, know now.  And therein lies the challenge.  If you don’t know, you can’t be faulted for not acting.  Once you know, once you are “woke” to the reality, a failure to work for change moves from complacency to complicity.  Once you know, once you find yourself aware, once you see the truth, inaction ceases to be a moral and ethical option.  Our Baptismal vow to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human
being,” calls us to action (BCP page 305).

So what will we do?  This year the Diocese of Milwaukee will be reading Waking Up White: and Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debbie Irving.  Last year the Diocesan Read was Just Mercy by Brian Stevenson and we had some great discussion and conversation around the book at our Diocesan Convention.  We will have that same opportunity to discuss Debby Irving’s book at this year’s convention.  I have five copies of Waking up White on my desk and would love to give them to people who are interested in leading a book group, either in their own home or at the church between now and our convention in October.  I’d like to see us offer several groups and then come together as a larger community to discuss what we have learned.  You will find an article elsewhere in this edition of the crossroads with a review and more information.  Please email me at rector@standrews-madison.org if you are interested.

There are lots of other options:

Sign up for Leanne Puglielli’s class “Conversations on Being White” the next time it is offered.  We will give you lots of notice that it is time to sign up.  Sign up for the “Black History for a new Day” class next spring at Fountain of Life Covenant Church.  Go to Netflix and watch 13th and learn how the Thirteenth Amendment shifted slavery from the cotton fields to the prison system.  Log into Wisconsin Public Television and watch the PBS documentary Slavery by Another Name and learn how the peonage system perpetuated slavery in this country, often under worse conditions that existed on the plantations.  Read “Just Mercy” by Brian Stevenson or “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates.  None of these are likely to be easy reads or easy movies to watch.  They will challenge us to check our assumptions, to be willing to believe some things about ourselves and our society that are uncomfortable, and to be willing to recognize the benefit we have accrued, even without knowing it, through a system that is stacked in our favor.  It will cost us something.  But the cost of complacency becomes complicity when we know that there is work to do.

Finally, keep your eyes and ears open for opportunities to get to know our friends at St Paul’s AME.  I am working with Pastor Joe to create more fellowship opportunities and to find a project that might allow us to work side by side as we get to know each other better.  You will be hearing lots more about these opportunities as the summer progresses.

Peace,

Andy+

In the beginning was the Word: A sermon for Christmas Day

This sermon, offered on Christmas Day 2017 by the Very Rev. Andy Jones at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison, Wisconsin is a slightly updated version of a sermon offered on Christmas day 2015.

It is build around the readings assigned for Christmas III in the Revised Common Lectionary.  You can find those readings here.

 

What a difference a few hours can make.  It’s hard to believe that we are in the same place.

Just last night we were gathered here in a dimly lit stable, resonating with the sound of donkeys, sheep, heavily breathing cows, and softly wuffling creatures.  The air was sweet with the smell of hay and of straw.

And there was a baby lying in a manger, a child whose coming had been foretold, and about whom a multitude of the heavenly host sang  “Glory to God in the highest!”

This morning, in the bright light of day, we leave the stable, the animals, the familiar and comforting smells, even Mary, Joseph, and the baby far behind.

This morning the powerful poetry of the Prologue to the Gospel according to John sweeps us up and propels us into that swirling chaos when

the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2).

John says:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it”

(John 1:1 – 5).

This is John’s version of the infancy narrative.  No stable.  No manger.  No shepherds, sheep, angel choirs…  Not even a travel weary couple and their newly born child.

Coming here expecting Christmas this morning this Gospel reading can feel pretty disorienting.  Maybe it is supposed to.  Maybe that’s the point…

Think about it.  This isn’t the first time this has happened to us this season.

We came here on the first Sunday of Advent, a time of anticipation and preparation for the coming of Christ, and the crèche was empty.  Instead of hearing about the child that was to be born in a manger we heard about the Christ who will come again.  Instead of hearing about events of 2,000 years ago we heard about… the end of all time.

Today, on Christmas Day, we come here again, the crèche is full, the baby is lying right there in the manger, and instead of hearing about the child who is “good news of great joy to all the people…” we hear about…  the beginning of all time and all things!

Maybe the framers of the lectionary have chosen this reading for us today because they understood that there is a danger in focusing too closely on the familiar… sheep and shepherds, straw and hay, mothers and babies… things we can touch, smell, hear…

The story that we know and love so well; a story remembered in painting, song, and made for TV specials is so familiar, so sweet, so gentle… so domesticated that, on this day when we gather to mark the birth of Christ, we are in danger of forgetting the rest of the story…  the part of the story that had the shepherds trembling in fear.

That’s why the writer of today’s Gospel has brought us here…

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.

“Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.  And God saw that the light was good;”

In the beginning was the Word,”

 “And God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.’….   And it was so. God called the dome Sky.”

In the beginning was the Word,”

And God said, ‘Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.’ And it was so.”

In the beginning was the Word,”

And five more times, eight times in all, the word of God was spoken… and through him all things came into being.

“Through him all things came into being and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”

We need to remember that what we are talking about, what we are celebrating; the moment that leads us to sing “Glory to God in the highest,” is too big, too expansive, too much… to fit into a story, the elements of which are comforting, recognizable, and familiar.

We are talking about the beginning and end, the alpha and the omega, the very breath of God forming the Word, bringing order to the chaos, and giving life and light to all people!

But that’s the real beauty of the story that we tell.  It is a simple story, one that brings us great joy and comfort, filled with things that we know and understand and at the same time… all of that enormity, the breadth and scope of all time, from the beginning to the end of all things, rushes together, as if it is swirling through a funnel, and ends up right here, in a stable, in a manger, enfleshed, one of us.

Last night was a time for tenderness, for love; a time to press our cheek to the soft, downy head of a newborn and breath deep the sweet smell of new life, a life that comes to us with a story that will change the world.

Today, today is a time to lie in solemn stillness, a time for awe, for the wonder that comes from the realization that in the coming of this child

“the Word has become flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

“Glory to God in the highest!”

Amen

 

A Terrible Proposition: A Sermon for Advent 4B

This sermon, offered at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison, Wisconsin, by the Very Rev. Andy Jones, is built around the readings for the 4th Sunday in Advent in Year B of the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find those readings here

 

Good morning.  And what a morning huh?  This day is just packed!  December 24th The Fourth Sunday of Advent and Christmas Eve!  There’s almost too much to do!  We’ve gone to just one service this morning so that we can hang the greens, decorate the church, and be ready for Christmas Eve; two more services, with a pageant this afternoon and a dramatic and beautiful telling of the story and a round Silent Night by candlelight later this evening.  All over the church clergy and congregations are dealing with the same time crunch and wondering if it really is possible to get it all done today…

It would be awfully easy to just jump straight into Christmas Eve.  After all, we know how this story ends.   And we’ve been waiting such a long time…  Time is so short…  There is a baby on the way!

But for now, at least for another hour or so, gathered here this morning, it is still Advent, we are still waiting, hoping, wondering…  And it’s a good thing too.

Because today, on this fourth Sunday of Advent, there is someone who is here to offer testimony, to speak truth to power this morning.  She will not be silenced.  Her voice rings out across the centuries, and we are here today to honor her, to hear her testimony, and to grapple with her understanding of what is… and what is to come…

“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David…”

Luke 1:26-38

In a world oppressed by empire, among a people conquered, downtrodden, diminished…

The Angel of the Lord comes to someone with no power, someone with no status or rank, someone who is the property of her father, someone soon to be the property of a husband…

The Angel Gabriel comes to a young woman, whose name is Mary, and makes an astonishing claim:

“…you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.”

Jesus… Jesus will be his name…

But Mary knows that she wouldn’t be the only one to name this son.

Ringing in her ears, even as the light shining from the angel threatens to overwhelm her senses, is the echo of the promise, made through the Prophet Isaiah, crying out to a people lost in the darkness:

            “For unto us a child is born

A son given to us

Authority rests on his shoulders

And he is named

Wonderful counselor, mighty God

Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace”

Isaiah 9:6

And in her heart Mary knows that this child, the one whose birth the angel is foretelling… this child will come to:

“… bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;

Isaiah 61:1

A sharp intake of breath.  Does her heart skip a beat?  An aching in the core of her being?

Mary is engaged to Joseph but they aren’t married.  If she becomes pregnant…  The scandal will be ruinous for her and her family!  In fact, Joseph would be within his rights to have her stoned!

And then there is Herod the Great, the Roman Puppet King of Judea, whose tyrannical reign was characterized by the use of murder and terror.  Threats to his authority, and to the authority of Rome, Empire, are crushed without mercy.

When the Angel Gabriel tells Mary:

“He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

She has to see this future as fraught with danger, for herself, for the child, and for the people who live under the rule of Herod and the iron fist of the Pax Romana.

This moment, when Gabriel, an angel of God, arrives as an emissary to a young woman, someone who might walk through the streets of Nazareth without drawing any attention to herself, and asks her to bear a child in a manger, in a stable, surrounded by sheep and oxen…

…This moment is charged with a level of political danger and consequence that is unmistakable to anyone who is paying attention and willing to see the narrative being developed through the angel’s overtures….

Mary is being asked to offer herself, her reputation, her safety and that of her family, maybe even the safety of her people, in order to make God manifest in the world; to set in motion a movement, a revolution that the principalities and powers that hold sway over us and this world will do anything in their power to suppress and destroy.

The angel has asked, God and all of history are waiting… what will she say?  How will she respond to this…     and let’s not romanticize this…   to this terrible proposition?

She asks, “How can this be…?”

One question?  That’s it?  One question?”   That’s all she needs?  She doesn’t ask for assurances, for guarantees?  Maybe she’s stalling for time.

And then, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

 

In just a few hours we will gather here again and it will be Christmas Eve.

There will be a pageant, this space filled with children, children telling the story of a miraculous birth, a birth to the least likely of parents, in the least likely of places; the birth of the one who brings new life to all the earth.

And then again, still later, we will gather, in the dim light of the stable…  We will glory in the miracle of new birth, in the tenderness of mother and child, in the voices of angels and heavenly hosts, and in the excitement and wonder of shepherds.

We will stand and sing Gloria in Excelsis Deo to celebrate Emmanuel, God With Us and we will hold our candles high as we sing Silent Night, Holy Night.

But for now… for now it is still Advent.

And while there is still time, before we crowd around the manger to ooh and aah at the child wrapped in bands of cloth, we need to hear the testimony of a young woman who will not be silenced.

A young woman who, after the angel departed, after the luminous vision had faded, embarked upon a journey to visit her cousin Elizabeth; whose song of exultation describes her understanding of what is and what is to come; whose song interprets and explains without flinching from their political implications the events we will celebrate in the few short hours ahead…

A young woman whose testimony calls us to take our part at the manger this evening as informed participants, as disciples, aware of the political implications and dangers of following the child who will lead us…

Jesus, Emmanuel, Wonderful counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace – who will be great, who will be called the Son of the Most High, who will sit upon the throne of his ancestor David. Who will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of whose kingdom there will be no end.

And so now honoring the voice of a young woman who had the courage to speak truth to power, to offer her testimony and utter God’s Word of love to the world, I invite you to open your prayer books to page 91, and stand as we once again proclaim the Song of Mary.

The Song of Mary        Luke 1:46-55

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; *
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.

From this day all generations will call me blessed: *
the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.

He has mercy on those who fear him *
in every generation.

He has shown the strength of his arm, *
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.

He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.

He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,

The promise he made to our fathers, *
to Abraham and his children for ever.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: *
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever.

Amen.

“I knew that you were a harsh man…” A sermon for Proper 28A

This sermon, offered at St Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison Wisconsin, by the Very Rev. Andy Jones, on November 19, 2017, is built around the Gospel reading for Proper 28 in year A of the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find that reading here.

This past Sunday morning I was struggling to balance an argument about the pedagogical method behind the parable with the good news it conveys.  I didn’t do a very good job balancing the two at the 8:00 service, leaning more heavily on my argument that Jesus uses a familiar narrative to draw out and question our assumptions about God than I did on the good news he was offering by pointing to a different truth.  I am not sure I did a great job adjusting the balance in the 10:30 version of the sermon but I think I got closer…

Following,with apologies to those who heard my attempt at the early service, is a recording and a transcript of the sermon I delivered at10:30.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and our Redeemer.  Amen.

Please be seated.

So some Sunday mornings the task of the preacher is made more difficult by the need to reach back into the customs and traditions of two thousand years ago and make them understandable and relevant to us today living in a much different place and time.  This isn’t one of those Sundays.  As difficult and as distressing as this story is, it’s something that I think we can all grasp and hear pretty easily.  What if the story went this way…

A group of investors gathered together three of their employees and gave to each of them a huge sum of money, a huge sum of capital to invest, and then they went away for a long time.  They came back later to settle the books, to prepare their tax returns, and they summon their three employees.  The first in front of them and says, “I took the money that you gave me and I’ve invested it all in subprime mortgages, and I’ve doubled your money, and here it is!”  And the investors are so delighted they promote that person.  They put them in a corner office with windows on two walls, on the top floor of the building!  The second employee comes and says, “You know I took all that money you gave me and I invested it in payday lending operations, storefronts all across the city, and I’ve double your money, and here it is!  And they’re so excited they promote him too.  He doesn’t get the top floor of the building but he gets a corner office and he gets his name plate on the door.

The third employee comes back says, “I was so afraid that I would mess up, so afraid that I would invest this in something something that would fail, you know the market is just so tenuous right now, what I did was I locked away in the file drawer in my desk to save it for you.  And I’m so glad you gave it to me to keep safe in this way.  Here it is.”  Suddenly security appears in the office with a cardboard box full of everything from this  guy’s office and he’s escorted to the door, and his security card is taken away, and he invited never to come back again.

A story that we can understand and grasp.  Except that once we started to hear the story in this way just like Jesus’s original hearers did, and find ourselves comfortable with the familiarity even if it’s harsh, Jesus is God us right where he wants us.

Because Jesus started this story by saying the kingdom of heaven is like….

Oh… Wait a minute…  the kingdom of heaven is like venture capitalists who abuse people and take advantage of them, and raise money, and were being called to go out and do just that.  That’s what God wants… Ok.  Something else is happening in this story.

Who is it that is the master in Jesus’s parable?  I mean this is a parable.  Jesus says it’s a story about the kingdom of heaven.  So.. it must be God.  Right?  But it doesn’t make sense that God would behave in this way.  So let’s dig back into this story for just a minute.

There is nothing that we know about the first two slaves, the first two employees.  I made up all that stuff about subprime mortgages and payday lending offices.  I added those details.  But they’re not there in the Scripture.  The only person in the story that we know anything about is that third slave, and what we know about that person is that they are terrified.  They think that the master is a harsh person who reaps where he didn’t sow, and gathers where he didn’t plan seed…  But there’s nothing in the story that affirms or validates that view.  In fact, what we do know is that the master handed over these huge sums of money, entrusting them to these three people, and had enough confidence in them digest leave town.

The first two slaves come back and they’ve multiplied the money but there’s no sense that they were afraid.  There’s no sense that they did this out of fear.  So there’s just this one person who’s terrified of the master.

So what is Jesus doing in this parable?  Is he telling us what we need to do with our talents our gifts, the resources that we have?  Yeah I think he’s doing that.  But I think there’s something more important happening here, that we have to examine first, and that is what our idea is of God.

How do we think God behaves?  How do we think God interacts with us… because I think that the really outrageous moment in this story isn’t when the master takes everything that the third slave has and gives it to the one with the most.  I think the outrageous moment in this story is when this slave doesn’t recognize the true nature of the gift, and the generosity and kindness, of the master who gives it.

Ok.  So I made up a bunch of stuff about subprime mortgages and payday lending.  Let me make something else up just to sort of round things out here.

So that third slave he takes the talent that he’s been given, and he goes home, and he buries it in the ground in the dirt spot where his kid’s feet hit the ground under the swing set.  The grounds already bare there, nobody will notice that there’s a new patch of earth in the yard.  He buries it there and then every night while he’s washing dishes, standing at the kitchen sink, he’s looking out the window at that spot in the ground, and worrying about that talent that’s buried out there.  Is it still safe?  Has somebody found it?  Does somebody know what’s out there?  Is somebody going to come steal it?

And so once everybody’s asleep and the streetlights come on, he sneaks outside into the backyard and he checks just make sure that the soil’s not disturbed.  Something really awful has happened to the gift that was given to this third slave.  It’s suddenly become curse.  He’s so obsessed with losing it, is so obsessed with somebody else finding it and taking it, that he’s buried it somewhere where it’s no good to anybody, and he thinks about it all day long, even when he is at work.  And all of this is happened because of his understanding of who the master is, an understanding that’s not validated anywhere else in this story!

So, how do we understand, how do we relate to God and gifts that we’ve been given.  Do we hide them, hoard them, stow them away somewhere, for fear that we might make a mistake and be judged for using them incorrectly?

I talk to people once in a while who are making big decisions about their life, their vocation, their work, and often folks will tell me that they think there’s only one right answer to the equation that sits before them; that they have to figure out exactly the right thing to do here and now, and they have to have that trajectory mapped out for the rest of their life.  I wonder sometimes if that’s because they have an understanding of God that’s similar to the understanding that this third slave has.  What if instead of a single point on the horizon, a single right answer, God was the entire horizon, not just that one point.  What if there were multiple paths to that horizon and at the end of any of those paths you would find God and God’s joy, and God’s delight in what you have done with those gifts.

Suddenly we stop acting out of fear, out of concern for making a mistake, and we get the ability to revel in, to be excited about, to explore the possibilities that God has laid before us.  And we know that any one of these paths that we might choose will make God happy, will bring God’s delight, will raise God’s joy.  And all of that is true, I think, because we know that God is already happy, and delighted, and already finding joy in who we are.  Here’s why we know that.

We know that God came to us as an infant born in a manger, an infant born helpless needy, dependent on us.  God loves us so much that God was willing to put God’s self in our hands.  That’s about as far from this money grubbing, greedy, angry, judgmental master as you could get.  And God did all of that before we had a chance to do anything with any of the gifts that we’ve been given!  God is already here loving us, delighting in us, finding joy in who we are, and just watching with delight, and probably a good sense of humor, to see what it will do with all of these things.  Kind of like a parent of a newborn child.

So here we are at the end of the season after Pentecost, about to enter into the season of Advent, and I think that child born in a manger, out there on the horizon, should be creeping into our minds already as we examine the way we feel about the God whom we come to meet in this place.  Do we kneel at this rail seeking connection, seeking acceptance, worried that we are not part of all of this?  Or do we come to this rail and Neil and hold out our hands to receive the sign and symbol of God’s ongoing presence in our life knowing, knowing, knowing that we are beloved?  I think the answer to that question makes a huge difference in the way we walk into the season of Advent.

Amen